By Peter Smith
He was born to a Mongolian nomadic family, then elevated as a young boy to be heir apparent to the leadership of a vast Tibetan Buddhist monastery of thousands of monks.
Arjia Rinpoche, right, shown with the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. (Courtesy of Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center)
He was then exposed to horror after horror as the Buddhism he represented was persecuted by Chinese authorities and betrayed by some of his fellow monks, according to his new memoir.
Eventually, after years of famine and persecution, Arjia Rinpoche found himself exalted once again, this time as a state-honored religious leader — until the price of compromise became too high and he fled to America, where he now lives in Bloomington, Ind.
Few of his past traumas were evident in his gentle demeanor as Rinpoche sat for an interview last month in the undercroft of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville. It followed a book talk at the Festival of Faiths on his new memoir, "Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years Under Chinese Rule."
Rinpoche's story gives an insider's account of the political intrigue, and grassroots suffering, of those who remained in Tibet after the 1959 exile of the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetan Buddhists historically have recognized as their spiritual and political leader.
These days, Rinpoche directs the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington.
It aims to safeguard the heritage of peoples who practice a branch of Buddhism that predominates in and around the Himalayas, through programs ranging from youth camps to interfaith discussions.
The center, with its handful of monks, is often called "Kumbum West," in tribute to the vastly larger monastery that Rinpoche was designated to lead from childhood.
He was born in 1950 into a family dwelling in a yurt — a felt-covered portable dome. A delegation of monks from Kumbum arrived when he was 2, leading to his recognition as the next incarnation of their recently-deceased abbot.
Rinpoche has warm memories of being raised, and revered, over the next several years by a "family of 4,000 monks." All that changed when communist Chinese occupiers arrived in force. On Oct. 15, 1958, in what Rinpoche wrote was the "most sickening event in the 500-year history of our monastery," monks were beaten, stripped of robes and arrested by the hundreds.
Rinpoche himself felt forced to denounce a venerable monk. He and other young monks were placed in communist education classes. When famine struck, they foraged for barely edible grasses and roots.
Under the rule of Mao Zedong, Rinpoche wrote, Buddhists were repeatedly persecuted, their historic texts and works of art destroyed.
Rinpoche also tells of how the late Panchen Lama — virtually as revered in Tibetan Buddhism as the Dalai Lama — spoke out against repression. The Panchen Lama supported Chinese rule while using his influence on behalf of his people.
Rinpoche tried to follow his example after the death of Mao, when the government allowed more religious freedom. Rinpoche was appointed to a state-sanctioned Buddhist association. At first, it was a perk, enabling him to idle away hours at cafes and travel the world in official delegations. He had forgotten many Buddhist chants, and he regularly dressed like other government workers rather than in his monastic robes.
"I rationalized it by telling myself I was able to serve Tibetans, Mongolians and other Buddhists in this way, which was certainly true," he wrote. But he acknowledged that after "two decades of Communist brainwashing, humiliation and trauma, … I felt a strong impulse to enjoy myself."
Eventually, "I found my sympathies increasingly turning toward my Buddhist roots," and he began wearing robes again.
He concluded his compromises left him in too much "bureaucratic quicksand" to do any good — particularly when he took part in a televised denunciation of the Dalai Lama. Rinpoche felt forced to endorse the Chinese government's choice of a young successor to the Panchen Lama after the latter had died, rather than the Dalai Lama's choice.
Rinpoche escaped in disguise via Guatemala to America in 1998.
Rinpoche soon met with the Dalai Lama, who was eager to learn what he could about what was happening inside China.
Rinpoche said the Dalai Lama never questioned him about his denunciations in China. The Dalai Lama praised Rinpoche's book in a preface as bringing hope for "peaceful change" in Tibet.
And the Dalai Lama tapped Rinpoche to succeed the former's ailing brother as head of the Tibetan center in Bloomington — adding the word "Mongolian" in tribute to the heritage of Rinpoche and other immigrants of that ethnicity.
Rinpoche said his teachers, who showed pity for their tormentors, taught him not to be bitter over the persecution he endured.
"My teachers inspired me" not to "create more hatred," Rinpoche said. "I don’t have any hatred or bitterness."
And he applies a similar attitude toward China as a whole, which claims sovereignty over Tibet. The Dalai Lama and his followers have called for more Tibetan autonomy under that rule.
Just as "we always say, 'Free Tibet,' so we should say, 'Free China,'" Rinpoche said. If China has “a democracy, then the whole thing will change."
In the meantime, he is taking advantage of the opportunities in America.
"We have freedom; we have opportunity; we should preserve our culture and protect our language and religion," he said.Peter Smith is the religion writer for The Courier-Journal. This column is adapted from his Faith & Works blog at www.courier-journal.com/faithblog. He can be reached at (502) 582-4469.