Kyapjé Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was a Tibetan Buddhist master of both the Kagyü and Nyingma lineages. After leaving Tibet he settled at Nagi Gompa hermitage in Nepal. Urgyen Rinpoche was considered one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of his time.


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Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was renowned for his direct and clear teachings using few and simple words. His conversational style of questions and answers appealed to an international audience. He taught that one could recognize mind-nature most easily by leaving aside intensive conceptual inquiry and letting go to rest instead in the natural state of mind. In the twentieth century, he began to introduce mind nature teachings to an international audience, first teaching in Malaysia. In 1980, he undertook a world tour and visited Germany, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Great Britain, the USA, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In his later years, however, he remained at his beloved Nagi Gompa home and his many students, both Eastern and Western, traveled to Nepal to visit him.

What does Dzogchen mean?

Tulku Urgyen: Dzog, perfection, inclusion or completion, means as in this quote from a tantra: Included in one—everything is included within mind. Included in two—everything of samsara and nirvana is included within this. Dzog means that all the teachings, all phenomena, is completely contained in the vehicle of Dzogchen; all the lower vehicles are included within Dzogchen. Chen, great, means that there is no method or means higher than this vehicle.

From Mixing Fire And Water: An Interview with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche by Erik Pema Kunzang.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was born in 1920 at Drakda in Drakyul, Tibet. His father was Chimé Dorjé and his mother was known as Gaza Yuri. In his own memoir Blazing Splendor, Tulku Urgyen tells a story from his infancy. He was critically ill, and his parents took him to Samye Monastery hoping for a miracle cure. He was no longer breathing, and his parents placed him before the renowned “Looks Like Me” statue of Guru Rinpoche and offered fervent prayers. The infant opened his eyes and began breathing again. After he recovered, the family took him to Sangngak Choling monastery, the seat of the Tenth Drukchen, Mipam Chokyi Wangpo, his father’s teacher.

His family requested the infant be given a name from the Fifteenth Karmapa Khakyab Dorjé. They received written in the Karmapa’s own hand and mounted on brocade the name  Karma Orgyen Tsewang Chokdrub Pelbar and a few measures of red Chinese brocade. The Karmapa also communicated that the boy was a “genuine tulku,” but of whom he did not say.

Tulku Urgyen at Dechen Ling Hermitage

As a young boy, he was then sent to the famous Nangchen nunnery, Gechak to receive teaching from his paternal uncle Samten Gyatso. When he reached the age of nine, he returned to his father for training but continued to travel back and forth between his mother’s house and his father’s hermitage, Dechen Ling. There, over a period of many months, he received multiple transmissions and empowerments. In particular, he received the transmission of Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé’s Treasury of Instruction and Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge as well as  Kongtrul’s Collected Works. During his time at the hermitage, he practiced Vajra Kīlaya from Chokgyur Lingpa’s Three Cycles of Secret Essence terma.

Tulku Urgyen at Tsangsar Lachab Monastery

When he reached eighteen years, Tulku Urgyen was sent to the Tsangsar family monastery, Lachab Monastery, a Barom Kagyu monastery in Nangchen. There he resumed his studies with his root teacher, his uncle, Samten Gyatso. This monastery was the seat of both Samten Gyatso’s and Tulku Urgyen’s incarnation lines. Samten Gyatso formally enthroned him there as the reincarnation of his own root teacher, Chowang Tulku. Chowang Tulku was a Nangchen lama who oversaw Dzonggo Ling, the mountain hermitage connected to Lachab, and was said to have been the reincarnation of Guru Chowang. Tulku Urgyen explained in his memoirs that the identity of his previous birth had been determined by the Sixteenth Karmapa, Rigpé Dorjé.

In the 1930s, Tulku Urgyen met the young Karmapa for the first time, at the Yelpa Kagyu monastery Jang Tana when Samten Gyatso had briefly functioned as the Karmapa’s tutor. And in the late 1930s, he spent six months with the Second Tsike Chokling, a notably eccentric reincarnation of Chokgyur Lingpa and a fellow disciple of Samten Gyatso. Tsike Chokling shared the responsibility of Tsike Monastery with Tulku Urgyen’s other uncle, Tersé Tulku.

Tulku Urgyen then traveled to Zurmang Dutsitil to attend the transmission of the New Revelations of Chokgyur Lingpa with the empowerments given by Samten Gyatso and the lung given by  Chimé Dorjé. He began serving as a shrine assistant but was soon relieved of the duties and given permission to receive the transmission.

Tulku Urgyen then received the Light of Wisdom, Jamgon Kongtrul’s commentary on Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelation Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo (Stages of the Path of the Wisdom Essence) from Jokhyab Pema Trinle Nyingpo. This master had received it from a lama named Jamyang Drakpa, who had received it directly from Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo. Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo had ordered him to spread the teaching. Jokhyab taught Tulku Urgyen over a period of six months from the extensive notes he had made when Jamyang Drakpa had taught him.

Samten Gyatso authorized Tulku Urgyen to begin teaching around the age of twenty, in 1940. Samten Gyatso realized his facility for pointing out instructions, for which he became widely renowned. When Samten Gyatso passed away in the early or mid-1940s. Tulku Urgyen traveled to central Tibet to make offerings on his behalf at Tsurpu, the Jokhang, and other sacred sites around Lhasa. While there, he met his wife, Kunzang Dechen, who accompanied him back to Kham. He passed the responsibility of Lachab Monastery to his father and entered three-year retreat focusing on Chokgyur Lingpa’s Tukdrup Barché Kunsel (Dispelling All Obstacles) terma cycle which continued as one of his main life-long practices. During this retreat, he also received transmissions and teachings from Kyungtrul including the Collected Nyingma Tantras and the Light of Wisdom.

In the summer of 1949, Karsey Kongtrul gave the transmission and empowerments of the Rinchen Terdzö (Treasury of Revelations) at Tsurpu. Tulku Urgyen was able to obtain an order from  Jamgong Kongtrul to attend for a period of many months. He also then received Kongtrul’s permission to remain at Tsurpu for another three-year retreat. He chose a cave hermitage high above the monastery known as Pema Khyung Dzong. During this retreat, in 1951, Tulku Urgyen’s eldest son, Chokyi Nyima was born. Soon thereafter, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Tenzin Dorje of Drong Monastery.

At the end of his retreat, the Karmapa requested Tulku Urgyen to transmit a cycle of Chokyur Lingpa’s revelations, the Dzogchen Desum (Three Sections of Dzogchen), the only treasury cycle of Chokgyur Lingpa’s that the Karmapa had yet to receive. Reluctant to give an empowerment while sitting on a high throne to the Karmapa, he nonetheless complied with the request.

Return to Kham 1953-55

In 1953, Tulku Urgyen attended the Kālacakra empowerment in Lhasa given by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, At the conclusion, Tulku Urgyen asked the Karmapa, with whom he was staying, for permission to return to Kham and to go into long-term retreat at Dzonggo Ling. According to Blazing Splendor, the Karmapa explained that he would be unable to remain there long, a warning that Tulku Urgyen did not then understand. Tibet was by this time being overtaken as a Chinese Communist state. Early reports of refugees were already beginning to arrive in Lhasa from the eastern zone. Tulku Urgyen insisted on returning to Kham, and so the Karmapa gave him twelve yaks and an invitation to return to Tsurpu as soon as possible.

Intending to remain in retreat, he requested the father of Samten Gyatso’s tulku to manage the monastery. Instead, the father begged Tulku Urgyen to stay at Lachab and to send the young tulku instead to retreat at Dzonggo Ling. Tulku Urgyen reluctantly agreed and then walled himself inside a retreat room at Lachab.

In 1955 Tulku Urgyen met the Karmapa in Chamdo. The Karmapa was returning from accompanying the Dalai Lama on his fateful meeting with Mao Tsedong in Beijing. During that meeting, the Dalai Lama was forced to concede Chinese control of Tibet. The Karmapa insisted that Tulku Urgyen return to Tsurpu, and, giving up his retreat plan, he prepared to travel. Tulku Urgyen paid his last respects to his only remaining uncle, Tersey Tulku, who died several months later.  His uncle urged him to dedicate himself to the preservation and spread of Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelations, as he was now one of the few remaining individuals who possessed the full transmission.

Having briefly represented the Karmapa on the Committee of Religious Affairs in Lhasa, Tulku Urgyen understood the danger of the political situation and was convinced of the need to leave Tibet before the Lhasa Uprising that began on March 10, 1959. He left first with a single attendant, and his brother-in-law, named Wangdu, escorted his wife and sons to Sikkim. Tulku Urgyen spent three years in retreat in Sikkim. Dzongsar Khyentse was in residence nearby, and they had daily visits over a period of twenty-five days. Khyentse advised Tulku Urgyen to take as his main Dzogchen practice the Kunzang Tuktik (Heart Essence of Samantabhadra) and as his primary practice the Tukdrup Barché Kunsel. He taught these practices extensively for the remainder of his life.

Sikkim and Nepal

The Karmapa arrived in Sikkim in 1959, and Tulku Urgyen stayed for two years to serve him there. In 1961, he accepted the invitation of a group of Nepalese disciples in Nubri, and traveled to Nepal, staying for months at Pema Choling monastery and ngakpa center. The father of the resident lama, Lama Tashi Dorje, had been a disciple of Samten Gyatso and Karmey Khenpo. Tulku Urgyen followed the Karmapa’s command to lead the Nubri people to accumulate nine hundred million recitations of the Guru Rinpoche mantra. He was joined at Pema Choling by The Third Neten Chokling, Pema Gyurme, who had come to Nubri to transmit the New Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa. Neten Chokling did this using the Tsike Monastery edition. 

While in Nubri, Tulku Urgyen married a daughter of Lama Tashi Dorje, Sonam Chodron. Together, they had four sons, including Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso, the Third Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche Yongye Mingyur Dorje, and Urgyen Jigme, an incarnation of Tersé Tulku.

The Karmapa asked Tulku Urgyen to travel to and remain in Kathmandu to help to resolve a court case over ownership of the Karma Kagyu monastery at the stūpa, Shri Karma Mahavira. As this case took a long time to resolve, the Karmapa had Tulku Urgyen be named the successor of Kharsha Rinpoche, whose seat was Nagi Gompa. Tulku Urgyen constructed a new temple and slowly added to the nunnery grounds. Among his other talents, Tulku Urgyen was a talented sculptor and he personally built several of the large clay statues for the temple.

While based in Kathmandu, Tulku Urgyen traveled to Bhutan and Sikkim to receive teachings. He spent time with Bomta Khenpo, a disciple of Khenpo Ngakchung Pelzang of Nyoshul Monastery. His eldest sons, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Tsike Chokling Rinpoche, requested that he help them to build a monastery in Nepal. The Karmapa had ordered them to establish a monastery by the stūpa, and they asked Tulku Urgyen for his help. Chimi Lama, one of the Karmapa’s main representatives in Kathmandu, provided land near the Boudhanath Stūpa. He named the temple Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling. The monastery was completed in 1974, and consecrated by the Karmapa, who also blessed the new statues in Nagi Gompa. Tulku Urgyen sculpted several of the large clay statues in the main temple, as well as masks of Mahākāla and Bernakchen.

In addition, Tulku Urgyen restored the Asura cave complex, a sacred site of Guru Rinpoche in the late 80s and early 90s. Surrounding the cave, he built the monastery of Pema Ösel Ling and a three-year retreat center for the practice of the Chokling Tersar.

Tulku Urgyen entered parinirvana on February 13, 1996, at Nagi Gompa. He is said to have remained in tukdam for fifteen hours. Observers at the time described the sky on that day as clear and cloudless for two full days, which is traditionally interpreted as the sign of the passing of a highly realized Dzogchen master. His remains lay in state at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling for the forty-nine-day funeral period, after which he was cremated, on April 4, 1996. Chatrel Rinpoche presided over the cremation.

His reincarnation, Urgyen Jigme Rabsel Dawa, (b. 2001), was recognized by Trulzhik Rinpoche Ngawang Chokyi Lodro and enthroned at Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling in 2008. He is the son of the Fourth Neten Chokling Rinpoche, Rigdzin Gyurme Dorje.

Publications of Tulku Urgyen’s Teachings

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