ENCOUNTERING THE GURU: Visiting the Nalanda Translation Committee and Meeting Trungpa Rinpoche

By Siu Yin Lee

Inspired by reading the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s descriptions of the Buddhist path, particularly his emphasis on self-deception, aloneness, and styles of imprisonment, a young Hong Kong dharma student, Siu Yin Lee, traveled to Chengdu last spring to meet up with the Nalanda Translation Committee on her way to a pilgrimage to Surmang. After meeting Karma Senge Rinpoche and then Chökyi Senge Trungpa Rinpoche XII in Chengdu, she travelled with him on her pilgrimage. The following is an account of her journey.

I was born in 1986, the year before Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche died. So, unfortunately, in this life time I never had, and never will have, the chance to meet Chögyam Trungpa in person.

I tell whatever old Trungpa students I meet that if I could sacrifice fifty years of my life in exchange for meeting Chögyam Trungpa, I would. It might sound silly, but I really mean it because it was Trungpa who made Buddhism come alive for me.

Trungpa’s teaching was for me no ordinary dharma talk. When I would read his talks, it was as if he was presenting a vision, a landscape, a painting, through his penetrating words and space. Having never met him in person, I know that this might all be my romantic imagination, but among all the teachers I have encountered over the years, not one has even come close to making me feel this way.

And that was the problem. Deep in my heart, I was always looking for Trungpa whenever I encountered a teacher on the path. I would tell myself, “He’s dead, DEAD! You aren’t going to find the shadow of a dead man.” That didn’t really help. I remember how tears started flowing when I saw his face in the first scene of the film Crazy Wisdom. It was a mixture of gratefulness and sorrow.

In the summer of 2014, I attended Nitartha Institute. Over a meal one day, Scott Wellenbach, one of the instructors I felt drawn to there, told me that he was going to Chengdu for some translation work with the Nalanda Translation Committee in the spring of 2015. There was some chance that they would encounter Chökyi Senge Rinpoche, the 12th Trungpa, as he had passed through the city for a few days when they had been there in the past. I made Scott promise to let me know when their trip was going to happen as I very much wanted to meet Trungpa’s reincarnation. And Scott kindly agreed.

In the fall of 2014, I went back to Hong Kong and for months waited for Scott’s update, I waited and waited. Come the spring of 2015 I knew the Translation Committee was now in Chengdu and was in touch with Scott, but it didn’t look promising. Their time in China was almost coming to the end, and Scott still said there were no signs of a visit by the 12th Trungpa. Disappointed, I thought to myself that he probably wasn’t going to show up this year. Maybe I really did not have the connection needed.

But a feverish feeling started burning in my head while I was jogging one evening: I needed to go see the 12th Trungpa no matter what. If he was not going to Chengdu, I would go to Surmang on my own. If he was not in Surmang, I would still go to Surmang on my own. It would be my pilgrimage to pay my respect to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche: if it were not for him, I would not be studying Buddhism at all. So I told Scott that I would fly to Yushu, but would first stop by Chengdu to meet up with him and Karma Senge Rinpoche, the nephew of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

On the day of my trip, just 15 minutes before I was to leave my apartment in Hong Kong, I received an email from Scott: Breaking news, Chökyi Senge Trungpa Rinpoche would be coming to Chengdu one day after I was to arrive there.

I was exhilarated. It was too beautiful a coincidence to believe. It almost felt like my prayer was finally being answered.

After arriving in Chengdu, I was able to meet Karma Senge Rinpoche, as well as Scott’s two lovely friends, Larry Mermelstein and Mark Nowakowski. It was a wonderful experience for me; I enjoyed being around them a lot. Occasionally they would tell me stories of their time with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. And Karma Senge Rinpoche was like a kind uncle to me. After learning of my plans to go to Surmang, he said, “Maybe you can travel with Trungpa Tülku back to Surmang, though I don’t know what his plans are. If not, I will help you contact someone there to let them know you are coming.” Wow, traveling with Trungpa Tülku! That was exactly my ultimate secret wish. But it seemed too big a wish, even for myself.

A few days later we had a lunch meeting with Trungpa Rinpoche. I was quite nervous because I was a nobody among all the lamas and translators. I didn’t know what to expect. I don’t know any Tibetan, and Trungpa Rinpoche doesn’t speak English, just a little Chinese, so communication was going to be a challenge. After an extended period of serious conversation in Tibetan, Karma Senge Rinpoche told Trungpa Rinpoche of my intention to visit Surmang, and Trungpa Rinpoche glanced over at me. I knew I needed to give it a shot right there, so I asked him, timidly in Chinese, if I could travel with him. He said yes and gave me his travel date. Then with the little courage I had, I asked further, “Can I have your phone number?” It did not feel appropriate to ask a Rinpoche for his number the first time I met him, but I did it anyway, and without much hesitation, he actually put it in my phone! It was a great relief and I finally felt my Surmang trip was actually happening, quite auspiciously.

I flew to Yushu together with Trungpa Rinpoche, his teacher, and an attendant. Rinpoche is a person of very few words. While checking in at the airport, I saw his ID card. Out of curiosity, I asked if I could take a look at it. He said yes and handed it to me. “Oh, so your birthday is _____,” I said. He indicated that it was. I promised myself that I would remember that and send him something on his birthday.

Before heading for Surmang, we stayed in Jyekundo, the main town of Yushu, for a day because Rinpoche had some business there. There was not much to do in Yushu, probably because of the 2010 earthquake, which had devastated the region. During my day in Yushu, I was able to visit Thrangu Monastery, which is nearby. The taxi driver who took me out there was a devotee of the Kagyü lineage and his family are donors to the monastery, so even though it was under construction, he was able to show me around. I was quite surprised that a taxi driver’s family can afford to be so generous, and I noticed that his cell phone was an iPhone 6—mine is just a 4.

Trungpa Rinpoche and I drove to Surmang together the next day. It was a three-hour trip, and while we were on the road I realized how naive I had been thinking I could go to Surmang on my own. Given the remoteness of the monastery, unless you don’t care how much you spend on hiring a car and driver, it is difficult to go there. What would I have done if Trungpa Rinpoche hadn’t come to Chengdu? The strange thing was that I had not thought about it. The possibility of not being able to get there had never crossed my mind.

In the car, I would try to strike up a conversation with Rinpoche. I wanted to know who he was. We talked about some meaningless things most of the time, such as his fondness for potatoes. We had been amazed that he had ordered five different potato dishes at lunch the other day – potato fries, potato dumplings, potato bread . . . . I warned him about getting fat eating so many carbs, and he was surprised to hear that potatoes could make him fat. But yes, he said he loved potatoes—he is a vegetarian.

At some point, the topic of his birthday came up again. Rather cunningly, I asked, “When is your birthday again?” He replied, “It’s _____,” giving a different date than what is on his ID. “Oh! So the one on the ID card was made up?” I was a little excited to catch that. He said, “Yes, for practical purposes.” Good to know, I thought. And I also thought that the fact that he was now revealing the truth showed that there was some sort of friendship starting between us.

Surmang is not a grand monastery. There is no comparison, in terms of size and decor, to Thrangu Monastery. After I got there, I was in fact a little disappointed: Oh, this is it? But at the same time, Surmang felt special, being in the middle of a valley and being rather small, off by itself. The shedra at that time was closed for holiday as it’s the season the Tibetans go digging the herb called “winter worm, summer herb.” There were only a few people and a few dogs. They all seemed to be very calm.

As the main building, and probably everything else, was still under construction, Trungpa Rinpoche was busy already right after we got back to his house. He headed straight to the main shrine room with the construction manager, a Chinese man who later described his work in Surmang as a retreat, as he hasn’t been home for quite some time. Contrary to what I expected, the manager was not a Kagyü devotee or even a Buddhist. He just happened to be there because his company bid for the project. I liked him a lot. He appeared to be a grounded and gentle man.

He was the only person there who could speak to me fluently in Chinese, so I got to know about the Surmang building project mostly through talking to him. Although I felt that the construction work could have been more carefully planned, as they had not taken into account the challenges involved with the high altitude and weather conditions, I was glad that Rinpoche was working with an honest man. Not that I’m racist when it comes to my own race, but we all know that Chinese business culture can be troubling.

In Rinpoche’s residence, there are two very kind senior lamas who take care of him and his living needs. There is no tap water or toilet or shower in Surmang. Every day, the lamas have to take their buckets to the stream to fetch water for cooking. I asked the construction manager why they didn’t lay down pipe so that there could be tap water. The two lamas are in their 60’s, and it broke my heart to see them doing so much heavy labor. The manager said there was a pipe, but it had broken, and since the lamas seemed to be fine with doing things the old way, they had not fixed it. I felt sad, not because of the water pipe, but feeling that the amount of work seemed so big, while the people doing the work seemed so few. I wished there were more help, in any form possible, for Surmang.

Above the current Trungpa Rinpoche’s residence is the remains of the ruined residence of the 1st to 11th Trungpas. When everyone was busy, I went up there alone and stared at the mountains and the valley. A dog with tired eyes came to stand next to me. We stayed there for a while together and I thought to myself, “So, here I am. This is where Chögyam Trungpa came from, a place in the middle of nowhere, with no tap water, no proper toilet, no shower.” It suddenly started to feel very strange to me. Does anyone know that this is where the lineage and his teachings came from? This middle of nowhere? When I think of Trungpa, I think of him as an iconic, rock-star kind of figure. But now, I’m standing on the same ground he used to stand, and I’m shitting the same way he used to shit . . . . And there’s nothing extraordinary about it. How did this man go so far from here?

I realized that all the time I had been looking for Trungpa, I had been looking up upon him as if he came from the clouds. I had long forgotten that he actually existed in the human realm, just like myself and all of us. The lineage is real and even had I not known it, the mountains, the rivers, and the ground here in Surmang have all witnessed it—they know.

The thought, “You can do it too,” suddenly occurred to me, as if Trungpa was patting me on the back, talking to me.

I felt like crying, standing there, thinking of the vastness of Chögyam Trungpa’s activities and how much he has done for us.
Yes, maybe I can do it too.
The next day, I climbed up to Dorje Khyung Dzong, the retreat house, on my own. It took me about 15 minutes as I was not used to climbing mountains. When I was about to reach the retreat, which was almost the mountain top, I felt something touching the back of my leg. I turned around and it was the same dog. He was touching me with his nose. Strange. I said to him, “How did you know I was here and where did you come from?” He was silent.

There were monks inside doing a four-year retreat, and Rinpoche had told me not to go in. So I went close, but stayed a bit downhill form the retreat. I sat down on a rock, and the dog also came to sit down next to me. Together, we quietly listened to the melodic chants. After a while, I thought someone in the retreat had noticed our presence, so I said to the dog, “Let’s go.” He stood up and walked down the mountain with me. When I stopped, he stopped. When I walked, he walked. When we came to a fork in the road, he stood up on a rock there and kept staring at me as I went down the mountain and passed out of sight.

That afternoon, Surmang Khenpo was driving back to Jyekundo, and I decided to leave with him as otherwise it might be hard to find transportation out of Surmang. In Rinpoche’s house, eating the yogurt the lama prepared for us before our departure, I asked Rinpoche to give me his address, as I was thinking about sending him something on his birthday. As if he knew, he said, “When did I tell you my birthday was?” I told him the date he had mentioned before. Then he smiled and said, “I lied to you. My birthday is actually _____.”

I looked at him astonished: “Hey! You are a monk. Aren’t you not supposed to lie?”

“I’m really telling you the truth now.”

“For real this time?”

“Yes, for real.”

Before I left, Rinpoche handed me a red mala and several other gifts. I was really happy when he gave it to me because I had never had a mala though I had always wanted one. I had never bought one for myself because I felt that it should be given to me by my teacher; otherwise it would be meaningless.

It started raining when we left. I said goodbye to everyone and left Surmang with the mala around my wrist and went on with the rest of my journey through Eastern Tibet.

Driving away from Surmang, “You can do it too,” echoed in my head. More than the mala, this was the greatest gift I received from the guru.