A generation of American dharma teachers has matured, and many younger students will never know the Asian masters who were their teachers’ teachers. One such teacher to Western students was Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920—1996). Among the most revered Tibetan Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, Tulku Urgyen was instrumental in bringing to the West the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings that have become so popular in North America. He influenced the well-known American teachers Joseph Goldstein, Lama Surya Das, and Sharon Salzberg, as well as many prominent Tibetans teaching in the West, including Sogyal Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Tulku Urgyen was born in 1920 in Eastern Tibet and was recognized as the reincarnation of Guru Chöwang Tulku, one of the Five Terton Kings, who were said to be the major revealers of secret texts hidden by the founder or Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava. As a major lineage holder, Tulku Urgyen received Dzogchen and Mahamudra transmission from the greatest masters of the time. He in turn passed these teachings on to the next generation of Tibetan masters and many of his contemporaries, including the Sixteenth Karmapa, to whom Tulku Urgyen was a close and trusted advisor. In 1958, Tulku Urgyen fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet and went on to establish six monasteries and retreat centers in the Kathmandu region of Nepal, where he encountered that area’s first wave of eager Western students.

Despite Tulku Urgyen’s influence and widely acknowledged status as a meditation master—he spent over twenty years in retreat, including four three-year retreats—he spoke little of his own attainments. While his students Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt were compiling Blazing Splendor, his recently published memoirs, he insisted that the emphasis of the book be on the accomplishments of others. As Sogyal Rinpoche notes in the foreword to the book:

You will not learn so much in these pages about the author of these memoirs, the Tibetan master Kyabje Tulku Urgen Rinpoche. This is inevitable, because of his humility and his discretion. And yet he is the heart of this book, not only because it is his eyes witnessing these amazing events, his voice recounting them, and his mind making sense of them for us, but also because he was of the very same caliber as the exceptional individuals he is describing. He inherited their wisdom completely, and he embodied their incredible qualities. 

Tulku Urgyen died in February 1996 at his hermitage Nagi Gompa on the southern slope of Shivapuri Mountain in Nepal. Carrying on his legacy are his sons, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Chokling Rinpoche. In the following excerpt from Blazing Splendor, Tulku Urgyen remembers an exceptional Tibetan Buddhist master of humble means.


The Master in the Hollow Tree

Let me tell you about the extraordinary scripture the Light of Wisdom. This fundamental text by Padmasambhava reads like a poetic song. As a guidance manual for practice, it is strikingly clear all by itself. The Light of Wisdom is immense in its scope, including virtually every aspect of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

In my youth, the eccentric master Jamdrak was regarded as the person to go to for an explanation of the Light of Wisdom. At the end of the root text several paragraphs prophesied individuals who in the future would work for the benefit of the Dharma and all living beings, and exactly how they would do so. Jamdrak is said to be among those predicted eight hundred years before by the Lotus-Born master {Padmasambhava} in the scripture itself.

Before Jamdrak passed away, my uncle Tersey sent a gifted khenpo [learned teacher], known as Jokyab, to receive instructions from the old lama. Uncle Tersey had given him a letter with this request, “Please give your particular lineage of explanation on the Light of Wisdom to this learned monk so that it will not disappear.”

By the time Jokyab had set off to see him, Jamdrak was eighty-three years old. He lived contentedly in the hollow formed by the roots of a huge tree at a remote hermitage way up in the mountains. The old master couldn’t sit up straight, as his spine had curved with age. Jamdrak was not only extremely old by Tibetan standards, but he was quite particular in his ways. He wore a large cotton bib around his neck because he tended to drool, and he never blew his nose but let it run freely. He couldn’t care less what people thought about how he looked. He was a real yogi.

He didn’t wear the shirt and shawl of an ordained practitioner—just a coat fashioned out of scraps of old sheepskin, the outside patched together with different kinds of cloth. One of these was a large piece of exquisite brocade with a golden dragon design. Apparently, he had stitched this fine swatch of silk on his tattered robe after someone offered it to him, though it cost him a few bitter remarks from the manager of the nearby monastery, who hated to see such good brocade go to waste like that.

Jamdrak and Jokyab settled into a regular routine. Around nine each morning, the master would say, “It’s time to take a leak. Why don’t you come along? I’ll walk ahead, but bring my cushion to put in the sun.”

Jokyab would take along the large cushion—on which Jamdrak both sat and slept—and place it in a small meadow nearby. The old master would come back from relieving himself, flop down on the cushion and simply lie there for the next several hours. “Now he’s definitely not going back to the tree until lunch,” Jokyab would think. The old yogi would lie there on his back, eyes wide open, gazing into the sky until it was time to eat. At noon a small monk would announce that lunch was ready. That’s the way it went, day in and day out.

Related: The Man Who Saved Tibetan Buddhism

By now six months had gone by, three with nothing and three with some conversation and questions.

Then Jamdrak finally began teaching on the Light of Wisdom, spending several days on the title alone. He continued teaching, without skipping a single day over the next six months, covering every single detail in the text.

Once the teachings on the Light of Wisdom had begun, Jokyab would occasionally suggest, “Why don’t you move over to the monastery? It would be much easier for us to complete all the work we must do. It’s quite difficult for me to carry books back and forth from the library all the time.”

Jamdrak replied, “My whole life I’ve never lived in a building. I am very comfortable in this hollow tree. If you and the other lamas want to live in a monastery, go right ahead.” During this time with Jamdrak, Jokyab saw many people come to visit, including important lamas and wealthy benefactors. They often gave Jamdrak presents including quite expensive objects and money. Yet the old master was completely free of pretense with regard to these offerings. If an object happened to be beautiful he would hold it up and say, “Wow, what a lovely little gift! Thank you so much!”

Then, after the person left, regardless of what he had been given, Jamdrak would simply turn around and toss it into a box behind his seat. Huge chunks of dried meat, chunks of turquoise, sacks of dried cheese, bags of tsampa, priceless pieces of coral—all of it got mixed together. He never looked at an offering twice.

Jokyab noticed that one of the visitors didn’t dare to come in. He was a beggar, and it sounded like this wasn’t the first time he had come. Instead, he stuck his head in the window, “Eh, Rinpoche! Give me some alms, won’t you?”

Each time this beggar came, Jamdrak would reach back, put his hand in the box of offerings and, without looking, grab something and hand it out the window with a loud, “Here you are—enjoy!”

One day, an official from the monastery came by and saw that the beggar had just walked off with an exquisite golden statue. He rushed into the hollow tree and started to complain.

“Oh dear!” Jamdrak replied, “You want to put a price on the priceless Buddha. I am not able to do that.” To which the manager had no reply.

Jamdrak turned to Jokyab and said, “Poor fellows. They are actually very kind to me. I can’t hold it against them; they have to cover the monastery’s needs. First, the manager came and said he wanted half of all of my offerings. He told me that they were expanding the buildings and have many expenses, and that I don’t need so much because all I do is practice. I agreed to let them have half. Apparently it has turned out to be quite a lot. Now it looks as though they have grown to feel they own my offerings and want to count them to make sure they get their share.

“They’ve offered me a room in the monastery, but I always tell them that I am simply an old geezer living in a tree. I’m happy here,” he added with a chuckle, “but if they want to live in a monastery surrounded by fancy statues and lots of glitter, let them—if that makes them happy.”

Jokyab spent an entire year with Jamdrak in pursuit of these teachings, returning with an enormous sheaf of notes. Because he had run out of paper during his stay there, he had resorted to writing his notes on birch bark. When Jokyab came back from his mission, it looked as if he were carrying a load of wood shavings! When he untied his load, we saw that each scrap of bark had a little number. He was ordered to copy them all out in the right order, which took several months.

Jokyab’s notes expanded on the abbreviations and cross-references found in the text and clarified the difficult points. Eventually he compiled them into one remarkable volume, which is now widely used under the name Side Ornament to the Light of Wisdom. Jokyab sometimes joked, “These notes are the real repository for keeping the Light of Wisdom teachings clear and alive in my mind. Without them, I would not be able to give a thorough explanation. This is all thanks to Jamdrak.” There was a slightly rueful tone to his voice, for he had not had an easy time getting these teachings.

From Blazing Splendor, ©2005 by Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt. Reprinted with permission of Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Blaze of Fire

Venerable Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche remembers Tulku Urgyen’s powerful advice.

When I took off my monastic robes I was quite confused and depressed, and went to see Rinpoche. He told me, “It doesn’t matter if you are in robes or out of robes. What matters is your realization.

“You should be like [the great Tibetan saint] Marpa,” he advised. “Outwardly, Marpa was a householder, but inwardly he was a stove of dry straw being consumed by a blaze of fire.”

At the time, I’m not sure I got what Rinpoche was saying. But over these years I think of it often and I appreciate its meaning more and more. I realize how Rinpoche spoke directly to me. He never hesitated to share his experience with the world.

Body Language

Lama Surya Das on Tulku Urgyen’s generous forehead

Everyone familiar at all with Tibetan Buddhism knows that high lamas have high societal status, sit up high thrones, and that people customarily bow when entering their sacred presence and sit on the floor at their feet. Moreover, monks and nuns keep a physical distance from laypeople. Not a lot of hugging or handshaking took place in Tibet. Tibetan people of equal rank greeted each other by bowing slightly and touching foreheads, perhaps while clasping hands.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was utterly unique in being the only high lama I have ever seen who bopped foreheads with almost everybody, anyone he could, anyone who dared to get that close. When you approached and tried to bow, he would most often gently take your head with his hands on either side of your face or temple and place it against his forehead, and people could hardly fail to comment on it, since he was so highly regarded yet so equal to all. It was totally remarkable and a very telling expression of where he was really at.

With Just a Photo and a Handkerchief

Sharon Salzberg recalls Tulku Urgyen’s extraordinary kindness.

In 1991, I went to Nepal with several friends to study with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Lama Surya Das, who had met him before, arranged for us to go to Nagi Gompa, in the hills above Kathmandu. However, when we got to Kathmandu, it turned out that Rinpoche’s wife was very ill and he was not up in the hills but down in Bodhinath.

We went to see Tulku Urgyen every day for teachings. He was so generous to us, taking the time to see us, and his teachings were life-changing. There was nothing short of brilliance in his presentation, his urging of his students to have confidence in their own experience, his cutting through our clinging or confusion. All of this was executed with beautiful simplicity and elegance. “How in the world did he seem to convey the whole sweep of the Dharma,” I would ponder, “with just a photo and his handkerchief as props?

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