Geshe Thupten Dorjee was born Sonam Palden in Tibet during the Chinese Communist invasion of 1959. He and his family escaped occupied Tibet and headed over the Himalayan mountains to Bhutan when he was three. It was a long, arduous journey for the family. On many cold Himalayan nights, they sought refuge in shelters created for animals. Much of Geshe’s early life was spent in a refugee camp in Bhutan with other Tibetan exiles. Unfortunately, most members of his family died while there due to the poor living conditions and lack of medical care.
After 8 years of these insufferable living conditions, Geshe and his family journeyed south and settled in Southern India. At the age of 13, Geshe entered Drepung Loseling Monastery in Karmataka, South India.
During his years at Drepung Loseling, Geshe taught scriptures and Tibetan grammar to the lower classes while pursuing his advanced course of study. For four years, he was supervisor of agricultural projects at the Monastery. After mastering the five subject areas of Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), Middle View (Madhyamika), Valid Cognition (Pramana), Discipline (Vinaya), and Metaphysics (Abhidharma), Geshe was awarded the degree of lharampa geshe, the highest academic degree possible within the Gelug monastic university system.
In 1995, Geshe traveled the world as part of the Mystical Arts of Tibet, a group of Tibetan monks who showcase Tibetan culture, practices and beliefs. During a brief stop in Birmingham, Alabama, Geshe was invited to become an instructor for the Birmingham Dharma Wisdom Group. He accepted the challenge and, through an interpreter, gave weekly lectures on Buddhist principles and meditation to a group of enthusiastic students.
Trailer from the upcoming documentary, Tibetan Footprints, directed by Luke Gramlich and produced by Rita Davis, documenting Geshe Thupten Dorjee’s impact on Northwest Arkansas
In 1996, Geshe received an invitation to teach at the Losel Shedrup Ling Buddhist Centre in Atlanta, Georgia. After a short time there, Geshe realized he would be a more effective teacher if he had a better command of the English language. Fortunately, in 1997, he received a scholarship to study English at the Intensive English Language Institute at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. He has continued to pursue his studies there. Geshe says, “I need more study in English. I need more study in other cultures, in Western traditions. Everybody is my teacher.” Geshe assumed the role of resident teacher at the Fairhope Tibetan Society in Fairhope, Alabama while pursuing his coursework at Spring Hill.
In the Fall of 2006, Geshe accepted a one-semester appointment at the University of Arkansas’ Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, teaching courses in Tibetan Culture and Buddhist Philosophy. Student response to those classes led to a second semester, during which he continued to teach the Tibetan Culture class, and added a class focusing on Approaches to Non-Violence based on the lives and teachings of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The continued enthusiasm of the students resulted in a semi-permanent teaching position at the U of A. Geshe now calls Fayetteville home.
In early 2007, Geshe and Professor Sidney Burris, director of the Honors Program and Religious Studies Program for Fulbright College, founded the Tibetan Cultural Institute of Arkansas. TCIA is dedicated to helping the Tibetan people preserve their endangered culture within the emerging global village, through education, public teachings, demonstrations, exhibits, lectures, films, study trips – in short, with any activity that artfully showcases one of the world’s oldest and most comprehensive civilizations.
“I am from Tibet.”
On August 15, 2007, Geshe was naturalized as a United States citizen in the Western District Court of Arkansas. A few weeks later, Geshe received his United States passport. For the first time in his life, Geshe Thupten Dorjee has a country and a passport. During the naturalization ceremony, a court official asked the new citizens to stand and declare their native country. Even though his certificate lists his country of origin as “The People’s Republic of China,” when Geshe’s name was called, he stood and proudly proclaimed, “I am from Tibet.”
No matter where life leads him, Geshe has made a commitment to teach others about the situation in Tibet. “There is no freedom there. As a Tibetan, it is my responsibility to teach people about that. I’d like to go back there some day.”
2008 Outstanding Faculty Award
In 2008, Geshe received the prestigious University of Arkansas Outstanding Faculty Award from the U of A Associated Student Government and the Arkansas Alumni Association. The award is typically won by faculty members at Arkansas who have been teaching for 10-20 years. However, Geshe received the honor after only 18 months of service to the University. In their letters of nomination, Geshe’s students reported that he was the most extraordinary teacher that they had ever had, and that he had changed the very way they think about their lives and what they might do with their lives in the future.
Members of the Northwest Arkansas community are extremely fortunate to have Geshe in residence, gracing us with his wit, wisdom and compassionate spirit. He has become acquainted with our customs and western ways; and from his unique vantage point, he has been able to present the fundamental tenets of Tibetan culture and philosophy in a way that is very accessible. Geshe’s message is universal and speaks to people of all persuasions and cultures. Geshe Thupten Dorjee is a wonderful ambassador both for his culture and his way of life.