As Dakpa Topgyal fled with his nomadic family over the frozen peaks of Tibet, the 9-year-old would never again see his birthplace, two of his sisters or the sacred mountain that soared over his homeland.

Buddhism basics

Buddhism is the fourth-largest religion in the world, but many Americans know little about it.

Schools of Buddhism

There are three main schools: Theravada, Mahayana and Zen.

Charleston’s Tibetan monks practice Mahayana Buddhism. This practice aims to develop universal compassion and an altruistic intention to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings, without exception.

Its core practices include generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, meditation and wisdom.

Buddhism 101

Buddhists seek Enlightenment, or understanding of the true nature of life, though the Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths:

Life is frustrating and painful.

This suffering is caused by craving. We suffer when we want other people to conform to our expectations, want others to like us, do not get something we want, desire material goods, etc.

Suffering can be ended.

The way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path:

Right view, or the right way to view the world. Wrong view occurs when we impose our expectations and desires, such as wanting things to be a certain way or fearing how they might be. Right view occurs when we see things simply as they are.

Right intention. If we abandon our expectations, hopes and fears, we no longer need to be manipulative. We work with what is. Intentions are pure.

Right speech. We say what needs to be said in a genuine way.

Right discipline. We practice simplicity. We give up frivolous complications that cloud our relationships.

Right livelihood.

Right effort. When we see things as they are, we can work with them gently and without aggression.

Right mindfulness. We are mindful of the tiniest details of our experience: what we say, how we perform our jobs, our posture and our attitude toward our friends and family.

Right concentration. We often are absorbed in absentminded-ness. Our minds are distracted by entertainment and worry. Right concentration means we are absorbed in this moment, in things as they are.

Sources: Charleston Tibetan Society, Buddhanet,

Instead, after surviving Indian refugee camps and decades of intense study, he would tour the world trying to preserve his beloved Tibetan Buddhism.

To learn more

Join the Charleston Tibetan Society’s celebration of the Tibetan New Year 5-8 p.m. Saturday at 12 Parkwood Ave., Charleston.

For more about the Dharma Center’s classes or the new year celebration, call 937-4849 or go to

In 1993, those travels brought him to a sultry American city, one that also treasures its unique culture and history. Soon, he would call it home.

About 18 years ago, Geshe Topgyal moved into the Charleston Tibetan Society’s Dharma Center, a quaint two-story house behind Burke High School. The only man in all of South Carolina to wear the Tibetan monk’s maroon robes, he taught and made many friends.

Yet a vacancy lingered within.

Back home in the monasteries, monks live as “brothers,” men joined in pursuit of enlightenment and a dedication to teaching as did that most revered teacher, the Buddha.

In Charleston, Geshe Topgyal had no “brother,” no one who truly understood.

Now that has changed.

Tibetan Buddhism in South Carolina has a new teacher — and the geshe a new brother.

New arrival

The Charleston Tibetan Center was founded in 1994 to raise awareness of Tibet’s culture, refugees and plight under Chinese rule.

A year later, Geshe Topgyal arrived to serve as its resident monk.

They opened the Dharma Center in 1998. It has since grown to nearly 90 members who, along with the general public, come for Buddhist teachings, meditation, philosophy, chanting and prayers.

Then in 2002, the group opened a second center in Columbia. Joyful as he was to teach across South Carolina, traveling back and forth taxed Geshe Topgyal’s time and energy.

“Due to many inconveniences, we needed another monk,” he says.

By coincidence, Dharma Center senior student Razi Alici traveled to India.

There he met a young monk, Geshe Thupstan Tsultim, who hailed from an area near China’s border that remains the largest Tibetan enclave beyond Tibet itself — one eyed by the Chinese.

“Our biggest fear is cultural genocide,” Geshe Topgyal says. “They would do the same thing they did in Tibet.”

And few things strike such fear in the monks as that possibility. It is why they work so fervently to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the world.

Alici proposed an invitation: Would Geshe Tsultim like to join an older brother in South Carolina?

Unique cultures

The older geshe’s fingers drift over sandalwood prayer beads as he talks with a sharp intellect and calm, intentional demeanor.

In the Holy City and beyond, he has become a common presence at interfaith panels and schools seeking multicultural speakers.

Yet for so long, something was missing.

“I was not lonely or isolated,” Geshe Topgyal insists. “But sometimes I lacked that core family member.”

He once strolled Folly Beach in his monastic robes and felt people’s stares like the burning sun above.

That cultural singularity has lessened with Geshe Tsultim’s arrival last April. At 33, it was the younger monk’s first venture outside India.

The two sat in the Dharma Center’s living room recently in matching maroon robes and shorn black hair.

“The people’s nature here is very nice,” Geshe Tsultim says, grinning. The kayaking isn’t bad either.

He compares himself to a bird who will return to the nest of his homeland one day.

But now is a time for service. The greater need is to introduce people to Tibetan Buddhism.

He searches for the English words to explain why. The monks talk in Tibetan before Geshe Topgyal steps in.

“Keeping Tibetan culture in your heart is not very difficult,” Geshe Topgyal explains. “But keeping Tibetan culture alive in the world is through teaching.”

Fleeing home

As a boy, Geshe Topgyal had never seen a Chinese person. But he’d heard the stories.

His parents, nomadic herders in the remote northern Himalayas, spoke of a Chinese invasion of Tibet, of monks tortured and monasteries ruined.

But the Communist army would have to ride horses or yaks over the Himalayas to reach Topgyal and his family.

Surely they wouldn’t make it.

In 1968, they did.

Two of his sisters were working at the family’s main base 100 miles away when Topgyal’s parents made a wrenching choice: They would leave the sisters to save the rest.

The family fled into a gusty, frigid night to trek over the mountains. A sheet of ice split open, gulping two of their yaks into a dark abyss.

Eventually, they reached an Indian refugee camp with 700 Tibetan refugees and scarce water or sanitation. Death plagued every family. One of his sisters and a brother died.

Two months later, they moved to a larger, safer refugee camp in South India.

Topgyal’s father, a devoted Buddhist, met the abbot of the world’s largest Buddhist monastery who was operating near the camp.

At 10, Topgyal left his family’s tent and joined the monks. Decades of study later, the Dalai Lama ordained him.

Then the monks sent him to lecture and do research at universities in Vienna, Germany, France, Switzerland and other nations.

At times, he struggled to accept the excess of wealth and materialism so contrary to Buddhism. But in 1992, after 24 years of work, he received the title of geshe, the highest monastic degree in Buddhism. The next year, he joined the World Peace Tour of Tibetan Monks. They stopped in 120 cities in 13 months.

It was a blur of lectures and travel.

Until the 86th stop.

When they arrived in Charleston, Geshe Topgyal felt a primal connectedness to the city. Perhaps in an earlier life, he had lived on these salt-aired shores of the Atlantic.

A year after the tour ended, Topgyal received an invitation from the Tibetan society: Would he become its resident teacher?

No threat

Students arrive at Charleston’s Dharma Center for a midweek class, sitting in serene silence on cushions in a prayer room awash in brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow.

Geshe Topgyal leads them through a series of prostrations and meditative chants before beginning.

Last week, they discussed generosity. He compares it to a seed planted within a person.

“If you plant the seed on a rock, it will not grow,” he says. “But if you plant it in fertile soil, it will germinate and sprout. Morality and ethics are like the fertile soil that will allow the seed of compassion to grow and bring maximum fruit.”

Universal ethics, he explains, should not be motivated by threat of arrest or judgment from God.

Morality must be motivated from within.

“It is a wholesome way of life through voluntarily restraining from deeds that are harmful to one’s self or others,” he says.

The students take detailed notes, and he often calls out questions to be sure they understand.

Often, guests come here “fed up with their faiths,” Geshe Topgyal says.

Some are upset over conflict within their congregations or after church sex scandals arise, but not necessarily to leave their faiths. Buddhism does not espouse God as creator, so it can be compatible.

“You can use it to make your own faith more effective,” he says.

Student Heather Crotts agrees. She grew up a Christian Scientist and recently became a Buddhist. She notes that Buddhism’s emphasis on “loving kindness” reflects many faiths.

However, Buddhism provides practical ways to apply concepts like loving kindness and mindfulness, Crotts says.

Geshe Topgyal compares it to providing a recipe and a menu “so you are confident to go into the kitchen and learn to cook.”

“You train one’s mind and then one’s heart,” he adds. “This is unique to Buddhism — and is most needed.”

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or subscribe to her at