Tsem Tulku Rinpoche talks about his early years and setting up one of the fastest growing Buddhist organisations in South-East Asia
GIVE any 18-year-old half the chance to be a movie star, and he will most likely jump at it.
Tsem Tulku Rinpoche’s lanky physique, chiselled face and exotic looks attracted a number of Hollywood talent scouts in the 1980s. However, he had a higher calling to fulfil.
Born Prince Iska Minh in Taiwan in 1965 and of Mongolian royalty, he turned down fame for a life at Gaden Monastery, India, in 1988, hoping to impact other people’s lives positively and find meaning in his own.
“Growing up in America, I saw materialism all around me. On the surface, everything looked good, but when you looked deeper, people were unhappy,” said Tsem Rinpoche in perfect English, tinged with an American accent.
“I didn’t want a life of false happiness, living a materialistic dream and telling myself that I’m happy even though I’m not.”
Today, Tsem Rinpoche, 52, is the founder and spiritual guide of the Kechara Buddhist Organisation.
Through Kechara, the fastest growing Buddhist organisation in South-East Asia, he brings dharma (Buddhist teachings) to thousands of people in the region. Rinpoche means ‘precious one’ and the incarnation of a highly-attained Buddhist teacher.
When he is not busy meditating or doing a puja (religious ceremony), he is blogging, recording videos and sharing his experiences and wisdom through social media.
Ironically, for someone who thinks social media is a waste of time, Tsem Rinpoche has a strong presence in the digital sphere with over nine million views in his YouTube channel; 9.6 million unique views on his blog; 300,000 followers on Twitter and more than 380,000 on Facebook.
The ardent reader jested that he put reading materials on social media so that he didn’t have to keep repeating himself to students who forgot or dozed off in his classes!
“I want to reach out to people whom I don’t have the privilege to meet. Some are sick, old, young or are just not able to see me. But with a click of the mouse, I can benefit someone and change his life.
“It’s touching to know what you do has helped people. We’ve received mail from around the world, some telling us we have saved them from ending their lives,” said the Madonna fan, adding that her song Nothing Really Matters inspired him.
“My philosophy is to provide everything for free and not make money an obstacle. I’ve been poor my whole life, and I know what it feels like,” he said in an interview.
The chosen one
As a child in Taiwan, Tsem Rinpoche had a foster mother hired to care for him after his parents separated; his mother, Princess Dewa Nimbo, had discovered that his father, Tibetan Lobsang Gyatso, already had a wife and children back in Tibet.
As early as seven months old, monks from a monastery wanted to take him in for ‘spiritual education’, portending that he was the ‘reincarnation of a high Lama’.
He often found peace visiting temples: “The temple gave me a sense of where I should live for the rest of my life.” His mother dismissed the signs, however, saying that if he was indeed a high Lama, he would eventually find his own way there.
At six years old, his grandmother brought him to the United States to be adopted by Kalmyk-Mongolians Boris and Dana Bugayeff, and was given the name Burcha Bugayeff.
While his physical needs were well-provided for in New Jersey, Burcha endured 10 years of emotional and physical abuse by Dana, a Belgrade refugee who was later diagnosed a schizophrenic. His Russian adoptive father had high expectations of him, and this added to his emotional distress.
Mired in depression, Burcha ran away from home many times and even attempted suicide three times. His rebelliousness prompted even more harshness and abuse.
His only respite came from seeking temples in America, and his free time was spent learning all he could about Buddhism. Dana did not approve and when caught doing anything remotely Buddhist, Burcha was punished.
Then, at 16, he ran away to Los Angeles and managed to make a life for himself there. Even though he had to work three jobs to support himself, he was happy.
One of the first things he did when he arrived was look for a temple to worship in. His ‘spiritual awakening’ occurred when he met a Tibetan Buddhist master who had visited the Thubten Dhargye Ling temple there.
“In 1984, I met Zong Rinpoche who made a tremendous impact on my life with his philosophy of life, wisdom and Buddhist teachings,” shared Tsem Rinpoche, who fondly recalls his six-month stint as Zong Rinpoche's student and assistant.
At 22, he was ordained by the 14th Dalai Lama at Dharamsala, North India.
“I was so happy and at peace. This was going to be my home for the rest of my life,” he exclaimed.
A different path
However, life at the monastery was short-lived as he was asked to teach in Malaysia and raise funds for a hostel back at the monastery.
“I was not keen to uproot myself and travel. I just wanted to be a simple monk,” he explained.
Tsem Rinpoche came to Malaysia in 1992, and after three months of raising funds and touring the country to teach, he went back to India.
Due to the increasing number of Malaysian followers, Tsem Rinpoche travelled back and forth to preach until his teachers suggested he made his permanent base here.
In 2000, he founded Kechara as an ashram. It has since grown and expanded into a Buddhist organisation with 13 divisions.
This includes Kechara Soup Kitchen that distributes food to the homeless and urban poor in the country, an effort Tsem Rinpoche holds dear to his heart because he, too, was once homeless.
“Through the soup kitchen, we reach out to people who really have had a hard time in life. We want to put food in people’s stomachs. Hunger is a horrible pain,” said Tsem Rinpoche, who loves chee cheong fun.
“We also want to inspire people around the world to do more social work in this manner or some other way,” he pointed out.
When Tsem Rinpoche was a child, he watched helplessly as his dog was taken away and put to sleep. Till today, he cannot forget the cries and longing etched on the dog’s face. To create awareness on kindness to animals, he set up the Kechara Animal Sanctuary.
“We should stop animal cruelty, not just here, but all over the world. It’s free to be kind,” said Tsem Rinpoche, who always has dog food in his car to feed starving dogs on the road.
There is also an aviary for the birds he saved at Kechara Forest Retreat which was established in 2012 in Bentong, Pahang. The 14.16ha land is a retreat for those who want to escape the city jungle and reconnect with nature.
“In the long term, this will be where people can achieve inner healing, de-stress and detoxify through yoga, tai qi, acupuncture, meditation and aura healing. I believe if we can help people be better, they can play their part more efficiently in creating a happier and better society,” he said.
These corporate social responsibility divisions come under Kechara’s charitable foundation arm called Tsem Rinpoche Foundation.
To make Buddhism relevant today, especially to the younger generation, Tsem Rinpoche said that the prayers of the religion could be omitted so the philo-sophies could be practised in secular terms.
“It can be a way of life because it still benefits society. Values such as societal harmony, awareness of the planet, being kind to animals and people, helping the sick, empathy and compassion for the poor and hungry are highlighted. You can practise Buddhism without being a Buddhist. You don’t have to convert,” he concluded.
To learn more about Tsem Rinpoche’s views on Buddhism, visit tsemrinpoche.com/buddhanature to get your free e-book Unleashing Buddhanature (for non-Muslims only).
This article is brought to you by Kechara Buddhist Organisation in conjunction with Wesak Day.