The Life of Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug, A Great Master of the Rime Movement

Ling-Wei Kung
Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug (མཁྱེན་བརྩེའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་དབང་ཕྱུག, 1909-1960) is a famous Tibetan master of the Rime movement in Eastern Tibetan region. He was born in Derge (སྡེ་དགེ) between eastern Tibet and western China. At an early age, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug was recognized as a reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (འཇམ་དབྱངས་མཁྱེན་བརྩེའི་དབང་པོ་, 1820-1892), one of the most prestigious Tibetan Buddhist masters in the nineteenth century. Chökyi Wangchug showed his devotion to Buddhism from early in life. He broadly received Buddhist teachings from many masters in different monasteries and eventually became a respected lama. In addition to Derge, his hometown, he also extensively traveled between Kham, Amdo and Central Tibet in order to spread Buddhist teachings. He was also a famous tertön (གཏེར་སྟོན་), a master discovering ancient hidden texts from sacred places. Although he was once patronized by the king of Derge, Chökyi Wangchug himself had little interests in secular affairs. Nevertheless, the invasion of the Chinese Communists in Derge in the late 1950s thoroughly changed his life. While he intended to escape from the harassments of the Communist revolutionists, he was captured unfortunately in 1959 and immediately died after serious humiliations and tortures. In The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds: Life and Times of a Realized Tibetan Master, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug, the biographer Chögkyal Namkhai Norbu (ཆོས་རྒྱལ་ནམ་མཁའི་ནོར་བུ་, 1938-), a renown master of Dzogchen practice, remarkably illustrates the story of Chökyi Wangchug. As a nephew and a disciple of Chökyi Wangchug, the biographer had the opportunity to stay with Chökyi Wangchug and therefore gaining access to both the spiritual and material facets of Chökyi Wangchug’s life.

Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug is a significant Buddhist master promoting the Rime movement, which proposes the non-sectarianism of Tibetan Buddhism, in twentieth-century Tibet. He is also known as Humchen Heka Lingpa as an important tertön. Additionally, he is also named as Jigdral Tubpai Tenchö Chökyi Gyamtso after he was conferred this name when he received monastic ordination at the Ngor Monastery in Shigatse in 1942.
In 1909, Chökyi Wangchug was born in a noble family in Derge, a famous center of Tibetan Buddhist culture on the Sino-Tibetan borderlands. His father, Jamyang Trinle, was the private secretary of the king of Derge and his mother, Samdrub Drönma, was the sister of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Wangpo (1894-1908), the previous reincarnation of Chökyi Wangchug.

In his early age, Chökyi Wangchug was recognized as a reincarnation of Khyentse by Dzogchen Rinpoche Chökyi Dorje (1872-1935) and other prestigious lamas of the Nyingma School. In addition to his affiliation with the Nyingma tradition through the Dzogchen Monastery in Derge, he also had close connections with the Sakya School from a young age, especially with the Sakya and Ngor Monasteries. For instance, when he was three years old, several great lamas from the Sakya and Ngor Monasteries came to visit him and offer him precious presents. When he was five years old, Chökyi Wangchug was officially enthroned in Derge in 1913. Many important lamas from the Nyingma, Sakya and Kagyu Schools participated in his coronation ceremony. This event may adumbrate Chökyi Wangchug’s destiny with the Rime movement. (Namkhai Norbu, 19)

After his enthronement, Chökyi Wangchug started to extensively study Buddhist teachings with many lamas in different monasteries. He successively stayed in the Dzongsar, Derge, Galing Monasteries in Derge of eastern Tibet when he was young, and later traveled to Amdo and Central Tibet. Although he first affiliated with the Nyingma School, he was open-minded to other Tibetan Buddhist traditions and also received the profound teachings of the Sakya School. Among his religious teachers, Chökyi Wangchug had special connections with Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (1893-1959), who had also been recognized as a reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. Since Chökyi Lodrö and Chökyi Wangchug had been regarded as the “activity” and “quality” reincarnations of Khyentse respectively, Chökyi Wangchug had received the instructions from the elder reincarnation Chökyi Lodrö, who had already become one of the most influential religious leaders in Kham at that time.

After he entered into retreat for several years, Chökyi Wangchug was invited by Chökyi Lodrö to Khathog Monastery in Derge in 1929. Although Chökyi Wangchug had great relationships with the senior reincarnation Chökyi Lodrö, their attendants had serious conflicts with each other. As a result, Chökyi Wangchug decided to leave Khathog Monastery and went to practice in retreat once again. However, when he stayed in a hermitage in a mountain located in southeastern Dzongsar, someone sent him poisoned food. (Namkhai Norbu, 26-27) Although Chökyi Wangchug was eventually cured, this tragedy shows the potential clashes between the followers of two tulkus. Although Chökyi Wangchug and Chökyi Lodrö both attempted to eliminate the disputes between their attendants, they could not thoroughly eliminate their biases. Even after two decades, the followers of Chökyi Wangchug still did not get along with Chökyi Lodrö’s disciples. For instance, when Chökyi Wangchug asked the biographer Namkhai Norbu to visit Chökyi Lodrö, he was reluctant to do that at first because he had wrongly believed the rumors from Chökyi Wangchug’s relatives and administers holding grudges against Chökyi Lodrö due to the tragedy in 1929 (Namkhai Norbu, 76-78). But it is clear that Chökyi Wangchug and Chökyi Lodrö still showed their respects to each other and kept good relationships for their whole lives.

In 1939, Chökyi Wangchug returned to Derge Monastery. After studying with many religious teachers, he eventually became a revered lama and was patronized by the king of Derge. When he stayed in Derge, he gave teachings to his students including ten Chinese people (Namkhai Norbu, 29). This story well reflects Chökyi Wangchug’s religious ideal, which is beyond not only sectarianism but also racism. Along with the faithful patronage of the young king of Derge, Chökyi Wangchug’s mission in Derge was hugely successful; however, Chökyi Wangchug was not bound by secular fame and wealth. Instead, he went to Amdo to spread his teachings and traveled to Central Tibet on pilgrimage in the 1940s and the early 1950s. During that period, Chökyi Wangchug discovered many important termas (hidden treasures), especially The Vajrapāṇi Terma (1947) and The Yedzong Terma (1951).

Although Chökyi Wangchug ceaselessly dedicated himself to Buddhist practices since his young age, the invasion of the Chinese Communists in Derge in the late 1950s thoroughly changed his life. When the Communist army was approaching Derge in 1956, his nephew Namkhai Norbu requested he to escape to India and Sikkim through Central Tibet. Nevertheless, Chökyi Wangchug declined the suggestion of his nephew with the excuse of “remaining a state of equanimity” in his mind that might be interrupted by the long journey. (Namkhai Norbu, 92) Consequently, Chökyi Wangchug entrusted The Vajrapāṇi Terma to Namkhai Norbu and empowered him as a holder of that teaching.

In 1957, Namkhai Norbu fled away to Lhasa and eventually arrived India in 1958. Since that point, Namkhai Norbu did not hear of Chökyi Wangchug until 1981, when he had the chance to revisit Lhasa to see his relatives in Central Tibet. Finally, Namkhai Norbu heard the story of Chökyi Wangchug’s last days of life from Jamyang Chökyi Drönma, Namkhai Norbu’ssister and a well-learned yoginī. According to Jamyang Chökyi Drönma, Chökyi Wangchug tried to escape from the Communist invasion at first; however, he was unfortunately captured and detained by the Communist revolutionists together with other tulkus and monks in 1959 and finally passed away in prison in 1960. Although he was forced to bear suffering humiliations, Chökyi Wangchug still kept his faith in Dharma. Jamyang Chökyi Drönma also witnessed and heard many tulkus and monks had been executed after being tortured by the Communists in the late 1950s. She also attested that some Tibetan people incriminated the others in order to save themselves during that time. Those people were called “Hurtsönpa” (Tb.hur brtson pa ཧུར་བརྩོན་པ་) that means “activists” (Ch. Ji ji fen zi 积极分子) supporting the Communist Party. (Namkhai Norbu, 97) The testimony of Jamyang Chökyi Drönma can be a very critical source for modern Tibetan and Chinese history, since this phenomenon in the late 1950s foreshadows the trend of political struggle sessions (Ch. Pi dou da hui 批斗大会) and the collapse of social trust in Tibetan society since the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.

To sum up, the life of Chökyi Wangchug testifies to the significant transformation of modern Tibetan society, where its long-lasting religious traditions were severely damaged by Communist atheism during the 1950s to the 1970s. Additionally, the political and social institutions of eastern Tibet have also changed in 1960, when Chökyi Wangchug died in jail under the control of the Chinese Communists. Before the fire of the Cultural Revolution was formally ignited in 1966, the Communist revolutionists had already commenced to “strike down” religious leaders under the Communist theory of “class conflict” and the Marxist statement of “religion is the opium of the people.” That is to say, the biography of Chökyi Wangchug can provide us not only a precious source to realize the Tibetan society before the Communist invasion but also critical evidence to rethink the influences of Communism in Tibet in the late 1950s and their connections with the Cultural Revolution.

WechatIMG7.jpegSources cited from (Namkhai Norbu, 17 & 31)

Work Cited
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds: Life and Times of a Realized Tibetan Master, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug. Translated by Enrico Dell’Angelo & Nancy Simmons. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2012.