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Master of Masters

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Chatral Sangye Dorje, the great Buddhist yogi and the last of Sangharakshita’s teachers, died last year. Karunamati remembers him

Chatral Sangye Dorje Rimpoche, the last living teacher of our own founder, Sangharakshita, died at the end of last year at his home in Pharphing, Kathmandu, Nepal, aged 102. One eulogy, by the Bhutanese lama Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, praised a man who ‘associated with some of the greatest beings, and became master of the masters.’

The Green Tara Trust, a charity that I founded, had a field programme improving maternal health in Pharphing, where Rimpoche had spent the last ten years of his life. As Rimpoche’s life health deterioritated, Green Tara Trust local staff and their families were involved in caring for him. He lived in a house with a basic monastery attached, with his wife, daughters and grandchildren, who brought him great pleasure. He spent much of his time in the final years doing puja and not seeing many students. His wife has been especially kind to me, and has said she considers me part of their Sangha, or spiritual community.

The main thing that has stayed with me from my own meetings with Rimpoche has been a very pure, even vibratory energy that I could feel in his presence and still experience now. I can only describe it as a sort of bass throb that seems to emanate from him. It is likely that he is the most realised being I have had the opportunity to meet.There was a sense of compassion, purity and clarity in sitting with him that I have not experienced with anyone else. This is still accessible and, as such, I do not feel that he has ‘gone’, even though his body has died. He was very encouraging and supportive of our work to help local people in his area, and he was very happy to hear about how Sangharakshita was getting on.

Chatral Rimpoche is a treasured figure in our own tradition because of his connection with Sangharakshita, who went on to found our own Buddhist community after many years of practice and study in India. Sangharakshita became Rimpoche’s student in Kalimpong, the northern hill station where he lived and worked in the 1940s and 50s. In 1956 Rimpoche gave Sangharakshita the meditation practice of Green Tara, the figure who embodies the ideal of compassionate action in the Buddhist tradition. Sangharakshita practised it daily for seven years, as many of us in the Triratna Buddhist Order still do. The name of the Green Tara Trust was decided on before we arrived in Pharphing, and so it was a co-incidence, or maybe some sort of connection that was coming to fruition – who knows – that we ended up working there, our staff living next door to Rimpoche.

Chatral Rimpoche was born in 1913 in Kham, Tibet, and left home at the age of fifteen to study with local Buddhist masters. He would stay in tents or caves, always walking and never taking a horse. In his early days, he spent much time meditating in caves blessed by the great teacher, or ‘second Buddha’, Padmasambhava. He is considered by many to be a manifestation of Padmasambhava. There is a cave in Pharphing where Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal are said to have gained full Enlightenment, and it is in this area that he has lived for many years.

Rimpoche was vegetarian and insisted on this in his monasteries. One sign outside his Tibetan monastery reads: ‘How can we practise true compassion while we consume the flesh of an animal to fatten our own flesh?’ For many years, he engaged in a practice of buying around 70 truckloads of fish in Calcutta and freeing the fish back into the water. He was also known for taking off for weeks at a time with his rucksack to meditate. In fact, the last time he took off was only a few years ago, at a time when I thought he was not able even to walk around his house much; yet he disappeared again, returning a few weeks later. Chatral means ‘one who has abandoned mundane activities’.

He picked his students carefully, and would only give initiations to sincere practitioners. He was not moved by money offerings, and often gave money back to people who offered it. He and his attendants became wary of westerners for some time after a student tried to strangle him for not giving him an initiation; the student was mentally unwell and needed to be repatriated. Rimpoche later called on him to check he was improving at the hospital.

Rimpoche was in his 103rd year when he died. According to reports, he faded away at home. In another report, he had a fever for a couple of days before he died. Practitioners gathered and did not touch his body for three to four days until he had finished his meditation and had left the body, as is customary in Tibetan Buddhism. While I concur with Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse that we have lost a great master, and feel greatly saddened by his death, his energy and the effect his life has had cannot be lost. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse also remarked that ‘to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky’ – and this we can celebrate wholeheartedly.

I had just one opportunity to discuss Buddhist practice with Rimpoche. I asked him about what practices he felt would help me given I had problems meditating. He looked out of the window to where our work was going on, and said to me, ‘You have done enough. I will do puja for you.’ I have taken that as a strong hint to practise receptivity ever since. ■

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