Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden in India
In 1959 the invasion of Tibet by communist Chinese armies shattered the monastic existence and Thubten Loden decided to escape to India to continue his practice and studies. It was a gruelling and dangerous journey, walking through southern Tibet into the eastern part of India, but despite the danger and the need for haste he refused to compromise his daily practices and commitments. Throughout the escape he insisted on wearing all his monk’s robes instead of a disguise. Carrying his special teaching vestment, his Vinaya Sutra and Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way texts, he arrived in India with eleven of his students after a month travelling on foot.
Although forced to become a refugee and leave behind his family, home, friends and beloved guru, he was never angry with the Chinese then or later. He merely reflected that such was the nature of samsara. The Tibetan people’s unfortunate situation had its main cause in previous unwholesome karma as a group, not in the Chinese. He believes that when this karma is exhausted, Tibet will again be a free and independent country. He sees anger with the Chinese to be senseless and thinks instead of impermanence and karma. Prior to the invasion he never dreamed of being separated from Sera Monastic University or indeed that it would cease to be a great centre of Buddhist learning, so the communist Chinese helped to destroy this illusion of security and permanence.
Of the one hundred thousand Tibetans who escaped, the Indian and Nepalese governments kindly accepted ninety thousand. Thubten Loden ended his journey at Buxa in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas. As the monks assembled in the refugee camp established for their sake, the abbots tolerated no lapse in discipline. The day after they arrived, debating classes were organised and they resumed their studies immediately in makeshift huts. Even the young children were sent to the local school to learn the Indian language and customs.
By decree of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the most advanced students were selected from among the refugees of the major monastic universities—Sera, Drepung and Ganden—and formed into a special class to study and debate together. His Holiness wished to show that great Geshes could and would still be trained for the preservation and spread of the precious Dharma. Thubten Loden continued his studies as a member of this class for seven years from 1960. While revising all his work in the five branches of philosophy he concentrated on Discipline and Phenomenology. As in Tibet, he was often asked to give teachings in all aspects of Buddhist philosophy to students of the three main lineages of Tibetan Buddhism—the Gelug, Kagyu and Sakya. He was becoming known and respected as a lama and the demand for his teaching was increasing.
In 1968 the whole of the special class was instructed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to attend the Sanskrit University at Varanasi. His Holiness said that Tibetan qualifications could begin to be recognised outside Tibet only when lamas had obtained the respected Indian Acharya degree. At Varanasi, Thubten Loden continued his studies in the five branches of philosophy for four hours a day. In addition, he learnt Hindi, Sanskrit and the customs and culture of India. While there he also had many discussions with Indian teachers about non-Buddhist philosophies and religions to gain an understanding of their views. He also made his first contact with Westerners—an American youth visited him daily for about five months. In 1970 Thubten Loden graduated from the Sanskrit University and was awarded his Acharya Degree with Honours.
After receiving his degree Thubten Loden heard that he and the other members of the special class had now been summoned to Dharamsala by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be examined for their Geshe degrees. This was to be the first such examination in exile and His Holiness made it both strict and comprehensive. He wished to show everyone the high standard reached by the candidates and reassure his people that the religious and scholastic tradition had not degenerated since leaving its homeland. To make up a board of examiners, His Holiness invited fifty very high Geshes and abbots to join him.
Thubten Loden was aware that this event was the culmination of all his years of effort and prepared himself thoroughly in order to do his best. At the examination, which lasted eight hours a day for seven days, he was subjected to close questioning by all the examiners for hours at a time. Then it was his turn to question the examiners to test further his debating skill and depth of understanding. His Holiness presided over the sessions impassively checking every word from his seat above the other examiners. His slightest smile brought floods of joy to the candidates, while even a suggestion of a frown set them trembling. At the end of the examinations His Holiness graded the candidates. The level awarded to the first place getter was reserved for those who had reached the very highest standard, rarely attained. Thubten Loden was awarded equal first place.
His Holiness then selected the twenty-six highest graduates and divided them equally into two groups, ordering each group to attend one of the two main tantric monasteries of the Gelug lineage—Gyuto Tantric College and Gyumay Tantric College. He asked them to complete the study and practice of all the four levels of tantra and to concentrate particularly on the mother and father Highest Yoga tantras.
In the meantime, the class was subjected to more examinations. His Holiness ordered the special class to present itself for examination by the three great monastic universities, Sera, Drepung and Ganden. First they went to Sera and were subjected to a gruelling two-week examination. Each of the thirteen classes at Sera examined them for a day on the subject of its speciality. Any monk could ask any question on any subject. The whole monastery then assembled to question the candidates non-stop for twenty-four hours. The candidates were graded first, second, third and so on. Thubten Loden was awarded equal first place. Drepung and Ganden monastic universities examined the class in their turn and again Thubten Loden was placed equal first.
Finally, His Holiness the Dalai Lama submitted the class to a one-day public examination in Dharamsala before himself, His Holiness Ling Rinpoche, His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche and all the high abbots and Geshes. Almost the entire population of Dharamsala turned out to witness the performance of the candidates under public examination. After a long session of close questioning and debate, His Holiness publicly awarded Thubten Loden equal first place in the special class and his Geshe Lharampa degree (the foremost among many classes of Geshe degree). The degree itself was forwarded in 1975.
Thus Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden installed himself in his new home, Gyumay Tantric College, to continue his study and practice of the four levels of tantra. At Gyumay the first task was to commit to memory the major textual and commentarial material used. These consisted of the Fundamental Tantra of Heruka and its Clearly Showing the Hidden Commentary by Lama Tsong Khapa, and the Guhyasamaja root tantra, the Guhyasamaja King of Tantras with its generation stage practices called ‘The Forty-nine Sets of the Generation Stage’. The latter contains forty-nine different visualisations and covers the five branches of Guhyasamaja tantra, when treated in conjunction with its commentaries such as the Vajra Rosary commentary by the Buddha. He also studied and memorised the Fundamental Guhyasamaja Tantra Commentary written by Jetsun Sherab Senge, the illustrious disciple of Lama Tsong Khapa who founded Gyumay Tantric College.
Geshe Loden then completed his study of the six branches of Guhyasamaja tantra generation stage practices. The six branches are:
- The Forty-nine Sets of the Generation Stage
- Four Yoga Instructions
- Six Yoga Instructions
- Four Vajra Instructions
- Instructions on the Four Branches of Approximation
- Three Instructions on Meditative Stabilisation
He also comprehensively studied the Gyumay system of eight groups of completion stage techniques. These are:
- The Six Levels of the Completion Stage of Guhyasamaja tantra in the tradition of Nagarjuna
- Four Drops of the Completion Stage of Guhyasamaja tantra in the tradition of Yeshe Zhab
- Four Blessings of the Completion Stages of the Great Wheel of Vajrapani tantra
- Four Yogas of the Three: Red, Black and Solitary Yamantaka tantras
- The Great Yoga of Luipa of Heruka tantra
- The Five Stages of Drilbupa of Heruka tantra
- The Six Yogas of Naropa
- The Six Branches of Preparation of the Wheel of Time of Kalachakra tantra
The teachings on these tantric practices were received from His Holiness Trijang Dorje Chang Losang Yeshe.
During this time he also completed a three month retreat on the Six Yogas of Naropa.
In 1975 Geshe Loden was examined on his understanding and knowledge of all four levels of tantra with particular emphasis on the mother tantra of Heruka and the father tantra of Guhyasamaja. The examination was conducted in front of the assembled monks and at the end of the two days he was awarded a degree in tantric studies with honours.
By now Geshe Loden was caring for about one hundred and fifty Tibetan students from all four orders of Tibetan Buddhism. However, he had always prayed to develop Lord Buddha’s teachings, particularly in places where they were not well established. Seeing that there were already many Geshes and lamas in Tibet and India, he prayed to help develop the Dharma in a country where there were not so many qualified Dharma teachers.