Speaker: Tsering Gellek

Preserving Sacred Culture and Building Bridges of Goodness Across Time and Place

For Buddhists, the small town of Sarnath, India is singular:  it is the place where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma following his enlightenment, and where a cutting from the original Bodhi tree (the symbol of the Buddha’s great awakening) is planted. 

This unique town in northeastern India is where Tsering Gellek spends seven months out of each year working to preserve art, artifacts and culture in order to promote human dignity, tolerance and global engagement. She is director of the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute founded by her father, Tarthang Tulku, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, and she is a self-proclaimed bridge builder between cultures and time periods. Her bridge-building work is inherent in her own heritage as the youngest daughter of a French-Egyptian poet and a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teacher who has been exiled for over fifty years now from his homeland of Tibet.

Gellek grew up in Berkeley and was educated at Lewis and Clark College (with a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs), and at Tufts University (with a Masters of Law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy). Following her graduate studies, she worked with the Fletcher School’s Alchemy Project for two years, giving grants and access to microcredit to organizations in Africa that helped refuges affected by conflict. The project’s research on the impact of this giving initiated a knowledge base that has since grown to help conflict-impacted refugees worldwide.

In 2001, she returned to California to support Buddhist cultural preservation work throughout Asia. Her first major projects included directing the installation of large peace bells at some of the most significant Buddhist holy sites throughout India and Nepal, including Sarnath, Kushinagar, Lumbini, Boudha, Tso Pema, Swayambhu, Rajgir, and Shravasti. Navigating the complex intricacies of culture, history, and bureaucracies, Tsering developed a keen appreciation for the importance of Buddhist sacred sites and the challenges of preservation. Gellek also negotiated an historic agreement “on striking the delicate balance between conservation of historic sites and honoring them as places of worship, or what is known as ‘living monuments’” (places where the visitor gains positive qualities towards enlightenment). This, she says, set the stage for her “most challenging undertaking.”

In 2008, she was asked by her father to lead the renovation of Nepal’s oldest monument, the Swayambhu Stupa, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. In Sanskrit, Swayambhu means “self arisen,” and is considered to be the beginning of the Kathamandu Valley, home to the Newar people of the Himalayan foothills. Every one hundred years, the Swayambhu Stupa has been renovated. She became the first female director of the Swayambhu Stupa in its fifteen hundred years of history to lead the national effort. This two-year major renovation effort was successfully completed and involved the participation of over seventy traditional artists, Nepal's Department of Archaeology, numerous Buddhist priests and their communities, UNESCO, and many other national and international consultants. This work was documented in a book she published with Dharma Publishing and entitled Light of the Valley. A documentary bearing the same name was produced by the Guna Foundation. Unlike most of the other monuments in Nepal, the Swayambhu stupa stood firm in the 2016 earthquake in Nepal.

One of her most challenging aspects as the director of this project was the “tightly guarded secret around the rites of renovation” with the close-knit Newar culture. She led a team of hundreds of Nepali artists, Buddhist monks and Newari priests that worked for two years restoring the stupa, including renovating 30,000 individual pieces of the Stupa and incorporating 23 kilos of gold. Gellek says of the artists, “Their hands are like poets.” Finishing the renovations was “like summiting Mount Everest and there was simply no project that I felt would be bigger than that….I felt a strange combination of success and void for almost a year.” 

And yet another large project awaited her dedicated service. Along with other activities in 2006, Gellek began the legal and financial preparation to build a large institute in Sarnath, India. The five-building campus construction was completed in 2013, and in that year in December, the Sarnath International Nyingma Institute opened its doors, with Gellek as its director, focused on developing programs with universities and other centers of learning around the world, and to harness the power of sharing between the East and the West. In addition, since 2006, she has served as the executive director of the Ananda Light Foundation, whose mission is to support the preservation and development of Buddhist symbols and centers of learning in Tibet. Through Ananda Light, Gellek has been able to help support various humanitarian projects, including the development of greenhouses and schools for nomads. 

During her award speech for her contributions to global human security at the Tufts, Gellek intimated that she investigates how the past can “support the possibility of adapting to the present moment, and more importantly, to a better future.  These linkages and bridges I believe are deeply connected to actualizing a sense of purpose in life. This sense of purpose is a treasure that human beings are uniquely endowed with and I believe the heart of human security.”

Gellek acknowledges that she is “an apple that didn’t fall too far from my own tree, my own roots.” Indeed, her father has dedicated over fifty years of his life leading a global publishing effort to “endow and rebuild over 3000 libraries across the Himalayas,” helping to preserve the collective wisdom of Buddhist civilization, and she has worked with him preserving sacred sites as monuments of peace.

With Robin Tamang, Gellek in 2018 wrote the song and video “The Valley of Light” for the Valley of Light Project, whose vision is to “capture the beautiful, authentic, timeless spirit of Nepal, create social change,” and increase its global presence in a collaboration of singers and musicians from around the globe. Also in 2018, she released with her father the book Caring, an exploration of the subject to which she contributed writings, an excerpt of which may be found here.

She writes, “To live simply, yet heroically, neither discouraged by the magnitude of the world’s suffering, nor disheartened by the seeming aloneness of the work, is to rest joyfully in an open heart, ready to serve the needs of other spontaneously, naturally, effortlessly, and perfectly. The activity of caring is a crowning jewel of what it means to be human.”

Join us in conversation with this caring bridge-builder across time and cultures!

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