B. Alan Wallace
A Brief Autobiography
I was born in Kham in eastern Tibet, in a place called Chumbo. The name of my monastery is Gochen Monastery in the area known as Riwoche. The way that it came to be that this is my monastery is because before, at about the time of the great, omniscient Jigmed Lingpa’s life, before the life of the Fifth Dalai Lama, to put it in context, that was the time of my first incarnation. He was known as Gochen Tulku, and his tertön name was Tertön Drimed Lingpa. He was born in central Tibet, behind what is the present-day Samye Monastery, in an area called Sungkar. The area is also famous for the stupa that exists there. Thus, Drimed Lingpa became known as Sungkar Tertön, or Karma Drodön Tarchin.
Although those times were very turbulent, Trimey Lingpa revealed some five to six volumes of revelations. Many of these occurred in a place called Dra Yang Zong, which is a place where there is a famous image of Guru Padmasambhava. Most of his treasures were revealed in the later part of his life. He was also one of the four great vidyadharas of that time, all of whom were disciples of Tugchok Dorje. Of these four, one was Jigmed Lingpa, another was Drimed Lingpa, the tertön of whom I am speaking, and the other two were Kunzang Dechen Gyalpo, and Kangpo Trati Ngagchung. These four vidyadharas were very well known at that time.
There was a prophecy that the next incarnation after Drimed Lingpa would be reborn in Kham, and it came to be that he was, indeed, reborn in Kham, in eastern Tibet. His name was Gyalwa Gyatso. Gyalwa Gyatso didn’t necessarily have any particular seat, but he was well known for the great accomplishment center that he established, which later became the Gochen Monastery. He was not known for revealing termas, but because he was the Dharma keeper of his predecessor, Drimed Lingpa, who was a “Lingpa,” or treasure revealer, the five or six volumes of revelations of Drimed Lingpa came into his hands.
The accomplishment center that he built would hold about sixty practitioners. After that, they built the monastery, which became known as Gochen Monastery. I am the sixth incarnation in this line from Tertön Drimed Lingpa to Gyalwa Gyatso until now. I was discovered, first of all, by Kongtrul Tsering Wangpo. Yet, there were some who didn’t necessarily accept this discovery—therefore, it was confirmed by the great Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö. Thus, it became official. Kongtrul Tsering Wangpo had mentioned about different signs and indications, and these are how the incarnation was confirmed.
The time my incarnation was confirmed was also the time when the Communist Chinese were beginning to come into Tibet. The monastery was destroyed by robbers, so the enthronement was not actually able to take place in the monastery. The Chinese had already informed the Buddhists that they were not allowed to practice Dharma, so people had to practice Dharma in secrecy and privately. If they were caught practicing Dharma, they would be forced to feel guilty and would be sentenced in different ways. There would be “guilt ceremonies,” which were public events intended to bring great shame to the defendant.
Because I could not be enthroned in my monastery, those ceremonies were conducted in secrecy, and I received my initial empowerments and transmissions from my first lama, who was Kathog Lama Nyima’i Özer, who is the lama who actually enthroned me. These transmissions took place in Gadra Retreat. At that time I also received from Tsasum Terdak Lingpa some of the treasures and many other terma revelations, empowerments, transmissions, and almost everything that had to do with Jigmed Lingpa.
Then things started getting more and more difficult with the Chinese. Together with other lamas and monks, I planned to go far away to Pemakö, which is close to the Indian border. This place was very far away for us, because we would have to walk there. We got about as far as Powo, and the Chinese completely surrounded us, preventing our escape. We were forced to return to our own country, where we settled in a place called Namgyal Retreat. I went home to see my parents, and then for about seven or eight years I had to practice in secrecy the sadhanas and other things that I had learned at the time I received the empowerments and transmissions. Mostly, I just did personal practice and did not have the chance to train or do any kind of monastic types of activities.
We were all like thieves in a sense, because we would have to sneak around and do our Dharma practice at night. In the daytime we would have to act like we never did any Dharma practice at all. We could never use any kind of musical instruments like bells, drums, or anything like that. Everything had to be silent and secret, like thieves sneaking around in the night. However, we went on to have a Vajrasattva great accomplishment ceremony in secrecy, as well as a Phurba drubchen ceremony. Unfortunately, because we had already been warned not to do any kind of Dharma activity at all, the Chinese came to know about it and rounded up about sixty lamas and put them all in jail.
I was imprisoned along with these sixty lamas. At first, everyone was more or less equal, thrown into prison and treated very poorly. Then the Chinese began to single out the “main culprits” behind those specific spiritual ceremonies, and the main culprits were always the lamas, the khenpos, the tulkus, and those who had higher spiritual qualifications. They were treated the worst. Of course, I was one of those, and was said by the Chinese to be the main one.
For five years all of us were treated very poorly in prison. After five years, Mao Tse Tung died, and things began to slowly change. Even with the bad treatment, I felt that this time in prison was very meaningful and, in a way, that the Chinese had been kind to me. While I was in prison I came to meet my root guru, Tulku Orgyen Chemchok. Because it was so difficult in prison, because we felt such danger and because we felt such a threat to our lives in general, the only hope or expectation that anyone could really have any more was placed in the Jewels of Refuge. We didn’t know if we would even be alive the next day. Consequently, it came to be that not our parents, not anyone or anything but the Three Jewels of Refuge were the ones that we lived for, and we prayed to them unceasingly.
You can imagine how the contemplation on impermanence would deepen in such a real-life situation, where the predominant state of mind was always not knowing whether we would be alive the next day and having no other thought but the Dharma and wanting to practice to prepare for our death. Dharma was the only thing that mattered. At the same time, I had the fortune to meet my great and virtuous teacher, Tulku Orgyen Chemchok, as well as Karma Zongpo, Khenpo Tseden, and other teachers with whom I studied and from whom I received commentaries in secret. Though secret, these transmissions were taking place right there in the jail, and we would actually practice privately and quietly. It was really quite an amazing opportunity.
Tulku Orgyen Chemchok was a heart disciple of the well-known Khenpo Ngagchung, and also of H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche. It was my great fortune to be able to study with him during that time. While we were in jail we couldn’t have any books, or any other kind of reading material, or anything else that even resembled the Dharma. Every week the Chinese would search us thoroughly and confiscate anything they might find that was related in any way to Dharma. However, the Dharma is something that you put into your mind, so these searches really didn’t pose a problem. Since the mind is invisible, our Dharma practice was a self contained secret. They couldn’t see when we were meditating because that isn’t something that is necessarily apparent.
First of all, in jail, Tulku Orgyen Chemchok led me, and others, through the stages of developing renunciation, contemplating the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind, the Seven Ways of Training the Mind, and so forth, to develop renunciation and to ripen the mind for the actual body of the practice, the essence of which is the Guru Yoga. Following that, he led us into the two stages of dzogchen practice: trekchöd (cutting through) and tögal (crossing over). In this way, we actually received in sequential stages all of these teachings and transmissions, and put them to practice just in the mind, without any kind of external sign that it was even occurring.
I felt that this was really very appropriate because Vajrayana is called Secret Mantra practice, and the term “secret” means that the practice is not meant to be widespread, open, or obvious. It’s meant to be secret and private, and that’s exactly what we were doing with it. We received it privately, held it in our minds privately, and practiced it in private. That way no one knew at all what was going on. Only we knew.
This situation actually went on like this for nine years, and I can honestly say that there was never a time that I felt any mental suffering. Our food and clothing were not good, but, in terms of the mental experience, for nine years there was no suffering at all. In fact, it seemed that it wasn’t even a year that passed by. There was never a time that I thought to myself, “I can’t wait to get out of here.” On the contrary, I wanted the experience to continue forever. This is because we were with the lama, receiving constant teachings, instructions, and pointing out advice. Practice was being internalized, developing and ripening into realization. This kind of situation of being so close with the teacher in this way is rare to come by. Even though everyone else was suffering all around outside, our situation, which might have seemed to be an adverse circumstance, a situation of tremendous suffering, was actually an experience of absolute bliss and ultimate happiness.
In this way, I have to say that Tulku Orgyen Chemchok was very kind to me and is my sublime spiritual root guru. Because of what he gave us at that time, I felt that then is when my true Dharma practice began.
Eventually, we were released from prison and told that we had some freedom in Tibet to practice. This meant that practice could be externally apparent to a certain degree, depending on how it was done. Our guru, Tulku Orgyen Chemchok, told me and some other Dharma friends that we were not to go see our parents, not to go to the monastery, and not get involved in ordinary things. Rather, we were to continue on in retreat at the great power spots. He specifically named the ones that we should go to, which were all in central Tibet, outside of Lhasa. These included Samye Monastery, Sheldrag, the Crystal Cave of Guru Padmasambhava, Dra Yang Zong, and so forth.
Dra Yang Zong is the birthplace of Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, and the place where my predecessor practiced and revealed termas. In this place, according to the word of Tulku Orgyen Chemchok, we were asked to build some images for the first time since the Communist Chinese destroyed our land and all of our supports for the Three Jewels. We were able to erect, once again, the image of Guru Padmasambhava and his principal disciples, including Yeshe Tsogyal. We spent a year or more in retreat there, as well as time building these holy images and placing them in these sacred power spots.
Then Tulku Orgyen Chemchok again said that I must go and meet the great Dudjom Rinpoche who was a refugee in exile, and also Chatral Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Furthermore, in the span of a single month and in three different letters, he told me to go immediately, which was in the dead of winter, the twelfth month, January. This was during the time that I was building the Guru Rinpoche image in the central cathedral in Lhasa. It seemed very difficult and not so realistic to cross the mountain pass in the dead of winter, and especially, as we had no passports, we would have to cross at a place where there were no border police. However, because he said to do it, we did it, and somehow we made it to Bhutan.
It must have been my karma, because there I met with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche first. I began immediately receiving many empowerments, transmissions, and commentaries from him. I had a letter that I was supposed to deliver to Dudjom Rinpoche, who was in Nepal at the time, but there was a war going on and it was difficult to cross from Bhutan into India and Nepal. I sent the letter to Dudjom Rinpoche with someone else with word that I couldn’t get there and would come see him later. Word came back from Dudjom Rinpoche that I should stay in the presence of Khyentse Rinpoche and receive the transmissions on the Three Roots that he was giving, so I did.
I went on to spend fourteen years with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I was with him constantly thereafter, doing nothing but receiving every empowerment that he gave, every transmission that he gave, every commentary that gave. For fourteen years it was just this unceasing, ongoing turning of the Dharma wheel. Later, I had the opportunity to meet Dudjom Rinpoche in Nepal with Khyentse Rinpoche.
Most of the important empowerments, transmissions, and commentaries I received, I received from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, yet I maintained constantly in my heart the pointing out instructions I received from Tulku Orgyen Chemchok in jail. Combining that innermost, quintessential advice with Khyentse Rinpoche’s strong and powerful lineage blessings and teachings, then I came to know that these were my two most precious root gurus.
Then I was asked by Khyentse Rinpoche to be the vajra acharya and abbot of Shechen Monastery, which he established in exile in Nepal. I am still acting as vajra acharya at the monastery, which is now my main seat. Even though Khyentse Rinpoche is no longer with us, I am continuing to serve in the capacity that he asked I serve.
This is just a brief story of my life up to the present time, at which time I am still in a position of service to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and his enlightened activities. At the same time, I very much hold Dudjom Rinpoche as a root teacher, and have also taken the time to receive the empowerments, transmissions, and commentaries in his lineage, which is also the lineage of my root guru, Orgyen Chemchok, as I explained. Also, because I was instructed by Orgyen Chemchok to carry on our tradition when I went to these foreign countries as a refugee, I’m responsible for establishing something in terms of that, while at the same time continuing to serve Khyentse Rinpoche as I promised.
So, in the last few years I have been able to establish two different retreat centers, both in the place called Parping, which is the Vajrakilaya power spot just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal. One of them is a drubdra, which is in the tradition of Tsasum Terdak Lingpa, and this is for lamas or male practitioners who are in meditation there. The other one, which is very close to my heart, is for nuns of the Nyingma tradition who have recently come from Tibet.
Of course, there are many practitioners pouring out of Tibet, looking for places to go in India, Nepal, and so forth. It’s very difficult for them, but in particular it’s difficult for the nuns to find a place to go and be taken care of so that they can practice. Because I myself also experienced these difficulties, I have a stron interest in helping people who are in the most difficult situations, who are the underdogs. Many times, in fact, it is the nuns who are. Therefore, I built a retreat place for the nuns right under Guru Rinpoche’s cave, and just now there are a number of nuns in retreat there, and they are just now entering their second year. They’re practicing the Nyingthig tradition in the lineage of the great Khenpo Ngagchung and Tulku Orgyen Chemchok. That’s all going on very well.
At the same time, I have a little bit of remorse because I was never able to go back and help out my family or rebuild the monastery in Tibet. Because my guru told me not to even go see my parents when I came out of jail and to go do this and that and instructed me in various Dharma activity that I’ve been trying to do all these years, when I finally went back to visit Tibet, my mother had already died, the family was split apart, and the monastery was non-existent. It was very, very difficult for me. But I still do hope to be of some benefit in helping reestablish things back home. Of course, all the people back there have very strong hopes for that as well. Sometimes it’s hard to be skillful enough to accomplish all of the activities one aspires to, but the most important thing is that I have felt compelled to definitely accomplish the direct commands given to me by my teachers.
Another important responsibility that I have, due to my position at Khyentse Rinpoche’s monastery, is the great Nyingma prayer festival held each winter in Bodhgaya, India. This is a time when many Nyingma tulkus, khenpos, lamas, and so forth come together for a number of days to pray and do many ceremonies. We’ve all taken the vow to continue this practice as an annual event indefinitely, for as long as it can continue.
This event brings together all of the important lineage holders who are responsible for propagating the doctrine of the Nyingma, which is the doctrine of the kama and terma lineages, throughout the world. I find myself directing my attention and my interest to any kind of Dharma activity that propagates the Nyingma doctrine, and this interest includes going back into Tibet to restore the doctrine and propagate it once again in holy places where Longchenpa and Jigmed Lingpa lived and blessed the land. Therefore, I have a wish and a prayer that, however much more time remains of my life, it may be dedicated solely to serving the propagation of the Nyingma doctrine in the two lineages of kama and terma for the purpose of benefitting all sentient beings.
This brief autobiography was spoken by Gochen Tulku Sang Ngag (translated by Richard Barron) and recorded by Mirror of Wisdom Video in Berkeley, California, in 1997.
For more biographical information on Tulku Sang Ngag, see here