> SOUTHERN INDIANA —
Considering his tumultuous past, Arjia Rinpoche still smiles a lot. During a talk he gave Thursday at a Louisville’s Festival of Faiths presentation to celebrate the arrival of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist monk grinned and chuckled as he told the tale of his remarkable life.
But the story behind the smile hasn’t always been a laughing matter. While only a boy, Rinpoche witnessed firsthand the brutality of the Chinese occupation. For 16 years, the government forced the young monk to give up his monastic life and toil as a farmer at a Tibetan labor camp. Only later he would be accepted by the Chinese bureaucracy and be able to claim his birthright as the abbot of Kumbum Monastery. Eventually, untraditional government dictates would force him to escape from the confines of the restrictive regime.
Raised under Chinese rule, Rinpoche’s training has been quite different from many traditional Buddhist monks. Still, his introduction into monastic life remained pretty standard, at least from a Buddhist’s perspective. At the age of 2, the child then called Lobsang Tubten Jigme Gyatso was identified as the reincarnation of Lama Tsong Khapa’s father, an extremely important spiritual leader.
Reincarnation is a tricky thing for westerners to understand, Rinpoche said. Yet the concept is one of the basic tenets of the Buddhist faith.
“People so often ask me, you’re the reincarnation of the Lama Tsong Khapa's father. You must remember your previous life,” he said. “Unfortunately, I always say no. I can’t remember anything.”
Other methods were used to provide ample evidence of the Rinpoche’s reincarnation to the search committee, and so little Lobsang was called the title Arjia Rinpoche and was taken to live and learn among the monks of Kumbum.
“I was treated very, very nice like a little king. I stayed in a big mansion. I had 10 to 20 people serving me,” Rinpoche said. “When I was at the age of 8, the whole thing changed.”
Despite the 1949 Chinese invasion of Tibet, early life in the monastery remained virtually unchanged, at least for a time. But in 1959, armed uprisings by the Tibetan people who yearned for true independence transformed the country. China fought back with tragic results. According to some sources, more than 80,000 Tibetans were killed in the conflict.
With the rebellion quelled violently yet quickly, more than 100 Chinese cadres moved in to Kumbum and began mandating monks to participate in indoctrination sessions. Eventually the government essentially closed the monastery, stripped the monks of their robes and sent the youngest lamas to public school.
Change came again to Rinpoche in the 1960s when Mao Zedong initiated the Cultural Revolution. The abbot of the great Kumdum Monastery was forced with other monks into manual labor in the fields around Tibet. Taunts and humiliations were common from his Chinese overseers. Buddhist religious objects and texts were not allowed, and if found, could lead to imprisonment.
Yet, somehow, Rinpoche used these difficult circumstances to continue his meditative practices. Fellow lamas instructed him in Buddhist doctrine and beliefs. Even without traditional training, the hard work allowed him to develop compassion, patience and other practices in an unusual environment.
“In Buddhism we always say some obstacles can be a chance for your practice,” Rinpoche said. “This is my chance, my karmic practice. Actually I practiced a different way.”
With the death of Mao, the Cultural Revolution ended. Chinese officials allowed Rinpoche to return as abbot to Kumdum. Later, in the 1980s, the government placed him as a board member of the Buddhist Association of China. At this time, he began to travel more as a state dignitary. Presidents of the People’s Republic had many interactions with him, snapping photos and shaking hands.
While not as restrictive as during Mao’s time, Rinpoche was far from free. Handlers were always present to keep an eye over the monk’s actions. In 1998, Rinpoche had finally had enough. Three years earlier, a new Panchen Lama, one of the highest Tibetan spiritual leaders, needed to be chosen. China refused to allow the Dalai Lama to help pick, as tradition dictates, and instead selected a boy of their own choosing. Later, the government asked Rinpoche to be their new Panchen Lama’s tutor. Rinpoche, disgusted with the Chinese regime’s blatant disregard for ritual, decided it was time he left China.
Escaping the Communist country wasn’t an easy task. If caught, the monk would most likely face imprisonment. Dressed as a tourist complete with a fake mustache, Rinpoche managed to catch a flight to Guatemala. Several months later, he arrived in America.
“In 1998, I came to the west. Now recently I became a Hoosier,” he said. “I never had that plan before. This is my practice I guess.”
In 2005, His Holiness the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to take over as director of the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington. From his Kumdum West, as he calls it, the lama spreads his message of compassion and tolerance. Tibetan culture has also been preserved through the center and Rinpoche continues to speak about the plight of his countrymen still living under Chinese rule.
“Perhaps new leaders will bring new points of view, and move Tibet and China in the direction of confidence and freedom,” Rinpoche wrote in his autobiography entitled Surviving the Dragon.
“This too is my dream; this is my hope; this is my prayer.”