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Biographies: Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo

Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892), or Khyentse the Great, was perhaps the greatest living Master throughout Tibet during the nineteenth century. He had an enormous impact on all those around him, and an enduring influence on all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He especially affected and inspired the spiritual lives of Mipham Namgyal Rinpoche (1846-1912), the great Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (1813-1899), and the treasure-text revealer Chokyur Dechen Lingpa (1829-1870).

He was born near Khyungchen Trak in a family of the Nyo clan of the village of Dilgo in the Terlung Valley of Derge, eastern Tibet, amid wondrous signs on Saturday 15 July 1820. His father was Rinchen Wangyal, an administrator of the local Derge government, and his mother was Sokza Sonamtso from a family of Mongolian descent. From around the age of three and four, Khyentse clearly remembered his previous lives.

At the age of eight, he began to study Tibetan astronomy, mathematics and physics, medicine and literature. Endowed with all the signs of genius, the child was able to grasp difficult philosophical problems with the greatest of ease. Sometimes by merely glancing through a book rapidly it was possible for him to memorize the book's entire contents.

Yeshe TsogyalHe also demonstrated an advanced spirituality. At one point in his youth, when he was seriously sick, he prayed and had a vision of the Master Padmasambhava and the woman saint Yeshe Tsogyal. These two imparted to him a Vajrakilaya empowerment that immediately cured his illness. From that time forth he appeared to have exceptional control over the health and life forces of his body.

When he was eleven, Jamgon Khyentse visited Kathok Monastery and he was there recognized as the incarnation of the great enlightened saint Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798). Jigme Lingpa, in turn, was believed to be an incarnation of the great 8th century enlightened saint Vimalamitra. He was thus given the further names Jigme Khyentse Dokar and Pema Osel Do-nga Lingpa to indicate that fact.

At the age of fifteen he had a pure vision, in which he saw himself in Bodh Gaya at the time of the great teacher Manjusrimitra. The latter appeared to instruct him in the profound doctrines of Transcendental Wisdom (prajna-paramita) and the essential insight of Great Completion (i.e., Dzogchen). In front of the Bodh Gaya temple, he purified his trace defilements through an experience in which his physical body was entirely burned up and transformed into a perfectly pure energy-body like that of Vimalamitra. This visionary experience had a deep affect, from that time forth, on his mind and conduct.

At the age of sixteen, Khyentse Rinpoche experienced another vision while meditating one day. In this vision he found himself on the mystical Copper-coloured Holy Mountain (Zangdok Palri) that represents the pure dimension of Guru Padmasambhava. There, surrounded by many enlightened yogis of the past and a host of female yogini-saints (dakinis), he experienced many wondrous, ineffable awakenings. This visionary experience culminated with the fully enlightened Lotus-master Padmasambhava dissolving into light and merging as one into himself. From that time forth it was as if Khyentse Rinpoche was an embodiment of Padmasambhava in person.

In his eighteenth year, he entered the Hermitage of Sechen Monastery for a period of meditation and there received, from Jigme Gyalwe Nyuku himself, the full transmission of the Longchen Nying-t'ig tradition.

In his twenty-first year, Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo received full ordination as a monk from Khanchen Rigdzin Zangpo of Mindrolling Monastery and the Bodhisattva vows from Sangye Kunga. After that, all a period of several years, he received a complete training in all the main lineages of Sutra and Tantra. With tremendous perseverance he acquired a broad range of learning, studying under no less than 150 different instructors. As Dudjom Rinpoche says, "At this time, there is no one [in the whole of Tibetan Buddhist studies] with whom he might be compared, so extensive was his learning."

Then on a trip to Central Tibet he visited the famous Cathedral of Lhasa. When praying before the Jo-wo image of Lord Buddha, the rice that he tossed as an offering was seen to transform into white flowers. The people who saw this miracle also claimed that many unlit butter-lamps sitting before the main shrine also appeared to become lit spontaneously.

Jamgon Khyentse WangpoWandering around Tibet like an ascetic yogi, he made extensive pilgrimage to sacred places in the provinces of Central Tibet, Tsang, and Ngari. During this time of wandering he had many visions and meditation experiences. It was also at this time that he revealed a corpus of spiritual instruction known as the Chetsun Nying-t'ig. Around the end of his twenty-fourth, year Jamgon Khyentse returned to eastern Tibet.

Again, when attaining the age of 30, he set forth on a second pilgrimage. At a place called Gegye in Changdok, during that time, he discovered a special set of spiritual teachings known as the Secret Practice of the Heart Essence of the Lake Born. The term "Lake Born" refers to the great master Padmasambhava. At Samye Monastery, the first monastic establishment to be built in Tibet, Guru Rinpoche (i.e., Padmasambhava) for a second time appeared to merge wholly into him.

Then in his forties, a third vision of Padmasambhava enabled him to know all at once, all the treasure-text revealers (tertons) of the past and future directly connected to the Lotus-master. The sages and Lamas of Tibet recognize this as the moment when Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo became chief master of all the treasure-texts. He was recognized henceforth as the holder of thirteen lineal orders and number one of the five chief spiritual Terton-kings of Tibet.

From that time, he made Dzongsar Tashi Lha-tse, a Sakya monastery in Derge, his main seat. Using the wealth that his many devotees gave him, this monastery which had been sacked during the Nyakrong wars, he entirely rebuilt from the ground up. Similarly, he also oversaw the restoration of a great number of temples and libraries elsewhere in eastern Tibet. Even though he was prophetically aware that many of these temples would only be destroyed again in the next century, when the Communist Chinese forces would invade the country, he nevertheless considered this restoration work very important.

Well established at Dzongsar Tashi Lha-tse, Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo spent his time giving teachings and empowerments to his many disciples. For example, he gave the empowerment and complete instruction of the Mindrolling Dor-sem cycle more than fifty times. Two of the main holders of this tradition, who received the empowerment and practical instruction of the Dor-sem cycle from Khyentse Rinpoche, were Mipham Namgyal and Sakyasri. In consequence the Mindrolling Dor-sem Vajrasattva cycle has become the central spiritual practice in the Dharma Fellowship line of transmission. It was bestowed by Namgyal Rinpoche (considered the incarnation of Ju Mipham Namgyal) and then again imparted, via the line of Sakyasri, by Bardok Chusang Rinpoche. While enduring extreme hardship in Chinese detention camps, Khenpo Munsel secretly passed this cycle to his disciples, one of whom was Lingtrul Rinpoche, now teaching at Kathok Gonpa. Khanchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche imparted the empowerment for this mystical tantric practice several times when he was teaching at our centre in California.

In general, because Jamgon Khyentse Rinpoche had acquired absolute mastery of the twofold precious Bodhicitta, and also due to the fact that he was entirely non-sectarian (Ri-me) and without bigotry in his support for all the lineage schools of Tibet, he had a vast array of disciples.

It is said that he was never sick in his life after the first vision of Padmasambhava which occurred in his youth. On the 18th April 1892 he called his disciples to him, scattered some flowers over their heads and gave them his blessing. He then composed himself in meditation and consciously departed from the physical body into the vast expanse of Vimalamitra's intention. So it was that he completed a life of inconceivable acts for the benefit of sentient beings.

His main Nyingma disciples were: Terton Chokgyur Lingpa, Ju Mipham Namgyal, Jamgon Kongtrul Lordro Thaye, Adzom Drukpa, Terton Lerab Lingpa, Jedrung Thinley Jampai Jungne (Dudjom Namkhai Dorje) of Riwoche, Third Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpe Nyima (son of Dudjom Lingpa), Third Shechen Gyaltsap, Fifth Dzogchen Thupten Chokyi Dorje, Second Kathok Situ Chokyi Gyatso, Za-Pokhung Tulku Gyurme Ngedon Wangpo, among others.

Among the Kagyupas, he was the teacher of the fourteenth and fifteenth Karmapas, the second Kongtrul Yonten Gyatso (1813-1899), the Taklung Ma Rinpoche, Situpa Pema Nyinche (1774-1853), Dazang Tulku, Dokhampa, Pandita Karma Ngedon, and Samding Dorje Phagmo.

Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo reincarnated in many manifestations simultaneously. These reincarnations include Chokyi Wangpo (1894-1909) of Dzongsar, Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959) of Kathok, Karma Khyentse Ozer (1896-1945) of Palpung, Guru Tsewang (1897-?) of Dzogchen, Kunzang Drodul Dechen Dorje (1897-1946) of Dza Palme, and Dilgo Khyentse Tashi Paljor (1910-1991) of Shechen.

Among these incarnations it is said that Kathok Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (1893-1959) was the most outstanding of them all. After the death of Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Wangpo (1894-1909), Kathok Khyentse moved to Dzongsar Monastery, the seat of the previous Khyentse Wangpo, and since then Kathok Khyentse has become known as the Dzongsar Khyentse. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was the next most significant embodiment of Khyentse Wangpo. He escaped out of Tibet at the time of the Communist invasion and established Sechen monastery in Nepal.

This is an extremely brief outline of the life of this great master. For further information one should turn to Dudjom Rinpoche's The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, published by Wisdom Publications, and Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala 1996.

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