His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was an incredible Gelugpa master who returned to our world lifetime after lifetime to lead sentient beings out of samsara. One can easily see the greatness of this Lama through his ability to take a controlled rebirth within the Zong-go family twice in his two previous incarnations: Zongtrul Phuntsok Chopel and Zongtrul Tenpa Chopel.
It is said that when Zongtrul Tenpa Chopel was about to enter clear light, his niece’s husband successfully persuaded him to extend his life. Later, when Zongtrul Rinpoche was again about to enter clear light, his niece’s husband made the same long life requests but this time it was rejected. Knowing that Zongtrul Rinpoche was adamant on leaving his current mortal existence, the young man requested for Zongtrul Rinpoche to take rebirth within the same family.
Zongtrul Rinpoche then gave his relative three apricots, one for the young man, one for Zongtrul Rinpoche’s niece and a third one to be planted at the front of their house.
When the tree first begins to bear fruit, I will once again take rebirth in the Zong-go family! ZONGTRUL TENPA CHOPEL
Five years later, Zongtrul Rinpoche fulfilled this promise when his incarnation Zongtrul Jetsun Losang Tsondrue Thubten Gyaltsen, who was recognised as his predecessor at a young age, was born again in the Zong-go family in 1905 in Mangsang, Kham, Tibet.
The young boy was initially enrolled into a local monastery where he displayed remarkable skill in both studies and memorisation of texts. At the age of 11 in 1916, he travelled to U-Tsang and joined Shartse College of Gaden Monastery to begin his studies on Pramana, Madhyamika, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya and Abhidharma.
It was also here where Kyabje Zong Rinpoche met the then 14-year-old His Holiness the 3rd Trijang Rinpoche Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso (1901 – 1981) who helped him through his first lesson in elementary dialectics; he later became Zong Rinpoche’s root guru.
Although recognised as a reincarnated Lama (Tulku) who would have been afforded much privileges, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche chose to live an incredibly humble life, completely focused on his studies. Instead of using a table, he used an empty tea box supported by bricks to read his scriptures. He was also completely disinterested in food or drink, and survived on a very simple diet. In the eyes of a stranger, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche looked just like any normal young monk, in his shabby robes, often loose and torn from the physicality on the debate grounds.
It was not long before Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s skill in debate caught the attention of many. Within his first year of study in Gaden Shartse, Rinpoche surprised senior Jangtse scholars with the depth of his knowledge and debating skills during an all-night debate session between Shartse and Jangtse. The following year during a similar session, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s skilled debate on the first verse of Pramanavarttika led the famous Geshe Amdo Sherab Gyatso to praise Zong Rinpoche:
There would not be a worthier debate on this subject even if Dharmakirti himself were here in person!
Along with his exceptional debating skills, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche also possessed a fertile intelligence and great power of retention, which made him well known in all three monastic universities.
In 1930, at the young age of 25, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche successfully emerged from the Geshe examinations with the highest honours of a Geshe Lharampa degree. Following this success was an equally outstanding result in his examinations at Gyutö Tantric College. With these achievements which marked the completion of his studies, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s reputation as an excellent scholar was firmly established.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was deeply influenced by the Madhyamika philosophy and decided to dedicate his life to the practice of Tantra in conjunction with the insights of Nagarjuna. However, the previous Thepo Rinpoche advised him to put aside any thoughts of returning to his homeland, and to continue to live comfortably in the monastery.
A few months after Thepo Rinpoche’s advice, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was appointed as the Abbot of Gaden Shartse Monastery by the Regent Reting Rinpoche, a post which he held for nine years. His tenure is still remembered for his many remarkable achievements.
Under Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s guidance, Gaden Shartse saw many great changes among which include a new height of exemplary monastic discipline and scholarship, a visibly strong interest in Tantra and rituals, and a definite improvement in the monastery’s administrative structure. Observing the difficulties that the poorest members of the monastery had to face, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche also went through great lengths to improve their living standards.
After serving as the monastery’s abbot for over nine years, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche left his seat in 1946 and went on a long pilgrimage to Tsari in southeastern Tibet, one of the places where Lama Tsongkhapa engaged in retreat.
From this time onwards, news of how Kyabje Zong Rinpoche had removed difficulties in the lives of innumerable people through low key demonstrations of Tantric attainments was intermittently heard.
Wherever Kyabje Zong Rinpoche travelled, he would quietly and successfully subdue local spirits that caused harm to both livestock and people. His power to bring and stop rain and storms, and his powerful blessings and prayers in villages led to an increased yield in their plantations.
On one occasion, the well-known Geshe Tenzin Choephel who suffered from defective eyes that limited his mobility invited Kyabje Zong Rinpoche to visit in hopes of a cure. After several ablutions by Zong Rinpoche, the Geshe was able to walk again, unaided. Soon after, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche became even more famous for his great display of healing abilities and as a bringer of abundance and blessings.
There were also occasions when Kyabje Zong Rinpoche gave teachings and initiations to the local populace in his homeland in Kham. And as his name spread all across the country, he began giving many empowerments with a special emphasis on the Tantras of Heruka, Hayagriva, Yamantaka, Guhyasamaja, Vajrayogini, Green Tara, Dorje Shugden, Mahakali, White Tara, Vaishravani and many others.
At the request of his innumerable students, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche left for India in 1959 and sought asylum during the violent upheaval in Lhasa. In India he settled in Buxa, Assam, where all the surviving members of the three monastic universities had gathered. Many monks died during those early years due to the harsh climate and undeveloped conditions.
Although Kyabje Zong Rinpoche shared these equally difficult circumstances, he continued to give countless teachings which rekindled the flame of the Buddha’s doctrine in their new home and trained a new generation of Gelug scholars and practitioners. To the spiritual Tibetans, this gesture constituted a revitalising hope and relief from despair. After many years in exile, the Tibetans finally settled in, built a refugee community with better living conditions, and much of the Tibetan culture was once again brought to life.
In 1965, at the request of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche took on the role as the Director of the Tibetan Schools Teacher Training Program in Mussoorie, overseeing 58 scholars from all the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
Later, the Dalai Lama also appointed Kyabje Zong Rinpoche as the first principal of the new Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies at Sarnath in Varanasi, India. In 1971, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche moved to the newly established Gaden Shartse Monastery in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod, and retired from his position in Varanasi.
After Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s retirement from public life, he was able to spend more time engaging in deep spiritual practice for extended periods. Now and then during those quiet years, he would give highly inspiring teachings, often imparting instructions on the practical aspects of Tantrayana.
As the years passed and Tibetan Buddhism started to take root in the West, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s fame likewise grew exponentially among Western students. His name became renowned through younger lamas who brought word of his widespread Dharma discourses and illustrious reputation within the Tibetan world.
Although retired, due to constant invitations from his students abroad, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche made three trips to the West, travelling around North America and Europe. The first of these trips happened after the third request from Lama Thubten Yeshe in 1974, and the last in 1983. During his travels, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche gave teachings on both Sutra and Tantra, including teachings on Chöd of the Gaden Ear-Whispered Lineage, as well as Dorje Shugden Sogtae (life entrustment ceremony).
In June 1984 at the request of Dorje Shugden, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche returned to Gaden Shartse Monastery after a long tour in the West. Still in good health, he gave teachings on the Pith Instructions of Hayagriva followed by an initiation of Cittamani Tara and a long life empowerment for all the Tibetans in Mundgod. After the last of these teachings, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche planned an elaborate offering to his Dharma Protectors.
I owe this thanksgiving offering to my Dharma Protectors who have rendered me their service since my childhood. As to future favours, I do not have anything more to ask of them. KYABJE ZONG RINPOCHE
Shortly after, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche fell terribly ill. His students consulted with Dharmapala Dorje Shugden and doctors, and gave him the best medical treatment but Zong Rinpoche did not recover.
Under these unfortunate circumstances, Zong Rinpoche’s Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden requested him to live for many more years, but if that was not to be, to prolong his life until the unmistaken incarnation of His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was found.
As a result of these requests, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche recovered and even stated to his close attendants:
I do not have any of my former illnesses now.
Upon his recovery, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was entrusted a great and important task by Dharmapala Dorje Shugden and the monastery – to search for the incarnation of his root guru, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche.
On 16 November 1984, the day that would strike everyone with grief, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche received a large colour photograph of the stupa of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. With the picture in his hand, Zong Rinpoche asked his attendant if he understood the significance of this gift.
If you don’t, it is implying that you should build such a stupa. Can you construct something like this? Even if you cannot, it does not matter provided that you complete successfully the construction of the Gyalchen Tendoe which I have begun. Even if you cannot do that, my students will build a stupa in the future with their wisdom and practise. KYABJE ZONG RINPOCHE
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche then entered his sitting room. A few minutes later, his attendants entered the room and found that Kyabje Zong Rinpoche had closed his eyes and was in tukdam or death meditation.
From all over the world, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s students gathered to pay their final respects and perform auspicious ceremonies such as Ganacakra and the self-initiations of Cittamani Tara, Vajrayogini and Vajrabhairava, along with other rituals. During a still afternoon days later, a sudden strong gust of wind blew and a small land tremor was felt across Mundgod. Once it subsided, word spread that Kyabje Zong Rinpoche had arisen from the Clear Light State and this incarnation had left the world forever.
Later when Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s items were examined, it was found that prior to his death, Rinpoche had marked three dates in his personal diary. The first was the date that he arose from the Clear Light State, the second was the day of the cremation and the third dated 24 November was the opening of the cremation hearth.
On the appointed day, members of Zong Ladrang proceeded to open the cremation hearth. Lying amongst the ashes was an unburnt skull, an auspicious occurrence similar to Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s previous incarnation. A large quantity of relic pills was also found within the cremation hearth.
When the lower pan was removed, the attending monks saw two sets of baby footprints in the sand mandala. These signified that Zong Rinpoche’s reincarnation would return swiftly. A number of the relics found in the funeral pyre were enshrined in a stupa which was completed in 1986. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s stupa still stands to this day in Gaden Shartse Monastery in Mundgod, India.
Those present during those days witnessed various auspicious signs. On the third day before the cremation, seven Indian ascetics in saffron robes leading an elephant walked into the compound. They received an offering of bananas and money from the monks and went happily on their way. Later when the monks asked the local villagers if they had seen the seven ascetics and the elephant, none of them had seen the group.
In the Tibetan tradition, an elephant is often compared to a bull. The current incarnation of Zong Rinpoche was born on 27 May 1985 in the Year of the Bull. It was only then that everyone understood the significance of the elephant’s appearance.
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