By Grant MacLean
On Tuesday we heard the very sad news that Akong Rinpoche, along with a family member and a monk, were killed in Chengdu, in southwest China. It has been a great loss for many people worldwide.
Akong Rinpoche was born in 1939, the same year as Trungpa Rinpoche, to a well-to-do family in Dharak village, in the Chamdo area of Kham. Following instructions given by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, at a very young age he was discovered by a party seeking the reincarnation of the previous abbot of Drolma Lhakang Monastery; a few years later was enthroned there by His Holiness. In his youth, during his traditional training as a Kagyu Lama, he began to specialize in medicine, both from his own interest and because there was a strong medical tradition at his monastery.
Most of us came to hear of Akong Rinpoche through Born in Tibet. In the book Trungpa Rinpoche described their close friendship, beginning when they were both 14, continuing through their study together at Shechen Monastery under Jamgon Kongtrul, and then their 1959 escape, in the course of which Akong provided great support and encouragement to Trungpa Rinpoche. While Trungpa Rinpoche pursued his studies at Oxford, Akong Rinpoche worked as a hospital orderly to bring in much-needed funds, a menial job which included cleaning toilets, etc. They moved on together to found Samye Ling in Scotland in 1966, and when the two friends fell out over their differing approaches to teaching Westerners, Rinpoche left in 1970 and set course for North America.
In the years since, Samye Ling under Akong Rinpoche’s leadership has become a large and widely respected centre for Tibetan Buddhism, and also for charitable, therapeutic and medical work. His Rokpa Foundation is involved in charitable work, setting up many schools and clinics worldwide, including in Africa. The Holy Isle project, off Scotland’s west coast has, under the leadership of Akong’s brother, Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, evolved into a widely known center for interfaith work, while reviving and protecting the island’s original flora and fauna. It was apparently while engaged in charitable work in his home area of Chamdo that Akong Rinpoche lost his life.
In mid-1994, I met Akong Rinpoche in Johannesburg, while I was there to wind up my mother’s estate. I heard that he was due to lead a group of South Africans, Zimbabweans and Kenyans on a pilgrimage to Tibet, where they were due to visit Tsurphu, His Holiness Karmapa’s monastery, and other sacred sites. This was too good an opportunity to miss, but it was with some hesitation that I approached Akong Rinpoche at his residence to ask if I could join his traveling party.
He was warm and utterly down-to-earth, saying that he well understood my hesitation as a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, at joining his group, but that I was welcome to come along. During the sometimes gruelling Tibetan pilgrimage, Akong was invariably kind and gentle to me, even tender, seeming to feel my grief at my mother’s recent death, and perhaps also the loss of my teacher not that long before. At the end of the trip, Akong Rinpoche’s family hosted us all to a traditional Tibetan feast at their home just outside Lhasa, at the conclusion of which the group offered khatas to him. Grateful for the warmth he’d shown me, I also offered a scarf to Akong Rinpoche which he received with a great, beaming smile.
The connection didn’t end there. In 2005, as I was researching the details of their escape from Tibet, Akong Rinpoche sent me an annotated copy of a traditional Tibetan map, pointing out a few of the key landmarks on the route. While he wasn’t able to help later due to his many other commitments, and because a movie on his life was in the works he took the trouble to write to communicate his refusal personally he did refer me to information he’d given Johanna Demetrakas which, thanks also to her generosity, has added much to the story.
In October last year I traveled to Samye Ling, and was struck by how warmly disposed everyone was to me, just as soon as they heard that I was a student of Trungpa Rinpoche. During the interview with Lama Yeshe Rinpoche he talked with much humor and warmth of his profound closeness to our teacher. Finally, he spoke, full-heartedly and at some length, of his brother’s and Rinpoche’s differing teaching styles, that each “shone in his own way,” and clearly implying that the time for any remaining antagonism was long past. It surely seems so now.
It was with some relief that I read Grant MacLean’s reflection piece about his encounters with Akong Rinpoche, a way to perhaps reconcile some of my lingering negativity which I contemplated while practicing last evening. In the early 90’s, Akong Rinpoche attended a public teaching in San Francisco given by Situ Rinpoche. And every Kasung’s little nightmare happened; while getting Situ Rinpoche through a heavy glass door, I inadvertently let the door shut onto Akong Rinpoche!
His energy was so different from that of the Kagyu teachers that I had met and I didn’t know what to make of it. Still he was loved and respected by many in the Tibetan Community for his charitable work and kindness and his death comes as a great shock.
And so, I do appreciate Grant writing, “Finally, he [Lama Yeshe] spoke, full-heartedly and at some length, of his brother’s and Rinpoche’s differing teaching styles, that each “shone in his own way,” and clearly implying that the time for any remaining antagonism was long past. It surely seems so now.”
Perhaps that spirit of reconciliation and love can be extended into our very own Shambhala Community. -Marguerite Stanciu
I was very pleased to read your piece about Akong Rinpoche. I have been a student of his for almost 10 years, and in that time I have never once heard a bad word spoken about Trungpa. No one should have any cause not to feel welcome in Samye Ling.
Thank you for extending your love to all Rinpoche’s students at this time. It means a lot to all of us. -Mette Heinz
I saw your page and thought I’d write a small snippet of my memory of the late Akong Rinpoche:
During my time at Kagyu Ling in Manchester in the late 70’s having been fortunate to take refuge with HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche as hosted by David Stott now known as Lama Jampa, a fellow sangha member talked about Samye Ling in such a way that a couple of us felt compelled to visit as see this monastery & Akong Rinpoche for a week in Summer of 1976.
The biggest memory apart from the 4 am morning starts was an interview with Akong Rinpoche.
He showed me much compassion & understanding and encouraged me on the buddhist path during that interview, which lasted maybe near an hour of his precious time.
I felt his kind soft nature very settling for the jumpy western mind and experienced what seems on later reflection to be the natural ‘thamal gyi shepa/rigpa’ state for the 2nd time since being in the prescence of Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche.
Akong Rinpoche also wrote to me on several occasions about his work & plight of fellow Tibetans & I’ve remained an avid supporter ever since that meeting of the Tibetan cause.
Am still very shocked by the news of this tragic occurrence and pray that his rebirth will be found – maybe in the west!
Yours in the Dharma,
A quote from the former Bishop of Edinburgh:
“[Akong] and his colleagues brought a new dimension to Scottish spirituality.” –Read the article in The Scotsman.