The Rare Opportunity of Learning from A Geshe
Article & Interview
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Charleston Tibetan Society is extremely fortunate to have the privilege to host the Venerable Geshe Dakpa Topgyal. Geshe Topgyal holds the degree of "Geshe," the highest earned degree in the Buddhist system of higher spiritual education. Geshe-la (this is the correct form of address, signifying, "Honored Geshe") is on the faculty of the Drepung Loseling Monastic University. This is the largest of all Buddhist monasteries in the world, and, for the last 500 years, one of the greatest institutions of higher education in Asia. The graduates of Drepung Loseling have been, and continue to be, the intellectual leaders of the Buddhist world.

Among the numbers of distinguished Geshes in the world, Geshe Dakpa Topgyal is uniquely qualified to teach in Charleston and the rest of the Western world. This is because Geshe-la speaks English and has broad experience and understanding of the Western world. He traveled throughout this country as the official interpreter of the Drepung Loseling 1993-94 World Tour. As native English-speakers, we sometimes take the ability to speak English for granted. It is useful to consider the extreme rarity of English language skills among those who, like Geshe-la, have devoted their entire lives to mastering the vast and profound sciences of Buddhism in their canonical languages. Before the mid-twentieth century, there were no Tibetan Geshes who spoke English, and there are only a handful of English-speaking Geshes in the world today.

Now that one of these rare teachers is among us, how do we best use the opportunity to benefit ourselves and our community? For those who view, or would like to view Geshe-la as a "Lama" (i.e., spiritual teacher) or who wish to learn of the spiritual and philosophical treasures of Buddhism several points may be worth considering.

Requesting Teachings

Among his many wonderful qualities, Geshe-la is very approachable. He is available for classes and a variety of meditations and retreats. When speaking with Geshe-la it is helpful to consider that Tibetans in general and Lamas like Geshe-la in particular tend to be very patient and agreeable. He is likely to give teachings in response to any sincere request but the initiative must come from the disciple. In the Buddhist tradition, a teacher is required to wait for openness and sincerity on the part of the disciple rather than imposing teachings upon unwilling listeners. The individual and community relies upon the Lama to give whatever is most suited and beneficial. Insight into disciples spiritual needs is an essential part of a Lama's particular expertise.

Geshe-la is a great treasury of the vast wisdom of the Buddha and of the lineage of Lamas of India and Tibet. Understanding him as a precious resource and an ideal spiritual friend, we may begin to take advantage of this special opportunity during his visit to Charleston by accustoming ourselves to some of the basic principles of Buddhist tradition. This includes an understanding of the physical and mental postures or orientations necessary for effective engagement in meditation practices.

Physical and Mental Posture For Meditation

When we engage in any type of formal meditation, there are certain standard practices we should consider. It may be valuable to consider these suggestions as a way to approach Buddhist practice, but we should always ask Geshe-la for his guidance in understanding and refining these practices to suit our individual and collective needs.

Effective practice of Buddhist meditation requires proper physical and mental posture. Buddhism accepts no ultimate distinction between physical and mental realities. The mind is closely affected by the attitudes and postures of the body and the body reflects the attitudes and postures of the mind.

Physical Posture

When entering the meditation room, cultivate a realization that you are entering a sacred space different from the ordinary world. Remove your shoes before entering. Face the Lama and the altar, try to avoid turning your back toward them. Sit with your legs crossed, if possible. Otherwise sit in a chair. Never extend your legs in the direction of the Lama and the altar, or toward any object of reverence (images, icons, thankas, etc.). If your legs become too uncomfortable to continue sitting it is always better to stand up or extend your legs to the side rather towards the altar.

Consider all texts containing meditation instructions, images of Buddhas or prayers to be sacred objects. Show reverence by never allowing them to touch the ground. Place them on their own table or stand during meditation and store them in a high place such as an upper shelf.

The seven-fold Vairocana position (sapta vairocanadharma) is universally recommended for the practice of meditation. This is the position of the Buddha in mediation:

The mind follows the posture of the body. When you become accustomed to this posture you can sit for an extended period with the mind calm and alert.

Mental Posture

Your mental posture or motivation must accord with one of the three levels of Buddhist religious practice.

As you recite the words of the meditation, it is essential that you make them come alive through lucid visualization. Skill in visualization can take time and effort to develop. Never recite the words mechanically. Always try to increase the clarity of your visualization of the Buddha or Bodhisattvas or the field of refuge (according to the instructions given by the Lama or in the text).

The implications of the Buddha's teaching (Dharma) are inconceivably profound. The lack of any ultimate distinction between the physical and the mental is the basis of the power of Buddhist meditation. Skilled meditators (yogis) gain the ability to transform their pure visualizations into pure realities. The ordinary world becomes the pure land of the Buddha. The cycle of birth and death (samsara) becomes undifferentiated from liberation (nirvana). The illusions of the world fall away and Buddhahood is attained.

Contributed by Robert W. Clark , Visiting Professor

Philosophy Department, College of Charleston, 1996

top of page

 Enlightening the Holy City  

A Conversation in 1997 with the
Venerable Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

By Jeff Schwaner        Used by permission

<-- back

You may have seen him taking his daily walks downtown, or sitting in Eleven Llamas Cafe on Broad Street. Wearing his traditional monk's robes of maroon, he stands out among the lawyers and business people hurrying on their ways. For most of 1996 (and now much of 1997), Geshe Dakpa Topgyal has been in Charleston, as a guest of the Charleston Tibetan Society, where he has been teaching Lam-Rim meditation to members of the community. The word "Geshe" signifies the highest earned degree in the Buddhist system of spiritual education. Geshe Topgyal, or Geshe-La (the correct form of address meaning "Honored Geshe"), is one of the few Tibetan Geshes who speaks English. His travels have taken him throughout Europe and the United States, both as a scholar and interpreter.

I first met Geshe-la one Monday night at my house, where he'd been invited over for dinner by my house mate. While she was preparing dinner, he politely watched TV with me. Up till then, he'd been pretty quiet. I was watching Monday Night Football, and we began to discuss the difference between American football and international football. At one point he asked me what teams were playing. "The Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers," I told him. The Steelers scored a touchdown just then to take a commanding lead, and Geshe-la flashed a smile at me. " You like... the Steelers?"

"No," I said, trying to remain neutral. "I like the Bills."

"Ah," he said, looking at the score. "Ah, ha ha. Ha, ha ha," and the smile widened as he began to laugh.

One of the concepts of Buddhism least comparable to much Western religion is that of karma. It's the idea that explains the interdependence of all things, that differentiates between pure causation and the reason why things occur, and that posits the effect one may have on one's surroundings and community through both peace and presence. We have all met people whose presence was calming and positive and mindful; and this is the effect Geshe-la has had on those fortunate to have met him during his stay in Charleston.

Geshe-la leaves Charleston in mid December to teach in France, and return to the Drepung Loseling Monastic University, the largest of all Buddhist monasteries in the world. But he hopes to return in the late spring to begin teaching again, and the Charleston Tibetan Society hopes to create a Tibetan Cultural Center in the area to respond to the increasing public interest in Tibetan Buddhism, the history of Tibetan culture, and to increase mutual understanding among the various religions of the world.

I spoke with Geshe-la recently, and hope his humor and patience with my questions shows clearly on paper as it did in person.

The Interview:

Jeff : How did you become a monk?

Geshe Topgyal:
There are two different ways, or two different types, of ordination. One we call the ge-tsul in Tibetan, which means the novice; and one the ge-long, which means the full ordained monk.

So at ten you were a novice.

So I spent twelve years as a novice. And I took thirty six precepts. Then when I was twenty two, I became a full ordained monk.

What are the precepts?

Oh, there are many precepts. For the novice, there are thirty six precepts. For the full ordained monk there are two hundred and fifty three precepts. But, there are four root precepts for every monk and the nuns as well. These root precepts are: not killing, not stealing, not lying, no sex. These four are called the four root precepts. Those who break one of these root precepts, they will be immediately kicked out from the monastery. No longer members of the monastery. And once they break one of these root precepts, they cannot become a monk again.

So if you leave the monastery to get married, you could not go back to become a monk.

No. You could still be a spiritual master or teacher, but no longer a monk. This, I think, is very different from other Christian religions.

So there are two hundred and fifty three precepts...

Yes four root precepts, and thirteen remainder precepts, which are the second most important precepts; and the rest are minor precepts.

What are some of the minor precepts?

Oh, the minor ones - not allowed to keep gold and jewels; not allowed to use perfumes...

Are the precepts generally structured on that form, to refrain from doing this or that?

Yes yes yes.

The general purpose being... to direct oneself towards some sort of clarity?

Yes. The Buddhist needs self discipline. Moral discipline is the universal ground for one's spiritual development. Therefore, all these precepts of the monks and nuns are parts of the moral life which facilitates them to engage in religious practice. So that one is able to develop inner spiritual realization.

Let's get an understanding of what your title means.

Geshe is kind of the equivalent degree of the Ph.D. here. I received my Geshe title at the end of '89. Before receiving my Geshe degree, I was appointed by the monastery as the research assistant with many of the European professors and scholars.

Because of your facility with English...

Yes. Ten or fifteen monks understand English out of two thousand five hundred.

And how many of those are Geshes?

Very few, very few. And then I became good friends with many of the visiting professors, and after that they asked our monastery to let me come and teach, and help in their research program, and giving talks at universities and colleges. I started traveling in Western countries in 1987. And every year since 1987 I've been to mostly Europe - Germany, Austria and France, and sometimes Hungary. Then I started traveling in the United States in 1993.

And how old are you know?

One hundred and one. (Laughs) I'm thirty six.

And your birthday is...

Oh yes! (More laughs) My birthday, is , uh... everyday is my birthday. Because, ninety nine percent of Tibetans have no idea what their date of birth is. So you know, I don't have a date of birth; so I started creating my own date of birth (for his passport, etc.) And I chose April 12.

And why did you choose that, do you remember?

Oh, I like it.

It's not necessary to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness, right?

No, no. It is not necessary to become a Buddhist. Being a Hindu or being a Christian, you can enjoy many of the Buddhist teachings, such as mindfulness and meditation.

How would you define mindfulness?

Mindfulness means: bringing all mental energy - mental focus, attention - to one point of view, without and disturbance. Mindfulness means not allowing one's mind to chase freely after the objects of the five senses, and so on.

What are "sentient beings"?

Sentient beings are not only living beings - living being includes all kinds of flowers and plants and so on - but those living beings who have the capacity to experience joy, happiness, suffering and unhappiness. So in that case, every living being, including the smallest insect, and the fish, they are included within the idea of sentient being. And from the Buddhist point of view, it is very important to respect all kinds of living beings, and even respect the interests and the welfare of even the fish, and the smallest insect. Because we Buddhists believe that every sentient being is sacred and precious. Because every sentient being equally carries the seeds of the Buddha, which we call the Buddha nature. So therefore every living being has the capacity to become a true enlightened being, not only the humans. So there is no distinction at all between the human being and the other beings, like the small insect.

So the Buddha nature is in all sentient beings, right?

Yes

And by practicing mindfulness, that is the way to reach one's Buddha nature.

Yes

The Buddha that most people recognize as "The Buddha" was actually not the first Buddha.

Shakyamuni (known as the prince Siddhartha before he achieved Buddhahood), was actually the fourth Buddha, who appeared on the earth about 2,500 years ago.

One of the Noble Truths states that the earth is full of suffering. And one meditates to escape suffering. Yet meditation is also done "for the sake of all sentient beings." If one successfully achieves, through their meditation, the end of their suffering, how can they be staying mindful of other sentient beings?

In Buddhism, there are two different schools, one of which is called the Mahayana, the Upper School or the Theravada or Hinayana, the Lower School. Those who are practicing Mahayana, the main ingredients of their meditation are love and compassion, and generating the very special, extraordinary unusual attitude. On the other hand, those who are practicing according to the Lower School, the Theravada teachings, then, the main ingredients of the practice of their meditation is not the love and compassion, but the mind of renunciation. The renunciation doesn't mean that physically one should separate from all kinds of material things, but a kind of mental quality or mental attitude, free from impulsive clinging to all forms of material possessions, wealth, positions of power, and so on. And then, purely seeking, searching, looking to liberate oneself from the cyclic existence of samsara (the "ocean of sorrow," the word for this existence). But still their motivation, their compassion, the energy of their meditation is still working, still functioning.

But they're free from suffering themselves?

Oh Yes

In Christian thought, we don't deal with the issue of karma, but is this where karma becomes an issue? In the effect an enlightened person has on other people, his community, etc? It goes beyond their simple day to day actions...

Oh yes, yes, beyond their day to day actions... and from life to life, as well. So since a Buddhist does not believe in a God as a creator; and this is a difference, the main difference, between Buddhism and other religions. But Buddhists believe in the concept of karma or the karmic evolution. So every experience, and every event, all kinds of happiness and unhappiness, all kinds of desirable things, are the results of the projection of one's karma.

Now, karma means action; actually, there are two different kinds of karma. One is positive karma, and one is negative karma. And negative karma always produces the unpleasant things and the undesirable things, and unhappiness, and pain and suffering. Positive karma produces good results, pleasant, desirable things, and happiness, and so on. Since the karma is action, so every action has to come from our body, speech, or mind. Therefore Buddhism is always cultivation mindfulness; so that once a person is good enough in the practice of the mindfulness, she or he is always able to be vigilant, and always able to be watchful of his body, speech, and mind. In that way one is able to stop oneself from indulging in the wrong actions, and one is able to engage in the positive actions. Whatever action arises from our body and speech, such as killing, stealing, and so on, the very subtle action of killing lays something like an egg, or imprint, on the continuity of our mind or mental consciousness. The subtle mental consciousness, or the subtle mind, flows from life to life without changing its quality, without interruption. So then this subtle mind carries the karmic imprint from life to life, goes on producing the unpleasant or pleasant. There's a Tibetan saying that goes: "If a father drinks a lot of salty water, his son will be thirsty." So the function of karma is something like that.

So your karma is always kind of a sum-total of all your actions, and your thoughts...

Yes

... And it changes every moment, as you are considering and acting...

Oh yes! Changing, changing...

But it doesn't necessarily contain the memory of all the lives you have gone through...

No, no, no. But it contains the imprints...

... Of the things you have done...

Yes

I remember showing you this book last week, that the physicist wrote about the soul and the spirit (The Spiritual Universe, By Fred Alan Wolf), and in the body of the introduction, he wrote that Buddha never saw a difference between soul and self. Is that correct?

Actually, the word soul is very Christian, and so in a Buddhist teaching we don't have the word that is the equivalent to soul. Because it is very difficult to say, firstly, and to understand it, what the soul means. And without having a proper understanding about the soul, then it's hard to say. When I was in Europe, several times I discussed this with many of the Catholic priests, what was the meaning of the soul. But, you know, no one has a definite understanding of it, or a definite meaning. Each one has their own definition. But it's very difficult to answer in terms of Buddhism.

But generally, Christians believe you have one life, and then it's over. So the idea of soul is very tied to a sense of what self is. Or to put it more simply, to your ego, to your personal desires, ambitions, etc.; and looking at self like that, the subtle mind really goes beyond something like that...

Yes. The subtle mind is beginningless and endless.

What do you think are some of the biggest impediments to Americans living mindful lives?

Many people think that mindfulness can only be cultivated by someone who can spend their time in the mountains, and do not think mindfulness can be cultivated in the city. This is not true. I think the practice of mindfulness is very very important. The practice of mindfulness is very good if people can start early, in their high schools and colleges.

The meditation method you've been teaching in your class is Shamata. Can you explain that a little?

Yeah. Shamata meditation is very, very simple meditation, and very good and unique. And every person can practice this Shamata meditation. And I think that Shamata really helps for people living in this computer age and in this technological age. Many people have psychological problems, and meditation can really help those people who have psychological problems. And I don't think that the Shamata meditation is a purely religious concept. It's kind of, you know, a mental science, to improve the inner quality of one's mind and attitude. So this is very important for every human being. So if we are to build a very healthy mind, the healthy mind always produces the healthy action. So this is also very beneficial in the life of the society and the community.

The essential technique of the Shamata meditation is to free one's mind of all kinds of negative thoughts, all kinds of discursive and distracting thoughts. Once the mind is free of these thoughts, the mind becomes relaxed, it relaxes, calm, quiet, at peace. And this allows for the individual person to experience the inner joy. Therefore the positive aspects of the Shamata can be enjoyed by a single person. Shamata meditation is also an inner technique, not only to improving the quality of one's mind, but controlling one's mind from constantly chasing after the objects of the five senses. And then, once we are able to control one's mind - so far, we probably we are probably controlled by our minds - through meditation techniques, we are able to take control over our mind in the right way.

Okay. So how do you do it? What's the essential technique of the meditation?

Actually, there are many different ways, but the most suitable way for everyone to start practicing the Shamata meditation is, first, sit in a quiet place. And then, sit on a cushion. And then, try to determine if one's sitting position is comfortable or not. And then try to forget all our work, projects, plans that are in front of us. Try to stop one's mind from chasing the objects of the five senses. Now, it is very possible that though our mind is not chasing the objects of the five senses, that it is very much still full of different images, which we call the nangi-yengwa, which means the inner chit chat, or inner conversation. And then, we try to draw the brain's energy, all the mental energy further inward, focus one's mind on one's breath.

And then, not only try to focus on one's breath, but try to maintain a full alertness, and awareness. While you're inhaling, be aware that you are inhaling, and count "one." Then when are exhaling, try to be aware that you are exhaling, and then count "two." In that way, one goes on inhaling and exhaling, you count from "one" to "nine," and then reach back from counting from number "nine" to "one." And if you can go on in that way, with your counting, then you are definitely able to reach a certain degree of concentration.

And the second type is a little more subtle. You need an object, the object of meditation. In the beginning, consciously, after removing all disturbing thoughts out of one's mind, and bringing all mental energy more inward, consciously generating all mental energy, focused on a dingle object.

The object of meditation can be anything - the image of Buddha, or the image of Jesus Christ, or the sun setting over the ocean. This type of object of meditation is a mental object; it is not necessary to have some solid object in front of you...

It doesn't have to be something you're looking at...

No, because it's just a mental object. While you're removing all disturbing images from your mind, it allows you to hold one's mental image within one's mind without any distraction.

And what are the other benefits, besides that focus and concentration?

Ah, there are many, many. By practicing that way, eventually we will achieve two inner qualities of mind: the perfect mental stability, and the perfect mental clarity. And these two qualities of mind, which the normal person cannot access - that kind of mental quality gives us very subtle energy, or one could say, a very subtle mental capacity, which helps us to see the ultimate reality of every phenomena.

And then secondly, it helps us to make a very strong connection between our deepest measure of mind where one can really reach deep deep levels of mental quality. It allows us naturally to experience joy, calm, quiet, and harmony, balance within oneself, and as well with the external material world.

But it also has a resonance in the quality of your karma?

Oh yes yes.

Is there a best time to meditate?

Buddhists are taught about the relationship between the mind and the body. So, the state of mind affects the body; and also the state of body affects the mind. For example, when we eat very heavy food - and also this depends on our normal ways of life; if one eats less, or stays up very late in the night, sleeping few hours, then due to lack of efficient sleep that we need for the body, it also causes a sense of heaviness in the mind, which can lead to a mental drowsiness and sleepiness and mental slackness. So although one is practicing meditation, the mind becomes slack, so there is no freshness or alertness in the mind. This slackness can be caused by lack of sleep, or eating heavy food. And also there are other very subtle causes of mental drowsiness.

The best time for meditation is early in the morning, before breakfast, and also before sunrise; and then in the evening, just before sunset. These two specific times have a special relationship to our minds. It helps us to keep our mind more fresh. Energy that allows us to bring all our mental energy pointedly and focused on a single object without distraction. As long as we meditate in that way, the mind keeps fresh, from deep down, free from mental drowsiness, and also free from inner and outer distraction.

And as far as the length of time...

Oh, the length of time actually depends on the individual. For the beginners, the best time is ten minutes. Because it's good to choose a better quality of meditation over the length of time one meditates.

And how long before a beginner might start to notice a bit of a difference in their meditation practice, if one keeps at it faithfully?

Those who are practicing regularly, at the same time each day, on the same object of meditation - if they practice in that way, then after two months, that's when the practitioner can see much difference between their mind after the two months and what it was like before the two months. One can see the state of mind or mental quality.

Additional info:

For further information on Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism, contact the Charleston Tibetan Society.

Geshe-la recommends these books

Upon attaining enlightenment, Buddha began to teach about the impermanence of things. He did this by introducing the Four Noble Truths, which outline his discovery of the nature of existence, and the Eightfold Path, which directs us toward enlightenment through meditation and mindful action. This is just the outline of the teachings, but it gives one an idea of some of the groundwork for Buddhism.

The Four Noble Truths:

The Truth of Suffering

The Truth of the Origin of Suffering

The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering

The Truth of the Path Leading to Cessation

The Eightfold Path:

Perfect View

Perfect Intention

Perfect Speech

Perfect Action

Perfect Livelihood

Perfect Effort

Perfect Mindfulness

Perfect Meditative Stabilization

top of page