October 26, 2009
My Life and Lives: The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation
(Edited and with a Foreword by Joseph Campbell)
My Life and Lives is a personal account of the tenth incarnation of the Buddhist lama Khyongla. Norbu was born in 1923 to a devout Buddhist family in the tiny village of Ophor, in the southeastern region of Kham, a month’s journey from Lhasa. At the tender age of five he was pronounced an incarnate lama by a group of senior Gelukpa monks. A year later he was brought to the monastery where he would later become first a venerable spiritual scholar, then, teacher. His autobiography is a detailed account of the first three decades of his Buddhist study, his narrow escape from the Chinese Communists in Tibet, and his later adjustment to the modern world. It provides a compelling account of the life of one of Tibet’s “broken people” and a window into Buddhist culture. (259).
Having experienced Tibet and its monastic culture first hand, the incarnate lama Khyongla Rato, with the help of Joseph Campbell, who edited the text and provided a foreword, conveys a moving first-hand account of his three decades of Buddhist study and his turbulent journey from Communist grasp. His autobiography, My Life and Lives: The Story of a Tibetan Incarnation, is a compelling history of the last decades before the Chinese invasion of Tibet, giving the reader insight into an impressive culture and tradition foreign to most. His simplistic and personable style of writing provides for a pleasurable read.
Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, whose personal Tibetan name was Norbu, was born on July 4th, 1923 (Tibet’s Water Pig Year) in a tiny village south of Chamdo, in the southeastern Tibetan region of Kham. His village, Ophor, home to about sixty families, was a month’s journey from Tibet’s cultural center, Lhasa. Though born into an isolated village, Norbu was to have an ordinary childhood for only five years. In 1929, on Norbu’s 6th birthday, he was brought by horseback to Katok Gonpa Monastery. Senior Gelukpa monks had visited him and his family the year before, confirming five-year-old Norbu as the tenth incarnate of the Khyongla lama.
Khyongla decided to write his autobiography on the encouragement of his Western friends, whom he met after he relocated to the United States from Tibetan exile in India. At first he was hesitant to accept their advice, since Buddhist teachings forbid the externalization of one’s achievements. However, prompted by the Communist Chinese destruction of monastic life in Tibet after the invasion, and knowing that his story would provide a way to teach others about Buddhism, he ultimately agreed.
From his personal recollections, and in chronological order, Khyongla shared memories ranging from his parent’s courtship to his difficult adjustment to modernization after fleeing to India. Khyongla spent the first three decades of his life in constant Buddhist study – starting at Katok Gonpa monastery, and later studying at the monasteries of Rato and Drepung, and the tantric college Gyuto. In addition, Khyongla traveled throughout Tibet, visiting Bhutan and India, staying at monasteries and attending lectures on Buddhist doctrine. He was fully ordained as a monk and went on to receive his lharampa geshe degree. Throughout his study he had over seventy teachers, however he only mentions those that had the most profound affect on him.
His chief guardian, and his labrang’s administrator, Dongye, was present throughout his difficult journey, meeting Khyongla when he was six-years-old and then making the journey to Lhasa at age thirteen with him. Others include Konchok Gyatso, his teacher at Rato who eventually became abbot, Geshe Yeshe Loden, with whom he studied the Vinaya, the Buddhist monastic laws, and Ling Rinpoche, one of the Dalai Lama’s tutors, whose death he mourned greatly in the epilogue. However, it is evident Khyongla learned a great deal from all his teachers, of whom he continuously speaks highly.
Khyongla’s account of monastic life is filled with great details of Buddhist ritual and ceremony, and offers a personal perspective not heretofore provided. At the tender age of eight he begins studies of reading, writing, manners, and conduct, all with an emphasis on loving-kindness. He approaches his studies with great difficultly at first, not recognizing the importance of knowledge, until attending a lecture by the great teacher Pabongkha Rinpoche. Rinpoche expressed the impermanent nature of life and the importance of progressing towards Enlightenment through exerting oneself. Khyongla recalls, “from that time on I… gave myself more honestly to the task of understanding deeply what it was I was learning” (116). Though an exceptionally impressive scholar, he remained humble throughout the text.
Khyongla provided anecdotes explaining Buddhist ideology that readers might not be familiar with, allowing one to relate Buddhist practice to their own lives and making for a very readable text. He devoted himself to his studies and became an impressive scholar, receiving his lharampa degree and going on to difficult tantric studies at Gyuto, a tantric college with rigid monastic rules. Living there he learned to give up luxuries, even those as simple as an individual bed or comfortable fabric for a monk’s robe. Mentally and physically overcoming these discomforts provided him with the experience that would prove crucial later for his escape to India.
In March of 1959, the 14th Dalai Lama, who had become an acquaintance of Khyongla, was invited to a Chinese “theatrical performance” inside the Chinese encampment. He was asked to arrive with no more than a couple of unarmed bodyguards. After hearing this news, and afraid of the possibility of His Holiness being kidnapped, Khyongla was unable to sleep. He recounts the events of the next day, including images of chaos in the streets of Lhasa and outside of Norbulingka, the Dalai Lama’s summer residence. Knowing “as a monk [he] could not participate in acts of violence,” Khyongla decided to head for Rato, where he would “at least be on the road of escape to India” (239-240). Though the last chapters are related to the oppressing Communist regime, Khyongla does not clutter his story with personal political views.
Khyongla’s flight to Rato monastery and then over the Himalayas to India grips the reader through the great emotions expressed, a tragic journey with which one cannot help but sympathize. Along the way he received news of horror stories, especially that of the Norbulingka’s destruction and the mass slaughtering of Tibetans by the Chinese military, which he details in chapter XIX. “Each day monks from every part of Tibet and lay people of all classes arrived, many with news of terrible looting and slaughter in Lhasa. One of the Norbulingka chapel keepers gave an account of the horrible battle there, where so many Tibetans were killed” (247).
It is upon arrival in India that Khyongla has his first interaction with Westerners as he and his companions are swarmed by news reporters and photographers, an overwhelming experience for the lama after completing the difficult journey. Over time Khyongla becomes comfortable with modern civilization, eventually moving to New York City and coming to the conclusion his monastic life has finished. For a short period he even takes a job as a stockroom clerk, a position in which he finds great joy.
This is not to suggest an end to his life as a Buddhist, for in 1976 at the age of fifty-three, he founded The Tibet Center, which offers classes in Buddhist practice in New York City. He also wrote texts on Tibetan history and religion, used to educate Tibetans in exile in India. Both actions signify his true Buddhist nature – an overwhelming compassion to be of help to others. This character trait shines throughout his autobiography, making for a compelling life story of an incarnate and the Buddhist monastic tradition he took part in.