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Dance of Great Bliss:
A Biography of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

                  You embody the activities of the three times’ victorious ones
                  And are the force and ally who cuts the net of cyclic existence.
                  O garland of Karmapas who have come through the ages,
                  Lords of beings and sole friend to those who long for liberation,
                  I place you atop my head and make this offering to you.

                  Dancing the vajra dance of appearance-emptiness,
                  You glide in the carefree sky of reality’s true nature.
                  Singing vajra songs of sound-emptiness,
                  You clear the darkness from the minds of fortunate ones.
                  Your mind, vajra bliss and emptiness,
                  Invokes the energy of great wisdom—
                  Fearless yogi for whom all thoughts are free on the spot,
                  Dechen Rangdrol, please arise from the center of my heart.

Khenchen Tsültrim Gyamtso, otherwise known as Dechen Rangdrol, is learned in sūtra, tantra, and all the major and minor fields of knowledge. The display of his accomplishment in experience and realization is perfectly complete. He is utterly renowned throughout the world, both in the East and in the West. An ignorant, ordinary being such as myself would be incapable of writing a proper biography detailing the full deeds of this guru, Vajradhara, on their outer, inner, and secret levels. Nevertheless, I did not dare refuse the command of the lord of victorious ones, the glorious Karmapa, Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, who asked me to compile this volume. Furthermore, in 1993, I had the good fortune of transcribing most of the guru Vajradhara’s autobiography, which he orally dictated to me. Therefore, what follows will be an account of the guru’s life story on the outer level of common appearances.

The story will be told in seven sections, each of which appear in his great autobiography:

        1. Taking birth in this world
        2. Impermanence and change
        3. Pilgrimage to sacred retreat sites
        4. Adversities as assistants, diligence in practice
        5. Wandering among secluded places and charnel grounds
        6. Returning to view, cutting through elaborations
        7. Diligently benefiting the teachings and beings according to the
            command of the lord Rangjung Rigpe Dorje

1. Taking birth in this world

Rinpoche was born in 1935 (the Tibetan female wood pig year of the sixteenth element cycle) in an area of Tibet famously known as Gomde Nangchen.[1] The region was given this name because, during the time of Tishrī Repa Karpo[2] and others, the teachings of the practice lineage flourished incredibly, and male and female householders also devoted themselves to meditation and received profound meditation instructions. The specific locale of his birth was an area central to Nangchen called Traripu.[3] Rinpoche’s father was Namgyal Phuntsok, a descendent of the Gabu Drachung[4] clan; his mother was Maṇi Wangmo. At birth, he was given the name Sherab Lodrö.[5]

Here the great autobiography instructs:

                  When I was born, I was born alone.
                  When I die, I will leave alone for certain.
                  Knowing this, I take delight, between these two stages,
                  In places of solitude, where I wander, alone,

Seeking out the path of liberation.

2. Impermanence and change

Rinpoche’s parents bore seven children—five boys and two girls—but two died at an early age. When he was two years old, his father passed away while traveling on business. Due to this loss, the mother of the family became very distressed; she and all the other children appeared, from an outer perspective, to suffer intensely for around one month. Yet Rinpoche’s own experience was different: he was able to respond to the tragedy by using it as an opportunity to bring all pleasant and unpleasant experiences to the practice of the path. In his autobiography, he recalls:

        Since I was very young at the time, I did not have any solid preconceptions
        about what had happened. Because of this, I recall, I did not experience any
        suffering. Firm certainty arose in me that suffering arises only from thoughts.

About a year later, Rinpoche’s mother went to a very secluded and beautiful retreat at a place called Waterfall Cave,[6] where she set out to practice the “Thousand-part Nyung-ne,” a fasting retreat. Rinpoche accompanied his mother at this time. One night during the retreat, Rinpoche uttered to his mother the name of one his older brothers, adding, “He died.” It was later determined that he had indeed passed away at that time, after having traveled to Ngor Monastery to receive the monastic vows of full ordination. This is an example of how Rinpoche possessed the higher perceptions in an unimpeded manner from a very early age.

Another amazing quality that Rinpoche possessed in his youth was the ability to recall previous lifetimes, of which he spoke in his autobiography:

        It is customarily said that some children remember past lives, in addition to
        possessing other cognitive powers, but that these are gradually forgotten. I
        gained certainty in this through my own experience. […] Furthermore,
        sometimes I would see cliffs and caves and think to myself, “I must practice
        here in the future.” At other times, if I noticed a pleasant-looking plot of land atop
        a cliff, I would think, “Later I must build a retreat house here.” I had these types
        of thoughts frequently. It seems to me that they arose because of habitual
        imprints from meditating in caves in the past or because they were signs that I
        would exert myself in retreats in the future.

Thus it is evident that Rinpoche was, from the time of his childhood, a highly evolved being who had awakened a great deal of his enlightened potential. Despite this, he behaved in a variety of ways from the perspective of the mundane world: when with his friends who liked the dharma, he would play games such as imitating the recitation of liturgies. When with his naughty friends, he would do as they did, throwing stones at birds and so forth. One day he hit a small bird with a stone and fatally injured it. He held it in his hands until the warmth completely left its body. Seeing what he had done to this creature, and overcome by compassion, he wept. In his autobiography, he relates how, though this event, his misguided friends awakened the habitual patterns of great compassion in him and furthered his dedication to virtue:

        I think that, at this time, the habitual tendencies born of cultivating
        compassion in past lifetimes were awakened in me.

3. Pilgrimage to sacred retreat sites

The autobiography says:

        In general, the people of Kham love to go on pilgrimages to the sacred sites. I
        have enjoyed making pilgrimages since my childhood.

Thus, Rinpoche undertook many hardships to go on two pilgrimages, at two different stages of his life, to the great sacred sites of Tibet. On his first pilgrimage, he and his younger sister, Bukyi, were led by their mother on a pilgrimage throughout Tibet. In the tradition of Eastern Tibetan pilgrims, the family loaded themselves up with huge sacks of provisions, bedding, and so forth, and set out for Central Tibet from Nangchen. One day, when the family was crossing a particularly high mountain pass, Rinpoche became tired and angry, so he took off alone, climbing the mountain in a different direction, until he arrived quite some distance away from his mother and sister.

Just then, he heard his mother and sister shouting, “A brown bear is coming! Come here, quickly!” The sheer force of the fear that arose in Rinpoche at that time caused his previous anger to disappear completely. By leaps and bounds, he quickly arrived back in the company of his family. In fact, due to the vivid sensations of fear, he even forgot about the heavy pack he had been carrying. The autobiography says:

        By the time I had returned to my mother and sister, both the anger and the
        fear were gone, and I felt cheerful again. Even though I did not know it then,
        now, after careful reflection, I see that the anger, the fear, and even the
        cheerfulness, were all simply contingent on my thoughts.

We can see from this how Rinpoche knew how to take advantage of his circumstances, bringing his emotions to the path and changing them into positive conditions.

The pilgrimage began in Kham and headed northward to Jang Tana Monastery,[7] the seat of the protector of beings, Sangye Yelpa.[8] There, he saw the stunningly beautiful statues of Gesar of Ling, his wife Drukmo, and his thirty knights. He made aspirations in the presence of these and other rare sacred objects and sources of lore, such as the spears, arrows, and swords of the warriors of Ling.

Proceeding through areas of Southern Tibet such as Chudo in Powo, Rinpoche visited Kongpo Bönri, a renowned mountain sacred to the Bön tradition. Following that, he went to Taklha Gampo, the seat of the lord of dharma, Gampopa. He also visited sacred sites that were blessed by the Karmapas. All of these places he visited in the manner of performing a large, clockwise circumambulation.

He also visited all the sacred sites of the Yarlung area, including Yumbu Lakhar, the first palace of the lord Nyatri Tsenpa, the first king of Tibet; Yarlung Sheldrak, a practice cave of Guru Padmasambhava; and the Tārā Shrine Hall at Tradruk Temple.[9] Following this, Rinpoche visited Samye Monastery, the “unchanging and spontaneously arisen temple,” which was built through the coming together of Padmasambhava, the master from Uḍḍiyana; Trisong Detsen, the dharma king; and Shāntarakṣhita, the great abbot. Rinpoche made offerings to the main temple along with its buildings that are representations of the four continents and the subcontinents.

From Samye, Rinpoche crossed the Gökar mountain pass and proceeded to Lhasa. During that journey, Rinpoche and his family ran out of the food provisions that they had brought along with them, so they begged for alms. They had received just enough tsampa for breakfast, and Rinpoche’s mother was holding this tsampa in a bag. All of a sudden, out of nowhere there appeared a tiny dog, which snatched the bag and scattered all of the tsampa on the ground. Rinpoche relates his experience in his autobiography:

        I did not know how my mother or sister felt, but, as for myself, I was hungry,
        and this happened just as we were about to eat. I was terribly upset. When I
        think about it now, the feeling that arose in me at that time was no different from
        that of a wealthy person suffering the loss of all their possessions.

He also gave dharma instructions related to this event in verse form:

                If you cling to the enjoyments of mundane existence,
                Whether you are a king who has lost his kingdom
                Or a beggar who has lost his food, of this I am sure:
                The suffering your mind endures will be the same. […]

                 When you reflect on how the suffering of clinging
                 Does not change, but stays for a long time, even if you have many enjoyments,
                 You will understand that the suffering of the poor is momentary,
                 And your compassion for wealthy people who cling to true existence will increase.

Rinpoche completed his tour of Lhasa, visiting the city’s most sacred sites. After leaving Lhasa, he would proceed back to Kham by going from the north to the south. In this way, all of the sacred sites were encircled in one large, clockwise circumambulation route. On his way down from the north, he had an unusual experience, which he describes in his autobiography:

        It was as if I was dreaming, yet at the same time, I actually heard the sounds of
        a bear, and it was as if I could actually feel the bear’s presence. It was
        completely terrifying. When I examine this experience now, I can see that this
        was nothing other than a clear apparition of the aspect of my mind that had
        been habituated to fear. I can see with deep certainty that the same principle
        applies to the meditations on selflessness, emptiness, and the deities and
        maṇḍalas of the Vajrayāna: by cultivating familiarity with these, clear
        appearances associated with these realities will increase.

Rinpoche offered these verses of instruction:

                  By habituating oneself to fear and anger,
                  Their clear appearances will truly increase.
                  Seeing this, you can turn the situation around:
                  Through habituation, you can definitely develop clear appearances
                  Of emptiness, deities, maṇḍalas, and so on. […]

                  They say it is difficult to repay the kindness of one’s parents,
                  But it is even more difficult to repay your parents’ kindness
                  When they were the ones who introduced you to the dharma.
                  Aware of this, I pray that all mother beings may achieve awakening.

Finally, Rinpoche returned safely to his homeland.

The lord guru was seventeen years old when he undertook his second pilgrimage in Tibet, and, this time, he traveled together with one of his brothers and one of his sisters. They took the “middle” route heading north, eventually bound for Lhasa. The autobiography says:

        When we first set out, we had to take a lot of things with us, including food,
        such as meat, butter, and tsampa, and bedding. This made our sacks extremely
        heavy. So, we experienced three stages of suffering: in the beginning, there was
        the suffering of having the heavy provisions, which were difficult to carry. In the
        middle, there was the suffering of knowing that our provisions were running out.
        And, finally, there was the suffering of having no provisions at all. From among
        those three, the suffering of having a full load of provisions was the worst,
        because it was twofold: the heavy provisions were difficult to carry, and one
        was constantly worried about having them stolen by thieves and bandits or
        otherwise losing them.

He offered this verse of instruction:

                  Kye Ma! When spinning in self-fixation’s existence,
                  There is no choice but to rely on food and possessions.
                  But, seeing the suffering of amassment and loss,
                  Great enthusiasm is born for the way of the action-free yogi, free of fixation.

Rinpoche proceeded on his pilgrimage to Lhasa, visiting sacred sites such as Samye and making offerings and aspirations, as before. In order to see the places where the first Tibetan people lived, Rinpoche set out to visit the sacred lands of Yarlung. To get there, he had to cross a minor tributary of the Brahmaputra River at Tsethang. When he reached the middle of the river, the water level rose dramatically. Suddenly, Rinpoche found himself on the verge of being completely overwhelmed by the water. At that time, he was directly protected by the yidam, Ārya Tārā. His autobiography shares:

        I had had great faith in the noble Tārā since I was very young and had engaged
        in the practice of Tārā for a long time. There, in the water, all of my mind’s
        thoughts of the three times ceased, and I prayed to Tārā fervently. Even though
         I did not know how to swim, the next thing I knew, I had traveled straight to the

He sang this verse of instruction:

                  Following an experience of suffering difficult to bear,
                  I became happier and brighter than ever before.
                  Happiness and suffering both change; they are impermanent.
                  Do not allow clinging to permanence to deceive your mind.

The next day, the three siblings met at a monastery in Tsethang, and, from there, visited all the sacred sites of Yarlung. Once again, crossing the Khyak and Gökar mountain passes and so on, and using the northern route, they returned comfortably home.

In sum, Rinpoche did not adopt today’s style of big teachers or important people, approaching pilgrimage as a sort of pleasant vacation. Rather, Rinpoche practiced in the footsteps of those with great fortune and faith, undertaking great hardships in order to practice the genuine dharma. He undertook pilgrimage in the manner of a humble, ordinary person, and, through his special experiences on the path, gathered the accumulations of merit and wisdom and purified the obscurations. In this way, he developed unique experiences and realizations. Later, Rinpoche would always extend his support to ordinary pilgrims in India and Nepal so that they could practice the genuine dharma. He knew their joys and sorrows intimately and took special delight in their endeavors.

4. Adversities as assistants, diligence in practice

From ages eight to nineteen, Rinpoche relied on the noble Tārā as his yidam and engaged in the practice of Tārā. Many wondrous signs of his accomplishments in the practice arose, such as dreams in which a beautiful and alluring woman protected him from fear. From that time onward, the lord guru took the noble Tārā as his main yidam in terms of his ongoing, continual practice. He discovered a supplication to Tārā as a mind-terma, and he also composed another song of supplication to Tārā, along with a song of praise that describes how she protects from the eight kinds of fear and the sixteen kinds of fear. He developed a vajra dance to accompany the latter prayers, and his disciples to this day continue to practice these songs and dances.

When Rinpoche was nineteen, he was struck by a serious illness. In the autobiography, he shares that this was the first time he felt a fear of death, and recalls how he came to view a negative circumstance, the imbalance in elements that the illness produced, as a spiritual friend:

        This fear that had been instigated by impermanence caused me to reflect more
        deeply on impermanence itself. It helped me to understand that endeavors
        centered around this lifetime alone have no real meaning. Again and again, the
         thought arose in me, “If I do not die from this illness, I will accomplish the
         genuine dharma.” I repeatedly made pledges of this nature. The illness
         involved swelling of the neck. Eventually, pus began to flow from my neck, and
        I recovered from the illness quickly. I returned to my previous state of good
         health, my conviction to practice the dharma firm.

He offered the following verses as songs of instruction:

                  Kye Ma! Again and again, I meditated on the suffering
                  Of saṃsāra’s three realms and on impermanence and change.
                  This personal experience of the suffering of change
                  Was the first guru to encourage me toward the dharma. […]

                  Tormented by the adverse condition of illness,
                  Suffering on the verge of death,
                  I saw that only the genuine dharma can provide refuge,
                  And gained inspiration to awaken for others’ benefit.

In order to practice the genuine dharma correctly, Rinpoche knew that he would need to rely upon a master, a spiritual friend. He began this journey by traveling to Dzongsar in Dege, where he met Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö.[10] From him he received, in all its stages, the great empowerment of the glorious Hevajra, the principle yidam of the exalted Sakya tradition. From among the Path With Result tradition’s twofold transmission of Explication for the Assembly and Explication for Disciples, Rinpoche received the transmission of the Explication for Disciples, along with the person-to-person transmission of its profound symbols. He also received the inner and outer practices of Virūpa, the inner and outer practices of the Profound Path, the Nāro Khecharī Vajrayoginī practice, the Compendium of Sādhanas, and other transmissions.

At that time, Deshung Rinpoche,[11] a learned and accomplished master who had received the Explication for Disciples teachings five times, served as Chökyi Lodrö Rinpoche’s Kyorpon (senior assistant teacher). From him Rinpoche learned in a complete way the yogic exercises for the channels and winds (rtsa rlung); he also received the reading transmissions of the complete works of the Five Sakya Forebears.[12] The autobiography shares:

        While he was Kyorpon, he taught me about the transmission for the channels
        and winds as it exists in the Kagyü lineage. He also spoke about the life stories
        of several Kagyü siddhas. In this way, while receiving teachings from the Sakya
        lineage, my faith in the Kagyü dharma also increased.

Thus, Rinpoche excellently received the ripening empowerments and liberating instructions, after which he returned to his homeland.

The next master upon whom Rinpoche relied was the venerable Lama Zöpa Tharchin.[13] When Rinpoche first heard his name and of his being renowned for dwelling exclusively in caves and for being an action-free yogi just like Milarepa, free from all attachment to food, wealth, and possessions, faith arose, and Rinpoche set out for Khampe Dorje Drak.[14] The autobiography says:

        When I first met the guru, he was reading from the life story of Machik
        Labdrön.[15] In particular, he had arrived at the section of the story that
        told of how, when Machik was born, she levitated one foot above the ground
        and remained there in dancing posture, her three eyes gazing into space. At
        that moment, the guru’s eyes met mine. The guru told me that this was an
        auspicious coincidence.

Thus, in a manner similar to when Milarepa first met Marpa, the auspicious conditions for the first meeting between guru and disciple came together excellently.

The venerable Lama Zöpa Tharchin first entered monastic life at the glorious Dilyak Monastery.[16] Later, he completed the traditional three-year, practice-intensive retreat. He also made a “full-prostration pilgrimage”[17] from Kham to Lhasa, a pilgrimage during which special experiences and realizations took root in his mind. The autobiography says:

        I once asked the guru about his experience of doing a full-prostration
        pilgrimage. He told me that, at first, it was very difficult, since crashing up
        against the bumpy ground and stones was quite jarring. However, after getting
        used to it, he said, there were no difficulties at all. And, once fully acclimated, it
        was as if the body achieved its full potential for pliancy: the body felt pleasant
         and light; the mind, in its newly-formed pliable state, became free from all
         torpor and agitation and possessed of great clarity, he said. This heightened
         clarity of mind at times reached a point at which the guru felt that he may be on
         the verge of achieving the higher cognitive powers. Nevertheless, he
         remembered his guru’s profound instructions again and again, and, through
         this, he continued onward, free from any clinging or sense of ambition toward
         achieving a result.

After that, Lama Zöpa Tharchin (Zöthar) served as the master of rituals (Dorje Lopön) for three years. Upon completion of those duties, Lama Zöthar made a pledge to practice one-pointedly in a valley cave with no other human beings. Fleeing the comforts of his regular quarters, he traveled to Khampe Dorje Drak, a practice cave about a half-day’s journey from Dilyak Monastery. At this location, Lama Zöthar undertook extensive hardships to practice the dharma, letting go of all concern for the pleasures of the present lifetime.

It was from this guru, at this place, that Rinpoche received the instructions on Mahāmudrā, the Great Seal. Having well completed Mahāmudrā’s outer, common preliminaries, its inner, uncommon preliminaries, and its four special preliminaries, Rinpoche received the explanations of the profound path of Mahāmudrā that cut through all conceptual elaborations. These were not simply text-based lectures; they were profound, person-to-person transmissions, given in the manner of starkly direct (dmar khrid) oral instructions.

About once a week, after having completed a period of intensive practice, Rinpoche would offer his realization (rtogs ’bul) to the guru and receive further pointing-out instructions and methods for clearing away hindrances and enhancing the meditation. In this way, he received in their complete form all of the customary Kagyü-lineage methods and instructions.

Lama Zöthar would often mention to Rinpoche the name of Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche,[18] who, he said, held the transmission for the six dharmas of Nāropa, the path of method.[19] Rinpoche thus developed the wish to meet Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche and receive the teachings on the six dharmas from him.

But before completing this period of training with Lama Zöthar, Rinpoche received the empowerments for the profound practice of Chö—cutting through—from him, as well as the instructions for Chö practice’s visualizations and so forth, in the manner of direct, personal instructions, without relying on texts. Rinpoche then practiced Chö every evening without fail.

According to his guru’s command, Rinpoche next set out for Dilyak Monastery to meet its retreat master, Lama Sangye Phuntsok. At that time he also met Khenpo Tsegyam, who was staying together with Lama Sangye Phuntsok at the retreat center, and Karma Trinley Rinpoche, who, along with his retinue, had arrived for a visit. Lama Sangye Rinpoche told Rinpoche and the others that, although the Kagyüpas have a strong tradition of practice, there are few Kagyü masters who are learned in the topic of valid cognition (Buddhist logic and epistemology). In the future, he said, it would be of great benefit to the Kagyü lineage if the valid cognition teachings were studied in greater depth.

Lama Sangye Rinpoche then instructed Rinpoche to learn the valid cognition teachings from Khenpo Tsegyam; he also gave an empowerment of Mañjushrī, the lion of speech, and began the tradition of studying valid cognition in practice retreat centers at that time.

Rinpoche would later speak of the impact that the study of Buddhist logic and epistemology had on his meditation practice. He talked about how the path of logical arguments assisted the meditation practices he had previously received on the basis of pith instructions, about how it increased the confidence he had in the path, which was previously grounded mostly in faith alone. Moreover, through the guru’s oral instructions, he had previously meditated upon selflessness and the lack of true existence; later, due to his valid cognition studies, his certainty about selflessness and emptiness increased and increased, and other excellent experiences arose in his mindstream. In this way, not only did he gain a sense of delight toward valid cognition; his inspiration toward practice also intensified.

Following the instructions of the retreat master, Lama Sangye, Rinpoche studied valid cognition in a practice retreat setting. Rinpoche would later say that this turned out to be an auspicious form of service to the teachings of the practice lineage.

Once again, Rinpoche returned to stay with the venerable Lama Zöthar for a few months. During this time, the guru tested him on his realization of the inexpressible, true nature of mind and cleared up remaining doubts. Rinpoche developed a firm resolve to wander from retreat cave to retreat cave, without any clinging to personal preferences, and made repeated aspirations that this would come to pass.

5. Wandering among secluded places and charnel grounds

According to the command of the venerable Lama Zöpa Tharchin, Rinpoche went to Lawa Drup Puk,[20] a practice cave located not too far from where Rinpoche was born. This cave is known as a practice cave of the siddha Lawapa, who is said to have miraculously flown there from India and engaged in meditative practice. In this very isolated and pleasantly situated cave, Rinpoche mainly practiced the guru yoga of Padmasambhava and the life story of Milarepa in the daytimes, while diligently performing Chö practice during the nighttimes. The autobiography says:

        When practicing alone in caves, it is important to read the life story of
        Milarepa and his songs of realization again and again…

                  Thus I practiced, with my guru’s command,
                   In the empty, isolated cave
                   Blessed by mahāsiddha Lawapa.
                   Now, though my youth is gone, my delight increases.

This was my guru’s first experience of practicing in a cave alone.

One night during the same retreat, Rinpoche had a dream that his heart was snatched away by a crow, which then flew away along the path of a great river that flowed from the west to the east. Close to the cave where Rinpoche was practicing, there lived a master named Lama Rabjor,[21] who was famous for possessing the higher cognitive powers in their unimpeded form. Rinpoche went to see Lama Rabjor and told him about his dream and about his general interest in traveling to Tsurphu. In response, the lama gave Rinpoche the empowerment of Vajrakīlaya from the Sangtik cycle,[22] along with the prophecy that Rinpoche should go to Central Tibet.

Following this, Rinpoche practiced Vajrakīlaya in the Lawa retreat cave and also offered feasts and made aspirations. After that, he set out for Central Tibet. The autobiography says:

        With a longing to meet the glorious Karmapa, the embodiment of the
        enlightened activity of all victorious ones, and a yearning to receive from
        Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche the profound oral instructions of the six dharmas, I
         set out alone, like a thirsty man seeking water.

On the way to Central Tibet, Rinpoche stopped at various pilgrimage sites and made aspirations that the teachings of the Buddha would flourish and expand and that all the limitless sentient beings would come to know happiness and joy. Eventually, he arrived in good health at the glorious Tölung Tsurphu,[23] the place that had been blessed by sixteen glorious Karmapas, beginning with Düsum Khyenpa. Tsurphu is considered to be a supreme sacred site of the mind of Chakrasaṃvara. In praise of this place, he sang this vajra song:

                  Three jewels, three roots, and infinite deities,
                  I hold you as supreme refuges from now until enlightenment.
                  I will now praise just a part of the qualities
                  Of this place of Akaniṣhṭa, a sacred site of mind.

                  From the lord Düsum Khyenpa
                  To Rigpe Dorje, the undeceiving refuge,
                  This supreme, glorious site of enlightened mind,
                  Akaniṣhṭa, has been blessed by sixteen successive Karmapas.

                  The rocks here may appear to be solid matter,
                  But they are merely the figments of dualistic thoughts:
                  In reality, they are appearance-emptiness, a maṇḍala of deities.
                  When certainty in this becomes stable,

                  All who practice here
                  Will effortlessly perfect without exception
                  The excellent qualities of the grounds and paths
                  Of the great secret, the Vajrayāna—
                  In this I have gained certainty.

                  All the future Karmapas as well
                  Will surely turn the dharma wheel in this place.
                  Therefore, may the ravines between the rocks
                  Fill up with disciples of the Karmapa’s teachings!

                  Like bees to a flower garden,
                  May the faithful men and women of the world
                  Wander among these secluded retreats.
                  May their fame fill the world,
                  And may faithful hearts blaze brightly!

Rinpoche added:

        Reflecting on the excellent qualities of this place of Akaniṣhṭa, a supreme
        sacred site of enlightened mind, I set these words to melody and applied
        myself with diligence in the guru yoga of the glorious Karmapa.

At Tsurphu, along with a gathering of many faithful, Rinpoche witnessed the Karmapa performing the ceremony of the precious Vajra Crown, which liberates upon seeing. The autobiography says:

        Even at that time, I possessed a firm conviction that it is not the hat that
        blesses the Karmapa, it is the Karmapa who blesses the hat. Therefore, I
        mentally requested the empowerments of the guru’s body, speech, and mind,
        and imagined, with confidence, that I received the empowerments and
        blessings of enlightened body, speech, and mind. In general, the precious
        Vajra Crown that liberates upon seeing is a wondrous thing; yet it is only an
        example of the naturally appearing wisdom of the Karmapa. I had confidence
        that the true ‘hat’ of the Karmapa’s wisdom always abides inseparably with
        the Karmapa’s successive manifestations, and I have appreciated my good
        fortune in being able to have this confidence. I have always felt that this
        exemplary hat is something that the Karmapa displays for those disciples who
        cannot see the Karmapa’s naturally appearing wisdom hat, and that the
        Karmapa himself, no matter which incarnation, is capable of making a hat of
        this exemplary nature.

Later, Rinpoche proceeded to the great charnel ground of Tsurphu, where he practiced, in forward and reverse order, meditation on the twelve links of interdependence. He then visited and meditated in the practice cave of the Ninth Karmapa, Kyimo Cave,[24] the practice cave of the lord Repa Chenpo,[25] and other sites. Rinpoche became very inspired to request the pointing-out instructions of Mahāmudrā from the glorious lord of victorious ones, the Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje. He requested an audience through a personal attendant and was immediately ushered into the Karmapa’s presence. The autobiography says:

        “What is the essence of your mind like?” he asked me. Immediately my mind
         became free of thoughts, and, for a brief while, I could not speak. Eventually, I
         replied, “When I analyze my mind, I cannot find it, but, when it is resting, it
         possesses clarity.” He laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s it. All objects are
         appearance-emptiness inseparable. All mental states are clarity-emptiness
         inseparable. All feelings are bliss-emptiness inseparable. This is how they   
         truly are; recognize them to be so.” For a moment, through the guru’s blessing, my mind
         once again became free of thoughts, and I sat silently. He gazed upon me and
         then said, “Practice like that in the cave.” I returned to my practice cave once
         again, reflecting on the meaning of his words repeatedly. I gained strong certainty
         that, although his words were brief, they possessed profound and vast meaning.
         By contemplating these profound oral instructions, from the time I received them
         to the present, I have come to understand that they contain the profound,
         essential points of the view of all sūtra and tantra.

Rinpoche’s autobiography continues to elucidate the wisdom intention of the three lines of the lord of victorious ones’ pointing-out instructions in the form of an extended song of realization.

It was also during this period that Rinpoche met Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche. Relaying some of Drupön Tenzin’s life story, the autobiography states:

        In the beginning, he entered and completed the three-year retreat at Dilyak
        Monastery. Following that, he practiced for long periods of time in caves in
         unpopulated valleys, such as Yopkok. The venerable Lama Zöthar told me
         several times about the many wondrous and miraculous signs that arose in
         Drupön Tenzin’s practice during this period. Once again Drupön Tenzin
         returned to Dilyak Monastery, where he served as retreat master
         (drupön/sgrub dpon). Of the many action-free yogis who he guided, one of the
         foremost was Lama Zöthar. After completing his service as retreat master,
         Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche went on pilgrimage in the style of an action-free yogi,
         visiting all of the major sacred sites of Tibet, including Mount Kailash. He
         completed the pilgrimage by arriving at the glorious Tölung Tsurphu. The lord
         of victorious ones, Karmapa, knowing that Drupön Tenzin possessed the
         supreme transmissions of Mahāmudrā and the six dharmas, requested and
         received from him the oral instructions of the six dharmas and other
         teachings. The Karmapa then requested him to take up permanent residency
         at Tsurphu, and so he did. […] Although he found himself in the rare position
         of being the teacher who had offered the profound instructions of the six
         dharmas to the lord of victorious ones, the glorious Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe
         Dorje, he shunned any air of greatness and maintained the ways of the
         action-free yogi.

From Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche, in the manner of an experiential transmission, Rinpoche received, in a perfectly complete way, the profound guiding instructions of the path of method, the six dharmas of Nāropa. The six dharmas are the essence of the glorious Nāropa’s teachings on the profound completion stage of secret mantra’s highest class of tantra. They were also the principal practice of the lord Milarepa. After receiving the transmission, Rinpoche perfectly completed the practice of the six yogas by practicing, day and night without break, in the practice cave of Gyalwa Gangpa.

Next, Rinpoche received the profound instructions for Extracting Vitality From Space[26] and practiced them in the cave of the lord Repa Chenpo. When Rinpoche was on retreat, Drupön Tenzin supported him with great loving-kindness. Drupön Tenzin’s two sisters, who lived at Tsurphu, also supported Rinpoche and served as Rinpoche’s retreat attendants, providing the necessary provisions and so on.

After Rinpoche had practiced further for some time, he offered his realization to Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche, and the two engaged in a dialogue. This greatly expanded Rinpoche’s outlook and enhanced his sense of faith, respect, and delight toward the guru. He sang this song of joy:

                  Through the oral instructions of the kind guru,
                  Who is inseparable from Vajradhara,
                  I eat the food of empty space;
                  I sit on the chair of the empty ground.

                  Placing my trust in cliffs and rocks,
                  I need no pillows or pajamas:
                  By the blessings of the siddha forebears,
                  I am not stirred by thoughts of the past;
                  I don’t think about problems of the future.

                  I know how to rest in the luminous present-mind-itself,
                  Naturally settled and relaxed.
                  There is no way I could repay the guru’s kindness,
                  So I make this aspiration:
                  In all my births and lifetimes,
                  May I perfectly fulfill the guru’s wishes.
                  May I benefit beings and the teachings,
                  And may auspiciousness be abundant
                  For the two benefits to be accomplished!

According to the command of Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche, Rinpoche spent seven nights at the Tsurphu charnel ground, which is said to be identical in character to the Sītavana[27] charnel ground. In the nighttimes, Rinpoche secretively immersed himself in the practices of Chö, analytical meditation on the two types of selflessness, the yogas of loving-kindness and compassion, and other meditations. In the daytimes, in his practice cave, he engaged in hearing, contemplating, and meditating on the basis of the life story of Machik Labdrön.

After completing that retreat, for the next few weeks, following his guru’s command, he remained in the Tsurphu charnel ground, but this time, he stayed near a large bolder in the charnel ground, where he made his tent by removing the clothing from corpses and using it as canvas, tying the canvass together with the rope that had been used to tie the corpses up. In this setting, Rinpoche practiced the genuine dharma of Chö, which cuts through the deception of Māra, day and night without break. He cut the root of self-fixation, and excellent signs of experience arose in his mind. He also performed the gaṇachakra practice of profound yogic conduct. Due to all of this, he naturally came to be known by the local people as “the charnel ground man” or “the charnel ground lama.” In this and other ways, Rinpoche’s legacy was very similar to the life stories of the siddhas of yore.

At that time, a group of nuns from Jindo Monastery in Nyemo and Drolma Puk[28] had arrived in Tsurphu and met Rinpoche for the first time. Though they invited Rinpoche to Nyemo, he did not accept their request. Sometime later, with the permission of Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche, Rinpoche made the decision to undertake a pilgrimage to the noble land of India. The first place he visited after departing Tsurphu was Nyemo, the very location of Jindo Monastery. However, he did not enter the monastery itself; instead, he stayed for three days in the nearby charnel ground.

Finally, after the nuns had supplicated him repeatedly to accept them as his students, he acceded and went to the monastery, granting the nuns teachings on the preliminaries for Mahāmudrā, the sādhana entitled Accomplishing the Realm of Great Bliss,[29] and other dharmas.

After that, Rinpoche traveled to the practice caves of Berotsana, the king of translators, and of Kugom Chökyi Senge,[30] a heart disciple of Machik Labdrön. Intense faith arose in Rinpoche’s mind, and he uttered songs of supplication, such as the following:

                  I supplicate the gurus of the lineage of Chö,
                  I supplicate Machik Lab kyi Drön
                  I supplicate Kugom Chökyi Senge:
                  Bless me so that my clinging to the actions of this life,
                  The mistaken appearances of habitual tendencies,
                  Be reversed from its depths.

Next, he crossed the iron bridge built by the siddha Thangtong Gyalpo.[31] He then practiced in a large abandoned house in Jako, as well as in three charnel grounds: the Nyangpo charnel ground, the Khashor Shawari Gong charnel ground, and the Kargung charnel ground. At these sites, Rinpoche sought out the citadel of Chö practice. Many harrowing and miraculous experiences ensued. Rinpoche transformed all of these into aides that enhanced his practice and made further manifest the prajñā that realizes selflessness, the true nature of reality. The dexterity of his realization increasing, he prevailed over mistaken appearances. Following that, Rinpoche practiced at two great sacred sites of Yeshe Tsogyal: the Jomo Kharak and Jomo Drösa practice caves.

Once again he returned to Jindo Monastery in Nyemo and made his final preparations to depart for India. The nuns made several requests to accompany Rinpoche on his journey, and, finally, he gave them his permission to do so. Thus, during the year of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s passing according to the Theravāda schools, Rinpoche and his retinue traveled to the four great sacred sites[32] and other pilgrimage destinations.

The nuns (who are now quite elderly) who traveled with Rinpoche at this time have shared many oral accounts of miraculous feats he displayed during their pilgrimage. So as not to make the present volume too lengthy, I shall not write about these here.

Rinpoche and party eventually returned safely and in good health to Nyemo, after which he again set out alone, sealing himself in a strict, solitary retreat in the cave called Drolma Puk, a sacred site blessed by the siddha Nyemowa.[33]

By 1959, a change of eras had come to pass in Tibet. In that year, Rinpoche came out of retreat and, with the assistance of his nun disciples, traveled, via Bhutan, to India, arriving there as a refugee.

6. Returning to view, cutting through elaborations

For the next nine years, in Buxa Duar, India, Rinpoche once again engaged in the studies of the view, continuing upon the hearing, contemplating, and meditating that he had done previously. He studied the Kagyü lineage’s traditional texts, which include the three tantric topics, i.e. the Treatise on Buddha Nature, the Hevajra Tantra, and the Profound Inner Reality, and the five sūtra topics.[34] He also extensively studied the Sakya, Geluk, and Nyingma traditions’ canonical texts of sūtra, tantra, and logic. In this way, he completely cut through all doubts and conceptual fabrications.

When his studies were complete, he took an oral debate examination before a gathering of several thousand abbots, tulkus, lamas, and monks of the four major Buddhist orders of Tibetan Buddhism; the gathering was presided over by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. After the examination, he was awarded the degree of Geshe Lharampa. Rinpoche became an object of praise and reverence for his talent with logical debate and for his acute knowledge and wisdom. His fame truly spread in all directions.

Rinpoche then returned to the presence of the sixteenth supreme victor and Drupön Tenzin Rinpoche, receiving further experiential instructions and offering his realizations. He also received the empowerments, instructions, and reading transmissions for the great Rinchen Terdzö (Precious Treasury of Terma) from the lord of refuge, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. In particular, he received the complete guiding instructions for the Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo (Stages of the Path of Essential Wisdom) and other key texts.

In short, during this period, Rinpoche completely cut through all conceptual fabrications through hearing, contemplating, and meditating upon the profound view, meditation, and conduct in all their stages.

At the age of 31, the lord guru was honored by the sixteenth supreme victor, the lord Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, and named as an abbot (khenpo) of the glorious, unequalled Kagyü lineage.

7. Diligently benefiting the teachings and beings, according to the command of the lord Rangjung Rigpe Dorje

Following the instructions of the 16th Karmapa, as well as the profound inspiration of Bhutan’s Royal Mother, Phuntsok Chödrön, Rinpoche traveled to Bhutan, staying for a few years at Kunga Rabten and Bumthang. At these places he performed the extensive benefit of many faithful students. In 1968, atop a mountain at Kunga Rabten Dzong, Rinpoche founded a nunnery named Karma Drubde Gon, complete with representations of the three jewels, in a very secluded and beautiful place. He placed the nuns who had traveled with him from Nyemo, around thirteen in number, in three-year retreat at a retreat facility on site and carefully guided them through their practices.

In accordance with the command of the great sixteenth supreme victor, who instructed Rinpoche to go to the West and perform enlightened activity for the benefit of the teachings and beings, in 1977, Rinpoche traveled to Europe, beginning in France, at the Kagyü seat, Takpo Kagyü Ling. At that time, Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche[35] was also in the area. The two masters engaged in discussions about their experiences and realizations of the Middle Way, Mahāmudrā, and Dzogchen, and found their experiences to be quite harmonious.

After that, Rinpoche traveled to the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Greece, and other European destinations, teaching Tibetan language and vastly turning the dharma wheels of sūtra and mantra. The many European students who became translators and who engaged in extensive study of sūtra and tantra under his guidance would become Rinpoche’s first Western disciples.

When he was staying in Europe, the lord guru posed a question to His Holiness the 16th Karmapa: “The Early Translation School of Nyingma possesses the ‘thirteen great texts,’[36] the glorious Sakya school has the ‘eighteen texts of great renown,’[37] and the Riwo Gedenpas, the Geluk school, have the ‘five canonical volumes’[38] and so forth. What texts are uniquely important to the Kagyü tradition?” The Karmapa’s answer came in a letter in which he wrote, “For the Kagyü, there are eight great texts of sūtra and tantra.”[39]

As if the letter had descended directly upon the crown of his head, Rinpoche heeded this advice from the Karmapa with great respect and began emphasizing these texts on sūtra and tantra in his teachings. He supplemented this by making aspirations that the buddha-activity of the general dharmas of scripture and realization and, in particular, of the unequalled Takpo Kagyü, would spread to the reaches of space. In 1978, Rinpoche established the Kagyü Thegchen Shedra in Europe, and, following that, he established the Marpa Foundation of Europe.

Beginning in 1982, and according to the command of the 16th Karmapa, Rinpoche served as the abbot of the Karma Shrī Nālandā Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies at the Karmapa’s seat, Rumtek Monastery. He gave many khenpos, tulkus, and monks teachings on the great texts, and extensively guided them through the stages of meditation of shamatha, vipashyanā, and so on in the context of sequential engagement in the vehicles of Buddhadharma. He also composed texts on the Kagyü lineage’s unique approach to essential shedra topics: introduction to the terms of logic, the classifications of mind, and the classifications of reasons, along with critical analyses of the latter two. These texts were Rinpoche’s own compositions, yet precisely summarized the intended meaning of the Ocean of Texts on Reasoning by the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyamtso, and the Treasury of Knowledge by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye. They became a unique resource for studies in Kagyü shedras and in international dharma institutions and organizations.

Rinpoche eventually made his way to the United States of America, Canada, and other countries in North and South America. Without bias, he taught the dharma of sūtra and mantra to devoted students at the Kagyü seat known as Karma Triyana Dharmachakra, Vajradhātu, centers inspired by the venerable Kalu Rinpoche, and for many other groups and organizations. In particular, with great kindness he bestowed the pith instructions of Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen and guided students in these meditations; he continues to guide many of these students to this day.

During his time in North America, Rinpoche met with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and discussed with him the spreading and propagation of the Buddha’s teachings in the West. Rinpoche’s North American body of students became boundless and included many fluent translators. In 1994, he established the American branch of the Marpa Foundation.

Rinpoche also traveled to southeast Asia, in countries such as Taiwan, where he gave teachings on the three vehicles. In particular, he brought down a nectar rain of the genuine dharma of the secret mantra Vajrayāna, by which he fully ripened fortunate disciples. In Taiwan, he established a dharma center, called Zabsang Shedrub, and another branch of the Marpa Foundation. He also established Zabsang Shedrub practice centers in Malaysia and Singapore. Through all of these activities, he propagated the teachings of the practice lineage in all directions.

Throughout this period, Rinpoche continued to turn the wheel of dharma in India, Bhutan, and Nepal. In Bhutan, he established three retreat centers in the area of the royal residence at Kunga Rabten: one in 1988, called Drolma Chöling, one in 1998, called Ngön-ga Chöling, and one in 2001, called Kunzang Ngayab Chöling. Having established these centers, complete with representations of the three jewels, he guided the nuns who practiced there, and who continue to practice and receive Rinpoche’s guidance to this day, in the preliminaries, the meditation and recitation of Accomplishing the Realm of Great Bliss, together with its associated phowa practice, the Heart Sūtra, Chö, Könchok Chidü, and other methods of practicing Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen. The nuns have continued their application to these practices in an uninterrupted manner.

In 1983, near the Jarung Khashor stupa in Boudhanath, Nepal, Rinpoche began giving teaching sessions to international students, focusing on Tibetan language and on the texts of sūtra, mantra, and logic. In 1986, he founded the Marpa Institute for Translation and the Marpa Translation Committee. In addition to that, at the school of translation he also imparted rare and profound teachings to certain gatherings of some of his most advanced and closest students, led by some of the most gifted tulkus. To these audiences he taught, in the style of experiential transmissions, Mahāmudrā: the Ocean of Definitive Meaning, the Profound Inner Reality, the six-branch yoga of the Kālachakra Tantra, the six dharmas of Nāropa, and other oral instructions of the paths of liberation and method. He imparted these teachings in their fully developed forms, complete with interviews in which the students offered their realizations, instructions for the stages of enhancement, and so on.

In the year 2000, Rinpoche established a retreat center in Yolmo Gangra in Nepal, at Tak Puk Senge Dzong, the “tiger cave, lion fortress,” a practice site of the lord Milarepa. Since that time, nuns and international disciples of Rinpoche have been engaging in the practices of Mahāmudrā and so on there. In 2006, near the Jarung Khashor stupa in Boudhanath, Rinpoche established Thegchok Ling, a nunnery, complete with representations of the three jewels, where female monastic disciples apply themselves with joyful diligence in hearing, contemplating, and meditating upon the dharma in precise accordance with the manner in which the lord guru has guided them.

In summary of all the above, the lord guru has been an exemplary holder of the teachings of the victorious one by embodying the union of practice and study. He has engaged in vast explanation, debate, and composition on the basis of the textual traditions of sūtra and mantra in general, and he has held the tradition of direct, experiential guidance in practice and bestowed infinite oral instructions upon others. In this way, he has established a limitless number of fortunate disciples on the paths of ripening and liberation.

To speak further of his sublime deeds, Rinpoche has always placed great value on the songs of realization of Milarepa, such as those found in his One Hundred Thousand Songs, as well as those of all the siddha forebears of the earlier and later schools. Accordingly, he has uttered many vajra songs elucidating their intention. He has also independently composed innumerable vajra dohās that communicate the oral instructions.

He revitalized the tradition of practice related to the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje’s Karma Nyingtik, the “heart essence of the Karmapa,” and imparted its experiential, pith instructions.

To this day, fortunate students from the East and West alike continue to practice and enjoy the fruits of two of his most unique contributions: his supplications, songs, and vajra dances of Ārya Tārā, which tell of her origins, and the yogic exercise system of Lujong, “training and purifying the body,” a special system that brings the paths of liberation and method together, a system that sprung forth from the guru’s own wisdom mind expanse.

He composed The Sādhana of Mahāmudrā: The Joyous Dance of the Amṛita of Great Bliss, a spontaneously spoken, utterly profound and sublime set of instructions on luminous Mahāmudrā, accompanied by his own autocommentary.

He made it possible for his students the world over to sing the above-mentioned songs of realization with newly adapted melodies in a wide variety of his students’ own languages: Tibetan, English, Chinese, and other tongues. He furthered their experience of hearing, contemplating, and meditating by encouraging them to accompany these songs with vajra dances. In these ways, with great kindness, Rinpoche emulated, and continues to perfectly emulate, the life examples of the great forebears of the practice lineage.


This outer life story, told from the perspective of common appearances, of my glorious guru, Khenchen Vajradhara, Dechen Rangdrol, has been based mainly upon his great autobiography and was supplemented by discussions with some of the elderly nuns who were the guru’s original disciples and with some of the guru’s senior Western students. It has been written here according to the command of the lord of victorious ones.

By the power of this, may I and others, all of the lord guru’s students, see the seeds of our devotion and the three kinds of faith develop further and further, until we ourselves gain the ability to hold the legacy of the lord guru’s experience and realization. In particular, may this endeavor be a cause that promotes the secure and long lives of the glorious lord of victorious ones, Karmapa Ogyen Drodul Trinley Dorje, and the supreme guru, Khenchen Vajradhara: may their enlightened activity spread throughout the reaches of space!

                  This has been a tale of liberation that shows exactly
                  How the pure renunciation of the foundational vehicle,
                  The compassion and bodhichitta of the Mahāyāna,
                  And the unbiased, sacred outlook of the Vajrayāna
                  Can be applied to one’s mind.

                  The luminosity of enlightened body,
                  With its dignified signs and marks,
                  The melody of enlightened speech,
                  With its lute-like, natural resonance of dharmatā,
                  And the sphere of enlightened mind,
                  With its stainless original wisdom,
                  Are realized through nothing but faith and devotion’s path—
                  How could they be known in any other way?

                  Going far beyond hope and fear, the schemes of concept,
                  In all my lifetimes, may I be guided by the peerless guru.
                  By this, may I quickly reach the supreme state of Vajradhara.


This was written by one of this lord’s subjects who has been sustained by the guru’s three kindnesses, the one called Dzogchen Ponlop, otherwise known as Karma Sungrap Ngedön Tenpay Gyaltsen. It was completed at Nalanda West (Seattle, Washington) in the year 2553 of the Buddhist era. May this be virtuous! Sarva Mangalam!

Translated under the guidance of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, and with assistance from Acharya Tashi Wangchuk, by Tyler Dewar of the Nitartha Translation Network, October 27, 2010, Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

© 2010 Tyler Dewar and the Nitartha Translation Network

[1] “Gomde” (sGom sde) means “community of meditation”; “Nangchen” (Nang chen) is the proper name of the place. Nangchen, in Kham, Tibet, is located in the present-day Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the Qinghai Province of China. The location of Nangchen is viewable on Google Maps at

[2] Ti shr’i ras pa dkar po.

[3] Khra ris phu.

[4] Ga bu sbra chung.

[5] Shes rab blo gros, “prajñā-intelligence.”

[6] Chu ’bab phug.

[7] Byang rta rna mgon, a monastery of the Yelpa (Yel pa) Kagyü lineage that is also affiliated with Tsurphu Monastery, the main seat of the Karma Kagyü lineage (Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, G2628).

[8] Sangs rgyas yel pa, 1134-1194, also known as Yelpa Yeshe Tsek (Yel pa ye shes brtsegs), composed many works, mainly songs of realization and supplications (Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, P5132).

[9] Tradruk temple is a major historic site in Southern Tibet. It was built by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century as one of four “border temples” (mtha’ ’dul bzhi) to subdue malevolent forces in Tibet at that time (The Great Tibetan-Chinese Dictionary).

[10] Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros), also known as Dzongsar (rdzong gsar) Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, was a greatly renowned master of Tibet’s Rime (ris med) tradition.

[11] sDe gzhung rin po che, 1906-1987. See David P. Jackson’s A Saint in Seattle (Wisdom Publications, 2003).

[12] The Five Sakya Forebears (Sa skya gong ma lnga) were Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (Sa chen kun dga’ snying po, 1092-1158), Sönam Tsemo (bSod nams rtse mo, 1142-1182), Drakpa Gyaltsen (Grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216), Sakya Paṇḍita (Sa skya paN Di ta, 1182-1251), and Chögyal Pakpa (Chos rgyal ’phags pa, 1235-1280).

[13] bZod pa mthar phyin.

[14] Khams pad rdo rje brag.

[15] Ma gcig lab sgron, 105-1149, the great founder of the practice tradition of Chö (gcod, lit. “cutting”). See Machik's Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd by Sarah Harding (Snow Lion Publications, 2003) and Machig Labdrön and the Foundations of Chöd by Jérôme Edou (Snow Lion Publications, 1996).

[16] A monastery affiliated with Tsurphu, located in Nangchen, Kham.

[17] A “full-prostration pilgrimage” is a devotional way for traditional Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims to traverse their routes, often of significant distances. The pilgrim covers the entire route by way of performing a full prostration, stepping forward to the point on the ground that their outstretched hands had reached during the just-completed prostration, performing another full prostration from that point, and repeating this process until the destination is reached.

[18] sGrub dpon bstan ’dzin rin po che.

[19] Mahāmudrā, on the other hand, comprises the “path of liberation.”

[20] Lva ba sgrub phug.

[21] bLa ma rab ’byor.

[22] gSang thig snying po, a terma cycle of the great treasure-revealer, Chokgyur Lingpa (mchog gyur gling pa, 1829-1870).

[23] Tölung (sTod lung, lit. “upper valley”) is a locational reference to the county in which Tsurphu (mTshur phu) Monastery is located, Tölung Dechen Dzong (sTod lung bde chen rdzong), the “fortress of great bliss in the upper valley.”

[24] sKyid mo phug.

[25] “Great Repa” is a reference to Tashi Paljor (bKra shis dpal ’byor, 1457-1525), the first Sangye Nyenpa (Sangs rgyas mnyan pa) incarnation and principal guru to the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje.

[26] Nam mkha’i bcud len.

[27] bSil ba tshal, a famous charnel ground in present-day Bihar State, India.

[28] sByin mdo mgon in sNye mo and sGrol ma phug.

[29] bDe chen zhing sgrub.

[30] Khu sgom chos kyi seng ge.

[31] Thang stong rgyal po, 1361-1485, a highly famed meditation adept, engineer, and artist. See King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo by Cyrus Stearns (Snow Lion Publications, 2007).

[32] The four great sacred sites are the sites of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, turning the first wheel of dharma, and passing into parinirvāṇa, corresponding in that order to Lumbini, Bodhgaya, Vārāṇasī, and Kushinagar.

[33] sNye mo ba, also known as Nyemowa Samten Phuntsok (sNye mo ba bsam gtan phun tshogs), a master of the Drikung Kagyü tradition. (The Life of Shabkar: the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, translated by Matthieu Ricard, Snow Lion Publications, 2001, p. 346, n. 65.)

[34] The five sūtra topics are Buddhist ethics (Vinaya), the Abhidharma, Valid Cognition, Prajñāpāramitā, and the Middle Way. See more on the three tantra topics and the five sūtra topics in the note below on the Kagyü lineage’s “eight great texts of sūtra and tantra.”

[35] sMyo shul mkhan rin po che, 1931-1999, one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of the twentieth century.

[36] A list of these thirteen texts has been made by the Rigpa Shedra ( and can be viewed at

[37] These eighteen are listed in note 469 on p. 661 of Cyrus Stearns’s Taking the Result as the Path: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdré Tradition, Wisdom Publications, 2006. A Google Books image of this note can be viewed at

[38] These were noted above as the “five sūtra topics.”

[39] The eight great texts of sūtra and tantra are actually eight sets of root texts and commentaries. There are five sūtra topics and three tantra topics. For the five sūtra topics, the root text for Vinaya is the Summary of the Vinaya (Vinayasūtra,’Dul ba mdo) by Gunaprābha; the main commentary used is Orb of the Sun (Nyi ma’i dkyil ’khor) by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. The root text for the Abhidharma is the Treasury of Abhidharma (Abhidharmakosha, Chos mngon pa mdzod) by Vasubandhu; the main commentary used is Extracting the Delight of Accomplishment and Bliss (Grub bde dpyid ’jo) by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. The root text for Prajñāpāramitā is the Ornament for Clear Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra, mNgon rtogs rgyan) by Maitreya and Asaṅga; the main commentary used is In Relief of the Noble Ones (rJe btsun ngal gso) by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. The root text for the Middle Way is the Entrance to the Middle Way (Madhyamakāvatāra, dBu ma la ’jug pa) by Chandrakīrti; the main commentary used is Chariot of the Takpo Kagyü Siddhas (Dvags brgyud grub pa’i shing rta) by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. The root texts for Valid Cognition are the Seven Treatises on Valid Cognition (Tshad ma sde bdun) by Dharmakīrti (the main text among the seven is the Commentary on Valid Cognition or Pramāṇavarttīka, Tshad ma rnam ’grel) and the Compendium of Valid Cognition (Pramāṇasamuccaya, Tshad ma kun btus) by Dignāga; the main commentary used is the Ocean of Texts on Reasoning (Rigs gzhung rgya mtsho), a work that comments on all eight of those texts, by the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyamtso. For the three tantra topics, there is the Treatise on Buddha Nature (Uttaratantra, rGyud bla ma) by Maitreya and Asaṅga and its main commentary, The Lion’s Irreversible Roar (Mi blzog seng ge’i nga ro), by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye; the Hevajra Tantra (brTag gnyis) by the Buddha Shākyamuni and its main commentary, Elucidating the Indestructible Vajra Secret (gZhom med rdo rje’i gsang ba ’byed pa), by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye; and the Profound Inner Reality (Zab mo nang don) by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, along with the author’s autocommentary, as well as a main commentary by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye called Illuminating the Profound Reality (Zab don snang byed).