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Erric Solomon

In Memory of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

It is an incredible privilege to be able to say that Kyabjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was my teacher. In honor of the 16th anniversary of his passing, here are a few stories about some of the time I spent with him. 

 

About 22 years ago, after six or seven years in the studying Tibetan Buddhism, occasionally pretending to meditate, I felt desperate. I knew that I really didn’t understand the main point of practice. I was wondering if this path was for me. But I did hear that Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, the main teacher of my friend Brigid, was unsurpassed in giving the pointing out instruction whereby a student could directly experience the nature of their own mind.So, I went to Sogyal Rinpoche and told him that Brigid suggested I come to Nepal in order to meet Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Immediately he responded “Excellent idea. I am going just after Losar, you come then.”

It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was an imprtant teacher and close advisor to the 16th Karmapa, that he was largely responsible for the survival of the tradition of the Chokling Tersar complete and intact, and he had transmitted the lineage to most of the greatest teachers in the Nyingma and Karma Kagyu lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. Had I known any of this I might have been too intimidated to go 

Arriving in Nepal, Sogyal Rinpoche took me to see Tulku Urgyen. In his inimitable style he invited another 150 people along. In my experience, Sogyal Rinpoche is happiest when he is introducing large numbers of people to his greatest masters. Today was another such day.

Riding up to Nagi in the car with him, one couldn’t help but notice the joyful enthusiasm that was radiating from him. We arrived, Sogyal Rinpoche introduced me to Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. We had tea, and then the two Rinpoches spent some time together.

Later, Tulku Urgyen gave a teaching. The teaching he gave was magnificent. Within the context of the Four Dharmas of Gampopa the entire path was laid bare. Yet at the crucial moment, when Rinpoche gave the pointing out instruction, perhaps because I was suffering from a bad combination of excitement and stupidity, I still didn’t get it.

Although I found it incredibly frustrating, to have come so far and yet still miss the point, I was determined to stay on. There was something quite amazing about being in Rinpoche’s presence, as if whatever I did understand about meditation practice was experientially much more available. And while I didn’t get the full benefit of the teaching he gave that day, I sensed that I might be close.

So, I spent the next week at Nagi. Each evening I went to see Rinpoche for instruction. He very lovingly and thoroughly revealed the teachings. For the first few days I was supposed to look for my mind. Each evening I would come and report on what I hadn’t found. Having exhausted myself looking for something that couldn’t be found, Rinpoche gave me the pointing out instruction once again. I will never forget that day as long as I live, maybe longer.

At that moment, I felt like I finally understood the main point of meditation practice, not as a theoretical instruction, but as living experience. Not only that, but something about how Rinpoche’s very presence made it seem plausible that even an ordinary person like me could actually learn, with practice, to be fully present, in natural awareness.

Returning from Nagi I met up with Sogyal Rinpoche. He was taking 3 or 4 of us to visit Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to receive empowerments. I tried to give him an offering of whatever rupees were in my pocket in gratitude for his inestimable role in what had just unfolded. He gently refused it, saying “you keep what you have received from Rinpoche close to your heart.” Over the years, I have come to understand that what Sogyal Rinpoche was saying was that what I learned from Tulku Urgyen should become the very core of my practice.   And so, as much as I have been able, I have tried to this day to heed Sogyal Rinpoche’s advice.

At Sogyal Rinpoche’s insistence, I returned each year to receive more teachings from Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

Whatever questions you asked Rinpoche always brought the teaching back to the main point of practice, to recognize the nature of mind. He used to joke that he was like a bird that new how to chirp only one note. I never saw Rinpoche teach from a text. Instead it was like he simply looked at his own mind and through his words and his very being invited you in. 

I never remember being bored for a second when I was with him or even having a single thought that wasn’t related to the teaching he was giving. Usually in the late afternoon, just before sunset, I’d enter his tiny bedroom,  with its beautiful picture window looking out across Kathmandu valley, 2000 feet below, and after doing three prostrations I would approach him and he would take my hand and put his head on mine. Actually this alone would have been more than worth the trip to Nepal. I’d get to do it one more time on the way out of the room, how I ever convinced my legs to go to the door at that point is completely a mystery.

The other thing that was simply extraordinary was how accessible he made the most profound instructions. He often said how easy it was to recognize the nature of mind, and while you were with him at least, it seemed that way. 

As normal people age it is often the case that their faculties dim and their minds slowly dull. For realized beings it is the opposite, and Tulku Urgyen was a great example of this principle. In the last year or so of his life Rinpoche gave some of his most extraordinary instruction. My own taste of this was in March of 1995. My brother, who was a long time Zen student, came along.

 

Rinpoche asked my brother about his practice. My brother, whose only experience at that point was with Zen masters, responded one time by clapping his hands, and another by shouting Haaa! Rinpoche seemed completely amused and laughed, in fact the five of us in the room were rolling on the floor laughing. Even Erik Pema Kunsang who is the most transparent translator remarked “Wow! You really are a Zen student.”

When the teaching was over, and we were on patio outside Rinpoche’s room my brother gave me a hug. “You are right your teacher is an extraordinary master. But I don’t understand what everyone is talking about. He is just like a Zen master!” And to be honest, I had never heard Tulku Urgyen teach the pointing out instruction like that before. Then, I remembered Sogyal Rinpoche talking about the greatest masters being like that. Sogyal Rinpoche will often tell how when his teacher, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, gave a Sakya teaching he even had the body language of a Sakya master, but when he gave a Nyingma teaching he had the style and manner of the Nyingmapa. That I day I witnessed this kind of manifestation. Even Erik and Marcia who have translated for Rinpoche 100s of times were flabbergasted. This teaching became known as the “Zen Pointing-Out.”

On the last day I went to say goodbye to Rinpoche. After leaving his room I managed to make it down most of the stairs when I turned around and ran back up. When I reached the top Rinpoche was on the patio with Erik looking out over Kathmandu Valley. “Rinpoche,” with tears I blurted out “ I feel like I am making a horrible mistake leaving you.” To which he simply replied “We are never apart.”

That was the last time I saw him alive.

According to those who were present at the time of Rinpoche’s death (Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche) Tulku Urgyen passed away by suddenly sitting up in bed and simply saying Ah. He remained in mediation for a day or two. The sky above Kathmandu Valley, normally obscured by a thick brown haze which over the years has rendered the sight of the Anapurna range nearly invisible, displayed the classic sign of the passing of the ultimate Dzogchen master. It was clear blue not even a mote of dust hung in the air.

Later, I went with Sogyal Rinpoche to the cremation ceremony.  Once again the sky was clear, I doubt Kathmandu has seen another day like it since. 

I often hear the voice of Tulku Urgyen in the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s eldest son, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, has compassionately taken responsibility for his father's disciples making sure that the blessing of his instruction continues to ripen in our hearts and minds. When it comes to pointing out instruction Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche is more like his father than anyone else I ever met. In fact, you can hear Tulku Urgyen each of his sons, all of whom are great teachers—Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche and Mingyur Rinpoche. Because of these extraordinary teachers, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s unique gift is still available to us.