Exiled Tibetan Lama To Share Memoir 'Surviving the Dragon'

March 16, 2010 — Recognized at age 2 as the reincarnated abbot of one of Tibet's major monasteries, Arjia Rinpoche was treated like a living Buddha as a child. He studied with Tibet's greatest lamas, including the Dalai Lama. 

On Thursday, March 18, from 4 to 6 p.m., Rinpoche will introduce his memoir and talk about his life and events in Tibet during the second half of the 20th century in the University of Virginia's Minor Hall, room 125. The event is free and open to the public.

As a young man during China's Cultural Revolution, Rinpoche was forced to attend Chinese schools and work in a labor camp for 16 years, before eventually taking his seat at the throne of Kumbum Monastery. Then, after rising to the pinnacle of the Chinese Buddhist bureaucracy, he fled into exile rather than compromise his integrity as a Buddhist teacher under Chinese government pressure.

Rinpoche recounts his journey in a new memoir, "Surviving the Dragon: A Tibetan Lama's Account of 40 Years Under Chinese Rule."

The talk, followed by book signing, is presented by U.Va.'s Tibet Center.

Rinpoche is one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers and lamas to have left Tibet, and the only Tibetan high lama of Mongolian descent.

At age 2, he was recognized by the Panchen Lama as the 20th Arjia Danpei Gyaltsen, the reincarnation of Lama Tsong Khapa's father, Lumbum Ghe, and the throne holder and abbot of Kumbum Monastery. He trained with lineage teachers, including the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and Gyayak Rinpoche – from whom he received many sacred teachings and ritual instructions.

While attending Chinese schools and working in the labor camp, he secretly continued to practice and study with his tutors.

Following the Cultural Revolution, Rinpoche served as abbot of Kumbum, one of the greatest monasteries in Tibet, overseeing monastery renovations and the reestablishment of monastic studies. He launched a variety of other projects, including a Red Cross outpost in Kumbum, along with the creation of a school, health clinic and disaster relief project for surrounding villages.

After the death of Mao Tse Tung, he rose to prominence within the Chinese Buddhist bureaucracy. He became vice chairman of the Buddhist Association of China and was slated to become its chairman.

At the height of his rise, he decided to flee China after being pressured to tutor the boy whom the Chinese government had controversially named the 11th Panchen Lama instead of the candidate selected by the Dalai Lama. The conflict was especially difficult for Rinpoche, because the 10th Panchen Lama had been his own teacher.

After escaping to the United States in 1998, he started the Tibetan Center for Compassion and Wisdom in Mill Valley, Calif.

In 2005, the Dalai Lama appointed him to a second post as director of the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center in Bloomington, Ind. Both centers are dedicated to the preservation of Buddhist teachings, art and culture within and outside of Tibet and Mongolia.

Throughout his life, Rinpoche was tutored by specialized teachers in the area of Buddhist philosophy, sutra and tantra teachings, as well as in Buddhist art and architectural design.

— By Brevy Cannon