Tuesday, 9 June 2009

The Last Days in Gangtok

Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö in Gangtok (approx. 1959)

The first indication we had that my master was going to die was through Gyalwang Karmapa. He told Karmapa that he had completed the work he had come to do in this life, and he had decided to leave this world. One of Khyentse's close attendants burst into tears as soon as Karmapa revealed this to him, and then we knew. His death was eventually to occur just after we had heard that the three great monasteries of Tibet—Sera, Drepung, and Ganden—had been occupied by the Chinese. It seemed tragically symbolic that as Tibet collapsed, so this great being, the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhism, was passing away
- Sogyal Rinpoche in 'The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying',
revised and updated edition, Harper San Francisco, 2002, page 273.

A few months before, at Losar that year, when a ritual dance was being performed at Kham-je Shedra back in Tibet, many of the older monks had a vision of him, appearing in the sky. Early one morning, soon afterwards the caretaker of the temple opened the door and there was Khyentse sitting in the Buddha Maitreya's lap.

Lama dances at Dzongsar Monastery
(Photo by Stefan Eckel)

As he had given them his promise that he would once again return to be with them in Kham many feared that this might have been the last farewell. When the Buddha Shakyamuni had passed into nirvana at the age of eighty his disciples observed many unusual signs in nature, amongst them a gentle earthquake. Around the beginning of June 1959, just such a gentle tremor shook Gangtok—the sign of the impending death of a great being.
The news of his frail health spread quickly. Dudjom Rinpoche wrote a letter to Dhongthog Rinpoche suggesting that he should come as soon as possible. When he arrived in Gangtok he was not allowed through to see his ailing master, but when Jamyang Khyentse heard that Dhongthog Rinpoche had come from Delhi he insisted on seeing him right away and gave him some final personal advice.

Dhongthog Rinpoche (left) with his attendant
in Calcutta 1957
(courtesy of Dhongthog Rinpoche)

Meanwhile H.H. Sakya Trizin and his family, after abandoning Sakya had decided to take up residence at Lachen near the Sikkimese border. Soon they received a message from Gangtok, urging them to come quickly, as Jamyang Khyentse was ill.
One night, when Sakya Trizin was staying down at the Gangtok Bazaar, some disciples came and urged him to come to the Palace Gompa quickly. When he arrived he was greeted by Jamyang Khyentse who scolded him jokingly saying, "No, no, I am all right. You don't need to worry. Why have you come late at night like this?"
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche had also arrived, along with his father and younger brother, who had never met Jamyang Khyentse before. Several times they tried to see him, but with no success. One day, merely by chance, on the lawn in front of the Palace Gompa, where Jamyang Khyentse was enjoying the sun, in the company of Sogyal Rinpoche and two other monks, they were reunited after not having seen each other for five years.
His Holiness the 16th Karmapa was there together with Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Neten Chokling Rinpoche, Tashi Jong Khamtrul Rinpoche and a group of khenpos who had arrived from Dzongsar in Tibet. Everybody had been making offerings of pujas and prayers for his long life.
There were at least four doctors struggling to save his life. Two were under the orders of the Queen of Sikkim, the third was a famous, yet unconventional doctor from Rebkong in Tibet. There was also Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche, who later founded the Chagpori Institute of Tibetan Medicine in Darjeeling.

Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche (with Sogyal Rinpoche)
teaching at Rigpa London in 1986

Yet all their efforts were in vain. Mayum Tsering Wangmo, the mother of Sogyal Rinpoche and Dzogchen Rinpoche, remembers how she would spend days preparing dozens of little delicacies for him to eat, but he would only nibble at them a little to avoid upsetting her. A few weeks earlier he had fallen badly and hurt his knee so that it had become difficult for him to walk. Yet he continued to give advice and transmissions to his disciples, who remember him always in good spirits, hiding his illness from them as much as possible.
As Sogyal Rinpoche mentions in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, it took the words of Gyalwang Karmapa for them to accept the fact that he would soon pass on.

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