My life: Shyalpa Rinpoche

The Tibetan scholar also known as Lama Jigmed Tenzin Wangpo says his parents’ tough love has allowed him to help others
Yvonne Lai
Jan 10, 2010


When I was born [in a Tibetan refugee camp in Nepal], my parents and relatives wanted to give me a spiritual education. From [when I was] three or four years old, I trained in ritual chanting and reading scriptures. I remember watching my friends from the window playing soccer and having fun, thinking they were really lucky. My parents did give me time to play [but only after] I had finished reciting. I didn’t have regular toys like cars and [action figures] but ritual objects like bells and prayer wheels. While I was reading, I used to go to the toilet 10 times – just to make time feel shorter. That was my colourful childhood.

Looking back, I feel my parents gave me tough love but for good reason. They [gave] me an opportunity to learn that the other kids’ parents did not know how to provide. Today, I am able to help those kids who were playing when I was reading – I can help their kids go to school. I [have been] able to sponsor over 300 children to go to high school and college. I think all my hard work paid off and they played on my behalf.

When I was about 15 years old, my grandparents – who were well-known elders in the refugee camp [in which] I grew up – said, `Any girl in the camp, you just point and we will ask their parents; they will be happy to marry her to you.’ That was the turning point. I could have chosen to be married with children at 15 years old but I decided not to follow that route. I asked for more time to study. I could have been anything that I chose to be. I wanted to go to a Tibetan Buddhist univer-sity in Varanasi, India, to study the philosophy of Buddhism.

I was there for seven years. Some study even longer. But [I got] the seven-year itch: I had to run away. I [went to] study with even more profound masters in Nepal. A centre in America sent me invitations twice to [teach]. I accepted and went to America in 1988. I like [Americans’] open-mindedness; my personality probably matches theirs a little. I stayed for more than 20 years, and still go back for two to three months every year.

FOR BETTER OR FOR BEST A year before I met my wife [Tibetan Tenzin Choeden, in New York], I was telling my students: `I’m never going to marry. I don’t think marriage is necessary, blah blah blah.’

The first time [we] ‘met’, it was on the phone. We decided to date face-to-face. There was this instinctive feeling that I must be ready to marry. [It made me] try to court her in a respectful way, to make her my wife.

I seek the spiritual value to live my life better. When I sought to marry, it must have also been me seeking to live my life better by marrying that person, right? [Marriage] is a spiritual journey in every way. It’s not that we have perfected our ability; every moment is teaching us, giving us the opportunity to live life in a meaningful, happy, sensible way. [The couple now have three children.]

UNIVERSAL SUFFERING [One] cannot avoid suffering. So, if you see someone next to you suffering, why not give him a big hug and ponder with him, ‘What is the cost? Is it inevitable for us to experience it? Do you get sad about it or can you look at it differently and see it as food for your growth?’ This helps them realise the nature of suffering.

We believe that everyone possesses the Buddhist nature, this wish-fulfilling quality, but most of the time we stray from it. We are lost until we realise that this breath is more precious than anything else. The point is not so much about what external things are doing to you – but to see how you are bombarded with all these thoughts [and] learn ways to handle them. I recommend everybody find at least five minutes each day – by oneself, not with music, video games, SMS or phone, not worrying about the future or what you did – [in which to] remain silent and be with yourself.

SPONTANEOUS INSTRUCTION It’s not easy to be a friend of humanity. That’s why we have to give people the chance to come to spiritual centres and meditation places to learn – not only for one or two days, but every day. That is the purpose of the Wencheng Gongzhu International Foundation, and I consider Hong Kong the headquarters. Hong Kong is truly a place where east meets west. It’s easy for me to travel to Nepal, India, Shanghai, Beijing. I love Hong Kong. I wouldn’t change anything.

I think spirituality is true politics. You can galvanise people’s way of thinking and change suffering to happiness; what better politics is there than that? When you don’t have a selfish agenda, you don’t feel you have to push too hard on anything. True compassion has no agenda – therefore it is skilful. Why identify yourself in such a way that you cannot bend and be flexible? There’s something wrong if you are not flexible – you are insecure.

In the live lecture setting [Rinpoche has spoken at Harvard and Yale universities] I never prepare anything. Many times, I don’t remember what topic I’m supposed to be speaking on and have to be reminded. But to me, this kind of lively, spontaneous way is true expression of freedom. Being in the moment allows you to introduce, explain and instruct. Life is not a rehearsal; if I’m preparing something then I’m rehearsing, that’s not life.

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