Lama Thubten Yeshe, the Founder of the FPMT
Lama Thubten Yeshe was born in Tibet in 1935 not far from Lhasa. He was soon recognized as the incarnation of the learned abbess of Chi-me Lung Gompa, home to about 100 nuns of the Gelug tradition. This abbess had gained a reputation as a great yogini and it was said to be her fervent prayer that her work in that lifetime would enable her to be reborn in such a way that she could bring Buddhism to those in spiritual darkness, those that no other Lama wished to teach.
While very young, Lama spent a lot of time at the nunnery attending various ceremonies and religious functions held there. At his parents’ home he was taught the alphabet, grammar, and reading by his uncle, Ngawang Norbu, a student from Sera monastery.
From a very early age he expressed the desire to lead a religious life. Whenever a monk would visit their home he would beg to leave with him and join a monastery. Finally, when he was six years old, he received his parents’ permission to join Sera Je, a college at one of the three great Gelug monastic centers located in the vicinity of Lhasa. He lived there with over 10,000 monks, under the charge of an uncle who was also a monk there. At the age of eight, he was ordained as a novice monk by the Venerable Purchog Jampa Rinpoche.
Lama Yeshe lived under the rigorous monastic discipline of Sera Je until he was twenty-five years old. There he received spiritual instruction based on the educational traditions brought from India to Tibet over a thousand years ago. From Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, the Junior Tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he received teachings on the lam-rim, the graduated path to enlightenment that outlines the entire sutra path to buddhahood. In addition he received many tantric initiations and discourses from both the Junior and Senior Tutors to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as from Drag-ri Dorje Chang Rinpoche, Song Rinpoche, Lhatzun Dorje Chang Rinpoche, and many other great gurus and meditation masters. In addition, he studied the famous Six Yogas of Naropa, following a commentary based on the personal experiences of Lama Tsongkhapa.
Among the other teachers who guided his spiritual development were Geshe Wangchug Rinpoche, Geshe Lhundub Sopa Rinpoche, Geshe Rabten Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Gendun.
This phase of his education came to an end in l959. As Lama Yeshe himself said, “In that year the Chinese kindly told us that it was time to leave Tibet and meet the outside world.” Escaping through Bhutan, he eventually reached northeast India where he met up with many other Tibetan refugees. In spite of considerable physical difficulties in such an alien environment, these Tibetans set up their teaching program once more at the settlement camp of Buxaduar and Lama was able to continue his studies. While in Tibet he had already received instruction in Prajnaparamita (the Perfection of Wisdom), Madhyamaka philosophy (The Middle Way), and logic. In India his education continued with courses in the Vinaya rules of discipline and the Abhidharma system of metaphysics. In addition, the great bodhisattva Tenzin Gyaltsen, the Kunu Lama, gave him teachings on Shantideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life) and Atisha’s Bodhipathapradipa (Lamp of the Path to Enlightenment). He also attended additional tantric initiations and discourses and, at the age of twenty-eight, received full monk’s ordination from Kyabje Ling Rinpoche.
It was here in Buxaduar that a young reincarnate lama, called Zopa Rinpoche, came to him as a disciple. For both of them this was a turning point. The relationship that would grow between these two lamas was to change the lives of countless Dharma students and to play a great part in fulfilling the prophecy of the eighth-century Tibetan saint, Padmasambhava, that “when iron birds fly, and horses run on wheels, Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth and the Dharma will come to the land of the redskins.”