Mr Kalsang Yeshi, former Minister to His Holiness the Dalai Lama was born in Lhasa in 1941.He spent his early childhood in Kham. He was in Chamdo with his family when the PLA attacked in 1950 and after the Tibetan army was defeated, he moved back to Lhasa. After attending the school, he entered Drepung Monastery in Nyare Khamtsen of Loseling College, where he was admitted with the rank of Dratsang Choeze in 1956.
Mr Yeshi studied in Drepung for three years. In March 1959, following the Chinese shelling of Drepung, he fled the monastery with many other monks. Like his companions, he had no plans to leave Tibet, but was merely avoiding a temporary situation. It was only when he heard that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had also fled that he realized that he may not be coming back for a long time. Gradually, he and thousands of others made their way to the border with Bhutan.
In April 1959, Mr. Yeshi arrived in India and was selected among 1500 monks, tulkus and geshes to continue his studies in a camp that was established in Buxa, in Assam. The situation in the camp was difficult; the food was poor and the weather very hot. Many monks died TB and other illnesses and others lost their minds. Still, thanks to the courage and efforts of the older monks and lamas, a semblance of a monastery was set up, with a proper curriculum. In spite of the food and weather, Mr. Yeshi thrived on the studies and the excitement provided by the debating sessions. He spent his days receiving teachings from his master Gen Pema Gyaltsen, who was Abbot of Loseling and other scholars, memorizing texts and preparing for the debates. He soon became a well known debater
In 1961, a teacher’s training school was established in Dharamsala, in order to provide teachers for the newly established Tibetan schools. Zinmey Rinpoche was appointed Principal and a group of thirty scholarly monks and lamas were recruiting to take part in a two year training course. Mr. Yeshi was chosen, but he had no wish to interrupt his studies. He traveled to Dharamsala to try to obtain leave from the Council of of Religious Affairs, but he did not obtain it, and joined the school. For two years, he trained in Tibetan grammar, writing and poetry, taught by Zinmey Rinpoche, himself and great scholar and was introduced to modern teaching methods and rudiments of modern science, history and geography.
From 1963 to 1965, Mr. Yeshi was posted at the Tibetan school in Mussoorie. It was the largest Tibetan school at the time, and though poor in resources, the students were very dedicated and hard working. In 1965 he was posted in Mainpat, then a very remote village settlement, in the hills of Madya Pradesh. The camp was isolated and the villagers extremely poor. In spite of these difficulties, he put all his energy into teaching and raising the living standards of the village. Many of his students there later went on to higher education.
In 1969, Mr. Yeshi entered the Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, where he obtained his Acharya degree in 1972.
In 1973, he left for New York City, in the US, where he remained until 1979. He studied English, taught Tibetan first to private students and in 1976, taught Tibetan at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1977, he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia where he taught Tibetan and debate in the Department of Religion at the University of Virginia and catalogued Tibetan books stored in the University Library from the PL84 Program.
In 1979, MrYeshi moved back to India with his French/US wife, Kim Yeshi. They settled in Dharamsala and Mr Yeshi was elected Tibetan People’s Deputy representing the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism. He served as Deputy for 3 years, and after that began to work in the Department of Religious and Cultural Affairs in April 1983.
In the meantime, the major monasteries had by then been transferred from Buxa to the cleared jungles of Karnataka. They were populated by the original Buxa monks and their very young students. Unlike in Buxa, where the monks received rations, in Karnataka, they had been allotted fields by the Indian Government and lived in houses that they had built as part of a re settlement program. They sustained themselves from the sale the corn and rice that they grew. Agriculture was new to most of them and they were quite poor. The weather was better than in Buxa, but the work was hard and the studies program largely interrupted. In the early 80’s Tibet, which had been closed for two decades gradually opened its doors and people began to move back and forth. Gradually, hundreds, then thousands of monks began crossing over the Himalayas to study in the monasteries that had been re-established in South India. They monasteries were certainly not in a financial position to receive the waves of hundreds of new monks that were beginning to make their way south.
The most urgent task that Mr Yeshi encountered when he joined the Department was to find ways to improve the livelihood of the monks so that they may integrate the new comers and develop a common program of study. This was a task of immense importance for the future of Tibetan Buddhist scholarship. He began to address different support bodies and managed to obtain stipends for the new monks, as the present resources of the monasteries only covered the needs of the original Buxa monks.
In 1985, Kalsang Yeshi organized the first Monlam or Great Prayer Festival in Bodh Gaya, in conjunction with the Kalachakra Initiation. More than ten thousand monks attended, among them, several thousand from Tibet, most of whom chose to remain in India, greatly boosting the numbers in the main centres of study of Drepung, Sera and Ganden.
Kalsang Yeshi also organized several conferences; in 1985, a conference on Tibetan Culture in Rikon, Switzerland, where many scholars from different Universities abroad presented papers. He also resumed the gatherings bringing together HH the Dalai Lama and the lamas and scholars from the four schools of Buddhism and the Bonpo, to exchange views and hold discussions. Such a conference has been held in 1960 in Dharamsala, and the second one took place in Varanasi, in the fall of 1988.
In 1988, the Department of Religion and Culture, with the help of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, purchased a piece of land in the valley below Dharamsala where the Norbulingka Institute, the brainchild of Kalsang Yeshi and his wife, was established. This was to become over the years, the most important centre for Tibetan Cultural preservation in India and the world. It includes training programmes for the major branches of the Tibetan religious arts, such as thangka painting, appliqué and statue making as well as a research and publication centre of Tibetan literature. His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed Kalsang Yeshi as Director and Kim Yeshi as Managing Director in 1991. Norbulingka Institute was then registered as a Trust with His Holiness as Chairman.
In 1989, HH the Dalai Lama appointed Mr. Yeshi as Kalon, or Minister, for Religion and Culture. In this position, he continued to work on the improvement of monk’s situation, developed the Norbulingka Institute and forged ties with many Institutions around the world, raising awareness on the importance of preserving Tibetan culture. He also made numerous trips to Mongolia, Buryat, and Kalmukia, reviving the ties that had once existed between the Mongols and the Tibetans. As a result of these visits, Tibetan teachers were sent to these regions, and Mongol students came to India to study, in the monasteries and in the Tibetan Medical Centre in Dharamsala. His Holiness the Dalai Lama made several visits, cumulating with the Kalachakra Initiation in Ulan Bator in 1995.
During his tenure as Kalon, Kalsang Yeshi was twice Prime Minister, in 1990-91 and 1996-97 . He resigned from the Kashag in March 1997, following health problems and a severe loss of hearing. He is presently the Director of Norbulingka Institute, which now has nearly 500 artists, student and employees.