Return to Tibet

Here Lamlash resident Alice Maxwell reports on her recent trip to Tibet, where she visited some of the organisations that the Tibetan Lama Akong Rinpoche, founder of the monastery Samye Ling in Dumfriesshire, set up in the Eastern region of the country.

Trip to Tibet – July 2019

Statue of Akong Rinpoche

It is thirty years since I have last set foot in Tibet. Since then my dear friend, the late Tibetan Lama Akong Rinpoche (brother of Lama Yeshe of Holy Isle) has set up many charitable organisations in EasternTibet. These focus on medicine – training of doctors and nurses and creating hospitals, education of orphans, and preserving Tibetan culture. We were to meet people whose lives had been dramatically changed for the better through his far-reaching vision and compassion.

Akong’s work was done through the charity Rokpa. Rokpa means a combination of help and companion in Tibetan) which was created in the early 1990s. Its mission statement is “Helping where Help is Needed”.

Our trip had been organised through a Rokpa volunteer Diana Dodd from Edinburgh. She first went to Yushu in EasternTibet in 1995 to teach English for six months at the newly created Rokpa orphanage school. At that time the school was so poor there was no glass in the windows, and the kids only had cabbage soup and steamed bread to eat. There was an initial intake of 50 children focussed on early education and then Tibetan medicine. After at least 13 years of training, all now work in the medical profession as doctors, nurses, acupuncturists or administrators. Some have been to the UK, Germany and Canada to continue their studies.

Later intakes had less emphasis on medicine and now there are 470 orphan children in the school. Conditions gradually improved until a horrendous earthquake struck and destroyed it (and Yushu town) completely in 2010. Amazingly all the pupils were outside at the time and none were killed, despite the huge death toll elsewhere. Since then the government have taken over the school, rebuilding it to high standards. There is now a music room, full of keyboards, guitars and drums, a computer room and a basket ball pitch. Pictures of Chinese politicians are on the classroom walls, but the school is run by Tibetans and lessons are taken in Tibetan. Akong also paid (through Rokpa) for all orphans to go on to higher education, if they were able. The children work hard, realising their incredible opportunity and are aware of high unemployment surrounding them. I asked the English teacher, Jigme whether they manage to find jobs – he replied “so far so good”.

Jigme and friend

Jigme was a former student of the school. As a child he had lived in a remote village and one day noticed a car of foreigners drive up. It was a party of Rokpa representatives, including Akong Rinpoche himself. Akong asked Jigme if he would like to go to the USA to have treatment for his scoliosis (curvature of the spine) in conjunction with a charity called ‘ All Together Now’. Two years later Jigme made the journey, unable to speak a word of English, and stayed with a host family for 3 years. He had four major operations, and learnt to speak English. He is so grateful to his host family that he plans to call his first child (due next month) after them. When he returned from the USA he went to the orphan school to continue his studies. He has fulfilled his dream was to be a teacher and repay Akong’s kindness, and now is the head English teacher at the orphan’s school. He told us that the teaching of English is easy compared to the pastoral care the children need. He says some of their stories of suffering are unimaginable, and it is difficult to know how to help them. Some have seen their mothers die in child-birth. One boy has severe facial disfigurement – during the earthquake a gas canister exploded in his house and he suffered 75% burns. He was in a Chinese hospital for two years and is now doing well at school. Jigme worries for the boy’s future however.

The headmaster of the school is the Tibetan Nyima Rigzin. The government only pays up to middle school, so Nyima Rigzin personally fundraises so that the children can continue into higher education and even go to university.

Children in the orphans’ school

Our group joined an English lesson. Jigme explained that we were students of Akong, and there was general cheering. Although the younger children would not have met Akong (he died in 2013) Jigme is keen to remind the kids that Akong founded the school, and makes sure they don’t forget him. We taught the class to sing “Doe a Deer” which was received with humour and enthusiasm.

After the earthquake, residents lived in tents for two to three years while the government rebuilt the town. A former Rokpa student, Chonga Lhamo, worked as a doctor in a devastated area and had no change of clothes for a month. The rebuilt town has been completely “modernised”, with Chinese and some Tibetan shops and malls decorated with flashing neon lights and loud music. There are busy main roads full of cars and not a bicycle to be seen. Tibetans drive cars now – it’s too dangerous to ride bikes. One partially collapsed building from the earthquake has been reinforced and left as a reminder of that terrible day.

While residents are grateful that the government has rehoused them, older folk are sad that Yushu has changed so much. The modernisation has made people too busy and materialistic, so that the simple kindness that had been so much part of Tibetan culture, has begun to take a back seat.

The education programme set up by Rokpa over 25 years ago has had far reaching effects. We visited a Tibetan hospital where former Rokpa students work – using herbs, acupuncture and Tibetan medicine. One former student travels far and wide teaching people about the dangers of AIDS and HIV. We visited a Spa where Rokpa students work. Herbs are boiled for 24 hours in its pure waters in huge vats. The water is then syphoned off and piped down to fill baths in which the patients soak and are rejuvenated.
Akong has also helped restore monasteries and nunneries and there are now thousands of monks and nuns practising Buddhism in Tibet.

His own monastery and much of his legacy is now supported by a new charity, the Akong Memorial Foundation

Wherever we went Tibetans were full of appreciation for the work he has done.

We visited the monastery of a teacher called Damcho Dawa (who visited holy isle in 2006). He spoke at length about his friend, Akong, saying he had achieved far more than any normal person could ever do. He spoke of his great compassion in action – how he had revived Tibetan culture, language, medicine and woodwork, how he had helped folk with addictions, disabilities and mental problems and how he always saw his projects through to the end.

After a wonderful two weeks and an exhausting journey back to Glasgow, I stopped for a waffle and ordered a coffee for myself and a homeless guy. The waffle lady charged me a pound for his coffee and threw in a doughnut for him too! She said “they often ask me for doughnuts .. how can I refuse? You never know what circumstances got them into this situation”

How precious and universal is the language of unconditional kindness!