"A Short Biography of

Geshe Ogyen Tseten"

1914 - 2007


Geshe Ogyen Tseten

A Life in the Dharma:
Autobiography of Geshe Ogyen Rinpoche

At the request of the 1992 summer Lamrim course students of the Tibetan Centre in Hamburg, Geshe Ogyen Rinpoche told his life story.

"I was born in 1914 in the Province of Dagyab in Kham (East Tibet). This is in the Region Dotö (mDo stod) in the eastern part of Tibet near the Chinese border. My home village is Yülschül (Yul shul). My father was Sönam Lhagyal and my mother was Lhundrub Drölma. The people in this area, which is among the poorer districts of Tibet, don't live off trade or industry, but almost exclusively from farming. On the one hand there are farmers who cultivate fields, and on the other hand there are nomad farmers who tend livestock and live off dairy production."

"There are no large towns in Dagyab, but many monasteries and monks. Both inside and outside the monasteries, most people had a close connection with Dharma. Even those who didn't live in the monastery had much faith, had taken refuge [in the Triple Gem], recited mantras daily and engaged in other religious activities as well. However, the unique and profound wisdom of the Dharma was not widely spread there, because the people had to work hard for their livelihood and thus had little spare time to concentrate on [the study or meditation of] the Dharma. This is quite similar to here [in the West], where people must work hard and have only a little time for intensive analysis of the [meaning or] subject matter of the Dharma."

"Ogyän Tsetän (Orgyan tshe bstan) is the name given me by a Kagyu lama called Tsänä Gompa. My first memory is that in my fourth year I began to learn to read and write. I don't remember my parents well, [except that] they encouraged me to read the texts and learn them by heart. At first I had quite a hard time. My father was my first teacher, and began by teaching me to read and write the alphabet. My other teachers for reading and writing etc in the home country were Achö Tse-shu, Lugpa Paldän, and my uncle Tsering Gönpo."

"During the next four years I was mainly preoccupied with tending livestock - yaks, dzomo, goats, cows, horses etc. Often the whole day I was walking in order to bring the animals to a place to eat fodder, and then in the evening to bring them back to the cowshed."

The way to the Monastery

"In the past there were many Buddhists in China and occasionally lamas from China would journey to Tibet. When I was about nine years old, a Chinese lama beating a drum who was skilled in palmistry came to our village. All the villagers went to him to get their palms read. Naturally I went too, to get my future told. When the lama saw the lines on my palms, he advised me to become a monk. According to the prediction, as a monk, things would go well for me, I would lead a happy life, I would understand the teachings that I study well, get many realisations and live a long life. If I stayed a lay person, things would not go well for me. I would not be very successful in accumulating wealth, I would experience many difficulties and would not live long. Therefore he could only advise me to become a monk. I was very happy to hear this advice, which also expressed my own hopes and wishes."

"Despite that, I spent my teenage years from age thirteen to nineteen with my parents. I had to work hard because there was much to do on the farm. My family expected that I would live my entire life working for the family on the farm. I myself always held to my wish to become a monk, just as the lama had advised me."

"Then the tension between the Tibetans and Chinese escalated into a war, which occurred around the Dhargyä Monastery. In this monastery there were monks from many different parts of Tibet. The Chinese fought for control of the monastery, so many monks had to flee and some 300 sought refuge in the district where my parents lived. That was a very bad year for us, as the monks came in July and August, just after most of our harvest had been destroyed by hail. I didn't feel at all comfortable living in this situation, and so I decided to leave with a few friends of mine whose circumstances were similar. One night we stocked ourselves with supplies and money and left to go to the [great] monastery [in central Tibet], without telling our parents."

"The first night we hid in the forest while our relatives spread out in all directions and searched for us with dogs. Luckily they didn't find us. When the 'coast was clear,' my friends and I set out on the way to Central Tibet, to Lhasa. Everyone knew that the best monastery universities were in Lhasa, so that is where we wanted to go."

"On the way we met a group of some 50 monks from various parts of Tibet, who had the same goal as we did. At that time there were of course no motor vehicles available in Tibet, so one travelled by horse, yak or on foot. The pack animals had their loads put on them [in the morning] and then one set out on the journey [mostly on foot]. The monks we met up with were travelling in this manner. We, of course, had to carry our loads on our backs, because we had no pack animals."

"The journey to Lhasa took one month and 27 days. When we arrived in Lhasa, we met people we knew, who had become monks in Sera Monastery, and who then took us with them to the monastery. So I entered Sera Monastery in the ninth Tibetan month of the my nineteen year (1933). There I received monks robes and began my studies."

Study in Sera Monastery

"The studies were very intensive and often complex and difficult. We began with study of the Collected Topics on Valid Cognition (pramana), in Tibetan called Düdra (bsdus grva). There are various sections covering the Beginning, Middle and Greater Paths of Logical Reasoning, so the study of this class lasted two years. Later we studied other topics; the Perfections (paramita) [using the text and commentaries to Maitreya's Ornament of Clear Realisation], the philosophy of the Middle Way (madhyamaka) [using the text and commentaries to Chandrakirti's Entry into the Middle Way], metaphysical knowledge (abhidharma) [using the text and commentaries to Vasubhandu's Treasury of Knowledge], And the teachings on Ethical Discipline (vinaya) [using mainly the text and commentaries to Gunaprabha's Root of Ethics]."

Sera Monastery in Tibet

"During the first year I found it difficult to understand the topics of study and I was dissatisfied. At times I even considered returning to my home village. In the Paramita class, where the five works of Maitreya are studied, one must alternate nights between two different debate sessions, one about Paramita, i.e. the Six Perfections, and the other about Madhyamaka, the Philosophy of the Middle Way. For a whole year we had to debate right through every night. By the end of the year I had been able to do very well in the Paramita class and was able to defend myself well in debate. Then I came to the conclusion that I definitely did have sufficient intelligence to undertake the studies. Next I entered the advanced class on paramita and studied the Bodhisattva paths of the perfections, according to works of Buddha Maitreya, a whole six years."

"When I turned twenty, I took novice monks' vows (Tib. Getsül) (Skt. shramanera), from the 93rd 'Ganden Tripa', the 'Throneholder of Ganden' and regent of Je Tsongkapa. He was from Drepung Monastery and was called Minyag Trichen, the venerable Yeshe Wangdän. My name as a monk, which I received during the ordination, is Yeshe Sönam (Ye shes bsod nams). In my 25th year, (while I was 24, in 1937), while I was undertaking the study of the Paramita class, I received from Purbuchok Jampa Rinpoche, the venerable Tubtän Jampa Tsültrim Tänzin, tutor of the 13th Dalai Lama, the vows of a fully ordained monk (Tib. Gelong) (Skt. bhikkshu)."

"Between the Paramita studies and the Madhyamaka studies there is a break where general teachings are given. When I entered that break, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche gave a Lamrim teaching covering the so-called Eight Great Lamrim Teachings (lam rim thri chen brgyad comprised of Lama Tzongkhapa's Great, Middling and Short Stages of the Path texts, The First Panchen Rinpoche, Losang Chögyn's Easy Path, The Second Panchen Rinpoche, Losang Yeshe's Quick Path, The Third Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Sönam Gyatso's Refined Gold Stages of the Path, The Fifth Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Ngawang Gyatso's Manjushri's Transmission, and Dagpo Ngawang Dragpa's Heart Essence of Good Advice), which lasted two months. These precious teachings helped me a lot and I had no difficulties understanding them. These teachings are especially helpful in that they make a connection between the studies one undertakes and the actual practice one must engage in in order to actualise the various stages and paths [or realisations]."

Taking on the hardships of Dharma

"After the Paramita studies ended I entered the Madhyamaka class, which has the Middle Way philosophy as its subject matter. The daily life in the Madhyamaka class is very demanding in the first two years: during the day there are teachings and debates, and the entire night is taken up in debate. For this class the motto: 'Only when the hair on your head actually starts burning do you have time to put out the fire.' The topic of the Madhyamaka class is voidness [or emptiness] (Skt. shunyata), which is a very engrossing topic. In the second year I felt I had acquired a good understanding and a good overview of the literature on the topic. This overview is comparable to the wide and long distance view one obtains when looking out from the top of a skyscraper. Other monks also confirmed and said that I had understood the texts well. Through that understanding I felt mentally relaxed and at peace."

"Then followed two years of the senior Madhyamaka class, where further commentaries to the works of the Indian masters Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti are studied, such as the great commentary of the Tibetan master Je Tsongkapa The Ocean of Awareness (Rig pa'i rgya mtsho) to Nagarjuna's Root of the Middle Way (Madhyamakashastra). In this class the rules are a little more relaxed, so that the timetable makes it possible to listen to extra-curricular discourses. At that time I received additional teachings on Sutra and Tantra from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, the fourth Kyabje Bakri (or Dagri) Rinpoche, Kyabje Gönsar Rinpoche, Kyabje Lhatsün Rinpoche and later on, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Among those teachings were the oral or reading transmissions (lung) of the entire collection of the Lord Buddha's speech (bka' 'gyur) as well as Lama Tzongkhapa and two disciple's collected works from Bakri Rinpoche and complete teachings of the Guru Puja and Mahamudra from Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche."

"Apart from that I made effort to keep my daily practice commitments that came with the various initiations and meditation-transmissions I had received from these various masters at that time. For my monastic studies, I had five so-called scriptural teachers, who had given me the actual teachings on the five topics of monastery study. They were the great teacher Ex-abbot of Drayab Magön Monastery Geshe Tsöndru Gyaltsän, the Refuge Lord Ex-abbot of Dhargyä Monastery Geshe Losang Jampa Khädrub, the lion among scholar-adepts Japön Chödze Ngawang Dorje, the Ex-abbot of Sera Je Geshe Losang Wangchuk and the Sera scholar Geshe Loga. When one teacher was too busy one went to another."

"The teachers frequently emphasized the importance of developing the readiness to take on the difficulties that arise in the course of one's Dharma study and practice. They cited as examples the life stories of great masters of the past such as Milarepa und Drubchok Ngawang Jampa. These masters practised without any possessions and under great difficulties, and as a result they attained Buddhahood in one lifetime of practice. So one should, even if one has few material comforts and a shortage even of necessities, with great enthusiasm study and practise, to purify one's mind stream with practices such as prostrations. In those days I had very few material possessions, and a very poor diet too. Despite the material difficulities, I felt very happy and relaxed in the monastery, and had the feeling, that I was developing a deep understanding of the scriptures."

"Then the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, was recognized and brought to Lhasa and enthroned. He was of course not yet the political leader of Tibet. This roll was being filled by Reting Rinpoche, and there was some political unrest in Lhasa at that time. As this resulted in violent confrontations, it had a negative effect on all the people there as well as for the Dharma Teachings. It is [almost] impossible to deeply occupy the mind with the teachings and concentrate on the study of Dharma when the people are preoccupied with fighting and conflict. For study it is very important that one has an equanimous, relaxed and happy mind. It was almost impossible to develop such a state of mind at that time."

"During my studies in the advanced class on the Middle Way, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche gave a Lamrim teaching on the texts [by the First and Second Panchen Rinpoches] Lamrim Delam und Lamrim Nyurlam, the Blissful Path- and the Quick Path to Enlightenment. This discourse took 28 days, and I found it extremely helpful, it was very good for my mind. In the class on the Middle Way, there was time [between the lessons and debates] which I used to think about and meditate without distraction on the meanings of those lamrim teachings."

"So I developed a good understanding of Dharma and I thought about nothing else. It was a very good time, during which I felt very well both of body and mind. The only disadvantage was that there was not enough time to do longer meditation retreats. One could only withdraw for short periods of meditation, because there were still many higher classes and study subjects to engage in, such as Vinaya (ethics), and Abhidharma (metaphysics or higher knowledge). Longer retreats were therefore not possible."

The Study of Ethics: Disciplining the Mind

"The Buddha gave a very large number of teachings. One talks of 84,000 heaps of his teachings which can be classified into three groups: the scriptural teachings on Discipline (vinaya-pitaka), Discourses (sutra-pitaka) and Higher Knowledge (abhidharma-pitaka)."

"The scriptural teachings on Vinaya are mainly concerned with the higher training in ethical discipline. In the Kangyur (bka' 'gyur), the Tibetan Buddhist Canon, there are four sections on Vinaya, which are grouped into twelve volumes. The scriptural teachings on Discourses are mainly concerned with the higher training in meditative concentration. In this context one mainly studies the six perfections from texts such as Maitreya's Ornament of Clear realisation. For the scriptural teachings on higher knowledge, Abhidharma, which are mainly concerned with the higher training in wisdom, one studies the texts by Vasubhandu, the Treasury of Knowledge (Abhidharmakosha), the texts on logic and awareness (Pramana), and the texts on the Middle Way."

"Following the study of the Middle Way, the study of Vinaya begins, and it takes four years. The school of thought followed for Vinaya teachings is that of the Vaibhashikas (which is also a Hinayana school)."

"The Vinaya encompasses study of ethical discipline, and one learns what the ethical discipline one must uphold is comprised of, what transgressions can occur against the various [levels of] vows, and what disadvantages accrue due to such transgressions. The study of discipline is a broad topic and the teachers emphasize the importance of learning and practising according to the explanations. There is a joke between those who have a good basis in the study of Vinaya and those who have not spent much time on it: 'I don't know much about ethical discipline, but I discipline my own mind, and that's enough for me !'"

6000 Monks come together for Debate

"After the study of Vinaya is the study on Higher Knowledge, to be exact that of the lower Abhidharma, which mainly follows the Treasury of Knowledge of Vasubandhu. For two years I was occupied with themes such as 'the circumstances of beings in cyclic existence,' 'the outer and inner worlds,' i.e. how a world system comes into existence, how it abides, how it disintegrates and the empty period between etc."

"Following this came the Karam class, which is a preparatory class to the highest class the so-called Lharam class, which finishes with the degree of Lharampa-Geshe. This class also takes two years usually. During this time one reviews and deepens one's understanding with debate of the topics: higher knowledge, Vinaya and logic. Much time is spent in debate."

"In the seventh Tibetan month there was always a great debate session. For this the monks of both colleges of the monastic university come together, and the debate was always between individual pairs of monks. The disciplinarian layed much value in the monks taking part in this debate session. When both colleges thus assembled together, there were for example in Sera then some 6000 or 7000 monks."

"After completing the Karam class one is invited by the abbot of the Monastery to join the Lharam class, the highest class in the university. That means one receives from the abbot a degree, which shows the level of one's study and understanding. There are four different levels of geshe: the highest is Geshe Lharam, followed by Geshe Tsogram, third is Geshe Rigram and the fourth level is the Geshe Lingsel. Only those with the sharpest intelligence could join the Lharam class. The result of one's studies is that one obtains a geshe title which is similar to various degrees received by students in Western universities."

"I thought I was not sufficiently competent in my knowledge to enter the Lharam class, but the Abbot encouraged me to join it so that I could obtain the highest geshe degree. In this class there is a very strict curriculum and only the best monks may enter. One must make a lot of effort in this final class, because the studies are intensive and very demanding. Some monks remain seven years in this class, others six or five. I went to this class for four years after which in 1958 I got the opportunity to take the oral examination, which occurs during the Great Prayer Festival in Lhasa. It takes the form of a public debate."

The End of the Studies and the Entry into Tantric College

"For the public debate assembled not only all the monks of all three monastic universities, Drepung, Sera and Ganden, but also monks from smaller and more distant monasteries. The debates were conducted in the main temple in Lhasa, and the Geshes-to-be were questioned by monks from early morning until late at night. During these sessions there were always two abbots, many high and learned geshes, and some of high religious status such as debate-partners of the Dalai Lama present, who acted as judges of the answers given to the debate questions. I found it quite a frightening situation to need to debate in. At the end of the examination the abbots handed out the honours."

"The yearly Prayer Festival was established by Je Tsongkapa. It occurs in the month during which the Buddha had overcome the false teachers. At that time the Buddha accepted a contest of psychic feats with non Buddhist teachers. Buddha overcame his opponents with spectacular miraculous feats. Je Tsongkapa commemorated this great deed by establishing a yearly Prayer Festival (cho 'phrul smon lam chen mo) where monks and learned ones debate together."

"Traditionally extensive offerings are made by the geshe candidate, and to help me in this Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche arranged that I was sponsored by the Dhargyä Monastery trader Tänzin Puntsok."

"In the exam I came out third best, and therefore received a Lharampa Geshe with third grade honours. Of the geshes who obtain an honour grade (and not all who take part get this), it is expected that they will enter Tantric College [to add training in the meaning and practice of tantra to their philosophical knowledge]. Geshe Jampa Khädrub had written me from Dhargyä Monastery asking that I join him when I had finished my geshe degree, but then he wrote again saying that there were problems in Eastern Tibet [with the communist Chinese] and that I should go to Tantric College for a year before coming. Although I would normally have gone to Gyütö of the two Tantric Colleges, he recommended me to enter Gyüme so in 1959, I entered Gyüme (rGyud smad), the Tantric College of Lower Lhasa."

"There it was the tradition at that time that immediately after the Prayer Festival, in the second Tibetan month (March/April), the tantric monks would travel across the land and stay in small monasteries. On this tour one only took a back pack with a few prescribed articles. In Tantric College one had a very much stricter discipline than in the monastic universities. For example we were only allowed to drink tea twice a day, but the cup was also therefore quite large, a kind of wooden bowl. Apart from that each monk needed to have an alms bowl or begging bowl. On the tour between monasteries, one took one's bowl and begging bowl along. One also had a text holder made of bamboo to carry texts that we were required to memorise. To eat there was no rice or other cooked food, but tsampa, flour of roasted barley. So one needed a cotton sack for that and this one had to arrange oneself. Apart from that one also needed a bag of prescribed size for food and other articles, and a large piece of white cloth in which robes and other essentials of a monk's life were wrapped. Then there was a special bag of thick variously coloured pieces of cloth in which the begging bowl is placed and carried by being thrown over one's shoulder."

"Thus packed, we went for two days on the first tour (zho dangpo) to a temple. There we undertook long sessions of teaching, recitation and debate, from early morning til late at night. Everything was carried out with intense discipline. We stayed there 15 days and then according to the tradition returned on the 15th of the second Tibetan month to Tantric College."

Flight to India: "The fear of the Chinese made me very light-footed"

"As we set out on the return journey that time, we heard that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had fled to India, and so we did not return to the monastery in Lhasa. Together with a few other monks, I immediately set out on the path south, towards India. Our difficult journey took about one month. We had with us no horses or pack animals, only those belongings we had taken on our tour, such as monks robes, cotton bags and begging bowl."

"It was not only a difficult journey but also dangerous. We had to flee from Chinese soldiers whose goal was to prevent our escape. On the way we joined other monks so that we finally crossed the border in a group of about fifty monks, about seven days after the Dalai Lama had crossed. I had no problems with my knees in those days, and I could walk quite well - the fear of the Chinese made me very light-footed."

"When we reached Montawang, [in Arunachal Pradesh] in NE India, we were in safety and there we were directed by the Indian authorities to go to Assam, where a refuge camp had been set up, that all the Tibetan refugees were being sent to. This trip was another six or seven days, but because the danger was gone and we didn't have to fear the Chinese, I felt my legs much more !"

"In Assam the Tibetan refugees assembled and their leaders negotiated with the Indian government. They requested a place for the older people, and another where the ordained could assemble and continue their studies. Also methods to ensure education of children and young people by schooling and other means was sought. Those aged between thirty and forty got work building roads and in other similar fields. The monks of all four traditions of Buddhism met in Buxa, to continue their studies and practice of the Dharma."

"When the English were still in control of India, Buxa was a prison for freedom fighters, and it still looked like that when we got there. It was on a large flat area completely encircled by barbed wire. In big houses with many rooms there were soon more than a thousand monks of various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. The older monks gave teachings and the younger ones carried out their studies and debates. Most stayed there about eight years."

"I myself stayed there three years together with colleagues from Sera and taught many keen students topics such as Drang-nge Lekshäi Nyingpo (The Essence of the Eloquent on the Definitive and Interpretive [Meanings of the Buddha's Scriptures] by Je Tsongkapa), Jetsün Uma Chidön The General Meaning of the Middle Way by Sera Je's Jetsün Chökyi Gyaltsän) and Jugpäi Tikchen The Great Commentary to the Entry Into the Middle Way by Je Tsongkapa). In that time I also took on the role of disciplinarian for the Je College [of Sera] monks living there. Then in 1962, the monks of Tantric College moved to Dalhousie in NW India, where some 160 monks came together. H. H. the Dalai Lama advised all the monks of Tantric College to live together again and continue their special studies. So I resumed my tantric studies and duties and did short retreats of practices such as Guhyasamaja. As a degree holding Geshe I had many extra duties to fulfil such as leading the recitation of the great tantric commentaries, which had to learned by heart and recited before the assembly. Then for a time I also became the disciplinarian of Tantric College."

"In the mid 1960s, I was chosen along with fifty-five other scholars and geshes to attend a so-called Acarya course in Mussourie (north of Delhi), organised by the Dalai Lama and overseen by Song Rinpoche. During this year in Mussourie, I and the other scholars learnt some western science and also wrote new textbooks for the Tibetan refugee schools being established in India at that time. I then returned to Dalhousie. I also received teachings on bodhicitta and grammer from Kunnu Lama Rinpoche at that time. "

First Contact with the West - "What is a Tulku?"

"After five years in Dalhousie the Dalai Lama invited me to see him in Dharamsala. He asked me to become Abbot of a newly founded monastery for the refugee Tibetans living in Switzerland in a place called Rikon. Therefore, in 1967 I came to Switzerland where there was a large Tibetan refugee community as there still is now. I arrived together with four other monks on the 12 July, 1967. I established the new monastery in accordance with all the preparations and preliminaries prescribed in sutra and tantra, and when the building was finished, I invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to bless it. He was unable to come at the time, but fortunately his two tutors, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche were able to come. Thus after one year the monastery could begin functioning and I stayed a little more than six years as abbot there."

"Although the monastery was set up for the Tibetan community, for them to have rituals done, teachings given and so on, in time more and more Westerners visited to ask questions of us. The other monks and myself were often asked to speak at universities and other institutions. Sometimes we had people visit who would stay some time in the monastery in order to do research and get their many questions answered. Mostly the questions they asked were not what I had learnt about or had had interest in during my many years of study in the past."

"They asked questions like: 'What is a Tulku?,' 'What system is used to identify Tulkus?,' 'How high are the mountains around Lhasa?,' 'How many monasteries had there been in Tibet?' etc. I had never given any thought to such questions. Hardly ever did anyone want to know about the meaning of Dharma, about the future and past lives, the rules of karma, refuge in the Triple Gem or the path to enlightenment. Most questions I was asked were about the geography or the history of Tibet."

The Longing for Meditation

"After I had been in Switzerland for six years, His Holiness the Dalai Lama accepted an invitation to come there. I took this opportunity to ask him to excuse me from my duties as abbot of Rikon Monastery. I wanted to meditate and do a long retreat, to purify myself of bad karma, accumulate merit and to accomplish certain religious practices. He praised this wish very much and said, it is correct to wish to go into retreat. However His Holiness did not make known to either the monastery nor the head of the trust that I was discharged, so it was only an acceptance in principle. The situation therefore did not change immediately, and there was no clear conclusion."

"At this time I thought strongly of withdrawing into retreat in order to concentrate more on Dharma. I had not had many opportunities over the last fourteen years as a refugee either in India or in Switzerland to do this. As a refugee I had to occupy myself with meeting daily needs and in Switzerland my life was busy and without sufficient peace and quiet for the practice of deep thinking about Dharma. For that reason I made a plan to go into retreat. But after His Holiness left Switzerland everything else happened."

"That year, 1974, the Dalai Lama gave a Kalacakra initiation in Bodhgaya. He then asked me to become the abbot of Tantric College in that same year. That involved first becoming the acting abbot (Lama Umdze) for three years, and then another three years as the actual abbot of Tantric College (Kenpo). I tried to express to His Holiness that my studying days were long past and that I had therefore forgotten the many tantric texts I needed to know for this job. I felt I was not sufficiently qualified to do this and would prefer instead to go into retreat. His Holiness advised me to do this task despite my misgivings. So I returned to Gyume Tantric College, which had in the intervening years moved to Gurupura near Hunsur in South India (in Karnataka State)."

"As Lama Umdze I was the administrator of the monastery, who had to occupy himself with all the concerns of the monastery and had to ensure that the discipline of the monastery was upheld as prescribed in the past. I had to concern myself with the welfare of the monks and be present at every function and recitation ceremony. The state of the monastery's affairs affirmed that I did my job well. The monks studies were well organised. But then there came a danger that I would lose my Swiss refuge travel document, because the rules only allowed me to live outside Switzerland for up to three years. If I stayed away longer my travel document would lose its validity."

"So I went to Dharamsala and obtained audience with the Dalai Lama. At this opportunity I asked His Holiness what I should do, if I should let my travel document expire, or if I should return to Switzerland. I also repeated my view that it would be better for me if I did not become Abbot of the Tantric College. I had, after all, done a good job as Lama Umdse. Everything was running very smoothly in the monastery. I requested His Holiness to appoint another as Abbot because I had the urgent wish to return to Switzerland and there do my long retreat. His Holiness answered that I should go back to Switzerland for six months and get my travel document extended. Then I must return to India and become abbot of Tantric College. After a short time as abbot I could then go to Switzerland to complete my long retreat."

"So I became the abbot of Gyume Tantric College. My actual function was to give teachings to the monks. I normally would have had this duty for three years, but I stayed only one year, as I needed to go to Switzerland to renew my passport. For this I had the permission of His Holiness. The monks of Tantric College pleaded with me to stay longer. They said that I had benefited the monastery much and that during my term as abbot the monastery had blossomed. However, I stood by my decision, which had the Dalai Lama's blessing, to return to Switzerland."

The longed for retreat - five years of intensive religious practice

"In Rikon I lived with a Swiss family and completed the preliminary practices (ngön dro) to do a long retreat in connection with the meditational deity Yamåntaka (from Autumn 1977?). For this retreat nine preliminaries are prescribed [in order to purify one's mind stream of negative karma and obtructions to realisation and to accumulate merit]: 100,000 prostrations, 100,000 mandala offerings, 100,000 recitations of the 100-syllable mantras of Vajrasattva, 100,000 recitations of the short request prayer of Je Tsongkapa (migtsema), 100,000 times taking refuge, making 100,000 small Buddha statuettes or small stupas (tsatsa), 100,000 offerings of water bowls and 100,000 recitations of the mantras of Damtsig Dorje (Samayavajra) in order to purify degenerations of commitments (samaya). In conclusion 100,000 fire pujas were performed, by burning black sesame seeds representing one's own negative actions. The offering [to a fire deity] of 100,000 black sesame seeds serves to purify negative karma. The individual sesame seeds were thrown into the fire and burnt as negative karma, along with the recitation of the mantra of Dorje Kandro (Vajradaka) 100,000 times. These nine preliminary activities or preparations took me three years to complete."

"After finishing these I began my actual retreat on Yamåntaka, where along with meditation I recited the main mantra of Yamåntaka 13 million times and the long mantra 1.1 million times. The recitations took about two years. In conclusion 100,000 atoning fire pujas and some other activities had to be completed, and these I did in Sera Monastery in South India."

"So in this way I was able to purify myself of bad imprints and accumulate much merit. In total the retreat thus lasted for about five years. After this I did many other short retreats over the years, and I also gave teachings. Thus, in the early 1980s I gave many commentary transmissions of the practice of Sera Je's special deity, Hayagriva in exact accordance with the traditions of the lineage in the old Sera Je assemble hall."

"Later I was requested by the monks of Sera, to come and act as a senior and experienced teacher. So, in 1989, following His Holiness the Dalai Lama's advice that this was beneficial, I moved to Sera in South India. This is the story of a life without much Dharma - a hollow and empty biography."

Among Geshe Ogyän Tsetän's students are most of the senior geshes and tulkus of Sera Monastery, as well as thousands of geshes and younger monks and many lay people all over the world. In Trehor Kangtsän over the years he thus gave many teachings and initiations such as a commentary on Yontän Zhirgyurma (The Basis of All Good Qualities), Vajrasattva, Shakyamuni, Three Wrathful Vajrapåni, and Paldän Lhamo Initiations, White Tara and Amitayus Long-life Initiations, Yamantaka Solitary-Realizer Great Initiation, Vajrayogini Initiation, White Umbrella Goddess Great Initiation, Secret Hayagriva Initiation etc. In 1996, in Trehor Kangtsän, he gave the entire Rinjung Gyatsa set of 300+ initiations to more than 1200 geshes and other monks, as requested by Geshe Thupten Ngawang and Trehor Kangtsän.

Occasionally he has visited other countries to give teachings to westerners and Tibetans. For example, in the centre of Geshe Thubten Ngawang in Hamburg, Germany, he gave many teachings on lamrim (path to enlightenment) and lojong (mind training) such as Je Tsongkapa's Lojong Nyima Öser (The Sunrays of Mind Training), initiations such as Guhyasamaja, Heruka (Luipa and Drilbupa), Yamantaka, Vajrayogini, Cittamani Tara, etc; in the centre of Tramthok Tulku in Milano, Italy, he gave Thirteen Deity Yamantaka and Kunrig (Sarvavid) Initiation and many other teachings. In Switzerland he has given many commentaries such as lamrim, lojong, calm abiding, special insight and Lama Chöpa (Guru Puja), Yamantaka, Cittamani Tara, Sarvavid and Vajrayogini Initiations etc.

In the summers of 1989-90, and again in 1992-3, at his student Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey's request, he visited Dhargyey Buddhist Centre in New Zealand and there he gave many initiations and teachings, such as Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka and Cakrasamvara Great Initiations, Powa (consciousness transference) commentary, Vajrayogini, Yamantaka Ekavira, and White Tara Initiations, Gadän Lhagyama, lojong and lamrim commentaries; transmissions such as Kyerim Ngödrub Gyatso (Ocean of Siddhis of the Generation Stage by Khädrub Rinpoche) and Dzogrim Rimnga Saldrön (The Lamp Illuminating the Path of the Five Stages of the Completion With the Dalai Lama in Milano, 1999 Stage by Je Tsongkapa); and Getsül and Gelong ordinations. On the outward and return journeys he stopped in Singapore and Australia, giving many teachings. In Sydney and at Geshe Doga's centre, he gave Yamantaka and Mahakala Initiations etc.

In 1998 His Holiness the Dalai Lama came to inaugurate the new assembly hall of Sera Je College, and for this Geshe Ogyän Tsetän sponsored the Dalai Lama to give a five day teaching and transmission of Tong Tung Kälsang (Khädrub Rinpoche's text on voidness). Immediately following this he gave a Secret Hayagriva Great Initiation to more than 2000 in the new hall. As well as numerous small teachings he gave in 1999 a White Umbrella Goddess Great Initiation and several other small initiations at Doboom Tulku's request and a Vajrayogini Initiation at Geshe Paltsering and his Hong Kong student May Wong's request, and all of these were attended by between 1500 and 2500 Sera Je and Sera Me monks. These were followed by Sera Je requested Hayagriva Initiation attended by almost 3000 in the main Je assembly hall. In January 2000 he gave Yamantaka Initiation to about 1500 in the Je assembly hall, 21 Tara Jenang requested by Geshe Thubten Dawö, Narochödruk (Six Yogas of Naropa), Vajrayogini Completion Stage, and Powa commentary to many senior Sera geshes at the request of Sera Me teacher Gen Döndrub, and many small initiations requested by Dakri Rinpoche. As well he has given Getsül ordination more than 21 times and Gelong ordination five times totalling a few thousand monks.

Since 2002 he stayed in Seraje Monastery in South India, continuing a life as in retreat with personal practices and meditation taking up his day until 3.00 or 4.00 in the afternoon every day.

During the year 2007 he made extensive offerings at the major monasteries in India, mentioning to his students that it is better to make offerings before one has passed away rather than afterwards. He also told some close disciples and attendants that he would not remain in this life beyond his 93rd year, which he meant by 2007.

Then on October 11, 2007, at 4:30 in the afternoon (local time) having finished his activites for this life, he passed away while with close disciples and attendants in his quarters in Seraje Monastery. After his last breath, his mind remained in his body in deep meditation for another 8 days while extensive practices were done at the monastery. On the ninth day his body was cremated in the traditional manner at Trehor Kangtsen of Seraje Monastery in South India, in the presence of thousands of monks of the monastery.

In Conclusion

All these teachings Geshe Ogyän Tsetän has given without any signs of tiring even as he has reached his nineties, and without care for material gain as he has a tradition of leaving whatever monetary offerings are made to him to the monastery, college or house where the teaching is given. Every day he spent from early morning until mid afternoon doing his daily meditational practices, and the rest of the time advising and caring for all beings without even the slightest bias. Thus he is serving the Buddha's teachings in general and his Lamas and their teachings in particular through vast efforts with stainless motivation. It is an immense loss to this world that he has passed away.


[Back]Return to the Geshe Ogyen home page.
Translated and compiled from oral and written sources by Sönam Tenzin, taking as a basis the autobiography in German published in the magazine Tibet und Buddhizmus which was orally translated by Christof Spitz, and edited by Svenja Willkomm, Michael Fritzsch and Carola Roloff.
Last revised: 9 December, 2007
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