In Bloomington, Indiana, my husband Bob and I had the chance to have tea with a most remarkable man: the Venerable Arjia Rinpoche at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center.
The word Rinpoche (pronounced Rin-poe-che) means “precious one” in Tibetan and is a title given to a highly esteemed spiritual leader. He-–for almost all are men–-gives of himself to others without hesitation, working for the good of all sentient beings. Some are also recognized as a tulku, meaning that they are believed to be reincarnations of a venerated lama (teacher) of the past.
While I had been at the center before, I’d not had the chance to meet Rinpoche (as they call him). But I knew his story through his powerful autobiography, Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama’s Account of 40 Years under Chinese Rule.
Of Mongolian descent, Arjia was recognized at the age of two as the reincarnated abbot of Kumbum, one of Tibet’s major monasteries. He spent his early childhood being trained as a spiritual leader, until the Chinese took over his monastery during the the Cultural Revolution.
Many of its members were tortured and Arjia was sent to a labor camp for 16 years. Eventually his usefulness was recognized by the Chinese, who appointed him as abbot of his former monastery, only this time under their control. In 1998 he could no longer in good conscience continue to serve as abbot and escaped to the U.S. As one of the highest-ranking Tibetan lamas to have fled to the West, he was appointed by the Dalai Lama in 2005 to serve as the director of the center in Bloomington.
Rinpoche’s dramatic life story passed through my mind as we entered his modest home on the grounds of the temple complex. On the outside it looked like a standard suburban house, but inside it was decorated with the ornate iconography of Tibet. After removing our shoes, we were ushered into a small sitting room by a young monk, who served us tea and a delicious homemade cake. As I sipped the tea, I grew a bit nervous, never having met a Rinpoche before.
A few minutes later, Rinpoche appeared, and within a couple of minutes I realized that my apprehension was totally unwarranted.
One of the truths found in all religions, I think, is that if someone has done their spiritual homework, it shows in how they treat people. And there is something about Tibetan Buddhism that shapes its practitioners in beautiful ways. You’ve all seen photos, I’m sure, of the beatific countenance of the Dalai Lama, who exudes both wisdom and a puckish sense of delight in the world.
When I met Arjia Rinpoche, I was struck by how similar his manner was, only instead of being on a stage in front of thousands of people, he was sitting across from us, beaming and smiling. Despite a schedule that I’m sure is packed with important details and meetings, he acted as if we were the most important people in the world to him. He shook our hands warmly, urged us to eat our pieces of cake, and seemed as if he had been waiting all day to see us.
We visited for nearly an hour with Rinpoche (who speaks excellent English). We talked to him about how much we liked his book, the future of the center in Bloomington, and the state of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. The only time a cloud passed over his features was when he told us that he was not allowed to return to his home in Tibet, even to visit.
And then, because we felt so comfortable, the conversation turned more personal. Bob and I asked him questions that related to our own spiritual lives. We were struck by the care and attention with which he answered them.
In one sense his advice wasn’t new to us (for honestly, most spiritual truths aren’t that complicated, at least until you try to put them into practice). But because of who he was, how much he had suffered, and how his wisdom was so hard won, his words seemed to penetrate into our hearts. I recalled hearing that when Rinpoche visits Mongolia, people line the streets and hold up their babies to be blessed by him. It was as if a light blazed from his eyes that sanctified everything he gazed upon.
At the end of our time together, Rinpoche presented us with khatas, the traditional white silk scarves that are given on ceremonial occasions. He put them over our heads and shook our hands once again, thanking us for coming.
“Could we ask you for a blessing?” I asked.
“Of course!” he said, and directed us to sit down again. Then he chanted a blessing for us that went on for perhaps ten minutes, his voice rising and falling in Tibetan. We weren’t sure what he was saying, but the loving-kindness of his words washed over us in waves.
So that was my meeting with a Rinpoche. I’m still shaking my head at the wonder of it all. I may never again get the chance to have tea with a living saint (for that is how I would describe him in terms more familiar to Western spirituality). I hope to remember our visit as a model of how any meeting between strangers can be infused with welcome and kindness.
Let me leave you with one last detail of our encounter with this spiritual master, one that strikes me as more important than I realized at the time. In the middle of our talk, Bob interrupted the flow of conversation by pointing out a bird on the deck just outside the window. “Look, a tufted titmouse!” he said. “She’s carrying grass for the nest she’s building.”
I must admit to feeling a bit irritated at the interruption. But when Rinpoche turned around and looked, delight spread over his face. “Oh, how wonderful!” he exclaimed. For several minutes we admired the little bird, who was warming herself in the spring sunshine. Then she flew off to return to her task of nest building.
Looking back, I realize that Rinpoche experienced as much pleasure in seeing the bird as he seemed to be taking in our visit. For the entire time she was with us, his attention was totally on her. An unexpected stranger had come into his life, and he welcomed her with joy.
And that, my friends, is a sign of a spiritual master, when one greets a tufted titmouse as warmly as visitors from Iowa or the Dalai Lama himself. Did he learn this lesson in his current life, or a past one? No matter, for he has learned the lesson very well.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.