Lama who co-founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the UK;
Born: April 4, 1940; Died: October 8, 2013.
Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who has died aged 73 in a violent incident in China, was a Tibetan lama who co-founded the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire, the first Tibetan Buddhist centre in the Western world and still one of the few outside Tibet. He was selected for religious leadership when he was only four years old and after fleeing Chinese-controlled Tibet and almost dying of starvation, came to the UK where he worked as a hospital orderly to support himself and his colleagues. Following the establishment of Samye Ling, he led many spiritual and charitable projects, particularly in the Tibetan areas of China.
He was born in the village of Dharak in Kham, a region in the east of Tibet, and was singled out for the spiritual life while still a child. According to the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, a party from Drolma Lhakang monastery, set out on a search for the reincarnation of their abbot, the 1st Akong, and settled on the four-year-old child they found in Dharak.
The child was taken to the monastery, also known as the Tara Temple, where he was enthroned as the 2nd Akong Tulku and began his religious training among the 300 monks who lived there. As well as being schooled in Buddhist traditions and teachings, he worked in the wider community, performing religious ceremonies.
In 1959, in the aftermath of the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese authorities who had been in control of the region since the early 1950s, Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche fled the country for India (the Dalai Lama escaped in the same year). The young Akong Tulku, still just a teenager, was among a group of around 200 refugees who set out on foot on the difficult journey; ten months later, only 15 of them had survived. At one point, they were so desperate for food they boiled down their leather bags and made soup. Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, a fellow refugee on that difficult journey, said the leadership of Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche had helped him survive. "He was my mother, he was my brother, he was my teacher," he said.
For a time, the survivors of the flight from Tibet lived in the Buxadaur refugee camp in Assam where the conditions were hard and where Tibetans, most of whom were unused to the heat, were dying every day; Akong Tulku's older brother Jamyang Chogyal was among those who did not survive. Later, Akong Tulku was asked to work at a school in Dalhousie in the north-west of India where young lamas from all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism could receive an education.
It was during this period that Akong Tulku began to learn and understand Western ideas and decided his future lay in the United Kingdom. With two other monks, he moved to England in the early 1960s to learn English. Only one of the monks had a bursary so Akong Tulku worked as a hospital orderly to support them.
The rest of Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche's life was dedicated to introducing the West to Buddhist ideas, principally through the Samye Ling monastery, which he established with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the help of master artist Sherab Palden Beru. The monastery was founded in 1967 and quickly became popular with people of all faiths, drawing followers from around the world.
By the 1970s, Akong Tulku and the fellow leaders of Samye Ling were planning the building of a Tibetan Buddhist temple, museum and library. Artists, builders, craftsmen and sculptors came from all over the country to give their time to the project and Akong Tulku was often personally involved; like the other monks, he would sometimes take up the tools and do some of the physical work himself. It was opened in 1988 and since then various satellite centres have been opened around the world; in 1993, the monastery also acquired Holy Isle off the west coast.
Akong Tulku, who lived at Samye Ling, always credited the extreme events in his life - the flight from Tibet, his near-starvation and poverty, the new life in a foreign country - with maturing his mind and outlook and giving him the ability to transform adverse conditions for others. His followers would point out that he did it with very few words - his teaching was that you do not need many words. Ken Holmes, the buddhist teacher, said Akong Tulku's life was like many lives wrapped into one.
By the early 1990s, one important mission for Akong Tulku was the search for the 17th Karmapa, one of the most important figures in Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. In the continuation of the tradition which had found him in the 1940s, Akong Tulku played an important role in the search party for the reincarnation of the Karmapa and settled on Apo Gaga, a seven-year-old from Eastern Tibet. The Karmapa later fled into India amid concerns that the Chinese authorities wanted to influence his teachings and use him as a political mouthpiece.
As well as the life and work of Samye Ling, Akong Tulku's focus was on humanitarian activities, chiefly through his charitable organisation Rokpa International. With a motto of "helping where help is needed", it works principally in Nepal and the Chinese areas of Tibet, which are among the poorest regions in the world. Many parts of the region are only accessible by horse or jeep, but despite this, Rokpa has funded more than 200 projects and has good relations with the Chinese authorities.
In 2011, the British government honoured Akong Tulku's work with the 60 Years, 6 People award, which marks former refugees who have made a meaningful contribution to Britain. He was also the author of three books including Taming the Tiger and acted as a consultant for the National Museum of Scotland when its collection of Tibetan exhibits was being relocated during the recent refurbishment.
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