‘There are many lamas with transmissions, instructions and lineages but isn’t there one who possesses compassion? There are many students with love and compassion, but isn’t there one with real devotion?’

– Je Milarepa

Here is the write-up of the first episode of 8th Garchen Rinpoche’s teachings on ‘Guru Stories’, for video see here: 

In this fascinating teaching, Garchen Rinpoche explained about what really caused his faith in karma to arise during his time in a communist Chinese jail. Then about the qualities of a guru and student, with pith instructions from Milarepa and Thangtong Gyalpo.

Then Rinpoche explained how he got his refuge vows, with his mother climbing onto the roof of a retreat house to get them from Drubchen Tengye who was in closed retreat. As the secret, illegimate child of a yogi who was married, his father was kept secret until the time came to recognise him as the incarnation of Garchen Rinpoche. Then, his father was forced to leave his retreat to be his main teacher, a fact his father was continually angry and resentful about.  

Rinpoche then explained how his father insisted he get all the empowerments and transmissions from an actual practitioner, not just a big name lama. That practitioner was Drubchen Tengye, who was the main lama of the Nangchen King at that time. His father was told that it would not be possible to get such instructions but he insisted the young Garchen tulku  get them from him, and so it was all done secretly.

The teaching was concluded with Rinpoche describing some of the pith instructions he got from his father, which found most memorable about anger, mindfulness, why it was important not to carry many personal possessions and to wear a meditation belt at all times.

May we all remember the kindness of our gurus and teachers at all times!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 10th October 2021.


GURU STORIES (PART I) by 8th Garchen Rinpoche

“Although I do not have much to say about the Dharma,  I am not learned and do not have a lot to say, people watching me on the livestream, I love them very much and they love me too. When they see my face and waving around my hands,  it makes them happy. That is my merit, if I make them happy. Pleasing the Buddhas is the Dharma, as is making beings happy. We have to make sentient beings happy. So even though I don’t have much to say, almost every day I am sitting here talking to you [laughs].

When it comes the actual Dharma teachings that is Khenpo Tenzin’s responsibility, he kindly took that on.  I personally  feel much lighter because of that, and he also spends every day speaking to you students. I just talk about things every day, and make people laugh.

Starting today,  I am going to talk about the different lamas I have met in my lifetime and the significance of these meetings. Generally, speaking it might be different from what you will hear about the life stories from other lamas. When you read their life-stories,It normally begins that at a very young age, that had started to study, reflect on and practice the put the teachings into practice; how they received different empowerments and transmissions. I am not like that. 

For me, it is the other way around. I did not go out and seek the lama, they came to me   took me. By having no choice,at a very young age, my parents brought me to get the refuge vow and so on. At that young age, I did not know how to have proper devotion to those lamas, but they had great love and compassion for me. Now, looking back on it, they were really incredible. This is what I will talk about, the qualities of these lamas. 

 Even though I cannot speak about the Dharma very eloquently, I want to speak about how kind and precious my lamas were. Every single one of them has been extremely kind and precious.  When you hear these stories, then you will understand the qualities of a guru/lama.

Thangtong Gyalpo and the number of root lamas
Thangtong Gyalpo (thang stong rgyal po) (1385 CE–1464 CE or 1361 CE–1485 CE[2]), also known as Chakzampa, the “Iron Bridge Maker” (lcags zam pa),

“Regarding the life story of a guru in general, something important should be understood here. First, generally there are some people who say that it is better not to have too many gurus, the lesser number of gurus the better.  They say that if you have too many gurus and they  have all kinds of  disciples and so on, so it is better to stick to one lineage and one guru. But others say it is good to have many gurus. Actually, the nature of that is explained in the Prayer for Excellent Conduct and the Samantabhadra Prayer. So, Khenpo Tenzin has been giving commentary on the Prayer for Excellent Conduct, and when we know that, then even if you have hundreds of gurus it is good.

For example, there is a story about the Mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo [see image above] who taught about what qualities a guru must have: ‘a guru must be able to show the workings of karma. anyone who can teach on what is virtuous or non virtuous is actually a lama’. For this reason, Thangtong Gyalpo himself said: ‘I have 500 root gurus including prostitutes and butchers and so on’. 

He is someone who became renowned globally. Even now there are signs of his miraculous powers that we can see today. This is a true story. He was able to perform great miracles and signs of accomplishment, and he said he had all these gurus.

Compassion and devotion qualities of an authentic guru and disciple– advice from Milarepa and Thangtong Gyalpo
Jetsun Milarepa

How do we rely on a guru? We have an example here and that is what the guru has to conform with. So we analyse and examine the guru. Many people also say that first you have to examine them, and the guru has to examine the disciple. How long do we have ti examine? For a very long time, could be five or six years or even more. These days, that is not so realistic or practical. We are in different times now and by the time you have finished examining the guru, maybe he already passed away. And vice versa for the length of time for a  guru to examine the disciple. We just do not have the time anymore nowadays. Life span is diminishing, there is more sickness and disease and we can see many people dying all over the world,  and we do not when we will die.

As we can see in the world today, when we think about the pandemic we think there are so many people dying now. That is a mistake, it is only that now we are just more aware of it. people are constantly dying all the time. We just were not aware of it so much before, and now we are. It is like a never-ending wheel that never stops of birth and death. Once born, one is bound to the suffering of sickness, old age and death. These sufferings exist. We think these things are happening now because we are continually being told about it, but it was always like that.  Before it was not so much in our face, as it is now. When we die, it says our only refuge are the Buddha, Dharma and sangha. There is no other source of refuge. That is why the guru is so precious. 

There are many different types of lamas, name and title and lineages. The word ‘Lama’  – la means the life-force essence of all beings, and ma is like a mother to all beings. Milarepa said regarding the qualities of a lama:

‘There are many lamas with transmissions, instructions and lineages but isn’t there one who possesses compassion?’

Milarepa said the most important quality a lama must have is compassion for the disciple. Even though a teacher may have lots of qualities and learning,  what is most important is compassion for the student. Regarding the disciple, Milarepa said that:

‘Even though there are disciples who are suitable vessels and may feel love and compassion for the guru. But isn’t there a disciple who also possesses real devotion to the guru?”

So that is the most important quality for a disciple to possess. What is this devotion? For example, when you love someone very much,  when you think of them, then tears come to your eyes naturally out of great love. Like when you think about their kindness and great love for you and beings, we weep. This is how the guru and disciple establish a connection. Through the guru’s compassion and the disciple’s devotion. The nature of a guru-disciple relationship  is well illustrated in the example of the mahasiddha Thangtong Gyalpo.

In prison, developing faith in the truth of Karma, suffering and the precious Dharma
Image of Garchen Rinpoche from prison. Image from Garchen Biography website.

“The first thing I really developed faith in was karma, that really arose when I was in prison [When he was 22, he was imprisoned by the Chinese for 20 years and put in a labour camp.]. Before that, I had a a little bit of faith in karma but real faith, from the bottom of my heart, a trusting faith only arose when I was in prison, looking at it retrospectively. Only through that experience that my faith increased more and more. 

Before that, I also got an instruction from my guru, Chime Dorje, who quoted from the Gong Chig, which says that:  

‘Karma, cause and effect is the natural manifestation of one’s moment to moment thoughts.’

These words are something  I always remember, like a torch on my way. Especially when I encountered difficulties.  Another quote I always remembered in those times, was a Tibetan proverb: 

‘When I am happy it is the kindness of the three jewels, and when I suffer, it is my own karma.’

And I began to really think about the suffering of all sentient beings in the six realms of samsara and in comparison, my own suffering did not seem that significant.

So, when I first developed real faith, it arose in the Dharma. Yet, where does the Dharma come from? It comes from the guru, without a guru you do not know any of the Dharma.  Even if you carried hundreds of scriptures on your back, you would not understand it without a lama to explain it to you. That is why Jamgon Kongtrul said in ‘Calling the Guru From Afar’: ‘the guru is the actual Buddha, there is no other Buddha than that.’ This is something that stuck in my mind, and I think Sherab Pasang’s father said something about that. 

When I came out of prison, this is what I remember.  It left me with real faith in the Dharma, which is an understanding of karma, which is the natural manifestation of one’s moment to moment thoughts and my happiness is based on the grace of the three jewels and so on. 

Other masters speak about this in a similar way, like Milarepa, when things go well and I am happy, that drags me deeper into samsara. When I suffer and things are not going well, it stirs me up and lifts me out of samsara. In this way, understanding that everything is my own karma,  I never developed hatred or angry at the country at putting me in prison, there was no one else to blame, when things go wrong it is one’s karma. Through that understanding, I was never angry and never blamed anyone for putting me into prison.  Even though we had to work like an ox, like in India, I always kept in mind that it was the ripening of my karma. 

This attitude, or state of mind, is really due to the kindness of the Dharma. That is why the Dharma is so precious.

 If you think about this quote, that karma is the natural manifestation of one’s moment to moment thoughts. For example, if you reflect on the suffering of the sentient beings in the three lower realms, such as humans and animals, as we can see each other. If you think about the suffering of animals, then my own suffering seems so much smaller. If you think like that again and again, for myself it made the burden of my own suffering much lighter. I understood this was my own doing and was able to see the suffering of others.  Then I gained certainty that this is really what the Dharma is about. 

It is important to recognize suffering. Buddha himself said in the beginning, first you have to recognize suffering. The words of the gurus and Buddha are the same, if you listen properly. This is why the guru is the Buddha. So it was really in prison I had my first real experience of the ‘flesh and bones’ of the workings of karma.”

Refuge Vow from Yogi lama, Drubchen Tengye – mother climbed on the roof
Garchen Rinpoche’s mother, Dekyi Yangzom

“First, when I got the refuge vow, when a piece of hair was clipped from my crown when I was very young. I got it from Drubchen Tengye, who was a retreatant, they had a small retreat area there where they spend their entire life in retreat and have their house and cabins totally sealed off. There is no way to enter the cabins through the normal way. So, at that time when my mother took me there, there was no way to go inside the house, so she climbed on the roof of the building and able to meet Lama Tengye there on the roof and get the refuge vow for me. There were a few other retreatants there and later, after Drubchen Tengye passed away, two of them were able to keep maintaining that area. Later on, the Tara Foundation sponsored the reconstruction of the buildings in the retreat village.

Drubchen Tengye was a disciple of the previous Garchen Rinpoche. When you read the White Tara sadhana , at the end in the small print, it says that  Lama Tengye was the one who requested the previous Garchen Rinpoche to compose the sadhana.  So he probably was looking for his incarnation. He was in retreat and wouldn’t normally go outside. I was very young and do not remember much of it. I was very young and still suckling my mothers’ breast. 

 I was actually brought there in secret because no one knew who my real father was. When he bestowed the refuge vow, there were a few Ngagpas retreatants around and I had not been recognised as a tulku at that time. So they said it was good we now have another monk in our row.  When they said that, Lama Tengye was laughing and said that is not how it will be, he will not be under us. We can consider ourselves lucky, if we are under him in the future.  At that time when he said that it seemed  a bit odd for the people and people did not really understand what he was saying then. They told me that he then offered a katag to me and gave me the refuge vow.”

Second recognition and father’s identity made public
Nangchen King at the time of 8th Garchen Rinpoche’s recognition. Image from ‘For the Benefit of All Beings’ movie.

“The second time when I got the tulku name, or the second refuge vow,  was through the father of Gyelpo Rinpoche and the Nangchen King who delivered that message to Drikung and at that time, the official recognition had to come from Drikung Kagyu head, [Zhiway Lodro].  At that point it had to be very clear who my father and mother were.

My father was kept secret because I am a secret child. the reason was because my father was a yogin and he had a wife, who was not my mother. She was a young girl who came to make offerings to my father in retreat and then a child came, and that was me. So maybe I am a bit of a bad child, we might say. Nobody knew at that time he was my father because he was already married. His wife knew about it later, but she was not jealous about it, and both she and my mother got along very well and became good friends. My mother was always there in their home serving her and his wife gave my mother gifts and ornaments. So his wife also knew about this child and had no issue with it at all. But it was kept secret because it  was generally not acceptable,  the secret was lifted at that time because they had to disclose the identity of the father at the time of recognition of the tulku.’

“The Drikung Kagyu head recognised me as the tulku and I was given the tulku name [ Könchok Gyaltsen (dkon mchog rgyal mtshan)] by Lho Chagme Rinpoche, who was the main lama of the King of Nangchen. He was an exclusive lama for the King but he had to bestow the ceremony/enthronement and give the name.  That is why he became the second lama. He passed away in 1958 or so at Gar Monastery. That was when he came to lead the 8th Heruka Drubchen practice. Actually, he was not supposed to go because the King of Nangchen did not allow it because he was the exclusive lama but then he really insisted on going to Gar Monastery to lead that drubchen and at that time he passed away.  He clipped the hair at my crown.

When he recognised me, he took me to a temple with many different statues and asked me which statue will you pick, I pointed at Jigten Sumgon’s statue and said: ‘this is my lama’ and this was seen as an auspicious sign. He was also the Nangchen King’s lama. so he was not really going out much, but he insisted on coming. He was the second lama.  I was seven years old when they clipped my hair and recognised as a tulku. That is what I remember, but before I do not remember that much of how I got the name from the Drikung Kagyu. 

As I was very young, I only went to the monastery once and I stayed at home and my parents were instructed to care for me. At that time, my father was in retreat, he had to come out of retreat and be my teacher. So, he was angry all the time and wrathful, he always had an angry, dark face and he would beat me and accuse me and tell me that ‘it was because of you I have to live in this ocean of samsara and you have thrown be back into samsara. Now I have to come out and teach you to read and write.’ He was very frustrated about that and would beat me. So the family line was Mazey Senge.

So, anyway, since the age of 7, my father had to do that, and I went back and forth between there and the monastery. Then later, at the age of 11, I had different teachers. My first teacher, in terms of learning how to read and write, was my father and he was also the one who told me which retreat to do first. He told me you have to do the  Vajrakilaya secret accomplishment retreat.”

Getting the transmissions from Drubchen Tengye and White Tara text

“This was the first retreat I had to do and it was my father’s idea. I got the empowerment and transmission for that from Drubchen Tengye, because my father wanted me to get all the empowerments from him. My father did not really like high, big name practitioners. At that time, Drubchen Tengye did not have a name or was well-known. But my father always said to me, if you want to get retreat instructions you need someone who has sat down and  done the practice. 

He felt there was no point getting it from someone just because they have a big name and sit on a throne, if they have not actually done the practice. My father had a natural dislike for high lamas, he was a yogi and wanted me to get instructions from yogis and real practitioners. But it was not so straightforward because the person whom I would get the instructions from was the lama of the Nangchen King.

Lho Chame was previously a Garchen monk but then he became the lama of the Nangchen King. He was very traditional and he did not agree that I would get instructions from a normal yogi like Drubchen Tengye and thought you have to get it from someone with a very big name. However, that is not what my father wanted.  Even though the lama was scolding my father and telling him you cannot do that, my father did not listen and brought me there secretly without anyone knowing and insisted I get the instructions from Drubchen Tengye. So I was brought there secretly and I got all the empowerments, transmissions and instructions from him including the Nyingma, the Drikung Kagyu and so on.  So he was very kind to me. At that time, I did not recognise the preciousness and  did not really appreciate it. Whenever I had to get an empowerment from him, I was pretty tired and bored and did not really want to go but I was forced to go and my father would beat me to go.

Later, one time after I had received an empowerment, before I went home. Drubchen Tengye invited me to his chamber and that was filled with thousands of books there. he told me I will give you a gift today, so just pick one of those books.  So I pointed my finger at a small book, but it looked very fancy and nice, and said I want that one. So then he said, ‘now I know who you are’. The book I pointed at was the White Tara Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, which was actually reprinted by Norbu Rinpoche and was a terma by Rinchen Phuntsog, who had a vision. This was a sign for him that I was the tulku of the previous Garchen Rinpoche, because I had picked that text.   Then my father was happy and smiled, and said today you picked a good book.  My father was happy that one time. So that was how I got the empowerments and transmissions and all the pointing out instructions for the first time from Drubchen Tengye.”

{Author’s Note: for more on Garchen Rinpoche and the White Tara text, see here: THE IMMEASURABLE ROOT LIFE-FORCE; OF ALL DEITIES AND SAMAYA: White Tārā teaching by 8th Garchen Rinpoche (April 2021)]

Pith Instructions from his father on anger and mindfulness

So my father asked me what is it you have understood? You have to understand one thing, and that is about the Vajrakilaya wisdom awareness, kilaya. So when a thought arises in your mind, do you know that? I said yes I know that. Then he said: when anger arises do you know you are angry? I said yes of course I know that. So then when you know you are angry, then what happens?  If I know I am angry, then it goes away. If I do not really know I am angry then it does not go away. That was the one thing I had to understand. He said you do understand that one thing. You understand that when you know you are angry it goes away. So you are like an instantaneous realiser. You really understand the nature of the mind. So that is the one thing he taught me about the Vajrakilaya. 

Another main thing my father taught me was that never lose your mindfulness or be distracted. Never lose the mindfulness wherever you go. We had to ride around a lot on horseback – you can see that in the movie of my life story.  So when we were riding on the horse, he told me that you should also pick a rock or road sign you use for your support as mindfulness and say until I reach that rock  I will not be distracted. Then when you reach it, you pick the next one and so on. So that is how I would walk and go around. 

Milarepa also said ‘take all appearances as the path’. He said if you understand that always, that is enough. If you always have that there is no question in your mind. 

So when you have that and have this one who knows and is aware of what arises, then you will always be happy. If you lose the one who is aware then you will always be suffering and miserable. That is what I learnt from that. 

My father told me in the future you must always continuously practice Vajrakilaya, and that is what I am doing.  Chakrasamvara and Vajrakilaya really have the same essence. So I was 8 or 9 years old when I did the Vajrakilaya retreat. At that time, I also had to go around on horseback practicing mindfulness, as the monastery was very poor at that time, there was not a lot of food there.  I had to go around and bring the food, even from my own family, to collect it and bring it back to the monastery. We were poor but we had one very precious object at the monastery which is the Gyanagma Prayer Wheel [see article here about the wheel].

He also told me not to act like a high lama and to learn how to do everything the other monks do. Whatever they learn, you should learn it too. Like playing the trumpet, instruments, and rituals and so on. That I should not let them do everything for me because I am the lama. He also advised me that when you travel places on horseback, only take minimal, necessary personal belongings. Only what you really need. Since whatever you load onto that horse, is the load you will have to bear in the future, your own karma. If you load the horse with hundreds of  things, you will create negative karma. That is also a great instruction I got from my father.  You just take your own personal belongings and not the monastery stuff. 

My father also made me tie a belt around my belly very tightly because otherwise you will get a very big belly and then high lamas are known for just sitting and eating and getting big stomachs. So in order for that not to happen, you should always tie your stomach with the belt. To this day, I still have this belt around my belly, it is almost like I have two bellies. It is completely separate. I cannot take it off, it is impossible. My father really was my teacher. There are many other stories about him but he was extremely wrathful and resentful towards me that he had to come out of retreat. He was always upset about that. It was not like I had asked him to do it. He had really done it to himself. I needed two monks on each side to pull the belt tightly and tie it around me. So that is one thing my father did and also to learn everything the monks did, and that is why I know how to play the instruments well and not to put heavy loads on the horse when travelling.”

8th Garchen Rinpoche in Tibet with meditation belt

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