Kyabje Yongdzin Lopön Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, Shenten Dargye Ling, 2015. Photo by Carol Ermakova.
KYABJE YONGDZIN LOPÖN TENZIN NAMDAK RINPOCHE was born in 1926 in Khanyin village in the Khyungpo region of Kham, East Tibet. It is said that as a small child he did not play the same games as other children but would pretend he was chanting and beating a drum or would gather the village children around him, pretending to teach them. He is said to have shown many miraculous signs.
He was taught to read and write by his paternal uncle, the famous umze Togden Drewo, who also taught him to sing the traditional chant melodies. He later learnt the art of thangka painting from his maternal grandfather, ‘Lhagenma’ Dongdo Bumga, who was from a line of great painters.
When Yongdzin Rinpoche was still only a boy of about twelve, he went with his maternal uncle Dongdo Yangphel to the monastery of Ritrö in Tengchen before going on to paint at the Yungdrung Palri monastery in Khyungpo. The great yogi-monk, Zopa Rinpoche, was living in the monastery at the time and as he was giving the daily water blessing in the chilly autumn mornings, he would call Yongdzin Rinpoche over and pour vast amounts of holy water over him, laughing.
By the time Yongdzin Rinpoche reached his teens, he was widely recognized as a skilled painter and so, despite his mother’s reluctance, he joined a group of artists and went to work on murals for the newly extended temple at Yungdrung Ling monastery in Central Tibet.
Yungdrung Ling monastery was home to many great lamas in those days, including the Abbot Lodrö Gyaltsen, the retired pönlob – or head teacher – Tsarong Lagen, as well as a recently appointed pönlob, Zanggyal Rinpoche. It was a major seat of Yungdrung Bön so staying there was a wonderful opportunity for Yongdzin Rinpoche and while there he eagerly received basic instructions on refuge and Bodhichitta. Pönlob Zanggyal Rinpoche taught him the preliminary practices and gave him initial teachings on logic, Düdra and many other important subjects.
Once the painting of the temple was complete, the head painter – Yongdzin Rinpoche’s uncle – and his assistants were ready to return to Khyungpo; Yongdzin Rinpoche, however, insisted on staying behind.
At the age of sixteen, he left for Menri monastery in Tsang where he received monk’s vows from the Menri Abbot’s representative, Pe Gelong, and Sönam Rinchen. The following year, 1942, inspired by the biographies of the ancient masters, Yongdzin Rinpoche went on pilgrimage to Kang Ri Tso Sum (Mt. Kailash, Mt. Pöri Ngeden and Lake Manasarowar) and even to Kathmandu in Nepal. Upon his return, he headed back to Yungdrung Ling monastery to resume his monastic studies.
When he was nineteen, his teacher Gyalchok Rinpoche, advised him to go to Namtso Gyerudo in Northern Tibet to study with Yongdzin Tsultrim Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the former pönlob at Yungdrung Ling.
So Yongdzin Rinpoche went and made his request, but Tsultrim Gyalsten at first refused. Yongdzin Rinpoche persisted, begging him over and over again, in tears, and finally Tsultrim Gyaltsen accepted him as his student. Yongdzin Rinpoche spent four years living with his master in his cave, during which time he received many teachings on Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen as well as the Five Sciences, but in particular he studied all sections of Dzogchen Zhang Zhung Nyengyud: Trekchö, Thögal, Dark Retreat, Tummo. He practised all these things and put them in his heart. Alongside the spiritual path, he also studied the so-called external sciences: poetry, grammar, astrology, proportions for mandalas, and, in particular, the art of chanting according to the system of Dru.
After four years, his master Gangru Rinpoche instructed him to go to Menri monastery to receive full training in philosophy, as the geshe school had recently be established there by Sangye Tenzin, holder of the complete Zhang Zhung Nyengyu lineage.
Yongdzin Rinpoche studied all the Nine Ways; epistemology and logic; Pharchin – Perfection of Wisdom Sutras; Salam – Stages and the Path of Liberation; Madhyamaka; Vinaya; Dzö or cosmology, and all the so-called ‘common teachings.’ In particular, he studied Magyud, the Mother Tantra, and all other Tantric cycles, as well as the four major cycles of Dzogchen. An able and conscientious student, he became Sangye Tenzin’s main disciple, and the Master transmitted the Single Lineage of Zhang Zhung Nyengyud Dzogchen to him. Thus Yongdzin Rinpoche became the Single Lineage holder.
At the age of twenty-seven, Yongdzin Rinpoche received his Geshe degree and was soon asked to serve as the next lopön, or head teacher, of Menri. At first reluctant, he finally agreed, becoming the young lopön of Menri monastery and holder of the three lineages of Vinaya, Tantra and Dzogchen.
Although Yongdzin Rinpoche had already received some teachings on Dzogchen and Madhyamaka, it was only now that Sangye Tenzin gave detailed instructions on Dzogchen to his pupil, along with the other teachers at Menri. While teaching the Galdo Tsema Dzogchen, a wonderful text of specific Dzogchen logic, Sangye Tenzin would sometimes ask Yongdzin Rinpoche to go outside and make tea in the Tibetan way, first kindling a fire, so it was there, out in the open air, that Yongdzin Rinpoche gained realization beyond doubts.
Over the years, Yongdzin Rinpoche received many precious teachings from his main teachers: Tsultrim Gyaltsen, Zopa Gyaltsen, Menri Khenchen Tenpa Lodrö, Lodrö Gyaltsen, Tsarong Largen, Lopön Zanggyal Rinpoche, Yongdzin Tsultrim Gyaltsen, Menri Khenchen Nyima Wanggyal, Yongdzin Sangye Tenzin, Yungdrung Gyaltsen of Kharna monastery and Dzamling Rinpoche, therefore he now deserves the title ‘yongdzin,’ the source of the teaching and holder of all lineages, venerated as the main holder of the Yungdrung Bön tradition.
In 1959, after the Chinese invasion, Yongdzin Rinpoche went into exile, first to Nepal then to India. He also visited England where he learnt English and taught Tibetan to a few students as well as working with Professor Snellgrove at SOAS, London University, and teaching Bönpo history to western scholars. Indeed, it was largely thanks to The Nine Ways of Bön produced in collaboration with Prof. Snellgrove that many scholars became interested in Tibet, and in Bön (Snellgrove, David. The Nine Ways of Bön, London: Oxford University Press, 1967).
Following the passing of Sherab Lodrö, 32nd Abbot of Menri, in 1964, the Bönpo community in exile came together under the guidance of Yongdzin Rinpoche with the understanding that they must act swiftly to save the Yungdrung Bön tradition from extinction. Upon returning from England, Yongdzin Rinpoche co-ordinated an operation to salvage many texts from parts of Nepal where Bön had been practised undisturbed for thousands of years. These manuscripts were brought to India, published in Delhi, and distributed to western countries. They were also invaluable to the newly-established monasteries in exile.
In 1967, thanks to the support of the Catholic Relief Service, land was bought at Dolanji, India and a Bön community – the Tibetan Bon Foundation – was founded. Yongdzin Rinpoche was responsible for all aspects of running the fledgling community, and it was at this time that he began to oversee the building of the new Menri monastery in India. Thus in 1969, a new Abbot of Menri, Lungtok Tenpi Nyima, was selected following the traditional procedures. He took over responsibility for running the new monastery, while Yongdzin Rinpoche took on the responsibility of teaching all aspects of the Yungdrung Bön tradition.
In 1986, Yongdzin Rinpoche travelled to Central Tibet, Kham and Amdo where he taught lay practitioner and ordained alike. He has since returned to Tibet on several occasions, and thanks to his diplomatic tact, has been able to establish a medical school, an art school and a school for midwives in his native land.
In 1989 Yongdzin Rinpoche made his first teaching trip to the West – the UK, USA and Italy – and has since regularly explained many aspects of Bön teachings and tradition to a growing number of Western students. In 2005 he founded an international centre, Shenten Dargye Ling, in France, and has returned each summer to give priceless instructions on the profound Dzogchen teachings.
Although Yongdzin Rinpoche is now over eighty, he spends many months in Triten Norbutse following a packed daily routine. He still continues to teach Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen for three hours each morning, then receives visitors after lunch before settling into his personal meditation. He has written many books which elucidate all aspects of Yungdrung Bön, now gathered into 17 volumes, and still manages to find time for his own research and writing. Thanks to his unfailing blessings, kindness and dauntless perseverance, Yungdrung Bön is experiencing a revival both within Tibet and beyond.