Samten Gyatso was born in Nangchen, Kham. His father, Orgyen Chopel belonged to the noble Tsangsar family there. His mother Könchok Paldrön, was the daughter of the great nineteenth-century treasure revealer Chokgyur Lingpa.
Samten Gyatso was identified as the third reincarnation of a Tsangsar family patriarch Ngawang Trinle and thus was enthroned as the Fourth Ngatrin Tulku at the lineage seat Lachab Monastery, a Barom Kagyu monastery. This monastery was controlled by the Tsangsar family, and, due to the family influence, became a center for the practice of the Chokling Tersar.
At Lachab, Samten Gyatso’s main teachers were Chowang Tulku, who was said to have been the reincarnation of Guru Chowang, Karmé Khenpo, from whom he took monastic ordination, and his maternal uncle, Chokgyur Lingpa’s son Tsewang Norbu.
Samten Gyatso devoted his life to compiling and spreading the New Revelations of Chokgyur Lingpa, initially printed in nine volumes by the Second Kela Chokling. Collecting also involved receiving the reading transmission, which largely came from either Tsewang Norbu or Karmey Khenpo. According to Tulku Urgyen, his zeal for preserving the lineage had been inspired by a direct order from Tsewang Norbu. While attending a Tsewang Norbu’s transmission of Jamgon Kongtrul’s Treasury of Revelations at Riwoche Monastery, Tsewang Norbu pointed out Samten Gyatso naming him as the “pillar upholding the teachings of Chokgyur Lingpa.” Not long after, Tsewang Norbu stopped on his travels to central Tibet at the family Tsangsar home. At that time he ordered Samten Gyatso to accept empowerment as a holder of the teachings. To show his official sanction, he bestowed upon Samten Gyatso a collection of his personal ritual implements and a set of his own robes.
Vimalamitra Manifest in Person, Samten Gyatso
Tulku Samten Gyatso was Könchok Paldrön’s eldest son. In terms of the incarnation lineage, he is the fourth in line of the reincarnations of the great accomplished master, Tsangsar Ngawang Trinlé. The first Tsiké Chokling once had a vision in which he saw that Samten Gyatso was an emanation of Vimalamitra. This is why he is described as “Vimalamitra manifest in person.” Samten Gyatso was an invaluable upholder and advocate of Chokgyur Lingpa’s termas, and it was he who undertook the task of their compilation. He sought out any teaching, wherever it was available, and thus received all the empowerments, reading transmissions and instructions of the Chokling Tersar. He received whatever Karmé Khenpo was empowered to give, but he received the major portion at Riwoché in Kham from Tsewang Norbu personally, like “a vase filled to the brim.” During these teachings, the important tulkus, headed by the three Jamgön lamas of Riwoché, would assemble in Tsewang Norbu’s private chamber in the evenings to receive advice, clear up difficult points within their own experience, and so forth. Samten Gyatso was there too, dressed as a simple monk, always humbly sitting at the back and taking the lowest seat.
On one occasion, Tsewang Norbu suddenly addressed the group, a glare in his eyes: “Hey! You two, you think you are the tulkus of Chokgyur Lingpa! You there, you think you are an incarnation of Chokgyur Lingpa’s son, Tsewang Drakpa! You are all so proud! Take a look at that humble monk sitting quietly at the back, Samten Gyatso! He is not proud at all and yet, when it comes to spreading the teachings, none of you three will ever be his equal! That monk will be the pillar to uphold Chokgyur Lingpa’s teachings!” That is what Tsewang Norbu predicted one evening, in front of everyone.
Later, when Tsewang Norbu was on his way to Central Tibet, he came to Tsangsar Dzong, our family estate. One evening, when he was with Samten Gyatso, he said, “We won’t be meeting again in these bodies. Nevertheless, I entrust all my possessions to you.” He then gave everything he had — his clothing, brocade garments, ritual implements and so on — to Samten Gyatso. “From this day forth, all of this is yours. We won’t meet again in this life and, even if we do, it won’t make any difference.”
Samten Gyatso gave the Chokling Tersar three times in Central Tibet. This is how many great lamas were able to receive the transmission, including the omniscient Drukchen Rinpoché, Taklung Tsetrül Rinpoché and the three masters with the title Jamgön who resided at Jang Taklung. Later on, Samten Gyatso returned to Kham and, at the request of Nangchen Tsoknyi, teacher of the King of Nangchen, he offered the complete Chokling Tersar transmission at Nangchen Tsechu Monastery.
At Namgyal Tsé in Zurmang, at the request of Zurmang Tentrül, many lamas received the Tersar transmission from him, including Tentrül himself. Zurmang Garwang and Dzigar Kongtrül were there, among others; altogether there were eighteen major masters in that gathering of three hundred lamas. After this, Samten Gyatso proceeded to Dergé, where he offered parts of the Chokling Tersar to Jamgön Situ Rinpoché, including the Heart Practice cycle.
On another occasion, when the son of the Fifteenth Karmapa, the reincarnation of Jamgön Kongtrül Rinpoché, was visiting the seat of Chokgyur Lingpa, Samten Gyatso gave him several transmissions, most notably the empowerment for the Dispeller of All Obstacles. These were the major transmissions that Samten Gyatso gave, but he also bestowed empowerments upon countless other lamas and practitioners.
Samten Gyatso was uncompromising about hiding his inner qualities; he would never mention a single word about them. All he would say was that he had trained in the state of composure from the time he was eight years old. Nevertheless, he was a “vajra holder endowed with the three precepts.” Among monks, he outwardly lived like a true Śrāvaka and, from an early age, his tongue never touched meat or wine. Inwardly, his heart was full of the virtues of a bodhisattva — inconceivably great compassion and devotion. Regarding the innermost level of Vajrayāna, it was said by the Fifteenth Karmapa that “these days, Samten Gyatso is probably the only person alive who has fully realized non-dual awareness and holds the perfect, unmistaken view of the Innermost Essence of the Great Perfection.”
This is not just praise for someone in my own family, like the lower lip praising the upper. In all honesty, there probably was no other master living in Kham who possessed such a high view and realization as Samten Gyatso, nor such commanding presence and majestic brilliance. Within the whole of the kingdom of Nangchen, he became known as the greatest lama of his time — even the king accepted him as his personal guru. The king had been losing sons, one after another, and was advised by both the Karmapa and Situ Rinpoché to regard Samten Gyatso as his chief lama and adviser. Consequently, Samten Gyatso remained at the royal palace for three years, and during this time no other prince passed away.Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche in The Great Tertön: The Life and Activities of Chokgyur Lingpa, Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, 2016, pp. 375-78.