The Life of a Great Bonpo Master

The Biography of Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche

Serindia Publications, 2021

‘There are Buddhas all around you, millions of Buddhas all around you…’

(From oral teachings by Lopon Tenzin Namdak)

Review by Andy Lukianowicz

life great bonpo masterThis wonderful, timely book recounts the life, full of great achievements for the good of Bonpos, the Bon religion and humanity in general, of the Master Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche [henceforth Yongdzin Rinpoche], widely acknowledged as the greatest Bonpo master of this generation, and maybe more than that. 

Widely known and revered in the Dzogchen Community – he visited Merigar and other Dzogchen Community venues several times in the 80’s and 90’s, and moreover was a close friend and confidante of our beloved teacher Chögyal Namkhai Norbu – the volume is graced with two photographs, one [thank you whoever had the presence of mind to snap the picture!] immortalising the historic visit of Chögyal Rinpoche with his students to Yongdzin Rinpoche at the Bon settlement in Dolanji, India in 1978, a later one from a private meeting in Paris ca. 2014, attesting to a long, warm and mutually respectful friendship. 

It is because Yongdzin Rinpoche has been such a frequent, respected and beloved guest teacher at Merigar and elsewhere, well known and fondly remembered by so many Community members, that I will concentrate on some of the more ‘mundane’ aspects of this biography; the more spiritual aspects of the life of such a teacher, who lives surrounded by millions of Buddhas and knows it, such as portents and messages from dakinis, protectors and local deities throughout his life, I will leave readers to discover for themselves. 

And what a life, what a tale. The book follows a quasi-sociological life-phases trajectory, in nine chapters. The first recounts his birth (presaged by his mother’s dream and other wonderful signs), the hardships of his infancy, [his father was struck by leprosy and had to leave the family home] and other vicissitudes. 

One feature of the book is that YR himself was interviewed, consequently many events are told first hand, in YR’s own words. For example, he remembers how in infancy his impaired speech was healed by an old lama spitting into his mouth; ‘I wasn’t very happy about that … but that how things were at that time…’; and ‘at that time’ how the local people in his native Kyungpo supported the Chinese against the [even worse and more rapacious] central Tibetan government administration. ‘Those were dangerous times.’

Subsequently he entered the path of Bon taking up his studies, including the art of painting, in which he became so accomplished that at that time he was in great demand to paint murals. He was taken under the wing of Zopa Rinpoche, who would stay by his side as he painted, recounting stories of past masters as well as regaling him with tales from his own travels; the text appositely comments that this ‘indicated that he knew what a great master he would later become’. 

At age seventeen [1942] YR took monastic vows at Menri, receiving the ordination name Tenzin Namdak, protecting his vows ‘like his own eyes’ and ‘becoming the shining jewel of all the Bon monks’. Soon after he embarked on a pilgrimage in Nepal, including holy Mt. Kailash and Swayambhunath, a location blessed by Tonpa Shenrab himself. Once back at his monastery, he started his studies; being such an accomplished painter, he was invited to paint murals at a new temple, to which he agreed on condition that he be able to receive teachings, which he was able to do, including on Dzogchen and rituals, from the great teacher Gangru Ponlob, as advised by his own mentor Gyalchog; from him he received the main teachings of Dzogchen, as well as on poetics, ‘that opened wide the door of writing for him’. When after four years YR told Gangru Ponlob he wanted to return to his native Kyungpo, the latter told him to go to Menri, continue his studies and take the geshe degree. At Menri he started his studies under the Lopon, Kyabje Meuton Sangye Tenzin, under whom YR continued to study Dzogchen, also at Dolanji in India [about which more below] until Sangye Tenzin’s death aged 66 in 1978. Incidentally, the book here usefully gives potted biographies of Gangru Ponlob and also of Sangye Tenzin, who was also a teacher of Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, one of YR’s principal disciples and founder and main teacher of the Ligmincha Institute with branches in Europe and USA. At this time Gongru Ponlob told YR that he should become Lopon [head teacher] at Yungdrung Ling monastery, an honour YR declined, instead returning to Menri, continuing his studies and taking the geshe degree there. YR also recounts a harrowing tale of a visit to Trashilhunpo to welcome a visit by the Panchen Lama; one procession was held in the presence of some 5,000 armed Chinese soldiers, that was, understandably, deeply troubling; a harbinger of things to come.  

At the age of 27, in 1952, YR was enthroned as Lopon of Menri. In 1955, following the abbot Nyima Wangyal’s death, YR recounts how the selection procedure of his successor, through instructions and choice made by the monastery protectors, led to the abbacy of Sherab Lodro, formerly Yongdzin Rinpoche’s personal assistant; consequently Menri was, in YR’s own words ‘now in the position of having a very limited monastic fund and a completely inexperienced abbot.’ Due to this Yongdzin Rinpoche himself had to go on a fund raising tour, and thus was not present at Menri when the Chinese occupation forces arrived and started their reform education campaign; many high ranking lamas escaping with the fleeing abbot were shot and killed.

Hearing about the flight of the 14th Dalai Lama and of the disastrous situation at Menri in 1960 YR himself too took flight with a group of people from all parts of Tibet, however early in their journey their camp was attacked and destroyed by Chinese soldiers and Yongdzin Rinpoche himself was shot in the left leg and seriously wounded, while friends he was fleeing with were killed on the spot; one friend only saved himself by burying himself in sand and covering his head with a rock! It was only when night fell that two of his friends were able to return to the battle site and carry YR away to safety; had they not returned to save him ‘he would very probably have lost his life.’

After a rocambolesque sequence of events, including meeting up with the Menri abbot’s fleeing group, and being saved by a nomad family and later a yak herder, who looked after him for sixteen days, YR managed to elude the Chinese army finally reaching Mustang and avoided lengthy imprisonment… read it to believe it! Much of this adventure is told in Yongdzin Rinpoche’s own words.

It was during YR’s early years in exile that he met the late Prof. Snellgrove, eminent scholar and Tibetologist, leading to his spending three years in England; in collaboration they produced the important work ‘The Nine Ways of Bon’, which helped Western scholars correct preconceived, ignorant, ill-founded and, regrettably, maliciously intended false notions [some, alas, still encountered today!] and instead form ‘a new perspective and new insights’ into the Bon religion. [Something furthered, I hasten to add, by Chögyal Rinpoche’s monumental work ‘Drung, Deu & Bon’.] There are some heart-rending comments by Yongdzin Rinpoche regarding the then state of the world, showing his keen interest in and discernment of world affairs at the time; in my view, he must find the world situation even worse now.

life great bonpo master

Yongdzin Rinpoche and Andy Lukianowicz.

There follows a very busy period, with (among other activities) the establishment of a community in India for exiled Bonpos for the teaching and realization of Yungdrung Bon and teaching and empowerment of its inner, outer and esoteric traditions, and the rebuilding of Menri monastery in Dolanji, India; publication and dissemination of important Bon texts; many fruitful encounters with refugee Buddhist lamas in India and Nepal; and continuing to receive instructions and transmissions of precious Bon Dzogchen teachings; and an incursion in Tibet where he was reunited with his mother after 45 years separation. Also now we reach April, 1978, and the above-mentioned meeting with Chögyal Rinpoche that was to lead to a fruitful and important friendship. It was in Dolanji that I first, all too briefly, met Yongdzin Rinpoche, in 1983. Subsequently, I had the good fortune to serve as Rinpoche’s translator in Italy for some twenty years.

After establishing the new Menri Monastery in India, YR undertook the establishment of the Bon Triten Norbutse Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal; he twice visited Tibet; this was the period that also saw the start of Yongdzin Rinpoche’s long activity of promulgating Bon spiritual teachings in the West, ‘that would increasingly occupy him’ in later years; after USA and UK he travelled to Italy in August 1989 to teach at Merigar West. He also attended the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra Initiation in New York  in 1991; on a previous visit in 1988 to Menri Monastery in Dolanji the Dalai Lama had declared Yungdrung Bon to be ‘the heart treasure of Tibetan religion and culture’. 

The following years saw YR’s extensive work for the consolidation of activities at Triten Norbutse; he also found time for further visits to Merigar West and other European and American dharma centres; a fourth visit to Tibet; and the publication in 1993 of his seminal work ‘Heartdrops of Dharmakaya’, a text by Sherab Tashi Gyatsen on Dzogchen Practice in the Bon tradition, with a commentary [adroitly annotated, using YR’s own elucidatory words, by Richard Dixey]; this manual, containing previously highly guarded secret teachings, became, in YR’s own words, ‘not restricted and for the benefit of all beings’, opening the door of Bon to all interested fortunate people.  

The concluding chapter starts with the special event organized by Norbutse Monastery and the Bon Community in Nepal to celebrate Yongdzin Rinpoches 80th birthday in February 2005, then reports on the establishment in the same year of Shenten Dargye Ling Monastery in the Loire valley in France, that would become the most important centre in the West for the preservation of Yongdzin Rinpoche’s teaching and the Bon religion in general in the West. The book ends with a fine photograph and report on the Dutrisu ceremony held at Shenten in 2018, conducted under the guidance of Yondzin Rinpoche.

The text is enriched throughout with marvellous pictures, photos of significant people, depictions of deities and protectors, maps and line drawings; in its own way, and speaking ‘non-canonically’, a  treasure text indeed.

In conclusion, great masters trained by YR to continue his work in the west need to be mentioned, chief among them Khenchen Tenpa Yungdrung, Abbot and Lopon of Triten Norbutse Monastery in Nepal, who teaches long summer retreats in person and online in Shenten Darye Ling, France, in Europe and USA, and Khenpo Geshe Gelek Jinpa, President of the Shenten centre, a much loved visiting teacher also in Italy; and Lotsawa Vajranatha John Reynolds, who for half a century has been translating Tibetan wisdom texts and in recent years turned his attention to many crucial Bon texts from the important Zhangzhung Nyangyud cycle as well as editing a very useful collection of early teachings by YR in the west, ‘Bonpo Dzogchen Teachings’, all  published by Vajra Books in Nepal.  

If I may end with a personal note, as mentioned above I used to serve as his Italian translator and once a person came for a personal interview; he introduced himself, ‘I am Marco’, I replied ‘I am Andy’, and YR came simply saying ‘And I am Tenzin’. He then answered all Marco’s questions at some length, openly explaining several arcane issues, as if he had known Marco all his life. That moment, like many other such ‘ordinary’ events, was also a great teaching for me. In fact YR’s humility and modesty are mentioned several times in the book, signs of his dedication of his whole life, strength and activities to maintaining, spreading and transmitting the living teachings, practices and liberating energies of Yungdrung Bon.

 

    

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