Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Autobiography
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Terbish, B., & Churyumova, E. (2018). Telo Tulku Rinpoche, Autobiography [Video file]. https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/276444
Telo Tulku: I went to India when I was 7 years old. I grew up very far away from my family, from my grandparents. I have very little information [about them], and as a child you have very little interest in your family’s history in general. As far as I know, my mother’s father left Kalmykia in the 1920s, because he was part of the Don Cossacks. My grandfather and grandmother settled in Yugoslavia in the late1920s – early 1930s. On my mother’s side, we are Buzava. On my father’s side, we are Derbet. My father came [to the USA] directly from Kalmykia when he was a teenager. When he was going to school [in Kalmykia], the Nazis entered Russia through the western part. The military convoy was going through Kalmykia and on to Stalingrad (today Volgograd). My father was taken by the German army to join them against the Red Army. When the Nazis were defeated, many Kalmyks who had joined them left with the Germans for Germany. When they arrived there, they were told that their services were no longer needed. They ended up in various refugee camps. Later on, they were able to emigrate to the United States. The Kalmyks who were scattered in Europe had some kind of network, a communication system, whereby they were able to share information and move people from one place to another. Later on, I believe it was the Tolstoy Foundation in Paris, France, that was able to collect many of the Kalmyks and help them apply for a refugee status in America. That is how many of the Kalmyks ended up in America. So, my father was born in Kalmykia, joined the Nazis, left with the Nazis, ended up in Europe in various refugee camps, and finally settled in America. My mother’s father and mother were already in Europe in the late 1920s. My mother was born in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade, and at that time there was a large Kalmyk community there. There was a temple, there was a road called Kalmyk Road in Belgrade, which I heard no longer exists. This is brief information about my mother’s side. My father was married once before, and my mother was married once before. My mother was married to an American, they had two daughters. My father was married to a Kalmyk, they had two sons and a daughter. My father’s first wife passed away; my mother’s first husband passed away too. Later my parents met in America and had four more children. It is a big family. I have 5 brothers and 3 sisters. I am the youngest one. This is very basic information about my family. Baasanjav: What are your first memories from your childhood? TT: I do not know if I have first memories. There are little patches or sketches of my childhood. It was a very tight family-oriented environment that I had grew up in. Most of my family is on my mother’s side. So, on my mother’s side we had a lot of relatives, frequent gatherings, family dinners, visits to other Kalmyk families. I have very strong memories of that. My grandfather was very kind, generous. At the same time, he was very strict about speaking Kalmyk language in the house. When he was alive, Kalmyk was commonly spoken in the house. After he passed away, nobody would really be disciplined like my grandfather was. B: How old were you when you grandfather died? TT: When my grandfather passed away, I was in India. I believe, he passed away in 1983. I went to India in 1980. My first visit back home was in 1983. That was 3 years later when I went to see my family. At that time, my grandfather was very ill. After I left for India, 3 months later he passed away. B: Did you grow up speaking both Kalmyk and English? TT: Yes, I grew up speaking both English and Kalmyk. In the monastery, I picked up Tibetan language very quickly. First in line, I forgot Kalmyk language; second, I also forgot English to a certain extent. When I went back home in 1983, my English had been broken. My cousins were making fun of me. When I left back for India, this gave me some kind of determination to learn English, to try not to forget it. Later on, I realised that English is widely used, that it is a language of importance. I needed to try to maintain that. My English is pretty much self-taught. I never went to school, other than a kindergarten and the first grade in America before going to monastery. By the time I was in second grade, I went to India. In first and second grades, you do not learn much other than ABC. But pretty much I self-taught myself English by reading a lot, learning how to write and spell. I picked it up on my own. B: Which language do you speak with your family? TT: With my brothers and sisters I speak in English. They are more or less Americanised. I see them very rarely, I grew up far away from them. I do not have much in common with any of them. When we see each other, we converse in English. B: As the youngest child in the family how were you treated by your older siblings and relatives? TT: I was never picked on. I was never teased. I was treated normally, I would say. Most of my childhood I spent away from my home. So, at the age of 7 I went to India. I have very little memory prior to going to the monastery. B: In Mongolia, you may know the smallest child gets a special treatment. TT: I think it is not only in Mongolia, but in every family where the baby is spoilt. Unfortunately, even if my parents wanted to spoil me, or even if my brothers and sisters wanted to spoil me, they never had an opportunity, a chance to spoil me. B: Can we talk about your first years in a Tibetan monastery in India? How do you remember this time? What was your first observation? What did you feel? TT: This is where I belong. That is what I felt. My mother took me to India, to the monastery. I believe she thought, ‘Ok, this is just a phase. He will be here for some time and then he will say “Mom, let’s go home”’. But for me, as far as I could remember, from the age of 3-4, I always wanted to become a monk. When I went to a Buddhist temple and I saw monks, it was such an attraction. I kept feeling this was where I wanted to be. Therefore, it was difficult for my parents. They did not know what to do, how to react, how to handle this case. In 1979 my family had a private audience with the Dalai Lama. Because of the Dalai Lama’s recommendation to send me to India, my parents decided to send me to India. In the past, I was asked by one journalist who took interest in my life: ‘Do I regret leaving America and going to India at such a young age?’ I do not. I rejoice, it is probably one of the happiest times. When my mother took me there, I fit in right away. I felt at home, I felt comfortable. I remember telling my mother, ‘You can leave now. Don’t worry’. Of course, as a mother it is not an easy thing to leave your baby in a different continent, in a different environment. So, she left the monastery and went up north to Delhi – that is where her flight was taking off from. She waited for another 3 to 4 weeks hoping that I would be crying, ‘Oh, come and get me. Pick me up! I want to go home now!’ That never happened. So, she came once again to the monastery just to double check, just to make sure. She stayed at the monastery for 2 weeks, then she said, ‘Ok, I am going home now. He is here [happy]’. She went back. Next time I saw her was in 1983. B: Did you miss your parents? TT: I think, in 1983 was the time when I was starting to miss my family. I got a little bit homesick. That is when I said to my teacher, ‘I want to go home’. B: What was your routine like in the monastery? Can you describe what you did in the morning? TT: We got up at 6 o’clock. Immediately, we washed up, cleaned the house, mopped the floor, did the dusting and sweeping. We had a very big household. There were 6 other monks of my age. Everybody was assigned to certain responsibilities. One was to pick up tea from the central kitchen. One was responsible for washing up the dishes. I was responsible for my teacher’s room, meaning I would sweep the floor, clean, make offerings on the altar. Then, we had another student who was responsible for cleaning other rooms. By 7 o’clock we were done. From 7 to 8.30 am we memorised texts, prayers, scriptures. After that we had a 15-minute break, then from 9 to 11 am we went to a philosophy debate session. From 11 am to 12 pm lunch was served. From 12 pm to 1 pm we had to learn calligraphy in Tibetan. From 1 to 2 pm we went to a philosophy class. From 2 to 3 pm we had one-hour break. You could have a nap in the afternoon. Then from 3 to 4.30 pm we did memorisation of texts. At 4.30 pm you got ready for dinner. You had 30 minutes to have a shower, freshen up. At 5 pm dinner was served. From 6 to 9.30 pm or 10 pm we went to a debate session. At 10 pm you came home and then recited texts that you had memorised during the day. Then by 11 o’clock you went to bed. 6 o’clock you were up again. B: What did you debate about at these debate courses? TT: At the very beginning stage it is what we call Logic. You learn the skills of Buddhist logic. That is 3-4 years of study. Then you join a class called Mind and Logic (‘Lorik’ in Tibetan). After that you join a higher class, the Prajnaparamita class. It gets more intense and serious. It is 5 to 6 years. But if you want to get a full degree of Geshe, it is equivalent of a PhD, I would say. In order to obtain a Geshe degree one needs to do 16 years of training in a monastic institution. Then another 6 years of exams that you have to take. They call it the Gelugpa exams to obtain Geshe Lkharamba. Lkharamba is the highest order. Once you complete your studies, you can join a programme to take your Geshe Lkharamba degree. So, every year you need to take an exam. What you are doing in free time is basically refreshing what you have studied since you were a child – all the major five subjects that were taught. When the Gelugpa exam process begins, it is a lottery system, you have to pick the topic of what you are going to debate. You never know what question is going to be at the exam. When you pick a topic, you do not know what subject is going to be, you do not know which textbook. You have about 10 minutes to create your debate. I, unfortunately, did not complete my studies. I got involved in Kalmykia at a very young age. I never had an opportunity to take my Geshe exams. And later on, I disrobed, I left the monastic institution. I could not go back to continue my studies. But that is how the monastic life is. It is a very rigorous, very disciplined, strict environment. B: What other subjects did you study, apart from logic, mind? Did you study mathematics? TT: Mathematics was not taught. Any of the modern science subjects that are taught in secular schools were not taught in the monastery at all. In the monastery, it was a strictly monastic education. You do a lot of memorising, learning calligraphy, Tibetan grammar. A lot of Buddhist philosophy classes. At my young age, the teaching system was very traditional. In many cases we did not even know what we were memorising. We knew what text it was, but we memorised texts in classical Tibetan language. A lot of the words and abbreviations – we had no idea what it was about. We came to know about this many years later, when we grew up. B: What were the hardships that you had to encounter when you were doing your studies there? Climate, food? TT: I think the physical comfort was probably very challenging in those days, not only for me. Most of the monastic institutions were poor financially and materially. To a certain extent, it was a challenge for many people – poor facilities, poor food. Nowadays when you go to the monastery where we studied, it is 10 times better than it was in our days. For example, in our days at breakfast we had a big mug of tea. That was it. If you had something extra to eat at home or in your living quarters, you could eat it. If not, it was just one big mug of tea. For lunch, it was the same thing – a big mug of tea and lepeshka (as they call it in Russian). For dinner, it was rice and vegetables. The following day it was rice and lentils. The rice was not of the best quality. Every time you took a bite of your rice, you had to look for stones to make sure you were not biting rocks or stones. In lentil soup, there were many stones too. That is because the monastery was poor, and they could only afford the poorest quality of rice, vegetables, lentils and so on. Nowadays it is much better. The living conditions have improved, as well as the food. There are clinics, hospitals, there are a lot of books [in the monastery]. There was a time when the monastery did not even have textbooks. Even if they had a textbook it would have been shared between 2 monks – I could keep it for 2 days, you could use it for the next few days. These were not individual challenges; I think these were common, general challenges for everybody. B: Did you watch TV, listen to music? TT: There was no TV in the monastery. There was no radio. B: Did you read newspapers? TT: Occasionally, there were some newspapers. B: Who were the other students? TT: Mostly Tibetans. Then there were a lot of monks from the Himalayan region, Ladakh, from Sikkim, some from Bhutan. In the earlier days, I was the only foreigner. I was the only Mongolian until 1992-1993. B: Do you keep contact with your classmates? Are they all monks now? TT: Yes, I do. Some of them have left the monastery. Most of them are still monks. When I first joined the Drepung Gomang monastery, there were 130 monks overall. Now there are over 2,000 monks. B: It has expanded. TT: It has grown. It has changed in so many different ways. B: What were your happiest memories in India? TT: Probably not having the responsibilities that I have today. Those are the happiest times – you are a child, you are innocent. All you care about is little time that you want to play. Those are happy moments – carelessness, freedom, your innocence. B: The Dalai Lama has played an important role in your life. On his recommendation, your parents decided to send you to India. Could you talk about your relationship with the Dalai Lama? TT: I have been very fortunate and very blessed. It has been a great honour for me to be known by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Of course, he has many friends all over the world, on many different levels, of different statuses. In my case, I stood out only because of my background: being a Mongolian, being a Kalmyk, coming from America. That was very unique in that environment, or in that community. And also, to have a special attention. I am not saying I am special, because I have attention from His Holiness. His Holiness pays attention to many other people, groups, organisations. I have been very fortunate to be known by His Holiness. Not only that, but to be able to serve him in many ways. I consider myself a follower of His Holiness, of his principles, of his vision for the world, and a disciple. Of course, I do not claim that I am one of his closest, or special disciples. That is not the case. He has thousands of disciples. I am one of his disciples as well. There a lot of people who use this term ‘I studied with the Dalai Lama’. I do not claim that I studied with the Dalai Lama. I would say that I studied under the Dalai Lama’s teachings. At the same time, just because I studied under the Dalai Lama, it does not mean that I am special or extraordinary. Thousands of people studied under His Holiness. So, I am just a disciple among many others. At the same time, I have been very fortunate out of the thousands to be one of the people that His Holiness knows. Not only that, I am currently serving as the Dalai Lama’s representative to Russia, Mongolia and CIS countries. It is a great honour and a blessing to be representing His Holiness. B: As his representative, do you often see the Dalai Lama? How often do you see him? TT: It depends on projects, plans, programmes. Last time I saw him was 2 months ago. That was because we organised His Holiness’ teachings for Russian Buddhists. As organisers, we got to see him. Because we see the Dalai Lama, it does not mean that we sit down and have tea and discuss matters. Sometimes we do not even get a chance to discuss anything with him. We would see him from a distance and that is about it. Sometimes we have intensive discussions. They are not scheduled, they are all random. There is no set time in the year when we get to meet His Holiness. B: You have been the Shajin Lama of Kalmykia since 1992. Can we talk about this, how did it start? TT: I was in my monastery. I visited Kalmykia for the very first time in the summer of 1991. I was part of the Dalai Lama’s entourage of delegation that visited Kalmykia. That was my very first introduction to Kalmykia. The visit was very short. The Dalai Lama went back to India. I had come from Mongolia and returned back to Mongolia at that time and spent another 2 months before going back to India. In 1992, when I was already in India back to my usual routine, I received a telegram from Kalmykia inviting me to an extraordinary Buddhist conference. I consulted with my teacher at that time at the monastery and I asked him, ‘What do you think I should do?’ He said, ‘Well, sooner or later you are going to get involved with Mongolian and Kalmyk affairs. Why don’t you go and see what this conference is about?’ I had very little information about what this conference was about. When I came to Kamykia, I found out that the head of Buddhists at that time was a Buryat, and that the Kalmyk community wanted to overthrow him and appoint a new Buddhist head. I was one of their candidates. I was not aware of this. People really wanted me to take over this responsibility. During the conference, my translator was a little bit behind with her translation. By the time she finished translating to me, I had already been elected the head of Buddhists of Kalmykia. I never had an opportunity to object and say, ‘No, that is not possible. I am still studying’. Towards the end my translator said, ‘Congratulations!’ I said ‘For what?’ She said, ‘You have been elected the Head Lama of Kalmykia’. So that is how it happened. Of course, it was a surprise to me. I had no plan, no vision, no expectation to become the head of Buddhists of Kalmykia. But immediately something clicked [inside me] and [I] said [to myself], ‘Well, you have to take the responsibility. You have to take charge – it may sound very Christian – this is your fate, or your calling’. And something within me said, ‘OK, let’s give it a try. Let’s do it’. That is how I felt, almost like a kick from behind, ‘Let’s go’. Immediately you have to set up a plan, a proposal. So, I had one night to come up with a plan, with the help of people that I had never met. I set my ideas out. We kind of worked around it and that is how we created the Buddhist Union of Kalmykia. It became centralised – the highest authority of Kalmyk Buddhists. So, for 25 years I have served as the head of the Buddhists, assisting, guiding the revival of Buddhism. Of course, we are all humans, we do make mistakes. There were a lot of bumps, challenges. Nevertheless, we were always optimistic and very positive. We believed in a certain goal, we held on those goals and principles. To this day we have succeeded. I never say ‘I succeeded’, because that would not be right. I always say ‘We succeeded’, because we built this community, we built this structure, this temple as a collective effort, rather than one person’s effort. That is something all of us have accomplished, all of us have achieved together. B: In the last 25 years how many religious buildings, including temples, prayer houses and stupas, have been built in Kalmykia? TT: So far, we have built over 31 Buddhist temples across Kalmykia that we know of. In terms of stupas it is more than 130-140. Sometimes, we do not even know that they are built. Sometimes people invite us, sometimes they do not. I would not be surprised if it turns out to be 160 stupas, not 130-140. B: I know that you sent Kalmyk men to study in India? How many Kalmyks did you send there? TT: I think since 1993 when the first group was sent to India till today, we sent about 100 students to India. All of those students that we sent, were not necessarily sent to monastic institutions only. Not all were male, we had some females as well. So, the majority of them went to a monastery, some of them went to the University of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi. We sent 10 students to the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute. We sent students to Sara College, which is a Buddhist dialectic school. We sent students to the Tibetan Library to learn Tibetan language and grammar. There were also some who studied Tangka painting. We sent students to various institutions. Did all of them survive? No. There were many challenges – a climate difference, a cultural difference, strict discipline. There were various reasons [why some did not finish their studies]. B: How many Kalmyk lamas with Tibetan religious education do you have today in Kalmykia? TT: 22-23, I believe. B: Can we talk about the historical institution of the Shajin Lama? What is his role in the Kalmyk society? TT: The Shajin Lama’s responsibility is to lead, uphold and preserve the Buddhist status, image and teachings among the Kalmyks. That was the main responsibility of every Shajin Lama in the past. In my case, I have been able to uphold this tradition and redevelop, revive it, reintroduce it in a place where Buddhism once had flourished freely. It was completely lost under Communism. I think we have done a good job. If somebody was to ask me if I have any regrets about what we have done in Kalmykia, I do not have any regrets. I am fully satisfied with what we have done. Of course, there are a lot of things that could have been done differently. Still I do not have regrets. We did things based on the circumstances, on the situation at that time. Overall, we have achieved a lot of good and positive results. I am happy for that. B: Do you have links with the Buddhist establishment of Tuva? TT: Yes, we do. We have a very friendly, open communication and dialogue, consultation with one another. We have no problems whatsoever. With the administration of the Buryat Khambo Lama – from our side we have an open relationship. From their side, I do not know how they see it; we do not hear much from them, there is no communication from that side. From our side, we are always sending letters, greetings. But we never get a reply, but still. We do not know what the reasons are. But that is OK. I am 44 now. In the past 25 years, I look back and see nothing but joy. It was difficult time for all of us. We all struggled together and I am very grateful to the people who believed us, to the people who supported us and to the people who struggled with us. I dedicate our success to those people. I often pay homage to the older generation, because they are the ones who have really suffered physically, emotionally and psychologically. Nevertheless, they never gave up their hope, their faith. They never gave up their optimistic beliefs. Because of their wishes, prayers, optimism and strength, we are who we are today as Kalmyks. I dedicate my every step towards the preservation of Kalmyk people, Kalmyk culture, Kalmyk identity, Kalmyk traditions, our religion and so on. I am very grateful to the older generation for their hardship and for entrusting us with this very rich heritage. Now, we are getting older and it is time to pass the baton to the younger generation. I have sacrificed a lot in my life for the people, for the Kalmyk nation. And I have no regrets, but still there are a lot of things that I would like to enjoy personally. And I want to do that some day before it is too late. Hopefully, people will give me an opportunity to do that. And I wish the younger generation a great success. I am frequently asked if I were to leave the post of Shajin Lama, would I be worried? I am not worried. The future is in good hands, I believe. B: When would you like to resign? TT: I think, I am ready to resign now. Why not? Like I said, I am still physically fit. There are a lot of things that I want to do that I never got to do. There a lot of things that I have sacrificed, dedicated my life and time to Kalmykia. B: Who is your successor? TT: That is for the people to decide. I will never give any recommendation, I will never give my candidacy. That is for people to decide. Hopefully, people would use their intellect to choose the right person.
Autobiography, childhood, USA, India, Buddhism
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.23746