Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, a Tibetan scholar, Vajrayana master, and author of hundreds of books and commentaries on the dharma, died on June 4 at Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery in Nepal. He was 91.

According to a statement on Thrangu Rinpoche’s website:

On June 4, the full moon day of the fourth Tibetan month, Saga Dawa—the sacred anniversary of the Buddha Shakyamuni, our incomparably kind teacher, passing into parinirvana—Rinpoche decided that he had completed his activity for this life. At 1:30 pm, he lay down in the same posture as the Buddha Shakyamuni had lain in when passing into parinirvana and then displayed the appearance of his mind dissolving into the undefiled, luminous dharma expanse and passing into peace. Immediately, Kyabje Lodrö Nyima Rinpoche offered Rinpoche a reminder of the tukdam meditation. 

Thrangu Rinpoche, whose full title is The Very Venerable Ninth Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, was one of the highest lamas in the Karma Kagyu tradition, one of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, headed by the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje (one of two claimants to the title). His legacy includes establishing monasteries, nunneries, and other Buddhist organizations throughout the East and West, as well as preserving key Tibetan texts following China’s invasion of Tibet. He also served as the 17th Karmapa’s personal tutor.

Born in Ralungda, a small village in eastern Tibet, in 1933, Thrangu Rinpoche was identified as a tulku, or the reincarnation of an enlightened teacher, when he was 2 years old. At the age of 5 he went to live at Thrangu Monastery. His studies at the then newly established monastic college focused on the writings of Mikyö Dorje, the 8th Karmapa, and other masters in the Karma Kagyu lineage, according to a biography published by Thrangu Rinpoche’s publishing house, Namo Buddha Publications. 

In 1958, Thrangu Rinpoche fled Tibet, fearing persecution from the People’s Republic of China, which had been occupying the area since the beginning of the decade and repressing Tibetans’ freedom, religion, and other ways of life. Thrangu Rinpoche’s group, which included Khenpo Karthar, Traleg Rinpoche, Zuru Tulku, and other monks from Thrangu Monastery, survived a treacherous, monthslong journey on horseback toward Lhasa, often going hungry and eating snow to stay hydrated. In March 1959, they continued traveling toward India, and spent more than a month at the Bhutanese border before being granted permission to cross into India. Thrangu Rinpoche was just one of an estimated 80,000 Tibetans who fled to India in the late fifties and early sixties.  

In the 1960s, Thrangu Rinpoche passed his geshe exams. (The geshe degree is often equated as a monastic doctorate degree, and training for these exams can take some two decades of study.) Following the successful completion of his exams, Thrangu Rinpoche was named abbot of Rumtek Monastery in the Indian state of Sikkim, and also the Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. 

In the mid-seventies, Thrangu Rinpoche began teaching in the West, and eventually founded monasteries, nunneries, and dharma centers in Tibet, Nepal, India, Bhutan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada, and throughout the United States and Europe. Notable projects include building a monastery, and later monastic college, at Namo Buddha in Nepal (Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery); a nunnery near Swayambhunath, Nepal (Thrangu Tara Abbey); and the Vajra Vidya Institute in Sarnath, India, close to the site where the Buddha gave his first sermon, at Deer Park. There are nearly 1,000 monks and nuns in Thrangu Rinpoche’s sangha who are offered equal opportunities to study, according to his website. (Women were first allowed to take the geshema, or doctorate, exams in 2012.) Thrangu Rinpoche established Thrangu Monastery Canada in Richmond, British Columbia, in 2010, which is his North American seat, and Crestone, Colorado’s Vajra Vidya Retreat Center in 2001. 

He also worked to rebuild Thrangu Monastery, where he spent his early years before fleeing Tibet, first following its destruction in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and then following a massive earthquake in 2010 that destroyed the complex again and killed dozens of monks.

Thrangu Rinpoche was known for making complex teachings accessible for students and preserving Tibetan texts nearly lost during the Chinese invasion. He published extensively, authoring hundreds of commentaries. His books include The Mahamudra Lineage Prayer: A Guide to Practice; Advice from a Yogi: An Explanation of a Tibetan Classic on What Is Most Important (read an excerpt here); Tilopa’s Wisdom: His Life and Teachings on the Ganges Mahamudra; Naropa’s Wisdom: His Life and Teachings on Mahamudra; and Vivid Awareness: The Mind Instructions of Khenpo Gangshar.

Thrangu Rinpoche’s humanitarian projects include the building of a boarding school for 500 students from remote Himalayan villages in Kathmandu. In 2021, as Nepalese people suffered from COVID-19, as well as  floods and landslides, monks and volunteers from Thrangu Monastery donated 200 oxygen concentrators to the Nepalese government and distributed nonperishable food packages to families in need in Kathmandu’s slums and other areas.

Thrangu Media’s Facebook page contains details about ceremonies honoring Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. 

As is traditional, there will be forty-nine days of practice, and His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa has instructed us to begin with the Akshobya practice. A mandala of the Buddha Akshobhya has been arranged in the main shrine hall of Namo Buddha’s Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery with many offerings and pictures of our precious guru, and over four hundred monastics are practicing the puja, headed by the Venerable Zuri Rinpoche, Venerable Lodro Nyima Rinpoche, Choje Lama Wangchuk, and Venerable Tulku Damcho Rinpoche.

In addition, on the evening of June 8th, monks and students gathered online and in person with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa and the Gyalwang Drukpa to recite aspirations, including the “The Short Vajradhara Prayer,” “Calling the Guru from Afar,” and prayers for Rinpoche’s swift rebirth. This puja will continue daily until the forty-ninth day after Rinpoche’s parinirvana.

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