When I was in my teens in Los Angeles back in the 80’s, I came across a picture book on Tibet. There were many pictures in black and white of the Tibetans of the past and their way of life. I kept flipping through the book and I came across a picture of a lama, portly and on a throne. The caption read, “Pabongka, A high lama of Lhasa” and that was it. I could not stop staring. I was attracted. I was mesmerized. I photocopied the picture and framed it and put on my shrine. My respect, ‘infatuation’ and faith for this great lama started back then in the 1980’s from flipping through the book. There were other similar pictures of other lamas, but they didn’t attract me. I was very attracted and gained faith in His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche from just that picture. Maybe it opened a past life imprint? I don’t know. But my faith and confidence over the decades has only grown about this great lama. His writings, teachings and explanations are beyond profound and from direct experiential knowledge. Rare indeed.
When I finally arrived in India in 1987, I took a winding 13 hour bus from Delhi to Dharamsala where I was to be ordained as a monk. I stayed in the Gaden Shartse guest house. Next door was the famous Lady Doctor of Tibet Dr. Lobsang Dolma’s house and clinic. The evening I arrived I was very sick and feverish from the bus ride up the winding single lane road. (Don’t ever take the bus!) But I was told the incarnation of His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche just arrived the same evening and was staying next door at Dr. Lobsang Dolma’s house. I was flabbergasted and excited. I grabbed some new bottles of vitamins I had brought from USA, Khata and some money offerings and went next door. Before you know it I was in the presence of His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche who I think was around 12 years old at the time. He blessed me and gave me the oral transmission of Medicine Buddha’ mantra. He also told me Dorje Shugden and my root Guru are one in nature and when I do prayers/mantras of my protector, I should think them the same. Whenever I travel think of them as same and do the mantra confidently. Although high in fever, sweating, weak and sick I was enthralled and amazed. I felt so blessed. Can you imagine, the day I arrived in Dharamala is the day Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche arrives also and is staying next door! And Immediately I had a chance to have audience!
I am very happy to share a short post on a lama that is holy, attained and pivotal within our Gelug Lineage. A lama who is attained, pure and also whose mind has merged with Heruka.
The current incarnation of His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche in front of a massive Tsongkapa statue in Denma Gonsar Rinpoche’s monastery in Tibet. This holy incarnation of Kyabje Pabongka mainly engages in retreats, teachings and meditation in Tibet, China and Nepal. I have had the great honor, good fortune and merits to meet this supreme incarnation on many occasions.
I had the great privilege to meet this great lady, Dr. Lobsang Dolma. She had treated me for some ailments and she was an incredibly compassionate. I use to spend hours with her at her invitation watching her diagnose and treat patients. I will do a separate blog post on this saintly lady. She is one of the people that has impacted me deeply and one of my heroes. I can say I dearly respect her from the depths of my heart. Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche stayed at her house right next door to where I was staying that night I arrived in Dharamsala in 1987.
His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo (1878–1941)
Pabongkha Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo Jampa Tenzin Trinlay Gyatso was one of the greatest masters of the 20th century and one the most influential teachers in Tibet. He was unique in his ability to bring the complex ancient teachings to the monks as well as to the laypeople’s level of comprehension. Hence, it is through him that a great number of lay people were able to learn and benefit from the Dharma. For this reason, he was known as the teacher for the common man and monks. Similar to Buddha Shakyamuni who taught an enormous variety of people about 2,500 years ago, Pabongkha Rinpoche did not teach from some predetermined syllabus. Instead, he taught according to the spiritual needs of the listeners.
His influential teachings, coupled with his powerful way of conveying the Dharma made Rinpoche into a respected spiritual figure of his day. He wrote extensively on every aspect of Buddhist thought and practice. These collected works cover about 15 volumes.
Rinpoche was born north of Lhasa in 1878. It is said that on the night when he was born, a light shone in the room and people outside the house had a vision of a protector on the roof. As a child, he exhibited unusual qualities and thus, was taken before Sharpa Rinpoche Chuje Lobsang Dargye, one of the leading religious figures of the day. Later on, he was found to be a reincarnation of the Changkya line, which included the well-known scholar Changkya Rolpay Dorje (1717- 1786). The Lamas of this line had done much teaching in the regions of Mongolia and China, including in the court of the Chinese emperor himself, and so the name “Changkya” had strong Chinese connotations. As the Tibetan government and people were already sensitive to the pressures put on them from China, the name “Changkya” was ruled out and the boy was declared to be “Pabongka” instead. There was a small monastery atop the rock named Pabong. Hence, Rinpoche was actually recognized and enthroned as the late abbot of that monastery. For this reason, Rinpoche is documented as the second Pabongka and was sometimes referred to as, “Pabongka Kentrul”. It is commonly believed that Rinpoche was also the reincarnation of Tsako Ngawang Drakpa, one of the main disciples of Tsong Khapa and founder of Dhe-Tsang Monastery. Pabongka Rinpoche’s full name was Kyabje Pabongka Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso Pel Sangpo, which means the “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 was also affectionately known as “Dechen Nyingpo”, which translates into “Essence of Great Bliss”.
At the tender age of seven, Rinpoche entered Gyalrong House of Sera-Mey Monastery. He did the usual studies of a monk, earned his Geshe degree and spent two years learning at the Gyuto Tantric College. Rinpoche’s root guru was Dagpo Rinpoche Jampal Lhundrub Gyatso of Lhoka.
A keen meditator, Pabongka Rinpoche emphasized Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra. When he had finished his studies at Sera Monastery, he visited Dagpo Lama Rinpoche in his cave and was sent to a Lamrim retreat nearby. According to Ribur Rinpoche: “Dagpo Lama Rinpoche would teach him a Lam-rim topic and then Pabongka Rinpoche would go away and meditate on it. Later he would return to explain what he’d understood: if he had gained some realization, Dagpo Lama Rinpoche would teach him some more and Pabongka Rinpoche would go back and meditate on that. It went on like this for ten years.
Rinpoche had two main spiritual qualities – from the tantric point of view, his realization and ability to present all tantric teachings, and from the sutric point of view, his ability to teach Lamrim, or the entire graduated path to enlightenment.
It is said that Rinpoche’s teachings are so famous that thousands of people would come from far and wide to attend, especially when Rinpoche gave initiations or conduct special prayers for festivals. Rinpoche is well known for using his humour to elucidate the teachings. As some teachings could go on for ten hours, Rinpoche would intersperse his teachings with jokes and amusing stories laced with moral values to keep his audience “awake”.
In 1921 at Chuzang Hermitage near Lhasa, Pabongka Rinpoche gave a twenty-four-day historic exposition on the Lam Rim. This was attended by some seven hundred people, including lay people. Many monks came from the three major monasteries in Lhasa, and many more travelled weeks from the Central Province, from Tsang, and from as far away as Amdo and Kham. These teachings were eventually translated into English and published as “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” (Tib. Rnam frol lag bcangs) in 1991 by one of Rinpoche’s disciples who had attended the 24 day Discourse. This disciple was the famed, Trijang Rinpoche. And this book became the foundation of most Gelug teachers’ Lam Rim presentations, including those of the FPMT and of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s acclaimed Lam Rim text, “Joyful Path of Good Fortune”. Each chapter in the “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” corresponds to a day’s teaching. The book conveyed a strong sense of what it was like to have been there with this remarkable Master.
Pabongka Rinpoche was also a perfect example of guru devotion. Whenever he visited his lama’s monastery, Rinpoche would dismount as soon as it appeared in view and prostrate all the way to the door – which was not easy because of his large build. When he left the monastery, he would walk backwards until the monastery was out of sight. Only then Rinpoche would turn around and get back onto his horse to proceed with his journey.
Due to Rinpoche’s knowledge and practice, tens of thousands of people became his disciples, including numerous eminent lamas, powerful generals and even attracting Chinese government officials and monks, who came all the way from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa in order to receive his teachings. Rilbur Rinpoche recounted that Pabongka Rinpoche spent a lot of time contemplating on the practical meaning of the teachings and came into an inner realizations of them. Pabongka Rinpoche also practiced and accomplished everything he had learnt, right up to the completion stage. It was widely regarded that Rinpoche did not just spout words, but tried things out for himself. He was always known to be very gentle and never got angry. There were many instances where by long lines of people would be waiting to see Rinpoche and to receive blessings, Rinpoche would patiently ask each one individually how they were and tap them on the head. These were some of things that made Rinpoche well respected and adored by many.
Rinpoche’s four main disciples were not just any disciples. They became Masters in their own right. They are Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Khangsar Rinpoche and Tathag 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, and Ling Rinpoche was elected to be the 97th throne holder of the Gelugpa lineage (Gaden Tripa). Khangsar Rinpoche’s Chinese disciple, Master Nan Hai, started a Buddhist movement in China that survived till the present day despite political changes in Communist China, with tens of thousands of spiritual descendants and over a hundred monasteries and nunneries throughout China. Pabongkha Rinpoche was also the teacher of most of the Gelug Lamas who have been bringing the Dharma to the West since they fled Tibet in 1959.
Geshe Helmut Gassner explains: The great master Pabongka was in the first half of the twentieth century the pivotal or key lineage holder of the Oral Geden Tradition. It was Pabongka Rinpoche’s particular merit to locate and find all these partial transmissions, to learn and realize 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 Geden tradition who had not been Pabongka Rinpoche’s disciple. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was the one capable of receiving and passing on the entirely of the Oral Geden Tradition once again. The cycle of learning and teaching continues. In this way, the Dharma remains eternal.
Pabongkha Rinpoche passed away in 1941. His holy body was cremated and his relics preserved in one of his monasteries, Tashi Choling in Lhasa, until it was destroyed by the communist army during the 1960’s.
Over many centuries, Tibet has produced a repertoire of extraordinary Buddhist saints and scholars, but it is rare for a lama’s teachings to become classics within his own lifetime, such as the works of Pabongka Rinpoche.
Without Rinpoche holding all the important lineages of sutra and tantra and passing them onto most of the important Gelug lamas of the next two generations, many students may not even have the benefit of learning the Dharma today.
In some ways, the “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” is the culmination of the lamrim tradition in Tibet, tracing all the way from Atisha to Tsongkhapa and to all the many illustrious great scholars and Masters throughout the history within the lineage’s Guru Tree.
As with all great Masters, most of their disciples would maintain that nothing is significant to them – not their fame, riches or authority, what truly matters most is their Guru. And this is exactly what Rilbur Rinpoche proclaimed, “The only thing that matters to me is that I was a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche.”
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma: