Like a Waking Dream - Preface

The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa

Editor’s Preface

Before the annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, Tibet was a nation where a significant portion of the male population entered the monastic life. In the area of the capital, Lhasa, there were well over twenty thousand monks just at the three great monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden. These monasteries were cities unto themselves, with their own way of life, scholastic traditions, complex economies, and a not insignificant amount of political power. They were the seats of Buddhist scholarship for the Geluk sect, and through rigorous training, superior scholars rose through their ranks and were awarded the geshé degree.

In the years leading up to the mass exodus of Tibetans from Tibet in 1959, Geshé Lhundub Sopa was one of the virtuosi scholars of Sera Monastery. In 1950, when he was only twenty-seven years old, he was chosen to be one of the examiners of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when the latter sat for his geshé examination. When the People’s Liberation Army began their crackdown after the Tibetan uprising of March 10, 1959, Geshé Sopa, along with other members of the household he was a tutor in, left his monastery for a nearby retreat center a short distance from Lhasa, thinking that he would return after a few days. It soon became clear that there was to be no return to normal. After an arduous, month-long journey across the Himalayas, Geshé Sopa arrived in India and settled in a refugee camp along with many other fleeing Tibetans.

In 1962, the Dalai Lama chose Geshé Sopa to go to the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America in Freewood Acres, New Jersey, which had been established by the Mongolian monk Geshé Wangyal some years earlier. He was sent there as tutor and guardian to three young incarnate lamas who were being sent to America to learn English. In 1967, Geshé Sopa was invited by Professor Richard Robinson to come to the University of Wisconsin–Madison to teach in the Buddhist Studies program, which had been established in 1961 as the first such program in the United States. In 1975, Geshé Sopa founded the Deer Park Buddhist Center, and in 1981, Deer Park hosted the first of many Kālacakra initiations that the Dalai Lama would go on to perform in the West. Geshé Sopa eventually became full professor at the University of Wisconsin– Madison, where he trained numerous scholars of Buddhism. In 1990, he was made one of the directors of the Tibetan Resettlement Project, which helped Tibetans in exile to establish themselves in the U.S. Geshé Sopa is now professor emeritus, having retired in 1997.

Many Tibetans living today in exile never lived in Tibet. Many traditions have been carried on in exile, but the fact remains that an increasingly large percentage of Tibetans have little firsthand information about what life in their country was like before the occupation. This kind of information will be irretrievably lost when the last generation of Tibetans who lived much of their lives in Tibet has passed. It is our hope that this book will contribute to the preservation of this oral history and will make part of that history available to the Tibetan exile community, to scholars and students of Tibetan culture, and to the general public.

There is an abundance of studies of the doctrinal aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, yet comparatively little work has been done on how Buddhism was lived by monks in the various monastic centers that once existed across Tibet. The details of, for example, the process of how one became a monk, what the young novice’s life was like, and how one progressed through the monastic education system are not widely known. With only a few exceptions, no outsider was interested in this kind of thing when the institutions of Buddhism existed in Tibet—and now these institutions are gone or have been radically transformed by the fifty-year-old Chinese occupation. The life stories of those who were monastics and lamas in Tibet at this time are vital resources for preserving this knowledge.

There are now several wonderful biographies and autobiographies in English of lamas who spent much of their lives in Tibet prior to 1959, including those of Lobsang Gyatso, Dezhung Rinpoché, Geshé Rabten, Chögyam Trungpa, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoché, Dudjom Rinpoché, Arjia Rinpoché, Chagdud Tulku, Drikung Chetsang Rinpoché, Palden Gyatso, and the Dalai Lama himself. Geshé Sopa’s story covers some of the same ground as these other accounts, but it is also unique in that it includes an account of a young monk at Shang Ganden Chönkhor Monastery. This Geluk monastery was one of several that were converted to the Geluk sect from the Kagyü during the reign of the Fifth Dalai Lama. While much of the way of life and education system is similar to that of the three large monasteries of the Lhasa area, there is also much that is unique, and it is recounted here from the perspective of a child and young man taking his early steps on the path of the Geluk scholar monk. The emphasis on the education system of the monastery carries over to Geshé-la’s discussion of his time at Sera Jé. We thus have in this story a thorough firsthand account of the monastic education system in Tibet prior to the Chinese takeover in 1959.

This is neither a disciple’s account of his saintly teacher’s life nor an example of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist genre of the full-liberation story (namthar), a Buddhist master’s account of his realizations. This book takes the form of a collaborative or “as-told-to” autobiography. My basic strategy in the interviewing process was to ask only open, general questions, allowing Geshé Sopa to determine how his story was ultimately to be told. This turned out to be very successful. On the first day we spent together, I came prepared with a long list of questions. Geshéla was more talkative than I had hoped and seemed to genuinely enjoy recounting stories about his childhood. By about the third day, I arrived to find that Geshé-la had written out a list of things he wanted to talk about. Each day after this, Geshé-la was always prepared with what he called his “homework.”

The interviews took place over a number of summers, for a week or two each visit. All the sessions were recorded. After listening to each day’s recording, I asked follow-up questions the next day. After completing the first draft of the narrative, I read the entire draft to Geshé-la, and he clarified what was unclear and corrected what was incorrect. It was immensely satisfying to watch Geshé-la sitting on the edge of his seat listening to his own story. The process of editing and re-reading portions of the text has now been repeated numerous times.

Geshé-la’s spoken English can be a bit difficult to understand for those unaccustomed to it. This necessitated a rather significant amount of participation on my part in the formation of the final narrative, and I hope I have accurately recorded the story of Geshé Sopa’s life. Having known Geshé Sopa for twenty years, during which time I have studied Tibetan culture, language, and Buddhism with him, I am likely as suited to my role in this project as nearly anyone could be.

We have utilized Wisdom Publications’ system for most Tibetan names and terms. This system has the advantage of rendering Tibetan words pronounceable while allowing those who know Tibetan to infer the actual Tibetan spellings. There are, however, a number of exceptions, in deference to familiar usage and the names of published authors. A table at the back lists Wylie transliteration for many of the most important names and terms. A map identifying many of the key locations mentioned in the text is found in the photographic section.

Paul Donnelly

 

How to cite this document:
© Geshe Lhundup Sopa, Like a Waking Dream (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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