A beloved Tibetan teacher in the Gelugpa tradition, Ribur Rinpoche passed away in January 2006. Born in the Kham region of Tibet in 1923, he received his geshe degree at Sera Me monastery in 1948. After suffering many years of abuse in Tibet under Chinese rule, he was exiled to India in 1985 and eventually came to teach in the United States.
I’VE NEVER FOUND it easier to talk to another human being. Although we shared no earthly common language, our talks were so lively, spontaneous, and creative, it seemed like there was no translator. I first met Ribur Rinpoche one rainy and very cold evening in 1998 at his residence at Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala, India. I had been taken there by my dear friend Fabrizio Pallotti, Rinpoche’s devoted student, translator, and jack-of-all-trades.
I remember being brought into Rinpoche’s rather damp, narrow room. The smell of cooked meat and incense hung in the air. He was sitting on a low throne, facing a large glass-encased statue of Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa tradition, with thousands of small lights illuminating it. Everything sparkled. The sparkle was really coming from him. His smile welcomed me and I did my prostrations. I felt warm and happy. I somehow had failed to bring a kata, or offering scarf, and instead offered the wool scarf I was wearing. He laughed and accepted the gift. I sat cross-legged at his feet while he and Fabrizio chatted in Tibetan. Without warning, my breathing changed and tears started streaming down my face. I was sobbing like a child. Fabrizio asked me what was wrong, and I said I didn’t know. Rinpoche looked down at me, smiling like the kindest of friends. After a while, he offered me an orange, which I took, appreciative that something had happened that changed the mood. I started laughing. Laughing and sobbing at the same time.
RINPOCHE STOPPED BREATHING at Sera Me Monastery on the full moon of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s recent Kalachakra Empowerment in Amaravati, India. He was eighty-four years old. He had been in the U.S. for much of the previous eight years or so, teaching and practicing.
I was profoundly blessed to have him live in a house on our property outside of New York City for several of those years, finishing what he (and we all) thought would be his final retreats. He had not been well. The years of abuse under Chinese rule had not been kind to him physically, but, as was true for many Tibetan monks, nuns, and laypeople, those difficult years had offered a unique opportunity to practice dharma and achieve a remarkable degree of insight and compassion. Rinpoche’s mind and heart were impeccable. Bobcats, deer, adults, and children were drawn to his retreat house. He performed the birth rituals for my newborn son. Life was good for all of us. As Rinpoche completed his retreats, we built a stupa. Happily, his health improved greatly, probably due in part to the improvement in food, the dry and warm house, and the sensitive medical care of Dr. Woodson “Woody” Merrell, our neighbor and friend. We received the gift of an additional four years of Rinpoche’s kindness and inspiration. Toward the end of 2005, after beating a difficult cancer, Rinpoche began what I think we all knew were his final good-byes. He was putting things in order and thanking those he felt had been kind and generous to him. In October 2005, he returned to Sera Me Monastery where he left his body behind.
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