Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition. This week’s post summarizes the biography of Khenpo Munsel by Samten Chhosphel on the Treasury of Lives.
Western students of Tibetan Buddhism often hear stories of their teachers’ teachers—the great male and female practitioners who completed their training in Tibet and passed on their wisdom to the first generation of teachers to come to the West. Although oral anecdotes are common, and extensive Tibetan-language biographical literature exists for many of these figures, it is relatively rare to have access to reliable English biographies of teachers’ teachers.
Included in the Treasury’s collection are many biographies of these “missing links,” the lineage masters who connect the current generation of teachers to the great names that have become increasingly well known among Western practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. One well-known story revolves around the teacher of Garchen Rinpoche, a Drikung Kagyu lineage holder who, during China’s Cultural Revolution, received teachings on the nature of mind while serving nearly a decade in prison, where he practiced in secret and attained realization. The man who gave him these teachings was Khenpo Munsel.
Born in 1916 in the Golok region of Amdo, Khenpo Munsel’s original name was Namgang, or “new moon.” When he was still an infant, the boy was recognized as an incarnation of the great Nyingma teacher Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), at which point he received the name “Munsel,” meaning “eliminator of darkness.” He studied at Katok monastery, one of the oldest Nyingma Monasteries in Tibet, and at the age of 25 began intense studies of the Longchen Nyingtik treasure cycle under Katok Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang (1879–1941), who had been a close student of the renowned Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887). He was known as a brilliant student and practitioner, excelling in both his studies and meditation practice.
Many things changed when the political situation in Tibet turned for the worse and the People’s Liberation Army began to imprison teachers. He survived a near-fatal beating at the hand of a group of soldiers in 1959. It is said that he endured the assault peacefully. He then transferred to the “Lama’s Jail” in Xining, a facility lacking sufficient food, clothing, and shelter. Munsel is said to have been not been adversely affected, and he continued his practice in secret, visualizing the factory as a meditation cabin and the tools he was using as ritual implements. Through these methods, he is believed to have had great spiritual accomplishment while imprisoned. He was known to have given a share of his food to his companions in jail during a period when nourishment was scarce, and at one point lived without food for several weeks. Despite fasting for such a long time, his health was observed to be even better than before his imprisonment. As a result, many of his fellow prisoners and even many of the jail’s staff are reported to have become his students.
As conditions slowly improved, Munsel began to give Dzogchen instructions to those imprisoned with him, including a number of high lamas. It was there that Garchen Rinpoche became his student, as well as the 8th Adeu Rinpoche (1931–2007), a Drukpa Kagyu lineage holder. One of his elderly Chinese devotees was even said to have attained a rainbow-body at the time of his death.
After 22 years in prison, Khenpo Munsel was released, and immediately resumed his dharma activities in his home region. He founded a monastery named Tashi Chokhor Ling, and worked tirelessly to renew the traditions that had been so endangered during the Cultural Revolution. During this time, he gave special emphasis towards training monks in the Longchen Nyingtik treasure cycle.
Thousands of disciples eventually gathered around him during these years, and with the offerings he collected he sponsored the printing of woodblocks, commissioned statues and paintings, and supporting the many monks and lay people who came to study with him. He passed away in 1994, and although he is less known in the West, he remains widely renowned in his homeland for his work in preserving and re-spreading the endangered transmissions of his lineage.
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