A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche
Part Eight: Rinpoche's Death and Rebirth
Serkong Rinpoche’s death was even more remarkable than his life. In July 1983, Rinpoche organized His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s conferring of the Kalachakra empowerment at Tabo Monastery in Spiti. Afterwards, Rinpoche mentioned to a local old monk, Kachen Drubgyel, that according to Tibetan astrology this was His Holiness’s obstacle year. His Holiness’s life was in danger. It would be good to transfer these obstacles onto himself. He told the old monk not to mention this to anyone.
Rinpoche then entered a strict meditation retreat for three weeks. Afterwards, he went to a nearby Tibetan army camp to teach the soldiers Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. Rinpoche was supposed to teach the entire text slowly over an extended period, but rushed through it quickly. Leaving the camp several days earlier than planned, he explained that he had somewhere special to go. This was the day, August 29, 1983, that His Holiness was flying to Geneva, Switzerland, at the same time as Yassar Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, was also expected to arrive there. The police authorities were concerned about a possible act of terrorism directed against Arafat. They warned that they could not guarantee His Holiness’s security.
Rinpoche and Ngawang sped off from the army camp in a jeep, stopping briefly at Tabo Monastery. Rinpoche asked Kachen Drubgyel to join them, but the old monk explained that he had just washed his robes. Rinpoche said it did not matter, but to come in his underskirt. He could tie his robes to the top of the jeep to dry, which the old monk did.
As they drove deeper into Spiti Valley, Rinpoche told Ngawang that he had always told him to repeat continually the mantra of compassion, om mani padme hum, but that he never took him seriously. This was to be his parting advice.
They then stopped at Kyi Monastery. Rinpoche wanted to make offerings. Ngawang said it was late and that they could go in the morning, but Rinpoche insisted. Most of the time, Rinpoche walked slowly and with difficulty. On occasion, however, Rinpoche was quite able to run. For instance, once at an airport, when we were almost late for a flight, Rinpoche ran so quickly, none of us could keep up with him. Similarly, once in Bodh Gaya, when His Holiness was participating in a mass recitation of the hundred-volume Tibetan translation of Buddha’s words (the Kangyur), Rinpoche sat to the side of His Holiness, with me right behind. When the wind carried away a page from His Holiness’s loose-leaf text, Rinpoche practically flew from his seat to pick it up instantly from the floor. Normally, he required assistance to get up. On this occasion at Kyi Monastery, Rinpoche also ran quickly, unassisted, up the steep mountain trail.
After Rinpoche had made his offerings, the Kyi monks requested him to spend the night there. Rinpoche declined, saying he had to reach the village of Kyibar that night. If they wanted to see him again, they would have to go up there. He then left quickly, having given this indirect message of what was about to happen.
When Rinpoche and his party reached the high village of Kyibar, they went to the house of a farmer he knew. The man was still out in his fields and did not expect any guests. Rinpoche asked if he were busy for the next week or so. The farmer said no and invited Rinpoche to stay.
After washing himself and eating some yogurt, Rinpoche recited from memory Tsongkhapa’s The Essence of Excellent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings, which took him about two hours. When he finished, he called Ngawang and said he was not feeling well. He then put his head on Ngawang’s shoulder – something that Rinpoche normally never did. It seemed, in retrospect, that he was saying farewell. He had sent Chondzeyla away to Simla before all this, since it would undoubtedly be too difficult for Chondzeyla to witness what would happen. He had been with Rinpoche since he was six years old and Rinpoche had raised him like his son.
Ngawang asked if he should get a doctor or some medicine, but Rinpoche said no. Ngawang asked if there were anything else he could do, and Rinpoche asked him to help him walk to the toilet, which he did. Then Rinpoche asked Ngawang to make his bed. Instead of the usual yellow sheet that he always slept on, Rinpoche asked Ngawang to lay out a white one. In tantric practice, yellow is used for rituals to increase one’s ability to help others, whereas white is for pacifying obstacles.
Rinpoche then requested Ngawang and Kachen Drubgyel to come to his bedroom, which they did. Rinpoche then laid down on his right side, in the Buddha’s sleeping posture. Instead of holding his arms in the standard position of left on his side and right under his face, as he normally did when going to sleep, he crossed them in the tantric embracing gesture. He then began to breathe deeply and simply passed away, apparently through the meditation process of "giving and taking" (tonglen). He was sixty-nine and in perfect health. I had taken him for a thorough medical examination in Delhi two months earlier.
At precisely that moment, while His Holiness was still in flight on route to Geneva, Chairman Arafat suddenly changed his mind and decided to postpone his visit to Switzerland. The danger of a terrorist incident at the airport was thus averted. Although the danger to His Holiness’s life was gone, still His Holiness’s motorcade became lost on the way from the airport to the hotel. However, His Holiness avoided any harm. Serkong Rinpoche had successfully taken on the obstacle to His Holiness’s life and given in turn his own life-energy.
Giving and taking is an advanced bodhisattva technique for taking on obstacles from others and giving them happiness. Whenever Rinpoche taught this practice, he said that we need to be willing to take on the suffering of others even if it meant to the point of sacrificing our lives. He always referred to the example Kunu Lama Rinpoche had given of a person in his home district who took on someone’s head injury and consequently passed away. When we asked Rinpoche if he were to do this, would it not be a waste, Rinpoche would reply, no. It would be like an astronaut, he explained, who sacrificed his life for the sake of world progress. Just as the example and fame of the heroic astronaut would assure a substantial government pension for his family, so too the heroic example of the lama’s sacrifice would provide for the spiritual nourishment of his disciples left behind.
Serkong Rinpoche remained in the death-juncture meditation on clear light for three days. Those with the ability to direct their rebirths normally enter this meditation as part of the process of either generating or continuing a line of reincarnate lamas. During the meditation, their hearts remain warm and their bodies do not start decomposing although they have stopped breathing. Normally, the great lamas remain in this state for several days, after which their heads slump and blood leaves the nostrils, indicating that their consciousness has left their bodies.
When these signs occurred with Serkong Rinpoche, rainbows glimmered in the sky and wondrous lights appeared on the barren hill chosen for his cremation. Although people sent word to His Holiness’s Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala for monks to come for the cremation ceremony, the party could not arrive in time. The Spiti monks performed the rites, modestly, as Rinpoche would have wished. Shortly afterwards, a fresh water spring with healing powers spouted from the cremation site. Still flowing today, it has become a place of pilgrimage. Exactly nine months later, on May 29, 1984, Rinpoche took birth once more, again in Spiti, in a humble family.
Several years before, Rinpoche had met a husband and wife named Tsering Chodrag and Kunzang Chodron, both of whom had impressed him greatly. Very strong Dharma practitioners, they had told Rinpoche that their deepest wish had been to become a monk and a nun. The headman of the local villages had recommended against this, since joining the monastic life as adults with a young family would present many problems. They must look after their children first. Rinpoche seconded the headman's counsel. These were the parents Rinpoche took birth with, as their fourth child.
Disciples use various means to locate the reincarnation of a great lama who has mastered death-juncture meditation. These methods include consulting oracles and the dreams of the most highly realized masters. The final candidate then needs to identify correctly several possessions of the deceased lama from among many similar-looking items. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, however, warns not to rely solely on such means. The child needs to give clear signs of his or her identity before being considered a serious candidate.
The people of Spiti regard Serkong Rinpoche similar to a saint: almost every household contains his photograph. As soon as the little Serkong Rinpoche could talk, he pointed to Rinpoche's picture on the wall of his parents' home and said, "That's me!" When Ngawang later visited the house to check out the child, the boy immediately ran into his arms. He wanted to go with him back to his monastery.
No one had any doubts about who he was. After all, a few years earlier a group of prominent Spiti women had requested Rinpoche to take rebirth in their valley next time. Receiving permission from the Indian government to visit their remote border district had always been a problem. Such a rebirth would make everything easier. His parents, deeply honored, gave their consent and, at the age of four, the little Rinpoche left for Dharamsala. Although his parents visit him from time to time, the boy has never asked for them, nor has he seemed even to miss them. From the start, he felt perfectly at home with the members of his old household. They were his heartfelt family.
I was out of India on a lecture tour when Rinpoche first arrived in Dharamsala. A few months later, upon my return, I went to see him, trying to be neither overly expectant nor overly skeptical. As I entered Rinpoche’s room, Ngawang asked the boy if he knew who I was. The lad replied, “Don’t be stupid. Of course, I know who this is!” Since a photograph of me translating for a meeting in the Vatican between the old Serkong Rinpoche and His Holiness the Pope hung prominently on his sitting room wall, I thought perhaps he recognized me from that. Yet, from the moment we met, little Rinpoche treated me with total familiarity and ease, like a family member. A four-year-old child cannot fake something like that. This, more than anything, has convinced me of who he is.
Now, in 1998, the new Serkong Rinpoche is fourteen. He lives and studies mostly at his monastery in Mundgod and comes to Dharamsala once or twice a year, when His Holiness gives major teachings. Chondzeyla and Rinpoche’s old cook have died and Ngawang has disrobed, married, and now lives in Nepal. Rinpoche has a new household of monks to care for him, all of whom he handpicked in his former life. For example, he personally chose two ten-year-old boys from Spiti and Kinnaur to join his household and attend him during the last few months of his life.
Although he has a similar sense of humor to that of his predecessor and shares the same practical down-to-earth approach, the young Serkong Rinpoche has his own personality. What continue from one lifetime to the next are the talents, propensities, and karmic connections. In my relationship with him, I feel somewhat like a member of Captain Kirk’s original Star Trek crew who has now joined Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything has changed and yet there is definite continuity.
So far, I have taken a back-seat role in Serkong Rinpoche’s upbringing. I have felt that the old Rinpoche would have wished mainly to serve his own people. Too many great lamas have devoted themselves to teaching in the West or in areas of Asia outside their traditional cultural sphere, to the detriment of the Tibetans themselves. If the Tibetan form of Buddhism is to survive in its fullest form, training future generations of Tibetans is essential. This is because, at present, the complete Buddhist teachings are available only in the Tibetan language. Rinpoche provided me with the best circumstances imaginable for my training and self-development. To repay his kindness, I have sought to do the same for him.
To try to prevent cultural conflict, I have not participated in Rinpoche’s modern education. In fact, I have purposely avoided having too much contact with him, although the close bond between us is strikingly evident whenever we meet. Instead, I have helped to arrange local Tibetan instructors to teach him English, science, and social studies, following the same curriculum the Tibetan schools in India use. Consequently, Rinpoche can fully relate to his own people. I have also neither taken him to the West nor bought him a computer or a video player, and I have discouraged others from offering him these. Too many young reincarnate lamas find computer games and action videos more enticing than their traditional monastic studies.
I do not know how much my direction has contributed, but Rinpoche displays a deep sense of security and is fully comfortable in his own culture. This can only be of benefit to him and to everyone he will meet in the future. He can learn firsthand about the West when he reaches maturity. I pray that I can become his disciple once more in my next life.
[A video of Serkong Rinpoche's enthronement in 1988 is available in German language and can be ordered from Edition Ruine der Kuenste Berlin.]
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