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Tibetan Buddhism Beyond the Land of Snows

December 12, 2007

Bhuchung K. Tsering
Tibetan Review, December 2007

In October a less noticed development (in comparison to the Gold Medal
events) took place in the United States during His Holiness the Dalai
Lama's visit. This happened after he visited Indiana, the state of the
Hoosiers, to be at the Tibetan Cultural Center.

Founded in 1979 by Taktser Rinpoche, the eldest brother of His Holiness,
this Centre is devoted to preserving Tibetan culture and religion.
Taktser Rinpoche was among the first Tibetans not only to emigrate and
settle in the United States, but also to undertake different activities
to arouse the conscience of the American public to the Tibetan issue.

In 2005 Arjia Rinpoche, who is from Kumbum, was entrusted with the
leadership of the Centre by H.H. the Dalai Lama.  Arjia Rinpoche is an
ethnic Mongol (some parts of Amdo region is home also to ethnic Mongols)
who rose up in the Chinese governmental hierarchy, besides being the
abbot of Kumbum Monastery, until a situation developed that led to his
decision to leave. His bio on the Centre's website explains, "In 1998,
he was about to become leader of the Chinese National Buddhist
Association but felt the noose tightening around his own personal and
spiritual freedom. In a crisis of conscience, he escaped from Beijing to
Guatemala and, with the help of the Dalai Lama sought asylum in the
United States."

Following the visit of His Holiness to the Centre in October, 2007, it
issued an announcement saying, "The Tibetan Cultural Center is now the
"Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center" and "The Kumbum Chamtse
Ling Temple is now "Kumbum Chamtse Ling Monastery." "This temple is in
the Centre's compound.

The announcement also said, "The Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural
Center and Kumbum Chamtse Ling Monastery wish to honor the abbots of our
renowned Tibetan and Mongolian monasteries--those in exile in India and
those in Mongolia.  We will do this by having abbots from Drepung Gomang
Monastery (India), Sera Je Monastery (India). Ganden Monastery (India),
Ganden Monastery (Mongolia) and Tashi Choiling Monastery (Mongolia)
serve one-year terms as "Honorary Khenpo of our Kumbum Chamtse Ling

This development reflects and highlights one aspect of Tibetan Buddhist
culture that the Chinese authorities have failed to appreciate in their
current zeal to wrest total control over it. Tibetan Buddhism is not
just restricted to areas under the present political control of China,
but spreads from the Himalayan region in the Indian subcontinent to the
Russian Federation and Mongolia, not to speak of the number of Tibetan
Buddhist practitioners in other parts of the world. Thus, Buddhists in
these areas are as much of a stakeholder in the future of Tibetan
Buddhism as the Tibetan people themselves are.

In general Mongol interest in Tibetan Buddhism is nothing new. It has
been there through history with even one of the Dalai Lamas having been
a Mongol.  As I was drafting this column, news came from Dharamsala
about Buddhists from Mongolia and the Russian Republics of Kalmykia,
Tuva and Buryatia jointly organizing "a grand Buddhist festival" there.

Announcing this, Telo Rinpoche, spiritual head of the Buddhists in
Kalmykia in the Russian Federation, said on November 1, "His Holiness is
not only the spiritual leader of Tibetan people, but he is also leader
of the Buddhists in Mongolia and Russia as well," adding, "It is our
responsibility to share this experience, share our historical
connections and remind the people that this historical relationship is
not new. It is something, which existed for centuries."

In the modern period Tibetans and Mongols continue to have close
interactions. Mongols not just from Mongolia, but also from the ethnic
Mongol regions in the Russian Federation as well as those in diaspora,
have been receiving spiritual education in Tibetan Buddhist institutions
in the Indian subcontinent. Similarly, Tibetan lamas have been visiting
the Mongol-inhabited regions as part of spiritual exchanges.

So when I read the announcement by the Tibetan Cultural Center I thought
of the Chinese Government's attempt to clamp down on Tibetan religious
system, which to me seems to be a frog-in-the-well approach. The
absurdity of this effort is apparent when one realizes that the Chinese
Government cannot control developments in the broader Tibetan Buddhist
areas even if it wants to.  For example, Tibetan Buddhist lamas do not
necessarily have to be born in Tibet. Lamas take rebirth in specific
places based on the need of the situation.  Thus, if, as some
commentators opine, the recent Chinese regulation on recognition of
lamas is to control the recognition of the 15th Dalai Lama, I, for one,
will not be surprised if the next Dalai Lama is a Ladakhi, Bhutanese, or
a Mongol? There is already precedence with the fourth Dalai Lama being a

In the history of Tibetan Buddhism, quite a few non-Tibetans have held
leadership positions. The current abbot of re-established Tashi Lhunpo
in South India is a Ladakhi. The next Ganden Tripa, the highest post in
the Gelug lineage, will be another Ladakhi. In addition to the fourth
Dalai Lama, some Mongol lamas have assumed spiritual leadership position
within the Tibetan community and outside. Geshe (Khensur) Ngawang Nima,
a Buryat Mongol, studied in Drepung in Tibet and became a learned
scholar. After he escaped to India he eventually became the abbot of
Gomang College of Drepung Monastery in south India.

Similarly other non-Tibetan scholars like Geshe Wangyal and Khunu
Rinpoche Tenzin Gyaltsen have played significant role in the Tibetan
Buddhist world.

Geshe Wangyal was from Kalmykia who studied in Drepung Monastery in
Tibet. In the 1950s, following Chinese incursion there, he fled to India
and subsequently resettled in the United States. He was among those who
first started Tibetan Buddhist centres in the United States.  Khunu
Rinpoche was an astute scholar who came from Kinnaur in India bordering
Tibet. He served the Tibetan community in the early years of our exile
in different ways.
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