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Kurukulla Buddhist Centre - Study of Buddhism

THe Life of a hidden meditator


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 here.

Ven. Choden Rinpoche of Sera Je Monastery, one of the highest of the Gelug lamas, was virtually unknown outside 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 Gelek.

“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, Ganden or 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 three major 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 they yaks instead 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 give teachings. 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 view; you can 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 debate 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 understanding.

With debate, you develop a very stable conviction yourself of what you understand because you use the logic, reasoning and scriptural authority. When you’re 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 once has more benefit 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 the meaning of all of the tantras. All of this is what has to be meditated upon. You have people who, after their studies, take to a life of being a total hermit, they dedicate their whole lives to meditation. Other people live in the monastery and do all the meditations within the conditions of the monastery. Others choose to go back to their local monasteries in whatever village or town they came from, 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 formatted for meditation. You can then take all the subject material, all the information of all the philosophical studies and you can apply it to enrich, to adorn your meditations.

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 room.

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 own labrang, 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 came, so I never had 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 takes 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. This system produces 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 they ransacked the whole monastery. All the monks were circled by the soldiers with their weapons.

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 the water. 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 the general monks were 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 that 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 and any of the practices. One 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 went to 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 little more 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 article), 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 I could.

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 destroying 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 destruction. Except 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. During this 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 hide 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 cause others 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 it didn’t work.

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 cousin argued 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. Although 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 put down 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 Monastery 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 at Sera, 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 young boys all the way up to geshes. On Tuesdays, the day off at Sera, Rinpoche teaches grammar, poetry (see companion article) and tantra to some geshes. Sometimes Rinpoche will give initiations or lam-rim teachings 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 Germany. Before that 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 no chance to do this. Lama 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 in morality 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, attained high realizations. His name is Geshe Thubten Yampil. He mastered all the Buddhist teachings, attained realizations and he composed fifty volumes of books and gave the Kalachakra initiation in Tibet. The second one is also a renowned meditator. Rinpoche’s 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 from before.

This article first appeared in Mandala Magazine, July/August 2000.