Interview With Tsering Gellek: Director, Swoyambhu Restoration Project

Features Issue 105 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

Tsering Gellek, Director of the Swoyambhu Restoration Project that concluded recently, talks to Utsav Shakya about growing up in California’s Buddhist community and her fond memories of Nepal.

Tell us a little about your childhood and while you were growing up.

In conversation with Tsering Gellek

I was born and raised in Berkley, California in 1973. My father is a monk, actually a first generation Tibetan Lama in America, and lives in a monastery. I was raised in a Buddhist community there too but I didn’t have to wear robes or anything and had a very normal, American childhood. I do however have a strong bridge with the Buddhist way of life due to obvious influences. I majored in International Studies in college and later studied Law and Diplomacy at the graduate level. I have never taken any formal Buddhist studies though. After my college I worked for two years in Africa for the Livelihoods Program. I was working in a small team and doing work that mattered. Over time, I have discovered that I am attracted to such projects, start-up work, with a small team.

What sort of projects have you worked on before the Swoyambhu Restoration?
I have been involved with small scale projects for the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center in the last decade. We have established a peace bell in Lumbini and also established a number of the same in all major Buddhist sites in India such as Bodhgaya, Kushinagar and Sarnath. We also publish dharma books back home which we export to India to distribute for free. We are also building a Language and Culture Studies center in Sarnath soon.

What are some of your fond memories from the time you spent in Nepal for the restoration?
Yes, there were certainly some fond memories over the time we spent working on the restoration. Let me put it this way. The time we worked together, joyfully, selflessly, will be always be of fond remembrance for me. But one of my fondest memories is of the time we cleaned up the stupa and the surrounding area after the lime on the stupa was scraped off, after the restoration was done. When we got there around midday the day before major puja ceremonies were to start, we were so disheartened to see the state of things. But as I always say, Swoyambhu has a strange power which gets work done. We had a small number of volunteers and we asked anyone who was around to help even just for five minutes to carry the lime away and to clean the area. After the work was done, we just felt this strange energy in us. I could see that all of us felt the same way because I could see it in the faces of the other volunteers. It was a great feeling. We were plenty sore the next day though! (laughs)

What would be your message to people who visit Swoyambhu in terms of their responsibility towards the now restored stupa?
Well I think there are certain things we can try and do so that the stupa is preserved better. Obviously, we can’t expect age old traditions to stop such as offering rice grains and red powder and coins but we can change the approach a little which would make a huge difference. I would just like to request the people not to light butter lamps directly under the images there; instead use the separate space nearby. Also the powder we use contains glass particles which slowly but surely rub the gold plating off. If we could use an alternative to that, it’d be wonderful.