While I was living in the Paro valley of Bhutan, I learned that Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche Yangsi lived just down the road. Yangsi means child incarnation of a great teacher before they assume their teaching responsibilities. The previous Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who died in 1991, was considered to have been one of the greatest masters of this era, and was one of the Dalai Lama’s main tutors. I started asking around to see if it was possible to meet him.
Because he was the incarnation of such a high lama and, still a teenager, doing his intensive studies, he didn’t often grant interviews. According to Tibetan Buddhists, when a great master reincarnates, though he still retains the level of realization he attained in his previous life, he needs to go through the process of remembering it through formal instruction in this life so as better at teaching others. So the Yangsi’s study schedule was intensely structured and full.
I had become friendly with a Tibetan woman my age, Deki, who ran a small café in Paro. It was a tiny storefront on a side street that seated no more than eight people on two wooden benches. She made me vegetarian momos if I called ahead, so I went to town to sit with her and catch up on the latest gossip.
I mentioned my interest in meeting the Yangsi. A few days later, Deki called and said, “I’m going for a blessing tomorrow with the Yangsi’s tutor, do you want to come? We can go see the Yangsi afterwards.”
Afterward his attendant offered us milk tea and cookies (at 7:30am) and Khenpo slipped into his room to find little pictures of Guru Rinpoche for us. While we drank our tea he blessed a pile of thangka paintings another monk had brought in. Just before we left, we bowed and he held our heads in his strong hands, like he was extracting all the irrelevance and muck.
We exited his small wooden house and hiked up the hill toward Yangsi Rinpoche’s quarters. He had his own charming bungalow near the main compound, fenced off and protected by large trees, like a house from a fairytale. Five playful dogs tormented a gentle pony on the lawn.
We took a diversion on the path to make three circumambulations around the stupa, the reliquary of the previous incarnation, in a green and purple flower-filled garden. We were served more tea and biscuits, sitting on couches in the waiting room of the main building at Satsam Chorten monastery, built on the land that the Queen mother of Bhutan offered to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche when he sought refuge here after escaping from Tibet in the 1950s. While we waited for Yangsi Rinpoche to receive us, we each held a tiny puppy on our lap while Deki talked to the lamas, who she knew from years of family ties.
Finally, Rinpoche was ready for us. We walked across the sunny courtyard to his small charming house. The door opened and we entered. One of the monks took our offerings of biscuits and incense, and we placed our bags and katas (white offering scarves) in the corner to make our three prostrations to this fifteen-year-old rinpoche. Seated on his throne, quiet and demure, his presence was overwhelmingly powerful. He merely nodded a greeting of welcome. We presented our scarves; immediately a monk came to offer us a handful of dutsi (powder made of specially prepared and ritually blessed Tibetan herbs) and a protection cord.
While I was chomping away trying to swallow my dutsi and tie my red cord around my neck, Deki was suddenly insistent.
“Do you have anything to say to Rinpoche?”
So I said with my mouth still full, “Go ahead, you first.”
She said, “You can say something.”
“No please, you go.”
“You don’t have anything to say?’
I swallowed my dutsi and took a breath.
I looked directly at the Yangsi, and I said, “I am very happy to meet you.”
Brilliant. So original. There was a long pause.
Yangsi Rinpoche, who had been sitting back, calmly watching this whole episode unfold, then said, with the utmost of poise, “Thank you.”
Another long, awkward pause.
“Right. Then. So shall we go?” Deki suggested.
To which I replied enthusiastically, “Okay.”
So sixty seconds later we got up. Like some comic silent film actress I stepped on the hem of my kira as I got up. I stumbled over Deki and almost inadvertently undressed myself at the same time (my half kira was held together with Velcro) as we collected ourselves to go. I felt myself turn a striking shade of dark red. As we offered a final bow, I made eye contact with Rinpoche. I couldn’t tell if those fathomless eyes showed deep, deep compassion, or outright concern. On our way out the door, the three lamas in the corner snickered at us and tried hard to suppress their laughter, which overtook us all as we emerged into the sunlit garden.
“You didn’t have any question for him?” Deki asked, laughing.
“No, I just wanted to meet him!” I said. “I thought you had a question for him!”
“They must think we are so silly,” she said.
I think she was right.
But it doesn’t matter. This is the path–exposing our silliness.Featured image by Mark Elliott. Photo of Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro © Christopher J. Fynn / Wikimedia Commons.
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