It is a week since the murder of Choji Akong Rinpoche in Chengdu, Tibet, shuddered through the Buddhist community and further. But a week ago, we hadn’t quite got there.
It is 6.30 am on Wed 16th Oct, and a grey dawn breaks grudgingly, bringing neither light nor warmth. It settles into a dismal drizzle and the news that first shocked and then settled just below the surface of the mind re-emerges – implacable and inexplicable.
I return to that night when a friend with Samye Ling connections whom I hadn’t seen for months, was visiting. Later, another friend, her voice thick with shock rang to say that Rinpoche had been murdered.
The next two days passed in a haze as we made final arrangements for the MBC. Now there is no escape.
Samye Ling is my Dharma Centre. I took refuge there with Rinpoche and received empowerments and teachings as did several others at the Convention.
Those who are interested in Akong Rinpoche know the broad details of his life – born in 1940; recognised as a Tulku at an early age and taken to his Monastery for instruction. When China invaded he escaped in 1959 along with 300 people, dodging bullets and arrests by pursuing troops. He survived starvation by boiling and chewing his leather boots (which presumably left him bootless in the Himalayas.) Only 17 of the 300 survived, including Chogyam Thrungpa Rinpoche. Rinpoche said he made his decision to help people while waiting for death in an Himalayan cave.
After a few years in India, the two Rinpoches travelled to the UK. Thrungpa Rinpoche got a scholarship to go to Oxford and Akong Rinpoche and his wife worked as medical orderlies to support them all. Later they co-founded Samye Ling, the first Tibetan monastery in the UK. When Thrungpa Rinpoche left for the States, Akong Rinpoche became the head of the Monastery.
I did not know Rinpoche well but none of us were immune from the power of his presence and scope of his compassion. Many words will be written about him and a new film is in the making. All I can do is identify how his life and death affected me and some others of us.
An immensely practical man, his was leadership and teaching by example. Long term residents tell stories of Rinpoche cleaning blocked drains knee deep in slurry while the fledging community argued about who should be doing it – with a broad smile. Or digging foundations for the new building – something he continued to enjoy over the years. Or working in the SL’s healing gardens. His brother, Lama Yeshe, is said to have joked that when people asked him about levitation, he advised them to get airline tickets!
Rinpoche was a powerfully built man who moved purposefully and steadily but never heavily so that you could suddenly find yourself shoulder to shoulder with him without having heard, so quiet was he. A smile and a nod – acknowledgement.
In later years he stopped giving formal teachings. When requested for spontaneous teachings he would respond with humour. At a birthday celebration someone once asked, ‘Give us a teaching on loving kindness and compassion Rinpoche.’ And – pat came the response – ‘Well, you have made this cake for me. This is loving kindness. Now I am sharing it with you. This is compassion!’ But he went on to talk about Rokpa, Samye Ling’s therapeutic work which was established in the 1990’s based on his research and experience and the needs of others. Now there are several Rokpa centres across the UK and Europe.
On another occasion, in the middle of a quite serious discussion, Rinpoche started squirming and chuckling and he bent and reached under the table. ‘I’m being tickled,’ he laughed as a couple of tinies crawled out. I remember the warmth with which he received and touched all the children that his students brought to him.
Dharma, therapy and humanitarian projects – these were the ‘triple gem’ of his life. With a dedicated team he established schools, feeding centres and hospitals in countries across Asia, Africa and Europe. In Tibet he was able to re-establish stupas and temples. One dream he saw fulfilled was the completion of the College for Buddhist studies in Samye Ling, earlier this year.
As his work in Tibet began to take centre-stage he handed over leadership of Samye Ling to his brother Lama Yeshe and began to spend many months of the year there. He had to tread a tightrope with this and courted criticism and suspicion for his co-operation with Chinese authority. But the succour he brought to people was evidence of the great need, spiritual and bodily, that he served.
And so he died – serving the needs of people. The shocking news brings reverberating questions – killing an incarnate lama, a Tulku, is an unimaginable act to Tibetan Buddhists, with karmic consequences reaching far into future lives… Who could be rash enough to commit such a crime? And for money?
My mind wakens, unconsciously, to an image of Rinpoche, and sleeps, consciously, with an image of him. I know this is part of the process of accommodating loss. During the day I drift to Samye Ling and the people who knew him closely who are struggling with this – his close students, long-term associates, workers, residents, family and Lama Yeshe. My breath catches on a remembered picture of them – shoulder to shoulder, eyes crinkled in a moment of sheer joy. What were they looking at and enjoying? The college that Rinpoche lived to see completed? New possibilities? Survival?
Tibetan Buddhism has scoured the depths of the human psyche and given us tools to deal with deep pain and fear; an alchemy that will change poison to medicine and wisdom so I know that Samye Ling will learn the larger lessons of this violent punctuation in our History. His life will continue, always, to be an inspiration and source of joy and comfort to thousands.
As we mourn the man who is gone, we are nourished by the presence, still among us of a Tulku and teacher, whose most profound teaching was the way he lived his life.
Any merit I acquired by helping to organise the Manchester Buddhist Convention is dedicated to the memory of Choji Akong Rinpoche.
- The Tibetan monk who befriended China’s leaders (bbc.co.uk)
- Chöje Akong Rinpoche obituary (theguardian.com)
- Founder of UK’s first Buddhist monastery murdered in China (standard.co.uk)
- Buddhist monastery founder killed (bbc.co.uk)
- Murder of Akong Rinpoche: The Murderer and the Motive (tibetanaltar.blogspot.com)