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Tulku Thondup Rinpoche, a highly esteemed author, translator, and beloved teacher widely regarded as one of the great Nyingma scholars of the present day, died on December 29, 2023, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 86 years old. At the time of his death, Tulku Thondup was living in an apartment overlooking the Charles River that had long been a magnet for scholars, students, friends, and Tibetan Buddhist lamas alike.
Tulku Thondup was one of the last of the generation of great masters trained by the Nyingma lineage holders of Tibet. Though celebrated as “the Buddha of Cambridge,” he preferred to remain a “hidden” yogi, deflecting attention much as his teacher, the Fourth Dodrupchen, principal holder of the Longchen Nyingtik teachings, had done previously. In a tribute by his longtime publisher, Shambhala Publications, Tulku Thondup was described as “very much a lama’s lama. Few passing through anywhere near New England would miss an opportunity to pay a visit and receive the wisdom of one of the great scholars and masters of our day.”
Though Tulku Thondup chose not to take on disciples or establish a center, he had a devoted following nonetheless. They remember him for his kindness, humility, devotion, accessibility, and sense of humor, as much as for his profound wisdom. In a moving tribute, Samuel Bercholz, founder of Shambhala Publications, hailed Tulku Thondup as the perfect scholar, perfect teacher, perfect spiritual friend, and perfect truth teller. “Everything he said was dependable and shockingly practical,” Bercholz wrote. “To be with him was an unceasing rain of blessings. The great Nyingma teacher Kyabje Thinley Norbu Rinpoche mentioned many times that ‘Tulku Thondup style is the best style.’”
Tulku Thondup taught in North America, Europe, and Asia, introducing many Westerners to the teachings of Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche). As a scholar and translator, he contributed to journals in the US and abroad, and he posted teachings and interviews on his own website (www.tulkuthondup.com). Frequently sought after to write forewords and introductions to works by other Tibetan Buddhists, he was in his own right the author or translator of some sixteen scholarly and general-interest books on meditation, healing, Dzogchen, and traditional texts, published in twenty-one languages. Among his most influential books—said to be one of his favorites—is Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet, which contains biographies of thirty-five enlightened masters in the Longchen Nyingtik lineage. Shambhala Publications describes the book as “full of peace, enlightenment, and amazing miracles.”
Other notable works by Tulku Thondup include Incarnation: The History and Mysticism of the Tulku Tradition of Tibet—tulkus are believed to be reincarnations of high lamas—and Hidden Teachings of Tibet: An Explanation of the Terma Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Terma, literally meaning “treasure,” are precious teachings and relics hidden by enlightened Buddhist masters to be discovered in later generations by tertons, “treasure revealers.” (Earth terma are found in the Himalayan landscape, mind terma in the mindstream of a terton.)
Tulku Thondup’s books for a more general audience include The Healing Power of Mind; Boundless Healing; Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth; and Enlightened Journey: Buddhist Practice as Daily Life. He was widely known for his teachings on healing and lovingkindness, and one of the books said to be “dearest” to him is The Heart of Unconditional Love: A Powerful New Approach to Loving-Kindness Meditation.
Much of Tulku Thondup’s work as a translator and author was under the auspices of the Buddhayana Foundation, a nonprofit in Marion, Massachusetts, set up to support his work and preserve and promote the wisdom and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. There, Tulku Thondup served as president and worked closely with the late Harold Talbott, an editor who established the foundation in the early 1980s with Michael Baldwin, founder of Baldwin Brothers investment advisors as well as the Marion Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to innovative initiatives in sustainability, health, environmental resilience, and social justice.
Tulku Thondup was born on December 29, 1937, into a nomadic family in Golok, an area of Eastern Tibet between Amdo and Kham. His mother was the daughter of a tribal chieftain; his father was the chieftain of a different tribe. At age 5, he was recognized as a tulku, the reincarnation of Lushul Khenpo Konchog Dronme, a manifestation of Manjushri and a celebrated scholar at Dodrupchen Monastery, a major Nyingma learning center in Golok. Tulku Thondup studied under Dodrupchen Rinpoche and was named ritual master (dorje lopon) of the monastery.
In 1956, Kyabje Dodrupchen Rinpoche, known for his prescience, foresaw the Communist Chinese takeover of Tibet and arranged for Tulku Thondup to join a small party leaving for India, where Dodrupchen Rinpoche established Chorten Gonpa in Gangtok, Sikkim. From 1967 to 1976, Tulku Thondup taught Tibetan language and literature at the University of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, and from 1976 to 1980, taught at Visva-Bharati College (now University), founded in West Bengal by the poet, philosopher, social reformer, and educator Rabindranath Tagore.
Tulku Thondup met Harold Talbott and Michael Baldwin in India in the late 1960s and visited them in Marion, Massachusetts, in the ’70s. They arranged for him to come to the US in 1980 as a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School. He audited a course taught by Masatoshi Nagatomi, Harvard’s first full-time professor of Buddhist Studies, to see how Buddhism was taught in the United States. With the support of the Buddhayana Foundation, Tulku Thondup remained in Cambridge as an independent scholar and translator for the rest of his life.
In addition to being affiliated with Chorten Gonpa in Sikkim, Tulku Thondup was closely connected to the Mahasiddha Nyingmapa Center in Hawley, Massachusetts, Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s seat in the US.
Besides being a brilliant and rigorous scholar, Tulku Thondup was also loved for his teachings applied to daily life. In an excerpt from his book The Heart of Unconditional Love, he cautions against getting stuck in “neutral”—using meditation as a respite, a break from the pressures of ordinary life, and thereby foregoing the chance it affords to overcome emotional afflictions.
Tulku Thondup was exquisitely sensitive to the needs of people at whatever level they approached Buddhism. In an interview for Inquiring Mind about his 2001 book Boundless Healing, he says, “While my inspiration for those healing exercises came from my Vajrayana background, I knew I couldn’t offer those specific Tantric practices to the general public. So I began to look in the Mahayana sutras and found the basis for very similar practices. . . . Although the healing powers I offer are almost identical to those taught in the Vajrayana tradition, I do not instruct people to focus on chakras or channels. I try to guide people to experience positive energies, blissful heat in every boundless cell of the body, so that the whole body becomes a boundless field of pleasant, healing sensations. Using chakras or channels is a great training in awakening powerful energies. But they are dangerous if you don’t know how to handle them.”
Asked about the importance of prayer and devotion, he told another interviewer that although there are hundreds of ways of praying, “what’s most important is that these prayers and meditations all have as their purpose to change our own mind. If we can improve the mind, we can improve all of our life”—physical health, mental health, death, and rebirth. “If our mind is peaceful, joyful, positive, then whatever we say will be words of peace, whatever we do will be an expression of that peacefulness and joyfulness we are experiencing in the mind.”
Friends and admirers often remarked on Tulku Thondup’s gentleness and simplicity—unusual in someone of such deep erudition and formidable intellect but attributes that he shared with Dodrupchen Rinpoche. In describing Dodrupchen, Tulku Thondup might easily have been describing himself: “He was a great master…clairvoyant, with power and kindness, but he always tried to hide his qualities. His purpose was to go and see and teach people but not make it a big deal.”
A message of condolence from the Rigpa sangha worldwide noted that Tulku Thondup “wore his vast knowledge with a disarming lightness and complete humility. Everyone would turn to him to contextualize or clarify the teachings, to explain the nuances of translation, and he was so generous, always ready to help with his profound understanding of the Dharma.” Many have remarked on his quiet charisma. The Rigpa message characterized his personality as “so open and endearing. He radiated an irresistible and infectious serenity, and he took time to show great personal kindness to individuals who were facing illness or difficulty.”
Tulku Thondup is survived by his wife, Lydia Segal, whose “enduring love and care” for Tulku Thondup have been widely acknowledged by grateful friends and supporters. An author and tenured professor of business ethics at Suffolk University in Boston, Segal met Tulku Thondup as an undergraduate at Harvard. Curious about Buddhism, having been introduced to it by her mother, she too was auditing Professor Nagatomi’s class. She and Tulku Thondup kept in close touch after that while Segal studied at Oxford University and Harvard Law School, and they were together for many years before marrying in 2005.
The last five years of Tulku Thondup’s life were marked by ill health, following a heart attack and a stroke. “But none of that affected him,” Segal says. “He was in ecstasy all day.” Since his death, messages of condolence have poured in. “He touched so many people all over the world so profoundly,” she noted. “It’s extraordinary.” For her part, “I feel his presence all around me if my mind is quiet and I have silence, but even during the day, when I wander around.”
To those who wish to pray for Tulku Thondup, Segal says, “He didn’t want prayers for his rebirth here on Earth but rather for rebirth in Dewachen—the Pure Land of great bliss—so that he could help countless beings from there.”
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