Tulku Thondup Rinpoche passed away last night, December 29th. He was a close teacher and friend to many of our Vajra brothers and sisters in the West. He was 84.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was born in Eastern Tibet and recognized as the reincarnation of Khenpo Konchog Dronme, a celebrated scholar and adept of the Dodrupchen Monastery, a well known Nyingma center of learning.
In 1980, Tulku Thondup came to the United States as a visiting scholar at Harvard University. Since then, he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he engaged in translation and writing. He published many original Buddhist works and translations, and has traveled throughout North America, Europe and many parts of Asia teaching on his books and holding workshops.
This interview was conducted in Cambridge, Massachusetts in October 2014. Thank you to Sam Bercholz for conducting the interview, and to videographer Ivan Bercholz.
- Part One: About his teacher, Dodrupchen Rinpoche
- Part Two: On the importance of prayer and devotion
- Part Three: On helping people who are ill and dying
- Part Four: On how to move forward on the path with joy and love, and how not to become discouraged. Rinpoche concludes the interview with a lovely thank you to the students of the Vidyadhara.
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Buddhist Digital Resource Center (formerly Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center) mourns the passing of Tulku Thondup Rinpoche. He was a highly realized master who devoted his life to preserving and sharing the authentic Dharma in its two aspects, the realized Dharma and the scriptural Dharma. Rinpoche’s transmission of the realized Dharma was inconceivable and only his peers can fully appreciate it. Rinpoche’s great service to the preservation and dissemination of the scriptural Dharma has benefitted millions in Tibet and globally.
In addition to the skillful means of writing and translating, Rinpoche also sustained the scriptural Dharma in these dark times through his long term support for BDRC. Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was a founding board member–he joined in 1999 at the inception of the organization–and helped guide the organization as a director for nearly 20 years. Rinpoche’s generous, ecumenical, and innovative vision for the preservation of the Dharma and Tibetan literature deeply influenced the formation of BDRC such that it now has the largest digital library of Tibetan Buddhist texts in the world and distributes them freely.
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche provided tremendous moral support to the organization during the sad and uncertain period after Gene Smith’s passing in December 2010. In particular, Rinpoche eulogized Gene’s legacy and blessed all of Gene’s admirers during his memorial service at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. Rinpoche began his address with many kind words about Gene, noting that they met forty-five years prior in Darjeeling. Rinpoche then led the large assembled crowd through a Dzogchen instruction by Garab Dorje. It was a profound teaching on contemplation for all those present in the nave of that solemn cathedral. Rinpoche then closed with a heartfelt dedication of the merits accumulated by Gene “throughout his life through his noble activities.”
Rinpoche remained on BDRC’s board of directors for another seven years and personally ensured that it’s longevity in the absence of its founder. When BDRC moved to Cambridge in 2012, our offices were in Harvard Square, less than a mile from Rinpoche’s apartment overlooking the Charles River. In the summer of 2015 Tulku Thondup Rinpoche gave a public talk at the BDRC offices about his recently released book The Heart of Unconditional Love: A Powerful New Approach to Loving Kindness Meditation. Rinpoche will be dearly missed. The entire BDRC family celebrates Rinpoche’s life and joins in the prayers for his rebirth in the Pure Land of Dewachen.
With my prayers and deepest respects,
The Buddha of Cambridge
An appreciation of the life and legacy of Tulku Thondup Rinpoche
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.
December 29, 2023
On behalf of Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche’s sangha community, we offer our deep condolences to the Mahasiddha Foundation sangha family and to Rinpoche’s faithful Sangyum, Lydia Segal. Gyatrul Rinpoche spent his early years at Mahasiddha as one of the founders, he was always close with Tulku over the years, and he had deep regard for Tulku Rinpoche. I speak for all of us when I say that Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was the perfect example of a true practitioner in terms of impeccable guru devotion and expressed his entire life for his master, the great Dodrubchen Rinpoche. Tulku was a true pioneer in the field of gold standard translation of important texts and also published his own compilations and writings concerning history, theory, and practical advice for western students to enter this profound and daunting path of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. It is rare to encounter a lama who is a tulku, fully qualified in his own tradition, knowledgeable in the English language and western traditions, while always being a human with perfect conduct and character. We are all indebted to Tulku Thondup for the gifts he has left us as his legacy and example. May we all be fortunate enough to meet Tulku Rinpoche once again in the western pure realm of Dewachen.
When I just was thinking about the medizin Buddha practice, my thoughts moved on tulku thondup. The message about his passing and all the comments moved my heart to tears. I had liked to meet him one day, but he will be on my mind ever and ever again.
Above us arked
A sky full of rainbows
The summer storm
So grateful to Tulku Thondup for his valuable teachings and his kind presence. The teachings and healing exercises in The Healing Power of Mind have benefited so many people, both practitioners and others. I extend a deep bow of gratitude.
Tulku Rinpoche in his immense kindness often visited my husband Peter Ungerleider during his dying process 20 years ago. He would sit with him toward the end, with Peter often barely conscious. In such a state Peter suddenly addressed Rinpoche and said:
Tulku, your photograph does not do you justice.
And so it was, is and will ever be.
With sadness, longing and gratitude.
I never had the merit of meeting Rinpoche in person. But some time ago, I watched this second part of the interview on prayer and devotion, and it transformed my whole practice. Bowing with deep gratitude and love!
Thank you Tulku Thondup for the many wonderful books you offered us. Please return swiftly.
Ri-me Society joins in the collective sadness around the passing of Tulku Thondup, with the accompanying aspiration that his superb example, teachings, and accomplishments may continue to spread and flourish through all who have been influenced and inspired by him.
"The 'departure' of a spiritual teacher is a moment of depthless sorrow to his followers, as if the sun had suddenly fallen from the sky. But this particular sorrow rises above all feeling, all emotion, to carry us into the heart of what is essential. The teacher remains present in everything we perceive, see, and hear. He is no longer in his body; he inhabits everything around us because he remains at the very source of our thoughts, at one with the fundamental nature of our mind."
"It is with the most profound sadness that we share that Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, one of the great lamas of our time, passed away on December 29th, 2023. This is also the anniversary of Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche with whom he had a profound connection.
We are bereft. Tulku Rinpoche was one of the last of great masters of his generation, and his deep wisdom, humility, humor, and ever-present kindness were a constant source of respite in world filled with so much suffering.
The Mahasiddha center in Massachusetts which Tulku Thondup was very close with wrote that Rinpoche's faithful and perfect companion Lydia said that Tulku did not want prayers for his rebirth. She said people should say whatever prayers with love and devotion, but especially can say prayers for rebirth in Dewachen.
I had the chance to receive teachings on The Tibetan Book of the Dead from Tulku Thondup and to have two unforgettable meals with him.
Silence is what is present in my heart and mind. With profound gratitude🙏
Tulku Thondup Rinpoche set the standard of incredible beauty and excellence in dharma publishing in the West. The care and gentle aesthetic of his publications expressed something to me of the pristine quality of the dharmakaya itself and made a powerful impression on me as a new dharma student in the 1980's in the UK.
And that was just the typography and graphics, not to mention the magnificent words.
For that I am extremely grateful.
Please return Rinpoche to make more beauty and share your wisdom with us.
Yesterday, during a group Mahamudra retreat, a question arose about using a bindu as a support for resting the mind. And particularly about the size of the bindu.
At that point i had a memory of Tulku Thondup that brought me to immediate tears of bliss, devotion, and bottomless gratitude.
At Karma Choling Tulku was teaching from his book The Healing Power of Mind. He guiding a visualization practice of the body where he brought us slowly and carefully to a place where we were experiencing our body filled with tiny spheres of light.
At some point Tulku had us focus on a cell-sized bindu in between our brow. Slowly he had us “approach” the bindu in our minds eye until it was quite large.
Then he invited us to enter into the bindu/cell in the forehead and as we did this he guided us to discover that we had entered into Padmasambhavas Pure realm, with an open blue sky, fluffy clouds, various trees, flowers etc and with Padmasambhava sitting in a lotus in the middle of the sky.
How I was able to be so precise and detailed in staying with the microscopic investigation, and then to suddenly experience a vast openness inside a cell was clearly the power of his presence and skillful means.
That meditation changes my practice from then on. To this day aspects of visualization and its relationship to space, mind and awareness continue to unfold from that weekend almost 30 years ago.
And now as tears run down my face I can’t distinguish sadness from bliss. Such a treasure.
So very sorry about this sad news. I have nothing but the warmest memories of meetings with this deeply intelligent, deeply caring teacher and friend. His passing moves me to repeat the ancient benediction: may his memory be forever a blessing. For those who do remember him, I’m sure that it will.
Very sad news! Tulku Thondup Rinpoche was a great friend and teacher to the students of the Vidyadhara. Rinpoche’s books on healing were especially profound. A great bodhisattva has left us. I am very grateful to him and pray for Rinpoche’s swift rebirth.
My wife created tulkuthondup.com and shortly after she died I wrote to Rinpoche to request his blessing for her. He replied: "Dear friend - With heart felt devotion - praying to the Buddha of Boundless Love.
May his boundless love and light be always with all of us.
Om Amitabha Hri ---