When I arrived in Howell, New Jersey back in 1972 as six year old boy going on seven, little did I know living ten minutes walk away was one of the greatest living masters from Tibet who was known then as Geshe Lobsang Tharchin and was a direct disciple of Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche the great. Later Geshe Lobsang Tharchin would be the abbot of Sera Mey and then retire and be known as Kensur Rinpoche Jetsun Lobsang Tharchin. Geshe Tharchin had arrived in Howell in 1971. Geshe-la was a direct teacher, scholar and didn’t joke around too much, at least with me. I would visit the temple (Rashi Gempil Ling) often for prayers, making offerings and getting teachings. This was the temple my family went to as well and contributed financially to. I was naturally attracted to this place and he was the teacher to my mother’s consternation. Geshe Tharchin was always kind but stern with me so I was very scared of him but wanted to be near him because I just knew he was not ordinary. I received my refuge vows, first teachings, higher empowerments, bodhisttva and tantric vows from this great Geshe Tharchin eventually. I trust him, believe in him and love him till this day with all my heart. He was also a student of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche and Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. The advice Geshe-la gave me still rings strong in my heart till this day and I will never forget his advice.
Geshe Tharchin translated and composed several books. One of the books he generously translated was The Principal Teachings of Buddhism. I highly recommend all books by Geshe-la. On the cover is the actual image of Lord Tsongkapa’s mummified body in Gaden Monastery, Tibet. Very holy pilgrimage point. In the beginning of the book Geshe-la gives us some insight into the monastery, how he grew up, how he studied and his interactions with Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche the great. Very interesting. It is with these memories Geshe-la relates some interesting stories about this legendary master of Tsongkapa’s lineage with great faith and candor.
Apparently Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche manifested as a dull learner and never completed his Lharam Geshe degree. He just finished with a minor degree which didn’t mean much if you were interested in the hierarchy of the monastery. Nor was it a celebrated or coveted degree. Not that this would matter to a genuine practitioner. He was by all accounts slow, not fast and not sharp. It was only later when he went to study with an unknown lama named Dakpo Rinpoche, he was made to meditate in the nearby mountain retreat and became highly realized and many wonderful signs appeared at Dakpo Hermitage where Rinpoche resided. Pabongka Rinpoche then became highly realized and was heavily sought after for teachings and blessings for the rest of his life. Pabongka Rinpoche considered this master as his root master and always addressed him as a root lama who had conferred on him intense Lam Rim meditations which gave Pabongka Rinpoche his realizations. Later when Pabongka Rinpoche would visit his lama, he would ride a horse as usual in those days. But when his lama’s hermitage came into view, he would dismount and prostrate all the way to the entrance in the dust as this was his respect to his lama for conferring him teachings for gaining high realizations. When Pabongka took leave of his lama, he would walk backwards until the hermitage was out of view and then only mount his horse and be on his way. Pabongka Rinpoche was a corpulent man so prostrating and walking backwards for long distances was very difficult, but he did it to show deepest respects to his lama.
Later Pabongka Rinpoche became the teacher of Gaden Tripa reincarnations, Abbots, Emeritus abbots, high ranking geshes, scholars, yogis, meditators, nobility, government ministers, ordinary lay persons and even the root teachers which later became the tutors of the 14th Dalai Lama. Although Pabongka Rinpoche scholarly learning was not ‘high’ and did not have high degrees, his meditations advanced him far and he became a great teacher when teaching attracted over 10,000 in the audience. Requests for initiations, teachings and oral transmissions came non stop. Many stories of special signs would appear to Pabongka Rinpoche. It was said when he gave Shri-Cakrasamvara (Heruka) initiations, many in the audience would witness a third eye open on his forehead or when he invited the holy beings to enter and bless the audience, people would shake as the blessings were tremendous. Statues of Cakrasamvara would pour forth nectar from its mouth witnessed by many in the presence of Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. Often Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche would have clear visions of Vajra Yogini appearing to him. There are many more stories of this great incomparable master but mostly he was humble, very kind and used his life to disseminate the pure Buddha Dharma to all those who requested. Due to his extreme popularity, there were many who were jealous and made up unfounded rumors about him. Rumors as he was against Nyingmas, or threw statues of Guru Rinpoche into the water and all types of untrue concocted stories twisted beyond any recognition. How can such a famous master surrounded by 14 attendants and vast students at all times hide doing such actions? Impossible. If you don’t do much, they criticize you and say you don’t do much. If you are a famous teacher, they find other ways to scorn you and create gossip. In samsara there is no winning, just forgiveness and benefitting others regardless.
In Tibet, there were many holy beings as well as not so holy beings both in robes and in lay clothes. Some in life aspired to attain the highest realizations as taught by Buddha and some wished to amass power, fortune and fame. It takes all kinds to make the world go round. Pabongka Rinpoche actually comes from a very high lineage of tulkus who were more than famous, but due to politics in the Tibetan government he was not granted his true tulku name. There were a few tulkus who suffered this fate.The ministers were very set to not have their power bases disturbed and to have a high incarnation who was active in the royal court of China in the previous incarnation, would invite the attention of the Chinese. They were afraid if Pabongka Rinpoche was recognized as who he really was, then he will be bestowed with great honors, gifts, wealth and perhaps even position from China within Tibet. This would upset the delicate power balance in Lhasa. Therefore his line of incarnations are not ‘allowed’ to be recognized to safeguard the powers present in the Tibetan Lhasa government. Other tulkus who were very beneficial or famous had their incarnation line stopped, killed or outlawed if it suited the Tibetan government. Some tulkus estates (ladrangs) were fully confiscated and the tulkus exiled or killed or simply not allowed to teach. The Tibetan government were very afraid of any of these tulkus usurping their power by commanding the populace against them no matter how saintly they were. Some of the previous incarnations of the Karmapas, Panchen Lamas and Sharmapas were exiled by the Tibetan government fearing their fame and growing influence. This is what happened to Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen who was killed due to his fame and popularity and the then Tibetan government were afraid he would usurp the 5th Dalai Lama who had just taken control of Tibet. The 5th Dalai Lama later wrote apologies and prayers to Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen. This was not uncommon at all. Just because the Tibetan government outlaws a tulku to return, doesn’t mean the tulku does not return. As in Pabongka Rinpoche’s case he did return and was not given his name and estate but instead the reincarnated name of a minor tulku or Pabongka Hermitage. The abbot of Pabongka Hermitage had died and he was given this name although not his name. This is how they figure it. Even if you don’t have your real name, the merits, imprints, blessings of a powerful tulku will return and continue his works no matter what name is given. It’s just if the lama’s real tulku name is given, the thousands of disciples would be happy to re-unite with their master again. So to enthrone him would open the karmic opportunities for him to do so as well as his previous lives’ deeds. Not necessary but helpful.
This recount by Geshe Tharchin is so fascinating and of course very accurate and I will let you read. Actually His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche’s name shines like the moon and stars as all his previous lives merits and imprints opened up. Pabongka Rinpoche is the root teacher of both Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche. As you know, these two great beings became the tutors to H.H. the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The lineage and practice Dalai Lama has now has come from Trijang and Ling Rinpoches which in turn came from Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. Pabongka Rinpoche is every Gelugpa’s lineage master and we invoke upon him daily through our Maha-annutaratantra deities practices. We must respect Pabongka Rinpoche very much and to disparage any of our lineage masters, or root masters or their teachings is to break samaya which leads to not achieving attainments. We should never say Trijang Rinpoche or Pabongka Rinpoche is wrong, had wrong practices or not good teachers or allow others to say it if at all possible, because they are our lineage masters. Any genuine master of any lineage would never disparage any lama. The true sign of a practitioner comes first when they control and tame their speech. We should not disparage even a ordinary sentient being, never mind a great being and lama and lineage master. None of the generation of teachers one above me from Tibet from Sera, Gaden and Drepung has not received teachings from either Pabongka Rinpoche or Trijang Rinpoche or both. And if we have received teachings from their disciples then they are our lineage lamas and we must show deepest respect if we want attainments. Our teachers are definitely disciples of Pabongka Rinpoche and Trijang Rinpoche. So we must respect them as we respect our masters. And we should definitely respect our own masters. Within the Gelug school of Buddhism, Pabongka Rinpoche pervades all masters and all lineages. We should never disparage them, their teachings or lineage. We should see them as perfect Heruka Buddhas which they are. If they are tainted, then the teachings we have now even through H.H. Dalai Lama would be tainted and therefore we are wasting our time practicing. The teachings and lineage are not tainted for sure as there are many modern day great Gelugpa teachers with extraordinary attainments alive today as proof.
There is no stopping this incredible line of tulkus labeled as Pabongka Rinpoche. There are many great beings reincarnated both recognized and not recognized or given other names who are working for the benefit of sentient beings even now as we read this. Name is not important but understanding this important aspect of Tibetan Buddhism will help us.
Please proceed to read:
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Title of the book: Tsongkhapa: The Principal Teachings of Buddhism
Commentary: Kyabje Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo
Translated by: Kensur Lobsang Tharchin with Geshe Michael Roach
Published by: Classics India Publications in Delhi, in association with The Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Press
Publication year: 1998
[Below, content of the book typed out from page 4 – 10]
It was at this time that the glorious Pabongka Rinpoche, the author of the commentary you are about to read, came into my life. Like me he had as a young man taken his course of studies at the Sera Mey College of Sera Monastery; in fact, he was from the same house, Gyalrong.
Pabongka Rinpoche was born in 1878, at a town called Tsawa Li in the Yeru Shang district of the state of Tsang, north of Lhasa. His family were of the nobility and owned a modest estate called Chappel Gershi. As a child he exhibited unusual qualities and in his seventh year was taken before Sharpa Chuje Lobsang Dargye, one of the leading religious figures of the day.
The lama felt sure that the boy must be a reincarnated saint, and even went so far as to examine him to see if he were the rebirth of his own late teacher. He was not, but the sage foretold that if the child were placed in the Gyalrong House of Sera Mey College, something wonderful would happen with him in the future.
Later on, the youngster was found to be a reincarnation of the Changkya line, which included the illustrious scholar Changkya Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786). The lamas of this line had done much teaching in the regions of Mongolia and China- even in the court of the Chinese emperor himself- and the name “Changkya” had very strong Chinese connotations. Already in those days the Tibetan government and people were sensitive to the pressures put on us by our powerful neighbor to the east, so the name “Changkya” was ruled out, and the boy declared to be “Pabongka” instead.
Pabongka, also known as Parongka, is a large and famous rock-formation about three miles’ walk from our Sera Monastery. The very word “pabong” means in our language a large boulder, or mass of rock. The place is historically very important for Tibetans, for perched on top of the rock is the palace of Songtsen Gampo, the 7th Century king who made Tibet one of the leading nations of Asia at the time, and who helped bring the first Buddhist teachings from India.
Until Songtsen Gampo’s time, the Tibetans had no written language. The king, who desired that the great texts of Buddhism be translated into our language, sent a number of delegations to India with the charge of bringing back a written alphabet. Many of the young men who went died in the terrible rainy heat of the Indian plains and jungles, so different from our high Tibetan plateau, but the minister Tonmi Sambhota finally returned. He proceeded to create an alphabet and grammatical system that last to this day. And it is said that he performed this great labor in the palace of Songtsen Gampo, atop the cliffs of Pabongka.
Pabongka Rinpoche was actually the second Pabongka, for it was finally agreed to announce that he had been recognized as the reincarnation of the Kenpo (or abbot) of the small monastery atop of the rock. For this reason he was sometimes referred to as “Pabongka Kentrul”, or the “reincarnation of the abbot of Pabongka”. Pabongka Rinpochte’s full name, by the way, was Kyabje Pabongka Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso Pel Sangpo, which translates as 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 is also popularly known as “Dechen Nyingpo”, which means “Essence of Great Bliss” and refers to his mastery of the secret teachings of Buddhism. We Tibetans feel that it is disrespectful to refer to a great religious leader with what we call his “bare” name- such as “Tsongkapa” or “Pabongka”- but we have tried here to simplify the Tibetan names to help our Western readers.
Pabongka Rinpoche’s career at Sera Mey College was not outstanding; he did finish his geshe degree, but reached only the “lingse” rank, which means that he was examined just at his own monastery and did not go on for one of the higher ranks such as “hlarampa”. The “hlarampa” level requires an exhausting series of public examinations and debates at different monasteries, culminating in a session before the Dalai Lama and his teachers at the Norbulingka summer palace. It was only after his graduation from Sera Mey, and the success of his teaching tours through the countryside outside the capital, that Pabongka Rinpoche’s fame started to spread. Gradually he began to build up a huge following and displayed tremendous abilities as a public teacher. He was not tall (as I remember about my height, and I am only 5’6”), but he was broad-chested and seemed to fill the entire teaching throne when he climbed up on it to begin his discourse.
His voice was incredibly powerful. On frequent occasions he would address gatherings of many thousands of people, yet everyone could hear him clearly (in those days in Tibet we had never heard of microphones or loudspeakers). Part of the trick of course was to pack the audience in Tibetan-style, cross-legged on the floor, with the lama on an elevated platform. Still the audience would flow out onto the porch of the hall, and sit perched above on the roof, watching through the steeple windows.
Pabongka Rinpoche had an uncanny ability to relate to his audience, and for this reason he became a teacher for the common man as well as for us monks. Generally speaking, the majority of the Buddha’s teachings as we learn them in the monastery are extremely detailed, deep and sometimes technical. Moreover, we use rigorous tests of formal logic to analyze them as we move up through our classes. These methods are important for gaining the highest goals of Buddhist practice in a systematic way, and for passing these teachings on to others. But they were beyond the abilities and time of many of our Tibetan laymen. The Rinpoche’s great accomplishment was that he found a way to attract and lead listeners of every level.
His most famous weapon was his humor. Public discourses in Tibet could sometimes go on for ten hours or more without a break, and only a great saint could keep his attention up so long. Inevitably part of the audience would start to nod, or fall into some reverie. Then Pabongka Rinpoche would suddenly relate an amusing story or joke with a useful moral, and send his listeners into peals of laughter. This would startled the day dreamers, who were always looking around and asking their neighbors to repeat the joke to them.
The effects on his audience were striking and immediate. I remember particularly the case of Dapon Tsago, a member of the nobility who held a powerful position equivalent to Minister of Defense. Public teachings in Tibet were as much social as religious affairs, and aristocrats would show up in their best finery, often it seemed not to hear the dharma but rather to put in an appearance. So one day this great general marches in to the hall, decked out in silk, his long hair flowing in carefully tailored locks (this was considered manly and high fashion in old Tibet). A great ceremonial sword hung from his belt, clanging importantly as he swaggered in.
By the end of the first section of the teaching he was seen leaving the hall quietly, deep in thought- he had wrapped his weapon of war in a cloth to hide it, and was taking it home. Later on we could see he had actually trimmed off his warrior’s locks, and finally one day he threw himself before the Rinpoche and asked to be granted the special lifetime religious vows for laymen. Thereafter he always followed Pabongka Rinpoche around, to every public teaching he gave.
The Rinpoche had never spent much time at the small monastery atop the Pabongka rock, and his fame soon reach such proportions that the Ngakpa College of Sera Monastery offered him a large retreat complex on the hillside above Pabongka. The name of this hermitage was Tashi Chuling, or “Auspicious Spiritual Isle”. There were some sixty Buddhist monks in residence there, and as I remember about sixteen personal attendants who helped the Lama with his pressing schedule: two monk-secretaries, a manager for finances, and so on. The Rinpoche would divide his time between his quarters here and a small meditation cell built around the mouth of a cave, further up the side of the mountain.
The cave was known as Takden, and it was here that Pabongka Rinpoche would escape for long periods to do his private practice and meditations. The central chamber had a high vaulted ceiling, so high that the light of a regular fire-torch could not even reach it, and the darkness seemed to go up forever. In the center of the ceiling there was an odd natural triangle in the rock, which looked exactly like the outer shape of one of the mystic worlds described in our secret teachings.
In the corner if this wonderful cave, an underground spring flowed from a rock- and above it was another natural drawing, this one just like the third eye that we see painted on the forehead of one of our female Buddhas. By the way, this “third eye” you hear about is largely metaphorical, and stands for the spiritual understanding in one’s heart. We believed the cave was home for a dakini- sort of Buddhist angel- because people often said they saw a wondrous lady come from the cave, but no one had ever seen her enter.
It was in his private quarters at the Tashi Chuling hermitage that I first met Pabongka Rinpoche. He had been away on an extended teaching tour in eastern Tibet, and just returned. I was still the wild teenager and had been stuck with the distasteful job of nyerpa for Gyalrong House- this means I was a kind of quartermaster and had to make sure there was enough firewood and food to keep the house kitchen going for several hundred monks. Since the Rinpoche was a member of Gyalrong, we were supposed to send a committee over to the hermitage to welcome him back and present him gifts. As nyerpa I was expected to arrange some supplies and help carry them along.
In private conversation Pabongka Rinpoche was in the habit of constantly attaching “Quite right! Quite right!” to everything he said. So I distinctly remember when I came into his presence, and he put his hand on my head, and he said “Quite right! Quite right! Now this one looks like a bright boy!” From that day on I felt as though I had received his blessing, and some special power to pursue my studies.
In my eighteenth year, the Rinpoche was requested to come across to our own Sera Mey College and deliver a discourse on the Steps of the path to Buddhahood. He would receive countless requests of this sort, usually from wealthy patrons who hoped to collect some merit for the future life, or from monks who wanted to receive the transmission of a particular teaching so they could pass it on to their own followers in the future. The Rinpoche would usually promise to consider the request, and then try to satisfy several at one time by delivering a large public discourse.
These discourses would be announced months in a advance. The sponsors would rent a huge assembly hall in one of the major monasteries just outside the capital, or reserve one of the great chapels in Lhasa (no cars in Tibet those days), attend the teaching, and walk back quickly before the evening debate sessions at the monastery park. I remember the elderly monks would start out before us and return later, or even get permission to take a room in Lhasa for the duration of the course, since the walk was difficult for them.
This particular discourse at Sera Mey went on for a full three months. We sat for six hours a day: three hours in the morning, with a break for lunch, and then three hours in the afternoon. Pabongka Rinpoche went carefully through the entire Lam Rim Chenmo, the great exposition of the entire Steps on the path to Buddhahood written by the incomparable Lord Tsongkhapa- who is also the author of the root verses explained by Pabongka Rinpoche in his commentary here. The Rinpoche referred to all eight of the classic texts on the Steps of the path during his discourse, which was attended by about 10,000 monks.
Like so many others in the audience, I was stunned by the power of his teaching. Most of it I had heard before, but the way in which he taught it and, I felt, the blessing I had received from him made it suddenly strike home for me. Here I was, living the short precious life of a human, and fortunate enough to be a student at one of the greatest Buddhist monasteries in the world. Why was I wasting my time? What would happen if I suddenly died?
In my heart I made a decision to master the teachings, for the benefit of myself and others. I remember going to my room, to my house teacher Geshe Namdrol, and declaring my change of heart to him: “Now the bad boy is going to study, and become a master geshe!” Geshe Namdrol laughed, and told me, “The day you become a geshe is the day I become Ganden Tripa!”
Now the Ganden Tripa is one of the highest religious personages in Tibet: he holds the throne of Lord Tsongkapa himself, and wins the position by attaining the highest rank of geshe- the hlarampa- and then serving as the head of one of the two colleges devoted to the study of the secret teachings. My house teacher had never gone above the tsokrampa rank of geshe, so could never have become the Ganden Tripa anyway, and we both knew it. I got angry, in a good way, and swore to him that I would not only become a geshe but a hlarampa geshe as well. In my later years, after I had passed the hlarampa examinations with highest honors, Geshe Namdrol used to come a little sheepishly and ask in a roundabout way if I could help him pick a good topic for the day’s debates.
His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche the great or otherwise known as Dechen Nyingpo. He is the master of all masters and one with Heruka.
The erudite master and my first teacher, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin or Sera Mey Kensur Rinpoche Jetsun Lobsang Tharchin.
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