Lama who helped Seventeenth Karmapa escape Tibet makes private visit to Malaysia

By Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 8 May 2024

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Lama Tsewang Rinpoche, the founder of Danang Foundation and more renowned as the one “who engineered the escape of the Seventeenth Karmapa from Tibet", made a quiet visit to Malaysia and paid courtesy calls to some of his close friends here.

Tsewang Rinpoche with Mr. John Fam, one of the founder of Thrangu Centre, Malaysia (Picture taken 6 May 2024)

According to John Fam, one of the founder of Thrangu Centre Malaysia, Lama Tsewang Rinpoche requested through a third party for a private meeting with him, whom Rinpoche regarded as a "close friend". The meeting took place at Mr Fam's office.

"He walks in the streets of Kuala Lumpur and no one pays any attention to him. Yet, he is regarded as a bodhisattva and he is forever etched into the history of Karma Kagyu as the man who engineered the escape of the Seventeenth Karmapa from Tibet to India," Mr.Fam explains.

As gratitude to the Thrangu school, Lama Tsewang Rinpoche brought three relics during his visit to Malaysia. One of the relics was given to the Thrangu Center in Petaling Jaya, a second relic to the Thrangu Center in Ipoh and the third one was given personally to Mr. Fam. Mr. Fam highlighted that these relics were no ordinary ones, as they were from the third Buddha Kasyapa and the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi.

In the picture of the relics above given to Mr. Fam, the white object is the relic of Kasyapa Buddha while the black ones are ril nak (or rilnag), the Sixteenth Karmapa black pills. These ril nak are believed to aid in the liberation of the individual at the time of dying by way of forming a karmic link with the Karmapa.

So who really is Lama Tsewang Rinpoche?


Lama Tsewang Rinpoche entered this world in 1965, born into a humble farming family near Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet. In 1980, under the guidance of the Panchen Lama, Tibetan Buddhism experienced a renaissance in Tibet with the establishment of Nechung College.

At eighteen, Tsewang Rinpoche joined the inaugural class of Nechung College, immersing himself in the profound teachings of Buddhist philosophy, arts, and literature. Simultaneously, the Sixteenth Karmapa entrusted Drupon Dechen Rinpoche with the task of revitalizing Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet. Under Drupon Dechen Rinpoche's mentorship, Tsewang Rinpoche embarked on the traditional three-year, three-month retreat at the age of twenty.

In 1990, upon completing his retreat, His Eminence the Tenth Kyabje Pawo Rinpoche and Drupon Rinpoche appointed Tsewang Rinpoche to oversee Nenang Monastery. This monastery, established in 1321 A.D., serves as the principal seat of His Eminence Pawo Rinpoche, a revered master of the Kagyu lineage. Tsewang Rinpoche's appointment to represent Pawo Rinpoche carries profound significance, emphasizing the importance of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism.

Leadership at Nenang Monastery

Following the guidance of his spiritual mentor, Tsewang Rinpoche assumed the role of abbot at Nenang Monastery for nine years. During his tenure, he undertook the arduous task of rebuilding the ancient monastery, expanding its premises to include a new retreat center, and nurturing the ordained community. He diligently reinforced the Sangha's discipline and facilitated the training of future Buddhist teachers.

Tsewang Rinpoche's unwavering commitment earned him the revered title of Nenang Lama. To support the monastery's reconstruction, Venerable Thrangu Rinpoche introduced Tsewang Rinpoche to patrons across Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and other regions.
In addition to his spiritual endeavors, Tsewang Rinpoche initiated significant charitable initiatives, including the establishment of an orphanage and school to support vulnerable children in Tibet. He also implemented programs to provide medical care to underserved rural communities.

Amidst these responsibilities, His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa entrusted Tsewang Rinpoche with the crucial task of identifying the reincarnation of Kyabje Pawo Rinpoche. In 1995, Tsewang Rinpoche successfully located the Eleventh Pawo Rinpoche, who was subsequently enthroned at Nenang Monastery.

Helping the Seventeenth Karmapa escape Tibet

In 1999, His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa fled Tibet to seek refuge in India, entrusting Tsewang Rinpoche with the perilous task of leading his escape. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Tsewang Rinpoche relinquished his responsibilities at the monastery, school, orphanage, and other projects. Disguised as a businessman, he meticulously surveyed potential escape routes.

At 10:30 p.m. on the night of December 28, 1999, amidst the hushed darkness, the Karmapa descended cautiously from his quarters, lowering himself onto the roof of a nearby shrine. From there, he made a daring leap to the ground, where a waiting jeep idled, manned by Lama Tsewang, a few others, and a skilled driver.

The group drove relentlessly, halting only to switch drivers. The chosen routes passed treacherous terrain, navigating through Shikatse, Lhatse, Ngamring, and Sagha, until they reached safety in India. Alongside him, his 25-year-old sister joined the covert journey, their destination concealed as they silently slipped into Mustang, Nepal. Across perilous, frostbitten paths, and life-threatening conditions, they pressed on undetected, braving the biting cold.

17th Karmapa in disguise in the centre with the escape group of two drivers and Lama Tsewang (R) and his attendant Drupngag (L)

After eight days of arduous travel, navigating by horseback, helicopter, train, and rented car, the Karmapa finally arrived in Dharamsala, India. There, he sought refuge with the Dalai Lama, echoing the latter's legendary escape from Tibet in 1959 amid China's encroaching invasion.

In India, the Karmapa continued his education under the guidance of lineage masters, such as Tai Situ Rinpoche, Jamgong Kongtrul Rinpoche, Galysab Rinpoche and many others. Thrangu Rinpoche was appointed by His Holiness the Dalai lama to be his teacher.  Meanwhile, Tsewang Rinpoche remained steadfast in his service, even after His Holiness relocated to the United States.

Significance of the Karmapa

The Karmapa is the head of Tibetan Buddhism's influential Karma Kagyu school, which dates back to the 12th century. Uniquely, both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese authorities recognised him at the age of seven as a reincarnate lama. As the Seventeenth Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje is now the third most important spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism. Only the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama are more senior.
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