Said Gelek Rinpoché in 1980…

Written by Rob Hogendoorn
7 minutes

In 1980, the Tibetan lama Gelek Rinpoché (b. 1939 d. 2017, A) was interviewed by Daniel Bärlocher (Q) on his views on formally instated (re)incarnations, so-called trülkus:

Q: You didn’t tell me yet how your life was since you came from Tibet—since 1959?

A: .. I came to (the Lama camp in) Buxa (Assam). There is no Loseling at all in Buxa at that time. Then I came to Dharmsala (Himachal Pradesh). His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) has selected ten young Tibetan Lamas who could be polished a little bit here and there, learning the western language to help western people; that was the original idea.

Q: In what year?

A: I came to Dharmsala in 1960 and remained there for a while. And you know, you are young, just out in the world and you are just wanting to fly here and there, to do this and that. So I did not remain as a monk. Wanted to experience everything, (laughing).

Q: With whom did you come to India?

A: We got about five hundred people together—later on we were separated.
A number of times (we encountered) the Chinese troops on the way and every time a number of people go down, down, down—ultimately we were five people together, (among them another) young incarnate Lama who is in Darjeeling now.

Q: What is his name?

A: Chödak Tulku. .. He belongs to Loseling, to Nyare (Khangtshan). He is now teacher at St.Joseph’s college in Darjeeling. ..

Q: So in Dharmsala you left the robes?

A: No, I didn’t leave the robe in Dharmsala. I think somewhere in sixty-three or sixty‐four I gave up. I gave up the robe before I (actually) became a layman. You know, I was watching the mood of the Dalai Lama; I didn’t want him to be upset. So what I did is, you know—sometimes I put on a suit or trousers, sometimes a Tibetan layman’s robe, sometimes the monk’s dress.

Q: To check a little?

A: Sort of balanced—then I was waiting for the opportunity. One of the Lamas gave up his robes and His Holiness had been very upset. And then later on another—and then this Tagtser Rinpoche, His Holiness’ (older) brother; he got married. .. I think it was a good excuse for us (other Tulkus who wanted to quit). So I took the opportunity and started to put on the complete (layman’s dress). I was still monk at that time.

Q: Where did you stay?

A: I stayed in Kangra, Simla, (Himachal Pradesh), everywhere.

Q: Ah—not in a monastery.

A: No, not in a monastery. I lived in a monastery in 1960 (only). ..

Q: What did you live of at that time? How could you live, with what money?
A: Well, His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) gave us seventy‐five Rupees a month; we were living on that. Well, you know (that was) very kind, a very great thing.

Q: You did not bring any of your family’s fortune into exile?

A: Not at all, not at all. I didn’t even have a cup, didn’t even have a spoon—just came like that. Even (had) no proper clothes (upon arrival in India). I did have clothes, a mule and things like that—I think we sold it in Bomdila (Arunachal Pradesh) for a few Rupees.

Q: And then how it went on? Actually, why did you leave, what did you think about the situation—you being a Tulku and a monk?

A: Well, I don’t know whether people will believe it or not: it is true—I just wanted to be a layman. If you want to be a monk you should be a perfect, a hundred percent perfect, pure monk. .. (Otherwise you should) not wear the robes. And the opportunity of studying, practice and teachingsof Buddhism is not being barred to the lay people at all. And especially nowadays we can be one of you and talk about Buddhism, spiritual development. Like you; I mean you can be like one of us. It’s one way if a Lama sits on the throne and has twenty, thirty people (coming from) seeking around here and there sitting down and listening; it’s one way. Another (way is) if you go with them, stay with them, behave like everybody. You go to the bars together, you go here and there together and try to work with them on the spiritual development; that is another way—Don’t you believe? I think so. And then: (if) you can’t become a perfect, pure monk, why should you be some half-monk?

Q: So you still had this in mind; you didn’t want to give up Dharma and teaching and all that? Just change the way of life?

A: No, just the way of life. How can we give that up; we made so many vows, did so many meditations, (received) so many initiations—there is no way.

Q: To get away?

A: No way to give up (Dharma). How could you: you never give up such a great opportunity.

Q: .. What is the special thing about Tulkus?

A: What kind of special?

Q: Like you can be a teacher (of Dharma) and you have students—you don’t have to be a Tulku.

A: Ah! Yea, yea, that’s different. Tulku means you have a lot of spiritual development within you, a number of lives. With that development within you you will have the people (around you) who can really help getting it up. If you don’t have the development within you but you have a tremendous knowledge and are very learned, you know, that’s like a learned professor teaching at university; they can give you the information but I don’t think they really help you much in spiritual development. .. (If based on that only) one individual student goes and meditates—I don’t think he can gain much spiritual life. He will become a scholar but he can not become a saint. I am sorry but that is my way of (seeing it)—but people may not agree.

Q: It makes sense. The special thing is that a Tulku has accumulated (spiritual realization) through many lives—

A: Supposed to have.

Q: If he is a real Tulku.

A: Yea.

Q: So he has like a big advantage of developped spirituality.

A: That’s supposed to be.

Q: Just by birth.

A: Just by birth, yes.

Q: Like there is more (spiritual) energy?

A: More energy—and if somebody, some Tulku does good work it can be of better service to so many. If he does something bad it can disgrace also better, (laughing). Yes it is (like this). Even some Sutra—I don’t remember which one—gives the example of an elephant; an elephant can help better and can harm better too, (laughing).

Q: Some of the young Tulkus I have met in the south (of India)—they still think very traditionally. They think the main goal is still doing the traditional studies up to the Geshe degree. ..

A: Yes, that’s true. And then at some point they will realize, you know, now Buddhism develops so much everywhere, and it’s not only the traditional Tibetan way. Yes: to a certain extent a few will hold and it will remain alive (as it was traditionally). But the majority of the people in the world should be helped—and ultimately (in) their way.

Q: So the Tulkus should meet them on their level?

A: I believe that, yes. But I am not asking them (i.e. traditional practitioners) to follow my footsteps, (laughing), naturally not. I don’t know why, but when His Holiness collected us (young Tulkus) in Dharmsala, about ten, fifteen of us—out of them only two or three remained as monks, all others got married.

Q: Like all those who came to the west?

A: Yes. .. Or a person like me; I’m sure the power of desire and attachment and all this have influenced (my decision). But for other Tulkus I will not say that; I think it must be for a purpose that they have changed (into laymen).

Q: It’s very difficult to judge.

A: It’s very difficult to judge and I don’t know anyone who (has) judged that.

Q: Why did you get married?

A: Married? Just like that. In 1969 I think. I did not get married early. .. I was about thirty.

Q: Since when do you live in Delhi?

A: To Delhi I came first in 1963—and almost constantly I have been living in Delhi (ever since).

Q: Why do you live in Delhi; why did you choose it?

A: I didn’t choose. I didn’t choose Delhi but Delhi chose me.

Q: What does that mean?

A: I don’t know; it is my Karma that I’m stuck in Delhi all the time. I don’t know why.

Q: .. What are you living on?

A: Well, I am just simply doing my work.

Q: What work?

A: Publications. I do publish a lot of books, Petchas, and I edit them and read them; this is how I live.

Q: You do that on your own?

A: Yes.

Q: And you have them printed by Indian presses?

A: Yes, Indian presses.

Q: And you sell them?

A: Yes. (I intend) to make important books and I ‘ m quite satisfied with my work. I have been able to print a number of Sungbum of which only one or two copies were still available in the world. And some of them didn’t even have a copy at all; I got to do it out of memory. .. I select very rare books that need to be reprinted. It doesn’t make much money but somehow it pays my expenses. .. I think that’s enough.

Q: .. And still now you also have disciples; you also work as a teacher (of Dharma)?

A: Some interested people, some who are interested to study I have been guiding.

Q: Western people?

A: Western as well as Tibetans.

Q: .. You said the good thing (about the Tulku system) would be the facilities to study and all that.

A: Yea. But (that was) once, earlier; nowadays without facilities (like a Labrang) they can serve better.

Q: Does that mean that the cultural aspect of the Tulku becomes less and less important?

A: Naturally. And then one day there will be no meaning left because it will corrupt.

Q: If you take away all the cultural aspects and the traditional upbringing, the monastic education and all that: what is left of Tulku?

A: (Pondering). I think it is power; real Tulku, it’s power.

Q: What kind of power is that?

A: Power to choose to die, to live.

Q: Kyechi Rangwang?

A: Yea, Kyechi Rangwang, yes, naturally. What does Tulku really mean? It has to be the power within him. ..

Q: Did you think about the strange fact why these great human beings are as far as we know only among the Tibetan culture and the Tibetan people?

A: It has developed (as a system) in Tibet; it is valuable everywhere. I mean .. there are incarnate great persons in America, .. in Europe, .. in Africa, everywhere. Why not?

Q: But not as an institutional lineage.

A: Institutional lineages have been established in Tibet .. while in America and in Europe nobody has kept a record. If you are keeping a record you will be having them too.

Q: And Tibetans they know ways of looking for and finding a Tulku.

A: Yea, that system has not been established in the west, that’s all.’

Source: Bärlocher, Daniel. (1982). Testimonies of Tibetan Tulkus: A Research among Reincarnate Buddhist Masters in Exile: Volume I: Materials. Tibet-Institut, Rikon. (pp. 539-547).

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.