Conversation with Ven. Khensur RinpocheBy Frank Barone and Cathy KennedyDeer Park students were extremely fortunate to again have an opportunity to study with the Venerable Khensur Rinpoche, Geshe Lobsang Tenzin, the former abbot of the Gyume Tantric College, now relocated in southern India. During his visit from late August to mid-October 2002, Rinpoche taught a series of classes on both Sutrayana and Vajrayana, and bestowed various empowerments. All programs were conducted nights and weekends to accommodate the work schedules of people in the community.
The Venerable Geshe Sopa and Ann Chavez prepared the following questions for Khensur Rinpoche. The Venerable Yangsi Rinpoche provided translation during the interview.
Khensur Rinpoche, please tell us about your previous visits to Deer Park and what teachings you gave?
For 3 years, 1990 to 1992, on Thursday evenings I taught the Middle Length Lam Rim by Je Tsongkapa. In that time I reached the section on the Being of Middle Scope. I also gave the Cittamani Tara Blessing and other initiations and commentaries.
On my next visit in 1997, I taught a summer program on The Seven Point Thought Training. As we again just finished, I also performed the Cakrasamvara and Vajrayogini Initiations, followed by commentaries on the Vajrayogini practice and the Six Session Yoga.
Please tell us about your own teachers, including Geshe Sopa-la, and what you studied with them.
With Geshe Sopa-la, I studied the Abisamayalamkara, Shantidevas Bodhicaryavatara, Madyamika, Pramanavartika, and Vinaya.
Was that in India or Tibet?
This was all in Tibet. After 1959, Geshe-la went to Himachel Pradesh and eventually to the United States, and I went initially to Buxa. So I wasnt able to study with Geshe-la after that.
Who were your other teachers?
My primary teachers were Gen Ngawang Gedun-la Gen Ngawang Rigtsel-la, and Gen Lhundrup Tabgyay-la, the former abbot of Sera Je Monastery. I wasnt able to study Abhidharma with Geshe-la because that comes later in the geshe course of study, and by that time I was already in India. With Gen Ngawang Gedun, Gen Ngawang Rigtsel, and Gen Lhundrup Tabgyay I also studied Abisamayalamkara, Abhidharma, and Pramanavartika.
What is your relationship with Yangsi Rinpoches predecessor?
I studied Madyamika with Gen Ngawang Gedun-la and I appreciated that very much and what I have now is because of his kindness.
What has been your relationship with Yangsi Rinpoche in his present life?
At first the complete responsibility for Yangsi Rinpoche was given to Lama Yeshe. He had been given the responsibility of searching for the incarnation of Geshe Ngawang Gedun. After he was found, Yangsi Rinpoche lived at Kopan for a number of years. Initially, Lama Yeshe wanted him to stay longer at Kopan. Everything that Lama Yeshe did for Rinpoche was greatly supported and appreciated by Geshe Sopa and myself. Around 1974, Lama Yeshe and I discussed what was best for Yangsi Rinpoche. Lama Yeshe said that he had done everything he could for Rinpoche and now it was time to consider his future education. Lama Yeshe said he could not do this by himself and that it was important to provide a good education. He then asked if I could come to stay at Kopan to teach Yangsi Rinpoche. When I shared this with Geshe Sopa-la, he said that I should go to Kopan to see the situation before deciding. I also still needed to complete my Geshe exam.
As Geshe-la advised, I went to Kopan for a visit. After that, I went to Dharmasala to receive teachings from His Holiness on the Lam Rim Chen Mo. I would be taking the final Geshe Lharampa exam within the next two years and so I had a private audience with His Holiness to get some advice on this. His Holiness asked me what my plans were after finishing my Geshe Exam. I told him about the possibility of going to Kopan to teach young Yangsi Rinpoche. His Holiness told me that I should first go to the Tantric College.
Around that time, Geshe Sopa-la came to India when His Holiness was giving teachings at Sera. Geshe-la was able to see and was impressed by the quality of education that the monks were receiving at Sera Monastery. He thought that it might be better if Yangsi Rinpoche came to Sera to continue his education. Geshe la came to Kopan at that time. Lama Yeshe wanted to keep Rinpoche there longer but with Geshe Sopas advice, it was decided for Rinpoche to go to Sera.
Geshe-la took care of all the arrangements and ceremony for Rinpoches entry into Sera. This was about 1977. Rinpoche would be studying with both Geshe Lobsang Tsering (now Khensur Rinpoche of Sera Je) and myself. I was given primary responsibility for Rinpoches care and education.
Was Rinpoche a good student?
(Laughs) Yes, he was a very good student.
From his first entry into the monastery until he became a Geshe, Yangsi Rinpoche was primarily supported by Geshe Sopa, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa. After Yangsi Rinpoche finished his Geshe training, there was discussion about his coming to the West. His family and others had concerns about this and wanted him to stay in India. Geshe Sopa felt that it would be helpful if Yangsi Rinpoche could come to Deer Park. His Holiness usually mentions in his teachings that he is uncomfortable with young Geshes going to the West. Before Yangsi Rinpoche came to the West, I had a private audience with His Holiness. During that audience, His Holiness said that it would be O.K. if Rinpoche went but only for two years which was the length of his visa. Then last year I had another audience with His Holiness. He asked me how Yangsi Rinpoche was doing. I told him he was still with Geshe Sopa at Deer Park. He said that it was now good for Yangsi Rinpoche to stay at Deer Park. As much as possible we try to get His Holiness advice and approval on Rinpoches plans. Lama Zopa does this too. For example, a few years ago before Rinpoche went to Dharmasala to give 2 months of teachings at Tushita, Lama Zopa spoke to me and then I spoke to His Holiness about Rinpoches coming to Tushita to give these teachings.
Is Yangsi Rinpoche studying with you during this visit?
Not, formally but we have conversations and when he asks me questions, I tell him which texts he can look at for more study and information.
Rinpoche, could you please tell us about your early life, about your parents, what you did when you were young and about the monasteries where you studied?
My parents had three children. I had one brother and one sister. My sister passed away when she was young. My brother is still alive and lives in Tibet. Until I was 19 years old, I studied at Ganden Ogmin Monastery near Shigatse. The monastery was founded by the 5th Dalai Lama. While there I did a lot of memorization of texts. There was some debate but not nearly as much as is done at Sera. At age 19, I went to Sera Je Monastery in Lhasa.
What did you do before you became a monk?
I became a monk when I was 7 years old. My parents were very poor but I dont remember very much because I was so young. They were just a normal working family. I remember sometimes herding some of the family animals and going to visit relatives. My father was good with sewing and made his living that way. My mother did weaving on a big loom.
Did you visit your parents after you entered the monastery?
After I went to Lhasa, I visited my parents only once until I decided to leave Tibet in 1960. After I left Lhasa, I stayed in my village for about 8 months. My parents didnt know that I was planning to escape. I didnt tell anybody because it would have been dangerous for them. I stayed with another monk in the village and asked him if he wanted to make the journey with me. He decided not to come so I had to move to another house before I left. He would have been in trouble with the Chinese if I had left from his house. I had planned to meet with 5 other monks at a certain location. We had to wait for about 2 weeks for two of the monks to arrive at the planned meeting place. Then we traveled together for two weeks to the Nepali border. The trip was difficult physically because of the high mountain passes but there was no danger from the Chinese military.
What did you do when you crossed the border?
We first went to see His Holiness where he was living in Mussorie, India. After seeing His Holiness, the three of us who had come from Sera Monastery went to Buxa. The other two monks went to Dharamsala to take teacher training. We first had to report to a refugee processing camp before going to Buxa. I stayed a long time in Buxa. When I first got there, I got sick and had to stay in a hospital for about a year with T.B. When I was better, I continued my education from where I left off in Tibet. I had already finished my study of the Abhisamayalamkara and at Buxa I began to study Madyamika and Abhidharmakhosa.
In 1969, we moved to Bylakuppe in southern India. For 2 years we had very little formal study because we had to work to build the settlement which is now Sera Je Monastery. Then I was able to study and complete the Geshe program.
Briefly, what did you do while you were abbot of Gyume Tantric College?
After finishing the Lharampa Geshe exam, I studied for one year at the Tantric college. After that, I became the disciplinarian (Ge Gur) at Gyume. But before I could actually begin as Ge Gur, I had to memorize 81 texts and take an exam on those in front of the abbot. The preparation for Ge Gur can take between 3 and 6 months. I was able to complete the preparation in 4 months. Not long after beginning as Ge Gur, I was made a candidate to become the abbot of Gyume. The preparation to become the abbot takes about 3 years. During that time I served as the Lama Um Ze. The Um Ze is responsible for the administrative and political aspects of the monastery. I did this for 3 years. Then, after becoming abbot, I was able to concentrate on religious training and responsibilities.
In Tibetan society recognized Tulkus would normally give initiations. However, at that time His Holiness had a very strong idea that the abbot could give Yamantaka, Gurysamaja, and other initiations in the monastery. So that is what I did. This was not established in earlier times, but His Holiness asked that we do that.
I served as abbot for 3 years. During that time, I took one tour outside of Asia. That is when I first visited Deer Park.
What are you doing now at Sera Je Monastery?
These days I have many students. My schedule varies a little. I teach one or two classes in the morning and four classes in the afternoon. I do this 5 to 6 days a week.
Rinpoche, what are your future plans?
I will return to Sera and continue to teach. When I have time, I will do retreat.
One last question Rinpoche what advice do you have for the students at Deer Park?
You should continue to study of course. Your practice should be gradual, first Lam Rim. Then based on Vajrayana texts, practice tantra, again gradually. You should take advantage of having 3 geshes who are teaching here, Geshe Sopa-la, Yangsi Rinpoche, and Geshe Tabgyay-la. You should study well with them, reflect on what you have studied, and then put the teachings into practice as much as you are able.
But you still must work at your jobs. Dont give that up, but do what study and practice you can while working. Then when you are able then you can dedicate more of your time to the Dharma.
You must remember that the Lam Rim is the essence of the practice, and that this must be backed up with philosophy, logic and reason. So it is important to study Abhisamayalamkara, Abhidharma and Madyamika as well. Also, it is good to study about the mind, such as texts on Lo Rig and Mind and Mental Events. To get an understanding of emptiness, you should study Madyamika. Other areas to study are the stages and paths, and tenets.
Then, of course, Geshe-la is teaching the summer courses. If the have the time and the right background, these classes will help clarify the teachings.
Thank you very much Rinpoche for coming to Madison and giving us such wonderful teachings. Please come back soon. The end.