Incomparable Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche
Ever since I was a young boy, I have always loved reading about high lamas… Even now, I occasionally read biographies of both spiritual and secular people as I find them to be very inspirational. A week ago, I was browsing the internet and found a treasure trove of information on Wikipedia about His Holiness Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche.
When I was around 17 in Los Angeles, I found a picture of Kyabje Pabongka in a Tibet picture book accidentally and was immediately drawn to him. I reproduced, framed and placed the sacred photo on my shrine. I had natural and incredible faith in Kyabje Pabongka although I didn’t know who he really was. It was spontaneous and natural.
Most of my blog readers will know of Pabongka Rinpoche as the author of the lamrim text, “Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand“. This text and many of the texts Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche composed are used in Gaden Shartse monastery and primarily in Kechara. Kybaje Pabongka Rinpoche also composed the Vajrayogini sadhana and many extensive texts on Yamantaka and Vajrayogini that all the Gelugpa monks use.
Please spend some time reading the contents below… By reading and understanding more about the author of the Lamrim, we will learn to appreciate the greatness of this author and have confidence in the teachings. It is through this gained confidence that we practice Dharma all the way. This will enable us to share the Dharma with others more accurately and help them in their Dharma practice.
How spiritual you are depends on how much effort you put into your practice and how much you transform…
Pabongka Rinpoche (Tibetan: ཕ་བོང་ཁ་, W
Early life and education
Pabongka Rinpoche was born in 1878, at a town called Tsawa Li in the Yeru Shang district of the state of Tsang, north of Lhasa in Tibet.
According to Ribur Rinpoche, one of Je Pabongka’s main disciples: “Lord Pabongka Vajradhara Dechen Nyingpo Pal Zangpo was born north of Lhasa in 1878. His father was a minor official but the family was not wealthy. Although the night was dark, a light shone in the room, and people outside the house had a vision of a protector on the roof.”
As a child he was alleged to exhibit unusual qualities and in his seventh year was taken before Sharpa Chuje Lobsang Dargye, one of the leading religious figures of the day, who “felt sure that the boy must be a reincarnated saint” and foretold that if the child were placed in the Gyalrong House of Sera Mey Monastery, something “wonderful would happen with him in the future.” Later on, he was found to be a reincarnation of the Changkya line, which included the well-known scholar Changkya Rolpay Dorje (1717-1786 AD). The Lamas of this line had done much teaching in the regions of Mongolia and China, including in the court of the Chinese emperor himself, and so the name “Changkya” had strong Chinese connotations. 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 declared to be “Pabongka” Tulku instead. Pabongka Rinpoche was never awarded his true name and identity when recognized and throughout his life. His true very high status never officially conferred. His line of incarnations as Changya were not allowed by the Tibetan Govt of that time.
His Spiritual Guide and practice of Buddhism
Pabongka received his formal spiritual education at Sera Mey Monastery. At first he was very poor and not famous. He studied hard to be a Geshe, meditated and gave empowerments. Pabongka studied with Jaba Sonpo Rinpoche; however his root Guru or Spiritual Guide was Dagpo Lama Rinpoche (sometimes spelt Tagpo or Thagpo).
Ribur Rinpoche described how Je Pabongka met his root Guru: “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.”
Je Pabongka was a keen meditator and emphasized Lamrim, Lojong and
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.”
According to Rilbur Rinpoche, Je Pabongka was always gentle and never got angry: “Any anger had been completely pacified by his bodhichitta.” Even when long lines of people were waiting for blessings, he would ask each one individually how they were and tap them on the head. Sometimes he dispensed medicine.
His two main spiritual qualities according to his disciples were, from the Tantric point of view, his realization and ability to present Heruka, and from the Sutra point of view, his ability to teach Lamrim. He attributed all his qualities to his own Spiritual Guide, showing him deference throughout his life. Whenever he visited his Spiritual Guide’s monastery, he would dismount as soon as it appeared in view and prostrate all the way to the door and when he left he would walk backwards until it was out of sight.
Pabongka Rinpoche’s full name was Kyabje Pabongkapa Jetsun Jampa Tenzin Trinley Gyatso Pel Sangpo, which translates as 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 is also popularly known as “Dechen Nyingpo,” which means “Essence of Great Bliss” and refers to his mastery of the secret teachings of Buddhism.
As a Buddhist Teacher
After his graduation from Sera Mey with the attainment of a Geshe degree, Pabongka Rinpoche had great success in his teaching tours through the countryside outside the capital Lhasa, and his fame started to spread. With his great skill as a public teacher, he gradually began to build up a large following, his teachings bringing as many as 10,000 students. These included lay people from all over Tibet, which broke with the long-held tradition of only teaching to those ordained as monks. According to one reincarnate Lama who attended his teachings: “He was an exceptionally learned and gifted scholar, and his interpretation of the Doctrine adhered to the meaning of the Lord Buddha’s words exactly. He was short, broad-faced, and of rather heavy build, but when he opened his mouth to speak his words had such clarity and sweetness that no one could help being moved.” .
Pabongka Rinpoche was the first Gelug teacher who taught lay persons outside the monasteries and became very influential. In his memoir of his root Guru, Rilbur Rinpoche said:
When he taught he would sit for up to eight hours without moving. About two thousand people would come to his general discourses and initiations and fewer to special teachings, but when he gave Bodhisattva vows, up to ten thousand people would show up.
Kyongla Rinpoche described his teachings:
The Rinpoche was accustomed to illustrate his teaching by means of concrete examples and personal stories, with abundant references to the teaching of the Lord Buddha and to the commentaries of ancient scholars and saints. Whenever he noticed that his audience was becoming tired or restless, he would tell a comical story to rouse them and get a laugh.
The Lharampa Geshe Khen Rinpoche described attending Pabongka Rinpoche’s teachings thus:
His voice was incredibly powerful. On many occasions he would address gatherings of many thousands of people, yet everyone could hear him clearly (in those days in Tibet we had never heard of microphones or loudspeakers)… Pabongka Rinpoche had an uncanny ability to relate to his audience, and for this reason he became a teacher for the common man as well as for us monks. The Rinpoche’s great accomplishment was that he found a way to attract and lead listeners of every level. His most famous weapon was his humor. Public discourses in Tibet could sometimes go on for ten hours or more without a break, and only a great saint could keep his attention up so long. Inevitably part of the audience would start to nod, or fall into some reverie. Then Pabongka Rinpoche would suddenly relate an amusing story or joke with a useful moral, and send his listeners into peals of laughter. This would startle the day-dreamers, who were always looking around and asking their neighbors to repeat the joke to them.”
In Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, Trijang Rinpoche says he attempted to convey the “extraordinary” qualities of Je Pabongka’s teachings, which he described:
Each part of the teaching was enriched by instructions taken from the confidential oral lineages. Each section was illustrated by analogies, conclusive formal logic, amazing stories, and trustworthy quotations. The teaching could easily be understood by beginners, and yet was tailored for all levels of intelligence. It was beneficial for the mind because it was so inspiring. Sometimes we were moved to laughter, becoming wide awake and alive. Sometimes we were reduced to tears and cried helplessly. At other times we became afraid or were moved to feel, ‘I would gladly give up this life and devote myself solely to my practice.’ This feeling of renunciation was overwhelming. These are some of the ways in which all of his discourses were so extraordinary.
Je Pabongka apparently had an ability to reach even those of the higher echelons of society who were not much interested in Dharma. For example, Dapon Tsago, a member of the nobility who held a powerful position equivalent to Minister of Defense, once attended a public teaching “not to hear the Dharma but rather to put in an appearance” as Jetsun Khen Rinpoche describes it:
So one day this great general marches in to the hall, decked out in silk, his long hair flowing in carefully tailored locks (this was considered manly and high fashion in old Tibet)… A great ceremonial sword hung from his belt, clanging importantly as he swaggered in. By the end of the first section of the teaching he was seen leaving the hall quietly, deep in thought—he had wrapped his weapon of war in a cloth to hide it, and was taking it home. Later on we could see he had actually trimmed off his warrior’s locks, and finally one day he threw himself before the Rinpoche and asked to be granted the special lifetime religious vows for laymen. Thereafter he always followed Pabongka Rinpoche around, to every public teaching he gave.
According to the Western monk Helmut Gassner, the Dalai Lama’s translator for 17 years:
It is said that when Pabongka Rinpoche gave Dharma discourses many in the audience gained profound insights into the failings of our worldly concerns to develop the lasting determination to exchange the constant quest for honor, praise, well-being and gain with sincere aspiration, kindness and concern for others. This unusual ability to teach is 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.
Due to his skill as a Buddhist master, the thirteenth Dalai Lama requested Kyabje Pabongka to give the yearly Lamrim teachings in 1925, instead of asking the Ganden throneholder (Ganden Tripa) as was customary. Usually these teachings lasted seven days, but these lasted for eleven days.
Je Pabongka had a profound and far-reaching influence on the Gelug tradition:
Pabongka Rinpoche was probably the most influential Gelug lama of this century, 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; the list of his oral discourses is vast in depth and breadth. He was also the root guru of the Kyabje Ling Rinpoche (1903-83), Senior Tutor of the Dalai Lama, Trijang Rinpoche, and many other highly respected teachers. His collected works occupy fifteen large volumes and over every aspect of Buddhism. If you have ever received a teaching from a Gelug lama, you have been influenced by Pabongka Rinpoche.
His foremost disciple, Trijang Rinpoche, praises his teacher highly in Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand, including:
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!
In Geshe Ngawang Dhargeyey’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 Ganden, Sera and Drepung) had not been his disciples.
As a Buddhist author
In 1921 at Chuzang Hermitage near Lhasa, Pabongka Rinpoche gave a historic 24-day exposition on the Lam Rim, or “stages of the path,” that was attended by some seven hundred people. Many monks came from the three major monasteries in Lhasa, and many more traveled weeks from the Central Province, from Tsang, and from as far away as Amdo and Kham. This included about 30 lamas and reincarnations of lamas. There were also many lay people present. According to Rato Khyongla Rinpoche, who was present: “During that summer session several traders and at least two high government officials found their lives transformed by his eloquence: they forsook their jobs to study religion and to give themselves to meditation.”
The teachings covered every topic in the progressive stages to attain enlightenment. These teachings were transcribed and edited by one of his main students, Trijang Rinpoche, who later became the Junior Tutor of the 14th Dalai Lama. Trijang Rinpoche explains the good qualities of the Lamrim teachings given by his root Guru and then explains how the idea of the book came to him:
How could I possibly convey all this on paper! Yet what a pity if all the key points contained in these inspiring instructions were lost. This thought gave me the courage to write this book. As my precious guru later advised me, ‘Some of the people present could not follow the teaching. I’m afraid I do not trust all the notes people took during the classes. I therefore ask you to publish a book. Put in it anything you feel sure of.’ In this book I have accurately recorded my lama’s teachings in the hope that this substitute for his speech will be beneficial to my friends who wish to succeed in their practice.
Published in Tibetan in 1958, these teachings were eventually translated into English and published as Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand (Tib. rNam grol lag bcangs) in 1991. This book forms the basis of most Gelug teachers’ Lam Rim presentations, including those of the FPMT.
Kyabje Pabongka also wrote many other books. His collected works occupy fifteen large volumes and cover every aspect of Buddhism. These texts provide explanations on sadhanas, chanting, how to make tormas and myriad other subjects. Among these texts, is the sadhana of the female Buddha Vajrayogini, based on the Heruka Root Tantra. This text is widely used in the Gelugpa tradition today.
Other spiritual activities
Also known as Trinlay Gyatso, Je Pabongka held the lineage of the Tantric Deity Heruka.
Je Pabongka had many disciples, including the most famous Gelugpa Lamas of the twentieth century, who consider him to be a source of uncommon inspiration. Rilbur Rinpoche, for example, was held and tortured by the Chinese 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 Tapu Dorjechang, attended his Lamrim teachings in Lhasa:
Tapu 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 Chakrasambara. 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 Chakrasambara, as are his disciples.
Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey gives an account of his 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 Chakrasambhava. Further, he experienced a manifestation of Vajra Yogini who told him of the benefits to be derived from merging the Vajra Yogini 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.
Je Pabongka’s most famous disciples were Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche because they were the main teachers of the 14th Dalai Lama, who considered Trijang Rinpoche to be his root Guru. 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 addition to Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche and Kyabje Ling Rinpoche, Je Pabongka had two other main disciples. They were Khangsar Rinpoche and Tathag Rinpoche. Tathag Rinpoche was the main teacher of the 14th Dalai Lama when he was a child and gave him his novice ordination. Khangsar Rinpoche’s Chinese disciple, Master Nan Hai, started a Buddhist movement in China that survived till the present day despite political changes in Communist China, with tens of thousands of spiritual descendants and over a hundred monasteries and nunneries throughout China.
Holder of the Ganden Oral Lineage
Pabongka Rinpoche was the holder of the Geden, or Ganden, Oral Lineage. As 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 Geden Tradition. Many other teachers before him mastered certain aspects of the tradition’s teachings, but 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 Geden 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 Geden Tradition once again.
Holder of the Heruka Body Mandala Lineage
According to Kyabje Zong Rinpoche:
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 Rinpoche is cared for by Heruka Chakrasamvara, as are his disciples.
His work and retreat schedule
Je Pabongka’s primary residence was first the small monastery atop the Pabongka rock, called Dakpo Gompa, where he allegedly attained enlightenment. When his fame grew, Ngakpa College of Sera Monastery offered him a large retreat complex on the hillside above Pabongka, called Tashi Chuling, or “Auspicious Spiritual Isle.” There were about sixty Buddhist monks in residence there, and about sixteen personal attendants who helped him with his busy schedule. Je Pabongka divided his time between Tashi Chuling and a small meditation cell built around the mouth of a cave, further up the side of the mountain, known as Takden. Pabongka Rinpoche would go to Takden for long periods to do private meditations.
Position on politics and religion
When the regency of the 14th Dalai Lama was offered to Pabongka Rinpoche, he declined become the regent saying, “If one cannot give up the worldly dharma, then you are not a true religious person.” According to Goldstein, Pabongka was quite well known for saying that “lamas should not become involved in politics.”
Position on other Tibetan Buddhist schools
Although he was a Gelugpa Lama, Je Pabongka 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.
Je Pabongka also said that Padmasambhava (the founder of the Nyingma school), Je Tsongkhapa, Atisha, and Buddha Shakyamuni were all one holy being, not four separate mental continuums.
Pabongka Rinpoche was at times at odds with the 13th Dalai Lama over Pabongka’s supposed antagonism toward the Nyingma lineage. Von Bruck, however, says that Pabongka’s writings “does not say that only Gelukpa teaching leads to liberation, but calls Tsongkhapa’s teaching the highest and the essence of all teachings. But this is traditional parlance and not an exaggerated exclusivity.”
According to academic David Kay, in an account that has been much disputed by Gelugpa scholars: “As the Gelug agent of the Tibetan government in Kham (Khams) (Eastern Tibet), and in response to the Rimed movement that had originated and was flowering in that region, Pabongka Rinpoche and his disciples employed repressive measures against non-Gelug sects. Religious artifacts associated with Padmasambhava – who is revered as a “second Buddha” by Nyingma practitioners – were destroyed, and non-Gelug, and particularly Nyingma, monasteries were forcibly converted to the Gelug position.
According to Kay, “His teaching tour of Kham in 1938 was a seminal phase, leading to a hardening of his exclusivism and the adoption of a militantly sectarian stance. In reaction to the flourishing Rimed movement and the perceived decline of Gelug monasteries in that region, Pabongka and his disciples spearheaded a revival movement, promoting the supremacy of the Gelug as the only pure tradition.” Buddhist scholar Matthew Kapstein echoes these remarks, writing, “There has been a great deal of sectarian dispute among Tibetan refugees in India.
However, most Gelug Lamas strongly dispute allegations against Pabongka’s supposed wrongdoing. Some say that Je Pabongka’s popularity made others jealous, serving as the basis of many rumors of sectarianism on his part against other Tibetan Buddhist schools. Responding to this allegation, Lama Zopa of the FPMT has said that criticism of Pabongka is misplaced because he:
“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. So it’s impossible that he can really be some kind of evil being, as those extremists accuse him of being. There’s no way he could have done the negative things they say he did.”
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche, a high ranking Lharampa Geshe and Abbot of Ganden Shartse, said in his teachings:
Kyabje Pabongka was also an emanation of Heruka Chakrasamvara, but degeneration of the times and jealousy of ordinary beings have made it difficult to become aware of his tremendous qualities. There are many biographies of Kyabje Pabongka that make his realized qualities very clear.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche also explained the importance for Gelugpas of developing faith in the Gelugpa lineage passed down through Je Pabongka and his principal disciple Trijang Rinpoche:
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. We should remember the biographies of past and present teachers. We should never develop negative thoughts towards our root and lineage gurus. If we do not keep the commitments after having received teachings, this is a great downfall.”
Position on Bon religion
Regarding Pabongka Rinpoche’s attitude toward the non-Buddhist Bon religion, he said that “The dharmas of Bonpos, tirthikas, and so forth are non-Buddhist and should not be taken as our refuge.” Although the Bon religion was originally highly hostile to Buddhists, Je Pabongka never advocated intolerance towards them: “Bon is not a refuge for Buddhists. All the same, Buddhists and Bonpos say things to each other out of attachment or hostility, and this hardly makes for honest debate. It is vital that you should know the sources of the Bon religion.” To support his claim that Bon is not a fitting refuge for Buddhists, Je Pabongka quoted several Buddhist scholars, including Milarepa.
When Je Pabongka died, an elaborate reliquary was constructed but the Chinese demolished it. Rilbur Rinpoche managed to retrieve some of his cremation relics (“ring sel”) from it, which are usually kept at Sera Me Monastery. They are presently on the relics tour of saints and enlightened masters organized by Lama Zopa.
Other links to Pabongka Rinpoche
无与伦比的嘉杰 · 帕绷喀仁波切
嘎汪达耶格西（Geshe Ngawang Dhargeyey）在其对《利器之轮》的论述中说：