By Dr. Kaveri Gill
One Saturday afternoon in early October last year, a few months into my tenure as Principal of the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education (DLIHE), I received a phone call from Dr. Tseten la in Dharamshala. His was a courtesy call, requesting whether our institute could host a very senior former Abbott (Tib. Khensur), advanced in age and not keeping good health at all, whom had been advised by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to take only Tibetan medicine from Men Tsee Khang, Bangalore. Accordingly, Khensur Rinpoche had been to consult Amchi Dorjee Rabten at Laxminagar. I responded that this would be a great honour for us. Dr. Tseten la and I discussed potential logistics of Drepung Loseling Kyabjey Gyudmed Khensur Rinpoche Jetsun Thutop Gonpo’s arrival, and he promised to share my number with one of his attendants who was conversant in English.
Hanging up the phone, I walked down to the DLIHE canteen to request staff to begin preparing our institute’s VIP rooms. It struck me that when I was moving to DLIHE, and was kindly offered the VIP rooms on the grounds that DLIHE would receive no high lamas during my tenure due to Covid, I had anyway declined to occupy a space and beds used previously by aforesaid high lamas. And here we were, barely a few months into my stay, readying ourselves to receive one! Still, I did not really know what to expect, and could never have anticipated what was to follow.
The English-speaking attendant, Gyen Jamphel Thinley, and I exchanged messages. I suggested the attendants visit the campus on Monday, as the rooms would be ready by then and they could survey the place for its suitability. He declined, saying they would directly arrive with Rinpoche on Tuesday, as it was an auspicious day. Much later, the attendants shared with me that they had spoken to Rinpoche, suggesting they visit in advance to check out the accommodation, but he had promptly replied that there was no need as DLIHE was trying its best, and that was good enough for him. On the 5th of October, a clear day after weeks of non-stop rain, we waited with khatas to welcome Rinpoche to the family quarters, where the VIP rooms were located – directly adjacent to my accommodation, Rinpoche would be my immediate neighbour for as long as he stayed.
Around mid-day, the Men Tsee Khang car drove up, with a bespectacled smiling lama in the front seat, reserved for those of highest rank in Tibetan conventions. Out stepped a tall, erect and elegant figure, who despite being very frail, exuded a presence that commanded respect. From the back of the vehicle, out leapt three attendants closely watching over him – Geshe Gyalten Sangpo, his shadow-like attendant who brought alive for me what I had only read in namthars before, how a nephew can first and foremost be a devoted student; Geshe Pema Wangyal, who I later discovered to be a chef par excellence; and Gyen Jamphel Thinley, who quickly became indispensable and got labelled “lotsawa” due to his superb English and extensive vocabulary. I offered khatas and welcomed them to their new home, to stay as long as they wished.
Looking back, I cannot recall exactly how it came to be – as I was daily undertaking extensive duties as Principal (Tib. Lopchi) of a 300-plus high education institution, including on weekends. But when I see my diary entry now, somewhere between the 5th and 9th of October 2021, I had requested and Rinpoche had agreed to give me dharma teachings. Specifically, I had requested teachings on Je Rinpoche’s Three Principal Aspects of the Path (Tib. Lam Gtso Rnam Gsum) and Rinpoche had already commenced. Clearly, in the space of a scant few days, I had not just recognised what a rare opportunity had presented itself, to get teachings from such a greatly realised Master, but I had also developed the comfort and audacity to actually request someone in their early 90s, who was not at all well, to please spare a small window, as per his daily comfort and convenience, to teach me dharma.
From Rinpoche’s side, he was too refined and polite to ever articulate what he really made of an outwardly Indian Principal, who was for the large part his only daily visitor on campus, and who – in his presence – was first and foremost a keen dharma student seeking his blessings and teachings. One day clad in a saree, another in a chuba, and a third in a casual t-shirt and trousers, bobbing up and down in 3 half-prostrations morning and evening, whatever he internally thought, Rinpoche decided to indulge my rather forward plea. Perhaps both sides had instantly recognised the ever-present mitakpa (Eng. impermanence) lapping closely at our heels, and felt there was no time to waste.
And so my diary entry of 11th October reads: “My daily 15-20 minutes dharma teachings with Rinpoche are so precious…my favourite time of the day…today evening we did Arya Nagarjuna’s (Tib. Gonpo Ludup) eight worldly concerns teaching to the King, alluding to Ratnavali (Eng. Precious Garland)…yesterday, we did the topic of renunciation (Tib. ngey jung sem pa) from The Three Principal Aspects of the Path. I look forward so much to my time with Rinpoche, such a blessing to have him here, as rare is the opportunity to meet with such old Masters from Tibet. He is eating and doing well and is very happy the Indian Principal is inclined towards dharma”.
Some qualities of Rinpoche’s teaching style and commitment immediately stood out. Most obviously, his marked respect for dharma whilst teaching it, with an old-school attention to formality. Despite his marked ill health, he would prefer to have his three monastic robes (Tib. choeghoi nam sum) on when teaching even a single student, requesting his yellow-striped with blue-piping vest (Tib. toegag) be put on and sitting upright in his bed. Being over 90 years of age, Rinpoche’s eyesight and hearing were quite weak, and with my handicap of not understanding Tibetan, painstaking translation was required. Yet, he did not consider these impediments and reason enough to decline giving one insignificant person teachings. Imagine the power of Rinpoche’s mind! Seeing him made me question the power of my resolve, when some office work, a bit of mundane teaching and the odd headache at 48 years of age, were together enough to dent my own daily practice.
Speaking of the power of Rinpoche’s mind and determination to follow dharma, it’s worth digressing to a brief recounting of his early life in Tibet, as told to me on request by Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la. Born into a prominent family of the region of Kham, Rinpoche’s father (Tib. pala) Namgyal Dorjee la was not at all inclined he become a monastic. Indeed, his Pala insisted he become a householder, and Rinpoche conceded. Internally, Rinpoche harboured a deep desire to visit Lhasa, however, and his Pala was worried that if he allowed him to go unaccompanied, he would take vows and never return, therefore he insisted he be accompanied by a guardian charged with bringing him safely back to his householder’s life in Kham.
Rinpoche was only in his mid-20s when he did make the long journey from Kham to Lhasa. Indeed, his first ever meeting with His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama was when the latter, all of 19-20 years at the time, was giving a blessing empowerment (Tib. wang) of the sacred deity Shree Vajrabhairava (Tib. Jigje), the wrathful manifestation of the Buddha of Wisdom, Arya Manjushri, at the Potala Palace itself. It was only a small, select audience of monastics and lay officials who were allowed into His Holiness’s presence for this ceremony, with Rinpoche being the only other layperson present from Kham, with his traditional Tibetan hairstyle of his region and family-ranking in place.
Rinpoche did end up taking monastic vows at Drepung Loseling Monastery while in Lhasa, studying there until 1959, when he crossed over to India and he never did return to Kham until decades later. Meanwhile, his Pala had been brutally shot by the invading Chinese Communists. Such was Rinpoche’s inner resolve to use his precious human life to the utmost, that no matter what the powerful dissuasion and the external obstacles, he never succumbed or diverged from his chosen dharma path.
Rinpoche was one of the famed “Buxa Lamas”, so-called as they were the original monastics, numbering 1300-1500 and from all the traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, settled in the first Tibetan refugee camp in India. Located in a former prison compound in Buxa, in West Bengal, it could not be harsher in terms of climate and surrounds – they lived here for almost a decade, from 1960-69/70. These monastics left their monasteries in Tibet in the greatest of haste, literally with bedding alone, thinking of journeying only to Lhoka within Tibet, until the invading Chinese army retreated. Yet, they were pushed to leave their homeland in the most violent circumstances and suddenly found themselves in an entirely alien place with no pecchas (Eng. scriptures) or anything to orient them. Except the presence of the 24-year old Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
As the documentary recounts, Pandit Nehru was reluctant to sanction this camp but the old-for-his-years omniscient Dalai Lama persisted with his request, as it was his number one priority to recreate the monastic system and monasteries in exile. A third of the monastics in Buxa came down with tuberculosis, some took their lives in despair, and those who survived until they were sent to new settlements in south India a decade later saw times few of us can think of surviving. Yet, not only did they survive, they were absolutely key in preserving and proliferating the dharma in exile. To my mind, what is said in Arya Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, about particular good qualities and their causes, truly apply to them – “realisation of meaning, due to respect; wisdom, due to protecting the doctrine; as well as retention of the doctrine, through enduring difficulties in its acquisition”. Today, in Drepung Loseling, only about 35 of the Buxa lamas remain with us.
Rinpoche’s attendants often spoke of his “dharma friends from Buxa days” waiting for his return back to Drepung Loseling Mundgod. Indeed, from my perch in Rinpoche’s own residence and kitchen in Lama Camp 2, I saw some of them visit Rinpoche on the morning of Losar, 3rd March 2022. As some younger Tibetan monastics lament to me, and I myself cognised upon meeting Rinpoche, why is it so very precious for any serious aspirant of dharma – be they Indian, Tibetan or of any nationality – to try to meet with some of these great Masters, before they leave us and this birth? Because to do so, is to very quickly conclude – by inference – what His Holiness the Dalai Lama means when he exhorts practitioners to uphold the Nalanda Tradition by studying, reflection and finally, meditation.
Just to meet with, and get teachings from Drepung Loseling Kyabjey Gyudmed Khensur Rinpoche Jetsun Thutop Gonpo was to understand that he embodied the Nalanda Tradition and its highest tenets at a very profound, vast level. Why only by inference? Because we study in Arya Maitreya’s (Tib. Jampa Gonpo) Ngon Tog Gyen (Eng. Abhisamayalankara) that only someone with higher realisations can know the realisations of someone at a lower level, either directly (by a mental direct perceiver induced by states arisen from meditation, such as the clairvoyance of reading others’ minds) or by inference. For someone at my insignificant practitioner level, and no doubt still depending on various factors, it is however possible to infer the qualities of mind of a much more realised being, even if one cannot directly perceive them.
And so it was with Rinpoche. Despite his genuine level of deep humility, wherein each time I asked him a dharma-related question, he would preface his reply by saying he had no experience but what sharing only what was in the pecchas, his extraordinary qualities shone through. Witnessing such humility is itself a great learning, for modern day and educated laypeople, who are trained to proclaim and make much of what little they know. Sadly, this is true to an extent even of contemporary Tibetan society, wherein very surprisingly, some monastics in the modern institutions hold a subtle but apparent and completely unwarranted sense of superiority over monastics in the traditional monasteries.
Other lay Tibetans are likely to take for granted these gems of Masters hidden in their various traditions, so that they appear quite unaware of the deeper qualities of those who shun the limelight and are not famous by birth or label, perhaps engaging with them for a quick ritual blessing alone or not at all. Indeed, Rinpoche’s attendants were surprised and articulated how rare it was that someone with a fine education, good job and loving family would take such an interest in dharma. We laughed a lot when they later shared that when I was away in Delhi for Diwali, it was so quiet for them on campus that one of them would pretend to be me, knocking insistently on their door morning and evening to pay respects to Rinpoche!
Rinpoche’s cast of mind was steeped in the definite Mahayana lineage, as he related every single teaching and instruction back to the awakening mind of bodhicitta (Tib. jangchub sem), and for beginner’s, the Seven Fold Cause and Effect Method. Here are some illustrations. Teaching the first few paragraphs of The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, which are about renunciation (Tib. ngey jung sem pa), he linked them to jangchub sem – seeing the suffering nature of the contaminated aggregates and developing renunciation for oneself, he explained, leads to generating great compassion for others.
Rinpoche strikingly taught that sometimes, we are inclined to think of achieving Buddhahood because we really admire the Buddha for his qualities of perfect knowledge, perfect love and perfect power. This is true and excellent but he instructed rather to always start by thinking of one’s mothers caught endlessly in the three sufferings (manifest suffering, suffering of change and pervasive conditioned suffering). As a second step, to then generate the altruistic mind of taking personal responsibility to liberate them (Tib. lhaksam). And as a third step, to reflect on how achieving Buddhahood is the only way to do that, therefore, the generation of jangchub sem. He emphasised these three points at so many points while teaching me, it became evident that the most superior mind of jangchub sem was ever present for Rinpoche!
Rinpoche was obviously delighted at my question, proposing a very interesting way to think why jangchub sem is necessary to remove cognitive obscurations (Eng. obscurations to all knowledge; Tib. shey dip – versus afflictive obscurations (Tib. nyon dip). He described them as a web of ignorance enveloping all phenomena and the nature of ultimate reality for us. Unless we generate a really powerful and stable jangchub sem mind as a driving force, he said, we are unable to use the wisdom of emptiness to remove this obscuring web. I found this analogy somehow a very profound way to explain this very high level question that all of us students of the Nalanda Masters Course of Ven. Geshe Dorji Damdul, our teacher at Tibet House, have inherited due to the kindness of his tirelessly teaching us for six years now.
While teaching The 37 Practices of the Boddhisattva (Tib. rgyal sras lag len so bdun ma), Rinpoche’s constant refrain was to serve others, serve others and especially serve unknown or difficult others, in an ever greater capacity. Indeed, when he presented me with thangkas of Arya Dolkar (Eng. White Tara) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he made me promise that whatever opportunities arose in the future to serve others more, I would do it, whilst seeking the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to guide me on the proper path. He explained that “abandoning one’s homeland” and aging parents to serve others – and especially His Holiness and the dharma – was not really forsaking them, rather in the long view of karma and many endless lives, would be of the greatest benefit to them.
Ofcourse, Rinpoche was so very happy when I asked him questions on emptiness as well (Tib. tong nyi), which delighted him as he found it incongruous at the start that someone like me would have any exposure to, or interest, in the topic. One day, when I asked him about how to think about emptiness in a post-meditative state and the constant push-pull of conventional reality, his prompt matter of fact answer struck me like lightening. He said simply, because the king of reasoning for the emptiness of objective existence IS dependent origination, THAT is why and how to think of illusion-like conventional reality 24/7. I had studied this before, and intellectually knew it, but somehow his instant reply, like this was appearing to his mind as clearly as we see positive phenomena, was so striking, it left an indelible and deep imprint on my mind.
Rinpoche was infinitely encouraging, too. He asked Lotsawa Jamphel Thinley one evening after our teaching, and yet another small question from me on emptiness, to relay to me that my query was so good, it gave him a doubt! I instantly burst out laughing, forgetting all decorum, because it was so clear that this was abjectly not the case, rather Rinpoche was encouraging me to keep studying, reflecting and meditating on even very difficult dharma topics, such as emptiness, out of his kindness. Rinpoche started laughing in response to my laughter and my sharing this thought with him, as did Gyen Jamphel la, and I will never forget that very sweet moment of shared understanding and humour. At a serious underlying level, though, it illustrates the immense skill of such great teachers to keep students from dejection on the path.
It started giving me goosebumps and shaking me to the core to realise that with Rinpoche’s vast and profound knowledge, that I could infer was also at the experiential level, he saw His Holiness the Dalai Lama at an entirely different Supreme plane. Rinpoche respectfully and softly articulated, for instance, that His Holiness speaks of his own realisation of emptiness being at x level, but Rinpoche said, you can tell His Holiness’ level is far higher because he genuinely asks us to reflect why one would not go into a nihilistic type of perspective if one really understood emptiness? Rinpoche said, when His Holiness says that, and urges us all to think about it, you can understand from the very question he is urging us to seriously ponder, that it’s coming from a profound realisation that is very far from a dry intellectual understanding.
Rinpoche’s conviction-based, absolute, mountain-like faith and devotion in His Holiness was something to behold and a teaching in itself, coming as it did from someone of his level. His Holiness’ guidance for Rinpoche to take only Tibetan medicine for his illness was the final word. Upon his arrival in our campus, the first thing to go up nearest the headboard of his bed, was a photo of His Holiness and Rinpoche, as well as an envelope with a message from His Holiness. The headboard of his bed and shrine in Mundgod, that I later had the merit to see, were blessed with so many photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Meeting Rinpoche was also to deeply understand the true and rightful place of guru devotion, both in the sutra system and tantra system. He would often say my knowledge is from the pechhas and my gurus, and his attendants shared that perhaps Rinpoche’s dharma journey has been blessed as in his life, he has displayed impeccable devotion to all his teachers. Rinpoche would say to me, if from the student’s side one sees one’s teacher as a Buddha, benefits will be as if he / she IS a Buddha, indeed, all the Buddhas blessings will be with one.
In this regard, Rinpoche quoted an Indian Master, who gave the analogy of a teacher being like a snow mountain and how it is only with the sun of the student’s devotion that the snow can melt and benefit the student. He also cited Jetsun Milarepa’s response to Rechungpa, when the latter asked whose manifestation he was, and he responded, I don’t know, I could be a manifestation of all three lower realms put together, but if you think I am Vajradhara, you will receive the blessing as if I am Vajradhara!
Rinpoche’s knowledge and memory (at 90-plus years of age!) of various sources was encyclopaedic, and all his answers were based on very specific citations. Since he was such a shining example of guru devotion, when I asked him about how best to serve one’s teacher, he straightaway cited from Je Rinpoche’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tib. Lamrim Chenmo), saying the texts mention nine attitudes required to rely on a teacher: an attitude like a dutiful child, an attitude like a diamond, an attitude like the earth, and how to assume responsibilities (under which falls an attitude like the foothills, an attitude like a worldly servant, an attitude like a sweeper, an attitude like a foundation, an attitude like a dog, and an attitude like a ferry).
Indeed, I received an unforgettable dharma lesson on guru devotion by observing the relationship and behaviour of Rinpoche’s senior-most students and closest attendants with their teacher. The contingent of Geshe Gyalten Sangpo, Geshe Pema Wangyal, and Gyen Jamphel Thinley, who accompanied Rinpoche to DLIHE at the beginning, soon converted his simple rooms to an aesthetic haven of neatly arranged functional placement of furniture, with incense lending an ethereal blessed air, providing basic comfort and homecooked food for Rinpoche. They consulted a Tibetan dietician Achala to give guidance on food restrictions for Rinpoche’s condition and despite not having any vehicle at their disposal, Geshe Pema Wangyal soon adapted his experience as chef for Drepung Loseling’s restaurant and started preparing foods using alien grains, such as quinoa, that were as healthy for Rinpoche as they were delicious.
After it became clear that Rinpoche’s stay in DLIHE was not just that limited to a week or so and his return to the monastery was not imminent, one day, his senior most student Geshe Dakpa Sherab la arrived to stay, bringing with him Gyen Tenpa la. The latter could conjure up perfect breads without any specific oven or utensils, so to speak. The arrival of Geshe Dakpa Sherab la heralded a new routine for Rinpoche, where – seeking to emulate his revered teacher – Geshe Sherab la meditated in his own room most of the time but in the evenings, after a light supper, Rinpoche was closeted away with him in his rooms for an hour or more, just the two of them, and from outside could be heard animated conversation and at times, laughter.
One day, after a long workday, I was sitting with Rinpoche’s attendants in the outer room, and we could hear Rinpoche speaking with much energy and enjoyment with Geshe Sherab la. I asked what are they talking about, Rinpoche seems so livened up by the conversation? They shared Rinpoche had now forgotten some elements of his early life and his senior most student was reminding him about them, as he was with Rinpoche since he was five years old (he is now is 57 years!) and they are writing his biography (Tib. namthar). When I went in to pay my respects, Rinpoche seemed so buoyed by their chats, and recounted how on occasion, Rinpoche beat him when he was younger. He recalled how once Geshe Sherab la got under the bed and he made sure to spare his head, or another time, Geshe la grabbed Rinpoche’s prized thermos to deflect his attention and escape the rod!
50 years later, he is still sticking as close to me as a shadow and has not left my side, mused Rinpoche – at which, they both laughed and my eyes filled with tears, to see the pure bond they shared, far more exalted than filial, biological ties because it was clearly a love unsullied by attachment. Geshe Dakpa Sherab la shared he still keeps that stick with him as a reminder. With today’s modern education producing a sense of entitlement and low tolerance, it is unlikely a student would remain around if physically disciplined by the teacher.
It’s also unlikely one would hear stories such as that of Rinpoche and Geshe Sherab la, whose Pala was a peasant – in free Tibet, Rinpoche and he were friends who would roam the beautiful Kham countryside together. After 1959 and coming into exile, Geshe la’s Pala entrusted a 5-year old Geshe Sherab and his younger brother to Rinpoche’s care, both of whom were looked after entirely by Rinpoche for the next decades – to the extent of Rinpoche taking them both on his bicycle to the hospital when they needed treatment or sharing his monastic rationed meal or dividing a single roti, made on a makeshift chula constructed in dug-out ground, with both the little boys.
To witness the relationship of these students, attendants and Rinpoche was a privilege of a lifetime for me, because it was an unparalleled first-hand teaching on guru devotion, that few non-Tibetan laypeople or indeed, even Tibetans today, get to see. And to see it, is to understand what reams and reams of text cannot adequately convey in the same manner, especially to one whose training is in the deficient modern system of education, where lineage continuity, respect for and blessings of the teachers mean very little, and there is an underlying explicit or implicit expectation of input-output that is transactional. That a scolding or a harsh word from one’s teacher is borne of unfathomable love – to perceive and value this requires so much merit in today’s degenerate times, and these student attendants have merit in abundance!
Indeed, the broadest smile I saw on Rinpoche’s face during his entire stay was when I showed him the photo of my teacher Ven. Geshe Dorji Damdul la, alumnus of Drepung Loseling and Director of Tibet House, Delhi, running a one-person university of more than 2000 students of all nationalities in total attending his sustained teachings in English in the Nalanda Masters Course (NMC) and three batches of the Nalanda Diploma Course (NDC). His Holiness’s wish to see very knowledgeable Geshes learn English is precisely to achieve what Ven. Geshe Damdul la has enacted successfully and spectacularly, and as a working Indian resident of Delhi, I must express my intense gratitude to Ven. Geshe la for not forsaking us, for indeed, it would be much more easy to find a Geshe of his polymath talents sent abroad to teach. In 2022, I cannot think of many others from this tradition who have achieved the English language skills to the level envisioned by His Holiness to teach the dharma and this is something that must be rectified to take advantage of the many Indians in cities now attracted by the Buddha’s teachings, for they are key to His Holiness’s fourth commitment, of reviving ancient Indian wisdom traditions in the Arya Bhumi of India itself. Geshe la has sent a special comfort-pillow for Rinpoche, as he has done so for his elderly teachers, and Rinpoche could not have been happier with his former student’s activities.
Rinpoche also clearly embodied how critical it was to fathom and apply to oneself and one’s life what one’s teacher guided one to do by truly listening to him/her, as well as the real definitive meaning of the texts, and he advised his students to do the same. It was not enough to just hear the words of the dharma and leave them as an intellectual understanding, something that if one is not conscious of and is academically inclined on top of it, can be such an easy pitfall. Hence, even His Holiness gently chides so many a time, mentioning Trulshik Rinpoche and his discussions on this matter, that some very learned Geshes in monasteries, too, needed to practice more. “A view as vast as the sky and actions as fine as grain” – to see someone who lived by this maxim, as Rinpoche did, was therefore another teaching he directly imparted to me.
Accordingly, even in his illness, Rinpoche would spend more time preparing extra tsampa for dear hungry-ghost and hell-being mother sentient beings than on eating his own meal; he disliked waste of any kind, be it of electricity or tissue paper, and lived frugally by ecological principles long before it became the fashion; he’d never be sleeping, no matter when one visited him during the day, meditating or listening to teachings or reciting mantras upright in his bed; and he never displayed any outward tantric practitioner images or signs or implements, though of course, as Khensur Rinpoche of Gyudmed, imagine his level in this regard, being meticulous in his daily commitments and samaya.
Rinpoche’s ever-elegant demeanour, a result of his highly perfected discipline (Tib. tsultrim), was truly a great inspiration to me, combined as it did such a perfect mix and balance of study and rationality (so that when he was appointed Khen Rinpoche of Gyudmed Monastery in his early 70s already, he awoke at 2am to memorise the 700-pages plus of pecchas required of the Abbott holding such a post), as well as the faith of conviction and devotion (consulting auspicious days to travel or confer teachings on me).
A question on envisioning the Buddha statue as an object of shamatha meditation instantly lit up his face, as he said it brought up memories of when him at that stage, and made him recommend a section of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Lamrim text, Words of Manjushri: A Guide to Stages of the Path (Tib. Jamphel Sheylung). Genuinely reticent and humble about what he knew, intellectually and experientially, and innocent, so that a gift of a sandalwood mala from Karnataka State Government’s Cauvery Emporium delighted him enough to curiously bring it to his nose to sniff its aroma. This was Khensur Rinpoche.
Rinpoche lived for dharma, actualising the mantra prayer to Arya Dolkar, for instance, which requests her for a long life (ayuh) – not just for its own sake, but to perfect one’s two collections (of merit – punya – and wisdom – jnana). He made three visits to Tibet at a very advanced age (he had already made two trips prior to assuming the role of Abbott), staying there for months on end in difficult circumstances to give teachings, carrying with him malas given by him to His Holiness for the express purpose of blessing beings in the Land of Snows. Each time, before his visit and upon his return, he would meet His Holiness to get advice and share his experience.
I witnessed Rinpoche’s sheer respect and love for cause and effect and dharma in one unforgettable instant, amongst many. On 22nd October 2021, just over two weeks after I first met him, I went to see him at 7.45pm. Rinpoche was lying down and ready to sleep. I would have been more than honoured to just prostrate and leave. But upon seeing me, he asked his attendants to make him sit up as it was an auspicious day, and putting in his dentures, he taught me – only one irrelevant laywoman – the first four verses of The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva! He then gave me a magnificent lamp and a shambu for my shrine, with blessings to actualise these most sacred teachings on jangchub sem. I try to remember this single action of Rinpoche’s, when at a much younger and fit age, I feel laziness overcome me.
In this same vein, Rinpoche happily accepted to go to our sister campus of Men Tsee Khang, Bangalore to bless the new College. When I had showed his medical papers in Delhi in early November, just for a reassuring second opinion, the allopathic doctor had suggested Rinpoche’s condition was serious and he would be in a lot of pain, and the wisest thing would be to do whatever he wanted for his remaining days, for example, if he wished to immediately return to his monastery. I did not share the doctor’s prognosis with Rinpoche’s students and attendants, as hope is something they were living on and also, as I wished for it to be their decision alone when to return to Drepung Loseling. But to then witness Rinpoche being on no painkillers and having no other serious symptoms that the doctor said to expect, even as he diligently taught the fortunate students of Men Tsee Khang that their most important task was to serve patients with compassion (Tib. nyingje), and took time to individually bless each of them, was again a masterclass in jangchub sem.
Another very striking quality of Rinpoche was his notable equanimity towards all beings. The Kannadiga person who came to draw his blood, or Ama Laxmi, a momola who helped me for two hours daily, were all the recipients of tsog offering fruits from his bedside and a display of caring that they could understand instinctively, despite the barriers of language and having no context for a Tibetan Buddhist lama. In his presence, Ama Laxmi forgot to leave in time to feed her grandchildren, and later, would ask me often how “Swami” – her term for a holy being – was doing and keeping next door. She beamed so broadly when Rinpoche’s attendants would generously bring fruits and food for her family.
Meanwhile, Rinpoche’s bedside table had filled with immensely powerful Buddhas – Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha Amitayus, and Arya Tara – brought from visiting monastics from Drepung Monastery, Gyudmed Monastery and others. Khen Rinpoche of Drepung Loseling, Geshe Lobsang Samten la, came especially to call upon and ask after Rinpoche’s health. The administrator, Geshe Lhundup Tsundu, and a contingent of monastics came from Gyudmed, to express thanks for all the marvellous changes brought to the institution while Rinpoche was its Chief Abbott, that were perceived as difficult and unwanted by the resident monastics at the time, but that came to be highly appreciated once he had departed. Sera Jey Tehor Khensur Ven. Lobsang Delek also travelled to see Rinpoche.
The reincarnation of Rinpoche’s own teacher, Tenzin Wangchuk Rinpoche la, also came to visit him in his personal capacity, travelling from where he is based in Ganden Phodrang and carrying blessed water (Tib. chelaab). Powerful prayers to various deities – Shree Vajrabhairava, Arya Tara and so on – were being conducted in various monasteries for Rinpoche and he was making meticulous offerings in all of them, although he would always immediately return any modest monetary offering I attempted to make to him, saying he had received it and was now offering it to me in return!
Meanwhile, I had become very accustomed to Rinpoche’s welcome presence at DLIHE, for he graced the entire campus with his being – his physical presence literally brought dharma to it in myriad intangible but pervasive ways. His kind students and attendants could now see that rather than our institution hosting Rinpoche as a request, its Principal now dreaded the day of their inevitable departure, although I did understand and feel very happy about Rinpoche being reunited with his elderly – some in their 80s! – and numerous students back in Drepung Loseling and being able to reach his own home. A Covid outbreak back in the Monastery delayed their leaving by a bit, and I could not help but be glad for the extra time together.
By now, I would speak often with Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la, always relying on the kindness of Lotsawa Gyen Jamphel la. I wanted to know more about Rinpoche’s teachings and life’s journey, in Tibet and in exile, and what they had learned from being near him all their lives. They gave freely of their time, and felt comfortable enough with me to honour me with sharing some things they might not with others they had newly met, with only one occasion I recall where Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la’s eyes filled with tears talking of Rinpoche, even as he held on to his composure.
Geshe Dakpa Sherab la generously shared some of Rinpoche’s teachings with me, as also some other experiences and thoughts very private and sacred to him. I cried often during those exchanges, I just could not help myself. They had two beautiful chubas stitched for me in Bylakuppe. The bell of my home would ring and I would be presented with a perfectly cooked bread or dinner. When I reached back from my Diwali leave in Delhi, they were looking out of the window to see my arrival and help me carry my bag into my house. It was strange and yet not strange at all, the degree to which I felt a karmic bond with Rinpoche and his retinue, almost as if I came down south just to meet with him. From their side, they now called me Acha Tenzin Woesel la and I felt so honoured.
I later shared two striking things I learned from spending time with Rinpoche’s students and attendants with Ven. Geshe Dorji Damdul la. One, a great degree of innocence and a purity of love for their teacher, that truly transcended any kinds of love I had previously seen in mundane life. Second, that despite they were in the midst of what would be a greatly difficult and emotional time for those not exposed to dharma – seeing their beloved teacher of decades being so ill and knowing that time with him was limited – yet they just did not have a tendency to over-conceptualise and expend energy on inappropriate attention (Tib. tsulmin yiche ghi namtok) and the anticipation of the future, what and when it would happen, what would they do etc. as those of us trained in the modern education system inevitably have habituated ourselves to do, to our detriment! Therefore, in the greatest of tributes to their teacher and his teachings to them, they could do so much more in a day and remain calm at times that others would find mentally extremely challenging. I would see the truth of this even more a few short months later.
Then one day, Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la shared that after much deliberation, it was decided that all going well, they would leave DLIHE on Saturday 4th December 2021 and fly to Mundgod on Sunday 5th December, exactly two months to the day they arrived. Before that, on 2nd December, Rinpoche wished to offer the entire staff and students of DLIHE a specially cooked breakfast lunch and dinner, in gratitude. And what feasts they prepared! In all my time there, I had not seen such extensive queues of students and staff lining up for delicious and generous traditional Tibetan fare. I sent the following message to our staff and students:
“Dear Staff and Students,
I am so moved to share with you all that apart from the three meals today, this morning Gyudmed Khensur Rinpoche Jetsun Thutop Gonpo la gifted us two thangkas for The Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education – one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which is to stay in the Principal’s Office, and the other of Shree Palden Lhamo, which is for students to pray to and to be eventually put up in the Main Prayer Hall.
Khensur Rinpoche la gave the following message for me to share with you all – that The Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Education is already flourishing, but these thangkas are to bless our institute’s continuity and prosperity for the future. He said we are always to remember His Holiness’s two key messages: (1) that of the interdependent arising and interconnectedness of all phenomena (2) that of non-violence and harmlessness, along with putting others before self and caring for all beings. He requested students to pray to Shree Palden Lhamo la, you may recite her mantra if you know it, and that Geshes on the campus may conduct a Trinchol Puja to Palden Lhamo, on a monthly basis, as we all know the deep connection of the Dalai Lama lineage and His Holiness to Shree Palden Lhamo.
I am deeply touched by the profound wisdom, kindness and generosity (jinpa) of Gyudmed Khensur Rinpoche Jetsun Thutop Gonpo la. Today, we ought to feel extra blessed as it is so auspicious to receive meals that are in a way like tsog from Khensur Rinpoche la, plus also to receive these blessed powerful thangkas and message from him to us all. He also asked me to ask students to always study very hard, and do His Holiness proud.
Please join me in thanking Khensur Rinpoche la – and to remember that the only way to repay the gratitude of such great old Masters of Tibet is to follow their advice and live one’s life accordingly. Let us pray for Khensur Rinpoche la’s safe journey to Mundgod and his good health and long life, om tare tuttare ture mama ayuh punya jnana pushtrim kuru svaha!”
On the morning of Rinpoche’s departure from DLIHE, I tried to recall Rinpoche’s teaching, specifically that for the second suffering i.e. the suffering of change, reflect on changing your mindset / subject, not the unwanted dynamic object. I struggled to remember the first of the Four Seals and the first of the 16 Aspects of the Four Noble Truths as taught by the Buddha, that of impermanence (Tib. mitakpa). I reflected how hard it is to actually apply the teachings, as I saw Rinpoche do so spontaneously! Rinpoche’s students and attendants gave me yet another lesson, as they left the rooms in meticulous condition, with incense and a white silk scarf (Tib. khata)left in every room.
At the last minute, due to not fitting into one car, I drove my car to drop them to Bangalore as well. It was a journey of about 1.5 hours to a place near the airport where they would spend the night in order to catch the flight to Hubli very early the next morning. The road was bumpy and despite taking care, Dawa la our institution’s driver had to maintain some speed that tired out Rinpoche in his fragile physical condition. I will never forget when we reached, Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la just held and massaged the hand of Rinpoche as he sat in the front of the car, catching his breath before he had to exert effort to go inside, with a single drop of moisture fallen on his cheek from his old eyes. They assisted Rinpoche to lie down to take rest and I could not stop my tears when I had to bid farewell to Rinpoche, with a khata and a prayer to meet him again very soon.
On the drive back to our campus, with a young DLIHE MA student from Rinpoche’s region, Phuntsok Dhundop, who had crossed all alone to India when he was under 10 years old, I received another teaching – his dry eyes and contained acceptance of Rinpoche’s departure, even as he no doubt felt sadness more than mine, instantly dried my tears. This is a teaching I have taken away from the brave 120 young students of DLIHE, who crossed over alone or with a single monastic aunty or uncle, and have no other relatives in exile. I understood their courage and their longing for family in one moment. When driving along the Mysore Road highway on which our institution is located, one sees almost life-size brightly coloured teddy bears being sold every few metres….full of dust, I mused aloud to a student passenger one day, who buys these, I wonder? Promptly came the reply, our campus students, Ma’am la!
On 7th December, shortly after arriving safely in Drepung Loseling, Rinpoche’s attendants sent me a video they made, from some old photos – including ones with The Most Ven. Palden Drakpa Rinpoche la, the renowned scholar-practitioner also from Drepung Tehor Khangtsen, although their Mitsen were different, with Rinpoche being from Karze Mitsen and Ven. Drakpa Rinpoche being from Draggo Mitsen. They had kindly included recent photos taken on our campus, which set off tears in me again. Although I felt so happy Rinpoche was safely back home in Drepung Loseling, I also had to acknowledge that even the most basic of the Buddha’s teachings, that of impermanence, was hard for me. I mused, what a long way to go on the path of Gatey Gatey Paragatey Parasamgatey Bodhisvaha…
Time passed. I remained in regular touch with Rinpoche’s students. They shared he was spending more time in meditation (Tib. gom) in his residence. Rinpoche was becoming more frail, I was told, with a catheter being required for a brief time. But he was still not requiring any of the long list of medicines much-younger ordinary others in his condition would definitely be dependent on by this stage of his illness. Over 90 years of age and with this illness, Rinpoche quietly but visibly transcended marked physical discomforts. Dr. Tseten la, who by this stage well understood my sentiments about Rinpoche, suggested I prepone going to Mundgod for Losar, if I wished to see Rinpoche one last time.
And so I arrived in Mundgod Lama Camp 2 on 28th February 2022. On 1st March, I went to Rinpoche’s residence, which I can only describe as being pervaded by a sense of peacefulness (Tib. shiwa). Simple and such a place of unparalleled blessings and beauty, with flowers, coconut trees, tucked away in a corner surrounded by the living spaces of other Buxa dharma friends of Rinpoche, overlooking empty fields at the back with a vast view from the top floor, where until 2-3 years ago, Rinpoche would climb daily to offer food to the birds and other beings and recite mantras. I offered a khata and prostrated from outside his room, due to a fear of passing on any infection. Rinpoche’s attendants so kindly welcomed my presence, assigning me a room to study pecchas during the day, while Gyen Dawa Ngodup la made tea and Geshe Lobsang Namkha la prepared my room at the Drepung medical facility with every comfort I could possibly imagine.
On 2nd March, Geshe Gyalten la took me into Rinpoche’s room for his blessings. Extremely frail by now, he still recognised me. I was told Rinpoche’s final wish was a virtual meeting (due to the on-going pandemic and Rinpoche’s failing health) with His Holiness and having had that the previous week, Rinpoche was content. Subsequent to that most significant virtual meeting, Rinpoche began declining his food and medicines.
On 3rd March, the morning of Losar, I was again so fortunate to get a blessing from Rinpoche. He gripped my head very firmly in his hands, and instantly my mind went crystal clear, as I beheld the preciousness of the moment.
On a lighter moment, a small dog that had noted my alien presence in the sacred compound by energetically barking in alarm each time I was alone, accompanied his Buxa Lama owner, who came to pay Losar tashi delek respects to Rinpoche. When the dog sniffed me sitting in the kitchen, he was quiet and ignored me, but resumed his barking when in subsequent days I crossed the compound alone. I laughed to myself, even this dog displays such keen intelligence to recognise outsiders!
On 4th March, I found Rinpoche’s attendants organising oxygen cylinders, as he was finding it difficult to breathe. The day went by, with the resident doctor of Loseling Clinic trying to affix different cylinders, but finding it was making little difference to Rinpoche’s oxygen levels. He spoke to Rinpoche’s students and attendants about having to accept inevitabilities. I left Rinpoche’s residence that evening with a heavy heart, going to the Jijge and Palden Lhamo protector rooms of Drepung Loseling that are right around the corner, and offering one of the khatas Rinpoche had given me, with prayers that whatever came next, they keep Rinpoche company and protect him on his onward journey.
On the morning of 5th March, as I walked from Drepung Loseling medical facility to Rinpoche’s residence, I saw a mini-van go by with oxygen cylinders in the back. My heart raced as I fathomed what that meant and quickened my pace to reach Rinpoche’s residence faster. On the way, I met Geshe Namkha la and his expression confirmed my suspicion. Rinpoche chose the early hours of 5th of March 2022, exactly 5 months to the day I first laid eyes on him, to display impermanence as its most fundamental level. To the very end, he put others before himself – I am told the first three days after Losar are really when monastics get time off, and therefore, he chose to depart after that window was over.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Rinpoche’s students and attendants gave me further implicit teachings with their behaviour at this most momentous event of their lives. Some of them had spent the night in prayer. Despite their eyes being marked with sadness, they remained entirely equanimous and swung into action to start preparing and decorating the residence with beautiful twinkling strings of lights for continuous prayer recitations of key texts, such as Pramanavartika, Uma Jukpa and Ngon Tog Gyen.
These texts would also be recited in larger gatherings of monastics at the Khangtsen and Mitsen and monastery prayer halls, even as offerings were made by them on behalf of Rinpoche in each. As Khensur of Gyudmed Monastery, to honour Rinpoche, a contingent of their monastics would be arriving shortly to also start the self-initiation prayers of the three key highest yoga tantric deities of the Gelug tradition, Shree Vajrabhairava (Tib. Jigje); Shree Chakrasamvara (Tib. Dechok); and Shree Guhyasamaja (Tib. Sang Wang Duepa).
As the only non-monastic, non-Tibetan, and female in attendance, I respectfully asked whether I was allowed to discretely participate in these celebrations of Rinpoche’s remarkable life. Rinpoche’s students and attendants open-heartedly welcomed me into this most intimate of parting rituals for their exalted teacher, a kindness I will never forget. It was yet another learning for me, as I had previously never closely witnessed – like most people have not, even Tibetans – the passing of a great being before.
On the evening of March 7th I received news that my Pala had been admitted to ICU in hospital. Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la and Gyen Jamphel Thinley la urged me to return home to be near my parents, sharing that that is what Rinpoche would have wanted and advised as being dharma practice of the best kind. Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la memorably said, a mother will not say come back home, but your presence will greatly comfort her at this time. And so I booked a flight to Delhi for the next morning, wherein I was able to go to pay my respects and make offerings at the commencement of the tantric prayers for Rinpoche, before being seen off by Geshe Gyalten Sangpo la and accompanied to the Hubli airport by Gyen Jamphel Thinley la.
The following day, on 9th March, Rinpoche was cremated with full honours – monastics lined the way to the site, where a beautiful ritual ceremony was conducted. The site was subsequently decorated and lit up, with many more lamps and prayers offered there in the following days. As I sat with my father in hospital in Delhi, I received videos and photos and a part of me felt I was there in Mundgod myself. I reflected on the very hidden nature of karmic connections, as well as impermanence.
The 17th of March was the last day of Rinpoche’s prayers. It held a final teaching for me. When I had previously gone to visit a temple in Singapore to see the Buddha’s relics (Tib. ringsel), displayed meticulously in clear jars as multi-perfect small beads of various colours and shapes, I did not articulate the impious thought but I could not help it coming to my mind, how is it possible for a body of a being, no matter how free of contaminations, to disintegrate into such beads? Seeing the many, many ringsel from Rinpoche’s cremation, that looked like spherical white precious pills (Tib. mani rilbu) and were so abundant in nature and found in his rooms as well, I had to accept their existence as a perfect possibility, for this time I had known Rinpoche first-hand and was now directly perceiving his relics.
When I asked the permission of Rinpoche’s senior most student Geshe Drakpa Sherab la to write this piece, he responded I did not need his permission and could write whatever I wished. My motivation to write it is that others, both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, who have not had the good fortune to meet with and closely interact with such a Jetsun Lama from the Buxa times, are able to glean something of the unforgettable experience by reading this piece. In my personal experience, it is only the Nalanda Tradition as upheld in unbroken lineage from the time of the Buddha by the Tibetans, that still holds such incredibly great Masters discretely in their fold. They quietly reside in the great scholastic monasteries of the south, which is why the settlements (Tib. shichak)of Mundgod, Bylakuppe and others are so very precious to preserve. To meet one of them is to instantly feel and know the meaning of “Tenzin” – holder of the teachings. I urge anyone who gets the chance not to miss the opportunity to interact with such a being, for there’s nothing comparable to it.
All mistakes in this composition remain solely mine, and I seek forgiveness for any errors or the inability to convey in words even a fraction of what I have taken away from my brief-in-time, but rich-in-meaning, encounter with The Most Venerable Gyudmed Khensur Rinpoche Thutop Gonpo in the autumn of his life. I dedicate the merit gathered for all beings to meet with the Mahayana teachings and such spiritual guides (Tib. geway sheynyen). Moreover, that I am personally able to be a monastic student of Rinpoche in lives to come, along with his students and attendants of this life; that I am forgiven for my shortcomings; and that I am able to have the wisdom and courage to uphold a fragment of the dharma guidance he so generously gave me, both explicitly and implicitly. May His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama live long and all seekers find their way to him.
Colophon: Completed on Buddha Purnima day, Monday, 16 May 2022 in the Year of the Water Tiger in Delhi. Translated into Tibetan by Gen Gyalrong Yeshi Choedup la. May all be auspicious!
(1)The title of an informative, heart-rending and inspiring documentary with archival footage by the same name, made by Tibet TV:
https://dharma-documentaries.net/the-buxa-lamas [last accessed 12 April 2022].
(2)As also recounted in Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche’s The Guru Drinks Bourbon (Shambala 2016).
(3)Tsongkhapa’s The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Tib. Lamrim Chenmo), Translated by The Lamrim Chenmo Translation Committee, Volume 1, pp.78-80 (Snow Lion 2014).
(4)Arya Dolkar (Eng. White Tara’s) mantra goes, Om Tare Tuttare Ture Mama Ayuh Punya Jnana Pushtrim Kuru Svaha.
(5)The large monasteries of Drepung, Sera and Ganden are divided into Khangtsens, which are further sub-divided into Mitsens, largely determined by the region of origin of the monastic.
(Views expressed are her own)
The author has a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, UK and teaches political economy, as well as secular ethics, at Shiv Nadar University. She recently completed the 5.5-year Nalanda Master’s Course (NMC) from Tibet House, Delhi. Lama Camp 2 is one of her favourite places in the world.