Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk and Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lhodro Institute

Khenpo Kunga Wanchuk sits in a crossed leg position with his hands in the abhaya mudra of fearlessness and peace.

In Tibet, the monastic shedras (Buddhist Universities) maintain the authenticity and heritage of the Buddha’s teachings. One such university is Dzongsar Institute, in Derge, Eastern Tibet, founded by Rime master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in 1871. It quickly became a major center of Buddhist learning and became famous for its scholastic excellence under the supervision of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö. Over the years, Dzongsar Institute graduated many important scholars and khenpos, significantly contributing to the revival of Buddhist teachings during the period. Dzongsar Tibet was totally destroyed during the political turmoil of the 1960s. Teaching and learning has to stop for over twenty years.

Following is a tribute to Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, who devoted his life to making sure that the legacy of Dzongsar Institute continues. Khenpo passed away in Bir, India, on May 26, 2008.

by Jamyang Dargay

Dzongsar Khenchen Ngawang Kunga Wangchuk was born into a nomadic family in 1921 in Kham Dege, in eastern Tibet. Some knew him as Khenpo Kunga Wangchuk, but his innumerable accomplishments earned him the title “Rinpoche” or “Khenpo Rinpoche” among his friends and students. When Khenpo Rinpoche was a child he studied with working nomads. At the age of 18, he joined Dhocip Monastery (a monastery in the Sakya lineage) near his home. After that he became a homeless ascetic, embracing the religion of the Buddha, and then went on to study Buddhist philosophy at Kham Je Dzongsar institute, a famous shedra in Tibet.

At the age of 19, Khenpo Rinpoche realized very clearly that there is nothing to love or attach to in Samsara; therefore he promised to practice the Dharma. He received teachings on many profound Sutras and Tantras from his root lamas, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö and Dhocip Khen Po Thupten Gyaltsen. At that time there was not any electricity, so Rinpoche had to make butter lamps from his meal to see his books. Sometimes he would study until the sun rose.

When Rinpoche was 28 years old, he became a khenpo’s assistant and taught Buddhist philosophy to many other disciples. At the age of 30, he was given the essential responsibility of teaching his own monastery’s monks as a khenpo in Dhocip Monastery.

In 1955, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö went to Lhasa. Khenpo Rinpoche was very sad to part from his teacher. He had requested that Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö take him along, but he was told to stay in Tibet for the sake of the Buddha, Dharma, and all sentient beings. Perhaps he could come later. Soon after, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö traveled through Utsang, central Tibet, to Sikkim, India. In 1959, he passed into nirvana. Khenpo Rinpoche never saw him again. He remained at the monastery as head khenpo. However, due to the politics of the time, Rinpoche was put into prison from the age of 39 to 61–22 years of punishment for being a spiritual teacher.

Khenpo Rinpoche was released from prison in 1981, when he was 61. He returned to his village in Tibet for one year. During this time he received two letters from his root lama’s reincarnation, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, asking him to come to India. Khenpo Rinpoche decided to go to India, even though he was physically not well. When he left his family and villagers he told them that he was going on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, but secretly he went to India. He had quite an adventure, passing through many different places and encountering many different languages. He arrived safely in Sikkim seven months later andlater, where he had the great joy of meeting Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.

In 1983, at the age of 63, he started to teach Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and seven other students in Sikkim. Two years later, Dzongsar institute was founded at Bir in India by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who appointed Khenpo Rinpoche as the head abbot. Year after year the Institute grew; eventually there wasn’t enough room for all the monks and no space for extensions. In 2002 Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Khenpo Rinpoche discussed building a new monastery, Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö Institute, in Chauntra. Khenpo Rinpoche went to Taiwan, where he drew support from many generous Dharma sponsors to build the new institute. The old Dzongsar Institute became Deer Park. The monastery in Chauntra is now a great facility with a huge temple in the middle surrounded by the kitchen, dining hall, library, and residence of the high root lamas. There are also over 250 rooms for the resident monks. The institute is thriving and is considered one of the top institutions of Buddhist higher education, similar to an Ivy League university in the west.

Khenpo Rinpoche lived simply and without the luxuries that he provided for his students. Rinpoche’s life had many stories, and here I’m telling only a drop in the ocean.

Jamyang Darjay is a student at Dzongsar Khyentse Chökyi Lödrö Institute in India and is studying English at the Institute’s English program, set up by Khyentse Foundation.