Gratitude Series #41 – Nepal a Pilgrimage Part 2: Bumping in to a Bodhisattva

Last week in Part 1 of my ‘Nepal a Pilgrimage’ post I mentioned how this pilgrimage was filled with many meaningful and enlightening discoveries. Well, another one such discovery was when a group of us were returning back to our hotel from Boudhanath stupa, the minute we stepped out of our taxi, we had to jump back in to another taxi. This was because we saw our Guru, Tsem Rinpoche walking towards us. Rinpoche was exiting the hotel with an elderly monk. It was such a spontaneous moment as Rinpoche asked us to join him immediately. Everything moved so fast, there’s wasn’t even time to think like, “who is this elderly monk?” They say that nothing is ever just a coincidence, and as if it was just meant to be, off we go to discover more about this elderly monk. So we all squeezed ourselves back into another taxi and started heading to his home. The life story he is about to share with us is priceless.

About 10 years ago, H.E. Tsem Rinpoche had met this lama and they’ve lost touch since. Then suddenly out of the blue, Rinpoche bumped into him on the streets of Thamel. His name is Tsawa Phutok Rinpoche and at that time he was 80 years old. He was staying in a very small low cost flat with his niece, and only occupied a room. All 10 of us ended up staying for about two hours in his humble little space packed with thangkas (Tibetan Buddha paintings) and Buddha statues, listening attentively to the stories of how he was a political prisoner as Tsem Rinpoche translated for us.

Phutok Rinpoche spent 20 years as a political prisoner in Tibet in the 1950s. When he was in prison, he was forced to clean the latrines of the prisoners because he was a high ranking Lama, and was even tortured. He said he had to do his job well otherwise he would be beaten and may even be shot. His cellmate had once reported him for chanting mantras at night, accusing him of slandering Mao Zedong. He was interrogated for days because of that, “I told them, I don’t know anything about Mao! I’m just praying. I’m praying so I can get out of here!” he laughed.

Yes he laughed, after spending a quarter of his life in prison, Phutok Rinpoche could still laugh. All of us were in awe as we wondered how on earth did he survive all that and yet be so light. There was not an ounce of self-pity, anger or discontentment shown, instead we saw a bright effervescent face of someone who had found real ‘peace’.

Phutok Rinpoche explained to us that he meditated on the sufferings of others. He said he happily endured the suffering, because in this way he can absorb the sufferings of the three precious monasteries. Tsem Rinpoche asked, “What’s that?” and he said, “Gaden, Sera and Drepung”. He told us every single day when he woke up in jail, he prayed, “May the obstacles of the monks, the high lamas and the Dharma to flourish in Gaden, Sera and Drepung, come to me.” Every time he got a beating, or when he was scolded, which was a lot, and when he was cleaning, he would think, “I will bear it happily because as I do this, I absorb all their suffering, and I absorb their consequences. I absorb the obstacles for Dharma. That’s why I remain sane, happy, and recited my mantras.” It is obvious Phutok Rinpoche’s meditation on exchanging ‘self’ for ‘others’ gave him the strength, and helped him go through the difficulties in prison. This is real Dharma* – focusing on others and taking on the suffering for others. When we have this type of motivation, we are able to endure sufferings in a happier state of mind, because it is for others, Tsem Rinpoche explained. It then becomes another method for us to purify our karma, as well as to practice compassion and selflessness. I’ve only heard the names of saints and Bodhisattvas having this type of motivation and doing this type of selfless deed, but now I’m seeing one right in front of my eyes.

When Phutok Rinpoche wanted to do his sadhana (personal prayers) and mantras in prison, he had to do it very skilfully. He would lie down, pretend he was asleep and did it without moving his mouth. This is someone who teaches us Dharma by action, by example, and not necessarily on the throne. He reminds us of the preciousness of Dharma, and to be grateful for all that we have. I thought “how ridiculously spoilt we must have been when we moan about our discomfort, difficulties, or the minute an injustice is done to us.” Here we are sitting in the presence of a gentle old monk, perhaps even a Bodhisattva who has been in prison for 20 years, beaten and tortured. All the problems and difficulties I thought I had, completely disappeared.

Meeting Phutok Rinpoche was definitely one of the greatest highlights of the pilgrimage. The gentleness of Rinpoche’s eyes exudes compassion. The lines on his face foretell that happiness can be achieved from within, by practising the Dharma. To me it was like meeting a Bodhisattva – a living embodiment of Dharma.

I wondered, what deeds did we do or merits did we gather to have chanced upon this great coincidence? It must be because of our connection with our Guru, Tsem Rinpoche. Because if it wasn’t for Rinpoche, I would not have even gone to Nepal! Thank you Rinpoche for being a Guru, for guiding us out of ignorance, for connecting us with Dharma, and giving us a chance to practice being better humans. Being with Rinpoche gives us a chance to have a glimpse at the meaning of true ‘selflessness’, and from this we learn to transform to live a more meaningful life.


H.E. Tsem Rinpoche having a conversation with Venerable Tsawa Phutok Rinpoche. Rinpoche had invited Phutok Rinpoche for dinner at our Hotel’s restaurant.




Note: Dharma*  –  The word often is defined as “the teachings of the Buddha,” but don’t think of dharma as just a label for Buddhist doctrines.

The word dharma comes from the ancient religions of India and is found in Hindu and Jain teachings as well as Buddhist. Its original meaning is something like “natural law.” Its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support.” In this broad sense, common to many religious traditions, dharma is that which upholds the natural order of the universe. This meaning is part of the Buddhist understanding also.


Related Links:

  1. Why Visit Holy Pilgrimages?
  2. Kathmandu, Nepal 2008
  3. Nepal Pilgrimage with H.E. Tsem Rinpoche (Part 3 of 4)
  4. Tsem Rinpoche’s Birthday/Long Life Puja 2004
  5. Flying Vajrayogini in Patan, Nepal
  6. A Vajrayogini pilgrimage (part 2)
  7. Nothing Changes Everything Changes

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