6 January 2016 Pharping, Nepal
His Holiness Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, one of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist Yogis and enlightened master-teachers of our age, died in Nepal on January 5, at the age of 102. He entered into final meditation on December 30 and for the next six days his body remained in the tukdam state (transitional condition of in-drawn equipose—a form of suspended animation).
My late wife and I held it as a very great honour to be personal initiates and students of His Holiness. He was a beloved teacher of thousands, including many of the most prominent lamas of Tibet, and was also revered by millions of additional persons as a great living saint, an enlightened being, a living buddha.
Rinpoche was born on 18 June 1913 in the eastern Tibetan kingdom of Kham and passed away at his home, a retreat-center ashram in Nepal. He is survived by his wife, his three daughters, and two granddaughters. His wife and daughters were extensively trained as yoginis and lamas by Rinpoche. His oldest and youngest daughters are married to reincarnate lamas (tulkus), and his unmarried middle daughter, Saraswati, is regarded as the manifestation, or rebirth, of one of Rinpoche’s own female teachers, the great Yogini Sera Khandro. Rinpoche’s widow, Sangyam Kamala, first met her future husband when she was 13 and journeyed to meet their mutual principal teacher, Dudjom Rinpoche. By the time she was 20 and Chatral was 49, the couple had fallen in love; at Chatral’s passing they had been married for over 53 years.
Rinpoche left home at fifteen, and traveled on foot extensively throughout Tibet in order to meet and receive teachings from over eighty different masters. After only two-to-three years of practice under his first primary teacher, Rinpoche was regarded as having attained full enlightenment.
During the remainder of his long life, he spent much time in long solitary meditation retreats in remote areas of the Himalayas, backpacking and camping in isolated areas where he stayed in a small tent and in various cave hermitages. Altogether, though not all at once, Rinpoche spent over fifty of his 102 years of life in solitary retreat, meditating in reclusion in various remote parts of the Himalayan cloud-forests.
At age twenty-one, Rinpoche was sought out by Tibet’s then-reigning regent who requested him to serve as spiritual guide to the interim national government. After declining these requests several times, Rinpoche reluctantly agreed, but soon thereafter withdrew to resume his wandering life of frequent extended solitude, which resulted in his acquiring the name Chatral, or Hermit.
Twenty years later, anticipating the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, Rinpoche migrated to Bhutan where he became the first contemporary Tibetan exile to establish a retreat training school in another country. He continued wandering extensively throughout the Himalayan region, establishing retreat centers and temples in Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and India.
In 1962, the year of his marriage at age 49, Chatral settled near a small pilgrimage village in Nepal at one of the retreat centers he had previously established for training yogis and future lamas. There, he begin supervising the traditional three-year-and-three-month yogi retreats basic to the training of lamas. Among his personal students and trainees were some of Buddhism’s most prominent and revered figures. He also gave extensive teachings to his wife and daughters who became highly respected lamas in their own right. In later years his wife Kamala and daughter Saraswati assisted Chatral in conducting the training retreats.
Chatral and Kamala, married partners for 52 years
Saraswati, Rinpoche’s middle daughter
Despite his advancing age, Chatral Rinpoche continued to follow his life-long practice of periodically spending months at a time on his own solitary retreats, backpacking into remote and hidden hanging valleys in the Himalayan cloud-forests where he camped and meditated, and performed advanced practices in silent reclusion. He continued this routine until shortly before his death at 102.
His Holiness in Birkenstocks departing for camping trip
His Holiness Chatral Rinpoche was also especially well known for his commitment to the causes of vegetarianism and animal rights. There is a widespread Buddhist practice of ransoming and releasing captive animals bound for slaughter, a practice Chatral promoted. However, few Tibetans, even lamas, monks, and nuns, are vegetarian. Chatral however believed that all sincere Buddhists should aspire to be vegetarians. Chatral was legendary in India for buying thousands of cattle, goats, and other animals from slaughter -houses every year in order to free them. In addition to cattle and goats, Rinpoche purchased many large boatloads of fish every year and released them back into the sea. This was another practice he upheld throughout his life.
Of vegetarianism, he said: “If you take meat, it goes against the basic precept vows one takes as a Buddhist to avoid harming other beings. Because when you take meat you have to take another being’s life. So I gave it up.” Despite his personal ethical/religious standards regarding a compassionate vegetarian lifestyle, Rinpoche recognized that not every Buddhist, even every one training to become a yogi or lama, has already attained this ideal. So, though he did not serve non-vegetarian meals at his retreat school, students did not have to be vegetarians to receive training. He regarded non-vegetarian retreatants as on the path toward eventually becoming fully vegetarian.
Throughout the first half of his life, Chatral had studied with many of the greatest lamas of the previous generation and of his own, and in turn was a highly important teacher of many great lamas of his own and younger generations. He practiced and taught primarily within the context of the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the five primary Buddhist lineages (sects) of Tibet, but he learned from teachers of every school and taught students of any or no affiliation without any discrimination, being utterly non-sectarian and universal in his outlook. In meeting people and in teaching students, Rinpoche had no concern for whether someone self-identified as religious or non-religious, Buddhist or non-Buddhist; he treated all with equal compassion and interest, kindness and respect.
In the same way, he had utterly no concern for whether anyone was rich or poor, powerful or powerless, nor for whatever racial, ethnic, national, linguistic, or other category, class, gender, sexual orientation, intellectual acuity, educational opportunity or achievement, etc. In meeting others, he was kindly and friendly; if they were sincerely interested in wishing to study with him he was willing to give them teachings (although he was extremely strict in the standards of sincerity and self-application and -dedication he required of students wishing to continue to receive higher training under his tutelage and guidance.
This universalistic approach and evenness of perception and treatment of others has always been for me one of the most important characteristics I hope to find in any spiritual or religious teacher. I have met and learned from some religious figures who did not hold such enlightened views, but I have never sought out opportunities to personally study and train with so-called teachers who were exclusivist or supremicist in their approach. My late wife and I had the great blessing of receiving initiations and teachings from His Holiness during a period when he was still closely training both new and long-time students. Rinpoche was a most delightful (and also formidable) grandfatherly Yogi and gently-strict retreat master, with a most fascinating, admirable, independent life and profound manner of teaching.
In recent years, His Holiness had ceased giving audiences and receiving visitors outside his immediate family, no matter how eminent in any way or how closely-connected as disciples his would-be visitors were. Yet everyone in the countryside where he resided felt they were among his close personal disciples as he had given many public and private teachings for decades to the people of the district, and throughout the Himalayan region, especially among the Vajrayana Buddhist populations of Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, and India. In recent years also, his wife, Sangyam Kamala Rinpoche, a wonderful teacher in her own right, has undertaken a number of teaching tours in the US and elsewhere around the world.
Chatral was the heart-disciple of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), who had been elected as the head of the Nyingma tradition. Dudjom Rinpoche designated Chatral as the regent and protector of the Nyingma lineage. Prior to the Tibetan refugee diaspora caused by the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet, the Nyingma community had not felt any need for a central organization or institutional office of leadership. Electing a head teacher of the lineage was a new development within the 1,200 year old tradition. With Dudjom’s passing, Chatral was unanimously nominated by the lamas of the lineage to succeed as the new head of the community, but he declined, refusing to accept any office or institutional responsibilities. Since that time the position has been held by a succession of five more teachers, and each time a new head teacher was needed, Chatral Rinpoche was unanimously nominated as the first choice for the office and was urgently requested to accept the position, but each time he refused. The most recent head of the Nyingma, His Holiness Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche (1926-2015), passed away on December 23, only a few days before Chatral’s own passing.
Throughout his long life, Chatral Rinpoche never wished to have anything to do with any official positions or institutional structures, preferring to remain a completely independent non-monastic yogi, wandering recluse, and autonomous self-reliant teacher. As designated regent and protector of the Nyingma lineage, however, and personally respected as the most knowledgeable and highly realized master of the tradition, he trained his teacher Dudjom Rinpoche’s rebirth (yangsi) and many of the other most important rinpoches within the lineage, as well as training numerous sincere students of whatever background. His wife, Sangyam Rinpoche, has said that the quality of his training was so high that all of his students who became lamas are regarded as rinpoches (“high lamas” — a title indicating personal spiritual attainment, not of an office held).
Chatral Rinpoche’s passing is a landmark event in Tibetan Buddhism and in the entire international, planetary sphere of world religions and spirituality. Of course, on the one hand, the passing of anyone is very sad for those of us who love and admire and depend on them.
In some ways this can be especially acute in the case of great teachers such as His Holiness and other great beings upon whom we depend for ongoing personal guidance. Somehow, no matter how advanced in age they are, we are so rarely fully prepared when it comes time for such beings to withdraw (at least for the time being) from life in a familiar human body on this Earthly plane we temporarily share. And yet, on the other hand, the time period immediately after their passing, extending particularly during the first 49 days, is an especially powerful, auspicious time during which it is additionally advantageous for us to engage in very sincere spiritual aspirations and practice, due to the powerful blessing-energy such beings release during this time. So that is something to be immensely grateful for, and happy about, and to benefit from. It is an especially good time to attune our own awareness with theirs. Their personal mind is united with and for the time being co-extensive with and deeply immersed in the universal field of original consciousness, cosmic Mind, or Buddha-nature. So to the extent we aspire to unite our own mind with theirs, we benefit to a great extent from the expansive blessing influence of this innermost intimacy of conscious attunement.
It is believed that after these first 49 days following their passing, most beings, whether already-liberated or not-yet-liberated, will have completed the initial post-death intermediate stage, and begun to enter into their new life on whatever plane—either taking re-birth on the human Earthly plane, or remaining in or entering into some other subtle or gross state and plane of existence. Fully liberated, enlightened beings such as Chatral Rinpoche have the option, it is believed, of remaining in the subtle spiritual realms where no further rebirth is required, or of returning to this mundane realm to further help liberate the many other beings born and reborn here. It is believed that any future rebirth on the part of such liberated beings as Rinpoche is freely intentional and fully conscious on their part and in response to the needs of others, not as a compulsory rebirth due to their own individual karma. They have fulfilled the purpose of their past human existence, having gained liberation before dying, and are no longer compelled by individual ego-desire or karmic debt. Since even prior to death they have already attained oneness with universal compassion and the natural evolutionary impulse of the cosmic will, after death also they are always continuously benefiting all beings whether they take further Earthly rebirth again or not.
In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, practitioners take vows (bodhisattva vows) to continue always to help other beings attain liberation, even if providing this help involves continuing to take countless future re-births. Especially in the Tibetan tradition, it is assumed that all great beings, even after having attained full liberation and enlightenment during a given lifetime on Earth, will continue to take re-birth to help other beings on the Earthly plane. Some beings, liberated or not-yet-liberated, take more than 49 days between death and re-birth, some take less; but it is understood that even if their rebirth does not occur within or immediately after 49 days, nonetheless by that point the specifics of their future rebirth or other situation will have “gelled” to the point that they are no longer absorbed in the initial post-death transitional formless state.
Some not-yet-liberated beings, it is believed, will enter a realm after their Earthly death in which the overall balance of their good and bad karma provides them with an enjoyable heavenly-like existence for some time until their still-unresolved Earthly karma and unfulfilled desire draws them back into life in a human or other Earthly womb. Others will find that the overall balance of their karma results in a purgatorial-like existence for some time until their still-unresolved Earthly karma and unfulfilled desire draws them back to begin yet another Earthly life beginning in a human or other Earthly womb. Many great rinpoches and other bodhisattvas take rebirth only after one-and-a-half, or two-and-a-half years following their previous withdrawal (passing away) from embodied life on this plane.
His Holiness was one of the foremost present-day masters within Tibetan Buddhism. Rinpoche studied with some of the most revered Tibetan masters of the twentieth century, including Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (1893-1959), the great female Yogi Sera Khando (1892-1940), Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-87), and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991). In turn, the present rebirth (yangsi) of each of these teachers have been among Chatral Rinpoche’s closest students. Chatral’s own daughter Saraswati (b.1975) is recognized as the yangsi of Sera Khandro and has been extensively trained by her father as a rinpoche in her own right. Jamyang Khyentse’s present rebirth, Dzongsar Norbu (b1961) has been a close student, as has Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi (b1993). Dudjom Yangsi (b1990), the rebirth of Chatral’s main teacher, had been very closely trained throughout his young life by Chatral as his own heart-disciple, even having been taught to read and write at an early age by Chatral Rinpoche. More recently, from age 18 to 21, Dudjom Yangsi completed the traditional basic three-year-three-month retreat for lamas under Chatral Rinpoche’s guidance in 2008-2012.
Some of Chatral Rinpoche’s teachings are collected in the book Compassionate Action, first published in 2005.
A translation of his biography can be found online, via Rangjung Yeshe Publications.