The story of Arjia Rinpoche, one of the highest-ranking Buddhist monks to flee Tibet, mirrors the tumultuous struggle between the Chinese government and the ancient religion. And because of that, Rinpoche said, it's a story he must tell.
"My hope is that I will share my story and history with people in hopes that this kind of thing never happens again," Rinpoche said during a recent telephone interview.
Rinpoche, 59, says he began to think of writing a memoir shortly after fleeing to the United States in 1998. He will be at The Morris Book Shop in Lexington on Saturday to sign copies of his book, Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years of Chinese Rule (Rodale Press, $24.99), which was released early this month.His life story, however, begins when Rinpoche was 2 and monks recognized him as the reincarnation of the abbot of the large Kumbum Monastery in Tibet. That meant the toddler would be trained to eventually head one of the most influential monasteries in the country.
Life at the monastery was idyllic for a while. He was pampered and tutored to be prepared for his adult role.
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In the late 1950s, when he was 8, monasteries across Tibet were ravaged as part of The Great Leap Forward, Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung's plan to turn China into a modern Communist nation. Out of some 4,000 monks, 600 were arrested, and many more were forced into work camps.
It was a time of confusion and turmoil for Rinpoche, but he said his elders and teachers were also devastated by the disruption of their spiritual lives.
Rinpoche was forced to attend Chinese schools and spent some 16 years in forced-labor camps. So his religious teaching and exposure to Tibetan culture went completely underground.
In his interview, he doesn't dwell on the harsh camp conditions but rather focuses on how his former teachers would find spare moments in the fields to share with him the sacred traditions of his religion.
After the death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976, Rinpoche rose to prominence within the Chinese Buddhist bureaucracy. Eventually the Chinese government appointed him to a position equal to that of an American congressman. It was a way to do good for his community, building schools and creating aid organizations, but he was also in some ways a tool for Chinese control.
"They just wanted to use us to control us," he said.
Rinpoche could compromise himself no more after the death of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking leader in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama.
Following tradition, the Dalai Lama sought out and found the child he believed to be the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and who would take over that role in the faith.
But the Chinese government also chose a successor for the Panchen Lama. And the government declared that Rinpoche would tutor the Chinese-backed successor.
Rather than educate the person he perceived as being a false Panchen Lama, Rinpoche fled to America. "I couldn't teach him because I didn't believe," Rinpoche said.
For a few years, he kept a low profile in Mill Valley, Calif., so as not to disrupt ongoing negotiations about religious freedom and other issues between the Chinese and Tibetans. But in 2005, Rinpoche was appointed by the Dalai Lama as director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind. (The center was founded by the Dalai Lama's brother.)
Rinpoche says he hopes his story can help offset decades of Chinese propaganda. He sees his book tour as a way to showcase the truth, not acting as missionary for his faith.
"If people have questions that they would like explained, I will answer," he said.
But Buddhists believe that you don't have to subscribe to certain religious tenants to be in the right; instead you must simply strive to be a good, compassionate person.
Rinpoche has an interesting take on the current high- friction culture of the U.S. political process.
He watched on television this week as Congress voted on health care reform.
He focused, he said, less on the squabbles and sometimes mean-spirited debate and more on the fact that the debate was possible at all. That sort of passionate political give-and-take, he said, "is really rare. It is really a wonderful thing."