This has been a season of losses. A friend recently died of something that should not have been fatal, and after the special treatments stopped working, we had to let go of our dog, Holly, who I wrote about in June. That’s partly what motivated my recent reflections on what matters most in our lives. The question comes up as well in the experience of a great friend and teacher who recovered from a serious illness this year.
Lama Kunga Thartse Rinpoche was born in Tibet in 1935. At the age of eight, he entered Ngor monastery where he was ordained as a monk at 16. In 1972, Rinpoche emigrated to the United States and later founded Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center in Kensington, CA (see the link on my blogroll).
Early this year, he was diagnosed with lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy while his nearby friends and students saw to his diet and daily needs. Friends the world over offered prayers and traditional healing ceremonies. His cancer is now in remission and he just returned to a full teaching schedule seeming more vigorus than ever.
A week ago Sunday, I joined some of Lama Kunga’s students and friends in the bay area to celebrate his birthday and his return to health. This is a man who had lots of help in his time of need because he lives his life as everyone’s friend. In Buddhism, compassion for all sentient beings is the most important attribute we can cultivate. The Dalai Lama has said, “We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection.”
Buddha gave different teachings for different kinds of practitioners. The first was Hinayana, the “lesser vehicle,” which aims at enlightenment to end suffering for the individual. Of far greater importance today is Mahayana, the “greater vehicle,” where the goal is to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. People are naturally drawn to those who fully embody such an ideal.
Though not nearly as well known as the Dalai Lama, Lama Kunga also has the magnetic personality of one who sincerely tries to benefit all other beings. I hadn’t seen him in almost a year, but at his birthday party, we fell into conversation as if it had been just a week. We talked about things like Tibetan ways of cooking potatoes, but I found myself as uplifted as I have been after hearing him speak about subtle points of philosophy.
Some instructors teach with their whole being and not just their words, yet remain very human too. Lama Kunga is an avid golfer. In a 2002 interview in Golf Digest he said, “I would like to be reincarnated as a better golfer someday.” One of his golfing buddies reports that he sometimes uses “colorful sounding phrases in Tibetan” on the course.
When I was a junior in high school, one of my teachers said, “I really think life is only satisfying when we live for something greater than ourselves.” In the decades since then, the people I’ve most admired lived that ideal. “Rinpoche” is an honorific that means “precious one,” a title that friends of Lama Kunga know he richly deserves.