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Buddhist scholar teaches about his faith
and the intersection of faiths at Gonzaga

By Shannon St. Hilaire

The Venerable Geshe Thubten Phelgye (Gesh-la), a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is Gonzaga University’s first visiting global scholar in residence this academic year, said it was easy to take spirituality for granted growing up in Tibet, where nearly 90 percent of the people are Buddhist.

Geshe Thubten Phelgye
The Venerable GesheThubten Phelgye

Buddhism, an inherent part of culture in Tibet, was threatened when the Communist Chinese invaded in the 1950s.  They killed 1.2 million Tibetans and destroyed more than 6,000 monasteries and nunneries.

In 1959, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and more than 80,000 Tibetans went into exile in India.  In the 1960s, Tibetans were tortured in the name of “cultural revolution,” Geshe-la said.

By the late 1970s, they smuggled drugs, alcohol and arms, brought prostitution and transferred many Chinese into Tibet.

“It was the ‘sweet poisoning’,” said Geshe-la.  “They tried to wipe out our remaining cultural heritage, but failed.”

Although drawn to spiritual life in his childhood, he grew up with anger and hatred against Chinese.

“I did not feel spiritual after the invasion.  I wanted to fight back, to die for the cause,” he said.

At 13, he and six boys ran away to join the Indian military. Only the oldest, who was 16, was accepted.  The rest were sent home.

Resistance to Chinese control of Tibet persists stronger in the young generation today, he said. From 2010 to today, 30 young Tibetans protested by self-immolation—sacrificing their lives by setting themselves on fire. Every few days, he hears of another.

In 1972, when he was 16, the Dalai Lama came to his school and gave a short talk on interdependence and compassion.

“That changed my way of thinking.  I took some time to contemplate,” said Geshe-la, “and I turned away from the military.”

In 1973, he took the first ordination to enter the monastery.

“The process for acceptance into a Buddhist monastery is simpler than it is in other religions. Anyone can enter a Buddhist monastery with a good renunciation, even someone with a past criminal record,” he said.

The Christian tradition of a gradual entrance process to monastic life is inspiring to me,” he said, “Buddhists can learn from Christian monasteries.”

He studied 18 years in a monastery. Buddhism, Geshe-la said, is a vast spiritual study, based on the Four Noble Truths that show the nature, origin and cessation from the cycle of suffering, and the path to liberation.  This achievement, through study, work, practice and meditation, is called “Nirvana or Enlightenment,” he said. “You cannot go into the depth of Buddhism just by reading a few books or taking a course.”

Since the 1960s, westerners have been drawn to Buddhism’s practical teachings.  Many have taken monastic ordination and are good scholars, but most disrobe after time.  To live a monastic life in the West is challenging, he said.  

“Every step in life needs to be mindful.  Practicing Dharma means to learn, experience, internalize and live it,” he said.  “Buddhism draws many because you can ask any question and seek a reasonable answer.

The Law of Karma makes us take responsibility for ourselves, rather than leave everything to God,” Geshe-la said.  “It requires dedication to be a Buddhist monk, particularly in difficult times.” 

Geshe-la studied, worked and helped build a monastery on land India gave the Tibetans.

“India opened its heart to us, but had little because it was just independent of British rule,” he said.

The land was “in the middle of nowhere,” so the monks had to make a living there. He and other monks plowed and harvested food  with animals and by hand.

“Americans find what we went through as refugees unbelievable,” he said.

Geshe-la longed to leave the monastery and go to the Himalayan mountains to meditate and internalize what he had learned.He asked the Dalai Lama for his blessing to do that in the early 1970s, but the Dalai Lama told him to finish his studies first.

“You do not meditate much at first,” he said, “because you have nothing to meditate on until you have studied.”

Geshe-la finished his studies, went to the mountains and lived in isolation, only interacting with people for food. He had no running water or modern facilities.

“It was like life 200 years back,” he said, “but it was the most meaningful, joyful, awesome time of my life.”

He left after five years when he learned his father had died.  He returned to his village in India and stayed to take care of his mother.

While living in the monastery, he adopted three orphaned students.  He and his brother have also helped more than 150 monastic students with their studies. 

Geshe-la was a founding member of the Jerusalem Peacemakers, an organization spreading peace and tolerance among the Muslims and Jews in the Middle East. 

He also founded the Universal Compassion Movement, which is devoted to a compassionate lifestyle, including promoting vegetarianism to stop the slaughter of animals. While studying Buddhism, “eating meat did not make sense,” he said, even though the culture accepted it.

When he saw animals slaughtered for food, he “made a commitment to be a voice for the voiceless,” he said. “It has been a long, difficult journey, but I know what I am doing is right.”

In 1997, he received the blessing of the Dalai Lama, who also promotes vegetarianism. Now, most Buddhist monasteries are vegetarian.  Geshe-la would like to start an organization for the movement in the West. 

In a prayer at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service in Spokane, he gave recognition of the 45 million turkeys who were killed for the U.S. holiday.  Although concerned about offending people, he found many appreciated it.

Geshe-la has travelled the world, teaching Buddhism and benefits of meditation. He teaches meditation Thursdays at the Saranac building.  He said meditation centers people and helps them watch their own minds.

“Only then can we improve ourselves,” he said.

After speaking at Gonzaga in 2010, he was invited to teach there.  Gonzaga created the global scholar in residence program.

The first semester, he co-taught a course on Asian religions.  This semester, he teaches an in-depth study of Buddhism.  His class filled up quickly.

Students give me hope for the upcoming generation,” he said. “They tell me I am an asset, and my presence is a gesture of diversity and for religious harmony that is part of the Jesuit mission of pluralism.”

He also visits area churches and monasteries. 

After his year at Gonzaga, Geshe-la may return to India and continue to travel and teach, but he hopes to extend his time here.

“I appreciate teaching upcoming leaders, to share Buddha’s teaching of loving kindness, tolerance and forgiveness, because they are our hope,” he said. “It aligns with my key mission in life, to promote compassion and religious harmony.”

As a member of the Gelug school of Buddhism, he finds his faith intersects with the Jesuit tradition.  Both emphasize service and academic life. 

“We need this cultural, spiritual service,” he said. “It is healing.  Only spirituality gives us peace of mind, not materialism, but people do not understand or are too busy in mundane things.  Spiritual practice is not something we can impose on people.  People have to awake by themselves.”

For information, call 213-308-9607 or email phelgye@gonzaga.edu.