Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden in Tibet
In January 1924 a child was born to the Ang Gyä Tsang family while they were visiting Drombu, a town near the Yellow River in the Gapa district of Kham, the Eastern province of Tibet. The child’s mother, Ngawang Lhamo, spoke of auspicious dreams to her husband, Tobgyal, and the birth was very easy, which was considered auspicious. A holy lama, Jampel Drimay, visited shortly after the child was born and gave his blessing by writing Manjushri’s seed syllable DHIH on the child’s tongue with dhiwang, a yellow medicine. He named the infant Lodro Denpa, Unchangeable Wisdom, the Tibetan name for Sthirami, Vasubandhu’s illustrious disciple. Geshe Drimay felt a deep connection existed between the child and that famous Indian philosopher.
Lodro Denpa soon proved a source of wonder, and sometimes frustration, to his family due to a natural compassion directed particularly toward the destitute. Suffering and poverty aroused instant generosity in the child. Wishing to see some local beggars happy, he once gave away all the food in the house while his parents were out. Another time it was clothes—when he saw some poorly clad beggar children living near the river he promptly took off all his clothes and gave them away. His concern for others and his repeated efforts to make them happy, however, tended to upset his mother. Sometimes she spanked him for giving away so much and although the family was comparatively well off she feared there would soon be nothing left if he continued unchecked.
His sympathy for the unfortunate was not confined to humans. The sight of his playmates tormenting or killing animals and insects commonly reduced him to tears. When he was nearly seven he encountered the slaughter of animals for the first time. Passing the local butchery one day it so happened that five yaks were about to be killed. With growing distress the child watched as four of the five met their fate. The last yak, by now sensing its impending death, was crying and shaking with fear. This was too much for Lodro Denpa who clung to the butcher’s legs in tears pleading for the life of the unfortunate yak. His begging was so persistent and sincere that the butcher finally changed his mind. With a sigh he put down the knife and set the animal free. In fact he was so affected by the incident that he gave up his trade on the spot and never killed again. He subsequently developed such affection for the boy that whenever he saw Lodro Denpa in the village he would rush over and hug him warmly.
As Lodro Denpa grew it became obvious that he was inclined to a religious life. He would often be found in a cave sitting in the meditation posture and reciting mantras.
As far as Lodro Denpa was concerned, the question of his future was settled by the visit of the great lama, Lab Khenchen Rinpoche, Thubten Jamyang Nyima, known to be a manifestation of Yamantaka. On arrival the holy man gazed at the six year-old child for some time then placed his hands on the boy’s head, giving his blessing. Silent for a while, he then predicted that if Lodro Denpa became a monk he would be of benefit to many beings and would directly aid the spread of the Buddha’s teachings. He warned that otherwise the boy’s life would be short. From the moment Lab Khenchen Rinpoche said this, Lodro Denpa’s mind became fixed on ordination as a monk. Before he left, Lab Khenchen Rinpoche ordained the boy as an upasaka (lay devotee) and personally cut his long hair to symbolise the turning towards religious values.
In spite of these auspicious events, Tobgyal was reluctant to lose his eldest son to a monastic life and would not consider the matter further. The child thought of nothing else, of course, and persistently made his intentions clear. His resolutions had the sympathy of his grandfather, a frequent visitor, who one day offered to help him run away to the monastery nearby. Together they set out for Drombu Thubten Dargyäling, the village monastery, where the grandfather subsequently deposited the happy child and left.
The next day Tobgyal arrived to retrieve his missing son, having quickly guessed where he had gone. Seeing his father approaching, Lodro Denpa locked himself in his room and refused to go home to the future his father had in store. ‘The only thing I want is to be a monk and practise the Dharma’, he said, adding that until his father consented and left without him he would remain locked in his room without food or water. Tobgyal now finally saw this was the only way to make the boy happy so he gave his consent and returned home alone.
Thus Lodro Denpa began his religious studies with the fulfilment of his childhood wish. He entered Drombu Thubten Dargyäling in 1931 at the age of seven and engaged enthusiastically in memorising and practising the important pujas and sadhanas. He was ordained as a novice monk by Lab Khenchen Rinpoche and given the ordination name Thubten Loden. During his time at Drombu the young novice completed a six month fasting retreat of one hundred nyung nyes and also received teachings from the holy lama Jampel Drimay on the Graded Path to Enlightenment. This kind lama often spoke of the great monastic universities, Sera, Drepung and Ganden, and the importance of their intensive Geshe study and debating programmes. This kindled a desire within the young monk to become a Geshe and led, after seven years there, to his moving from the local Drombu monastery to the much larger Sershu monastery, which offered a far more extensive study programme.
At Sershu he studied Logic and the Perfection of Wisdom subjects as well as the Graded Path to Enlightenment and Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds. Because he had left his family and local monastery to study at Sershu, the young Thubten Loden felt impelled to exert his greatest possible effort. He thus resolved not to lie down for as long as he remained at Sershu and built high brick walls around his meditation seat so that lying down was impossible. He remained upright with a self-imposed discipline of studying and meditating day and night. For the couple of hours’ sleep he required each night, he merely leant back against the wall behind.
As a young monk he was very happy studying at Sershu, but a series of events was to change the course of Thubten Loden’s life. One night while meditating, a bright light, known as a dza, a form of hindrance, came into his room through the window and over to where he was sitting. Thubten Loden recited the prayer to Mahakala at which point the dza disappeared. Next morning though, he became ill with jaundice and Geshe Lethang Tripa Rinpoche, renowned for his clairvoyance, advised that Achi Dharma Tara, the protecting deity of that area, wished for the young monk to leave Sershu and go to the great monastery of Sera in central Tibet. Though reluctant to leave, Thubten Loden received confirmation of this new direction through his own dreams. In one dream the protecting deity Achi Chojay Dolma appeared riding a white horse, carrying a banner and emitting rays of light in all directions. Her smiling face was very peaceful as she promised to protect him on his long journey to Sera Monastic University. On waking Thubten Loden decided he would definitely make the change.
Again, the night before his departure he had a powerful dream. In it a shining orange sun appeared in the sky showering down brilliant rays of light and thousands of lotus flowers. As he travelled south (the direction of Lhasa), beautiful lotuses stretched out to infinity in front of him and as he walked on the flowers brilliant light exploded above and rained down all around. On the giant orange sun-disc appeared the terrifying form of Gompo Chagdrug, the six-armed protecting deity Mahakala, playing his damaru thunderously and rolling his fierce bloodshot eyes. Intense light radiated from Mahakala's body and streamed towards Thubten Loden dissolving into his body and il1uminating the lotuses at his feet. Again and again Mahakala promised loudly to the rhythm of his dameru that he would help Thubten Loden in his religious practice and eliminate all his internal and external hindrances. Until he reached the door of his parents' home Mahakala repeated this continuously, sending streams of light to him. Just as he entered the door, the deity disappeared.
Thubten Loden awoke with tremendous enthusiasm for the journey to Central Tibet. He felt a very strong connection with Mahakala and mused that the deity mist have been his protector many times in previous lives. Previously to this dream his protecting deity had been Achi Dharmapala but after hearing of this dream Lakhenchen Rimpochay, visiting the monastery at the time, said Mahakala would now be his special lifelong protector. He further suggested that Thubten Loden complete one million recitations of the long prayer of praise to Mahakala. Thubten Loden fulfil1ed this commitment over the next ten years, a task which included a retreat lasting a year.
Having decided to leave Sershu, Thubten Loden first went to his parents’ home and gained their permission to go to Sera Monastery. His illness quickly receded and soon he embarked on the journey to central Tibet, taking two months on foot. When he finally arrived at Sera Monastic University in 1941, he was overcome with joy. After all his youthful dreams of studying there it seemed like a pure land and the fulfilment of all his prayers and dedications.
Staying with his uncle, Geshe Namlha, the young monk began searching to find the best possible teacher at Sera. After three months of careful examination and reflection he decided that the great scholar and master of debate, Geshe Jhampa Chöphel, most clearly possessed the personal and intellectual qualities of a perfect mahayana guru. Thubten Loden was so impressed with Geshe Jhampa Chöphel that he felt that if this lama was not enlightened then enlightenment would not be possible. At first the great Geshe refused Thubten Loden’s requests for teachings as a device to check his sincerity. However the young Thubten Loden requested three times saying that if he was not accepted he would return the huge distance to eastern Tibet and undertake more purification practices. His unshakeable determination swayed the great Geshe and thus it was that in 1941 Thubten Loden began his studies under the guidance of Geshe Jhampa Chöphel.
For the next three years Thubten Loden studied the Commentary to ‘Compendium of Valid Cognition’ by Dharmakirti, learning totally the art of logic and debate. Particularly he studied the Clear Explanation of the Path to Liberation commentary by Gyäl Tsab Je in conjunction with Sera Je Tsün Pa’s commentary. He also studied under other renowned teachers such as Geshe Thubten Wangyal and Geshe Kelsang.
From 1944 for seven years he then studied the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras in One Hundred Thousand, Twenty-five Thousand and Eight Thousand Verses. This course also dealt with Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realisation and this was studied with Lama Tsong Khapa’s Golden Rosary of Good Explanation and Gyäl Tsab Je’s Ornament for the Essence, Explaining the Aspects (of Maitreya’s Ornament for Clear Realisations). He also made a study at this time of Asanga’s Bodhisattva’s Grounds. From Latsün Rinpoche he received teachings on Maitreya’s Ornament for the Mahayana Sutras and Sublime Continuum of the Mahayana. Of the twenty-one Indian commentaries to the Ornament for Clear Realisation, a particular study was made of the Clear Meaning and Great commentaries by Haribhadra.
During the first year the daily schedule was so busy that every second night the monks had no sleep but stayed up debating and meditating. As a test of their energy and patience they did this outside in an open courtyard where it was always cold and sometimes snowed. They were allowed no extra clothes nor even cushions to sit on.
On completion of his studies of the Perfection of Wisdom literature at the age of twenty-seven, Thubten Loden was ordained a monk. Along with fifty other novices and in the presence of ten monks, he received full ordination from the holy lama Jamgön Rinpoche, who was held to be a manifestation of Maitreya Buddha.
Continuing his studies and practice, Thubten Loden received many teachings from His Holiness Trijang Dorje Chang Losang Yeshe, Junior Tutor to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and the revered ‘father’ and lineage-holder of the Gelug tradition. Thubten Loden was among the three thousand people who attended the holy lama’s famous Path to Enlightenment discourses. He also received the tantric teachings by His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche on the Offering to the Guru using the accompanying meditative practice of Guhyasamaja tantra. For the five thousand Geshes, monastic and lay devotees, this course of instruction was an intensive month of discourses, memorisation, contemplation and discussion promoting complete integration of the teachings. In addition, Thubten Loden received initiations from His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche into the meditations of the complete cycle of Vajrayogini tantra, Heruka tantra, Yamantaka tantra, Sarvavid and Guhyasamaja tantra, with the accompanying teachings on all these practices. Later he received the cycle of one hundred collected initiations of the One Hundred Precious Channels.
Throughout all these studies, Thubten Loden maintained his regular discipline of daily practice. He never forgot his guru Geshe Jhampa Chöphel’s advice that the essence of the Buddha’s doctrine is renunciation, bodhichitta and the wisdom perceiving emptiness. Armed with the techniques to develop these three essentials, he continued to meditate daily on the Graded Path teachings and to fulfil all his other meditation commitments.
In 1951 at the age of twenty-seven Thubten Loden began a six-year study of Middle Way philosophy. The first two years were spent learning and studying Engaging in the Middle Way by Chandrakirti, using Chandrakirti’s own commentary and that of Lama Tsong Khapa. During the third and fourth years he concentrated on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom and the final two years were spent in private study and meditation on these two great treatises. He also studied and received instruction on Nagarjuna’s Six Collections of Reasoning, Aryadeva’s Four Hundred Verses on the Middle Way and Engaging in the Bodhisattva Deeds by Shantideva.
Throughout the first two years of studying the Middle Way philosophy, the daily schedule was again such that on alternate nights the students stayed up debating and meditating in the open courtyard. The monks were expected to develop patience with this hardship. If one was too sick to walk he would ask to be carried to the courtyard rather than break the discipline. On every other night they were allowed four to five hours’ sleep but as this was the only spare time left, Thubten Loden often stayed up late to review prayers and texts he had committed to memory. At that time he had memorised eight hundred double-sided Tibetan pages, and on these nights he used to chant two hundred of them for revision. This intense study required perseverance and it was commonly held that lamas who completed this course would certainly enjoy a long life.
After that, Thubten Loden spent six years studying Vinaya, the teachings on discipline and karma. During the first two years he concentrated on the Fundamental Vinaya Sutra by Acharya Gunaprabha in which the two hundred and fifty-three precepts supporting the monk’s ordination are detailed. Emphasis was placed on memorising the whole text and on perfect practice of the vows. The third and fourth years were devoted to the study of four of the Buddha’s Vinaya sutras: the Three Bases of Receiving, Maintaining and Reviving Ordination, Clarifying Presentation of the Bhikksu and Bhikksuni Ordinations, Additional Details and Analysis of the Two Former Texts on Ordinations. He also made a study of the Radiance of the Sun Vinaya commentary by the all knowing Tsönawa.
Thubten Loden then spent four years studying phenomenology using the Treasury of Knowledge by Vasubandhu, a systematic investigation of all phenomena and the evolution of the universe, along with the Clear Ornament commentary by Chim Jampelyang. In the course of the study he memorised the source text completely. During this time he received from His Holiness Yongzin Ling Rinpoche, the Senior Tutor to His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the teaching compiled by Lama Tsong Khapa on the Guhyasamaja tantra called The Combination of Four Commentaries.