Enlightened Vagabond: An Autobiographical Sketch

By Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche
Translated and edited by Surya Das

This is not a namthar (spiritual biography) at all; it's just a series of mishaps.
I was born in eastern Tibet in 1932. My father was a roaming bandit, a highwayman. He beat, robbed, and even killed people. I didn't really know my father, because he abandoned his family when I was very young. This father was like the kind of people you see in a cowboy movie, outlaws riding on horses; he habitually lived in the wilderness of Kham in eastern Tibet.

In my immediate family there were three boys and seven girls. Two of the brothers were very strong and rough, like their father; he strongly favored those two tough boys. I was the third boy, and a bit of a wimp. So my father put me down, often saying that I was like a girl, of no use at all. My father taught his children to fight, but the daughters and I didn't like to fight very much so our father ignored us.

My mother was a very gentle and loving soul, a very Dharmic (religious) person with a lot of patience and forbearance. She had sincere aspirations to practice the Dharma, but she had so many children and so much to cope with at home. Therefore, she harbored great aspirations that I would fulfill those aspirations in the Dharma, since I took after her in being gentle and loving. My mother contented herself with the simple rewards of morality and devoting herself to her family.

My paternal grandmother, the highwayman's mother, was also pious. She was an occasional disciple of the great Dzogchen master Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, who was Patrul Rinpoche's heart-disciple. Well-versed in Dharma and practice, she wasn't very learned but she had practiced and received teaching and had understood them, thus transforming her nature. She prayed constantly that her wayward highwayman son would reform and change his ways.

When I was a baby, this grandmother and my mother would chant again and again over my cradle: "We take refuge in the Buddha, we take refuge in the Dharma, we take refuge in the Sangha." Also, they used to pray and talk to each other about the teachings and pray to Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, wherever he was -- they didn't even know where he was -- fervently expressing their heartfelt wish that he would come to teach and bless them. They reminded each other what a great master he was. That was the first time that I heard this sacred name, Nyoshul Lungtok.

When I was older, my grandmother explained to me that Nyoshul Lungtok was her revered root lama, and that he had given her renewed life. Although she wasn't learned in scriptures, she was experienced in Dzogchen and also practiced the Bodhicitta teachings. She chanted the mantra Om mani padme hung three hundred million times in her life. If one does one hundred million recitations of a mantra, counting each mantra with a rosary, it's called a toong-jor. She had done that three times in her life-three hundred million recitations of the mantra of Great Compassion, Chenrezig -- Om mani padme hung.

My grandmother advised me that since I was of a gentle nature it would be very appropriate for me to follow my mother's ways, rather than emulating my father. She further exhorted me to find a qualified Bodhisattva-lama to teach, instruct, and train me, andto strive to become like that lama himself-for that is what the Buddha taught.

For three years I tended the family's animals and performed other similar chores. I didn't study anything, but I kept thinking about this lama whose name I had heard. When I was five my mother and grandmother took me to the nearby Sakyapa monastery, where they cut my hair and gave me a refuge name. When I was eight, I was offered to (enrolled in) the monastery. There were about one hundred monks, practitioners, and lamas in that monastery in Kham. The head lama's name was Jamyang Khenpa Tapkye; he was my distant uncle.

As my relative, Jamyang Khenpa Tapkye took an interest in me. I was immediately taught to read and write, which came easily to me. Not every boy had such an opportunity. To stay at that monastery, the young novices had to beg for their food on a daily alms round in the local villages. I still have scars on my legs from the huge Tibetan mastiffs, fierce guard dogs, that bit me when I went from door to door begging for tsampa (dried barley flour), Tibet's staple food. When the young novices were naughty, they would be beaten and forced to sit outside all night without protection from the cold. It was a harsh life.

At the age of about ten my job was to take care of the sheep that belonged to the monastery estate, sometimes staying in the monastery and sometimes shepherding the animals out in the wilds. When it was sunny I would stay outside, very relaxed, feeling very happy, just watching the sheep munching the grass. But sometimes it was raining and freezing cold, with hail and wind, and I was without shelter; moreover, I couldn't see the sheep who were lost in the mist and ravines. I had to chase them everywhere in order to collect them and bring them back at night. I knew exactly how many there were. I recognized each of their faces and called them each by name.

In the spring and brief summer there was a profusion of bright wildflowers and all kinds of birds singing; Kham was very beautiful at that time of year. The rest of the time the weather was much colder and severe. I well remember those idyllic summer days of my childhood when the weather was lovely and I was totally delighted, sitting outside in the sun, completely at ease and relaxed, while the sheep munched grass and I gazed up at the intense turquoise blue sky and simply let my mind be. That was the natural, unfabricated beginning of my meditational development.

Sometimes the birds would be chattering, and some thoughts began coming to mind, like: What am I doing here, listening to the birds? Why am I here? Grandmother told me that the only worthwhile thing is to practice and realize the holy Dharma, yet although I have joined the monastery it seems that now I am just being a shepherd. How can I follow the teachings and meet an authentic lama, rather than just be a shepherd in ragged hand-me-down robes, whiling away his time in the pastures?
Mustering my courage, I told my mother that I wanted to learn from a real lama, get genuine spiritual teachings, and find out what the holy Dharma was really all about. Then I left the monastery and went to another valley, where lived a very great high lama named Lama Rigdzin Jampel Dorje. This lama was a truly enlightened master, a mahasiddha (exalted adept) who had realized the unity of the lineage teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogpa Chenpo.

When I was about twelve, I began and completed the five hundred preliminary practices (the ngondro) under the personal guidance of this great lama. Then I requested and received from Jampel Dorje detailed teachings on the inseparability of shamatha meditation and vipassana meditation practice. I applied these Vajrayana meditation instructions in the Mahamudra style, according to the Practice Lineage. This practice included the renowned four yogas of Mahamudra-one-pointedness, simplicity, one taste, and beyond-meditation-which are further elucidated in the triple-fold formula of nonmeditation, nonartifice (beyond action and inaction), and nondistraction.

I slowly began noticing that it seemed to be very difficult to really progress in spiritual practice without a firm basis of understanding in the general teachings of sutra and tantra, and particularly the precious Bodhicitta. It is said, "To meditate without learning is like trying to climb a mountain without eyes; to have learning without meditation is like trying to climb a mountain without hands and feet." Rigdzin Jampel Dorje agreed. So I began to study with an important khenpo at the monastery, an erudite and spiritually accomplished abbot-professor. I had to learn and recite from memory before the monastic assembly countless prayers, sadhanas (tantric rites and practices), scriptures, and commentaries-a huge undertaking.
I studied the Dom Sum (Three Vows) of the three vehicles, including the Pratimoksha (personal liberation Vinaya) vows, the Bodhisattva commitments, and tantric samayas. I studied the Bodhicaryavatara of the Indian Mahayana master Shantideva, the bodhicitta teachings on Mind-Training attitudinal transformation (Lobjong) of Atisha, and countless other relative and general teachings of the Buddhadharma, according to the sutras and commentarial literature comprising the scriptures of the Buddhist sciences. I memorized The Thirteen Great (Tibetan) Texts. Later I studied in depth the Middle Way philosophy of Nagarjuna, Madhyamika dialectics, epistemology, logic, the Prajna Paramita literature, the Five Ornaments of Asanga, Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakosha, and so on. Eventually I studied the entire Tripitaka, encompassed in the Tibetan canonical collection called the Kangyur in one hundred and eight large volumes, and also the detailed commentaries by the Indian and Tibetan panditas in the even larger collection known as the Tangyur. In this way, combined with actual practice, I mastered the three yanas, including both sutras and tantras.

Being intensely motivated, I assiduously pursued that scholarly training. Under the great master Rigdzin Jampel Dorje and my khenpo I undertook the traditional twelve-year acharya (khenpo) training combined with the meditation and yogic training of the nonsectarian (Rimé) Practice Lineage, until I was twenty four. I studied all the teachings needed to become a khenpo, an abbot, and professor, as well as undertook all the Mahayana and Vajrayana practices and solitary retreats that went along with them. I still remember what a small and lonely boy I was then, in a region where I didn't know anyone, and how various people used to make fun of me. I also gratefully remember my selfless teacher's incredible kindness and unstinting generosity while I pursued all those studies and practices for over a dozen years.

When I was eighteen, I received the profound and extraordinary teachings on the essential nature of mind, the pith-instructions of Longchen Nyingthig, the very heart essence of the Dzogchen teachings. I received these precious esoteric teachings on the View, Meditation, and Action of Dzogpa Chenpo from the tulku (reincarnation) of my grandmother's guru-teachings that elucidate the ultimate meaning of Buddhadharma (and Rigpa, innate Buddha-mind) according to the classification of Ground, Path, and Fruition, a triad considered ultimately one and inseparable. I soon attained unshakable inner conviction and certainty regarding this natural Great Perfection, the nondual Dzogchen teachings of primordial purity and spontaneous presence embodied in the practices of Trekchod (Cutting Through) and Togal (Transcendence).

Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, Patrul Rinpoche's successor, had died years before; his tulku had been reborn, enthroned, and educated by the disciples of his exalted predecessor, including the peerless Khenpo Ngakga. It was this tulku, named Nyoshul Lungtok Shedrup Tenpai Nyima, who introduced me to the nature of mind while transmitting these teachings. He became my root guru (principlemaster). I got my name from him and from the Nyoshul Monastery where we lived together, in the outlying districts around the region of the great Nyingma monastery of Kathok. From these lamas I inherited all the teachings of Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa. I memorized the entire Seven Treasures of Longchenpa, as well as both of Longchenpa's renowned trilogies (The Trilogy of Natural Ease and The Trilogy of the Inherent Freedom of Mind) and Jigme Lingpa's revered Yonten Dzod (Treasury of Enlightened Qualities), which explains all the nine yanas according to the Nyingma tradition of Buddhadharma.

Tulku Shedrup Tenpai Nyima (Nyoshul Lungtok Tulku) transmitted the Mengak Nyengyud Chenmo (whispered oral pith-instructions of Dzogpa Chenpo) to me. Tulku Shedrup Tenpai Nyima was the principal disciple of the great Khenpo Ngakga (Ngakgi Wangpo, a crazy-wise Dzogchen master still renowned today-a visionary Togal master and an incarnation of the Indian Dzogchen patriarch Vimalamitra). When I was very young, I met Khenpo Ngakga and received certain transmissions from him. I was too young to really study in depth under Khenpo Ngakga, so I gradually received Khenpo Ngakga's teachings personally from Nyoshul Lungtok Shedrup Tenpai Nyima.

Khenpo Ngakga had extraordinary dignity and charisma and was an incredible presence. Simply to enter his room overawed one's self-centered thoughts and concepts and effortlessly opened up the selfless, spacious expanse of Rigpa. Even though I was but a youth, I still remember thinking gratefully at the time, "So this is what the authentic presence of a true Buddhist master is actually like. Anyone would be totally amazed and inspired by such natural splendor and spiritual prowess. How fortunate to meet a living Buddha in this very world!"

This greatly renowned Khenpo Ngakga was famous for many reasons. He once sat for three years on one meditation seat, without going anywhere. And when this grand lama did a three-year meditation retreat he was in a translucent (transrealescent) state of Rigpa called zangtal throughout the entire period; nobody could see a shadow fall from his body for three years. This is absolutely true.

While Khenpo Ngakga was in this meditation, on auspicious days like the tenth of every month (Guru Rinpoche's lunar holiday) and the fifteenth (the day of the full moon), the eight auspicious signs (the dharma wheel, the eternal knot, and vajras, and so on) would appear on Ngakga's body because his body was the actual nirmanakaya (tulku), the rupakaya (form body), the manifestation on earth of the Buddha. Khenpo Ngakga had such inconceivable qualities that any of them sounds hard to believe; but so many of the lamas who were his students achieved enlightenment that everybody extols Khenpo Ngakga to the skies. Jatral Rinpoche and Bairo Tulku Rinpoche in Nepal are Khenpo Ngakga's last great living, personal disciples.

The Dzogchen tradition states that every one hundred years an enlightened Dzogchen master is emanated from the heart of Vimalamitra to fulfill the Buddha's intent in this world. In the nineteenth century it was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and in the last generation it was Khenpo Ngakga. Khenpo Ngakga had thousands of realized disciples, but Nyoshul Lungtok Shedrup Tenpai Nyima (my root guru) was his Dharma heir, the lineage holder of the special Dzogchen pith-instructions called Nyengyud Mengak Chenmo, The Aural Lineage Pith-Instructions of the Heart Essence. This is my special lineage and teaching, the experiential teaching (nyongtri) based on these oral pith-instructions of Nyingthig, the heart essence of omniscient Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa, the quintessence of the innate Great Perfection, Dzogpa Chenpo. This is a lineage transmission only whispered to one disciple at a time, never to a group. It is considered extremely rare and precious.

The lineage holders and masters of this particular teaching were all enlightened, totally realized siddhas (adepts) with incredible spiritual qualities, but these days lamas like me are a mere shadow of such spiritual luminaries. Those masters of the Rainbow Light Body didn't even cast shadows; now people with infirmities like Nyoshul Khenpo pretend to transmit such transcendent teaching-how absurd! The elixir of liberating pith-instructions in this unique lineage is like the fresh breath of the wisdom dakinis. The lion's roar of the Dharma has been proclaimed by great snow lion-like yogis in the land of Tibet for thousands of years, but these days there are just a few dogs like Nyoshul Khenpo barking. And not only that, but they shamelessly go here and there to every country in the world, barking, eating others' food, and kicking up a ruckus-how utterly laughable!

I spent several years at Kathok Monastery, one of the six main Nyingmapa monasteries. Kathok was called in Tibetan Kathok Dorje Den, meaning Kathok Bodh Gaya or Kathok the Vajra-seat of Enlightenment. This seven hundred year old gompa in Kham is renowned as the second Bodh Gaya. It is reported that one hundred thousand yogis attained the Rainbow Light Body there. Another tale recalls the fabled yellow sky of Kathok, where so many fully ordained bhikkus lived that the golden sky continuously reflected the bright yellow hue of their formal monastic robes.

At Kathok Gompa, my own lamas were twelve great tulkus (incarnate bodhisattvas); eight spiritually accomplished, learned khenpos, the kind of khenpos (unlike many today) who knew everything and had memorized the entire Kangyur and many of the commentaries too; and five ordinary enlightened lamas who were neither tulkus nor khenpos but had achieved great attainments through their own spiritual efforts while remaining humble practitioners and staunch pillars of the sangha.

After receiving the significant pith-instruction transmission from Shedrup Tenpai Nyima, I did a one-year solitary retreat in a cave, practicing tummo (mystic heat yoga) and concentrating on those aural pith-instruction teachings. I further pursued my studies until my mid-twenties. I practiced tummo in the snowy wilderness until the falling snow melted around me. During another period of intensive practice, I lived for a time like a wild animal in the forest, uninhibitedly practicing rushen (Dzogchen ngondro) with several other yogis under the guidance of my guru. I still remember what that was like, living freely and uninhibitedly, beyond all conceptual restraints and social conventions-just like the mahasiddhas of old!

I practiced the tantric Prajna Paramita sadhanas called chod (Cutting Ego), meditating all night in terrifying cemeteries and charnel grounds, offering my body to the hungry ghosts and karmic creditors. Other periods I spent meditating alone on windswept mountaintops and in caves consecrated by the lineage masters of old, or on pilgrimage to sacred sites and Shangri-la-like hidden valleys where the patriarchs and matriarchs of Vajrayana Buddhism had meditated, where I made offerings and supported virtuous and worthwhile spiritual activities. I completed the training in the six yogas of Naropa and Mahamudra according to the Kagyu system, as well as the Sakyapa Lamdray (Path and Fruition) and Korday Yermay (The Inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana), and the anuttara yoga tantra Kalachakra teachings. It is said that I completed all these various practices, encountered the yidam deities, and received blessings, transmissions, and empowerments directly from them, just like the root and lineage masters of the past.

Then I traveled, receiving teachings and Vajrayana transmissions from two dozen other enlightened masters, whom I consider my root lamas, from all the different traditions and lineages extant in Tibet. By that time I knew what I was after and where to find it. I practiced and accomplished these teachings, thus becoming a Rimé (trans-sectarian) master, heir to all the sacred teachings of the Eight Great Chariots of Buddhism in Tibet, which are now subsumed within the four main Tibetan sects: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug.

My colleagues and I had to escape from Tibet in 1959, because of the Chinese invasion. Any monks, nuns, and lamas who were caught were disrobed, imprisoned, humiliated, beaten, and tortured mercilessly. Religious practice in Tibet during the Sixties and Seventies was considered a reactionary political crime, punishable by death. I lost touch with all who remained behind, including the vestiges of my family. I would not be reunited with my surviving brothers and sisters until a visit to eastern Tibet in 1992.

In India I requested and received complete teachings and transmissions from many great Tibetan masters, including Padma Sambhava's incarnate regent, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche; Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (Manjusri in person); and the living Buddha, H.H. the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa. Later these same lamas, as well as others (including Tai Situ Rinpoche, Pema Norbu Rinpoche, Sakya Trichen, and Dzogchen Rinpoche) asked me to be Khenpo (Abbot-professor) at their monasteries, in order to educate sangha members and train khenpos in dialectic colleges.

I still pray constantly to those twenty five root masters who gave me everything that I have and am. For even if one knows hundreds of thousands of excellent people-or, for that matter, hundreds of thousands of evil people-one's tsawai lama (root guru) is the most important person in one's life. Actually, what truly astounds me the most is not my teachers, but the teachings of the natural Great Perfection, Dzogchen; that is the really marvelous, magical, and most inconceivable surprise in my experience, and the thing I am most grateful for. I am inexpressibly grateful to my teachers for the teachings they gave me. I try to do all I can to repay their kindness by passing it on to others, wherever I have been over the years. For I truly believes that it is this, and this alone, that is most profoundly beneficial.
I lived in India for twenty five years by myself, without accumulating anything, just one old man alone, sometimes walking around in red Tibetan-style clothes, sometimes in old orange or yellow sadhu robes or simple wraps. Sometimes I gave Dharma talks inside monasteries. I also stayed sometimes with sadhus in Rishikesh and Haridwar, along the Ganges, in ashrams, huts, lean-tos, under trees, wherever the descent of dusk found me. So many different dream-like experiences! Sometimes I was exalted and quite comfortable, more often I was bereft and poverty-stricken. Yet the inexhaustible wealth of inner truth and peace that is the Dharma always sustained me well. Sometimes I gave empowerments to great assemblies of people, including dozens of tulkus and lamas, where they put a golden initiation vase in my hand and I placed it on the heads of thousands of monks. At other times I was utterly poverty-stricken, living hand-to-mouth on the streets in Calcutta wandering around with my hand out begging for pennies. So many unexpected ups and downs, who can describe them? Life is like that, full of unexpected twists and turns-illusory, impermanent, ungovernable, and unstable. And in the end, we all die. What a spectacle!

So many different experiences, memories, and reflections-some good and some bad-just like different kinds of dreams. One night in 1959 I was with about seventy people who were escaping together from Tibet, and a few thousand Chinese soldiers were in the surrounding mountains, searching for the fugitives in the darkness. The soldiers suddenly opened fire, and machine gun bullets and tracers flew everywhere. Of the seventy in my party, only five could be found alive the next day; I don't know what happened to the rest. Our small band of five continued on foot through the high Himalayan passes to India, following in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, seeking refuge in Assam, Bhutan, Darjeeling, and Kalimpong-wherever food, shelter, and political asylum were to be found.

I then lived in the lowlands as a refugee for years, in exile from the Land of Snows, huddled with others in crowded refugee camps and steamy trains, collecting alms in hot and dusty Indian streets. Some years later I unexpectedly found myself riding across vast oceans in jet airplanes and coasting up and down the length of giant needle-shaped skyscrapers in boxcar-like air-conditioned elevators in the great capitals of the modern world, sleeping in both grand hotels and on the rugs and couches of modern living rooms, eating sometimes in restaurants and outdoors on sunny patios, being served like a king.

In the early Seventies, I seemed to have a stroke and almost died; some think I was poisoned in a restaurant in Kalimpong. My nervous system traumatized, I was a complete invalid for several years. Before that, I had given vast and profound teachings and cycles of empowerments to many people, including monks, lamas, tulkus, and laypersons, all over the Himalayan region. Afterwards, I could not see very well, I was lame, my hands shook, and I was expected to die. During that difficult time I was cared for in Kangyur Rinpoche's gompa in Darjeeling. Lama Sonam Tobgyal from Riwoche Gompa was my faithful attendant for six years during that period, in India and later in Europe. The grand yogi-master of Bhutan, Lopon Sonam Zangpo, suggested to me that if I would take a wife and undertake longevity practices my health would improve. (I had been a monk until this time.) The old and venerable yogi, who was the father of Trinley Norbu Rinpoche's late wife, arranged for me to marry Damcho Zangmo, who proved to be a perfectly suitable long-life consort and wife.

Some time later I was brought to Switzerland for medical treatment. I stayed a couple of years with my Tibetan followers in the large Tibetan community there, then spent seven or eight years in retirement in the Nyingma center in the Dordogne Valley in southwestern France, teaching only occasionally. For four years I lived and taught in the Chanteloube three-year retreat center there, after which-in 1984-my wife, Damcho-la, came from Bhutan to join me.

Since that time my health has improved and I have been more active, teaching all around the world, in both East and West, invited by centers of many different sects and lineages. Damcho-la and I have made two visits to Tibet: once with H.H. Khyentse Rinpoche and an entourage in 1990, and again with Penor Rinpoche in 1992, when I met my remaining family members. I am presently working to rebuild my three monasteries and construct several small new hospitals in Kham. Damcho-la and I make our home at her house in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, the last remaining independent Buddhist country in the Himalayas.

Isn't life like a movie or a dream, a series of dreams within a vast, dream-like mirage? How to possibly remember all the different scenes that inevitably transpired from the time that Khenpo was an illiterate little wimp in Kham until now, when he is a talkative old vagabond with white hair and wrinkles? What a surprise!-old and bent already. What a spectacle!-a dim-sighted aged Tibetan tourist peering around at foreign lands. Emaho! Marvelous! Wonderful!

How to explain the infinite vagaries of experience, except by considering it all as the workings of the ineluctable law of cause and effect, karma? And who is creating this karma, which each of us seem to experience; who except ourselves? When we recognize that we create our own karma and are therefore responsible for our own experience, both good and bad, doesn't this penetrating insight free us from resentment and frustration, instilling a sense of freedom and responsibility as well as compassion for those suffering from lack of such awareness?
Bloggers note: Me and my family had the privilege of living downstairs of Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche’s home in Thimphu. I’ve nothing but only wonderful memories of this living Buddha. I remember being unconditionally happy at his presence, as if everything was going to be good with my life. I guess that’s the effect of a truly enlightened being. I was really happy to have come across this autobiographical tale of rinpoche (which my brother shared with me). My dad was happy when I read the details of it. Anyone who reads this would have only inspiration to draw from it.

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