By Rinchen Lhamo
Gerard Godet was a great patron of Buddhadharma and a beloved friend to so many of us. When he died last November, a great flock of migrating cranes was flying by and many of them stopped over his house and circled round and round. That may have been a tribute, or it may have just been a coincidence, but either way it was beautiful to see.
In reflecting on Gerard’s extraordinary qualities as a human being and practitioner, including right up to the manner in which he died, one feels joyful and inspired by the example of his life story. A true aristocrat, Gerard had an unforced humility and understated dignity that provoked the best behavior in the people around him. Somehow, you never wanted to disappoint Gerard. His outer demeanor was so quiet and unassuming, it gave little hint of the practice of extravagant acts of generosity that were a way of life for him.
Born in 1924, Gerard received his diploma from the École Polytechnique, and first worked in the petroleum industry. Later, he collaborated with a friend in the invention of a new technique of civil engineering (reinforced earth, also called prestressed concrete). Even more significantly, he wisely invested in this venture, which came to be a building innovation of major importance.
Meanwhile, Gerard’s older brother Robert pursued an interest in the history and traditions of Tibet that led to his meeting His Holiness the XIVth Dalai Lama while the latter was still living in Tibet. Robert eventually became one of the few western disciples of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, who, by the end of the 1950s, was living in exile in Sikkim. After deciding to pack up his life in France to continue studying full time with his teacher, Robert tragically crashed his plane near the Varanasi airport, while traveling back to Sikkim.
Mourning the loss of his brother, Gerard too became drawn to the spiritual life and he befriended Arnaud Desjardins, film maker and producer of the celebrated film Message of the Tibetans. Then, toward the end of the 1960s, Gerard met Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche in Darjeeling, where he was living in exile with his wife and six children, including Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche and Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche. This proved to be a life-changing encounter. Gerard became this great master’s disciple and devoted the rest of his life—including his considerable resources—to the fulfillment of Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche’s vision. This vision included helping to establish Buddhadharma in Europe.
Not only did Gerard invite great Tibetan masters to come and teach in France, he also helped create the conditions that allowed their teachings to flourish there. He provided for individual practitioners as well.
Over the years, the Centre d’Études de Chanteloube in the Dordogne has accomplished vast activities in propagating the Buddhadharma, thanks in large part to Gerard’s material assistance, as well as his personal commitment and participation. For a long time Gerard was vice president of the Association du Centre d’Études de Chanteloube, and then he acted as president from 1997 until 2009, when his declining health obliged him to retire.
His charitable impulses, however, were not confined to Buddhist activities. Gerard created several foundations that preserve and support Tibetan culture and Tibetan communities in exile in India, and he quietly took care of people in difficulty elsewhere—helping the poor and the aged, as well as providing education for deprived children. He was a benefactor of Mother Theresa in India and supported a hospice for lepers in Calcutta. He contributed generously to ATD Quart-Monde (an organization that works to relieve poverty in 30 countries around the world) and later became a sponsor of the Restos du Coeur (an organization that distributes food to the poor and the homeless, with special support for infants).
And yet Gerard was a person of such extraordinary modesty and discretion that very few people knew the extent of his generosity.
Combining an old-fashioned courtliness with an off-hand, wry sense of humour, Gerard hosted all his teachers when they passed through Paris at his apartment on Avenue Victor Hugo. His mother, a physician and psychoanalyst, treated patients in France and Belgium during the Second World War. She lived in the apartment below Gerard.
Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the 16th Karmapa, Nenang Pawo Rinpoche, Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche, Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche’s family, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche—all were his teachers, and these great masters graced Gerard’s apartment on numerous occasions. When the apartment was full of guests, Gerard would sleep elsewhere, quietly asking a friend if he or she could spare a bed for the night.
Between 1980 and 2002, Gerard participated in three traditional three-year retreats at the Centre d’Études de Chanteloube, and during the second of these retreats he received full monastic ordination from Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche. In that retreat, when all the participants took turns cooking the main noon-day meal once every two weeks, Gerard was excused from this responsibility. This dispensation was offered mainly as a gesture of respect, but it was also a practical tactic; Gerard was a man who knew nothing of domestic chores. However, Gerard being Gerard, he insisted on taking his turn like everyone else, and all involved suffered the consequences with good humour.
Following these long formal retreats, Gerard continued to live in close contact with Kyabje Kangyur Rinpoche’s family in the Dordogne, where he devoted all his time to meditation practice.
When Gerard died, he remained sitting in meditation in an upright posture, his heart still warm after one week, his complexion smooth and somewhat radiant. When his body was cremated, his heart relics remained stubbornly unconsumed amidst the ashes. Such a mark of spiritual attainment is rare in any culture, at any time. No wonder our teachers frequently spoke of him as an example of a true practitioner: He was simple and without pretention; tender, honest, warm-hearted, and humble; and he consistently put others first, not keeping anything for his own comfort. Remembering Gerard’s life is a gift to all of us.