Journey full circle for Ngawang Rimpoche

By LEE TSE LING, The Star, Dec 20, 2004

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- TIBETAN Buddhists believe that life is a journey on which we will encounter several inevitable truths. That we will suffer: we will be hurt, we will fall ill, we will age. That we suffer because of attachment to arbitrary possessions we will eventually lose: our hearts, our health, our lives. 

The great panacea offered up in the face of such inevitability is that suffering is impermanent. An understanding of this puts many things into perspective. Acceptance, on the other hand, can make life?s journey a rather pleasant one, at the end of which death comes as a gentle friend and new beginning, rather than a dark threat. 

What worthwhile journey would be possible without a map? And in terra incognita as thorny and tricky as religion, what good is a map to the novice without a guide? Thus at the heart of Tibetan Buddhism is the practice of guru devotion. Lamas, or spiritual teachers, act as guides, while Lam Rim ? stages of the path to enlightenment ? provide the map by which to navigate through life. 

While the path of the righteous never did run smooth, you can bet your prayer mat you?ll be in for an interesting ride if your lama guide just happens to be the self-confessed ?bad boy? of Buddhism. 

Gehlek Rimpoche:'The funny thing is, I did not choose to be a spiritual leader. The people who are connected chose me.

Mind you, ?bad? by Ngawang Gehlek Rimpoche?s standards isn?t all that bad. But the comfortably stout 65-year-old happily confesses to experimenting in his salad days. 

?I did everything! I tried alcohol, I tried tobacco, and ... other means too,? he said, with the roguish chuckle of the repentant. 

And speaking of salad, you might be tickled to know that he has them on the side of the odd lamb chop or hamburger. Just recently, a Hindu taxi driver in New York accused him of ?cutting animals and eating them? on learning he was a Tibetan Buddhist. 

?I was very embarrassed because put like that it sounds terrible. So I lied and said I didn?t eat meat. I felt very bad, so I didn?t eat any meat that day!? he confessed. As an afterthought, he added that he was at least vegetarian during the mad cow scare. 

?I wish I could be one of them (vegetarian), but I am too old to change now!? he said with happy resignation. 

And yet this is no renegade Rimpoche. As one of the last monks to be fully educated under old Tibet?s rigorous monastic system, Ngawang Gehlek Rimpoche represents an unbroken line of Tibetan teachings, passed down from generation to generation since the tradition?s inception. 

Born in Lhasa in 1939, he was recognised as a reincarnate lama at the age of four and conferred the title of Rimpoche, which means ?Precious One? in Tibetan. 

He belongs to one of the most prominent and affluent Tibetan families, being both the grand-nephew of the 13th Dalai Lama (predecessor of the current Dalai Lama in exile, Tenzin Gyatso) and son of the eminent diviner Demo Rimpoche. 

As a student at Drepung Monastary, Tibet?s largest and most famous monastic institution, he was renowned for his powers of judgment and insight. He eventually completed the highest attainable degree, the Geshe Lharampa in less than half the normal 20-plus years. 


Rimpoche in exile

Exiled in India by the communist persecution of old Tibet in 1959, he experienced an eye-opening explosion of life outside the monastery confines. 

?I was in my early 20s, it was the good old 60s in the West. I had just come out of Tibet and was looking forward to some kind of wonderful feeling; joy and, what do you call it, a kick, a taste of freedom,? he recalled. 

?It?s wonderful to explore, but the beauty of it is when you come back to your old things. Finally peace, harmony, and joy, you realise is within you. It?s not the alcohol, the tobacco, money or sex. At the end they create additional problems. They do not provide the answer to what you are looking for.? 

His light tone belies the traumatic nature of his exile. Forced to flee on foot to refugee camps across the wintry Himalayas, he lost his family, friends, and homeland. 

All were subjected to atrocious brutalities by the invading forces. The flight itself was a treacherous journey only half his 28-strong group made successfully. 

Remarkably, he did not succumb to bitterness. Instead, his exposure to people from all walks of life fostered a deeper understanding of their suffering, in a manner uncannily similar to Prince Siddhartha Gautama?s own epiphany of some 2,500 years ago. 

?Everybody, the big and small, the rich and poor, the young and old all go through tremendous problems they cannot tackle, yet they try to manage. When you look back, you think you have a problem? It is nothing compared to those people?s!? 

Rimpoche evidently found the answer to another of life?s great riddles in India. At the age of 25, he left the Gelugpa monastic order, fell in love and married a fellow member of the Tibetan aristocracy in exile. 

Though the couple later separated, they remained on good terms until his wife passed away in Dharamsala two years ago. 

?The funny thing is, I did not choose to be a spiritual leader. The people who are connected chose me,? Rimpoche reflected. 

In India, he was one of 17 monks selected to continue his studies with the Dalai Lama?s own personal tutors Ling Rimpoche and Trijang Rimpoche. At their urging, he resigned from his post of editing manuscripts for All India Radio?s Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Delhi, and left to teach dharma to the English-speaking world. 

Initially, he worked at various American universities as a consultant and Tibetan language instructor. With the help of a sympathetic group of students, he then founded the first Jewel Heart centre in Ann Arbour, Michigan, in 1988. 

He is apparently quite fond of saying that the centre got its start by selling underwear, a reference to the few articles of lingerie sold at garage sales organised by his students to fund the nascent Jewel Heart. Today, Jewel Heart has nine chapters in the United States, Netherlands, Singapore and Malaysia; the local chapter recently invited Gehlek Rimpoche here to meet devotees and conduct talks.

It?s an impressive achievement for someone who never really intended to be a spiritual leader in the first place.