His Eminence Gyumed Kensur Rinpoche Sonam Gyaltsen, better known in monastic circles as Gen Tati, was born on 13 March 1926 to a family of nomads in the region of Atsa, Tibet. His father, Namkha, was a trader who travelled with the caravans while his mother, Drölchog, stayed home to take care of the family and the livestock. With the birth of their first son, astrological predictions were made and it was predicted that the child may grow up to become one who achieves a high rank in the religious field.
Once, the small child fell very ill and after consultation with a Lama, it was decided he should become a monk. The decision was made for little Sonam to become a monk, but he had to wait until he was old enough to join a monastery. Therefore, Sonam remained with his family and enjoyed his childhood in the company of his grandparents, four brothers and two sisters. He was known to have had frequent squabbles with his younger brother P’eltshé, who became Geshe Sonam Jangchub, the current Resident Lama of Samantabhadra Institute in Rome. Apart from this, he was very loving and nurturing to his other siblings, especially towards his youngest sister, Dekyid.
While growing up, he began to make short visits to the nearby monastery, Atsa Gonpa; however, he did not begin residing in the monastery until he was 13 years old. When he reached his eighth birthday, his father decided to teach him how to read and write, but he refused to take it seriously. Fortunately, his maternal grandfather intervened and took him on a vacation. With three weeks of cajoling and small gifts, his grandfather and uncle managed to inculcate language learning in him. He showed an excellent memory for learning the texts from a book, and recited them with a clear voice.
At Atsa Gonpa, Sonam took great care of his old and crippled master, including washing and feeding him. But as Sonam wished to engage in further studies, it was proposed that he should attend Sera Monastery.
A few days before his departure, Sonam had the opportunity to meet with Kyabje Phara Rinpoche who made a stop at Atsa Gonpa. At the audience, it was decided that Sonam should join Kongpo Khangtsen of Gaden Jangtse Monastery instead when he was 18. At the monastery, Sonam saw fresh fruits for the first time in his life and realised he had to stay inside a stone building. In the nomadic community, young people and men slept outside, and so Sonam had to get used to sleeping and living indoors.
At Gaden Jangtse, Sonam or Gen Tati studied with Kyabje Phara Rinpoche, Geshe Samten Khyenrab and Geshe Nyima Gyaltsen. He was also close to His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche of Gaden Shartse College. He excelled in his studies and later on, he was joined by his four younger brothers who became members of Kongpo Khangtsen as well.
When there were no debates, just like the other monks whose families were far away, Gen Tati went to the countryside with his bags until local villagers called out to him and offered him some tea. These villagers in turn became hosts, who usually invited monks to stay a day or two, and this invitation could be extended or renewed year by year. This recreated a ‘family’ environment and some villagers regularly hosted monks and provided financial support, especially during examinations when it was necessary to make offerings and supply the monastic community with tea and food. Apart from performing rituals for his hosts, Gen Tati usually dedicated his time to study as well as taking care of the younger children in the family in the role of an elder brother.
In the monastery, Gen Tati had sympathy for those with rebellious and strong characters, and had close relationships with the dob-dob (worker monks). He sometimes took the young monks out for a walk or a picnic because they were usually not allowed out alone and no one wanted to take the responsibility to do so. As he gained their trust, they would ask him questions about the doctrine, and took their studies more seriously.
Although his turn for the Geshe examination was still far away, Gen Tati already had many students in 1959. Together with one of his younger brothers, he went into exile on 23 March 1959 and escaped through Assam. He stayed in Buxa where Kyabje Zong Rinpoche gave a lot of teachings, buying offerings and personally making tormas (ritual cakes).
In 1971, Gen Tati passed his examinations and was awarded the Geshe Lharampa, the highest-level degree equivalent to a doctorate of Buddhist philosophy. Thereafter, Gen Tati was to continue his studies at Gyumed Tantric College, which soon relocated to Hunsur. The monks, including Gen Tati himself were involved in the earthworks and dug trenches.
After three months of laborious work, Gen Tati travelled to Varanasi where he began his advanced studies in the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in November 1966. The institute was headed by H.H. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche at that time and this made their relationship even closer. In July 1974, Gen Tati completed his doctorate thesis regarding Pramana (Buddhist logic) that was 600 pages long, producing five copies that were entirely written by hand. He then returned to Hunsur.
In early 1977, Gen Tati travelled to Mundgod to attend teachings and had an audience with H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche then expressed his wish that Gen Tati become the tutor of the young incarnation of Gen Tati’s previous teacher, Kyabje Phara Rinpoche. Kyabje Phara Rinpoche had entered clear light in India while remaining in thukdam (death meditation) for days, with his body retaining its warmth and not deteriorating even after clinical death. Gen Tati moved to Gaden Jangtse Monastery to assume his role. However, Gen Tati’s health deteriorated due to accumulated fatigue and the harsh climate.
In 1980, Gen Tati was invited to France with the support of His Eminence Dagpo Rinpoche, H.H. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche and H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche who granted him leave. When he arrived in September 1980, he became seriously ill. Gen Tati, who had long wished to retire in a hermitage, benefitted from his stay in Paris. He also accepted requests, from time to time, to teach in Paris, Lavaur and even Rome. However, he prefers to maintain a period devoted to studies and meditation, as well as medical treatments.
In 1990, Gen Tati was appointed the Deputy Abbot of Gyumed Tantric College and returned to Hunsur in October to assume his role. After the usual three-year term, Gen Tati succeeded Kensur Dorje Tashi as the Abbot. Apart from managing the Tantric College, Gen Tati was also concerned about the welfare of the families near the college. He supported projects to install electric fences around the fields owned by families in Hunsur in 1996.
As a retired abbot, Gen Tati now known as H.E. Gyumed Kensur Rinpoche Sonam Gyaltsen returned to France after an audience with H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama in October 1996. Kensur Rinpoche was happy to be able to carry out his wish of entering a long retreat from December 2002 to the autumn of 2006. The retreat was interrupted shortly by a cataract surgery, and then Kensur Rinpoche continued with his retreat.
Kensur Rinpoche also completed a Compendium of Vinaya texts about the Bhikshuni ordination. The compendium includes the history of the introduction of the Vinaya in Tibet and recounts the debates in the past on issues that are relevant, with doctrinal and historical references about Mulasarvastivadinvinaya. This subject was close to Kensur Rinpoche’s heart, and he felt he had the responsibility to do so because he is one of the oldest among the Tibetan bhikshus today, and was an abbot of one of the two main Gelugpa Tantric Colleges.
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