Like a Waking Dream: The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa

Reviewed by Daniel Porada

Abstract:
Geshé Lhundup Sopa’s autobiography combines rich, touching personal detail with a comprehensive chronological review of his academic and spiritual lineage in the service of painting an extraordinarily humble and human picture of one of the most influential 20th century Western figures of Tibetan Buddhism. Sopa is able to give an astonishingly vivid depiction of not only what daily life was like for a Tibetan monk in the relatively normal years leading up to this event, but also the experience of being forced alongside many of his peers into exile. His periodic interjection of witty commentary allows the reader to get a very good sense of Sopa’s personality by the end of the work, but more critically allows the author to unobtrusively color the facts of his own experience with his opinion and generalize the events of his life for pedagogical purposes. Always willing to admit his own ignorance when it exists and reticent to accept any responsibility for the successes of his life beyond attributing them to his karmic state, Sopa’s own life and his outlook on it provide a compelling demonstration of how Tibetan Buddhist practice and theory can be seamlessly integrated into 20th and 21st century life, while simultaneously criticizing certain elements of Western culture as they appear from his insightful perspective as an outsider.

Dorje Tsering was born in a water pig year (1923) to a family of poor farmers with only half a kang to their name, though he was fascinated by the idea of monasticism from a very early age – indeed, after travelling as a child to one of the region’s larger cities to witness a religious festival, he took this inspiration and returned to his home village of Phordok where he promptly organized all of the children of the village into seated rows and sternly admonished them for speaking out of turn or fidgeting, as he had seen the monks do. He had several moments in his early life that he in retrospect muses may have been far more significant than he was able to perceive at that time, including one episode which he believes may have given a clue as to his previous incarnation – while out with his mother one day, he pointed down into a nearby valley at the house of a noble family and insisted that it was time for him to go visit his “blueish-gray horse,” though his parents never said anything of the matter to anyone due to their social status and nothing ultimately came of the episode. Later, while he was working in the field to herd his family’s cattle, he inadvertently wandered into a nearby monastery in pursuit of an errant cow and came across a “theurang,” a type of Tibetan spirit which was believed to be associated with dragons and thunderstorms. He suffered fairly extensive injuries in his swift flight away from the theurang (a flight which ended in a thorn bush at the bottom of a small cliff), and his wounds subsequently became so infected that his parents sought the assistance of a lama. This lama suggested that the only way he could possibly be cured of such a grievous affliction was to enter into a monastery and live a life dedicated to the pursuit of the Dharma, a proposition which his mother found utterly objectionable given that he was an only child. Luckily for Tsering (according to him), his father, while uneducated, was quite spiritual, and could read as well as recite the full text of The Liberation through Hearing in the Intermediate State (known in English as the Tibetan Book of the Dead), and so was quite open to the idea of having a monk as a son. Additionally, Tsering’s uncle Ashang was a dobdob monk and the tea master at Ganden Chönkor monastery, so Tsering was admitted at the age of 10, where he underwent the ceremonial hair shaving ritual and received the name of Lhundup Sopa.

The majority of the earlier portion of this work is devoted to extremely specific and detailed recollections of events and scenes from his childhood as a young Tibetan, which serve the dual purpose of establishing a strong sense of familiarity with the author for his candidness as well as providing a surprisingly vivid account of what life would have been like for the son of a farming family in the early 1900s in Tibet. His seemingly true-to-life recollections, combined with plenty of retrospective embellishments, of the sights, smells, and feelings he experienced as a young man firmly establish for the reader a sense of both place and time, and are so effective as to transport the reader entirely into the world of a young Dorje Tsering. The author is careful to limit the internal experiences he shares with the reader during this section to only those which would make sense for a child to have – that is to say, this section contains much less sociopolitical commentary and fewer keen observations on the true nature of the events as he is experiencing them than are to be found later on in the work. That being said, the voice of the author as an adult is not altogether absent in this section, though it is primarily deployed as a humorous tool to point out his own childhood follies.

Once at Ganden Chönkor, he spent much of his early monastic years studying and memorizing texts, a rigorous and highly academic process which he found to be so stressful and unpleasant that he actually ran away from the monastery back to his home shortly after arriving, but was sent back in short order by his parents. After this inauspicious start, Sopa’s uncle had words with his text teacher and asked him to slow down his lessons on Sopa’s behalf, after which point he quickly became one of the top students in the monastery. He easily and quickly passed his preliminary examinations to study at the Western Philosophy School of Ganden Chönkor, where he studied with both Lhündrup Mönlam and Gën Mönlam, who was at the time the dean of the Western School and therefore one of the best teachers in the monastery. This trajectory of academic excellence continued and resulted in his being offered the opportunity to travel to Será monastery in Lhasa, a significant move away from his family but one which would allow him to ultimately attain the academic degree of Geshé and to subsequently become the Ganden Throne Holder, the most prestigious position within the Geluk sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Once again despite his mother’s protestations at the immense distance he would be putting between the two of them by travelling to Lhasa, he bid her a farewell wherein he struggled to hold back his tears. Tears upon parting were considered to be an inauspicious omen which indicated that one was never going to see the person again, an omen which ultimately proved to be correct as he never again saw his mother alive, which he cites as being one of the more substantial regrets in his life. He continued to find great spiritual and academic success at Será, studying with many of the foremost teachers of the period and earning the title of rikchung at the age of 20, and shortly thereafter being named first rank among the rikchen candidates and the first in the karam class. A quote from Sopa summarizes his outlook in this period well – “If one did not put every effort into one’s studies, there were hardships at every step of the process.”

This section of the autobiography is characterized by what can be best described as the trials and tribulations of a young student struggling to meet immense academic demands, and he is unflinchingly honest in recounting the trepidation and discomfort he experienced as a result of the intensity of his studies, feelings which will certainly ring true for anyone who has experienced the traumatic transition to a new school with higher standards than those to which one is accustomed. His predominant preoccupation in this phase of his life was academic success and accomplishment, which is reflected by this section’s emphasis upon the particulars of the teachings he was receiving and the masters from whom he was receiving them, a focus which makes intuitive sense given the importance placed upon the academic and spiritual lineage by which one receives knowledge within the Tibetan Buddhist context. While his seeming pride and boastfulness at his great prowess in this section seem inconsistent with how the authorial Geshé Sopa chooses to present himself, it should be read, in my opinion, not as the voice of the author, but rather as the voice of the young Geshé Sopa of this period, whose thoughts and desires were primarily consumed by success and the attainment of the highest possible ranking and position and little else. The voice of the authorial Geshé Sopa manifests itself more subtly in this section – for instance, in the humorous account of the monastery-wide wave of panic surrounding a fictional monk with the hooves and teeth of a donkey named Bongbu Sotsik who supposedly terrorized the young initiates and abducted scholars in the night.

Unfortunately, this meteoric rise was cut short by the Chinese crackdowns of 1959 and the subsequent socio-political unrest this caused both in the capital city of Lhasa and in Será monastery itself – the situation became so grave that both the abbot and the abbot’s monastery manager were killed by monks, a fact which led Sopa to briefly return to his original monastery of Ganden Chönkor, but he returned to Será at the request of the Dalai Lama to become the tutor to Kamlung Rinpoché. It was while he was once again at Será that he received word that the Dalai Lama had left the Potala. He believes that he speaks for himself and the people of Tibet more generally when he says that he felt “the whole country had become empty” at this time, and this period of his life was marked by great unrest and discontent in Tibet as a whole which prevented him from being able to adequately pursue his studies – the adoption and promotion of the new Panchen lama as a figurehead by the Chinese coupled with the violent uprisings of the Khampa throughout the country resulted in a period of extreme instability, which adversely impacted Sopa’s ability to dedicate himself fully to his studies. The Dalai Lama ultimately made the decision to return to the Potala for the time being, and Sopa was allowed a brief moment of happiness in the midst of this otherwise extremely difficult portion of his life when he was elected to be one of the Dalai Lama’s examiners for the geshé degree, a nomination which reflects his superior academic ability and the esteem in which he was held by monks at Será and in the Geluk spiritual community as a whole. This moment was unfortunately fleeting, as the invitation by the Chinese to have the Dalai Lama attend a performance in Lhasa resulted in the murder of a labrang manager, and the subsequent bouts of violence and Chinese authoritarianism inspired the now-permanent flight of the Dalai Lama from the country of Tibet.

It is within this section that the autobiography begins to turn away from its almost exclusive focus on the experiences of the author to present accounts of extremely significant historical events from the perspective of an individual who experienced them. His descriptions of the constant anxiety and fear that gripped the Tibetan people and specifically the monastic community of which he was a part, even being forced to carry around a knife or a pistol as a monk to avoid being singled out by other Tibetans as “disloyal,” provide a chilling reminder of the ways in which humans as a whole behave when placed in such circumstances. The murder of the abbot at the hands of the monks is one of the most shocking passages in the entire work, and handily illustrates how serious the sociopolitical situation in Tibet was becoming at the time, remarkably without ever expressly condemning or faulting any party. His intense description of the experience of watching the Chinese forces bombard the monastery at night and send up signal flare after signal flare to illuminate the Tibetan forces for ease of targeting has a similarly engrossing effect as his description of his childhood, though it is in this case deployed in the service of conveying to the reader the feeling of fear and dread that Geshé Sopa and so many others in Tibet were forced to endure, and is remarkably effective at generating great sympathy in the reader for their plight without ever vilifying the Chinese forces. Geshé Sopa condemns both the Chinese and the Tibetans for what he perceives to be their complete and utter misapplication of religious practice during this period, saying “Religion should never be used to harm people or justify discrimination and hatred towards others” as a response to the animosity and suspicion that began to develop not only for the Chinese forces, but even among different sects of the Tibetan religion and monks at the monastery itself as a result of the events of this period.

Sopa made the decision to escape shortly thereafter, and fled from Lhasa by heading first to the Khamlung Hermitage near Phenpo, subsequently travelling to a place called Tsona to follow the same path that the Dalai Lama had taken out of the country – there were at this time two possible escape routes to India, and Sopa’s group took the safer but longer route which had been previously utilized by the Dalai Lama, which concluded in Tawang, a city in Northern India. This period of Sopa’s life was marked by extreme stress and despair at the realities of life in exile – one particularly poignant episode he recounts details the distribution of new clothes to the Tibetan refugees, and the fact that replacing their traditional chubas and monk’s robes with uniformly Indian garb made it impossible for anyone in the group to tell who was a monk anymore, or for that matter, who was a man and who was a woman.

This episode caused a tremendous deal of distress for all involved, and precipitates Sopa’s reminiscing that at this time, “the future was unknown, and the present was miserable.” Things began to get slightly better with the relocation of his group to Dalhousie, where he began to learn some of the Hindi language and customs from the local population, who he describes as welcoming and extremely friendly. Unfortunately, many of the Tibetans became extremely ill or passed away as a result of the markedly different living conditions that characterized Dalhousie – they were not used to the heat or the dirtiness of the water, and as a result, disease was very common among the refugee population. Several of the more senior relocated Tibetan religious officials established a cultural center at Buxaduar (known in English as Fort Buxa), a former British prison that once housed Gandhi, which was symbolically granted to the Tibetan people by the Indian minister Nehru as a kind of affirmation that they, like the Indian people, would regain their independence in time. Sopa describes this cultural center as being exceptionally unpleasant to the extent that some of the resident monks began to develop mental health problems – it was after all a prison – and the only time he was actually forced to spend any time there was for his geshé examination in 1962. It is at the same time that he received his geshé degree that he was strongly encouraged to go to America by the Dalai Lama as well as Trijang Rinpoche, another extremely influential figure, and he therefore accepted this charter and boarded an Air France flight to New York. After a series of exceptionally entertaining and well-recounted experiences on his flight to America, including one of the lamas who travelled with him riding the escalator in the airport up and down multiple times due to his intense fascination with the technology, Geshé Sopa arrived at Kennedy International Airport.

This portion of the autobiography is quite difficult to read, which is a testament to the skill with which Geshé Sopa is able to convey the experiences of his travel party on their flight into India. Though there are brief moments of hope and happiness interspersed throughout, such as when the Tibetan refugees crowd the window of the train to see their first mountain since leaving Tibet, the overall tone of this section demonstrates a tremendous depth of sorrow commensurate with the gravity of the situation, and Geshé Sopa’s ability to render into words richly pictorial descriptions is employed here for the purposes of conveying to the reader exactly how bad the plight of these refugees was. The description of the dirtiness of the water resulting in the teeth and skin of the Tibetans gradually becoming darker and darker brown until they could almost no longer recognize themselves in the mirror, along with the above- mentioned episode involving the distribution of standardized clothing, is deeply disturbing, and serves to highlight the sense of deindividuation and hopelessness that the process of relocation created. Indeed, his attainment of the degree of Geshé, formerly one of Geshé Sopa’s most cherished and long-sought-after objectives, is barely mentioned in passing, an intentional authorial choice which illuminates the degree to which his priorities and preoccupations had shifted from his early years as a student. The text begins to once again lighten with Geshé Sopa’s decision to travel to America, and the portion of the story dealing with the trials and tribulations they encountered along the way is extremely candid and humorously recounted, with Geshé Sopa never hesitating to point out the ignorance of himself
or his travel partners (all extremely important lamas) of the customs and the use of any number of facilities which are extremely commonplace to those of us born in the Western world. This portion is quite compelling within the framework of the larger text because the juxtaposition between the horrific experiences of his flight to India and the humorous experiences of his flight to America, arguably similarly disruptive events when considered from the context of their significance in his life, finally provides a glimmer of hope and a moment of respite for the reader who has just been confronted with many pages describing in excruciating detail one of the most tragic events of the 20th century.
Geshé Sopa and the attendant lamas arrived to much fanfare from the media, after which he subsequently travelled to his ultimate destination of Freewood Acres, New Jersey, where he took up residence near a Tibetan temple established by Geshé Wangyal several years earlier. He was elected the president of the monastery, after which point he was approached by Professor Richard Robinson to travel to University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1967, where he began teaching a class on Tibetan language and culture alongside Robinson. They became close friends, with the two planning on coauthoring a book before Robinson was unfortunately killed in a gas explosion. Concurrent with the increasing popularity of the classes he offered at UW Madison, Geshé Sopa established the Ganden Mahayana Center in 1969, though it ultimately had to relocate due to discomfort on the part of the local populace at having such a center in the middle of a residential area. Ahead of the Dalai Lama’s planned visit to deliver the first Kalacakra empowerment in America, Geshé Sopa worked with John Davenport and many of his students to build the Deer Park Buddhist Center, which still exists today. He subsequently returned to Tibet on several different trips, the first of which saw him visiting the ruins of his former monastery of Ganden Chönkor, which had been destroyed by Chinese forces, and the second of which involved his meeting the Panchen Lama to discuss the increasing Westernization of Tibet. While the monastery of Será did extend a request that he return and fill the position of abbot, Geshé Sopa declined to instead remain within the United States, where he passed away in 2014 at the age of 92.

The final section of the autobiography is remarkable in its depiction of the final stages of Geshé Sopa’s long and storied life, but not for any of the reasons one might expect based on the content of the rest of the work. In the final chapters, Geshé Sopa turns his remarkable talent for observation of the world around him, which had previously been deployed in the service of telling the story of his life and of the Tibetan people more generally, to incisive commentary on the state of affairs as he finds them in America, an objective which is facilitated by his keenly honed mind and his privileged position as an outsider with a fresh pair of eyes. One event which stuck out as being particularly entertaining for its alarming ludicrousness occurs as a result of the Dalai Lama’s visit to UW Madison, which had been scheduled by Geshé Sopa many months in advance – he receives word from the president of the university that the weekend he has chosen for the visit would be inappropriate because the campus’ annually scheduled toga party was on the same weekend and would cause a conflict, so Geshé Sopa is forced to move the visit to the gymnasium of a nearby high school.

Similarly, Geshé Sopa comments that many of the American students he taught in his time at UW Madison as well as at the Ganden Mahayana Center simply wanted to learn the highest possible level teachings, which require the taking of extremely serious vows, without having any interest in the underlying theory or commitment to daily practice that is required to receive any benefit from them – many students shortly after receiving the transmission and the vows come back to Geshé Sopa to ask if they can “return them.” Geshé Sopa’s ability to point out how absurd some of these situations are without expressly imparting the blame upon anyone or demonstrating any negative emotion at all is a testament to both his authorial prowess and his commitment to Buddhist practice, both of which combine to create one of the most poignant conclusions to any autobiography I have ever read, and one to which any adulteration would do a grave injustice. After everything that Geshé Sopa has experienced in his life (and at this point in the text, the reader as well, albeit vicariously), he chooses to conclude his autobiography with the following: “In a curious way, the Chinese Communists were responsible for bringing Tibetan religious culture to the rest of the world. It’s like they broke the ice dam that was holding all these things up in Tibet so that they could flow to every part of the globe. Now people know a lot more about Tibetan culture and Buddhism, and it seems that the interest is still growing. Even in China these days young people are taking an interest in Buddhism again. Though the intention of the Chinese Communists was to destroy this culture, their actions have turned out to make it available to the whole world. It’s interesting, isn’t it?”