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.
I’ve never met a kinder being. He overflowed with spunk, mischief, and ferocious energy to the end. He was always fun and fascinating. No matter how painful his body was, one always left him with the surety that all good things were possible and liberation inevitable.
Rinpoche was completely devoted to the practice of bodhicitta (the heart/mind of enlightenment), to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and to his root guru, the great Pabonka Rinpoche. He was a special spiritual friend to Gehlek Rinpoche, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and many other important lamas. His passing signals the inevitable loss of a generation that is the last living link to pre-Chinese-invasion Tibet.
RINPOCHE SPOKE constantly of the future survival and continuity of authentic Buddha-dharma, which he felt was in the hands of the trained geshes and khenpos—the great scholars of Tibetan Buddhism—and the monastic institutions that had produced them, virtually all of which were destroyed by the Chinese in the 1960s. These great seats of learning, essentially the Harvards, Princetons, and Yales of Central Asia, have been slowly rebuilt in exile, mostly in the south of India. With resources so scarce, the health of the qualified monks and nuns—the living repository of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom—has not been well cared for. As I’ve heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama say on many occasions, it takes an enormous amount of energy (usually twenty years of higher education) to make a geshe. It’s unthinkable that it would be wasted through ill health and early death.
Ribur Rinpoche’s first and most urgent request of me was to create a medical fund to take care of the needs of Tibetan monastics. Over the last seven years, the Tibetan Health Initiative has been supplying primary and catastrophic medical care, including major operations, to nearly a thousand monks and nuns at fifteen monasteries and nunneries. With his passing, we’ve created the Ribur Rinpoche Fund, further expanding this care, with the clear intention to eventually benefit the entire Tibetan community in exile and the even more needy community inside Tibet. [See next page.]
Rinpoche was in clear light meditation for five days before he left his body for good. The ashes of his cremation pit contained hundreds of holy relics. We all miss him terribly.
THE RIBUR RINPOCHE FUND
To honor Ribur Rinpoche’s wishes, Healing the Divide, a nonprofit organization founded by Richard Gere, has established the Ribur Rinpoche Fund to raise support for health insurance for destitute Tibetan monks and nuns. The Ribur Rinpoche Fund is an outgrowth of Healing the Divide’s Tibetan Health Initiative, which pioneered a comprehensive membership-based health plan seven years ago in partnership with the Manipal Corporation, a leading Indian hospital system. Now, Healing the Divide is expanding the program to take advantage of new affordable health insurance programs that are becoming available to the rural poor in India. The Ribur Rinpoche Fund is non-sectarian, and members of the public are invited to contribute toward the health care of individual monks and nuns. A donation of $100 will provide health insurance for approximately thirty individuals. Richard Gere is providing a Challenge Grant to Healing the Divide that will match donations one-for-one. For further information, visit healingthedivide.org.