The Venerable Geshe Lobsang Dorje Doga arrived in Australia on January 1, 1983. He had been invited by FPMT’s founding Lama and spiritual head, Lama Yeshe to become the resident teacher at Atisha Centre (our sister centre near Bendigo). Much work had been done to get the Centre in working shape for Geshe Doga’s arrival. Over sixty people came to the welcoming party that was held at the house of Kevin and Bernice Smith and were granted the joy of seeing that wonderful and now famous smile.
“What you are doing is a very rare thing,” Geshe Doga said at the time. “To give your time to establish a Buddhist centre is rare and precious and takes much courage.”
Geshe Doga was born in July 1935 in a small village called Khamze, situated in a valley in the remote Kham region of North-East Tibet.
His family was a large one of ten children. The parents were devout Buddhists and from an early age Geshe Doga was fascinated by the nearby monastery. From the age of three he would beg to go there to watch the monks debating and conducting their pujas. So it was with great happiness that at the age of seven he went with his parents to be admitted to the local monastery.
The Abbot of the monastery predicted that the boy would become a Geshe and so ordained him as a novice monk. Geshe Doga was to study there for the next 10 years.
After this preliminary training it was compulsory in Kham that young monks attend one of the three main monasteries of Tibet for at least 3 years. Then they could decide whether to return to their local monastery or continue their studies towards the ultimate goal of becoming a Geshe.
So, aged 17, the young monk undertook the dangerous three month journey on horseback and on foot from Kham to Lhasa. As a number or raging rivers had to be crossed in Kham, it was said that only the good swimmers got to Era!
For most Tibetans it was considered fortunate to be able to make at least one pilgrimage to the sacred city of Lhasa, the seat of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and known as “The Pure Land”. This was a wish come true.
At Sera Monastery he met his main teacher the Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, also a Kham-pa who was later to become the main teacher at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala where he introduced many Westerners to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.
The young monk now studied three of the five major areas of learning – the Paramitas, Madhyamika philosophy and Pramanavatrika. He stayed there until he was 24 years old, when, in 1959, he was forced to flee Tibet.
While escaping, some monks disguised themselves in lay clothes but Geshe Doga refused to do so. At one point their party was detected by the Chinese army. Some of the Tibetans ran for cover behind rocks and were picked off by the Chinese. The young Geshe Doga stood his ground, saying “How can rocks give protection when the only protection is Buddha, Dharma and Sangha?” Though the Chinese mowed the party down with a volley of bullets, miraculously Geshe-la escaped with his life.
His family remained trapped back in the village in Kham which was close to the Chinese border. It was particularly difficult for them to flee. Subsequently all have died except for one sister whom Geshe-la has not seen since that time.
Two hundred Sera monks survived the journey to India. They arrived at the height of summer. The Tibetans were used to high altitudes and had little resistance to many diseases. But physical hardships were nothing compared to the sadness they felt at being forced to abandon their sacred homeland.
Geshe Doga stayed at the refugee camp at Buxa for 8 years where he studied the two remaining major treatises, the Vinaya and Abidharma with his Guru, the Venerable Gyume Khensur Urgyen Tsetan who visited Tara Institute in 1988. Thus Geshe-la completed the entire studies for the Geshe Degree.
Following the period at Buxa, Geshe Doga was one of 13 monks chosen by the Indian Government out of 1000 to complete Sanskrit studies at Varanasi University. Their task was to translate Buddhist texts for the Indians and help restore the great Mahayana tradition to its homeland. This work earned deep respect of the Indian academic community. It added nine years of study onto what was already a lifetime of concentrated learning. Geshe Doga was conferred the Indian university degree of “Acharya”.
Following his university years, Geshe Doga spent one more year studying at Sera Monastery which had been re-established in southern India.
In March 1982 he passed his final exam for the highest monastic degree of Lharampa Geshe following an exhaustive series of examinations by the greatest living scholars. He passed with such distinction that his exam performance is still remembered.
He was now faced with a big choice, for once a monk has become a Lharampa Geshe he is in much demand as a teacher. But he can also choose to go into solitude and meditate. Geshe Doga decided to teach.
Exactly at this point, Lama Yeshe, founder of the FPMT (Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition), and a colleague at Buxa, invited Geshe-la to teach young monks at Kopan monastery in Nepal.
Geshe Doga taught there for three years where for the first time he had contact with Western students.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama blessed Kopan’s pioneering work with Western students and Lama Yeshe requested Geshe Doga to go to Atisha Centre in Australia. Geshe-la was happy as he had heard Australia was very beautiful. He said “I will teach according to the students. I will know what is best to be taught. The main aim is to benefit the minds of the students.”
Accompanied by his translator Sonam Rigzen, Geshe Doga immediately began giving regular teachings to a small dedicated contingent of Atisha Centre students. Major texts taught over 1983-’04 included Atisha’s famous “Lamp of the Path”; “37 Practices of all Buddha’s Sons” and the “Graduated Path to Enlightenment”.
In April-June 1984, while the resident teacher Venerable Geshe Dawo was visiting India, Geshe Doga taught for the first time at Tara Institute. He conducted a five-day Easter Retreat on the Four Noble Truths as well as teaching on “Bodhicitta”; the “Wheel of Sharp Weapons” and “Supplement to the Middle Way”.
The Venerable Geshe Dawo gave his last weekend course at Tara Institute on 22/9/84. A farewell dinner was held for him on October 7th as he was returning to India. Geshe Dawo was responsible for creating a stability at Tara Institute that has been built on to this present day.
Geshe Doga accepted FPMT’s request to follow Geshe Dawo as resident teacher at Tara Institute in September 1984. His first teachings were from Shantideva’s “Guide to a Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” and “Lo Rig” or mind and its functions.
Geshe Doga’s decision to forfeit his Indian papers and take out Australian residency in 1987 and then Citizenship in 1989 expresses the extent of his deep concern for us. While visiting Sera in 1985 Geshe Doga was repeatedly begged by the young monks for teachings but he politely declined because he said there was little point giving only a few teachings: “It’s best to teach to students who can study with you over a long period of time”. Somehow we have collectively accumulated that very karma so the challenge is ours.
Over the years Tara Institute has grown enormously. The confidence to shift from Crimea Street with its tiny gompa (sitting a maximum of fifty) to our present beautiful building with massive gompa (it has sat 550!) and residential community of around 36 is certainly due to the confidence that Geshe Doga’s patient and lucid guidance gives us. Every time Lama Zopa Rinpoche visits he asks us to treasure Geshe Doga and to heed his advice.
We now have increasing numbers of students studying, meditating and training as Dharma teachers whilst countless numbers have found their lives transformed through contact with Tara Institute. Sometimes the contact consists of nothing more than a flash of that famous smile. One student saw a photo of Geshe Doga in a Tara Institute newsletter found lying on a coffee table and that was it! Another met the Buddha’s teachings while Geshe Doga was strolling in a park. Her child ran up to him and demanded an introduction.
I’m sure each of us has our own stories to tell of how much Geshe-la means to us. For my part I clearly remember His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying during teachings in 1985 in Dharamsala – “Although I am teaching you now, it is the teacher you live with daily and who guides you in a gradual process who is more kind.” Knowing my daily habits this struck me as undoubtedly true!
Written by Sönam Jampa in 1990 (now Dr Ross Moore).