Like a Waking Dream
The Autobiography of Geshe Lhundub Sopa
By the same author
The inspirational biography of one of the first Tibetan Gelugpa lamas to teach in the West. Geshe Sopa was also the teacher of many renowned lamas including Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Thubten Zopa.
From the time he was a child, Geshe Sopa knew he would be a Buddhist monk. He was not chosen, as some are, to inherit the estate of a deceased master as a reincarnate tulku. Instead, as the only child of elderly farmers he diligently worked his way up through the ranks of his provincial monastery, eventually becoming an accomplished scholar and serving as a debate partner for the Dalai Lama. Geshe Sopa lived through the turbulent political changes in his homeland during the 1950s and fled to India upon the takeover of Tibet by Chinese Communist forces. In the early 1960s, the Dalai Lama chose him to be part of a delegation to the United States, changing his life forever. The account of his years in Tibet preserves valuable insight and details about a now vanished world.
Geshe Sopa is a professor of South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin and a highly respected monk and spiritual teacher. He is the founder of Deer Park Buddhist Center in Wisconsin where he lives. He is the author of a series of commentaries on the Lama Tsong Khapa's epic work Lam Rim Chenmo - Steps on the Path to Enlightenment.
"Geshe Sopa's life story is central to the story of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. In shaping generations of leading American scholars of Tibet, he became renowned not just for teaching Buddhist ideas and ideals, but for making them real by personally embodying them." John Makransky.
"Geshe Sopa is one of the greatest living Buddhist masters of his generation. A consummate scholar and respected university professor, his impact on the establishment of Buddhism (and Buddhist studies) in the United States cannot be overestimated. This marvelous life story, rich in detail and told in his own words, will captivate the hearts and minds of anyone who reads it." Jose Ignacio Cabezon.
Read an extract of this title
UNTIL I WAS about ten years old, I had many misfortunes: acci¬dents, illnesses, and brushes with death. But when I entered into religious life, my situation improved. Once I entered the monastery I became healthier and happier, and possibilities began to open up that were inconceivable for a layperson from my rural part of Tibet at that time. After that, there was slow but steady progress. I still had many hardships of course, but when I think back on where and when I started, it seems almost unbelievable that I ended up in America. How is it that I am where I am today? I came from a small village in Tsang, went to Lhasa, was forced to flee from Tibet to India, and then somehow found myself in America. Even when I consider only what has happened to me here in America it is amazing. All these things that happened to me seemed like big things at the time. Now they seem like a dream. It’s like a waking dream. 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. People said that beyond Tibet was India, which had been taken over and ruined by the British. Beyond that, far beyond the ocean, they said that there was a place called America. Ordinary Tibetans would never imagine that they could go to America. But here I am.
I was born in the Shang region of the Tsangprovince of Tibet. Shang is best known as the region where the Shangpa Kagyü sect was established by Khyungpo Naljor at the beginning of the second propagation of Buddhism in Tibet in the eleventh century. Shang has many smaller areas within it, and as is often the case with settled areas in Tibet, my village was in a valley between two mountains. The valley itself was called Shum, and my village was called Phordok.
The name Shum comes from the word for “cry?’ There is an area of white sand on one of the mountains that can be seen from farther down the valley in the east. When you look up at the mountain from the valley, this white patch looks like a human face. Some say that this has a connection to the time when Padmasambhava was in this area. I’m not sure of the exact story, but it may have been that the name Shum came from people crying when they saw this face, the face of Padmasambhava, and remembered the great things that Padmasambhava did for Tibet. In Tibet there are many places that are named after such features. Phordok means any kind of a mound or bump that sticks up above flat ground. The name of our village was derived from the hill, so Phordok was both the name of the hill and of the village that lay at the foot of the hill.
My family consisted of only my father, my mother, and me. I am their only son. It was the custom in our part of Tibet to use just one part of your full name in everyday use. My father’s name was Losang, and my mother’s name was Buti. The full name that my parents gave me was Dorjé Tsering. My parents married late in their lives. When I was born, my mother was around forty and my father was already fifty, or maybe even older than that. I don’t know for certain.
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 every¬one 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. I did not have many relatives, so after my parents died there was no one who remembered the exact month and day of my birth. So like many Tibetans, I don’t know my exact birthdate. The Tibetan calendar has a twelve - year cycle. Each year is associated with one of twelve animals as well as one of five elements. Finally, there is also a two-year cycle: the first year is male, and the second year is female. So every twelve years is the same animal though the element changes. I was born in a pig year. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was also born in a pig year; he is twelve years younger than I am. His Holiness was born in the wood-pig year, and I was born in the water-pig year. In the Western calendar, this was 1923.
Pordok was a farming community; people in the area grew many crops. They grew barley, wheat, and a kind of black pea that we ground and added to tsampa. Tsampa is a Tibetan staple made of coarsely ground roasted barley flour. Tibetans usually eat tsampa by mixing it with butter tea and making a ball of dough. 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. This gave the tsampa a slightly sweet taste. We also grew mustard plants and extracted oil from the seeds. The mus¬tard plants had long rigid stems with beautiful yellow flowers on top. The plants had pods, with many seeds inside. We planted mustard and peas in a field together. The peas had a thin, weak stem and a tendency to bend down when the pods developed. By planting them mixed in with the mustard plants, they were protected, and the pods wouldn’t lie on the ground and rot. That is the way farming was done in that area of Tibet. In the summer when the mustard plants flowered, the peas couldn’t be seen. From high on the mountainside one would see entire fields filled with huge, beautiful yellow flowers.
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 a labrang, which is the estate of a lama, but ordinary people would work the land like their own. There was a basic unit of land called a kang. I don’t know if it was an acre or more or less, but in any case it was a sizeable area. Some families held one of these units or only a half, and some families had two, three, or more. My family held half a kang.
People had to pay a tax based on how much land they farmed, so those who held several kang would have to pay more than someone who just had one or one half. A local official, who was something like a governor, collected this tax and sent it to the administration. Tsang was part of the domain ruled by the Panchen Lama’s government in Shikatsé, so our taxes went there, but most other parts of Tibet would pay tax to the central government in Lhasa. The Panchen Lama was widely considered to be the second-highest religious figure in Tibet, after the Dalai Lama. The lineage of the Panchen Lamas began when the Fifth Dalai Lama bestowed the title of Panchen Lama on his own teacher, Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen. Panchen is a shortened form ofpandita chenpo, which means “great scholar.” The Panchen Lamas had political power over the Tsang region for centuries, though by our time this power was not absolute.
In the fall, people who worked the land had to send grain to the central government, or a local representative of the government would collect money from the people who lived in the area under his jurisdiction. Similarly, if the government needed to raise an army, each family would be responsible for providing support for it based on how much land they held. I don’t really know the system very well, but it worked something like that…