A Tale of Two Lamas

The following article is from the Autumn, 1990 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

It is said that, at the time of the rebirth of the Terton Dorje Dechen Lingpa, the sky in Sikkim resounded in thunder, I am here!, the sound coming from all directions in space. Sogtrul Riri-poche, his principle student and lineage holder, was already*awaiting him, as his place of rebirth had been predicted both by His Holiness Dudjom Rimpoche and by His Holiness Reting Rimpoche, the senior tutor to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. By the time Sogtrul Rimpoche reached him, he had already declared himself to be the rebirth of the terton from Dhomang. He became known as Yangthang Tulku, as he was from the Yangthang clan in Sikkim.

Once back he was quickly put into training, Khenpo Pema being sent from the main Pelyul monastery, of which Dhomang was a branch, specifically of that end. He had much to live up to. Dorje Dechen Lingpa, aside from being a terton, a revealer of hidden revelations (terma), had also been a great lineage holder in the Palyul tradition, which included the main lineage for the terma of Ratna Lingpa and the Namcho lineage of Terton Migyur Dorje. Incarnations previous to Dorje Dechen Lingpa included Vimalamitra, through whom most of the Dzog-chen teachings first came into Tibet, and Terton Lhatsun Namk-ha Jigme.

Among the teachings and practices which he had to master were the extensive and powerful practices of Ratna Lingpa, the complete Namcho tradition, and of course the terma of Dorje Dechen Lingpa himself. As a matter of course, he was completely trained in the Kangyur and Tangyur, and in the works of Longchenpa.

As he matured, Yangthang Tulku gave many great empowerments and transmissions, including that of the entire Kangyur. He was widely recognized for the quality and depth of his realization, the power of his attainment, and the purity of his transmissions. Eventually, he succeeded Sogtrul Rinpoche as the Abbot of Dhomang.


Already enthroned when he arrived was another great tulku of the Palyul tradition: Gyatrul Rinpoche, the rebirth of Sampa Kunkhyab, the root teacher of Dorje Dechen Lingpa. Sampa Kunkhyab had been a great practitioner, spending most of his life in retreat. Even in retreat, however, he would give many teachings and initiations to students.

In 1959, when the Chinese Communists overtook Tibet, the lives of these two men underwent dramatic change. After Dhomang Monastery was attacked, Yangthang Tulku escaped to the retreat quarters of Gyatrul Rinpoche, and they considered what course of action to take. The path before them forked at that decisive moment: Yangthang Tulku, as the Abbot of Dhomang, felt it best to stay, while Gyatrul Rinpoche determined to leave for Nepal and India. When Yangthang Tulku asked him how he was planning to get there, he replied, I'll get there. Their paths were not to cross for twenty-six years.

Gyatrul Rinpoche joined a party which took an evasive route to Nepal, and then to India. Only a fraction of the people who began the journey arrived there. In the Tibetan refugee camp in Buxa, he connected with the present throne-holder of the Palyul lineage, Pad-ma Norbu Rinpoche. He spent a brief but interesting period in the service of His Holiness the Kar-mapa. At one point he was the overseer of the school of debate at Buxa. During this period, he met not one monk from Dhomang Monastery.

At the request of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he accompanied the King and Queen of Gyarong, as their lama, to Canada, where a contingent of Gyarongpas had been admitted as refugees. He then visited various parts of the United States. In 1976 he was asked by His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche to be his spiritual representative in California, so he took up residence in Berkeley. Plunging into a life of teaching, organizing and building, he opened up centers in Los Angeles, Oregon (Ashland, Eugene, Pbrtland, and Newport), and in Ensenada, Mexico.

Gyatrul Rinpoche became especially active in Ashland, and eventually moved there to build a traditional temple to provide the setting for extensive teachings and practice. He built a 32-foot high statue of Vajrasattva to crown the site.

During all this time, there was no word about the fate of the Dhomang Terchen, Yangthang Tulku.

Then in 1985, Gyatrul Rinpoche led a group of his American students on pilgrimage to the sacred shrines of the Dharma. He took time off to do a personal retreat in the Maratika cave, where Guru Rinpoche and his consort Man-darava had accomplished the long life practice. Invigorated by an intense period of this practice, Rinpoche led his students to Bodhanath in Nepal to circumambulate the Great Stupa. And there, to his surprise and delight, he met Yangthang Tulku.

The party that followed this joyous reunion was hosted by Dzongnang Rinpoche, who invited all the leading tulkus of the Palyul lineage. Yangthang Tulku described his capture and his years of imprisonment and torture. Throughout this terrible time however, he had secretly maintained his practice and encouraged his fellow prisoners to do likewise, confident in their eventual liberation.

Following the death of Mao-tse Tung, he had been released and had returned to Dhomang. He found that the monastery had been completely dismantled. He also found that, under the existing conditions of constant surveillance, he could not do much for the community. So he had obtained permission to go to Sikkim to be with his aging and ailing mother. While there, he travelled back and forth to Nepal and Bhutan, receiving transmissions and empowerments from His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and His Holiness Dodrupchen Rinpoche, as a simple yogi. And that is how he happened to be circumambulating the Great Stupa.

Then, at Gyatrul Rinpoche's request, Yangthang Tulku gave the American students teachings on the nature of the mind. He then blessed them with certain relics of the great translator Vairocana: a statue, some clothing, and the phurba. Despite the terrible conditions under which he lived, he had somehow managed to conceal these precious termas during his imprisonment.

Neal J. King is a student of the Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche. He is Vice President of Orgyen Dorje DenSan Francisco Bay Area Yeshe Nyinpo.

Back to all Snow Lion Articles