Choden Rinpoche of Seraje Monastery, one of the highest lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist Traditon was virtually unknown outside Tibet until 1985. He did not escape from his country after the Chinese takeover in 1959 nor was he imprisoned. Instead, he lived in a house in Lhasa, never once leaving his small, dark room for nineteen years, even to go to the toilet, and never cutting his hair and beard.
Ven. Tseten Gelek, Rinpoche’s attendant, a Sera je monk tells us, “He spent all his time on that bed, meditating. They had to change the bedding once a month because it got smelly from sweat. He used a bedpan for a toilet, as he was pretending to be an invalid. Until 1980 he did not talk to anyone, only the person who brought food into his room”.
Choden Rinpoche himself told MANDALA during a two-month visit to Vajrapani Institute in California, “The main thing I wanted to do was to practice Dharma sincerely, no matter what external factors were arising. This was my motivation, to be completely against the eight worldly concerns.”
IN MEDITATION FOR NINETEEN YEARS
Rinpoche lived in his cousin’s house in Lhasa from 1965 to 1985, without coming out. He acted like an invalid. His room had no window, only a small space for ventilation above the door. Rinpoche stayed in one room for eight years, and in another room for the remaining eleven years. His attendant says, “I saw the second room and it was dark, really dark. When you walk in you can’t see anything, but slowly as your eyes adjust you can make some things out. Even now at Sera when I come to open the shades in Rinpoche’s room, he says no, no. I think only for my benefit he lets me open the shades. He didn’t take even one step out of those rooms for nineteen years.
To do retreat, normally, you need texts, a tangka, drum, bell, vajra, all these things, but Rinpoche had only a mala. There was no altar, no text, nothing. He had already finished all the memorization of all the texts and prayers during his years of study at Sera, so he didn’t need these things. The Chinese were always checking what he was doing; they would come to the house several times a day, and if they found any religious object they would have taken him away. So Rinpoche did all the retreats using just his mind; everything was in his mind. But he would never say this himself; he just says he was sleeping, thinking a little about the Dharma.
Rinpoche says, “At that time you could have absolutely no holy objects, no statues or scriptures. If they saw any scriptural texts, you would be in big trouble. Even if you moved your lips without making a sound, you would get into trouble, because they would think you were saying prayers. I had some prayer beads but they had to be kept hidden. I had a small one and when people came to investigate me, I would hide it in one of two hidden pockets in my clothes, just over my knees.
Because I stayed inside like this without ever going out, people said I was doing retreat. But it wasn’t proper retreat, with the offerings, ritual things, and so forth. During this time I would think about the various stages of the path to enlightenment, as well as Guhyasamaja, Heruka, Yamantaka, all the generation stage yogas. And when I had time, I would complete the mantra quotas of each deity.
In any case, you don’t need external things to do Dharma practice. It’s all in your heart, your mind. As for realizations: you do not experience the realizations of the three principal aspects of the path, but you do have a little renunciation, and because of that you are able to stay like that.”
MEETING WITH THE GREAT PABONGKA RINPOCHE
Choden Rinpoche entered Rabten Monastery at the age of 8. There he learned all the prayers and rituals. He was 6 years old when he first met the legendary Pabongka Rinpoche, from whom he took many teachings at Rabten Monastery. He also took novice ordination from him then.
“I don’t remember too clearly my first meeting with Pabongka Rinpoche, but I do remember that Rinpoche was very happy with me. I really admired everything that Rinpoche did: the way he walked, the way he dressed, everything. I felt, “If only I could be like him.”
“Pabongka Rinpoche advised me not to stay in the local monastery but to go to the main monastic centers for learning near Lhasa, such as Sera, Ganden or Drepung. I entered Sera Je monastery when I was fifteen. All of the local Gelug monasteries spread out over Tibet have allegiance to one of the three major monastic centers, so accordingly you follow that.”
STUDIES AT THE BIG MONASTERIES
“Usually in Sera, Ganden and Drepung, you study the meaning of all the sutras; then you join one of the tantric colleges and study the meaning of all of the tantras. All of this is what has to be meditated upon. You have people who, after their studies, take to a life of being a total hermit, they dedicate their whole lives to meditation. Other people live in the monastery and do all the meditations within the conditions of the monastery. Others choose to go back to their local monasteries in whatever village or town they came from, either to teach or do meditation.
“My teacher, Geshe Losang Wangchuk, used to say it is more beneficial to stay in a monastery and teach than to go off to meditate, because when he expressed the wish to go into retreat, Trijang Rinpoche advised him against it, pointing out the benefits of teaching others rather than going off by yourself to meditate. When you teach you’re benefiting so many people, but when you meditate you’re benefiting yourself. Philosophy is not formatted for meditation, so what you meditate on are things like various stages of the path to enlightenment, which is totally formatted for meditation. You can then take all the subject material, all the information; all the philosophical studies and you can apply it to enrich your meditations.
A TYPICAL DAY AT SERA:
In the morning just before the dawn breaks, the morning prayers begin at the monastery, which takes two hours. Then debate sessions begin. At around 11 you come together for prayers, and tea is offered. That’s your lunch. The monastery only gave tea, so the monks would come with a handful of tsampa, and that would be their lunch.
After that you debate, then prayers, then again you debate. After the last debate session you can spend an hour and a half in your room.
There are no standardized classes – whenever there is free time there are classes. There are periods of time in the monastery where there are no debate sessions, and it is during this time that the philosophy classes are very vibrant.
After the hour-and-a-half break you reconvene for a very long debate session, and that’s followed by a session of prayers where you recite The Twenty-one Praises to Tara and prayers to the White Umbrella Deity—things like that. Then you go for another period of debate, and when the sun is about to set you have another break. From sunset onwards, everything you have memorized you have to recite so you don’t forget. If you are in the higher classes you are allowed to stay in your room to do the recitations, but if you are younger you have to stay in the open grounds where all the recitations take place. By yourself, you chant out loud.
During that time there may be people who chant their prayers all the way through the next day’s sunrise. The Madhyamika class and those who study the Perfections take turns to spend the entire night up. When one class is about to go to bed, the other class will begin their debate session, and they stay through to the morning prayers. So in that way there is the sound of Dharma twenty-four hours a day. In the monastery there is never the occasion where you do not hear the sound of Dharma.
RINPOCHE COMPLETED ALL THE NECESSARY STUDIES by the age of 28, reaching the highest Lharam class. Trijang Rinpoche and many high lamas asked him to get his Geshe degree quickly, but his main guru at the time, who was the Abbot of Sera Je, did not allow him to become a Geshe. He wanted Rinpoche to keep studying. He went over the studies again, mainly the texts about the monastic vows, the Vinaya. He studied them many times. Then the Chinese came.
He never wore the special clothes for the tulku, and even though he was from the family of an official, he never had his own labrang, his own household, at Sera. He mixed with the ordinary monks, and everyone liked him. Rinpoche’s main gurus are Pabongka Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His main purpose in studying since the time he was young was to be able to practice what he learned, so he focused on the meaning of the scriptures.
“I stayed in the Lharam class for many years. One of my teachers who was an abbot told me, “You’re still young. What is the point of hurrying to get your Geshe degree? Keep on studying.” I was around 28 when I could have taken my Geshe degree. I was 29 when the Chinese came, so I never had the chance after that.”
“I completed my studies in fourteen years, but if you go according to the system of the monastery, it takes thirty years. It therefore takes the monks a long time to get their Geshe degrees. This is because the meaning of the scriptures is very, very profound. The more you’re able to analyze the clearer becomes your depth of understanding. This system produces some of the best scholars.”
THE POWER OF DEBATE
“I followed the regular curriculum of Sera Monastery, studying each of the main five texts. For the first part of the studies you do the same as the rest of the monks, hut when the Geshe studies begin they give a jump-start to the tulkus (recognized reincarnate lamas), I was in the same class as Geshe Sopa Rinpoche, Geshe Ugyen Tseten and Geshe Legden for two or three years.
“At Sera monastery the main program is philosophy. The main teachers at that time were Ban Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and Ling Rinpoche. I enjoyed these teachings very much, although sometimes, you might not get permission to attend some important part of the teachings. I enjoyed debating and wasn’t too bad at it. I studied with some of the best debaters at the monastery, like Geshe Loga and Geshe Losang Wangchuk. Having been guided by them I was able to debate very well.”
What you would consider a good debater is a person who, when debating on a given subject, can point out to the other person their mistaken view; you can debate it by being able to explain why theirs is not the correct view, using logic, reasoning, and by quoting scriptural authority. By the way you debate, you show them their wrong view and they can completely give it up. That’s the sign of a good debater: being able to enlighten the opponent and create the basis for correct understanding.
With debate, you develop a very stable conviction yourself of what you understand because you use the logic, reasoning and scriptural authority. When you’re able to do that, then whatever understanding you have is very firm in your mind and becomes a basis for realizations.
Choden Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet in 1933 and was recognized at the age three as the reincarnation of the previous Rinpoche, who had been one of the candidates for the twelfth Dalai Lama.
During the communist Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, Choden Rinpoche stayed in Tibet and went into solitary retreat for 19 years. All the while he meditated and he never once left his tiny, dark room in Lhasa from 1965 to 1985. Due to the stringent rules imposed by the Chinese Govt in those days Rinpoche did not have a single holy object or a single text to aid his meditation. One can only gasp at Rinpoche’s amazing memory and visualization powers that he was able to stay in complete meditation without interruption for so many many years.
He left Tibet in 1985 making his way to India, and has since taught thousands of students at Sera Je monastery in South India. At the request of Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Choden Rinpoche has now traveled widely, visiting Asia, Europe and the United States several times to give teachings and lead retreats. Rinpoche has been to LDC three times in the past four years.
Choden Rinpoche’s Biography
Choden Rinpoche was one of seven children born to a noble family in Dahi, the Khampa region of Eastern Tibet. Rinpoche’s connections to past spiritual masters were evident from early childhood in his exemplary conduct and superior intelligence as well as in the miraculous signs often witnessed in his presence. Reting Rinpoche, the Regent of Tibet, officially recognized the small boy as the living reincarnation of the previous Choden Rinpoche, who had been one of the finalists in the search for the 13th Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.
At the age of seven, Rinpoche took novice ordination from His Holiness Pabongka Rinpoche. His Holiness reportedly said, “I found your name in Ganden Monastery’s Golden Stupa.” His Holiness named the child Losang Gyalten Jikdrel Wangchuk. Since his novice ordination, Rinpoche has been observing his monastic vows just as one protects one’s own eyes.
Rinpoche traveled to Central Tibet at the age of seventeen and enrolled in Sera Je Monastery where he was trained in the Five Canons of Buddhist philosophy. While mastering this twenty-five year course of study, Rinpoche became an outstanding student of His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche and His Holiness Pabongka Rinpoche as well as numerous other prominent lamas. Under their tutelage, he received empowerments, oral transmissions and personal instruction. He was given complete pith instructions and ear-whispered transmissions as well, which led him to an internalized understanding of the teachings. Rinpoche was also tutored during this period by the Abbot of Dawak Monastery who taught him Tibetan grammar, Sanskrit, poetry, literature and astrology. By virtue of this lengthy apprenticeship with many renowned lineage masters, Rinpoche mastered the Five Canons and earned the title pandita. He was chosen to represent Sera Je in debate when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama stood for his Geshe Examination in 1959.
During the 60s, in response to the devastating destruction of Tibetan culture and religion at the hands of the Chinese, Rinpoche undertook a solitary retreat, relying on the metok chuelen practice for sustenance. When practicing metok chuelen (literally: flower essence- to-take-of), one refrains from all common dietary habits, sustaining the body with a substance made of flower essences. Rinpoche states unequivocally that his productive practice, his accumulation of merit and his accomplishment of clarity of mind are directly attributable to his metok chuelen practice. When the Chinese accused him of ‘disgracing the motherland’ by practicing dharma, Rinpoche was forced to abandon this retreat and take up residence in a Lhasa household.
The Cultural Revolution was a dark period in Tibet marked by forced participation in cultural degradation and by the protracted suffering of atrocities. Concurrent with these rampant human rights abuses in his homeland, Rinpoche chose to remain in solitude in household retreat for more than nineteen years, practicing the Lam Rim, lo jong and tantra from memory.
In the 80s, Chinese policy became more lenient toward Tibetan religious activity. Endeavoring to exploit Rinpoche’s reputation as a distinguished scholar, the authorities invited him to serve on the board of a cultural committee. Rinpoche readily rejected the offer, having the forethought that he would be required to criticize his root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Instead he used this five-year period of leniency to give extensive teachings, empowerments and oral transmissions to thousands of Tibetan Buddhists. In 1985, Rinpoche was able to escape Tibet, traveling through Nepal to India. In Dharmasala, his paramount wish, the opportunity for an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was finally realized. This auspicious and poignant occasion touched Rinpoche’s heart indelibly: it was as if he had met with Buddha Shakyamuni himself.
The political destabilization in Tibet having reached a particularly volatile juncture, His Holiness advised Rinpoche to not return but rather to remain in India in order to teach. Therefore, while destruction of monasteries, temples and stupas continued unabated in Tibet, Rinpoche traveled to South India and, for the next twenty years, taught the precious Buddhist canon to thousands of monks in the diaspora’s monastic communities.
Rinpoche was regularly invited abroad to teach in monasteries and dharma centers, thereby benefiting people from all walks of life. He has traveled extensively throughout South Asia, Mongolia, Europe and America. Thousands of practitioners have taken novice ordination from Rinpoche in the course of his travels outside Tibet.
In sum, Rinpoche spent twenty years of his youth studying Buddhist logic, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, Middle Way philosophy, Treasury of Knowledge treatises, and monastic code and conduct at Sera Je Monastery. Subsequently, he dedicated another two decades to contemplation, meditating on the Five Canons in order to internalize the teachings. Most recently, he has devoted a third span of twenty years to teaching in South India and abroad, disseminating the Buddhadharma to benefit humanity.