Khyenrab Chöki Öser was born in the year of the Female Earth Ox (1889) and was given the name Rinchen Dorje by his uncle, Rinchen Namgyal, abbot of Öntöd monastery. Öntöd had been built by the king of Dege, Tenpa Tsering, who had constructed twenty-five large and small monasteries in Dege and twenty-five temples belonging to the Sakya Ngor tradition.
At a young age Khyenrab Öser had great faith and devotion and asked his parents to let him become a monk and study with his uncle, the abbot of Öntöd, but they were not in agreement because they wanted him to care for the family when he became older so for some time he had to care for the family’s livestock.
At the age of thirteen, he secretly prepared some supplies and during the night ran away in the direction of the great monastery of Dege. He spent the following night sheltering under one of the stupas and early next morning left for the Lasya hermitage where Pönlop Rinpoche was in strict retreat at the time. Between practice sessions the Master told him that he was happy that he had come there to study but that he would write to his parents to let them know that he was there.
When Rinchen Dorje’s parents came to know where he was they were relieved and happy to know that he was doing well at his studies and finally agreed for him to remain at the monastery. Shortly after this he took his vows as a novice and received the name of Khyenrab Öser.
At this time his uncle Rinchen Namgyal, the abbot of Öntöd, became very ill so Khyenrab Öser went to assist him. While he was there his uncle told him he was pleased that he had arrived there before his death and advised him to follow all the instructions of Pönlop Rinpoche, to write down the history of Öntöd monastery and protect its teaching. A few days later he passed away.
In the years that followed Khyenrab Öser worked hard at his studies and received many transmissions and teachings from Pönlop Rinpoche who considered him to have an exceptional mind. He studied the four tantras of medicine with their various commentaries and started to teach the upadesa tantra of medicine and its application. He continued to deepen his study and knowledge of medicine and at the age of twenty started to serve as a doctor to those at the monastery and became known as the ‘doctor of Yarlha’.
When he was twenty-one he met Shenga Rinpoche and, encouraged by Pönlop Rinpoche, decided to study with him. Over the next few years he received many teachings from that master, became one of his best students and his assistant at the college. At Dzogchen Shriseng he received numerous precious teachings from Shenga Rinpoche as well as teachings from other non-sectarian masters such as Jamyang Chokyi Lodro and Gangkar Rinpoche.
Following the wishes of Shenga Rinpoche and Khyentse Rinpoche Chökyi Lödro he became the abbot of Khamje at the age of 34 where he remained for several years after which he became abbot of Palpung where he gave a number of transmissions, empowerments and commentaries.
In 1938 he founded the college of Öntöd monastery, building and renovating the big monastic complex and sustaining a number of monks. He taught there for more than twenty years giving a variety of teachings from different traditions: Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu and Kadam to disciples from many different parts of Tibet including Chögyal Namkhai Norbu who was among his students.
In 1956 he accepted an invitation and moved to Dziphu college where he taught for two years. At that time the political situation in that area was starting to deteriorate and consequently he returned to Öntöd college where he continued to teach. He remained there even though the political situation was very negative and people were undergoing great suffering.
By the time Khyenrab Öser was seventy-seven, he had become a famous Lama not only in Kham but in the whole of Tibet. In this period this part of Tibet was under the control of the Chinese army and at a certain point Khyenrab Öser was taken by the Chinese to be brought to a people’s trial. The Master was accompanied by a group of Chinese soldiers and a local Tibetan revolutionary called Konchog.
On the way from Dziphu, they passed by an enormous rock known as Shawa Dophag, ‘noble deer rock’, near the Stupa of the Five Families close to the large monastery of Dege. The rock had that name because during the ritual dances held by the great monastery of Dege, the dancer who impersonated the deer went to the top of the rock to dance. Khyenrab Öser said to Konchog that he was very tired and could not continue and asked if he could rest for a moment. The Tibetan asked the Chinese soldiers who agreed.
Khyenrab Öser went to rest on top of this rock, Konchog was nearby, while the Chinese soldiers had gone off for a moment. All of a sudden Khyenrab Öser made the sound ‘He Ka’, his body went limp and he died.
The Chinese soldiers came back to guard the body and sent Konchog to explain what had happened to the people’s committee. Later some activists carried away the Master’s body to a place called Black Water and hid it under the ground.
Excerpted and adapted from Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, mkhyen rab chos kyi ’od zer gyi rnam thar nyung bsdus rin chen sgron me. Translation by Fabian Sanders.