The Re-transformation of Samdhong Rinpoche

The Re-transformation of Samdhong Rinpoche
Bhuchung K Tsering

The other day I was watching this video of Samdhong Rinpoche’s commentary on the iconic Tibetan Buddhist scripture Lojong Tsig-gyema (བློ་སྦྱོང་ཚིགས་བརྒྱད་མ། Eight Verses of Training of the Mind) by the 11th century master Langri Tangpa. In eight short verses Langri Tangpa shows the path to inner transformation of an individual, and, when practiced, helps you in becoming a better person.

But this blog piece is about another transformation, rather re-transformation i.e. the person of Samdhong Rinpoche.

To date, those who follow the issue of Tibetan culture and politics have seen two faces of Samdhong Rinpoche. For much of the initial post 1959 period, Rinpoche was an academician, beginning with teaching in, and administering, some of the Central Schools for Tibetans in India. Thereafter, he made his mark as the head of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies (renamed now as Central University of Tibetan Studies) in Sarnath. This university continues to be the premier institute for Tibetan Buddhist studies internationally. His stint at the university also led to his fame as a scholar with the title of “Prof.” attached to his name that has become to symbolize the same.

I have not had the privilege of being a student of Rinpoche, but many of my friends and colleagues have, and they are all bonded by their common reverence to him.

After Rinpoche was nominated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be a member of the Tibetan Parliament in 1991, we saw another aspect of him, that of a political leader. He has been one of the key personalities who have assisted His Holiness in shaping Tibetan democracy, whether it was drafting of the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile or restructuring the working of the Tibetan Parliament or the Kashag, of which he was the head until his retirement in 2011.

We are now seeing another face of Samdhong Rinpoche; that of a lama. In sooth, his very name indicates that he is a lama and generally would have developed spiritually as a Buddhist master. So, it is just a re-transformation, if you will.

Rinpoche, however, says that he had taken a vow not to give religious teachings, as this was not an easy task. In the past, he said even when he had to teach Buddhism he would do it more in the context of an academic discourse.

Before beginning his teachings on Lojong, Rinpoche explained a bit on his decision. He said religious teachings involve Lama-Lopma (Guru-disciple) relationship, which is very important. Such a relationship bestows responsibilities, both to the teacher and the student, and if there is any break in the relationship, it is harmful to both.

He said that it was only around March of 2014 that he had to break his vow and began giving religious teachings in the monasteries.

As I continued watching the recording of his Lojong teachings, it was indeed somewhat strange for me to be relating to him in this way, seeing him as a religious teacher. However, he still is the stern and serious individual (at least through his external façade although those who know him intimately do say that he has a jocular side).

He is also blunt. While giving his Lojong teachings, at the request of the alumni of the Central University of Tibetan Studies and his 75th birthday celebration committee, Rinpoche tells the gathering that since they are all his colleagues or students, they know each others’ strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, there could be some who have come to the teaching because they might not wish to be seen not to be attending it. He said he will leave it up to the individuals how they view their attendance, whether in the guru-disciple relationship or as attending an academic lecture. He said if there were doubts, it is better to just look at it as a lecture. I guess those people who were in attendance would know the context of Rinpoche’s advice.

In any case, I thought Rinpoche’s Lojong teachings were interesting. At the same time, I think people will take time getting used to this new face. As an indication, during the mandala offering prayer ritual when the name of the lama is uttered (to say they are receiving the teachings at the beginning and to thank him for giving the teachings at the conclusion) I could see that people had problems in reciting the name of Samdhong Rinpoche.


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