Time to think … Choden Rinpoche spent 19 years in a room after China invaded Tibet. Photo: Peter Rae
After China invaded Tibet in 1959, a young monk went into solitary confinement. He remained in a tiny dark room in the capital Lhasa for 19 years.
Choden Rinpoche’s confinement was self-imposed and he spent the two decades secretly meditating and reciting sacred texts he had memorised.
Rinpoche had none of the ritual objects, no altar, or books associated with a monk, just a set of rosary beads he hid under his blanket. Even retaining these was dangerous.
“If you kept even one scripture text, that is a serious crime – more serious than keeping a gun,” he said through an interpreter.
He was constantly spied on and although the Chinese visited him regularly, they believed he was an invalid.
At 83, Rinpoche is a respected scholar, teacher and meditation master, and among the last generation of Tibetan-born lamas who studied before the invasion that destroyed much of their culture. He is in Sydney to teach.
He became a monk at the age of six and had long wanted to do a solitary retreat. He took the “opportunity” of China’s invasion to do so.
“During the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan monks were forced to criticise their spiritual teachers and [Buddhism],” he said.
Rather than do this, he went into a room in his cousin’s house in 1965 and remained there until 1985, never once venturing out.
Despite his lack of possessions and confinement, he did not feel he lacked anything and is grateful he was able to quietly practice.
“[I] was actually very happy,” he said. “During the time outside, things were so wild.”
When he emerged in 1985, his mind felt calm but after 19 years without exercise, he could not walk properly. He rejected a role with the Chinese regime, travelled to India and has remained in exile. He has since taught in monastery in southern India and more recently in the West.
He says it is not necessary to be a Buddhist to practice meditation.
“In order to gain happiness it is not necessary to be a Buddhist,” he said. “But it is necessary to create the cause of peace and happiness, to develop wisdom.”
Everyone could benefit from time in solitude, he said.
“The mind will become more peaceful, more focused and gain some clarity in life,” he said. “But the ultimate benefit will depend on the motivation for engaging in the retreat.”