Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche
Born in 1940, in Dharak Village, Riwoche County, in the Chamdo area of Kham, which is part of the Tibetan areas of China, he was discovered at a very young age by the search party seeking the reincarnation of the previous (1st) Akong, Karma Miyo, Abbot of Lho Tsawagang Drolma Lhakang Monastery in Pashu County in the Chamdo area of Kham. The search party was following precise instructions given by HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Supreme Head of the Karma Kagyu Tradition.
Around the age of four, he was taken to Drolma Lhakang and was enthroned as the 2nd Akong, Karma Shedrup Chokyi Nyima Trinley Kunchab Pal Zangpo Sok Le Nampar Gyalwe De, known as Akong Tulku Rinpoche. He then commenced the spiritual education necessary for his position as Abbot. Drolma Lhakang is known as the Tara Temple and is situated on one of the six famous mountain ranges of Kham. It is a monastery with 300 monks, and has four nunneries and 27 associated practice centres.
In his youth he engaged in retreat practice and also specialised in the study of medicine, both because of his own interest and also because there was a strong medical tradition at his monastery. His expertise in medicine and meditation later became a major part of his compassionate activity around the world.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche travelled as Abbot into the wider community performing religious ceremonies and bringing benefit to his followers. He then went to the great monastic university of Shechen, where he received transmission of the quintessential Mahamudra Kagyu Buddhist lineage, as well as many other teachings, from the 2nd Kongtrul Rinpoche of Shechen. His spiritual training as a holder of the Kagyu lineage was further completed under the guidance of HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, who bestowed on him the title "Choje" or “Dharma Arya” and also certified him as a teacher of Tibetan medicine. Akong Tulku Rinpoche also received teachings from several other great masters, including Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Shechen Khenpo Gangshar and Surmang Trungpa Rinpoche. Akong Tulku Rinpoche also held many lineages of the Nyingma tradition. He then gave many teachings in the area over which he had authority and was greatly respected by all.
In 1959 due to political changes in Tibet he fled to India, in an arduous, ten month journey as one of the leaders of a 300-strong party, of which only 13 people made it safely to India. At one point, they were so hungry that they were obliged to boil the leather of their bags and boots to make soup, and many of them died from starvation. After spending some time in refugee camps, he was asked, along with some other lamas, to look after the Young Lamas' Home School, in Dalhousie, NW India. This was a place where young reincarnate lamas from all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism could receive an education. While he was in India he met many high-ranking individuals including Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and he also began to become familiar with Western ways of thinking.
Through the kind help of Freda Bedi, later to become Sister Palmo, he and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Abbot of Surmang Monastery, sailed to England in 1963 to learn English in Oxford. Since Akong Tulku Rinpoche did not have a study bursary he worked for some years as a simple hospital orderly, supporting himself, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Tulku Chime Rinpoche of Benchen Monastery in the small apartment they shared.
At the request of many people, Rinpoche spent the next 25 years (1963-1988) introducing the West to Buddhism and some aspects of Tibetan culture. Through his activity a wealth of material from one of Asia's finest and most extraordinary civilisations became available to the world at large, ensuring its perpetuation as a living tradition for the benefit of everyone. This activity centred around the development of the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, in Scotland, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre in the West, co-founded by Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. After Trungpa Rinpoche’s departure in 1970 Akong Rinpoche took over the leadership and direction of Kagyu Samye Ling, which developed into a place of peace and spirituality, with a strong emphasis on active, selfless compassion, open to anyone of any faith. Since its founding in 1967 it has drawn visitors from all over the world.
In response to a growing demand for teachings, Akong Tulku Rinpoche invited many of the greatest living scholars and meditation masters of Buddhism to Scotland. The Supreme Head of the Kagyu Lineage, HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa visited Kagyu Samye Ling in 1975 and 1977, and appointed Akong Tulku Rinpoche as his representative in Europe, as well as making him Abbot of Karma Drubgyu Darje Ling, which is the monastery aspect of Kagyu Samye Ling. In addition to this, HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa asked Akong Tulku Rinpoche to be the organiser of his 1977 6-month tour of Europe.
Teachings have been given at Kagyu Samye Ling by eminent masters such as HH 14th Dalai Lama, HH Sakya Trinzin, HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, Chabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Khentin Tai Situpa, Goshir Gyaltsabpa, Kunzig Shamarpa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Drugpa Kagyu Khamtrul Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche and several other masters from various Buddhist traditions.
Under HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa's guidance, Akong Tulku Rinpoche established the traditional four-year meditation retreat at Kagyu Samye Ling and launched the construction of the Samye Project, the building of a major traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple and an accompanying College, Library and Museum. In 1975 HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa indicated the site on which the temple was to be built, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche later broke the ground for the foundations of the temple area. In 1984 HH 14th Dalai Lama consecrated the future temple and then returned again in 1993 to inaugurate the site for the college. Phase 1 of the Samye Project consists of the temple, built entirely by members of the Samye Ling community, under the active leadership of Akong Tulku Rinpoche, who was often to be seen with a trowel in hand on the building site. The inside of the temple was exquisitely finished by a team of fine artists, sculptors, woodcarvers and other craftspeople working under the guidance of the late Sherapalden Beru. Sherapalden was the finest master-artist of the Karma Gadri tradition.
The grand opening of the temple took place on the 8th August 1988, with a commemorative plaque being unveiled by the 12th Khentin Tai Situpa and Lord Steel. Senior representatives of the world's religions attended.
During this period of Kagyu Samye Ling's development, various satellite centres and activities came into being. Kagyu Samye Dzong centres and their branches were established in Belgium, Spain, Ireland, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the UK, and now there are centres in many other countries too. Akong Tulku Rinpoche would give a course in each of the centres at least once every three years. The centres were developed under his authority and guidance and he was tireless in carrying out the wishes of the people concerned. At Kagyu Samye Ling visitors always had the opportunity to see him personally for guidance and instruction, and he was known for his deep compassion, wisdom and understanding of the mind.
Phase 2 of the Samye Project was completed before Akong Tulku Rinpoche passed away. It comprises the college, library and new accommodation, and is an essential part of Kagyu Samye Ling's growing activities.
In 1992 Kagyu Samye Ling acquired Holy Isle, off the west coast of Scotland, which has grown to be an internationally renowned centre for retreat and inter faith work.
In the year 2000 Akong Tulku Rinpoche constructed a Victory Stupa at Kagyu Samye Ling with a shrine room where the ashes of devotees are placed.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s activities encompass three major areas: spiritual, therapy and charity.
Kagyu Samye Ling, with its monastery, retreats and branches, as described above, comprise the spiritual activity.
The interest which many therapists and physicians showed in Akong Tulku Rinpoche's medical and therapeutic Buddhist skills led to the development of an innovative system of therapy, now thriving under the name of ‘Tara Therapy’.
The seeds of this therapy were sown during the hardest period of Akong Tulku Rinpoche's life - firstly the struggle for survival during and after leaving his homeland, and then the extreme change in life circumstances in first coming to India and then working as a hospital orderly in the West. He lost everything that was familiar to him, yet during this time he was able to apply the precious teachings and meditations he had learned from his teachers, thus maturing his mind and giving him the ability to transform adverse conditions. In this way these hardships became a source of great benefit, and out of this grew his commitment to help those experiencing physical and mental suffering. From 1967 onwards individuals would approach him for help, and through his compassionate understanding and great skill he was able to guide them to find relief from their suffering. This grew over the years into a fully established system of therapy.
The Lothlorien Community was established in 1989, with a community-based approach to mental health. A four-year professional therapeutic training programme in the Tara Rokpa Therapy Process began in 1993, and since then numerous therapists have gained the qualification to teach Akong Tulku Rinpoche's unique therapy method.
A project for the preservation of the Tibetan medical tradition has been established in Edinburgh, where there is a qualified Tibetan doctor who gives treatment and dispenses Tibetan medical remedies. In addition to this, training is given for the preservation of endangered medicinal herbs and roots, with a strong commitment to making this precious tradition available to as many people as possible.
In 1980, together with the Swiss actress Lea Wyler and her father the eminent lawyer Dr. Veit Wyler, Akong Tulku Rinpoche established the humanitarian aid organisation ROKPA International, the motto of which is "helping where help is needed".
Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s main activity in the 1990s concerned the expansion of his humanitarian activities, principally in Nepal and the Tibetan areas of China, but also in Europe and Southern Africa, where he established several soup kitchens to feed the homeless in major cities.
His own experience of almost starving during the arduous journey as a refugee to India led to his personal commitment to bring relief wherever there is hunger. With tremendous compassion and diligence, he brought well over 100 projects into existence in The Tibetan Autonomous Region and The Four Provinces, each project being either a school for orphans, a clinic, a medical college, a self-help initiative or a programme to maintain the Tibetan culture and environment. It is estimated that each year ROKPA supports around 10,000 people, many of whom are orphans or from the poorest family backgrounds.
In Nepal, working mainly with ROKPA International's Vice President Lea Wyler, Akong Tulku Rinpoche established an important project which feeds the hungry through the winter months. This has expanded to incorporate a clinic, women’s self-help workshops and the building of a large children's home for street children and the destitute.
ROKPA has offices in twenty countries, where hundreds of volunteers are raising funds for over one hundred and fifty ROKPA projects in the Tibetan areas of China, as well as in Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Africa. ROKPA has been acknowledged for its work by notable organisations such as The Red Cross and The World Wildlife Fund.
In 1992, the responsibility of discovering the reincarnation of HH 16th Gyalwa Karmapa fell upon the shoulders of the Regents Khentin Tai Situpa and Goshir Gyaltsabpa. Akong Tulku Rinpoche was the representative of Khentin Tai Situpa, and together with Sherab Tarchin, the representative of Goshir Gyaltsabpa, and several other people, he played a very important role in finding the reincarnation and taking him to the Karmapa seat at Tolung Tsurphu monastery. He later arranged for the visit of the two Regents - The 12th Khentin Tai Situpa and the 9th Goshir Gyatsabpa - who named and enthroned him formally as HH 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The tradition of reincarnate lamas began with the 1st Gyalwa Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, and the formal recognition of HH 17th Gyalwa Karmapa was deeply significant, as since that time new reincarnate lamas have been formally accepted in China again.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s achievements have been formally recognised through numerous awards and honorary positions, a few of which are listed here. He was an honorary guest speaker at the International Conferences on Buddhism, Tibetan Medicine and Charity; in 1993 he was made advisor to The School for Disabled Minorities in Lhasa; in 2008 he was made Religious Advisor to the Buddhist Society of Satham, Yunnan, and in 2009 he was appointed Advisor to the Medical College of Qinghai University.
In 2011 Akong Tulku Rinpoche was chosen as a recipient of the "60 years, 6 people" accolade, in which the British Home Secretary honoured former refugees who have made an inspiring and meaningful contribution to Britain.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche authored 3 books, the first of which, “Taming the Tiger”, has been translated into 17 languages and is widely known. He also presented several papers on Buddhism, medicine, charity and therapy and was interviewed extensively by worldwide media.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche was a guiding light in the transmission and preservation of Buddhism. His work has been profoundly influential in establishing Tibetan Buddhism's place in Western society and culture, both through his extensive projects and also through activities such as being the first Tibetan lama in Europe licensed to perform weddings and funerals.
The increasing burden of his charity work abroad led Akong Tulku Rinpoche to appoint his brother, Venerable Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche as Abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling in Scotland, and he has since been successfully building the monastic community there.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche died in tragic circumstances in Chengdu, China on October 8th 2013. He has left behind a vast legacy of work which is now being diligently upheld by his followers across the world.
Akong Tulku Rinpoche's life and activities were the subject of a conference held at Oxford University in May 2014, where international speakers outlined the many benefits which his work brought to different areas of the world.
THE AIMS OF AKONG TULKU RINPOCHE
1. To engender peace and happiness through fostering greater awareness of the need for compassion and understanding in all areas of human activity
2. To contribute to the spiritual welfare of our times
3. To give shelter, support and help wherever possible to all those in need
4. To preserve and respect the religious traditions, culture and languages of all people