H.H. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s biography
Zong Rinpoche (1905-1984 AD) was a highly realized Gelug Lama and disciple of Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, junior tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama. He was famous as a sharp analyst and master of philosophical debate, as well as a powerful Tantric practitioner. He was the Abbot of Ganden Shartse monastery.
Early life, education, and spiritual lineage
Zong Tulku Rinpoche Jetsun Losang Tsöndru Thubten Gyaltsen (or Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, as he is known to countless ordained and lay disciples) was born in 1905 in the village of Nangsang in the Kham province of eastern Tibet. His father’s name was Jampa and his mother’s was Sonam Yangdzom.
His father and both his grandfathers were ngakpa, tantric practitioners of the Nyingma tradition, and two previous incarnations of Kyabje Dorje Chang (“Vajradhara, Lord of Refuge,” as Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was also known) had taken birth within the Zong-go family: Zongtrul Phuntsok Chöpel and Zongtrul Tenpa Chöpel (1836-1899 AD). It is said that already in an early stage of his childhood he performed various magical miracles and was able to invoke a female naga goddess (mystical serpent being) in a nearby lake.
He went to Lhasa in 1916 when he was eleven years old to study Buddhadharma as presented in Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition at Ganden Shartse Monastery, one of the principal Gelug monasteries and seats of learning in Tibet. When he got there, the fourteen-year-old Trijang Rinpoche (who was to become one of the main tutors of the 14th Dalai Lama) guided the new student by taking him through his first lesson in elementary dialectics. He was later to become Zong Rinpoche’s chief mentor.
Although recognized as a reincarnate Lama, Zong Rinpoche did not have the privileges accorded to modern-day tulkus. He had no benefactor to support him and lived a spartan existence:
Instead of a table from which to read the scriptures, he made do with an empty tea box supported by bricks. He was completely focused on his studies, which he pursued with unfailing courage and diligence. He seemed uninterested in food or drink, surviving on a very simple diet. With his humble lifestyle and shabby robes, often loose and torn from the physicality of the debate ground, he looked like any other boy from the remote province of Kham who had been fortunate enough to attend this prestigious monastic university.
Zong Rinpoche received his full ordination from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace. At Ganden, Zong Rinpoche studied the Sutras of the Prajnaparamita, Madhyamika, the Abidharma and the Vinaya. He studied effortlessly and became well known throughout the three great Gelug monasteries of central Tibet, Ganden, Drepung, and Sera as a master of philosophical debate who possessed an extraordinary memory. Upon debating the opening verse of Pramanavarttika, the foremost dissertation on Buddhist logic by the famed seventh-century Indian logician Acharya Dharmakirti, Zong Rinpoche’s performance led the famous Geshe “Amdo” Sherab Gyatso to remark: “There would not be a worthier debate on this subject even if Dharmakirti himself were here in person!”
In 1928 Zong Rinpoche debated in front of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876-1933) in Lhasa and was subsequently awarded the Geshe Lharampa degree following the Monlam festival examinations. After graduating as the highest ranking Lharampa Geshe at the age of only twenty-five in 1929, he moved on to the Tantric College of Gyuto, where he also successfully completed his examinations.
His Spiritual Guide was Trijang Rinpoche. Kyabje Zong Rinpoche often mentioned to his resident students, as an instruction on Guru devotion, that he had never harbored a negative thought for his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche, for even a single instant. Trijang Rinpoche’s own Spiritual Guide was Pabongkhapa Déchen Nyingpo, and Zong Rinpoche deeply revered both Lamas and practiced and promoted their Gelugpa lineage his entire life:
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 Phabongka 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.
He had impeccable knowledge of all rituals, art and science. Following the completion of his studies he was appointed the abbot of Ganden Shartse in 1937 by the regent Reting Rinpoche Tubten Jampel Yeshe Gyeltsen (1911-1947), and continued in this position for almost ten years. During his tenure as abbot, he brought about new heights of scholarship and monastic discipline among the monks, as well as raising living standards for the poorest of them. As it is described in his biography:
The influence of Zong Rinpoche’s term as Abbot is still felt today. As well as reaching new heights of scholarship, Ganden Shartse became an outstanding example of monastic discipline, something that Zong Rinpoche held to be of vital importance. He also inspired a strong interest in Tantra, Chod, and monastic ritual, and significantly improved the monastery’s administrative structure. Having personally experienced the difficulties faced by its poorer members, Zong Rinpoche introduced reforms that went a long way toward improving their situation.
Zong Rinpoche resigned from his seat in 1946 and went on a long pilgrimage to Tsari, southeastern Tibet. During his travels in the 1940s and 1950s, he is attributed with a number of miraculous events such as subduing local deities and spirits through wrathful rituals, curing physical ailments and the ability to control the weather. He became renowned for healing activities and ‘many actions of powerful magic,’ as a result of which ‘the most marvelous, indescribable signs occurred.’
His name spread all over the country of being a powerful Tantrika and he gave many empowerments and teachings on those subjects with a special emphasis on the Tantras of Heruka, Hayagriva, Yamantaka, Guhyasamaja, Vajrayogini, Green Tara, Mahakali, White Tara, Vaishravani and others.
His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was the Guru of many great masters. Here he is seated with his eminent and highly realized students. From left to right. Kyabje Kensur Lati Rinpoche, Sokpa Kensur Rinpoche, (His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche), Kari Kensur Rinpoche, Gyuto Kensur Rinpoche and His Eminence Sharpa Choeje Rinpoche Jetsun Lobsang Nyima. All these highly erudite masters of Sutra and Tantra are from Gaden Shartse Monastery.
Leaving Tibet and life in India
In 1959, after repeated appeals from his disciples and students all over the country who were concerned for his safety, Zong Rinpoche left Tibet and sought asylum in India. In the remote settlement of Buxa in the Indian state of Assam on the Bhutanese border, he joined the surviving members of Ganden, Drepung, and Sera monasteries, as well as monks from other Tibetan monasteries. Zong Rinpoche gave a great number of teachings, and “in doing so, rekindled the flame of Buddha’s doctrine in exile. For the refugee monks, Rinpoche’s inspired commentaries on Buddhadharma offered a revitalizing hope and relief from complete despair.”
In 1965, Zong Rinpoche became the director of the newly formed Tibetan Schools Teachers Training Program in Mussoorie (north-west India), overseeing 58 scholars from all the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This educational nucleus proved crucial to the success of the fledgling Tibetan refugee settlements and had far-reaching benefits for all the Tibetan schools that were subsequently established. In 1967, he was appointed as the first principal of the new Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies at Sarnath, Varanasi, India. In 1971 Zong Rinpoche moved to Ganden Shartse in the newly established Tibetan settlement in Mundgod, Karnataka and retired from his position in Varanasi. Although he spent his later years engaging in practice he also continued to teach.
After retiring from public life in 1971, Zong Rinpoche spent his time in deep spiritual practices. During these quiet years, he would occasionally give teachings on practical aspects of Vajrayana.
Teachings in the West
In response to requests by Western students, he travelled three times outside India, where he taught on the full range of Buddhist thought and practice and gave many personal interviews. Zong Rinpoche had many devoted Western disciples. One of them described him: “He was one of the last teachers of the old generation with the aura of authority and a kind of aristocratic touch or vajra pride. In his teachings he followed very strictly the original texts. But, concerning his age, he was very open and patient to us Westerners, always kind, polite and helpful to answer our many questions concerning detailed tantra explanations.”
He visited Manjushri Institute in the UK on several occasions where he gave many teachings and empowerments into the practice of Heruka and Vajrayogini. He also highly praised the disciples of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, founder of the New Kadampa Tradition.
During his travels he gave teachings on both sutra and tantra, including teachings on the Chod (gcod) of the Ganden Ear-Whispered Lineage, a practice he is well-known for, as well as the life-entrustment of his Dharma Protector. Zong Rinpoche also taught numerous western students in India and participated in giving teachings and empowerments during the FPMT’s First Dharma Celebration in Dharamsala in 1981, along with other high-ranking Geluk teachers such at the Dalai Lama, Ling Rinpoche Tubten Lungtok Tendzin Trinle (1903-1983), Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche Ngawang Lobzang Tubten Tobjor (1914-1983) as well as Lama Tubten Zopa (b.1946) and Lama Yeshe.
It was also in 1981 that Zong Rinpoche ’s root guru, Trijang Rinpoche, passed away in Mundgod. It was from Trijang Rinpoche that Zong Rinpoche had received numerous important lineages such as those of Cittamaṇi Tārā, Vajrayoginī Naro Kechari, and Heruka Cakrasaṃvara. Zong Rinpoche passed these lineages to his own students, many of whom were also Trijang Rinpoche’s students.
During the teaching in Los Angeles, Rinpoche also talked about a meeting he had with his guru Trijang Rinpoche at the same time.
‘At that time His Holiness Trijang Dorje Chang had a bad illness. I asked Trijang Rinpoche not to pass away before I did. He promised. My hope was that he would live until 83 years of age.
Before I left Dharamsala, he told me, “We are friends. You are my senior student, my friend, and I am your teacher as well. You are my hope, I trust you.”
He showed me the wrinkles on his face. “And look at my hands,” he said. “So skinny, all wrinkles. Come close and touch my forehead with yours.”
We touched each other on our foreheads, and I couldn’t say anything.
When I came to the West, I kept writing letters to him. I wrote and said, “I want to see you.” He said, “There is no reason to meet each other because there is no goodbye between us. So relax.”
Finally, he lived for 81 years. Shakyamuni Buddha also lived for 81 years. He told me that I should live as long as he lived, so I hope to live at least 81 years.
The blessing of the Lama is very special. If I live for 81 years it is the blessing of my Lama. If I don’t, I have no regrets.’
Miraculous Stories of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche
After Zong Rinpoche completed his tenure as the abbot of Gaden Shartse monastery in Tibet, he went to Tsari for pilgrimage. When he arrived at the lake, many people witnessed a huge wave coming from the calm lake. The wave bore globules that were thrown onto his lap. The globules are used as ingredients he needs for certain pujas. This was seen as an offering from the Naga being in the lake. This is because the Naga perceived a highly attained being, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, coming to visit the lake. The Naga made an offering.
When he was on pilgrimage in Tsari and in other parts of Tibet, certain women would take trance of dakinis and these dakinis would say, “I’m going over to so and so place where Zong Lama is as he’s doing tsok, and I want to partake in the tsok.”
Therefore, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche attracted a lot of real dakinis to come to his presence. Dakinis are spiritual beings who would flock to great masters and bless practitioners. Wherever Kyabje Zong Rinpoche travelled on pilgrimage, he would always recite 8-line praises to Heruka and Vajrayogini. He would recite these constantly and all the time to bless people. This was his main practice.
There is a tree in Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s home because he took incarnation within the same family line a few times. Whenever the incarnation of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche is alive and well, the tree will produce a lot of fruits. In between incarnations, the tree would not bear any fruit no matter what season it is. It would only flower when the incarnation of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was present.
While in exile in India, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche travelled to Bylakuppe with his assistant, Gen Tsoncha. That area in Bylakuppe didn’t have rain for a long time and the crops were dying and things were difficult for the people there. People invited Kyabje Zong Rinpoche there to do a naga puja for rain. When Kyabje Zong Rinpoche performed the naga puja, everyone saw a large long thick white cobra (pure white) appear in front of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, elevate its head to the same level as Zong Rinpoche and look at him.
Gen Tsoncha got worried and started to move towards Zong Rinpoche. However, Zong Rinpoche gestured to the monks to keep doing their mantras. All the monks stood still and kept quiet. After the snake looked at Zong Rinpoche at eye level for a few minutes, it went down and slithered away. That very night, it rained and rained after many months of no rain. The local Indians and Tibetans were very happy. Everyone was very happy because it started to rain and their crops would be fine. The local Indian and Tibetan people remarked that when Zong Lama comes, he brings rain. The white Naga appearing to Zong Rinpoche during puja was a indication Zong Rinpoche’s puja to benefit others to bring rain was effective.
So, it was concluded that during the puja, the nagas were very happy with Zong Rinpoche’s presence. The Naga King appeared as a white albino cobra and showed Zong Rinpoche that he will do as Zong Rinpoche says. Zong Rinpoche knew this and calmed the monks down because they were scared that the cobra would bite. All the monks and many other people witnessed this. This was not a story narrated by just one person and Gen Tsoncha went to Byllakuppe, narrated the story directly to all of us.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche was a very direct, open and quick lama. He manifested a lot of wrath when necessary. When things are right, he would be very happy and he would immediately acknowledge. When things are wrong, he was not the type to keep quiet about it. He was very verbal about it. Many were quite frightened of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche.
In Bylakuppe, there were people who disliked Zong Rinpoche and were jealous of his fame. During one afternoon, when Zong Rinpoche was taking a nap in Bylakuppe in between teachings, he saw a vision of 4-faced Mahakala’s (his protector) face come to him suddenly. Zong Rinpoche was startled and he woke up. He saw someone holding a dagger trying to stab him. Zong Rinpoche held the hand and the attacker dropped the knife, pulled his hand out and ran away. So, even during such times when people tried to harm Zong Rinpoche, his Dharma Protector would appear to him directly and very clearly and precisely.
Another time, while Zong Rinpoche was staying in his personal house in Gaden, while he was doing puja, a lady came to the yard with her relatives. She was screaming, pounding, jumping, pulling her hair out and making a lot of noise. It was because of the noise that Zong Rinpoche came out of his prayer room, asked for a chair and looked at the lady. The monks were quite worried because she looked like she was not well. But Zong Rinpoche signaled them to keep quiet.
After a few minutes of reciting some mantras, Zong Rinpoche shouted at that lady very loudly, “Who are you? What do you want? Get out! Get out!!” When he said get out, immediately the lady collapsed. The spirit that was possessing the woman and making her unhappy immediately left. It was reported later that the spirit never entered the lady again after Zong Rinpoche shouted at that spirit, “Leave! Get out!”
So, Zong Rinpoche didn’t have to do long complicated procedures, prayers and pujas. He only had to order the negative spirit to leave. Immediately the spirit would leave on his command. At times, Zong Rinpoche would sit in his house and due to people who were jealous, there were always people who tried to send black magic to Zong Rinpoche. People would see lights coming from the night sky into his house through the roof and hitting the prayer room and throne room. It never affected Zong Rinpoche ever and he would always recover strongly from it. This was reported by all the old monks. These are just some of the wonderful stories the old monks shared with us.
His Holiness Kyabje Zong Rinpoche had many disciples in Tibet, India and the West. He was the teacher and root Guru of H.E. Tsem Tulku Rinpoche, as well as a teacher of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, current Spiritual Director of the FPMT, Lama Yeshe, the founder of FPMT, Samdhong Rinpoche, Kyabje Zemey Rinpoche, Lati Rinpoche, 100th, 101st and 102nd Gaden Tripa, Rilbu Rinpoche, Kensur Jampa Yeshe Rinpoche many other tulkus. He was also one of Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s teachers. When Lama Yeshe died in 1984 he performed the cremation ceremony (together with Lama Zopa) at Vajrapani Institute in California.
Greta Jensen, a close student of Zong Rinpoche (he used to call her ‘ama lolo‘ – ‘fat mother’!), recalls her first meeting with him. Previously she had had many inexplicable visions of ‘this old man with a beard.’ Upon discovering who he was, she eventually met him in Los Angeles on a visit with her family to America.
‘I cried,’ Greta said. ‘He sat there looking nonchalantly away as he does, and said to me, “Don’t think that I am anything special. Think that it is by the power of your own karma that you have the good fortune to meet the dharma. If you like you can come and listen to my teachings and if you feel it is useful I’ll give you more.”
Corin, Greta’s fourteen year old son who has spent periods of months living with Rinpoche at his monastery, says that ‘Rinpoche knew practically everything. He was really kind and always smiling, and always made me feel happy and warm.
‘I had a special seat next to Rinpoche, on his left, and I used to eat my meals with him and go to puja with him.’
Max Comfort, Greta’s husband, said that Zong Rinpoche ‘had tremendous presence and always commanded respect. In the West he was always fascinated with procedure, how things were made and how they worked. And he was so incredibly skilful with his hands, he knew how to do things.’
On a visit to the Tower of London, Max remembers, ‘he captivated a crowd of tourists with his detailed and accurate explanation of the workings of an ancient blunderbuss!’
In 1983, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche made his third trip to the West and embarked on a teaching tour that took him to England, Canada, the U.S., Switzerland, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Austria. In June 1984, at age 80, he returned to his home at Ganden Monastery, by then reestablished in Mundgod in southern India. The following month, he gave instructions on the Hayagriva Tantra, followed by the Chittamani Tara initiation, and a long life empowerment for all the Tibetans in Mundgod’s refugee community. Shortly after the last of these teachings, he arranged an elaborate offering ceremony for the Dharma Protector. After a few days of rituals, the students at Zong Labrang, his residential compound, reported that he had fallen ill with a high fever. Although his doctors gave him the best medical care, his condition did not improve.
All the students at his residence and monastery offered numerous long life prayers. His Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden (Dorje Shugden took trance of the Gaden oracle to speak) in particular requested him in the name of the Buddha’s doctrine and all sentient beings to regain his health and live for many more years, or at least until the reincarnation of Trijang Rinpoche was legitimately determined. Delegates from Drepung and Sera monasteries, including representatives of the two Tantric colleges, Gyuto and Gyume, and all of the incarnate Lamas of the great Buddhist institutions, came to offer long life prayers. Four months later, at the beginning of November 1984, he declared, “I do not have any of my former illness.” Once again, in apparently good health, he resumed his daily routine and presided over the ceremony to determine the new incarnation of Trijang Rinpoche.
During his teachings at Thubten Dhargyey Ling in Los Angeles in December 1983, he recalled a meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama the same year, seventeen years ago, that he had been requested by him to become principal in Varanasi.
We received news that it was a difficult year for His Holiness. I was appointed to represent the monks of the three monasteries and the four schools, to go to Dharamsala to request His Holiness to live long.
When I arrived in Dharamsala, it was New Year. “I won’t die,” His Holiness Dalai Lama said to me. “I am glad you came by.” He took my beard and shook it and said to me, “just sit here and relax.”
When he said to me, “I won’t die,” I was so happy I cried in front of him.
He said he was pleased I had accepted the position at Varanasi. “I have no choice,’ I said. His Holiness said I was the right person for the job, but I know my own position; I have a correct estimation of myself. I had bad pains in my knees and breathing problems. I said that maybe I wouldn’t be able to fulfil the demands of my job. I related my history to His Holiness and said I was already over mature age.
He said, “Age doesn’t matter because you can make yourself younger.” I didn’t know how to do this but since he said it I couldn’t ask!
‘But really, I have reduced my age and got younger. At Buxa I had a walking stick, but since that audience I have not had any problems with my knees or my breathing. It really worked that I got younger.’
Zong Rinpoche engaged in the self-empowerment rituals of Heruka Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, and Chittamani Tara over long periods of time, and his assistants observed him in “unusual states of absorption”. Zong Rinpoche normally awoke at three o’clock in the morning and finished his daily meditation before dawn. Shortly after 9am on November 15, Buddha’s Descent from Heaven Day, his assistant called a medical doctor from the Dueguling Tibetan Resettlement Hospital. Zong Rinpoche walked from his bedroom into his sitting room, saying that he would like to sit in an upright posture. When the students entered the room a few minutes later, Zong Rinpoche, still seated, had died. His students reported how his body remained as if in a deep sleep, without losing luster or color.
Ceremonies such as gaṅacakra, and the self-entry initiations of Cittamaṇi Tārā, Vajrayoginī and Vajrabhairava were performed, along with other rituals. Following the cremation of his body after the end of his tukdam death-period meditation, a number of relics were found, some of which were enshrined in a stupa, completed in 1986, which stands today at Ganden Monastery in Lama Camp No.1 in Mundgod. It stands five feet high, is covered with precious stones and metals, and is filled with relics and holy objects.
Below are Youtube links for Zong Rinpoche’s teachings:
- Death, Rebirth and Intermediate
- Developing Compassion
- Emptiness and Advice
- General Teaching at TDL, Los Angeles, California
- General Teaching in Hotchkiss, Colorado
- Heart Sutra (Short Commentary)
- Three Principle Paths
- Commentary of The Hundreds Deities of the Land of Joy (Part 1 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- Commentary of The Hundreds Deities of the Land of Joy (Part 2 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- Commentary of The Hundreds Deities of the Land of Joy (Part 3 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- Lama Chopa Commentary (Part 1 of 5, Requires Initiation)
- Lama Chopa Commentary (Part 2 of 5, Requires Initiation)
- Lama Chopa Commentary (Part 3 of 5, Requires Initiation)
- Lama Chopa Commentary (Part 4 of 5, Requires Initiation)
- Lama Chopa Commentary (Part 5 of 5, Requires Initiation)
- Guhyasamaja (Askhobya) The Preparatory Ceremony (Requires Initiation)
- 13-Deity Yamantaka Sadhana Commentary (Part 1 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- 13-Deity Yamantaka Sadhana Commentary (Part 2 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- 13-Deity Yamantaka Sadhana Commentary (Part 3 of 3, Requires Initiation)
- Cittamani Tara (Part 1 of 4, Requires Initiation)
- Cittamani Tara (Part 2 of 4, Requires Initiation)
- Cittamani Tara (Part 3 of 4, Requires Initiation)
- Cittamani Tara (Part 4 of 4, Requires Initiation)
- Chod Initiation (Requires Initiation)
- Chod Practice (Requires Initiation)
- Chod Commentary (Requires Initiation)
- Chanting Chod Tsog and Story of Pilgrimage in Tibet (Requires Initiation)
[ Compiled from various sources by Pastor Niral, Pastor David and Pastor Jean Ai. Pastor Seng Piow did the arrangements. ]
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