Interview With Khenpo Namdröl
My teacher Khenpo Tsöndrü1 studied at Dzogchen Monastery in East Tibet when the fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche, Thubten Chökyi Dorje,2 was still alive. At that time, Dzogchen Monastery was renowned for its exquisite teachers of Buddhist philosophy. Khenpo Tsöndrü planned to study Dzogchen practice with the fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche and to receive additional teachings from khenpos on the ‘thirteen great textbooks of Indian origin’3 at Śrī Siṃha Shedra of Dzogchen Monastery. But Thubten Chökyi Dorje passed away only one year after Khenpo Tsöndrü arrived. Thus, he had no opportunity to receive Dzogchen teachings from this great master.
Though there were many great teachers and tulkus at Dzogchen Monastery, he decided to request Dzogchen teachings from Zhechen Kontrül Rinpoche. From this master he received several Dzogchen initiations including the Nyingthig Yazhi,4 the Longchen Nyingthig5 and so forth, together with extensive teachings on instruction manuals of the Great Perfection6 like The Instructions of the Wisdom Master7 and others.
He pursued his philosophical studies at Śrī Siṃha Shedra. Khenpo Tsöndrü told me that when he was studying at the shedra all the great khenpos who were teaching, as well as those who had taught there, possessed higher perception.8 They were both great scholars and yogins. Most of the khenpos at Śrī Siṃha Shedra taught for four or five years and then went into retreat in the surrounding mountains.
Khenpo Tsöndrü further said that among all the shedras in East Tibet in his time, he considered the Śrī Siṃha Shedra to be the best. Khenpo Tsöndrü reported that due to the abundance of many great yogin-scholars, students at Śrī Siṃha Shedra were not overly impressed even with someone like Mipham Rinpoche, one of the greatest scholars and writers of the time.9 Mipham was ‘only’ an ‘ordained monk’10 not a ‘fully ordained monk’.11 Therefore, he was not allowed to teach as the main khenpo12 at Śrī Siṃha Shedra.
Khenpo Tsöndrü said that the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra was taught at Śrī Siṃha Shedra exclusively based on Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary, just as were all the other textbooks of Indian origin. Khenpo Kunpal’s commentary was only taught outside the Śrī Siṃha teaching hall, when interested students requested it from their personal khenpo-teachers. Khenpo Tsöndrü had the chance to study with two direct students of Khenpo Zhenga: Khenpo Ngawang Norbu and Khenpo Pema Tsewang.13 Khenpo Tsöndrü studied most of Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentaries of the ‘thirteen great textbooks of Indian origin’14 at Śrī Siṃha Shedra under Khenpo Ngawang Norbu. From Khenpo Pema Tsewang he received teachings on the annotation commentary to the Abhisamayālaṃkāra,15 including Paltrül Rinpoche’s commentary on the Abhisamayālaṃkāra.
From Dzogchen Khenpo Chime16 he received teachings on Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary on the ninth chapter of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra, called Norbu Ketaka. This master also gave Khenpo Tsöndrü a commentary on Mipham Rinpoche’s extensive explanation of the Seven Line Supplication.17
From Dzogchen Khenpo Abu Lhagong18 he received many teachings on tantra, among these a commentary on Mipham Rinpoche’s explanation of ‘the eight great sādhana teachings’ of the Nyingma school.19 In total, Khenpo Tsöndrü studied for six years at Dzogchen Monastery, during which time he was able to receive teachings on all the ‘thirteen great textbooks of Indian origin’.
After his time at Dzogchen Monastery, Khenpo Tsöndrü went on pilgrimage to Central Tibet together with his mother. He joined Sera Monastery and studied there until Chinese oppression forced him to leave Tibet. While at Sera Monastery he met with his root guru Zhechen Kongtrül Rinpoche and also with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in Lhasa. Zhechen Kongtrül Rinpoche told Khenpo Khenpo Tsöndrü to rely on Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in the future.
On arriving in India, Khenpo Tsöndrü first stayed at Barza, at the Bhutanese-Indian border. Invited by Dzongnang Rinpoche and Kuchen Rinpoche, he taught for six years at Mindröl Ling Monastery in Dehra Dun, India. Next he taught for two years at the Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, Varanasi, India. Then he taught for five years at the Sikkimese government shedra in Dabrali, Sikkim. That is where I was able to study with this master.
I myself was born in 195420 in Samar21 in Derge, East Tibet. My family lineage is called Ngugu22 and traces itself back to the family lineage of minister Gar,23 one of King Songtsen Gampo’s (618-641) ministers. In 1959 I fled Tibet together with Penor Rinpoche and arrived in Mysore, in South India in 1961. At the age of thirteen I become a monk in Penor Rinpoche’s monastery, Namdröl Ling, in Mysore. Penor Rinpoche himself taught me reading and writing. When I was sixteen I was able to receive teachings from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche24 on the Viśeṣa-stava25 and on ‘The Practice of the Sons of the Victor’.26 Around that time I received a commentary on the root text of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra from Sakya Khenpo Kedrup,27 who stayed for three years in Namdröl Ling.
I had planned to study with Kunu Lama Tendzin Gyamtsho28 who was about to teach the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra in Pokhara, Nepal. But when I arrived in Pokhara, the teachings were almost over and Kunu Lama told me that he would not be able to teach me in the future either. Six months later he passed away. I went to Darjeeling and received from Khenpo Palden Sherab29 a commentary on Nāgārjuna’s ’Six textbooks of Madhyamaka Reasoning’.30
Then, I went to Dabrali in Sikkim31 and studied at the Sikkimese government shedra for four years with Khenpo Tsöndrü. The shedra had been started seven years earlier. Kagyü Khenpo Rinchen32 had served for two years as the shedra’s first khenpo. The second khenpo was Khenpo Dazer33 who served for four years. Khenpo Tsöndrü was the third khenpo and served for five years. During his second year of teaching I arrived at the shedra.
The first teaching I received from Khenpo Tsöndrü was on Prajñāpāramitā.34 He taught on Asaðga’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra35 for more than one year and then continued with teachings on the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra for almost another year. He began by teaching very extensively on Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary to the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra. Then he gave a reading transmission interspersed with commentary36 on Khenpo Kunpal’s commentary to the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra. Next, he taught on Paltrül Rinpoche’s Sequence of Meditation on the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra.37 Finally, he taught Mipham Rinpoche’s commentary on the ninth chapter of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra, the Norbu Ketaka.38 When I studied with Khenpo Tsöndrü in Sikkim we were about fifty students at the shedra.
In 1978 Penor Rinpoche built a shedra at Namdröl Ling Monastery and he invited Khenpo Tsöndrü to serve as the first khenpo. In one year Khenpo Tsöndrü taught the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra based on Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary, ‘Khenpo Yönga’s commentary on the three sets of vows’39 and other texts. At that time we were only thirteen students at the shedra. I was appointed to serve as assistant teacher.40 After Khenpo Tsöndrü had taught for one year at the new shedra, he passed away.
During the shedra’s second year Khenpo Pema Sherab and I taught the students. In the third year, Sakya Khenpo Triso Rinchen taught for six months. He taught Abhidharma-koṣa41 twice, based on Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary, to about forty students. In the fourth year Khenpo Rinchen taught for three months on Asaðga’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra42 based on Khenpo Zhenga’s annotation commentary. In the fifth year Khenpo Rinchen taught Candrakīrti’s43 own commentary on the Madhyamakāvatāra.44 I was not able to receive this teaching from Khenpo Rinchen as I was accompanying Penor Rinpoche on his first return to Tibet.
Concerning the study of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra Khenpo Tsöndrü told me that though the meaning of the text is not difficult to understand, applying the teachings to one’s mind is far more difficult. The purpose of the dharma is to transform the mind, to free us from our attachment to worldly concerns. Among all treatises and texts, Śāntideva’s Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra and Paltrül Rinpoche’s Words of my Perfect Teacher45 are the most powerful texts that serve this purpose. If a qualified teacher carefully explains these two texts, a diligent student can definitely transform his or her mind and become free from worldly concerns. If even these two texts cause no transformation in a person’s mind, that person definitely lacks the potential to become a genuine practitioner. Someone who cannot be benefited by the dharma is called ‘a jaded or callous practitioner’.46 Despite receiving the genuine dharma, he remains untouched by it, as a stone in water only gets wet on the outside but stays dry within.
While the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra is designed to transform a practitioner’s mind from the very outset, the other major Indian texts do not have this immediate practical applicability. The Abhisamayālaṃkāra47 for instance teaches extensively on the ten bodhisattva levels and five paths. How can people who have not even reached the first bodhisattva level apply these teachings to their minds? Even a complete beginner, on the other hand, can immediately make use of the teachings of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra. The Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra shows the methods, contemplations and meditations for transforming our minds, tells us how to free ourselves from worldly concerns, and thus how to become genuine practitioners. Khenpo Tsöndrü said that for these reasons the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra must be taught and studied extensively.
I myself can only agree with my teacher Khenpo Tsöndrü. I truly believe that among all the Indian treatises the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra is the most beneficial to any sincere practitioner. The Buddhist teachings are vast and profound. There are countless sūtras, treatises, tantras and instruction manuals. For a beginner, who really aspires to become a genuine dharma practitioner, in my opinion no book is more suitable than the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra. This text is a perfect gateway to the dharma. This text is a perfect guide and companion thoughout a practitioner’s entire life. The way Śāntideva presents the dharma directly strikes one’s heart. This is his special feature. He talks straight to your heart. The teachings of the Bodhisattva-caryāvatāra are common sense. Whoever receives or reads these teachings will agree and will think, “This is really true.” Since this manner of presenting the dharma is so clear and easy to understand, it transforms one’s mind if applied in daily life.
Khenpo Tsöndrü [mkhan po brtson ’grus] was born in Gokok [mgo log], in North East Tibet. His father had been a monk at Sera Monastery in Central Tibet and his family were followers of the Gelukpa school. Khenpo Tsöndrü began his education at the age of seven. Due to practicing Karma Chagme’s Mañjuśrī sādhana [’jam dpal smra seng] he became an expert in spelling, grammar and poetry, without having studied extensively.2.
The fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche was famous for his supernatural knowledge [mngon shes]. He identified, among many other incarnations, the incarnation of the present Pema Norbu Rinpoche and the present Dodrup Chen Rinpoche.3.
gzhung chen bcu gsum4.
snying thig ya bzhi5.
klong chen snying thig6.
rdzogs chen khrid yid7.
khrid ye shes bla ma8.
While Mipham Rinpoche was staying at Dzogchen Monastery, Paltrül Rinpoche’s main Dzogchen lineage-holder, Khenpo Lungtog Tenpe Nyima [mkhan po lung rtogs bstan pa’i nyi ma] had sent his main student, Khenpo Ngachung [mkhan po ngag chung / mkhan po ngag dbang dpal bzang], to Dzogchen Monastery to study with Mipham Rinpoche. When Khenpo Ngakchung, also called Khenpo Ngaga [ngag dga], arrived at Dzogchen Monastery, Mipham Rinpoche had just finished composing his famous ‘Gateway to Knowledge’ [mkhas ’jug] and he blessed him with this text. Though Mipham Rinpoche did not give the entire reading transmission of the text to Khenpo Ngakchung, he authorized him to teach it in the future. Khenpo Ngakchung only stayed a few years at Dzogchen Monastery. Later, he went to Kathok Monastery [kaḥ thog dgon pa], where he served as a khenpo at the shedra. When Khenpo Tsöndrü arrived at Dzogchen Monastery, Khenpo Ngakchung had already left for Kathok Monastery. Khenpo Tsöndrü reported that at that time Khenpo Ngakchung was reputed to be an incarnation of the great Dzogchen master Longchen Rabjam [klong chen rab ’jams]. Since he wore a black lower robe [sham thabs], the monks gave him the nick-name ‘Black Skirt’ [sham nag ma]. The fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche, Thubten Chökyi Dorje, told Khenpo Ngakchung that he would give him the throne of the ‘main teaching khenpo’ [las thog mkhan po] at Śrī Siṃha Shedra if he remained at Dzogchen Monastery. Normally, this high position was never given to scholars who had received the main part of their education outside of the Śrī Siṃha Shedra. Although Khenpo Ngakchung wanted to stay at Śrī Siṃha, he received clear indications in this dreams and meditation experiences that he should go to Kathok. In addition, Kathok Situ Rinpoche sent many letters inviting Khenpo Ngakchung to teach at Kathok.10.
las thog mkhen po13.
This Khenpo Pema Tsewang [mkhan po pad ma tshe dbang] or Khenpo Pentse [mkhan po pad tshe] is not the same as Khenpo Chöga’s teacher, who came originally from Phugkhung Monastery ‘Dechen Chökhor Lhünpo’ [phug khungs bde chen chos ’khor lhun po], a sub-monastery [dgon lag] of Zhechen Monastery.14.
gzhung chen bcu gsum15.
mngon rtogs rgyan16.
rdzogs chen mkhan po ’chi med17.
tshig bdun gsol ’debs rnam bshad18.
Dzogchen Khenpo Abu Lhagong [rdzogs chen mkhan po a bu lha sgang] was a contemporary of Khenpo Zhenga and a great scholar and realized yogin. During the latter part of his life, at the time Khenpo Tsöndrü met him, Abu Lhagong was staying in a cave in the hills above Dzogchen Monastery. Khenpo Tsöndrü reported that due to Abu Lhagong’s accomplishment of the Tummo [gtum mo] practice, no snow ever settled on the ground around his retreat place [ri khrod]. Furthermore, Khenpo Tsöndrü told Khenpo Namdöl that Abu Lhagong’s body never cast a shadow. Khenpo Tsöndrü observed that Abu Lhagong had about forty water offering bowls on the shrine in this retreat place. Every morning Abhu Lhagong himself would pour offering water into the bowls. Even during the intense winter cold of East Tibet, the water in these bowls never froze. Moreover, Khenpo Tsöndrü observed many miraculous signs during Abu Lhagong’s cremation. He said that wherever the wind blew the smoke of the funeral pyre, relics would drizzle from the smoke.19.
bka’ brgyad rnam bshad20.
blon po gar gyi brgyud pa24.
smyo shul mkhan rin po che25.
khyad par du ’phags pa’i bstod pa26.
rgyal sras lag len27.
Sakya Khenpo Khedrup [sa skya mkhan po mkhas grub] was a direct student of Öntö Khyenrab Chökyi Özer [dbon stod mkhyen rab chos kyi ’od zer], who in turn was a direct student of Khenpo Zhenga. I also received from Khenpo Khedrup teachings on the Abhidharma-koṣa [mngon pa mdzod], the Madhyamakālaṃkāra [dbu ma rgyan] and the Madhyamakāvatāra [dbu ma ’jug pa].28.
ku nu bla ma bstan ’dzin rgya mtsho29.
mkhan po dpal ldan shes rab30.
The ’Six textbooks of Madhyamaka Reasoning’ [dbu ma rigs tshogs drug] are: 1) Prajñā-nāma-mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā [dbu ma rtsa ba’i tshig le’ur byas pa shes rab], 2) Vigrahavyāvartanī-kārikā-nāma [rtsod pa bzlog pa’i tshig le’ur byas pa], 3) Śūnyatāsaptati-kārikā-nāma [stong pa nyid bdun cu pa’i tshig le’ur byas pa], 4) Yuktiṣaṣṭikā-kārikā-nāma [rigs pa drug cu pa’i tshig le’ur byas pa], 5) Vaidalya-sūtra-nāma [zhib mo rnam par ’thag pa zhes bya ba’i mdo], and 6) Rāja-parikathā-ratnāvali [rgyal po la gtam bya ba rin po che’i phreng ba].31.
Kagyü Khenpo Rinchen [bka’ brgyud mkhan po rin chen] should not be confused with Sakya Khenpo Triso Rinchen [mkhan po khri so rin chen].33.
mkhan po zla zer34.
mngon rtogs rgyan36.
spyod ’jug sgom rim38.
Ju Mipham Jamyang Namgyal [‘ju mi pham ’jam dbyangs rnam rgyal] received teachings from Paltrül Rinpoche on the chapter concerning transcendental knowledge and shortly thereafter, in 1878, wrote his famous commentary to this chapter.39.
sdom gsum rig pa ’dzin pa’i ’jug ngo40.
Khenpo Rinchen studied with Drayab Lodro [brag g.yab blo gros] at the shedra at Dzongsar Monastery in East Tibet, which follows Khenpo Zhenga’s tradition. In total, I received teachings on the Abhidharma-koṣa [chos mngon pa mdzod] from Khenpo Rinchen three times.42.
mngon rtogs rgyan43.
zla ba grags pa44.
dbu ma ’jug pa rang ’grel45.
kun bzang bla ma’i zhal lung46.
mngon rtogs rgyan