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He had been frail for several years and died in his room, said Rodney Stevenson of Madison, the center’s secretary.
Sopa was great friends with the Dalai Lama, who became a regular visitor to Madison because of their close relationship. The Dalai Lama’s most recent visit here was last year, when he stayed at Deer Park and gave a large public lecture at Alliant Energy Center, accompanied by Sopa.
Decades earlier, Sopa had been selected at an uncommonly young age to be one of the scholars to personally test the Dalai Lama at the final examinations for the Dalai Lama’s geshé degree (the equivalent of an advanced Ph.D.).
Among his many achievements, Sopa was the first Tibetan to be tenured at an American university. That was in 1985 at UW-Madison, where he taught for 30 years.
He is credited with training many of this country’s first generation of Buddhist scholars. At the time of his death, Sopa was retired from UW-Madison with emeritus status.
“He’s largely responsible for establishing the academic study of Tibetan Buddhism in the university system,” said Jim Blumenthal, an associate professor of Buddhist studies at Oregon State University who trained under Sopa at UW-Madison. “Before Geshé Sopa, it was almost unheard of to be studying Tibetan Buddhism in the West. His students have gone on to set up doctoral programs at the top universities across the country.”
Sopa was a committed peacemaker, having traveled to numerous countries on behalf of the International Committee for the Peace Council, an organization of religious leaders based in Madison that promotes the peaceful resolution of differences.
“He was one of the clearest, most gentle, but also strongest voices for peace,” said Paul Knitter, a professor emeritus of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He now lives in Madison and served with Sopa as a peace council trustee.
“I remember him so often saying that we must not cling to our anger and that only through compassion can we deal with those who have hurt us,” Knitter said.
In an email message that went out to Deer Park members late Thursday night, Sopa’s death was announced by saying he had “entered into clear light meditation.” The terminology is reserved for very skilled Buddhist practitioners and means Sopa’s consciousness will remain in his body for three days or longer, Stevenson said.
“It is sort of a quiet internal meditation,” he said.
Sopa will be cremated, Stevenson said. Plans for any sort of public memorial service, if there is to be one, had not yet been determined, he said.
For several days, mourners will be reciting prayers for Sopa each evening at 7 p.m. in the temple at Deer Park, 4548 Schneider Road, near the village of Oregon. The temple also will be open during the day for people who would like to recite prayers or meditate on their own.
“He lived very humbly and very simply. He was a completely non-pretentious person,” Stevenson said. “Yet I think he will be remembered as one of the foremost Buddhist practitioners and scholars that has come to the U.S. What he has established here will really continue to grow and prosper for a long time.”
Sopa was born in rural Tibet, the only child of Buddhist farmers. In his 2012 autobiography, “Like a Waking Dream,” he said it was his decision to begin studying at a monastery at age 9, though his parents were supportive.
“I was very insistent that I should become a monk, even though I was still a child,” he wrote. “I talked about it constantly at home and outside among others. Even when I played, I was a monk all the time.”
In 1959, he fled to India as a refugee when the Chinese army overthrew the Tibetan government and began the extermination of the Tibetan culture.
In 1962, the Dalai Lama asked Sopa to travel to the U.S. to help introduce Tibetan culture, religion and philosophy. In 1967, Sopa made his way to Madison, where he had been invited by UW-Madison professor Richard Robinson to join the faculty of the newly formed program in Buddhist studies.
“At that time, it was a strange thing for a university to have someone like me teaching there,” Sopa recounted in his memoir.
Sopa founded Deer Park Buddhist Center in 1975, after students began requesting instruction outside the formal academic setting. It moved to its current home about 10 miles south of Madison in 1981. It remains a full-scale monastic and teaching center.
Sopa closed his memoir by saying he found it difficult to believe the path his life took.
“I left Tibet with practically nothing. All I had was a cup,” he wrote. “Then, because of the way things worked out, I ended up with so much: this land, this house, the temple, and hundreds of dedicated students. Before I die, I want to make sure that all of this will continue to be of use for the benefit of others.”