Geshe Ngawang Wangyal

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Biographical Information

Geshe Ngawang Wangyal, (c. 1901-1983) "a Kalmyk-Mongolian guru who received his Buddhist training in Kalmykia and in Tibet, established the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in 1958 as the first Tibetan Buddhist dharma center in the West. Since his arrival to the United States, when few had even heard the name ‘Tibet,' there has been a remarkable growth in American's familiarity and understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. Geshe Wangyal played a vital role in this transformation through his tremendous efforts to teach American students and to sponsor Tibetan scholars to come to this country.

"Geshe-la immigrated to the United States from India in 1955 in order to serve as a priest for the Kalmyk-Mongolian community that had been established after the Second World War in Howell Township, New Jersey. To respond to the religious needs of this community, as well as the needs of Tibetans in the greater New York area, he built a monastery in Howell with his own funds earned through teaching during his first years in this country. Beginning in 1962, Geshe-la sponsored many Tibetan monastic scholars to come to the US and to assist with monastery activities by giving teachings and performing religious ceremonies. He also took on resident American students, who tutored the monks in English language in exchange for classes in Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan language. Two of them, Jeffrey Hopkins, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, and Robert Thurman of Columbia, went on to become leading scholars in Tibetan Buddhist studies. During the sixties, more American men and women came to study with Geshe-la and the Tibetan monks at the monastery. To adjust to this new situation and to accommodate his desire to enter into partial retirement, Geshe-la bought some land for a retreat house in Washington, New Jersey in 1967 and left the monastery in Howell in the care of Tibetan monks.

"In Washington, Geshe-la received a new influx of American students. Among them, Joshua Cutler arrived in 1970 and Diana Cutler in 1972... In addition to his teaching activities, Geshe-la was actively involved in envisioning and creating TBLC physical facilities. After building the Retreat House in 1968, he worked with his students to construct the Schoolhouse in 1975. In 1979, he sold the monastery in Howell and brought the Tibetan monks to a newly purchased building in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Four months before his death on January 30, 1983, he offered this building to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in whom he had great faith, by donating it to His Holiness's charitable organization, The Tibet Fund. He then arranged for the resident monks to stay at the Washington site. Geshe-la's vision also guided the construction of the TBLC temple. Just prior to his death, he instructed his longtime students, Joshua and Diana Cutler, whom he designated as his administrative successors, to build this temple in memory of his student and patron, Alice Scudder Rayburn, who had died six moths earlier. He also wanted it to serve as a residence for His Holiness the Dalai Lama whenever he visited the United States..." [1]

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  1. Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center History, organizational web page, accessed May 1, 2012.
  2. United Nations Items-in-Secretary-General's Statements, organizational web page, accessed May 4, 2012.