THE POET WITH THE CRIM­SON CASSOCK

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PEOPLE - Con­tact the writer at chi­huaw@gmail.com

He is a holy man aged 36. And he writes po­etry that touches lay­men’s hearts through his abil­ity to com­bine the holy and the sec­u­lar. A poem from his first book, A Thought-Mo­ment in the Sec­u­lar World, reads:

Flow­ers evoke ro­mance When they bloom in the heart of a

poet; Flow­ers evoke the scenery When they bloom in a the heart of a

trav­eler; Flow­ers evoke en­light­en­ment When they bloom in the heart of a

men­di­cant

“I love his po­ems, they are philo­soph­i­cal, Zen-like, and yet not re­con­dite,” says Zhang Yu, a woman in her late 40s with a grown son.

“I feel in­tox­i­cated and en­chanted when I read them. It’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve they are writ­ten by an as­cetic.”

The au­thor is not just a monk. He is a Liv­ing Bud­dha called Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche in Qing­hai prov­ince. He hears com­ments like these fre­quently. And he re­sponds by say­ing, in Man­darin: “What I wrote in the book is noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary. It’s sim­ply a record of my think­ing, my per­sonal feel­ings about the Bud­dha’s dharma, and our so­ci­ety.”

He writes ev­ery day, and in Chi­nese. This makes him dif­fer­ent from most monks of Ti­betan Bud­dhism, as few of them write in Chi­nese.

Some say his po­etry and es­says are like the melo­di­ous love songs of the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gy­atso.

Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche says be­ing com­pared to Tsangyang Gy­atso is in­ap­pro­pri­ate. He said that Tsangyang Gy­atso was a great philoso­pher and a mas­ter of the his­tory of Ti­betan Bud­dhism.

He says: “Tsangyang’s po­ems are writ­ten in a very metaphor­i­cal style, con­tain­ing the wis­dom of dharma. Those who have a deep un­der­stand­ing of Bud­dhism will get a lot from his writ­ings. When em­i­nent monks read his po­etry, their doubts are re­solved. Peo­ple who read his po­etry sim­ply as love songs is a mis­in­ter­pre­ta­tion by the peo­ple out­side Ti­bet.”

For in­stance, one of Tsangyang’s most rec­og­niz­able po­ems, On the Eastern Hills reads:

I wanted to study the dharma in the best in­sti­tu­tion in Ti­bet. Oth­er­wise I would be just an­other Liv­ing Bud­dha un­able to of­fer sal­va­tion to sen­tient be­ings, but liv­ing on their of­fer­ings.”

Over the eastern hills rise The pure white face of the moon; In my mind forms The smil­ing face of a beloved young

girl.

“How would you un­der­stand beloved young girl here?” Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche asks.

“Tsangyang Gy­atso once said of him­self, while liv­ing in the Po­tala Palace, ‘I am the king of the Snow Land; Wan­der­ing in the streets of Lhasa, I am the most beau­ti­ful lover in the world’.”

“Like Em­peror Kangxi of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911) who of­ten trav­eled through the coun­try dis­guised as a com­moner, Tsangyang Gy­atso vis­ited women in Lhasa, be­cause he wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand the lay­man’s life and find ways to of­fer sal­va­tion to ev­ery­day peo­ple.”

As the most revered Liv­ing Bud­dha, who was on the golden throne in the Po­tala Palace, Tsangyang Gy­atso brought to Lhasa the most en­chant­ing lyrics of all times. His songs were fa­mous in ev­ery cor­ner of the city then and are still pop­u­lar.

By com­par­i­son, Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche re­gards him­self as an un­known Liv­ing Bud­dha on the Qing­hai-Ti­bet plateau, who dearly loves writ­ing.

“Writ­ing has taught me to pay close at­ten­tion to both the in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal worlds. And writ­ing my thoughts and ob­ser­va­tions re­flect­ing this world full of un­cer­tain­ties and anx­i­eties,” he says.

One of his read­ers says Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche’s voice “has hyp­notic power, and can make you al­most feel drunk”.

Like the poem, Re­turn to Si­lence, which goes like this:

Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche, Liv­ing Bud­dha The snow is like a dancer, fall­ing gen­tly

on the earth, It melts into the soil af­ter the turbu

lence. I’m like a snowflake, drift­ing qui­etly on

this mor­tal world. I re­turn to si­lence, af­ter hav­ing seen all

the bustling of the world, In the sea­son I never ex­pect I meet my

bo­som friends. In the rein­car­na­tion I never cling to

any­thing, I seek a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of

hu­man life.

Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche’s home is the 740-year-old Ba Monastery, which is also home to 160 monks.

His mo­ti­va­tion for pub­lish­ing the book is to help ren­o­vate Ba Monastery, and en­sure the run­ning of a wel­fare house and a nurs­ing home in his home­town.

“I hope the monastery will pro­vide a place where monks can study Bud­dhist scrip­tures, lit­er­a­ture, English, and take com­puter lessons,” he says.

Tra­di­tion­ally, a Liv­ing Bud­dha is in charge of a monastery’s af­fairs. And Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche is no ex­cep­tion.

As for his early life, Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche was born on May 29, 1981, in Qu­mar­leb county in the Yushu Ti­betan autonomous pre­fec­ture of Qing­hai prov­ince.

He is the fifth child and the only son of a herds­men cou­ple and was known as Sonam Wangchug un­til 1995.

He was 14 when he was iden­ti­fied as the rein­car­na­tion of the 14 Rateng Liv­ing Bud­dha. The an­nounce­ment came as a com­plete sur­prise be­cause his for­ma­tive years were no dif­fer­ent from that of his peers.

In his child­hood he per­formed well in school, and was later ad­mit­ted to the Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Tech­ni­cal School in Qing­hai prov­ince to study civil en­gi­neer­ing.

Then, one day, his teacher in­formed him that his par­ents wanted him to re­turn home.

It took him three days by bus to get home from the pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal Xining.

When he got home, he re­calls, “the monks from the Ba Monastery were present.

“My par­ents had no idea that I was the rein­car­nated soul boy. But once I learned this, I told the se­nior monks that I wanted to study the dharma in the best in­sti­tu­tion in Ti­bet.

“Oth­er­wise I would be just an­other Liv­ing Bud­dha un­able to of­fer sal­va­tion to sen­tient be­ings, but liv­ing on their of­fer­ings.”

In 1996, he was sent to the Sera Monastery in Lhasa, the cap­i­tal of Ti­bet, to be­gan his full-time Bud­dhist dharma ed­u­ca­tion un­der Khenpo Gashi Ngawang Dadrak.

Sera is one of the three main monas­ter­ies in Lhasa, along with Gan­den and Dre­pung, where Ti­betan monks un­der­take ad­vanced stud­ies.

Ti­betan Bud­dhism has four main schools: Ny­ingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Geluk.

Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche be­longs to Geluk School which adopted the rein­car­na­tion rit­ual in the mid-16th cen­tury.

Panchen and Dalai are lin­eage dis­ci­ples of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk School.

Nowa­days, rein­car­na­tion is largely ac­cepted as an in­her­i­tance right among var­i­ous schools in Ti­bet.

At the Sera Monastery, he stud­ied Bud­dhist scrip­ture, Ti­betan lit­er­a­ture, and his­tory.

And he also at­tended de­bates on the su­tras, from early in the morn­ing to the late into the night ev­ery day.

Then, one day in 2001, his men­tor, the Liv­ing Bud­dha Sharu Tong, told him that he should go to live with the Han Chi­nese.

“My men­tor didn’t say why or what for. And be­cause of my men­tor, I came to Beijing on Sept 11.”

In Beijing, he lived with mi­grant work­ers in a hos­tel for sev­eral months.

“I re­mem­ber prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion ev­ery­day. I didn’t know how to speak Man­darin Chi­nese, and I didn’t have enough money for food, so I only had a slice of bread ev­ery day. Wa­ter was free at the hos­tel.”

The hard­ships and the pangs of hunger in­flu­ence his writ­ings to­day.

His ex­pe­ri­ences taught him sym­pa­thy and ten­der­ness for or­di­nary peo­ple. And it was in the hos­tel that he re­al­ized why his men­tor had sent him to live among the Han: He was needed to pro­mote Bud­dhism in the re­gions where the Han Chi­nese lived.

To help him re­al­ize this goal, he joined Beijing For­eign Stud­ies Univer­sity in 2005 to study English and Chi­nese. And dur­ing the next four years, he took grad­u­ate cour­ses in Bud­dhist phi­los­o­phy and so­cial psy­chol­ogy at Pek­ing Univer­sity. His stud­ies turned him into the ar­tic­u­late and mod­ern monk he is to­day.

Speak­ing about his mis­sion, he says: “My re­spon­si­bil­ity as a monk is to pass on the Bud­dhist spirit to ev­ery­one who is ready to ac­cept it.”

Un­like monks in an­cient times, who were her­mits liv­ing ac­cord­ing to Bud­dhism doc­trine in iso­lated monas­ter­ies and tem­ples, the main thing about be­ing a mod­ern monk, Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche says, is to be in­volved in the world and real so­cial prac­tices.

“You can­not save all liv­ing crea­tures from tor­ment if the monastery shrinks from con­tact with hu­man so­ci­ety and fails to un­der­stand what re­ally plagues men’s souls.”

Mean­while, Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche also serves as a Liv­ing Bud­dha for the Lhari Tongkhang vil­lage out­side the Sera Monastery.

He also keeps in con­tact with his fam­ily.

Ev­ery time he re­turns to the Ba Monastery, hun­dreds of peo­ple at­tend his dharma as­sem­bly, hop­ing he will bless them by touch­ing their heads.

“But I am just an or­di­nary man who bears the light of the Bud­dha,” Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche says.

“For the most part, I am no dif­fer­ent from any­one in so­ci­ety. ‘Liv­ing Bud­dha’ is just a ti­tle,” he says, wear­ing a smile.

A dim­ple on his left cheek makes him look like a young­ster next door.

In fact, when he takes off his crim­son cassock, Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche can eas­ily pass off as com­mon man.

He en­joys the same things many ur­ban young men en­joy: drink­ing good cof­fee; tak­ing pho­tos and shar­ing his in­ter­pre­ta­tions of life on the so­cial me­dia plat­form WeChat.

“Ti­betan monks all like the iPhone be­cause it has a Ti­betan writ­ing sys­tem. So, we can text each other in Ti­betan. It’s eas­ier, as it’s our na­tive tongue,” he says.

These days he spends half the year on the road, in Beijing, Shang­hai, and Shen­zhen, and in coun­tries like the United States, Canada, and Aus­tralia, preach­ing Bud­dhist doc­trines and ex­plain­ing the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness in terms of con­tem­po­rary life.

While he is in the West, he also stud­ies Chris­tian cultural val­ues.

His ef­forts are in keep­ing with the Bud­dhist be­lief in open-mind­ed­ness and the ac­cep­tance of change.

He also be­lieves that Ti­betan Bud­dhism can re­duce the anx­i­ety of mod­ern life re­gard­less of one’s re­li­gious views.

Gy­atse Phur­jun Rin­poche is now writ­ing his sec­ond book, ten­ta­tively called As Af­fec­tion­ate as Mother.

“Writ­ing helps me think clearly and helps me with my anx­i­eties,” he says.

PHO­TOS BY WEN CHIHUA AND PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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