Yeshe Khorlo’s Founder and Spiritual Head
In 1955, Kunzang Pema Namgyal, the ninth Gangteng Tulku, was born near Tongsa, in a remote, mountainous, and stunningly beautiful area of central Bhutan. One day, at the age of three, Kunzang Pema Namgyal played alongside the family cows that he had followed into the forest. That day he had taken his father’s gau (locket) with him, which contained a small statue of the Buddha given to his father by the King of Bhutan. Opening the gau, he delicately removed the statue. Suddenly, the statue rose up, said, “I’m going to Gangteng Gonpa,” and flew away! When Kunzang’s father learned that his son had lost his precious statue, he began to spank the boy. Kunzang managed to blurt out his explanation; his father’s movement was immediately arrested.
The year was 1959, and no one in this family had ever heard the name of Gangteng Gonpa, located as it was in the far-distant secret Phobjika Valley. Impossibly, this child had named a winter home of the revered Black Neck Cranes, as well as the seat of the Gangteng Tulkus, the Body emanations of the 16th-century King Terton (treasure finder) and Patron Saint of Bhutan, Pema Lingpa. Sensing the inexplicable, Kunzang’s father at once prostrated to his young son.
Subsequently, Kunzang Pema Namgyal was recognized as the ninth successive Body emanation of Pema Lingpa by the l6th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche, H.H. Dilgo Khyentse, and other leaders of Vajrayana Buddhism. He was given the traditional education of an incarnate Lama as a monk at Tongsa Monastery before he was formally enthroned, at age 16, as the 9th Gangteng Tulku at Gangteng Gonpa, the traditional seat of the Gangteng Tulkus. The young abbot then took charge as spiritual head of his domains: nineteen private Nyingma monasteries and hermitages (this number has since expanded to over 35).
The site of Gangteng Gonpa had been chosen by Pema Lingpa himself. Construction of the monastery was begun in the early 1500s by Pema Lingpa’s grandson, the first Gangteng Tulku, and the present form of the monastery was completed later that century by the 2nd Gangteng Tulku. The monastery’s name, attributed to Pema Lingpa, is simple and appropriate: “top of the hill.” Gangteng Gonpa is presently the largest private Nyingma monastery in the entire Kingdom of Bhutan.
As indication of the tone of the 9th Gangteng Tulku’s leadership,Kunzang Pema Namgyal immediately dispensed with the host of attendants who traditionally had accompanied the Gangteng Tulkus’ every step outside the monastery in long processionals. Still recounted today are his words of advice to those attendants that they needed to look for jobs, because they had none with him any longer.
Soon the 9th Gangteng Tulku began three years of personal study with His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche, the head of the Nyingma Lineage, during which period he received the complete set of initiations and teachings of the Pema Lingpa lineage from both H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche and H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Each of these masters had received the initiations in Tibet and had carried the texts with them when escaping from Tibet.
Following this period of study, he spent eight years in almost constant meditation retreat under the tutelage of the former Je Khenpo, Tenzin Dhendup, widely acknowledged as one of the most highly realized Dzogchen masters of our time, who resides in meditative seclusion in his mountaintop hermitage at the far end of Bhutan’s Thimphu Valley.
Yet, always looming during these periods of spiritual work were the demands of the historical time period in which the 9th Gangteng Tulku had chosen his birth. During the 40-year gap between our present Gangteng Tulku and his predecessor, the 8th Gangteng Tulku, who had spent much of his life as Governor of Paro during the politically critical early years of the 20th century, both the Pema Lingpa lineage and the physical structure of Gangteng Tulku’s monasteries had seriously deteriorated.
Further intensifying this situation was the complete eradication of the Pema Lingpa tradition in Tibet, where it had been firmly rooted for centuries in the monasteries of both the Seungtreul and Thukse Tulkus (the Speech incarnation and Mind Emanation, respectively, of Pema Lingpa). The Gangteng Tulku now faced the task of propagating these precious practices and teachings of which he was now the primary holder.
At this time he began intense teaching activity within his spiritual household in Bhutan, and also engaged in further years of study in Nepal with the revered Dzogchen master Chatral Rinpoche. Then, in the mid-1980s, thanks to the encouragement and urging of his teacher, ex Je Khenpo Tenzin Dhendup, the ninth Gangteng Tulku resolved to visit the west and teach Dzogchen, the Ninth Yana of Great Perfection. On his first excursions he traveled alone, without even a single attendant. His aim was both to enliven the Pema Lingpa lineage by sharing it with Western students, as well as to gather financial support for the renovation of 400-year-old Gangteng Gonpa and for a host of other Dharma projects which he was initiating in Bhutan.
Since emerging from yet another three years of solitary meditation retreat in 1992, Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche has been working ceaselessly to assure the survival of both the teachings and practices of the Pema Lingpa Lineage. Two three-year-retreat centers; an isolated Dzogchen three-year retreat center; a new monastery (Ogyen Ling) near his birth region in Tongsa; a nunnery and shedra for women near the birthplace of Pema Lingpa in Bhumthang; and a highly-acclaimed university-level shedra adjacent to Gangteng Gonpa are but some of the fruits of this intense period of Buddha-activity of the Gangteng Tulku.
Outside Bhutan, Rinpoche has toured and taught in both Europe and North America annually, and has inspired retreat centers on both continents. In March, 2000, the Manitou Foundation graciously donated 320 acres of pristine mountain land in Crestone, Colorado, USA to Yeshe Khorlo. This land is being developed as a retreat and teaching center, named Choying Dzong, with a lhakang (temple) and four retreat cabins already completed. Both Choying Dzong in Crestone, and Pema Yang Dzong, in the Jura, France now have facilities for long and short-term retreats for both groups and individuals, and are hosts to Rinpoche during his visits.