Taming the Tiger: Choje Akong Rinpoche

As some of you already know, Choje Akong Rinpoche, 73, was killed this week in Chengdu, a town in southwest China. Although some news reports used the word “assassinated,” evidently the Rinpoche, his driver and his nephew, were all stabbed to death in an argument over money. Whether there is more to this or not will remain to be seen.

Akong_RinpocheAkong was a well-respected teacher, who co-founded the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West and put a great deal of energy into social activism and humanitarian efforts. He was not a monk but was recognized as a tulku, a reincarnated lama, which is the Tibetan translation of the Indian word guru, meaning “teacher.” Contrary to the popular perception, a lama is not always an ordained monk, but often are lay persons.

In 1959, Akong was among a group of 300 Tibetans who journeyed across the Himalayas to seek refuge in India. Only 13 members of the group survived. One of those survivors was the degenerate monk, Chogyam Trungpa. Both men were only 20 at the time. Some years later, the two settled in Britain and together they established Samye Ling in the Scottish lowlands, which as mentioned above was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West.

Trungpa was installed as the head of the center, while Akong made beds and cleaned floors. But Trungpa had to leave Samye Ling in 1970 due to controversies over his predilection for underage girls and his drunken behavior. He renounced his monastic vows and split for the U.S. Akong took over in his stead and under his guidance the Samye Ling become a major Buddhist center with retreat facilities open to people of all faiths.

Choje Akong Rinpoche was a Buddhist scholar who made a significant contribution to the spread of Tibetan Buddhist teachings in the West, and also as previously noted, a great humanitarian. In 1980, he founded an international organization, ROKPA, whose aim is to improve the quality of life of impoverished people around the world irrespective of their religion, nationality or cultural background. He also went on to establish more than 100 different charitable projects in Tibet.

In his book Taming the Tiger, Akong wrote,

Taming the TigerAlthough the varieties of suffering may be many, and its intensity and degree may change, there is only one effective way of freeing ourselves from the pain of our existence, and that is to accept it. We still deal with our daily life situations but we stop trying to make the whole world conform to our desires and projections. If we are old, we come to accept being old; if we are young, we accept that too whatever the situation, we simply accept it. Once this acceptance occurs, then to a large extent we are freed from the suffering. Once we are able to let it go, it just falls away from us.”

It may not seem like it at first glance, but this is a rather profound teaching. The idea of the acceptance of suffering is counter-intuitive to our basic thinking. No one wants suffering, let alone accept it. Our instinct is to resist, or even be in denial about a situation that brings suffering to us. However, resisting and lingering in a state of denial only worsen the unhappiness.

Acceptance is what is behind the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: suffering is an unpleasant fact, an inconvenient truth. A bit further in the book, Choje Akong Rinpoche points out that accepting the fact of suffering isn’t fatalism. It does not mean surrender or apathy. It is simply accepting the reality of human existence.

As Akong wrote, “Before we can tame the tiger we must first track it down.” The Buddha tracked the tiger to a place called desire (tanha) and found that the beast was none other than our own mind, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for a sense of self, craving to be free from suffering.

There’s a old Chinese proverb that says when you ride on the back of a tiger, it is hard to dismount. I would add that it is easier to dismount a tiger is that has been tamed, than one that is wild.

The practice of acceptance is an key step in taming our unruly mind that often wishes to run away from suffering. Once we can accept suffering, then we can even welcome it, appreciate it, and come to view a time of suffering as a time for reflection on life, and a time for growth.