When TM expressed his desire to study Dzogchen to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader recommended that TM get a solid grounding in the philosophical tradition that the Tibetans inherited from earlier Indian Buddhist scholars. To do this, His Holiness suggested that TM “consult qualified Tibetan scholars, uniting study and practice,” and one of the specific scholars he recommended was “Geshe Sopa of the New Jersey monastery who [had] been teaching at the University of Wisconsin.” 1 But sadly, the meeting would never take place.
Geshe Lhundub Sopa (1923-2014), was born the only son of two Tibetan farmers. He was a man of very humble background. “Ordinary” is the word he repeatedly used to describe himself and his early years. 2 Although for those who knew him, he was anything but ordinary. 3 Professor Jeffrey Hopkins, a student of Geshe Sopa and himself a highly accomplished scholar, shared with an interviewer how Geshe Sopa’s presence had made a deep impact on him, during a rather tender and ultimately decisive period in his own journey. At the time of their first encounters, Professor Hopkins did not understand how great a scholar the Tibetan monk truly was, and yet, he shared: “Geshe Sopa – his demeanor impressed me a lot – his humility … I found him very attractive.” Asked if he remembered any specific instances that created that impression, the American scholar shared an image that clearly had remained with him over the decades: “Actually, his back was to me, and he was washing the dishes in the kitchen.” 4
In getting to know something about Geshe Sopa, through his writings, oral teaching, and the witness of those who actually knew him, I cannot help but wonder how such a presence might have touched the heart and mind of Thomas Merton. It is true that TM’s accomplishments were stunning, and the gifts he shared with the world – knowledge, passion, vision – extraordinary. But there seems to have been a restlessness and a hurt about the man that those who knew him best and loved him deeply understood:
The truth is that Fr. Louis was one of those who … had in his own way been touched by God. But to be touched in such a way by God means to be wounded, means to be marked with the wounds of Christ. The theme of that wound runs from the Song of Songs (vulnerasti cor meum …) through Origen through St. Bernard through St. Francis through St. John of the Cross and even to Fr. Louis … that hidden wound left by the touch of God … 5
Some part of me aches when I think that TM could have met and experienced a sense of communion with the Tibetan lama who is said by his many students to have embodied humility, tolerance, and compassion, a teacher and practitioner who is remembered as incarnating the name he was given at his monastic ordination, (lhun grub bzod pa) effortless, spontaneous patience. 6 And although he was known to be far too modest to describe himself in this way, maybe his own words best capture his vision of the mind – the great compassion toward all sentient beings – to which he aspired and kindly invited others to aspire as well:
This is thinking in a self-sacrificial way, for the benefit of others. It is like the way a most loving and kind mother would feel toward her only child, loving that child a hundred times more than she loves herself; this is a divine mental state. 7
- Thomas Merton, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York: New Directions Books, 1975, pages 101-102. TM writes: “In general, [The Dalai Lama] advised me to get a good base in Madhyamika philosophy (Nagarjuna and other authentic Indian sources) and to consult qualified Tibetan scholars, uniting study and practice. Dzogchen was good, he said, provided one had a sufficient grounding in metaphysics – or anyway Madhyamika, which is beyond metaphysics … He recommended Geshe Sopa of the New Jersey monastery who has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin, and Geshe Ugyen Tseten of Rikon, Switzerland.” (Emphasis that of the quoted text. Ibid., 101-102). Directly following this journal entry, TM included in his journal a quotation from T. R. V. Murti’s The Central Philosophy of Buddhism: A Study of the Madhyamika System. This appears to be the first of several references in TM’s Asian Journal to Mr. Murti’s text, which, in a November 21st journal entry, TM reports he had finished a few days earlier. (Ibid., 135). Madhyamika, a name derived from a Sanskrit expression meaning “Middle Way,” is a Mahayana school of philosophy founded by the 2nd century Indian Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna. The school focuses on emptiness [Sanskrit: sunyata] as the “the ultimate nature of all things,” and understands this view to be “the ‘Middle Way’ in that it is the mid-point between the extremes of total non-existence of reality, or nihilism, and the positing of an absolute, independent existence of reality, or eternalism.” (Emphasis that of the quoted text. “Glossary of Key Terms.” The Tibetan Book of the Dead: First Complete Translation. Translated by Gyurme Dorje. Edited by Graham Coleman with Thupten Jinpa. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006, pages 484-485.)
- The following examples are taken from Geshe Sopa’s autobiography: Like a Waking Dream: The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa with Paul Donnelly. Somerville: Wisdom Publications, 2012. “When I was young, the West was a place you only heard about in stories; no ordinary person like me knew about such things firsthand” (page 13); “Ordinary Tibetans would never imagine that they could go to America. But here I am (page 13); “It was not common in Tibet for one to record the exact date of one’s birth. The year was noted, and when the New Year came around everyone was considered to be one year older. Some high lamas and other important people would know their exact birth month and day, but ordinary people would know just the year and that was enough … So like many Tibetans, I don’t know my exact birthdate” (page 14); “The black peas we grew were larger than the peas here in America. When they were coarsely ground, we also used them for horse feed. Wealthier people especially would use these peas in this way. Ordinary people ground them into flour and mixed this with barley flour for our tsampa [Tibetan foodstuff]” (page 15); and “My family had a small piece of farm land. I’m not sure if we owned the land we farmed or if it belonged to someone else. Land was often owned by the local or central government, or by aristocratic families or a monastery or … the estate of a lama, but ordinary people would work the land like their own” (page 15). Of his own home province of Tsang, Geshe-la recalls: “Buddhism was so deeply ingrained in the culture that it was customary for each family to have one son go to the monastery. If a family had three or more sons, then two sons would become monks, one son would stay at the family house and continue to tend the farmland, and the last would engage in business outside the home … Ordinary people were very religious, even if they didn’t really know much about their religion. There were many monasteries and nunneries then, and also many small shrines” (pages 17 and 18).
- One such person is David Pratt, who served as the Senior Editor for the first and second volumes of Geshe Sopa’s five-volume commentary on Lamrim Chenmo [Greater Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment], an enormously important work written by the great 14th century Tibetan philosopher, Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) – who lived at the same time as Julian of Norwich. In his “Preface,” Dr. Pratt remembers the dinner given in honor of his teacher and professor, who, in 1997, was retiring after three decades of teaching at the University of Wisconsin. Among the guests were “twenty-two PhD students whose work [Geshe Sopa] had supervised.” The editor’s description of the occasion poignantly captures the extra-ordinary journey of the dedicated spiritual pilgrim: “It was an occasion that was memorable not only for the profound affection and respect that radiated from the many students and colleagues who had been influenced by Geshe-la over so many years, but also for the wonder: that a man who had started life as a peasant in one of the earth’s most remote nations, a place where the Western world was a distant myth if it was thought about at all, where few could read and virtually no one could speak a foreign language – that such a man could find his way into a major American university and earn his way, class by class, year by year, up the academic ladder, to conclude his career as a revered professor, indisputably one of the seminal figures in the rapid growth of the relatively new academic field of Buddhist studies.” Dr. Pratt also recalls that at that evening celebration, the Chair of the department in which the honoree had taught for so long and so faithfully, offered tender words of genuine appreciation, including these: “So we have an exemplary academic career to note as we gather tonight. But there is another aspect of Geshe Sopa’s career that has touched me very deeply as an individual, and for that I wish to thank him on my own behalf, but also, I think, on behalf of the department and academic community at large. Academe ought to be a place in which we pay a great attention to human values. We ought to look at each other with great compassion. By that I do not mean softness or imprecision, but we ought to be able to recognize the human qualities in each other and look on each with compassion at all times … [S]ome of our colleagues do excel in being both excellent scholars and teachers and also greatly humane people. And in my colleague Geshe Sopa we have one such person. For that part of his career – which is not the part that gets written down in the books, not the part that gets counted when degree summaries get done and credits issued by departments are counted – for that part of his contribution to the daily work environment in which I have applied my trade, I have great gratitude to Geshe Sopa.” (Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment, A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1, The Foundation Practices, Translator, David Patt. Boston, Wisdom Publication, Pages xii-xiii and xiii-xiv.)
- “Jeffrey Hopkins: The Life of Buddhist Scholar.” Wisdom Podcast, Posted December 11, 2017. Retrieved from” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5g-BSLIpa8 – Minutes 31:20-49. It was at the “New Jersey monastery” that His Holiness had mentioned to TM that Jeffrey Hopkins met Geshe Lhundup Sopa. Professor Hopkins discovered the monastery in his early 20’s, during a difficult period: “A close friend who wanted to help had heard about the Lamaist Buddhist Monastery of America (now the Tibetan Buddhist Leaning Center) in New Jersey. We traveled there and saw Geshe Wangyal, a wily Kalmyk Mongolian adept-scholar who had studied in Tibet for thirty-five years. When he opened the door to his pink ranch house in the flatlands of New Jersey he revealed a Tibetan temple that filled the living room. I was flabbergasted. Never again would I assume that nothing was going on in the living rooms of America!” (Jeffrey Hopkins, Cultivating Compassion: A Buddhist Perspective. New York: Broadway Books, 2001, page 6.) Professor Hopkins would live and study at the monastery from 1963 to 1968, after which he ultimately “followed” Geshe Sopa to the University of Wisconsin. “Jeffrey Hopkins: The Life of Buddhist Scholar.” Wisdom Podcast, Posted December 11, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5g-BSLIpa8 – Minutes 42.20-23. Image One below is a photo of Geshe Sopa (left), Lama Yeshe (right) and, Elvin Jones washing dishing in Madison, Wisconsin, 1975. (Photo by George Propps).
- Chrysogonus Waddell, “Merton and the Tiger Lily.” The Merton Annual 2. (1989), pages 78-79. Fr. Waddell also affirms that it is from this “wound” that TM’s “vocation as a writer with a universal mission derived its efficacy.” (Idid., page 79).
- Earlier in this sentence, the word “communion is used intentionally, for it reflects the level of dialogue and engagement that TM was seeking to practice in Asia: “True communication on the deepest level is more than a simple sharing of ideas, of conceptual knowledge, or formulated truth. The kind of communication that is necessary on this deep level must also be ‘communion’ beyond the level of words, a communion in authentic experience …” Thomas Merton, “Monastic Experience and East-West Dialogue,” (Notes for a paper to have been delivered at Calcutta, October 1968), The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton, pages 315. The reflections on Geshe Sopa’s qualities are those of another one of his students, Professor Roger Jackson: “Geshe Sopa was my intellectual dream come true. But he’s been far more than that: he’s been a mentor, a friend, an advisor, an interlocutor, and a father figure. Above all, with his humility, compassion, humor, and a razor-sharp mind, he’s been an example—a living proof, really—of the power of Dharma. Whether scholars, practitioners, or both, we who have benefited from his life and teaching can only hope that we honor him by thinking clearly, living rightly and dedicating ourselves to the great task of Geshe-la’s life: the benefit of sentient beings.” (Emphasis that of the quoted text. Roger Jackson, “Reminiscences of Geshe Sopa.” Mandala Publications, January – March 2013.) Retrieved from: https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2013/january/like-a-waking-dream/roger-jackson/
- “When you are eating food or drinking or even getting dressed, you should not solely enjoy the food, drink, or clothes, but also think with love and compassion about all the living beings who lack these things. You should think about what you can give to truly needy people, and you should restrict your own consumption. This is thinking in a self-sacrificial way, for the benefit of others. It is like the way a most loving and kind mother would feel toward her only child, loving that child a hundred times more than she loves herself; this is a divine mental state.” (Emphasis mine. Geshe Lhundub Sopa, with Michael Sweet and Leonard Zwilling, Peacock in the Poison Grove: Two Buddhist Texts on Training the Mind. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001, page 54.) In a tribute which appears on the front cover of this book, Jeffrey Hopkins offers these tender words of admiration for Geshe Sopa: “Read this book and feel the presence of one’s of world’s great hearts and minds.”