Bokar Rinpoché was born on October 15, 1940, in a small village of herders on the high, dry steppes of western Tibet. At the age of four, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Karma Shérab Özer.
Karma Shérab Özer (1890-1939) was a monk born in Kham, who at a certain moment in his life decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Lhasa. He used the opportunity to visit the Fifteenth Karmapa at his monastery, Tsurphu, not far from the Tibetan capital. Without originally intending to do so, he stayed there for several years, living in a cave close to the monastery, and became a close disciple of Karmapa. Later, he decided to continue his route westward, to make a pilgrimage to the holiest mountain in the Land of Snows, Mount Kailash. It was a journey of several months. A fortnight before arriving at his destination, he stopped at a cave that seemed to him very conducive to meditation, Cave of the Celestial Palace, close to a peak called Bokar (or Burkar), which means “White Hill.” He began the practice of one thousand nyung-né (a day of complete fasting, alternating with a day of partial fasting).
His residence in the cave lasted three years. Once finished, he had no special wish to stay in that region, to which only a detour on a pilgrimage route had led him. Nevertheless, the local people had developed so much faith and devotion toward him that they pleaded that he remain among them and found a monastery. To sway the venerated hermit, they asked the Fifteenth Karmapa to support their request, which he gladly did. Karma Shérab Özer could do nothing but accept the will of the head of the lineage: he stayed in the region and, having become responsible for the community, founded Bokar Monastery or Bokar Gonpa. He thus became the first Rinpoché of the White Hill, the first Bokar Rinpoché.
After his death, it was thanks to indications given by the young Sixteenth Karmapa that the young Bokar Tulku was found, a few days’ walk from the monastery. The new Bokar Rinpoché was enthroned and began a traditional training at Bokar Gonpa. At the age of thirteen, he left for Tsurphu Monastery to continue his studies under the Karmapa’s guidance. He stayed three years, then returned to his home monastery.
When he reached his twentieth year, Bokar Rinpoché traveled again to Tsurphu to participate in the traditional three-year retreat. Yet he had not counted on the unfolding of dramatic events. The year was 1959; Chinese troops had just invaded Tibet. He found himself caught in the tumult of Lhasa newly occupied by the Red Army; it was with difficulty that he was able to flee and return to Bokar Gonpa.
The young Rinpoché knew immediately that hell was about to engulf Tibet and that escape was imperative, even if his own region was momentarily safe. Inviting those who wished to join him, he set out for exile with a group of about seventy-five persons, accompanied by yaks, goats, and sheep. In the dead of winter, battered by snowstorms, chased by Chinese, crossing passes over sixteen thousand feet high, it took fifteen days of walking and enormous hardship to cross the border and to find sanctuary in Nepal, in the province of Mustang. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese razed Bokar Monastery.
Bokar Rinpoché stayed a while in Nepal, then journeyed to Rumtek in Sikkim (then an independent country) with the intention to live near Karmapa, who had established his residence-in-exile there. Bokar Rinpoché’s wishes were only partially granted: although he was reunited with Karmapa, he found himself unable to remain with him for long. The illness of one of his elderly attendants obliged him to return to Darjeeling and to make a home for himself there.
This event marked a turning point in his life. Not knowing where to live, he was permitted to pitch a tent in the courtyard of Bhutia Bustee Temple, which happened to be the home of another lama in exile: Kalu Rinpoché. Thus fate formed the connection that would make the reincarnate lama from Bokar the closest disciple of Kham’s great master. Further, this connection created a link for Bokar Rinpoché with the Shangpa lineage, since his training to that point had introduced him only to the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage.
A few years after Bokar Rinpoché’s arrival in Darjeeling, Kalu Rinpoché received a gift of land at Sonada, a village about nine miles away. Kalu Rinpoché soon planned to build a monastery there, as well as a three-year retreat center. Bokar Rinpoché, who had long deeply wished to accomplish such a retreat, was overjoyed at the plans and helped enthusiastically with the building work, which was done with whatever was at hand since money was scarce. The work was finished in three months and the retreat began. The program was devoted to the Shangpa lineage practices; Kalu Rinpoché himself transmitted to his disciples the empowerments and instructions. This was how during three years (1964-1967) Bokar Rinpoché joyfully absorbed the new lineage now available to him.
During the second retreat at Sonada, Bokar Rinpoché continued to live in the retreat center but did not participate in the full program of meditation. While he was free to come and go as he pleased, Kalu Rinpoché conferred on him the responsibility of guiding the new retreatants, the role of retreat master (drubpön). Later, however, he joined the third retreat (1971-1974) as a full participant, happy that Kalu Rinpoché had accepted his request that the retreat be focused on the Karma Kagyu lineage, which fulfilled his aspiration that had been frustrated a few years earlier by the Chinese army’s occupation of Lhasa. The training he received in this retreat allowed him to later accept Karmapa’s invitation to be the master of Rumtek’s retreat center.
In all, Bokar Rinpoché stayed with Kalu Rinpoché for twenty-five years and accompanied him until his final breath. Here is his personal assessment of that relationship:
To be honest, in the beginning I saw him as a good lama, whom I respected and in whom I had confidence, but I didn’t have any special feelings of devotion or faith toward him. Then gradually over the years, I glimpsed his vast qualities. In fact, they were so deep that they were impossible for me to grasp right away. Yet the more I discovered them, the more my faith and devotion grew until I became convinced that Kalu Rinpoché was one with Buddha Vajradhara, which is to say that he had realized the nature of all things, the body of ultimate enlightenment.
On completion of his retreats at Sonada, Bokar Rinpoché planned to withdraw into a hermitage, but Kalu Rinpoché dissuaded him. He advised his disciple to continue living in a monastic setting.
In 1984, while visiting Mirik, a village near Sonada that seemed promising to him, Bokar Rinpoché had the idea of founding a small retreat center there dedicated to Kalachakra. Kalu Rinpoché approved the project and even helped with money needed for the buildings. Nevertheless, what began as a modest place for meditation practice has become over the years a burgeoning monastery. It now includes a monastic community of close to two hundred monks, a number of buildings, and a large retreat center where Karma Kagyu meditations are taught. Bokar Rinpoché plan was to add a second retreat center dedicated to Niguma’s lineage. This was fully completed after his passing?
When we examine Bokar Rinpoché’s activity, we see clearly that his foremost focus was to assure the pure transmission of Buddhism, to give each person the best that he or she could receive. He does this in the context of his monastery in India and in his monastery in Tibet, where he was able to rebuild the buildings and where a community has regrouped. He does it not only in his guidance of Mirik’s retreat center, but also in such centers at Sonada and Lhawa (close to Gangtok). He does it in organizing annual seminaries for his foreign disciples, for whom he oversees a gradual and sustained training. And he does it in giving special care and attention to the education of the young Kalu Rinpoché, who is always close to him in Mirik.
No better words can be found to describe Bokar Rinpoché than those of Kalu Rinpoché. During his last visit to France, he inaugurated the Temple of a Thousand Buddhas in Bourgogne on August 30, 1987. He introduced Bokar Rinpoché, who accompanied him, to the public with these words
It’s likely that you don’t know exactly who Bokar Rinpoché is.
In western Tibet there was a monastery known as Bokar Monastery, where once lived a very great lama, Karma Shérab Özer. Bokar Rinpoché is that lama’s reincarnation. When tragedy erupted in Tibet, he went into exile in India, where he met me in Darjeeling. Since then he has always stayed close to me.
In the beginning under my guidance, he completed impeccably the four preliminary practices. His knowledge of the Teachings was excellent.
Later, we were able to establish a retreat center in Sonada; Bokar Rinpoché participated in the first three-year, three-month retreat, dedicated to the Shangpa lineage practices. Since I had transmitted every necessary empowerment and instruction, at the end of the retreat I had him become Sonada Monastery’s retreat master. He later accomplished the third retreat at Sonada, dedicated to the Karma Kagyu lineage, during which he practiced Naropa’s Six Doctrines.
When a retreat center was founded at Rumtek, seat of His Holiness Karmapa, that lama as well conferred upon him the responsibility of retreat master.
Bokar Rinpoché is an extraordinary lama, perfectly accomplished both in the realm of scholarship and in the realm of meditation.
Naropa gave a prophecy to his disciple Marpa that, in his lineage, each disciple would surpass the master who preceded him. Thus, Milarepa, Marpa’s direct disciple, surpassed his teacher. Likewise, Bokar Rinpoché will succeed me and be greater than I.
by Lama Tcheuky Sengé (François Jacquemart)
Translated from the French by Ngawang Zangpo
I first met Bokar Rinpoché in 1978 when I went to Darjeeling, to study with Kalu Rinpoché at his monastery. Kalu Rinpoché himself taught a very small group of us westerners several times a week, and he also assigned Bokar Rinpoché to teach us the Jewel Ornament of Liberation, by Gampopa, three times a week, and Khenpo Dönyen taught us Lojang as well. During my study with Bokar Rinpoché for the four months of my stay, I developed a deep respect and love for him. One day his presence had an amazing effect on me. We were done with class, which was held in the small old retreat center that was part of the monastery. I was 28 years old, and had worked for about six years with the idea of self-love, following a seemingly casual comment by a professor I was studying with in college. One day she had said, “What about self-love?” I had no clue as to what she meant or what self-love was, but it intrigued me, and it felt right to contemplate it, like a koan, and then to work on engendering this quality. So that day Bokar Rinpoché followed us students out of the room we used for class. I remember vividly that I was standing in the small courtyard and Bokar Rinpoché was standing in the doorway when I experienced a brilliant white light emanate from his heart to mine. At that moment it felt like all the work I had done on learning to love myself came together with his pure vision of seeing the true nature of sentient beings and a healing happened in my heart. I truly felt self-love for the first time. Generally speaking, we in the West are not adept at extending loving kindness to ourselves.
Over the years I came and went from Kalu Rinpoche’s monastery in Sonada, Darjeeling District, I experienced Bokar Rinpoché’s loving kindness and compassion well. But it was following Kalu Rinpoché’s passing in 1989, that I really came to know Bokar Rinpoché. We shared a profound devotion for Kalu Rinpoché . One time when he was talking to a group of Western lamas about Kalu Rinpoché, I cried, remembering my lama. The next day, teasing a little, I told him that he had made me cry. He responded that he had cried too talking about Rinpoché! Later I found out that several of us in the room that day had wept silently.
Bokar Rinpoché’s openness and love knew no bounds. For those of us who came to study with him after Kalu Rinpoché died, he gave unstintingly of his time and kindness. He raised and trained the Kalu Rinpoché tulku like a father would his son. When several women who had been studying with me wanted to do three year retreat, and Lama Michael from Portland had a group wanting to do three year retreat also, Bokar Rinpoché graciously agreed to Michael’s and my request to bestow the Shangpa lineage empowerments. This was a joyous event in 2001 in his Mirik monastery attended by many people, including the then 12 year old Kalu Rinpoché tulku.
I was in Karmè Choling retreat center in Vermont with another dearly beloved brilliant teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoché, when I received an email stating that Bokar Rinpoché had passed. It was so unexpected and sudden that I rushed up to Ari Goldfield’s room (one of Khenpo Rinpoche’s translators) to see if he had heard anything in order to ascertain if it was true or not. Sadly, he had also just received an email that was definitive. Sobbing, I went to see Khenpo Rinpoché with Ari and another student of Kalu Rinpoché’s, Elizabeth Callahan. Khenpo let me cry at his feet for some time before using the opportunity to give me pointing out instructions for resting in the union of ultimate and apparent reality.
Many people from all over the world along with monks from Sakya, Gelug, and Nyingma lineages came to pray and meditate with the Kagyu monks at Bokar Rinpoché’s monastery for the 49 days following his paranirvana. He was admired, respected and loved not only by his own monks, other Vajrayana lineage monks, Western Vajrayana students, but by non-Buddhists as well. When he gave the bodhisattva vow in Bodhgaya every year following teachings, renunciates and practitioners from other religious traditions came too. His activity and loving kindness was impartial and unceasing, like the rays of the sun. Khenpo Dönyen is carrying on his work in Mirik.
Conclusion by Lama Palden Drolma