Tuesday 18 June 2019

Choje Akong Rinpoche

Colum Kenny pays tribute to a remarkable Tibetan spiritual leader killed last week in China

Colum Kenny

Choje Akong Rinpoche, who was murdered last Tuesday aged 73, was a remarkable man. He and his brother fled Tibet in 1959 under fire from Chinese troops. Yet he later persuaded China to let him back each year to help schools and other charitable projects for Tibetans. He and his brother were guests of honour at a private lunch in Aras an Uachtarain in 1998.

The Irish Government funded one of his Chinese centres, to treat a condition known as Big Bone Disease. Each year he returned to remote parts of Sichuan, bringing cash raised by his charity Rokpa. The word means "help" in Tibetan.

I first met Choje Akong Rinpoche in the Seventies. Having worked as a porter in a hospital when he reached England, he had later moved to Scotland and founded there a cultural and religious centre called Samye Ling, which was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.

President Mary McAleese did not just invite him to lunch. She also visited a small Buddhist centre in Dublin that is associated with his foundation in Scotland. This was part of a process of Ireland becoming more multicultural.

But it was also part of a special relationship between Ireland and Tibet. When the Chinese army occupied Tibet in the Fifties the rest of the world looked away. For geopolitical reasons then, as for economic reasons now, big nations had other priorities when it came to Beijing.

But Ireland spoke up for Tibet on the world stage. And when in 1998, in India, I had a chance to meet his Holiness the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, he had not forgotten.

Taking from me an envelope containing a message of goodwill from President McAleese he paused and touched the golden harp embossed on its back. He spoke two words, "Frank Aiken". He had recalled the name of Ireland's Minister for Foreign Affairs back when Tibet needed friends.

It still does. The Chinese government is a brick wall when it comes to dealing with Tibetans, even with those who like the Dalai Lama do not demand full independence from China and are committed to peaceful dialogue. Just last Sunday, it is reported, at least 60 Tibetans were injured when Chinese police fired into a crowd of protesters.

But Akong managed to persuade the Chinese that there are material benefits in allowing his Rokpa charity to do its work. He was a very practical man. I smiled when the New York Times last week described him as "charismatic".

For Akong was no TV evangelist. As unexcitable and as down-to-earth as can be, he expected effort rather than glory from those who were interested in either his charity or his Buddhism. He wanted people to work for others in the case of Rokpa, and quiet work on oneself in the case of any spiritual seeker.

His brother Lama Yeshe has joked that he advises people to buy an airline ticket when they ask him about levitation. Theirs is not a flashy faith and, despite romantic western notions concerning Tibet, the sophisticated psychology and practice of disciplined Tibetan Buddhism is powerfully founded on self-questioning and compassion for others.

Akong and Lama Yeshe barely made it out of China alive. Like many other Tibetan refugees they had to cross the highest mountains in the world to reach safety in India. Pursued by troops, at one point they found themselves attacked from two directions.

Hungry, cold and under fire, some of their Tibetan colleagues died. They themselves thought that they were going to starve to death.

Akong explained to me and others in Dublin in 1999 what happened next: "At the end, none of us had had food for three days, just a drop of water. We ate a piece of leather in order to survive and at the end the leather ran out so there was nothing else to eat.

So, waiting for death, there were 13 of us sleeping in a cave. And we thought, who would die today? Who would die tomorrow? So then you can't walk anymore because everything is going round and round, the whole sky and ground is going round and looks upside down."

At that point he made a decision: "If I am not dead today or tomorrow and, somehow, if we are to survive then I will not sit on a throne to teach Buddhism (which I'm not very good at anyway) and so I will do charity work."

Dying in the cave, he reflected on how humans need few possessions to survive: "All the other things are part of the causes of suffering and do not particularly give you any happiness; for each wealth, we say that if you have a horse then you have suffering the size of a horse and if you have a goat then suffering the size of a goat."

So, said Akong, "I made up my mind that if I am not dead then I will give food for everybody and educate all the poor and give clothing for all others; and that was my promise."

Akong and his brother were saved by hunters who chanced to find them. They stayed in India at first, but later came to Britain where they built up their leading Tibetan Buddhist centre and developed Rokpa into an effective charity in China, Nepal, Africa and elsewhere.

He told us in Dublin: "It is not that I had a great idea of sympathy for poor people before, although there was some element in my education that charity is a good thing; but it is really my own personal experience of what humans really needed."

His trips back to China in recent years were not just sensitive politically. They were also physically gruelling for a man who was now in his seventies, and dangerous because he sometimes carried cash to some very remote areas as the most effective way to ensure that it reached its intended destination.

He and his nephew were brutally murdered in China last week. Chinese authorities say that he was knifed by robbers. What exactly happened last week when he and two companions on his journey were murdered in the city of Chengdu may never be known. Perhaps Tibetan thieves killed him. Or perhaps there is some other story to be told.

What is certain is that the world has lost a dedicated and caring man who overcame adversity and worked very hard to free people from suffering. He is survived by his wife and three children.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News