by Joe Loizzo
Early this year, the Tibetan community in exile and the international Buddhist community lost one of its leading lights—Kyabje Ngawang Gelek Demo Rimpoche—known to his many students around the world as Gelek Rimpoche, or simply Rimpoche, our precious gem. Besides His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Gelek’s peer, Trungpa Rimpoche, our jewel had few equals in his ability to be a living bridge between the spiritual-intellectual elite of Tibet’s Himalayan ivory towers and the increasingly global technology and pop culture of the modern West. While his preeminence among the vanishing breed of master scholars trained in the mountain kingdom alone would have merited a storied place in history, it was his unexpected role as a leading monk-exile turned lay Buddhist teacher that earned him global renown.
Nephew to the 13th Dalai Lama, and educated alongside the 14th, Gelek found himself at 21 attending an unusual prep school in Delhi with Trungpa, Lama Zopa, Chokyi Nyima and other “young lamas,” getting groomed by the first Western Tibetan nun Freda Bedi to understand and teach the new world he was thrust into. Our Rimpoche turned out to be not just a gifted student, but an avid connoisseur of Western culture. Soon enough, he found himself in New York City, sharing his light with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Paul Simon, and Philip Glass.
The fortunate students of the Jewel Heart community he founded in Michigan in 1988 (which spread worldwide) could hardly be expected to recognize the miraculous time-warp they had lucked into. They got to drink Tibet’s purest streams of contemplative science in fluent American English from one of the Deans of Drepung University—Tibet’s Harvard and Vatican Archive rolled into one. Disguised in blue jeans and a bright silk sports shirt, Rimpoche made it all seem so easy, so natural—understanding modern culture like the back of his hand—even barring his modern students from ancient traditions like prostrating to their Lama. So Nikki Appino’s 2014 documentary of his remarkable life hit just the right note with its title, borrowing the nickname his fellow lamas coined for him back in the ‘60’s: “The American Rimpoche.”
Yet for those of us who were lucky enough to study with him over the years or to just be around him for a single teaching, tale, or quip, it was not the Rimpoche’s historic work preserving endangered textual treasures, his esoteric role as the living conduit of some of Tibet’s most beloved mystic lineages, or his cache as spiritual guide to some of America’s creative icons that most blew our minds or melted our hearts. It was purely and simply Gelek’s radically humble, invariably helpful, and exquisitely kind human presence.
I first met Gelek in Delhi in 1979, on my first trip to India with my college professor Bob Thurman, who knew the Rimpoche from his years as the first Western Tibetan monk. The old friends agreed to take me along on their trip together to Drepung University, transplanted into South India, for a teaching by the Dalai Lama’s tutor Ling Rimpoche on the wisdom that slays death, personified in the fierce brilliance called Yamantaka. That was my first encounter with the Rimpoche’s natural kindness. Gelek hosted us in his old residence hall and quizzed me each night of the week-long teaching to be sure I’d grasped the key points despite my limited Tibetan. It would be ten years before I saw him again. I was living in Mill Valley, California, and was thrilled to hear he would be guest teacher at Green Gulch Zen Center. True to form, he seemed to actually remember me when I greeted him, took my hand and led me to sit at his feet for the talk. He even called me out during his lecture to check the Sanskrit of a text he was referencing, as if he needed my help for that. After the meeting, he asked me to come to see him at Jewel Heart in Ann Arbor. From that day on, I felt truly blessed to have the rare opportunity to learn and be with him consistently over 25 years.
Although it has been my good fortune to encounter and learn from many eminent Tibetan masters in this life, none of them has touched me more deeply or personally than Gelek. He was there for me when things fell apart, and there for me when they came together, always bringing me—and all of us—back to center, with a warm smile and wise word. As my spiritual journey eventually converged with my profession as a psychotherapist, to my surprise it was not any of my other teachers or my psychiatrist father who ended up being my role-model, but Gelek Rimpoche. I witnessed in him a wise and constant care for each and every individual that crossed his path, regardless of their walk in life, their lot of fortune or misfortune. It was his vocation as a doctor and nurse of souls, combined with his personifying the medicine of human kindness we all so urgently need today, that made Gelek my hero, my peerless teacher, my precious gem.
We are all so profoundly grateful to you Rimpoche, for being you. All our love goes with you as you embark on this exciting new leg of your multi-life odyssey—towards embodying ultimate freedom and consummate altruism. OM YAMANTAKA HUM PHAT! OM MANI PADME HUM HREE!
A similar version of this post had previously been published on the Jewel Heart and Huffington Post websites.