As many of you know who have visited the Center, Ven. Donyo never sat still, never got to finish a meal and was constantly on the telephone. His desk was covered with papers. He sat in an office with several computers, fax machines, copiers and high speed internet connections. Dealing with monks, monasteries, embassies, Dharma students, friends from the Tibetan community and utility bills, as well as requests for tours, blessings and CDs, Ven. Donyo was a whirlwind of activity. He also did all the shopping as he was the only monk who was fluent in English and who could drive. Ven. Jampa Thaye, one of the senior monks, wanted me to tell you that Ven. Donyo was also very special as he had three beds, and the other monks only had one. Besides his regular bed, Ven. Donyo often fell asleep in his chair, in his office and on the couch going over paperwork. The monks say that Ven. Donyo was frequently up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning! He always thought big because he often said that America is the land of opportunity and one needs to think big.
Ven. Donyo was born in 1961. His father, Pema Thinley, and mother, Phurbu Dolma named him Pasang - Friday – the day of his birth. Donyo’s grandparents had been traders from Kham in Tibet but due to their business in Nepal settled their family there. He grew up in Solu Khumbu high above the snow line in the shadow of Mount Everest, probably the highest village in the world. The Tibetan people of that region are known as Sherpas. We think of them as the expert climbers of the Himalayan Mountains. Actually “Sher” means East and “Pa” refers to a person so Sherpa means Easterner and refers to the fact that the Sherpas are originally from far Eastern Tibet.
Life in the Monastery
When Ven. Thupten Donyo, was about twelve years old, his parents asked him if he would like to be a monk, and somehow without knowing anything about a monk’s life Donyo said yes. At the same time his younger brother Dhondup also said that he would like to go with him to become a monk and a few years later another younger brother Sonam joined them. This made Ven. Donyo’s parents very happy as they were very strong believers in the Buddha Dharma. As soon as Ven. Donyo agreed to be a monk his father took him and his brother to India to the Gyuto monastery in Dalhousie. On his way to the Gyuto Monastery he went with his family to visit His Holiness Ling Rinpoche who was the senior tutor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They met Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, on the very auspicious day of Saka Dawa, the Buddha’s birthday and Rinpoche gave him the name Thupten Donyo.
During his time in the monastery, Ven. Donyo had three different teachers who taught him different subjects based on the Monastery curriculum. One teacher was responsible for his spiritual training, one responsible for his welfare and health and one was responsible for his discipline and keeping his vows in proper orders. All three teachers were very kind to Donyo and they guided him for many years until he was confident with his studies and daily routine. However, one day Ven. Donyo became so worried that he would not be able to complete his studies that he planned to run away from the monastery. Fortunately, his teachers encouraged him and with their full support he remained and continued to follow their guidance. Because of his teachers, in 1985, Donyo was able to successfully sit for his final test in front of the vice abbot, the disciplinarian and the chant master. The test lasted for five full days. Ven. Donyo strongly believes that defining a goal is the most important thing for a student to motivate them to learn and lead a better life.
Teacher for Life
When Donyo first arrived at the Gyuto monastery in 1974 he was introduced to a teacher called Ven. Tamdin Wangdu who was responsible for Donyo’s welfare. Ven. Tamdin Wangdu was in his late 40’s, of small build, with snowy gray hair and a wrinkled face and had a very good heart. He was asked by the Monastery to take care of Donyo and his brother as his personal students. Surprisingly, he was very keen to take on the responsibility of the two little boys he had never met him before.
Ven. Donyo lived with Ven. Tamdin in a British resort house in Dalhousie in Northern India. It was a beautiful small hilly town with a lot of trees and many walking tracks around the hills. During the winter season they had a lot of snow and sometimes they would see large animal footprints outside the door in the snow. Sometimes he remembers hearing loud strange noises around the building at night. When they went out at night they had to be very careful because they might be attacked by bears or leopards.
When Ven. Donyo was about sixteen, he became ill and needed regular medical treatment. He was so sick he could not even study. Eventually he was diagnosed with TB and had to have many injections to fight the disease but he remained very ill and became weaker and thinner. During this time Ven. Tamdin nursed him night and day until he was fully recovered. His teacher told him that he would rather die than have Donyo die as he could not bear to give his parents the terrible news. Ven. Tamdin also said that when he was old and sick that Donyo would not be able to put one spoon of water in his mouth. From this Donyo realized that he may not live with his teacher forever and that he could not predict when they would be separated.
In 1985 Donyo was sent with a group of sixteen monks to Dharamsala for two years by the Monastery as part of his duty to perform Pujas and prayers for the local community. However, before he had completed his duty, he received a message from the Monastery, saying that his teacher Ven. Tamdin was not well and had left the Monastery for medical treatment. As soon as he heard the news that night he left Dharamsala and traveled alone by bus and train for four days to see his teacher, Ven. Tamdin. It was the first time he had traveled by himself for a long journey inside India. Because he was small and skinny he was very scared on the train even though there were thousands of people traveling with him. After four days traveling, Donyo reached Kalimpong, where his teacher was in an excellent private Christian hospital. Fortunately, although he was seriously ill, he was still alive, lying in his bed surrounded by some local Tibetan friends. His teacher didn't know that Donyo was coming to see him but when he saw him he was extremely happy and had tears in his eyes.
As soon as Donyo arrived he took a full responsibility for his teacher. Ven. Tamdin’s main problem was cancer but he was not able to communicate verbally because he had a severe throat infection. Donyo spent twenty four hours a day, every day with him, and was delighted to be able to serve him to repay his teacher’s kindness. Although Donyo did every thing he could the situation was worsening even though Ven. Tamdin was receiving very good treatment in a private hospital. After about five months Donyo ran out of money to pay for him to have a private doctor and a private room in the hospital. He asked his parents and other family members for financial support for his teacher and as a result was able to keep him in hospital.
One day when Donyo was sitting next to his teacher he reminded him of some stories he had told him many years before. He reminded him that he had said "when I get old and get sick, you won't be able to put one spoon of water in my mouth" and told his teacher "now is the time for me to take care of you and I'll never leave you alone". Ven. Tamdin was very emotional at that time. Three days later, Donyo lost contact with him even in writing and knew his teacher would not live long. From then on Donyo dressed in full robes every day and night because he wanted to be next to him when his teacher took his last breath. Around five o'clock in the morning Donyo was just dozing on his bed and heard a loud hiccough which woke him up. That was his teacher’s last breath and Donyo had lost his teacher, Ven. Tamdin.
According to an astrologer Donyo had to purchase a Buddha statue and he bought a beautiful 16 inch high quality Buddha statue in memory of his teacher. At that time, Donyo and his brothers made a commitment that from then on they would offer a butter lamp or candle light every night in front of the Buddha statue and try to recall their teacher’s kindness. The candle light is still burning in Donyo’s room at the monastery tended by other monk’s on Donyo’s behalf.
Ven. Tamdin passed away in 1988 but Donyo has never forgotten him and his kindness. Donyo says Ven. Tamdin was like a father to him and his brother, a true teacher for life.
In 1990 Donyo was invited by Tara Institute a Buddhist Center in Melbourne, Australia and spent seven years and went to school to speak English. He had a very good life in Australia. However, every two years Donyo returned to the Monastery in India and the monastery asked Donyo if he could help the monks but, as he had no resources, he felt helpless.
The Beginning of Gyuto Center in the Bay Area.
Ven. Thupten Donyo decided he had to find a way to help his monastery. Therefore, in 1997, Ven. Donyo decided to come to America with a dream of opening a branch of the Gyuto monastery. Since then Donyo made a firm commitment to help all the Gyuto monks and the Gyuto monastery. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he was encouraged by Gyuto friends, such as members of the musical band the Grateful Dead offering their help to set up the non-profit organization in San Jose, California.
The Gyuto Foundation was formally known as Gyuto Vajrayana Center and was officially established in February, 2000. How? First he rented a three bed room house and decorated it to look like a small Tibetan monastery. Then he invited four senior Gyuto monks from India and the Center began to provide a program of detailed Dharma teachings. Slowly, the number of students attending grew and became too much for the small house.
After three years, Ven. Donyo decided to buy a larger property for the Gyuto Center instead of renting. Ven. Donyo was able to find an ideal new home for the Gyuto Center in the Milpitas area. He always expresses his deep gratitude to the Gyuto members and friends. Without their support, the Center could not have bought the new home.
The new Center had a beautiful altar, a beautiful prayer hall that could seat 100 people, better living quarters for the monks, a modern kitchen and a bigger dining area. A prayer wheel house was in the back of the house and hundreds of flowers were planted around the house.
Due to Donyo’s enterprise and desire to help his monastery and fellow monks, he established a branch monastery in San Jose. It had a growing base of members from which the Dharma could flourish. Ven. Donyo hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama in San Francisco in 2007 for two days of teachings as well as 2010 in San Jose. There were over 12,000 people attended for His Holiness's teaching in San Jose. Ven. Donyo also invited the Gyuto Tantric choirs from India to tour and perform their unique chanting in cities across America and Canada.
Ven. Donyo had a lot of great plans for the Gyuto monastery and centers. His dream was to build a traditional monastery in the San Francisco Bay Area, so that more people could attend the programs. Since that time, Ven. Donyo, with the help and support of many friends and members, was able to establish the current monastery, which is further north, in Richmond, CA, in Fall 2013. This beautiful center is located in a tranquil neighborhood, adjacent to Wild Cat Canyon Regional Park, and is able to house many more people. Ven. Donyo is a rare breed of monastic entrepreneur.
Donyo’s message to friends of the Gyuto Foundation:" From the bottom of my heart, I thank all of our friends for being very supportive for the Gyuto Foundation and the Gyuto monks."
Thank you and Tashi Delek.
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