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Ribur Rinpocheis no more, His Story Remains with Us
Office of Tibet, New York[Saturday, January 21, 2006 07:34]
Venerable Ribur Rinpoche. 
Photo: fpmt.org
Venerable Ribur Rinpoche. Photo: fpmt.org
Ribur Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama responsible for salvaging and bringing back some of Tibet's holiest spiritual treasures from China, passed away January 16 in India.

Born 1923 in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham, Rinpoche was recognized by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama as reincarnation of a well-known spiritual master.

In 1959 the invading Chinese army imprisoned him in Lhasa. For the next 20 years, Rinpoche suffered "relentless interrogation and torture".

Following Deng Xiaoping's liberalization policy of 1979, Rinpoche was released from prison and rehabilitated with a job at the Religious Bureau of Tibet.

In his capacity as a member of the Religious Bureau, Rinpoche went to China and brought back a large number of Tibetan spiritual treasures.

Following is Rinpoche's story of that journey, written in 1987, some time after his escape to India:

In the wake of China's liberalization policy towards Tibet, a meeting on religious affairs was held in Beijing in 1981. At the meeting, the Tibetan delegates (including me) pleaded vigorously for the repatriation of Tibet's religious treasures, plundered during the Cultural Revolution and now gathering dust in China's storehouses. Unfortunately, nothing came of our request in that year.

However, in late 1982 the Religious Bureau of the Tibet Autonomous Region summoned a meeting in Lhasa—attended by representatives from the Religious Association of `TAR', the Department for the Preservation of National Treasures, and several other official bodies. During the meeting, Baba Kalsang Namgyal, an official from the Cultural Bureau of `TAR', announced that the authorities in Beijing had ordered the reinstatement of Tibetan religious artifacts to their places of origin.

Phuntsok Yonten from the Religious Bureau of `TAR', staff member of the Norbulingka, Karma, and I were to journey to Chengdu, Taiyuan, and Beijing to track down such items as remained. I was appointed to lead the team and we were to be assisted by Demo Rinpoche's daughter, Yangdon, as our interpreter.

This decision was the result of numerous factors: our appeal during the 1981 meeting, a series of concerted requests from the Panchen Lama and several other high lamas of Amdo, Beijing's desire to lend credibility to their professed policy of liberalization and religious freedom in Tibet, etc.

Right from the time I was told to go to China, I had made up my mind on the focus of our mission: the upper half of Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee.

The statues of Jowo Sakyamuni and Jowa Mikyoe Dorjee have been revered as the nation's most sacred religious treasures since their arrival in Tibet in the early seventh century.

Although the image of Sakyamuni remained almost intact at the Jokhang in Lhasa, that of Mikyoe Dorjee had been hacked in two, and the gold and jewel-encased torso carted away to China. The recovery of the upper half of this national treasure would be of immeasurable significance and joy to all Tibetans.

Immediately after the meeting, I went to the Jokhang, Lhasa's seventh century central cathedral, to trace the lower half of Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee. I found it with the help of the Jokhang's caretaker Lobsang Phuntsok.

I inspected it carefully, measuring the diameter at the severed arms and waist, examining the metal components and contours, and texture of the precious ash which filled the statue as relics so that I would make no mistake in identifying the torso in China, even if it was badly disfigured.

Baba Kalsang Namgyal approached us just before our departure to China to announce that the Chinese authorities had decreed that we were to bring back only those items that were serviceable, and that we should not bring anything from the city of Chengdu.

So it was that on December 19, 1982 we left Lhasa and reached Beijing via Chengdu. On reaching Beijing, we were received by a kindly Chinese official from the Religious Bureau of China: he was to be our guide in the Chinese capital.

On December 30 we were led to a crumbling and historic building called the Gu Gong. Around the time of Emperor Ch'ien Lung, this building had been an imperial guest house: this was told to us later by an elderly Chinese woman, Tang Lin Fang.

Our curiosity was aroused by a Chinese sign over the portal of the main hall. We asked Madam Tang, a staff member of the Gu Gong and our guide in this building, to explain what it said. She explained that it read "Imperial Chapel for Long Life", and that the Tibetan statues inside it had been transferred from a foundry in 1972. Tang good-heartedly expressed her happiness that the religious treasures stored for so long in the Gu Gong would finally be restored to their original homes.

On entering the spacious main hall of the Gu Gong, we were confronted by the incredible sight of hundreds of statues of all sizes, piled until they almost touched the ceiling. The doors on either side of this hall opened on to two smaller rooms that were also filled to bursting with Tibetan religious objects. In the hall, my eyes immediately fell upon large, mutilated statues amongst the heap. Could the torso of the Jowo be one of them? It was heart-renting to see them mutilated, coated in the dust of a decade of negligence and disrespect.

As we entered the building my colleagues and I stood frozen, our faces fallen and our emotions welling. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I reached for one statue at random. And there in my hand lay a beautiful, most sacred and historically significant image of Green Tara. I took it as a good omen for our mission.

For the next few days the Gu Gong was locked for the New Year celebration. In the meanwhile, we went to a fabric mill to buy huge quantities of rags to use as padding, and also commissioned appropriate wooden crates.

On January 6, 1983, when the Gu Gong was opened again, we employed ten elderly Chinese to help and went once more to the storerooms. All this time, there had been only one thing on my mind: the missing half of the Jowo. Was it in one of these dusty heaps? Or had it been melted into bullion in one of China's foundries? Or was it right now languishing in some other part of China?

Watching the old Chinese at work, removing the piles, piece by piece and dusting them, I spotted what looked like a lifesize torso lying under a twisted heap. I shouted for my colleagues, and together we prised it out. We took it outside to the courtyard. It was so heavy that three strong men could barely lift it.

Once outside, I sent the colleagues back to their work. I sat alone with the bust and examined it meticulously. There was thick gold plating left under the armpits. But the gold plating from the rest of the statue was missing—parted from it at some stage during the journey from Lhasa to Beijing. The chest, navel, nose and right eye all bore the scars of hammering. But a fair amount of precious ash relic was still inside. (Translator: Precious ash is produced through a complicated process of alchemy by which gold, silver and various precious stones and other metals are burned in airtight pans for a prolonged period. It is primarily used for the Tibetan medicine, but also as relics for very, very holy statues.) The iron bars fortifying the inside of the torso were also there. When I moved the vertical bar, I could feel the horizontal bar across the shoulders move. The famous face was unmistakable. And the type of metal, the texture of the precious ash as well as the diameter at severed edges of the arms and waist all matched perfectly with the statue's lower portion in Lhasa. The goal of my mission was accomplished.

Remembering the Panchen Lama's instruction to ring him up immediately if I found anything important, I dialed Beijing 554464, the number he had given me. He asked me emphatically if I was sure that there was no mistake. I assured him, explaining all the matching details. Soon after, the Panchen Lama came and inspected the torso thoroughly. He was delighted with what he saw and pronounced that we could be ninety five percent sure that it was indeed the Jowo's missing half. When they heard about the Panchen Lama's impromptu visit, some Chinese officials of the Beijing Cultural Bureau and several other related departments rushed to the Gu Gong, joined by some staff members of the building itself.

The Panchen Lama then explained to the Chinese that in the past Tibet had two venerated Jowos, reduced to one later. Now there would again be two Jowos in Tibet, he said. He went on to say that the genuineness of China's new religious policy would be judged by their attitude to our mission, and that, therefore, they must help us. Then, turning to me, he complimented us on the find and urged us to continue to work hard. That evening he sent us tea, butter, meat, cheese, tsampa—a variety of Tibetan food in quantities to sustain us during our entire stay in Beijing.

Sonam Norbu, originally from Derge region in Kham, and one of the foremost Tibetan officials in Beijing, visited us often and helped us enormously. He showed great empathy for the Tibetan people and religion, despite the fact that he was working for the Chinese.

Later, during our stay, the Panchen Lama donated fresh gold plating for the Jowo and conducted a brief consecration ceremony. He had also ordered for a special packing crate for the precious statue.

From the Gu Gong alone, we packed over twenty six tonnes of religious treasures in over four hundred and sixty three wooden crates. The Jowo was carried to another room where we placed it facing Tibet, and prayed to it.

Statues and ritual objects made of bell and other semi-precious metals were found tossed in the basement of another derelict building known as Kongzi Miao, Confucian temple. From there we packed six tonnes of crafted metals in about another hundred crates. Although we had been ordered in Lhasa not to bring back "unserviceable" items, we did not leave even a scrap behind.

Now we were ready to return to Tibet. We decided to spend a few days in Beijing. During the time, I remembered that as a young man I had lamented the brevity of the story concerning the itinerary of Phagpa Lugu Shree's statue. This statue, the chief image in the Potala, had been taken by the Mongols, and had remained in some area near Amdo for some time until the Fifth Dalai Lama brought it back to the Potala. Unfortunately, the story was not recorded extensively enough to give us clear information, which, I used to think, was a great loss to the future generations of Tibetans like me.

Therefore, I decided to document the odyssey of the Jowo as comprehensively as possible so as not to let our posterity feel the way I did about the record of the statue of Phagpa Lugu Shree. The first Chinese we consulted did not seem interested in helping us. Then we turned to our old source: Madam Tang Lin Fang. She promised to introduce us to a Chinese official who, she said, could have the information we sought. A few days later we were led to a genial, old Chinese man.

He told us that during the Cultural Revolution, most of the Tibetan cultural artifacts were carted to China and destroyed. The statues and ritual objects of pure gold and silver were never seen again. Those of gilded copper, bell-metal, red copper, brass, etc., were ferried to Luyen, from where they were eventually sold to foundries in Shanghai, Sichuan, Taiyun, Beijing, etc. A Precious Metal Foundry, situated about five kilometres to the cast of Beijing city, alone purchased about six hundred tonnes of Tibetan crafted metals.

"However", he continued, "in 1973 it came to the notice of Li Xiannian and Ulanfu that Tibet's religious objects were being melted down into bullion in many Chinese foundries. They ordered this to stop immediately. In July of the same year, a committee of twenty people was formed to look into this: I had been one of this group. We then visited this to discover that out of the six hundred tonnes, only about fifty tonnes were left by then. They were also dumped most carelessly in the open air, barricaded by barbed wire. From the fifty tonnes, we salvaged only twenty tonnes since the rest of the objects were beyond repair.

"Then another consignment of thirty tonnes arrived from Tibet to the same foundry -- most of the artifacts were ruined in the transit. We rescued only six tonnes from this lot and those were the ones you found this time at the Confusion temple. I cannot tell you anything about the objects sent to foundries in other areas like Shanghai, Tianjin, Taiyun, Sichuan, etc. since I did not go there."

We were still in Beijing in the spring of 1983 when the Tibetan Water Hog New Year arrived. On the third day of the celebration, the Panchen Lama hosted a party in our honour to which several Chinese officials were invited. During the party, the Panchen Lama urged us to make sure that the statues retrieved from the storage in China were made accessible to the faithful in Tibet and that they did not end up in yet another storage.

The Chinese Religious Association also gave us a party, during which the president of the association presented us two thousand yuans for the renovation of the Jowo. Almost all the Tibetans in Beijing—students and officials—visited us frequently and helped us tremendously.

We were able to send about six hundred crates containing 13,537 statues on a train bound for Chengdu. Phuntsok Yonten was to go to Taiyuan to check on the quantity of Tibet's religious artifacts in storage there, while the remaining three of us were to fly with the precious Jowo. On the seventeenth day of the first month of the Tibetan calendar, which fell that year on March 2, 1983, we went to the Gu Gong for the last time and packed the statue of the Jowo.

It was 9.00 a.m. when we laid the Jowo in its special crate. As we drove off with the statue, it started raining. This was the first rain of the year in Beijing. The rain stopped as soon as we pulled up at the airport. Such timely rainfall is considered very auspicious in our religious tradition.

There were two hours to wait before the plane took off. We spent the time buying snacks and exchanging happy conversation, in the course of which I told my colleagues to remember to speak about these auspicious natural signs when were back in Tibet. "Who knows, all the deities of Tibet must be waiting for the arrival of the Jowo", I said light-heartedly. Phuntsok Yonten speculated on what his own local deity would produce for the reception. "Perhaps some strong Tibetan chang for you," I teased. While all these small talks were going on, Panchen Lama paid us a surprise visit. He was happy with the mood of jubilance. He had come to bid farewell to the Jowo. He asked us where we had placed it. We showed him. He made offerings and prayed to Tibet's revered and historic statue.

A two-hour flight took us to the Sichuan city of Chengdu. Due to some complications we could not catch the connecting flight that day. So the Jowo was housed in a temple belonging to the Religious Association of Chengdu. The monks of that temple made offerings and prayed to the Jowo in their traditional way. The next day a Chinese abbot of the Chengdu Religious Association visited us and asked to be told the story of the Jowo. I told the following:

"It is popularly believed that during the lifetime of the Buddha his image was made in the form of three or four statues. The Buddha himself blessed those statues. But only two statues survive to this day. One of these two statues depicts him as an eight-year-old and the other as a twelve-year-old. At some point in history, the statues were presented from India to the kings of Nepal and China, from where they eventually found their way to Tibet.

"The seventh century Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, married the Chinese and Nepalese princesses mainly, it is said, because he wanted to acquire these images as dowries for Tibet. This particular statue, Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee, is the eight-year-old image of the Buddha, and it came to Tibet with the dowry of Nepalese princess Bhrikuti Devi; the one still in Lhasa, Jowo Sakyamuni, is the twelve-year-old image, and it was brought by the Chinese bride, Wen Ch'eng."

The abbot was awe-struck by our story and asked to know how the torso of Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee had ended up in Beijing. Time permitted me to tell only a very brief story. The next day the abbot brought a large group of Chinese monks to pray to the Jowo, and so we opened the crate. The abbot sat facing the statue while the monks placed themselves in two rows on either side of the statue. We joined the prayer, although we could not pray in the Chinese language and tradition. In a melodious voice, their prayer leader started the chant.

The following morning we were visited by an official from the Religious Bureau of Sichuan, accompanied by a very reputed nun called Lung Nei, president of the Sichuan Religious Association, plus the secretary and the vice-secretary of the association and some elderly nuns. The nuns chanted in Tibetan! We were flabbergasted. We asked them if a Tibetan lama had ever taught them. Yes, the nuns were disciples of Reverend Yonten Gyatso, who, in turn, was a disciple of Khangsar Rinpoche. Reverend Yonten Gyatso, a monk of the Drepung Monastery, had preached in that border area. Although the nuns did not know Tibetan, they could read prayers from the Tibetan scriptures. They even gave us a photograph of Khangsar Rinpoche.

In Chengdu, Phuntsok Yonten caught up with us to give us the devastating news that out of the hundreds of tonnes of Tibetan statues and other objects in Taiyuan, less than one tonne had survived. The rest had been melted down. At the same time, we received a cable from Lhasa, instructing us to collect about two tonnes of Tibetan statues and other cultural items from the district of Meishan in Sichuan province to the south-west of Chengdu. These items, the cable instructed, were to be given over in Chamdo, eastern Tibet.

In Chengdu foundry's warehouse, there was five tonnes of Tibetan treasures, which we went to collect. In the beginning, the management refused to hand them over to us, claiming that they had paid the government for these items. But eventually we managed to retrieve them. We searched in this lot for historically significant, very sacred, or those with valuable ingredients. Sadly we found none. Picking out only about forty cymbals, we left the rest of the items in the care of Chengdu Religious Association.

At a party hosted in our honour by the Chengdu Religious Association, we met Lithang Sogdrung Tulku and several other Tibetan tulkus (Tulkus are reincarnated lamas) based in Chengdu. We told the tulkus that we had left some five tonnes of Tibetan religious items with the association for distribution to monasteries and temples in Tibet and that a particular big statue of the Buddha was to be given to the Lithang Monastery. The Tibetan lamas were delighted with these donations and thanked us. There were quite a number of Tibetans in Chengdu, some of them high-ranking officials in Chinese administration, and they did everything they could for us. Whether they had faith in religion or not, they certainly harbored strong feelings of Tibetan nationalism.

On March 29 we went to Chengdu airport and spent the night there. Next morning, at 6.00 a.m. (Beijing Standard Time) we took off. About half an hour later we were flying over Tibet. A great feeling of nostalgia engulfed us as we saw the familiar mountains of our homeland. Huge plumes of snow blowing from the summits of some mountains looked like the smoke from great incense offerings. Some cloud formations resembled mandalas while others looked like curling white scarves.

We were certain that several cars and a traditional reception with religious trumpets, white scarves, incense offerings, etc., would be waiting for the Jowo at Lhasa airport. We were wrong. Far from a splendid celebratory reception, there was not even a separate car for the Jowo. Tseling Rinpoche and Sengchen met us in the only car that had come for the reception. The statue of the Jowo and I crammed unceremoniously into their car.

My colleagues had to wait for public transport. They were puce with anger, and so was I. Actually there was an important political meeting going on in Lhasa at that time and all the official vehicles were requisitioned for that purpose.

When we reached the Jokhang there was a throng of thousands of devotees carrying scarves, smoldering incense, fresh flowers, etc., waiting to welcome the Jowo. Inside, I made straight for the altar of Jowo Sakyamuni and placed my offering of fresh flowers and fruits. A temporary throne facing the statue of Jowo Sakyamuni had been made, and on this we reverentially placed Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee. There was overwhelming joy and emotional relief at the reunion of both the Jowos in Tibet after such a prolonged separation.

Prayers were conducted for the spread of the Buddha dharma, for the happiness of all sentient beings, and for a long and successful life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. During the prayers, ceremonial rice and tea were served. At the end of the ritual, I was presented with a congratulatory scarf and money by the chief caretaker; the rest of the staff members of the Jokhang then each offered me a scarf.

Rumours had been whispered from some quarters insinuating that this might not have been a real torso of the Jowo. But when the staff members of Jokhang put the two halves together, even the folds of the robe, as carved on the statue, matched perfectly, confirming without a slightest shred of doubt that there had been absolutely no mistake.

Now it was time for the renovation and relic-offering. The responsibility for offering relics was entrusted to the Religious Bureau of Lhasa city. We were called to attend a meeting to this effect. During the meeting, it was decided that, for the time being, simple relics would do. This is because all the Tibetans hoped that the ultimate relic-offering will be done by His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he returns to a free Tibet. The meeting also decided to build a new lotus seat for the Jowo. About fifteen kilos of silver and a sizeable quantity of other metals was donated by the religious institutes to whom we had distributed the statues and other objects repatriated from China.

The original jewel-encrusted crown and ear-rings of Mikyoe Dorjee were with the department in charge of Norbulingka treasure. We tried to recover them, but all our requests were turned down. Finally we had to make a new crown and ear rings from a mixture of gold and silver.

In 1985, when renovations to the Ramoche Cathedral, the original seat of Jowo Mikyoe Dorjee, were almost complete, the beloved national treasure was taken to preside, once more, over its home of thirteen centuries.
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