I first met Rinpoche in 1991, when I wanted to spend an extra year in London after completing my bachelor’s degree. Call it karma, but I ended up at SOAS because I was thinking of pursuing a master’s in economics. However, when I met the professor of the course, I mentioned I had been brought up in a Buddhist family and was also interested in Buddhism. The professor told me that SOAS offered a master’s in Buddhist Studies, and my face lit up! That was a life-changing decision and experience.
I remember that Rinpoche joined us after the commencement of classes. He was immaculately dressed, stylish (as he is today), and he asked many, many questions. I thought he was pretty smart but a little eccentric. Rinpoche was undercover, and even said he wasn’t Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse when questioned by a curious student from Singapore. One time, an unknowing classmate even generously shared her notes with him since he had missed a few lessons. I bet he actually knew more about the subject than the teachers!
To me, Rinpoche was a new friend and classmate I enjoyed hanging out with. During Chinese New Year, I invited my SOAS buddies to my house. We had fun playing with the Atari game console, cracked jokes, and ate snacks, and Rinpoche chilled with us just like a regular student. Whenever he saw me fiddling with the now historical Nintendo Game & Watch, he commented how Malaysians love to play computer games. I merely smiled and continued to furiously press the buttons on the tiny plastic box.
Rinpoche was so in character that I didn’t once suspect that he was a high lama. In my limited perception, a Buddhist teacher would be serene-looking, serious, elderly, and quiet, whereas my classmate Khyentse was affable, opinionated, a fashion star. One time, he even held on to my ink-stained Hello Kitty bag when I needed to rush to the toilet. Since he happened to be standing next to me I had conveniently thrown it to him, and he kept it for me without hesitation.
After a few months, Rinpoche left SOAS to participate in the making of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie Little Buddha, and as a consultant, supervised every gesture and ritual performed by the Tibetan monks. It was during this period that I discovered Rinpoche’s true identity. One of my friends showed me a poster that stated, “His Eminence Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche” would be giving a teaching in London. I thought my friend was trying to trick me because how could the Khyentse I knew be addressed as “His Eminence”?
It took me some time to finally accept that my SOAS classmate, who seemed more a maverick than an illustrious, reincarnated lama, was indeed the real deal. My auspicious friend has performed miracles to propagate the buddhadharma and is sincere in both action and motivation, without any hidden agenda. Looking at what Rinpoche has achieved in the past 25 years and will continue to accomplish to guide and benefit all sentient beings, I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to know him. Seeing Rinpoche receiving his honorary fellowship from SOAS, I am beyond proud. In fact, I feel no external, institutionalized recognition is commensurate with the amount of effort, energy, and work he has contributed for the dharma. Truly, Rinpoche is the embodiment of Manjushri.
I earned more than just a degree at SOAS—I gained a lifelong friend and a mentor who has guided me not only on spiritual matters, but on how to be a decent human being.