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Born in Tibet

Born in Tibet

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by Chogyam Trungpa, Marco Pallis

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Chögyam Trungpa—meditation master, scholar, and artist—was identified at the age of only thirteen months as a major tulku, or reincarnation of an enlightened teacher. As the eleventh in the teaching lineage known as the Trungpa tulkus, he underwent a period of intensive training in meditation, philosophy, and fine arts, receiving full


Chögyam Trungpa—meditation master, scholar, and artist—was identified at the age of only thirteen months as a major tulku, or reincarnation of an enlightened teacher. As the eleventh in the teaching lineage known as the Trungpa tulkus, he underwent a period of intensive training in meditation, philosophy, and fine arts, receiving full ordination as a monk in 1958 at the age of eighteen. The following year, the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet, and the young Trungpa spent many harrowing months trekking over the Himalayas, narrowly escaping capture.

Trungpa's account of his experiences as a young monk, his duties as the abbot and spiritual head of a great monastery, and his moving relationships with his teachers offers a rare and intimate glimpse into the life of a Tibetan lama. The memoir concludes with his daring escape from Tibet to India. In an epilogue, he describes his emigration to the West, where he encountered many people eager to learn about the ancient wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism.

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1: Found and Enthroned

My birthplace was a small settlement on a high plateau of north eastern Tibet.
Above it, the celebrated mountain Pagö-pünsum rises perpendicularly to more than eighteen thousand feet, and is often called "the pillar of the sky." It looks like a tall spire; its mighty crest towers under perpetual snows, glittering in the sunshine.

Centuries before Buddhism was brought to Tibet, the followers of the Bön religion believed that Pagö-pünsum was the home of the king of spirits, and the surrounding lesser peaks were the abodes of his ministers. Myths linger on among the country folk, and these mountains have continued to be held in awe and veneration in the district.

The name of the place was Geje; it stands in a bare, treeless country without even bushes, but grass covered, and in the summer months the ground is bright with small flowers and sweet-smelling herbs whose scent in this pure air is thought to be curative; however, for the greater part of the year the whole land is under snow and it is so cold that the ice must be broken to get water. Two sorts of wild animals are peculiar to this province, the
or wild ass, and a kind of bison called a
both are found in herds of about five hundred each. The people live in tents made of yak's hair; the more wealthy have larger ones with several partitions, situated in the centre of the encampment, while the poorer peasants live on the fringes.
Each village considers itself to be one large family, and in the individual family, the members from the oldest to the youngest live together and own their herds of yaks and sheep in common.

The fire, used for all domestic purposes, is always in the middle of the tent, and the shrine is in the far right hand corner with a butter lamp burning continually before a religious picture, or a set of the scriptures.

This northern area of East Tibet is called
and has twenty-five districts; the name simply means twenty five. At one time it was under a king who gave the district where Geje is situated the special privilege of having its highlanders chosen for his bodyguard on account of their courage.

Geje was a small community of only about five hundred people. My father,
Yeshe-dargye, owned a little land there; he met his future wife
Tungtso-drölma when she was working for her relations, looking after the yaks and milking the females which are called
They had one daughter, but when a second child was already in her womb he left her,
and she married again, this time a much poorer man who, when the child was born, accepted him as his son.

The night of my conception my mother had a very significant dream that a being had entered her body with a flash of light; that year flowers bloomed in the neighbourhood although it was still winter, to the surprise of the inhabitants.

During the New Year festival on the day of the full moon, in the Earth Hare year according to the Tibetan calendar (February 1939) I was born in the cattle byre; the birth came easily. On that day a rainbow was seen in the village, a pail supposed to contain water was unaccountably found full of milk, while several of my mother's relations dreamt that a lama was visiting their tents.
Soon afterwards, a lama from Trashi Lhaphug Monastery came to Geje; as he was giving his blessing to the people, he saw me, who at that time was a few months old; he put his hand over my head to give me a special blessing, saying that he wanted me for his monastery and that I must be kept very clean and always be carefully looked after. Both my parents agreed to this, and decided that when I
grew older I should be sent to his monastery, where my mother's uncle was a monk.

After the death in 1938 of the tenth Trungpa Tulku, the supreme abbot of Surmang, the monks at once sent a representative to His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa, the head of the Karma-Kagyu school whose monastery lay near Lhasa. Their envoy had to inform him of the death of the last abbot and to ask him if he had had any indication where his reincarnation would be found. They begged him to let them know at once should he obtain a vision.

Some months later Gyalwa Karmapa was visiting Pepung Monastery in the province of
Derge in Kham, which is Tibet's eastern region. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, who had been a devoted disciple of the tenth Trungpa Tulku and lived at Pepung,
also asked him not to defer giving any possible indication, for the monks of
Surmang were feeling lost without their abbot and were eager that his reincarnation should be found without delay.

vision had in fact come to Gyalwa Karmapa, who dictated a letter to his private secretary, saying that the reincarnation of the tenth Trungpa Tulku has been born in a village five days' journey northwards from Surmang. Its name sounds like two words
there is a family there with two children; the son is the reincarnation. It all sounded rather vague; however, the secretary and monks of the Düdtsi-til
Monastery at Surmang were preparing to go in search of the new abbot when a second sealed letter was received at the monastery. Rölpa-dorje, the regent abbot of Düdtsi-til, called a meeting, opened the letter and read it to the assembled monks. It said that Gyalwa Karmapa had had a second and much clearer vision: "The door of the family's dwelling faces south; they own a big red dog. The father's name is Yeshe-dargye and the mother's Chung and
Tzo; the son who is nearly a year old is Trungpa Tulku." One senior monk and two others set off immediately to find me.

After five days' journey they reached the village of Geje, and called on all the more important families; they made a list of the names of those parents who had children of a year old, and returned to Düdtsi-til. The list was sent to
Gyalwa Karmapa, who was still at Pepung. He found that the monks had merely taken names belonging to important families and said that they must go again and make further enquiries. On receipt of this message a second party of monks was sent to the village, which in the interval had removed to higher ground and changed its name to Dekyil: this time they called on every family and made a thorough search. In one tent they found a baby boy who had a sister and, as had been written in Gyalwa Karmapa's letter, the entrance faced south and there was a red dog. Also, the mother's name was Bo-chung, though her family called her
Tungtso-drölma; thus her name confirmed Gyalwa Karmapa's vision, but the father's name was different from that in the letter, and this caused a great deal of confusion; yet they looked closely at the baby, for as soon as he had seen them in the distance he waved his little hand and broke into smiles as they came in. So the monks felt that this must be the child and gave him the gifts which Gyalwa Karmapa had sent, the sacred protective cord
and the traditional scarf
this latter the baby took and hung round the monk's neck in the prescribed way, as if he had already been taught what was the right thing to do: delighted, the monks picked me up, for that baby was myself, and I tried to talk.

The following day the monks made a further search in another part of the village,
then returned to say goodbye. As they made prostration before me, I placed my hand on their heads as if I knew that I should give them my blessing, then the monks were certain that I was the incarnation of the tenth Trungpa. They spoke to my mother asking her to tell them in confidence who had been my father. She told them that I was the son of her first husband Yeshedargye, but that I had always been known as the son of my stepfather. This made everything clear to the monks, who immediately returned to Düdtsi-til. The news was taken to
Gyalwa Karmapa who was sure that I, the child of Tungtso-drölma, was the eleventh Trungpa Tulku.

Karmapa was about to leave Pepung Monastery on a tour in which Surmang would be included, and the monks realized that if he was to perform the ceremony of my enthronement it was necessary to bring me there immediately. Kargyen, the senior secretary of Düdtsi-til, with a party of monks came to my native village of Dekyil to fetch me. He had to proclaim his mission to the whole area and to consult all the heads of the villages and the representatives of the people, since ordinarily it was expected that they would demand land or money.
However, everyone was co-operative and modest and no-one asked for any gain for himself. Next, my parents had to be asked if they wished to live near Surmang,
or would prefer to receive property in their own village. My parents decided that they would like to be given the land on which they lived; however, they told the secretary that at some future time they would be glad of permission to visit me at Surmang.

When these things were settled we set off, with both my parents travelling in the party, for they were anxious to see Surmang. My mother stayed on in a house near Düdtsi-til in order to look after me until I was five years old, but my stepfather returned to his village.

messenger had been sent ahead to inform Düdtsi-til when we would arrive,
and a great welcome was prepared. All the monks from Surmang and many from neighbouring monasteries assembled some five miles distant from Düdtsi-til to form a procession to escort me.

On that day the valley was misty, and a rainbow appeared in the sky forming an arch over the procession, but as we drew near the monastery the surrounding mists dissolved, and the low clouds spread like a canopy hiding us from distant onlookers.

At the monastery everything was in festival; all the monks were rejoicing. There were special ceremonies and a great feast was arranged. I have been told that,
though I was only about thirteen months old at the time, I immediately recognized those monks in whom the tenth Trungpa Tulku had placed confidence,
and that I behaved with the greatest decorum throughout the day and did not even cry once.

few days later I was put through a test; pairs of several objects were put before me, and in each case I picked out the one that had belonged to the tenth
Trungpa Tulku; among them were two walking sticks and two rosaries; also, names were written on small pieces of paper and when I was asked which piece had his name on it, I chose the right one. Now the monks were certain that I was the incarnation, so a letter was sent to Gyalwa Karmapa telling him the results of the examination and inviting him to officiate at my enthronement ceremony.

Every morning my mother brought me to the monastery and took me home with her in the evening. My earliest memory is being in a room with several monks who were talking to me, and I was answering them. I was told later that my first words were
Mani Padme Hum;
I did not say them very correctly. When Jamas came to visit me, I have been told that I used to clutch at their rosaries and try to imitate them. Every day that month, I held an audience and received visits from the friends and disciples of my past incarnation who took a great interest in me, and I always seemed to enjoy meeting people.

At the end of the month my enthronement ceremony was to take place, and so I was taken to the larger monastery of Namgyal-tse. This time, instead of the joyous informality with which I had been welcomed at Düdtsi-til, a procession came to escort me and everything was done with pomp and ceremony.

Karmapa arrived with some senior Lamas from Pepung; other people came from all parts of East Tibet: about one thousand Surmang monks and twelve thousand other monks and laity finally assembled. My monks were delighted, for this enthronement was to be one of the largest in living memory. There were several incarnate lamas already at Surmang including Garwang Tulku the regent abbot of
Namgyal-tse. Rölpa-dorje, the regent abbot of Düdtsi-til, was appointed to act as my sponsor and give my responses at the enthronement. Both were regent abbots of their respective monasteries in the interregnum after the death of the tenth Trungpa and during my minority, and they remained so later when I was absent from Surmang.

Rinpoche was the fifth incarnation of the great Rölpa-dorje, a contemporary of the fifth Trungpa Tulku, and he had been the teacher of
Chökyi-jungne in the early part of the eighteenth century; the latter was the second most important Lama in the Karma-Kagyu school;
is a Chinese title. He had written many scholarly works and had revived the pictorial art of the "Gabri school." His teaching had been widely disseminated in Tibet, China and India.

My enthronement took place in the large assembly hall. The lion throne
on which all
are traditionally enthroned, stood at the further end of the hall on a dais. It was made of gilt wood, square in shape, with white lions carved on the sides which appeared to be supporting it. On the throne there were three cushions, red,
yellow and blue, covered with two strips of brocade. A table was placed in front of it with all my seals of office. I was carried up the hall by the senior secretary of Düdtsi-til, escorted by a procession of the higher dignitaries. Rölpa-dorje Rinpoche stood at the foot of the throne, and my secretary handed me to him; he then mounted the dais and sat down in my place holding me on his lap and gave all the responses which should have come from me.

According to tradition, the service began with the rite of the primary
the entrance to the Buddhist Congregation. Gyalwa Karmapa cut my hair to symbolize a cutting away from the material, and entering the spiritual, life.
Then the regent abbot spoke in my name.

"From today I take refuge in the Buddha.

From today I take refuge in the Dharma, (the Norm, embodied in the Doctrine).

From today I take refuge in the Sangha, (the Assembly or Church

both earthly and heavenly)."

At the moment when he put the scissors to my hair there was a clap of thunder,
sudden rain, and a rainbow appeared. This was thought to be very auspicious.
After this I was given my personal name
all monks of the Karma-Kagyu school are given the first name
after their founder; roughly translated the remaining words mean: "the universal action of the holder of the Doctrine, the gloriously good." Later that day
I was given all the seals and official documents of the tenth Trungpa Tulku.
Everyone came to receive my blessing and offered me ceremonial scarves. The incarnate lamas and heads of monasteries led the way, followed by monks and lay people; they presented me with robes and many other gifts.

After a few weeks Gyalwa Karmapa Rinpoche left for his own centre close to Lhasa, and the senior
Pepung, after escorting him half way, likewise returned to their monastery.

Meet the Author

Chögyam Trungpa (1940–1987)—meditation master, teacher, and artist—founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the first Buddhist-inspired university in North America; the Shambhala Training program; and an international association of meditation centers known as Shambhala International. He is the author of numerous books including Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and The Myth of Freedom.

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