Chodrung Rinpoche was born into a wealthy family in Northern Tibet in the fire dog year (1886). She was related to His Holiness, Taglung Tsetrul Rinpoche, one of the three throne holders of the Taglung Kagyu lineage. Many auspicious signs accompanied her birth, and she was recognized to be an incarnation of a great dakini. Later, she ran away from an arranged marriage and hid away in the area of Seli-god Tsag (Golden Vulture’s nest) for many years, where she engaged in intensive practice and attained a very high state of realization. She was renowned as the great “Jatang” – one who abandons all worldly activities. She quickly became famous and later returned to her family to give teachings.
Chodrung Rinpoche wandered throughout the region of Northern Tibet, particularly the Nam-tso Ka area. She spent many years in retreat in Taglung Tangpa’s cave, Seligod 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. In this capacity, she became known as “the Drikung Khandro.” Here, she taught the Yang Zab, a Dzogchen terma discovered by Drikung Rinchen Phuntsok, as well as the lineage of the Kun-t’hug, Mahamudra and Six Yogas of Naropa. In addition, she was the retreat master for the Taglung Kagyu lineage, in Seligod tsang. His Holiness Matrul Dragpa Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche and the other throne holders for the Taglung Kagyu sent their most promising young students there to do retreat under her supervision.
She led the famous annual Drib-Lung Tse Chu (gathering of practitioners) in the area of Drib-Lung Sup-na in Northern Tibet. Thousands of practitioners and high Lamas gathered in the canyons and nearby caves to perform the annual ceremonies. Jangchub Palmo remembers going there with her mother when she was a girl. “I was so surprised because I always thought that Lamas meant men, but here, leading this huge gathering was a woman, dressed in a simple chuba.” Practitioners gathered from all the surrounding states of Amdo, Nam-tso to this area in which Guru Rinpoche, Gampopa, and Taklung Tangpa subdued the great Mamos, and left handprints on the walls of the caves.
She was a lineage holder for both the Drikung Kagyu and Taglung Kagyu lineages and she bestowed many of the sacred teachings and empowerments of the Six Yogas of Naropa as well as Mahamudra Chod. 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 Taglung 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, the late Rigdzin Kathag Dorje Rinpoche used to tell about Chodrung Rinpoche. Kathok Dorje Rinpoche was a great yogi of the Taglung Kagyu, who also received teachings from Chodrung Rinpoche. “Her place (in Seligod Tsang) 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!”
Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche also remembers some small clay statues of deities and animals that his father owned, which were made by Chodrung Rinpoche. His father used to demonstrate how she could take a piece of clay, and in a matter of seconds, form it into a perfect, detailed image. She also worked with the great Taklung Yogi and metalsmith, Gongshar Pawo Wangdu in creating beautiful metal sculptures, gaus and silver pieces. Her works are part of the treasury in the sacred collection of the main Taglung Monastery in Northern Tibet.
At the time of her death in 1958, 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 Taglung 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 views 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 (see the following biography). At the retreat area of Seligod Tsang, her attendant and Kyor-pon (retreat assistant) Lodro Senge, who had served her and studied with her for 39 years, became her successor 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 Taglung 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 Taglung Tangpa’s cave, Seligod Tsang.
Brief Biography of the Drikung Khandro Sherab Thubten Rinpoche
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 Jatral (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.
In 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. Khenchen 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.
The following people provided much of this information:
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 and her attendant, Lodro Senge, at Seligod Tsang, Tibet in the 1950’s. He presently lives in retreat in Pharping, Nepal.
Dawa Chhodak Rinpoche, who recollected stories of his father, Rigdzin Kathag Dorje Rinpoche, who was one of Chodrung Rinpoche’ 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 see the Drikung Monastery in Tso Pema, Riwalsar, India.
Jangchub Palmo, resident Lama at Nyen-Gyud Samten Choeling Dharma center in Eugene, OR. Jangchub Palomo’s mother was a close diciple of Chodrung Rinpoche. When Jangchub Palmo was born, her mother took her to Chodrung Rinpoche, who named her. As a young girl, she went with her mother many times to attend teachings.
These biographies and interviews have been compiled and edited by Kunzang Dechen Chodron, from 1999 – 2001.