His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso Pel Sangpo is the full name of this great master that means “Lord Protector, the one from Pabongka, the venerable and glorious master whose name is the Loving One, Keeper of the Buddha’s Teachings, Ocean of the Mighty Deeds of the Buddha”. He is also popularly known as “Dechen Nyingpo”, which means “Essence of Great Bliss” and refers to his mastery of the secret teachings or Tantra in Buddhism.
In the district of Yeru Shang in the state of Tsang, north of Lhasa, there is a town called Tsawa Li. A family of nobility who owned Chappel Gershi, a modest estate, awaited the birth of a special child in the year 1878. There were auspicious signs observed, including a vision of a Protector on the roof by people outside the house on the night he was born.
The boy was taken before Sharpa Rinpoche Chuje Lobsang Dargye when he was seven because he exhibited unusual qualities as a child. Sharpa Rinpoche was confident that the boy was a reincarnated Lama and foretold that if the child were to be placed in the Gyalrong House of Sera Mey College, something wonderful would happen with him in the future.
The boy was found to be an incarnation of the Changkya line, which includes the illustrious scholar Changkya Rolpai Dorje (1717-1786). Changkya Rolpai Dorje was raised and educated in the Qing Imperial Court in close proximity to the Qianlong Emperor, and groomed from childhood to serve as an intermediary between the court and the Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia. He was Qianlong’s main Buddhist teacher, preceptor and advisor in matters related to Buddhism. Later on, he also became the Vajra Master of the Qianlong Emperor, conferring on him the initiation of Chakrasamvara. Changkya Rolpai Dorje also supervised and participated in the translation of the Kangyur into Manchu and the entire Tengyur into Mongolian.
Due to the sensitive political nature of the “Changkya” title with its Chinese connotations, the boy was given the name “Pabongka” instead. Pabongka or Parongka, is a large and famous rock-formation about three miles’ walk from Sera Monastery in Tibet. It was announced that the boy was the reincarnation of the abbot of the small monastery situated atop the rock, and he was referred to as “Pabongka Kentrul”, or the “reincarnation of the Abbot of Pabongka”.
Pabongka Rinpoche studied with many eminent teachers in Sera Monastery. At 18, he completed his Geshe degree at the “Lingse” rank, meaning he was just examined within his own monastery. He did not achieve the highest “Lharampa” rank, in which one has to go through a series of public examinations and debates at various monasteries, the last of which is a debate session before His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his teachers at the Norbulingka Summer Palace.
At 30, Pabongka Rinpoche began to study the Lamrim with his root guru, Dagpo Lama Lobsang Jampel Lhundrub Gyatso (1845-1919) from whom he later received numerous commentaries, oral transmissions, and initiations. Dagpo Lama would teach him a Lamrim topic, then Pabongka Rinpoche would go away to meditate on it and return to explain what he had understood. Then, Dagpo Lama would teach him more. This went on for a period of ten years.
In order to further transmit the teachings he had received, Pabongka Rinpoche travelled to many regions of Tibet: U-Tsang, Dagpo, Kongpo and Kham. The success of his teaching tours through the countryside caused his fame to spread. However, his most important and influential student base was in Lhasa, composed of various government officials, aristocrats of all ranks and a large sector of the monastic population of Sera, Gaden and Drepung.
Ngakpa College of Sera Mey Monastery then offered him a large retreat complex on the hillside above Pabongka. The name of this hermitage was Tashi Chuling, or “Auspicious Spiritual Isle”. He would divide his time between his quarters here and a small meditation cell around the mouth of Takden Cave further up the side of the mountain. Pabongka Rinpoche would retreat for long periods of time to engage in his personal practices and meditations in this meditation cell. Takden Cave is a holy place associated with the deity Chakrasamvara. A number of visions appeared to Pabongka Rinpoche when he meditated there.
Although Pabongka Rinpoche’s principal exoteric practice was the Lamrim, his main esoteric/Tantric deity practice was Heruka Chakrasamvara. According to his disciples, Pabongka Rinpoche had two main spiritual qualities – from the Sutric point of view, his ability to teach the Lamrim, or the entire graduated path to Enlightenment; from the Tantric point of view, his realisations and ability to present all Tantric teachings in a clear manner.
On frequent occasions, when Pabongka Rinpoche gave teachings, over 3,000-4,000 people would attend. He is said to have had such a powerful voice that everyone could hear him clearly in the crowd, even those seated in the back. Pabongka Rinpoche was also famous for his humour, relating amusing stories or jokes to keep the attention of the crowd during long public discourses that normally lasted for 10 hours or more without a break.
Pabongka Rinpoche also had an uncanny ability to relate to his audience. He was able to attract and lead listeners of every level, regardless of whether they were commoners or monks who were used to detailed, deep and technical teachings.
The effects of Pabongka Rinpoche’s teachings were striking and immediate. For example, there is the story of Dapon Tsago, who was a powerful nobleman equivalent to a Minister of Defense. He had come to the teaching in his best finery, his long hair in the traditional warrior’s locks, with his ceremonial sword clanging as he arrived. Later during the teaching, he hid his sword in a piece of cloth, and trimmed off his warrior’s locks before requesting Pabongka Rinpoche to grant him the vows of a layman. From that point onwards, he was seen following Pabongka Rinpoche around and attended every public teaching given by Pabongka Rinpoche.
On his travels and in Lhasa, Pabongka Rinpoche taught on many subjects ranging from philosophical subjects to Tantra. Lamrim appears to have been his favourite topic. Although the teachings he gave would often be geared towards a specific audience, he expounded the Lamrim unrestrictedly at almost every location where he was asked to teach.
For more advanced levels, he supplemented these with the tantric initiations of, especially, Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava, Cakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, together with their commentaries. Considered an important teacher of the Gaden Ear-Whispered Lineage, he also gave teachings on the central practices of this lineage, such as the Geluk-Kagyu Mahamudra and the Guru Puja (Lama Chopa).
Among his many teachings, Pabongka Rinpoche taught Shargyu, the Southern Lamrim tradition which he studied under his root teacher Dagpo Rinpoche. The Southern Lamrim tradition was not very popular in Tibet at that time and was not available in the regular texts studied in the monasteries. As Pabongka Rinpoche had a huge following, His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama asked Pabongka Rinpoche to prove the authenticity of this particular Lamrim lineage.
Unwilling to risk injury to his Guru’s name, Pabongka Rinpoche sent a reply that made specific references to the lines, pages, volumes and even the locations of various books in the Dalai Lama’s rooms. The Dalai Lama then checked the various volumes and everything was found to be correct. The Dalai Lama was surprised and made extensive inquiries into who had informed Pabongka Rinpoche of the location of the texts in his rooms but no one had. This proved beyond doubt the level of Pabongka Rinpoche’s clairvoyance.
In 1921, Pabongka Rinpoche gave his most famous teaching on the Lamrim at the Chuzang Hermitage near Lhasa. According to Rato Khyongla Rinpoche who was present:
During that summer session several traders and at least two high government officials found their lives transformed by his eloquence: they forsook their jobs to study religion and to give themselves to meditation.
Notes from this 24-day historic exposition on the Lamrim, along with notes from other discourses given by Pabongka Rinpoche throughout the years were edited and published by the 3rd Trijang Rinpoche Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the junior tutor of the current Dalai Lama, as “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand”. This work continues to be one of the most well-known and accessible presentations of Lamrim available and has been translated into both English and Chinese.
Trijang Rinpoche has mentioned the extraordinary qualities of Pabongka Rinpoche’s teachings:
Each part of the teaching was enriched by instructions taken from the confidential oral lineages. Each section was illustrated by analogies, conclusive formal logic, amazing stories, and trustworthy quotations. The teaching could easily be understood by beginners, and yet was tailored for all levels of intelligence. It was beneficial for the mind because it was so inspiring. Sometimes we were moved to laughter, becoming wide awake and alive. Sometimes we were reduced to tears and cried helplessly. At other times we became afraid or were moved to feel, ‘I would gladly give up this life and devote myself solely to my practice.’ This feeling of renunciation was overwhelming. These are some of the ways in which all of his discourses were so extraordinary.
Due to Pabongka Rinpoche’s skill as a Gelugpa master, the 13th Dalai Lama requested him to give the yearly Lamrim teachings in 1925, instead of asking the Gaden throneholder (Gaden Tripa) as was customary. Usually the teachings lasted seven days, but these lasted for 11 days.
In relations to Tantra, Pabongka Rinpoche’s biography mentions his mystical experiences and visions associated with the deity Chakrasamvara. In 1908, Pabongka Rinpoche went on pilgrimage to Drangsong Sinpori to visit a famous statue of the deity said to have been brought from India. There, after performing a Ganachakra ritual, Pabongka Rinpoche had a vision of Chakrasamvara descending into the statue, following which nectar was expelled from its mouth.
Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey gives an account of Pabongka Rinpoche’s mastery of the practice in his commentary to Wheel of Sharp Weapons:
Once, in the cave-under-water, he experienced a manifestation of Yamantaka for nine days, while he himself was essentially Heruka Chakrasambhava. Further, he experienced a manifestation of Vajra Yogini who told him of the benefits to be derived from merging the Vajra Yogini teachings of the Sakya and Gelug traditions into one meditational practice. When he once made a great (tsog) offering beside a Heruka statue in Lhasa, the wisdom body actually entered into the statue. The statue danced and told him that whoever received Heruka initiation from him up to the seventh generation would be taken to the dakini realms.
Lama Zopa commented:
Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo wrote incredible teachings on Sutra and Tantra; on Heruka, Tara Cittamani and many other topics. All these amazing teachings were written purely from his experience.
Another of Pabongka Rinpoche’s major contributions in the path of Tantra was to combine the Sakya school’s Vajrayogini teachings with the techniques that Tsongkhapa had given for the Heruka practice. These can be found in Tsongkhapa’s written works on the “Secret Precepts of Heruka”, the “Elucidation of All Hidden Meanings”.
Pabongka Rinpoche also wrote the long Vajrayogini sadhana called “Dechen Nyur Lam” or “Short Path to Great Bliss”. It encompasses all of Vajrayogini’s practices. One really does not need any more detailed teaching than this.
On the subject of Dharma Protectors, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche had a very close association with the Protector Dorje Shugden since young and later on in life consulted several oracles. In the one-volume edition of Pabongka Rinpoche’s biography, he is quoted as saying that he inherited the practice from his mother. Dorje Shugden was his maternal family’s lineage-deity, and he was exposed to the practice by his mother Konchok Drolma at a very young age.
During one of his trips to Kham in 1935, Pabongka Rinpoche visited numerous monasteries where he gave teachings and initiations. He also visited his teacher Takpu Pemavajra at his monastery of Takpu Drubde Genden Lukzang Kunpel Ling in Naksho.
According to Pabongka Rinpoche’s compositions on the Protector Dorje Shugden, it was at this time that his teacher Takpu Pemavajra travelled to the pure land of Tushita and received the complete cycle of teachings related to this deity and his different manifestations, including the method for conferring the life-entrustment.
The several visits that Pabongka Rinpoche made to Kham created strong bonds with a number of high ranking Gelug teachers, which were then inherited by his principal student, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. It is for this reason that the propitiation of Dorje Shugden continues to be extremely popular in certain pockets of the region, such as Chamdo, Drayab, and Chatreng.
Pabongka Rinpoche’s Collected Works are widely available in Tibet and abroad in an 11-volume set, although a more complete 12-volume edition exists in the collection of the Potala Palace. Out of the more than 130 titles listed as the contents of the 12-volume edition, five are concerned exclusively with Shugden. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche inherited Pabongka Rinpoche’s Shugden-cycle of teachings and continued to compose more works on the subject, diffusing them to a wider audience.
Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche was the teacher of a large majority of Gelug Lamas who eventually brought Dharma to the West after fleeing Tibet in 1959. His four main disciples became great Gurus in their own right. They are Tathag Rinpoche, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, and Khangsar Rinpoche.
Tathag Rinpoche was the main teacher of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama when he was a child and gave him his novice ordination. Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche were later appointed as the junior and senior tutors to His Holiness respectively. Ling Rinpoche was also elected to be the 97th throne holder of the Gelugpa lineage (Gaden Tripa). Khangsar Rinpoche’s Chinese disciple, Master Neng Hai, started a Buddhist movement in China which has survived to this present day, with tens of thousands of spiritual descendants and over a hundred monasteries and nunneries throughout China.
Sermey Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, the ex-abbot of Sera Mey Monastery and a teacher to many, was also a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche. In his younger days, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin was a wild teenager and was not considered a model student. However, all that changed when he met Pabongka Rinpoche at the Tashi Chuling Hermitage. Pabongka Rinpoche had put his hand on Geshe Lobsang Tharchin’s head and said,
Quite right! Quite right! Now this one looks like a bright boy!
From that day forward, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin felt as though he had received Pabongka Rinpoche’s blessings and some special power to pursue his studies.
Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche passed away in 1941 at the age of 63. He had been on a Lamrim teaching tour which included several planned stops, including his root guru’s monastery of Dakpo Shedrub Ling. His body was cremated and his remains were interred in a stupa inside the main assembly hall of Sera Mey Monastery, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Ribur Rinpoche (1923-2006), who worked together with the 10th Panchen Lama Lobsang Trinley Lhundrub Chokyi Gyaltsen (1938-1989) in the recovery of holy objects, managed to obtain whatever was left of the remains and enshrined the majority in a new stupa in the same hall.
Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and other students found Pabongka Rinpoche’s subsequent reincarnation, Ngawang Lobsang Trinley Tenzin (1941-1969), who passed away in his twenties. The current incarnation, Lobsang Thubten Trinley Kunkhyab (b. 1969), was identified in the early 1970s.
In conclusion, the erudite Geshe Helmut Gassner succinctly explains:
The great master Pabongka was, in the first half of the twentieth century, the pivotal or key lineage holder of the Oral Gaden Tradition. It was Pabongka Rinpoche’s particular merit to locate and find all these partial transmissions, to learn and realise them, and bring them together once again to pass them on through a single person. In his lifetime there was hardly a significant figure of the Gaden tradition who had not been Pabongka Rinpoche’s disciple. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was the one capable of receiving and passing on the entirety of the Oral Gaden Tradition once again. The cycle of learning and teaching continues. In this way, the Dharma remains eternal.
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