Meath Conlan

Updates from Meath Conlan, an Oblate of Camaldoli in Perth, who represented Phase 5 of Inter-Religious Monastic Dialogue between Catholic and Tibetan Buddhist Monastics in 1989, and who was a member of the Bede Griffiths Literary Trust, has chosen this story as part of his memoirs that he is currently writing. 

Meeting Geshe Yeshe Tobden — 1989

8th April 2023
January 1989, while attending Father Bede Griffiths after lunch, he handed me a letter that had come from the Office of the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, a small hill town in the Himalayan foothills, where, as I knew from family records, one of my ancestors, Jane Conlan was buried at the early part of the nineteenth century. Father Bede said, “His Holiness wants me to go and give lectures on the Christian contemplative tradition. It seems the people at Inter-Monastic Dialogue (DIM) have put my name forward to represent them. I really feel too old to climb all those hills any more. Would you please go for me?” I hardly needed a moment to think on this; I agreed to accept the challenge immediately. Father Bede assured me he would write to His Holiness’ Religious Affairs Adviser Lobsang Jordan (Lhakdor), expressing his regret at not being in the best of health, but that he would send me as his representative as well as of Inter-Religious Monastic Dialogue for Phase 5 of this historic cultural and spiritual exchange. 

Thus began nearly a year of planning for the event which the Tibetans wanted to take place as near to 10-22 October as possible. I think this was to take advantage of the clement weather at that time of the year. Many of the monks who would be attending my lectures, would, as I understood it, be travelling over great distances, on rough mountain tracks, some of which might be snow-bound if we left it any later in the year.  I wrote to Father Robert Hale — Prior of the Camaldolese Hermitage in California, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, now the new head of the Secretariat for Non-Christians in Rome, as well as Benedictine Father Pierre François de Béthune, who directed the affairs of Inter-religious Monastic Dialogue. In fact I wrote to all whom I considered in any way competent to assist me on the topics and what best might be the approach in my lectures. I recall Sister Pascaline Coff, of Osage Monastery in Oklahoma, whom I had come to know at Father Bede’s ashram in Tamil Nadu, in 1984. Sister Pascaline, herself a leader in inter-religious dialogue, advised me that the Tibetans love stories; “make every lecture a series of stories, and don’t over-complicate your presentations with Western Theology. They are not too interested in that anyway. So! Tell stories!” 

While in McLeod Gange I met the Tibetologist Dr Gareth Sparham, a Canadian scholar and author who had translated the Buddhist Dhammapada into English. We had a wonderful time exchanging stories about the Tibetans, their ancient lineages, their wisdom and extraordinary teachers. In fact he suggested we hike up a goat track to a spot just below the snow-line where Geshe Yeshe Tobden was living as a hermit and had done for many years. In fact he had a number of younger men, disciples, also living as hermits in primitive open-rock walled enclosures, dotted among the rocks and scrubby vegetation of these Dhaulagiri Ranges – part of the greater Himalaya. So, we packed our satchels with flour, sugar, salt, tea, jams, butter and so on, and started off. A hot day to be scrambling over these tracks with so much loose shale and broken rocks slip-sliding beneath our steps. But finally, with the hubbub and noise of McLeod Gange way below us, we made it to Geshe-la’s hermitage. The only movement and sounds were from a lammergeier flying in the bright blue skies above.

Geshe Yeshe Tobden had escaped from Tibet by himself in 1960-61 after years of terror and Communist occupation. He was already well known in his monastery in Tibet – Sera Me – because of his very strict and rigorous practice of meditation and yoga. He lived according to a very strict discipline, in poverty, humility, and chastity. Thousands of monks knew him and called him a saint and mourned his death in 1999.  As I understand it, he was one of the few, perhaps the only monk who could walk straight through the guards at His Holiness’ bungalow in McLeod Gange, and was granted audience immediately.  It was His Holiness who had come to hear of Geshe Yeshe Tobden as an outstanding meditator and spiritual guide. His holiness arranged for him to be released from his professorship at Varanasi University. Thereafter, I’m told, in 1971 he took up his eremitical life in his spartan rock abode and stayed there for almost 30 years. Living as he did above McLeod Gange and Dharamsala, he became known  as a sage and meditator. I heard tell that two young sons of an Italian noble family found their way to Geshe-la and happily submitted to his spiritual guidance. Now while it was here in the Dhaulagiri Ranges that he primarily resided where he could concentrate on meditating on renunciation, bodhicitta and emptiness, in fact, with the cold winters in the mountains, from 1979 Geshe-la accepted an invitation from the boys’ parents to visit Italy to teach. He accepted and I believe he spent each Himalayan winter in the warm climes of Italy. During the warmer months in India, Geshe-la would return  and continue his inner work. Many young men, filled with the wonder of his inspirational dedication, took up residence near Geshe Yeshe Tobden just below the snow-line. All emulated Geshe-la as the model of the perfect Master to whom they gave their obedience and devotion.

As soon as Gareth and I made ourselves known, Geshe-la invited us in. He was a small man, very slight, with smooth alabaster-like skin. His eyes were welcoming and kind. He wore the simple robes of a Tibetan monk. We offered our gifts which were received with grace. Having offered us places to sit, he immediately prepared a fire in his clay oven in the middle of the open rock-wall compound. He mixed water with some flour and kneaded several  flat breads which he then slapped on to the inside walls of the ember-filled bush-oven. The overall impression was of measured stillness as Geshe-la pottered quietly on. I wished I could do and be as mindfully present in my daily occupations as he clearly was. It struck me that in the breath we take now lies the secret of which our teachers try to tell us through their own lives, — that is, the present moment. It’s simple enough – yet we look for the secret everywhere else. After all, is not the purpose of meditation practice to pay attention, to be of this present now, only the present, and to be witness to this “now-present mindfulness” and carry it into the  events of ordinary everyday life? 

Very soon hot bread smells filled the compound. We were so hungry and the bread was so tasty with lashings of butter and Bhutanese “Druk” apricot jam. As we ate, Geshe-la brewed the tea. What a feast!  After tea he went to a small metal and wood door, and opening it he showed us his sleeping chamber. Geshe-la invited us to enter. This modest chamber consisted of a small bed, an altar with photos of His Holiness, sacred texts swaddled carefully in yellow cloths were piled against the wall, several water-offering bowls and butter lamps, and several Western books were laying here and there. I noticed a small Italian Dictionary on the altar. Some warm rugs covered his tiny bed and a shaggy carpet spread under our feet. That was about it.  This was a humble, extremely small, but snug and weatherproof hermit’s “grotto” if you like. The three of us were quite a crowd in that small space.

At the end of the meal, and our tour, as evening would be drawing nigh very soon, Gareth headed back down the mountain. I asked Geshe-la if I could stay. He agreed and point to another rock hermitage just fifteen feet away next door. That was to be where I’d spend the night. Though he spoke very little English we somehow muddled through his teachings on Ton-Leng meditation, as well as supervising my initial practices with him. I didn’t stay late. My host was used to retiring early after his prayers and chants. I retired with my torch and some small candles to the hut he provided me. Cold! But I managed. 

Early in the morning as the first faint rays of sunshine lit up the eastern sky I sat on the ledge of flagstones outside my hut. I was alone but didn’t feel lonely. At this early hour there is no wind, no cloud, no birds yet. Above me the crisp snow-covered peaks rising like wedges into the satin sky, around me a jumble of broken rocks that had tumbled down from ice and snow above, and before me, stretching out on the plains below in the misty pearlescent dawn light was eternal India, now waking to the massive, grinding business of life. In the early light, the rock and scrubby bush shadows take shape. There is stillness here, a quietness to which all returns. This is, if found, where one’s inner life and sanity perceive the transience of each moment, and its preciousness. Snow fields covering the high mountains, the growing light that throws up shadows between the major landforms, the silence, and far off sounds of human activity serve mirrors to my being which, ultimately, in my deepest self is completely still, holding, so to speak, an Emptiness that is all life, all sound. I discerned Geshe-la already moving quietly about in his residence. There was no door as such, into his small dwelling place; a mere curtain of sorts was all that separated him from the outside. As he finished making hot flat bread and tea he drew the curtain aside, thus indicating I was free to enter. Immediately on entering the enclosure I was aware of the peace within; even the rough old dry rock-wall stones surrounding this space and the clay oven, and small wooden stools all exuded peace. Once again the flat bread was incredibly delicious — probably more so, I felt, because of who made it and how. Geshe Yesh Tobden moved about with such interior silence, with gentleness, yet with real inner strength, humility and, without a shadow of doubt, hands-on, non-judgmental love. I departed after morning tea which we shared with a young hermit monk, Geshe-la’s English-speaking student, from his own hut not too far away. To this day I’ve not forgotten the marvellous serenity I found radiating from that old man. I feel that encounter is one of the really significant events of my life.