Prince Iska Minh, later recognised as His Eminence the 25th Tsem Rinpoche, was born in Taipei in 1965 to a Mongolian Royal Princess of Xinjiang, Dewa Nimbo, whose family had escaped to Taiwan. His father was Lobsang Gyatso, a disciple of both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness the Panchen Lama, who was managing a Tibetan school for refugees in Taiwan. When Dewa Nimbo found out that Lobsang Gyatso was already married, she separated from him and gave the newly-born Rinpoche away as soon as she could.
There were many auspicious signs before Rinpoche was born. For nine months, every day Princess Dewa Nimbo dreamed of a baby white elephant entering her courtyard and she would tie it to a tree. On the day Rinpoche was born, Princess Dewa Nimbo dreamed of High Lamas performing various pujas in her house. She delivered the baby with ease, painlessly. When he was seven months old, monks came to recognise the young boy and requested his mother for him to join the monastery. Princess Dewa Nimbo refused.
Rinpoche was then sent to live with a caretaker. He was often beaten and not given food, which led to the young child wandering the streets of Taipei till late in search of food. Rinpoche found some respite when his biological grandmother, Torgut Queen Dechen came to visit him from time to time, bringing him toys, clothes or candy. In 1972, Rinpoche was adopted by a Mongolian couple, Boris (Burcha) and Dana Bugayeff from Howell, New Jersey in the United States.
Since early childhood, Tsem Rinpoche’s powerful imprints manifested in his natural devotion towards Buddhist masters, deities and prayers. Rinpoche would often sit on his bed in meditation posture, visualising himself as a High Lama giving teachings, composing sacred texts on long strips of paper, or drawing and painting various Buddha forms which he then passed out to other children as blessings and protection. He would recite 30,000-40,000 Mani mantras (Om Mani Peme Hung) on days when he was free and would cycle as far as three hours to reach a lake, Turkey Swamp to meditate.
With such powerful imprints from previous lives, Tsem Rinpoche met his first Guru in his own neighbourhood in America. A highly realised master of Vajrayogini practice and Abbot Emeritus of Sera Monastery, Kensur Lobsang Tharchin Rinpoche came to Howell, New Jersey to assist in a translation project. Kensur Rinpoche was based in Rashi Gempil Ling, a Mongolian Buddhist Temple ten minutes away from the home of Rinpoche’s foster parents.
Tsem Rinpoche would spend all his free time at Rashi Gempil Ling helping out, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes and cleaning up. He had a strong wish to work in the temple and serve his Guru. This led to many occasions of physical abuse and beatings by Rinpoche’s foster mother. The beatings intensified as Rinpoche grew older and told them he wanted to become a monk. His foster parents wanted him to go to college instead and lead a normal layman’s life.
In 1979, Tsem Rinpoche met His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama for the first time, from whom he received the oral transmission of “Om Mani Padme Hung” and the Eight Verses of Mind Transformation. At the same time, Rinpoche also had a deep and spontaneous attraction to High Lamas such as H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and H.H. Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, simply from seeing their pictures in books.
Rinpoche would photocopy their photos and pray to them despite not knowing who they were. It was much later that Rinpoche found out he had a profound connection with these Lamas’ lineages and teachings from his previous lives. For instance in his immediate previous life, he was a student of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. In another life, he had dedicated much of his practice and retreats to the long life of the 13th Dalai Lama.
As things took a turn for the worse at home, being deprived of his calling, Rinpoche made a few attempts to run away in order to practise Dharma elsewhere, and even tried to end his life several times. Finally aged 16 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 Los Angeles, California. The journey was long and difficult as Rinpoche lived on the streets, dealing with beatings, guns, and physical abuse.
Rinpoche came across Thubten Dargye Ling Dharma centre during his search for an altar to do his sadhana. It was at this centre that he met his second Guru, Venerable Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen. The young Rinpoche held three jobs while spending as much time as he could at the centre. After receiving permission from his first Guru, Rinpoche studied and worked in Thubten Dargye Ling for eight years until he left for Gaden Monastery in India.
It was at Thubten Dargye Ling that Rinpoche met His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. When Zong Rinpoche arrived to teach at the centre for six months, Rinpoche immediately recognised him as his Root Guru. Tsem Rinpoche was elected to be Zong Rinpoche’s assistant so he cooked, cleaned the kitchen, tidied Zong Rinpoche’s room, and assisted during private audiences and Dharma teachings.
During this period of time, Tsem Rinpoche received many teachings and practices from Kyabje Zong Rinpoche including the initiation of Yamantaka, which would prove very important as a foundation for many other practices later. Tsem Rinpoche also received the full commentary of Vajrayogini’s practice from Zong Rinpoche at Yucca Valley.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was known to be a strict and fierce Lama. Hence, Zong Rinpoche’s tender and playful way of interacting with Tsem Rinpoche amazed everyone. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche told Tsem Rinpoche that he was a ‘Rinpoche’, the incarnation of a highly attained Dharma master, and invited him to stay at Zong Ladrang in Gaden Monastery, where he would take care of him.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s divination indicated that Tsem Rinpoche had the powerful karma to become a successful actor but if he became a monk, he would benefit many people. Thus, Tsem Rinpoche promised Zong Rinpoche that he would become a monk, and Zong Rinpoche performed an auspicious and symbolic hair-cutting ceremony before leaving Los Angeles.
While trying to save enough money to get to India to stay with his Guru in the monastery, Tsem Rinpoche received the heartbreaking news of Zong Rinpoche’s passing. Devastation from the loss of his Root Guru did not stop Tsem Rinpoche from his determination to fulfil his promise to Zong Rinpoche.
In 1987, Tsem Rinpoche left the USA to enter Zong Ladrang in Gaden Shartse Monastery. After receiving his ordination vows from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, Rinpoche spent the following nine years studying and serving his masters H.E. Kensur Jampa Yeshe Rinpoche and H.E. Lati Rinpoche in Gaden Monastery. With little or no sponsorship, Rinpoche suffered from hunger and malnutrition, living in a small room with a leaky roof.
Tsem Rinpoche was later recognised as the reincarnation of the 72nd Abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery, Gedun Nyedrak by the Dharma Protector Setrap Chen via the oracle of Gaden Shartse Monastery. This was later confirmed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
Prior to that, Tsem Rinpoche’s status as an incarnate master was also recognised by various other Lamas and oracles including H.E. Ayang Drupchen Rinpoche, the Dharma Protector of Gyutö Tantric College Dorje Yudroma, H.E. Drigung Rinpoche Jetsun Lobsang Chozin, His Eminence Kyabje Gangchen Rinpoche and many more.
Tsem Rinpoche’s remarkable devotion to his Gurus was well-known throughout the monastic community. After he built his house (Tsem Ladrang), Tsem Rinpoche offered the biggest room to his teacher H.E. Kensur Jampa Yeshe Rinpoche, and became the changtso (main assistant) to Kensur Rinpoche, who was the Abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery at that time.
In 1992, Tsem Rinpoche was sent abroad to teach and fundraise for monks’ quarters by H.E. Kensur Jampa Yeshe Rinpoche and H.E. Kyabje Lati Rinpoche. Rinpoche’s teaching tour was very successful and well received by the Buddhist community in Malaysia. He then returned to the monastery accompanied by his Malaysian students having successfully raised the necessary funds for the monks of Phukang Khangtsen.
Tsem Rinpoche was active in social work, including building and raising funds for schools, hospitals and old folks’ homes in the surrounding area near the monastery. Rinpoche also sponsored the re-tiling of Gaden Lachi (main prayer hall), repaving of Gaden Shartse’s debate courtyard, and installation of water pumps in the monastery.
Rinpoche began to travel back and forth between India and Malaysia at the request of his Malaysian students, before settling down permanently in Malaysia as advised by his Gurus. Rinpoche conceptualised a Dharma store in Petaling Jaya (a suburb of the nation’s capital) which later led to the establishment of Kechara House Buddhist Centre in 2004.
The Dharma centre grew to become one of the largest Vajrayana organisations in Malaysia, offering a multitude of services and activities ranging from Dharma classes, pujas, publications, filming, pilgrimages, Dharma shops, vegetarian restaurants and Himalayan arts to feeding the poor and caring for animals. All these activities aim to connect spiritual aspirants to Dharma.
Work for Kechara Forest Retreat, a 35-acre retreat centre with the aim of creating a conscious community started in 2012. The retreat centre is equipped with various facilities including an 11,000-square-feet meditation and teaching hall which hosted the auspicious trance of the Dharma Protectors Dorje Shugden and Kache Marpo via the renowned Venerable 7th Panglung Oracle in June 2015.
This hall also houses the largest Dorje Shugden statue in the world at the height of 24 feet.
One of Tsem Rinpoche’s fondest wishes is to make the teachings and lineage of Lama Tsongkhapa accessible through various online platforms. In 2006, many of Rinpoche’s teachings were made available on YouTube, with over 1,000 videos available to date. Since 2009, Rinpoche is also active on Facebook and Twitter, interacting personally with his students and followers.
In 2010, Rinpoche conceptualised the idea of a Dharma blog tsemrinpoche.com, which today has more than 6,000,000 views and is regularly updated with articles on various subjects, including a category on Dorje Shugden.
It is Rinpoche’s hope that his blog will bring the Dharma to places where the Buddha’s teachings are not yet available, thus easing the suffering and pain of sentient beings, and that it will eventually become a virtual temple to serve many future generations, withstanding the test of time.
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