I sat quietly as His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, the 33rd Gyalwa Menri Trizin (the world wide spiritual leader of the Bon tradition of Tibet and abbot of Menri Monastery, New Dolanji, India) offered me almonds from a simple wooden bowl. An attending monk offered me tea, while another fetched a small container and offered it to His Holiness.
Inside was a small hearing aid, and as the 86-year-old monk inserted it into his ear he smiled. “The Western system. Everything going on with a machine. Old people with machines … In India we do not have very many of these machines … But people are still very happy.”
Simple and happy are two words that easily describe this leader of the oldest faith in Tibet. His Holiness spoke as a simple monk who was the most approachable person in the room, and yet it was obvious that the kindness and generosity of his nature illuminated the room with a uniqueness of being. When he spoke it was with a presence that certainly let me know that he was just as interested in getting to know me, as I was in him.
Invited by Tempa Lama, the founder and spiritual director of Olmo Ling, a non-profit Bon Buddhist center in Pittsburgh, His Holiness made his first appearance to Western Pennsylvania on June 4th. He gave a talk to a large crowd at the Mellon Institute on “Awakening the Heart of Compassion.” He also attended a benefit dinner that evening to raise funds for his mission to fund and educate monks, nuns and orphans at the Menri Monastery.
His Holiness did not offer me an interview as much as a discussion. A well-traveled and highly educated man, he has studied Christianity with Benedictine, Cistercian and Trappist monks; met with Pope Paul II; worked with the Greek and Russian Orthodox Church; taught the Bon faith in the 1960s in England and Norway, and worked to support the monastic orders of Tibet.
Recognized by and friends with H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, he helped build the Menri Monastery in Dolanji, the Bon dialectic school and the Bon Children’s Welfare Center. Over 450 Bönpo children from all over India and Nepal attend the boarding school in the village and many orphan girls get their education from the nunnery.
“In the border areas there are small girls who have no chance,” said His Holiness. Many of these girls are orphans with few prospects. “They are tending goats and gathering wood for fire and have no chance for education. We [built] a nunnery for these girls so they can go to school. They learn English, Hindi and Tibetan. When they are done they can go back to their homes and teach.”
He believes Tibet’s future is a woman society. “The boys grow up in Tibet and I see them smoke very much, drink very much, fight each other play dice and all these things. Girls are different. Women do not smoke, drink or fight,” he said.
He also indicated that the Western image of Tibet is skewed to what is reported mostly in the cities. Most of the violence and protests, even by monks, that reach most Americans through the Internet and other media doesn’t really exists in more rural areas, where few or no Chinese culture takes root. This is where His Holiness feels that his work can have significant influence.
“In the border areas everyone is still very Tibetan,” he said. “These [educated] nuns bring so much back to these Tibetan people.”
After completion of studies these nuns, some earning “Geshe” degrees (equivalent to a doctorate of philosophy), are expected to return to be spiritual leaders, build schools and start small hospitals.
The longer His Holiness spoke, the more energized he became. I could almost see the vision of his work in his eyes. A Tibet where its culture and survival would be renewed in its oldest traditions of Bon, were struggling rural orphans would be the ones that breathed new life into great family that is Tibet, and loving kindness will overcome samsara. His eyes reveal the compassionate joy of his work. He sees the orphans as part of his family.
“I did not marry,” said His Holiness. “I like the monastic life. But I have so many children. This is a better family for me, maybe.”
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