Geshe Tamdrin Rabten — reluctant abbot

The following account is from preliminary drafts of The Novice.

Geshe Tamdrin Rabten was a leading scholar at Sera monastery in the final years of old Tibet. He left home as a teenager against his father’s wishes, trekked across half the country to get to Lhasa, and lived as a malnourished monk for years until diligence brought him students, food aplenty and the nickname Fat Rabten to celebrate his change of fortune. He was one of the leading debaters of his graduating year, and was regarded also as a great teacher. After fleeing Chinese-occupied Tibet, into India, he settled down to a life of private meditation in the mountains above Dharamsala.

His retreat was interrupted by a request from the Dalai Lama to teach the growing number of Westerners who were streaming into Dharamsala. His classes were transcribed and edited into some of the earliest authentic books in English on Tibetan Buddhism.

Geshe taught in a traditional, structured and systematic way without pretense; he loved the basic material. However, he resisted repeated requests to give high-level tantric initiations and earned a reputation as a pragmatist. He consulted the Mo oracle only reluctantly, and generally disappointed those who came to him in search of fortune telling or magical powers (siddi). Those who heard him teach, however, were impressed by the clarity of his presentation.

In 1975 the Dalai Lama asked Geshe Rabten to set up a school in Switzerland with the aim of turning out western teachers. Four of his students from India, Stephen Batchelor, Brian Grabia, Arnold Possick and Alan Wallace, spearheaded a small group near Rikon, where I joined them. We were intensely interested in becoming effective interpreters of Buddhism, and also combed Western literature in search of vocabulary and imagery that would ring true with our contemporaries. The following year a permanent center was set up above Vevey in Canton Vaud. It was named Tharpa Choeling, Centre d’Hautes etudes Tibetaines, and was supported by a group of philanthropist-Buddhists from Geneva, headed by Anne Ansermet.

The center grew steadily until 1980, when it experienced a sudden decline. Geshe was skeptical of our interest in Western science, art and epistemology and tried to reign in our eclecticism. To improve my Tibetan, I went to live among his Tibetan disciples in Sera monastery, now replanted in South India, and sent back frequent missives describing the medieval and all too human features of life in a Tibetan monastery. These letters fell like grenades among my restless peers, extinguishing the sparkling light in many an eye and stripping Tibetans of their allure. Alan Wallace and Stephen Batchelor, the two leading teachers and interpreters, left for good.

Like many Westerners ordained in these early years, most Tharpa Choeling monks eventually returned to conventional lives.


Simpler days: Gen Rabten in retreat
(photo courtesy of Brian Beresford)


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