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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Q&A: Engaging Compassion with Gelhek Rimpoche

January 25, 2009

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009
posted by Jimmy Viola
In this week's agenda section, contributor Jimmy Viola talks to Gehlek Rimpoche, author of Good Life Good Death and one of the last reincarnated lamas raised in Tibet prior to Chinese occupation, to preview his Engaging Compassion lecture at the Ethical Society tomorrow.
City Paper: How was Jewel Heart [Rimpoche's organization, which modernizes Buddhist teachings for contemporary life] founded?
Gehlek Rimpoche: Jewel Heart began in 1987 by a group of people in Michigan who would like to have some Tibetan Buddhist studies for their well-being. That's how I started Jewel Heart in America. Before that I started it in Holland, but in 1987 and 1988 it moved to America.
CP: How has the response been in America to your teachings on Tibetan Buddhism?
GR: They have been very kind. There are so many people that responded so well mostly because of three famous Americans. Number one is the great American poet Alan Ginsberg, so because of Alan there is a natural response. Number two is musician and composer Philip Glass [ed. note: Read our Q&A with Philip's cousin, NPR host Ira]. And number three is actor Richard Gere. Then the other reason is because [Tibetan Buddhism] is helping people and it makes people happy. It makes it very easy for people to deal with their lives.
CP: Why do Americans seem so obsessed with materialism?
GR: Everybody is — we have a tremendous desire and tremendous want.
CP: Your book goes into very specific detail about the processes that happen when you die. As a recognized reincarnate lama, were these experiences recalled from your personal memories of previous lives and deaths?
GR: No. It is just the experience collected by thousand years by Tibetan masters. Their teachings are continued through living tradition and oral history.
CP: So how can you describe what happens to a person when they die in your book if you've never experienced it?
GR: [You can't,] but I wanted to. I really wanted to recall some confirmation from Alan Ginsberg when he was dying, but he had a stroke which makes all communication impossible. There are a lot of other people, "western," normal Americans, who have confirmed dying experiences as taught in Tibetan Buddhism and they have been confirmed by their family members. Like in my travels, I came across a woman in Tibet whose dying mother said she saw water flooding her room. She said the water was almost up to her bed. In America, I had a doctor who said, "that's what happened to my father." The doctor said it was a hallucination. [Rimpoche writes in Good Life Good Death that water is the first of many common hallucinations for dying people, as the water element in their body dries up and leaves one's soul.]
CP: Tell me about your upcoming visit to Philly.
GR: It is about engaging compassion. True compassion. And what the difference is between love and the pity feelings and even looking down on a person: What is true compassion and how does it influence individuals? I will also be addressing the Tibetan community in the Tibetan language.
CP: You were raised in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. What do you think of the situation?
GR: I think the His Holiness the Dalai Llama has tried to keep communication as open as he could and to mean what he says, but the Chinese have never trusted the Dalai Llama and are always skeptical of any statement His Holiness makes. Looks like to me it is past time. The time is on their side [the Chinese].
CP: Do you feel technology makes it easier for one to be enlightened?
GR: I think technology makes enlightenment easier. Up to a certain level, through music and eye consciousness, ear consciousness and the environment. By utilizing technology, yes, it can bring about comfort and enlightenment. Even with commercials and the movies there are subliminal messages. Then you have to know where to switch it off and get on the level of the mind bringing happiness and joy. But to be able to have concentration and focus on that level technology can help.
CP: What is it like to be a friend of the Dalai Llama?
GR: He is a wonderful, true, genuine world leader who practices what he preaches. He is the one who has no different attitude or look whether he is in the green room or in front of the crowd or cameras.
CP: He is often compared to the Buddha of our lifetime — what is your opinion?
GR: Yes, I believe is the closest we have to a Buddha.
CP: Have you ever questioned your belief in Dharma?
GR: Absolutely. I've been doubtful many times. When everything goes wrong, like being kicked out of the country, I wondered what is dharma and what Buddha is really talking about.
CP: How did you overcome your doubts?
GR: By constantly thinking and looking into it. Then I saw the reality more than what is superficial and then I began to realize what is also true. I kept on praying and when peace of mind actually comes. It was like I saw things in the complete opposite way.
Engaging Compassion with Gehlek Rimpoche, Fri., Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m., free, Philadelphia Ethical Society, 1906 Rittenhouse Square, 215-735-3456,
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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