#4: A Childhood in Taiwan

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Even as a baby, H.E. Tsem Rinpoche already showed signs of unusual behaviour. At seven months, monks came and recognised him as a reincarnated Lama. They requested to take the child to the monastery for his spiritual education but his mother did not allow them to take him away. She said that if he was really a high Lama, he would eventually find his own way to the monastery.

Rinpoche was recognised as a tulku or reincarnated Lama at seven months. However, his birth mother did not give him up to the monks who came to take him to the monastery

As his parents had separated even before his birth, Rinpoche was living in Taiwan under the care of his foster mother, Shi Mama, whom later he found out was paid to take care of him. He lived with his three ‘stepbrothers’ in an apartment on the third floor, below which was a sundry shop. He attended a neighbourhood school where his primary language was Mandarin and he was a member of the sprint team.

Growing up in Taiwan

Rinpoche’s first memory was walking down the street in Taipei and being attracted to stage sets, temples and Chinese opera dolls (which may have reminded him of Setrap!).

I always felt like I was royal. Like, I was used to having people around me, doing things and serving me, and now it was like “Where is everyone?” It was just a feeling.

It wasn’t any kind of arrogance, but Rinpoche just naturally felt like that was who he was, definitely arising out of his past lives imprints of being a high Lama!

Growing up was not easy to say the least; he was ill-treated, ill-fed and teased mercilessly by his three ‘stepbrothers’. Since things were not easy at home, as a small boy Rinpoche often wandered the streets of Taipei after school in search of food, only returning home at 11 or 12 at night to go to bed often hungry. Many times, Rinpoche would be punished, beaten or made to kneel on rice all night.

There was some respite from this existence, however. Rinpoche’s real grandmother, Queen Dechen, would come to visit him from time to time, often bringing toys, clothes or candy. He would be allowed to enjoy these in her presence but when she was gone so were the things she had brought for him.

Rinpoche with his beloved grandmother when he was much younger

My grandmother was one of the few people that was kind to me when I was a child. She gave me to an adopted family, but she would visit me very often to make sure I was okay. I remember her teaching me how to recite OM MANI PEME HUNG.

She told me not to forget to do that and not to forget who I am. I loved her very much. She has passed away in Taiwan. She was such a strong robust lady but before she passed away she was very skinny and emaciated. I was told she had great lapses in memory but when we met again, she remembered me immediately and cried.

Rinpoche reunited with his royal grandmother, Queen Dechen Minh in Taiwan just before she passed away

Rinpoche also affectionately remembers going on trips to the hot springs in the surrounding countryside with Kwan Mama and her family. She and her brothers would often buy him toys, clothes and even take the young Rinpoche for a bath as he was not well-looked after and lacked even the most basic human care at home. Rinpoche would later find out that Kwan Mama was a classmate of his real mother who had explicitly asked her to watch over him.

Rinpoche with Kwan Mama's brother. She and her brothers would buy the young Rinpoche clothes, toys, take him out and even bathe him as he was not well-looked after by his foster family

The last incident he remembers of his real birth mother is meeting her in the United States when Queen Dechen flew with him over from Taiwan when he was around seven years old. The young Tsem Rinpoche stayed briefly with his birth mother and grandmother before he was introduced to yet another foster family.

Rinpoche with Kwan Mama, a friend of his birth mother, in the late 60s. Kwan Mama was very kind and cared for the young Rinpoche tremendously

Rinpoche with Kwan Mama during a visit to Taiwan in 2009


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