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Lama Pemala passes away

March 5, 2009

By Dasho Karma Ura
Kuensel Online (Bhutan)
March 4, 2009

Lama Pemala, 83, passed away at 11 pm on February 27 at Nimalung where he intentionally decided to be for this last act. As this goes to print, he is still in the posture of meditation, which usually ends when there are bodhisattva nasal discharges of white and red fluids.Â

Lama Pemala was an author, iconographer, astronomer-astrologer, zung expert, historian, architect, tailor, and many other things. Erudite, precise, versatile, ascetic and scrupulous, he went on doing many things, but the Buddhist ideal life was always elsewhere. He carried on being hugely productive and of service to the country, but always with an unfulfilled yearning of a thorough and committed monk, which he was, for a far flung mountain retreat. Even after being out of the National Library, where he was director (1973-93), a long retreat did not materialise. His last years were devoted to building Nelung Dorjiling temple in Phobjikha valley, under the patronage of Her Majesty the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kesang Chhoedon Wangchuck, at one of the eight sites of the truly great Nyingma saint-scholar, Kuenkhen Longchen Drimed Yoeser (1308-63). He also founded a smaller temple, containing a library and a khilkhor loelang, at Nimalung. Nimalung itself was expanded by him to house nearly 100 monks.

His life turned full circle, starting and ending at Nimalung. When Nimalung was founded in 1938 by hereditary Chumey dungpa, Dasho Gyempo Dorji, Pemala, then 12, became a novitiate. Its first chief abbot was Doring Tulku. Pemala had a head start over others because of painstaking home tutoring by his doting grandfather, Pema Tenzin, the astrologer of the village. Unusually, Pemala was taught iconography by another teacher at an extremely young age. Doring Tulku alias Jamyang Kuenzang Lungrig Chokyi Nima (1902-50), from Kham Datsido, had a profound influence on Pemala. Doring was the reincarnation of Do Khentse Yeshey Dorji, who was in turn the mind embodiment of Jigme Lingpa (1729-98). Doring came to Bumthang in his 30s, in 1933, in order to read Kuenkhen Zoeduen one hundred times at Tharpaling, by evading the threat he faced at Drepung of being recruited as a bodyguard of Dalai Lama Thubten Jamtsho because Doring was appealingly tall. Pemala reflected positively on scathing criticisms and thrashings he had from Doring Tulku when he was a novitiate. Yet, he felt that Doring had love and concern for him.

Doring left Nimalung for Tibet for good when Pemala was fifteen, around 1940. In 1944, Pemala decided to leave for Tibet in search of Doring and serious practice. Pemala's departure was directly caused by the awful sadness he felt after reading Paltrul’s Tshungdon Mengag Dorji Thoel Lu. Pemala saved his silver coins, good clothes, handmade bark papers and left. At the time of his departure, his grandfather, completely blind at 79, placed his hand on his head, prayed and cried, before passing his silver coins to Pemala. After six years in Tibet with Doring Tulku, Pemala finally returned to Bhutan separating from his Guru. Doring was a perfectionist and berated anyone who was less than him in this regard. Doring was capable of doing everything well himself, because he was skillfully practical and manual, much like Pemala.

Lama Pemala devoted his life to diverse callings. He was a tutor to the courtiers at Wangdecholing Palace, a lecturer at Simtokha Rigney Institute (1961-67), a royal tutor at Wangchuck Academy, an author of textbooks (1968-71), an author of the monumental history of Bhutan and several other books, and director of the National Library (1973-93). He wrote the pioneering book on grammar, phonology and spelling of Dzongkha to facilitate a written language. On retirement, Lama Pemala was appointed as chief abbot of Nimalung monastery by the 4th King. Lama Pemala lamented that his life was without the necessary capacity to undergo hardship for enlightenment like Milarepa. But it would not seem so from his obvious virtues and accomplishments.

Lama Pemala was a recipient of the Druk Thuksey Award and therefore his cremation will be overseen by the Bumthang dzongda on behalf of His Majesty the King.
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