My Memories of Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche

I first met Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche in January 1970 in Bodh Gaya, where he regularly spent the winter months and gave annual teachings in the Tibetan temple there. Bodh Gaya was not yet developed at that time, and was very poor. An unruly crowd of lepers lined the dirt road in front of the stupa, sticking their festering stumps out to the pilgrims and begging with a monotonous wail. As one of the handful of foreigners there, hordes of young children dressed in rags would follow behind me wherever I went, like a swarm of mosquitoes, tugging at my clothes and begging for a few coins while chanting monotonously over and again in a high-pitched wail, “Baksheesh, Memsahab.” Fervent pilgrims circumambulated and prostrated around the stupa, while wild dogs and prehistoric-looking pigs foraged freely in the field behind it, which served as the local open-air toilet. It was a scene I shall never forget.

On that occasion, I received from Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche my first Chenrezig initiation and took my first bodhisattva vows. Yongdzin Rinpoche’s extraordinary presence radiating dignity and strength contrasted sharply with the squalor and chaos of the surroundings outside the monastic gates. Particularly impressive was Yongdzin Rinpoche’s voice when he taught. It flowed effortlessly and melodiously, like a steady stream, seemingly without ever stopping for breath.

My next encounter with Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche was in Dharamsala in September 1971. My teacher, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, had brought me there from Dalhousie, together with Sharpa and Khamlung Rinpoches, to attend a great event. His Holiness’s two tutors were conferring upon him and the assembled Tantric Colleges the three principal highest tantra empowerments of the Gelug tradition. Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche was conferring the 13-Deity Vajrabhairava and Guhyasamaja initiations and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche the Chakrasamvara Luipa initiation. As far as I know, this was perhaps the last occasion at which His Holiness publicly received initiations from his two tutors. As the principal disciple, His Holiness the Dalai Lama was seated before his tutors, facing them on a slightly lower throne. As the only Westerner attending, I was seated in the alcove to the side of the thrones, where presently the Guru Rinpoche and 1000-Armed Chenrezig statues stand. I had the perfect view. The solemnity, humility and respect of His Holiness before his tutors have served as an everlasting model for the proper way to relate to one’s spiritual teacher and tantric master.

Over the next few years, I received several further teachings and initiations from Yongdzin Rinpoche. The most memorable one was again for Vajrabhairava, once more at the Bodh Gaya temple. During it, Yongdzin Rinpoche described the mandala palace by pointing to the various features in the space around him. The visualization was so vivid for him that it made it alive for us in the audience as well.

This ability to enhance the potentials of people around him was one of Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche’s outstanding features. I often cite it as an example of the so-called “enlightening activity of increase.” Before my Tibetan language was up to par for being able to translate orally for my teachers, I was always amazed that when I would visit Yongdzin Rinpoche, somehow through the clarity and inspiration he radiated, I was able to understand his words in Tibetan far, far better than I could anyone else’s at the time. It was as if he projected clarity of mind directly into my brain.

Once my Tibetan language skills had improved sufficiently, I began occasionally to translate for Yongdzin Rinpoche when he would give private teachings to other foreigners. He was extremely generous in granting requests for explanations of various practices, and kindly consented to answer my own Dharma questions whenever I needed. I was careful not to abuse this incredibly rare and precious privilege.

Once, when I was translating for an explanation of a complex Avalokiteshvara practice he gave, Yongdzin Rinpoche remarked to me before the student entered the room that he wondered whether this person would actually put these teachings into practice. But he felt it worthwhile to explain him something. Yongdzin Rinpoche then proceeded to give a very skillful explanation that did not go into great depth or detail, but was just enough to hopefully stimulate and inspire the person to explore the practice. This has served as a model for me that when giving teachings, a sincere altruistic motivation for imparting them is the most important factor for the teacher. With that motivation, then it naturally follows that you will scale the explanation to the level and needs of the student. Whether or not the student puts the teachings into practice is then the student’s responsibility. This high standard of how to be a perfect teacher has been hard to meet.

As the widely recognized human embodiment of Vajrabhairava, the forceful form of Manjushri, the Buddha-figure incorporating the clarity, intelligence and wisdom of all the Buddhas, Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche exuded this forceful energy of clarity around him, while being like a solid rock of stability and support. It was the type of energy that, when in its presence, caused you to stop acting or thinking like a confused, upset little child, but instead to be clear, sharp and both emotionally and mentally sober and stable.

As an example of this quality, I remember once I was visiting Yongdzin Rinpoche at his home in Dharamsala. Yongdzin Rinpoche was sitting on a low bed on one side of a corner of the room and I was on another low bed on the other side of that corner. While he was answering some questions I had about my meditation practice, a large scorpion suddenly appeared on the floor between us. Yongdzin Rinpoche, who was always so dignified, raised his arms wildly in the air and cried in an excited, emotional voice, “Oh dear, a scorpion!” Then he looked at me with his widely opened eyes and said, “Aren't you afraid?” I looked back in his eyes and said, “How can I be afraid in front of Vajrabhairava himself?” And it was true, I wasn’t afraid. Yongdzin Rinpoche laughed and laughed at my reply. Then his attendant came in with a cup and piece of paper, slipped the paper under the scorpion, put the cup over it and ceremoniously took it outside and released it in the yard. It was as if Yongdzin Rinpoche had staged the whole incident as part of my lesson.

Although most people were terrified and in awe of Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, because of this incredibly strong and imposing Vajrabhairava energy, Yongdzin Rinpoche himself never felt that this response was appropriate. Once when I was with him in his room at the temple in Bodh Gaya, a young monk entered with a plate of ritual offerings from the “tsog” puja ceremony that the monks had been performing downstairs. The boy was clearly nervous and frightened at coming into the presence of such a great master. After he left, Yongdzin Rinpoche chuckled and said to me, “They’re all so scared of me. There’s no need to be frightened, is there.”

Like fierce Vajrabhairava with peaceful Manjushri in his heart, Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche was a stern, serious bedrock of stability on the outside, while being warm, kind and infinitely wise inside. I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to have been his student and occasional translator.