ABSTRACT: Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche (Jampal Drakpa) was born in Darak, Kham in 1943. He is the Abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, as well as the director of the Holy Island Project in Scotland. His autobiography covers the twist and turns of his life, such as the Chinese invasion and his escape from Tibet, exile in India, purposeless life in the UK and the US, transformation into a monk, and the mystic experience of retreats, launching the Holy Island Projects. His life experience is unique because of his privileged status in Tibetan society due to his brother Akong Tulku Rinpoche (Karma Shetrup Chochi Nyima). Based on his rich life experience both as a layperson and monk, he argues throughout the book that everyone has the potential to find their own Buddha Nature, innate goodness, and intelligence at the core of every human being, and to bring about personal transformation. He hopes the autobiography offers hope and guidance to all who seek to achieve it.
Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche (1943-present) was born and grew up in a tiny mountain village named Darak in Kham. He was the youngest of four brothers in a farming family and also had two younger sisters. There was no school, religious or institutional building of any kind, and the only pastime was killing birds, which is prohibited in the Tibetan culture. His family practices the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. His third brother was recognized as the second incarnation of the Akong lineage, and his privileged status as the brother of Akong deeply influenced his entire life. At the age of twelve, Yeshe Losal was summoned to Dolma Lhakang to support Akong, who was destined to become the abbot. He spent three years at the monastery, but the lonely life away from his hometown made the monastery seem like a prison.
Chinese Invasion and Exile to India
The author’s first encounter with China was in 1950 when a column of Chinese soldiers marched into the village after they launched a military strike on Chamdo. He was impressed and fascinated by their smartness. However, his second encounter with China changed his life fundamentally. The Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 forced him to flee Tibet into exile to India with his brothers, including Akong. Interestingly, the author was so disgusted with the life in the monastery that he even felt excited to escape from Tibet. However, the conditions were so harsh that many people dropped out halfway. The traumatic experience that would haunt him for a long time occurred as the group attempted to cross the Brahmaputra River. Most people were killed by the People’s Liberation Army gunfire and could not make it across the river. Dying from starvation, they managed to reach a refugee camp in India, where Yeshe Losal lost his oldest brother Jamyang to tuberculosis. The author attributes the success of the escape from Tibet to the unshakable belief of the two tulkus who led the group, Akong and Trungpa Rinpoche (abbot of Surmang monastery), in their innate wisdom and goodness.
Purposeless life in India, the UK, and the US
Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche was in India until 1969 when he was twenty-five. He describes the first half of his life in Tibet, India, the UK, and the US as an “escape artist”, who was always trying to escape any situation or expectation that did not suit him. He went to some schools in India, and he was so selfish that he even ruined a school project for Bon Tibetans. During his time in India, he met the 16th Karmapa and worked as a personal secretary in Rumtek. The 16th Karmapa was very kind and tolerant of the author’s selfishness and arrogance, which he argues led to his transformation later in life. Regardless of the special treatment by the 16th Karmapa, however, he decided to leave India and join Akong and Trungpa, who just founded Samye Ling in Scotland, the first Tibetan Buddhist center outside Asia. There he opened a clothes shop but ruined the business by his laziness, ending up indulging in drinking, smoking, gambling, and flirting with girls. In 1974, he decided to accompany the 16th Karmapa’s on a visit to Western countries and was ordered by the Karmapa to be in charge of founding a Buddhist center in New York. He made efforts to live up to the expectations of the Karmapa and Akong, but his purposeless life continued in the US.
Transformation and Retreats
He describes two moments that drove him to become a monk. Akong had been supportive of the author’s selfish and whimsical conduct, but he showed deep disappointment with his eyes full of tears when he knew the author had enjoyed fishing, which was clearly against the Buddhist values. However, his vow to make his brother proud did not change his life immediately. On a hungover morning in Colorado in the spring of 1980, he realized his life was going nowhere, and he had to change. Reflecting on how well the 16th Karmapa and Akong treated him, he resolved to ask the Karmapa to ordain him as a Buddhist monk. Regarding the reason he suddenly made this seemingly extreme decision, he gives three reasons: he had been preparing for the moment all his life; he is a person of extremes: transformations are ultimately a bit mysterious. Shortly after the ordination ceremony where he became Yeshe Losal, he started a solitary retreat for five years in a small extension room in his bungalow in New York, where a shrine and a meditation box were furnished. At first, he suffered from the loss of his family and the trauma of his escape from Tibet, but he learned to manage them by stopping blaming others, including the PLA soldiers.
Spiritual Life in Scotland and the Greatest Test
Although Yeshe Losal’s parents both died in 1981, he seized the opportunity of seeing his older brother Palden and younger sister Zimey in Scotland with Akong’s support after thirty years of separation. He heard the stories of torture and forced labor his family suffered in Tibet under the Chinese occupation, which made him immensely grateful to Akong for letting him escape the dreadful fate and helping him embark on a spiritual path. After the family reunion, Akong told him to remain in Samye Ling, and Yeshe Losal finished his first retreat there in 1988. In the following retreats in the monastery, he became a retreat master leading dozens of Western students, which made him convinced that his rich experience as a layperson and his digression, as well as his life in the West, had developed his ability to be a bridge between the Tibetan and Western mindset. Since then, it became his mission to bring the Buddha’s wisdom within everyone’s reach, and in reality, he has made various attempts.
In 1990, he bought the Holy Islands of Scotland from a Christian woman, who was instructed in her vision by Mary, the mother of Christ, to pass the island to him. The island turned out to be the place he visited years ago while doing Dream Yoga in his retreat in New York. He built long-term Tibetan Buddhist retreat pods into the mountainside and an interfaith center where anyone could visit for a short retreat. Moreover, he has sought to bring about some reforms in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. First, he started to offer a one-year temporary ordination for beginners in order that they can experience it with ease and a sense of fulfillment. Moreover, he advocated for full ordination for women, which gained recognition from the 17th Karmapa. He attributes all these successes to his relatively free position, different than other high lamas constrained by the strict Tibetan hierarchy. This autography is his latest attempt to offer guidance to those who seek their Buddha Nature.
In 1995 Yeshe Losal was formally appointed abbot of Samye Ling. He still loves retreats, including dark retreats, where one spends forty-nine days in the pitch blackness and silence of total sensory deprivation in preparation for the interval between death and rebirth. The greatest test in his life occurred in 2013, right after he was given the title “Rinpoche,” when Akong was murdered in Chengdu, China, by a monk and master craftsman who had spent five years at Samye Ling. Naturally, Yeshe Losal was deeply shocked by the incident and the loss of his beloved brother, but his belief in karma enabled him to face this greatest test with a calm mind, which he attributes to his spiritual life as a Buddhist monk. By revealing the shameful conduct in his youth and painful experiences, Yeshe Losal illustrates that anyone can find their own innate goodness, transform themselves, and offer compassion to others.