Taken Away: An evocative memoir of a Tibetan monk set in tumultuous times

Despite the grave historical context, Taken Away is filled with humour and heart

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"Learning about Dharma should be done in the same manner as starving people eat food. They put one piece in their mouth, hold another piece in their hand, and their eyes are on the third piece on the plate." This advice from Drukpa Kunley, the legendary Tibetan monk, captures the essence of Doboom Tulku’s memoir, Taken Away—a work that expounds on profound ideas in simple words and allegories.

Doboom Tulku’s life took an extraordinary turn when he was identified as the third reincarnation of Doboom Tulku and, as the title hints, "taken away" from his parents to begin his monastic journey. A tulku is a reincarnated lama believed to carry the wisdom and spiritual power of a previous life. The early separation set the stage for a life vastly different from that of ordinary children, one steeped in tradition, spirituality, and a quest for enlightenment. Yet, what makes this memoir stand out is not just the extraordinary circumstances of his early life, but the simplicity with which he narrates his experiences.

The book opens with how he was not prepared to meet his nomad mother a decade after he was taken away. His journey takes him from Doboom Ritro to the city of Lhasa in India and around the globe. His studies at Dargye Monastery and subsequent flight from Tibet during the onset of the Chinese invasion—a perilous expedition following the Dalai Lama’s exile—show the turbulence of his early years. His beloved horse, Dragyal, also joins the list of things taken away from him. Despite everything, Doboom Tulku recounts that he was always content, writing in the preface, "Every day has been the best day of my life". While some might find this difficult to believe, it shows his profound detachment.

Despite the grave historical context, Taken Away is filled with humour and heart. From Missamari in Assam, where the scent of Lifebuoy soap triggers nostalgic memories, to Buxa Duar in West Bengal, Loseling College in Karnataka, the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi, and The Tibet House in Delhi, Doboom Tulku’s journey through India and the rest of the world is a vivid recounting of rich experiences.

It is the charming anecdotes, like learning Hindi from a book picked up at a garage sale outside Drepung in Lhasa or receiving his first clock as a gift, or the sight of the Indian tricolour flag instilling hope in his uncertain future, that make this memoir one of a kind. Recalling childhood mischief and seemingly trivial details, like a fellow tulku pressing chewing gum on his bald head, add a bit of life and goofiness to the otherwise seriously imagined life of young monks.

The biggest turning point in his life was the opportunity to work in the private office of the Dalai Lama, a role he initially approached with trepidation, but came to view as a great learning experience. Describing his work at the office as a balancing act, he illustrates how he filled administrative gaps and assisted the Dalai Lama in countries like the US, USSR, Japan, and Mongolia, and contributed to the spread of Buddhism.

His experiences range from the profound to the simple, from being the director of Tibet House for thirty years (established to preserve Tibet's cultural heritage in Delhi) and working as a close aide to the Dalai Lama, to commenting that the most delicious momos he had was at the Ivolginsky Monastery—all within the same page.

While the memoir’s detailed recounting may come across as dry at times, Doboom Tulku’s genuine voice keeps the reader engaged. His unassuming narrative style accomplishes what he had been aiming for: “to demystify the life of a monk".

In a delightful coincidence, Taken Away shares more than just a similar title with Studio Ghibli's beloved film Spirited Away, about 10-year-old Chihiro who moves to a new neighbourhood only to get a taste of the spirit world. Like Chihiro’s journey, Doboom Tulku's memoir is one of separation from parents, self-discovery, and profound transformation.

Though he acknowledges that his English is inadequate, he manages to illustrate anecdotes from his life, with the help of Sudhamahi Reghunathan. "He was taken away by his multiple illnesses before the book was published", she writes. The very down-to-earth Tulku passed away this January.

The memoir is a worthy read for anyone interested in the lives of spiritual leaders and Tibetan culture. By sharing his journey with an almost childlike wonder, Doboom Tulku brings readers closer to Tibetan culture and spirituality.


Book: Taken Away: The Ordinary Life of a Lama 
Author: Doboom Tulku With Sudhamahi Reghunathan 
Publisher: Bloomsbury 
Price and pages: Rs599; pages 350

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