An alternate title for Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s fascinating and breathless photo-illustrated autobiography might be “From Land of Snows to Land of Snows.” Born in Tibet and raised as a Tulku and future Rinpoche by the great Buddhist teachers of the high plateau, Zasep Rinpoche’s account vividly brings to life a terrible invasion, then desperate flight as a refugee, and a spiritual quest through seven countries that ended in his new homeland, another land of snows — Canada. (For a Summary Review in 2 paragraphs, please scroll to the end of this review.)
Despite a journey through a tragic time in Tibet’s history, Zasep Rinpoche’s autobiography conveys an overwhelming sense of optimism. Yes, Rinpoche helps us relive a catastrophic time in Tibet’s history, and yes we feel a sense of loss and anger at the injustice of the invasion — and the tragic personal loss of family — but the tone is elegantly uplifting.
Not only Rinpoche but Tibetans in general, are portrayed as a people who do not lose hope in the face of disaster, who can find the profound and the sacred in the most devastating of situations, who come together as a spiritual family in the face of terror.
Note: This review was of the hardcover edition. The current paperback (which still contains the historical photo) is available on Amazone here>>
Contents of Feature (click to navigate)
“I had a lot of suffering. I had to flee my homeland”
Rinpoche’s emphasizes this, in his introduction: “To become who I am today, I began with many advantages. I was born into a loving, well-to-do family in an incredibly beautiful homeland rich in tradition, and I was given a rigorous spiritual education from highly realized Buddhist masters. Later on in my youth, I had a lot of suffering. I had to flee my homeland, I had to endure great hardship and loss as a refugee, and I had to adapt to a strange new world with values and customs so very different from the ones I had learned as a child. My experiences as a refugee faced with building a new life made me who I am today.”
Told in the first person, Zasep Rinpoche combines a refreshing frankness — and a dauntless sense of humor — with a surprising intimacy:
“I carry those genes. In Tibet, we call ourselves Bumiputra, the sons of the land. Remembering the enchanted land of Tibet, the magical mountains and the pure, thin air of the Tibetan plateau is like remembering a large part of my younger self.”
Interesting insights pepper nearly every page of the book — helped along by Zasep Rinpoche’s prodigious memory for detail. (He remembers every name of every person in his life, every initiation and teacher, and conveys an astounding grasp of detail.) In chapter one, when describing Tibet’s love of mountains, he writes: “Some Westerners think Tibetans are backward for believing in mountain spirits. But if you accept the idea that all life is interdependent and interconnected, then it follows that if we do harm to the environment, we are in fact harming ourselves; when we threaten the well-being of the natural world, we are threatening ourselves.”
Tibetan crisis tragic, but helped spread the Dharma
As Zasep Rinpoche’s autobiography makes clear, the Tibetan crisis brought immense suffering to millions in Tibet. This dire chapter in Tibet’s history, was actually prophesied by the great Indian Guru Padmasambhava, known as the Second Buddha, who, more than a thousand years ago, predicted:
“When the iron bird flies and the horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the world, and the Dharma will come to the land of the red men.” (Red men is a reference to America.)
With this context, it is fascinating to read the intimate and breathless account of a noted refugee Lama bringing teachings to the West. Why breathless? Although it’s not meant to be high pace adventure, Zasep Rinpoche’s biography reads like a spiritual and physical adventure both. We follow a Tibetan Rinpoche forced to flee his invaded country, facing bombers and bandits, on a desperate journey to refugee status in Nepal, then on to India, Thailand, Australia, United States, and finally, citizenship in Canada. We first meet a boy, deeply devoted to his grandfather and grandmother and family; we relive his six-decade adventure from boy Tulku refugee, to a revered Guru and spiritual head of Vajrayana Buddhist centres in Australia, Canada and the United States.
Spiritual adventure — learning from Tibet’s greatest teachers
As a spiritual adventure, Rinpoche’s autobiography gives us a rare and intimate chance to learn, not just from Zasep Rinpoche, but from his many teachers — some of the most illustrious masters of the last century, who, besides the Dalai Lama and his Root Guru Trijang Rinpoche, included: Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, Tara Tulku Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Lati Rinpoche, and Guru Deva Rinpoche.
Wonderfully, Zasep Rinpoche includes biographies of most of these great teachers. Illustrated with thirty original black and white photos, most never before published, this autobiography gives readers an intimate look into the life of one of the remaining Tibetan-born and trained masters.
From a lost world: a spiritual adventure
Zasep Rinpoche organized his long and event-filled life into topics, rather than by strict timeline. Although there’s a strong sense of the journey through time, and a strong evocation of a lost world, Rinpoche’s decision to organize his autobiography by topic is, I think, and important one. A straight linear story would de-emphasize important cultural and spiritual elements that most readers are likely to find compelling. The chapters certainly follow the timeline of Rinpoche’s fascinating history, but when we visit chapters such as “My Other Gurus” and “Young Lama’s School” we are in flashback mode as Rinpoche takes us back again to earlier days. This helps emphasize his life story by topics that are likely of interest to Buddhists and his students.
Photos: 30 photos, most never before published, help illustrate the story. With photos from 1941 to the present day, Rinpoche reveals rare pictures such as the Young Lama’s School, rare pictures of his teachers, his vow-taking as a Theravadan monk in Thailand, and some wonderful photos of Tibet and his family. We have not reproduced them here, to protect copyright on the internet.
In short snips — my own descriptions, and where appropriate a quote from the author — I’ll quickly synopsize the flow of chapters. It is impossible to capture the essence in short descriptions; only a read of the book can bring the adventure alive.
1 Son of the mountains
Rinpoche helps us understand what it’s like to be son of the mountains, the bond with the land and nature and a culture so inextricably bound to Buddhism:
“When I think of the Tibet I knew in the first ten years of this lifetime, before the Chinese Communist invasion of 1959 devastated the land and its people, I remember its breath-taking beauty — snow-capped mountains encircling the vast interior plain, turquoise lakes, clear, cold rivers, deep green forests, buff and grey deserts, and flora and fauna in abundance. But most of all I remember the mountains…”
2 Life in Kham
One of my favorite chapters, where Rinpoche literally brings alive every aspect of Tibetan life, from family life, to the importance of tea, to the hardships of daily living and how it was reflected in Buddhist spirituality.
One of the choice nuggets from this chapter (but far from the only one):
“For some Westerners the idea of Tibetan Buddhists owning and sometimes employing weapons runs counter to their romantic notion that Tibet was a peaceable kingdom, a veritable Shangri-La. While it is true that Tibetan society was imbued with Buddhist values, not all Tibetans were pure practitioners. As with every society, a few were bad apples. It is good Dharma practice to protect yourself and your family from those who would do you harm.”
3 My family
Rinpoche’s devotion to his family, especially to his maternal grandfather, grandmother and sister Didi (Dekyi Yangzom), really come alive. For several chapters of the book, his grandfather Ponpo Nawang Losang, in particular, is almost the main protagonist, an assertive, well-loved man, friend of Lamas, and at the same time a swash-buckling sword-carrying patriarch who will do anything for his family.
Rinpoche describes, for example, an incident where the Hui governor (Chinese) tried to arrest his grandfather:
“When the governor’s lackeys moved to grab my grandfather, my grandfather hit out with his fists and knocked down several of them. The lackeys dragged my grandfather to the courtyard, stripped off his clothing, and began to torture him… hitting my grandfather with the banze, striking him again and again until he was covered in blood… But he was proud and he was tough. He didn’t scream.”
To me, one of the most gripping adventures of the book is the refugee flight out of Tibet with his grandmother. Rinpoche evoked the trauma elegantly when he described his grandmother’s fear of airplanes: “My grandmother had been really traumatized by the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet; she was especially distressed by the Chinese Communist bombers that tracked us even after we had crossed the border to Nepal. Later on, when we were living in Nepal, whenever she saw Nepalese planes flying overhead, she thought they were Chinese Communist planes, and would run about, frantically looking for a place to hide.”
4 Our Buddhist way of life
Although the entire book is a life-lesson in Buddhism, in chapter 4 Rinpoche emphasizes how Buddhism was intricately bound into daily life in old Tibet.
“For most Tibetans, Dharma practice was a matter of course. In my family, we did prayers every evening, without fail. Most Tibetans wore malas… Green Tara was tremendously popular, as was Chenrezig. Images of Green Tara were everywhere, and many families, my own included, recited the twenty-one praises to Tara every day. The same was true of Chenrezig; every Tibetan knew and recited his mantra. It was said that Tibetan children do not have to be taught OM MANI PADME HUM because they heard it constantly.”
Rinpoche especially emphasized the personal religious freedom of Tibetans: “People were free to go to different schools and teachers of different lineages if they wanted. There was no sectarianism and no religious oppression…. ultimately there is no difference between traditions. Whatever the sect, the Buddhas are one and the same…”
This chapter is rich with detailed practices, such as “butter lamp offerings” and Sang purification, the importance of mani stones, prayer flags, horses, Powa practice for the dying, and community pujas.
5 My boyhood
Here we meet a sometimes naughty and precocious young Tulku, with a deep abiding love of horses. As a young child he even had to guard the sheep from wolves:
“Occasionally, in spite of our best efforts as wolf-watchers, a wolf would be successful and carry off a lamb, the lamb beating in terror. When this happened I would get very upset.”
6 The Tulku tradition
The Tulku tradition of Tibet is widely misunderstood, and Rinpoche describes both its importance, and some of the issues: “Most Tulkus are authentic; a few may not be…” He not only helps Westerners understand Tulkus, he describes the important history of his own past incarnations.
Rinpoche, as always, is frank:
“Many Westerners disagree with the idea of plucking a little Tulku from his parents and sending him to a monastery to be raised and educated by monks. Speaking from my own experience, the practice is hard both on the little boy and his family… but in those days, when there was no public education system in Tibet, placing a young boy in a monastery meant he got a good education…”
7 My incarnations
This stand-alone chapter describes Rinpoche’s twelve previous incarnations. I describe it as “stand-alone” because they contain flashback-style miniature biographies — in common with the later chapter “My early teachers” — which in their own right are fascinating and enjoyable.
8 Monastic Life in Tibet
Again, Rinpoche reveals his willingness to be frank about issues, while also highlighting the strengths of the overall system. In some ways, I found the chapter on monastic life the most fascinating. While highlighting the sometimes harsh conditions, he always retains his uplifting tone:
“Yet, lacking in modern conveniences though Sera was, life in a monastery there could be good.” He also emphasizes how “Many of the greatest Gelug masters came from such distant places.” I especially enjoyed the episodes on “debating.”
9 My early teachers
Like chapter 7 and the later chapter 17, this chapter contains fascinating mini biographies of Rinpoche’s many teachers.
10 My enthronement at Zuru Monastery
This chapter is fascinating especially for it’s lavish description of a full enthronement ceremony, which really brings to life the pomp and ceremony.
11 My visit to Tashi Lhapug
In this chapter, the wide-eyed young Tulku receives his “first big initiation” that “marked my entrance to the Vajrayana path.”
Rinpoche visited Tashi Lhapug many times, drawn by the beauty and sanctity of the monastery:
“Tashi Lhapug is one of the most beautiful monasteries ever. The location alone was amazing — the surrounding mountains, the landscape with its springs and waterfalls, and the wide Mekong River…”
12 My journey to Lhasa
Two years before the Chinese Communist invasion, when Rinpoche was nine, he began his intensive studies, directed by his great root guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. Accompanied by his adventurer-grandfather, Zasep Rinpoche and ten others travel 700 kilometers to Lhasa by horse and mule via worn but untended paths. The journey was hazardous and arduous, with camps to be set and guarded each night; the trip was a slow one as “the yaks simply refused to be hurried…”
On they way, the stop off a Nalanda Monastery, where Rinpoche receives initiations from his Guru Zimcock Dorje Chang, a lineage holder in the Sakya tradition, holder of the Thirteen Golden Dharmas, and a Guru of the famous Kyabje Je Pabongka, Ling Rinpoche, and Trijang Rinpoche.
Fascinatingly, we hear of a prophetic dream by Lama Gelong Chojor Gyamtso: “he foresaw that our family would end up exiles in Nepal and India.”
13 Meeting my perfect Guru
The chapter I most looked forward to was “Meeting with my perfect Guru” where Zasep Rinpoche meets the great Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, one of the best known Gelug Lamas, and a junior tutor of the Dalai Lama. His description of the first meeting is enthusiastic and profound:
“We were escorted to Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche’s suite. The instant I saw him, my heart overflowed with joy; I knew with absolute certainty that this beautiful personage was my Root Guru… I was simply overwhelmed by his powerful enlightening energy, which totally lit up the space. He had such a beautiful smile and his voice was so clear, so warm, so melodious.”
Rinpoche then honors his root guru by re-telling his Guru’s story, introducing it with “His story exemplifies all that is precious about the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism into which I was born.” The tale of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche is the longest of the stand-alone mini-biographies and is quite inspirational and instructional.
14 I become a Tulku at Sera Monastery
Life in the monastery isn’t always as idyllic as people might assume, especially in a giant institutes of thousands of monks such as Sera. “Westerners sometimes have the idea that monastic life is quiet and contemplative, but in fact it is busy.” This chapter is meaningful and fascinating, defined by its detailed descriptions of monastic life, and the amusing tale of Rinpoche’s first formal debate where he made the senior Lamas laugh.
15 My pilgrimage to Mount Kailash
Nothing is as distinctly Tibetan as the circumambulations of mountains and the pilgrimage. This chapter describes a six month pilgrimage to the holy mountain of Mount Kailash, which begins with a sometimes amusing argument between Rinpoche’s teacher and the Abbott of Sera, who doesn’t agree with the request to pause his studies. This fascinating, two-month long journey (each way), is an adventure of its own, as they visit all the monasteries and teachers along the way, and actually have to confront bandits.
16 The invasion of Lhasa
The threat o bandits pale next the terrifying invasion of Lhasa in 1959. Separated from his swash-buckling grandfather, the young Zasep Rinpoche must cope with the sudden invasion.
“March 10, 1959 was the day Lhasa exploded. Rumours had been circulating that the Chinese Communists were planning to capture the Dalai Lama and transport him to China…”
Rinpoche brings alive the terror. “I was awakened by the rat-tat-tat sound of artillery, the sound of shelling, and the dull roar of shouting…”
This chapter is a must-read, an eye-witness account of the invasion of Tibet, that included “opening fire on the citizenry of Lhasa.” Rinpoche, with his close teacher Gen Jhampa Chogdup, slip out of Sera Jey late on March 11 with no food and “only the clothing on our backs.” Their harrowing escape from Tibet, the slaughter of Tibetans, Lamas, friends and family, are all told in vivid and terrifying detail.
The vivid recall of these events — including attacks by the Chinese Communist army — is both terrifying and inspiring, because the group never entirely loses hope, and continues to pray for — and receive — protection. At one point they capture a Chinese soldier, but refuse to kill him:”So we kept the man prisoner and took him with us” on a days long trek over the mountains.
17 My other Gurus
I read this chapter again and again. A list of Zasep Rinpoche’s Gurus reads like a “who’s who” of famous Lamas and teachers in the Gelug tradition. Like the previous chapter on his incarnations, this chapter is structured as flashback mini-biographies of each teacher, right back to their childhoods. It’s brilliant and fascinating, and can stand alone as an amazing read for any student who has an interest in these great masters.
Developing into the Teaching Guru
The remaining fourteen chapters are no less inspiring, if slightly less adventuresome. There are no more guns and swords in the story, yet in many ways, the most exciting section of the book — from a spiritual Buddhist point of view — are these chapters. Particularly fascinating are the “Young Lama’s Home School”, the story of his precious Guru Deva Rinpoche, and the fascinating eighteen-months he spent in Thailand as a Theravadan monk on an exchange-like program.
Spanning six countries and five decades in time, these chapters, tell of a Guru who is invited to Australia by Lama Yeshe as a translator, setting the tone for Zasep Rinpoche’s life-time quest to bring Dharma to the west, and how he eventually found his home — and citizenship — in Canada.
These chapters are all memorable, and some stand alone as “short stories.” Rinpoche’s reunion with his father years after the refugee flight is very emotional, as is his work with Gaden Relief, bringing help to people in Nepal, Tibet and Mongolia.
Without any further detail, I’ll just list the remaining chapters:
- 18 Intensive Study
- 19 Young Lama’s Home School
- 20 Guru Deva Rinpoche
- 21 Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies
- 22 As a Theravada Monk
- 23 Australia
- 24 Canada
- 25 Gaden for the West
- 26 Father and son reunited
- 27 Gaden Relief Projects
- 28 Mongolia
- 29 My retreats
- 30 Pilgrimages
- 31 Reflections
This is followed with 6 fascinating appendices describing the mountains, waters, flora and fauna of Tibet, the origins of the Tibetan People, the ancestry of Rinpoche, and the teachings and initiations he has received.
Summary: a must read for students; a should read for Buddhists
I’ll sum up as I began: Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s A Tulku’s Journey from Tibet to Canada is equal parts autobiography, spiritual epic journey, gripping adventure narrative, inspiring Buddhist life example, and a travelogue spanning nine countries.
Of course this is a must read for Zasep Rinpoche’s students, or anyone contemplating asking to become his student. It is also a “should read” for anyone interested in Tibetan Buddhism. It’s also a good read for anyone who enjoys biographies, since it contains all of the elements of a great spiritual bio: adventure, a fascinating life, spiritual insights, and a glimpse into the lives of a once-hidden people in the land of snows.
Rinpoche truly brings Tibet alive in an intimate and honest way. While his love of his teachers, Buddhism, Tibet and his people is palpable and constant, he doesn’t portray Tibet as a “Shangri-La”, and he doesn’t hesitate to describe both the good and bad.
Background and final thoughts: why Buddhist biographies?
Why read Buddhist Biographies? Biographies of teachers and great masters have always been an important inspirational teaching method. Most Tibetan Buddhists have read the great biographies of Milarepa, Shakbar and other accomplished masters. Mahayana Buddhists around the world have been inspired by stories of the great Mahasiddhas and the Jakarta tales (biographical tales of Shakyamuni Buddha’s previous lives.) In the twentieth century, notably since 1959, after many great Tibetan Lamas became refugees following the invasion of their homeland, several biographies have inspired students — both translated earlier biographies and new biographies and autobiographies from this century’s Buddhist leaders.
For this reason, I jumped at the chance to advance review A Tulku’s Journey from Tibet to Canada by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. Zasep Rinpoche is best known for making Tibetan teachings approachable to Western students. Along with other Western teachers who focused on making the Dharma available in English, Rinpoche’s fluency in multiple languages endeared him first to his teachers and later to his many students around the world.
Zasep Tullku Rinpoche
Wind Horse Press, Nelson, B.C.
Available on Amazon in paper edition (hardcover sold out) $26.00