Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden in Australia
In 1975 Geshe Loden was examined on his understanding and knowledge of all four levels of tantra with particular emphasis on the mother tantra of Heruka and the father tantra of Guhyasamaja. The examination was conducted in front of the assembled monks and at the end of the two days he was awarded a degree in tantric studies with honours.
By now Geshe Loden was caring for about one hundred and fifty Tibetan students from all four orders of Tibetan Buddhism. However, he had always prayed to develop Lord Buddha’s teachings, particularly in places where they were not well established. Seeing that there were already many Geshes and lamas in Tibet and India, he prayed to help develop the Dharma in a country where there were not so many qualified Dharma teachers.
In 1976 Lama Thubten Yeshe, the spiritual leader of a new Buddhist meditation centre in Australia, requested Geshe-la to accept a teaching position there. By careful reflection Geshe Loden determined that this would be of benefit and sought the advice of his gurus, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche. His Holiness the Dalai Lama confirmed his finding, advising him to accept the post, stay in Australia for three years and then return to his disciples in India. As the interview ended His Holiness clasped his hand and explained that he would need great perseverance to teach continuously for three years and great patience to deal with some difficult students, telling him not to be disheartened, bored or become ill during this task.
On arrival at the Chenrezig Institute for Wisdom Culture, near Eudlo in Queensland, Australia, Geshe Loden assumed his position as resident Dharma teacher and began a three year programme of instruction assisted by Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, a young reincarnated lama who had learnt English during his studies in India and Thailand. The essential purpose of the schedule was to establish in the students a firm foundation of the three principal paths (renunciation, bodhichitta and the wisdom cognising emptiness) through the practice of teachings on the Graded Path to Enlightenment and the Mind Training techniques. Following the perfect example of his own guru, he explained the holy texts line by line, illustrating his meanings with clear examples. The Great Exposition on the Graded Path by Lama Tsong Khapa and the Mind Training in Eight Verses by Geshe Langri Tangpa were the two texts most frequently expounded.
He supplemented the essential teachings with a programme of detailed explanations of the major philosophical texts. Each of these courses generally was taught over two to three months of intensive full-time study, meditation practice and discussion. The courses over this three year period were on the following great treatises:
Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds by Shantideva
Treasury of Knowledge by Vasubandhu
Engaging in the Middle Way by Chandrakirti
Fundamental Wisdom by Nagarjuna
Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras by Maitreya
Understanding the Mind by Phurchog Jhampa Rinpoche
Sublime Continuum of the Mahayana by Maitreya
Systems of Tenets by Sera Jetsün Chökyi Gyäl Tsän
He also introduced preliminary teachings on the practice of tantra by explaining theTwenty-One Praises to Tara, using the Explaining the Mind Captivator commentary by the Shakya Bhikksu Dharma Bhata. He also taught the Hundred Deities of the Land of Joy by Lama Tsong Khapa, and the Clarifying the Aspects of the Paths and Grounds of Tantric texts by Gelong Ngawang Pälden. Additionally, Geshe-la gave many empowerments for the practice of Action tantra deities such as Tara, Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Medicine Buddha.
In December 1979 Geshe Loden returned to India and resumed his work at Sera Monastic University and Gyumay Tantric College, to the great joy of his many disciples. First though, he paid his respects to his gurus in Dharamsala—His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the two Tutors. At these interviews the possibility of another visit to Australia was discussed.
The impact of Geshe-la’s Dharma teachings, spiritual advice and personal example during his initial three year visit to Australia had left groups of devoted students throughout the country. These followers had begun to establish new centres of the Dharma and requested that Geshe-la be the spiritual leader of these centres. They requested him to return to Australia as soon as possible to teach and guide the growing number of Australian people developing an interest in the vast and profound teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. On the advice of his teachers, Geshe-la agreed to return to Australia, making it his home and dedicating himself to the development of the Dharma in the West. He named his centres the Tibetan Buddhist Society. By the time he arrived in Australia for the second time, three Tibetan Buddhist Society centres had been established, in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, to be followed a short time later by one in Perth.
Geshe-la began teaching the Dharma again immediately upon his arrival. Travelling from centre to centre he taught Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice to a King and on another occasion Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend. He told students on many occasions that these texts contained wonderful advice on how to integrate the practice of Dharma into daily life activities. As well as these teachings, Geshe-la ensured that all his centres established and maintained regular Graded Path to Enlightenment teaching programmes as the backbone of the teaching schedule.
For the first two years Geshe-la taught through a translator, this time a young Tibetan, Norbu Samphel, with a degree in Buddhist studies from the Varanasi Sanskrit University in India. However, Geshe-la had long since decided that he would master the English language so that he could communicate the Dharma directly to his students. During the early 1980s Geshe-la put a great deal of effort into English study and, despite his age, learnt quickly so that by 1983 he was able to begin teaching without the aid of a translator.
During this time Geshe-la worked to establish prayer books and deity sadhanas, in accordance with Gelug monastic tradition, to be used by Tibetan Buddhist Society centres and students. He then arranged four large, almost life-size statues of Lord Buddha to be made in India to become the devotional object at each of his four centres. The statues were prepared in the traditional way with gold-painted faces and came with the rolls of mantras and scriptures to be placed inside the statue along with certain holy relics. Geshe-la then supervised the preparation of each statue and performed the consecration ceremony.
To further establish the strong presence of the Tibetan Buddhist Gelug system within the meditation halls of each centre, Geshe-la commissioned the painting of traditional thangkas. Over a number of years the chief painter at Sera Je monastery painted Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Tsong Khapa, Mahakala and White Tara thangkas to Geshe-la’s specifications for the Melbourne centre. He painted Shakyamuni and Thirty-five Buddhas thangkas for the Sydney centre and Shakyamuni and Manjushri thangkas for the Brisbane centre. For the Perth centre, Shakyamuni, Manjushri, Tsong Khapa and White Tara thangkas were commissioned.
In 1981 Geshe-la established committees throughout Australia to organise the first ever visit to this country of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet in August 1982. Nearly two years in the organising, the visit was a great success and saw huge numbers of Australian people in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth hear the wonderful Dharma teachings of His Holiness. Geshe-la has also involved the Tibetan Buddhist Society in assisting with the subsequent visits of His Holiness.
In 1984 Geshe-la felt a very strong urge to visit Tibet. There had recently been a slight relaxation on visa restrictions and Geshe-la took the opportunity to visit his mother who was very old. Travelling with his younger brother, Loden, the journey took him over the border with Nepal and into Lhasa where for the first time in nearly thirty years he visited the sites of Drepung, Sera and Ganden. He was very saddened to see the fate that had befallen those great monastic universities, once the home of 7,700, 5,500 and 3,300 monks respectively. Under the communists the great seats of Dharma learning had fallen into ruin.
From Lhasa Geshe-la undertook the journey to his home village in Eastern Tibet—this time by bus and jeep! He was overjoyed to find his mother still alive and well, and very much in charge of the family home—as her ‘baby’ was soon to discover! Not since encountering the toughest disciplinarians in the monasteries had he received such forceful instructions on when and how to eat, what time to turn the lights out for sleep etc, etc.
Geshe-la stayed three months with his mother who was very proud that he had become a Geshe and was still a monk. Although not previously greatly inclined toward the Dharma, the combination of her advanced years and special relationship with her son enabled Geshe-la to instruct his mother in the three principles of the path and to teach her the consciousness transference techniques for the time of death. Indeed, before Geshe-la left, his mother shaved her hair and took refuge and the five upasaka precepts from her son.
While in the area Geshe-la gave a number of Dharma teachings to huge gatherings of Tibetans, long starved of the presence of high lamas. Geshe-la was careful not to feed the paranoia of those communist representatives observing the teachings and on one occasion received a standing ovation from them when he quoted from Mao’s Red Book to illustrate the mahayana principle of equanimity. One can imagine their response, then, when Geshe-la took all the offerings made to him by the devoted and gave them to the village community to improve their facilities. The leading officials in the area offered Geshe-la the Abbotship of Tsong Khapa’s Kum Bum monastery if he would stay permanently.
The time came though for Geshe-la to leave Tibet, and it was not long after returning to Australia that he heard from his sister that his mother had passed away—still reciting the consciousness transference prayer.
After resuming his teaching programme in Australia, Geshe-la felt that the time had come to initiate his older students into the profound and secret practices of Highest Yoga tantra. On 11 January 1986, just outside of Melbourne, Geshe-la gave the extensive father tantra initiation of Solitary Hero Yamantaka to a group of close students from around Australia over two days. This was followed by extensive teachings over a two week retreat on the generation stage commentary by Tri Gyältsen Senge called The Good Explanation of the Profound Path of the Great Secret and his Cloud of Offerings to Please Manjushri commentary on the completion stages. It was the first time in history that Highest Yoga tantra initiation and teachings had been given on Australian soil. Geshe-la was determined that students not take these precious methods of Highest Yoga tantra for granted and instigated a weekly Yamantaka practice and teaching session which is maintained by the students to this day. When in residence at the Melbourne centre Geshe-la leads this session himself, guiding and explaining the generation and completion stage meditations in a yearly cycle using the above texts.
Some time earlier Geshe-la had decided that the Tibetan Buddhist Society should invite other experienced Dharma teachers to Australia. By that time Geshe-la was mostly resident at the main centre in Melbourne and there was a need to help develop the teaching programmes in the other centres. Already Geshe-la’s cousin, Gala Tulku Rinpoche, had spent two years as visiting lama to the Sydney centre until 1982. Also Geshe-la’s student, Lama Lhundrup (now Geshe Lhundrup), spent two years in residence at the Brisbane centre but had since returned to India.
In September of 1986 five lamas, Geshe Loga, Geshe Namgyal, Lama Lhundrup, Geshe Khetchok Rinpoche and Thuksay Tulku Rinpoche arrived to assist with the Dharma teaching programme throughout Australia. Thus it was possible for the first time to gather the five monks necessary to give ordination. Monks from other Dharma centres also attended. On 17 September 1986, Geshe-la presided as Abbot for the ceremony giving full ordination to Loden Nyingye (Chris Watkins) and Loden Jhampa (Toby Gillies), the first such ceremony at the Tibetan Buddhist Society.
In September 1987 Geshe-la conferred the Solitary Hero Yamantaka initiation in the United States at the Tibetan Buddhist Society centre established in San Francisco during his first visit in 1983. Later, in November of that year, Geshe-la gave the Yamantaka initiation again in Melbourne over two days and this time followed it with the first Vajrayogini and Mahakala initiations ever given in Australia. Geshe-la also conferred the Medicine Buddha, Vajrasattva and Lama Tsong Khapa long life empowerments. Subsequently a Yamantaka retreat and fire puja were held for three weeks during February and March of 1988. After this Geshe-la initiated a regular weekly session of practice and teaching of the mother tantra practice of Vajrayogini following the commentary by Takphu Rinpoche, Losang Tenpai Gyältsen called The Staircase of Lapis Lazuli and the commentary by Phabongkha Rinpoche called The Heart Essence of the Three Places of Dakinis. The practice continues to this day and Geshe-la has instructed that weekly Graded Path, Yamantaka and Vajrayogini sessions should continue for as long as the Tibetan Buddhist Society remains in existence.
Later in the same year Geshe-la gave the Highest Yoga tantra initiations at the Tibetan Buddhist Society in Perth. For the first time in that city the Yamantaka, Vajrayogini Mahakala, White Tara and Tsong Khapa empowerments were conferred. A weekly practice and teaching programme was established there as well, leading to further initiations, including the Chittamani Tara empowerment in 1991 and 1994.
For a long time Geshe-la had believed that it was important to find and buy a suitable property for Tibetan Buddhist Society centres and particularly for the main centre in Melbourne. A five year search culminated in December 1988 with the purchase of a remarkable property on twenty acres of land just a half hour drive from the centre of the city. Combining the peaceful garden setting of a country retreat centre with the convenience of a commuting suburb, the property was perfect. Geshe-la predicted that the Tibetan Buddhist Society would last there for many hundreds of years and named the centre the ‘Peaceful Land of Joy’ meditation centre. Subsequent building improvements began a continuous programme of land and building care which has seen the garden grow into one of the most beautiful imaginable. Visitors are struck by the beauty and peaceful atmosphere of the centre. In this environment the regular teaching programme and retreats could continue and grow.
Just prior to his passing away, His Holiness Trijang Dorje Chang Losang Yeshe, Geshe-la’s principal guru, accorded the most rare occurrence of privately and singly conferring the close lineage Chittamani Tara initiation on Geshe-la. The initiation was given in secret, as public knowledge would have meant thousands wishing to attend. Geshe-la decided that this lineage should be passed on to his Western students and thus on the 25th and 26th of August 1989, Geshe-la gave the Chittamani Tara initiation following those of Yamantaka and Vajrayogini. The initiations were followed by a two week Vajrayogini retreat, the first at the Peaceful Land of Joy.
The centre presented Geshe-la with the new challenge of establishing a resident Dharma community with sufficient discipline to retain the essence of the traditional monastic approach but adjusted to meet the needs of the largely lay Buddhist community in Australia. He established a basis of centre rules, cleaning, cooking and gardening rosters and an esprit de corps that has kept a stable and ever developing resident community functioning happily and harmoniously to make the Dharma available to an ever wider audience.
Geshe-la has always maintained that the leader should set the example, and works alongside everyone else in the garden and in centre activities from the mundane to the complex. He is meticulous in looking after donated money to ensure that it is used in the proper way and refuses any payment from his centres. On many occasions he has insisted on returning money to donors, much against their will, believing that they could not reasonably afford the donation.
His own lifestyle is comfortably simple. He maintains that his room at the centre, his food and conditions are quite sufficient and that practising contentment is the greatest wealth. He thus never seeks entertainment at restaurants, theatres or in travel and whatever money comes his way through donations he retains to make offerings to others. Every two or three years Geshe-la visits Sera Je monastery in India to meet with his students and friends and especially to make offerings to all the monks at the monastery. He often speaks with delight about the five occasions on which he has been able to offer 100 rupees each to over 2,700 monks at Sera Je monastery. After each visit he returns to a nearly empty personal bank account in Australia and enjoys reminding students that money is useless at the time of death—far better to use it for good purposes before that time. Geshe-la has sponsored the marble floor for the new Sera Je temple, 42 bedrooms in two new buildings for Denma College as well as the Denma college meditation hall. He has all contributed IRP 900,000 torward a new meditation hall and 21 Tara statue for Drombu monastery in Eastern Tibet. (Reports on Geshe-las recent generosity are attached.)
Again in December 1990 Geshe-la conferred the Yamantaka, Vajrayogini and Chittamani Tara initiations in Melbourne and they have been held each year since then. Students newly initiated join the regular weekly sessions on these tantric practices.
Geshe-la continued to take a great interest in developing the ten acres of landscaped gardens at the Peaceful Land of Joy and takes great delight in the ocean of various coloured rose and marigold flowers in the full blush of a Melbourne spring. In 1991 he was inspired to inaugurate an event called the Buddhist Spring Festival and Exhibition of Tibet. It was a weekend drawing together the entire variety of Buddhist traditions in Victoria: Tibetan, Thai, Sri Lankan, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Burmese and so forth. The head monks of each of these great traditions joined together at the Peaceful Land of Joy for a moving ceremony of prayer and meditation directed to the well being of all and for the attainment of lasting world peace. Then, over the two days, a range of meditation and philosophical teachings were given. At the same time a festival atmosphere surrounded a special exhibition of the unique Dharma culture of ancient Tibet. Thousands of people from all over Victoria attended and the success caused Geshe-la to establish the Spring Festival as an annual event as well as the Tibetan New Year Festival that he established in 1988.
At the beginning of 1992 Geshe-la decided that it was time to record the main teachings that he had given in Australia by publishing books. These teachings had become the foundation of the teaching programmes throughout the Tibetan Buddhist Society and, being fundamental to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, it was thought they could be of benefit to many people around the world. To that end he asked his Tibetan student Geshe Thubten Lhundrup and his Australian student Venerable Toby Gillies to take up full time work with him producing a book of his collected teachings on the Graded Path to Enlightenment. It was to be the first publication of the newly formed publishing arm of the Tibetan Buddhist Society called Tushita Publications. Under Geshe-la’s guidance the book, a massive volume of over 1100 pages, called Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism, was completed in December 1993.
When a copy was presented to His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala early in 1994, His Holiness encouraged Geshe-la to continue his publishing work with related Graded Path books and books on other subjects. As a result Geshe-la published Meditations on the Path to Enlightenment in Tibetan Buddhism in 1996 and this book, The Fundamental Potential for Enlightenment, also in 1996. In 1997 Geshe-la released the Essence of the Path to Enlightenment and the Solitary Hero Vajrabhairava commentary Ocean of Indivisible Method and Wisdom is to be released in 1999. Further books are planned as Geshe-la maintains an ongoing commitment to presenting the Tibetan Buddhist teachings to the English speaking world.
While Geshe-la devoted an enormous amount of time and energy over these years to producing books, he nonetheless maintained the teaching programme and other activities at the Peaceful Land of Joy. The Tibetan Buddhist Society continued to grow with a new centre in the Melbourne suburb of Beaumaris formally opened in 1994 and the Perth centre purchasing a property to expand their activities in 1995.
Geshe-la is now eighty-six years old but, rather than abating, his activities seem to expand continually. A complete traditionalist in maintaining the commitments of his monk’s ordination, he nonetheless likes to remain well informed of current affairs, both domestic and international, and keeps his finger on the pulse of the personal and business lives of all his students, be they near or far. He seems just as comfortable communicating with the thousands of birds, which flock to the gardens of the Peaceful Land of Joy each morning for the rice and bread from his hand, as he is conversing with the leaders of our society. Possessed of a mind that is phenomenally active, while retaining an underlying fabric of peacefulness and contentment, Geshe-la retains a tremendous spirit of generosity and good humour, and seems always to be focussed on the needs of others. Physically strong, his energetic work schedule puts lie to the process of ageing. We pray that he remains with us for a long, long time.
This brief biography was written, at the request of students of the Tibetan Buddhist Society, by the Venerable Toby Gillies with the prayer:
Due to this merit, may all come under the care of holy gurus,
Serving them well with practice, praise and offering,
To bring a festival of enlightenment to those of our world.
May our guiding light, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, live long and well.