SERMEY KHENSUR LOBSANG THARCHIN RINPOCHE:
We note with immense sorrow and a profound sense of loss the passing of Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin Rinpoche (1921-2004), eminent lama and renowned scholar of the Gelukpa tradition.
Khen Rinpoche breathed his last in the early evening of December 1, 2004 and remained in meditation until December 6th, at Rashi Gempil Ling Temple in Howell, New Jersey, which had been his principal residence for the past thirty years. A traditional cremation ceremony was held at the Temple the following morning, the very day that commemorates the passing of Je Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelukpa tradition. The ceremony was officiated by Yongyal Rinpoche and Achok Rinpoche, two reincarnate lamas from Sera Mey Monastery.
Khen Rinpoche was born in Lhasa, Tibet in 1921 and entered the Gyalrong House of Sera Mey Monastic University at the age of 7. After studying the great Buddhist treatises at Sera Mey for more than 20 years, he was awarded the title of Hlarampa Geshe of the first rank with highest honors in 1954. He then entered Gyumey Tantric College in Lhasa and, after completing the full program of studies there, served in senior administrative positions.
In 1959, Khen Rinpoche fled communist-occupied Tibet together with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Actively involved in the education of Tibetan children in India, he helped compile a series of textbooks for the Tibetan curriculum and taught at several resettlement schools, including those at Darjeeling, Simla, and Mussoorie.
In 1972, at the direction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Khen Rinpoche came to Howell, New Jersey to assist in a translation project sponsored by the Institute for the Advanced Study of World Religions. Several years later, he accepted an invitation to become Abbot of Rashi Gempil Ling, a Buddhist temple established by Kalmuk Mongolians in the same community. For more than 30 years Khen Rinpoche taught extensively on a vast range of topics to students in America, having learned English at the age of 53. At the urging of his own root lama, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, he also initiated a number of projects dedicated to the restoration and support of the monks of Sera Mey Monastery that have resettled in South India. In 1991, at the age of 70, he was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as Abbot of Sera Mey and returned to India where he served a two-year term.
Khen Rinpoche guided the translation and publication of more than a dozen texts and oral commentaries on important Buddhist topics. He founded the Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Center (MSTC) in 1980. To order copies of any of Rinpoche’s books, including the recently released Six-Session Guru Yoga, visit the Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press at www.mstp.us
AN ACCOUNT OF KHEN RINPOCHE’S PASSING AS RELATED BY YONGYAL RINPOCHE ON DECEMBER 12, 2004
Yongyal Rinpoche began by emphasizing how Khen Rinpoche was an extraordinarily special person as evidenced by his five-day-long meditation (December 1 to December 6) and by the fact that his holy body was still fresh at the end of that time. He remarked that a special fragrance was noticed as well.
He said Khen Rinpoche’s life activities (teaching activity, support of Sera Mey, etc.) are well known by his students. Although his uncommon special practices — from the point of view of inner realizations — are now evident, Yongyal Rinpoche would not comment on those. The fifth day, when Khen Rinpoche came out from meditation, was Founder’s Day, the anniversary of the passing of the founder of Sera Monastery, Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (1354-1435). This demonstrates the strong connection between the time of his coming out of meditation and the monastic tradition of which he is part. The founder of Sera Monastery, Jamchen Choje, was designated by Je Tsongkapa to go to China in response to an invitation from the Emperor. He founded Sera Monastery on the site below one of Je Tsongkapa’s holiest retreat sites, at the direction of Je Tsongkapa.
Khen Rinpoche’s funeral ritual, held the following day on Je Tsongkapa Day (Tuesday, December 7, 2004), was also the very same day as Lama Tsongkapa’s passing which further demonstrates the strong connection between our holy Lama and the Gelukpa tradition. Je Tsongkapa, although invited by the Emperor, chose not to go to China because he understood that he would benefit the Tibetan people and the Dharma more by remaining in Tibet. His choice to forego fame, wealth, and reputation, demonstrates his commitment to avoid the eight worldly dharmas. This special quality of Lama Tsongkapa is alluded to in a line from one of the verses in the Ganden Lhagyama, which states: “You achieved great value with your leisure and fortune by abandoning the eight worldly dharmas.”
Yongyal Rinpoche also referred to the importance of our keeping a pure commitment (damtsik) between our holy teacher and ourselves, and maintaining a strong devotion to the pure teaching lineage with which our lama was so closely connected.
During the Fire Puja burning ritual, the loud boom of the bursting kapala (skull) was interpreted by Yongyal Rinpoche to be a further sign of Khen Rinpoche’s extraordinary level of mastery. This event happens rarely, and only with great masters. Yongyal Rinpoche mentioned a lama in the past who had the habit of continually scolding one of his disciples in a harsh manner. As a result, this disciple was considered by other followers to be a poor disciple. However, during the fire ritual for this lama after he passed away, his skull burst open and the top landed in the lap of that very disciple, demonstrating that the scoldings were in fact an act of skillful means and that the lama had not been displeased with him and indeed regarded the disciple very favorably. These accounts are important as examples of the central importance of always maintaining a pure relationship with your spiritual teacher. As it is recounted in the Lamrim teachings, when your Lama scolds you, you should view his voice as wrathful mantras that purify you and remove obstacles.
When Yongyal Rinpoche was inspecting the ashes during the opening of the Dung Srek Kang (burning house), he noticed that sindura powder had appeared. Also, the weather had special significance — when the elements are the same for each ceremony (in this case, it rained during the Fire Puja and the Opening Ceremony) it indicates the local spirits are satisfied with these activities. They bring rain, or as in Tibet, snow.
Yongyal Rinpoche stressed to keep in mind the purpose of all activities: to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings. Maintain the pure motivation to help others, by means of the Dharma or by helping to relieve their sickness or problems. The general motivation for our practice should be to bring it about that they and we achieve Buddhahood as quickly as possible. In particular, those who understand emptiness should try to meditate as clearly as possible using the points they learned. Everyone should pray strongly to achieve the spiritual goals and dedicate this virtue to the attainment of Buddhahood and to preserve the Teachings of the Buddha. Also dedicate this virtue to the goal of being looked after in the future by a pure Mahayana teacher like holy Lama Khen Rinpoche.
Regarding the strong connection between the teacher and his students: Our strong connection to the teachings of Lama Tsongkapa indicates his wish that we study the Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path (Lamrim Chenmo), a text that has a special connection with Holy Lord Manjushri, the embodiment of all the Buddhas’ wisdom.
He ended by referring to the extraordinary camaraderie displayed by Khen Rinpoche’s students during his stay. Their activities were strong and the arrangements were very smooth, including working with local officials who granted permission for the on-site funeral rites. Yongyal Rinpoche said he is not mentioning this to produce pride but to show how this is the good result of a strong connection between the teacher and his students and the good result of Khen Rinpoche’s teachings and influence on his students.
He concluded by urging us to thank the local officials and remarked that their cooperation was a further example of the pure commitment between Khen Rinpoche and all who surround him. We thank both Rinpoches for their precious guidance.