Wisdom #2 – 1984
There are 13 Tibetan geshes at various FPMT centers around the world. Geshe Jampa Gyatso, friend of Lama Yeshe since childhood, as been resident teacher at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Italy for more than three years now. George Churinoff, American monk and spiritual program director at the institute, talked to Geshe-la about his life as a monk.
Lama Pasang once told the Western Sangha at Kopan Monastery, Nepal, that the geshe coming to teach them was “short in body but tall in knowledge.” Since his arrival there in 1976, Geshe Jampa Gyatso has been recognized as not only short-statured and highly learned, but also extremely kind and actively concerned for the welfare of those around him.
Geshe-la has been the principal resident teacher and spiritual guide at the Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa for the past three and a half years and is now teaching the first course subjects in the new seven-year Master’s degree and Geshe degree programs there, while continuing to counsel and keep abreast of everyone’s spiritual and mundane development.
The first of seven children of a Tibetan nomad family, Jampa Gyatso was born in Dham in north-central Tibet on December 15, 1932 (Water-Monkey Year), and named Pelgyä by his parents. As a baby he was often ill and there were fears for his life, but during his fourth year his health improved and a visiting Nyingma lama predicted that the boy would leave home at 13 to become a monk, and would never want for physical nourishment.
Geshe-la’s family, in terms of possessions such as yaks, sheep, etc., was of the fourth class of nomads. Though there were few luxuries, the family lived comfortably and ate well.
As a boy, Geshe-la looked after the grazing animals, taking with him a lunch of ‘pak’ – a ball of tsampa (roasted barley) filled with meat or butter – and curd to drink. Geshe-la remembers playing games: making images of yaks and people, imaging he was going for business, playing catch with his tsampa ball and pouring some curd on the ground as though he had urinated there! On a more serious note, however, while tending the sheep he studied a text called Nine Sets of Dedication.
One distinct memory is of how he would like to become a monk: the monks he saw in a nearby monastery were peaceful, unlike many of the lay families around him, and were not prone to what the young boy saw as the suffering of jealousy in the lay community. At the age of seven he received the intermediate renunciate vows from the famed Purchong Jamgon Rinpoche of Sera Je Monastery. Rinpoche, recognized as the manifestation of the future Buddha Maitreya, gave the boy the name “Jampa Gyatso.“ Geshe-la remembers Purchong Rinpoche as “large and white.”
At 13, Jampa Gyatso left home to live and study at Sera Je Monastery outside Lhasa. His routine was strict: rising at 4 a.m., he would clean the room and make offerings on the altar before making a fire for tea. While doing this he would memorize prayers by attaching the pages of a text to a wooden board. At first his time was spent mainly in memorizing texts and helping with chores, though he would sometimes “escape” for a walk to Lhasa or to a nearby lake. When outside, he behaved like a dob-dob – larrikin monks, who blackened their faces, jumped from high places and played various games of strength – throwing stones and so forth.
At 16, Jampa Gyatso began his formal study of Buddhist philosophy, with the text called Collected Topics, memorizing pages while attending to his chores. He attended the various daily assemblies of monks in the main halls and began to learn and practice the art of debate, which is used as a means to study and actualize the meaning of the philosophical texts. During this time he took ordination as a novice monk with the great master, Tag Rig Dorje Chang, studied the vows and received lam-rim teachings from the tutor of the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang.
He continued to work, however, and would carry water – up to 20 liters at a time – in a large stone pot on his back from sources a mile away. Six or seven of these trips would keep the monastery supplied with water for about four days. Jampa Gyatso continued in this job until he was 28!
At 18, he began a six-year study of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras through study and debate on the famous text of Maitreya Buddha, The Ornament of Clear Realizations (Abhisamayalamkara). During these studies Geshe-la recalls having his first strong interesting the teachings, kindled by study of Je Tsongkhapa’s text dealing with the interpretive and definitive teachings of Buddha called Drang-nye Leg-shä Nyingpo. He continued studying, using the power of logic to analyze what he had learned, and listening to lam-rim teachings. Especially useful for Geshe-la’s spiritual development were the stories of the lives of the Kadampa geshes, the great followers of Atisha in Tibet who strove to actualize the teachings with devotion and humility. His mind was particularly moved by the stories of Geshe Bengungyal who, despite his background as a thief and killer, became a pure practitioner.
Encouraged by his guru, Geshe Tashi Bum, Jampa Gyatso received full ordination at the age of 22, again from Tag Rig Dorje Chang. One of the 14 monks ordained with him that day was Geshe Jampa Tegchok, now abbot of Nalanda Monastery in France.
Upon completing the study of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras at the age of 24, Geshe-la began a four-year study of Madhyamaka, Middle Way, philosophy. It is said that Sera Je monks have an especially good understanding of the Madhyamaka philosophy of emptiness for the following reasons. While Je Tsongkhapa was in retreat writing a commentary to Nagarjuna’s fundamental text, The Root of Wisdom, he had a vision that 13 ahs, the syllable that symbolizes emptiness, deposited themselves on a rock. He predicted that this auspicious sign indicated that a Madhyamaka monastery would be established there in the future. Indeed, the site became Sera Je, with the debating courtyard enclosing the stone. This courtyard, where great scholars of other schools came to debate, was the site of all-night debates during the two years of Madhyamaka studies.
At the end of 1958, when almost 28, Geshe-la began the scheduled study of Vinaya, the vowed restraints of moral conduct, only to have them interrupted by the invasion of Lhasa by the Chinese. Cannon fire having fallen on Sera Je on March 27, 1959, seven days after the escape of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, Jampa Gyatso left the monastery, fleeing to a nearby mountain. He was unable to return the next day, as intended, to retrieve his texts and sadhanas and other possessions and instead joined a party of 35 on the advice of his guru, to escape toward Bhutan. The party traveled by foot and was pursued by Chinese. Occasionally they would hear explosions behind them and see Chinese planes. They encountered no foot soldiers, though they were aware that the Chinese would reach the villages they had left that morning a mere eight or ten hours later.
Throughout this time, Geshe-la recalls having no fear of the Chinese. Understanding suffering to be the result of past karma, he resolved to accept death if attacked and not to retaliate.
In Pembo, central Tibet, the party bought a horse and a donkey to carry food. On reaching south Tibet, they were given blankets and provisions and accommodated at the monastery built around Milarepa’s famous tower, quite near Marpa’s retreat house.
Finally arriving in Bhutan, the refugees found themselves with thousands of other Tibetans and such holy personages as Sakya Trizin, His Holiness the Karmapa, Kyabje Serkong Dorje Chang and Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche. After about 10 days the Bhutanese government received a telegram from the Indian prime minister, Mr. Nehru, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama requesting that the Tibetans be sent to India.
En route to India the Tibetans were offered butter, meat and tsampa at a Bhutanese fort. Unfortunately, the meat made Geshe-la ill and he arrived in Buxa, the settlement donated by the Indian government, feverish and vomiting. His condition deteriorated and his friends feared that he would die. He was sent to a regional hospital where he remained five months, then to a larger hospital in Rajasthan where he stayed for almost a year and a half. Although x-rays of his chest seemed to indicate TB, other tests were negative so Geshe-la was separated from the TB-infected monks. Often the monks would dress themselves in their sheets and visit each other at night. Geshe-la was almost caught once but escaped detection by hiding under another monk’s bed! A daily “vocational class” was provided for this group during weekdays, and although he disliked the class, Geshe-la dutifully learned to make baby clothes and use a sewing machine. He studied Hindi in his spare time, and was subsequently befriended by the Indian doctors and nurses. When the time came for him to be discharged, the staff, who liked him so much, presented him with a Christian bible translated into Tibetan, and urged him to remain with them and study medicine.
In 196, after nearly two years of hospitalization, Jampa Gyatso returned to his studies, this time at the monastic settlement in Buxa. He continued with four years of study and debate on the Vinaya and two more on Abhidharmakosa.
By 1967, a new program of Buddhist studies was being organized at the Sanskrit University in Varanasi with the joint cooperation of the Indian and Tibetan governments. It was to involve monks from all the Tibetan traditions studying the great treatises (Abhisamayalamkara, Pramanavartika, Madhyamakavatara, Vinayasutra and Abhidharmakosa) for the degree of Acharya. Geshe-la decided to take part in the program, along with 50 other geshes, including Geshes Jampa Tegchok, Tashi Bum, Könchog Tsewang, Tenpa Dhargye, Losang Gyatso and Losang Dönyo.
The great Tibetan master, Kyabje Song Rinpoche, was appointed as principal and His Holiness the Dalai Lama advised that if even one monk failed it would be difficult to continue the program, as the Indian government was taking a close interest. Geshe-la remembers studying harder than ever before; even when sick again in the Varanasi hospital, vomiting black liquid with the monks doing long-life pujas for him, he was thinking, “I must go to the exam.”
After completing his studies at Sanskrit University in 1970, Geshe-la spent a few months’ vacation in the new Sera Je Monastery in south India, living in a small tent and teaching young monks the alphabet. In December 1970 he returned to Varanasi to receive his Acharya degree. His Holiness then requested about 45 of the qualified monks to return to Dharamsala for the Tibetan New Year. The famous Great Prayer Festival (Mönlam) was to be held at the main temple there and the invited monks were to take part in debates.
Geshe did not feel inclined to attend so he traveled instead to Bodhgaya to receive Yamantaka initiation from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and teachings on the Bodhisattvacaryavatara from the great saint Kunu Lama Rinpoche. In an interview, the Kunu Lama advised Geshe-la to make dedication prayers at the stupa and do whatever His Holiness the Dalai Lama told him. Geshe’s mind was changed and he decided to attend the debates in Dharamsala after all.
The debates, which lasted 11 days, were unusual in that His Holiness would come quite close to listen, making the monks worried about making mistakes! Other great lamas were also present, including Kyabje Serkong Rinpoche, the abbot of Namgyal Monastery and the abbot of Gyuto Tantric College.
Geshe-la placed among the 18 first-level participants. There were four seconds and twenty third-level, with the rest failing.
After the examinations, His Holiness requested 16 of the monks to attend Gyüto Tantric College and 16 others to attend Gyüme. This was auspicious as the body-mandala of Guhyasamaja tantra comprises thirty-two deities. So, early in 1971 Geshe-la began his formal tantric studies at Gyüme Tantric College, then situated in Dalhousie.
The course of study there could last as long as six years for those who entered without the philosophical training of the geshe degree, but was only one year for those with training. The discipline in the tantric colleges was more strict than at the other monastic universities. Geshe-la began by memorizing and studying the various commentaries on the Guhyasamaja tantra, but late in the year His Holiness requested 25 monks from the tantric colleges to go to south India to be examined at the three monastic universities, Sera, Drepung and Ganden, in preparation for their geshe examinations.
After two months in south India Geshe-la returned to Gyüme in Dalhousie for the Tibetan New Year of 1972 and then to Dharamsala for another Mönlam and his actual geshe examinations. This time there were 25 candidates, and Venerable Jampa Gyatso became a lharampa geshe, the highest level, being placed among the 12 monks in the first level. The examination was a first of sorts, as His Holiness requested participants to debate among themselves instead of with older geshes, because there were no longer enough qualified geshes to perform the function.
After the examinations, upon repeated requests from his two tutors, His Holiness gave extensive teachings on the generation and completion stages of Guhyasamaja to a select group of monks, including the newly appointed geshes, high lamas and incarnate lamas. This was followed by teachings by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche on Guhyasamaja and Yamantaka as well as on fire pujas, and by Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche on Heruka, Vajra Yogini, the Six Yogas of Naropa and various other special subjects. The teachings and initiations lasted about six weeks, four to five hours per day, and were attended by about 100 monks.
Geshe Jampa Gyatso then returned to Gyüme in Dalhousie and was asked to go to south India with three other monks to check the land that the Indian government was offering to the tantric college. After some bureaucratic problems, all 175 monks from Gyüme came to help in the preparation of the land. Geshe-la was appointed a field-work leader, and although happy to do work for the college he was unhappy that monks had to miss precious study-time to dig in the fields to sustain their lives.
Once again, a sudden change. Geshe-la was requested by the Religious Affairs Department of the Tibetan government to take part in a new research program at the Higher Tibetan Institute in Varanasi. As this was again the first year of a new program, the participants had to be especially hard-working and serious; their research had to be written up in a thesis of at least 350 pages. With the help of other scholars, Geshe chose to investigate and compare the various interpretations of the aspects of the three knowers (a topic from the Prajñaparamita sutras) from the viewpoint of the different philosophical schools.
He spent part of his 1975 research time in south India at Gyüme , where he also served as gegö (disciplinarian). He sat for debating examinations at Gyüme under Geshe Ugyen Tseten and was subsequently awarded the degree of Geshe Ngagrampa (Tantric Geshe) by the Gelugpa Society. Although in Tibet there was no actual degree granted after tantric studies, the Tibetan government would offer the graduates new robes and other articles. Times having changed, however, Geshe-la had to be content with his printed certificate!
In April 1976, Geshe-la finished his research at Varanasi with a final thesis of 480 pages, but for reasons known only to the omniscient buddhas and the administration of the Higher Tibetan Institute, Geshe-la never received his doctoral degree. He returned to Gyüme in south India and after studying one text, fulfilling a tutorial duty for one month and working again as a supervisor in the fields, he received a letter from his old friends, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche.
The lamas requested Geshe-la to go to New Zealand to become the resident teacher at the Dorje Chang Institute. Geshe-la checked with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who advised him to go for two years and see how the situation developed. After writing Lama Yeshe about this, he received another letter from Lama requesting him to go to England instead! However, his time to go to the West had not yet come: Geshe-la eventually went to Kopan Monastery in Nepal where Lama Yeshe had requested him to teach the Abhidharmakosha to the 30 Western monks and nuns living there. His guru Geshe Tashi Bum advised him to go rather than remain working in the fields.
He remained at Kopan for four years. He taught the monks and nuns the entire Abhidharmakosha, Bodhisattvacaryavatara and Tenets, as well as other subjects. And he taught Collected Topics and other subjects on logic to the young monks of the Mount Everest Center, also at Kopan. Geshe-la still remembers the names of all 80 or so boys and is always concerned to hear about them.
When he was about to leave Kopan, Lama Yeshe gave Geshe-la the choice of going to centers in either France, Spain or Italy, but suggested that Italy would be most beneficial. However, visas took time so it was suggested he go to Australia instead. His passport still contains the names of many countries. Geshe-la said he didn’t mind at all where Lama sent him, so again, Milarepa-like, it was decided that he would go to Italy after all. He says it seems he has accumulated the karma to eat pasta-shuta!