Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche’s recently published autobiography, Memories of Lost and Hidden Lands: The Life Story of Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche, offers rare first-hand insight into esoteric themes such as reincarnation, spiritual visions and oracles while discussing diverse topics such as the Tibetan guerilla resistance and the dramatic flight into exile spurred by its failure.
In his foreword, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama describes the book as ‘at once a conventional autobiography and an unconventional account of spiritual accomplishment’. This succinctly describes the book’s dual concerns and suggests the historical, documentary and spiritual value it may have to an English reading audience.
Born in the high grasslands of eastern Tibet in 1928, Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche displayed an extraordinary predisposition towards the spiritual life and was soon marked for the monastery. For twenty years he was trained and groomed to carry on the spiritual traditions of his country. But when his homeland fell to the Chinese Communists in 1956, he laid aside his religious career to serve his people, first as a resistance leader and later as a government servant in India.
The author’s own visionary experiences figure prominently throughout the book; so much so that Acharya Nyima Tsering, Tibetan scholar and translator, called it ‘the Tibetan Harry Potter.’ There is Rinpoche’s journey to Shambhala, the legendary land that spawned the myth of Shangri-la, taken in a dream; recollections of past lives spent in the service of previous Dalai Lamas; the rediscovery of spiritual treasures hidden in the Tibetan landscape during the high point of the Tibetan empire of the eighth century; and a guidebook received in a dream, which Rinpoche uses to forge a new escape route out of Tibet, thereby allowing hundreds of Tibetans to safely reach India.
Yet the matter-of-fact tone used to relate these visions tells us as much about Tibetan attitudes as their extraordinary content does. For Tibetans, and devout Buddhists, the way we see the world is highly subjective and conditioned by numerous factors, be they genetic or karmic, physiological or cultural, environmental or behavioral. Infused with this perspective, the author never veers into sensationalism. Nor does he insist the reader believe him. Rather he states simply, ‘I record my life’s story to avoid exaggerated testimonials that overstate and belittling accounts that understate the person, and to aid those interested in knowing exactly what happened, the good times as well as the bad.’
Memories of Lost and Hidden Lands also contains much that will interest scholars of Tibetan religion and culture. The author’s remarkable memory and meticulous recording combine to create a document rich in religious and sociological detail. His account of his upbringing at a monastery in eastern Tibet, for instance, sheds light on the rigor of a traditional education and helps us understand how the vast corpus of Buddhist teachings was preserved for centuries in Tibet. His discussion of how a monk chooses his ‘career path’ hints at the way monasteries absorbed and integrated males of differing abilities and talents. And his explanation of the economic relations between his monastery and the local people reveal the practical interdependence and basic benevolence of what is sometimes negatively characterized as a ‘feudal’ system.
As His Holiness states, ‘In brief, this book is a truthful testament to the spirit and dedication with which the older generation of Tibetans applied themselves to spiritual and temporal matters at a critical time of great difficulties.’
This title is published by Chime Gatsal Ling Monastery and was translated from the Tibetan by Lozang Zopa, an American monk and student of Rinpoche. It is available for purchase online from Snow Lion Publications and Wisdom Books, England.