TSEWANG RABTEN, destined to later become the master Geshe Yeshe Tobden, was born in 1916 to a family of wealthy farmers in Ngadra, a village one day's walk south of the city of Lhasa. As a child, he lived with his father Kelsang Tsering, his mother Yangzom Bhuti, and his sister Yeshe Tsomo.
One day a great lama who was visiting the area to give an initiation saw him and predicted that his life would be in danger unless he took monastic vows. So his mother, with the help of a cousin who lived in Lhasa, entrusted the twelve-year-old boy to the Venerable Damchoe of Sera Monastery. There Geshe-la began his monastic studies.
His mother died when he was eighteen, and Geshe-la always spoke of her with undying affection, explaining that he had been overwhelmed by a tremendous feeling of gratitude for all the love and attention she had given him. At the same time he spoke with regret for having been unable to repay her kindness while she was still alive. A year later his younger sister also died, and immediately after that his father passed away as well. Geshe-la was the only one left, and he did not hesitate to sell all his family's possessions and offer the proceeds to his monastery. Later on, so as not to be a burden on the Venerable Damchoe, who had helped him like a mother but who had other monks to take care of as well, Geshe-la decided to go and live alone in a small house near the monastery.
In those years Geshe-la was extremely poor; the door to his house had no lock, and there was nothing inside that anyone would want. Anything that he received from others he would share with the most needy, never keeping anything for the next day. Those who knew him recount that his immediate, spontaneous reaction after accepting a gift was to offer it enthusiastically to those who might enjoy it or have need of it, keeping for himself only a few indispensable items, as long as they were simple and unpretentious.
During this time he studied vigorously, receiving numerous teachings from great masters, among whom he remembered with special devotion Geshe Lodoe Sangpo and his own root guru, Chusang Rinpoche. A few years ago Chusang Rinpoche's reincarnation was found in Tibet in the form of a young monk. The Dalai Lama recognized him at the age of twelve, and as a result, he later came to live in India.
With the Chinese invasion of 1959, Geshe-la was arrested and imprisoned near Lhasa but managed to escape after four months. He was caught, suffered two months of hardship in prison, and escaped again. On the road to India he was caught yet again by the Chinese, but he managed to escape to safety. He once recounted how he had kept a few chulen pills (pills made of flower-essence, minerals, and various blessed substances) in his luggage, as well as a text with the instructions about how to prepare new ones when needed. He was determined that if he did not succeed in crossing the border, he would hide in some remote corner in the mountains and survive on these pills.
At the end of 1961, after a year and a half of trials and adversities, having crossed occupied Tibet on foot, he reached the eastern border of India, but the frontier guards imprisoned him because they did not believe his story. By then Tibet's border was closed, the flux of refugees interrupted, and they believed no one could face such a journey alone and without any resources at his disposal. The Indians treated Geshe-la with suspicion, thinking he might be a spy working for the Chinese.
News of all this came to a frontier guard named Tashi, a Tibetan who had at one time been a monk. He went to meet Geshe-la, and to the astonishment of the others present, he recognized Geshe-la and confirmed his tale, vouching for him and thus obtaining his freedom. He welcomed Geshe-la into his home, and there Geshe-la learned that the main Tibetan monasteries had been rebuilt in India. He refused financial help from Tashi and set out on a journey to Buxa, a refugee settlement of Tibetan monks in West Bengal, where he resumed his studies. At the age of thirty-seven, having completed the entire course of studies at Sera Me Monastery, he obtained the highest honor-the title of Geshe Lharampa, a special recognition that in those days was given only to one or two monks a year who passed their exams.
Geshe-la taught at the monastery for several years and subsequently was sent by His Holiness the Dalai Lama for three years to the university in Varanasi as a teacher of Buddhist philosophy. Here he disclosed to his old friend Geshe Rabten, himself a teacher at the university, his true aspiration-to retire to the mountains and meditate. Sometime later Geshe Rabten told His Holiness about this, and the Dalai Lama indicated his wish to learn the reasons behind this desire from Geshe Tobden himself. With utmost simplicity, Geshe-la explained that he wished to meditate on renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness. His Holiness asked when he had first felt such an aspiration, and Geshe Tobden replied that he remembered having it since he was a small boy. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was impressed by his statement and released him from his post at the university. His Holiness also offered his support in case Geshe-la needed advice or help with any difficulties that might arise in his meditation practice.
At the age of forty-four Geshe-la was at last able to fulfill his dream and retreat to a tiny stone house above McLeod Ganj, which remained his residence from that time on. His house consisted of a single room with an altar, a bed, a hearth in the corner, and a small courtyard for cooking. He placed the few things he possessed inside and protected the entrance from wild animals. Tibetans who lived in the nearby valley gradually developed a profound devotion toward him and would address or speak about him using a title that means "saint."
In 1976 Geshe-la became seriously ill but refused what he called the "luxury" of hospitalization. However, he accepted accommodation offered by Lama Thubten Yeshe. It was then that some Italian students had their first opportunity to meet him and were greatly impressed. A while later Lama Yeshe asked the Dalai Lama if Geshe Yeshe Tobden could be a Dharma teacher in Italy, and His Holiness, with truly enlightened vision, decided that he should go to Pomaia. It was our great good fortune to have Geshe-la as the first resident lama at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in 1979 and 1980. His teachings guided and helped those early practitioners at the Institute who were taking their first steps on the path of spiritual practice. Geshe-la's presence alone was an inspiration to those who had the privilege of meeting him. Every one of his disciples can recount episodes in which Geshe-la manifested, even with just a simple gesture or a small remark, enormous wisdom, profound compassion, and the power that arises from these qualities.
In 1981 the time came for Geshe-la to return to India, to his quiet mountain retreat. He did not hide his joy, but he promised to return in the future, and until 1997, he came back every two years, thus keeping the commitment he had made to his old students in Italy. He also accepted invitations from newer Western disciples, who asked him to come and teach in their own countries-Switzerland, France, the United States, and Canada.
With the echo of that original promise to return still vivid in their hearts, the students of the Lama Tsong Khapa Center of Villorba, near Treviso, Italy (a Dharma center founded in 1980 under the spiritual guidance of Lama Zopa Rinpoche) wrote to him at the end of 1981 inviting him to give a series of teachings at their center the following summer. This request was based on the profound connection the students at Viilorba had always felt with Geshe-la, who had provided their first exposure to the Dharma as well as the inspiration to found a center for Buddhist Studies in their town. When the center started, Geshe-la himself gave news of it to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After requesting His Holiness' advice, Geshe-la accepted the invitation, saying, "I am coming with the hope that I can be of some help, and also because you have insisted, and in spite of the fact that I would rather not leave my meditation place. If the energy is right, I will remain, otherwise I will leave immediately."
The Commentary on Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara
Planning for the trip took longer than expected, but Geshe-la finally arrived, and between July and October 1983 offered a complete commentary to Shantideva's Bodhicharyavatara, a key text based on the fundamental practices of Mahayana Buddhism. The oral translation of the teachings from Tibetan into English was done by Acharya Ngawang Sherab, teacher at the University of Buddhist Studies at Varanasi, India, and now a geshe. The translation from English into Italian was done mainly by Dario Tesoroni. The students at the center remember that time as spiritually rewarding, filled with enthusiasm, and buzzing with activity. Geshe Yeshe Tobden gave teachings on the ninth, or "wisdom," chapter every evening, drawing on the Tibetan commentary by Gyeltsab Je, one of Lama Tsongkhapa's two main disciples, and he taught on the remaining chapters on the weekends. All of them were recorded.
"When the time came for Geshe-la to leave the center, his students wished to keep his incomparable gift alive and make it available to others, so they transcribed his words patiently from the many audio tapes. I wish to express here my gratitude to these people and to all those who have in various ways contributed to making this book possible, particularly the following people: Caterina and Bruno Bellotto, Carla and Piero Malfatto, Carla Granata, Margherita De Biasi, Luigina De Biasi, Mariangiola Fracasso, Annamaria De Pretis, Giovanna Pescetti, and Vincenzo Tallarico.
Naturally, the manuscript needed to be revised and corrected, and after some time Margherita Giordana offered to edit the chapter on wisdom and published a preliminary version in 1989. This was later revised for publication in the complete edition, which I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to undertake. Annalisa Lirussi has helped me with word processing, as well as providing me with consistent help and valuable suggestions. Pietro Sirianni gave momentum to the entire project, and designed the Italian edition.
The teachings upon which the present work is based were delivered over a long period of time and were attended by the students at the center as well as by several disciples visiting from elsewhere. With infinite kindness, Geshe-la offered the teachings that would be most beneficial to the audience he faced each time. Often, when he thought it profitable, he did not hesitate to review key subjects that he had already explained during previous talks. Having to present the content in book form, the general orientation has been to make the material as accessible as possible, avoiding repetition and, where appropriate, combining sections covering similar subjects that may have been discussed on multiple occasions. I wanted to keep the simple but effective style that is typical of direct oral teachings, refraining from literary formalities.
Bearing in mind that the teachings were based directly on Shantideva's text, it is advisable to combine the reading of this commentary with the reading of the root text. The result will be a clearer understanding of particular examples and statements. Several translations of the text in English are available. It is also crucial to remember Shantideva's historical and cultural context. He was a great Indian sage of the eighth century whose audience was composed of monks at Nalanda's monastic university, to which he belonged. To make the correlation to the root text easier, the chapter names correspond to the titles of Shantideva's chapters, and the number of the stanza being discussed is included in brackets. Verses that are omitted were either covered by the explanation immediately before or after or else not commented upon because their meaning was relatively self-evident.
The Venerable Geshe Yeshe Tobden was informed of and endorsed the above decisions. During several meetings, thanks to the translation by his close disciple Lobsang Dondhen (who also accompanied him on his travels), he clarified certain points for me and provided further explanations to others.
He urged me to use utmost accuracy, especially with regard to the ninth chapter, whose weight is equal to its complexity, and in September 1997, at the Lama Tsong Khapa Center of Villorba and at the Cian Ciub Ciö Ling Center of Polava (Udine), he discussed stanzas that had remained uncommented upon. At the time Norbu Lamsang did the direct translation from Tibetan into Italian, an invaluable service that he has been providing for several Buddhist centers in Italy, while Gelong Lobsang Tharchin provided notes and tapes, which I then edited for the new entries. The guidelines that enabled me to put together the synthesis of the ninth chapter (expressly requested by Geshe-la and produced in the appendix) are the result of explanations he personally gave me in India in October 1998, translated into English by his Tibetan disciple, the composer, musician, and one-time monk Ngawang Khechog.
Not long afterward, Richard Gere met with Geshe Yeshe Tobden in McLeod Ganj on the suggestion of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who had praised Geshe-la as a great meditator and scholar. During his visit to the mountain hermitage, Mr. Gere, having thanked Geshe-la for both personal and Dharma advice given during their meetings, expressed regret for not having had the opportunity to attend any of his courses, particularly those on emptiness. Geshe Tobden then told him of his complete commentary to the Bodhicharyavatara published in Italian, and Mr. Gere expressed the wish to be able to read it in English. Subsequently, he generously offered to sponsor this translation, thereby making the teachings available to many others. In 2000 the project received the approval of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who provided me with the main guidelines on how to manage the translation, particularly the choice of the translator. We were lucky to have found Manu Bazzano and Santa Doveton for this task, which they accomplished excellently. The staff at Wisdom Publications further edited the work for publication in English.
In spite of the diamond-like purity of every single word of the teachings transmitted by Venerable Geshe Yeshe Tobden, and in spite of my best attempts to relate them faultlessly, some errors may still remain. This is due mainly to the limits of my knowledge, for which I apologize. I hope, however, that I have provided some people with an opportunity to approach the invaluable treasure of wisdom of this perfect master, my holy guru, the kindest and most compassionate among all the buddhas of past, present, and future.
On July 31, 1999, the eve of his departure to Italy from Dharamsala for another series of courses at Buddhist centers abroad, the Venerable Geshe Yeshe Tobden instead transmitted his final teaching-on impermanence- manifesting the death of his own body. From that moment, for twelve days and twelve nights, his mind remained in deep absorption, but his body showed no sign of decay and instead emitted a kind of fragrance and luminosity. According to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this demonstrated the tremendous power of Geshe-la's meditative concentration. After the signs of the last phase of absorption of subtle awareness had manifested and the entire death process had come to an end, the cremation ceremony began in the presence of various monks and disciples. The fire burned for more than two hours without producing any smoke, and shortly before sunrise a half rainbow appeared, which was considered particularly auspicious for Geshe-la's swift reincarnation. There was then a fierce rain followed by a strong wind, and finally, in gaps between the clouds, one could see snowy mountain peaks (in August!).
The next day, before gathering the ashes, the remains of the fire-which had been devotedly guarded the whole time-were examined. In the center, toward the West, one could make out the footprints of a small child- another special sign, interpreted as further indication that Geshe-la will soon be back among us.