When he was sixteen, Geshe Gyeltsen decided to continue his studies and left for Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to study for his Geshe degree at Sera Monastery. The Geshe degree in the Gelug school is comparable to a western doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. The difference is that it usually takes more than twenty years to complete.
Geshe-la set out on the thirty-three day trek across twenty-five mountain passes, the only monk in a party of fifteen merchants and pilgrims. Near Lhasa, they stopped near Gaden Monastery where some monks invited Geshe-la for tea the following day. The next morning as he climbed the hill toward Gaden,
he saw the great monastery for the first time looking as though it would touch the sky. He wept tears of joy and knew without question that it was here, and not Sera, where he would continue his studies. That day was the anniversary of Lama Tsong Khapa’s enlightenment. In the evening the light offerings of butter lamps and the sound of chanting filled every room in the monastery and Geshe-la felt deeply moved by its spiritual atmosphere.
He joined Shartse College, one of Gaden’s two main colleges. The abbot at that time was the late Kyabje Zong Rinpoche who took a special interest in the young monk’s progress. Geshe Gyeltsen studied logic, wisdom, compassion, ethics, phenomenology and mind training at Gaden for twenty years and later became a teacher of junior monks.
After the Tibetan Uprising of March 10th, 1959, word reached Gaden that the Dalai Lama had left Tibet. Geshe-la and a group of six other monks left the monastery after evening prayers and made their way to India across the Himalayas; members of a mass exodus fleeing the oppression of the Chinese Communist occupation.
Geshe-la was one of the few senior monks who managed to escape out of the twenty thousand monks that had lived at Gaden, Sera and Drepung, Tibet’s three largest monasteries.
Geshe Gyeltsen, with fifty of the most highly regarded monks from each monastery, resettled at Dalhousie in northern India where he studied for two more years before taking his final Geshe examinations. These were attended by masters from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The last week of his exams took place in Dharamsala where Geshe-la engaged in rigorous debates under the scrutiny of the Dalai Lama and his two senior tutors, the late Ling Rinpoche and the late Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. He passed with honors and was awarded the highest degree of Lharampa Geshe.
In 1963 Geshe-la traveled to Sussex, England to teach at the Pestalozzi International Children’s Village. He arrived with twenty-two Tibetan children who were mostly orphans or the children of parents still living in Tibet. For seven years Geshe-la instructed these children in Tibetan writing, grammar, culture and Buddhist philosophy.
Geshe Gyeltsen came to the United States in 1976 and briefly held positions at USC, UC Santa Barbara, and at UCLA where he taught meditation and Tibetan language. His university students requested that he start a teaching center and in 1978 Geshe-la founded a center for the study of Buddhism in Los Angeles.
Geshe-la requested His Holiness the Dalai Lama to name the center and His Holiness gave the name of Thubten Dhargye Ling, which means Land of Flourishing Dharma. Thubten Dhargye Ling is now based in Long Beach where Geshe Gyeltsen’s teaching tradition continues through classes in meditation, retreats, celebrations of religious holidays and the regular weekly teachings of traditional Buddhist texts.
Geshe Gyeltsen was the author of “Compassion: The Key to Great Awakening,” a commentary on the Eight Verses of Mind Training and the Thirty-seven Practices of a Bodhisattva, and a free book on emptiness “Mirror of Wisdom.” He founded centers in both Colorado and Texas and has students based in Mexico, Alaska, Omaha and England.
Geshe-la was involved in the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California, a group of representatives from various Buddhist countries dedicated to further understanding between Buddhist cultures. He actively worked for human rights and true autonomy for the Tibetan people. One of his goals was to further education and religious study in Tibetan communities throughout India.
Geshe Gyeltsen was known for his great compassion and personal warmth; yet he retained a very traditional and uncompromising approach to teaching the Dharma. His strength of vision and devotion to his practice transcended time and culture, and he continues to inspire his students with the legacy he brought from Tibet.
Geshela passed away on February 13, 2009 and is greatly missed by all his students and friends.