His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama. The Life of My Teacher: A Biography of Kyabje Ling Rinpoché. Translated by Gavin Kilty, Wisdom Publications, 2017 [Tibetan text published 1989].
Summary by Jeffrey Khau
Written by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, The Life of My Teacher: A Biography of Ling Rinpoché honors the memory and work of Kyabjé Ling Rinpoché (Gling rin po che), THE Dalai Lama’s primary tutor, who lived from 1903 to 1983. Rinpoché was born in Yaphu in central Tibet. After being recognized as the sixth reincarnation of the Ling Rinpoche tulku line at the age of four, he earned his lharam geshé degree at the Drepung Monastic University, a major center of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Being the main spiritual mentor of the current Dalai Lama since 1940, Rinpoché accompanied and advised him on trips abroad. Due to persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, Rinpoché fled to India in 1959 and worked to preserve Buddhist traditions, continuing to teach Tibetans and foreigners, travel, and support the Dalai Lama. He became the head of the Gelug school as Ganden Throneholder in 1965. As the sole biography authored by the current Dalai Lama, this work continues in the globalized, modern age the Tibetan tradition of students sharing the deeds of their masters to inspire others.
Directed toward a Western audience, as evidenced by its translation into English by Gavin Kilty and mostly chronological order, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s biography of his main teacher, Kyabjé Ling Rinpoché, The Biography of My Teacher, demonstrates that the namthar tradition of inspiring future audiences with a past mentor’s experiences and character can transcend geographical and political obstacles. It is noted that the life of Rinpoché, born in 1903 – the year of a brief British expedition into Tibet – and passing away in 1983 in exile in Dharamshala, India, having never returned to Tibet since fleeing in 1959, bookmarks the “unfolding of the Tibetan nation’s tragic twentieth-century history” (1). However, his strong example of compassion, scholarship, and teaching is compared to light in the author’s homage to Rinpoché (26), guiding his followers and students, starting with the Dalai Lama himself (27). Thus, despite the hardships and suffering faced by Rinpoché, he lived a life that deeply influenced the current Dalai Lama and one that will continue to inspire future readers of this biography.
Following the homage to Rinpoché, the Dalai Lama reflects on Ling Rinpoché’s personality and daily routine. The Dalai Lama describes Rinpoché as humble yet decisive, reserved yet content, and a wise and compassionate advisor. Perhaps most noteworthy was Rinpoche’s ability to foresee future events. The Dalai Lama mentions how Rinpoché was completely certain of the whereabouts – India – of a transmission lineage close to dying out. His predication was correct, and the Dalai Lama was able to receive the Kālacakra root tantra after searching for it in India (31). Rinpoché attained only teachings which he thought he could practice, demonstrating his modesty and belief that teaching and practice were inseparable (32). Rinpoché was a man of habit, with a rigid schedule of prayers, meals, offerings, meditations, readings, and teachings (33-34). The Dalai Lama lists the name mantras of the twenty-nine lamas who Rinpoché received teachings from and the titles of Rinpoché’s texts, and he specifies the exact sutras or rituals that Rinpoché did throughout the day.
The tutor’s life is divided into five chronological sections, the first of which is his childhood and early monastic life (1903-1924). Rinpoché, born as Sōnam Wangden, came from a very poor household in Karbok in 1903 and was the eldest child (42). Following the death of the fifth Ling Rinpoché, his attendant Jampa Lobsang sought out the divinations of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who chose Wangden (46). Progressing from being tutored in basic reading by Ngawang Lhundrup (49), the ten-year old Rinpoché lived and studied at the Drepung Monastery, training in the intensive dialectical path of the Collected Topics, becoming a skilled debater, and taking the vows of a novice monk at the age of eleven (55). The Dalai Lama describes Rinpoché’s studied texts, courses, prayers, initiations, and debates, while including both the political tensions within and outside the monastery and the childhood games that students like Rinpoché found pleasure in. Following his studies on the Perfection of Wisdom, he delved into Middle Way philosophy, monastic discipline, and the Abhidharma (68). In 1922 and 1924, he respectively received full ordination as a monk and then the geshé degree from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (71, 75).
1924 to 1953 marked Rinpoché’s later monastic life and appointments. He entered the upper tantric college, Gyütö Monastery, to help liberate others from samsara: he made local pilgrimages, participated in further studies and debates, granted offerings, and scored the highest marks on the tantric debate exam (83, 88). Due to his excellent performance, he was appointed disciplinarian by the abbot (92). With the then-Dalai Lama’s blessings, he began to receive teachings from Phabongkha Rinpoché, undergoing mind trainings, tantric initiations, and transmissions (108). In 1933, his funeral duties included preparing the deceased Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s body and designing the mausoleum (111). He rose to the ranks of deputy abbot, then abbot, of Gyütö (129). The author, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, arrived at Lhasa in 1940, and Rinpoché became his assistant then junior tutor, helping him gain his vows (149) and guiding him throughout his monastic education. The author describes Rinpoché as an encouraging yet disciplined tutor; while he seldom reprimanded the Dalai Lama, who notes his immense kindness and patience (153), the author admits that he “felt a little sad” as “an unthinking little child” during these episodes (148). Rinpoché was appointed as Sharpa Chöjé in 1949 (159) and senior tutor in 1953 (169), performing the full ordination for the Dalai Lama a year later (171).
In 1954, Rinpoché and the Dalai Lama journeyed abroad to Beijing at Mao Zedong’s invitation, where the former declined repeatedly due to his self-professed lack of political knowledge the Chinese government’s request of him being leader of the Religious Affairs Office (181). From 1956 to 1957, to celebrate the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s attainment of nirvana, the pair journeyed to India then Nepal, where Rinpoché received visitors and gave teachings (185).
Due to the large-scale incursion of the Chinese military into Tibet, the Dalai Lama, Rinpoché, and others fled Lhasa to India in civilian clothing on March 17th, 1959 (197). Welcomed by the Indian Prime Minister Nehru, they first settled in Mussoorie, reciting prayers, verses, and Rinpoché reassured his manager that no one should not fret about the loss of possessions as they were alive (199, 201). Rinpoché traveled throughout India to give visits to monasteries and perform initiations and grant advice to Tibetan refugees settling in Dalhousie and Buxa Duar (204-207), such as urging unity between the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. In 1960, Rinpoché, the Dalai Lama, and his attendants and teachers moved to Dharamsala (211). Rinpoché continued to meditate and give vows (212). He fell ill and was taken to Calcutta for treatment in a hospital; however, Rinpoche’s condition, diagnosed as heart and goiter issues by a German doctor, did not improve. When taken to a Darjeeling monastery per the suggestion of the Dalai Lama however, Rinpoché’s health recovered (213-215). After Rinpoché’s return to Dharamsala, the author describes the many transmissions done by and long-life ceremonies offered to his tutor (228). When the prior Ganden Throneholder passed away, Rinpoché, as second-in-line being the Sharpa Chöjé, became the Ganden Throneholder, the spiritual head of the Gelug school, in 1965 (232). His duties included consecrating shrines, performing initiations, and traveling to various monasteries. He then traveled to Europe in 1968, beginning in Switzerland to consecrate a monastery and ending in France with medical treatment (253, 260). From 1969 to 1980, he returned to and traveled throughout India to continue his duties, collaborating with the Dalai Lama’s fellow tutor Trijang Rinpoché and holding the first conference for the Association for the Preservation of Geluk Tradition in 1969 (261). Throughout this section, the Dalai Lama both weaves in anecdotes confirming his tutor’s remarkable mastery of the five sciences and four Noble Truths (306) and brings to life Rinpoché’s confident compassion, quoting Rinpoché that his tutee’s activities are “the greatest accomplishment we could wish for” (311).
The biography closes with a section on Rinpoché’s final years. In 1980, he visited Europe again, the United States, and Canada. Rinpoché’s close friends and colleagues began to pass away, including Trijang Rinpoché in 1981 (339). In 1983, he suffered a stroke and passed away on December 25th (361). Following funerary rites, the following reincarnation was identified (377). The biography closes with a summary of Rinpoche’s life, dedication, and colophon (369, 381). Kyabjé Ling Rinpoché was a paramount figure in the Gelug school, who cared for and advised the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and taught numerous people of diverse backgrounds.