A master with a mission – Ven. Zawa Tulku Lobsang Dorje Chokye Gyaltsen

By: Mar Nee

One of the characteristic purposes of a high Vajrayana monk is to seek the swiftest path to enlightenment but such objective is not for oneself as much as it is to be able to guide other sentient beings along the same path into liberation post haste. These high lamas themselves acquire their vast knowledge of Dharma over many lifetimes and the attainments they posses are the results of practices that they have mastered over many incarnations. They are also the lineage holders who ensure that what has been taught by the Buddha are preserved with purity, and to that end, they return life after life as tulkus carrying the precise teachings and authentic Dharma in their mindstream to be reinforced and passed on untainted. One such enlightened mind is H.E. Zawa Tulku Rinpoche.

Zawa Rinpoche was born in Dharamsala, India, on August 15, 1978. His father, Ngawang, himself used to be a monk from Ganden Jangtze Monastery, and was a close associate of H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama. Ngawang also worked in the government as the Member of Parliament of DuDur in the Kham area. Of significance was Ngawang’s role as the President of the specially trained Tibetan guards, the Chushi Gangdruk, formed under the instructions of Dorje Shugden with the objective to see to the Dalai Lama’s safe passage when His Holiness escaped from Tibet in 1959. With such a rich inheritance of passion for and trust in the Protector, it is no surprise then that Zawa Rinpoche would be a fervent and dynamic Dorje Shugden practitioner.

As was the tradition, Zawa Rinpoche’s father wanted one of his children to be a monk and he asked the Dalai Lama if the young, then unidentified Zawa Rinpoche could be sent to the monastery. The Dalai Lama replied that it was a good idea and suggested that the boy be placed at Namgyal Monastery in Dharamsala. However, upon further consultation with the erudite H.H. Trijang Rinpoche, the young boy was sent to Ganden Shartse Monastery instead. Zawa Rinpoche was brought there when he was only six years old, and such was the promise of the boy that he was escorted personally by Palden-la, H.H. Trijang Rinpoche’s changtzo.

That Zawa Rinpoche was not an ordinary boy was clear from the beginning. Not only did he receive many signs from his dreams but from the outset, Zawa Rinpoche’s monastic journey took him across the paths of many lamas of high attainments, which was not by chance. In 1982, the four-year-old Zawa Rinpoche received ordination as a getsul, or novice ordained monk, from the illustrious Kyabje Zemey Rinpoche, and he was given the name Jangchub Ngawang by Venerable Lati Rinpoche. Zawa Rinpoche displayed tremendous aptitude for the Dharma, which is characteristic of a reincarnated high lama, and when he was 16 or 17 years of age, he was recognized by various Yogis and masters, including the Panglung Kuten and Geshe Nyima, as the incarnation of the previous Geshe Zawa, an extremely accomplished meditation master. Zawa Tulku Rinpoche’s recognition was further confirmed when the Panglung Kuten took trance and affirmed who Zawa Rinpoche was.

Enthronement at Ganden

In 1997, in an elaborate ceremony held at Ganden Shartse Monastery, he was enthroned formally and bestowed the title “Zawa Tulku Lobsang Dorje Chokye Gyaltsen Rinpoche”. The young Zawa Rinpoche showed the mettle and authenticity of his spiritual lineage by achieving the highest levels of oral philosophical debate during his final examinations. A year later, Zawa Rinpoche was sent to Singapore and Taiwan to raise funds for the monasteries and hence resumed his outreach to the people to bring them the Dharma.

Zawa Rinpoche’s connection with other enlightened minds continued in earnest. In 1999, Zawa Rinpoche was invited by his Singaporean friends to visit Borobudur where he was introduced to H.E. Gangchen Rinpoche for the first time by H.E. Kundeling Rinpoche. To mark the auspicious meeting and propitious Dharma works Zawa Rinpoche was to perform, Gangchen Rinpoche asked Zawa Rinpoche to present him a Kalachakra mandala, which was dissolved, and the sand of the mandala was offered to the Borobudur stupa with a prayer for peace in the new millennium.

H.E. Gangchen Rinpoche and H.E. Zawa Rinpoche

Visiting Tibet

Zawa Rinpoche’s connection with Chatreng is undisputed with Chatreng being closely associated with Trijang Rinpoche himself, and the men of Chushi Gangdruk. In response to repeated requests by the people and monks of Chatreng Monastery, Zawa Rinpoche finally visited Chatreng in 2001 after an earlier attempt to obtain the appropriate visa to enter Tibet failed. Zawa Rinpoche’s confidence was spurred on after the initial failure to enter Chatreng when the Panglung Kuten, whilst at Phegyeling Monastery in Nepal, took trance of Dorje Shugden and assured the young tulku of his divine assistance which did come to pass. As Dorje Shugden predicted, Zawa Rinpoche did not face any problems from the Chinese authorities during his visit and was even able to visit Lhasa, Ganden, Sera, Drepung and Tashi Lhunpo without any obstacles.

During this trip to Chatreng, he met his previous life’s changtzo, who was then 74 years of age, to their mutual joy. It is interesting to note that both Zawa Rinpoche’s current and previous incarnation’s families are from Chatreng. Zawa Rinpoche also met Khensur Rinpoche at Chatreng, who performed another enthronement formally recognizing Zawa Tulku Rinpoche again.

In Tibet, Zawa Rinpoche also met H.H. Denma Gonsar Rinpoche in Qinghai, who was a direct student of H.H. Pabongka Rinpoche. Denma Gonsar Rinpoche was a master of Tsongkhapa’s teachings and a strong Dorje Shugden practitioner. Zawa Rinpoche wanted more teachings from him and he took bhikshu vows or full ordination from Denma Gonsar Rinpoche in 2002.

H.E. Denma Gonsar Rinpoche with H.E. Zawa Rinpoche

Most people would take ordination vows from H.H. the Dalai Lama but Zawa Rinpoche was adamant that he wanted to receive the vows from Denma Gonsar Rinpoche so that there was no relationship with the Dalai Lama. This was in order that no samaya would be broken in the process of Zawa Rinpoche discharging his duties which he was preparing for. Denma Gonsar Rinpoche himself also did not have a relationship with the Dalai Lama therefore there was no possibility of broken samaya because of the Dorje Shugden controversy.

It was clear in Zawa Rinpoche’s mind that it was his duty to defend Je Tsongkhapa’s teachings by upholding the practice of Dorje Shugden, which was under threat. And it was equally important to Zawa Rinpoche to hold his vows and not break samaya with any of his gurus.

Visit to Europe

In 2003, on Gangchen’s Rinpoche’s invitation, Zawa Rinpoche went to Italy during which time he met with other high lamas and strong defenders of the Gelugpa lineage, H.E. Gonsar Rinpoche, H.E. Rabten Rinpoche and all the Geshes from Rabten Choling. H.H. Trijang Choktrul Rinpoche was also staying there at the time and that provided many opportunities for Zawa Rinpoche to visit Trijang Rinpoche. It was at Trijang Ladrang at Tashi Rabten that Zawa Rinpoche met Geshe Tsultrim Tenzin.

H.E. Gonsar Rinpoche with H.E. Zawa Rinpoche

While Zawa Rinpoche was in Europe, there was a request from a Dharma Centre in Canada for a teacher. They invited Geshe Tsultrim Tenzin to be the resident teacher there. Geshe Tsultrim did not have time to go to Canada so instead, he asked Zawa Rinpoche and his assistant Lobsang to go. Zawa Rinpoche accepted and in 2003, Zawa Rinpoche went to Canada.

Finally, Canada

Zawa Rinpoche’s current centre in Canada, Chang Chub Chöling, was founded by Geshe Khenrab Gajam from Ganden Jangtze Monastery. After Geshela passed on, the students wanted more teachers to which Ganden Jangtze responded but somehow, the lamas never lasted. They either became ill or were besieged by obstacles. Geshe Tsultrim went there originally, but relocated to Europe to teach the young Trijang Choktrul Rinpoche.

H.H. Zong Rinpoche and Geshe Khenrab

Not many people knew that Geshe Khenrab was a Dorje Shugden practitioner. Geshe Khenrab very much wanted the centre to belong to a Dorje Shugden lama. He could have given the center to Ganden Jangtze or many lamas but he never did because of this wish to continue Dorje Shugden’s lineage.

When Zawa Rinpoche took over the Dharma center, he added Ganden to the name, which then became “Gaden Chang Chub Choling – Tibetan Buddhist temple”.

A New Center

In 2005, a sponsor who was a university professor by the name Din, came to Montreal from Moncton, New Brunswick. Din requested Zawa Rinpoche to start a new center in Moncton, which was to be the first Buddhist center in New Brunswick.

H.E. Zawa Rinpoche at his centre in Canada

With Zawa Rinpoche’s dedication to spread the Dharma, the Moncton Buddhist Centre materialized and was known as Jamgon Dhargye Ling, named by Dorje Shugden himself.

Problems at the Center

Geshe Khenrab had invited many lamas to visit Chang Chub Choling – H.H. Zong Rinpoche, H.H. Ling Rinpoche, H.H. 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, H.E. Dagom Rinpoche and H.H. the 98th Ganden Tripa from Jangtze, Jampel Shenpen.

Geshela was a very strong practitioner of Dorje Shugden which was a well-kept secret under the circumstances and often Geshela would sit before an 11” statue of Dorje Shugden which was blessed by H.E. Lati Rinpoche.

When the members requested Geshe Tsultrim to come, he instead decided to send Zawa Rinpoche and Lobsang. Geshe Tsultrim was aware of the problems at the centre, which surrounded their practice of Dorje Shugden. With Zawa Rinpoche in attendance, Geshe Tsultrim changed the center’s administrative system to be run by a board instead of any single individual, which was the case before. Accordingly a board of directors was elected and Zawa Rinpoche himself was requested to be the President and Lobsang, the Treasurer.

It was a very challenging time for Zawa Rinpoche whose wish was to teach Dharma as his main responsibility. Zawa Rinpoche was new to secular matters and disagreements amongst members as to how the centre was to be run, some preferring a monastic style while others choosing a secular approach, proved difficult. And those would not be the only problems that Zawa Rinpoche faced as a deeper issue brew. The schism created by the Dorje Shugden ban was not limited to Dharamsala and was indeed felt at Zawa Rinpoche’s centre. However, due to the example set by Zawa Rinpoche as someone befitting a Dorje Shugden practitioner, the majority of the members came to follow and trust the Protector as well.

As Zawa Rinpoche spread the Dharma and the pure Gelugpa lineage, the Shugden ban went into full swing and came to a head in 2008. In Ganden, the monks of Dhokhang Khangtsen made the sad decision to split from Ganden Monastery which was the cost forced upon them to pay if they wanted to continue with the Protector practice. With that, Shar Ganden was founded.

Western Shugden Society (WSS)

In the meantime, the Western Shugden Society (WSS) was mustering up public protests against the Dorje Shugden ban at public appearances by the Dalai Lama in the United States. As someone sworn to protect the lineage, Zawa Rinpoche became a member of the WSS’s committee. Zawa Rinpoche also brought several Dorje Shugden practitioners in Canada who wanted to join the demonstrations in New York, and it was these successful events that cast an international spotlight on an illegal ban that the CTA, in shame, tried to conceal from public view.

There are many Tibetan Dorje Shugden practitioners in the US but they were not organized. When the WSS was trying to organize the demonstrations, it was very difficult to begin with, because people did not want to demonstrate. Some Tibetans did not want to take part because they were afraid. Even during meetings, some Tibetans did not want to join in.

It was then decided that they should form a Dorje Shugden society. The United States is a free country, so they formed the North America Gelug Buddhist Association (NAGBA), with the aim of supporting the difficult situation in India. Tibetans who were US citizens, such as H.E. Yongyal Rinpoche, were supportive. The members of the Buddhist association were United States citizens who could publicly protect the Dorje Shugden lamas and preserve the teachings of these lamas. Therefore, it was considered very important to set up this association.

NAGBA is a different entity from WSS, with a membership consisting mostly of Tibetans, rather than westerners. Zawa Rinpoche was also a committee member of NAGBA, which was inaugurated in March 5th to 6th, 2011.

A New Dorje Shugden Society in Canada

Back home in Canada, and on the advice of the Dorje Shugden oracle, Zawa Rinpoche formally registered a society to which out of ten nominations, the Protector himself selected Zawa Rinpoche to be the President. That choice concurred with that of the members of the centre. It would appear that Zawa Rinpoche’s role in defending the Protector practice would take on a more significant meaning.

The Ban

Like many Shugden practitioners, Zawa Rinpoche too had to pay a price for his loyalty to his Protector and lineage. An interesting fact, which may not be common knowledge, is that Zawa Rinpoche’s brother is serving the Dalai Lama in the CTA’s Defense Department. Because of the Dorje Shugden issue, Zawa Rinpoche’s brother has severed connections between Zawa Rinpoche and himself. This is a tragic recurring story as the ban tore an otherwise close-knit society asunder, reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s era when family turned on family and friends became foes.

However, the ban has not diminished Zawa Rinpoche’s respect for the Dalai Lama. When asked why he thought the Dalai Lama created this ban, Zawa Rinpoche replied that according to lamas, such as Geshe Tendar, the ban’s objective is to spread the Dorje Shugden name in the world. It is to raise awareness of who Dorje Shugden is and how he is an important Protector of the Gelug tradition.

According to Zawa Rinpoche, whilst the ban may have effect in India where the Dalai Lama’s influence is significant and where a policy of intimidation against Shugden practitioners and sympathizers is being enforced, the reality is that Dorje Shugden practice is growing quite rapidly in places that are beyond the ban’s sinister reach. This is proof that in the absence of intimidation, the Protector practice grows because people whose minds are not blinded by prejudice quickly come to see the great benefits that the Protector bestows on all pursuing the pure Dharma.

Zawa Rinpoche’s Future Plans

Even as Zawa Rinpoche studies and qualifies for his Geshe degree, he has taken head-on extremely difficult Shugden-ban related issues. The primary focus is to mitigate the negative impact the ban has had on Shugden monks’ monastic careers and development. One such project is to provide tantric training for Shugden monks from Shar Ganden and Serpom Monasteries, who upon qualifying with such training can only benefit the spread of the Dharma, and yet politics stand in the way of such good.

When these Dorje Shugden monasteries split from Ganden and Sera, the Shugden monks were barred from the tantric colleges of Gyuto and Gyumed. Zawa Rinpoche’s response is not to challenge the decision, which could result in deeper quarrels, but instead build new tantric monasteries for the Dorje Shugden monasteries, as requested by the Abbot of Shar Ganden. On this project, Zawa Rinpoche has been receiving the collaboration of other lamas such as Achok Rinpoche and Yongyal Rinpoche’s changtzo (who is based in USA).

To preserve the lineage, Zawa Rinpoche travels extensively to pursue teachings from the great lineage masters while they are still around. This is so that he can pass the lineages on – especially as he is starting the tantric school.

Zawa Rinpoche is planning to locate this Tantric school not in the Tibetan community but somewhere out of the CTA’s jurisdiction, such as in Mysore or Bangalore. Geshe Thubten Trinley was supposed to go to Shar Ganden this year to give teachings but the MPAD (permit to enter Tibetan colony) was rejected because he is a Dorje Shugden practitioner. The proposed new tantric monastery is intended to mitigate such unfair practices adopted by the CTA, at the expense of the Dharma.

H.E. Zawa Rinpoche with Ven. Geshe Thupten Trinley Rinpoche

Zawa Rinpoche’s noble project is not without its challenges and beyond acquiring suitable land and building a monastery, there are also logistical aspects to consider. They do not however, deter Zawa Rinpoche as he said, “What is crucial is for the teachings of the lineage to endure. In India, we do not have many senior high lamas left. The senior high lamas are now mostly based in Tibet and Europe, such as H.H. 101st Ganden Trisur, H.E. Gonsar Rinpoche, Geshe Thubten Trinley.”

“We must invite these important lamas and Geshes, not to Shar Ganden, but to other places like Mysore or Bangalore. This is crucial so that the lineage will continue. If we have that authentic lineage, we can raise funds to build easily.”

When the motivation is pure and the objective is good for the Dharma, the Protector provides whatever is required and so with news of sponsorships coming in, Zawa Rinpoche’s project is commencing.

On the bright side, Zawa Rinpoche says that the early signs of lifting the ban can be seen. Also, in China, the 11th Panchen Lama is going to practice Dorje Shugden strongly. “Our wish is that everything is made clear before the Dalai Lama passes away,” says Zawa Rinpoche.

Zawa Rinpoche wishes that the monasteries will reunite again soon.

Message to Dorje Shugden practitioners:

What can we learn from such a strong and devoted scholar and teacher as Zawa Rinpoche is?

“I love Dorje Shugden from my heart. I received Dorje Shugden’s sogtae from Geshe Tendar when I was 16 or 17 in Ganden. Nobody took sogtae at that age because you must keep commitments. Usually people take sogtae when they are older because we need to understand more deeply about the practice. I had wished to have the practice ever since I was young.”

“The most important commitment is to your gurus – you must keep samaya with your guru,” is Zawa Rinpoche’s advice, something he personally subscribes to and lives by.

“In my experience, it is important to always think about how kind the guru is to show us this practice. Everyone has a guru – never lose this opportunity to practice and then we will be successful”.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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