Soon after the Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959, he made several efforts to locate his teacher Khunu Lama, who was rumoured to be in the country at that time, and finally managed to find him living incognito in a Shiva temple in Varanasi, says a new book.
Running Toward Mystery: The Adventure of an Unconventional Life, released on Monday, is an account by Tenzin Priyadarshi, president and CEO of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, of his lifelong journey as a seeker.
Co-written with Iranian American author and literary translator Zara Houshmand, Priyadarshi talks about the teachers who have influenced his life, among them the Dalai Lama, former Archbishop of Cape Town Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa.
The Dalai Lama found it difficult to locate Khunu Lama as the latter kept a low profile and shunned attention and had a habit of disappearing whenever his reputation caught up with him.
“When people came to pay their respects, he would have an assistant place a huge padlock on the outside of his door as a deterrent, and slide the key under the door to him. Hours later he would slide the key back out again and knock quietly to be let out,” the book, published by Penguin Random House, said.
The Dalai Lama sent emissaries to all the Buddhist pilgrimage sites, to all the places where Khunu Lama was known to have taught, and found no trace of him.
Finally, he was accidentally discovered, living incognito in a Shiva temple in the middle of Varanasi.
“When the emissary knocked on the door of his small closet of a room and asked if he would meet with the Dalai Lama, he said no, he wasn’t feeling well.
“His Holiness was actually waiting downstairs and would not be put off, so then Khunu Lama demurred again because he didn’t have a chair to offer his guest – an old blanket was his only furnishing,” the book says.
But the Dalai Lama insisted and they met standing up in the tiny room. The Dalai Lama asked Khunu Lama to teach the younger ‘tulkus’ (reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist masters) who had accompanied him into exile, and to teach him personally as well.
Khunu Lama was not recognised as a tulku himself. Nor was he ever initiated into a monastic community, in spite of the fact that he spent many years studying and teaching at several different monasteries.
He was born in the late 1800s. He came from Kinnaur, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas, from a prosperous farming and trading family who were devout Buddhists but opposed his desire to travel for study. He left home around the age of 18 so suddenly that he didn’t stop to put on his shoes, and he never really stopped travelling from that point on.
He made a point of learning the languages deeply – both Tibetan and Sanskrit – as a prerequisite to the study of the religious texts, and gained a reputation for extraordinary scholarship. His expertise in Tibetan grammar and poetics was famous, to the point of inciting dangerous jealousies among native Tibetans.
When the Dalai Lama asked Khunu Lama to teach him personally, one theme among others that he specially requested was Khunu Lama’s dearest, most constant preoccupation.
‘Bodhicitta’ was the subject he taught most eagerly and on which he wrote a poem of praise every day. He embodied bodhicitta with all his being. It didn’t matter how great a scholar he was, how his knowledge of Sanskrit could unlock nuances of Shantideva’s and Nagarjuna’s writing that few others could fathom, the teaching was never just theoretical, the book says.
“When the Dalai Lama once asked Khunu Lama to pray for the people of Tibet, Khunu Lama was reluctant. He couldn’t possibly do that, he said, as it was His Holiness who was their leader and should pray for them. He could, however, pray for Mao Zedong to experience ‘bodhicitta’ and be moved to change his policies toward Tibet,” it says.
In Running Toward Mystery, Priyadarshi shares his thoughts on science and technology, meditation and spiritual disillusionment, and the relationship between Buddhism and the modern world.
He also describes his work at MIT, including how the 2008 financial crisis gave critical momentum to the formation of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.
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