Khenpo Jigme Puntsok

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Khenpo Jigme Puntsok b.1933 - d.2004

Name Variants: Khenpo Jikpun; Ngawang Lodro Tsungne; Tubten Lekshe Zangpo

Peer reviewed

Khenpo Jigme Puntsok (mkhan po 'jigs med phun tshogs) was born in February 1933 during the first month of the water-bird (chu bya) year according to the Tibetan sexagenary cycle. He was the fifth child of a family of herders living in Zime Chole in Dokhok (rdo khog rdzi med chos lhas) in the Golok region (mgo log), which is now part of Qinghai Province, China. According to Khenpo Sodarjey (mkhan po bsod dar rgyas, b.1962), his father was Chakhung Pete (lcag khung pad te) from the local Chakhung clan. Various sources have his mother's name as Bumo Yumtso (bu mo g.yu mtsho) or simply Yumtso (g.yu mtsho), and Yutok (g.yu thog); she was from Nubza (gnubs bza').

In 1938 when he was five years old, Terton Wangchuk (gter ston dbang phyug) and Mura Tulku Pema Norbu (nub gzur sprul sku padma nor bu, 1918-1958) recognized him as a reincarnation of  Lerab Lingpa (las rab gling pa, 1856-1926). Known also as Nyala Sogyel (nyag bla bsod rgyal) and Terton Sogyel (gter ston bsod rgyal), Lerab Lingpa was an eclectic and highly influential tantric visionary from the eastern Tibetan area of Nyarong (nyag rong). He was a prominent charismatic figure who engaged in a series of scriptural revelations that became instrumental in several Nyingma circles, both monastic and nonmonastic. The best known of his revealed practices is the Removal of Inauspiciousness or Tendrel Nyisel (rten 'brel nyes sel). The reputation of Terton Sogyal's ritual efficacy reached the highest ranks of the Tibetan hierarchs in Lhasa and inspired the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933) to request his help in suppressing the Chinese forces that threatened the Tibetan border in the early days of the twentieth century. A second reincarnation of Terton Lerab Lingpa was identified by Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros, 1893-1959) from Dzongsar (rdzong gsar) in the early 1950s in the person of Sogyal Rinpoche (bsod rgyal rin po che, b. 1947), a Tibetan Buddhist master of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism from Trehor in Kham.

Soon after his recognition, the young Jigme Puntsok entered Nubzur Monastery (gnubs zur dgon pa) in Serta (gser rta), a branch of Pelyul Monastery in Derge (sde dge dpal yul dgon). He started his monastic career as a novice monk and received formal education in reading, chanting, and memorizing scriptures. According to his biographies, while still in his early teens Jigme Puntsok's visionary skills began to ripen, allowing him to retrieve several treasures including chests and statues. In 1947, when he was fourteen years old, he went to study with Khenpo Sonam Rinchen from Drakdzong (brag rdzong mkhan po bsod nams rin chen), under whom he took monastic ordination and received the monastic name of Tubten Lekshe Zangpo (thub bstan legs bshad bzang po). The following year, when he was approximately fifteen years old, he became increasingly interested in Dzogchen.

In 1950, when he was approximately eighteen years old, Jigme Puntsok went to receive further training under Tubten Chompel (thub bstan chos 'phel, 1886-1956), also known as Tubga Rinpoche (thub dga' rin po che), at Changma Gar (lcang ma sgar) in Dzato (rdza stod) near Jekundo (skye dgu mdo) in today's Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. There he received extensive instructions and transmissions including ripening tantric empowerments (smin byed kyi dbang), liberating instructions (grol byed kyi khrid), supportive teachings (rgyab brten gyi bshad pa), pith instructions (man ngag), and auxiliary instructions on Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po'i lam gyi cha lag), especially “leap-over” (thod rgal) and “break-through” (khregs chod), and the intermediate state (bar do). Other practices in which he received instruction included Namkha Jigme (nam mkha 'jigs med, 1597-1650)'s Quintessential Teacher (bla ma yang tig), and the sādhana of the peaceful and wrathful deities (zhi khro).

He received teachings and instructions from several influential teachers including Dzogchen Khenpo Yonten Gonpo (rdzogs chen mkhan po yon tan mgon po, 1916-1984), who taught him Longchen Rabjam's (klong chen rabs 'byams, 1308-1364) Four-part Seminal Heart (snying thig ya bzhi) and the Kālacakra empowerment. Khenpo Gyatso (mkhan po mdo sngags chos kyi rgya mtsho, 1903-1957) taught him Madhyamaka philosophy. Khenpo Orgyen Gonpo (mkhan po o rgyan mgon po, d.u.) introduced him to the Dultika (’dul ti ka) commentary to the Vinaya code of monastic discipline, and Lhatrul Rinpoche (lha sprul rin po che) taught him the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures, logic (tshad ma), and astrology (skar rtsis). Other influential teachers included the Third Penor, Lekshe Chokyi Drayang (pad nor 03 legs bshad chos kyi sgra dbyangs, 1932-2009), Lama Karcho (bla ma dkar chos, d.u.), Khen Dawo (mkhan zla 'od, d.u.), and Gendun Dargye (dge 'dun dar rgyas, d.u.).

When he turned twenty-four, in 1957, Jigme Puntsok was invited to become the new abbot or “khenpo” (mkhan po) of Nubzur Monastery. While there, he experienced several visions, revealed treasures, and opened numerous sacred sites associated with those treasures. In 1959, when he just turned twenty-nine, he established his mountain hermitage (ri khrod) at Sengge Yanzong (seng ge yang rdzong) in Amdo and began offering many teachings on both sutric and tantric materials.

However, at this time, the assimilation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China heavily affected the lives of Tibetans, including that of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok. The social, political, and economic hardships that Tibetans faced in the following decades changed the historical course of Tibet. In all Tibetan areas, monasteries and temples were demolished and looted, holy sites desecrated, and monastics verbally and physically abused. They were accused of being remnants of old feudal ideologies and thus a hindrance to the healthy growth of a new socialist society. To avoid being affected by the political upheavals, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok left the monastery and withdrew from public life. Accompanied by a small group of faithful monks, he found refuge in a secluded area in the mountains around Serta. There, apparently untouched by the recurrent waves of violence and destruction, the small group managed to secretly continue their practice of Dzogchen meditation while receiving teachings from Khenpo Jigme Puntsok. Despite the difficulties of the time, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's fame grew exponentially, and by the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 he was attracting increasing numbers of devotees who sought his teachings and advice.

Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's fame grew still further with his visionary activities. These culminated in the revelation of several treasures in both scriptural and material form, thereby adding additional authority to his already stellar reputation. Treasure items in the form of rock chests, yellow scrolls, and other sacred items together with scriptural teachings of visionary origin situated Khenpo Jigme Puntsok firmly within the visionary movement traditionally attributed to Padmasambhava, the eighth-century Indian mystic figure responsible for the introduction of Tantric Buddhism in Tibet. Pamphlets, booklets, photos, posters, DVDs, Video Discs, autobiographical materials, and audio recordings of his teachings and pins, pendants, and talismans of every kind bearing his image circulated across the Tibetan plateau, ending up on the stands around the Barkhor (bar 'khor), the circular street surrounding the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, among other places.

In the early 1980s, in the mountain retreat that Khenpo Jigme Puntsok developed in the mountains south of Serta named Larung Gar (bla rung sgar), he dedicated most of his time to practicing and teaching Dzogchen while his fame as a virtuous practitioner and dedicated teacher attracted more and more monastics. He particularly emphasized the importance of Buddhist ethics and the Vinaya code of monastic discipline. His fame was such that he was visited by the Tenth Paṇchen Lama Chokyi Gyeltsen's (paN chen 10 chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1949-1989), during the latter’s tour of eastern Tibet in 1980.

In 1986 Khenpo Jigme Puntsok bestowed an initiation of the Magical Net of Mañjuśrī ('jam dpal sgyu 'phrul drwa ba), a popular Nyingma tantra. It is said that as he recited the invitation of the tutelary deity, the deity announced to him that if he went to Wutai Shan, the mountain in China sacred to Mañjuśrī, it would be beneficial to Buddhism and human beings. As the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Mañjuśrī is a highly venerated deity in the Mahāyāna tradition and is understood to have a special connection with the Chinese Buddhist community.

The following year, in 1987, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok set off on a pilgrimage to Wutai Shan with the intention of strengthening his connection to the bodhisattva and revitalizing Buddhist practice in China. There, he gave teachings to a crowd of several thousand people including Tibetan, Chinese, and Mongolian devotees. The visit to Wutai Shan boosted Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's popularity beyond the borders of Tibet and helped open Tibetan Buddhism to Han Chinese devotees.

On his visit to Beijing the same year he again met with the Tenth Paṇchen Lama, who bestowed teachings on the Thirty-Seven Practices of the Bodhisattva (rgyal sras lag len so bdun ma) and officially endorsed Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's establishment in Serta. He blessed Larung Gar and bestowed its official name Serta Larung Ngarik Nangten Lobling (gser rta bla rung lnga rig nang bstan blob gling) or Serta Larung Five Science Buddhist Academy.

The following year, in 1988, on the invitation of the Paṇchen Lama, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok travelled to Beijing to teach at the Higher Institute of Buddhist Studies. For two months he offered teachings on the philosophical views and the liturgical scriptures from the Nyingma Gyubum to monks from all the major traditions including Geluk, Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu, Jonang, and Bon. He also gave general teachings to many Han Chinese lay followers.

The same year, the Tenth Paṇchen Lama invited him to join him in central Tibet for the occasion of a consecration ritual. Khenpo Jigme Puntsok accompanied him on what turned out to be a momentous pilgrimage tour. He visited several of the epicenters of Buddhist devotion including the Potala Palace, the Norbulinka, and Nechung monastery among other sites. He also proceeded to Sakya and Tashilhunpo Monastery, the historical seat of the Paṇchen Lama. On a later leg of the journey, he reached Samye monastery in Lhokha. His biographies record that on his way to this site on horseback, he experienced intense visions that announced imminent treasure revelations.

While at Chimpu (mchims phu) retreat center, for instance, one of the core sacred places associated with Padmasambhava, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok retrieved several treasure chests and scriptures. He also retrieved a single abridged version of tantras, statement, and pith-instructions on development and perfection stages (bskyed rdzogs), and Dzogchen that were said to have been hid by Padmasambhava in a rock chest (rdo sgrom) in the shape of an auspicious conch shell, and then put it in the hands of Yeshe Tsogyel (ye shes mtsho rgyal) who eventually concealed it in the rocks.

In 1990 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tendzin Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 14 bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, b. 1935), and Penor Rinpoche invited Khenpo Jigme Puntsok to Nepal and India. While in Nepal he went on pilgrimage to Yanglesho, the site of a cave where Padmasambhava resided on his way to Tibet. There, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok revealed some treasures associated with Padmasambhava including the cycle of the Purba Gulkhukma (phur pa mgul khug ma), the Kila Dagger in the Neck Pouch. In Dharamsala, the site of the Tibetan government in exile, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok met the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and many Buddhist hierarchs residing in the area. During a series of formal exchanges of praises and gifts, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok gave Dzogchen teachings and bestowed the Purba Gulkhukma initiation to the Dalai Lama. During the ritual, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok is said to have received further visions that included the Mecho Dogu (me mchod 'dod dgu), for which the Dalai Lama wrote an additional section on his behalf.

That same year, on the invitation of the then-Queen of Bhutan, Tsering Yangdon (tshe ring dbyangs don, b. 1959), and with the assistance of Dilgo Khyentse Tashi Peljor (dil mgo mkhyen brtse bkra shis dpal 'byor, 1910-1991), Khenpo Jigme Puntsok also visited Bhutan. There he journeyed to major sacred sites and offered teachings and instructions to King Jigme Sengge Wanchuk ('jigs med seng ge dbang phyug, b. 1955). In 1993, Khenpo Jigme Puntsok set off on another journey and visited several Asian and Western countries including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, France, England, Germany, Canada, and the United States. In all these countries, he gave initiations, instructions, and advice to different Buddhist communities.

Larung Gar

Among Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's numerous achievements, Larung Gar, the mountain retreat center he developed in the early 1980s ranks highly. Larung Gar is a landmark of his commitment to disseminate Buddhism in an ecumenical fashion, to strengthen monasticism and Buddhist ethics, and to heighten religious education and Tibetan traditional culture. It was originally founded as a mountain hermitage in 1880 by the treasure revealer Dudjom Dorje (bdud 'joms rdo rje, 1835-1904), who disseminated teachings and practices to his followers there. Among the many yogis who resided at the same site was Chatrel Choying Rangdrol (bya bral chos dbyings rang grol, 1872-1952), a disciple of Terton Lerab Lingpa.

Khenpo Jigme Puntsok took over the site in the summer of 1980 and maintained it as a Tibetan Buddhist encampment (chos sgar), a mobile community traditionally inhabited by followers and devotees gathered around a charismatic Buddhist master. He opened a small seminary college (bshad grwa) and a retreat center (sgrub grwa) and began to offer teachings and commentaries on a variety of sutric and tantric scriptures. Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's charisma and erudition gradually attracted large numbers of religious devotees to Larung Gar, and the curriculum soon expanded to include grammar, philology, epistemology, reasoning, monastic discipline, Madhyamaka philosophy, mind-training, tantric textual commentaries, Dzogchen, and pith instructions. The Tenth Paṇchen Lama's endorsement and Khenpo Jigme Puntshok's vision helped make Larung Gar one of the most popular centers of Buddhist learning in twentieth-century Tibet, and his example reinvigorated the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, inspiring several Nyingma encampments to develop across Eastern Tibet.

The importance that Khenpo Jigme Puntsok attached to knowledge and contemplative achievements is reflected in his dedication to rigorous monastic learning, the Vinaya code of conduct, and a commitment to an ecumenical system of teaching, in which students from all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism were welcome. He also actively engaged in a wide range of activities including opening and consecrating Buddhist sites, performing rituals of animal life liberation, making statements of respect for nature, wildlife, and the environment, and offering secular advice to lay people including a growing following of Han Chinese. Some of his thoughts were collected in a few short publications including The Lamp Which Illuminates Religious and Secular Ethics (lugs gnyis blang dor gsal ba'i sgron me) and the Melodious Cloud of Heart Advice (snying gdam sprin gyi rol mo).

His own monastic values and his commitment to reinvigorate the monastic code of discipline, depleted by decades of political turmoil in the land, contributed to Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's critical view of some expedient means of tantric practice. For example, though he embraced the role of treasure revealer, he never agreed to perform sexual yoga with a female partner even when prescribed in some of his own visions. Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's critical stance on having a consort often caused animosity in eastern Tibet among some noncelibate treasure revealers and Buddhist teachers who felt unjustly reprimanded by him.

By the 1990s Larung Gar had become one of the largest Buddhist establishments in Tibet. From 1995 to 2000 the total population reached approximately 10,000 people. These included monks and nuns, Tibetan and Chinese lay devotees, and noncelibate tantric practitioners. The encampment was gradually divided into four major religious divisions: Ngarik Nangten Lobling, The International Religious Committee, Pema Khandro Duling Nunnery (padma mkha' 'gro 'du gling), and Lektso Charpeb Ling (legs tshogs char 'bebs gling), the lay practitioners' complex. Seminary teachers or “khenpos” (mkhan po) were in charge of each division, which included several thousand students aspiring to become khenpo or khenmo (the male or female version of the title, respectively). Some of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's closest disciples became prominent at Larung Gar, including Khenpo Tendzin Gyatso (mkhan po bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho), who is a currently the supervising abbot, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro (mkhan po tshul khrims blo gros, b.1962), who is now the administrative leader of Larung Gar, and Khenpo Sodarjey, who is one of the leading instructors of growing numbers of Han Chinese devotees and maintains a busy schedule of domestic and international travel. Jetsunma Mume Yeshe Tsomo (rje btsun ma mu med ye shes mtsho mo, b. 1966), Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's niece, herself a nun and a recognized manifestation of Khandro Mingyur Pelkyi Dronma (mkha' 'gro mi 'gyur dpal gyi sgron ma, d.u.), is at the head of the nun community. She offers teachings to the resident nuns who by the late 1990s numbered approximately 5,000 individuals.

One of the key characteristics of Larung Gar is its international diversity of students. Among its resident students are not just Tibetans, but also Chinese and Mongolians who benefit from on-site translation and publication services. Han Chinese monastics who have resided and visited Larung Gar over the past decade come from mainland China and other Asian countries including Singapore, Malaysia, and India. In addition, the ecumenical nature of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's approach to Buddhist culture and learning attracted Tibetan monastics from all the major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The fast and unrestrained growth of the site and its population has often caused concern among the local authorities. Despite -- or perhaps due to -- the success of Larung Gar as a major center of Buddhist learning, ethics, and cultural development, between 2001 and 2004 three waves of government crackdowns and demolitions severely affected the community. Under orders of the Religious Affairs Bureau, work teams of police officers and construction workers entered Larung Gar and expelled several thousands monastics who resided there without official permits. At least a thousand monastic quarters were demolished and as many as two thousands monastics including both nuns and monks were forced to evacuate the establishment and ordered to return to their home monasteries. Those who were allowed to remain at Larung Gar were officially granted permission to reside at the establishment and provided state identifications.

Khenpo Jigme Puntsok died on January 7, 2004 at the Military Hospital 363 in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. Among his closest disciples not mentioned above were Khenpo Namdrol Tsering (mkhan po rnam grol tshe ring, b. 1953), Khenchen Tsultrim Lodro (mkhan chen tshul khrims blo gros, b. ?), and Achuk Khenpo Drubwang Lungtok Gyeltsen (a khyug mkhan po grub dbang lung rtogs rgyal mtshan, 1927-2011).

To date, Larung Gar continues to attract hundreds of monastics and lay practitioners as residents as well as large numbers of pilgrims who come to visit the sacred site. Several khenpos are in charge of various scholastic (mkhas pa) and experiential (grub pa) classes emphasizing textual study and the practice of ritual and meditation. The current director of the center, Khenpo Tsultrim Lodro runs the administrative aspects of the institution, aided by his closest colleagues Tendzin Gyatso Rinpoche and Khenpo Sodarjey. Since 2004, despite the departure of its founder and charismatic leader, the institution has continued to thrive thanks in part to the work of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok's closest disciples and the support of the Tibetan community of devotees. This, in addition to the consistent participation of many Han Chinese devotees coming to Larung Gar for teachings, instructions, and blessings from various khenpos, contributes to the continuing vitality of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok’s legacy.




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Antonio Terrone
October 2013