Buddhist cremation

During a work trip to Nepal, I attended the funeral of the Tibetan Lama, Rinpoche Geshe Lhundrup Rigsel. It was a day-long ceremony at the Kopan Monastery assisted by 900 monks. A long procession carried the Lama’s body to the place of cremation in a meditative sitting position and dressed like a deity. Hours of fire-rituals were performed, ending with a cacophony of Tibetan horns, cymbals, drums, and bells as the flames covered his holy body. The monks Khedup and Kunsang made sure that I was in the first row and could observe all parts of the ceremonies.

Years earlier, when I stayed at the Kopan Monastery for the first time, Khedup had asked if I wished to meet the Abbot. I was evasive in giving my answer. I knew visitors could have a short meeting, mostly to get clarity on what lineage of Buddhism they belonged to, and to receive guidance according to the Mahayana tradition. I am not a practicing Buddhist and did not feel inclined to be designated a lineage, nor did I have other pressing questions.

The next day, however, Khedup informed me that I would be seeing the Abbott in the afternoon, handing me a white scarf to present to the Lama.

Khedup soon showed me the way to the Abbot’s room. We sat down and the Abbott began speaking about Buddhism, and then asked if I had any questions.

Having heard rumors that the Abbot had clairvoyant abilities, I decided to ask him the one question I always ask spiritual leaders and wise teachers whenever I encounter them in my travels.

“What is my purpose?”

He paused for a moment, surprised. His English was hard to understand at times. I missed out on words here and there, but heard enough to feel that my question was quite unanswered. I rephrased the question, and again the Abbot gave an answer I felt was a misinterpretation. I dared reword a second time. The Abbot patiently answered again. I noted it all and decided to let go of the question.

The Lama recommended a book on Tantra and its principles of transformation and suggested a mantra which he made me repeat until I pronounced all of it correctly. We spoke about the Dalai Lama, who he advised me to meet as soon as I had the opportunity.

Almost an hour had passed when we stood up and the Abbot asked me to wait. He trudged into the adjacent room and returned with a thick white scarf that he draped around my neck, as per tradition, before following me to the door.

I headed to the monastery library at once, located the recommended book, and began reading. As I did, it became clear that the Abbot had understood me perfectly well during our conversation. As I was not familiar with Buddhist terms, I had not been able to decipher his answer. With this book in my hand, a new world opened, and I understood the significance of what I had been told.

That was my last trip to Nepal. Years later, when I returned to that part of the world it was to explore India. I immediately fell in love with the culture, the food, and the people; and on my first trip, brought back incense to burn during my morning meditations. My instant favorite became a collection with a divine smell and an intriguing package showing an old map of the ancient incense route on the outside and a beautiful cut-out of the Taj Mahal on the inside. But all too fast I ran out of it and felt compelled to locate it. After a thorough search, I found the phone number of the manufacturer in India. With little hope, I messaged the company.

To my surprise, the kindest reply came shortly after offering to send me an entire box as a gift. I felt immense gratitude. The conversation continued with the incense maker, and on my following trip to India, I visited him at his office where he shared his story with me. He had originally been a monk and had been tasked with making incense. Not excited by the assignment, he set out to master it nevertheless, knowing that loving what one does is the best way to control the mind. He took it upon himself to study and learn all he could, dedicating himself to producing incense with the finest scent, wood, and packaging. Then used his knowledge and skills to successfully build his company. He credited his success to the insights and guidance that came through his meditations as a monk.

Fascinated, I asked him to share more of his monastic background. His father, he said, had brought him to Nepal where he had been initiated; he regularly came back to visit.

“Do you know of Kopan Monastery?” I was curious.

“Yes,” he smiled. “Last time I was there, I attended the cremation of the Abbot.”

Memorable meeting with Lama Rinpoche Lhundrup

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