Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche was one of the greatest living yogis from the Nyingmapa tradition. His life story is an example of the lives of the great Mahasiddhas of the past, eschewing the worldly trappings of modern-day life and wandering homelessly from holy place to holy place, dedicating his life to the hardships of continual practice and retreats. Rinpoche studied with some of the greatest Masters of the twentieth century. He held numerous sacred and rare lineages, and was particularly renowned for his accomplishments in the Tsa-Lung and Tummo practices.
Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche was born on dakini day in 1930 in the Dampa region of northern Tibet. He was born into a family lineage of Ngakpas, descended from the Jya-Rig Tse-phel Chawo. Shortly after his birth, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Charong Drubchen, by Dzigar Potrul Rinpoche. As a young child, he had many visions and interactions with the Dharmapalas. At the age of fifteen, he went to study logic and philosophy at Gomang Monastery for seven years. He left the monastery at the age of twenty-two in order to wander in search of realized masters.
He wandered throughout the holy places of Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal, and India; met many realized masters, both male and female, and received sacred transmissions and instructions from them. Among the great female masters with whom he studied were the Drikung Khandro, Chodrung Zangmo Rinpoche, Khandro Orgyen Tsomo, and Jetsun Chungwa Thinley Chodron.
Chodrung Zangmo Rinpoche directed him to the great realized master, Ngawang Rinpoche, who lead a great gathering of Ngakpas and Ngakmos in Shang Zabphulung, on the border of U and Tsang, in central Tibet. Here, Rinpoche lived and practiced the Rigdzin Sogdrub lineage and mastered the practices of the winds and channels. Upon the successful completion of his training, Ngawang Rinpoche bestowed upon him the authority of a lineage holder, passing on to him the instruments for the inner Tsa Lung practices, and granting him full Ngakpa ordination. Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche upheld the Ngakpa tradition as practiced by the Zabphu Ngakpas.
Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche also received teachings and empowerments from the Dza Ri-bu Kyabgon, who was a great master who lead a large community of Ngakpas and Ngakmos in the valley of Ri-Bu. According to Rinpoche, the area was named ‘Ri-bu’ – which means ‘mountain of insects’ – because there were so many ngkapas and ngakmos living in caves along the mountainside, that when they descended down the mountain to gather in the valley for teachings, they looked like ants on an ant hill. It was said that the whole valley trembled when the throngs of practitioners gathered to receive teachings from Dza Ri-bu Kyabgon, the great master, who lived in a hut in the valley.
In his autobiographical notes, Rinpoche listed many of the teachings he had received from the great masters:
The sacred Vajravarahi practices of the Northern Treasures, he received from Lhagpa Rinpoche; From Chatral Jangchub Dorje, he received the entire transmissions of the Longchen Nyin-t’hig lineage; the lineage of Chod from Drubchen Dawa Dorje and Shakya Shri; the entire cycle of the Konchog Chi-du and Kham-sum Rang-drol of the Northern Treasures (Jang-Ter) from Khyungpo Gyaton Tulku, Lopon Dorje Rigdzin, A’pho Tsewang Rinpoche (the son of Shakya Shri), and Lopon Rigdzin Rinpoche.
In 1963, while living in TsoPema, India, he received the entire cycle of the Nyingma Gyud-Bum from HH Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje; from HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and DroDrupchen Rinpoche he took all the empowerments and transmission of the Rinchen Terzod; from HH Thinley Norbu Rinpoche and Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche he received the entire cycle of the Dudjom New Treasures; the Lhatson Drubt’hob he received from Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche; the transmissions and instructions of T’hangtong Gyalpo he received from HH Sakya Trizin. From Trulshik Ngawang Do-Ngak Chokyi Lodro Rinpoche he received the Minling cycle.
From his autobiographical notes, Rinpoche wrote:
“In this way, without discriminating, I received the maturing empowerments, the liberating instructions and the reinforcing transmissions at the feet of the great masters together. I was filled to overflowing with their inconceivable kindness and put their methods into practice as follows: the common outer and inner preliminaries; the development stage of Mahayoga; the activities of approach and accomplishment (kye-rim and dzog-rim) of the Three Roots (Lama, Yidam and Kahndro); the five supplementary yoga cycles of the Anuyoga Dzog-rim, which functions through the tsa-lung and thigle; the Khorde Rushen Dzogchen Atiyoga cycle of practice; the primordial Trekchod; the spontaneously formed Togal and Odsal practices from the Three Series of Dzogchen.
I have practiced in Tibet, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Sikkim – in all places where the Mahasiddhas in India and Tibet lived of visited. I have practiced in the hidden lands blessed by Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal. I have practiced in snowy places, rocky caves, charnel grounds, and lake-islands. I have resided wherever Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal stayed. In these places I have completed year-long, month-long, and week-long retreats.”
Rinpoche left Tibet during the cultural revolution and settled in Tso Pema, the holy pilgrimage site of Guru Rinpoche in Northern India. For many years, he lived in a cave near the main cave where Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava practiced. Lama Dawa Rinpoche recollects the first time he met Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche in 1963, during the time that HH Dudjom Rinpoche was bestowing the Nyingma Gyud-Bum:
“At that time Rinpoche was quite young. He was called ‘Ngakchung Rinpoche’ which means ‘little ngakpa.’ Although he was young, he was highly respected for his meditation accomplishments and many great Lamas paid homage to him. I met him for the first time when my family moved to Tso Pema. My father heard about him and wanted to go up to his cave to make offerings to him. I begged to go along. I was just a boy then. We walked up to the top of the hill where he was sitting in retreat in a small cave. At that time he was alone (he was not yet married to Jomo Sap’hel). He and my father talked for some time and I noticed that the clay oven inside his cave had grass growing in it. I looked around and there was no food at all anywhere and on the stove was a layer of dust where you could see the footprints of mice. Inside the stove grass was growing. I was confused and wondered where he got his food and how he ate. There was no sign of any food and no sign of any cooking. The only things in his cave were burlap bags full of different rocks.
After we left I asked my father about this, and my father told me that Rinpoche was practicing the chulen (living off the essences) and he was using the rocks for his food. He lived like that for a long time.”
In the late 1970’s His Holiness the Dalai Lama developed the wish to meet an authentic Ngakpa among the Nyingmapas living in exile, and requested Tsering Gyaltsen to bring him such a Ngakpa. Tsering Gyaltsen went to Tso Pema, where Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche was living in a cave at the time, and brought him to Dharmasala. The Dalai Lama asked Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche to describe any special experiences he had had, to which Rinpoche replied, “I don’t know, but when I walk around the lake, I feel that Guru Ripoche is everywhere and in everything. Then I find myself in a dilemma as I think ‘how can I take another step as I would be stepping on the body of Guru Rinpoche?’” During this time HH the Dalai Lama requested that Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche teach his tsa-lung lineage and also to participate in a series of scientific studies on the effects of tummo and body temperature changes.
His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche requested Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche to lead several tsa-lung and tummo retreats, and to write commentary teachings on the Tummo and trulkor practices. These important commentaries have since been incorporated into the canon of Dudjom Tersar and Rigdzin Sogdrub lineages. Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche had been instrumental in preserving the sacred practices of the Rigdzin Sogdrub, the specialized yogic practices within the Northern treasures (Jang-ter) lineage, which were discovered in Sikkim by Trak-t’hung Namka Jigme. In order to strengthen the lineage of the Rigdzin Sogdrub in Sikkim, HH Dudjom Rinpoche, along with the Sikkimese prince, requested Chatral Sangye Dorje and Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche to establish a three-year retreat center there, and lead a select group of practitioners in long-term retreat.
From the text, An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair, Rinpoche wrote,
“… the prince of Sikkim asked me to establish a three-year retreat center. When the appointed retreat master released the retreatants from the retreat boundaries, Chatral Rinpoche came and said that now that the retreat was complete, Sikkim was an extremely sacred practice place of Guru Rinpoche. From then on, if all of the retreatants left their hair uncut and wore ngakpa attire, it would be auspiciously beneficial to the country.”
The Rigdzin Sogdrub lineage originally consisted of seven volumes of texts. Over the centuries many sections of these texts have been scattered and have disappeared. Rinpoche spent the last fifty-five years of his life searching and collecting these missing parts – from the remote monastery libraries in Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal, to the private collections of individual yogis. With the assistance of Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche, Lama Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche and Lama Tsering Lhagyal, these were gathered, tabulated and corrected, and the entire canon was reprinted under the sponsorship of the Sikkimese prince.
In the mid 1990’s, Rinpoche and his consort, Jomo Samp’hel settled in the valley of Yanglesho – P’harping, Nepal; at the holy site where Guru Rinpoche accomplished the Vajrakilaya practice and subjugated the evil spirits. In the year 2000, in front of the great stupa of Boudhanath, Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche bestowed empowerments and teachings to a small group of Lama Dawa Rinpoche’s western students. According to Rinpoche, this was the first time he had given transmission to westerners. During this time, he founded a Tse-Chu Tsogpa – assembly of practitioners who meet annually during the first month of every year to gather and perform the tsog offering ceremonies for the Three Roots of the Dudjom Tersar. From 2002 until his parinirvana in 2010, Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche and Jomo Samp’hel lived in Lama Dawa Chhodak’s residence in Boudha, Nepal, near the great stupa.
In Sept. 2010, after his parinirvana, his kutung was cremated on the roof of Lama Dawa Rinpoche’s house, amid many wondrous signs.
This brief account of the life of the Vidyadhara, Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, was written by Kunzang Decho, and compiled from various written sources and oral accounts.
1. “Autobiographical notes”, written by Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche at the request of Ngakchang Rinpoche, and translated by
2. “An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair,” written by Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche at the request of Tenzin Samphel and Kechog Zangmo, and translated with the assistence of Lopon Ogyan Tanzin.
3. Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche’s oral accounts as told to the author.
4. Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche’s oral accounts as told to the author