Geshe Sonam Rinchen was born in 1933 at Dhargyey, in the Trehor Kham region of Eastern Tibet. At the age of thirteen he decided to become a monk and entered Dhargyey Monastery, where he excelled in his studies and in debate. When he was nineteen, he made the two and a half month journey on foot to Central Tibet in order to enter Sera Je College of Sera Monastery. He became a fully ordained monk and remained there for the next six years until his studies were interrupted by the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, which forced him into exile in India.
For the following nine years he lived with many other monks under extremely harsh conditions in Buxaduar, West Bengal, in what had previously been a British internment camp. There he continued to study intensively with eminent teachers who had also escaped from Tibet. In 1967 he entered what is now the Central University of Tibetan Studies in Sarnath and stayed there until 1976, obtaining the degrees of Shastri and Acharya with honours. In 1980 he took the public examinations for the monastic title of Geshe. This required many public debates before the assembled monks of Sera, Drepung and Ganden, established in exile in the south Indian state of Karnataka. He received the highest qualification, that of Geshe Lharampa.
In the winter of 1982/83 he spent three months in Japan at the invitation of Nagoya University and was also a guest lecturer at Kyoto Buddhist University. In 1986 he was invited on a five month teaching tour of Australia. In 1992 Geshe Sonam Rinchen made a three month tour of Britain and Ireland, undertaken with the special blessing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This tour focused on conveying the essence of the Buddha’s teaching to spiritual practitioners of other traditions with special emphasis on dialogue regarding the meaning of authentic spiritual practice.
In 1994 Geshe Sonam Rinchen undertook a three month teaching tour of Switzerland. During this period, he also taught in Hamburg, Germany. In 1999 he travelled to New Zealand to lead ‘Prayers for Peace and Compassion at the Dawn of the New Millennium’ and taught extensively on the North and South Islands. In 2001 and 2003 he taught in Australia and between 2001 and 2011 he made four further teaching tours of New Zealand.
Geshe Sonam Rinchen published ten books in collaboration with his translator Ruth Sonam on such subjects as Aryadeva’s Four Hundred on the Middle Way, the Heart Sutra, the Bodhisattva vow, the six perfections, Buddha nature and Atisha’s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.
Except for public holidays and a two and a half to three month break each winter, he taught daily at the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives for thirty-four years with unflagging enthusiasm and an intense wish to communicate the essence of the Buddha’s message, as well as that of the great Buddhist masters of India and Tibet, with particular emphasis on classical works by the Indian masters of the Nalanda tradition. Over the years many thousands of students attended his classes. He taught with warmth, compassion and a complete command of his material. He also had the great skill of making any question asked an opportunity for a profound answer that satisfied the questioner and enriched everyone else. He never refused to see students privately and treated them all with the greatest courtesy, giving many of them advice that profoundly influenced their lives.
Venerable Geshe Sonam Rinchen passed away in Dharamsala on 5th September 2013. He was eighty years old and had been suffering from stomach cancer. Remarkably, he experienced no pain throughout his illness and because he did not require any drugs, he passed away peacefully, listening to prayers and in a completely lucid state of mind. He was cremated on the grounds of the Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, where he had taught from 1978 until 2012.
Source: LTWA Newsletter, Vol. 6, 2013