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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

Stephanie Salter: Saying goodbye to Tagster Rinpoche's Indiana incarnation

September 16, 2008

By Stephanie Salter
The Tribune-Star, September 13, 2008

BLOOMINGTON - On the one hand, it was a funeral visitation like so 
many in this part of the United States.

The wife and grown children of the deceased - a beloved and 
accomplished man who lived well into his 80s - greeted visitors with 
smiles, hugs and words of gratitude for those who had traveled so far 
to say goodbye. Clusters of people took turns standing in front of a 
large television to watch a DVD slide show with musical accompaniment 
of the old man's long, rich life.

Afterward, there were guestbooks to sign and optional charitable 
donations to make. Children spilled outside to play on a sun-drenched 
lawn and their adult companions nibbled on sweets and exchanged 
stories about the man who had passed from their realm.

On the other hand, the memorial gathering last week for Thubten Jigme 
Norbu was like no other most Americans, let alone Hoosiers, will 
encounter.

Norbu was born in Tibet in the summer of 1922. At age 3 he was 
proclaimed the 23rd reincarnation of a revered Buddhist lama, Tagster 
Rinpoche. He carried that name throughout the rest of his life, as 
well as the name his younger brother later gave him: Thubten Jigme 
Norbu, which means "jewel" and "fear not."

Norbu's younger brother?

The 14th incarnation of one of the holiest recognized humans on the 
globe, the Dalai Lama.

As I stood in a quiet viewing line Wednesday with more than 100 other 
people who had come to Kumbum Chamtse Ling temple to pay their 
respects, I kept wishing that all the folks who talk about Indiana and 
the rest of the Midwest as "flyover country" could be in line with us.

I wished, too, that all the Midwesterners who use Jesus as a baseball 
bat to beat down good, loving people of other faiths - and who treat 
Christianity like a segregated country club to be guarded behind razor 
wire - also could be in line.

Perhaps they would begin to understand what Norbu, a longtime 
professor at Indiana University, had understood since his arrival in 
Bloomington in the mid-1960s:

There are great souls everywhere and all humanity is one brotherhood.

Those two truths are exact quotes from an Indianapolis man I met 
Wednesday. A follower of the 15th-century Sikh religion, K. P. Singh 
was wearing a suit and tie, a full beard and a distinctive Sikh 
turban, or dastar.

He said he had known and loved Professor Norbu for many years, had 
been privileged to participate in all five of the Dalai Lama's visits 
to Bloomington, and had never stopped marveling at the "spiritual 
oasis" Norbu had created "here in the rolling hills of the heart of 
Indiana."

Like Norbu, who taught Tibetan Studies for decades at IU, India-born 
Singh has lived longer in the Midwest than in his native land. Six 
decades ago, he and his family were victims of a mass ethnic cleansing 
of non-Muslims in what is now part of Pakistan.

Rather than inspire bitterness and vengeance, that horrifying 
experience makes Singh "feel blessed to be here." His belief in the 
potential of the United States to lead the world to an unprecedented 
age of spiritual peace and enlightenment is humbling.

Speaking of the universal human challenge to transcend fear, greed and 
prejudice, Singh said, "I think we're closer now than at any time in 
history."

Recalling the current political climate, I said, "Really?"

Singh nodded. He quoted the Constitution - "in order to form a more 
perfect union" - and said, "It is not happenstance, it is the 
providential" that America should have come into being as a unique 
place of convergence "where we can see the light in each other."

Until Singh gave me his business card, I assumed he was the head of a 
Sikh temple in Indy. Turns out, he is an artist and designer. Every 
year on Sept. 11, he joins people from more than 200 non-profit 
organizations who gather with the United Way at Monument Circle to 
honor the victims of the terrorist attacks and to promote peace 
through volunteerism and education about our common ground.

"It is how we commemorate, and how we continue to expand this bridge 
to one another," he said.

Until this past week, I'd never been to the 108-acre Tibetan Mongolian 
Buddhist Cultural Center on Bloomington's southeast side. Norbu 
founded the center in 1979, nurtured its growth and expanded its 
influence. His home is on the grounds and is one of nearly a dozen 
structures, including the temple.

Norbu's body did not lie but sat on a bed-like bier in a room on the 
upper floor of the temple. Instead of his customary shirt and slacks, 
he was clad in brilliantly colored robes and hat. He was dressed (I 
was told) as a bodhisattva, or being of great enlightenment and 
compassion.

Incense smoke perfumed the air and Buddhist monks in saffron-colored 
robes sat against the walls of the room, chanting ancient hymns of 
passage in vibrating bass voices.

As was each person in line, I was allowed my own moment to stand at 
the foot of Norbu's corpse and to offer a kata, a long rectangle of 
white, gold or blue silky cloth of honor to be laid across the bier.

 From reading, I knew about Norbu's long, unlikely journey from 
eastern Tibet to Indiana. I knew he was forced into exile by Chinese 
troops, and that his destiny changed from being the abbot of an 
important Buddhist monastery to being a husband, father, teacher and 
activist in the United States. (A biography is at tibetancc.com.)

I knew, too, that while Norbu thought of the Dalai Lama as "His 
Holiness," not as his little brother, it did not stop the two men from 
deeply disagreeing about the best way to restore Tibet's independence 
from China. Like many families, they apparently learned to accommodate 
their differences instead of use them as an excuse for permanent 
alienation.

Among the visitors to Kumbum Chamtse Ling last week were two Catholic 
priests, John Mellencamp's stunning wife, Elaine Irwin Mellencamp, and 
Denis Sinor, distinguished professor emeritus in the Department of 
Central Eurasian Studies, Uralic and Altaic Studies at IU.

According to Mike Leonard of the Bloomington Herald Times, Sinor was 
the visionary responsible for bringing Norbu to town.

After the viewing, as I walked back to my car, something Mr. Singh had 
said about Thubten Jigme Norbu's legacy returned to me.

"This center is holy ground, sacred ground," he said, a place that 
attracts holy people from everywhere and strengthens our connection in 
Indiana to the rest of the world.

"Tagster Rinpoche's contribution is timeless and will last and will 
grow," he said.

In life or death, Norbu, the Dalai Lama and the many other spiritual 
guides we have been given, Singh said, will continue to remind those 
of us who will listen, "No one is outside God's circle of love and 
compassion. And no one must be outside our circle of love and 
compassion."
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