Reviewed byYasuhiro Sasayama
Abstract of the autobiography and its background
Kalu Rinpoche (1905-1989) was one of the greatest Buddhist evangelists that modern Tibet has had. He contributed to Tibetan Buddhism as a leading lama of the Kagyu School until 1956 and help spread it in the West after 1971. His greatness as a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism is best exemplified in his autobiography, which manifests his wide range of learning rather than focusing on his own experiences. He was born in 1905 in Tre-sho Gangi Rawa, in the Hor region of Kham. His family name was Ratak. The Eleventh Tai-Situ, Padma Wangchuk, named him “Karma Rangjung Kunchap,” which means Self-Arisen and All-Pervading.
As the title of this book clearly suggests, it was compiled for the purpose of showing the reader how to find a path to freedom from the suffering of all beings and toward sublime happiness. Therefore, this autobiography fundamentally differs from an ordinary autobiography that focuses on the events and individual thoughts of the author. Instead, it emphasizes how to study and practice to achieve a certain level of Buddhahood, and it incorporates texts and tantras rather than telling the author’s life. The first part, which is a prayer, was written at the request of Kardorje Rinpoche of Sera, and the second prayer, his life story, and advice to students, were presented at the request of Bokar Rinpoche of Samdrup Targyeling Monastery, who was a heart-son of the author.
First, the author begins from the dreams of his parents and his extraordinary birth. Then he describes his path of religious study, practice, and activities according to his ages at the time. In 1918 he entered the Doctrine of the Victorious One and eventually began to study at Pelpung Monastery at the Karma Kagyu School there. After his extraordinaryly hard practice, his leading lama, Drupon Norbu Dondrup, transmitted to him the final teaching of the Shangpa Kagyu, which conferred on him the title of being in its legitimate lineage, originated from the Vajradhara Buddha. In 1930, he gave up the affairs of ordinary life and spent twelve years in intensive retreat practice in caves and other places. After this retreat, he strove hard to teach, spread, and sustain the teachings of Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu, including through a journey to Lhasa. He later became retreat director of Kunzang Dechen Osel Ling and abbot of the meditation center associated with Pelpung. At the age of fifty (in 1955), the invasion of “irreligious people” (Chinese) forced him to move to Lhasa. After spending one year in Lhasa, he went into exile in eastern Bhutan, where he took charge of the Jangchupling monastery. In 1962, Trijang Rinpoche, a junior tutor to the Dalai Lama, gave him the leadership of Sonada Monastery in Darjeeling, India. Beginning in 1971, he engaged in vigorous promotional activities throughout the world, including in North America, Europe, and Asia. He established many centers in the West and paved the way for the international activities of Tibetan Buddhism. He concludes that the resulting expansion of enlightening activity was unprecedented.
The autobiography of Kalu Rinpoche consists of four parts: the first part is the prayer, “A Shower of Blessing”; the second, the prayer “The Song of the Spontaneous Activity of Enlightenment”; the third is the autobiography proper, titled “The Chariot for Traveling the Path to Freedom, the Lama’s Life Story which Nurtures Faith”; and the fourth is “Advice to My Students.” Although it was not originally planned as an integral book, this combination of four parts was designed to teach and guide students. Suppose you start to study the book by participating in a morning prayer session. You recite loudly the prayer parts, which articulate Kalu Rinpoche’s recommended course of study, the basic Kagyu teachings, and some blessings. In the afternoon, you read his life story and the advice that he offers, with reference to other books and practices. Even a few days of such a curriculum will enable you to understand the basics, map out your future study plan, and forge an initial Bodhicitta, or the intention to achieve Buddhahood. The book is, therefore, best characterized as an entrance guide to Kagyu teachings that helps students to acquire the basic knowledge that will enable them to travel the path to freedom from suffering for all sentient beings.
Understanding this characteristic of the book helps in comprehending many of its unusual features. One of these is the persistent emphasis on how Kalu Rinpoche excelled in all subjects and how legitimate his birth and incarnation was. If we consider his humble and moderate character, such boasting doesn’t befit him. However, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where the intimate relationship between a teacher and his students is so intense, the fundamental qualification of a good teacher is his legitimacy in the incarnation cycle and his wide range of knowledge in theories and teachings. Kalu Rinpoche needed to be a master in many things in order to persuade prospective students that he was qualified. In fact, he claimed to never have had “the slightest feeling of pride or self-importance.” (p.56)
Another curious feature of the book is that there is no ordinary chronology in his narrative and without a translator’s supplementary comments we would not be able to know the dates of the events in his life. It is quite natural that there is no reference to time in the prayer parts. However, even in the part devoted to his life story, which was written in chronological order, he only mentions his age, not any calendar date. For him, it is axiomatic that his physical and temporal existence in the world is nothing more than dreams and enchantment when compared to eternal samsara.
A third feature that is curious is that there are no descriptions related to politics and worldly affairs. Although he records intimate relations among political leaders, including the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, this is part of a discourse that is not political but religious. He never mentions the Regent Reting, whom he taught, and he refers to the Chinese invasion only as the invasion of “an irreligious people.” He also never mentions how he was exiled and how he survived in such harsh circumstances. Even in the discussion of his promotional activities abroad, he never reveals the details of fundraising and management of the centers he established.
A fourth unusual feature of the book is that he allocates the better part of it to discussing whom he met and what studies and practices he pursued. He discusses interactions among leading incarnated figures because they are central to the development of Buddhist teachings and also constitute good examples for prospective students. For example, he mentions that he entrusted the teaching of the Shangpa Kagyu to the leading monks of Sera Monastery. On the other hand, he also enumerates many cases in which he received teachings from monks of other sects. These inter-sect interactions remind us of the borderless interactions of intellectuals in medieval Europe. We could summarize this extraordinary autobiography by saying that it centers around the diffusion of Buddhist enlightenment and empowerment by using his life story as teaching material.
Kalu Rinpoche’s abilities as an evangelist were enhanced after he started promotional activities abroad, and his contributions to the exiled Tibetan government are noteworthy. His management skills brought enormous success to his activities in the West by attracting the attention of many people to the reality of Tibet. He also acted as an advance party for religious and political activities abroad, including those of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Although he was not the only one pioneering promotional activities abroad for Tibetan Buddhism, his secular management ability must have helped finance the work of the government in exile.
He helped make Tibetan Buddhism more universal. We can easily imagine how difficult it must have been for him to spread the Kagyu School teaching that originates from Vajrayana Buddhism. Since the origins of Western epistemology and ontology are in Greek philosophy, the Tibetan Buddhist view of nature and phenomena can be difficult for Westerners to comprehend. But it is also understandable that disenchantment with Western materialism in the 1960s and the 1970s among intellectuals in the West might have created fertile soil for Tibetan Buddhism, which urges people to renounce attachment to the material world. However, the Kagyu School teaching is not a popular religion like Japan’s Pure Land Buddhism, which opens the path to the “pure land” to anyone who recites “Save us, merciful Buddha.” The Kagyu School has stricter behavioral requirements. If one wants to find a path to freedom, he or she must study hard, practice strictly, meditate, go on retreats, and abandon any attachment to the material world. In the Kagyu School, only a few who maintain a high level of study can find liberation. And the teaching method is based on individual guidance, not on lectures. In short, the Kagyu School is not a religion for the masses. It might be easier to follow in Tibet where there are a substantial numbers of monasteries that accept monks.
However, circumstances in the West are not favorable to such a strict religious practice. For ordinary Westerners who work for their daily bread, even the preliminary trainings that are mandatory in the Kagyu School must be a heavy burden because they inevitably overlap with work hours. Kalu Rinpoche never mentions how he overcame this problem. But he must have needed to adapt the Kagyu curriculum to the situations of each country and must have invented many variations in teaching his faith. In this sense, it could be argued that the Kagyu traditon transformed itself from a local to a universal tradition owing to the international activity of Kalu Rinpoche. However, from another point of view, the popularization and universalization process could be criticized as a degeneration and deviation from the Kagyu orthodoxy.