The 1st Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Paljor (1457-1525) was a disciple of His Holiness the 7th Karmapa Choedak Gyatsho and a teacher of the 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje. In this way, he became a part of so called "Golden Rosary", the lineage of Kagyu forefathers.
His Eminence the 10th Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche was born in 1964 at Paro Taktsang, Guru Rinpoche’s temple, in Bhutan and was recognized by His Holiness, the 16th Karmapa.
He was brought up at Rumtek Monastery by His Holiness the 16th Karmapa and many other masters. Rinpoche had a particularly close relationship with His Holiness Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche.
His Eminence Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche is one of the most learned Rinpoches in both philosophy and tantric rituals. His thorough education on Sutrayana and Tantrayana textual learning, philosophy, liturgy, meditation and so forth at Nalanda Institute in Rumtek, Sikkim was a total of eighteen years, and he obtained the title of an Acharya.
Rinpoche is performing a lot of Dharma activities. Among many other projects, he had restored his traditional seat in Kham, the great Benchen Monastery, and founded shedra - monastic university - in Pharping near Kathmandu.
Currently, His Eminence Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche resides at Benchen Phuntsok Dargyeling Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
He often travels to several countries in Asia as well as in Europe in order to spread Dharma teachings, give transmission to the public and help effortlessly as many people as possible.
Kyabje Sangye Nyenpa on his own life (and lives), and on Gen Tenam
In 2017 during the lung of the Kangyur that Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche was giving in Rumtek Monastery, Rinpoche gave a short talk on his life as a tulku with Lama Tenam to the Rinpoches, Tulkus and ordained and lay practitioners attending. This is the translation of that talk:
As for me, I have to give you an example. People don’t know. Regarding my birth place, I must give you an example. Why? There are probably some who think that I, who carry the name of Sangye Nyenpa, kind of dropped down from the sky. That is not so. Where was I born? In Bhutan. I was born in Paro Taktsang, Bhutan. You know Paro Taktsang. When I remember my parents, my family, oh, they were poor. They were not among the wealthy, but rather among the destitute. Therefore, they lived in a high region of arid cliffs. They had no land. They had nothing at all. That is the kind of family I was born to.
Nevertheless, I cannot wrap my mind around the thought of being the latest incarnation of Sangye Nyenpa. Even now it is hard for me. And yet, it was said that it was given for a reason. It is not just flattery, mind you. It is not a lie. Rather, I wonder if it was not given for a reason, for a purpose. When I give it a thought, whether in the stories or in my own experience, when I read their biographies, I have not even a splinter of those lamas, those previous lives. Be it regarding their meditating day and night or their pure visions or their love and compassion upon their practice or the fact this practice was one of realized lamas, when I think on it, I have not even a little bit of that. That being so, it is not right for me to think, “I am Sangye Nyenpa”. And yet, once the name is given one must try not to bring dishonor on it. One must try do one’s best so that that doesn’t happen.
For that reason, once at the age of three, Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje gave me the name, saying I am the incarnation of Sangye Nyenpa, the supreme Vajradhara, Kyabje Khyentse Rinpoche said, “You must definitely go to Rumtek”. So I went to Karmapa’s residence in Gangtok, Sikkim. By the age of six, Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje taught me the alphabet. At first, the one who taught me the alphabet was Karmapa himself. I must have such a merit. I am so fortunate.
From the point of view of the world, Karmapa Rigpe Dorje didn’t give me at all the privileges of Sangye Nyenpa. When I think on the room, I lived in number 7. That’s it: a monk’s room; neither the room of a tulku nor the house of a tulku. Rather, the mediocre room of a monk. When we had to go to the toilet, it was a five minute walk away. Now, when the room was in need of repair, I moved down to room number ten and there I lived. Kitchen? That was it. Dining room? That was it. Bedroom? That was it. It was there I slept. That’s it.
The one who cared for me, who kept an eye on me was the one who is still with me, the old monk Tenam himself. Back then we also had another old monk with us. He passed away when I was about thirteen years old. He taught me the alphabet. Once he taught me spelling, I went through the Pema Kathang thirteen times. As for skills in spelling and reading, I went through Chagmed’s Mountain Retreat Manual for fourteen times; spelling the words. I went through quite a bit of hardship. It was tough.
As for livelihood, we had to manage by ourselves. The old monk himself would go all around begging. He would carry a big bag saying, ”Please, please, give me some rice”. Livelihood was a problem. My parents were poor. It was hard to survive. Then the old monk passed away when I was thirteen and Tenam himself, took over in undergoing those hardships.
Needless to mention the kindness with me of the great Vajradhara, Kyabje Khyentse Rinpoche. Whenever there was an empowerment, an oral transmission or pith instructions, he immediately would order me to go. He would send someone. That is how I had the chance of requesting many profound teachings and pith instructions.
But apart from that, Tenam would say, “Whether it be Nyingma, Sakya or Gelug lamas, we must request teachings from them”. And he would hold me by the hand and take me, saying, ”They have pith instructions”, ‘There will be an oral transmission”, “There will be an empowerment.”One must request for empowerment” ”One must ask for pith instructions”. At times he would be gentle, at times he would slap me. Hey, one has to do so, right? So, he would take me here and there using various means, gentle and tough. He was very kind. That is how things went thanks to his kindness.
Livelihood was hard in my childhood. Other than those like us, there were many wealthy lamas and tulkus at Rumtek. They were all among the wealthy class. Food too, would come down from Karmapa’s quarters to them. We got it from the labrang. As for my own sustenance, I had to look for myself.
So Tenam himself had to strive. He would buy goods from Gangtok; those fake ones. Put a number on them. Then, when Westerners came, he would sell the goods fooling them saying they were old. And he would use the money for our needs. We had to buy pechas to study, right? We had expenses going around, right? When requesting for empowerments and instructions, we had to travel, and far, right? That much he strived.
Then, one day, Karmapa Rigpe Dorje forbid anyone who stayed at the monastery in Rumtek to do business. Nevertheless, he gave permission to the old monk Tenam to continue. Now you all know this well. Not all who were at Rumtek have died. He didn’t say “Tenam”. He said, “akama” (translator´s note: akama – a reference to a person or thing that is useless or worthless). Gyalwang Karmapa was from Derge, right? From Denma Khog. So, he said, ”Let this akama do business. It is for the sake of that tulku. Let him do business, don’t stop him”.
So he kept on doing business. Whenever he heard a scooter coming up the hill he would hide something under his zen and hurry to meet them. “It’s a hundred.” It’s two hundreds”. Back then it was a hundred or two. Now we would be talking of a hundred thousand. It was powerful. So, that is how he went around doing business. And the profit from the sales was spent in my learning of the performance of the liturgies and obtaining the pith instructions from the Tantras.
By age seventeen, I had learnt by heart the Tantric studies that were meant to. When Karmapa Rigpe Dorje was still alive, there was the custom of being told at that point that the learning of the liturgy was over and one was appointed as the liturgy leader. The day came when I was appointed as such and Rigpe Dorje bestowed the robes. That day fell on the luck day of Karmapa Rigpe Dorje: Wednesday. It also coincided with the occasion of placing the golden badges over the temple. It was an auspicious coincidence and I was fortunate in that he was pleased with that.
Regarding livelihood, Rigpe Dorje gave nothing to me. He didn’t give me food. He didn’t give me a place to stay. From the point of view of the world I had my fair share of ups and downs. I would be considered poor, right? When I look back now, I see there is no better way of management than that. When I compare myself to others, those who lived in their own residences, those who received their food from above, there are already many of whom one doesn’t know where they have gone. On the other hand, we, the poor, remained in the bottom and at that time, we had the opportunity of getting teachings such as these, the chance of meeting many lamas, of requesting pith instructions.
I didn’t say I have clairvoyance nor that I have received a prediction nor that I am commissioned with a high duty nor that I had pure visions. Rather, I am saying I studied with my teachers starting from the alphabet and spelling, that I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink. I had to strive in my ignorance and that that strife brings about a result.
That is my whole point. If one does not put effort, remains content in one’s importance, wealth and power, one will likely have little learning. I can tell you it is an obstacle to one’s pursue of the trainings and to requesting teachings and pith instructions from all teachers. And that is a bad circumstance. On the other hand, there is an advantage in one remaining as any other monk while one is studying, just as an ordinary monk. I grew up living in rooms number seven and ten, side by side with the other monks and completed my studies together, too.
When I studied in the Shedra, I had to carry with me the cushion. One has to carry one’s cushion, right? And if one leaves it there then where will one sit when studying in the room? Once the class was over I myself carried my cushion. The support for the text, I too had to carry. I didn’t have an assistant. It was just Tenam. Sometimes he could not go. Sometimes he could. If he didn’t go, I had to carry the things by myself, so I would take some on my head.
He was very kind. He himself underwent hardships, too. He was tenacious. Doing as he did, he made me have similar experiences. So, what was the reason - sort of advantage - of doing so? I had the opportunity of meeting many lamas and spiritual friends and request teachings, request pith instructions and receive oral transmissions and empowerments from them. That is sort of the advantage, right? Even though I had a hard time in my childhood, even though I considered it a misfortune, the misfortune turned out to be an aid. I had the opportunity of requesting instructions.
If, instead, you keep on living in one of those called small residences, who keeps getting their food from above, who keeps on carrying a big name, someone like that is likely not to have much chance of requesting pith instructions. You have to keep telling yourself, ”There’s no one like me”, right?
Rather, one has to respect our spiritual friends. Needless to say regarding lamas and spiritual friends. When learning English, we had a teacher called Goenpo. He was a layman. We used to have our English class with him sitting on a chair and us sitting on the floor. That’s how we studied English.
Later on, when we met, when I saw him again I kept standing up. He didn’t give me any pith instruction, right? He didn’t give me any pith instruction when teaching me written English. Nevertheless, naturally, in my mind I would have a thought of, “he is my spiritual friend, too”. Therefore, when we met, even if he asked me not to stand up, I kept on doing so.
You may call him a teacher or someone who shows the way, whoever it may be, whether he is an ordinary person or an ordained one, someone who shows us the path when we don’t know it, someone who sets us in the right path when we have gone astray, someone who makes us understand what we don’t understand, someone who lets us see when we are blind, when I try to pinpoint what makes a spiritual friend, I have to think on the hardships of those early years, of keeping a low profile, of having a tough time with the most basic needs and having to put up with all of that.
Lama Tenam, himself, went through hardships. He went all around begging; he gathered firewood. He had to go picking firewood. Usually when gathering firewood there are leeches trying to suck your blood. Your legs get filled with wounds. Once, when cutting wood he missed the tree top and the axe landed on his foot. He was bleeding badly when he came back down.
He had to endure so many hardships. That was not at all for his own goals, right? At first he stayed in Bagsa. Then he lived eight years at Sera, Drepung and Ganden. He said, “I was a happy-go-lucky”. But, both, Karmapa Rigpe Dorje and the great Vajradhara, Kyabje Khyentse, made him live with me to watch on me serving as both, teacher and servant and he just faced those difficulties.
Now I am fifty three years old. What I have learned so far, the little of learning I have, the little I have sharpened my understanding, the empowerments, oral transmission and pith instructions I have received, in general, I owe to the lamas with whom I have a Dharma connection, starting from the great Vajradhara, Kyabje Khyentse, Gyalwang Rigpe Dorje and likewise all other lamas that are so many I would not be able to mention all. I have a faith in them that comes from karma and merit. In particular, it is the kindness of my spiritual friend, the old monk Tenam.
A teacher is very important. It is good for all young tulkus to have a teacher. One who keeps making us slightly mature our minds. One who has sympathy for that tulku; one who has the best intentions. Who thinks, ”This one has to benefit the teachings of the Buddha”, “This one has to benefit beings”, “This one has to make his owns the example of liberation set out by his previous incarnations”, one who has high hopes of him benefitting others.
If one has such a teacher, that teacher will play its part in the gradual actualization of the vision of the previous incarnations. Isn’t it? On the other hand, if one has a bad attendant or teacher, one who turns out to be the one who tells us, “They are going to watch a show down there”, “There’s dancing down there”, “There’s a place to watch pictures, over there”, ”There’s the butcher, down there”, well, that is the spiritual friend who leads in the wrong direction. That is not good.
So, it is good to have a teacher. Best if he has studied. If one finds one with learning. If it happens to be one like that, that is good. Even if that doesn’t happen, the best is one who has the best intentions. That is the best. If he has good intentions, even if he lacks learning it is all right. Tenam, too, had no learning at all. He had studied the Vinaya. On Vinaya he was knowledgeable. He said, ”In Vinaya I am well versed. If I have to debate with anyone, I can.” Yep, he was versed in Vinaya. He studied Vinaya a lot in the monastery. He knew by heart most of the Vinaya and the Sutra of Individual Liberation. He could recite it without hesitation. Even big Geshes have a hard time in learning it by heart. He could. Other than those, he knows nothing at all. He has good intentions.
With those good intentions, even now when I am fifty three years old, he looks at me and he scolds me. Always; no matter when. “One, this happened, two, this is not so, three, that is not so”. “The way you spoke was not right”. ”The way you did was not right.” As I spoke from the bottom and he listened from the top of the temple, ”You said something today that was not right. What were you saying? When you are not leaving it at that and keep silent, then if you speak, it is to make a point, but you don’t. Well if you don’t you’d better leave it because it is needless to say. People will say, “What kind of person is he?”
That is what he said. It is good, too, to say so. Then, from an early age one gets used to it and by the time the concept, ”This is a teacher”, is formed one has sort of an object of uneasiness. And once one has a source of feeling uneasy it turns into an excellent support to remember to be conscientious. Without him, who knows what would I have become? I have to be honest. What certainty is there? Instead, he always took care of me. He spoke harsh. He spoke gently, too. So thinking, “He is the one speaking”, “I have someone to speak to”, and having the wish that he continue to do so, then when he speaks it will be in fact benefiting.
Being the norm to criticize, then, when once in a while he would not do so, the thought, “Hey, did he get sick?” would come. I would have such kind of thought as, “What happened today? He isn’t scolding me. What going on?” “Could it be that he’s feeling down?”, and I would sort of console him. Before he would scold me, I would become uneasy. Or else, I would think, ”Isn’t he sick?”,”Is he not feeling down?”,”Did he not get hurt?”
When every day he would keep saying something I would feel fine. Once accustomed, I would go into the room and when I heard, “What’s up?”, I would feel sort of happy. Whereas when he would be gentle and tranquil and said nothing, I thought, ”Did he get hurt? Who knows?”, and I would start to feel bad. Yep, that is what starts to happen.
Therefore, in short, what I mean is that that is the way I consider a spiritual friend. For that reason he is so kind. I am not at all saying, ”I got to be born as Sangye Nyenpa, I got a big name and once the potential of the predecessors was awakened, I came to know it”. Mind you. The actual situation is clear enough to me when I just look out.
When I was a kid I went through hardships; it was hard work. The great Vajradhara, Kyabje Khyentse, had such a kind heart. Gyalwang Rangjung Rigpe Dorje had such a kind heart. Those two holy lamas took me in their care. The Vajradhara Jamgoen Kentig Tai Situ Rinpoche, such a kind heart for me from an early age. Since he stayed at Rumtek, even in games he was my playmate.
I was rough back then. In a month the only holidays we had were on the full and new moon days. Other than that, the teachers would always keep teaching how to read. The place to go during those days was Rinpoche’s residence. I would go in, break the ceramic cups and thermos and spill the water all around. He himself would say, ”Yes, please, come”. Really, he himself, “So, things to break? Here they are!” Or he would say, ”Go ahead! Please, break them!” That’s how rough I was when I was small. He was so kind and his tutor, also. We would play together and breaking the cups, too, he was my partner. I was like that.
He has been so kind. Regarding Dharma, whether pith instructions on the sacred teachings of Mahamudra or likewise empowerments, oral transmissions and instructions, I have been receiving them from Rinpoche. That’s it. He is so kind. Therefore I have the confidence of being a proper vessel, a disciple held by the compassion of the holy and who received pith instructions out of their kindness.
And all this, too, came about through the kindness of my spiritual friend, lama Tenam. He also had to strive hard. For example, right now he has no money in his purse. He has nothing. I’m being dead honest. All of us monks who know him, know this for a fact. If you ask him, ”Show me the money you have in your pocket”, he will have nothing to show. Whatever he has been getting, he has offered it to the monastery.
All the statues that are present in this temple are without exception, offerings dedicated to the dead or the living. I have not even once let waste even a rupee of the offerings in behalf of the dead that I keep getting. I am not saying these kinds of things to pose as great or as strict. I am just saying it is good to do like this.
When someone comes and asks, ”He’s dead. Please do phowa for him”, “My son is dead”, I don’t have the compassion or the power to lead the consciousness of the dead or do phowa for him. So I keep thinking, ”Shouldn’t this go for making Body, Speech and Mind representations?” So I always spend the dedicated objects in the manufacture of all those statues.
Whether I am staying in India or Nepal I commission the manufacturing of those seven-fold offering silver bowls decorated with gold (trama) or else silver bowls for butter lamps and offered them in the presence of Gyalwang Karmapa or Tai Situ Rinpoche. Likewise with thangkas and so on, I use them in activities related with Dharma.
I don’t want even a peisa of those dedicated objects. Why? I have neither the power nor the compassion, I am not someone who can lead the consciousness of the dead so it is not proper to keep that for myself. Otherwise I could build a house or buy a car. And yet, that would not be proper, right?
So, thinking it is not fit, I feel apprehension and not having neither the compassion, nor the power nor the conviction of being the reincarnation of all the previous Nyenpa, at the time of keeping the dedicated objects, I simply can’t. I spend it in something related to Dharma, commissioning the manufacture of Body, Speech and Mind representations. That is what the deceased needs.
“Don’t appropriate dedicated offerings. That is not good. It won’t help you to carry the name of a lama. You sometimes recite manis. You sometimes don’t. As for the recitation, you don’t do it properly”. That is what he would tell me. Thinking money, too, should be spent on Body, Speech and Mind representations, I would commission them from Nepal to be sent here. That is the way I have done it.
He doesn’t have even a single peisa. The one thing he is certain to have is this small blue bag. Inside he has his robes - a lower one and a red upper one. Other than that he doesn’t have a single bit. He says, “If I die tomorrow put this together in the fire”. That’s it. “The corpse, you have to gather it”, he says. “You must gather it. Burn these together. Don’t throw them”. Tenam himself doesn’t save a single peisa for that.
Therefore, I kind of think that is what is called a spiritual friend. That is what came to my mind. So he doesn’t keep anything but what he had before: his lower robe and his zen. He doesn’t have the custom of making new ones. He has such a pure intention. So, what I have now is due to his kindness.
He is now old and regarding life there is never any certainty, but I want to ask all of you to make aspiration prayers and bless him so that in any case, as long as he is still with us, he enjoys a life free of illness. That is what I want to request. I have nothing else to say.
So far, since I was a kid, starting from learning, contemplating and meditating, nothing has come right. Even then, I am sitting on top of this and speaking of Dharma to you down there. I don’t feel comfortable. Me sitting on top of this, now; all of you holy beings sitting on the floor. From the bottom of my heart I openly admit accumulating such a huge fault. From my heart I ask you to please bear with me. You are so kind. That’s it.
This was spoken by Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche on the occasion of his 54th birthday on November 19, 2017. I transcribed it and offer it as clouds of offerings. May this turn into a cause so that in all lives I become a disciple of a qualified, eminent lama.
Translation from Tibetan into English by Hernan Barthe.