Dzokchen Monastery

Dzokchen (rdzogs chen) Monastery is one of the two most influential and productive Nyingma (rnying ma) monasteries in the eastern Tibetan kingdom of Degé (sde dge), the other being Katok (kaHthog) Monastery. With support from the kings of Degé and Lingtsang (gling tshang) – and under orders from the Fifth Dalai Lama – Pema Rindzin (pad+ma rig 'dzin, 1625-1697) founded Dzokchen Monastery in 1685. Pema Rindzin’s reincarnations were important chaplains in the Degé royal court and many other lamas associated with the monastery were famous religious figures. Perhaps the golden age of Dzokchen Monastery was the second half of the nineteenth century, when its seminary became a leading center of Nyingma scholarship and contemplation. In the present-day Dzokchen Monastery is once again a vibrant and wealthy monastery with a very large assembly hall, and excellent facilities and instruction at its seminary and retreat center.

Pema Rindzin was born in Riwoché (ri bo che) in 1625 and his father was a Nepali ritual dancer and craftsperson. In his twenties and thirties he studied with many eminent lamas in Kham (khams) and southeastern Tibet, including Karma Chakmé (karma chags med), Dündül Dorjé (bdud 'dul rdo rje), and Namchö Mingyur Dorjé (rnam chos mi 'gyur rdo rje). In 1664, at age forty, he traveled to central Tibet for further instruction and retreat. There he entered into the elite Nyingma circle of the Fifth Dalai Lama and the lamas of Mindrölling (smin grol gling) and Dorjé Drak (rdo rje brag) monasteries. Additionally, around this time Pema Rindzin teamed up with two lamas that would join him for the founding of Dzokchen Monastery: treasure revealer Nyima Drakpa (nyi ma grags pa, 1647-1710) and Rapjam Tenpé Gyentsen (rab 'byams bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, b. 1650). The principal spiritual tradition they established at the new monastery was the Khandro Nyingtik (mkha' 'gro snying thig), a treasure tradition codified by Longchenpa (klong chen pa, 1308-1363) in the fourteenth century and promoted at Mindrölling. In the early days of the monastery Khandro Nyingtik festivals were held twice or thrice yearly.

After nearly twenty years in Central Tibet the Fifth Dalai Lama made the prophetic declaration that Pema Rindzin would go to Kham (mdo smad) and that his “benefit to the teachings and beings would be extensive and his religious lineage will flourish.” Pema Rindzin arrived in Degé in 1684, at the age of sixty, and became a court chaplain of the king Sanggyé Tenpa (sangs rgyas bstan pa). The following year – 1685 – king Sanggyé Tenpa and the king of Lingtsang sponsored the founding of Dzokchen Monastery. The full name of the monastery is Orgyen Samten Chöling (o rgyan bsam gtan chos gling) and it is located in a nomadic region along Degé’s northern frontier. Certainly geo-political concerns informed the selection of this site, at least for the king of Degé. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries Oirat Mongols inhabited a significant amount of territory in the local highlands and Degé wanted to expand its presence in the same region, such as through the placement of a Degé-affiliated monastery.

For reasons that are still unclear, neither of Pema Rindzin’s two closest associates – Nyima Drakpa and Rapjam Tenpé Gyentsen – accepted his request to take over the monastery upon his retirement. Thus after both declined the offer, Pönlop Rinpoché Namkha Ösel (dpon slob nam mkha' 'od gsal, d.1726) became the head of the monastery. After Pema Rindzin’s death in 1697 there was a contentious search for his reincarnation. At this time succession by reincarnation was just taking hold at Nyingma monasteries in Tibet, and in Degé more generally. More than one candidate was proposed by the different parties involved in the search, at least one of which was born into an important Oirat Mongolian family. Eventually the royal court and the Nyingma lamas in central Tibet selected the Mongolian candidate. Upon the deaths of Pönlop Rinpoché and Rapjam Rinpoché, reincarnation lines were instituted at Dzokchen for them as well. For the first couple of generations of reincarnate lamas at Dzokchen, Mindrölling played a role in their recognition but especially in their training, as many of Dzokchen's trülkus spent years at Mindrölling during their formative years.

The reincarnation of Pema Rindzin, named Gyurmé Tekchok Tendzin ('gyur med theg mchog bstan 'dzin; b. 1699) known as the second Dzokchen Rinpoché (rdzogs chen rin po che), was arguably the most powerful Nyingma lama in Degé in the 1730s, 40s, and 50s. This was the period of the editing and publication of the renowned Kangyur (bka' 'gyur) and Tengyur (bstan 'gyur) in Degé. When he produced an edition of the writings of the great fourteenth-century Nyingma systematizer Longchenpa at the Degé Printery (sde dge par khang), the second Dzokchen Rinpoché became the first Nyingma lama to participate in this prestigious court-sponsored activity. The catalog to this four-volume set is a great document for the early history of the monastery and for the kingdom during its so-called golden age.

In the eighteenth century Dzokchen lamas established branch monasteries in a few locales in Kham, especially in the frontier region of Gyelrong (rgyal rong). In the early nineteenth century the head Dzokchen lamas enthusiastically adopted a new and popular set of revelations called the Longchen Nyingtik (klong chen snying thig) and they became a central component of the spiritual program at the monastery.

1842 was a major year in Kham, and at Dzokchen. At the macro level, a devastating earthquake that year caused tremendous destruction throughout much of northern Kham. Firsthand accounts of the event can be found in the autobiographies of nineteenth-century lamas such as Kongtrül Yonten Gyatso (kong sprul yon tan rgya mtsho). Kongtrül wrote that he was working on a composition, “when the region from Horkhok to Rudam and Lingtshang was hit with a violent earthquake” (p.52); Rudam being synonymous with Dzokchen Monastery. Prior to this Dzokchen Monastery had a fledgling study program but its facilities were destroyed in the quake. In the aftermath of the disaster the eminent Nyingma scholar Zhenpen Thayé (gzhan phan mtha' yas) was asked to rebuild Dzokchen and establish a proper seminary based on the Secret Nucleus Tantra (rgyud gsang ba'i snying po), the key exegetical esoteric scripture in the Nyingma school. The seminary was one of the first of its kind in Degé and became the longest continuously running named seminary in Degé. In the early nineteenth century Katok had a popular study program centered around Getsé Mahapandita Gyurmé Tsewang Chokdrup (dge rtse ma hA paN+Dita 'gyur med tshe dbang mchog grub) that attracted important Nyingma reincarnate lamas, yet it was not a named institution that survived its founder’s passing. The seminary at Dzokchen, however, did establish a line of succession beginning with the founder’s successor that persisted through the early decades of the twentienth century. Do Drupchen Yeshé Dorjé (mdo grub chen ye shes rdo rje), the reincarnation of Jikmé Lingpa ('jigs med gling pa) and a graduate of the institute at Katok was another important early figure in the history of the Dzokchen seminary. He decided on its location and gave it its name.

Writing in English, the contemporary Nyingma lama and historian Tulku Thondup praises Zhenpen Thayé for three distinct contributions to Dzokchen Monastery and the Nyingma school more broadly; the first of the three deeds being his founding of the seminary. Secondly, “He made the Vinaya, or monastic discipline, into the practice of daily life and established annual rainy-season retreats for the monks at Dzogchen Monastery.” Thirdly, Zhenphen Thayé compiled a collection of the Kama (bka' ma) teachings – root tantras, commentaries, and liturgies on the three inner tantras of the Nyingma school – and propagated the initiations for the thirteen key Kama practice traditions.[1]

The British officer Oliver R. Coales visited Dzokchen Monastery just after Christmas in 1916 while on a long expedition through Kham. He wrote the following about the “gönpa” (Tib. “monastery”):

Dzogch’en Gönpa is one of the principal lamaseries of Dege and belongs to the Nyingmapa sect. There are over a thousand lamas, of whom three to four hundred are in permanent residence. The lamasery is situated on the side of a ridge at the lower end of a narrow marsh or lake and has a magnificent view of the beautiful glacier streaked peak Norbuyukyal which rises abruptly from the further end. The lama’s (sic) dwellings are built in irregular clusters round the temple buildings and are not enclosed within a wall. The buildings are not so fine as those of the Horpa lamaseries but the images and chortens inside are magnificent. Below the lamasery is a village of 30 miserable huts where the lamasery serfs live. I was well received by the lamas and was housed in the comfortable residence of one of the reincarnations. The lamasery is 13,300 feet above sea level.[2]

The monastery was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In the early eighties Zenkar Rinpoché Tupten Nyima (gzan dkar rin po che thub bstan nyi ma), a broadminded Nyingma lama affiliated with Dzokchen Monastery, founded an innovative new school devoted to Tibetan literature and traditional disciplines on the site of the old Dzokchen seminary. In the late eighties the school was moved to Tau (rta'u) County and the monastery began to slowly rebuild. Gradually the temples, seminary, retreat centers, and lamas’ residences were rebuilt. The head lama is a very effective fundraiser and has good relations with the local government, and has thus had the permission and the means to build large buildings with modern materials. 

[1] Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles: The Longchen Nyingthig Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (Boston: Shambhala, 1996), 198-99.

[2] Oliver R. Coales, “Narrative of a Journey from Tachienlu to Ch’amdo and Back via Batang,” in Alex McKay, editor, The History of Tibet (Routledge 2003), 207.