The Story of a Tulku
One of my most intimate Buddhist teachers is just such a lama--The Venerable Bardor Tulku Rinpoche. I have stated on this blog that when you meet a tulku in person, even if you don't believe in rebirth, it is very likely that they will strike you as an uncommon individual. But, up to now, my readers have simply had to take my word for this.
Tulkus, or accomplished lamas in general, very rarely talk about their own personal story. To them it is beside the point. Their life is their work, practicing the Dharma and teaching it to others. The mere circumstantial details of what happened to them are simply irrelevant. But Bardor Tulku has a story that is more than this. It is a window into precisely what I mean when I say a tulku is almost always a striking and unusual individual to everyone whom he meets.
If you read this story and reflect on it, you will understand what I mean and why my relationship with Bardor Tulku Rinpoche is one of the most precious things in my life.
By the way, the elaborate hat Rinpoche is wearing on his head in the picture below is known as the Gampopa hat. Gampopa was the great Tibetan medical doctor, monk, and enlightened teacher who integrated the Kagyudpa teachings of our lineage into the tradition of Buddhist monasticism. He had his own particular style of formal hat in which he taught the Dharma, and my teachers preserve the tradition of teaching while wearing it, particularly for more formal occasions.
Prior to Gampopa, most of the realized Kagyu teachers had been laypersons and yogis rather than monks. Gampopa's best student, named Dusum Khyenpa, became known as the Karmapa, and it is the Sixteenth Karmapa Tulku that Rinpoche refers to below. Rinpoche himself is the Third Bardor Tulku.
When I was between nine and ten years of age, both my parents, my brothers and sisters, my whole family, our teachers and servants – there were thirteen of us – died while we were fleeing and struggling to reach India. I was the only member who survived. I had just turned nine. You are informed about the historical situation of Tibet, so I will not speak about it. In India, I wandered around and stayed in so many different places for a few years. But due to my family connection, I knew that His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa was there also.
My family connection to His Holiness dates back 200 years, almost to the times when America was founded. Many members of my family had served to establish Surmang Monastery in East Tibet and contributed significantly to its historical value for many generations. This is the reason why His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa had had a very deep connection with us. He referred to my family as far as eleven generations back.
Not knowledgeable in the Hindi language, I really did not know what would happen to me at the age of nine, all alone in India. It was a very different environment, but confident that His Holiness was there, somewhere, I did not lose hope and told myself, “If I can get there then I’ll be okay, I’ll be fine. Even though I lost my family, possessions and home, if I get there I’ll be fine.” That is what I thought, and so just trying to get there was all that was left for me. There were so many interesting experiences on the way.
The Indian border with Tibet is very high, and the military authority there was either a general or captain. In any case, he was one of the highest officers in that area then. The inhabitants of the border are called Gyakar Khampas. They are Tibetan people who have been living in India for quite some time, have taken on Indian citizenship and live according to the Indian customs. They serve in the military and reach a high position.
The officer who stationed at the border, which I had to cross, really liked me and kept telling me, “You are too young to look for His Holiness the Karmapa, whoever he is. India is not a small country. India is huge. You don’t even have an address to go to; you don’t even know where to go, or where His Holiness is now, so how are you going to find him? There is not much hope for you.”
The officer continued, “Instead, you should become an Indian citizen. I can help you. I can talk with government administrators in India. I will take you to New Delhi, introduce you to government officials there, and they will send you to school. You can study and receive education. Once you have a very good education, you can work for the Indian government.” The friendly officer told me again, “This is not a small country. India is huge. If you have a good education, then you will be encouraged to make a good living.”
That’s what he said to me, giving instructions. And it was so true. To a boy who had arrived in a huge country between the age of nine and ten, and lost his destination, the officer's suggestion seemed like the only alternative. But deep inside my heart I knew that his advice did not coincide with the connection my family had with the Karma Kagyu lineage for so many generations, for more than 200 years. Not only that, scores of uncles, aunts and cousins had given their lives for the Karma Kagyu lineage – the Sixteenth Karmapa mentioned more than forty, even fifty people from my family, who had died for this lineage.
Specifically, His Holiness was speaking of my famous uncle, Chadzö Drolha, whom he personally appointed to unite the Tsewatsang and Lingpatsang Monasteries (which divided the district of Surmang into two communities) under the auspicious guidance of the Surmang Monastery. When the communists were subduing large portions of the Surmang district, my family was in Kongpo and my uncle's family had just gone to Tsurphu to see His Holiness the Karmapa.
Because of the communist invasion, my father sent a message to my uncle and his family asking them not to return home from Tsurphu, but to come to Kongpo instead and stay with us. The exact message was, “We do not have much, but enough. We can all survive together. So please, instead of returning home, come here.” My uncle and his family agreed to do as instructed after having completed his pilgrimage.
However His Holiness the Karmapa advised them to go to Surmang and help at the monastery there. The Karmapa is our root teacher, so my relatives did as he said and they had no regrets. They helped at the monastery in Surmang and most of those who stayed died while helping there. This is why my family connection to His Holiness is very strong.
The second incarnation of the Bardor Tulkus, my predecessor, also worked for the Sixteenth Karmapa. At the age of sixteen, the former Karmapa went to Palpung Monastery and received the full ordination from Tai Situ Pema Wangchuk Gyalpo; the Second Bardor Tulku received these ordinations together with the Sixteenth Karmapa, so they have a strong bond that links them closely. Instead of returning to his monastery, he went to Tsurphu, served His Holiness for a long time, while his monastery deteriorated in his absence. Requests poured in that Bardor Tulku return to his monastery until the day he passed away.
The Second Bardor Tulku served the Sixteenth Karmapa very often and in many different ways. And so do I. At the age of fifty-six, I am still in the service of His Holiness by being in America. It has been twenty-seven years now.
You see how strong a connection my family has had with His Holiness. He instructed my relatives to stay in Tibet and they all died. It was difficult for me to accept the death of all my family members there. I realized that they were in need of a spiritual direction, that the instructions denoted requesting His Holiness to please pray for them – it would be the least I could do. The fact that I was alive carried a meaning and I could not just disappear somewhere in India on my own.
The officer at the border and I argued every night and fought an interesting battle when I was nine. I argued, “No, I’m not going to do what you suggest. I want to go to His Holiness. I want to meet His Holiness. I am going to tell him all the stories, what happened to my family, what happened to my relatives in Tibet and who passed away. I will not rest until then. After I accomplish that, then nothing really matters, I can do anything.”
He kept insisting, “No, you’re too young to go there. How will you get there? What is the address? Who really knows where he is?” The officer and I argued like that for two or three nights. Eventually he saw that, even though I was really, really young, my stubbornness would not stop me and he said, “If that is the case, I will appoint two military men to take you to where you want to go. They will look after you.”
I had a friend and we went together. He was a very interesting friend, and we had been friends for a long time. We met again after a long time at the border. I had by then turned ten, he was eleven, and so we went together. Thanks to help of that officer… I don’t really know what rank he was. I was too young to understand the situation, but he was the highest officer in the camp. He sent for two people who took us all the way to Bomdella – we were both in really safe hands.
But the very same night we arrived, China and India started to fight; they kept bombing us, and we had to run again. We ran all night and finally, somehow, after a few days we ended up in Siliguri. The many Tibetans who had made their way to Siliguri wanted to go to Tsopema, the Lotus Lake where the Second Buddha, Guru Rinpoche, was burned in fire but miraculously survived.
The Tibetan refugees wanted to visit many different places. Actually, I and my friend were the only ones who wanted to go to Darjeeling, which is not far from Sikkim, and we were determined to go there. We kept repeating, “We don’t want to go to Tsopema. We want to go to Darjeeling.”
Somebody at the border had a sister in Darjeeling, so he gave us her address. After we got to Darjeeling, His Holiness heard that I was there and sent somebody to pick me up. I had now turned twelve, and I finally was able to fulfill my wish, requesting that His Holiness pray for my family and relatives.
I have been with him ever since. Instead of achieving a high position in India, I was able to return to the lineage, can work for and serve the lineage. That is what happened. Everybody has their goal, and keeping that goal in the heart is very, very important.
Think of yourself as only nine years old, with no family and no friends, trying to escape from terror and death over the highest mountains in the world. Consider how far you would get under the circumstances. You will then understand why tulkus are such extraordinary individuals.