Sogyal Rinpoche

The following article is from the Autumn, 1989 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


Fluent in English and well-known in the West because of his frequent appearances in the media and. at international conferences, Sogyal Rinpoche is a Buddhist master who was born in Tibet and trained by some of the greatest teachers of this century. He is acknowledged as a pioneer in drawing out the common insights of the ancient Buddhist wisdom of Tibet and blending them with modern experience and research. Studying English at Cambridge University in the early 1970s, he has made good use of the nearly twenty years he has lived in the West to shape his unique perspective on today's culture and its spiritual needs. The following are excerpts from his reflections on his early life.

I come from the Teyhor Kham region of East Tibet. I was fortunate to have been born into the Lakar family, a very special family which owes its name to the great fourteenth century Tibetan saint Je Tsongkhapa Chenpo, the founder of the Gelugpa School. En route from Amdo to Central Tibet, he was going from door to door, begging for alms, according to monastic custom. When he arrived at our house my ancestor came out to welcome him and offer him food, dressed in a thick white woollen robe. In Tibetan this type of cloth is called 'La', and the word for white is 'kar'. Tsongkhapa saw this as a very auspicious sign, so, calling the family Lakar, he blessed my ancestor and prophesied that his descendants would become very wealthy, and be benefactors of the Dharma. In the next generation, two brothers were born who were considered to be emanations of Jambhala, the god of wealth, and his prophesy did indeed come true. The family enjoyed considerable commercial success, and with their money helped many great masters in their work. There was not a single major monastery in Tibet that did not receive their support, and thus they became widely renowned for their support of the Dharma.

When I was not even six months old, I was being taken from my home to the Dzongsar monastery, where my master used to live, a journey of about three days. As we were crossing a little mountain pass, I spontaneously began to sing Padmasambhava's Mantra, which amazed the whole party. After this, the word got around that an incarnation had been born in the Lakar family, and as a result, a number of monasteries pounced to claim me as their incarnation, in order to capture the financial backing of my family. A certain amount of maneuvering went on. Yet since I was the only child, my parents did not want to give me to a monastery, as they looked to me to run the future affairs of the family.

The dilemma was solved by my teacher Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro. He took me and kept me with him at Dzongsar, where he brought me up like his only son. So I grew up spending more time with him and my aunt Khandro Tsering Chodron, his spiritual wife, than with my own parents.

My first recollection, in fact my entire childhood memory, is of this incredible being. He created the atmosphere of wisdom and compassion in which I grew up, for what he provided me with in the beginning was not the teaching but an environment. It was extremely cozy, and for me it was the ultimate security. I was very happy with him, and preferred staying with him rather than with my family. I would sleep next to him and eat from his bowl.

As I grew older, he would let me watch when he taught. He understood that children learn more through watching than through direct teaching, and as it all just went on around me, I became very interested and very enthusiastic. For example, I would watch the teachings with my master in the morning and in the evening when I was playing with my friends, I would put on a performance of what he had done, like a little theater. He just had me be with him all the time, which I really enjoyed. I would constantly ask him questions, and he was always very patient.

More than intellectual knowledge, through him I picked up the feeling, an intuitive understanding of the tradition. He really was the living example of the teaching. He was truly Buddha in the flesh, of that there is no doubt. At that time in Tibet, he was considered the master of masters. He had received teachings for about thirty years from more than eighty great masters from every tradition, so held all the lineages. He was the teacher of so many of the present living masters of all schools.

Coincidentally, Khyentse Rinpoche had already given me the name Sonam Gyaltsen, Banner of Merit, which abbreviates to Sogyal, before he recognized me as the incarnation of several masters, the two most prominent being Terton Sogyal and Lingtsang Gyalpothe King of Ling, who was a direct descendant of Gesar of Ling, a great yogin and Terton, and a disciple of the first Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. H.H. Karmapa told me twice in Sikkim in 1959 that he believed that I was the incarnation of the Dzogchen master Do Khyentse.

The great mystic Terton Sogyal (1856-1926) was quite an unusual kind of master. In fact, he was already grown-up before he encountered the Dharma, which in itself was exceptional enough in Tibet. At first he was sent out by his family to hunt animals, yet whenever he went out with the others on these hunting expeditions, a very curious thing happened. On account of his past karma, as he looked down the sights of the gun, the symbolic script of the Dakinis would appear in front of his eye. He would see it, miss his aim and be unable to hit his quarry. Since he was very young, he did not know that this was actually Dakini writing, which, for a Terton, of course, is the source of the Terma teachings.

Frustrated by his failure as a hunter, next his parents sent him to join a gang of bandits, where some initial successes were followed by a series of incidents which led him to become more and more disenchanted with his way of life. One day, he and his band went out to rustle horses, when the owners began to give chase. They had to move quickly, and amongst the horses was a pregnant mare which was about to give birth. Trying to stop her as she fled in the stampede, one of the robbers slashed out at her with his sword, tearing a huge gash in her stomach, through which her foal was born. The mare immediately stopped in her tracks and began licking and caring for her young. When Terton Sogyal saw that this mare, her stomach ripped open and her intestines spilling out, still had such love for her foal; a tremendous feeling of compassion surged up in him, awakening the compassion of his previous lives. With it came the conviction that the one and only point of this human life was to help beings and show them compassion and love.

From that point onwards, he abandoned everything, gave away all that he owned and went to study under the great Dzogchen master Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpe Nyima, who was one of the closest disciples, or 'heart sons' of the great Patrul Rinpoche. From him he received Patrul Rinpoche's 'Nyongtri Chenpo' or 'experiential instruction' on the whole teaching of Dzogchen.

Terton Sogyal became quite a close friend of a great Geshe called Tsultrim Namgyal, who had spent fifty or sixty years studying the scriptures, until his hair had turned white. When they used to talk and share their knowledge, it seemed that, although the Geshe had spent longer studying, yet when it came down to the real, essential meaning of the teaching, Terton Sogyal knew more. Tsultrim Namgyal was astounded and asked him: How and where did you acquire all this tremendous knowledge and wisdom? Whereupon he explained about Patrul Rinpoche and his amazing method of Dzogpachenpo, which is such that once a person has really completed and realized it, they become a master of all teachings, without even having to study them. Through this training, Terton Sogyal gained more understanding than someone who would have spent ten or fifteen years or more studying in a conventional sense. His wisdom or prajna was awakened, so much so that he realized the heart of hearts of all the teachings.

Terton Sogyal went on to study under the great Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Patrul Rinpoche himself, Jamgon Kongtrul, Mipham and Nyala Pema Dudul, a master who attained the rainbow body. He discovered a large number of treasures (ter) concealed by Padmasambhava, which were assembled into the twenty volumes of his Collected Works, and he became the personal Lama and friend of the XHIth Dalai Lama. Towards the end of his life, Trime Ape, one of his two principal disciples, asked him where his future incarnation would be born. He replied: My incarnation will not come for a while. My role in Tibet has actually finished. In the future my teaching will be in western lands, and for the western world.

These details of Terton Sogyal and his life come from the contemporary Dzogchen master Nyoshul Khenpo Jamyang Dorje, who was a direct disciple of Trime Ape.

When I was older I had a tutor, and began to study about twelve hours a day. First we studied reading and writing, poetry and drama, then logic and metaphysics. My master would check to see that there was not a minute wasted. It was very strict. They are more strict with incarnations because more is expected from them. At the same time you are taught from a very young age not to let it go to your head, and your tutor treats you as somebody very ordinary. The training was very tough with a great deal of memorization of scriptures, and if you did not work diligently enough you were made to feel your tutor's displeasure.

In the early fifties, the situation in East Tibet deteriorated rapidly. In fact my master was one of the first to leave Kham for Central Tibet, and many Lamas took his lead and were able to escape because he had moved so early. For a long time he had wanted to go to India on pilgrimage, to fulfil a wish of his own master to visit the holy places of Buddha. Also he had been officially invited to Sikkim by the King, as he was the incarnation of Lhatsun Namkha Jikme, one of the great saints of Sikkim. So we left for Central Tibet in 1954-5, after which it was decided to continue to Sikkim. Then as conditions in Tibet worsened we chose to wait instead of returning, and during this time we continued our pilgrimage. My master passed away in Sikkim in 1959. After this many people around me, including my mother, felt that I should learn English and the ways of the outside world. I began my western studies while at the same time continuing my own training with my other masters, especially H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche and H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the oldest disciples of my master and the greatest living exponent of Dzogchen.

It is interesting that there is no time limit for transmission, indeed it is happening all the time. Even though my Master is not with me physically, since he passed away when I was rather young, I realize the influence that he has had throughout my life. It was through him, for example, that I met Dudjom Rinpoche, who was the head of the Nyingma School, whom I later served as translator for about six or seven years. Through Dudjom Rinpoche's guidance and kindness, my understanding of Dzogchen blossomed, and it was he who inspired and encouraged me to teach.

I attended a Catholic School in India, and then studied Indian philosophy at a university in Delhi, after which I received a visiting scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where I studied comparative religions. When the Dalai Lama came to Europe for the first time in 1973,1 served as his assistant and helped to arrange his visit to Cambridge, and then my own teachers, like Dudjom Rinpoche, began to come to the West and I travelled with them in Europe and America for several years.

I only mention all these details in order to express my gratitude for the blessing I have received, as I try in my own small way to transmit the work of my masters.

From the beginning when I first started learning English I felt that my work was in the West rather than in India. I did not really see myself as a traditional Lama. Even as a child I intuitively felt that I needed to make some kind of contribution, and my master made a point of prophesying that I would play a part in continuing his work in the future. It is only now that I realize what my master did. More and more I understand how he prepared me and created the potential. He saw that Buddhism would change a great deal and that maybe I would be one of those who might be able to create the bridge between the traditions of Tibet and the West and bring out that wisdom. I really feel his blessing, and I try to continue.

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