Obituary: Dr Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, Lama

Monk who founded the UK's first Buddhist centre and was driven by compassion
Monk who founded the UK's first Buddhist centre and was driven by compassion
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Born: 25 December, 1939, in Kham, Tibet. Died: 8 October, 2013, in China, aged 73

He was once so desperately hungry that he had to boil his bag and boot leather into soup in order to survive.

On the edge of starvation, he was part of a 300-strong group of refugees who had fled Tibet following political upheaval in his birthplace in 1959. Still just a youth, he endured a gruelling ten-month trek to safety in India.

But by the time they arrived only 13 of the 300 had made it through. That struggle for survival helped to define the man he became, shape the development of his own system of therapy and inspire him to co-found the West’s first Tibetan Buddhist Centre and later the humanitarian aid organisation Rokpa International, through which he has helped to feed countless people in need.

His ethos was simple: he believed above all in kindness and compassion to all others, patience, tolerance and diligence.

As a result he has been hugely influential in preserving Buddhism and introducing the religion and its traditions to Western society and culture.

He was born in 1939 in Dharak Village, in the Chamdo area of Kham in Tibet, and two years later he was discovered by a search party, sent by the supreme head of the Karma Kagyu tradition, looking for the reincarnation of the previous, first Akong, Karma Miyo, Abbot of Lho Tsawagang Drolma Lhakang Monastery in the local Chamdo area.

Aged about four, he was taken to the monastery, enthroned as the second Akong, known as Akong Tulku Rinpoche, and began the spiritual education required for his position as abbot. He specialised in studying medicine, a skill that would continue to be an important aspect of his compassionate work.

He travelled around the community performing religious ceremonies and helping his followers before going for further training to the Shechen monastery where he was given the honorary title Choje and qualified as a teacher of Tibetan medicine.

He became a respected teacher in the area but in 1959, with political tension rising between Tibet and China, he fled on foot across the Himalayas to India. The arduous journey claimed the lives of numerous companions, many succumbing through starvation.

Aged just 19, he was one of the few to survive and, after spending some time in refugee camps he was asked to look after the Young Lamas Home School, in Dalhousie, north-west India. While there he met India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the woman who would become the country’s third Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He also began to learn and understand Western ideas.

In 1963 he and a number of other lamas went to Oxford where he worked as a hospital orderly to support them.

He then spent the next quarter of a century introducing the West to Buddhism and Tibetan culture, principally through the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, in Scotland, the first Tibetan Buddhist Centre in the West, which he developed jointly in 1967 with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Abbot of Surmang Monastery in Tibet, who had accompanied him to England.

Based at Eskdalemuir, near Langhom, in Dumfriesshire, it teaches Buddhist philosophy and meditation within the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism and draws visitors and tutors from all over the world, including the Dalai Lama. It is also a centre for the preservation of Tibetan religion, culture, medicine, art, architecture and handicrafts.

The building of a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple there, constructed entirely by members of the Samye Ling community, was led by Akong Tulku Rinpoche who was often to be spotted on the building site, trowel in hand. He was also instrumental in the building of a college, library and museum at the centre.

Various satellite centre and activities were developed and in 1992 Samye Ling acquire the Holy Isle, off Scotland’s west coast, which is now an internationally renowned centre for retreat and inter-faith work.

Meanwhile Akong Tulku Rinpoche developed his own innovative therapy system, the Tara Rokpa Therapy Process and, through the Lothlorien Community near Castle Fouglas, he began offering a new approach to mental health and a four-year training in his therapy process.

Many therapists have since been trained in his unique method and in Edinburgh a project, involving a Tibetan doctor’s practice, has also been established to preserve Tibetan medical traditions.

His humanitarian work also focused on the founding, in 1980, of the aid organisation Rokpa International. With its motto Helping Where Help Is Needed, it was established with Swiss actress Lea Wyler and her lawyer father Dr Veit Wyler.

It has expanded from projects in Nepal and Tibet to cover areas in Europe and southern Africa where several soup kitchens feed the homeless in major cities. It was his own experience on that horrific journey to India that inspired his commitment to help wherever there is hunger. As a result he has created more than 100 projects, including schools for orphans, clinics and medical colleges, in the Tibetan areas of China, and Ropka has offices in 20 countries supporting a total of more than 150 initiatives.

In 1992 he was involved in helping to find the reincarnation of His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, the supreme head of the Karma Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism, a significant role as the incumbent reincarnate lama has since been formally accepted in China.

His other achievements include three books, including Taming the Tiger, which has been translated into 17 languages, and several papers on Bhuddism, medicine, charity and therapy.

He has also been honoured with numerous awards including, in 2011, the “60 Years, 6 People” accolade, awarded to former refugees who have made an inspiring and meaningful contribution to the country.

He is survived by his brother Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche.