A Childhood in Taiwan
The early years…
Even as a baby, H.E. Tsem Rinpoche already showed signs of unusual behaviour. At seven months, monks came and recognized 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.
As his parents had separated even before his birth, Tsem 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 3rd floor, below which was a sundry shop. He received education in a neighborhood school where his primary language was Mandarin and he was a member of the sprint team.
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 was not 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’. He was never at peace. 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.
“My grandmother was one of the few people who were 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” mantras. She told me not to forget to do the mantras 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 also affectionately remembers going on trips to the hot springs in the surrounding countryside with Kwan Mama and her family. Going to the countryside brought Rinpoche peace as he did not have to worry; he was being well taken care of and it would be one of the rare occasions he could enjoy himself. 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 explicitly asked her to watch over him.
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 over briefly with his birth mother and grandmother before he was introduced to yet another foster family.