Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer
Monterey County Herald
One of the Neighbors
By Sedona Callahan
Last weekend, while most Monterey Peninsula community members went about their business-as-usual, a small group of local residents gathered in the Pacific Grove living room of a Buddhist lama to share in the festivities of the Tibetan New Year.
The group, made up of both Tibetans and westerners, was led in joyful celebration by Buddhist Lama Geshe Lobsang Gyatso, or “Geshela” to his friends, a man as unique as the ceremony itself.
Lobsang Gyatso was born in the province of Kham in Eastern Tibet near the Burmese border in 1932. His family of traders lived among people noted for being fierce warriors. Lobsang Gyatso accompanied his father on trading expeditions into China while still a small child. At the age of 8, Lobsang Gyatso was already inclined toward a religious life and was chosen by the religious leadership of his community to enter a monastic community. There he studied basic reading, writing and mathematics, and religious training of the Gelugpa Sect of Buddhism, which exists under the spiritual guidance of the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Ciyatso, head of state and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.
Lobsang Gyatso remained at the monastery until the age of 15, studying the Five Great Paths of Tibetan Buddhist Metaphysics. Those are Logic, the Perfection of Wisdom Concentration of All Knowledge, the Middle Way and Moral Discipline. Lobsang Gyatso’s religious studies continued in Lhasa, at Sera Mahayana University, which is based in the Gelugpa tradition, and was the home of some 8,000 monks and lamas. Lobsang Gyatso took on additional responsibilities of teacher and spiritual counselor.
But in 1959, the monastic life at Sera Mahayana University was suddenly disrupted by the Chinese invasion of Tibet. The Dalai Lama, a firm believer in nonviolence, had tried for eight years to coexist peacefully with the Chinese. But with a national uprising that resulted in the deaths of more than 87,000 Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet in March of that year and sought political asylum in India. Lobsang Gyatso followed, as did many monks, taking a circuitous route through the mountains until he arrived at Dharamsala, India, now the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile.
“The Dalai Lama had left in secret from the summer palace,” says Lobsang Gyatso. “He was dressed as a government worker, and the guards let him pass. He went first to the south of Tibet and then to India, where he still lives in Dharamsala. I left a few days later. It was in the middle of the night, about 2 am. Some of us left and some stayed [in the monastery]. They thought that peace would come soon. We traveled through the mountains for 50 days. We kept running, because we were being hunted and shot at.”
Lobsang Gyatso’s brother, as well as many others in his party, was killed during the escape. After safe arrival in India and undaunted by their hardships, the lamas, scholars and students of Sera Mahayana University reopened their learning center in West Bengal, India. Logsand Gyatso was a full participant.
Thirty-five years of study resulted in the achievement of the title Lama Geshe. Consistent with this high degree of study, Lobsang Gyatso began teaching the religious and mystical studies, dialectics, logic and the Five Great Paths of Tibetan Buddhist Metaphysics, and continued as spiritual counselor for religious and lay communities. While teaching at the Kapong Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, Lobsang Gyatso encountered many Westerners who had joined the monastic community. The Kapong Monastery, affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, has religious centers worldwide. Under the direction of this religious organization, Lobsang Gyatso was sent to the United States, to the Vajrapani Institution in Boulder Creek, where he continued his duties as religious leader and teacher.
He has established centers of learning in Nevada City, California and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and is now, at 65, still teaching in Pacific Grove.
Everyone who encounters Lobsang Gyatso is impressed with his compassion, gentleness of spirit and openness to visitors, whether they are students, friends or the merely curious. “He makes himself available for whoever wants to ask questions, to study Dharma [truth],” says Sharon Bates of Monterey. “People just appear; they hear about him. Sometimes they stay and become students.”
One of those students is artist Carol Minou of Pacific Grove. “I had been reading about Buddhism for a number of years,” says Minou. “During a time in my life when I was experiencing a lot of sorrow, I called over to a shop in Carmel that imported Tibetan items. I thought the owner might know somebody I could write to, maybe in New York or Dharamsala. When she asked where I lived, she told me a Tibetan lama lived [at that time] on 10th Street, three blocks from my home!”
Minou went to Lobsang Gyatso’s home and found him preparing for a puja [ceremony]. She was welcomed and invited to participate. Minou has continued to study with Lobsang Gyatso.
Lobsang Gyatso’s daily practice of hospitality and openness to visitors was in full evidence at the Tibetan New Year ceremony in his home last weekend. Prayers were offered at an altar adorned with colorful banners, pendants, flowers, mandalas, candles and replicas of deities and the Buddha.
“The offerings, which represent sight, touch, sound and taste are given in order to increase merit,” says Lobsang Gyatso, who sat cross-legged on a low pillow, surrounded by his guests, while food, including his favorite “momos” [steamed dumplings], was distributed to the group. Everyone was made to feel welcome and included – like family, in the home of this man, a strong example of the traditions, customs and religion of Tibet.
However, for several years after coming to California, Lobsang Gyatso had no permanent home, traveling to different places and staying with friends or in borrowed rooms. Mick McMahan, an attorney in Carmel, explains the concern that some of his students and friends had about his impermanent living condition. “We wanted to get a place where he could live and teach,” says McMahan. “A number of us got together and formed The Shambala Mahayana Institute,” which is the home and teaching center in Pacific Grove where Geshela resides.
Although Lobsang Gyatso describes himself as a simple monk, he has engendered the respect and love of everyone who knows him. “Lama means teacher,” explains Minou. “Geshe signifies a very advanced degree, like a cardinal in the Catholic church. He has progressed to the fourth level of Geshe. But he doesn’t hang his degree on the wall, he works it in his life. It’s a privilege to know him. He’s a wonderful human being.”
McMahan adds, “I experience great joy when I see Geshela smile, which he does a lot. He’s a very extensively trained religious scholar, and yet he absolutely lives in the real world. He is one of the most astute judges of people of anybody I’ve ever met.”
Lobsang Gyatso says of his home-away-from-home, “In Pacific Grove, it’s nice and quiet. I can practice, meditate and pray for people all over the world. I meditate to stop suffering in all realms of existence. I pray for happiness for everyone. Wherever you go, if you are noisy [about what you do], people will run away from you. But if you are quiet and do things honestly, people are attracted to you.”
© 1997 Sedona Callahan