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OBITUARY: Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen dies at 85

February 22, 2009

Tibetan lama founded Long Beach Buddhist center

By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times,
February 21, 2009

Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, a leading Tibetan lama, human rights activist
and founder of a Buddhist center in Long Beach, died Feb. 13 after a
short illness. He was 85.

Gyeltsen died at his home at the Thubten Dhargye Ling Buddhist center,
which he founded in 1978, two decades after he fled the Chinese
occupation of Tibet.

A member of the same Buddhist sect as the Dalai Lama, he hosted six
visits to Los Angeles of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the most
recent in 2006.

Known for his traditional approach to Buddhist teaching, Gyeltsen was
one of a dwindling number of Tibetan-born teachers who followed the
Dalai Lama into exile 50 years ago.

"He is one of the teachers who brought Buddhism to the West," said James
Shaheen, editor of the Buddhist journal Tricycle.

The author of two widely read Buddhist commentaries -- "Compassion: The
Key to Great Awakening" and "Mirror of Wisdom" -- Gyeltsen also
championed human rights and religious freedom in Tibet as a board member
of the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington, D.C.-based group
chaired by actor Richard Gere.

Born Jamphel Yeshe in 1923 in the eastern Tibet province of Kham,
Gyeltsen was ordained as a Buddhist monk at age 7. When he was 16, he
undertook a 33-day journey across 25 mountain passes to reach the Gaden
Monastery near Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. He studied there for the next
two decades.

In 1959, after the failure of the March 10 Tibetan rebellion, the Dalai
Lama fled to India, where he established a government-in-exile.
Gyeltsen, along with 50 other prominent monks, soon followed.

"Escape was very difficult because the few good roads the Chinese were
holding already," Gyeltsen told The Times in 1989.

With Chinese soldiers fast approaching, the group traveled for a month
to reach the Indian border, including three days crossing the
snow-covered Himalayas.

He ended his journey in Dalhousie, in northern India, where he completed
his studies at the Gyuto Tantric College. At a refugee camp in West
Bengal, he passed the examinations to earn the rank of Geshe, which has
been described as a doctorate of Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1963 he immigrated to England, where for several years he instructed
Tibetan refugee children in Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language and
culture. In 1975 he moved to the United States and taught Tibetan
language, meditation and religious studies at UC Santa Barbara and UCLA.

At the urging of his students, he formed Thubten Dhargye Ling Buddhist
Center in Los Angeles; it was relocated to Long Beach in 1996. He also
founded centers in Northern California's Grass Valley, Texas, Colorado,
Alaska, Mexico and Europe.

He was one of 76 Buddhist teachers featured in "Portraits of Tibetan
Buddhist Masters" by Santa Monica photographer Don Farber, who knew
Gyeltsen for 30 years.

"His death is a great loss," said Farber, who called Gyeltsen "one of
the last living masters" of Tibetan Buddhism. "Newer incarnations and
generations of teachers will be different because of cultural
influences. He was creating a foundation for students to learn about
Tibetan Buddhism in a completely authentic way."

Gyeltsen is survived by a son, Tsewang Gyeltsen of Long Beach; a sister
and several nieces and nephews.

His body will be taken to India for a special cremation ceremony, where
Buddhist monasteries will offer prayers. Donations to support the prayer
rituals may be sent to Thubten Dhargye Ling, 3500 E. 4th St., Long
Beach, CA 90814.
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