In his book, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic, Dezhung Rinpoche, author David Jackson describes something of the relationship between the Tibetan Buddhist lama and one of his students, Jesuit Richard Sherburne. Father Sherburne studied regularly with Rinpoche while he was a student at the University of Washington (Seattle). Much of their work together focused on the Jesuit’s English translation of the writings of Atisa, the 11th century Indian Buddhist scholar whose teaching activities in Tibet are widely credited with seeding the reestablishment of the practice of Buddhism in that country. 1 Every indication is that the relationship between Father Sherburne and his Tibetan teacher was one of mutual respect, genuineness, and warmth. “He’s brilliant and profound and a very holy man” are the words the Catholic priest used to describe Rinpoche. 2 And when Father Sherburne completed his doctoral studies, Rinpoche composed a poem in Tibetan verse, in which he addresses his Christian student as “my great friend …”: 3
Om Svasti! 4 / The expansive sphere of your intelligence in the sky of all knowable objects / Greatly shines forth like a thousand lights of the Dharma of the two systems 5 / And is matchless in nurturing the lotus garden of disciples. / You are the Lord of Daylight, 6 the eminent scholar endowed with a fortune of good qualities.
The beautiful ornament of the heavens of this Jambudvipa, 7 / Devoid of discordant clouds that obstruct and obscure, / Radiant with the four marvelous divisions, without defilement, 8 / May you remain for a numberless, incalculable ocean of eons!
To my great friend, endowed with the glories of wisdom and compassion, upon the occasion of the realization of the completion of your Ph.D., I express words of auspiciousness, congratulatory prayers, and offer an excellent, pristine white ceremonial scarf. 9
Sent from the Tibetan lama with the name Dezhung Tulku Kunga Tänpäi Nyima. May all be virtuous!
Once Dezchung Rinpoche sent Father Sherburne a Mother’s Day card, and the priest was “puzzled” by this gesture, until he remembered the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices involving seeing and recognizing all sentient beings as one’s mother. 10 For a Christmas/New Year’s card that he sent to Father Sherburne, Rinpoche also composed the following verses:
Wise one, 11 you understand all objects of knowledge, / Excellent counselor, with pleasant sermons regarding the ten ethics, 12 / Devoted to Dharma, you generate joy in all beings, / And with excellent fortune you make offerings; to you I offer praise.
Since you are endowed with the fortune of understanding / Into the greatly wise bodhisattva Atiśa’s / Perpetual counsel, the Lamp of the Path and the Guru Dharma Lord’s 13 / treatises on enlightenment, / You are worthy of praise.
Having mounted the chariot of the ethics of the two systems / You are endowed with the four glories of the light of intelligence, / And as your disposition is concordant with Dharma you practice the path. / May you be rich with a fortune of the jewels of benefit and happiness!
May the world be adorned with the blazing glory of auspiciousness! This was composed by Dezhung Tulku Kunga Tänpäi Nyima.
And in another card, sent on the occasion of Christmas, Rinpoche offers the following verses:
The halo of the sun of your great intelligence / Brightly shines in the sky of exerting effort in study and contemplation, / And broadens the lotus garden of the Dharma of the four glorious divisions. / Endowed with the fortune of the ambrosia of immortality, may you be victorious!
Victory, victory, great victory! / To the supreme Lodro Chöjor, who is endowed with the glories of wondrous wisdom and compassion, I offer you greetings and well wishes at this time of the Christmas holiday. / 14 This was offered jointly by the Dezhung Tulku and siblings. May all be virtuous! 15
- Image One below is a 18th painting of Atisa. It is a detail from a larger work, “Atisha with Twenty-eight of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas.” Its source is “Himalayan Art Resources. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons on 12.17.22: File:Atisha with 84 mahasiddha.jpg – Wikimedia Commons
- David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, page 325.
- In this biography of Dezhung Rinpoche, David Jackson includes in an appendix “[t]hree auspicious verses … addressed to Richard Sherburne, S.J.” David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, pages 568-569. The present quotation and the verses that follow in this reflection find their ultimate source in Dr. Jackson’s text, where they appear in English letters using a method known as “Wylie” transliteration. In an act of genuine graciousness and generosity, the verses that Dr. Jackson includes in his book were transliterated back into Tibetan characters and then translated into English. This work was done by Venerable Gyalten Lekden, who is an American monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. After completing his graduate studies in the U.S., Venerable Lekden moved to Sera Jey Monastery in India, where he has been living and studying since 2011. And the author of these present reflections is grateful and honored to call Venerable Lekden “friend.”
- “Om Svasti” is “term of auspiciousness.” See Rangjung Yeshe Wiki Dharma Dictionary: Om svasti – Rangjung Yeshe Wiki – Dharma Dictionary (tsadra.org)
- In addition to his translations, Venerable Lekden provided a number of contextualizing notes: “This phrase, ‘the two systems’ (Tib.: lugs gnyis) is generally used to indicate the distinction between the secular and the spiritual systems of power, and really came into use after the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama when he combined the worldly/political control of Tibet with the religious/spiritual control or authority in the country. However, given the recipient, I would not be surprised if the author was in fact referencing something more like two systems of religious study, i.e.., Buddhism and Christianity. The term itself is ambiguous.”
- Venerable Lekden notes that “Lord of Daylight” is a poetic euphemism for the sun.
- Venerable Lekden: “’Jambudvipa’ is the name for this world in Sanskrit-Buddhist cosmology. (The Tibetanized version of the name is ‘Dzambuling.’) This line is another poetic euphemism for the sun. The poetic term translated as ‘heavens,’ often simply translated as ‘sky,’ is ‘lha lam,’ ‘the path of the gods,’ and the jewel that is adorning the sky is the sun.”
- Venerable Lekden: “Throughout the [three] verses there is reference to ‘the four marvelous divisions,’ ‘the four glories,’ and ‘the four glorious divisions.’ These are all reference to a group of four things that are wished upon individuals as a sign of good fortune and long life: The divisions of dharma, liberation, wealth, and desire. The division of Dharma is higher rebirths and liberation from saṃsāra. The division of liberation is enlightenment. The division of wealth, also called the division of purpose, is having sought out a lot of study and learning, guarding that collection as if it were wealth. The division of desire is the collection of human and divine objects of enjoyment, or material possessions.”
- Venerable Lekden: “There seems to be a mistake in the text here. In the text there is the number ‘5,’ and it seems like some word is missing. What I am guessing is that whatever is missing is referencing some sort of jewel or other precious offering. The idea being that along with offering a khatag, a ceremonial scarf, this jewel or other precious item is being (symbolically) offered as well. That makes sense in context, but I cannot be sure.”
- David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, note 1083, page 660.
- Biographer David Jackson explains that Father Sherburne was given the Tibetan name Blo gros chos ‘byor [Lodro Chöjor] by Dezhung Rinpoche. See David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, page 568. Regarding this name, Venerable Lekden offers the following context: “As is common in Tibetan verses of praise or devotion, the subject’s name (Lodro Chöjor, Tib.: blo gros chos ‘byor) is incorporated into the lines of the verse. Due to the nature of compound words in Tibetan this may not always be easy to reflect in the English translation. For instance, the Tibetan compound term blo gros is generally interpreted to mean ‘intelligent.’ When broken into its component parts, blo means ‘mind’ and gros generally means ‘counsel, advice.’ However, in the first line of the first verse the term used is blo ldan, which literally means ‘endowed with/having a mind,’ but it is interpreted as ‘wise, intelligent,’ in effect having the same interpretation as blo gros. Additionally, in Tibetan the different components of the name will always be presented in order, but in translation it is sometimes the case that line order in verses needs to be rearranged, such is the case with the second verse, and this also disrupts the poetic convention.”
- Venerable Lekden: “The ten ethics are the ten virtues: not killing, not stealing, not engaging in sexual misconduct, not lying, not engaging in slander, not using harsh speech, not engaging in idle speech or gossip, not being covetous, not having a mind of malice, and not having wrong views.”
- Venerable Lekden: “It is not clear who is being referenced by this phrase, ‘Guru Dharma Lord’ (Tib.: chos rje bla ma). It is a somewhat generic title or term used to reference one’s own teacher or an important teacher in one’s lineage.”
- In recalling her time with Dezhung Rinpoche in 1972, scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Janet Gyatso, affirmed that he “strongly stressed compassion, turning everything into an occasion for compassion.” (David Paul Jackson, A Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (1st ed.). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, page 333.) A student’s memories of Rinpoche support Professor Gyatso’s reflection: “It was summer and hot, so the many windows were wide open. Quite a few bugs had wandered in, including a particularly obnoxious housefly. The fly landed on the doughnuts we were having for breakfast, headed for my eyes, and as hard as I tried to love all beings, this bug was testing my faith. Then there the bug was, walking the rim of Rinpoche’ s tea cup, and while I thought mean thoughts about that fly, he fell into the tea and drowned. I was horrified that Rinpoche’s tea had been ruined. Dezhung Rinpoche was horrified as well; he leaned over, scooped the fly out of the hot tea, and held him in the palm of his hand. He held that fly as if it were his most precious child. He leaned over the fly’s wet little body and said prayers. He smoothed his rumpled little wings and whispered to him. That nameless bug disappeared and I saw a little being given his [after death] instructions and all of Rinpoche’s overwhelming love and compassion. I have never seen anyone treat even another person with such tenderness.” (Ibid. page 388-389)
- In reading Dezhung Rinpoche’s verses, the author of these reflections is reminded of the “O Antiphons” which Christians have prayed, and sung, and contemplated in Advent for centuries, as they anticipate the great feast of “The Nativity of the Lord”: “O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ, et sol justitiæ: veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.” [O Dawn in the East, splendour of eternal light and Sun of Justice: come and give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.] (David Foster, O.S.B, The Downside Prayerbook. London: Burns & Oates, 1999, page 134.)
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