Modest Master

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

Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt

Blaze of Fire
Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche remembers Tulku Urgyen’s powerful advice.

When I took off my monastic robes I was quite confused and depressed, and went to see Rinpoche. He told me, “It doesn’t matter if you are in robes or out of robes. What matters is your realization.

“You should be like [the great Tibetan saint] Marpa,” he advised. “Outwardly, Marpa was a householder, but inwardly he was a stove of dry straw being consumed by a blaze of fire.”

At the time, I’m not sure I got what Rinpoche was saying. But over these years I think of it often and I appreciate its meaning more and more. I realize how Rinpoche spoke directly to me. He never hesitated to share his experience with the world.

Body Language
Lama Surya Das on Tulku Urgyen’s generous forehead

Everyone familiar at all with Tibetan Buddhism knows that high lamas have high societal status, sit up high thrones, and that people customarily bow when entering their sacred presence and sit on the floor at their feet. Moreover, monks and nuns keep a physical distance from laypeople. Not a lot of hugging or handshaking took place in Tibet. Tibetan people of equal rank greeted each other by bowing slightly and touching foreheads, perhaps while clasping hands.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was utterly unique in being the only high lama I have ever seen who bopped foreheads with almost everybody, anyone he could, anyone who dared to get that close. When you approached and tried to bow, he would most often gently take your head with his hands on either side of your face or temple and place it against his forehead, and people could hardly fail to comment on it, since he was so highly regarded yet so equal to all. It was totally remarkable and a very telling expression of where he was really at.

With Just a Photo and a Handkerchief
Sharon Salzberg recalls Tulku Urgyen’s extraordinary kindness.

In 1991, I went to Nepal with several friends to study with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Lama Surya Das, who had met him before, arranged for us to go to Nagi Gompa, in the hills above Kathmandu. However, when we got to Kathmandu, it turned out that Rinpoche’s wife was very ill and he was not up in the hills but down in Bodhinath.

We went to see Tulku Urgyen every day for teachings. He was so generous to us, taking the time to see us, and his teachings were life-changing. There was nothing short of brilliance in his presentation, his urging of his students to have confidence in their own experience, his cutting through our clinging or confusion. All of this was executed with beautiful simplicity and elegance. “How in the world did he seem to convey the whole sweep of the Dharma,” I would ponder, “with just a photo and his handkerchief as props?

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