Gelek Rimpoche, October 29, 2009
Q. As I read about you on the website, a couple of questions came to me.
A. OK. To be honest with you, I don’t even know who wrote it on my website and what they wrote. I have no idea.
Q. You spent your youth at Drepung Monastery.
Q. Is it in Lhasa?
A. It is near Lhasa, about six miles west of Lhasa, and when I was there, it was pre-Communist-takeover, before 1959. My experience in Drepung was mostly late-Forties and the early Fifties. So that was a city of its own. We call it monastery, but it [is] so like a city. It has over ten thousand monk in that monastery. It is like little city, and it has its own little sections…sections of, you know, sort of segment of a group of monks. So basically there’s four segment, and two are huge, two are very small. Two are huge…my segment belongs to the west side of the monastery, which is largest of all. But probably be six, seven thousand monks, my segment. It is really a city of its own.
Q. I wondered what it like and what was the physical setting—was it on the side of a mountain?
A. Yeah, it is the foothills of a big, important mountain in Tibet. The important mountain is perhaps one of the tallest mountain in the center Tibet, one of the tallest mountain in the center Tibet. It is a huge, tall mountain in the center, and the little hills are going right and left. Then there’s a foothill valley, is where the monastery is located, in the valley between the right and the left hills. And in the center at the back there’s a huge, high mountain.
Q. When you think about the years you spent there, I assume, you’re talking about late-Forties, so you were eight years old?
A. Eight, nine—to nineteen.
Q. You recall that as a happy, tranquil time?
A. Very, very, very happy, tranquil a time. The life in the monastery is, I think, it’s very great. Life in the monastery is very great. Although in the West when you say a monastery you may think everybody eat together, live together, but the monastery where I had been, it has a life of its own and every individual, groups, all, one or two, the monks have its own little kitchen, its own little cooking system. It’s almost like a life, full life. Yeah.
Q. Independent existence?
A. Quite independent existence, as well as general set-up, too. Because the general set-up is, normally they give you cheese, soup, et cetera, is available, they have for everybody. One to four cups of tea is available, one or two bowls of soups available. But it might not necessarily be the best quality you wanted. So a lot of individual cookings are there, so much so that there is very little people will be eating in general. [Laughs.] So that’s what I say there’s a life of its own, it have everything there. So when you cook yourself, you have to arrange your own materials, too. So that means fuel, too, food, everything’s your responsib[ility] when you’re privately cooking.
Q. Aside from your spiritual learning at that age, were you also learning academic subjects?
A. It’s mostly academic subject. Academic subject we learn [unintelligible]. It’s a very ancient Buddhist, Indian Buddhist philosophical subject, such as metaphysics, or wisdom, compassion, and discipline, and logic. The five famous subject are taught in addition to prayers and chantings and so forth.
Q. What about your English? When did you learn English?
A. Only in the United States.
Q. Oh, really? Even when you were in India you did not know—
A. Very little. Very little. Even now I consider myself, my English is a street language, honestly. I’ve not been in school at all. It’s a street language. And Sesame Street—
Q. That kind of street language?
A. And Days of our Lives.
Q. Really? I used to work on that show. [Turns off tape recorder to tell of experience holding cue cards on the soap opera in Burbank, 1979 to 1982.]
A. When I first came into the Unites States—
Q. Which was what year?
A. Eighty-eight. The first visit I came eighty-four, and I came in eighty-six. But I literally moved here in eighty-seven, eighty-eight. When I came to visit, I don’t have a work to do, so I look at [Days character] Victor Kiriakis…the characters and their compositions, I listened to them, so you’re involved with them. And really, it’s a great help for me to pick up language and the culture, too.
Q. Sesame Street you say that you watched?
A. Yeah, a little bit. Not all the time. I watched Victor Kiriakis more than Sesame Street.
Q. Were you here in Ann Arbor in 1988? This was the first place you settled in the United States.
A. First place I came…but I was in Texas in 1977, in Arlington, Texas, for about seven, eight months.
A. Yeah. There was a healer, and a very good healer, no doubt. As a person he’s a little crazy. Almost like unstable person. So he wanted me to come over and teach and for three or four months, some people are translating for me. He was trying to set up a little institute. He’s a very good healer. He had very strong support of a lot of wealthy people, but he’s not good administrator or manager. So he wouldn’t manage. And then I went back, and he [says], “You know what, we don’t get anything.” [Laughs.} Because he had nothing. And he used to say [whispers], “I have a lot of money under my bed.” We looked and it was seven hundred dollars or so. Yeah. So he tried to make institute and doesn’t work that way. He’s very good healer. He heals people extremely well. He charges tremendous amount of money for the healing—tremendous amount! He work only three days month. [Unintelligible] people don’t come, say, “I’m out of money.” [Laughs.]
Q. Let me ask about your leaving Tibet to go to India. Was it a dangerous passage to India in 1959?
A. No doubt.
Q. Tell me one or two things about that, please?
A. Oh, when I was leaving, I left my monastery and crossed the mountain, two or three mountains, and reached to a place where one of my estate is. And when I reach there the public in that area would not allow me to go, saying, “Your parents is not here, you’re young”—I’m nineteen years old—“you shouldn’t leave.” And every time I try to leave, then there were twenty, thirty, forty people [in the road?] and block me.
Q. Some of them blocked you?
A. Twenty, thirty, forty people. They kept on begging me not to go—very nicely, begging me not to go. Then one of them noticed there’s a danger from the Chinese. Then they let me go.
Q. Was this at the frontier between Tibet and—
A. No, no, no, no. It was only a one-day journey. Probably twenty-five, thirty miles.
Q. Were you on foot?
A. Yes. Twenty-five, thirty miles. Maybe a little more. A few miles more. Definitely below fifty miles anyway. So we have one estate of our own. So they won’t let me go at all. I was hoping to get some horses from the estate. And finally they let me go—no horses. But then in the evening, later in the night, whatever the horses [unintelligible], four or five, and a couple of mules, and they catch up with me. That’s how I left.
Q. So you were walking at night through the mountains?
A. Right, right, right.
Q. You crossed the border from Tibet into India?
A. Yes. That was also mountains. That was at midnight—past midnight to cross Indian border. This is a month later since I left my home.
Q. It took a month? In between times you stayed at—
A. Different areas.
Q. With families?
A. Some families. I think people know us. So everywhere we’ve been, wherever we go, people make arrangements.
Q. I see. Did you have a different way of dressing from the average person, so that it was obvious you were—
A. This is a small area, and everybody knows who it is. That’s how—you don’t have to write a book, Who’s Who, because everybody knows who’s who. Very small community.
Q. You spent nearly twenty years in India [actually nearly thirty].
A. Yes. India and other countries.
Q. It’s almost like your life is divided into three segments.
A. Yes, twenty years in Tibet, twenty years in India, twenty years in United States—thirty years now [twenty is more correct]—and then whatever the remaining I have still, making extension. Hopefully there’s another twenty years.
Q. Tell me a bit about your life in Ann Arbor.
A. You know I came here first on the invitation of two students from the U of M.
Q. Sandy Finkel and Ora Glasser?
A. Yeah. So I stayed with them. They hosted me. I stayed with them together for—we stayed together for a couple of years, actually. She had house and share everything. When I say everything, I mean kitchen. [Laughs.]
Q. I understand. The communal areas.
A. Yeah, sort of communal area. Yeah. For a while. And then I’ve been able to buy a house in Ann Arbor because of a student-slash-friend of mine from Malaysia paid to [unintelligible] a house where we were renting, bought and paid house where we were renting.
Q. For you?
A. For me. So I was in Ann Arbor on Cherry Street for a while. And then I moved to the present house. Again, another [unintellibible] for this big a house, they came to visit and they thought it was too small for me. So they wanted me to sell the house, and at last they paid more money on top, bought and paid the house what I’m living today.
Q. And where is that?
A. It’s in Ypsilanti—Ypsi Township.
Q. How long have you lived in Ypsilanti Township?
A. Nineteen ninety-four, I moved. During that period, we started Jewel Heart, both Sandy and Ora and me, and a woman named Ruby Webber. Four of us. Ruby, Sandy, Ora, and me, we started Jewel Heart.
Q. Do you ever ask yourself, “If I had been born here in Ann Arbor, what would I be doing today?”
A. No, I don’t. I do not, because I was not born here anyway. So I don’t think about that. [He goes on with previous strand and mentions that Allen Ginsberg and Phillip Glass helped to start Jewel Heart.]
Q. I’ve been aware of them. So it’s been a successful endeavor?
A. Yes. Because we started at Jewel Heart with a good motivation for serving people, whatever little I know about Buddhist teaching, and to share that with the people—not to convert people in Buddhism but the good aspects of Buddhist teaching such as compassion and wisdom and morality and generosity and patience and concentration or meditation. And those I’ve tried to share to the service of the people. I consider United States as a home—a home away from home. So this is what little my contribution [is] to the people in the United States, people in the world, people in the United States and particularly people in Michigan—and Ann Arbor, Michigan. We started this organization with zero money. Actually, we started this organization with a penny less, truly speaking. At that time Ruby had some money—some money, meaning $200. People write in the newspaper “some money,” people will think about a thousand, you know. [She had] a couple of extra hundred dollars available and she utilized that. So we really started with a penny less. And now you know the organization became OK by itself. We have a couple of people working here—four, five, people, five, six, or seven, I think—paid people who work here, including myself. And people work here with an under million-dollar-a-year budget.
Q. A hundred million dollars a year?
A. Under. [Laughs.]
Q. There’s a big difference.
A. Under a million-dollar organization. So far, because of the kindness of the people, we never went in debt. We’re not in debt—true nonprofit. Nothing will be left at the end of the year [laughs], but true nonprofit. We owe nothing to anybody, except our house mortgage. We were in the downtown in Washington Street a while. It was great, and the people of Ann Arbor are so kind, so open, they really accepted up with open arms, and no one really looked at us as these strange Asian, what are you doing here? And then we somehow, that house is not suitable for us: (a) historic home and (b) it’s three story, you couldn’t utilize two upper stories, and I thought we were not doing justice for the place nor the place doing justice for us. So we sold it. We sold it and bought this.
Q. When was that?
A. Only last year, I think.
Q. In 2008?
A. 2007, I think. We utilized all the space, what we have. We lost a little bit store business, unfortunately. But then the store is actually to serve the membership, their spiritual needs [unintelligible]. It’s not really an open store. So it’s OK. Although we wish we had more business. But that’s fine.
Q. I see that you have two books published by major New York publishing houses. That must be satisfying as well.
A. I owe them three more books. I taking advance already and not giving the book yet. They’re chasing me.
Q. Last thing—
A. [He mentions that the Dalai Lama has come twice to Ann Arbor with the help the University of Michigan—the second time particularly.]
Q. I’m wondering about your reaction to the celebration of your seventieth birthday.
A. I think the people are very kind. I went to New York; they celebrated in New York. And then I went to Florida [to] a group of Vietnamese to give them teaching—they invited me and I went there—
End of Side A
Q. So, just a word about what’s in store for your future. Are you in good health?
A. I’m not in good health. I’m a sick old man, honestly. But I don’t have aches and pains. And I don’t have a disadvantage on my mind. And whatever little I can serve the people, I will continue until I get a collapse.
Q. So you’ll work until you collapse?
A. Yeah. I’ll work until I collapse or until I cannot work. And that’s what I’ll do.