Modest Master

Memories of the late Tulku Urgyen (1920-1996). 

Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt

Jamdrak and Jokyab settled into a regular routine. Around nine each morning, the master would say, “It’s time to take a leak. Why don’t you come along? I’ll walk ahead, but bring my cushion to put in the sun.”

Jokyab would take along the large cushion—on which Jamdrak both sat and slept—and place it in a small meadow nearby. The old master would come back from relieving himself, flop down on the cushion and simply lie there for the next several hours. “Now he’s definitely not going back to the tree until lunch,” Jokyab would think. The old yogi would lie there on his back, eyes wide open, gazing into the sky until it was time to eat. At noon a small monk would announce that lunch was ready. That’s the way it went, day in and day out.

By now six months had gone by, three with nothing and three with some conversation and questions.

Then Jamdrak finally began teaching on the Light of Wisdom, spending several days on the title alone. He continued teaching, without skipping a single day over the next six months, covering every single detail in the text.

Once the teachings on the Light of Wisdom had begun, Jokyab would occasionally suggest, “Why don’t you move over to the monastery? It would be much easier for us to complete all the work we must do. It’s quite difficult for me to carry books back and forth from the library all the time.”

Jamdrak replied, “My whole life I’ve never lived in a building. I am very comfortable in this hollow tree. If you and the other lamas want to live in a monastery, go right ahead.” During this time with Jamdrak, Jokyab saw many people come to visit, including important lamas and wealthy benefactors. They often gave Jamdrak presents including quite expensive objects and money. Yet the old master was completely free of pretense with regard to these offerings. If an object happened to be beautiful he would hold it up and say, “Wow, what a lovely little gift! Thank you so much!”

Then, after the person left, regardless of what he had been given, Jamdrak would simply turn around and toss it into a box behind his seat. Huge chunks of dried meat, chunks of turquoise, sacks of dried cheese, bags of tsampa, priceless pieces of coral—all of it got mixed together. He never looked at an offering twice.

Jokyab noticed that one of the visitors didn’t dare to come in. He was a beggar, and it sounded like this wasn’t the first time he had come. Instead, he stuck his head in the window, “Eh, Rinpoche! Give me some alms, won’t you?”

Each time this beggar came, Jamdrak would reach back, put his hand in the box of offerings and, without looking, grab something and hand it out the window with a loud, “Here you are—enjoy!”

One day, an official from the monastery came by and saw that the beggar had just walked off with an exquisite golden statue. He rushed into the hollow tree and started to complain.

“Oh dear!” Jamdrak replied, “You want to put a price on the priceless Buddha. I am not able to do that.” To which the manager had no reply.

Jamdrak turned to Jokyab and said, “Poor fellows. They are actually very kind to me. I can’t hold it against them; they have to cover the monastery’s needs. First, the manager came and said he wanted half of all of my offerings. He told me that they were expanding the buildings and have many expenses, and that I don’t need so much because all I do is practice. I agreed to let them have half. Apparently it has turned out to be quite a lot. Now it looks as though they have grown to feel they own my offerings and want to count them to make sure they get their share.

“They’ve offered me a room in the monastery, but I always tell them that I am simply an old geezer living in a tree. I’m happy here,” he added with a chuckle, “but if they want to live in a monastery surrounded by fancy statues and lots of glitter, let them—if that makes them happy.”

Jokyab spent an entire year with Jamdrak in pursuit of these teachings, returning with an enormous sheaf of notes. Because he had run out of paper during his stay there, he had resorted to writing his notes on birch bark. When Jokyab came back from his mission, it looked as if he were carrying a load of wood shavings! When he untied his load, we saw that each scrap of bark had a little number. He was ordered to copy them all out in the right order, which took several months.

Jokyab’s notes expanded on the abbreviations and cross-references found in the text and clarified the difficult points. Eventually he compiled them into one remarkable volume, which is now widely used under the name Side Ornament to the Light of Wisdom. Jokyab sometimes joked, “These notes are the real repository for keeping the Light of Wisdom teachings clear and alive in my mind. Without them, I would not be able to give a thorough explanation. This is all thanks to Jamdrak.” There was a slightly rueful tone to his voice, for he had not had an easy time getting these teachings.

From Blazing Splendor, ©2005 by Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt. Reprinted with permission of Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Image 1: © Jean-Marie Adamini

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