Our Master’s Masters – Gangkar Rinpoche

Gangkar Rinpoche, the 5th in a series of incarnate teachers of Bo Gangkar Monastery in southern Kham, was one of the most illustrious personages of the Kagyupa school and was considered among the most important religious authorities of the time with numerous disciples not only in Tibet but also in China.

He was educated mainly at Pelpung Monastery in Derge, the foremost Karma Kagyu centre in far eastern Tibet, where his former incarnation had been a student. At Pelpung, Gangkar met the Eleventh Situ Rinpoche who became a supporting figure during his years of study. He studied under the eminent teacher, Khenpo Zhenga, a master of the Ris med non-sectarian movement and the founder of Sri Simha college at Dzogchen Monastery and became one of the most learned students at the college.
During his years of study, he journeyed to Tsurpu in central Tibet to receive Kagyu teachings on the highest yoga tantras from the Fifteenth Karmapa. On his return to Pelpung, he was appointed retreat master of the monastery meditation centre after which he returned to his home monastery, Bo Gangkar where he established a new school.

In 1930 he was appointed as junior tutor to the Sixteenth Karmapa and travelled to Tsurpu for a second time to instruct him for a year in the essential teachings he had received himself from the previous Karmapa. He returned to his monastery after this because he felt that the spiritual teachings there were run down and that there was great need for a teacher.

In 1935, Gangkar Rinpoche was invited by Norlha Rinpoche to come to China. Norlha had spent several years teaching in China, had many students there and was a very well-known Buddhist teacher. On his death, Gangkar Rinpoche complied with Norlha’s wish and went off to China, stopping first in Chengdu where he gave empowerments and teachings. This was the first time that deep teachings of the Kagyupa were given in China and there were many requests for them even among the rich and powerful. He continued on to Chongqing where he gave Kagyu, Nyingma and Dzogchen teachings to monks and lay people alike.

He travelled by boat with his entourage on the Yangtse River as far as Lu shan in Jiangxi province where he was greeted by huge crowds of people and monks including the leaders of the party in power at the time, the Guomingtang, as well as army leaders. His main purpose there was to build a stupa to house Norlha’s relics, as the latter’s Chinese students wished. This was an area where Norlha had taught frequently and many of his Chinese students were still there.

After completing the construction of the stupa, placing Norlha’s remains inside it and the inauguration, although he had agreed to stay for longer to teach, he was forced to leave for his own monastery in Tibet because of the dangerous situation created by the outbreak of war with Japan, arriving home in 1939.

When the Sino-Japanese war ended in 1946, in response to many invitations, Gangkar Rinpoche set out on his second trip to China in order to give teachings to his, by then, numerous Chinese disciples. He toured much of China giving teachings on the profound doctrines of the non-sectarian Tibetan philo- sophical systems to tens of thousands of disciples among whom were many political leaders of the time. He also gave lectures at universities where he presented general introductions to Tibetan Buddhism. He made the teachings of the sutras and tantras in the Tibetan traditions shine like the sun in China.

At the beginning of 1947 the central government of the Guomingtang organized a meeting at Chongqing to honour the spiritual teachers of the country during which Gangkar Rinpoche was honored as a ‘teacher of the Chinese nation’ and presented with a golden seal decorated with four lions. This second trip to China, however, was cut short due to the fluctuating political situation.

The takeover by the communists in China in 1949 had repercussions for Gangkar Rinoche because of his connections with Goumingtang high officials, many of whom were his disciples, and he was placed under house arrest in Dartsedo for several months and underwent intense questioning.

After his release he returned to his monastery where, in the early fifties, some changes were made to the traditional curriculum when some eighty young Chinese students arrived from the Central Nationalities Institutes in Beijing and Chengdu sent by the CCP. The group was led by Yu Dao-quan, the first Chinese teacher of Tibetan at the Institute and included some students who would become part of the new generation of the Central Institute of Tibetologists. One of the instructors who worked with Gangkar Rinpoche was the young Namkhai Norbu. The classes were to introduce the Chinese students to Tibetan language and culture.

Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and Gangkar Chökyi Senge, 1953.

After the Chinese students had completed their course of study, Gangkar was asked to teach at the Central Nationalities Institute where he remained until 1955 giving teaching on Tibetan studies and translating documents for the National People’s Congress.

It was during this period that Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche had the opportunity to meet Gangkar Rinpoche and receive various teachings from him, on Chagchen or Mahamudra, on Dzogchen, the Konchog chindu series and the Six Yogas. Before Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche left him, Gangkar Rinpoche wrote a document on the twenty-fifth day of the third month of the wood sheep year (1955) concerning the spiritual and historical role of Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche:

“This is what was revealed to me in the nonduality of dharmadhatu (dbyings) and the state of rigpa. So that the opportunity of the manifestation of this master not be wasted, if he could accede to the residency of the Dharma Raja Ngawang Namgyal (Zhab Drung Ngag dbang rNam rgyal) Rinpoche of Bhutan (Lho ‘brug), this would certainly bring enormous benefit to that country, to the Teachings, and to the welfare and spiritual happiness of all beings.”

When Gangkar Rinpoche returned to his monastery in the same year the political situation had changed once again and there was even less religious freedom than previously. Finally in 1957 he received permission for a month’s leave of absence and returned to his monastery, telling all his monks on his arrival that it was important to have an elaborate assembly. Following his wishes, they made many offerings of precious objects and torma. In the evening he gave instructions to the younger students and then seated in the posture of Vairocana, passed away. 

After his death, his body was preserved with precious sand, herbs and salt and a stupa was built at Chengdu to house it. However before the body could be placed there, protest campaigns had begun, the property of the monastery was seized by the government, the sacred texts were burned and the monks forced to give up their robes. Consequently, the body was taken to a cemetery. Devoted individuals managed to wrap the bones from the cemetery in silk leaving substitutes in their place and concealed them. Today these are the most important relics of the monastery and people come from many different places to pay their respects. 

Based on accounts published in ‘The Incarnation from White Glacier Mountain’ by Minyag Gonpo, translation by S. Brinson Aldridge (Infinity Publishing) & ‘Buddhism between Tibet and China’ by Matthew T. Kapstein (Wisdom Publications)

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