This summer I met a hero

It’s so easy to get caught up in negativity.  Sometimes all it takes is a quick scan of the paper or a click on a topical websites to make the world seem full of scallawags and scoundrels.  This summer, however, I was privileged to meet a towering figure of moral courage.

His Eminence Choden Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet in 1933.  At the age of three, he was recognized as the reincarnation of a previous master, and he took novice ordination vows at seven.  He chose not to flee Tibet after the Chinese takeover, and beginning in 1965, during the cultural revolution, Rinpoche spent 19 years in seclusion, living in a windowless basement room at a cousin’s house in Lhasa.

During the cultural revolution, thousands of monasteries were destroyed and more than a million people, especially lamas, monks, and nuns were imprisoned.  When the Chinese burst into his room unannounced at various times of the day or night, they never found any incriminating evidence of religious activity – no texts or even prayer beads.  He was able to hide in plain sight because they thought him an invalid.

Like other spiritual giants – Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King – Choden Rinpoche used his time in what amounted to a cell to deepen his practice.  From memory and imagination, he recited texts and performed rituals he had learned, internalizing Buddhist philosophy.

“From the point of view of spiritual practice, there was great accomplishment in living as I did…If I had gone with the Chinese, I would have received a house, a car and high rank, but I would have had to harm people and cause much suffering…I didn’t have to experience any of this.  These were the advantages of living as I did.”  – from a pamphlet published by Ananda Dharma Center, San Jose, CA, 2012. 

In 1985, Rinpoche was able to leave for India, and he has been teaching around the world since then.  I was a beneficiary this summer and attended a very special series of teachings he gave at his US home, the Ananda Dharma Center in San Jose.

On July 28, I went to the final event of the summer, a long-life puja for Rinpoche.  It’s a beautiful ceremony in which students, friends, and other lamas essentially ask him to stick around in his present incarnation as long as possible.  Choden Rinpoche is a Tulku, a word for those believed to be able to chose the time and place of their next birth.  For the rest of us, the puja is a way of saying, “Hang on – don’t leave yet!”

Rinpoche has had trouble with his knee.  On Thursday, he flew to Taiwan where some of his students are doctors.  Today he undergoes knee replacement surgery.  Friends and students around the world are sending prayers and good wishes in his direction.  With that in mind, I decided to write that post, knowing even as I did so, that I am really the one it benefits.

Like his friend, the Dalai Lama, Choden Rinpoche’s mind is always fixed on what’s beneficial.  Some of the rest of us (meaning me) have to rely on the inspiration of people like this to bring unruly thoughts back to what really matters.