Letter from Lhasa: Tete-a-tete with Living Buddhas

Embodying both Buddhist and human nature, as believed in Tibetan Buddhism, the Living Buddha engages in rigorous study to offer salvation to sentient beings.

A Living Buddha, as the name implies, is a Buddha residing among us. Embodying both Buddhist and human nature, as believed in Tibetan Buddhism, they engage in rigorous study to offer salvation to sentient beings.

I recently met two Living Buddhas in Lhasa. My first encounter was with Shabdrung Rinpoche at a cafe near Xizang University and we had a brief conversation.

To minimize excessive attention on campus, he had to temporarily remove his robe and switch to casual attire, donning a deep red outdoor jacket and a pair of hiking shoes.

Born on June 28, 1997, in Lhari County in Nagqu located in northern Xizang Autonomous Region, Shabdrung Rinpoche is the son of a Tibetan medicine doctor and a teacher. In 2001, he was identified as the reincarnation of the 22nd Shabdrung Living Buddha.

Tibetan Buddhism has several main schools, such as Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Geluk. Shabdrung Rinpoche belongs to Taklung Kagyu, a Kagyu sub-school known for its harsh discipline.

Tibetan Buddhism holds that after the passing of a Living Buddha, they will be reincarnated and return to the human realm to guide and benefit sentient beings. The current reincarnation ritual, which is the most widely accepted inheritance right among various schools in the region, was introduced by the Kagyu School in the 13th century. There are currently more than 1,300 Living Buddhas approved by the central government of China.

Having already obtained the highest degree in Tibetan Buddhism, he is now working hard toward an advanced degree in general education. He is pursuing an MD-PhD in Chinese literature at Xizang University. He said he might be the first Living Buddha to do so.

When he was younger, he loved reading the fairy tales by Grimm and Andersen. He is now interested in poetry, especially works by Kahlil Gibran and Rabindranath Tagore.

Driven by his love for poems and essays, he pens his own in both Tibetan and Mandarin. He shares his creations on social media and they often convey mood and depict nature.

For his dissertation, he intends to annotate the unique sutras of the Taklung Kagyu to better promote Tibetan Buddhism.

Our meeting lasted about an hour, and he rushed back to class, explaining that "it is taught by a professor I admire very much, and I can't be late."

Balog Rinpoche, born in 1982, gave me a starkly different impression. I found him more articulate and he appears to have a more cheerful disposition. I met him in a professional recording studio on the outskirts of Lhasa, where he and his band were rehearsing for the closing ceremony of a local music festival.

He was performing the "Songs of Milarepa," which promotes the Dharma to disciples through singing, and he is the 42nd-generation inheritor of this intangible cultural heritage.

The original "Songs of Milarepa" was sung among monastic practitioners without instruments or accompaniment. To popularize the "Songs of Milarepa" among the masses, Balog Rinpoche formed a band called the "Dharma" in 2013. The band, comprising four to five members, includes himself as the lead singer and members from other ethnic backgrounds.

The band has performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Hangzhou since its inception.

Balog Rinpoche was identified as the reincarnated Living Buddha of Yangrigar Monastery in Maizhokunggar County when he was eight. Instead of going to the monastery immediately, he received homeschooling under his father's arrangement. In addition to Buddhist scriptures, the young rinpoche also took Mandarin, English, painting and music classes.

Balog Rinpoche wears many hats. Apart from being the inheritor of the "Songs of Milarepa," he is also a teacher at the Xizang Buddhism University, teaching Buddhist scriptures and Mandarin. Having studied Thangka painting at Xizang University, he teaches Thangka painting at a manual arts school. In addition, he hosts free online Tibetan and English classes for anyone interested.

He grew up in Norbulingka, dubbed Lhasa's "Summer Palace." Therefore, he met many tourists from other ethnic groups and foreign countries. Blessed with a remarkable aptitude for languages, he has been captivated by the charm and power of languages since a young age, making him eagerly embrace new experiences without any hesitation.

During the Himalayan Music Festival in Lhasa this summer, a rock band decided to add the local traditional horn as an instrument. To my surprise during the interview, I discovered that Balog Rinpoche himself was the one tuning the horn on stage.

As a journalist, I was standing in the first row of the audience. With only a thin curtain between us, my connection with Balog Rinpoche had already begun — long before I knew it.

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