Tibetan spiritual leader who brought teachings to Europe
Chöje Akong Rinpoche: Dec 25th, 1939-Oct 8th, 2013
Chöje Akong Rinpoche: co-founder of the biggest and first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Europe
Chöje Akong Rinpoche, who died after a violent attack aged 73, was co-founder of the biggest and first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Europe, the Samye Ling centre at Eskdalemuir in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.
Akong was murdered alongside his nephew and another monk in Chengdu, China. He was on a visit to support schools, Tibetan medical clinics and other projects as part of the Rokpa charity he co-founded in 1990 with Dr Veit and Lea Wyler from Switzerland.
Akong was a spiritual leader but also a practical man, who would as easily lift a pick to help build the temple in Samye Ling as share Buddhist teachings.
Relationship with Ireland
He had a long and deep relationship with Ireland. Psychiatrist Brion Sweeney, who worked closely with him, recalls: “Rinpoche [an honorary title] agreed to be spiritual director of the newly forming Buddhist group in Dublin in 1979 and visited their newly acquired house in Inchicore in May 1981, where he taught a course on Mahayana Buddhism with the assistance of Ken Holmes.
“The centre was nominated as a Samye Dzong or satellite centre of Samye Ling at that time. Rinpoche visited every one to two years after that to teach and meet people who were interested in Buddhism.”
He was a recognised lama who was fully trained in the Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. According to Sweeney, he was “very traditional” in his approach to the classical teaching of the Kagyu school (one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism).
“Later he also developed the charity Rokpa, which worked in conflict zones and was based on the Red Cross principle of treating all sides equally,” Sweeney adds.
He and his brother were received at Áras an Uachtaráin in 1998.
Akong’s journey to the West began after the failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese occupation in 1959. He and 300 others embarked on a perilous journey to India.
Many were captured, while others succumbed to exhaustion, starvation or Chinese bullets. Only 13 members of the original party struggled across the border 10 months after they had set off.
The first years outside Tibet were difficult. After internment in a refugee camp in India, he joined forces with other exiled Tibetans and in 1963 moved to Britain, where he worked as a hospital orderly for several years.
In the 1970s he invited many prominent lamas, who were now in exile, to teach at Samye Ling. Students were inspired to undertake serious practice of the Kagyu system of meditation and study. Some became monks or nuns and in 1984 a group commenced the traditional four-year retreat.
Akong threw himself into the construction of the spectacular temple, mixing mortar and laying bricks. When it opened in 1988 the building was a vivid sign that Tibetan Buddhism had arrived in Britain.
Along with Akong’s spiritual endeavours there was humanitarian work, mainly channelled through Rokpa, which funds education, health and environmental projects in the Tibetan areas of China.
He was also interested in healing and Tibetan medicine, writing books on the subject and initiating a range of psychotherapy and mindfulness projects that combine western and Buddhist approaches.
Akong was born in the Chamdo area of Kham, Tibet. When he was a small child he was recognised as the tulku, or “rebirth”, of the previous Akong, abbot of a monastery of the Kagyu school in the Kham mountains.
Taken from his family at the age of four, he received a traditional religious education before taking up his role as abbot and teacher.
Akong was not a monk in later life, and he married and had four children. In recent times he spent several months each year supervising Rokpa projects in Tibet, the country he had once fled.
His collaborative relationship with the Chinese authorities led to criticism, but a non-political stance was essential for any philanthropic work there.
He was about to start one of these tours when three men, who were reportedly trying to force money from him, stabbed him, along with his nephew and attendant, in his house.
In his book Taming the Tiger, Akong defined therapy thus: “The pressurised pace of life in western society causes particular difficulties . . . We do not have time to digest things fully . . . We get too involved in our own affairs and store up problems instead of dealing with them as they arise . . .
“Thus our minds need training, so that we may find a balance and stability whatever the circumstances. It is like training a horse that is frightened by the sound of fire.”
On his perilous journey out of Tibet more than 50 years ago, Akong made the decision that he would not “ sit on a throne to teach Buddhism” but would concentrate instead on charity and education.
He is survived by his brother, his wife, Yanchen Tarap, and three children.