Oct 29, 2013

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REFLECTION: A loss for our world

REFLECTION: A loss for our world

At a time when so much around us is bland and empty of real meaning. I would like in this month’s Reflection to honour a human being who has brought depth to the lives of millions. Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche who did so much to bring the riches of Tibetan Buddhism to the western world after he fled from his native country was recently murdered in China. He was 73. His tragic and sudden death at the hands of robbers is a loss to our world for this was a man who had come through countless sorrows and tribulations to understand in a remarkable way the depths and capacities of the human spirit. When I heard of his passing, I knew that our often divided human family had lost a soul whose goodness transcended many of these divisions. A man of truth among whose many accomplishments was the founding of the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in rural Dumfriesshire in south west Scotland – a place of inner healing, of vision and of challenge for thousands of people. He will be remembered for many things and not least for the great range of charitable and philanthropic projects in many countries which have come into being through his wisdom, humility and prayer.

I much appreciated what the British journalist Madeline Bunting wrote following Akong Rinpoche’s death. This is in part what she wrote and it touches upon many issues concerning faith in our secular societies. “ Buddhism’s popularity over the past half century in the west has surprised and dismayed in equal measure. Alongside the fad for Buddhist statues, there has been a much more serious engagement with hundreds of centres opening, many of the most dynamic founded by Tibetan Buddhists. Given that Tibet had limited contact with modernity until the 20th century, it’s been an extraordinary story of cultural export and rare religious success in a deepening secularism. Central to this was the remarkable life of Akong Rinpoche. Anyone visiting Samye Ling in Scotland or the London centre cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer scale of the ambition. This kind of institution  building by a refugee community is hard to match. Akong Rinpoche was a traditionalist and one of his driving motivations was the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism in the face of a concerted Chinese effort to obliterate Tibetan culture. In recent years he and a team gathered thousands of single-copy manuscripts and took them out of Tibet to be copied. What was at stake was an entire cultural tradition. And it was work done amidst huge struggle, difficulty and danger.”

Some have said that western followers of Buddhism romanticise it and only take from it what suits them. Samye Ling and other Buddhist centres remind us of the discipline within religious faith and invite us to take seriously the profound meaning of “mindfulness” in the modern world. The search for that inner awareness and “mindfulness of the present”  is no easy task – which may be one of the reasons why  much of Christianity has largely abandoned it. It is just too hard. But a Christianity devoid of a deep inner silence is not always able to contribute to real reconciliation in the world or to the healing of many secular people who carry within them a range of wounds. It is for that reason that contemporary Christianity must look again at its own narrative and re-discover the great tradition of inner silence which was, for example, so central in the early Celtic church.

The same combination of practicality, compassion and commitment to revivifying what he had known in Tibet led Akong Rinpoche to initiate many projects. He placed these in three categories.

First were spiritual activities focused on Samye Ling and a network of more than thirty Kagyu Samye Dzong Buddhist centres world-wide.  Second there was humanitarian work, mainly channelled through the charity ROKPA, which funds education, health and environmental projects in Tibetan areas of China. Third he was interested in healing and Tibetan medicine, writing books on the subject and initiating arrange of psychotherapy projects. Much of this was achieved through his ability to inspire others and the fundraising was never about soliciting big donations but about dozens of dogged initiatives, many of which lasted decades without losing a clear vision of the ultimate goal. As we look back at such a remarkable life, our immediate response must be one of gratitude. May women and men like him continue to give us new insights and courage for our own journeys.

Peter Millar petermillarreflects.blogspot.co.uk

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