Venerable Geshe Doga
Geshe Doga was born in July 1935 in a small village called Khanze, situated in a valley in the remote Kham region of North-East Tibet.
His 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. Geshe Doga was to study there for the next ten years.
After the preliminary training, it was compulsory in Kham that young monks attend one of the three main monasteries of Tibet for at least three years. After that, they could decide whether to return to their local monastery or continue their studies towards the ultimate goal of becoming a geshe.
At the age of 17, the young monk undertook the dangerous three-month journey on horseback and on foot from Kham to Lhasa.
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, 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.
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 eight years where he studied the two remaining major treatises, the Vinaya and Abidharma with his Guru, 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 1,000 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 the 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 "Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition" (FPMT), 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.”
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 60 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.”
Venerable Geshe Doga signing his
first book of teachings - 2000
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 1983-4 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 Dawö 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”.
Venerable Geshe Dawö gave his last weekend course at Tara Institute on 22nd September 1984. 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 Dawö as resident teacher at Tara Institute in September 1984. His first teachings were from Shantideva’s “A Guide to the 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-la 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 (seating a maximum of 50 people) 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 Dr Ross Moore