The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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Tsem Tulku Rinpoche (born October 24, 1965) is a tulku, a reincarnate lama of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, and the founder and spiritual guide of the Kechara House Buddhist Association in Malaysia.
Tsem Tulku is the third in the line of tulkus associated with Ganden Monastery's Shartse college and the Gyuto tantric college. His predecessors were Gedun Nyedrak, a Khampa who served as Ganden Shartse's 72nd abbot; and Kentrul Thubten Lamsang, from Drikung, who died in Phari during the 1950s. Since the former came from a family which owed ties of fealty to Tsem Monastery, which housed a tooth of Tsongkhapa as a holy relic (tsem being the honorific Tibetan word for "tooth"), the name "Tsem" came to be applied to the tulku lineage; hence Tsem Tulku's appellation. ("Rinpoche" is an honorific meaning "precious," which is customarily affixed to the names of lamas.)
Tsem Tulku was born in Taipei, Taiwan to Dewa Nimbo, an Old Torghut Mongolian woman whom Tsem Tulku describes as a "princess" (she was the grand-daughter of Prince Palta, a Xinjiang government official during the Qing and Nationalist periods; and the daughter of Mingyur Wang, briefly a member of the ROC National Assembly); and Lobsang Gyatso, a Tibetan from Ngawa with ties to the Tibetan exile government who, after fleeing to Taiwan, ran a school for Tibetan refugee children. According to Tsem Tulku's website,
- Rinpoche’s father and mother became romantically involved, however, his mother was unaware that his father already had a wife and children in Tibet. Rinpoche’s parents separated even before he was born and the shame of having an illegitimate child was too great for his mother, who gave Rinpoche away immediately after his birth.
- Note: Rinpoche gives his Mongolian name as Iska Minh, affecting the title of "prince." In the United States, he was known as Burcha Bugayeff, while his ordination name is Tenzin Sopa.
In 1972 his mother's family arranged for him to be adopted by a Kalmyk family in Howell, New Jersey, where the U.S. government had resettled a number of Kalmyk refugees. His adoptive parents (whom he was led to believe were his birth parents) were Dana and Boris Bugayeff. Tsem Tulku remembers the couple as controlling and abusive, and reports that he attempted several times to commit suicide, and several times to run away from home.
Tsem Tulku recalls having been attracted to Buddhist deities from an early age. He drew amulets featuring them and at one point, imagined "a red lady" (Vajrayogini) with the power to "take us from this world fast!" Despite his adoptive family's disapproval of his involvement in religion, he gravitated towards Rashi Gempil Ling, a nearby Mongolian Buddhist temple where Khensur Lobsang Tarchin resided. He received his first tantric empowerments (into the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and the "Eight Verses of Mind Transformation") during a 1979 visit of the Dalai Lama.
In 1981, at the age of 16, he ran away from home for the final time after an argument with his father. His website reports:
- With just US$50 in his pocket, Rinpoche left New Jersey for good, walking out to the highway and hitchhiking all the way across America to L.A., California. The journey was long and difficult; he lived on the streets and had to deal with being beaten, guns, physical abuse and offers of porn and prostitution.
In Los Angeles, he worked several jobs (including McDonalds and Fotomat); earned a GED while attending Mark Keppel High School in 1983; and lived in Thubten Dargye Ling, a Gelugpa dharma center. For six months he served as a personal assistant to visiting lama Zong Rinpoche, who became his Root Guru. At this time he received the Yamantaka initiation, which he describes as "critical" for other teachings he would later receive. At the same time he attempted to find work as an actor. He was an extra in the 1983 Stephen King / John Carpenter film Christine, and was apparently sought for a role in the 1986 Eddie Murphy vehicle, The Golden Child.
Zong Rinpoche urged him to become a monk, come to India, and stay with him at Zong Ladrang (in Ganden Monastery). The future Tsem Tulku promised to do so. Although Zong Rinpoche died soon after, in 1984, he kept his promise, and in 1987 received monastic vows from the Dalai Lama. For the next nine years (1988–1997) he studied at Ganden Shartse (in Mundgod, Karnataka), under Kensur Jampa Yeshe Rinpoche and Lati Rinpoche, while living in a small room in Zong Ladrang. Tsem Tulku remembers this as a time of poor health and financial hardship.
In 1992, on the instructions of his gurus, Tsem Tulku embarked upon a fund-raising tour to Malaysia. The trip was a success, and a number of Malaysian Chinese Buddhists requested his return. Accordingly, Tsem Tulku Rinpoche left India and settled in Kuala Lumpur.
In 1999 he and a local sponsor, Dato' Eric Tan, opened "Kechara Paradise," a store (now a small chain) selling dharma items. ("Kechara" is the name of the Pure Land of Vajrayogini.) Rinpoche would give teachings there, or in people's homes. By 2002 his disciples were meeting on rented premises ("Tara House" in Kelana Jaya). In 2004 the first permanent dharma center, "Kechara House," opened. In 2006 Tsem Tulku created a "Liaisons Council" to head what was becoming a network of centers, shops, and activities, all with "Kechara" as part of their names. (See below for a description of these.)
Kechara House Buddhist Association
Kechara House Buddhist Association (KHBA), formally registered in 2001, is led by a "Liaisons Council" consisting of (presently) 21 Liaisons, 6 of whom double as the KHBA's Board of Directors. New Liaisons are voted in by existing Liaisons. The structure was apparently modeled after that of Ganden Monastery. The Liaisons Council supervises thirteen departments, whose heads may or may not simultaneously serve as Liaisons.
As of 2010, some 95 people work for the organization in some capacity (often on a volunteer basis). The Kechara group seems to have several hundred active members, and a less-committed following of perhaps a thousand or so. Except for a few Westerners, nearly all participants are Malaysian Chinese. (To proselytize Muslim Malays would be illegal under Malaysian law; see Religious freedom in Malaysia.)
Tsem Tulku particularly emphasizes the practices of guru devotion to Tsongkhapa (traditionally credited with having founded the Gelugpa order); propitiation of Setrap Chen (the dharma protector associated with Ganden Shartse); and the highest yoga tantra of Vajrayogini (which he considers the most suitable highest yoga tantra for modern laypeople for its relative simplicity and erotic imagery, modern society being highly sexualized). He often recommends the study, recitation, and practice of Lojong texts such as the "Eight Verses of Thought Transformation", the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, and Tsongkhapa's "Twenty-Seven Verses on Mind Training."
Tsem Tulku's personal style is difficult to describe objectively, yet is crucial to any understanding of his influence. He cuts a flamboyant figure, calling himself "the Neon Lama." He is an active blogger and user of Facebook and Twitter. His numerous YouTube postings include, for example, his imitation of "a Baptist evangelist" (in which the expressions "Halle-Buddha-Jah" and "matchy-matchy-poo" come up) and a running commentary on the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. He reports a deep interest in UFO's and other "unsolved mysteries." Despite being a monk, he does not normally wear robes outside of religious settings (on the advice of his gurus).
He does not give any initiations, not even as blessings to normal laity.
Tsem Tulku is the author of Gurus for Hire: Enlightenment for Sale (Kuala Lumpur: Kechara, 2007), which combines autobiography with spiritual commentary. It discusses "the precarious, often tricky Guru-disciple relationship" and "all the political games that are played behind closed temple doors." He also wrote Compassion Conquers All: Teachings on the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation (Kechara, 2007), a textual commentary.
Several books have been compiled from Tsem Tulku's teachings. These include Why I Make Myself Unhappy (Kechara, 2005), Faces of Enlightenment (Kechara, 2006), and Peace: A Compilation of Short Teachings (Kechara, 2009). If Not Now, When? (Kechara, 2008) is a coffee-table book of quotations.
A number of Tsem Tulku's dharma talks are available for sale as DVDs, or free through various forms of electronic media (see links elsewhere in this article).