Tulku Sang Ngag
B. Alan Wallace
Khenpo Jigmed Phuntsok Rinpoche was born in 1933, in the Kham region of Tibet, and at the age of five was recognized as an incarnation of the great Tertön Sogyal Lerab Lingpa. He was brought to Nubzur Gonpa, a branch of the Palyul monastery in Serthar, in eastern Tibet, where he began his formal religious training.
At the age of fourteen he received the preliminary vows of monastic ordination, at the age of sixteen Communist China’s invasion of Tibet began, in and around his homeland, and at eighteen he began a six year period of intensive study and solitary meditation. At twenty-two he received the vows of full ordination, and at twenty-four he was selected abbot of Nubzur (1957).
Rather than flee Tibet following the full-scale Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, Khenpo Jigmed Phuntsok Rinpoche remained, evading the occupiers for over twenty years by wandering as a goat herder and nomad in the remote valleys of Serthar. During those years he continued to practice mediation, write commentaries, and transmit teachings to small numbers of people. In 1980, in accordance with prophecy, Rinpoche went with fewer than a dozen students to a desolate valley near Serthar and built simple earthen wall meditation huts for meditation retreats. This was the beginning of the Larung Ngarig Nangten Lobling—also known as the Serthar Institute—a monastic institution created to provide an ecumenical training in the Tibetan Buddhism and to meet the need for renewal of meditation and scholarship all over Tibet.
Under Khenpo Jigmed Phuntsok Rinpoche’s compassionate spiritual leadership, the Institute prospered. Despite its remote location, it grew from a handful of disciples gathering in Rinpoche’s home to be one of the largest and most influential Buddhist centers of learning in the world, numbering to more than 8,000 monks, nuns, and lay disciples in 2002. During special religious ceremonies over one hundred thousand disciples gathered.
The student body of Serthar Institute was made up of monks, nuns, lay vow-holders, and tantric practitioners, including students not only from Serthar and other regions of Tibet but also from China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other places. They studied under four major religious divisions in the Institute: the International Religious Committee, which oversaw disciples from regions of the People’s Republic of China and students from other Asian countries (roughly ten percent of the nearly 10,000 students attending the Institute were ethnic Chinese); Ngarig Nangten Lobling, which consisted of 2,500 Tibetan monks; Lektso Charbeb Ling, which trained over 1,000 lay Tibetan "vow-holders" and tantric practitioners; and Pema Khandro Duling Nunnery, which was the home for study to approximately 3,500 - 4,000 nuns from all regions of Tibet. More than half of all students who came to Serthar were women, and the curriculum allowed nuns to achieve a coveted khenpo degree for the first time in Tibetan history. While entry into the relatively small number of nunneries existing in other areas of Tibet was limited, Serthar was open to virtually anyone who genuinely sought to become a student of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s ecumenical vision. Khenpo’s niece, Jetsunma Mumso, a recognized tulku, heads the order of nuns.
During Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok's lifetime, Serthar Institute operated with a standing executive committee of a number of learned lamas, but major decisions were confirmed and implemented only after consultation with Khenpo. Serthar Institute has been home to over 500 khenpos, and is widely renowned for the high quality of both its religious and secular education. English, Chinese, and Tibetan languages, as well as modern computer studies have been taught alongside a traditional non-sectarian Buddhist curriculum.
The Institute has offered a variety of courses in the classical fields of Tibetan Buddhism. All four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as Bon, Tibet's indigenous religion, can still be studied in depth. It's rigorous curriculum of Buddhist study covers a large body of texts in areas of painting, medicine, history, poetry, philosophy, debate, composition, grammar, linguistics, religious art, and architecture. Five subjects are taught under sutra: madhyamika (middle-way philosophy), pramana (logic), prajñaparamita (perfection of wisdom), abhidharma (metaphysics), and vinaya (discipline). Additionally, the four classes of tantra are all taught (kriya-, carya-, yoga-, and anuttara-tantra.
Khenpo also traveled extensively (albeit for a relatively brief period in his life) across Tibet and China to propagate the Nyingma tradition and discover hidden treasures. In 1990, at the invitation of H.H. Penor Rinpoche, he visited India, where he taught at various monasteries, including the Nyingma Institute in Mysore. In 1993, he was invited to tour and teach at Buddhist centers in Europe, North America, and Asia, including the United States, Canada, Germany, England, France, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Then, in the mid-1990s, Chinese authorities denied him permission to travel abroad. In the late 1990s, they began cracking down on the Institute, and in 2001 they issued a policy notice that Serthar must conform to a ceiling of 1,400 residents, which resulted in the eviction of over 7,000 students.
As Khenpo's health declined, many of his overseas Tibetan and Chinese disciples petitioned the Chinese authorities for permission allowing him to travel to the West for medical treatment. Permission was never granted. On December 29, 2003, at age 70, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was admitted to the Military Hospital 363 in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, with heart problems, and died there on January 7, 2004.
Foremost among Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s great achievements was his careful training of students. He was a very pure holder of the vinaya monastic tradition and is said to have ordained ten thousand monks and nuns. In the first twenty years, his center produced six hundred fully trained khenpos, who are now teaching in various regions in Tibet, China, India, and the West.
He was also a scholar and tertön of great renown. In 1990, he discovered a sacred site that had been a palace of legendary King Gesar. That led to an archaeological dig that turned up ancient building stones and several treasure chests. He found numerous new sacred sites and caves in Tibet related to previous realized masters, and found holy places in other parts of world as well. During his visits to Wutaishan in China. and to India, he recalled memories of previous lives and discovered meditation retreat sites that were previously unknown. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s ability to uncover terma played an important role in inspiring devotion in the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in contemporary Tibet. His charisma, eloquence, learning, and realization marked him as one of the most extraordinary spiritual teachers of our age.
Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jigme_Phuntsok), citing Germano, David. 1998. “Re-membering the dismembered body of Tibet: Contemporary Tibetan visionary movements in the People’s Republic of China” in Melvyn Goldstein and Matthew Kapstein, eds., Buddhism in Contemporary Tibet: Religious revival and cultural identity. (UC Press)
Sogyal Rinpoche, Tibet Press Watch, Jan/Feb 2004, http://www.savetibet.org/files/documents/TPW200401.pdf
Khenpo Namdrol, Padmasambhava Global Project for World Peace, http://www.padmaworldpeace.org/