This is an account of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s first visit to Tibet in 2001 by Peter Volz.
From June 6 to July 17, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, his mother Lady Kunchok Palden and a delegation of 15 members of the Shambhala community made a pilgrimage to a number of monasteries in eastern Tibet. The purpose of the journey was primarily to visit the Surmang monasteries, home to the Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and to meet family members and several monastic communities connected with the original Ju Mipham Rinpoche (1849-1912).
Surmang is in the extreme southeast part of Qinghai Province, in western China, four miles from the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The places connected with Mipham where the party visited are in the Golok region, several days jeep ride north and east of Surmang, also in Qinghai Province. In between, the Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and party followed theYangtze River to visit Palyul Monastery in Sechuan Province, the Tibetan mother monastery of His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. The Tibetan regions (and former kingdoms) visited during the tour were Amdo, Kham and Golok.
The purpose of the pilgrimage was for Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche to simply make initial contact with the family members, monks and lama and larger communities of Surmang and Golok. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche looked forward to meeting his uncle, Damchoe Rinpoche (the Vidyadhara’s half brother), and the Vidyadhara’s nephew, Karma Senge Rinpoche, both from Karma Jere Monastery, one of the eight main Surmang monasteries. In the Golok region, the Sakyong was invited to visit by a member of Mipham’s family.
Tendrel – Making Connections
In many conversations and discussions between Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and our hosts in Tibet, the word “tendrel” came up on many occasions. It gradually emerged as a thread or recurring theme of the pilgrimage. Tendrel is Tibetan for “auspicious coincidence” or “auspicious connection.” The Tibet trip was a series of poignant and powerful occasions for tendrel.
After resting for two days in Jyekundo, the closest city to Surmang, the party drove all day to Surmang Düdtsi-til, the home monastery of the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the 11th Trungpa Tulku. The nine days spent here was the longest in one place during the entire tour.
After a massive reception several miles out from Surmang by hundreds of local people waving kathas (white offering scarves) from trucks, motorcycles and horses, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was formally received in the main shrine hall at Düdtsi-til. He then blessed the tulkus, lamas and monks at Düdtsi-til, as well as many hundreds of local people.
There was an immediate warmth and good connection between Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and the Twelfth Trungpa Tulku. Each day during their time together the two spent time sitting together, playing and attending various events.
Karma Senge Rinpoche is the nephew of the Vidyadhara. Rinpoche has collected and preserved the teachings of the Vidyadhara while he was in Tibet, including short sadhanas, poems, dohas and treatises. Karma Senge Rinpoche shared this collection with the Sakyong, and spent many hours talking with him. After Surmang, at the Sakyong’s invitation, Karma Senge Rinpoche, accompanied the delegation for 10 more days. The Sakyong invited Karma Senge Rinpoche to visit the Shambhala community in the near future.
One day at Surmang was devoted to a tour of the monastery and the many old ruins that still remain above the main temple. There is virtually no trace of the former shedra (monastic college) at Surmang. This was a thriving learning community in the 1940’s and 50’s, and it is where Khenpo Gangshar came from Shechen monastery to teach and take on the role of a teacher for the Vidyadhara.
Dorje Khyung Dzong, the upper retreat place at Surmang, is still the main place of intensive meditation practice at Surmang Düdtsi-til. One misty morning, the Shambhala group hiked and took horses for the two-hour trek up to Dorje Khyung Dzong. For the past four years, there have been eight yogis in retreat here, and they joyfully received Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and party. After a reception and practice session with the yogis, the Sakyong and three others in the party spent the night and enjoyed a mini-retreat.
Twice during his stay at Düdtsi-til, the Sakyong gave the Sadhana of Mahamudra abhisheka for the larger Surmang community. Rain and wind during these events did not dampen the exuberance of the large crowds that gathered to receive the abhisheka and its blessings. Each day Karma Senge Rinpoche gave short talks about the background of the abhisheka, explaining to the local people the history and meaning of the text.
By the end of his stay in Surmang Düdtsi-til, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was moved by the many needs of the Surmang monastery and the surrounding lay community. He expressed a commitment to helping the monastery rebuild their shedra, and, in general, to support the community there in any way possible.
Following Surmang Düdtsi-til, the Shambhala group spent two days visiting Namgyal-tse the largest of the Surmang monasteries. This monastery is under the leadership of the Venerable Surmang Garwang Rinpoche, an important Karma Kagyu tulku who recently attended the consecration ceremony of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. Garwang Rinpoche lives most of the year at his monastery in Sikkim, India, and also tours and teaches in southeast Asia.
At Namgyal-tse, another gala reception greeted Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and party upon their arrival there. Several hundred monks, many with Tibetan horns, lined up to greet Rinpoche and led him into the main shrine hall. After a blessing line, the party were put up in the brand new, six-story shedra above the main monastery.
Namgyal-tse sits in a wide valley, and the view from the shedra was extraordinary – the large, open valley spread out in front, with large patches of brilliant, blue wildflowers on the hillside across the valley.
The second day at Namgyal-tse Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche gave the Sadhana of Mahamudra abhisheka to the largest crowd during the tour, perhaps 3,000 people. The blessing line took several hours. An odd feature of this blessing line was that a number of the people requested change for larger bills when making their offering.
In addition to the shedra, several other large construction projects are under way at Namgyal-tse. A large shrine hall is almost complete, soaring seven or eight stories, perched on a small hill in the middle of the monastery complex.
After about twelve days in the Surmang region, the party returned to Jyekundo to get ready for the next part of the journey. It was agreed that, in the interest of her health, that Lady Kunchok would remain in Jyekundo to rest and then to meet up with the party back in Xining prior to flying back to Beijing. Lady Kunchok stayed with relatives in Jyekundo, and was looked after by her steady and ever-cheerful attendant, Margaret Colby.
After a full day’s drive east from Jyekundo, the party arrived at Shechen Monastery in Sechuan Province. This important Nyingma monastery was home to Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche and Khenpo Gangshar, two of the Vidyadhara’s main teachers. The community at Shechen set up a beautiful camp next to a river in the valley below the main monastery. Everyone in the party agreed that they greatly enjoyed the outdoor setting, the Tibetan tents, the 10 PM mo-mos (dumplings), and the gracious hospitality afforded by the local community.
By coincidence, Mathhieu Ricard, the French translator and close student of H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, had arrived at Shechen just hours before the Shambhala group. He was visiting to work on humanitarian projects in the area that were sponsored by H.E. Rabjam Rinpoche, the abbot of Shechen monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Matthieu suggested the party visit the birthplace of Gesar, located about two hours up the valley from Shechen. The next day Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche and party made a visit to this small temple that houses a stunning collection of statuary that includes Gesar and his retinue of warriors and dralas. The Tibetans and the English speakers performed Gesar sadhanas and we afterwards, paid a short visit to the main lama who looks after the temple.
At Shechen, the party met with Gangshar Rinpoche, the 27-year old grandson of Khenpo Gangshar, who was recognized by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Gangshar Rinpoche is studying at the shedra at Serda (home of Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche), and assists with the administration of the monastery. He was the main host at Shechen, and met with the Sakyong and members of the party. He expressed his joy at meeting students of the Vidyadhara, and commented on the good tendrel of the visit. The members of the party were moved and inspired by Rinpoche’s simple and warm demeanor.
Another highlight of the Shechen visit was a hike up to the hills behind the monastery. Out of sight of the monastery below, and with a view that makes it obvious why teachers encourage students to establish the “view,” was the ruins of the retreat cabin of Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche. He spent much of his life in this place, receiving students and giving instruction on Dzogchen to the monks and lamas of Shechen. Khenpo Gangshar lived with him here for long periods of time. The Shambhala party practiced formless meditation with the Sakyong at this spot for a long time. The tendrel at Shechen was strong and deep.
The last stop on the tour before Golok was Palyul Monastery, the home of H.H. Penor Rinpoche. This is one of the largest monasteries in eastern Tibet, and is surrounded by a large and prosperous town of 5,000 people. The drive from town of Dege in Kham followed the roiling, chocolate colored Yangtze River, and southern most stop on the tour.
Khenpo Namdrol, one of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s main teachers, was visiting at Palyul and hosted the party during their two day visit there. The monastery has undergone major construction the past few years, and now includes a large shrine hall (with 50-foot images), a thriving shedra and a three-year retreat center. Since the shedra was on its summer break, the party was housed in the main shedra building.
Other than a tour of the shrine hall, and a few meetings with monastery officials, this visit was a rare opportunity for the party to rest, relax and shop in the local town.
Golok and Mipham Rinpoche
The final stop on the Tibet trip were two places in Golok – Darlag and Tawu in the Mogyal Pomra area. When the Shambhala party first arrived in Xining from Beijing on June 7, a number of monks and lay people drove several days from Golok to formally receive and meet with the Sakyong. This delegation hosted the Shambhala group at a festive, lively dinner party on their first night in Xining.
Included in the Golok group at this time was Je Kunde, whose grandfather was Mipham Rinpoche’s brother, senior lamas from Weyen Monastery (one of the main monasteries connected with Mipham) and members of Lama Chonam’s family who had invited the Sakyong to visit Golok.
The first stop in Golok was in Darlag, on the Yellow River, a place where Mipham taught and spent time and where his teachings and blessings are still strong. In Darlag, the reception by the local lamas and laypeople was extraordinary, even by the standards to which the group was accustomed. In addition to a long line of horsemen waving kathas and shouting warrior cries, the group was met by King Gesar himself. The local people sometimes perform dances and performances about Gesar and his life, and so had costumes for these occasions. To mark the Sakyong’s arrival there, Gesar and his 30 warriors and dralas donned their full ceremonial costumes, and mounted horses in a large field where a tent encampment was put in place for the reception. The Sakyong mounted one of the horses and rode into the camp with Gesar and his retinue.
An elaborate reception followed, with toasts, speeches and bountiful offerings to the Sakyong and party. Immediately after the last toast ended, there was a huge clap of thunder and then the rain started. Of course, this was regarded as a most auspicious sign, and roused great joy among everyone.
After the rain subsided, the Sakyong and party were taken to the Wayen Monastery, on a hill behind the encampment site. This is a small monastery that has just recently been granted permission to rebuild, and construction has started on the main shrine hall. The view from the monastery is vast and encompasses several long, open valleys.
After a few minutes at the monastery site, a bright rainbow appeared and ended right into the reception area below. The Sakyong felt a very strong connection with the place, and he raised the Shambhala flag over the monastery and had the group sing the Shambhala anthem. The Sakyong was asked to help with the future development of the monastery and has agreed to work with the monastic leadership to help with their growth.
The next day the Sakyong visited the historical site of Gesar’s palace, which has recently been renovated and rebuilt. There is a main temple dedicated to Gesar, as well as an orphanage next to the temple. The 70 children from the orphanage recited a long life prayer for the Sakyong, who made offerings to each of the children.
The other stop was at Traling Monastery, a Nyingma monastery with close ties to Mipham. The shrine-room there is set up in accord with Mipham’s instructions, and the main stupa on the shrine houses the the heart, tongue and brain relics of Longchenpa. Several tulkus from this monastery have come to West in recent years, including Lingtrul Rinpoche from the San Francisco Bay Area.
The second main stop in the region was two days drive north from Darlag, in Tawu, the capital city of Golok. This is the home of the Mipham family members, as well as the jumping off point for Magyal Pomra, the sacred mountain of eastern Tibet connected with King Gesar. In Western Tibet, the main pilgrimage mountain is Mt. Kailash, and in eastern Tibet it is Magyal Pomra. The circumambulation takes eight days walking and camping.
In many ways the Golok visit was a clan reunion rather than just a formal welcoming reception. The people in the area received the Sakyong and his party as family members, and offered their tribal and clan generosity with great warmth and humor. This was tendrel at its best, and marked one of the highlights in a trip filled with so many of them.