Akong Rinpoche, a short retrospective
KATHMANDU, Nepal, 2 November 2013
The murder of Akong Rinpoche, stabbed to death earlier this month in Chengdu, has created a stir of indignation in the Tibetan world, with many voices more or less subtly suggesting a role of the Chinese authorities in the tragic incident.
There is however no necessity to presume any foul play. Stabbings are a daily occurrence among Tibetans, particularly in the East. The little reliable information that has emerged seems to confirm the original statement of the Chinese authorities that a personal dispute about financial matters led to the murder. The main perpetrator had spent five years in Samye Ling, Akong Rinpoche’s monastery in Scotland, and held grievances against Akong from that time.
Obscure conspiracy theories aside, many of those who now bemoan Akong Rinpoche’s untimely death were less enthused about him during his lifetime, something the many obituaries, in details often inaccurate, fail to take notice of.
Like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Chimed Radha Rinpoche, Akong Rinpoche Had come to the UK in the early 1960s. All three were young incarnated lamas and monks of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. They had been sent abroad with full approval of the Karmapa to study Western subjects (philosophy, comparative religion, and psychology) and so connect modern western science with the Tibetan monastic tradition.
In its original intent the experiment failed, as within a few years all three left the order to get married and never returned to India. But in a broader perspective, their further lives remained in line with their mission to “build bridges” between East and West, and all three developed activities prototypal for other tulkus who were to move to the West later.
Trungpa, the most charismatic of the three, went to America to become one of the most prominent Buddhist teachers in the West. His books became classics of the late hippie period and remain Dharma best-sellers today.
The more gentle Chimed Rinpoche stepped into a career in Humanities, but continued to act as a Buddhist teacher in parallel, more intensively so after his retirement from the British Library. With time, a community of dedicated followers grew around him in Europe, though in recent years he has become less active due to ill-health. He renewed contact with his home monastery of Benchen in Tibet and even travelled there. Some celebrities were among his early followers, for instance rock star David Bowie who remained committed to Tibet and is today an active supporter of Tibet House in New York.
From his base in Samye Ling, Akong too contributed to spreading Buddhism in the West. But more significantly, he was a precursor in bringing development into Tibet. His charity, Rokpa, was among the first to work inside Tibet and was well-accepted by the Chinese authorities who appreciated his steering away from any political group and stance, and his non-confrontational approach towards them. This in return made him an inevitable target for many Free Tibet hawks with a more isolationist sense of patriotism. In fact, Akong seems to have had more enemies outside than inside Tibet. Even the important role he played in the early 90s in the process of discovery of the current Karmapa was turned around by some as one more reason to suspect the Karmapa might still entertain “dark channels” with China, another conspiracy theory.
Akong surely mastered the skills of patient and prudent negotiation, but a diplomat he was not. It is hence a mystery, how two recent BBC articles could talk him up as a master of diplomacy.
He made no secret of his reservations towards certain aspects of the exile establishment, and the perennial dispute between Rangzen and Umeylam followers made him shrug. That is on days he was in good mood, which he was not always.
Admittedly, Akong’s at times grumpy ways brought him into some occasional awkward situations, which he could have avoided with a smoother approach. But ultimately, he provided education to hundreds inside Tibet and helped in lifting many more out of poverty. A man with such a legacy cannot have made too bad choices.
About the author
Thierry Dodin is a tibetologist linked to the university of Bonn in Germany. From the 1990s on, he was a contributor and later a trustee and the executive director of the Tibet Information Network, London. Since 2005, he has been the founding director of TibetInfoNet.