Gedun Choepel

This is an old post off my old blog, ‘All Talk is Like an Echo ( It was posted on June 26th, 2006. An interesting side-note: I ended up meeting the reincarnation (tulku) of Gedun Choepel in October, seeing him three times over the course of a week in Eugene, Oregon in his current display as Dzogchen Khenpo Choga Rinpoche. His style is direct and powerful, and the essence of his teachings could perhaps be summed up as “your positive thinking is the cause of your happiness and the condition for the happiness of all sentient beings; your negative thinking is the cause of your suffering and the condition for the suffering of all sentient beings.” Power and clarity blared forth from his message. I went up to receive a blessing from him at the end of the first teaching, and he touched my head strongly, chanted the Vajra Guru mantra (OM AH HUNG BENZRA GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG), and I felt a palpable energy coursing down through my body from my crown. It was quite nice.

And, he’s pretty eccentric in this life, too. Still got the powerful, brilliant, and wacky thing going on in this life.  

Anyway, here’s the article:

Gedun Choepel

Examining through one’s own experience how much attitudes change from childhood through to the decrepitude of old age, how could confidence be put in current conceptions! Sometimes even looking at a goddess, one is disgusted; sometimes even looking at an old woman, passion is generated. Something exists now, but later it will not be, and something else will come. Number cannot encompass the deceptions of the mind.

–Gedun Choepel

I read recently today in the fascinating work Tibet, Tibet by Patrick French about the iconoclastic Gelugpa monk Gedun Choepel, reknowned for his radical perspectives on Tibetan Buddhism, his works on sexuality, opium-smoking, and other eccentricities. I am, of course, intrigued by such strange and unconventional characters. In the Tibetan Arts of Love , translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, we read about his early brilliance and unswervingingly curious nature:

At age thirteen he demonstrated his brilliance by composing two complicated poetic structures within rectangles that can be read from many directions. He was ordained at Re-gong Monastery where he received the name Gedün Chöpel.[…] He became famed for his abilities at debate, and during a major test he refuted to an overweening degree his college’s own textbooks (by the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century renowned religious figure Jam-yang-shay-ba) to the point where the scholars of Jam-ba-ling were frozen into silence.

[…]He was fond of provoking other scholars in debate. Once he came to the debating courtyard dressed up as an illiterate monk-policeman, challenging and defeating the Mongolian scholar Ngak-wang-lek-den, who later became abbot of Go-mang. On another occasion he took such an unusual position against the chief scholar of Go-mang’s rival college within Dre-bung Monastic University, called Lo-sel-ling, that his opponent was reduced to silence.

He even challenged the very foundations of Buddhism, by taking the position that

…Buddhahood does not exist, with the result that an irate group of monks beat him up and with brute force made him agree that indeed Buddhahood does exist. The story says a great deal about the power of group-control that set limits on the analytical probings, in Ge-luk-ba colleges. Gedün Chöpel appears not to have always employed the usual facades through which Tibetan scholars pretend that their highly critical analyses are only clarifications, and not revisions or refutations, of famous figures’ opinions. He apparently paid little attention to his studies while at Go-mang and left just before he was to take exams for the ge-shay degree, eschewing the vanity of high position.

He was also deeply involved in art, and had his own theories of art, based on meditational principles:

Heather Stoddard relates a story from the expedition photographer, Fany Mukerjee: We used to talk about art a lot. I was educated in the western tradition in which art is one activity that can be picked up at a moment’s notice and put down again, but Gedün Chöpel said the most important thing is concentration. The mind must be totally absorbed in the subject. One day for a joke he said that he would show me what he meant. He went to the market and bought a bottle of arak [liquor], he started to drink. He drank and drank and kept asking whether this face had gone red yet. By the last drop he was quite inebriated. He stripped off stark naked and sat down and started to draw; he drew a perfect figure of a man starting off at one fingertip and going all round in one continuous line until he ended back up at the fingertip again.

He was highly critical of the way his own tradition, the Gelugpas, interpreted the Madhyamaka philosophy, which seeks to establish the final nature of phenomena and reality-as-such:

An Inner Mongolian scholar, Ge-shay Gel-den, who took up residence in New Jersey, told me that he met a drunken Gedün Chöpel once on the streets of Hla-sa. Gedün Chöpel took him inside a house and with great lucidity laid out his interpretation of Madhyamika. Ge-shay Gel-den was amazed at his clarity despite being inebriated, a feat similar to the earlier demonstration of his powers of concentration by drawing when intoxicated.Gedün Chöpel’s basic criticism of Dzong-ka-ba’s intricate analysis of Madhyamika is of being over-subtle. Specifically, he found Dzong-ka-ba’s distinction between existence and inherent existence and the claim that only inherent existence is refuted in emptiness is too abstruse. Indeed, Dzong-ka-ba holds that until one realizes emptiness, one cannot validly distinguish between existence and inherent existence, and yet he insists that the first step in meditation on emptiness is to get a clear idea of what inherent existence is and how it appears to the mind. Dzong-ka-ba’s followers attempt to explain away the apparent discrepancy by holding that the initial identification of inherent existence is with a mere correct assumption and not with valid cognition.Nevertheless, Gedün Chöpel’s criticism emphasizes the need to realize emptiness in meditation and not be content with verbal manipulation of terminology the meaning of which has not been experienced. He therefore concludes that no matter what verbal distinctions are made, one has in fact to refute pot, pillar, existence, non-existence, and so forth themselves—not making the mistake of leaving the basic object as it is and seeking to refute some separate inherent existence. He identifies this as the system of both the Nying-ma-bas and of experientially based Ge-luk-ba scholars such as Jang-gya Röl-bay-dor-jay Gung-tang Gön-chok-den-bay-drön-may and the First Pan-chen Lama Lo-sang-chö-gyi-gyel-tsen. As Jang-gya says: It seems that leaving these concrete appearances as they are, they are searching for some hornlike thing to refute.

Hence, Gedün Chöpel was objecting not to Ge-luk-ba scholarship in general but to a prevalent tradition that shows—by how it treats conceptual distinctions—that it is not rooted in experience.

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