A Flash of Enlightenment: Stories of Lama Gugu

As Told by Tulku Karzang Dorje Rinpoche

Tulku Karzang revealed these stories of his previous incarnation, Brü Lama Kunzang Palden (Lama Gugu), as a kindness. I had been receiving some spiritual counsel from Tulku Karzang after the sudden passing of my Tibetan husband. The two had been friends, so there was the added comfort of shared grief to our meetings. Because of that familiarity, it took me a while to grasp just how very fortunate I was to spend time in the company of this great Yogi. As a westerner, I came quite newly into this world of Tibetan Buddhism and culture, and am very curious. Getting to spend some time with Tulku Karzang was like finding a spring in the desert.


Who was Lama Gugu?


One day, he was talking in general about the Dharma – karma, cause and effect. I asked him about his most recent past life and he said, “It’s not important.” I objected, “It’s important for students who want to know.” “Is it?” he asked. “I’ll tell you the story of my previous incarnation only if it’s inspiring – otherwise it has no meaning.”


I said, “It’s very inspiring!” Tulku La then pulled out an enormous book written by an eminent Rinpoche named Tarthang Tulku. The magnificent volume contained biographical information on many, many great Lamas in Tibet, including the previous incarnation of Tulku Karzang. I was so intrigued after reading about him that I immediately asked Tulku La to please share anything more he would tell me of “Lama Gugu.”

Reluctant, at first he said he didn’t remember anything about that past life and wouldn’t volunteer any stories that he might have heard. He began to downplay the issue and I realized he might change the subject or leave the room at any moment! Fortunately, I’d encountered Tibetan reserve before and so pleaded with him to share what he knew with me.

At last, Tulku La agreed to tell me stories he had heard from contemporaries of Lama Gugu. But he gave me a stern gaze, with his enormous eyes looking right through to the back of my skull and made it clear that he would tell these stories only to inspire me and not to celebrate himself. With that understood, I settled down to listen. If it hadn’t been such a natural occurrence, I am quite sure that these inestimably precious stories would remain untold. By the end, I was deeply moved and inspired.


I then asked Tulku La to please allow me to record the stories for the benefit of others. Compassion overcame reserve and he agreed to let me write them down. Gawala! (What Joy!)


He advised me to begin by quoting Tarthang Tulku La’s account of Lama Gugu from Copper Mountain Mandala, Mystic Land of Odiyan:


Tarthang Tulku La's Account


After I had returned to Dharthang monastery I soon began to study with another remarkable Lama who lived nearby, visiting him repeatedly over the course of a year. This was Brü Lama Kunzang, who was widely known as Lama Gugu. Already in his 70’s, Lama Gugu was a famous master of Dzogchen. Like Yukhok Chatralwa Chöying Rangrol, he was a direct disciple of Adzom Drugpa Rinpoche and was the most famous holder of the Nyingthig lineage in all of Golok.


Unlike most accomplished masters, Lama Gugu lived the simple life of a village Lama and took only a few students. A big man with a beard, he would walk with long strides, staring straight ahead without looking to see where he was going – and except when he was teaching his talk was very unclear and difficult to follow. My sense was that he was no longer at home in the ordinary realm.


Yet his teaching, based on his own realization, was a source of dynamic inspiration and many of his actions, as well as the events that took place around him, match the accounts of the signs accompanying attainment on the Dzogchen path. It seemed to me that he had successfully unified the physical and mental realms. Last year, when I returned to Golok, I heard remarkable stories about the bravery with which he faced torture and imprisonment, and about the marks of realization that accompanied his death.


Tulku Karzang was once told by a Dharma brother in India that a biography exists of his previous incarnation, but he was not interested in reading it or having a copy.


“To tell you the truth,” he said when I asked why not, “I just don’t care. I don’t like big introductions for small guys. I’m not doing anything big here. Knowing these things is, like we say in Tibetan, putting a big golden dorje on top of an ant. Somebody’s going to get squashed.”


Then he burst out laughing. Living in a somewhat remote rural area on Vancouver Island, Tulku Karzang looks after a relatively small, pure, humble temple. We find it a powerful refuge.


The following anecdotes about Lama Gugu came from various sources, all being Lamas whose lives intersected with his. One of the main sources is Tulku Karzang’s Root Guru, Khenpo Münsel Rinpoche (1916-1993). Another source is Khenpo Panchen Dawa, a student of Lama Gugu’s, who is now in his 80’s [at time or writing, 2008].


This is a remarkable karmic connection as although he was a teacher of Kenpo Panchen Dawa in his previous life as Lama Gugu, Tulku Karzang is now the Khenpo’s student. Lama Awang and Khenpo Kunchu also passed on some of the accounts.


Lama Gugu Meets Adzom Drugpa Rinpoche


Their stories begin when Lama Gugu was not particularly well known – just a simple, well-respected Lama in his early 40’s, living with his family, circa 1930. One day, he and a friend decided to seek teachings from the Dzogchen master Adzom Drugpa Drodul Pawo Dorje (1842-1924), who lived about two weeks away by horseback. In those days there was no telephone or other means of communicating over long distances, so it would be hard to know if the Lama would be available or even there when you arrived. Nonetheless, because their faith in the Dharma and their wish to receive teachings were both strong, they set out with joy in their hearts.


As it happened, when they arrived they were informed that Adzom Rinpoche had received a prediction from an oracle that he would have some kind of serious obstacle to his life or activities occur that year. Therefore, he had stopped giving teachings and had entered a three-year retreat a few months before they arrived. The two men pitched their yak wool tent and rested from their journey. Early in the morning a few days later, the master’s son, Gyalse Gyurme Dorje (Agyur Rinpoche), called Lama Gugu away from his tent. He said, “Just you but not your friend, please come to see Adzom Rinpoche – he’s asking for you.”


No reason was given and to this day Tulku Karzang doesn’t know why Adzom Rinpoche asked for the as-yet-unknown Lama Gugu. He was very excited and nervous to be asked to visit the great master in person. Lama Gugu went back to his tent to get a gift he had brought--a piece of antique currency--a saddle-shaped chunk of silver that was his most valuable possession. He tucked this into his robe, made an excuse to his friend, saying he was ‘just going out for a bit’ and hurried to Adzom Rinpoche’s house.


Inside, there was a cushion for him in front of a burgundy curtain. There was no sign of the master, but he was met by the heady fragrance of juniper incense and the vibration of enlightened energy. He began doing prostrations. When he was finished, he sat down on the cushion. A deep voice spoke from somewhere far behind the curtain.


At first, the voice asked simple questions such as, “Where do you come from?” and “What kind of practice do you do?” Initially Lama Gugu was quite nervous but he gradually relaxed. The voice then asked Lama Gugu to express his view on the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) and something miraculous happened. Unconsciously, spontaneously, Lama Gugu began to speak. Like a waterfall, words poured out of him – his ordinary thoughts were gone and he gave a deeply profound exposition. He continued until the voice said, “Good, that’s enough!” The voice instructed an attendant to pull back the burgundy curtain.

A second curtain lay beyond the first and Lama Gugu was asked by an attendant to move right up to sit in front of it. From somewhere beyond, the voice instructed him to resume so Lama Gugu began again. A river of words flowed through him and he spoke effortlessly at the highest level.


At a certain point the voice stopped him again and said, “Good, that’s enough! Remove the second curtain.” A third curtain was revealed and as before, Lama Gugu moved to sit right in front of it. For the third time he began to speak naturally, spontaneously, until the voice called out, “Very impressive! There’s no need for separation between us now.” The voice instructed the attendants to remove the third curtain. Lama Gugu found himself almost in the lap of the Master, who had been sitting directly behind the third curtain!


Miraculously, Adzom Rinpoche found his obstacles had been removed by listening to Lama Gugu and his retreat was no longer necessary! He called out to his attendants, “Beat the gong!” and announced he would resume giving public teachings. Overnight Lama Gugu became well known. People had come great distances – from all over Tibet – hoping to see Adzom Rinpoche and make a connection with him. That he would resume his activities was a great blessing for everyone.


Lama Gugu Becomes Lineage Holder of the Jetsun Nyingthig


Adzom Rinpoche and Lama Gugu began a powerful master-disciple relationship which led to him becoming the lineage holder for the precious and rare teaching of the Jetsun Nyingthig (Quintessential Heart Essence) lineage. As this story illustrates, Lama Gugu was unique. He wasn’t a scholar or otherwise very learned, but nonetheless was extremely precise in his teaching. He demonstrated mental clarity and a purity of being that enabled him to deliver the Nyingthig teachings fluidly and precisely, from an enlightened consciousness. At this point in his life he sat in meditation a great deal. He was very serious and didn’t exhibit much of a sense of humour.


As Tarthang Tulku’s account describes, Lama Gugu’s behaviour became increasingly unconventional as he got older. Tulku Karzang commented with a smile, “The Mahasiddhas were all weird –yogis cannot be normal – they can only act spontaneously from an enlightened view. They are no longer conscious of worldly expectations.”


Some time later Adzom Rinpoche finished writing down a mind terma, a commentary on the Jetsun Nyingthig. He had written many texts before but felt that this one was perhaps going to be the best and would be known as Rigdzin Shalung (Oral Instructions of the Vidyadharas). He called his disciples together and asked them to take turns reading the manuscript and then come to him to comment on it.


When Lama Gugu’s turn came he found it was like reading something that the Buddha had written – perfect – the undeceiving speech of his guru. What comment could he possibly make? He read it respectfully, with deep appreciation and then put it carefully away high on his altar and forgot all about it. Time passed and one day Adzom Rinpoche called him wrathfully to his presence and said, “So, you’re the only one who hasn’t made any comment about my book. You haven’t returned it, you haven’t passed it on! Where is it? Why no comment? Not good enough for you? If it’s so bad, why don’t you throw it on the fire?!”


Lama Gugu was so shocked that he went right out of himself and into a flow of enlightened consciousness. He gave an unparalleled commentary on the text, speaking about the view and meditation at the highest level. When he ‘came to’ he was surrounded by all the main disciples who were listening intently at the behest of their master.


Adzom Rinpoche was very proud of him. Lama Gugu had been named in the terma as the person who should receive it in order to ensure it had the most benefit. This was a demonstration of his ability. The master gazed at him with a delighted and compassionate expression, “See? I told you he was special,” he said parentally. Lama Gugu was very embarrassed because many of the other students were well educated Geshes and Khenpos – some quite well known. Yukhok Chatralwa Chöying Rangrol (1872-1952) was one very famous and important Lama in the group. As they walked out of Adzom Rinpoche’s house he teasingly nudged Lama Gugu saying, “Well, today certainly was your day!” Lama Gugu answered that just as droppings from a bird in flight might land perfectly on a particular rock by chance, what he said had been a fluke.


Later on, Chöying Rangrol and Lama Gugu became equals in terms of carrying on Adzom Rinpoche’s lineage. Chöying Rangrol was more scholarly and wrote extensively, but his respect and admiration for his counterpart never wavered. Once when he was teaching he discovered there were students from Golok in the audience, at which he exclaimed, “What the hell! Why are people from Golok here? Why come to me for an empowerment when Lama Gugu is right there in Golok?”


Terton Sogyal Lerab Lingpa


Another time a very special guest, Tertön Sogyal Lerab Lingpa (1856-1926), was giving teachings with Adzom Rinpoche. During the course of his commentary Tertön Sogyal made a few light-hearted remarks about life in Golok, which at that time was an isolated region with a mainly nomadic culture. As he was one of only two people in the entire audience from Golok, Lama Gugu found himself a little offended. He thought it odd a Lama would talk that way and didn’t want to attend any more of Tertön Sogyal’s teachings. His absence was noticed by Adzom Rinpoche, who invited him to visit with them privately – a rare privilege for an ordinary Lama.


When Lama Gugu arrived, Tertön Sogyal was sitting on a throne higher than even Adzom Rinpoche’s, which showed the esteem in which he was held. Adzom Rinpoche said, “Please forgive Lama Gugu’s behaviour. He acts kind of silly sometimes and he may seem a bit weird, but he’s been prophesized to be the lineage holder for the Jetsun Nyingthig. He’s very special.” He then asked Tertön Sogyal if he would show some of his sacred terma objects to Lama Gugu.


Tertön Sogyal agreed. Lama Gugu was very interested when Tertön Sogyal pulled out a beautiful box of fine treasures. He showed a number of exquisite, sacred items to Lama Gugu, including a terma written in a sacred dakini language, a gorgeous statuette, and a very fine vajra, allowing him to examine them freely. Finally, Tertön Sogyal pulled out from the same box a magnificent ceremonial dagger, blessed it and passed it to Lama Gugu. “This could be hot,” he warned. “Do you need something to protect your hands?” Lama Gugu thought Tertön Sogyal was teasing him. “No thank you,” he said and reached out to take it. It was piping hot! Lama Gugu thought, “Oh, I’m being tested!” and he hung on tight instead of dropping it. Acting very relaxed he placed the dagger on top of his head to receive blessings, then handed it back to Tertön Sogyal, relieved and a little surprised to see his hands weren’t burnt. In that moment he gained great faith with the realization that Tertön Sogyal was a very powerful Lama. He was ashamed of having had doubts about him and thought, “What a great master!”


Tertön Sogyal also apologized to Lama Gugu, “I really didn’t mean anything personal when I said those things about Golok. I wasn’t thinking about what I was saying, I’m sorry.” Adzom Rinpoche was very pleased. Looking back, it’s very possible that Tertön Sogyal made the remarks on purpose to arrange the meeting with Lama Gugu.


Lama Awang Receives a Promised Teaching


The next story was told to Tulku Karzang by Lama Awang, a great Lama who passed away a few years ago and would have been in his 70’s now. Lama Awang had been an attendant to his Root Guru, Ling Lama Chökyi Dorje, when he was younger. Ling Lama was the founder of Tra Ling Monastery in Golok and the previous incarnation of Lingtrul Rinpoche. Ling Lama had given Lama Awang many special teachings, but promised him that someday he would give him teachings from the Jetsun Nyingthig. Sadly, he passed away before he could deliver the teaching.


A few years later, Lama Awang and a group of dharma friends that included Achung Tulku Rinpoche (the 4th Abbot of Tra Ling) and Khenpo Panchen Dawa (Tulku Karzang’s future teacher), decided to travel to where Lama Gugu lived to seek instruction on the Jetsun Nyingthig from him. When they arrived and asked after Brü Lama, his honourific title, his brother Kunzang Palden replied “Who is that? If you mean Lama Gugu,he’s around.” Even though he was now recognized as a great master, the atmosphere around him was low key.


When the teaching started, despite Lama Awang’s gratitude and respect for the master he felt a wave of sadness, and found himself missing his dearly departed Root Guru very much. As he sat in the large throng of eager students he lamented to himself, “If only I was receiving this from my dear Ling Lama.”


At that very moment, Lama Gugu stopped reading aloud, folded his book and looked directly at Lama Awang sitting in the midst of the crowd. Making eye contact, he said, “You know, all of us Lamas are the same in the dharmakaya. I am Ling Lama and he is me. There is no difference.” Then he unfolded the long book back open and continued where he had left off. The hair on the back of Lama Awang’s neck stood on end and he saw in a flash of rigpa the truth. He instantly attained pure faith in Lama Gugu, as much as in his own Root Guru.


This ability of Lama Gugu’s exemplifies the quality of all accomplished masters to perceive the thoughts and emotions of their students and to give them the teaching and the guidance they need in a way they can receive it in the moment. “Lama Awang had tears in his eyes when he told me this story” said Tulku Karzang. “All his doubts had vanished – purified – like that!” Tulku La snapped his fingers. The moment was like a thunderbolt dispersing dark clouds to reveal the purity of the sky. Lama Awang and his friends remained with Lama Gugu for a month.


Some Siddhis of Lama Gugu


Their mornings were spent pursuing their own meditation. Lama Gugu though would emerge from his tent bare to the waist and spend the morning sitting on his cushion, calling out to people nearby, talking about life or goings on – all the while resting in the dharmakaya. He would watch the children play while he ate his yoghurt and brown sugar. Sometimes they would ask for something sweet and he would drop spoonfuls into their mouths.


In the afternoon or evening, group instruction would begin again with Lama Gugu in his tent. He would give a transcendent commentary on the text. The book was old and the letters weren’t sharp, making it somewhat hard to read. Bad weather would come and go, darkening the sky and making it very hard to see in the unlit tent. Lama Gugu wouldn’t notice, but would continue ‘reading’ in the dark and giving commentary. His students learned to quietly open or close tent flaps as they needed so as not to break Lama Gugu’s state of enlightened consciousness. Tulku Karzang elaborated for me: by this point in his life, Lama Gugu no longer sat in meditation. There was no difference for him between focusing and not focusing, between meditating and not meditating. He had attained equanimity. That is what Tarthang Tulku La referred to when he wrote, “It seemed to me that he had successfully unified the physical and mental realms.”


As a yogi, Lama Gugu perceived no difference between dark and light. Neither was he conscious of the difference between himself and his students. Tulku La said, “Everything had become just like a reflection to him. He just took things as they came and lived in the moment, spontaneously.” Whether alone or with people, he remained in a state of pure, non-dual awareness.


A final note from Lama Awang’s account. Sometimes the group would repeat a question to Lama Gugu the next day in the hope of getting more details. Lama Gugu, however, always gave the same answer. He would say, “That’s what I was taught by Adzom Rinpoche. It should be good enough for you, right? I’m not a scholar. I’m not going to add comments to the undeceiving speech of my teacher.”


The Sewing Needle


One time, Lama Gugu was leading a bardo liberation ceremony. There was a large group gathered and he was sitting at the front on his throne, sewing. He dropped his sewing needle just as the ceremony reached the vajra master’s part. The entire hall was silent while he searched for his needle on the floor. When he looked up at the crowd he realized people were waiting for him, so he performed his part and then went back to looking for the needle. He wasn’t doing something improper; it was just that, like Shantideva, he saw everything purely. Everything was perfect as it was – no special visualizations or recitations were required.


The Dzogchen Path Exemplified


In another story about his realization, Lama Gugu was part of a group having an audience with Kunzang Nyima, a son of Tertön Dudjom Lingpa (1835-1904). The Lamas present were all taking turns making commitments to study more, practice more and engage in more dharma activities. When Lama Gugu’s turn came he committed to never recite mantras, to never have a mala in his hand, to never do any physical dharma – in short, to drop the activities of the three gates, to which Kunzang Nyima exclaimed, “See this Golok Lama. This is what a Dzogchen master should be!”


Great Social Change Begins


Lama Gugu was in his 70’s when there was great social change in Tibet. Lamas often faced execution or were given life sentences as the occupation took hold. All over Tibet, average people were compelled to join in the burning of temples and torturing of Lamas. The day came when the elderly Lama Gugu was taken away to be tortured. He was pulled out of his tent and carried aloft through the streets in his own bed. People were throwing things and yelling, but witnesses said he was laughing and smiling, peacefully looking out at the crowd with compassion, oblivious to the hostility around him.


A local teenager, Khenpo Kunchu, had 100% pure faith and so didn’t join in with the crowd. He realized what a blessing it would be to get near the great Lama for even a moment. He walked back and forth under the hoisted bed full of joy and reciting prayers. He later related how unfortunate he felt not to have been able to receive teachings from Lama Gugu, but Tulku Karzang felt that his pure faith made him extremely fortunate – he was still able to make a connection and receive blessings. Khenpo Kunchu is in his 50’s at the time of writing.


After being beaten and tortured, Lama Gugu was released later that night to return to his tent. As his faithful attendant, a woman whose name is not known, washed the blood off of him, he said to her, “What a beautiful rishan[1] it was this evening! It was kind of strange that woman hitting me on the head – that hurt! But what a very powerful practice we had!” The attendant was much consoled to see her injured Lama was quite stable in his state of realization.


[1] A practice based on teachings that elucidate the nature of samsara and nirvana and the methods for separating them. It sometimes involves people behaving in outlandish ways.


The Smooth Transition of Lama Gugu


Khenpo Münsel Rinpoche related the following story to Tulku Karzang and a group of about 20 close students at his home, during a practice of the Snow Lion-faced Dakini for which Tulku La was serving as the vajra master. Khenpo Münsel said he first met Lama Gugu in prison when he was in his 40’s and Lama Gugu was in his 70’s. Whenever he asked the older Lama if there was anything he could do to make him more comfortable, Lama Gugu would laugh and say something like, “No, everything is perfect. I’m fine, fine.” Lama Gugu was always smiling and seemed truly content. In addition to the Lamas, the prison held other people considered to be of high rank, such as members of the royal family or government officials. From time to time, their captors stopped providing them with food and water and some people suffered terribly. Münsel Rinpoche related that one man would fall into fits of screaming. Rinpoche produced some tsampa he had saved and blessed it with prayer, which comforted the man.


Despite the harsh conditions, Lama Gugu didn’t seem to suffer though it took a toll on his physical body. In the end, the two Rinpoches were together for only one short month. Münsel Rinpoche witnessed Lama Gugu pass away in a state of bliss. He simply dropped his head forward and a little blood ran out of his nose. The guards took his body away in a wheelbarrow. The woman who cooked for the prison camp followed at a safe distance. She had great faith in all the Lamas and hoped she could observe where the body would be buried. As she followed the drops of blood on the ground, she saw that each and every one had a shimmering rainbow hue.


Ordinarily the passing of a great Lama would be accompanied by many rituals, or the Lama might ask to be locked away for seven days to attain the body of light. Münsel Rinpoche speculated that had Lama Gugu been allowed to meet his death in the traditional way, he would indeed have attained the rainbow body. Years later some people went to find Lama Gugu’s remains to see if they could recover any relics. There was nothing left to be found, however. The Yellow River had wound through the burial site and carried everything away.


Khenchen Münsel Rinpoche Carries the Lineage Forward


Khenchen Münsel Rinpoche remained in jail for over 20 years. He pretended he was ill so he wouldn’t have to do forced labour in the work camps. To test this, his captors tortured him horrifically. Somehow he was able to withstand this and convinced his captors he was too sick to work. Left alone at last, he did his meditation practices in silence. He accomplished trekchö, tögal, and unifying the dream state with the clear light. Jail became the temple for many Lamas. Khenpo Münsel said he had a profound appreciation for his captors. “If not for them, I would have been a busy village Lama.”


Münsel Rinpoche is considered to have been one of the most accomplished Dzogchen masters from Golok. He advised his students to practice hard. “They can burn the books, but they can’t take away the rigpakaya.” In the 1980’s, policy softened somewhat and many of the old Lamas were released from prison and allowed to return home.


Khenpo Panchen Dawa


When Khenpo Panchen Dawa was released, he travelled to Adzom Drugpa’s monastery in Kham to recover some sacred texts for Tra Ling monastery, which was being rebuilt. Agyur Rinpoche had taken over for his father, Adzom Rinpoche, who had passed away before the occupation. Agyur La himself was considered a great Lama with a wide influence in the region; however, he too passed away in prison. His father’s monastery had been destroyed many years before Khenpo Panchen Dawa made this journey, but some of the old monks remained nearby. They asked Panchen Dawa about Lama Gugu. They wanted to know anything about how he had died and if there was any news of a Tulku. But, at that time, Panchen Dawa had not yet met Tulku Karzang.


Tulku Karzang Dorje Rinpoche’s Early Years


Tulku Karzang was born in 1970. Tibet was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, which would end in 1976. His parents had very joyful, auspicious dreams after he was conceived, so from the beginning they regarded him as a great spiritual being. When he was young, many Lamas came to his family’s house and recognized him as Lama Gugu’s Tulku; one of them was Panchen Dawa.


When Tulka La was eight years old, he was made to attend a Chinese elementary school, and soon he began to wet the bed at night. Khenpo Panchen Dawa told his parents he shouldn’t interact with the other children so much – shouldn’t allow them to touch his head for example. This was a traditional idea about how to avoid getting affected by the energy of others. His mother would cleanse him all over with juniper smoke to try and help. Khenpo Panchen did a special ‘Shower of Blessings’ ceremony.


After the ceremony Tulku Karzang, pretending to be asleep, heard him telling his parents how he should keep to a spiritual path and not lead a regular life. The conversation was held quietly behind closed doors because at that time the family was still fearful of repercussions if they were overheard discussing spiritual matters. His parents believed that no matter what kind of life he led, it would work out well. They trusted him and had faith in his abilities. Their dreams and the Lamas’ predictions had been clear. Even so, they never bragged about their son – even today they wouldn’t feel it right to do so.


Initially, Tulku Karzang decided to continue with school, but later karmic connections ripened and he left for the monastery. One summer during the traditional ‘rains retreat’, an enthronement ceremony was held for him. Joining the monastery and getting his spiritual roots back led to a feeling of great joy. Tulku La said that, “Without having met all the great Lamas my life would be like a tree without sunlight and water – all dried out. They are my life energy. That’s why I keep going back to Tibet, to experience that energy. That’s the only story there is.”


Tulku Karzang Dorje Meets His Root Guru: Münsel Rinpoche


Two years ago [2006], he was able to join in the enthronement ceremony for Münsel Rinpoche’s young Tulku. Having the chance to be there was an “overwhelming privilege.” That story has been recorded elsewhere, but Tulku Karzang said that of everything he has experienced in his almost 40 years, the most important and happy moments were spent with Khenpo Münsel Rinpoche. Tulku La told of first going to meet Khenpo Münsel Rinpoche, how he and a few friends had left one fall in an old, broken down, Russian truck. It was a journey of only about 160 kilometres, going north from Tra Ling through the mountain passes of the Yellow River. With the snow in the passes, the trip took four days.


There was only room for three in the cab, so some of them had to ride in the back with the oil drums. The deep snow in the passes made the road difficult to follow and they frequently had to get out to look for it, or to clear snow. One day they only made it about five meters! When they got stuck they would all push and then chase after the truck while it was rolling and climb back on.


Despite all that it was one of the most joyful times of his life. “That was enlightenment” he said. “Physically and mentally, everything was perfect. There was nowhere to find something unpleasant.” The feeling of enlightenment intensified as they approached where Khenpo Münsel lived. It was quite isolated – a beautiful, pristine setting – the smell of juniper incense filled the valley. Tarthang Tulku wrote that the beauty of regions like this was overwhelming. In the spring and summer when the fields were alive with white, yellow, and purple narcissus; the fragrance was so rich and deep it almost seemed you could live without food.


When they arrived, Tulku Karzang met an old acquaintance from Tra Ling. He led him to Khenpo Münsel’s house and they began circumambulating it together. Tulku La felt nervous and wondered if Khenpo Münsel would accept him and give him transmissions. He heard the door creak open and waited with a humble attitude. Khenpo Münsel, coming out after his meditation, took off his sunglasses and said, “Who’s there?”


They both offered him khatas and prostrations, and Münsel Rinpoche invited them in. Tulku Karzang said that once they were settled, “he began asking me questions; it seemed like he was testing me.” Münsel Rinpoche asked, “Are you good at ball games?” When Tulku La replied that he could play a bit, Münsel Rinpoche said, “I’ll trade. You teach me ball games and I’ll teach you meditation.” He kept the khata Tulku La had offered as a sign he would accept him as a student (khatas are usually returned after being offered; they are draped around the neck of the student who offers them by the Lama).


Tulku Karzang felt a strong connection with Khenpo Münsel right away. It was solid and without doubt. Everything felt perfect, complete, and he didn’t care if he received any more instruction. Just being in Münsel Rinpoche’s presence was Mahamudra. He thought it had to be because the connection had roots in a past life and Münsel Rinpoche told him later that was indeed the case.


Tulku Karzang laughed as he recalled that, ironically, as he received more and more instruction he became somewhat fearful of what Münsel Rinpoche might say, more concerned about what he thought of him. It got to the point that Tulku La would feel the impulse to hide when he saw Münsel Rinpoche coming up the valley towards where he was meditating.  Of course, Tulku La stayed. This meant sometimes sitting in meditation with him, which could be nerve wracking. Towards the end Tulku La served as Münsel Rinpoche’s attendant –taking care of his needs and then nursing him until at last Münsel Rinpoche passed away.


Tulku Karzang Dorje Rinpoche Reflects


It was a most inspirational time, full of blessings. Tulku La said, “Other than that, and being recognized as a Tulku in a time of pure dharma, there are no amazing stories. Boy from the East goes to the West – no story there. Well, lots of stories – too many – but no inspiration.” He laughed and added, “A Chinese writer once said that a biography has to have both good and bad, so you should avoid biographies.” He continued, “If everything Münsel Rinpoche touched turned to gold, then I was gold once. Now, not practicing, I’ve turned back to metal. Even a Tulku has to practice hard to reach a level where things happen spontaneously. Otherwise Tulkus can fall back too, maybe become just a pratyekabuddha. It’s not like having an inheritance from your parents where you can just live on the money they left you – just eat, sleep, and shit. This inheritance can disappear. You have to work harder than others because being a Tulku La comes with extra duties and responsibilities – you have to carry on the tradition. That’s why His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa work so hard. But if I were to say a bit about myself...for us who carry the profound lineage on our shoulders – how bad can we be? How much help we provide I can’t say but certainly we’re not harming anyone.”


Concluding Advice from Tulku Karzang Dorje Rinpoche


Tulku Karzang made it clear when he allowed me to write down these stories that he did not do so to celebrate himself. “If I was once him, look at me now. I’m not benefiting anybody.” His modesty not withstanding, Tulku La is vastly benefiting everyone in his sangha. We all feel the enormous benefit of simply being in his presence. We are absolutely privileged to offer whatever we can to help him further realize and share his immense gifts in this safe, quiet, and beautiful place.


He encourages us all to “Practice when you’re happy, practice when you’re sad, practice all the time. Develop your own clarity of rigpa. And remember when you read these stories, enlightenment depends on you. Clearly understanding yourself is more important than studying about who I am.”


Lama Gugu is well remembered in his home village of Gande in Golok. His name ranks among the incomparable masters uprooted like gems from the earth of Tibet and scattered across the globe. We are so happy and fortunate to have this jewel adorning the west coast of British Columbia. One day perhaps we’ll be able to track down his complete biography. Though, as Tulku Karzang told me, biographies only record the day-to-day details. The secret part of what a great Lama accomplished is like an ocean we can’t fully understand. So the stories in biographies are just a drop of water from the ocean of enlightenment. Lama Gugu’s ocean of understanding planted the seeds of liberation for those that had faith.


If the story shouldn’t be told, I confess to the Dharma protectors. If there is any merit in the telling, I dedicate it to the long life of all the great Lamas. Any errors or omissions are the result of my own ignorance only, and no fault of anyone else!


May all beings benefit! Sarva Mangalam.

Kunzang Pelmo, with additional editing by Steve Ayers, 2008, 2011



Just finding out about other people's problems is falling into the trap of trouble. If your dharma is just to tell others, it becomes the servant of the eight worldly dharmas. You cannot influence others without regulating yourself, so tame yourself first! Without greater perception and insight, you cannot achieve the well-being of sentient beings; therefore, we should cultivate ourselves.