Interview With Lama Tharchin Rinpoche

The following article is from the Winter, 1990 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche is a Tibetan Ngakpa (yogi) and meditation master of Vajrayana Buddhism. He is the tenth lineage holder of the Repkong Ngakpas, famous throughout Tibet for their meditative abilities. Rinpoche studied meditation and Buddhism under the close guidance of many of Tibet's greatest masters. One of his major teachers was His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, the spiritual head of the Nyingmapa or ancient ones, the oldest lineage of Buddhism in Tibet. Lama Tharchin Rinpoche is internationally renowned as a master of the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition and of the Nyingma heritage of aesthetics and monastic arts.

For the last five years, Rinpoche has been a resident in the Santa Cruz area. He currently lives in a quiet hillside house in Aptos. Rinpoche speaks English, and his candid, humorous, and thorough style of teaching has attracted students from many parts of the country. Although Rinpoche teaches throughout the United States and abroad, he is currently focusing more of his teaching efforts locally in order to better pass on the wealth of his ancient tradition.

Unlike many Tibetan lamas who are monks, Rinpoche is a householder and proud father of two sons, the eldest a Buddhist practitioner who lives in Nepal, and the younger a bright and lively four year-old. Western students find it easy to relate to a teacher who presents a model of calm, cheerful and centered living amidst the many pressures of domestic life in America.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche's teaching of Buddhist philosophy and meditation are complemented by his artistry. His artistic skills cover the length and breadth of traditional Tibetan religious arts, including painting, sculpture, dance, and crafts. He is particularly known and loved for his work as a sculptor, working with clay and concrete, and he joyfully draws his students into the creative process at every opportunity. Rinpoche seems happiest when he is working with his hands and getting others involved as well.

But then again, whether joking with his students, taking a walk, teaching, or working at his artistry, Rinpoche always seems happy. His cheer is infectious. In his presence, one can feel his joy, and at the same time know that he wants to share this happiness with everyone, human and animal. I watched Rinpoche invite an old dog to share his teaching seat with him. This particular dog was blind, quite deaf, mangy, foul-smelling, flea-bitten, and was constandy scratching. Rinpoche treated this dog as if it were the most important being on earth, calling it to him, stroking and hugging it, sharing his food with it. The dog, which was usually quite irritable, became happy and peaceful and, amazingly, quite dignified in Rinpoche's lap.

It is this sort of authentic presence which seems to be the essence of Rinpoche's teaching. He has the skill of gently showing people that it is not what you know, who you know, or what you can do that counts. It is who you are, and how much of a difference who you are can make in the world.

I interviewed Lama Tharchin Rinpoche at his home late in October. In the midst of an incredibly busy schedule, he seemed relaxed and poised, yet a little hesitant to be speaking so much about himself. Still, he answered all my questions directiy, and this is what transpired. Enjoy!

Q: Where did you grow up?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: I grew up in Tibet. My father, Wongtsang Chimed Dorje, was from Amdo. There he was the head of a very famous gompa, Repkong Ngakpa Gompa [Yogi Monastery]. In Tibet, the Repkong Ngakpas were most famous. In my father's time there, there were more than 3,000 ngakpas. He took his father's place, and was enthroned as the head of the gompa. My father's life was prophesied by Guru Rinpoche [Padmasambhava, the famous seventh-century Indian saint who established Buddhism in Tibet], as was his meeting with my mother.

One time he travelled to the North. Because of his high station, he had to travel with a large retinue of attendants. The people in the North were poor, but because of culture and custom, they were obliged to show respect and hospitality to Ngakpas. My father saw that it was too much for them, but because he was famous, they had to show respect. He didn't like this.

The public also had to support his monastery. When he went to visit their homes, he saw that they were very poor. Still, every year they had to make large offerings to the gompa. He felt that fame was not pure, that it was a big obstacle. He saw that he could not truly develop in his practice while he was famous.

One night, he climbed out his window and escaped. He left everything and became a beggar. He never told anyone his name or where he was from. He began a pilgrimage, and did prostrations from East Amdo to Lhasa. Amdo is three months from Lhasa by horse, a very long way. He did retreat in many caves and holy places, and made great progress in his practice.

Along the way, while travelling through the province of Kham, he met my mother, Sendok Tsewong Drolma, in Gonjo. My mother's family, from the Gonjo Agartsang, was very ancient and famous, descending from the minister of Gesar of Ling. Her father was a lama, but at the time she met my father, her father had passed away. Her brother, who was also a lama, met my father. Although my father was a beggar, the brother recognized his quality right away, and introduced him to my mother. Otherwise, he would never have recommended a beggar to my mother, being of a noble family.

My mother was very sick, so sick she almost died. My father said, It would be better if you became a beggar, too. She had great faith in him, and went with him. The same day that they left, she recovered from her illness completely.

They travelled until they came to Lhasa. There they met His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, who told my father, Your second wheel is sufficient. (There are three Lama Wheels. The first is education and learning. The second is practice and accomplishment. The third is benefitting beings by serving the doctrine and giving teachings.) Now it is time to turn your third wheel.

His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche told him to stay in Kongpo, where His Holiness' gompa was. So, they stayed there, and I grew up in Kongpo.

My father had his own monastery there in Kongpo. Kongpo is close to Lhasaabout fourteen days by horseback.

Q: At what age did you begin studying Dharma?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: When I was eight years old. At that time I went to His Holiness' gompa and began learning reading and writing and other subjects.

Q: In terms of your spiritual lineage, you are a Nyingmapa lama and a Repkong Ngakpa. What are the special aspects of the Repkong Ngakpa tradition?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Repkong is one monastery. Within it are four different groups: Nying-thig, Mindroling, Tersar and one other. Ngakpas are not monks. They are like householders. H.H. Dingo Khyentse always says that Repkong is the source of all knowledge.

There are many scholars in the monastery, but they are not just scholars alone. There are many, many, great mahasiddhas [yogis who have attained great spiritual powers]. In Repkong there is one rule: in wintertime, you have to do strict retreat. That way there is a lot of accomplishment. They are famous for having great supernormal powers as a result of their meditation.

In Tibet, we have lots of bandits. Even the bandits have to be careful; they have great fear and respect for the Repkong Ngakpas. If they are planning on robbing a camp, they make sure that it is not a camp of a Repkong Ngakpas. We are very famous; lots of mahasiddhas.

There is a story of one Repkong Ngakpa who was riding his horse through a canyon. At one corner, there was big boulder sticking out, which scared his horse. The yogi lectured the rock, You are sitting next to the road. You scare many people. You can't do this any more! He whipped it with his riding whip, and the rock turned and ran away to the other side of the mountain! There are many stories like that about the Repkong Ngakpas.

Q: Living among the Repkong Ngakpas, did you ever see powers such as these?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Yes. My father had power like that. Lots of stories about him.

Q: Was it your idea to become a Lama?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: First it was my father's idea. My father had three sons. I am the youngest. My oldest brother was amazing, very smart and knowledgeable, and had similar spiritual power to my father. But my father recommended me to be his lineage holder, to inherit his spiritual lineage.

At the time, I wondered and everyone wondered why he did that. My eldest bother, Pema Rinchen was recognized as an important lama's emanation by the Karmapa when he was twenty-five years old, when he went to the Karmapa's monastery in Tsurphu. He stayed there as a tulku [incarnate lama]. Then he was sent to North Tibet to build a monastery there. He had many students. He became a very, very famous lama. However, he stayed in Tibet after the Communist invasion, and passed away. He did not have time to pass on many teachings. Now I understand why my father decided to choose me. I am still alive, while my brother is dead. He also had no son. My lineage passes from father to son.

First, my father decided I should become a practitioner. I learned everything at the monastery the same as all the other students: chanting, musical instruments, mandala making, divination, reading, writing, Dharma, until age sixteen. After age sixteen, it was my decision. I wanted to practice pure Dharma.

I did not believe that I could practice in the same way that Milarepa did, but there was a famous Repkong yogi, Shabkarwa Tsokdruk Rangdro, who was said to be an emanation of Milarepa, whom I admired so much. Shabkarwa Tsokdruk Rangdro wrote The Garuda Flight Doho (Spiritual Song of the Space Eagle's Flight). He was truly amazing. I really thought I could be like him; I wanted to be like that lama, and I felt that it was possible to maybe practice like he did. So after age sixteen, I really realized the importance of Dharma.

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Lama Tharchin Rinpoche

Q: What was it about this particular lama that made you feel you could be like him? What was it that you admired about him?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: He was an amazing lama. He especially helped poor people. He was a great pandita [scholar]; the number of books he wrote was amazing. At the accomplishment level, he was a very famous mahasiddha.

When he wrote, it seemed as if his whole life was given to writing. It was the same with teaching; when he taught, you would think that he devoted his life to nothing but teaching.

Every place he would go, hundreds of beggars would follow him. He gave them teachings. All his wealth and fortune went to taking care of poor people. He had compassion.

I read his life story. Totally amazing, too. He went to the holy city of Lhasa, once. In the outskirts of the city, the butchers there had made a wall of bones from the animals they had slaughtered. It reminded him of a dwelling of rakshas [blood drinking demons]. He wept at the sight. Lhasa is like a pure land, and this was like a cannibal town. He went right to His Holiness Dalai Lama and said, This is incredible. You are the emanation of Chenrezig [the Bodhisattva of Compassion]. And yet, in front of you, there is a place like a raksha town. After that, His Holiness Dalai Lama issued a command that the killing of the animals be stopped from that day forward.

Q: Was your appreciation of this yogi part of what interested you in the Repkong lineage?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: My father was the one that first directed me toward it. When I was young, I said many things to my parents about my past lifetime, about having been a particular famous lama who was the head of a big monastery in my last lifetime. My father didn't want me to hold that tide, because he had been the head of a very famous gompa, Repkong Ngakpa Gompa, and he felt that fame was an obstacle to practice. My father was scared that the same thing would happen to me, and he didn't want me put in that kind of position. He told my mother, He is an emanation of a realized being. His actions will always be of benefit for others; it doesn't matter if he has a famous name or not. I don't want him to be the head of a famous gompa. So, they never told anyone; they kept it a secret.

My father wanted me to be his lineage holder, to be the holder of the Repkong Ngakpa lineage, but he didn't want me to go into a big monastery. He wanted me to do a twelve-year retreat.

So, from age sixteen to twenty-five, eight years, I did retreat, for the first five years of retreat, I was in total solitude, all by myself in the jungle. For the last three years, I was in a group with three other yogis. Then the Communists came, destroyed all Tibet. Soon after, we ran away.

Q: So the Communists came while you were in retreat?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: That's right. After they came, they destroyed everything. It was not possible for anyone to do retreat. Everyone had to work. So I finished my retreat really fast. People were not allowed to do retreat. They put me to work as a school teacher.

Q: Who were you recognized as being a incarnation or emanation of? What lama?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Nobody. When I was a child, I said lots of things, but my father kept it secret. So nobody recognized me, or gave me a name. Just secret.

Q: But was there a particular lama that your father recognized you as? Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: I talked in a very detailed way about who I was: name of gompa, my name, and so on.

Q: So, when you were a child, did you have pretty clear memories of your former lifetime?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Yes, my family told me that I did.

Q: Is this an ability that you still have? Do you still remember?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: No. I don't remember anything. When people ask, What kind of emanation are you? I say, There are two possibilities: maybe pig or maybe cow!

Q: So then after the Communists came in, you had to come out of retreat, and they made you a school teacher for a while. When did you leave Tibet?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: I stayed and worked under the Communists for nine months. Then I escaped from Tibet with my family: with my older brother, younger sister, niece, father, mother, brother's wife, a friend of mine, and his wife and daughter.

It took us one month and twelve days. For the last twelve days we had nothing to eat. There was no path through thick Himalayan jungle. We just went up the sheer rock cliffs from mountain to mountain, up and down again with no path, nothing to eat. Very, very difficult. One month and twelve days with nobody, no people in sight. Only empty mountains.

Finally we came to a tribe of Lopa, Burmo-Tibetan jungle people, in the mountain kingdom of Assam, between Tibet and India. They were naked, and many of the tribes were cannibals. These people did not seem to be cannibals, however. They helped us, and gave us food.

From there, we went on to India. That was in 1960, I came to America in 1983, from Nepal.

Q: Where in India did you stay? Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: I stayed in Orissa, where His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche had his gompa. I taught and worked there.

Q: Why did you decide to come to America?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: I had a gall bladder problem in Nepal, and was told that if I wanted good medical treatment for it, I had to go to America. Then I got stuck there! Karma winds blew me here.

I had decided to go back. Then, when H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche came in 1984, he asked me to stay here and teach, and I did. He thought that in the West, it is like springtime for the Dharma; it is just beginning to grow and flow forth. He wanted me to stay, teach, take care of doctrine. So I am trying to do that.

Q: So, now you are in America. Why did you decide to settle in Santa Cruz?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: That's interesting. I had a dream. Before I came to America, I did a one-month retreat in Lumbini, which is where Buddha Shakyamuni was born. At that time I had a dream about going to the West.

When I first arrived in America, after three weeks in San Francisco, I came to Santa Cruz. Then, I stayed here. I really feel that Santa Cruz has a spiritual quality, like a holy land. For a very small town, it has lots of Dharma activity, Buddhist centers like Rigpa, Vajrayana Foundation, Kagyu Center, Vajrapani, Zen Center, Burmese Temple, Japanese Temple, Vietnamese Temple. It magnetizes spiritual people. Very special for the Dharma.

So, first, I had a dream. Very strong karmic connection. First I was stuck here. Now I love it. This place is so beautiful, just like Pure Land: redwoods, hills, ocean, the quality of richness, so pure, like a painting. The outer elements seem so pure, so rich. The summers are not hot. The winter is not cold.

Any time I go away, I am so glad to come back to Santa Cruz. It feels so good here. I feel attached to Santa Cruz, like a hometown. It is my goal to set up a gompa here, a center, retreat place, li-brary, also to build a stupa, and to make a great statue here. A place for people to rest and feel peaceful when they are tired of samsaric activities.

In the West, people are very, very rich, but when you have mental suffering, it is important to have a place to relax, cool down, do spiritual practice. Some place to rest, when people are tired from worldly activities, and want to feel peaceful. I want to build a place like that, a peaceful place. When people get hot, they need someplace to cool down! I want to make that kind of place.

Q: In the East, India and Tibet, many people are very poor, and yet certainly very rich in spiritual tradition. The West has a higher standard of living, yet here people experience a different kind of suffering, much more mental suffering. Would you comment more on this?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: It's really true. When you live in samsara, everywhere there is suffering. There are different forms of suffering. In the East, we have physical suffering. In the West, mental suffering is deeper, because the culture is related with materialism. You don't know how to cool down your brains. Our brains are like machines, turning day and night with worldly activity, and they overheat.

In the East, there is physical suffering, but everything in samsara is changeable. It is easy to cure physical suffering; there is the potential to change it easily. It can be done with money, with a house, with heat, with medicine.

With mental suffering, the spiritual way is the only cure. Dharma is especially directed toward the mind. That way, it is more beneficial. Dharma is helpful in many ways, but especially in the West with mental suffering, Dharma is really useful. People get tired, agitated, emotional. They need some place to rest, some way to get peaceful. Only Dharma can do that; Dharma provides a way to pacify the mind and heart.

Q: You have also begun to make contact with Native American people.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Yes, I do have lots of Indian friends. When I was in Nepal, many Western people asked me if I was Native American. We look similar; it is easy to make connections. I have lots of Native American friends in Spokane, Seattle, here.

Recently I went to the Four Corners area to do a ceremony for healing of the earth. It works in two different places: outer and inner. It is a ceremony for purifying and pacifying pollution of the elements. Both the inner elementsthe constituents of the body, and the outer elementsthe environ-menthave a lot of pollution. These elements are the same for the elemental spirits, local deities, and people. When we can cure their suffering, then in the same way, human beings will naturally have happiness, and experience increase in many ways.

The Navajo people invited me down to that area. I made many friends. We have many similarities. It was like being in a Tibetan camp; the facial features and customs are very similar.

Q: You mentioned that the Dharma, and in particular the ceremony that you did there, helped to purify the outer and inner elements, and that when the pollution in the environment is pacified and purified and the inner elements are peaceful, then people feel more peaceful.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Yes. It removes many different diseases, starvation; much suffering is removed by purification of the elements. Especially at this time, we are making treasure vasesa special healing for pollution. Guru Rinpoche prophesied that in degenerate times, people would use lots of poisonous things. That poison would defile the world, and the gods and nagas would suffer from the negative effects of pollution, and their energy and ability to help human beings would be decreased. Signs of this would be no rain, many kinds of disease and suffering, fighting within families, in communities, and between countries. That kind of suffering would become heavier and heavier and heavier, and positive qualities would decrease.

At that time, you can use mantras and substances, deities, visualizations, concentration, and make treasure vases for purification of the local gods, wealth protectors, and nagas. When their impurities, pollution, and obscurations are cleansed, then the sun shines, and you have power of the outer elements, gods, nagas. It starts to rain. Good qualities increase and human suffering is removed.

For this reason, we are making the treasure vases. When I go next to the Four Corners area and many different areas, we will be burying treasure vases in mountains and sacred lakes around the country.

Q: So the treasure vases relate to the elements and energies, and the mantras and substances of each treasure vase help to purify the protectors, the deities of the land, and the nagas of the water, and the sky, all the different spirits, and help to restore harmony to both the land and the people.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: Yes, everything. The treasure vase draws the earth energy from eighty thousand miles in all directions to it. It increases the energy of Earth, Water, Fire, Air. The power which was depleted is drawn back.

The treasure vase can also be kept on your altar, and you can accumulate merit and wisdom by making offerings. You can put it in a statue or stupa. You can also bury it in the mountains or near water. It will increase the positive qualities.

Q: What would you most like to accomplish in Santa Cruz? What is your main goal?

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche: The main goal is the retreat center. I would like to build a retreat center, for Tibetan Culture and Art, and for Dharma, a place where people can do practice and retreat, a place where people can taste their pure wisdom mind and attain enlightenment. Whoever has that experience, we feel they are very special.

Buddhadharma has been destroyed in Tibet, but still, all lamas are wishing and trying very hard to keep these Buddhadharma teachings alive, to maintain an unbroken lineage. That is my concern, also.

If we can have some retreat land, I can teach and people can practice. Then they can teach other people, and in that way we can benefit many, many beings. Temporarily, they can benefit others by relieving mental suffering. Ultimately, they can attain the final goal of enlightenment. Through Dharma practice suffering diminishes and the ultimate goal of enlightenment can be reached.

Now those lineages have become very thin. There is much concern among lamas that their doctrine be preserved. Before I die, I want to establish my lineage. I want to pass along everything I have learned. I don't want to take it to the cemetery without having passed it along.t

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