Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka Rinpoche Dechen Nyingpo Jampa Tenzin Trinlay Gyatso was one of the greatest Buddhist masters of the 20th century and one of the most influential teachers in Tibet. We can trace most, if not all Gelugpa teachings, lineages and transmissions’ source back to this great master. Pabongka Rinpoche had acquired the teachings from the Sakya, from the Nyingma, from the lineage of Ganden Tendzin** and Ngulchu Dharmabhadra, and collected other valuable teachings from various venerated sources during his lifetime.

Back then there was some civil unrest and many Tibetans departed Tibet, Pabongka Rinpoche knew that he would not be able to leave. In order to protect these teachings from extinction, he carefully transmitted all these important teachings to his heart disciple, Trijang Rinpoche, who became the Tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama. In this way, all the transmissions could then be securely passed on to His Holiness, as well as, the other high Lamas within the Gelugpa lineage. This becomes the living foundation that is the Gelugpa Lineage we have today.

Pabongka was born north of Lhasa at a town called, Tsawa Li in the Yeru Shang district of the state of Tsang in 1878. His family was part of the nobility and had owned a modest estate called, Chappel Gershi. Those who were there the night when he was born saw a light shone in the room and people outside the house had a vision of a protector on the roof.

Since young, he has already shown signs of unusual qualities and was taken to see Sharpa Rinpoche Chuje Lobsang Dargye, one of the great masters during his time. Later on, he was recognised to be a reincarnation of the Changkya line, which included the well-known scholar master Changkya Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786). The Changkya Lamas had taught in the regions of Mongolia and China, and even in the court of the Chinese Emperor himself. To be the Royal Tutor to the Emperors, that particular Lama must have been highly attained in order to undertake this task. Through this influential role, he was able to accomplish a great deal for Tibetan Buddhist institutions in China, Mongolia, and Tibet. He was an important lineage holder and an adept in several traditions of both Father and Mother Tantras.

The problem sparks with the name “Changkya”, for it had strong Chinese connotations as he was famed for his achievements and influence in the Land of the Dragon. As the Tibetan government and people were already sensitive to the pressures put on them from China, the name “Changkya” was ruled out and the boy was declared to be an incarnation of “Pabongka” instead.

The names of this boy came from a small monastery atop the rock named Pabong and he was eventually recognized and enthroned as the late abbot of that monastery. For this reason, Rinpoche is documented as the second Pabongka and was sometimes referred to as, “Pabongka Kentrul”.

It is commonly believed that he was also the reincarnation of Tsako Ngawang Drakpa, one of the main disciples of Lama Tsongkhapa and founder of Dhe-Tsang Monastery. Pabongkha Rinpoche himself said, during a conversation with his own mother at Sera Monastery, “On some occasion, the thought comes to my mind that I have been other people as well and in other times when our great and gentle protector Tsongkhapa lived on this earth I was, I sometimes think, that friar from Tsako – Ngawang Drakpa”.

It was Sharpa Chuje Lobsang who foretold that if the young boy was to be placed in the Gyalrong House of Sera Mey College, something wonderful would happen with him in the future.

Pabongka Rinpoche’s full name was Kyabje Pabongka Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso Pal Zangpo, which means the “Lord Protector, the one from Pabongka, the venerable and glorious master whose name is the Loving One, Keeper of the Buddha’s Teachings, Ocean of the Mighty Deeds of the Buddha”. He was also affectionately known as “Dechen Nyingpo”, which translates into “Essence of Great Bliss” or “The King of Bliss from the Palace of Bliss”, meaning a highly attained being who is already one with Heruka.

He was an extraordinary master who had perfected the Heruka Body Mandala and the Vajrayogini practice, and he had a special responsibility for the Mother Tantra.

There is a famous story of how Heruka actually appeared to Pabongka when he visited Cimburi in Tibet, where there is an image of Heruka. This is where the Blood drinker’s mountains are and this name refers to Heruka – Drinker of Blood. Apparently, Pabongka went to this place three times during his lifetime.

On the first time, this image spoke to him, opened its mouth and a tremendous amount of nectar came out. Pabongka collected the nectar from the mouth of Heruka while in the presence of sixty or seventy people. This nectar was then made into nectar pills. The Gelugpa’s current nectar pills originate from there.

It is also stated that this very same cave in Cimburi where Pabongka received the nectar from the Heruka image was the place where Heruka promised him the following:-“From now on, for the next seven generations, whoever practices my teaching, I will protect and help.”

This is why Pabongka is also considered to be a living Heruka. Many people received the Heruka Body Mandala and every teaching on it from him. And if you happened to fall within that seven generation category, you are indeed very much blessed.

At the tender age of seven, Pabongka Rinpoche entered Gyalrong House of Sera-Mey Monastery. This was the same house which the Tsako Ngawang Drakpa belong to and he underwent the usual studies of a monk, earned his Geshe degree and spent two years studying at the Gyuto Tantric College. He was very poor and not famous at this time.

In the monastery, Pabongka did not show much scholarship, as though he was slightly on the dull side. The Geshes would often insult him and at times, they would even use him as an example to illustrate ‘lesser intelligence’. He under-studied more than 38 Masters and one of them was Gondro Kendro Ngulchu.

Even though Pabongka Rinpoche’s study at Sera Mey College was not outstanding, he did get his Geshe degree but it was only the “Lingse” rank. This grade of Geshe meant that he was just examined within his own monastery and did not go on for the exhausting series of public examinations and debates that is required to attain the “Lharampa” degree. The Lharampa degree requires for debates to be conducted at different monasteries, culminating in a session before the Dalai Lama and his teachers at the Norbulingka summer palace.

After passing his Geshe exams, Pabongka began to receive teachings from a very important Master, Dagpo Jampel Lundrup. Dagpo Rinpoche or sometimes spelled as Thagpo Rinpoche was just a normal monk, and not even an incarnate Lama. However, under this Master, Pabongka started to develop by leaps and bounds. This Lama was the key to his major achievements and realizations. He studied the Lamrim, and everything began to flourish within him from then on. Dagpo Lama Rinpoche became his Root Guru.

Rilbur Rinpoche told of Pabongka Rinpoche’s first encounter with his Guru as thus:

“His root guru was Dagpo Lama Rinpoche Jampael Lhuendrub Gyatso, from Lhoka. He was definitely a bodhisattva, and Pabongka Rinpoche was his foremost disciple. He lived in a cave in Pasang and his main practice was bodhichitta; his main deity was Avalokiteshvara and he would recite 50,000 manis [the mantra, om mani padme hum] every night. When Kyabje Pabongka first met Dagpo Rinpoche at a tsog offering ceremony in Lhasa, he cried out of reverence from beginning to end.”

Rilbur Rinpoche further elucidated how Pabongka learnt from his Guru:

“Dagpo Lama Rinpoche would teach him a Lamrim topic and then Pabongka Rinpoche would go away and meditate on it. Later he would return to explain what he’d understood: if he had gained some realization, Dagpo Rinpoche would teach him some more and Pabongka Rinpoche would go back and meditate on that.”

This lasted for ten years before Pabongka received any Tantra teachings from his Guru. Gradually, with consistent dedication, Pabongka became a Master of everything, outstanding in every single thing – to the point that even learned Geshes ended up going to Pabongka to consult him.

Even though in the beginning, Pabongka was not a big lama at all in Tibet, he became an exceptional Master in forty years. He truly became the Master of Tibet in the 1920s through the 1930s, especially of the Gelugpa Tradition.

If we look at today’s Gelugpa Lineage, tracing from H.H. Trijang Rinpoche, H.H. Ling Rinpoche to H.H. Zong Rinpoche, there is not a lama who is not a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche, directly or indirectly. In one way or another, every lineage came through Pabongka. That is how important this Lama is in the preservation of the Dharma of Jamgon Tsongkhapa’s lineage.

Pabongka Rinpoche was not high ranking Lama and was even considered as a low ranking person for his father was a low official at that time. But due to his deeds and dedication towards the Dharma, he became extremely popular. At that time, he did not have any ladrang at all.

Pabongka Rinpoche himself often shared how poor he was when he was young. He said,

“When I was young, I had nothing, no wealth at all and on top of that, no food to eat. Everybody had at least a little bag with barley-flour. For several days, I couldn’t get any food. I ran from Sera Monastery down to the sand, filled my bag with sand, and put a little barley on top to smell and taste a bit. I lived on that for several days. This is what I did and look what I am today.”

It was only much later when he became very popular that he was offered a little retreat-area by the Ngakpa College of Sera Mey Monastery. They offered him a large retreat complex on the hillside above Pabongka. The name of this hermitage was Tashi Chöling, or “Auspicious Spiritual Isle”. Pabongka built a small meditation cell around the mouth of a cave located near his residence. When he was not busy on the road for his extensive teaching tours, he would retreat for long periods of time to do his private practice and meditations.

Pabongka Rinpoche was a renunciate and eschewed worldly attainments and politics. His faithful attendant once demolished the small old building inhabited by Pabongka Rinpoche while he was a way on a long tour, and constructed in its place a large ornate residence rivaling the private quarters of the Dalai Lama. When Pabongka Rinpoche returned he was not pleased and said, “I am only a minor hermit Lama and you should not have built something like this for me. I am not famous and the essence of what I teach is renunciation of the worldly life. Therefore I am embarrassed by rooms like these.”

As a keen meditator, Pabongka Rinpoche emphasized Lamrim, Lojong and Mahamudra. He had his own unique way of learning and teaching that yielded the most impactful of results.

Pabongka Rinpoche's Tantric Dress

Pabongka Rinpoche’s Tantric Dress

Pabongka had two main spiritual qualities – from the tantric point of view, his realization and ability to present all tantric teachings, and from the sutric point of view, he was a master of both Lojong, the mind transformation and Lamrim, or the entire graduated path to enlightenment.

He was unique in his ability to bring the complex ancient teachings to the monks as well as to the laypeople’s level of comprehension. For the first time in many years of Tibetan’s history in Buddhism, it is through him that a great number of lay people were able to learn and benefit from the Dharma. For this reason, he was known as the teacher for the common man and the monks. Similar to Buddha Shakyamuni who taught an enormous variety of people about 2,500 years ago, Pabongka Rinpoche did not teach from some predetermined syllabus. Instead, he taught according to the spiritual needs of the listeners. His influential teachings, coupled with his powerful way of conveying the Dharma made him a respected spiritual figure of his day.

He was like the lion amongst men, being able to tame the minds of beings whom he taught based on their dispositions and mind set. Having attained the speech of an enlightened Buddha, Pabongka Rinpoche could address thousands in a crowd but the teachings he gave could penetrate on every single diverse level according to their own disposition.

Pabongka’s teachings are so famous that thousands of people would come from far and wide to attend, more so when he gave initiations or conducted special prayers during festivals. Pabongka is well known for using his humour to elucidate the teachings. As some teachings could go on for ten hours, he would intersperse his teachings with jokes and amusing stories laced with moral values to keep his audience ‘awake’.

One of Pabongka’s great accomplishments was his ability to devise a way to attract and lead his listeners to every level of the Buddha’s complex and highly technical teachings. On many occasions, he would address an audience that numbered up to several thousands of people, and yet everyone could hear him clearly. Back then there wasn’t any technology such as the microphone which we know of today. It was through his pure motivation and blessed speech that he could reach out to many.  His voice was that powerful!

Je Pabongka’s talks and teachings were known to have always left a profound and immediate effect on the listeners. A story that is worth highlighting is that of Dapon Tsago. He was a member of the nobility and had held a powerful position in the government that is equivalent to the Minister of Defence of today.

One fine day, this great general Dapon marched into the hall where Pabongka Rinpoche was giving a teaching, and he was all decked out in his finest silks and with his long hair flowing in carefully tailored locks. This was considered the highest of fashion in Tibet at that time. He had hung a great ceremonial sword from his belt and whenever he walked, it would make a loud clanging noise of importance, as if to announce his arrival. However, by the end of the first section of Pabongka’s teachings, he was seen leaving the hall quietly, deep in thought. He had even wrapped up his weapon of war in a cloth to hide it, and was taking it home. Later, it was seen that he had actually trimmed off his warrior’s locks. Finally, one day, he threw himself before Pabongka Rinpoche and requested for the special lifetime religious vows for laymen. From then on, he was seen to follow Pabongka around to every public teaching that he gave.

Pabongka was well known to be a realized and complete practitioner of Gelug. Although he did not comment about other traditions nor discourage them, he always showed the extraordinary qualities of Tsongkhapa’s teachings. Although he was a Gelugpa Lama, Je Phabongkhapa respected the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and discouraged sectarianism. In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, he said:

Abandoning Dharma is, in the final analysis, disparaging the Hinayana because of the Mahayana; favoring the Hinayana on account of the Mahayana; playing off sutra against tantra; playing off the four classes of the tantras against each other; favoring one of the Tibetan schools—the Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu, or Nyingma—and disparaging the rest; and so on. In other words, we abandon Dharma any time we favor our own tenets and disparage the rest.

When Pabongka went to the Eastern Tibet, in an area called Kham, there were many Bonpos who attacked Pabongka. All the Bons in Kham gathered together and continuously, day and night, directed black magic against him. There were many incidences and they kept happening numerous times.

Once, Pabongka was crossing over a high pass and it was all covered in snow. Suddenly a huge storm appeared and everybody was carried up and down by it. There was quite a lot of damage – although there was no harm done to human life, there was much material damage. When they finally made it to the other side of the mountain, Pabongka told everyone not to enter his tent.

He sat in there for a while and when the thunder came, together with lightning, Pabongka would collect the lightning in his pocket, and kept it there for some time. Finally, he called out to someone and told him, “Take this here and throw it outside, that way.” And when they threw it out, they could see a sort of red-coloured light and liquid inside the lightning. This burnt the grass and everything. Yet Pabongka collected it just like that.

Pabongka Rinpoche was also a perfect example of guru devotion. If anyone has read Pabongka’s collected works, poems and so forth, one would know that he had always talked about his Guru, Dagpo Lama Rinpoche. In every teaching from Pabongka – be it Yamantaka, Vajrayogini, Heruka or Hevajra, Lamrim, logic or Prajnaparamita, he would always speak of his Guru.

It is common knowledge that whenever Pabongka visited his lama’s monastery, he would dismount as soon as it appeared in view and would prostrate all the way to the door. This was no easy feat, because of Pabongka’s large build. Yet he would do this religiously. And whenever he left his Guru’s monastery, Pabongka would walk backwards until the monastery was out of sight. Only then would he turn around and get back onto his horse to proceed with his journey. Even when he was unwell while visiting his Guru’s monastery, he would still dismount from his horse and make, at the very least, one prostration before continuing his journey towards his Guru’s monastery.

It was also famous that Pabongka Rinpoche would not stand for anyone speaking ill of his Guru in any way or form. His face would immediately turn black.

Pabongka’s devotion was such that he even purposely chose to visit the Province of Dagpo where his Guru had lived, when he was about to pass on. He chose to pass away in the place where his Master had lived, at the age of sixty-three. That was the kind of Guru Devotion that Pabongka embodied.

When Serkong Dorjechang of Gaden Jangtze, the “Holder” of the mystical Manjushri Wisdom book wanted to pass this “sacred responsibility” over to Pabongka Rinpoche, Pabongka had been delaying this transmission. Serkong Dorjechang knew that in order to get Pabongka to come to him as soon as possible, Serkong Dorjechang had to scold Pabongka’s Guru, Dagpo Rinpoche during a big teaching that he was conducting in front of a few thousand people. Serkong Dorjechang also knew that if he insulted Pabongka’s lack of respect through Dagpo’s inability to teach his own student well, that act alone would be enough to make Pabongka Rinpoche go to Serkong Dorjechang immediately and receive teachings from him. We might think that this is a petty act but the play of the enlightened mind can come in many forms in order to subdue ourselves and in light for the benefit of the future, they play different dramas in order to benefit.

The day that Serkong Dorjechang died, Pabongka had a dream. He dreamt that he was going to see Serkong Dorjechang. A number of people had lined up and he had to do the same. Pabongka had a small bell and vajra to offer Serkong Dorjechang. When he finally approached the front of the line, Serkong Dorjechang was sitting on a throne and Pabongka had to look up. Serkong Dorjechang handed over to Pabongka Rinpoche the vajra and bell he was holding, and said, “Gold made, please take it.” He gave it to Pabongka and took the small one Pabongka had. That was how the mystical Manjushri Wisdom book and teachings were transferred to Pabongka. That was how the transition was done.

Another interesting story revolves around the Manager of Pabongka’s labrang. As this Manager was also a disciple of Pabongka, they shared a strong Guru-Disciple relationship. Unfortunately, this Manager was considered to be very wild. During Pabongka’s teachings, he would not hesitate to give a slap to anyone who was not behaving properly in the audience. He would even pick up someone’s shoes from the back and hit anybody. However, no one would dare raise a complaint because of Pabongka.

This Manager’s previous incarnation was a Gyuto tantric college abbot. When people were supposed to look for his reincarnation, they decided not to go ahead with it at all. Finally, it was Pabongka who insisted that they should and must. Due to the unpleasant reputation of this particular incarnation, everyone was very reluctant as they feared he would turn out to be another wild one. They were most unwilling to bear the burden and shame of his non-virtuous actions, including the squandering of wealth. Yet Pabongka maintained firmly that they must, and when excuses were given, Pabongka rebuked them. He said, “There is so much wealth accumulated around here now, and even though the ‘son’ is throwing some here and there, there is still a lot available. You have only excuses. That is not right. They are not correct reasons. You have to look for the reincarnation.”

In the end, they all had to obey and comply.

Apparently, this ‘son’ was the very same person who dissuaded Pabongka from accepting Reting Rinpoche’s offer to become regent of Tibet in 1938. He stated that, “…if you become regent, all the good work you have done will be damaged. You will have to deal with political matters and then everything will be finished. Every commitment of the master-disciple relationship will be broken. There will be nothing, so please don’t accept!”

That was what he requested and Pabongka was actually very happy about that. He rejected the offer and Talungdra became regent. In fact, Pabongka himself was famous for maintaining that a monk should never touch politics.

Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka Rinpoche

It is a well-known fact that people from Lhasa came to see Pabongka Rinpoche every day. They even had to queue up. Pabongka’s popularity was such that even the Thirteenth Dalai Lama noticed. At that time, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was very powerful, holding all political, economic, military and spiritual power in his reign. However, Pabongka had thousands and thousands of disciples all over Tibet – from the three great monasteries of Sera, Drepung and Gaden, to the Government Officials, members of the Court and to the several thousands of lay people as well. Almost everybody was Pabongka’s disciple. Hence, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama often observed Pabongka Rinpoche closely, but found no faults.

There was one incident in which Pabongka was summoned by His Holiness to prove that his Southern Lamrim Tradition called, Shargyu, was genuine. Somehow this tradition was not popular in Tibet at that time, and very little was known about it. Therefore, one could not find much proof of its source. It was not written anywhere in the regular texts studied in the monasteries. There were even talks amongst learned scholars of Pabongka introducing a strange system of a Southern tradition that he learnt from an old monk in some village in a corner of Tibet. Hence, people were trying to refute the authenticity of this Southern style Lamrim. In this respect, His Holiness had to do something to intervene and asked Pabongka to provide solid evidence.

The Southern Lamrim tradition was what Pabongka has studied under Dagpo Rinpoche. Being fiercely devoted to his Root Guru, Pabongka would not tolerate anyone disparaging his Guru’s name or even remotely implying that his Guru was wrong in any way. So, Pabongka had to send a letter in reply to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s questions.

At first, Pabongka did not think it was so serious. However, upon hearing that without concrete proof, he would have to declare that his newly introduced Southern Lamrim tradition to be a fraud and no one would be allowed to practice it, he was unwilling to risk any injury to his Guru’s name. So, Pabongka thought for a while and then said to the Manager of his labrang, “Under these circumstances, I shall reply. I shall dictate and you go ahead and take notes”.

Then Pabongka quoted, “The Buddha said in this sutra and that sutra and in the collected works of the Buddha in volume such and such this is written and right at this moment Your Holiness is sitting in your room and if you look at your back in the third shelf, open that book and read on page 146 at the back side the 6th line, there it says this, this and then, if you look at your left side, on the second shelf, the second volume number, this and this, pull that book out and there it says this, this, this….”

Pabongka continued, “This is the proof from the Kanjur and if you read this book by Asanga which is available in Your Holiness’s room on such and such a shelf in the outer volume whose colour is this, and the inner book is this, and then, if you look at line this, line that, page number this and this, you will find it. And from the Tibetan tradition, look in the works of your late Master, Purchog Jampa Rinpoche, in volume number four of his collected works, which is in Your Holiness’s bedroom on such and such a shelf and the colour of the cloth is this and the page number is that.”

Pabongka Rinpoche was so precise and confident in pointing out the details for His Holiness to find every piece of evidence to support his Southern Lamrim tradition. This letter was then given to His Holiness’s Chamberlain to be delivered into the hands of His Holiness.

Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka Rinpoche

Pabongka’s unusual ability to teach was not an integral part of Tibetan culture. It is rather at the heart of the living transmission of the teachings of the historical Buddha from one great master to the next. It is, first and foremost, an oral transmission: the master teaches his gifted disciple continuously until the transmitted knowledge becomes the student’s second nature.In another incident, while Pabongka Rinpoche was giving a big teaching, he received an order from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama to make rain immediately. So, Rinpoche said to his disciples gathered there at that time that they should say the Lama Chopa. During the recitation of Migstema in the Lama Chopa, Pabongka directed his students in their visualization to create a cloud, and this cloud would in turn shower rain wherever that it was needed. True enough, rain started to fall where it was needed.  Then after a while as the rain continued to fall, Pabongka made the rain stop as magically as he made it appear. It was said that on that very day, they got quite a good amount of rain.

Due to Pabongka’s skill as a Gelugpa master, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama requested Kyabje Pabongka to give the yearly Lamrim teachings in 1925, instead of asking the Gaden throneholder (Gaden Tripa) as was customary. Usually the teachings lasted seven days, but these lasted for eleven days. These were some of Pabongka Rinpoche’s many amazing qualities.

Pabongka was asked by Heruka and Vajrayogini to combine the Sakya Vajrayogini teachings with the techniques that Tsongkhapa had given for the Heruka practice. These can be found in Tsongkhapa’s written works on the “Secret Precepts of Heruka”, the “Elucidation of All Hidden Meanings”. This is why Pabongka said that it would be good if he got a piece of cloth from a Sakya Lama and one from the Gelugpa Lama and weaved them together in order to create the great fabric of Gelugpa practice. This is one of many magnificent contributions that Pabongka Rinpoche has made.

He asserted that we have to carry the lineage of the Sakya tradition, because Tsongkhapa only came in 1357 and the Buddha came some 2,500 years ago. There is a gap of one and a half thousand years. That is where the unbroken lineage becomes crucial, and in this case, it stems from the Sakya Tradition.

Pabongka wrote the long Vajrayogini sadhana called Dechen Nyur Lam, Short Path to Great Bliss. It encompasses all of Vajrayogini’s practices. One really does not need any more detailed teaching than this. Pabongka said that from that book, there is not only the short lineage from Vajrayogini to him, but also the long lineage and the combined teaching techniques.

Many highly established scholars know that Vajrayogini has been Tsongkhapa’s secret practice and that he kept it as his hidden heart treasure.  However, it was Pabongka who made it very clear that Tsongkhapa had so many practices and had combined all of them together. He also added the Ganden Nyengyu which means not only oral, but it is a sort of teaching that is not given in public. It is more likened to a valuable family heirloom that is passed from relation to relation. Pabongka combined all these techniques and made it possible for lazy people like us to obtain Vajrayoginihood within the shortest time-span with very little effort. And this was how the Vajrayogini lineage had come through.

One of the most significant benefits of Vajrayogini Practice is that she represents the swiftest path to Enlightenment and one would gain control over their death and birth. At the point of death, one does not lose control over the entire process, but will gain control instead. Due to this, we do not have to go into uncontrolled ordinary bardo and ordinary rebirth either.

In 1921 at Chuzang Hermitage near Lhasa, Pabongka Rinpoche gave a twenty-four-day historic exposition on the Lam Rim. This was attended by some seven hundred people, including lay people. Many monks came from the three major monasteries in Lhasa, and many more travelled weeks from the Central Province, from Tsang, and from as far away as Amdo and Kham. These teachings were eventually translated into English and published as “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand” (Tib. rNam grol lag bcangs) in 1991 by one of Rinpoche’s disciples who had attended the 24-day Discourse. This disciple was the famed Trijang Rinpoche and the book became the foundation of most Gelug teachers’ Lamrim presentations, including those of the great Gelug Masters all over the world who are still alive and practicing today. The book conveyed a strong sense of what it was like to have been there with this remarkable Master.

Many listeners would maintain that they were always stunned by the power of Pabongka Rinpoche’s teachings. Although most of the scholar monks may have heard some of the teachings before, the way in which Pabongka Rinpoche taught was very unique. Many students, monks and laypeople alike, felt like they were receiving more than a teaching. They felt they were also receiving a tremendous blessing.

Due to Pabongka’s knowledge and practice, tens of thousands of people became his disciples, including numerous eminent lamas, powerful generals and even Chinese government officials and monks, who came all the way from Beijing and Shanghai to Lhasa in order to receive his teachings. Ribur Rinpoche recounted that Pabongka Rinpoche spent a lot of time contemplating on the practical meaning of the teachings and came to inner realizations of them. Pabongka Rinpoche also practiced and accomplished everything he had learnt, right up to the completion stage. It was widely regarded that Rinpoche did not just spout words, but tried things out for himself. He was always known to be very gentle and never got angry. There were many instances whereby long lines of people would be waiting to see Rinpoche and to receive blessings. Rinpoche would patiently ask each one individually how they were and tap them on the head. These were some of the things that made Rinpoche well respected and adored by many.

Pabongka Rinpoche had written a total of about a hundred different treatises covering a wide range of topics from both the open and secret teachings of the Buddha. It is said that he wrote extensively on every aspect of Buddhist thought and practice. These collected works cover about 15 volumes. However, it is really his students who played the most pivotal role in preserving his teachings. Many of the major works that we have today are actually records of his oral discourses compiled by his closest students.

Pabongka Rinpoche was also the teacher of most of the other Gelug Lamas who have been bringing the Dharma to the West since they fled Tibet in 1959.

Rinpoche’s four main disciples were not just any disciples. They became great Gurus in their own right. They are Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Khangsar Rinpoche and Tathag Rinpoche. Tathag Rinpoche was the main teacher of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama when he was a child and gave him his novice ordination. Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche were later appointed as the junior and senior tutors to His Holiness, and Ling Rinpoche was elected to be the 97th throne holder of the Gelugpa lineage (Gaden Tripa). Khangsar Rinpoche’s Chinese disciple, Master Nan Hai, started a Buddhist movement in China which has survived to this present day, with tens of thousands of spiritual descendants and over a hundred monasteries and nunneries throughout China.

Pabongkha Rinpoche's Bone Relic

Pabongkha Rinpoche’s Bone Relic

Sermey Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, another disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche, was a great Guru to many and the ex-abbot of Sera Mey Monastery. When Geshe Lobsang Tharchin met Pabongka, he was a wild teenager and was not considered a model student. However, all that changed when he met Pabongka at the Tashi Chöling Hermitage.

It was known that in private company or conversation, Pabongka was in the habit of constantly including the words, “Quite right! Quite right!” to everything he said. Geshe Lobsang Tharchin clearly remembered that on the day he met Pabongka Rinpoche, Pabongka had put his hand on his head. And Pabongka said, “Quite right! Quite right! Now this one looks like a bright boy!”

From that day forward, Geshe Lobsang Tharchin felt as though he had received Pabongka’s blessing, and some special power to pursue his studies.

He shared this much:

“I can say it was here that my life turned around, for three reasons: Pabongka Rinpoche had put some renunciation and other good motivation in my heart. I had given up wealth and position to pursue spiritual studies.”

If he had not met Pabongka, he would not even have studied so devotedly and became a Geshe. Many did not believe that he could master what he studied to become a Geshe. All because Pabongka Rinpoche inspired him so much.

Geshe Helmut Gassner explains:

“The great master Pabongka was, in the first half of the twentieth century, the pivotal or key lineage holder of the Oral Gaden Tradition. It was Pabongka Rinpoche’s particular merit to locate and find all these partial transmissions, to learn and realize them, and bring them together once again to pass them on through a single person. In his lifetime there was hardly a significant figure of the Gaden tradition who had not been Pabongka Rinpoche’s disciple. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche was the one capable of receiving and passing on the entirety of the Oral Gaden Tradition once again. The cycle of learning and teaching continues. In this way, the Dharma remains eternal.”

Pabongka Rinpoche would always urge all his students, “Practice whatever you can so that my teachings will not have been in vain. But above all, make Bodhicitta your main practice. You must pursue any of the other meditation subjects in the knowledge that they will assist your Bodhicitta.”

Pabongka Rinpoche passed away in 1941. His holy body was cremated and his relics preserved in one of his monasteries, Tashi Chöling in Lhasa, until it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

Over many centuries, Tibet has produced a repertoire of extraordinary Buddhist saints and scholars, but it is rare for a lama’s teachings to become classics within his own lifetime, such as the works of Pabongka Rinpoche.

Without Rinpoche holding all the important lineages of sutra and tantra and passing them on to most of the important Gelug lamas of the next two generations, many students may not even have the benefit of learning the Dharma that we have today. To highlight an important fact, the “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand’ is the culmination of the Lamrim tradition in Tibet, tracing all the way from Tsongkhapa to Atisha, and to all the many illustrious great scholars and Masters throughout history within the lineage’s Guru Tree.

As with all great Masters, most of their disciples would maintain that nothing is as significant to them – not their fame, riches or authority – only their Guru holds supreme in their hearts and minds. This is exactly what Ribur Rinpoche proclaimed,

“The only thing that matters to me is that I was a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche.”

In a way we are all disciples of Pabongka Rinpoche, because all our Gurus or our Gurus’ Guru in the Gelugpa Lineage were all taught by Pabongka Rinpoche. He was truly the Guru of Gurus – the Grand Master.

Pabongka’s foremost disciple, H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, praised his teacher highly in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, as such:

“Our childish minds were unfit vessels for so vast an ocean of teachings, so precious a source of qualities. How sad if these teachings were forgotten.”

H.H. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche explains:

“Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche were tutors to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. They taught His Holiness everything from basic teachings to advanced levels. Kyabje Pabongka passed all of his lineages to Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang. He often said this in discourses. The purpose of this detailed exposition is to affirm the power of the lineage. If we lose faith in the lineage, we are lost.”

In Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey’s commentary to the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, he says:

“Likewise, Lama Trijang Dorje Chang, Junior Tutor to His Holiness the present Dalai Lama, folds his hands upon the crown of his head whenever he mentions Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche. He was such a great lama, unsurpassed by any, that hardly any lamas or geshes of the Three Pillars (the monasteries of Gaden, Sera and Drepung) had not been his disciples.”

Lama Zopa commented:

“Pabongka Dechen Nyingpo wrote incredible teachings on sutra and tantra; on Heruka, Tara Cittamani and many other topics. All these amazing teachings were written purely from his experience.”

Rilbur Rinpoche, for example, was held and tortured during the Cultural Revolution for two decades and famously said:

“If I told you what happened on a regular basis, you would find it hard to believe.” By all accounts he emerged from his trials with a heart full of love and forgiveness and, when asked how, he replied that it was due to the blessings and teachings of his root Lama Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche.

According to Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, a highly regarded Lharampa Geshe, Je Pabongka was considered an emanation of the Highest Yoga Tantra Deity, Buddha Heruka. He explains how 32 reincarnate Lamas, including his own teacher Dagpo Dorje Chang, attended his Lamrim teachings in Lhasa:

“Dagpo Dorje Chang could hear statues of Avalokiteshvara and Tara speak, and saw visions of multi-armed Yidams (Deities). Once Kyabje Pabongka invoked the wisdom beings of Heruka’s mandala to enter into a statue of Heruka Chakrasamvara. Heruka then offered nectar to Kyabje Pabongka, and prophesied that seven generations of his disciples would be protected by the body mandala of Heruka. Kyabje Trijang Dorje Chang is cared for by Heruka Chakrasamvara, as are his disciples.”

Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey gives an account of Pabongka’s mastery of the practice in his commentary to Wheel of Sharp Weapons:

Once, in the cave-under-water, he experienced a manifestation of Yamantaka for nine days, while he himself was essentially Heruka Chakrasamvara. Further, he experienced a manifestation of Vajrayogini who told him of the benefits to be derived from merging the Vajrayogini teachings of the Sakya and Gelug traditions into one meditational practice. When he once made a great (tsog) offering beside a Heruka statue in Lhasa, the wisdom body actually entered into the statue. The statue danced and told him that whoever received Heruka initiation from him up to the seventh generator would be taken to the dakini realms.

This incarnation of Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche was after Dechen Nyingpo (the famous one in Tibet) and before the current one. This particular incarnation passed into clear light around 30 years old.

Khen Rinpoche, Geshe Lharampa, ex-Abbot Sera Monastery says:

KYABJE PABONGKA RINPOCHE DECHEN NYINGPO and his classmate, Gyelrong Sharpa Choje—known as Jangsem Choje Lobsang Nyima—went together very often to debate when they were at their monastery. Indeed, both of them became Geshes. Later Jangsem Choje Lobsang Nyima entered Gyu Me Tantric College and became a great scholar. He proceeded to become gi-go, an administrator, as I did, then Lama Umdze, then Abbot, and finally almost reached the position of Ganden Tripa.

Pabongka Rinpoche Kyabje Dechen Nyingpo’s life proceeded in another direction such that he was later to become a very famous teacher of Sutra and Tantra, especially of the Lam Rim (Stages of the Path to Enlightenment) tradition. Whenever he taught, many people came from miles and miles around to attend his teachings. Everybody said he was an unbelievable expert on all subjects.

Later, when Lobsang Nyima had learned that Kyabje Dechen Nyingpo was going to be in nearby Chusang Ritro, his curiousity piqued from having heard so much relating to Kyabje Pabongka’s fame coming from all quarters, he decided to visit him and so he brought along a pot of excellent yogurt as a gift for Rinpoche. During that visit they met for a long time discussing many points on numerous topics. Since Kyabje Pabongka had answered every one of his questions so thoroughly, Lobsang Nyima couldn’t argue with him at all on any of the points.

Upon his return, when others asked about the visit he remarked: “When we were on the debate ground at Sera Mey, Kyabje Dechen Nyingpo wasn’t an expert at debate by any means. At the time I didn’t think he had learned very much. But now I understand that his way of studying and mine went in different directions. For instance, when we debated, I for my part, would apply reasons and quotations to back up my arguments, all the time focusing on the other debater. But Kyabje Pabongka, for his part, when studying, asking questions, giving answers, reciting quotations, giving reasons, everything, would focus all of these on himself, applying them to his own mind. Therefore, by using such a method, there is no way to argue with him on any of the points since he has mastered them all.”

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