Nyingmapa Wishfulfilling Center, Nepal
Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche was born in Yak-de, the Yamdok area of Tibet between the central and western provinces, into a patrilineage of ngakpas – yogic dharma practitioners who are also householders. As was customary, Rinpoche began his spiritual training as a novice monk and only later put on the red and white robes of the ngakpa and let his hair grow long in the natural yogic way.
Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche studied the sutras and tantras from 1937 to 1949 with some of the most revered teachers in Tibet. He received Longchen Nyingtig transmission from the yogini Jetsun Shugseb Rinpoche. He also was a close student of the deeply revered cave-dwelling hermit Lama Gompo. His other root lamas included Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Kangyur Rinpoche Longchen Yeshe Dorje, Drukpa Yongzin Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. From 1950 until 1955 he mainly practiced in closed retreat. He became an accomplished yogin, whose ability to stop hail from destroying crops was well documented in Tibet.
In 1959, at the insistence of Drukpa Yongzin Rinpoche, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche fled Tibet, leaving behind his wife Chemi Lhamo, and daughter Tsering Dolker. He carried with him only one pecha as he crossed the high Himalayas – “A Golden Seed of Yantig Nakpo,” a text essential for the teaching and practice of the Dark Retreat.
After spending his first two years in India in retreat, Rinpoche was asked by Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to teach the Holy Dharma in Japan. During his 10 years teaching in Japan – mainly at universities in Tokyo and Kyoto – Rinpoche learned the Japanese language and planted the seeds of an ongoing sangha there.
Returning to Dharamsala, India, he worked for a time as head of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Then in 1974, at the behest of Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche founded the first Dudjom Institute outside of Tibet – Ngagyur Shedrup Döjö Ling, also known as Nyingmapa Wishfulfilling Center for Study and Practice. Originally located in Dalhousie, near Dharamsala, Ngagyur Shedrup Döjö Ling exists as both a shedra (monastic school and college) and a monastery. In 1975, Ngagyur Shedrup Döjö Ling moved from Dalhousie to Mussoorie in Uttar Pradesh (now Uttar Khant), and in 1977 it relocated to Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal, at the behest of HH Dudjom Rinpoche. The move to Sundarijal occurred in 1995. During his years in Boudhanath and later Sundarijal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche became one of the leading figures of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism in the Kathmandu Valley and trained several generations of monks and ngakpas.
A consummate scholar as well as a great lineage practitioner, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche is the author of numerous Tibetan texts, including most notably the 12-volume Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. A later 13th volume is based on the Dunhuang caves discovery and is called An Early History of Tibet Edited from the Findings Unearthed at the Dunhuang Caves. Rinpoche gave an account of his own spiritual journey and attainments in Autobiography of Khetsun Sangpo: Memoirs of a Nyingmapa Lama from the Yamdok Area of Tibet. In addition, in his final years, Rinpoche published an authoritative history of The Three Great Stupas: Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Namo Buddha. These works await translation.
Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche was repeatedly invited to act as a visiting lecturer at both the University of Virginia and Rice University (Texas) in the United States. He is best known in the English-speaking world for his Tantric Practice in Nyingma (1996, Snow Lion Publications), a commentary on The Words of My Perfect Teacher, which was translated by Jeffrey Hopkins and edited by Anne Klein. This work has also been translated into Japanese and has served as a guide to heartfelt practice for numerous students in the West as well as in Japan. Rinpoche’s commentary on the first of Mipham Rinpoche’s three Cycles on Fundamental Mind was published along with a translation of Mipham’s own text as Fundamental Mind, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins (2006, Snow Lion Publications).” (Details from Anne C. Klein, Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse: A Story of Transmission, 2009, Snow Lion Publications)
An interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche exploring the ngakpa tradition was published in theSnow Lion Newsletter. In the interview he said, “No matter what you do, if you don’t want to take ordained vows then become a lay practitioner. All you have to do is keep all those samayas well and then you become a true ngakpa. … (T)he difference is that if you are a lay person, in order not to break all these vows every moment you need a high awareness. If you stay in a monastery the vows are much easier to keep.” Rinpoche’s monastery in Sundarijal houses not only monks, but ngakpas as well.
In late 2009, after two weeks of serious illness, the Venerable Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche declared his intent to enter final meditation. On Saturday, December 5, 2009, at approximately 6:00 p.m. Nepal Time, Rinpoche entered into deep meditation, finally achieving Parinirvana some 24 hours later, on December 6, 2009. According to the Tibetan calendar, he was 90 years old. His dharma heir is his grandson, Kangyur Tulku Jigme Norbu Rinpoche, but his legacy belongs to all of his students.
Rinpoche will be most remembered for his gentle kindness, wisdom and compassion, his warm smile, his absolute knowing. He was a great teacher, a loving master. All who knew him are blessed.
(Photo of Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche and texts courtesy of Snowlion. Other photos Donna Birdwell or unknown.)