Tulku Sang Ngag
B. Alan Wallace
The Third Drubwang Pema Norbu ("Penor") Rinpoche was born in the Powo region of Kham, East Tibet, in 1932. His birth was attended by numerous auspicious signs. He was born during the most bleak, bitter cold, and dry part of the winter season, a time when nothing grows and the land is blanketed with snow. Yet, sweetly scented flowers bloomed all around his home at the time of his birth. Moreover, two parties sent, independent of each other, in search of the infant tulku—one sent by Dzogchen Rinpoche and the other by Khenchen Ngagi Wangpo—met each other at the same time at this same house. As communications and travel in the high mountains of Eastern Tibet were difficult, this was considered a very auspicious sign, and confirmed the recognition without doubt.
At the age of five, Penor Rinpoche was invited to Palyul Namgyal Jangchub Chöling, the main seat of the Palyul tradition. He subsequently studied with many lamas, benefiting most deeply from a warm, close relationship with his master, Thubten Chökyi Dawa, the second Chögtrul Rinpoche (1894-1959). As well as receiving and engaging in the Nam Chö Penor Rinpoche was formally enthroned by Chögtrul Rinpoche and Karma Thekchok Nyingpo, the fourth Karma Kuchen Rinpoche (1908-1958), becoming the Eleventh Throneholder of Palyul Monastery with its more than four hundred branch monasteries.
At the age of thirteen Penor Rinpoche received novice (getsul) ordination, and at the age of twenty-one he took full (gelong) ordination and received a vast number of teachings covering all the essential instructions and empowerments of the Nyingma tradition. The lineage of vinaya he received is a very pure lineage, transmitted to Tibet by Shantarakshita during the time of Padmasambhava. At the time of his ordination, Chögtrul Rinpoche offered him the treasured yellow robe that had been handed down by generations of lineage holders. A few years later, through all the hardship and difficulties of escaping from Tibet, Penor Rinpoche carried this robe with him as he made his way to India, while leaving behind many other precious possessions. Subsequently, during his life in exile he was able to ordain more than 10,000 monks and nuns, thus making a priceless contribution towards the stability of the vinaya and the vajrayana today.
Eventually reaching southern India, Penor Rinpoche poured all of his energy and effort into creating a center where the transmission of the Nyingma teachings could be maintained unbroken and where the great living tradition of Palyul could be reestablished. He was to rebuild his life, his monastery, and his tradition. In 1963, in Bylakuppe, India, he began construction of the monastery of Thegchog Namdröl Shedrub Dargyeling. He had 300 rupees, a handful of monks, and indomitable courage, energy, and resolve. In the early days he lived in a tent, making his Tibetan tea with cheap cooking oil for lack of butter, a tin can his drinking cup. Truly a hands-on master, he endured many hardships in the construction of the monastery, working under the scorching heat of the southern Indian sun carrying stones, bricks, and sand, and mixing cement until his hands and feet bled and became infected. The lack of water and roads compounded the difficulty of this work. It was an enormous and difficult task, and his activity in accomplishing it was uncommon among masters of his status.
Year after year Penor Rinpoche worked tirelessly, overcoming numerous obstacles and hardships. At Namdröling monastery he established a number of important Palyul traditions and practices. Beginning in 1982 he made four trips to Tibet, accomplishing activities to propagate and preserve the Dharma, including renovation of monasteries destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, bestowing empowerments, transmissions, and teachings to thousands, and the ordination of many monks and nuns. He was able to obtain many rare and important sacred texts, and bring hundreds of copies of these back to India with him. In 1985, at the request of Gyatrul Rinpoche, he made the first of many trips to the United States, where he bestowed empowerments, teachings, and ordination.
In the early 1990s, Penor Rinpoche began training many monks, lobpons, and khenpos, stationing them in Himalayan communities throughout Asia to strengthen declining and endangered Buddhist practice and culture in those areas. Throughout the remainder of his life he continued this important work. He also traveled to centers n Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, bestowing teachings and empowerments and making connections with dharma students in those places. In the late 1990s he completed Orgyen Dongang Shedrub Osel Dargye Ling, the “Golden Temple” of Bylakuppe, as well as a local hospital to serve both the monastic and lay communities. He continued to travel, ever more widely, bestowing empowerments and teachings around the world, including India, Nepal, Tibet, other parts of Asia, and the West. In the United States, he established the Palyul Retreat Center in McDonough, New York, where he personally taught the annual traditional retreat course, Liberation in the Palm of the Hand, every year, from the first retreat in 1998 until 2008.
In his 70s, despite obstacles to his health beginning in 2004, Penor Rinpoche continued to travel widely, granting major empowerments and transmissions, teaching, consecrating temples, and caring for the thousands of young monks in his care. He insisted on continuing to lead the yearly retreats in the preliminary, tsalung/tummo, and Dzogchen practices in both India and the United States.
In January of 2009, showing further signs of serious illness, Penor Rinpoche visited Macau. Intending to then travel to Bodhgaya, India to attend the annual Nyingma Monlam Chenmo, his doctors implored him to rest instead, and his retinue made earnest requests that he allow himself to be admitted to the hospital, but he refused. “I have been attending every Monlam Chenmo of Ngagyur Nyingma without fail since its foundation,” he replied. “I have to attend it this year as well, by all means. Never mind if I die along the way.” He was unable to attend the prayers in person, but ordered that his ritual robe and mat be spread upon his throne each day, and he made profound prayers and supplications. His condition at this time was noticeably more fragile. But when asked, he responded that he was fine, that his it was just the confluence of accumulated karmic causes and conditions creating the circumstances for his apparent condition.
On the 24th of March, Penor Rinpoche’s condition worsened and he was brought to the Columbia Asia Hospital in Bangalore. On the 27th he returned to Namdröling Monastery. There, all the close tulkus, khenpos, lobpons, and other students sat with him. At the end, having completed the activities he undertook to benefit beings in his lifetime, he looked around at them, closed his eyes, took his last breath, and entered his thugdam, dissolving his mind into the sphere of ultimate reality.
During the time of the mahaparinirvana ceremony, numerous signs of accomplishment were witnessed, including the presence of a fragrant odor that pervaded the surrounding premises and colorful rainbow lights appearing around the temple. While he remained in thugdam, a great amount of ambrosia flowed from Penor Rinpoche’s body. These signs were witnessed by many people, and many were documented by video cameras.
Penor Rinpoche dedicated his life to the benefit of sentient beings and the propagation of the buddhadharma. In a number of places in the world where the buddhadharma was absent, he established it, and where declining and endangered he revived and strengthened it. He established centers of practice and meditation where the buddhadharma can be upheld and propagated, and he left behind qualified disciples able to uphold the living tradition.
Brief History of the Rinchen Terzod, Ngagyur Rigzod Editorial Committee (NNI), 2010