Everyone is extremely upset with Rinpoche. Two monks and a nun have already disrobed. Prominent laypeople threaten to withdraw funds from the community. Rinpoche continues to be adamant, though he remains in seclusion, reportedly due to ill health. Fervent devotees continue to perform long life prayers morning and night. Rinpoche points out that his life has been long already. He says that soon he will die and, when he comes back, he’s coming back as a lemur.
A Greater Bamboo Lemur, specifically. Also known as the Broad-nosed Bamboo Lemur or Prolemur simus. The very rarest lemur in the world.
In the shock following Rinpoche’s announcement, the secretary, in tears, flees to Google. “The Greater Bamboo Lemur is native only to Madagascar!” cries the secretary. “Its habitat is almost entirely destroyed.” Rinpoche says, “You’ll know how to serve me,” “Less than 300 exist!” wails the secretary. Rinpoche says, “I’ll be easy to find.” Then adds, “Once you do find me, please leave me with the other lemurs. If tagging is necessary, it’s got to be gentle. I don’t approve of tattoos. I certainly don’t want my ears notched or anything.”
Rinpoche brushes off Buddhist conservatives, who claim that what he intends to do is unheard of. He maintains it is now quite common for bodhisattvas to be reborn as members of direly threatened species, or as the last living speakers of languages nearly extinct. “All beings have Buddha Nature,” insists Rinpoche. “It is in the nature of compassion to improvise.”
A prominent Dzogchen master – he refuses to say whom – was recently a coelacanth. Other enlightened beings have taken rebirth to keep company with direly endangered marsupials or tree frogs nearly wiped out by the epidemic of chytridiomycosis.
According to Rinpoche, the most prominent of these buddhas was an emanation of Chenrezig who arrived in Washington in 1972 and spent nearly 30 years proclaiming the dharma at the National Zoo, very far indeed from her beloved bamboo forests.
In the beginning the community refuses to accept any of these arguments. As time goes on, so, too, does their opposition. Scholars continue to argue that it is the human rebirth which is precious, as the dharma is only available to those in human form.
“How could that be so?” says Rinpoche, appearing visibly strained. “I promise you that the lemur dharma maintains that a lemur rebirth is of paramount desirability.” The lemur rebirth, too, is precious. Certainly it is exceedingly rare.
Even on Rinpoche’s deathbed the monks continues to argue. Rinpoche is told that he must live forever, that he must go on teaching the dharma, that there is no precedent, that he must resume human form.
For many hours Rinpoche does not respond. As his devotees look down fearfully upon his brown gray skin, on the whirls of white hair which sprout from his ears, it seems that he has already begun to resemble the Greater Bamboo Lemur.
Finally, deep in the night, as his disciples keep vigil around his hospital bed, Rinpoche’s old and enormous gnarled hard reaches out from beneath the sheets. Refusing to be stopped, he turns and reaches down toward the floor beside the bed. As he touches it, his voice booms out, as the Buddha’s did on the night of his enlightenment, The Earth is my witness. Then he dies.
Grief-stricken, the Rinpoche’s followers arrange for the vigil and cremation. The ashes are barely cool before the devotees are on a plane to Madagascar.