Khen Rinpoche Lobzang Tsetan is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teacher and has been for more than 60 years. He wears the yellow and red robes, doesn't consume meat, alcohol or caffeine, and is celibate. He began his monastic training at age 7 in India before making the 800-mile trek on foot to Tibet to continue his studies when he turned 15.
Before the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, Khen Rinpoche studied Buddhist philosophy with renowned Tibetan scholars. When he was forced to flee with others, he continued his training in India, and completed his studies at Labsum Shedrub Ling in Washington, N.J., the first Tibetan learning center in the United States.
Over the past 20 years, Khen Rinpoche has traveled the U.S., educating people on Buddhism. He spends about half his time on the road, could almost literally be anywhere, but he'll return to Colorado Springs for a third visit this week at the request of David Gardiner, professor of religion at Colorado College.
"People really enjoyed his talks and loved his presence," says Gardiner of Khen Rinpoche's previous visits.
This week-long stay will be a little different from his others, with the monk focusing on preservation of Tibetan culture as opposed to just the teachings of Buddhism. The Friday night talk in particular will address the Chinese occupation of his country and the problems of Tibetan culture in exile.
"The past year has revealed the tremendous pain of Tibetan people within Tibet, with over two dozen of them self-immolating in public, a phenomenon that is entirely new in this culture," explains Gardiner.
But Khen Rinpoche will also talk about how Tibetan culture has flourished in India and elsewhere during this time. "Khen Rinpoche's projects are wonderful examples of ways that traditional Tibetan culture can be preserved," Gardiner says, "with help from the West."
In 1995, Khen Rinpoche established the Siddhartha School, a K-12 operation in his rural hometown in Ladakh, India. A year later, His Holiness the Dalai Lama appointed him to be the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery in exile in southern India; though a great honor, Khen Rinpoche turned him down, to focus on Siddhartha.
The Dalai Lama asked him again in 2005, and this time, he agreed.
"He's a brilliant scholar," says Gardiner. "He has a Geshe degree in philosophy that takes over 20 years to achieve," the equivalent of a Ph.D. in the West.
Gardiner met Khen Rinpoche in 2009, through a Colorado College alumnus who was hosting the monk in Wyoming. Gardiner helped to organize the visit and also facilitated a dialogue between the audience and the Khen Rinpoche. Several people said they made a good team, and Gardiner invited him back the following year. He was a hit.
"They trust him implicitly," says Gardiner of audiences. "They can tell he's a good man, and that the kind of education he got makes him an even better person."