Travel and Tourism

A rare encounter with a Buddhist spiritual master

BETWEEN EAST & WEST - Tonette Martel - The Philippine Star

It was by pure chance that I came to meet His Eminence, the 9th Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche of Bhutan. The Rinpoche is the ninth reincarnation of Acharya Yeshe Yang, one of the 25 disciples of the Lotus-born Buddha or Guru Padmasambhava, whi brought Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan.  I went to Central Java in late June to visit Borobudur, the largest Buddhist sanctuary in the world. The Rinpoche was then in residence at the Amanjiwo resort, leading morning meditation sessions, giving brief talks on Buddhist teachings, or engaged in private sessions with the resort guests who had questions about Buddhism and life itself.

 Set in a lush and fertile valley, Amanjiwo sits at the base of the Menoreh hills with commanding views of the Kedu Plain. The circular limestone structure of the resort, with a bell-shaped rotunda at its center, was intended to pay homage to Borobudur and to Java’s architectural heritage that stretch hundreds of years.  

From the terrace, you can see the large stupa that crowns Borobudur, and the outlines of this 9th-century monument, which remains a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists throughout the world.  In the Menoreh hills, three kilometers south of Borobodur, it is said that a number of meditation spots still exist, and many Javanese themselves continue to meditate in caves or on the mountains in search of spiritual wisdom.  It seemed natural that a Buddhist spiritual master should come to a place endowed with positive energy and tranquil surroundings to share the wisdom of Buddhism, and teachings on how to still the mind and thereby gain a better awareness of the inner self.  

Indeed, the Rinpoche says, “being near Borobudur, one is immersed in the great blessings of all the masters who have practiced here before.  Anyone who visits this holy place will make a positive advancement in their aspirations to achieve an awakened mind.” 

The Rinpoche, meaning the “precious one,” first manifested in the 16th century as Terton Ngawang Dragpa, who became known as the 1st Neyphug Rinpoche and established his seat in Bhutan.  The current reincarnation is the 9th Neyphug Rinpoche. The Neyphug Rinpoches, each in their time, have been the bearers and revealers of great Buddhist teachings and knowledge. Invested with special powers— some have been known to avert wars, others were skilled in the science of indigenous healing, or gifted in the arts of architecture, poetry and scholarly writing — since the 1550s they have held their principle seat at the Neyphug Thegchen Tsemo Monastery in Bhutan.

 On a bright morning, under the clipped trees that line Amanjiwo’s swimming pool, we begin our morning meditation session with the Rinpoche.  Before going into the subject of meditation, he says a few words about himself. The Rinpoche is a professor of Buddhism and holds a master’s degree in Buddhist studies, having received intensive training for 18 years in Bhutan and India. He tells us that his English is self-taught.  In the hour-long session he spoke on the subject of finding peace through meditation, which fosters awareness and clarity.  

In the practice of Shamahta or peaceful meditation, the objective is to let go of your thoughts, emotions and negativity so that the mind can rest. The Rinpoche says, “The mind can be compared to a mountain pond disturbed with negative emotions and thoughts.  We need to settle the water to present a beautiful reflection of the blue sky.  When the mind is disturbed, we don’t see clearly.

“Ignorance, or a lack of awareness is the great cause of everything,” he points out.  “Unhappiness comes when we wake up with a desire and form an attachment to that desire.  When we don’t get what we want anger comes in, then jealousy arises, and then the ego sets in.  Control these poisons, look at them with wisdom and awareness,” says the Rinpoche. 

Central to Buddhist teachings is the notion that all things are impermanent.  Forming attachments or clinging to anything invariably leads to suffering. He tells us that the three wisdoms of Buddhism are: hearing, analyzing and contemplating.  In this context, each of us is responsible for our own spiritual journey and maturity. To illustrate the point, the Rinpoche quotes the words of Buddha: “As Buddha, I can never purify my sins with water, I can never remove your suffering with my hand. I cannot transfer my realization to you. But I will show you how to liberate yourself.”

 â€œBuddhism teaches us about the facts of life, the nature of reality.  Finding peace comes from understanding the self better and knowing the nature of reality,” says the Rinpoche. “We all have a potential Buddha (awakened mind) within each of us.  The point of Buddhism is to awaken the Buddha within you.”

Later that morning, I met the Rinpoche for a private session. I wanted to know about the life of a Rinpoche, what it means to be the 9th reincarnation in a long line of spiritual beings with a history than spans over 450 years.  How does one find peace in a troubled world?  What universal message does Buddhism espouse? How do I apply its teachings to my life?

 The first thing that strikes you about the Rinpoche is his humility — he comes across as a regular person, although one with lifetimes of accumulated wisdom.  The title or address of Rinpoche refers to spiritual men who hold great knowledge of Buddhism, those who have practiced meditation for many years, or those who have been reincarnated.  The Himalayan word Trulku means a manifestation of those who are enlightened and intentionally came back to serve others. Thus, it is described as an “extraordinary re-birth.”

Old masters typically leave a message behind as to their next incarnation. Most of the time, these men are born into poor families or those in very complicated situations.  “I represent someone who came back nine times in the same history.  That history is very strong. My life history started in 1525, but goes back to the 8th century when the second Buddha known as the lotus-born Buddha popped up in a lotus blossom as an eight year old boy,” says the Rinpoche.  The Lotus-born Buddha also known as Guru Padmasambhava had 25 disciples. 

In the 8th century, Padmasambhava foretold that one of his disciples Acharya Yeshe Yang would be reborn in 1525 as the 1st Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche, Ngawang Dragpa.   It is said that the Guru personally selected and blessed the site of the Neyphug Monastery for all the Neyphug Rinpoches to come.

 The Rinpoche tells me that his father was a spiritual healer for the late Queen of the second King of Bhutan.  At the age of five, Rinpoche was brought before the Queen who then asked if he would like to become a monk or a layman. When he told the Queen he would like to become a monk, he was sent to a monk school the very next day.  “I never missed my home and was happy at the monk’s school.  I was the most mischievous boy at school. When I was nine, I was told by my uncle and my father that I was the Rinpoche, which my teachers found difficult to accept.” 

His Holiness, the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the foremost Buddhist teacher in Bhutan, recognized him as the unmistakable reincarnation of the 1st Neyphug Rinpoche.  After his enthronement at the age of nine, he could no longer play with the boys at school and had to take the spiritual path that he had become an heir to.  Since then the Rinpoche says, “My parents never saw me as a son but as a Rinpoche. They lost their son. I was never a son in the proper context.  My parents are very dedicated Buddhists — they see my serving others as serving them too. It’s a beautiful thought and one that brought me some comfort.”

Speaking about his life as a highly evolved spiritual being, he says, “It is a great challenge to live this life. You are human yet not human.  You are in human body, you can get sick, you are affected by emotions of those around you, yet have to be completely dedicated to others — not just all Buddhists but all sentient beings.

“In our culture,” he explains, “we are like doctors, lawyers, bankers and healers.  People come to us to settle family problems, to bless the sick or even ask us to help raise money to bury the dead. We have to look after everybody.” 

Putting it in another perspective he says, “We are just different, not extraordinary. If you know how to be a normal person and yet know how to live the life of a Rinpoche, then you are extraordinary — then we are privileged to be called that name.”  He recounted an episode in his life that further deepened his devotion to serve others.  “In the six-month period that I was going for dialysis, I was the youngest patient at the center. I had five students looking after me every day, bringing me all kinds of food for lunch, and just staying with me during the procedure.  I thought I must have had some impact on their lives, that’s why they treasure me.  Did I deserve this treatment? Did I do enough?  If people serve you and treasure you this much, you need to give more.  If they treat you like a god, then you have to have the power and the will of a god to never tire of serving people.”

Before undergoing a kidney transplant two years ago, the Rinpoche says he never feared death. “We Buddhists have a saying that we die every night and it is a blessing to wake up the next morning.  I asked myself in these past 32 years, did I do enough?  Through my health problem, I realized how painful it is for those who have to struggle physically and financially. It was a great lesson.” 

We came to the subject of finding peace in a troubled world.  He tells me that peace and happiness are difficult to find for as long as we have a strong concept of “I” or a strong ego attachment.  Speaking of compassion, he once told a student that he sometimes has more compassion for wealthy people than for poor people.  “Most of them have wealth to last for 150 years, but the sad thing is that most of us do not live to the age of 100.  How much is enough? Most of them innocently think that happiness is related to material things, or “sugar-coated” poisons that don’t last or breakdown.  These things are impermanent. The wind can blow from any direction and everything can go anytime.” 

He then tells me a story of the monkey and the peanuts. The monkey puts his hand inside a jar of peanuts. The monkey grabs the peanuts and tries to pull his hand out when someone tries to trap him. Because of his attachment to the peanuts, he does not let go and puts his life at risk.  In a similar way, we sometimes get attached to a handful of nuts and lose sight of the bigger things.  So the Rinpoche says, “finding peace is about understanding the self better, knowing the reality of life — that all things are impermanent. Be positive, look for wisdom, seek the truth and liberate yourself.”

What then, I ask, are the most important values that we should strive for? “We must share things that we enjoy with others, even simple gestures or acts of kindness,” he says.  “Develop wisdom and unconditional kindness. Spirituality is about transforming the mind,” he points out.  Summing it up he says, “Buddhism wakes you up and if you ask me to describe Buddha, I would say he is a wise man. And wisdom is the basis of everything.”

 In the world of Samsara — of endless desire and the suffering that results from our attachments, it seems that kindness and compassion are the virtues that help transform our lives and those of others, so that somehow we may glimpse something of the divine right here and now.

When our session ended, I knew that I had to reflect further on the words and thoughts he shared with me — that the meaning and significance of it all would come in stages, in the process of looking inward, and in living my life each day.  As he told me, “Post-meditation is more important, or how you live your life 24 hours a day.” 

In a few days, the Rinpoche would be off to Singapore and then on to Bhutan, tending to the spiritual needs of his students, and assisting those in his community with their temporal needs. There are countless others from around the Asian region and beyond, who depend on his counsel and advice in their quest for spiritual growth.  There is the ongoing restoration of the Neyphug Monastery in Bhutan — the expansion of its grounds and facilities, and the 60 underprivileged children that are under the direct care of the Rinpoche.

As a spiritual leader he would someday like to see the monastery become self-sustainable, but above all, he says, “I want to make every single person I meet happy.  I want to make them smile, and that never ends.”









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