This article was part of
a series published in Mandala Magazine (July-August
2000) about Ven. Choden Rinpoche. To learn more about
Rinpoche's visit to Kurukulla Center, or to read
more articles from this series, please go
Ven. Choden Rinpoche of Sera Je Monastery, one
of the highest of the Gelug lamas, was virtually unknown
Tibet until 1985. He neither escaped his country after
1959 nor was imprisoned; instead, he lived in a house
in Lhasa, never leaving his small, dark, empty room
for nineteen years, even to go to the toilet, and never
cutting his hair and beard.
“He spent all his time on that bed, meditating,” says
Rinpoche’s attendant, Sera Je monk Ven. Tseten
“They had to change the bedding once a month because it got smelly from
sweat. He used a bedpan for a toilet, as he was pretending to be an invalid.
Until 1980 he didn’t talk to anybody, only the person who brought food
into his room.”
“The main thing I wanted to do was to practice Dharma sincerely, no matter
what external factors were arising,” Rinpoche told Mandala in June during
a two-month visit to Vajrapani Institute in California. “This was my
motivation, to be completely against the eight worldly concerns.”
Here, Rinpoche tells us about his life. (The words
in italic type are from Ven. Tseten.)
Choden Rinpoche was born in 1933 near Rabten Monastery
at Rongbo in eastern Tibet. At the age of 3 he was
recognized as the reincarnation of the previous Rinpoche,
who himself had been one of the candidates for the
Twelfth Dalai Lama, Thinley Gyatso. There were significant
signs about the previous Choden Rinpoche’s birth.
After the reincarnation was chosen, they didn’t
want to leave him just like that, so they placed him
as the lama of Rabten Monastery.
From the age of 3 to 8 I was tutored by an uncle who lived in a hermitage,
and at the age of 8 I entered the local Rabten Monastery, where I learned all
the prayers and rituals. I was 6 years old when I first met the previous Pabongka
Rinpoche, and I took many teachings from him at Rabten Monastery. I also took
novice ordination from him then.
At that time I did not know much about practice. When
I was 10 one ex-abbot of Drepung Loseling taught
on the lam-rim and I attended the teachings, and
it was around that time that my interest in practice began.
I don’t remember too clearly my first meeting with Pabongka Rinpoche,
but what I do remember is that Rinpoche was very happy with me and I really
admired everything that Rinpoche did: the way he walked, the way he dressed,
everything. I felt, “If only I could be like him,” because I
had such admiration from him.
Pabongka Rinpoche advised me not to stay in the local
monastery but to go to the main monastic centers
for learning near Lhasa, such as Sera,
Drepung. I entered Sera Je monastery when I was 15. All of the local
Gelug monasteries spread out over Tibet have allegiance to one of the
monastic centers, so accordingly you follow that. The previous Choden
Rinpoche studied at Sera Je and did the geshe studies there.
The journey to Lhasa took a month and a half. Because
there were no proper roads at that time, you’d
just travel slowly with a herd of yaks and many other
people, like a caravan. It was during the winter and
was very, very cold at that time. You have to wear
animal skin chubas, so you cannot travel in monks’ robes.
I remember sleeping on the roadside and waking up sometimes
completely covered in snow; because it’s so cold it doesn’t melt, and you shake it
off when you wake up. There was nothing like a tent. You also had to carry
everything you needed with you on the animals.
There was no sign of the Chinese army yet (it was 1948),
although there were cases of small groups coming
into Tibet. People were afraid of Communism, of
having that kind of element in society.
In the beginning our group had horses for riding, and they also had a
lot of yaks for carrying the supplies, but later we started to ride
of the horses. I traveled with my father and mother and a brother. The
family went to Lhasa to do a pilgrimage, to make offerings and do circumambulations
at the temples in Lhasa; they went back home after five or six months.
The power of debate as a basis for realizations: I followed the regular curriculum of Sera Monastery,
studying each of the main five texts. For the first
part of the studies you do the same studies as the
rest of the monks, but when the geshe studies begin
they give a jump-start to the tulkus. I was in the
same class as Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, Geshe Ugyen Tseten
and Geshe Legden for two or three years.
At Sera monastery the main program is philosophy, the geshe program.
But there are different hermitages of different lamas, and they would
I attended many of them. The main teachers at that time were Bari Rinpoche,
Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche. I enjoyed these teachings very much,
although sometimes during the main curriculum of studies at Sera, when
you get to a
very important part of the text being studied, you didn’t get permission
to go to these other teachings.
I enjoyed debating and wasn’t too bad at it. I studied with some of the
best debaters at the monastery, like Geshe Loga and Geshe Losang Wangchuk.
Having been guided by them I was able to debate very well.
What you would consider a good debater is a person who, when debating
on a given subject, can point out to the other person their mistaken
debate it by being able to explain why theirs is not the correct view,
using logic, reasoning, and by quoting scriptural authority. By the way
you show them their wrong view and they can completely give it up. That’s
the sign of a good debater: being able to enlighten the opponent to their fault
and create the basis of the correct understanding through logic and scriptural
With debate, you develop a very stable conviction yourself of what you
understand because you use the logic, reasoning and scriptural authority.
able to do that, then whatever understanding you have is very firm in your
mind [and therefore is a basis for realizations].
Generally it is said in the debating courtyards of the monasteries
[the ritual gesture of] simply clapping your hands in debate just
than meditating for many years – such is the power of debate.
Usually in Sera, Ganden and Drepung you study the meaning of all
the sutras; then you join one of the tantric colleges and study
of the tantras. All of this is what has to be meditated upon. You
after their studies, take to a life of being a total hermit, they
dedicate their whole lives to meditation. Other people live in
and do all the meditations within the conditions of the monastery.
choose to go back to their local monasteries in whatever village
or town they
either to teach or do meditation.
My teacher, Geshe Losang Wangchuk, used to say it’s more beneficial to
stay in a monastery and teach than to go off to meditate, because when he expressed
the wish to go off into retreat, Trijang Rinpoche advised him against it, pointing
out the benefits of teaching others rather than going off by yourself to meditate.
When you teach you’re benefiting so many people, but when you meditate
you’re benefiting mainly yourself.
Philosophy is not formatted for meditation, so what you meditate
on are things like various stages of the path to enlightenment,
which is totally
for meditation. You can then take all the subject material,
all the information of all the philosophical studies and you can
enrich, to adorn
A typical day at Sera: In the morning, just before
the dawn breaks, the morning prayers begin at the monastery,
which takes two hours. Then the debate sessions begin.
At around 11 you come together in for prayers, and
tea is offered. That’s your lunch time. The monastery
only gave tea, so the monks would come with a handful
of tsampa, and that would be their lunch.
After that you do debate, then prayers, then again you debate. After
the last debate session you can go spend an hour and a half in your
There are no standardized classes – whenever there is free time there
are classes. There are periods of time in the monastery where there are no
debate sessions, and it’s during this time that these philosophy classes
are very vibrant.
After the hour-and-a-half break you reconvene for a very long debate
session, and that’s followed by a session of prayers where you recite The
Twenty-one Praises to Tara and prayers to the White Umbrella Deity – things like
that. Then you go for another period of debate, and when the sun is about to
set you have another break. From sunset onwards, everything you’ve memorized
you have to recite so you don’t forget it. If you are in the higher classes
you are allowed to stay in your room to do the recitations, but if you are
younger you have to stay in the open grounds where all the recitations take
place. By yourself, you chant out loud.
During that time there may be people who chant their prayers all the
way through the next day’s sunrise. The Madhyamika class and those who study the
Perfections take turns to spend the entire night up. When one class is about
to go to bed, the other class will begin their debate session, and they stay
all the way through to the morning prayers. So in that way there is the sound
of Dharma twenty-four hours a day. In the monastery there is never the occasion
where you do not hear the sound of Dharma.
Rinpoche completed all the necessary studies by the
age of 28, reaching the highest Lharam class. Trijang
Rinpoche and many high lamas asked him to get his geshe
degree quickly, but his main guru at the time, who
was abbot of Sera Je, did not allow him to become a
geshe. He wanted Rinpoche to keep studying. He went
over the studies again, mainly the texts about the
monastic vows, the Vinaya. He studied them many times.
Then the Chinese came.
He never wore the special clothes for the tulku,
and even though he was from the family of an official, he never had his
his own household,
at Sera. He mixed with the ordinary monks, and everyone liked him.
Rinpoche’s main gurus are Pabongka Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and His
Holiness the Dalai Lama.
His main purpose in studying since the time he was young was to be
able to practice what he learned, so he focused on the meaning
of the scriptures.
When he was around 10, he had a great intention to practice what he learned.
I stayed in the Lharam class for many years. One of my teachers who was
an abbot told me, “You’re still young. What is the point of hurrying
to get your geshe degree? Keep on studying.” I was around 28
when I could have taken my geshe degree. I was 29 when the Chinese
the chance after that.
I completed my studies in about fourteen years, but if you go according
to the system of the monastery, it takes about thirty years. It therefore
the monks a long time to get their geshe degrees. This is because
the meaning of the scriptures is very, very profound. The more you’re
able to analyze it, the clearer becomes the depth of your understanding.
some of the best scholars.
The Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1959: By the time
of the uprising against the Chinese Communists, most
of the monks had already escaped. So many soldiers
had arrived and the monks were afraid the monasteries
would be destroyed. There were thousands of monks before
the occupation, but only two or three hundred remained
at Sera. I remained at Sera.
One morning, at daybreak, the Chinese soldiers surrounded the monastery
and rounded up all the monks and put us in a courtyard. After this
the whole monastery. All the monks were circled by the soldiers with their
We’d heard that in eastern Tibet the soldiers had rounded up all the
monks and shot them dead, so everyone was frightened that would happen. From
dawn to sunset the monks were all standing in the courtyard. Then they put
the monks in a line and took them away – everyone said, “We’re
being taken to be killed,” but it didn’t turn out like that; they
just imprisoned everyone.
I was in prison for about a month. Since they didn’t have a prison set
aside, they used one of the Sera Je main temples, and they wouldn’t let
anyone out, even to pee! We had to use a huge container that was usually used
to hold the water for making water bowl offerings – you couldn’t
just go all over the floor.
Sometime in the middle of the day they would give us lukewarm water to
drink, and if people had tsampa of their own they would eat that with
We lived like this close to a month, two or three hundred monks.
They started to separate all the lamas, all the geshes, all those who
had management positions of any kind. They categorized people, and
kept as one group. They used to say, “Ones without any titles are our
friends, while ones who have titles are our enemies.”
They would use the groups of ordinary monks to investigate the groups
of people who had titles. If any of the general monks could guarantee
any of the
titled people hadn’t participated in the uprising and didn’t say
anything about the Chinese, they would also be released.
When I was at the monastery I usually mixed with the general monks,
so some of the monks guaranteed for me, saying that although
a Rinpoche, I don’t
have anything that fits that title, so I was released.
They would hold political lessons in the monastery, teaching
the monks to talk against religion, to talk against the monastery
by one they would release the people with titles for a little
while, and everyone – all
the general monks – would have to beat up on this person. If they didn’t,
they would be considered supporters of the titled person. Some were beaten
so badly they couldn’t get up afterwards.
I had some sort of heart condition, so when I saw all of this
happening I became terribly ill, so I got a pass to go to
a hospital for
a checkup. I
Lhasa and spent five or six months there.
In the second month of 1960 they rounded up all the monks
living in Lhasa and told us we couldn’t stay but had to go back to whatever monastery we
came from. I went back to Sera. I was still living as a monk and wearing robes.
Back at the monastery, there was all the criticizing and
disparaging of His Holiness. When you’re forced to attend these meetings and participate
in these meetings, you have no choice, you have to participate in some verbal
abuse. I wasn’t well from before, so I managed to get by sleeping, and
I didn’t have to participate. The Chinese would bring doctors to come
check my pulse, and since my heart condition caused my pulse to throb quite
strongly, I was excused from these meetings.
Meanwhile, the living conditions at the monastery were
getting tighter and tighter all the time. The people
in Lhasa at
that time were a
free than the ones in the monastery, so when the lay
people heard about the monks
having such a hard time, they would say things like, “I hope I’m
never reborn as a monk!” It reached a point where people were even saying
things like that! After that I left the monastery and came to Lhasa, where
I lived with a relative.
It never occurred to me to try to escape. The Chinese
used to say over and over again, “There’s absolutely no way you can escape,” and
people also had so little information about how to do it, that in your mind
it was not even an option to consider.
Retreat for nineteen years: I did Chulen retreat
for a while (see companion
but the Chinese stopped me. They said you could practice
Dharma, but when it came down to it there were many
restrictions, and they felt Dharma was bad and the
practices are essenceless. So until about 1964 I lived
in Lhasa, doing the main practices of Guhyasamaja,
Yamantaka and Heruka, and giving some teachings where
At the time of the Cultural Revolution in 1965, things became tighter
than ever before. It was in August or September of 1966 that they started
the Jokhang temple, all the holy objects in the temples, and all the holy
objects people kept in their private homes as well; it was massive
for where the Buddha Shakyamuni statue was and one room of the religious
kings, they completely emptied the entire temple.
The Potala wasn’t destroyed as much as the other places. At Sera, Drepung
and Ganden, some of the main temples were left in somewhat okay condition,
but the others were destroyed. In 1969, that was the year they completely razed
Ganden to the ground.
With the Cultural Revolution I stopped all outer practices completely.
I lived with relatives in Lhasa. I stayed inside without ever going out.
time I was sleeping (see companion article).
I stayed in a room in the house of my cousin’s
wife, who was half Tibetan, half Nepali. The Chinese would come any time
of the day
or night – sometimes very early, sometimes late – to check
what I was doing, whether I was sleeping, to see if I was really sick
or not. When
they were gone I would get up and do practices.
At that time you could have absolutely no holy objects, no statues or
scriptures. If they saw any scriptural texts you would be in big trouble.
Even if you
moved your lips without making a sound you would get into trouble,
because they would
think you were saying prayers. I had some prayer beads but they had
to be kept hidden. I had a small one and when people came to investigate
me I would
it in one of two hidden pockets in my clothes, just over my knees.
Because I stayed inside like this without ever going out, people said
I was doing retreat. But it wasn’t proper retreat, with the offerings, ritual
things, and so forth. During this time I would think about the various stages
of the path to enlightenment, as well as Guhyasamaja, Heruka, Yamantaka, all
the generation stage yogas. And when I had time, I would complete the mantra
quotas of each deity.
In any case, you don’t need external things to do Dharma practice. It’s
all in your heart, your mind. As for realizations: you do not experience the
realizations of the three principal aspects of the path, but you do have a
little renunciation, and because of that you are able to stay like that.
The advantages of living in isolation: One reason
it was good to stay inside in Lhasa was because if
you went out, you had to do what the Chinese said,
and then you’d accumulate so much negative karma.
I didn’t want to do anything at all that was
contradictory to Dharma; I wanted to practice Dharma,
so for that reason I didn’t leave my house. The
Chinese used many tactics to get me to work for them.
First they tried to frighten me, and when it didn’t
work they invited me and many high geshes and lamas
to live under their care; they said they would provide
a house, car, food, money. But I didn’t want
to do this because then I would have to do whatever
they said, which was all contradictory to the Dharma.
The main thing I wanted to do was to practice Dharma
sincerely, no matter what external factors were arising.
This was my motivation, to be completely against the
eight worldly concerns.
The future life is more important than this life – this life is just
like a dream. So if you went and did as the Chinese said, you would get a good
house and car, you could enjoy so many things, but this would have caused you
to fall to the lower realms, where you would experience sufferings for so many
eons. Future lives are much more important than this life. In order to work
for the future lives, I stayed inside to practice.
When we die we don’t just vanish. We have to take rebirth, and we don’t
have any choice in that birth, only what our karma determines – whether
we’re reborn in the lower realms or upper realms. If you’ve done
positive things in this life you can take rebirth in the human realm, and you
can enjoy the result of these actions. If you do negative actions, the karma
does not vanish; even the smallest karma accumulated you have to experience
in the future.
The future is very long, many eons. This life is so short, it’s just
fiction, just a dream. Your mind continues infinitely, and when you die in
the next life, again it doesn’t vanish, and again you continue to the
next life, and the next – many lives you have to go through. So all of
these are determined by the present actions. You have no choice. So the present
action is very important. This life is so short, perhaps only one hundred years – very
small compared to the future lives. This is why the future lives are more important
than this life.
From the point of view of religion, of Dharma, there was great accomplishment
in living this way. And from the point of view of this life, there
was also great benefit. In this life, if I hadn’t done what I did, I would have
had to gone with the Chinese and gotten a house, car and high rank, but then
I would have had to torture people and cause so much suffering for the ordinary
beings. And if I had gone as an ordinary being, with no high rank, etc., I
would have had to undergo so much suffering, just like all the Tibetans did.
But I didn’t have to experience any of this in this life. These are advantages
to my living like I did.
Another advantage is that I got the reputation of doing retreat for
twenty years: this is also a benefit concerning this life! It will
to think, “That’s interesting. Maybe Dharma is really helpful, maybe
it’s true.” It may benefit others for the Dharma in this way.
I experienced very few problems during those years. I had only a
little problems with my stomach; and when I started walking there
wasn’t any pain, but
I felt my legs were collapsing all the time! Other people noticed that I couldn’t
walk properly. Also, because it was dark in my room, I wasn’t comfortable
with light when I came out – it was too bright. Sometimes there was a
little candle, but I didn’t really use it. Even now in Sera I prefer
to sit in the dark.
After 1979, a little more freedom: After
Mao Tse Tung died in 1979 there was a little more freedom.
Many lamas and geshes came to Rinpoche’s house
to receive teachings. He gave a few teachings, but
not in public – only in his small room to one,
two or three people. People knew about him. He cut
off his beard and his long hair in 1979.
Then he received letters from the reincarnation of
Shantideva at Sera in India and from the monastery
itself to please come and give teachings, to pass
on what he had learned. He tried to get a passport but at first
From 1965 to early 1980, when I was living in total seclusion, my cousin
would not allow anyone to visit me. Ribur Rinpoche came to visit and my
with him and wouldn’t allow Ribur Rinpoche to visit. The main reason
Ribur Rinpoche came is because the government was forming a committee of
tulkus to look into the heritage of Tibet, like the statues and scriptures.
the government formed it, the high lamas were doing the work because they
were the most well-educated. Around this time everyone the Chinese had
were being reinstated because they had the capacity and the knowledge.
They were called the Norbulingka committee.
The Chinese wanted me to join so many of the committees they were forming,
but since I didn’t join any they didn’t like me very much. From ‘81
onwards they were issuing visas for people to be able to travel to India
and Nepal, but although I applied I was never accepted.
Rinpoche tried for three years to get a passport to go to India, and
finally a close friend of his, Pagpala Gelek Namgyal, the highest lama
of Kham in Tibet
and third highest in Tibet, was holding a high rank in the Tibet autonomous
region (he now holds the post of the Panchen Lama), and he helped Rinpoche
get a passport. In 1985 Rinpoche finally got a passport and was able
to leave for India legally.
India: When I got to Dharamsala I arrived just in
time for the initiation of Guhyasamaja, Heruka and
Yamantaka from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was very
happy to see His Holiness, and His Holiness was also
happy. His Holiness said, “Your arriving in such
good time to receive these initiations means we have
very pure samaya.”
I received the Kalachakra initiation from His Holiness in 1985. I asked
what I should do: return to Tibet or stay. His Holiness told me to
stay and teach
what I had learned and to spread the Dharma.
Later he told me that in Nepal there aren’t many high Gelugpa lamas,
so it would be good for me to go there. I stayed there for eight or nine months
but became sick and had to undergo an operation, so I wasn’t able to
be of much benefit. I excused himself from staying in Nepal because the monks
from Sera Je in south India also asked me to come there to teach.
His Holiness told me not to ever break my present commitments and to
teach whatever I had learned, so since then I have been living in Sera
and coming to Dharamsala whenever His Holiness teaches.
For fifteen years Rinpoche has mainly been teaching the geshe
degree program at Sera Je monastery in South India. Usually he stays
and he gives
teachings on the five main subjects of study. He does three classes
in the morning and four in the afternoon; he has many students, from
all the way up to geshes. On Tuesdays, the day off at Sera, Rinpoche
poetry (see companion article) and tantra
to some geshes. Sometimes Rinpoche will give initiations or lam-rim
at Sera, and so many monks come they have to use
the main chanting hall.
His health is quite good. In 1996 we went back to Tibet, and we made
a pilgrimage all through China and almost all the way through Tibet.
Rinpoche first came to the West in 1998. Ven. Massimo Stordi invited
him to Italy, and a Rinpoche in Italy, as well as Geshe Soepa in
Rinpoche didn’t go anywhere because Sera needed him; now
Sera has many geshes, so Rinpoche is able to travel.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche requested a lung of a whole text of Je Tsong
Khapa and his main disciples, thirty-six of them, but there was
to do this.
Zopa Rinpoche asked Choden Rinpoche to come give a Secret Vajrapani
initiation at Vajrapani Institute in California and to teach
during the retreat.
Rinpoche has studied the Vinaya extensively. At Sera he is called
the Vinaya Holder because he knows every step of the Vinaya.
He lives purely
and has ordained more than 600 Tibetans – and now in
the West he has ordained people. He has an extremely good reputation
in the monastery, and
so many students come to receive his teachings, especially
about the Vinaya, because his morality is so pure.
Rinpoche’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all great practitioners.
His great-grandfather and grandfather were Kagyupas and his father was Gelug,
but they are all lam-rim holders. They spent most of their lives in retreat,
although not like Rinpoche, who didn’t come out at
all. They are all lineage holders. Rinpoche was surrounded
by all of these practitioners.
His mother gave them eight brothers and five sisters, and
five of the sons became monks. One of them, the third brother,
His name is Geshe Thubten Yampil. He mastered all the Buddhist
realizations and he composed fifty volumes of books and
gave the Kalachakra initiation in Tibet. The second one is also
father and mother have passed away, and all the sisters
but one have passed away.
Now there is the reincarnation of this second brother in
Kham, Tibet, right in his family’s house. There is also the third brother’s reincarnation
in Tibet, as well as the first brother’s reincarnation. The second brother’s
reincarnation was able to recite the Buddhist scriptures
without even seeing them, they came straight from his
heart. When Choden Rinpoche told His Holiness
the Dalai Lama this, His Holiness asked if he was a tulku,
but Choden Rinpoche said no, it was his second brother
This article first appeared in Mandala