Pema Dechen Gyalpo Biography

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Pema Rigtsal Rinpoche

Pema Dechen Gyalpo

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Brief Biography of Pema Dechen Gyalpo

by Pema Rigtsal Rinpoche

Lord of Refuge, Pema Dewé Gyalpo, or Pema Dechen Gyalpo, was born in the female Water Bird year (1873) and passed into parinirvāṇa on the 7th day of the 4th month in the Water Bird year (1933).

Pema Dechen Gyalpo was one of the thirteen direct disciples of Dudjom Lingpa who attained the rainbow body. He was born in Bachen Dora of Chung valley in Serta, Golok. His father’s name was Dampa Khedar Gön and his mother’s name was Yoza Dzumri. His birth was accompanied by many amazing auspicious signs. From his early years, he had a sharp mind and was peaceable and gentle in his behavior. He was naturally loving and naturally compassionate. He learnt how to read and write without difficulty. He then entered Horshül Monastery where he mastered the ritual arts of dance, maṇḍala, and melodies, the wind instruments, percussion, and torma making. He also studied and reflected upon the scriptures to some extent.

From a young age, Pema Dechen Gyalpo stayed at Riprup mountain retreat where he performed the Nyungné fasting practice of Avalokiteśvara for nine years. Whatever small alms of food he received from his family and the local people, he always gave away to the wild animals. Thus he immersed himself in the practice of Avalokiteśvara, The Great Compassionate One. He said that at one point his body grew so emaciated that the glow of the sun would shine straight through the palms of his hands. For the entire nine years, he sustained himself on boiled inner tree bark and nothing else. He had extraordinary meditative experiences, direct visions of many wisdom deities, and countless other visions and spiritual experiences.

When his maternal uncle’s wife died, his uncle decided to go to see Dudjom Lingpa to make an offering and request prayers on her behalf. The moment Pema Dechen Gyalpo heard of his uncle’s plans and heard the treasure-revealer’s name, his hair stood up on end, tears filled his eyes, and indescribable experience and realization blazed forth within him. Thus, he was compelled to join his uncle and accompany him to the encampment of the great treasure-revealer, Dudjom Lingpa.

When they arrived at the Dharma encampment, Dudjom Lingpa had just begun a fifteen-day retreat and was immersed in meditation. Pema Dechen Gyalpo was devastated. “What terrible negative karma I have!” he thought to himself. “In spite of all the practice I’ve done in the past, in spite of all the austerities I’ve undertaken, on the day that I arrive to meet the Guru, the Guru enters retreat!” Consumed with intense, scourging remorse, he spent the following days making prostrations and circumambulations. This resembles the deeds of Bodhisattva Ever-Weeping when he had to wait seven years before meeting his guru, Bodhisattva Noble Dharma.

On the morning of the fifteenth and last day of his retreat, when Dudjom Lingpa finally rose from meditation and his consort came in to serve him tea, he asked her, “Has a young monk from Chung valley arrived at the encampment?” “Yes, he arrived several days ago,” she replied. “In that case,” he said, “bring him to me straight away.”

Pema Dechen Gyalpo went to the Guru the moment he was called, taking with him the offerings he had brought. At the moment he came before the treasure-revealer, the morning sunlight shone into the room and an attendant began pouring tea. “Ah,” said Dudjom Lingpa, “the auspicious circumstances have aligned!” Then, as the steam from the tea rose up through the streaming sunlight, it turned into a mass of rainbow light wherein the five classes of Tröma appeared to them, vivid and radiant.

Pema Dechen Gyalpo had planned to ask Dudjom Lingpa about each of his past experiences and visions in order to resolve any lingering doubts and uncertainties he had about them, but at this moment, just like a snake shedding its old skin, all questions completely vanished from his mind, and for a short while all concepts of present appearances completely ceased and he remained nakedly present.

The great treasure-revealer, Dudjom Lingpa then said, “Well, noble young monk, you may have practiced intently and austerely for nine long years, but only now have you met the dharmakaya Samantabhadra, huh?!” “Indeed, that’s so,” Pema Dechen Gyalpo replied. And with that, his realization instantly blossomed into liberation, and his wisdom- realization merged inseparably with that of his guru, Dudjom Lingpa.

For the next thirteen years, Pema Dechen Gyalpo stayed at the Dharma encampment. There he received all the empowerments, transmissions, and profound instructions for the earlier and later Heart-Essence (Nyingtik) traditions. He also received the empowerments, transmissions, and profound instructions for all four cycles of Dudjom Lingpa’s profound new treasure teachings, together with the entire ritual tradition, all of which he mastered to perfection. In particular, he received and internalized the pith instructions of the Great Perfection and the profound instructions on Tögal perfectly and completely, to final resolution. In this way, living by the guru’s side for many years, Pema Dechen Gyalpo received a vast wealth of empowerments, transmissions, and pith instructions, like a vase filled to the very brim. At the time, even though still young, he was unstained by pride and always maintained a humble position. Indeed, for most of his time there, he acted as the shrine master. One day some of Dudjom Lingpa’s students asked him, “Rinpoche, who is your best student?” Dudjom Lingpa replied, “It’s that noble young monk sitting over there at the back. In the future, he’ll be sitting up here at the head, presiding over us all—I swear on the twelve volumes of Prajñāpāramitā!” This story is recorded in his biography, as written by Tsewang Rinpoche.

One night Pema Dechen Gyalpo dreamed of an immaculate crystal stūpa. Inside was a statue of Buddha Śākyamuni surrounded by many wild animals—birds large and small, and deer and other animals, their fur and feathers in all the colors of a rainbow. The ground was covered with all sorts of flowers, with expanses of grass, open plains, and weaving rivers, the sound of their flowing waters bubbling away.

He wondered what the dream might mean and so asked his precious guru. Dudjom Lingpa replied, “The meaning of your dream is thus: The crystal stūpa is actually Mount Kailash. The Buddha inside it is you. The small and large birds, the deer and other animals, are a sign that you will gather many students. The grass valleys filled with flowers are your patrons and your realm of spiritual influence. Now you must go to Mount Kailash, for the benefit of beings!”

Despite this command from the Guru, however, Pema Dechen Gyalpo’s mother refused to let him go, and so for a time he was in a difficult situation. His mother told him, “Until I die, you cannot leave; I need you by my side! After that, for the Dharma, you may go wherever you like.”

Then one day he approached her and said, “Mother, I am going to give you two choices. The first is to think only about this present lifetime. If we do that, then yes, I will willingly stay by your side and serve you for the rest of your days and ensure that you have food, clothing, and all that you need. The second choice is to think of our future lifetimes and regard them as more important than this present one. In that case, you wouldn’t prevent me from following the Guru’s command, and I would dedicate myself from the core of my heart to practicing the Dharma purely, and then I would definitely be able to bring real benefit to you and all other sentient beings.”

When he put it like this, his mother rejoiced. “When you put it like that,” she said, “yes, our future lifetimes are indeed more important than this present lifetime, so go then, go, as your guru has told you. But on one condition! When I, your old mother, die, you must promise to come to me. Promise me that!” He promised to return when she died, and then, at long last, he set off for Mount Kailash.

He encountered many hardships on the journey. When he reached Langchen Cave (Elephant Cave) by the side of Mount Kailash, he stayed there for three years. Afterwards he slowly made his way to the site where the main seat of our tradition, Pal Drakmar Namkha Khyungdzong (Sky Garuḍa Fortress of the Glorious Red Rock) Monastery would later stand. From then on, for around seventeen years altogether, he stayed at Khandro Sangwé Shelpuk (Secret Crystal Cave of Ḍākinīs) at Namkha Khyungdzong. Each year for the three winter months and the three spring months, a total of six months every year, he stayed in strict solitary retreat without seeing people or traveling anywhere. He had many direct visions of the deities and gurus. Most especially, he had visions of the Omniscient Longchen Rabjam and of Dudjom Lingpa, whereby his wisdom-realization burst forth from within, causing mind treasures, such as the Tantra of the Self-Liberation of Dualistic Delusion, to arise within him.

He became renowned and revered far and wide, as far as the reach of the wind, and as a result there gathered around him more than a thousand students from all the surrounding regions: the three provinces of Ngari, the regions of Ladakh, Khunu, Spiti, Humla, Mugum, Karmarong, and Lomöntang, and also from Kham, Amdo, and the four ranges of Central Tibet, and from other regions as well.

To all of his disciples, Pema Dechen Gyalpo first of all taught the Sater Ngöndro (Khandro Nyingtik Preliminary Practices). Then, year by year, he went on to bestow The Words of My Perfect Teacher, the ripening root empowerment for Tröma, and The Severance Instructions including phowa (the transference of consciousness) and the meditation on the syllable ah. Then he bestowed the main part of practice, the Great Perfection pointing-out. He also guided students in the nine-day practice in volatile places. After that, to those who had completed the preliminary practices and those who had pledged to undertake a three-year retreat, he would teach The Sharp Vajra of Awareness (Sherik Dorjé Nönpo), Buddhahood Without Meditation: A Visionary Account Known as Refining One’s Perception (Nang Jang), the One-Hundred-Day Practice of Tögal, the Six-Month Practice of Tögal, and so on, step by step. He also taught The Self-Arising Natural State (Neluk Rangjung), The Instructions on Awakened Heart (Jangchup Semtri), and other such texts. In short, he turned the Wheel of profound Dharma without cease.

Whatever material offerings he received, he would donate them to the gathering-feasts performed by the saṅgha, or as funds for the fasting practice. He lived so simply, so spartanly, that he did not even keep a needle and thread in his private possession. He was a true yogi of simplicity.

Because he was so strict in his guidance of students and because the teachings he gave were themselves so potent, countless of his Tröma students attained accomplishment. From the Lung jang, a collection of prophecies:

At the Dharma camp of practitioners in the highlands, so as to spread the tantric teachings of the Vajra Vehicle, ten thousand amendment offerings will be performed every year and the daily practice of Glorious Vajrakumāra established. When there come to be one hundred Tröma practitioners there, the place will be known as Chökhor Ling, the Land of the Dharma Wheel. O glorious Vajrapāṇi, what wonder you will bring!

This quotation, as we can see, is a direct confirmation that Pema Dechen Gyalpo was an emanation of Glorious Vajrapāṇi.

In his own pure visions, Pema Dechen Gyalpo saw his succession of past incarnations, how he was the attendant Ānanda during Buddha Śakyamuni’s time, how he was Vairotsana during Guru Rinpoche’s time, and so on, and he accepted these visions and recognized them as valid. Moreover, as stated in one of Dudjom Lingpa’s root treasure texts:

Your thirteen supreme disciples
will perfect the two stages,[1] and in their lifetimes
they will attain the state of Vajradhara.

Thus, the treasure text foretold that Dudjom Lingpa would have thirteen heart-students who would become his Dharma heirs, and who, in those very bodies, would display the rainbow body of light. The same text goes on to mention “the one named Pema,” a direct reference and foretelling of Pema Dechen Gyalpo.

Pema Dechen Gyalpo had countless students. Among the main ones were Ajam Rinpoche, also known as Gyaltsab Rinpoche, Serta Lama (Pema Lungtok Gyatso), Chimé Tsewang Rinpoche, Venerable Jampa, Seralung Tulku, Langpo Nai Tulku, Dünchu Tulku, Ladakh Chöjé Rinpoche, Spiti Tulku, Ladakh Pendé Rinpoche, Gen Rikzang, Lama Sangyé, Sherap Patsa, Jampa Rapgyé, and Gen Sampa Dorje.

Some of his main nun-disciples were Ani Tsöndrü, Ani Tsezang, Ani Lhamo, Ani Paktsok, Ani Chödrön, Ani Jangchup Chödrön, Ani Pema Kadak, Ani Pema Chötso, Ani Pema Chödzom, Ani Gezang, Ani Kadak, and Ani Yudrön. There was also Ani Kadak Zangmo, Ani Ngangmo, Ani Sherap Drölkar, Ani Tradak and many others, all of whom reached high levels of accomplishment through their practice.

By bestowing the ripening empowerments and liberating instructions of Dudjom Lingpa’s Tröma teachings, Pema Dechen Gyalpo ensured that entire valleys were covered with practitioners.

Extracted from A Garland of White Lotuses: An Account of the Teaching and Teaching Holders of the Pal Drakmar Namkha Khyungdzong Tradition.

| Translated by Laura Swan, edited by Libby Hogg, 2021. First published on Lotsawa House, 2024.

Version: 1.0-20240226

  1. The two stages of generation and completion practice.  ↩

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