A brief biography of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche of Benchen monastery (1932-2012)
[Translator's note: This is not a word-by-word translation of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche's narrative. It is rather a re-telling of the events of Rinpoche's life, presented in such a way as to make it easier to understand for non-Tibetan readers, based upon Rinpoche's own words and writings. This whole narrative is a combination of the re-telling of events which Tenga Rinpoche related in the early and mid-eighties to Edward Henning and then to myself, and of some which he wrote down himself just a few years ago. A few events which he did not wish to become public knowledge are omitted here. This is not to keep anything secret, but to honour Rinpoche's explicit wish! Sherab Drime (Thomas Roth)]
Ven. Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet, the northern snow-enclosure, the cool land of the dharma valleys, the segment of the mandala field known as "the six ranges of lower Dokham" [...] , on the fourth day of the sixth lunar month in the Water-Monkey year of 1932. To be more specific, Rinpoche was born in the region of Dokham known as Ga. His father was descended from the upper eastern clan of the miraculously born Magyal Pomra known as Drong Sekar Gyalpo and their descendants. Rinpoche's father was Gönpo Tobgyal, one of the sons of the then Drong district official. His mothers name was Rigdzin Drölma, who came from the Gegyal Barma family clan. While the baby was in her womb, she dreamed one night of Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal (Rinpoche's previous incarnation) who gave her a turquoise and told her to wear it around her neck. After that she was in high spirits and experienced no physical discomfort whatsoever. Other than that, said Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche, there were no special signs. So he was told by his mother.
The previous 9th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche had gone to see the 11th Tai Situpa Pema Wangchok Gyalpo, in order to request the details of the rebirth of the tulku. With his totally unobscured wisdom eye, Situ Rinpoche clearly beheld the family into which the tulku had been born, which was the same family clan as the previous incarnation's, the fathers name as being Gönpo, and the mothers name as Drölma. He stated the year of the tulkus birth as the Monkey year, that there were wondrous signs acompanying the birth, and said that if one were to search in the eastern direction, but not very far from Benchen monastery, the rebirth would surely be found. The 15th Karmapa Kakhyab Dorje had also had visions and provided a letter with his predictions concerning the precious rebirth, the names of the parents, drawings of the family's house etc., which were in total agreement with Situ Rinpoche's pronouncements. Thus the incarnation was unanimously agreed upon.
At around age six and seven Rinpoche learned reading and writing from his father. With Lama Pesam, Rinpoche studied a special type of calligraphy according to the Karma Gadri school of painting and writing. He also learned the "Four Session" Guru Yoga practice, as well the "Confession of Misdeeds" etc. by heart. At age 11 to 12, together with relatives, he engaged in a pilgrimage in order to go and behold the Jowo in Lhasa. At age 14, on the seventh day of the tenth month, Rinpoche finally arrived in Benchen. On the next day, the eighth, he was enthroned by Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche upon the golden throne of his predecessor, as the authentic rebirth of Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal.
From the Benchen Khenpo Karma Guru, Rinpoche received extensive explanations on the drawing and construction of mandalas. From Benchen Khenpo Söpa Tharchin, he received the "Fivefold Mahamudra" in a most perfect way, and auspicious experiences and occurances were all-pervading. At this time, one of the main statues in the shrine-hall at Benchen was a statue that was said be a good likeness of the 13th Karmapa Düdül Dorje. It took off its crown, that liberates by sight, when Rinpoche came in front of it, at the time of which the skies filled with rainbows of many different colours and shapes, such as eight-petaled lotuses and other special designs.
(A little background information is in order here: this statue was known to occasionally "take off" its hat and place it in front of itself. No one would ever see how it did so. The hat would just appear to rest on the table in front instead of on the statues head. Thus the lamas, monks and people of Benchen would always know that something highly auspicious was about to occur. This particular event here is said to have occurred on the eve before Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche's formal enthronement.)
Then, staying at the monastery, Rinpoche studied under Khenpo Söpa Tharchin, who was a student of Rinpoches previous incarnation. He took him as his spiritual friend and began to initially study the teachings and practices of Cakrasamvara, Vajravarahi and Jinasagara according to the Karma Kagyu tradition. This was followed by Sarvavid Vairocana, Akshobya, Amitayus, the tenth day rituals of Guru Padmasambhava and Shing Kyong Kunga Zhonnu (the special protector of Benchen). Then followed various collections of liturgical texts and the extensive protector rituals, all of which he committed to memory without any difficulties whatsoever.
In the same way Rinpoche continued to study the mandalas of Cakrasamvara, Vajravarahi, Jinasagara, Sarvavid Vairocana, Akshobya and the protector Mahakala Dorje Bernagchen. He studied the design and construction, as well as the consecration rituals of the eight types of stupas and the design of the fire-hearths for the four activities and much more. From his uncle, Lama Lodrö Rabsal, he studied the science of medicine. He memorized its tantras and studied the various branches of medical knowledge for a long time.
From the old shrine master of Benchen, Chöpön Sönam Lhayag, Rinpoche learned how to make the tormas of our tradition, their shapes, colours and how to prepare their many different intricate butter ornaments. From the same master, he also learned the art of drawing and painting deities. So until Tenga Rinpoche was sixteen years old, he was taught by his tutors the teachings and practices of the main yidam deities of our tradition, their various rituals such as the preparatory and main empowerments and burnt-offerings, the consecration ceremonies according to various tantras, etc. During this time he was also fortunate to receive the oral transmissions for the collected commentarial literature of Indian masters of old, the Tengyur, the Collected Works of Dza Paltrul Rinpoche in its entirety, and many other transmissions.
With the monk Paljor, Rinpoche studied the main philosophical scriptures as well as poetry with great energy. He also learned from him the Abhidharma-kosa and the commentaries of Khenpo Shenga on the 13 great treatises. In the same way, he studied various subjects under Benchen Khenpo Karma Guru. Then, at this relatively young age, Rinpoche became weary of worldly ways and took the truth of impermanence to heart. He realized that it was time to begin practicing and went into the presence of Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche in order to request a yidam meditation practice from him. Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche replied that the yidam deity of Rinpoche's previous lives had always been White Tara, and kindly bestowed the empowerment of White Tara upon him one day.
From his teacher and spiritual friend Khenpo Söpa Tharchin, Rinpoche received the oral transmissions and full instructions on White Tara. He was then advised to enter into a 12 week retreat of continuous White Tara recitation. At age 19, Tenga Rinpoche traveled to Palpung, the seat of the Tai Situ Rinpoches in Derge, and received both novice and full monastic ordination in the presence of the 11th Tai Situ Rinpoche Pema Wangchok Gyalpo. At this occasion he was given the name Karma Tendzin Thrinle Namgyal Pal Sangpo. As an auspicious connection for his successful life-long keeping of these ordinations as well as for the perfection of his studies and subsequent teaching activities, Situ Rinpoche also presented him with an old Indian statue of the Buddha, made from precious Li-metal. After this, Tenga Rinpoche eventually returned to his own Benchen monastery.
One night Rinpoche dreamed of an extremely clear and blue sky, in the centre of which appeared a garland of Guru Padmasambhava mantras of golden colour which radiated light to all beings. Several month later, Rinpoche traveled to the monastery of Surmang Namgyal Tse, in order to receive the empowerments and reading transmissions of the Rinchen Terdzö collection of terma literature from the 2nd Jamgön Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser, aka Karsey Kongtrul. At this time Rinpoche understood his previous dream to mean that at age 25 he should enter into a three-year meditation retreat. With this intention he went into the presence of Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and asked for permission to do so.
Correspondingly, Tenga Rinpoche entered into retreat and first trained in the four preliminary practices. Then, for the duration of a whole year, he trained mainly in White Tara practice. He dreamed that he arrived at the far shore of a great body of water and was completely freed of the fears and terrors of treacherous paths and the like. In another dream a nun came to visit him. She introduced herself as Ani Döndrub Chötso and presented Rinpoche with a crystal rosary, which he considered a very auspicious sign for his White Tara practice. The nun then urged him to count the number of beads on the rosary and there turned out to be eighty one or eighty two. This was indicative of how many years Tenga Rinpoche would live approximately. In this way many positive signs occurred. In the second year of the retreat, he trained mainly in the outer, inner and innermost practice of Vajrayogini, including the self-empowerment, the accumulation of a hundred thousand tshog offerings and the burnt-offerings, all of which he accomplished extremely well.
At that time the winters in this part of Eastern Tibet were rather harsh, with very low temperatures and lots of snow. The water in the offering bowls of the retreatants would regularly freeze into solid lumps of ice. During that particular winter, while Tenga Rinpoche was training in Vajrayogini practice, the water in his offering bowls was observed to never freeze. Also, the snow on top of the roof of Rinpoche's retreat house was observed to be melting all the time. This was considered a sign that some heat or warmth had occurred in his meditation, generally considered a sign of successful practice.
At that time, Tenga Rinpoche dreamed of a girl dressed in red who gave him a triangular red crystal, of great outer and inner luminosity, in the centre of which one could see extremely clearly, the fully developed mandala of Vajrayogini, along with all seed-syllables and mantra-garlands etc. Together with Vajrayogini practice, Tenga Rinpoche also trained in the meditations and yogic exercises of the Six Doctrines of Naropa. While being so engaged, he dreamed of one of the Indian Mahasiddhas of old, who introduced himself as Lawapa. Rinpoche received many instructions from him. While practicing dream-yoga, he trained in the transformation exercises and thus traveled to the pure realm of White Tara many times.
This was followed by six months of intensive Cakrasamvara practice. However, said Tenga Rinpoche, he does not remember whether or not any particular signs occurred. After this, he trained in the meditations of Vajrakila according to the revelations of the great treasure revealer Ratna Lingpa. At this time Rinpoche owned a small wooden phurpa which he used as his practice support. When the practice was concluded and the time for the "taking of the attainment" had come, this phurpa was observed to shake vigorously. It continued to shake even after Rinpoche took it into his hands. A phurpa shaking, the sound of laughter emitting from it, or the phurpa even flying around the room, are considered to be signs of accomplishment of the corresponding practice.
At around that time, Drubwang Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche had something akin to a prophesy by his yidam deity, which instructed him to travel to Central Tibet. Not allowing himself to be dissuaded by anyone, he quickly undertook the journey. He let both Benchen Chime Tulku and Tenga Rinpoche know that they should remain at the monastery for the time being. Whatever further teachings and advice they required, would be forthcoming in the future. At this time it would also be wise not to be attached to food or wealth. At the time of great fear and indecision, they should use the divination method of the ARAPATSA-Mo (a method based upon a dice inscribed with the syllables of the Manjushri mantra). [.....] Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche could thus just barely finish his three-year retreat. Upon its conclusion he had to flee for the relative safety of Central Tibet immediately.
Not having traveled the roads to Lhasa much, there often was great insecurity when their party had to decide whether to take this road or that. But it always became apparent very quickly and their choices always turned out to be the right ones. This, said Rinpoche, was due to two facts. First, it was clearly due to the kindness and activity of the protectors. Secondly, it was a result of having practiced development- and perfection-process meditations for a long time. These practices have the power to cleanse the subtle obscurations in one's mind-stream and thus bring about a certain degree of clairvoyance.
One night, Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche appeared to Tenga Rinpoche in a dream. He was crossing a mountain ridge with a few attendants, showing a secret path, and when it would be the time to travel that path. Upon waking up, great fear arose all by itself. However, whenever they were beset by great fear or insecurity, they referred to the divination method advised by Sangye Nyenpa, and eventually reached Lhasa and beheld the golden face of Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche once more. Sangye Nyenpa's attendants then proceeded to Tshurpu, whereas Tenga Rinpoche himself went to the Jokhang (in Lhasa) where he completed 5500 circumambulations. After this he also went to Tshurpu, where he beheld the golden face of the Buddha Karmapa, the previous 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje.
In 1959, the Buddha Karmapa traveled to India, via the indirect route of Bhutan. H.H. was then invited by the king of Sikkim to come and make his residence there. At that time Tenga Rinpoche went to Kalimpong where he met with H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and received from him the empowerments and oral transmissions of the Nyingthig Yabshi and Nyingthig Tsapö, the oral transmission for the 32 volumes of Ju Mipham Rinpoche's Collected Works as well as the Collected Works of Terchen Gyurme Dorje. While in Kalimpong, Tenga Rinpoche also entered a retreat for the practice of the special protector of Benchen monastery, Shing Kyong Kunga Zhonnu. Many signs of success occurred during that time, both in dreams and in actuality, and the protector actually appeared and promised to always lend his help and support.
Concerning this protector, and how closely and lovingly he guards all those associated with Benchen monastery and its lamas, two short stories may be of interest, both of which I heard many years ago. The first was told to me, Sherab Drime, by Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche. The other one I heard from Rinpoche's older brother, Lama Rabsal, who passed away just a few years ago. Both of them occurred in Tibet. The first story goes like this: when Tenga Rinpoche was still quite young, one day he went into the quarters of the previous Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and found him looking out of a window rather intently. When Tenga Rinpoche asked him what there was to see, Sangye Nyenpa told him to look for himself. In front of Benchen Monastery there is a medium sized stream and Rinpoche could see a small monk playing among the rocks by the water. He could also see a dark shape behind the little monk, but couldn't quite make out what that shape was. So he asked Sangye Nyenpa, "What is it?" Nyenpa Rinpoche was a bit perplexed and said, "Can't you see the small monk playing by the river? And don't you see Shing Kyong standing behind him, holding his robe so that he doesn't fall into the water?"
The other story is about Lama Rabsal. He went for a walk one day, up the mountain behind Benchen monastery. All of a sudden a large black bear emerged from among the rocks and seemed to attack Lama Rabsal. There was nowhere to run and the only thing that Lama Rabsal could think of at the time, was the short four-line supplication to Shing Kyong. He had barely recited a few of these lines, when the bear stopped in its tracks, stared with a look of utter shock on its face at something behind and above Lama Rabsal, turned and made off into the forest with all the speed it could muster. That bear was never seen again in the neighborhood of the monastery.
In Sikkim, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche then attended the maturing and liberating empowerments and oral transmissions of both the Kagyü Ngagdzö and Damngag Dzö, as well as the collections of writings of the first Jamgön Kongtrul known as the Gyachen Khadzö, given by H.H. the Karmapa in his Rumtek monastery, in a most perfect way, free of any errors or omissions. During that time Rinpoche experienced great blessing and inspiration and dreamed of a rain of small red Karmapakshi forms, made of stone, descending upon him. Furthermore, Rinpoche received from H.H. the complete transmissions of the 9th Karmapa's Chikshe Kündrol collection of empowerments, the Chökyong Logtreng (a collection of protector empowerments), the oral transmission of the Collected Works of the Incomparable Je Gampopa, a complete set of Mahamudra instructions and much more. While in Rumtek, Tenga Rinpoche also received the full transmission of empowerments and readings for the teachings and practices of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage from Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche, a transmission that has always been close to Rinpoche's heart, since the time of his predecessor Tendzin Chögyal.
While in Rumtek, Rinpoche developed arthritis and couldn't walk around much for some time. However, he did not consider this an obstacle but rather a blessing. It gave him, he said, the opportunity to do a three-month retreat in which he concentrated on the practice of Mahakala Dorje Bernagchen and the accumulation of large numbers of mantras of the same. Of the 17 years which Rinpoche spent in Rumtek, he served as H.H. the Karmapa's Vajra Master, or Dorje Lobpön, for nine years. Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche also accompanied H.H. the Karmapa on his first trip to the West in 1974.
One day Rinpoche found himself in the presence of H.H. the Karmapa, who advised him lovingly not to go to many different places at this time, but to remain with him in Rumtek, as some excellent teachings were about to be given. At this time Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche also resided at Rumtek, and was indeed approached to bestow various teachings upon the monastic community, which he graciously accepted to do. At this time Tenga Rinpoche was 29 years old. From then, until he was 33, he attended daily classes which were extended to the students with great kindness. First they studied teachings by the great Mipham Rinpoche, then the Five Treatises of Lord Maitreya, then the Mula-madhyamika-karika by Lord Nagarjuna and the Madhyamika-vatara by Chandrakirti. Finally they were fortunate to hear explanations on the Madhyamaka-lamkara by the Mahapandita Shantarakshita. This was followed by the Bodhicarya-vatara by Lord Shantideva which was given twice, and by teachings on the Three Precepts, also given twice.
Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche said of himself that, "it is due to the kindness of Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche that I myself, being like a foolish ox, have understood a little of the dharma." From the Sakya Khenpo Khedrub, Tenga Rinpoche received teachings on Karika, the root text of the Pratimoksha-sutra together with Khenpo Shenga's commentary and teachings on Tsema Rigter, the Treasury of the Science of Epistemology by Sakya Pandita.
In the presence of Salje Rinpoche he received Madhyamaka-catu-shataka-shastra-karika together with Khenpo Shenga's commentary, the Profound Inner Meaning by the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, Mahayana-uttara-tantra-shastra and Hevajra-tantra, all three with Jamgön Kongtrul's commentaries. This lineage of Salje Rinpoche's comes through his own teacher, Palpung Khyentse Rinpoche, who was a student of the 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje, who received these teachings from the 1st Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye himself.
Also while at Rumtek monastery, Rinpoche often had signs of sickness and other obstacles for his life occuring in his dreams. At times he would then actually grasp the dream and travel to the pure realm of Tara, his personal yidam deity. One such dream he described like this: "It occured to me that this was a dream and that I could use it to transform it. I did so and decided to visit Tara's pure realm, called 'Arrayed in Turquoise Petals.' I flew through the sky, seeing all sorts of lands and oceans, and eventually landed at the foot of a mountain where there was a beautiful meadow with huge flowers. Walking along a small path, the flowers were taller than me and their scent was all-pervading! Continuing along that trail, I came to a pass on top of which I found a very large crystal stupa with four doors. Inside it was a lotus-flower. Upon that lotus sat a figure which said 'I am Noble Tara.' But the figure did not look like Tara to me at all, rather like an old lama. She then blessed me with the words of prayer to Tara, spoken first by Jowoje Palden Atisha, the famous six lines:
I bow before her who protects from the eight terrors.
I bow before her who is radiant splendour and kindness.
I bow before her who closes the gates to the lower realms.
I bow before her who leads the way to the higher realms.
Protect me at all times!
Always protect me with your compassion!
I then asked, 'I am experiencing many signs of obstacles for my life. What can I do about that?' Tara instructed me to always continue to pray to her, and especially to do a strict retreat when I reached the age of 49. At that time a big obstacle would occur and it would be essential to remain in seclusion at that time. If I did so, then I would be able to fulfil the full length and purpose of my life."
At around this time Tenga Rinpoche began to have dreams which indicated that he should move to Nepal and establish his residence there. In a particular dream four dark people, of very strong appearance and with swords and knives came to him and advised him to move to the Tatopani area, an area in Nepal, not far from Kathmandu. In particular they recommended a place called "The lesser Ramadoli." Ramadoli is an ancient charnel ground in Nepal where many great siddhas of the past have practised, including Naropa, Maitripa and Marpa the Translator. If he went there, they said, his activity would develop and increase greatly. Accordingly, when Rinpoche moved to Nepal, without any funds whatsoever, he was soon offered the use of a small house by a man named Ratna. Both places, Tatopani and Ramadoli, are not far from the Benchen monastery in Svayambunath.
At this point in his narrative, refering to his frequent use of dreams as indicators, Tenga Rinpoche stressed the importance of stable tummo practice. Among all the Six Doctrines of either Naropa or Niguma, tummo is the very foundation. Only with a stable practice of tummo, can one hope to be successful in the other practices such as dream or illusory form, etc.!
Having established himself there, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche had another dream. In it, it became apparent that he would establish a retreat place near a sacred cave in the future. This turned out to be the retreat centres near the Asura cave of Guru Padmasambhava in Pharping, near Kathmandu. Also, a person appeared in this dream, who presented Rinpoche with three volumes of texts. He was told that he had already read the first and the middle one. Now, he would have to get started with the third one. Rinpoche later interpreted this as refering to his having lived at Benchen monastery in Tibet and at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim. These parts of his life were over. Now the third was about to begin: the establishing of his seat in Nepal.
Since 1976, Tenga Rinpoche has then established the Benchen monastery in exile at the foot of the Glorious Svayambunath Stupa in Nepal. This is the seat of both the present 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche. In the vicinity of Kathmandu, in Pharping, a sacred place blessed by the presence of Guru Padmasambhava and many other Siddhas of the past, both Rinpoches have established both a three-year retreat centre as well as a Shedra, or monastic university. Another three-year retreat centre, for the practices of the Shangpa Kagyü lineage, is under construction and is hoped to be operational soon.
In 1977, Rinpoche was fortunate to receive the complete transmission of the Collected Rediscovered Termas of Terchen Dudjom Lingpa from his authentic incarnation, the then head of the Nyingmapa school, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdral Yeshe Dorje, in his monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu. In the same year, Rinpoche received the transmission of the Damngag Dzö again, this time from the present 12th Tai Situpa. In 1987, H.H. the Dalai Lama asked Rinpoche to give the parts of the oral transmission of the Tengyur to Trehor Pangor Rinpoche which he was missing, in his Benchen monastery in Nepal.
From H.H. the Sakya Tridzin, Tenga Rinpoche received the transmission of the Drubthab Küntü, a collection of the sadhanas of the eight practice lineages of Tibet, compiled by the incomparable Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. From the great Sakyapa master Chobgye Tri Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche received Kalacakra. Other lineages of Kalacakra transmission Rinpoche received from H.H. the Dalai Lama, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Kyabje Kalu Rinpoche. Having already received the transmission of various of the rediscovered termas of Chokgyur Lingpa from Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Tenga Rinpoche hosted the transmission of the entire Chokling Tersar, or Collected Termas of Terchen Chokgyur Lingpa, by Tsike Chokling Rinpoche, the authentic incarnation of Terchen Chokgyur Lingpa himself, in Svayambunath in 1996. Thus Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche has received countless transmissions from masters of all traditions.
In 1978, Rinpoche was asked by H.H. the 16th Karmapa to go to Denmark in order to help the dharma centres there. From there, Rinpoche accepted many invitations and travelled to other centres in Denmark, as well as Germany, France, Greece, etc. In particular, H.H. advised how it would be very beneficial for the future of the transmission of Dharma to Europe if Tenga Rinpoche would establish a large centre in the middle of Germany. Accordingly, Rinpoche established Benchen Phüntsok Ling in 1999. He traveled there every year and held his main summer seminar there, visited by large numbers of students from all over Europe.
In previous years, Tenga Rinpoche has also visited South-East Asia, particularly Malaysia, Singapore, Hongkong and Taiwan. While not going there as frequently as to Europe, Rinpoche still visits there occasionally. Since the early nineties, it has been possible to reconstruct the original Benchen monastery in Tibet. Both Drubwang Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche and Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche have put considerable effort into this project. Accordingly, the fully reconstructed Benchen monastery was inaugurated a few years back by the present Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche.
Benchen Tenga Rinpoche (1932-2012), remaining in "Tukdam" for three and a half days after his passing
Despite Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche's advanced years, he still continued to travel tirelessly, with the sole aim of benefitting his many students around the world. Suffering from prolonged illness, which did not at all keep him from constantly acting for the benefit of others to the very last, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche then passed away at age 81, in the early hours of 30 March, 2012. He remained in the state called "Tukdam," the deep meditative composure that some realized masters enter into after their physical bodies have expired, for three and a half days. As H.E. Tai Situ Rinpoche put it, "He passed away in the way of all great Kagyu masters, in deep meditation, sitting in the upright position, his body remaining like that even after it had expired."
After all the traditional rituals had been performed according to the advice of H.H. the 17th Karmapa Orgyen Thrinle Dorje, Kyabje Tenga Rinpoches Precious Kudung was cremated on 23 May 2012, in accordance with his own wishes. The ceremony was conducted by Tsike Chokling Rinpoche, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tulku Damchö Rinpoche and the current Vajra Master of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche's own Benchen monastery, Lama Tsültrim Rabten. As is tradition, the purkhang or cremation stupa, was then sealed and left undisturbed for one week. When it was eventually opened, everyone was amazed at the amount of precious relics which Rinpoche was kind enough to leave behind as blessing and inspiration for old and new followers alike. First and foremost among them are Rinpoche's heart and tongue, as relics for his incomparable compassion and his never-ending teaching activity. Rinpoche also left us a large piece of his skull, his entire spine and lots of smaller bone matter. These precious relics will be enshrined in a statue and stupa, to be constructed in the monastery's Tara shrine room, as well as in another stupa, which will be built in Pharping, between the two three-year-retreat centres.
Of course there are many more details about the life of Kyabje Tenga Rinpoche and also the lives of his two previous incarnations, but - to quote Jonang Taranatha, "...as an overly lengthy sacred biography might become a hindrance for one’s understanding, I prefer not to write about these details here..." [Sherab Drime]
Due to the great upheavals of the 1950s and 60s in Tibet, the records of the lives of so many Tibetan masters of old were lost. Also those of the lamas of the Benchen monastery in Nangchen, Eastern Tibet, a monastery of the Karma Kagyu tradition did unfortunately not survive. Here is what little we know of the two previous incarnations of one of its eminent masters, Benchen Tenga Rinpoche:
The first "incarnation" was called Benchen Lama Samten. He was also called Gönkhen Samten, signifying his mastery of protector practices. Having studied the full range of Karma Kagyu doctrines and practices, Lama Samten is said to have spent most of his life in solitary retreat, focussing mainly on the rituals and practices of Karmapakshi, a guru yoga on the 2nd Karmapa, White Tara and the main protector of the Karma Kagyu school, Dorje Bernagchen. He also specialized in Shing Kyong Kunga Zhonnu, which is another Karma Kagyu protector, and the special protector of The Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoches, who are the head masters of Benchen monastery and the followers of the Benchen lamas. Lama Samten was a close student of the 7th Sangye Nyenpa Sherab Nyingpo and assisted in the upbringing of the next incarnation, the 8th Sangye Nyenpa Tendzin Drubchog. Nowadays we only know that he was a highly realized being, whose blessing was able to cure all sorts of ailments instantly. Indeed many people from all over Kham came to see him and receive his blessing. Shortly before passing away, he remarked to his students that he had grown somewhat weary and that he was about to depart to some pleasant gardens for a while. To Sangye Nyenpa he gave a thigh-bone trumpet of his and asked him to take good care of it as he would return eventually to ask it back. He was soon reborn as the Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal of Benchen. [Sherab Drime]
Benchen Lama Samten's incarnation, who would become known as the Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal of Benchen, was found according to the indications of the 14th Karmapa Tegchog Dorje. The 8th Sangye Nyenpa had traveled to Tsurphu, the Karmapa's seat in Central Tibet, and received clear indications from the Karmapa that Lama Samten had been reborn as the son of Norbu Gyaltsen, a chieftain of the Upper Drong area. When Sangye Nyenpa returned to Kham, he traveled through the Drong area and was invited by various local chieftains to perform ceremonies on their behalf. In the house of said Norbu Gyaltsen he was eventually approached by a seven year old boy who asked Sangye Nyenpa to return his thigh-bone trumpet to him. Sangye Nyenpa talked to the boy's father and asked him to send the boy to Benchen after a few years. The father happily agreed and sent him there when he was thirteen years old, together with his older brother Tsewang.
Once arrived in Benchen, he received novice ordination from Sangye Nyenpa and his name, Karma Tendzin Chögyal. He soon began to study all the teachings, practices, arts and crafts of the Karma Kagyu tradition and excelled in all of them. At age seventeen Sangye Nyenpa sent him to further his studies and practice under the guidance of the Great Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye at his seat, the hermitage of Tsadra Rinchen Drak above the great Palpung monastery of the Situ Rinpoches in Derge. Jamgön Kongtrul took him in lovingly and soon gave him the nickname Gawa Tulku, refering to the area of Ga in Nangchen in which Benchen monastery is situated. From Kongtrul he received the maturing empowerments and liberating instructions of both the Karma Kagyu and Shangpa Kagyu traditions in their entirety. He then proceeded to perform the traditional three-year three-fortnight retreat under Kongtrul's guidance, in which he excelled. After this retreat, he stayed on as Kongtrul's personal attendant for three further years. When Jamgön Rinpoche was obliged to travel to Central Tibet, he left Tendzin Chögyal in charge of all the affairs of Tsadra. He said to him: "Gawa Tulku, you be my representatve! You also be the retreat master! And you also be the manager! You also be the servant and will look after the estate, the house and everything!" With that he left for U-Tsang. Heeding every word of his revered master, he was able to return the entire estate in perfect condition when Kongtrul came back after several years.
When the 15th Karmapa Kakhyab Dorje came to Palpung, Tendzin Chögyal was fortunate to receive the transmissions of both Kagyu Ngagdzö and Dam Ngagdzö in his presence, from Jamgön Lodrö Thaye himself. Upon both Jamgön Kongtrul's and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo's insistence, Tendzin Chögyal was also able to assist with the finding and recognition of the 10th Tai Situpa Pema Künsang. They brought the young incarnation back to Palpung, thus pleasing everybody greatly. After an absence of almost ten years from his own Benchen monastery, and also because Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche had now become very old, Tendzin Chögyal eventually asked Jamgön Rinpoche's permission to return to Benchen. Jamgön Rinpoche was delighted at Tendzin Chögyal's intention to help and further the activities at Benchen monastery and gave his permission wholeheartedly. As parting gifts he presented Tendzin Chögyal with an old panditas hat of his, a chod drum with little bells and paintings on its sides, a statue of Guru Mahasukha from one of his own termas, and a small thangka of the Six-armed Swift-acting Awareness-protector with a handprint of himself on the back, into which the awareness aspect of Six-armed Mahakala had truly dissolved.
Upon parting, Kongtrul advised Tendzin Chögyal to always maintain the three kinds of commitments, to never forget the inseparability of emptiness and compassion, and to always remember and supplicate the lama. With that Tendzin Chögyal left. Ariving back in Benchen after his prolonged absence, Sangye Nyenpa was delighted to have him back and right away established him as one of Benchen's great masters, with a house, an estate and his own throne in the assembly hall. He said: "Since your homeland is Drong, let this be known from now on as the Drongpa Labrang!" Immediately faithful people began to present lots of offerings. But Tendzin Chögyal didn't keep anything for himself. He proceeded to establish a retreat centre for the teachings and practices of the Shangpa Kagyu right away. It was built on a spot behind and above the main monastery that resembles Tsadra. He also established three further retreat centres around the monastery, each of which had rooms for five retreatants, a retreat master and an attendant who also doubled as the cook.
Right away he began his vast activity as a teacher and gave empowerments, reading transmissions and instructions to an ever growing number of students, both from Benchen and other places. He also established funds for the regular performance of the elaborate seven-day rituals of Kalacakra, Hevajra and Tarayogini. After Sangye Nyenpa had passed away, Tendzin Chögyal traveled all the way to Tshurphu in Central Tibet, the seat of the Karmapas, and asked Kakhyab Dorje's advice about how and where to find the precious rebirth of Sangye Nyenpa. The Karmapa was positive the Sangye Nyenpa had already been reborn and gave a clear prediction as to where and how to find him. The tulku, the 9th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche, had been born into the Dilgo family in Kham and was recognized and enthroned accordingly. However, Sangye Nyenpa's father wished him stay at the Dilgo estate for a few more years, so Tendzin Chögyal was asked to come there for a while to act as the new incarnation's tutor.
In that regard there is an interesting passage in Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche's autobiography (Brilliant Moon - The Autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse; Shambhala, 2008), who was Sangye Nyenpa's younger brother. He says there: "A close disciple of Jamgön Kongtrul's, named Drongpa Lama Tendzin Chögyal, was the tutor of my elder brother, Choktrul Sangye Nyenpa. Once when he was staying at our home doing a week's drubchen of the Dharma Lord Ratna Lingpa's Secret Assembly Longevity Practice, my parents, siblings and I all had the privilege of receiving the essential empowerment. That was the first empowerment I received in this body, and I think it may have been due to this initial auspicious coincidence that I lived longer than the rest of the Dilgo family." Tendzin Chögyal spent more than a year in the Dilgo family's house.
When Sangye Nyenpa finally came to stay in Benchen, Tendzin Chögyal was instrumental in his upbringing and education and passed on to him all the empowerments, reading transmissions and instructions of the Karma Kagyu school. Once, while traveling and performing rituals on the behalf of others, Tendzin Chögyal dreamed of his guru Jamgön Kongtrul. In his dream he received precious advice from him and two empowerments which he had requested before, but which Jamgön Kongtrul had been unable to give at the time. A few days later he received the sad news of the passing of his guru and performed very extensive offering rituals in his memory.
Tendzin Chögyal himself lived for some more years and was very active for the benefit of others, always giving empowerments and reading transmissions, instructions for practitioners and performing rituals on behalf of both the living and the deceased. All the while he was abroad, his brother Tsulga and a nephew named Gönpo Tobgyal managed his estate at Benchen. His nephew eventually married Rigdzin Drölma of the Gegyal Barma family clan. They were to become the parents of Tendzin Chögyal's future rebirth, the present-day Benchen Tenga Rinpoche. One winter Tendzin Chögyal became very ill. He again dreamed of his guru Jamgön Kongtrul, whom he saw as sitting upon a high lion-throne, wearing the three dharma-robes and looking very magnificent. In his dream Jamgön Kongtrul said to him: "Now the time has come to join me in the pure realm of the lama." Jamgön Rinpoche then uttered this aspiration:
"I supplicate the Three Jewels and Three Roots,
And especially all the glorious Lamas!
Bless me that no thoughts of non-virtue
Arise in my mind and that it may turn towards the Dharma!
May I understand that all happy and unhappy acts
Are impermanent and dream-like,.
When I die, may I take rebirth in the western paradise
Of Sukhavati and attain the irreversible state!"
Tendzin Chögyal then said to his attendant to make and keep a list of all the things he had done, and told him that he was about to depart to some other lands for a while. Three days later he passed away. His remains were then brought to Benchen and cremated in a magnificent ceremony. Even just a single bone, which was extracted from the funeral hearth by Khenpo Söpa Tharchin, produced lots of the small relics known as "ring sel." The remaining relics were enshrined in a copper and gold stupa, together with the hat and terma statue that Jamgön Kongtrul Rinpoche had given him. Tendzin Chögyal had had many exceptional students, first and foremost among them of course the 9th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. Others were the Benchen Khenpos Karma Guru and Söpa Tharchin, who became the retreat master of the Jinasagara retreat centre; Karma Gyalwe Wangpo who practiced mainly Vajravarahi and Könchog Chidü and accomplished a hundred million Guru Rinpoche mantras; Rinchen Palden who practiced mainly Vajrakila of Ratna Lingpa's revelations and became the retreat master of the Sarvavid Vairocana retreat centre; Khenpo Karde who lived with no fixed abode and eventually went to Tshurphu and served the Karmapa; and Trom Sangpo Lodrö, who practiced only the Six Doctrines of Niguma and could transform his dreams, thus traveling to many pure realms. He became the retreat master of the Shangpa Kagyu retreat centre. There were many others.