Interview with Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche
by Vera Ho (2018)
My paternal grandfather was born in southern Tibet, in a place called Shak. His father and grandfather were both merchants. My father’s side of the family is rumored to be descended from Milarepa, but I don’t believe that at all because there is absolutely no evidence. What I do know is that many generations on my father’s side were successful businessmen, although one son would sometimes be ordained as a monk following family custom.
My paternal grandmother was from Nying-ri Labrang. She was a cousin of Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, whose mother, Chimey Dolkar, and my great-grandmother, Chimey Lhamo, were siblings from the Pal-ling family of Shigatse. This is all I know of my father’s family.
My mother was born in Nepal in a place called Tso-thang, but her family also comes from Tibet. They trace their origins to a yogi called Khyungpo Naljor (not the one who founded the Shangpa Kagyu lineage), who was sent to Nepal by the Tibetan Government to establish peace with the Gorkhas during the Tibet-Gorkha wars. On his way back to Tibet, Khyungpo Naljor married a girl from Tsothang and settled there. My mother comes from that family. I was born in Nepal on August 18, 1983 near Swayambhunath, where we lived at that time. I have two sisters—one older and one younger.
Because my father was seriously ill for a long time, my mother had full responsibility for earning our family’s income. I remember her always traveling—to Lhasa in the summer and to Bodhgaya in the winter—to set up street stalls. So, when I was just 4 years old, an age when I didn’t even know how to tie my shoelaces, my parents had to send me to boarding school. But I have fond memories of that school. Being the youngest child there, the school principal and his wife took good care of me.
When I was around 6, my parents sent me to live with my maternal uncle in Boudha, which upset me very much because I really wanted to stay with my parents. I lived with my uncle for about 2 years, helping with the household chores and attending a nearby school run by Thrangu Rinpoche. I had to get up at 5 in the morning to unleash the dogs, water the flowers, and help my aunt and cousins. I remember often running to a nearby shop to buy things for them. In the evening I had to do my homework with my cousins, which took nearly 2 hours.
Later, my parents built and moved into a small house close to my maternal uncle’s place, and I was finally able to return to live with my parents. I continued attending the same school for over a year.
Parinirvana of Lama Sonam Zangpo and being recognized as his reincarnation
Around that time, when I was about 8 years old, Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche recognized me as the reincarnation of Lama Sonam Zangpo, which was a total surprise to me and my parents. People tell stories about it, but they’re like fairy tales. Neither my simple family nor I remember anything special about me or the affair, or any auspicious signs, like rainbows, flowers, and the rest. Honestly, I don’t feel I’m Lama Sonam Zangpo or his reincarnation. Anyway, that rebirth business is all in the past, and there isn’t much point in identifying with the past.
But since you asked about it, I can only tell you what I know. Lama Sonam Zangpo passed away on May 7, 1982 (the Water Dog Year), not in 1983 or 1984 as some people say. In fact, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche’s A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, to which those people are referring, doesn’t give any year or date in the original Tibetan but simply says that Lama Sonam Zangpo passed away at the age of 90. So the translator evidently miscalculated the date. What we know for sure is that Thuksey Rinpoche (who passed away in March 1983), as well as Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, Je Nyizer Tulku, and some other lamas presided over the cremation of Lama Sonam Zangpo in May 1982.
I don’t know the details about being recognized as Lama Sonam Zangpo. What I’ve heard is that I first met Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche at the age of 2 or 3, when my family went to seek his blessings and guidance for my father’s recovery when he was very ill. My paternal uncle, who is also a reincarnated lama, arranged the meeting. My father told me that Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche bestowed the Drakpo-Takhyung-Barwa empowerment on our family and told my father to practice it daily, which he still does, with tsok. That was my first empowerment from Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Several years later, I think in 1990, my paternal uncle went to Bodhgaya to receive blessings from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who told him to come and see him at Shechen Monastery in Nepal after the Bodhgaya trip. As my uncle later told me, there, behind closed doors, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche told him, Kushu Tsechu, Chakzoe Ngodup, and a few other lamas that he had recognized me as the reincarnation of Lama Sonam Zangpo and would perform a ceremony at Shechen Monastery. He entrusted Kushu Tsechu with the responsibility for my enthronement in Bhutan later on.
And so, in 1991, on the anniversary of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s parinirvana, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche presided over a ceremony at Shechen Monastery in Nepal, cut my hair, and bestowed a long-life empowerment on me. He also wrote letters of recognition and prayers. I still remember clearly that Kyabje Dungsey Thinley Norbu came for the ceremony with an entourage of Westerners, and that I drank suja (butter tea) and ate dresil (Tibetan sweet rice) with them in an office-like room at Shechen after the ceremony.
The second ceremony was held in Hongtso, Bhutan, not far from Thimphu. Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had passed away by then. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche presided over the ceremony. Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche and Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche were present too. That’s all I know about the recognition.
Darjeeling monastery and ill-health
I heard later that, after the enthronement ceremony in Bhutan, there was a heated discussion about where to send me. Some Bhutanese students wanted me to join Bhutan’s Central Monk Body, but others were opposed. In the end, they decided to send me to a monastery in Darjeeling. Somehow I got to the monastery in ever-foggy Darjeeling, where I was told to wait for an attendant and a teacher, who would soon come from Bhutan. While other young tulkus memorized prayers and had classes with their personal teachers, I eagerly waited for my teacher to show up. Two years passed, but no one came.
Then a gomchen (lay priest, lit. “great meditator”) named Samten Yeshe, who was a student of Lama Sonam Zangpo, arrived. At last, I thought, he’s the one I’ve been waiting for. But then I learned he had just come to see me and hadn’t been sent as my teacher. However, he was very kind. Seeing my predicament and without any prearrangement, he decided there and then to stay with me, suddenly becoming both my teacher and attendant. I remember clearly the first thing he did was to put all my clothes in the sunlight and pick out the lice. He later told me that it took him 2 full days to remove all the lice!
I stayed in Darjeeling 3 or 4 years, during which I was fortunate to receive the oral transmission of the whole collection of essential instructions on Mahamudra and Mahasandhi called Tsipri-parma from Sengdak Rinpoche, as well as many Drukpa Kagyu empowerments from Adeu Rinpoche from Tibet.
Nevertheless, from the time of my enthronement through those years in Darjeeling I started to feel unwell, with a frequent and sometimes unbearable pain on the left side of my abdomen. We didn’t know the cause, so Samten Yeshe decided I should go to Nepal or somewhere else for a proper medical checkup. Although joining a monastery is a lifetime commitment and you aren’t supposed to leave whenever you feel like it, my deteriorating health left me no choice. With permission to leave for just 15 days, we actually left the monastery for good.
As we drove along those winding roads away from the monastery in 1995, I remember looking back and feeling happy. I knew we wouldn’t return, though I did go back once in 1998 to make an offering (mangja) to the monastery as an apology. Samten Yeshe first took me to Bhutan because medicine and treatment were free there. The doctors found a problem with my left kidney and recommended surgery. But Samten Yeshe took me back to Nepal to seek my parents’ advice. I had the surgery in 1996, after which I stayed at my home in Nepal for more than 2 years.
A wonderful teacher
While at home I met a teacher who was a Gelugpa monk and Tibetan poet from Amdo. His name was Yeshe Gyatso. He taught me Tibetan grammar and poetry, as well as Buddhist logic. During that time, Trulshik Rinpoche recognized him as the reincarnation of a Nyingma tulku, so now he mainly does Nyingma practices. He presently lives in Seattle.
Yeshe Gyatso is still special to me because—more than his verbal teachings—I learned so much just from his behavior. I would reach his place 15 minutes before my 7 am class and would peep through a small gap and see him always meditating in his room. At 7 am sharp, I would knock on his door and enter discreetly. To this day, these are some of the most memorable moments in my life.
Samten Yeshe told me that Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche expected me to go to Dzongsar Institute in India for further Buddhist studies. I don’t know if that was true or not, but I decided to go. I studied at Dzongsar Institute from 1999 to 2004. I appreciated the rigorous philosophy, enjoyed the logic, and was active in debate, at least for the first 2 years.
But in 2001, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche sent me to Paro, Bhutan, to do a ngöndro retreat, so I stayed in Paro for about 7 months. I don’t know why, but when I returned to Dzongsar Institute after the retreat, I lost my enthusiasm for my studies, couldn’t concentrate, and particularly disliked logic and debate. I saw this as my own problem and due to a lack of merit because the Dzongsar Institute teachers were really great, the atmosphere was excellent, and of course it’s very good to sharpen one’s intellect through logic and debate.
So, blaming myself, for the next 3 years I pushed myself to keep going. But the situation stayed the same, and I ended up withdrawing more and more from my classmates and couldn’t keep up with them. By 2004 I really felt I was wasting my time and couldn’t keep going on like this, and wanted to drop out. So I asked Rinpoche if I could discontinue my studies at Dzongsar Institute. Rinpoche simply said “okay.”
Interestingly, it was only after dropping out of Dzongsar Institute that I was able to concentrate properly on my studies. I started to study on my own and, whenever time permitted, I went to receive teachings from the Dzongsar Institute khenpos in their rooms. On top of their formal daily classes, these khenpos were always willing to give extra, informal philosophy lessons in their rooms at a student’s request.
Following Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
After dropping out of Dzongsar Institute I also started to listen to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s recorded teachings. I found them simple yet very profound, and I honestly learned more from listening to these teachings—not only about the dharma but also about life in general—than from all my other studies. You’ve all learned a lot from Rinpoche so there’s no need to go into detail here, and in any case it’s difficult to accurately put what one has learned into words. But due to my habits, I still struggle to practice even one percent of what I’ve learned from Rinpoche.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is my main teacher, and I’ve received many teachings and empowerments from him. Although I’ve also received some oral transmissions and empowerments from other teachers, I haven’t really spent much time with them.
One winter, while at Dzongsar Institute, I received an instruction from Khyentse Rinpoche not to leave for the usual winter holiday but to stay at the institute and learn English from Noa Jones, which I did for some months. I later also studied English grammar, poetry, and literature with Janine Schulz, after which Rinpoche sent me to Sydney and London to study English further.
But it had long been my dream to study Sanskrit, though without any specific purpose or goal. So I then went to Varanasi for 3 years and worked really hard to immerse myself totally in this beautiful ancient language. Varanasi is a very special place for learning Sanskrit, and I really enjoyed my time there. I met many good teachers and friends, who are now working really hard to preserve this classical language. My most valuable Sanskrit lessons in Varanasi were from a teacher who every morning gave free classes in his garage.
Recently I also made an attempt to study Chinese in Taiwan but I haven’t yet had time to familiarize myself with it properly.
I presently manage Chökyi Gyatso Institute for Buddhist studies in Dewathang, in the southeast of Bhutan. I also recently joined the board of Khyentse Foundation, and I feel privileged to be a part of that wonderful team.
I am not a good enough example myself to be able to offer advice to others. I think many of us struggle to do our practice. Of course, there are many circumstances that can get in the way of our daily practice commitments, but oftentimes we’re just lazy. And even if we do practice, we often feel we’re not doing it properly, so then we feel guilty.
A little guilt might be helpful and it’s also good to renew our commitments, but it’s especially important to gently push ourselves a bit, too. That’s just part of practice. We can’t expect perfection from the very start, and it’s way too harsh to get stuck in our guilt or regret, as often happens. If we feel dejected about our practice all the time, we’ll only start to dislike it. I think a useful way to push ourselves gently to practice is to sometimes reflect on this precious human life and the truth of death and impermanence. That itself is also practice. Neither excessive expectation nor excessive guilt is healthy. That’s all I can say.
(Interview conducted by Vera Ho in August 2018. Edited and approved by Drubgyud Tenzin Rinpoche in September 2023.)