Geshe Michael traveled to India in 1973, and there made his first contact with refugee Tibetan monks. With the help of his teacher Prof. William LaFluer, a noted translator of medieval Japanese Buddhist poetry, he applied to Princeton University´s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs for a grant to return to India, and was awarded the McConnell Scholarship Prize for a study of the conditions of Tibetan refugees. Under an additional scholarship from Princeton, he undertook a semester of studies abroad at Tibetan institutes of higher learning and completed his senior thesis on the subject of the perfection of giving in Tibetan Buddhism.
Immediately after graduation from Princeton in 1975, Geshe Michael was accepted as a novitiate at Rashi Gempil Ling, a small monastery in the American-Mongolian community of Howell, New Jersey, USA. He began 25 years of study under Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, one of the greatest scholars of 20th-century Buddhism, who in 1991 was appointed abbot of Sera Mey Tibetan Monastery. This is part of the “Big Three” monasteries of Tibet, some of the largest and oldest monastic institutions in the world. Sera Mey, for example, was founded in 1419, and houses over a thousand monks.
In 1983, Geshe Michael became the first westerner ever accepted for studies at Sera Mey; he was enrolled in Gyalrong College and ordained as a full Buddhist monk. He began intensive studies under ten different masters of the monastery, including most importantly over a decade of private studies with Geshe Thupten Rinchen, who is one of the greatest living textual scholars of Tibet. With great difficulty, Geshe Michael mastered the Tibetan art of rapid-fire monastic debate, and had the honor of participating in four of the Jang Gunchu Winter Debates, an inter-monastic competition similar to a monastic Olympics. All of his studies at Sera Mey were conducted in the Tibetan language, after training by the former debate master of Sera Mey, Geshe Lobsang Thardo, and by several of the greatest linguists of modern Tibet.
Geshe Michael continued to “commute” between his two major teachers, and in 1993 became the first westerner to receive a Rikchung degree from Sera Mey, sort of a pre-Geshe degree similar to a Master´s in the west. And then in 1995, after a grueling 3-week public examination by hundreds of monks, he was awarded the Geshe degree. His studies in ancient Sanskrit were also completed during this period, under the private tutelage of Dr. Samuel D. Atkins, a noted linguist of Greek and Vedic Sanskrit who was chairman of the Department of Classics at Princeton.