By Jun Xie
Life went on as usual except that the weather in Taipei was unusually warm for December. Like many of the 2,000+ participants, I was still immersed in the beautiful 10-day Ushnisha Vijaya Puja presided over by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, which had concluded the previous day. Without taking a break, Rinpoche met with Khyentse Foundation board members for the annual meeting on the very next day and then proceeded to the National Chengchi University for a public talk to young university students.
Rinpoche’s talk was based on questions presented to him by the students. Most of the questions concerned philosophical problems, issues of studying Buddhism, and how to integrate dharma into everyday life. Afterward, Rinpoche presented the Khyentse Fellowship award to a distinguished teacher who has devoted decades to the teaching and study of Buddhadharma. This teacher, Gao Mingdao, perhaps unknown to most of us, is quite familiar to students of Buddhism in Taiwan.
Who is Gao Mingdao?
Googling him, we find that Gao, whose birth name is Friedrich Grohmann, is a German who has lived in Taiwan for more than 40 years. He is an expert in Chinese Buddhist scripture who teaches primarily, and publishes exclusively, in Chinese. We might wonder where and how he learned Chinese and how he connected with the dharma.
Born into a Lutheran family, Gao Mingdao grew up in a staunchly Catholic community in south Germany. From a young age, he was not fond of eating meat, which did not make his life easy in a largely carnivore society. When he later encountered the Buddhist concept of ahimsa, it provided him with the support to justify his dietary preferences.
Luckily, his parents were open minded and respectful of all religious believes, and the school he went to was diverse, with students from various backgrounds and different religions such as Islam and Judaism. When he was about 13 years old, Gao’s mother, who was aware of his interest in Buddhism, gave him his first Buddhist book, the Aṅguttaranikāya. The text, a Buddhist sutra, was translated into German from Pali by Ven. Nyanatiloka Bhikkhu, who finished the translation in a detention center in Hankou, China, in the winter of 1918.
We may never know if it was the Aṅguttaranikāya that established young Friedrich’s karmic connection with China. We only know that he started to teach himself classical Chinese half a century ago. He also got to know two Buddhist monks at a small Mongolian temple in Munich, from whom he learnt to read Chinese Buddhist scripts. Neither of the monks was Chinese. One was a German who was an ordained bhikkhu in the Pali tradition; the other, a Tibetan gelong, was a Hungarian. That was Gao’s first taste of Rimé, Buddhist nonsectarianism, and it has stayed with him for all his years.
As Gao Mingdao recalled: “In a drizzling evening in the end of 1974, I arrived in Taipei, a small suitcase in my hand.” Gao has lived in Taiwan ever since. That first night he took refuge with Ven. Cheng-I, who gave him the name of Gao Mingdao, which means to “understand the path.” Gao came to Taiwan to study Chinese Mahayana Buddhism after observing the lack of scholarship in Europe at that time on that specific school of Buddhism, although there was strong research on Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and even Mongolian Buddhism. What a great choice for a young European Rimé boy!
Gao spent the next eight years finishing his university degrees. He obtained his MA in 1983 from the Graduate School of Chinese Literature, Chinese Culture University. Gao’s handwritten thesis is a study of the Tathagata Jnana Mudra Samadhisutra in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Manchu. The paper was highly acclaimed in Taiwan.
Gao’s work is primarily related to Buddhist scripture, including recent translations from Pali to Chinese. At the same time, he teaches on Buddhist texts and classic Buddhist languages in various institutions in Taiwan. He is well known as Gao Laoshi (Lao Shi means teacher) to his students and colleagues in Taiwan.
A Casual Tea
Before the award presentation, Khyentse Foundation arranged a casual tea gathering. Rinpoche, Gao Laoshi, other Buddhist teachers in Taiwan, KF board members and staff, and KF’s long-time friend and adviser Prof. Peter Skilling joined the gathering.
That’s the first time I met Gao Laoshi in person. Bearing in mind that I intended to write an article about him, I tried to observe him closely. As I was observing this seemingly ordinary gentleman, tall and slim, a young lady approached me with excitement and requested me to take a picture of her and Gao Laoshi. She had studied with Gao Laoshi for 10 years and he had influenced her tremendously. She was often moved to tears in his class. A Buddhist scholar herself now, she also teaches. Gao Laoshi remembered her well and recalled the snacks her father made for him years ago. What a sweet reunion between the two, and how joyful to see one’s student become a teacher.
The Award Ceremony
Back to the stage of the public talk and award ceremony, Gao Laoshi addressed us briefly in English and then in Chinese, still standing as a show of respect despite being invited to sit by Rinpoche. He started by thanking Rinpoche as the main cause for this gathering, which was surely through dependent arising. He then rejoiced in the act of listening to words of Dharma and immediately dedicated the merit of such rejoicing.
I felt like I was in one of his classes, watching him talk gently and wittily on stage. In his own words, “May, by the power of this humble merit of rejoicing, the study of Dharma be pursued in the lofty halls of academia in a spirit of nonsectarianism, with equal respect for all traditions, large and small, and genuine appreciation of the meaning of Buddhism.” That is Gao Laoshi, a teacher with a serious appearance, who is extremely humble yet does not hesitate to give the most honest and sharp opinions when it comes to Buddhadharma academic study and research.
Here I quote a remark from Prof. Peter Skilling, who was awarded the KF Fellowship in 2012, on Gao Mingdao: “He is selflessly dedicated to teaching the Buddhist texts and he seeks nothing for himself. In this age of self-promotion, he is a model and a wonderful inspiration.” He has quite a sense of humor too, Peter added; and I agree.