'I Blew My Monkhood. I Blew it.'



STAFF REPORTER Chicago Sun Times

March 31, 2002

Nawang Gehlek is not a vegetarian. "Of course, vegetarian is better," he says, offering consolation as a look of disappointment clouds my face, "both for your health and because of the killing of animals . . . But in Buddhism, we acknowledge that there cannot be a perfect version of anything. Since no one can be perfect, why not eat meat?"

It's hard to argue with that logic, especially when it comes from a friend and former schoolmate of the Dalai Lama. Still, here we are at the Chicago Diner, the tiny, quirky vegetarian cafe at Roscoe and Halsted, since I'd mistakenly assumed that we'd be having a meat-free afternoon.

As we peruse the menu--which bears lots of ominous warnings, like "Our soy cheese is not vegan, it contain casein"--Gehlek seems rather bemused by the whole thing. He's thinking about a veggie burger or maybe the steamed vegetable plate, which he ends up choosing because he loves kale. He's a little dubious about some of the other entrees.

"It's funny, isn't it, that they call it cowboy chili," he says, looking slightly worried that he might have missed the joke.

I agree that it's funny, and probably unintentionally so. Thinking longingly of the burger I might have had if we'd gone to an actual diner, I don't bother confessing that I'm not a vegetarian either.

Gehlek lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he runs the Jewel Heart foundation, the group he founded in 1988 to support the preservation of Tibetan culture. He travels here frequently to speak to the Jewel Heart Chicago chapter--one of five in the United States--and to conduct weekend seminars on philosophy.

He is a wildly popular teacher and has counted composer Philip Glass and the late Beat poet Allen Ginsberg among his students. His followers address him as "Rimpoche," which is a title used for people who are the reincarnation of a major lama or other important figure. Gehlek is the reincarnation of Tashi Namgyal, an abbot and early Buddhist master.

Seriously. The Tibetans have a process for this, and he's been certified as the real deal. If it were just an honorary thing, they probably would have taken it away from him.

"I'm the bad guy," Gehlek says, a little too merrily, referring to some, um, experimenting he did in the 1960s. He was on the outs with the Tibetan Buddhist establishment for a while but is now fully back in the fold--though he hasn't exactly apologized for his bad behavior.

"I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day," he says, and then with made-for-TV delivery, pauses, adding, "but I did not inhale."

Also, he drank. And some other stuff. It wasn't much different from what lots of other 20-somethings were doing at the time, but Gehlek says, "In my case, I blew my monkhood. I blew it."

It's clear that it still stings, even after so much time has passed. But I have to ask: How, exactly, does one get kicked out of Buddhist monkhood? It's more subtle than being excommunicated.

"No one tells you, but you know yourself," he says, "You have sex with a woman, and you are no longer a monk. No one has to tell you. You just know it and you quit."

Gehlek has something to teach us all about the wisdom of quitting. Because he's really managed to make it work for him. He carries with him a tiny red Nokia cell phone, which rings four times during lunch. He answers its jaunty whistle and chats briefly with each caller, yuppie style, which would normally be frowned upon in this oh-so-alternative spot, but he manages to charm anyone who might be the slightest bit annoyed simply by flashing them an enlightened grin. Though no one here recognizes him, there is undeniably something special about this jolly, diminutive man in a bright orange shirt and tie. He draws people in, makes them giggle in spite of themselves.

It is hard for my Western, always-keeping-score mind to reconcile this obvious, contagious joy with the life he's lived. Gehlek was 4 when he was identified as a reincarnated lama and selected for training as a monk. He spent the next 16 years of his life committing to memory more than 5,000 pages of philosophical texts and experiencing the rigors of monastic life: getting up at 4 a.m., spending his days in a cave, meditating for hours at a time.

Between big bites of his ear of corn, he makes light of the hardships, saying it's not nearly as bad as it sounds--"There are lots of caves in Tibet," he says, as if that makes living in one somehow better--and, besides, it was considered a privilege, sort of the Tibetan equivalent of boarding school and an Ivy League college.

Gehlek's family was wealthy and socially prominent. His father was a cousin of the 13th Dalai Lama--that's the one before this one--and owned cars, radios and other luxury goods that were extremely rare in World War II-era Tibet. So things were particularly bad for them when, in the 1950s, the communist Chinese took over.

Still munching contentedly, Gehlek recalls the moment he realized he was in trouble.

"We had a family friend who was a retired businessman, and we talked about what was happening. I said that since they were liberating, equalizing everyone, I guess they were going to make everyone rich. He said, 'They're not going to make the have-nots into haves.' That's what he told me. The haves will be brought down to the level of the have-nots."

He laughs at his own naivete and starts in on the kale, which he's been saving for last as he polished off the rest of the vegetables, telling me about his harrowing trip over the mountains and across the border into India, where the Tibetans who managed to escape would later establish themselves as a nation in exile.

"At the border," he says, "I got a ride in a garbage truck. And I felt lucky. But at the same time, I felt it was the end of ever riding in a sedan."

Gehlek did not mourn the loss of his privileged life and says that his life in an Indian refugee camp was actually "a much more happy time than now." The loss of his country was then, he says, "the only worry I had. You've lost your status, lost your everything, but once you give all that up . . .Your expectations, if you let them go, it's the best thing."

Which goes a long way toward explaining why he's enjoying the steamed vegetable plate so much more than I am. He's embracing what he has, while I'm left wondering if the soy cheese would have helped.

This is not to say that Gehlek hasn't had his own issues. Living in India, through his 20s, he did a good bit of the aforementioned experimenting, mostly with American and European "seekers" who traded their vices for his abbey-trained wisdom. More significantly--to him--he also had a crisis of faith. He wasn't sure he believed in reincarnation, and particularly not his own.

"People would say, 'You did this' or 'You said this' in a past life. But memories? I have none. That bothered me a lot," he says.

He felt he couldn't ask his teachers and was afraid of being rejected by his peers if he put his doubts into words. "Buddhists accept reincarnation just like we accept hamburger," he says, "Imagine an American kid asking their parents about hamburger in the 1940s or '50s. He'd get beaten up, too."

Gehlek wrote about his doubts--and his ultimate decision to put them aside--in the best-selling book Good Life, Good Death. He offers me a copy, saying that he doesn't want to convince me of reincarnation, just to "raise the possibility."

It might be a comforting idea, he says. And, then again, so might that hamburger. He leaves it up to me.