The Dalai Lama (left) may be the political and spiritual figure of Tibet to the outside world but he regards Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche (right) as his spiritual guru who can offer him empowerment.
A very rare and special event is shaping up to take place in Malaysia: the visit of His Holiness Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche, teacher of the Dalai Lama himself. MENG YEW CHOONG delves into the history of Tibetan Buddhism to learn the significance of this man, revered as a guru among gurus by his followers.
TIBET is known for lots of things, with Mount Everest being one of the most well known features. However, this forbidding place's most widespread export to the world today is undoubtedly its brand of Buddhism, which is popularly known as Tibetan Buddhism.
Buddhism came to Tibet in 173BC and it gradually expanded to replace the indigenous traditional belief system called Bon as the official religion of the state. In this regard, credit goes to India's Guru Padmasambhava, who worked tirelessly to spread the belief in Tibet upon the invitation of King Trisong Deutsen in the 7th century.
Tibetan Buddhism is characterised by the incorporation of both Hindu yogic and tantric practices along with the classical teachings of Gautama Buddha, who lived around 500BC.
Tibetan Buddhism derived its present form from the confluence of Buddhism and yoga at the beginning of the 8th century, and more so from the 13th century onwards. This form of Buddhism is born out of the acknowledgement that there were two paths to enlightenment (defined as complete transcendence of identification with the personal ego). One is in accordance with the path taught in the sutras, which emphasise morality, concentration, and wisdom (not identifying with the personal ego).
The second path, which is the cornerstone of Tibetan variations, was tantric, a practice that blended the sutra teachings with techniques adapted from Hindu systems of yoga and tantra.
Diversity is a feature in most faiths, and Tibetan Buddhism is not exempt from this phenomenon. Over time, four major sects have resulted within Tibetan Buddhism itself: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Nyingma, which is the oldest tradition, is based on a lineage of teachings and traditions introduced during the reigns of the Buddhist Kings of the Yarlong Dynasty in the eighth and ninth century by Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, Vilalamitra, and others.
Tibetan Buddhism would most likely have remained as an esoteric practice of the Tibetans had Communist China not invaded the region in 1949. The Dalai Lama, then 14 years old, was forced to flee for his life 10 years later after the failed uprising by the Tibetans against Chinese rule (for the Tibet's Government-in-Exile's version of events, go to tibet.com).
The spiritual and political head of Tibet found refuge in the northern Indian town called Dharamsala, after the Indian government offered him and some 80,000 others political asylum. Presently, about 130,000 Tibetans are now living in exile, with 100,000 of them in India, 25,000 in Nepal, 2,000 in Bhutan, 2,000 in Switzerland, and the remainder in the United States and Canada.
The exodus of Tibetans from their homeland had enabled their previously difficult to access ancient wisdom to be shared with the outside world. Tibet was not always welcoming to outsiders (a reason why Everest was only conquered 50 years ago).
In exile, more than 200 monasteries and nunneries have been re-established in India, Nepal and Bhutan, which is a far cry from the 6,000 monasteries and nunneries that had existed in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion. However, the more significant phenomenon is the fact that around 600 Tibetan Buddhist centres have sprung up all over the world since, functioning as religious and cultural hubs that not only help keep the tradition alive, but also to promote it to non-Tibetans.
Not surprisingly, Tibetan Buddhism also has its adherents in Malaysia, which already has a substantial number of Buddhists even before the Dalai Lama went into exile. Some of them are behind the founding of Yayasan Guan Yin (guanyin.org.my) or the Guan Yin Foundation, which according to its secretary-general, Datin Tan Swee Lai, is four years old now. For those not well-versed with Buddhism, Guan Yin is actually the Chinese name for Avalokiteshvara, who is a bodhisattva specialising in the practice of compassion. This bodhisattva is represented in the female form among the Chinese, who also call her Goddess of Mercy.
Tibetans regard Avalokiteshvara as their patron. Tradition has it that Tibet is the land of Avalokiteshvara, and the Tibetans are his descendants. According to tibet.com, Tibetans who hold on to that tradition can “trace their ancestry to the copulation of an ape, an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, and an ogress, an emanation of the goddess Tara, whose progeny gave birth to the Tibetan people in the Yarlung valley”.
Well-known for its effort in organising the very-successful Thousand Arms Thousand Eyes folk theatrical charity performance two years ago, Yayasan Guan Yin, which was set up to promote Buddhism-related activities as well as strengthen the practice of the faith among its adherents, will attempt to bring the blessings of Avalokiteshvara to Malaysians this month by providing Buddhists the chance to meet face-to-face with a very revered guru, His Holiness Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche. Trulshik Rinpoche was a 14-year old boy when the last pre-war British expedition to chart the way to Mount Everest stopped by the Rongbuk monastery in 1938. Two years later, Trulshik became the head lama at this Nyingma monastery upon the demise of its founding monk
Today, Trulshik Rinpoche, 79, is a “guru among gurus”, and widely respected even by the heads of the Gelug, Sakya and Kagyu traditions.
“Outwardly, the Dalai Lama (who is of the Gelug tradition) may be the political and spiritual head of Tibet, but privately, he regards Trulshik Rinpoche as his teacher. As the spiritual guru for the Dalai Lama, Trulshik Rinpoche is one of the rare few who can impart empowerment to the Dalai Lama,'' explains Tan.
According to his disciples, Trulshik Rinpoche is so highly revered because his past lives have included Ananda (the disciple closest to Gautama Buddha), Thonmi Sambhota (inventor of the written Tibetan characters) and Lotsawa Vairochana (one of Guru Padmasambhava's 25 disciples held as the first great translator of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit to Tibetan). A Rinpoche, by the way, is defined as a “highly realised being that has control over its birth and that chooses to take rebirth amongst mortals for their benefit”. Rinpoches are recognised through elaborate tests, precise rituals and divinations, and they come back life after life, in an unbroken lineage. Their minds are “vast and stable”, and Rinpoche means “precious”. “Without doubt, this former eminent disciple of the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) is the master of all the Rinpoches. In Buddhism, it is important for one to know who the teacher is. You cannot just download stuff from the Internet and start practising. You have to have a guru with the right lineage,'' says Tan, who admits that it was her “fanciful idea” of inviting him here.
“I presented the idea to the Yayasan Guan Yin committee and they all agreed. However, we did not receive a response when we first communicated with Kyabje, who is based in Kathmandu, Nepal. We finally managed to secure an audience with him in May, and so we all made a trip to Kathmandu to meet him.''
The result is “Awakening Encounter”, Malaysian Buddhism's event of the year that will take place at Petaling Jaya's Sunway Pyramid Convention Centre on Nov 25-28. According to Tan, Trulshik is difficult to get hold of, not just because of his stature (he travels widely to give talks in Europe and North America when he is not providing spiritual direction to his followers), but due to the fact that he spends nine months every year in solitary meditation in the mountains.
In explaining the reason for bringing the Rinpoche here, Tan, says the foundation wanted to share with the public that there is a path they can take in this life which is filled with suffering and sadness.
“Happiness is something fleeting. More often than not, we suffer a lot, we carry burdens, and when we get that momentary bit of relief, we think that it is happiness. But there's more,'' says Tan.
Naturally, this event promises lots of good karma of the Malaysian Buddhists.
“The fact that His Holiness has agreed to come speak volumes of the good that is in store. The mere act of listening to his voice, or gazing upon his face, will be a blessed experience for anyone. When I was in his presence in May, tears just streamed out of my eyes as I contemplated upon this beautiful person, enthuses Tan, who adds that the four-day event is open to everyone.
“Non-Buddhists are in fact very welcome to take this opportunity to deepen their knowledge and understanding (of Tibetan Buddhism). People can also just come and see what it is all about. The sessions, conducted in Tibetan, will have Mandarin and English translations. The public can also participate in the prayers and offer donations.'' Highlights of the event include the giving of the yangti on Thursday, and the performance of the sacred dance of the Eight Emanations of Guru Padmasambhava.
“The yangti is one of the purest forms of teaching that can be received, and when practised, will help one to understand the Guru's body, speech and mind. It would allow you to get into his heart, and also to help you understand your own nature better. As for the Sacred Dance of Eight Emanations, it has yet to be performed in Malaysia. Even in Tibetan temples, it is performed only once a year,'' says a clearly excited Tan. Such is the grandeur surrounding Trulshik Rinpoche's visit that even the Bhutanese and Nepalese monks involved in the preparations are just as excited over the event.
According to Khenpo Garab Dorje, 35, who hails from the eastern part of Bhutan, a celebration of this scale (incorporating everything from Taking Refuge to the Invocation) has not been attempted even in Bhutan, which is regarded as another Buddhist stronghold.
“This is a very rare opportunity and it is a very difficult and complicated project,'' emphasises this senior disciple of Trulshik Rinpoche. Complicated because no fewer than 29 monks are required to be present in Malaysia just to take care of the physical preparations like making prayer objects like mandalas and other devices needed for the rituals. The problem is due to the fact that all these monks, each with their own specialisation, are scattered over Nepal, Bhutan and India. Added to that is that each of them also have their own training schedules and activities.
“It looks like that the complete team is here, forming a whole cycle. It is my first time, and will most probably be my last,'' said Garab Dorje, who flew in earlier to supervise the preparations which started two months ago.
“This is no ordinary Buddhist gathering or prayer event, which is quite common in Malaysia. It is very, very difficult to put together. But we don't mind the hard work for we are very happy that an event of this magnitude can take place here.'' Yayasan Guan Yin can be contacted at 03-7957- 9077 or email@example.com