Zong Rinpoche Lobzang Tsondru, was born in Nangsang, Kham, in 1905 in the female wood serpent year. His father’s name was Jampa and his mother’s was Sonam Yangdzom. Lobzang Tsondru was born into a Nyingma family; both his father and grandfathers were ngakpas. Nevertheless, as a child he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Gelug master Zongtrul Tenpa Chopel (1836-1899).
Lobzang Tsondru was enrolled in the local monastery and already at a young age, his skill in the study and memorization of texts was impressive. In 1916, he travelled to U-Tsang and joined the Shartse College of Ganden Monastery, where he began his study of Pramāṇa, Mādhyamaka, Prajñāpāramitā, Vinaya and Abhidharma. It was at this time that Lobzang Tsondru met the young Third Trijang Rinpoche, Lobzang Yeshe Tendzin Gyatso (1901-1981). The late HH Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, who was then fourteen years old, helped the new incarnate lama by going with him through his first lesson in elementary dialectics; he was later to become his chief mentor and root guru.
In 1928, Lobzang Tsondru debated in front of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Tubten Gyatso (1876-1933) in Lhasa and was subsequently awarded the Geshe Lharampa degree following the Monlam festival examinations. It was also from the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that Lobzang Tsondru received his full monastic ordination in the early years of his stay in Ganden.
Following the award of his degree he entered Gyuto Monastery where he engaged in advanced tantric studies, followed by an equally successful examination at Gyuto Tantric College. After these crowning achievements, which marked the completion of his studies, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche’s name as an accomplished scholar became firmly established.
Following the completion of his studies, he was appointed the abbot of Ganden Shartse in 1937 by the regent Reting Rinpoche Tubten Jampel Yeshe Gyeltsen (1911-1947), and held this position for almost ten years. By this time, Lobzang Tsondru had a reputation for being extremely skillful in debate and in his knowledge of Mādhyamaka.
In 1946, he resigned from the abbot’s throne to work as a magician against black magic, disturbances caused by various ghosts (Pretas) and lower gods, became a ‘weather-maker’, performed many fire rituals and lived in different parts of Tibet, being on a kind of continuous pilgrimage. During this extensive pilgrimage, Lobzang Tsondru also traveled to the holy mountain of Tsari and also returned to his homeland in Kham where he gave teachings and initiations to the local population.
Lobzang Tsondru’s name spread all over the country of being a powerful tantrician and he gave many empowerments and teachings on those subjects with a special emphasis on the tantras of Heruka, Hayagriva, Yamantaka, Gyelchen Shugden, Guhyasamaja, Vajrayogini, White Tara, Vaishravani and others. As a philosopher he was a follower of the Middle-Way school and gave many teachings on Madhyamika and Abhidharma. He is still well known in the Gelug tradition for his vast knowledge of tantric practice. Particularly during his travels in the 1940s and 1950s, he is attributed with a number of miraculous events such as subduing local deities and spirits through wrathful rituals, curing physical ailments and the ability to control the weather.
Following the violent upheavals in Lhasa in 1959, Zong Rinpoche, like many Tibetans, followed the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tendzin Gyatso (b.1935) to India. In India he settled in Buxa, Assam, where the main Gelug monasteries had been re-established in an old British concentration camp. Although the tropical conditions were harsh and many monks died during this period in India, Lobzang Tsondru continued to give teachings to train a new generation of Gelug scholars and practitioners. He was also known as a talented astrologer and artist.
In 1965, at the request of the Dalai Lama, Lobzang Tsondru became the director of the Tibetan Schools Teachers Training Program in Mussoorie, and, in 1967, the Dalai Lama appointed him as the first principal of the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Varanasi.
In 1971 Lobzang Tsondru moved to Ganden Shartse in the newly established Tibetan settlement in Mundgod, Karnataka and retired from his position in Varanasi. Although he spent his later years engaging in practice he also continued to teach. He made three journeys to the West, travelling around North America and Europe. The first of these journeys was made after repeated requests from Lama Tubten Yeshe (1935–1984) of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) in 1978, with the last being in 1983.
During his travels he gave teachings on both sutra and tantra, including teachings on the Chod of the Ganden Ear-Whispered Lineage, a practice he is well known for, as well as the life-entrustment of the controversial protector Dorje Shugden. Lobzang Tsondru also taught numerous western students in India and participated in giving teachings and empowerments during the FPMT’s First Dharma Celebration in Dharamsala in 1981, along with other high-ranking Gelug teachers such at the Dalai Lama, Ling Rinpoche Tubten Lungtok Tendzin Trinle (1903-1983), Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche Ngawang Lobzang Tubten Tobjor (1914-1983) as well as Lama Tubten Zopa (b.1946) and Lama Yeshe.
It was also in 1981 that Lobzang Tsondru’s root guru, Trijang Rinpoche, passed away in Mundgod. It was from Trijang Rinpoche that Lobzang Tsondru had received numerous important lineages such as those of Cittamaṇi Tārā, Vajrayogīni Naro Kechari, and Heruka Cakrasaṃvara. Lobzang Tsondru passed these lineages to his own students, many of whom were also Trijang Rinpoche’s students.
After a series of teachings and empowerments in Mundgod in 1983, which included Cittamaṇi Tārā and Hayagrīva, Zong Rinpoche fell ill. Following requests from his students and Dharma protector, communicating through a medium, Lobzang Tsondru became better. In the wake of his illness, Zong Rinpoche engaged in intensive practice and also was able to assist in the search for his root guru’s reincarnation.
However, on 15 November 1984, despite showing no signs of illness, Lobzang Tsondru suddenly passed away, much to the shock of everyone. Ceremonies such as gaṅacakra, and the self-entry initiations of Cittamaṇi Tārā, Vajrayogīni and Vajrabhairava were performed, along with other rituals. Following the cremation of his body after the end of his tukdam death-period meditation, a number of relics were found, some of which were enshrined in a stupa, completed in 1986, which stands today at Ganden Monastery in Lama Camp No.1 in Mundgod.
His new incarnation was born in the Kullu valley (place in Northern India), later on duly recognized by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and enthroned at Ganden Shartse monastery in India. Like his previous incarnation he also shows many heart moving signs confirming that he is the real Zong Rinpoche and has only changed his physical outlook. The present Zong Rinpoche is currently fully engaged in the study of Sutra and Tantra at Ganden Shartse Monastic University under the care of Khensur Lati Rinpoche.
Zasep Tulku. 1981. Kyabje Song Rinpoche: A Biography. Martin Willson, trans. London: Wisdom Publications.
Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. 2006. Chöd in the Ganden Tradition: The Oral Instructions of Kyabje Zong Rinpoche. David Molk, ed. Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications.
Kyabje Song Rinpoche. 1979. “Birth, Death and Bardo” in Dreloma, Drepung Loseling Magazine. Lobsang Norbu Tsonawa, Michael Richards et al., trans.