Remembering Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen
The Passing of the Holy Master Venerable Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen: Sadness, Joy, Inspiration and Blessings.
On February 13, 2009 Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen stopped breathing and entered his clear light meditation. Those of us who had the immeasurable good fortune to have been guided, cared for and protected by him have experienced a loss which will not be replaced. I have been asked to relate some of the experiences I had as one of Gen-la’s attendants and companions over the last four months of his life and the adventure to Ganden Monastery in south India for the rituals and ceremonies for the cremation of his holy body. I apologize for my lack of skill in composition, and if I had realized at the time of these events that I was going to be responsible for such a composition, I would have surely paid closer attention to what I had experienced.
I met Geshe Gyeltsen (Gen-la, “honorable teacher,” as was my habit of addressing him) in late 1976 at a one-week retreat outside Santa Barbara, California. For three years I had been searching for someone to teach me how to meditate and had offered strong prayers to the universe at large to help me. The first time I saw Gen-la I knew immediately that he was going to be my teacher. A few days after the course began, I had an interview, actually my first conversation, with him. After a few moments of silence, he proceeded to answer all the questions I had so carefully written down and in the order they were written without me getting the chance to ask any of them. He then very forcefully said, “And this other woman. You stop it right now.” I was so shocked I could not speak. He knew my mind, my life. I could have no secrets from this man. There was no place to hide. When I finally was able to make some sound come out of my mouth, I asked if there was some kind of vow I could make to him. He said to stay after the morning session the next day. So on that day, January 1, 1977, I took refuge. It is due to Gen-la’s kindness that I have had an opportunity to try to make my life meaningful. Without his hooking my mind to the Dharma that day, there would have been no Buddha, no Dharma, no Sangha, no Lama Yeshe, no Lama Zopa Rinpoche, no His Holiness the Dalai Lama, no Zong Rinpoche, no Ribur Rinpoche nor any of the other holy masters who have blessed my mind over the years. He is my root guru.
Gen-la was always available, easily accessible. His advice was always appropriate and beneficial. He was an incredible example of how to practice. There wasn’t the slightest space between what he taught and his actions. He lived his life as a Kadampa master would – humble, dedicated to the practice of Buddhadharma and to serving sentient beings. He taught lam-rim. He taught lojong, or mind training, teachings repeatedly. During the last three years he taught every Sunday from various texts of the Kadampa geshes. He taught skillfully, to each person’s level, without discrimination, without ever charging for the teachings. For many years he did not offer any commentaries on Vajrayana practice. It was only when his guru His Eminence Lati Rinpoche asked him to do so that he offered his first commentary. It was on Vajrayogini and it took several months of teachings one or two nights a week; the depth and profundity of these teachings were overwhelming. He had received the Vajrayogini initiation from the great Pabongka Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo when he was 15 years old. He maintained this as one of his daily practices for over seventy years. Gen-la never did a long solitary retreat. During the thirty-two years that I was able to observe, I saw that he was constantly in retreat. He spent each day doing his practices and taking care of his duties to the monastery and his students. On a daily basis he did the long sadhanas of Vajrayogini, Yamantaka, Heruka Body Mandala, Guhyasamaja and Cittimani Tara. He did one hundred prostrations daily until he was over eighty years of age. He was a secret yogi. His actions during his illness and the incredible signs he showed on his passing gave him away as an accomplished holy master, something his students already knew.
I received an e-mail on October 21, 2008 that Gen-la’s doctor had found a tumor in his stomach during a routine endoscopy. Gen-la had no symptoms that he had any kind of ailment. After receiving the e-mail, I called and heard that the tumor was cancerous. I left my hermitage in Washington State and was in Long Beach the next day. It was discovered subsequently that his liver had a significant amount of cancer in it.
I settled in as Gen-la’s driver, his attendant during his visits to the doctors, his walking companion in the mornings and tried to help as much as possible with whatever he might need or what the other residents and caregivers might need in order for them to carry out their duties with Gen-la or the monastery. As time went on, I was to spend more and more time in Gen-la’s company until I was close by him most hours of the day during the last two and a half months of his life.
Gen-la would make references to any unpleasant activity such as drinking the chemical dyes for scans or being poked and prodded during medical exams as the results of the self-cherishing thought or negative actions. We would go for a walk most mornings, sometimes just the two of us, but more often I would accompany Gen-la while he walked and visited with someone else. One morning, when just the two of us were walking, I asked him if he would clarify the situation we were in. I stated that “from my point of view you are the Buddha. Some of the defining features of a buddha are that he is completely free from suffering, completely free of karma. So from my point of view, I cannot believe you when you say this is the result of self-cherishing thought. I can see this as a manifestation according to my karmic appearance to show that these are the kind of results one may experience due to negative actions.” Gen-la agreed, not that he is Buddha, but that for correct guru devotion it is necessary to see these events in that light.
In fact, the implications for the next three months were that no matter what difficulty or pain I could see his holy body manifesting, compassion was an incorrect response on my part. The Buddha does not suffer, ever. How can one have compassion for a being who is not suffering? So I would on an almost daily basis beg Gen-la to please change his manifestation to one of vibrant good health and energy. I would request often that Gen-la please live a few more years, as requesting a long life from a teacher who is 86 seemed to be a request already fulfilled. His painful manifestation was very difficult. We would care for all the manifestations of the disease his holy body was going through but tried to not to see it as suffering.
One morning, we were sitting on his outside deck in the sunlight after a morning walk. I decided to relate to Gen-la a story I had heard several times over the years. One of Gen-la’s oldest students and one of my close friends, Chuck Thomas, had this story to tell. In 1978, during Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s first visit to the United States, Chuck had an interview with Rinpoche and was inquiring about Vajrayogini practice. Rinpoche replied that there was no need to talk to him about Vajrayogini practice because Vajrayogini was in the room next door. He was referring to Geshe Gyeltsen. On hearing this story, Gen-la smiled at me, straightened himself up and started meditating. This manifestation was one I had observed from time to time. He became quite radiant and blissful looking and his head did a very subtle dance as he recited the mantra. I had not created the cause to see him as Vajrayogini, but I was fortunate to have sufficient merit to see him meditating while manifesting the deity. Later, over the remainder of the time before Gen-la passed, he would show this aspect to me on many occasions. Sometimes Gen-la would have a severe bout of vomiting which was very painful due to the cancer in his ribs or some other difficulty. As soon as the people who had been in the room attending to him would leave, he would smile at me, straighten himself up and show me this meditation aspect of Vajrayogini. He was showing that in spite of the painful circumstances that his physical body was undergoing, his mind was blissful at all times, no suffering.
Many people questioned Gen-la’s choice of medical treatment. He accepted a very traditional, middle of the road, Western approach to the treatment of the cancer. He had the same personal doctor for the last 25 years, Dr. Biscow, whose practice and office were in Santa Monica. Whenever Gen-la was asked about what to do or who is in charge of his treatments his reply was always, “I am following Dr. Biscow.” Or if it was about the oncologist, he’d reply “I am following Dr. Lieber.” Gen-la had complete faith in Dr. Biscow and the physicians he assembled to treat him. By the nature of the cancer and Gen-la’s age, there was never the thought that there was going to be a cure. The goal was always to stop the growth of the tumors, shrink them and maintain them at that reduced level allowing Gen-la to live a few more years in reasonably good health. Many students would bring some special medicine, or report of an unbelievable doctor who had great success in curing cancer, or bottles of vitamins that they had been told could cure cancer and other such things. Gen-la was very gracious and thankful to those who brought or proposed these things. When they left, he had me put away whatever they had offered. Even though he was not going to take them, Gen-la quite welcomed these offers as they created great merit for those who were offering medicine.
Annie McCormack was Gen-la’s personal secretary and served as an intermediary between him and his doctors. Annie is a cancer survivor, well-versed in all the right questions and actions to be done, and understood the medications. She along with Lee Pham, a student of Gen-la’s, always accompanied us on our travels to the doctor appointments. They would most times wait in the waiting rooms while I accompanied Gen-la for the examinations or treatments and then would join us for the doctor consultations.
The chemotherapy treatments were administered in a large room divided into four smaller areas by walls about one meter tall. Each of these areas had four or five pairs of chairs in them, one for the patient and one for their “friend.” These treatments took about four hours to administer and Gen-la and I would each do some of our daily practices during this time. Gen-la made a real effort to visit with everyone in the room: nurses, patients and their friends. He always told them he was making prayers that “we” would all be back in good health soon. He made a special effort to express to those who were bringing one of their parents for a treatment how truly wonderful it was for them to be taking such good care of their mother or father and how important it was for them to try to repay the kindness of their parents. Gen-la was like a politician working a room, except, his motives were to benefit each and every person he saw.
Gen-la underwent a round of chemotherapy for about six weeks that proved weak and ineffective. The second, stronger “chemical cocktail” they administered caused Gen-la to have strong adverse reactions. Gen-la was admitted to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica to deal with these reactions. During the sixteen days Gen-la was in the hospital, I was able to stay in the room with him the entire time. We would go for daily walks in the hallways in the oncology wing. Because of the length of time we were there, he got to know almost the entire staff. As we would go on our walks, the nurses, staff and other patients would greet him with, “Hello, Geshe, how are you?” Gen-la would respond with, “Oh, I’m doing fine, I am better.” He was always so happy. In fact I never saw him once during the entire time he was ill ever concerned for his well-being or the slightest bit unhappy. It was after one of these walks I asked him how it was possible to be so happy considering the difficulties his body was undergoing. He said that there are two verses in Lama Chöpa that explain his happiness. The first is the tong-len prayer, verse 95:
And thus, perfect, pure, compassionate gurus,
I seek your blessing that all karmic debts, obstacles, and
Sufferings of mother beings
May without exception ripen upon me right now,
And that I may give my happiness and virtue to others
And, thereby, invest all beings in bliss.
The practice of tong-len was Gen-la’s explanation. For most of the thirty-two years that Gen-la was my teacher, he was known as the “Tong-len Geshe.” He taught this whenever he had the opportunity. This was the practice. Here, he was taking on the suffering of others in the form of his cancer and giving well-being, happiness and its causes to others. This is the method to overcome self-cherishing and achieve happiness.
And verse 96:
Should even my environment and the beings therein
Be filled with the fruits of their negative actions,
And unwished-for sufferings pour down on me like rain,
I seek your blessings to take these miserable conditions as a path
By seeing them as causes to exhaust the results of my negative karma.
Gen-la’s prayer to receive the obstacles and sufferings of others had been fulfilled, and by not reacting to his predicament with aversion or attachment, was purifying all this negative karma. He was done with it. He would not have to have this experience again. His was the joy of not having this type of experience again. So happy. This was the teaching on how we should experience unfortunate circumstances.
(These are the very same verses Ven. Ribur Rinpoche said had sustained him during his twenty plus years in prison and labor camps in Tibet before he was able to leave for India.)
In the hospital, Gen-la showed the greatest concern for all who came in contact with him: doctors, nurses, as well as the janitorial staff, offering advice and prayers to help them with whatever difficulty they may be having. The doctors and especially Dr. Biscow would be distraught at bringing news of Gen-la’s latest tests or exams to him because these were always worse than the ones before. Dr. Biscow had such love for Gen-la. There were several occasions when he would leave the room in tears.
Gen-la’s sense of humor never waned. To say I am hard of hearing or a bit clumsy would be as understated as Noah saying “It looks like rain.” This made me an easy slow-moving target for Gen-la’s teasing. He would sometimes just mouth words to see if I could hear or not. He would have great fits of laughter at my reaction to the times I was mistaken about what I thought I heard.
Gen-la was released from the hospital after they had dealt as best they could with the symptoms of his adverse reactions to the chemotherapy. It was determined that they would not do any more treatment for the cancer. Gen-la’s holy body was not able to withstand any more treatments, so we took him back home to Thubten Dhargye Ling to spend what would be the last two weeks of his life. From this time onward, each day was worse than the day before for Gen-la’s body and for his attendants.
During the last two months of Gen-la’s life, I spent most of my time seated on the floor in the corner of his room so I would be available to help him with whatever his needs might be. I would do my commitments and practices. When these were finished for the day, I would spend the remainder of my time reading either the Sanghata Sutra or the Golden Light Sutra. We had established this way of being together over the years. Whenever I would drive down to Southern California from the north to visit Gen-la, after greeting each other, he would ask if my practices were done for the day. Because I had been driving for most of the day to get there, the answer would inevitably be “no.” He would then invite me to get my prayer books and sit with him in his room and do my practices while he did his. This was how we spent many visits over the years. It felt natural to continue in this way.
Gen-la asked that I be in the room with him unless his niece Tashi Chosi, Annie or Ven. Kunchok Wosar were there in my stead. Tashi has been selflessly taking care of Gen-la for twelve years – cooking, doing laundry, cleaning, shopping, running the household side of the monastery and for the last couple of years, sleeping on the floor in Gen-la’s room to assist him with whatever he might need during the night. Tashi continued to spend the nights in Gen-la’s room. I would come in about 5:30 a.m. and leave around midnight, with a break usually around midday. Once, one of his students asked “How come Yarphel gets to spend so much time with you?” Gen-la’s response was “He’s got nothing else to do!”
When Gen-la was first diagnosed with the cancer, he forbade us from telling anyone what his condition was. His students knew he was seriously ill but were not told about the cancer. He said, “People may find out, but they are not going to hear it from you.” The reason was never discussed. It seemed to me he did not want his students to miss work to come to the pujas which were happening on a daily basis or for them to worry about him. As time went on, he allowed some of his oldest students to be told. As soon as they heard, these students would come from across town or across the country. I had the good fortune to hear them tell Gen-la of their love and devotion to him. They asked for advice on their practices and lives. His message was almost always the same. In one form or another he told them that at this time “we” (he included himself in these statements) are not qualified to practice tantra. The focus of our practice should be developing renunciation, bodhichitta and the correct understanding of the nature of reality. We should apply ourselves to the practice of tong-len, where we imagine taking on the problems and difficulties of others and giving to them all of our happiness and causes for future happiness in order to overcome our self-cherishing. We should maintain our mantra and sadhana commitments. Once we have truly established this firm foundation in the three principles, we should then undertake accomplishing our deity yoga practices. And never, never forget the kindness of others.
One evening, just a few days before Gen-la’s passing, he asked me for one of his collections of prayers and practices he did every evening. He took out one of the short ones, only a few small pages of a Tibetan style text, and began reading it. When he was finished he held it in his thumbs while having his hands in the mudra of prayer. He held his hands at his brow and prayed quite intently for a number of minutes. When finished, he asked that I get him a new brocade cover to wrap it in. During the next evenings, he would ask for this text and he would repeat this scenario. I thought for sure this must be some really esoteric text on Vajrayogini with instructions for the time of death. I was unable to ask him what it was because by this time talking was very difficult for him. When Gen-la finished his clear light meditation and his holy body was taken to the mortuary, the first thing I did was to take this text to Ven. Lobsang Tsultrim, a Ganden Shartse monk who had been staying at Thubten Dhargye Ling and who was devoted to Gen-la, and ask him what it was. He looked at it and said, “This is Lama Tsongkhapa’s Three Principles of the Path.” This contained the essence of all of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings.
A little over a week before Gen-la’s passing, he received three phone calls in the space of one morning. The first was a call from Ven. Tashi-la, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s attendant. He was calling with greetings and some advice from His Holiness. The only part of this conversation Gen-la shared was that His Holiness suggested Gen-la should take one jewel-medicine pill. Gen-la did this a day or two later. Gen-la was so overwhelmed that His Holiness would take time out of his busy schedule to even give a thought to him. Later in the morning, Zong Rinpoche called to visit as he did on almost a weekly basis. Finally, Ling Rinpoche called. While Gen-la was talking to him, I noticed that tears had welled up in his eyes, and I found myself crying too. When Gen-la was finished with the call he motioned for me to come sit very close to him and put my hearing aids in. He said, “I want you to understand this.” He then went on to tell me that while in Tibet he received a White Manjushri empowerment from the previous Ling Rinpoche that had transformed his mind. While in Tibet, Ling Rinpoche looked after him. When Gen-la escaped from Tibet, Rinpoche protected him. After they got to India, Rinpoche continued to take care of Gen-la. For all this Gen-la had great devotion, gratitude and such appreciation that the present Ling Rinpoche would call and speak with him.
Two or three days before Gen-la’s passing, His Holiness the Dalai Lama called. There were several of us in the room at the time. Gen-la’s way of talking on the phone was to hold the receiver away from his head. Ven. Lobsang Tsultrim tried his best to eavesdrop on the conversation. Gen-la and His Holiness talked for several minutes. When they were finished, I followed Lobsang-la out into the hallway to find out what he had heard. He said he could only hear a small part of what was said, but what he heard was that His Holiness told Gen-la that he was one of his best disciples and that in the future lives Gen-la would always be with His Holiness so not to ever worry. Also that Gen-la should focus on renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness, and keep his guru on the crown of his head at all times. He foresaw no problem at all for Gen-la’s passing.
Gen-la took very little in the way of painkillers to deal with his pain and discomfort. Whatever the doctors would propose, he would generally accept one dose the first time it was offered. After that first application or dose, he would refuse to accept it again. It seemed he took it only to manifest a situation where the doctor or nurse was creating a strong karmic connection by this gift of medicine to him.
The touring monks of the Ganden Shartse monastery use Thubten Dhargye Ling as their home base when touring the United States. When Gen-la was admitted to St. John’s Hospital in the early part of January, they cancelled the tour in order to return to Thubten Dhargye Ling and be close by and be able to devote their full energies to the pujas and prayers which needed to be done. There were already two geshes from Ganden Shartse staying at Thubten Dhargye Ling at this time. We totaled fourteen monks in residence during this time. Six of them geshes and three of them Westerners. There were also two Western nuns in a nearby residence. Under the direction of His Eminence Lati Rinpoche, there was a full schedule of pujas and prayers during Gen-la’s illness and after his passing. There were pujas almost every morning and evening. These pujas continued on a daily basis for the full forty-nine days after Gen-la’s passing.
These two Western nuns were among Gen-la’s closest and most trusted students. Ven. Tenzin Kacho has been a close student of Gen-la’s for over thirty years and taught at the center in Gen-la’s place whenever he was away from the center. Ven. Gyaltan Thartso led the Monday night Chenrezig meditations and led the Friday night lam-rim discussion group.
About a week before Gen-la’s passing, he accepted the offer of a hospital bed after having refused several similar offers before. Since Gen-la had returned from the hospital stay at St. John’s, his ability to walk became worse each day. I would accompany him to the toilet offering an arm for support and was always rejected. Now, however, Gen-la took my arm, increasingly more each day until finally he was unable to stand on his own. Along with the hospital bed came a bedside portable toilet. On the evening before his passing, Gen-la asked to get onto the portable toilet at about midnight. By this time the cancer was well into his ribs and moving about was painful for him. In order to get him onto and off the portable toilet, it was necessary to hug him, physically pick him up, turn him and seat him on the toilet. When I placed Gen-la back into his bed the pain was intense and he immediately rolled over onto his right side into the lion pose, a position similar to that which Shakyamuni Buddha passed away in. I think he thought that he was going to die at that moment. I did. After a few minutes, he rolled over onto his back and started breathing rapidly, his pulse quickened. At this time, Tashi, Ven. Lobsang Tsultrim and I agreed we would have to stay up with Gen-la all night long. Gen-la’s pain was so great he was unable to find any position which was comfortable. We spent the night adjusting his position repeatedly. His breathing became more and more difficult as the night went on. By 3:30 a.m. Gen-la had the aspect of being asleep or unconscious.
At 4:30 a.m. I thought that Gen-la was close to death. I called Annie who in turn called Francis Paone, who was now helping to coordinate the decisions regarding doctors, nurses, visitors and medications. When he arrived, I told him what I thought the situation was and asked if he had objections to me notifying some people. He did not. I called Doren Harper and Ani Thartso. Francis woke his wife Jean and Ani Tenzin Kacho. I also woke up Geshe Jampa Norbu, the ritual master and leader of the Ganden Shartse Tour monks. He came upstairs and did prayers for a few minutes and then went downstairs and woke up all the monks who were at the monastery. By 5:30 a.m. the room was filled with twelve monks, two nuns and several lay students. The monks began and continued doing Medicine Buddha puja throughout the morning. Geshe Norbu began reading aloud a commentary on Prajñaparamita by Nagarjuna. Everyone else did prayers or practices as they wished.
At about 11:30 a.m., Gen-la’s son Tsewang Gyeltsen arrived. There was a period in Gen-la’s life while he was residing in England that he gave back his monastic vows and took an English wife. Tsewang was born to them in 1975. Gen-la became ordained again in 1985. We all left the room so Tsewang could be alone with his father. After a few minutes, the door bell that we had installed for Gen-la to be able to call sounded. I rushed back into the room and Tsewang said to me, “I think Dad has stopped breathing.” It was just so. Gen-la had entered into his clear light meditation at about 12:20 p.m. on Friday, February 13, 2009.
When Lama Yeshe passed, those in the room were very quiet in the hours after his passing until his holy body was taken to the mortuary. I read about Geshe Lama Konchog’s passing and evidently he left clear instructions on no incense, only one candle, little or no movement in the room and, other than some of his practices to be recited quietly in the room, silence. Gen-la’s scene did not follow those examples. The room immediately filled back up with the monks doing Medicine Buddha puja out loud, Geshe Norbu reciting his text out loud. The rest of us doing what we thought to be appropriate. I was reading aloud the Sanghata Sutra. Doren had put in a call to Zong Rinpoche and he was reading some esoteric text on Vajrayogini practice for the bardo on speaker phone next to Gen-la’s ear. It was an amazing scene.
Shortly thereafter, instructions came from Lati Rinpoche that there should only be monks in the room with Gen-la at this time. There was an adjoining room that was connected by a double door. We opened these doors wide and made it possible for everyone to be still together but in two rooms as per Rinpoche’s instruction.
For the next three days we had three shifts of four monks each on three-hour sessions through the night and at least two monks during the day. Here again all recitations were done aloud. We checked for signs that would indicate Gen-la had finished his meditation at least three times a day. The signs we were looking for were blood in his nostrils or emission from his sex organ. Since his breathing had stopped, Gen-la was under his blankets with khatas covering his holy face and body. There was a table set up in front of the bed and students could come up and pass offerings or khatas into the room.
On Monday afternoon at about 4 o’clock, I was downstairs having a cup of tea when word came down that Gen-la had finished his meditation. Someone had just walked in the door from outside and said there was a brilliant rainbow outside. I went to check it out. There was a double rainbow right beside the monastery. A photograph of this rainbow appeared the Los Angeles Times newspaper the next day because it was so remarkable. This rainbow was a sign that the clear light meditation had finished for this holy being. I then went upstairs and found that Jangchup Dechen had observed some emission from Gen-la’s sex organ and signs of decay since we had last checked only an hour and a half before. The veins in Gen-la’s arms were as if someone had taken a dark brown magic marker and drawn road maps all over them. An hour and half before they were not like that. So now our activity shifted.
A ritual bath of Gen-la’s holy body was the next event. Ghande, the bathing substance, was prepared in a large bowl. It consisted of consecrated water from the vase, honey, camphor, saffron, red and white sandalwood powder. The monks did a ritual whereby Gen-la’s holy body was transformed into the holy body of Vajrasattva and was maintained in this aspect until we readied his holy body for transport to India later in the week. Geshe Norbu did the ritual bathing by dipping his right hand in the bathing solution and touching Gen’s crown, throat, heart, navel, sex organ, and the tips of the two shoulders with it. Printed on paper were syllables OM, AH, HUNG, SO and HA which were stuck to Gen’s five places with honey and a printed Vajrasattva mantra was stuck to his chest. This was all done in accord with the bathing ritual related to Vajrasattva. We then covered Gen-la’s holy body with silk and his chogu (his teaching robe). We placed the ceremonial attire on him, the brocade cape, black triple top knot, the five Dhyani Buddha crown and covered his face with a red cloth.
There were conversations during the weeks before Gen-la’s passing concerned with where to do the cremation ritual. We discovered that California’s laws would only allow a cremation to take place in a certified facility, not elsewhere under proper supervision, as we had hoped. After running into obstacle after obstacle it became apparent that the only logical choice was to return Gen-la’s holy body to India and Ganden Shartse Monastery. His Eminence Lati Rinpoche not only concurred but recommended it. Only one small problem, transporting an unembalmed body is not so simple. It turns out that Air France is one of the few airlines certified by India to bring human remains into India. Delta Airlines agreed to transport the unembalmed holy body to France as long as the Indian Consulate had signed the agreement accepting the holy body for arrival in India. So when the time came, we would be traveling from Los Angeles to Atlanta to Paris and then to Bangalore, India.
We knew we were not going to be able to leave for India until all the official paperwork with the Indian Consulate in San Francisco could be completed. This meant we were going to have to try to protect Gen-la’s holy body from further deterioration. We first tried to place ice bags around his holy body but after two or three hours it became apparent that this was not going to work. We had already been in conversation with the McKenzie Mortuary which was only a short distance away. We called them to come for Gen-la’s holy body and have them place it in their refrigeration unit. They arrived and we carried Gen-la’s holy body downstairs as the gurney would not fit around the corners in the stairway. The downstairs room was filled with students. The holy body was placed on the gurney, covered nicely and put into the back of their van and sent to the mortuary for safe keeping.
For the next four mornings we, the monks and some lay students, went to the mortuary and did a Vajrasattva Blessing puja. It was determined we could have the holy body out of refrigeration for two hours without causing any harm. We had a public viewing. Gen-la’s holy body was completely covered similar to how he was when he left for the mortuary. We did a long and melodious Lama Chöpa up to reviewing the stages of the path and then people filed through offering khatas, etc. to Gen-la’s holy body. The chapel was quite small and the overflow was in the hallways and outside the building. Hundreds of people came to the service, Gen-la’s students, others representing all the different Buddhist traditions in Los Angeles, and members of the Los Angeles Tibetan community. It was a very emotional scene for many of us.
On Thursday evening, we received word that we had permission to take the holy body to India. We booked our flights for Friday night. I was to continue my role of always accompanying Gen-la’s holy body, so I and seven others reserved the remaining available seats on the Delta flight to Atlanta. The other ten students who went from Los Angeles found other flights and different routes; some of them arrived more than a day before we did.
On Friday night, Ven. Lobsang Tsultrim, Jangchup Dechen and I went to the mortuary to prepare Gen-la’s holy body for the trip to Mundgod. Dechen-la is an ex-Ganden Shartse monk, a close Dharma brother with a vast knowledge of all rituals. His help was invaluable in caring for and preparing Gen-la’s holy body during these days. We redressed Gen-la’s holy body trying to make everything as nice as we could. We then placed his holy body into a sheet metal container with some dry ice, enough for thirty-six hours. Our travel would take us seventy-two hours. This was then placed into a casket and this into a plywood shipping container that was made for the occasion. On the outside of the container we glued auspicious symbols and prayers to benefit those fortunate enough to come into contact with this precious cargo. From there we left for Los Angeles International Airport and Delta Air Cargo’s receiving dock. We were led in procession by two van loads of monks. I rode with the holy body in the mortuary van.
The container was too big for the flight we were on, but Delta had a flight to Atlanta leaving an hour earlier that was big enough. That flight was booked full so Gen-la’s holy body traveled ahead of us to Atlanta.
The travel to India was uneventful. Five hours from Los Angeles to Atlanta, Georgia for a twelve-hour layover. Then eight hours to Paris and a twenty-six-hour layover. Then twelve hours to Bangalore. Each time we boarded a new flight, I checked to make sure our precious cargo was on the plane before we boarded. We made a schedule for those of us traveling with Gen-la’s holy body. Each of us would take a turn reciting the mantra of Vajrasattva for an hour in order to maintain a constant repetition of the mantra during the flights to Bangalore.
On arriving in Bangalore at midnight, local time, we were met by several monks from Ganden Shartse led by the chief administrator Geshe Tengye. Customs was made easy by the bonding agent who was representing the monastery. We were expecting a refrigerated truck for the trip to Mundgod, instead, we got a twenty-year-old hearse/ambulance that was lined in funky maroon velour. We removed Gen-la’s casket from the shipping container and tied it securely into position in the ambulance. We left at about 1:00 a.m. for an eleven-hour drive to Mundgod. Ani Thartso and I rode in the back of the ambulance.
We arrived at Ganden Shartse Monastery about three miles outside of Mundgod at noon in what was described as unseasonably hot weather, even for Mundgod. As we turned into what was the debate courtyard area we were met by the entire population of Ganden Shartse plus students from the public school and the school for the blind that Gen-la generously supported over the years. We were led into the area by senior monks carrying incense, khatas and flowers. We ended up outside a two-story building at the back of the debate hall. Here, the monks of Ganden Shartse took Gen-la’s holy body up to a small room on the second floor. The casket was set up on a small table against one wall and flowers were set about it. Then representatives of all the houses of Ganden Shartse, senior monks, tulkus, and students from the public and blind schools filed in offering khatas.
Most memorable were the students from the blind school. A few years ago someone pointed out the need these blind children had for a school. Gen-la immediately offered to build one and support it, which he did. These students came and offered two prayers which they had composed accompanied by a hand organ, tabla and tambourine. It was a heartwarming and moving scene.
When the reception was finished, Zong Rinpoche led a puja reestablishing Gen-la’s holy body as Vajrasattva. They followed this with a ritual where they transformed Gen-la’s holy body into Yamantaka for the bathing ritual which was about to take place.
The monks in charge at the monastery were aware of the role I had been playing in the last few months as Gen-la’s attendant and companion, and allowed me to stay and take part in the bathing ritual and the preparation of Gen-la’s holy body for the cremation. Zong Rinpoche remained seated on a small teaching throne to oversee the preparations.
We took the sheet metal container out of the casket and then Gen-la’s holy body out of that and placed him on a blue plastic tarp on the floor. At this time there was another bathing ritual. The bathing ritual in Long Beach was based on Vajrasattva. Because the fire puja was to be based on Yamantaka all the preparations from this point on were in the ritual of Yamantaka. The bathing substance here was composed of consecrated water, saffron, red and white sandalwood, black and white agaru (teak) powder, nutmeg and a large quantity of honey. When mixed the consistency was like very thick mud such that if you put a handful of it down on a flat surface it would not change shape. First there were syllables written on small pieces of paper that were placed on the nine places, crown, throat, heart, navel, sex organ, ear openings, eyes, nostrils and mouth as well as Yamantaka mantras on the heart. Then we took the mud-like bathing substance and with our hands covered his entire body with the mixture to a “thickness similar to that of a buffalo hide.” Next, they brought in what was to be the frame to hold Gen-la’s holy body. It was as if someone had taken a small straight back chair and cut the seat out of it as well as cutting the legs to where they were about eight inches long. We picked Gen-la’s holy body up and placed his bottom into what would be the seat of the chair. There was a fine yellow cloth about one meter by five meters that was cut into three long strips of about 0.3 meter wide each. With these we wrapped and bound Gen-la’s arms in a crossed position at his chest along with the dorje and bell which had been accompanying Gen-la’s holy body since we left his room at Thubten Dhargye Ling. Then Gen’s legs were placed in a lotus position and also bound up quite tightly to his chest. He was then wrapped in the orange silk and his chogu. The ceremonial attire was put on, the brocade cape, the black triple top knot, five Dhyani Buddha crown and a red cloth covering his face. We then placed his holy body on a throne that was in the room. His Eminence Lati Rinpoche came in and sat silently in a chair and did some solitary prayers in front of Gen-la’s holy body. Rinpoche is now 88 years old and he and Gen-la had been classmates since they were young boys. They were close friends and Rinpoche was one of Gen-la’s two teachers who were still alive, the other being His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was one of the special moments of the time we were there.
One important thing to mention here is that it was now ten days since Gen-la had quit breathing. When we opened the container holding his holy body there was no unpleasant odor at all, in fact it was quite a pleasant smell. Also it appeared that his body had shrunk. It was smaller than it was when we put him in the container in Long Beach at the mortuary. It was also amazingly pliable. These phenomena are uncommon for ordinary beings, not uncommon for highly realized beings.
When His Eminence Lati Rinpoche was finished, Gen-la’s holy body was carried downstairs and placed in a palanquin to be carried by four strong monks. The palanquin had a length of five colored cloth that stretched out in front of it and was held by Zong Rinpoche wearing his chogu and monks hat. In front were the senior representatives of Ganden Shartse and the twenty students of Gen-la who had traveled to Mundgod for the ceremonies. This procession marched the one hundred meters to where the cremation stupa was waiting. This had been built in the week prior to our arrival by Indian workers. It had been painted by artists from the monastery. There was a large covered area for those taking part in the pujas.
Upon our arrival at the cremation site in front of the debate hall, Gen-la’s holy body was lifted out of the palanquin and placed into the cremation stupa. It was supported by horizontal steel bars running north-south and running east-west. Once the holy body was resting securely on this support system, the Indian workers immediately set to work laying up the brick to enclose the top part of the cremation stupa. This was then painted and some decorations were draped around the cremation stupa. Then Gen-la’s students who had traveled to Mundgod for the occasion individually went up and offered khatas to the front of the cremation stupa. At five o’clock we began the cremation puja, five hours after our arrival at Ganden Shartse.
The puja was a Yamantaka fire puja. Zong Rinpoche was the ritual master. He and the senior geshes all wore the ceremonial attire for the puja. During the puja the fire is transformed into a mundane fire deity and Gen-la’s holy body is transformed into Yamantaka and Yamantaka’s entire mandala and placed in the heart of the fire deity. All the offerings during the puja are then made to Yamantaka.
It is inauspicious for someone who had received teachings from Gen-la to start the fire so a young Tibetan man dressed in a chuba and fur cap, in very hot weather I might add, was the one designated to light the fire. He did three very respectful prostrations and, after taking the lighted torch from Zong Rinpoche, walked to the stupa and lit the fire through one of the lower draft openings.
The puja itself was about two hours and the fire burned until the late evening. Rinpoche would offer each of the ingredients and they would be carried from his position on the throne by an attendant to another attendant who was standing on a table beside the cremation stupa who would then offer the substance through one of three chutes which were placed around the middle of the cone part of the stupa. When the fire had burned itself out, the four openings around the bottom were covered with placards with pictures of the four directional protectors on their appropriate directions. The chimney on top was capped with a crescent moon and sun.
This fire puja was done on February 24, the last day of the year. February 25 was Losar, or Tibetan New Year’s Day. The 24th was deemed to be an auspicious day for such a puja.
During the next four days, there were one thousand water bowl offerings set up by Gen-la’s Western students as well as decorations and offerings around the cremation stupa which accumulated as the days passed. There were pujas done every morning and evening.
After five days had passed, on March 2 early in the morning, we took down all the decorations and the dismantling of the cremation stupa began. Special care was taken not to knock any debris into the interior chamber. When the stupa was disassembled down to the bars which had supported Gen-la’s holy body, we found the first of the relics. On top of the bars which had supported Gen-la’s holy body was a piece of Gen-la’s pelvis with a black charred mass on top of it. This was placed into a metal bowl along with other bone fragments which did not completely incinerate. For anything other than bone fragments to survive would be most unusual. This bowl was taken over to the ritual master’s table and examined by Gen Chophel, the onsite supervisor for all of these events. He said, “What we have here is most extraordinary. This charred mass is Gen-la’s eyes, tongue and heart. These were representative of his holy body, holy speech and holy mind. To leave these relics behind is the sign of an extremely high level of spiritual accomplishment, left only by very holy masters.” On close examination the heart was clearly visible. It was an awe inspiring moment.
When the stupa was completely disassembled down to its floor, all the bone fragments were picked out and put in another container, and all the ashes were swept up and put in a large plastic bag. All this was done carefully so as not to disturb the upside down bowl on the floor at the center of the stupa. This bowl was covering a colored sand mandala of an eight-petal lotus which had been put in place when they first constructed the stupa. When the bowl was lifted, one could see that the heat of the fire had made the colored sand black and grey. It was possible to still see the outline of the petals of the lotus. At this time Gen Chophel said “You may not see it, but with my eyes I can clearly see a small footprint over there.” Here on the southern edge was a very subtle footprint. It was of a right foot and was about three inches long headed towards the northwest. We were told that because the footprint was small it indicated Gen-la would reincarnate sooner rather than later and the new incarnation would be easy to find. And the northwest direction it was headed gave some indication as to what direction one should look for the reincarnation. This northwest direction was also indicated by the direction that the first plume of smoke went when the fire was lit at the beginning of the cremation puja. The reincarnation could be anywhere northwest of the cremation stupa.
Some of the holy relics were put in a copper urn and then covered with the ceremonial attire, the brocade cape, triple top knot and five Dhyani Buddha crown. Others were placed in a stainless steel bucket and the ashes in the large plastic bag. There was a Vajrayogini consecration puja done that morning with Zong Rinpoche presiding. When this was finished, we did a formal procession to take the holy relics back to the room behind the debate hall where we had taken Gen-la’s holy body when we had first arrived. This was led by Zong Rinpoche, all the tulkus and senior geshes of Ganden Shartse, and Gen-la’s Western students all carrying incense, khatas or flowers. There were monks playing gyaling horns. The long horns were being played by monks from several locations around the rooftop of the debate hall. The way was lined with the monks of Ganden Shartse and students from the Indian schools. When we got to the room representatives of the monastery came and offered khatas. Then the children from the blind school arrived to offer their prayers. They had all shaved their heads. I was told that this was a Hindu tradition that one does when one’s father had died. They had such love and appreciation for Gen-la because of what he had done to make their lives better.
We then did Lama Chöpa with some of the senior geshes and the Western students tightly squeezed into that small room. Adjacent to it was the debate hall, and the monks of Ganden Shartse as well as all the Indian students and other guests took part as the chanting was broadcast into the hall from the small room where Zong Rinpoche, the ritual master, was seated.
Over the next few days, there were three more Vajrayogini consecration pujas and a Heruka Body Mandala self-initiation done in the room with Gen-la’s holy relics.
His Eminence Lati Rinpoche instructed that the holy relics should be taken back to Long Beach. The relics were divided up and placed into plastic containers and carried back to Thubten Dhargye Ling by many different students on their return trips to California. On March 15, the relics were returned to Thubten Dhargye Ling with ceremony and tsog puja. After another consecration ritual, where consecrated water from a vase is poured on the relics, they were laid out in one of the rooms to dry. It was during this time that Ven. Lobsang Tsultrim discovered inside of one of the larger pieces that remained of Gen-la’s skull the syllables PAM and TAM, along with some mantras that ran onto parts of the skull. Another truly remarkable sign of high spiritual attainment.
The main relic of the body, speech and mind is to be placed in a statue of Gen-la or a stupa and kept at Thubten Dhargye Ling Monastery in Long Beach. The bone fragments were to be ground into powder and scattered from mountain tops, some in north India, some in North America. At the moment the relics are in Long Beach in Gen-la’s room.
During a visit with Zong Rinpoche he said to me, “Today we have tears of sorrow. I think in six or seven years we will have tears of joy.” His meaning was that he felt at that time we would be able to identify the tulku.
I would like to conclude with a lightly edited version of the last words Gen-la offered to his students on Lama Tsongkhapa Day, December 21, 2008. There was a brief long life puja and at the end Gen-la spoke a few words in his English. At this time Gen-la was undergoing the first round of chemotherapy treatments.
“Today is a very good deed, so many people came here. I cannot teach some Sundays. I hope to be back as soon as possible to Sunday teachings.
“Also, we must make our minds in combination with the Dharma. Try to make the Dharma pure, not for this life. Try to dedicate for future life. For self and others to be free from the suffering and to become being buddha.
“Whatever you do, small practice or large practice, it doesn’t matter. Motivation is very important. Try to make what you are doing – chanting, meditation, saying mantras – try to make it to be real Dharma.
“There are some ways of practicing we don’t want. We should try to make our mind in combination with Dharma. Sometimes put on, sometimes take off. That’s not the way to do. Our practice should not be like that. Good day, bad day. Doesn’t matter. We need Dharma all the time. Sometimes people think they have happy time they can do practice, but when they have difficulty they leave Dharma behind. Not so good.
“Sometimes people when they have trouble they can do Dharma, but when they are happy and party and everything, they leave Dharma where? I don’t know.
“Really all the time, to learn.
“End of life more important Dharma, not possessions. How much you have possessions doesn’t matter. When you are leaving from this place, human beings place, everything is behind you. You cannot take anything. Even your body you cannot take with you. So that’s why at that time the most important thing to do is good practice of Dharma. That comes with you. Helps you. Great friend of you. Even we have this lifetime one hundred or one thousand very close friends. They cannot come with us. But if you do good practice of Dharma, that always comes with you, with your consciousness. It helps to us. That is the one thing to think about, please.
“And all other sentient beings are very kind for us. If there are not others we cannot make it. Happy, joy. We cannot get anything. Look at us. We have everything from others. We have body, yes, but somebody else made it. Many people come through for us. So kindness of others is tremendous, really it is. You think about it.
“So that’s why we are wishing for all sentient beings to be free from suffering. Who has suffering, to be free from suffering. To be happy, joy. We should not be jealous. How much they have success we wish more than that, for that to be success. That’s the kind of thinking we do.
“I hope I come back to be teaching Sundays, soon I think. I think so. I hope so.”
geshe tsultim gyeltsen, ven. gyaltan yarphel, ven. john jackson