Drikung Khandro, Chodrung Rinpoche (1886–1958)

Chodrung Rinpoche was born in the fire dog year (1886) in Northern Tibet. She was related to His Holiness, Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche, one of the three throne holders of the Taklung Kagyu lineage. Many auspicious signs accompanied her birth, and she was recognized to be an incarnation of a great dakini. There is not much information available so far regarding her Dharma training in her early years, however it is clear that she had attained a very high state of realization. She was renowned as the great “Chatang” – one who abandons all worldly activities.

Chodrung Rinpoche wandered throughout the region of Northern Tibet, particularly the Nam-tso Ka area. She spent many years in retreat in Taklung Tsangpa’s cave, Siligod Tsang, as well as Yeshe Tsogyal‘s cave in Drikung Terdrom. She gathered many disciples in the different areas where she stayed, and became the Abbess for the nuns residing at the Drikung Kagyu nunnery in Drikung Terdrom. I n this capacity, she became known as “the Drikung Khandro.” Here, she primarily taught the Yang Zab, a Dzogchen terma discovered by Drikung Rinchen Phuntsok, as well as Mahamudra and Six Yogas of Naropa. In addition, she was the retreat master for the Taklung Kagyu lineage, in Siligodtsang, where she taught the KunThug lineage, the Karma Lingpa lineage, the Six Yogas of Naropa, and Shinje Chod, as well as giving the most sacred empowerments (sog-thik) for the Dharma Protectors. His Holiness Matrul Dragpa Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche and the other throne holders for the Taklung Kagyu sent their most promising young students there to do retreat under her supervision.

She gave the Great Chakrasamvara Wangs, which included separate empowerments for each of the deities in the mandala. She wrote a commentary teaching for her students including the “Dakini’s Direct Instruction” manual, which contain some notes from her about the four sessions of practice, the six sessions of practice, and the Preliminary practices, or Ngondro. She also wrote an instruction manual for the Great Chakrasamvara Empowerment, which discusses each deity in detail. This indicates that she gave the great Chakrasamvara empowerment — a major wang that very few Lamas can give. At the end of this was a “Tob-yik”, a Manual for Practitioners, which she took from the root text and added her own commentary. She gave this Tob-yik to those students who attended the Chakrasamvara wang, as well as some documentation that such and such student received this empowerment, etc.

She taught the Gyud-bum at Samye Monastery, and her fame spread throughout the area. She left handprints on rocks, and it was said that when she stood in the sun, she left no shadow. One of her surviving students says that when she speaks about her or says her name, no words come, only tears. “She was the very great, unimaginable Master.” His Holiness, the 34th Drikung Kyabgon, Tenzin Shiwai Lodro, recognized her as an incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal. She was also the secret consort of His Holiness, the Taklung Kyabgon, Matrul Dragpa Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche, who became her lifelong partner.

Many noble families from Lhasa attempted to take photographs of her and His Holiness Matrul Rinpoche together. However, when the photos were developed only their thrones and background could be seen. Therefore, there are no existing photographs of her. The Jangru Phunsang family, the Mayor of the Northern region of Tibet, became the life-sponsor (“jindag”) for both Chodrung Rinpoche and Matrul Rinpoche. They commissioned a statue to be made in her likeness, since no photograph could be taken of her. This statue was made with her approval and blessing and is the only known surviving image of her. It is presently in the home of Tsewang Dorje, the Mayor’s son, in Namtso Ka, Tibet.

Tsewang Dorje remembers Chodrung Rinpoche when he was a boy. She used to come to his family’s home to give teachings. “She wore her hair in two braids, wrapped in red yarn, wound up on her head. Sometimes, when she was giving empowerments, her hair would be jet black and at other times it would be white. It was always changing.” They still preserve her throne in their shrine room, as well as safekeeping her precious belongings.

Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche recalls stories that his father, Kathok Dorje Rinpoche used to tell about Chodrung Rinpoche. Kathok Dorje Rinpoche was a great yogi of the Taklung Kagyu, who also received teachings from Chodrung Rinpoche. “Her place was like a zoo. There were always wild animals everywhere. In the mornings she used to make ‘pak’ (tsampa dough) and feed to all the animals. There were many rabbits and wild birds called khan-ga. These birds are big and black with a long red beak. They are the favorite birds of the dakinis. They used to sit all around her place. She also had many parrots in cages – gifts from China. One parrot talked like a human being. It would call out “Rinpoche, Rinpoche” when she was around. My father tells a story about a Lama who got very angry at the parrot. When he was there it cried out, “Rinpoche, Rinpoche, this nomad is a thief, this nomad is a thief!” He got out a needle from his case and started to prick the parrot’s feet. It cried out “Atsa! Atsa!” (A Tibetan expression for “Ouch!”). She also had a wild wolf that she kept in a cage. Sometimes she would let it roam around. It ate only tsampa – it was vegetarian!”

It is said that His Holiness, the 15th Karmapa developed his love for birds from Chodrung Rinpoche as he used to come and spend many weeks at a time at her place.

At the time of her death, Chodrung Rinpoche announced to her disciples that this would be her last life, she would not be returning. Upon hearing this, her disciples begged her to take rebirth. Finally, she said that, although she would not be able to return, she would send an emanation in male form. She announced, “Because monks look down on females and won’t take audience from female teachers, I am sending an emanation in male form.”

Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche comments that her statement that “she would not be returning” indicates that she was a fully enlightened Buddha. Just as Shakyamuni Buddha has never taken rebirth, she too would not “return”, as she had completely cut all karmic seeds leading to rebirth. However, due to her great compassion and enlightened intention, she would “send an emanation.”

Then, with her close disciples nearby, she entered into Tugdam, the Samadhi of Pure Mind. While sitting in full lotus posture, with damaru held high in her right hand and bell in her left, she remained in tugdam for seven days. Rainbows filled the sky. When word reached the throne holders of the Taklung Kagyu that Chodrung Rinpoche had entered into Tugdam, they came to do the necessary ceremonies. At this time, His Holiness Matrul Rinpoche’s reincarnation was a young man. This tulku’s mother had harbored much jealousy and wrong thoughts towards Chodrung Rinpoche and thereby banned him from visiting his former consort. However, when His Holiness Matrul Thubten Rinpoche arrived with His Holinesses Shabtrung Rinpoche and Tsetrul Rinpoche to attend her death process, upon entering her room, he was so overwhelmed by her magnificence, that he immediately prostrated to her form and felt deep regret that his mother had prevented him from seeing her while she was alive. On that very spot, he vowed that in order to repair the damaged samaya, he would build a stupa to enshrine her remains.

This stupa was completed in 1959 and was reported to be three stories high. His Holiness Matrul Rinpoche himself wrote mantras on the ‘sog shin’ (life pillar) in gold. It is not known if this stupa has survived the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

One of Chodrung Rinpoche’s heart students, Sherab Thubten, became her successor as the Abbess of Drikung Terdrom. Sherab Thubten had studied with Chodrung Rinpoche for over ten years. Thus, she became the next Drikung Khandro until she left for India in 1959. At the retreat area of Siligod Tsang, her attendant and Kyor-pon (retreat assistant) Lodro Senge, who had studied with her for 39 years, took her place as retreat master until he was murdered the following year. He has since taken rebirth in America.

In the water dog year (1982), Chodrung Rinpoche’s emanation was born to a virgin dwarf living in Northern Tibet. She is from the Gartsang family of metalsmiths. She thought she was ill and went to a local doctor, who pronounced that she was pregnant. The local villagers were outraged and pressured her to confess who that father was, but she insisted that she had never been with a man.

She delivered the tulku via cesarean section. Later, His Holiness Taklung Tsetrul Rinpoche recognized him as Chodrung Rinpoche’s emanation and gave him the name Kuchung Rinpoche.

Since then, Kuchung Rinpoche has been receiving teachings from His Holiness Tsetrul Rinpoche and Somo Chotrul Jigme Tenzin Tekchod in Sapolung. He has numerous attendants, including his mother, who became a nun after the tulku’s birth. In the year 2000, he completed a three-year retreat in Taklung Tangpa’s cave, Siligod Tsang.

Image: Yeshe Tsogyal, whose emanation was Drikung Khandro, Chodrung Rinpoche.

Drikung Khandro, Sherab Thubten Rinpoche (1927–1979)

Sherab Thubten, also known as “Neni Rinpoche,” was born in 1927 in Northern Tibet. She spent much of her life in the Drikung Longshud Are Nunnery; a branch nunnery of the Drikung Kagyu. There, she spent more than ten years studying with the Drikung Khandro, Chodrung Rinpoche, who named her as her successor for the nuns at Drikung Terdrom.

Neni Rinpoche also studied with the great Dzogchen Master, Khenchen Chatral Rahor Chhodak, whom she considered her root teacher. He was known as the very great Chatral (one who naturally abandons worldly activities).

In 1959, Neni Rinpoche fled Tibet and traveled by foot to India. On the way, she met Ani Damchu Sangmo from Kham, who became her faithful attendant. Together they traveled throughout India, doing pilgrimage to all the Buddhist holy sites. They finally settled in Tso Pema, the holy place of Guru Rinpoche. At Tso Pema, they remained in retreat for ten years (1960 – 1970).

Neni Rinpoche was very close to the great Nyingma Master, Khenpo Thubten Rinpoche and received many teachings from him. She also taught Drikung Ontul Rinpoche when he was a young man and she introduced him to Khenpo Thubten, who subsequently became Ontul Rinpoche’s Root Guru. Tashi Drolma, Ontul Rinpoche’s wife, says that Neni Rinpoche was very helpful to him.

Neni Rinpoche was known to be very strict and very outspoken. She had no fear to speak out and reprimand Lamas. All the young tulkus were afraid of her and would be on their best behavior when she was around.

On 1970, Neni Rinpoche traveled to Bodhgaya with Khunu Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. There she contracted TB. Despite this, she endured the sickness and unbearable heat and did much study and retreat with Khunu Lama. In 1976 she traveled with Khunu Lama to Garsha, Northern India until Khunu Lama Passed away in 1978. Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche says, “I met her when I went to Northern India to receive teachings from Khunu Rinpoche. She was very devoted to Khunu Lama. She never left his side, even when she was very sick with TB. She never complained even though she suffered terribly. I never met a practitioner like her.”

In 1979, on the 29th day of the 11th Tibetan month, Neni Rinpoche entered into Tugdam. She remained sitting in lotus posture for seven days. Khenpo Thubten Rinpoche presided as her guardian during her death process, and many followers gathered around. On the 4th day of Tugdam, they offered her the bell and dorje and placed the five pointed crown and dress on her, symbolizing the nirmanakaya transforming into the sambhogakaya. After seven days, red and white fluid came from her nostrils, indicating that Tugdam was complete. Her body was cremated under Khenpo Thubten’s supervision and the relics were distributed among her followers.

Drikung Ontul Rinpoche has built an ornate gold reliquary stupa and placed a piece of her bone inside. This stupa is currently in Ontul Rinpoche’s private shrine room in Tso Pema, India. He plans to bring it to Drikung Terdrom, Tibet, in the future.

Images: 1 – Drikung Khandro, Sherab Thubten Rinpoche, 2 – Khunu Rinpoche.

This information was provided by many people; in particular:

Ani Damchu Sangmo, Neni Rinpoche’s attendant, who has spent the last 30 years in retreat at Khenpo Thubten’s Monastery in Kullu, North India.

Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, who spent time with Chodrung Rinpoche at Siligod Tsang, Tibet in the 1940’s. He presently lives in retreat in Pharping, Nepal.

Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche, who recollected stories of his father, Kathag Dorje Rinpoche, who was one of Chodrung Rinpoches’ students. Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche lives in Boudha, Nepal, where he is renowned as the “Mirror Lama’. Through his powers of divination, much of the information was verified and further details were provided.

Tsewang Dorje, The present Mayor of Nam Tso, Northern Tibet, who’s family was Chodrung Rinpoche’s main sponsor, and who maintains her throne as well as holding her personal belongings.

Khenchen Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche, the North American Abbot of the Drikung Kagyu, presently residing at the Tibetan Meditation Center, in Frederick, Maryland.

Drikung Ontul Rinpoche and Tashi Dolma, who over ee the Drikung Monastery in Tso Pema, Riwalsar, India.

Collected and written by Kunzang Dechen Chodron.