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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."

Lhalungpa 'was a conscience of the community'

May 6, 2008

Friends, family, students and fellow monks to honor Tibetan killed in hit-and-run
Anne Constable
The New Mexican
May 3, 2008 - 5/3/08

The Alumni Hall at the College of Santa Fe will be transformed into a Shangri-La today for a memorial service for Lobsang Lhalungpa, a Tibetan scholar and Living Treasure who died last week.

Ira Seret of Seret & Sons will decorate the room with rugs from Tibet and Afghanistan, thangkas (paintings on cloth) and candles. Tomas, figures made of flour and butter used as offerings and prepared especially for the event, will be set on altars. Tea and cookies will be served after comments from family and friends. And 10 monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in southern India, who were traveling in Mississippi, are detouring to Santa Fe to chant traditional prayers with horns and cymbals.

"I'm trying to make it feel like a Buddhist center," Seret said.

Hundreds of Tibetan and Western admirers are expected to turn out for the memorial for Lhalungpa, a learned and compassionate man who was deeply revered in the diverse religious and cultural communities of Santa Fe.

"I was crazy about him," Seret said. "He used to have a smile if you were sad or something was wrong; it would transform your whole feeling. He was one of the most amazing people on the planet. No words. No words."

Lhalungpa, 82, died Monday as a result of injuries suffered when the car he and his wife, Gisela Minke, 71, were in was struck by a pickup on St. Michael's Drive. The driver, who fled along with several passengers, later was interviewed by police and denied he was intoxicated at the time although open beer containers were found in the truck.

"I feel so lucky (Lhalungpa) did come to New Mexico and that I was a good friend and student," said Marcia Keegan, who took photographs for a book of prayers with him (Ancient Wisdom, Living Tradition). "No words explain how special he was. I feel very blessed he was part of our community."

Keegan's husband, publisher Harmon Houghton of Clear Light, said Lhalungpa set the standard for the best in humankind. "He was a conscience of the community who taught us to value what is truly important ­ which is relationships, compassion, doing what you intrinsically know is right. He maintained that standard. That's why people from all walks of life respected and valued his being. He didn't have say, 'Do this,' or 'Don't do that.' He did it through his actions."

Lee More, one of a dozen students in a Friday meditation group ­ just enough to fill Lhalungpa's living room ­ said the Tibetan would lecture without notes, often speaking fluently for two hours or longer. The Friday conversations were often about meditation, when to meditate, the right circumstances. "The conclusion was that any place you happened to be where you thought about the teachings, that was meditation," More said.

Lhalungpa, she added, "was one of those people, as soon as you heard him, even for a few minutes, you knew you were in the presence of someone remarkable."

Mary Lou Cook, a co-founder of the Living Treasures and a Treasure herself, said she was "heartbroken" by the news. She recalled that when Lhalungpa was named a Living Treasure, he was draped with white scarves by other honorees. "This man was so gentle, so loving. It was such a credit to our state to think he even lived here. He was a teacher with a capital T."

Photographer Kitty Leaken, a member of the Wednesday meditation group ("The heavy hitters are Fridays," she admitted), said when she traveled to India with letters of introduction from Lhalungpa to the abbot of the Drepung Monastery, the group from the U.S. was immediately summoned into the abbot's presence to discuss how to handle sacred texts in the monks' possession. His contacts with the queen mother of Bhutan also opened doors to Westerners visiting the country, she said.

"Lobsang taught us that compassion is one of the most important things in life. He taught us that love is kindness with wisdom. He taught us to behave without drama and self-promotion. He taught us to be calm, and he taught us to laugh, to be in the present moment, to go deeply, to face things without fear. He taught us all of these things by example."

Actor Ali MacGraw said she met Lhalungpa when she moved to Santa Fe about 14 years ago. "My first impression remained and grew for all these years, which was: He was simply the finest example of a human being I ever met, and I loved him."

Ian Alsop, an Asian scholar who owns Peaceful Wind Gallery and travels often to Tibet, said he and Lhalungpa came to Santa Fe about the same time, and he often called on him for help with translating Tibetan inscriptions or interpreting pieces of Tibetan art in his gallery. Lhalungpa "was one of my best friends in Santa Fe," Alsop said. And he was a link to the Tibet that no longer exists, Alsop pointed out. "He spent his young adulthood in the old Tibet. He knew so much about that and had so many memories. People learned stuff they really didn't know about how it was under the Dalai Lama, what it was like."

Lama Gyaltsen, a leader of the local Tibetan community who worked for the Tibetan government in exile for 25 years, said, "I had great respect for him as a scholar and as a Tibetan elder. He was a great example of how you can synthesize your traditional skills with Western education. And he set a great example to our young Tibetans for how to preserve our culture in exile."

Lhalungpa's numerous translations of Tibetan sacred texts into English helped propagate the faith among North Americans, Gyaltsen added.

William Pacheco of Santo Domingo Pueblo met Lhalungpa when he was preparing to visit Dharamsala after an invitation from the Dalai Lama, who had come to Santa Fe in the early 1990s and suggested an exchange program between the Santa Fe Indian School and the Tibetan Children's Village. "Lobsang gave us insight into what we were going to see," he said. Later, Pacheco got a bachelor's degree in Asian studies from The University of New Mexico, and the families kept in touch.

He said his family feels "double pain" over Lhalungpa's death because the driver of the truck was from Santo Domingo Pueblo.

Lhalungpa's admirers often say they feel sorrow rather than anger for the driver. "Lobsang would, too," Keegan said. "There definitely would be forgiveness. That is the key of who he was."

In The Book of Tibetan Elders by Sandy Johnson, Lhalungpa said he was born in 1924 into a "good family ­ not that rich ­ but a good family." He became a monk at age 5 but continued secular education until age 9, when he began to study more closely with monastic teachers.

At 16, he was appointed to the staff of the grand secretariat at the Potala palace, an office directly responsible to the Dalai Lama, who was still a minor. He studied with the Dalai Lama's tutors and in 1947 became director for Tibetan and Buddhist studies in the Indian Himalayan towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong.

His trip to India, on horseback, took three weeks. "This was a turning point in my life. I was not to return to Tibet," he said.

Lhalungpa's students there included Tibetans, Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Bhotias (local Tibetans). When many were called back home by the Chinese, he stayed behind in exile and began teaching foreign historians, scholars and anthropologists, and helped set up a Buddhist Cultural Center in Kalimpong and a school for local Tibetan children.

In 1956, he started a Tibetan radio program to inform his people about conditions in India and the rest of the world, and ran the program for 15 years. In 1970, Lhalungpa moved with his family to Canada, where he taught at the University of British Columbia.

He worked on projects in New York and Washington, D.C., before he and his wife retired to Santa Fe in 1989. In addition to conducting meditation groups, he worked on translations of sacred texts such as Mahamudra: The Moonlight ­ Quintessence of Mind and Meditation.

In The Book of Tibetan Elders, he responded to a question from the author about the difficulty of finding a good teacher. "I think we will see more and more Eastern gurus coming to the West, and, unfortunately, some self-appointed masters will emerge locally," he said. Many of them had no following at home, but in the West, they declared themselves a guru or a lama.

"I am not saying there are not good lamas, but a teacher is more than a learned person," he said. "A teacher is very different. A teacher has to embody the essence of all the teachings he has learned. A learned man can give a message, but he is only a messenger; he brings the message that he has read in books or learned from other lamas. That's one service. I'm not excluding that. But Buddhism is much more than a message. Buddhism is an intimacy between teacher and pupils."

Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or aconstable@sfnewmexican.com.
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