5/02/2011

An Encounter with Arjia Rinpoche

About a week ago, I had the chance to meet Arjia Rinpoche at a reception in his honor. He's currently touring the country, promoting his book Surviving the Dragon and raising money for a medical facility project in Mongolia. I'd heard about his visit from friends in the local Mongolian community - we've worked on the same arts events in the past few months and I performed at the Tsagaan Sar New Year's festival this year. I missed his talk because the time conflicted with a workshop I was teaching that same day, but I was invited to join he and the others at lunch.

Although I've read books by Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama, Ticht Nhat Nanh, and Pema Chodron, I had never had the chance met a Buddhist monk before, let alone a reincarnated person. Friends who had met the Dalai all mentioned his sense of humor and child-like approach to life. Arjia Rinpoche was the same - he radiated a sense of wonder and seemed genuinely surprised to hear that not only could I cook (my recipe for biko was used to make dessert, I found out) but I was a storyteller. He asked me questions about how I found the stories and how I performed them. It was strange because I knew he had been talking to my friend Doug Banner, my mentor in storytelling, just a few minutes prior. But Rinpoche's questions made me feel like I was the first person he had ever heard do such a thing. I don't think it was because he forgot or was trying to amuse me, but that he was trying to understand what I felt when I was Telling. He wanted to understand my experience.

This was in keeping with what I had heard from others. They said he spoke about how as humans, we are to practice Compassion and Wisdom. The barriers to the Journey are Ignorance, Attachment, and Hate. Our conversation showed me that he was genuinely interested in taking the opportunity to be compassionate and to gain wisdom from our encounter. I didn't expect that, I didn't expect that there would be anything I could offer that would be of interest to him.

I went to see him because wanted to ask to him about The Golden Tara of Agusan a golden statue from the Buddhist period of Philippine history. I had heard that before the US, before the Spanish and the Muslim, Buddhism influenced the governing and philosophy of the people. The Source material for this claim is scant, and based on archeological finds and the work of William Henry Scott, but still, the possibility of Buddhism in the Philippines intrigued me. I was unable to attend the talk given by Lama Choyin Rangdrol last Fall, and had little luck finding any other sources of information on the statue or the practices associated with the Golden Tara.

In conversations with Lama Rangdrol, I discovered that "Golden Tara" is something of a misnomer, since researchers aren't sure the image is of the goddess known as Tara among mainland Asia Buddhists. Lama Rangdrol was adamant that the goddess depicted should only be understood in relationship to the Philippine people, their viewpoint and understanding of compassion and wisdom. So who is She in the statue?

I wondered what Arjia Rinpoche might know of "Golden Tara." He didn't claim familiarity with the statue, but speculated that Buddhism in the Philippines came from the Pali branch - Zen and Tibetan Buddhism being the other two branches. All three trace their roots to original Sanskrit texts, but each translated the texts into the dominant languages later. It would make sense, he said, that Buddhism spread from Central Asia, through South Asia (Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, etc) then across the sea to the Philippines. Tara, though is distinctly Tibetan, he said, so he couldn't speculate on who the image was. He asked if perhaps it was instead Kwan Yin, but I mentioned that her mudras (hand positions) were not classic to Kwan Yin. In fact, her mudras were none I had come across.

He didn't seem disturbed by my questions, just curious and engaging as we puzzled it out together. I wish I had brought a picture of the icon to show to him, but just having the conversation has helped me feel more secure in the possibility of a branch of Buddhism in Pre-Muslim Philippines.

Why is this so important to me? I guess I need to see the concepts of Kapwa, the Self in the Other, in not just the indigenous peoples of the Philippines. That the concepts of Compassion and Wisdom were part of the island culture before colonization. That trade with the mainland also meant trade of thoughts, ideas, and philosophies. I shared with Rinpoche my limited understanding of Kapwa and again, he approached the topic with an open heart, linking my words with his own experience and beliefs. I think we both wished we could speak further on these things, but he had to leave after lunch to continue his travels.

I'm in contact with a couple of researchers of the Golden Tara and I'm hopeful to learn more of the statue's origins and the practices associated with the goddess.