It is clear from the testimony of his students that Geshe Lhundop Sopa embodied a Tibetan tradition of spiritual and religious teaching which stretched back to Atisa. 1 Indeed, more than one student overtly likened him to the 11th century Indian scholar. 2 However, in his genuine humility, he would become quite uncomfortable at such comparisons. Nevertheless, the deep affection and veneration of his students was real and heartfelt. In 2013, one of those students, scholar Beth Newman, wrote:
I went to Madison, Wisconsin, in January 1975 to study with Geshe Sopa-la. I have been his student to this day. I have always thought of Geshe-la as the Atisha of our current age. Both masters left places where they were revered for their scholarship and spiritual practice to spread the Dharma … Both Atisha and Geshe Sopa-la endured years of difficulty, responded to thousands of basic and really quite foolish questions, dealt with humiliating cultural misunderstandings with unfailing good humor, had to learn new languages and means of communication – and did all this with love and compassion for students who could hardly appreciate the value of the teacher before them. Geshe Sopa-la lived very quietly and humbly in the United States. It was amazing to see how venerated he is by Tibetans in India, Nepal and Tibet … 3
In a 1984 interview, the Tibetan lama poignantly speaks – in his distinctive English – about the sacred vocation of teaching:
The student and teacher, very close, warm relation. And student is respecting to teacher. Teacher, same way, of thinking students are like their children – have to as much try to kind way to help them as much they need. This type of strong tie – relationship – we have in Tibet between teacher and student relationship is so [at this point, Geshe-la brings his hands together in the prayer/homage gesture, and says] wonderful … Over there, the spiritual teacher and the student relation, there is nothing to pay … because once your student want, like, that teacher, first finding out who you like… then choose that [one] and request they be teacher. Once they accept, teacher accept, that means teacher have accepted responsibility to take care of student – any kind of advice, whatever meaningful, helpful, teaching various way, as much one could. 4
Repeatedly in the interview, Geshe Sopa speaks about the importance of “openness” – of being “open.” He explains that if the mind is closed, that is “mind put in jail,” and this is “a very, very bad situation.” 5 Movingly offering an overview of the stages of learning, he first affirms that our mind has “a great capacity to know, to learn, to distinguish what is good, what is bad, what is the worth – valuable or unvaluable.” Using this human capacity in openness, we can “slowly” discern what is beneficial in a teaching and follow that – and leave behind that which is not found to be helpful. When one learns in this manner, discerning the value of each teaching, a sense of trust, “some kind of faith,” emerges that in time becomes wisdom, which is an additional resource and capacity of the reasoning mind. But, in the end, the Tibetan scholar emphasizes that “openness” is the entrance through which the rest of the path and process unfolds. At the end of this insightful and quite captivating description of the process of engaging holy teaching, Geshe-la pauses, and sort of looks downs for a second, almost shyly, and then lifts his head and says, “That is my advice,” and breaks into genuine laughter. 6
- In a teaching on “Relying on the Spiritual Friend,” Geshe Sopa explains: “The Tibetan term for spiritual teacher, gewai sheyen, literally means virtuous friend or noble friend, and is often translated as spiritual friend. Your spiritual friend is called the root of the path because your teacher is the foundation of all the stages that follow. It is through your spiritual teacher that you can eventually attain the different levels of the path. This is the first, most important ground of the practice.” (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, 2004, page 104.) At one point in this teaching, when addressing the qualities that Atisa taught were “applicable when evaluating a spiritual friend,” Geshe-la offers this counsel: “You can judge teachers based on whether they have the wisdom to distinguish good and bad … Further, they should be courageous, intrepid, and not easily discouraged. Their faculties should be tamed or calm. They should speak in a gentle, harmonious manner, suitable to their audience. They should be generous in giving charity to the poor and possess great compassion. They should have great endurance, which here means they are able to bear hunger, thirst, and all forms of hardship for the sake of practicing and teaching the Dharma … They should always be skillful in virtuous activities and in repaying kindness.” (Ibid., page 113).
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama affirms Geshe Sopa as “an exemplary heir of Atisa’s tradition conveying the pure Dharma to a new world in an authentic and useful way. He has been a pioneer among those bringing Buddhism to the West.” (“Foreword.” Geshe Lhundub Sopa, Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo. Volume 2: Karma. With David Patt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005, page ix). In his own portrayal of Atisa, Geshe Sopa draws attention to the many qualities of the Indian scholar whose labors helped to reestablish Buddhism in Tibet. He cites Atisa’s great learning, his having “received all the Buddhist teachings in their complete, pure, unmistaken form.” (14) But he also praises what the Indian scholar did with those teachings – his synthesizing them to be of saving use to others: “[H]e combined and summarized the essence of all these teachings.” (14) Indeed, “[h]e was the first to blend them all together in this special, practical method.” (14). Drawing attention to Atisa’s formal name, “Dipamkara,” which means “illuminator,” Geshe Sopa states that the Indian scholar “clarified the spiritual teachings whose light clears away all darkness.” (14) He speaks about Atisa’s having the “foundation” of “training in ethical conduct” and highlights his commitment to the pursuit of individual emancipation and to the disciplined way of life that best makes such liberation possible. (26-28) But the pursuit of individual liberation was not an end in itself for the scholar. Geshe Sopa foregrounds Atisa’s vowed commitment to the way of the bodhisattva and to the development of “bodhicitta,” the altruistic awakening mind: “Atisa entered the path by taking the bodhisattva vow and then developing the pure superior thought. Before the full realization of bodhicitta, a practitioner on the bodhisattva path develops the aspiration of the pure superior thought. This is the altruistic intention, based on great love and compassion, to take full responsibility to benefit others. The superior thought goes beyond merely wanting to free sentient beings from misery and help them obtain the highest happiness; with this thought you actually take upon yourself the responsibility to benefit them. It is responsible altruism and bodhicitta arises from it. Atisa vowed to attain enlightenment in order to fulfill his responsibility to liberate all sentient beings. Because of the power of his bodhicitta, Atisa did not give up on any sentient being.” (28) (Emphasis mine. All the preceding quotations in this note and their respective page citations are from 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, 2004.)
- Beth Newman, “The Most Important Influence on my Life.” Mandala. January-March 2013. Retrieved from: https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-for-2013/january/like-a-waking-dream/beth-newman/ At the end of this reflection on her teacher, Dr. Newman writes: “He has been the most important influence on my life and I know that is true for many others.” (Ibid.) “The suffix ‘la’ is a term of respect which can be affixed to the end of a title, as in … ‘Geshe-la,’ or can be affixed to the end of a personal name …” “Other Titles in Tibetan Buddhism.” Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT): https://fpmt.org/mandala/archives/mandala-issues-for-2007/april/other-titles-in-tibetan-buddhism/
- “My Life: East and West: Ven Geshe Lhundup Sopa.” Retrieved from the website of The Meridian Trust: Viewing the World through the Lens of Compassion: https://meridian-trust.org/video/my-lifeeast-and-west-ven-geshe-lhundrup-sopa/ (26:00 – 26.31 and 27.34 – 28:08). I have edited Geshe-la’s words only modestly, because they – particularly when paired with watching the interview itself – convey something distinctive and poignant which would be lost if I tried to edit them. Their beauty is their own, and I am inadequate to the task of editing them and maintaining that beauty. The first of the Images below is a screenshot of the moment when Geshe-la says the words: “teacher and student relationship is so wonderful …”
- In a similar way, Geshe Sopa counsels against “partiality,” quoting the 6th century Indian scholar, Bhaviveka: “’The mind tormented by partiality will never know peace.’” Geshe-la then explains: “What is partiality? It means being attached to your own system of religious doctrines and feeling anger or hatred toward other religions or other systems of Dharma. Before you listen to the teachings you should examine your own mental continuum. If you find this attitude, it should be cast away.” (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, 2004, page 115.)
- Quotation in this paragraph are taken from: “My Life: East and West: Ven Geshe Lhundup Sopa.” Retrieved from the website of The Meridian Trust: Viewing the World through the Lens of Compassion: https://meridian-trust.org/video/my-lifeeast-and-west-ven-geshe-lhundrup-sopa/ (29:23 – 31:14). The second of the Images below is a screenshot of moment 31.14 in the interview video when Geshe-la breaks into laughter.
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