Still regaining his strength from his recent Ebola treatment, Ashoka Mukpo spoke to VOA Tibetan Service from his home in Rhode Island. He recalls the images of Ebola patients dying or lying outside clinics in Liberia. “The images and suffering that I saw in the first few weeks that I came back [to Liberia] will be with me for the rest of my life,” Ashoka says.
When he discovered that he was infected with the deadly disease, he tried to deal with the fear through the Buddhist view of the world. “As a Buddhists, we are kind of trained to recognize the reality of motility and death, but for me, maybe I am not a good practitioner, that when I did confront my fears of death came up very quickly,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by fear.”
Ashoka was recognized as the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama when he was 8 months old by the previous Karmapa lama. Until he was 7 years old, he was raised by his stepfather Chugyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of first Tibetan lamas who introduced Tibetan Buddhism in the West. After Trungpa Rinpoche passed away in 1987, Ashoka continued growing up in his Buddhist family. His mother and Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife , Diana Mukpo, and his biological father and Diana’s current husband, Dr. Mitchel Levy, continue to carry out Trungpa’s teachings in the Shambala community that they belong to.
While some Westerners struggle for becoming re-incarnated Tibetan lamas, Ashoka chose to study journalism and became a human rights activist. He says that he feels the responsibility to carry out Buddhist traditions but that he doesn’t believe everyone has to be Tulkus to do the job. “The message of concerns for our world and our environment that has been expressed by so many teachers, whether it is the Dalai Lama or the Karmapa and teachers from so many traditions. Chogyam Trungpa gave that message to me. I think the fundamental philosophy of Buddhism is compassion.”
Ashoka Mukpo worked in Liberia as human rights activists as well as freelance journalist for two years, fighting for and covering mining issues. He returned to US in May. But as Ebola became more serious in Liberia, he went back there in September. “It started to affect the places that I had been to and spent lots of time, I realized that this was actually a serious threat to the country and had potential to kill thousands and thousands people. I felt overwhelmed that I need to go back.” This time we worked with NBC news as a cameraman. Within a few weeks, he was diagnosed with Ebola positive. He said his work in Liberia first came as a “chance” when his university professor gave him an opportunity to conduct a research in Liberia. But Ashoka is also aware of the human rights situation in Tibet.
In 2002, Ashoka went to Tibet and tried to visit Karma Monastery, which belonged to his previous incarnation. The Chinese authorities denied permission for him to visit the monastery, but many monks from the monastery came to meet him in a nearby monastery. “I was just overcome by emotion with everything that the Tibetan people have been through in last 50 years, but how resilient the people still are, he recalls. “It is clear that the Dharma is very important to them, their country is very important to them. And I just think it is a very special place and I hope to return sometime very soon.”
The importance of Tibet to Tibetans, he says, is shared by himself. “The struggle of Tibet is very meaningful for me and important. And I hope that there is a resolution to the situation in Tibet very soon and that the Tibetans can have a homeland that they have control of and they have their say on how to govern it. I think Tibetans deserve that and I know that will happen someday.”