golden dorje

A Lama Returns

- The Meeting of Past and Present Incarnations -

by Steven Landsberg

golden dorje

In the west the subject of rebirth inspires significant debate with both pros and cons searching for logic and scientific evidence to promote their respective positions. Regardless which side one gravitates toward, one must acknowledge the existential conclusions that result from one’s position. If one accepts reincarnation, one allows for a continuity of consciousness that gives meaning to the cultivation of virtue and the enlightened intention.

In Tibetan culture, Buddhist and Bon, the concept of reincarnation is an extended conclusion of the laws of karma. Reincarnation as a human being is only possible if the proper cause exists and it is similarly the case with the other realms of sentient beings. All beings are in fact reincarnations and will continue to be reborn as long as a karmic cause remains. Our embodiment is the result and continuation of a karmic vision that has functioned for innumerable lifetimes.

When the karmic vision along with its causes has been purified and the enlightened intention has been engaged, developed and matured, the possibility exists for the manifestation of a trulku. A trulku, far from being a reincarnation of ordinary activity, manifests in an embodied form in order to benefit beings in one of the six realms of existence. His emanation is the result of a refined spiritual development that demands lifetimes of skilled meditative practice and the ability to integrate that contemplation into the totality of one’s behaviour. Tibet is famous for its trulkus and since the Chinese took over Tibet, we in the West have been fortunate enough to have met with many great examples.

I recently had the opportunity to meet with a young incarnation who spontaneously demonstrated signs of his authenticity at a very young age. Oftentimes, it is easier to find incarnations that have manifested over several lifetimes as their disciples from the previous life assume responsibility for finding the proper candidate. Generally these older incarnations are quite renowned and there are numerous disciples supplicating his rapid rebirth. Based upon the intention of the trulku to benefit sentient beings and the prayers of his students, the enlightened consciousness assumes form again and again.

In Tibet finding the reincarnation was very important for the continuation of the local monastery, because without a throne-holder it would be difficult for a monastery to survive. Furthermore, if there was no incarnation in place, the monks would flee and seek material and spiritual sustenance elsewhere.

There were reasons why the trulku system in Tibet became corrupted. Sometimes trulkus were named for political reasons so that certain families might gain importance, wealth, and fame. Trulkus have been named only to grant favors to the family or repay some kind of debt.

In this case, however, nobody was really searching for the incarnation. The family into which he was born had very little spiritual understanding and did not assume or imagine anything when their child was born. The monastery to which he had been associated in his previous life was not actively engaged in pursuing his reappearance. In fact the abbot of the monastery told me that they were not thinking anymore about him because they believed at the time that he would not come back. A first time incarnation is a little difficult to discover because there is not so much interest in his new manifestation. As it turned out, it was five years between the death of this great practitioner and his rebirth. This is a rather long time if one considers other trulkus that have recently appeared. They generally manifest within a year or so of their demise.


Regardless how one feels about reincarnation, the following account inspires some reflection on the maturation of the enlightened intention and how it manifests uninterruptedly from one life to the next.

A few years ago I visited a village in India called Dolanji, a Bon community established in the l960s as a refuge for Bonpos from Tibet and Nepal. I was walking around the monastery grounds when I heard someone say in a mild voice, Hello, come here. Actually I could not tell exactly where it was coming from so I did not give it too much attention and just moved on. When I passed the same building some days later, I again heard someone addressing me in the same way. I simply responded this time with a hello and went down the road. It was not all that unusual in India for someone to call out with a greeting.

I told the abbot of the monastery, Lhuntok Tenpay Nyima Rinpoche, about it and he told me that the boy who was addressing me was one of the incarnate lamas living at the monastery. He encouraged me to visit with him sometime. The next time I passed his room, I stopped by his rear window and saw a bright young boy seated on his bed playing with some toys and drawing pictures in his copybook. He knew no English, and I knew no Tibetan so we conversed in Hindi, an Indian language he had naturally adapted living in India. As other monks and children passed by, he would call after them by name. Most would return his greeting but generally no one came to his window. In fact, the children seemed a little intimidated.

I think what inspired my curiosity was how poised this child seemed with respect to his circumstances. He was more or less a captive in a very small room with two beds and a shrine. He shared the room with his tutor, who gave him language and reading instruction; and although Tsondu seemed to be always playful and joking with me, he was cautious when his tutor was around. Aside from attending the ritual prayers with the other monks, he was always in his room. I was not surprised that he sought some distraction from this condition by arousing the attention of people passing by. I asked him if he wanted to go out; and without the slightest hesitation he responded that he enjoyed his simple surroundings. Occasionally, he would step outside and play with a soccer ball.

I found that a little strange. Here is this nine-year-old boy spending most of his time alone in a room. Where I come from, anyone in that condition might have felt punished or at least deprived. This was certainly not the case here. Tsondu was communicative and thoughtful and never demonstrated the slightest sign being bored, depressed, or unhappy. He was always eager to show me his toys, books, and even his stash of firecrackers. The other monks who came in contact with him were respectful, and Tsondu handled that respect gracefully and with a sense of natural humility.

Clearly, this reincarnation of the Tsondu Rinpoche demonstrated a lot of presence, and in spite of his unrestrained personality, his eyes displayed an innocent sense of destiny and purpose.

As I became more interested in the Tsondu incarnation, I would pass by his window regularly, wait for his standard call, then go and say hello, gossip a bit and then try to move on. Once one had stepped up to his window, it was a little difficult to get away, as he was always eager to talk and have company.

The next time I saw the abbot, I asked him about the events that led up to his recognition as a trulku. The following account is a result of what I heard from the abbot and several other witnesses of the events that occurred.

The previous Tsondu died in l985 at the Bon settlement in Dolanji. Nobody even considered his reincarnation, nor was anyone particularly interested in seeking a candidate. That was to change in 1992 when an interesting series of events occurred leading to the abbot's recognition of a young boy who spontaneously demonstrated signs of his authenticity. Before recounting those details, it is necessary to review the history of the previous Tsondu, his accomplishment, as a yogi and the circumstances of his death.

In 1914 Tsondu was born into the Jotsang family in the small town of Wagay. Located across the river from this village is the monastery named Ri Tse Druk. (Six Peaked Mountain). At the age of eight years Tsondus entered this Bon monastery, became a getsul (novice monk), and learned to read and write. When he was only 15, he completed the preliminary practices, the 900,000 repetitions required before engaging the essential practice. He received all of those instructions as well as the teachings of the Five Treasures from Lodro Gyamtso, a disciple and representative of Shardza Rinpoche. After completing the preliminaries, he became an adept in all the methods indicated in the Five Treasures.

After taking the gelong vows at the age of 25, he never consumed any meat or alcohol and did not eat after the midday meal. Assuming the position of abbot at the age of 26, he managed the retreat center of the Ri Tse Druk monastery. Unlike many Tibetan monasteries in India, this monastery was devoted to strict practice and retreat.

At the age of 30 he retired his position and devoted his time to the practice of chulen. Living on the essences of the elements, he renounced food altogether. As his body became very weak from not taking any food, his students became slightly worried and requested him to start eating again.

At the age of 32 he began his journey to Kyunglung, the Garuda Valley. On his way there he went to famous Bon monasteries like Menri, Yungdrungling, Tongra, Karna, and Shen Tardin. He also visited the abodes of Bon siddhas, practiced in their caves, and pilgrimaged to Kailash, Manosarovar and other important Bon and Buddhist sites.

Around 1951 Tsondu reached the Garuda Valley near the western part of Mt. Kailash. At the Gurgyam Dongak Dak Gyay Ling monastery, he met Chungtul Jigme Namkhai Dorje Rinpoche. Chungtul Rinpoche had come from eastern Tibet and had settled in what had once been a strong Bon environment. The Garuda Valley by this time, however, had become a strong Nyingma establishment. Chungtul Rinpoche skillfully combined elements of both Bon and Nyingma teachings in order to attend to the needs of the local population; and, in this way, was able to propagate the Bon doctrine in the Garuda Valley again.

When Tsondu arrived at the Gurgyam monastery, it was not his intention to remain long. He explained to Chungtul Rinpoche that he wanted to continue his pilgrimage and return to Tangra. Chungtul Rinpoche, with another idea in mind, told Tsondu that he had reestablished Bon in the Garuda Valley; and that as he was getting older, he needed someone to remain and train his yogis and monks. He requested Tsondu to renounce his return to Tangra as the Bon religion was well established there; and instead, create a three-year retreat center at Gurgyam monastery. Tsondu, recognizing that this would be more useful than continuing his pilgrimage, acceded to Chungtul Rinpoche's request and became the teacher of the retreat center.

The retreat center that Tsondu established was very demanding. Each retreatant had to remain in his own room. After completing the preliminaries, he had to do phowa, tsa lung, the exercises of the front and rear doors, chulen, trekcho, the dark retreat, and togal. During the day Tsondu taught the Five Treasures of Shardza Rinpoche and at night practiced meditation and engaged in the invocation of the Dharma protectors. Tsondu's reputation as a great practitioner quickly spread throughout the region and he attracted many students and benefactors.

Although Tibet was at this time embroiled in political turmoil, Tsondu never bothered at all about politics, or even the administration of the monastery. However, as the condition of Tibet became exceedingly precarious by the late 1950s, Tsondu decided to make a move.

In l959, Tsondu left the Gurgyam monastery with the intention of returning to Ri Tse Druk in eastern Tibet. When he reached a place called the Cave of Magical Display ( Dzutrul Puk), he realized he could not continue, as the Chinese had already occupied the lower valley. He turned back; and after many days of travel, arrived at the Indian border, where the state of Uttar Pradesh neighbors Tibet.

Tsondu left Tibet secretly, never revealing his plans to anyone. Somewhere along his journey to India, however, he met one of his benefactors named Changchub. Changchub was saddened by his teacher's plans to leave Tibet and probably requested that he remain. Tsondu insisted on leaving but assured him they would meet again in India. Although this never came to pass, Changchub's children and grandson would eventually meet Tsondu in India and this connection would ultimately be relevant to the discovery of Tsondu's reincarnation.

After reaching India, Tsondu proceeded to Tso Pema and then went on to Ladakh where he retreated for a long time in a cave. A short stay in Manali preceeded his arrival in Dolanji in l967. As there was nothing in Dolanji at that time, he lived and practiced in a tent. When the monastery was finally built, he moved into the room that he would occupy until his death. This is the same room in which the present Tsondu resides and where I first encountered him.

He remained in retreat from that time until his death, engaging in practice night and day. He never lay down and was always bound with his meditation belt.

Once in 1970 Tsondu made a brief trip to Mongot in South India to visit some benefactors who had come from the Garuda Valley. Amongst them were the two sons of his disciple and patron Changchub whom Tsondu had left in Tibet. Changchub had died on his way to India in 1966, but his two children, Tashi and Orgyen, continued on and ultimately settled with others from the Garuda Valley in South India. Tashi had one son named Phuntsok and it was he who was to become the father of the present Tsondu.

Other than this visit to Mongot, Tsondu never left his retreat. Before he died some monks came from Tibet. They wanted to take Tsondu back so that he might die there. Although Tsondu had no objection to return, he was quite old and his health was weak. Furthermore, there were other disciples in India who did not want him to make the difficult journey back to Tibet. With tears in their eyes they requested that he stay and Tsondu accepted their heartfelt wish.

In l985 Tsondu died poised in contemplation. As was apparently Tsondu's habit, he did not inform anyone of his intention - this time that he was about to make his final exit; so nobody realized that his room would be off limits to casual visitors. A woman, who always brought him milk, visited at her usual time. She did not realize that Tsondu was in his after death tukdam. Since Tsondu was obviously not talking or moving, she was slightly alarmed and somehow disturbed him, perhaps by touching or nudging the body. As a result Tsondu did not remain long in his final samadhi. In any case he passed three days without any sign of inner dissolution. When he was cremated, some people claim to have seen rainbows in the sky. Although I could not confirm this account, I did see about fifty small-multicolored rinsel that were collected in the ashes of his remains.

In 1992 Changchub'ss son Tashi, his wife, along with their son Phungtsok and their grandson, made a pilgrimage to Dolanji. They also had plans to visit Tashi'ss brother-in-law Padma Gyalpo. Upon reaching the monastery, they immediately went to see the Abbott. Phungtsok's son started pointing at the abbot's table as if he wanted something from there. Although the Abbott did not understand the childish gesturing of this young boy, he offered him some sweets. The boy then reached behind the table and took the ritual bell and began to play it in a rather precise way. He also took a drumstick and started to beat on a drum. The Abbott was a little surprised noting that the way in which this boy was playing the bell and drum was reminiscent of Tsondu's ritual style. Although the Abbott had some intuition at this time that he could be the incarnation, he said nothing and just carried on naturally.

When the family was invited to tea, this young child did not wish to leave the Abbott's presence. The boy's elder brother took the bell from him and placed it on the table upside down. The younger boy, seeing the bell in an inverted position, took the bell and placed it right side up. As Tsondu still insisted on beating the drum, his family, slightly embarrassed, futilely tried to stop him from playing. The Abbott told them to relax and let the child play. Leaving the boy to remain with the Abbott, the family went to have tea. When the boy finally left the room, the Abbott did indicate to his student Khyungtul Rinpoche that perhaps this young visitor was the incarnation of Tsondu Rinpoche.

After tea, the Abbot invited the family to visit the dharma protector shrine above the main temple. When they arrived there, the child saw several ritual drums. He immediately took the drum that belonged to the previous Tsondu and started playing. He did not strike the drum in a haphazard way, but played in a style typical of the accompaniment used in dharma protector practice. The grandparents were now a little annoyed with the boy's behaviour and demanded that he stop. Despite their attempts, the boy insisted on beating the drum. At this point the Abbott became convinced of the identity of this child as the reincarnation of the previous Tsondu Rinpoche. He was certain that this child had come to fulfill the previous Tsondu's promise to return for that drum. A student of the previous Tsondu named Lobsang Trakpa had often come from Rewalsar and requested that His Holiness sell the drum to him. The Abbott had refused on each occasion. Although he was not thinking about a possible reincarnation, somehow he felt that the drum must remain at the monastery. This fortunate circumstance allowed for the rightful owner to not only claim his drum, but also authenticate his own incarnation.

Soon after they left the dharma protector shrine, the Abbott informed Khyungtul of his certainty about the incarnation. Then they told Padma Gyalpo and Tsondu's grandfather Tashi. The family was then led into the main shrine where the monks were performing a puja to Ma O Senge. Again, Tsondu began to beat on a drum. This time, however, he apparently did not play the drum as he had earlier.

After a few days the family again visited the monastery. This time Tsondu went to the stupa, which had been constructed at the cremation site of his previous incarnation. Innocently, he circumambulated two or three times his own reliquary and then lay down.When he got up, he walked down the stairs and went to the room that the previous Tsondu had stayed in for so many years. He jumped on the bed and sat down in the manner of his predecessor. He then gestured for the light switch that he had used when he had occupied the room before.

The son of Padma Gyalpo, Lobsang Gyamtso, had a bowl that belonged to the previous Tsondu. After hearing all the stories that had occurred, he wanted to make his own examination. He arranged many bowls on a table and asked Tsondu to pick the bowl that had belonged to his predecessor. Without any hesitation, he chose the right bowl and gave it to his mother. Lobsang, who until that time still had some doubt about the Tsondu candidate, was now convinced.

As Tsondu was too young to enter the monastery at this time, his family took him back to South India where he remained until 1994. On the 18 February, he returned to the monastery and gave a hand blesssing to all the monks. Soon after that, he moved into the room that he had previously occupied. At the age of five he started to read and to attend rituals with the other monks. The Abbott, his tutor, and the other monks appreciated the speed and ease with which he learned to read. In the early part of 1996, he received many initiations from His Holiness and on the 23 February of the same year he became a novice monk. He was enthroned at the Menri monastery in Dolanji in1999.

The future of this tulku is rather uncertain, as the parents do not want to educate the boy in the dialectic school. They somehow believe that Tsondu will spontaneously take up where he left off in his last life and engage in the life of a yogi. The Abbott does not believe that could possibly happen and feels very strongly that Tsondu should seek entrance in the dialectic school. I asked Tsondu what he wants to do in the future and if he would like to go to the West. He seemed to agree with the Abbott's wish that he receive some education in the dialectic school; but as far as going to the West was concerned; he was not at all interested. After accomplishing the geshe degree, he insisted that he would make a retreat. He also mentioned that he would like to go to south India at some time and build a monastery. When I told the Abbott about Tsondu's aspirations, he laughed and said that the boy has to say those things, perhaps to demonstrate to his tutor that he is following the established path for recognized incarnations. Whatever the reason, I was inspired by his gifted sense of purpose. The Abbott concluded that it will be interesting to see if he has the same intention in ten years.

Steven Landsberg

Sarva Mangalam!
May all beings be happy!