01.07.2013 Buddhism

Tintin's Lama

Jeremy Ball meets a lama from Tintin in Tibet building hope for his countryfolk in Perth

I hardly read when I was a child as I was far too active playing sport and running amuck in the garden. But there were three books that really captured my imagination growing up in a quiet English suburb - The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and Tintin in Tibet.

The imprint in my mind was so strong that when I faced my first crisis in adult life my instinct was to travel to Tibet in search of answers, calm and healing. I didn't make it to Tibet that year but my desire sprung on me a great search and, a few years later, after travelling through much of the Himalayas, I found myself living in the northern suburbs of Perth just around the corner from the real lama of the monastery Tintin had visited in the children's book.

His name is Zatul Rinpoche. The name Zatul means tulku or reincarnate lama of Zarongphu Monastery (or Za for short), the highest and most remote permanently inhabited monastery in the world, located right beside the base camp for climbers approaching Everest (Chomolungma – Mother Goddess of the Sky to the native Tibetans), with incredible views of this most majestic of mountains.

Zatul Rinpoche's life reads like an epic of Tolkien proportions. Recognised as the reincarnation of the Lama of Za, at a young age he was sent to Mindroling University, the head of the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four major Buddhist traditions in Tibet. Here, he was schooled and sat with learned scholars from his infancy.

In 1959, when just a teenager, he fled with his family to India following the Dalai Lama into exile - not dissimilar to Frodo fleeing from the Orcs to the safe haven of Rivendel! Once in India, Zatul Rinpoche was summoned by His Holiness to come to Dharamsala to be one of 10 young lamas and three geshes who were instructed to learn English before being sent to different parts of the world. Among the group was Professor Samdong Rinpoche who was later to become the first Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government in exile as the Dalai Lama sought to create a modern democracy.

Switzerland generously decided to take several groups of Tibetans, and when the first group left in 1961, His Holiness appointed Zatul Rinpoche as their leader. It was while in Switzerland that Zatul Rinpoche continued his father's obsession with Japan; his father, a Tibetan dignitary, had once travelled to that country (in the days when international travel was a great rarity) on an official mission.

The family karma saw Zatul Rinpoche train to become a black belt and then very advanced karate practitioner, regularly travelling to Japan and learning their language (Rinpoche speaks six languages in total).

It was no longer feasible for him to continue as a man of the cloth so he became a householder, maintaining his spiritual practice and never losing heart or ceasing his efforts to support his beloved homeland and her children.

Zatul Rinpoche was elected as the European representative in the Tibetan Parliament in Exile. And he worked tirelessly as an activist campaigning for human rights and freedom for the Tibetan people.

Zatul Rinpoche went on to become the Dalai Lama's representative to Japan and Korea, living in Tokyo for some years. But it was in Australia, and Western Australia in particular, that Zatul Rinpoche felt most at home since fleeing Tibet and, after his retirement from office, he settled here with his family. Zatul Rinpohe's retirement from office was not a retirement from life. Rather, he stepped up his work as an advocate for Tibet, as well as his spiritual practice. For years he tried to set up projects in his home village of Rongbuk where Za Monastery is located. Its altitude at around 5000 metres and remoteness makes life very hard for its inhabitants and it is one of the most impoverished regions in Chinese-occupied Tibet.

Zatul Rinpoche made many attempts effort to assist his monastery and village but each time was blocked by the Chinese officials. After many years of trying, it became obvious that for the moment it was not possible to set up projects in his own region so Zatul Rinpoche decided to look elsewhere to invest his humanitarian desires.

Just a few kilometres over the border dividing Tibet and Nepal lies the Tsum Valley, another very remote and beautiful community of ethnic Tibetans also struggling with the remote lifestyle and the incursions of Western society. At the age of consent many of the children would head to Kathmandu and end up in low end employment or worse, something that was ripping the heart out of the community. To this end, Zatul Rinpoche has linked with Venerable Ngawang Thardoe, a monk based in Kathmandu, on a project to build a school in the Tsum Valley so children can stay in the community and study and also create positive opportunities for themselves and their families.

The two men met when Zatul Rinpoche was visiting his teacher, Kyabje Trukshik Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma tradition of monks who have made their home in exile beside Swayambhanath in the Kathamandu Valley. Kabje Trukshik Rinpoche recently passed over and Zatul Rinpoche, as the second lama of the monastery, will be involved in the process of finding his reincarnation and helping managing its affairs.

Zatul Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Thardoe with Australia's honoured nurse, Dame Leanne Bird, will lead the first trip in the Jhomolangma Rainbow Project to build the Buddhist school in the Tsum Valley. My business, Transformational Tours, is honoured to assist in this project and we welcome all donations of skills, energy and money to make this dream of keeping communities and families together, a reality.

Now in his 70s, Zatul Rinpoche has a heartfelt desire to leave this world having created something of lasting benefit to his community that will live in the hearts and sustain the quality of life for many generations to come, so that his precious human incarnation will have had some lasting meaning and value.

Jeremy Ball

At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.

When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. jeremy@transformationaltours.com.au