Sam Bercholz


The Buddha of Cambridge

An appreciation of the life and legacy of Tulku Thondup Rinpoche

Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, Photo courtesy of Sam Bercholz
  One of the great lights of this world, one of the vanguards that first introduced Westerners to the wisdom teachings of Padmasambhava passed into mahaparinirvana last night. That man is Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, who just asked those he met, his friends, and those close to him to just call him “Tulku” like one would call a friend Jane or Joe. Tulku in the Tibetan refers to the nirmanakaya or body form of Buddha. Through his wisdom being, his evenness, his devotion, his unceasing kindness, his delightful sense of humor, and his joyful simplicity he truly appeared (at least to those who were blessed by his wakefulness) to be The Buddha of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived since his arrival as a Harvard visiting scholar in 1980. There is a perfection about Rinpoche that expressed itself in a diversity of ways. He was the perfect scholar. Through his dharma teachings and the books that he translated or wrote, there is the clarity of pure dharma. His speech, either recorded or in written form, is the enlightened speech of pure perception. There is so much to be learned from his work, whether one is new to Buddhism or a so-called advanced practitioner. He wrote several books on healing, books on various aspects of the Tibetan Buddhist path, especially through his own insights like Enlightened Journey and Enlightened Living. He expounds in those books how to mix meditation and devotion—he is master of both. His two favorite books are Master and Miracles of Meditation where he presented the biographies of 35 enlightened masters who hold the Longchen Nyingthig lineage of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, a cycle of mystical teachings revealed by the great scholar and adept Jigme Lingpa. It is his “masterpiece”. His Heart of Unconditional Love is the other book that he was most happy about, in that he could share his own inner practice so that anyone so moved could actually do the same practice and ultimately attain the same realization. It expounds the essential teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana directly, with no prior experience needed. It is an amazing synthesis of profound insights and the best means to meet his mind and speech and to become awakened through that meeting. He was the perfect disciple. He served his lama, the Fourth Dodrup Chen impeccably through his deep faith, and by doing anything and everything his lama asked, including taking care of Dodrup Chen’s western students and his Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center in Hawley, Massachusetts. He was the perfect teacher. He made a point of not having disciples, but through his wisdom activity he had many that considered him to be their teacher, including the Western students of Dodrup Chen Rinpoche. Spending time with him in his small apartment off Harvard Square was extraordinary, in that he created an atmosphere where he could impart the Buddhist teachings of all the nine yanas from the point of view of ati yoga or Great Perfection. To be with him was an unceasing rain of blessings. The great Nyingma teacher, Kyabje Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, mentioned many times that “Tulku Thondup style is the best style”. He was the perfect spiritual friend. He was extraordinarily available to those who needed spiritual advice, needed help with diseases of body or of mind, needed help to die fearlessly, needed help on how to be with ill or dying friends or relatives. He gave Buddhist vows to those who were ready, blessed young children, performed occasional marriages. He offered help to scholars and aspiring scholars. His presence was a beacon of sanity and trustworthiness. His relationship with his wonderful wife, Lydia Segal, was an example of pure love. He was the perfect truth teller. Everything that he said was dependable and shockingly practical. Tulku uttered that not everyone has the karma of attaining enlightenment in this lifetime. He pointed out through very simple practices like those outlined in his Unconditional Love that one could develop the faith to be reborn into Amitabha’s Pure Land. He was a bit surprised that so few Western students had taken interest in the Pure Land teachings, which are a very important aspect of the Mahayana and Vajrayana in Tibet. He said numerous times that he wished to be reborn into Dewachen, the pure land, to be of benefit to as many beings as possible. May the sublime wishes of The Buddha of Cambridge provide inspiration to us all. Sam Bercholz December 29, 2023