Biography of Serta Rinpoche

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Pema Rigtsal Rinpoche

Golok Serta Rinpoche

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Brief Biography of Serta Rinpoche

by Tulku Pema Rigtsal Rinpoche

The mahāsiddha Pema Lungtok Gyatso, also known as Venerable Serta Rinpoche, was born on the 8th day of the second month in the Iron Rabbit year of the 15th 60-year cycle (1891). He passed into parinirvāṇa on the 21st day of the 10th month in the Wood Dragon year of the 16th 60-year cycle (1964).

He was born in the east of the Snowy Land of Tibet, in the Domé region in a place called Choktsang in Golok Sertang, also known as Serta, the very heart of the land. His father’s name was Sönam Dorjé and his mother was called Tongza Drölma Kyi. His birth was accompanied by amazing auspicious signs. They named him Töpa Ga. He joined the Dharma encampment at Zhichen Monastery, a branch of Katok Monastery, and was ordained there by Zhichen Wönpo Rinpoche. He lived by the monastery’s regime and code of conduct, and he learnt their rituals and liturgies. From Zhichen Wönpo Rinpoche he received in full the empowerments and transmissions for the teaching cycles of Longsal, Düdül, Zhitro (Peaceful and Wrathful Deities), Namchö (Sky Teaching) and many others.

From Dudjom Lingpa himself and his direct disciple Goser Wönpo Khyenrab Gyatso, he received in full the empowerments and transmissions for the Tröma teachings. From Lama Orgyen Jikmé Chöseng Rinpoche, he received in full the empowerments and transmissions for the Heart-Essence (Nyingtik) teachings.

At one point, Serta Lama received a prophecy from Wönpo Rinpoche. “Well, Töpaga,” he told him, “you may be hoping to bring benefit to this monastery, but last night in my dream I saw you on the peak of a snow mountain, and around you were many deer and other animals, all grazing at ease. It seems that there are other beings to whom you can be of some benefit. You are the reincarnation of Yudra Nyingpo. Occasionally you’ll have vague recollections of this. What’s certain is that you will meet with a divine guru with whom you are connected from past lives. Now, in order that you encounter no obstacles on your journey, I have entrusted you to my protector, Zhingkyong.”

Then, following his guru’s command, Serta Lama set out. He travelled to Shukgang mountain retreat, and from there to Tsering Jong, and on to Lhodrak Kharchu and other sacred practice places in Central Tibet. At each of these places, he practiced intensely.

Jikmé Chöseng Rinpoche was extremely fond of Serta Lama, and would say of him, “This is the kind of young monk we need as a Dharma practitioner!”

At Lhasa, in front of the door to the Jokhang Temple, he completed one hundred thousand full prostrations to the Wish-fulfilling Jewel, the Jowo Buddha. In between bouts of prostrations, he would bow low before the Jowo, touch his forehead to the statue, and make aspirations. On one occasion, while he was doing this, a sound emitted from the Jowo, and when he touched his forehead to the statue, the jewel of jewels, his forehead felt utterly and instantly cool and both his body and mind were permeated with bliss.

He received a prophetic guide for opening the sacred site of Khenpa Jong (Land of Mugwort) in Nepal. When he was staying on retreat in the practice house at Kiri Yangdzong, a multitude of ḍākinīs appeared in his practice room and gave him all manner of predictions. In particular, they told him, “If you make use of the path of skillful means, your wisdom channels will open and this will bring benefit to many beings.” With that, they gave him a very clear prophecy that he should take a consort. Nevertheless, for a while, Serta Lama let it rest and didn’t act upon it.

In short, he spent more than ten years practicing one-pointedly at Samyé and other such sacred sites in Central Tibet. He then went north and made a circumambulation of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. While doing so, he met another practitioner who said, “At a place called Namkha Khyungdzong there’s a lama from Golok called Degyal Rinpoche who’s unmatched throughout the three planes of existence, and he’s giving a lot of teachings.” As soon as Serta Lama heard Degyal Rinpoche’s name, he was filled with such faith that his hair stood on end and he knew it was imperative that he meet this guru. And so, together with a few other pilgrims, he travelled to Namkha Khyungdzong.

They arrived on the tenth day, Guru Rinpoche day, while pūja was underway. Serta Lama received exceptional blessings from the pūja and was filled with immeasurable joy. In the evening, when the pūja was finished, he was granted an audience with Degyal Rinpoche, who expressed delight at meeting him, and they talked at length.

Finally, Degyal Rinpoche inquired, “So, where are you going after this?” Serta Lama replied, “I’m thinking to go to the Tso Pema (Lotus Lake) area in India this year. Today’s Guru Rinpoche pūja was amazingly precious and full of blessings. Tomorrow I’ll take my leave and move on.”

“In that case, come to see me briefly tomorrow morning. We can talk about our homeland for a bit,” Degyal Rinpoche said. Then he gave Serta Lama a load of tea leaves, butter, and other provisions. Serta Lama accepted these and excused himself for the night.

The next day, he went to see Degyal Rinpoche early in the morning. They talked at great length about their common birthplace, until eventually one of Rinpoche’s students, the ceremonial incense bearer, arrived to invite him to the teaching hall for the daily teaching.

“Okay, well, you can leave now if you like. I have to go and give some teachings,” said Degyal Rinpoche.

Then Serta Lama asked him, “Rinpoche la, what are you teaching today?” “Today I’m giving the Nangjang instructions,” he said.

“In that case, may I attend today’s session to make a Dharma connection with you?” Serta Lama asked.

“If you’ve completed the five-times-one-hundred-thousand preliminaries, then you can attend. Otherwise, it’s not allowed,” Rinpoche replied.

“I’ve completed the five-times-one-hundred-thousand preliminaries for both Tröma and Nyingtik about five times, so does that mean I can attend?”

“Ah, no, that won’t do,” came Rinpoche’s reply. “It must be the specific preliminaries, the ones that I teach.”

“Oh, okay Rinpoche. In that case, since I’m going on pilgrimage and don’t have time right now to do those preliminaries, I’ll just take my leave and go.”

He requested Degyal Rinpoche’s blessing, and then went off to circumambulate the retreat building. He hadn’t gone far when he heard Rinpoche calling out to him. Turning around, he saw that Rinpoche was waving his hand, and so he walked back over to him. “Actually,” said Rinpoche, “today I’m only teaching the title, so you may as well sit in, if you like.” And so it was that Serta Lama joined the teaching.

The teaching had such an impact on Serta Lama that he became confident that Degyal Rinpoche truly was Vajradhara in person and his speech none other than the sixty-toned wisdom speech of the buddhas. He was moved to tears for the entire day and he made a personal pledge: “From now until I die and my head falls to the ground, I will never leave this guru’s side!”

When the Dharma teaching was finished, he went to see Rinpoche again and requested, “Precious guru of unrepayable kindness, from tomorrow onwards may I continue to receive your sublime teachings?”

“You said you were too busy to stay and receive the teachings,” Degyal Rinpoche replied. “If that’s not the case anymore then sure, you can come to all my teachings, whatever I teach; there’s nothing you are barred from receiving from me.”

“Thank you, Rinpoche. If I can receive teachings as sublime as this, I will never again be too busy, from now until the day that I die. Rinpoche, I offer you my body, speech, and mind. Please take me in, please accept me!” and with that Serta Lama made many prostrations.

“Very good!” Degyal Rinpoche replied. “The auspicious circumstances have aligned.”

From then on, following the instructions of his guru Degyal Rinpoche, Serta Lama spent the winters practicing in Guge and Humla, and other such places, always with just enough food to sustain himself and enough clothing to protect himself from the elements, constantly enduring great austerities. In the summers, he would return to the monastery where every year they would perform eight sets of White Nyungné, after which, beginning on the 23rd day of the 4th month, Degyal Rinpoche would give teachings to his students, an assembly of more than a thousand lamas, tulkus, monks, nuns, and male and female tantrikas.

To begin with, he would instruct students in the Sater Ngöndro. Then he would give the empowerments and transmissions for Tröma, followed by detailed and step-by-step guidance in The Severance Instructions, the transference of consciousness, the pointing-out, Nangjang, and Tögal.

Finally, on the 25th day of the 7th month, when he was about to begin retreat, Degyal Rinpoche said, “Serta Lama, this year you should go to Humla. It would be good if you could do a three-year retreat there.” Having asked Rinpoche what practices he should do during the retreat, and so on, he took his leave and set off for Humla.

He collected alms in a few places on the way and managed to gather a few supplies. When he got to Muchu, he asked a man called Gönpo Tashi if there was a cave in the local area that would be suitable for retreat.

“Yes,” he replied, “there’s a cave called Oyak.”

“Oh, how auspicious!” said Serta Lama, and he went directly to the cave.[1]

When he said he wanted to stay there on retreat for a few months, his consort Sherab voiced her concern. “But we have no provisions for retreat! How on earth are you going to stay here, with nothing to eat?!”

Serta Lama replied, “I’ll be just fine. We have a little bit of rice, so the two of us can eat that today, and then you can go back out to gather alms.”

“But my goodness!” she said, “we only have a single portion of rice, not a scrap more. Once that’s finished, you’ll still be hungry, so how on earth are you going to manage?”

Serta Lama said, “Look, it’ll be fine. Just cook the rice that we have, or not—it doesn’t make any difference,” and then he filled an offering goblet with boiled water, sounded his skull ḍamaru, and began his session. He stayed there on retreat for six months.

After that he moved a little higher to Yukyem Drubkhang (Turquoise Goblet Practice Place), where he pledged to stay on retreat for three years. Provisions were so scarce up there that sometimes he had to nourish himself solely through essence-extracting.[2] He endured great physical hardship during these years. When he completed his three years of practice, he had a direct vision of his yidam deity—a sign of accomplishment.

In Humla, Karmarong, and other such places, due to the influence of Hinduism, some people were following the heinous custom of making blood sacrifices to local deities and other mundane gods. Serta Lama made some of the mediums through whom these sacrifices were made vow never to accept such offerings again. Some he tamed through wrathful activities, subjugating fire pūjas, and so on. By these means, he subdued them, put an end to this noxious custom, and established them all in the Dharma.

For students of future generations, he composed many texts: The Testament Instructions, spiritual songs on the view, Calling the Gurus from Afar and other supplications, a petition-offering for the Goddess, and many others. In total, his compositions fill more than two volumes.

When his three-year retreat was complete, he returned to see his precious guru of unrepayable kindness and told him of the practice he had done.

Later, when Degyal Rinpoche, the Lord of Refuge, the Wish-fulfilling Jewel, dissolved his wisdom heart back into dharmadhātu and passed into parinirvāṇa, Serta Lama assisted with the funeral preparations. Lamas had advised that Degyal Rinpoche’s holy body be embalmed by his students and enshrined in a stūpa, as his body would hold great blessings and continue to act as a condition for the liberation of the many beings who would come to see it or hear of it. Therefore, they needed to quickly construct a funeral stūpa with a structure made, ideally, of white and red sandalwood.

Serta Lama himself took on the responsibility of providing the white and red sandalwood. He procured four full loads from Kathmandu, and porters to bring them up via Lowo. In addition, he procured many planks of agar-wood in Mugum. The wood was welcomed and received by his Dharma siblings, who between them carried it all to the main seat at Namkha Khyungdzong. In addition to the white and red sandalwood and the agar-wood planks, Serta Lama offered three thousand coins of Nepalese silver, and many pieces of turquoise, coral, and other precious jewels for the stūpa, all to the great delight of his Dharma siblings who lauded his contributions far and wide.

The funeral stūpa’s outer layer was made of silver, and beautifully inlaid with turquoise, corals, and dzi. The Guru’s holy body was then enshrined inside it. The funeral stūpa now resides in Orissa, India, at the Tibetan settlement there. It is a source of glorious wonder.

Gyaltsab Ajam Rinpoche, Serta Lama, and Lama Lobzang Nyima, together with the other senior students, constructed a new temple at Namkha Khyungdzong, both the external structure and its inner shrine supports. Serta Lama also constructed a new temple at Tsegya Monastery, his own seat, both the external structure and its inner shrine supports.

In short, his astounding awakened deeds encompassed all three wheels—the wheel of study and reflection, the wheel of meditation, and the wheel of altruistic activity—and by this means he performed great service to both the teachings and sentient beings.

He was a great adept of the two stages of generation and completion. On one occasion he was on the long and treacherous Maryam mountain pass, when a snowstorm descended. The snow piled up waist-high and he was stranded there, the entire day and night.

He meditated on tummo (fierce heat) and, testament to his mastery of the blissful warmth of tummo, the entire wall of snow melted for more than a meter all around him, revealing the gleaming black earth beneath. When a search party arrived later on, they found Serta Lama unperturbed and unharmed by the snow. They were all utterly amazed.

Another time, he was traveling from Lemi Wadzé to Til. When he reached the foot of the valley where the path began to climb, the river suddenly swelled and burst its banks, and his party were left with no escape route. Then, just as suddenly, a huge tree trunk appeared, lying across the flooding river like a bridge. Serta Lama and his retinue quickly crossed the river on this fallen tree trunk, and as soon as they’d made it across, the trunk was swept away and simply disappeared. This flash flood damaged most of the fields and dwellings in Til. Nevertheless, Serta Lama was later heard to say, “The first patron to greet me here was the river. How auspicious is that!”

In Yukyem, he divined and opened up at least three freshwater springs. Similarly, at Dekyi Potrang, which was Lama Jampal Rabgyé’s residence at Lo Chumik Gyatsa and where previously there had been no natural water source, he divined and opened up a gushing, bountiful spring. These are just a few instances of the inconceivable signs of spiritual mastery he displayed.

He was Kyabgön Degyal Rinpoche’s most eminent student. He travelled widely, through Ngari, Humla, Karmarong, Mugum, Dölpo, Lho Chumik Gyatsa, Lowo Mentang, Khunu, Garsha, and other places. In all of these places, he gave teachings to those with the karmic connection and fortune to receive them, both thoroughly and gradually.

To begin with, he would guide students in the Sater Ngöndro. He would then bestow the empowerments and transmissions for Tröma, and give teachings, step by step, on the The Sharp Vajra of Awareness Tantra (Sherik Dorjé Nönpo) and its commentary, the Distinguishing of Saṃsāra from Nirvāṇa (Khordé Rushen), The Self-Arising Natural State (Neluk Rangjung), Buddhahood Without Meditation (Nangjang), Tögal, and so on, following the unmistaken practice tradition of Traktung Dudjom Lingpa according to the oral tradition of Pema Dewé Gyalpo.

Thus, he turned the Wheel of vast and profound Dharma, and so covered entire mountainsides with practitioners of the definitive meaning.

His heart disciples and two main lineage-holders were Kyabjé Degyal Rinpoche II (Pema Jikmé Chöying Rangdröl) and Tsokhang Rinpoche Tsewang Dorje. These two were the main holders of both his family and Dharma lineages. Moreover, he had many disciples who dedicated their entire lives to practice, such as the Venerable Rikzang Rinpoche, Tsültrim Gyatso, Pema Kündröl, Lama Sangyé, Lama Kadak, Karbasti Lachung, and many other truly astounding students.

His main practice places were Tsegya Monastery, Nawaltang, Yangsi Monastery, and Gang Drowo Lung, among others.

In 1959, when conflict erupted in Tibet, Serta Lama was forced to flee to India, where he made his way to the Tibetan settlement in Sendeu. Upon arrival, he was given an elaborate and joyous welcome by many thousands of Tibetans, including Choktrül Rinpoche of Namkha Khyungdzong and a community of the Namkha Khyungdzong monks.

He spent more than two years making pilgrimage to the sacred sites of India. He granted empowerments, transmissions, and instructions to students, and gave both worldly and spiritual guidance to many people.

Finally, at the age of seventy-two he displayed some minor illness, but he soon recovered, saying to his students, “Ever since my gracious guru of unrepayable kindness passed into parinirvāṇa, I’ve tried, even though I lack the ability, to act as a kind of pillar of Dharma, and now my life has reached its end. Choktrül Rinpoche is still young, and he is able to grant the empowerments, transmissions, and instructions, so I, this old man, feel relaxed and at ease. In the future, if you can, you should go in person to receive empowerments, transmissions, and instructions from our Lord of Refuge, Dudjom Rinpoche. If you’re not able to, you should request them from Choktrül Rinpoche. By doing so, you’ll be able to cut through your doubts, which is the most vital point.

“In the Blissful pureland, self-appearance purified,
resides the buddha of basic self-awareness, Boundless Light,
with his self-display, the illusory net of his retinue.
As soon as my self-appearances dissolve, may this pureland dawn before me,
and thus may I become a glorious guide for all countless beings!
May all those connected to me, whether in a positive or negative way—
may their ignorance and confusion be cleansed within basic space
and may they take their seat in the fortress of the dharmakāya of self-awareness!”

“This is old Serta Lama’s final aspiration, spoken at the moment of his death!”

Having recited these lines, on the 21st day of the 10th month of the Wood Dragon year, 1964, his wisdom heart dissolved back into dharmadhātu. For two days he remained in unwavering tukdam in the sevenfold posture of Vairochana.[3]

Once his tukdam had dissolved, his holy body was washed with sacred substances and embalmed. It was then welcomed by an elaborate procession formed of the leaders of the Tibetan settlement and many monastics and lay people, including the entire Namkha Khyungdzong community and several hundred monastics from five other monasteries.

Together, they performed an extensive gathering-offering and fire puja, and, in the middle of the cremation, while these rituals were being performed, his skull flew up into the air and then came back down to land, with a discernible sound, face up on the palm of his hand, which was in the mudrā of equipoise. Everyone present saw this with their own eyes. Throughout the cremation, the sky was clear, and as the white smoke wove its way through the sky it transformed into clouds of rainbow light, filling the entire mountain valley with rainbow light. These and many other amazing auspicious signs occurred.

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: 1.0-20240228

  1. In Tibetan, o’yak is an expression meaning, “yes, okay!” Hence, Serta Lama regarded the cave’s name as an auspicious coincidence.  ↩

  2. Tib. Chülen (bcud len). Skt. Rasāyana. In this context, it means to extract nourishment from surrounding plants and elements through the strength of one’s meditation.  ↩

  3. Tib. thugs dam. Tukdam, in this context, refers to the period following the death of an accomplished practitioner, during which time they are absorbed in luminosity. They may remain in this state for a number of days. Their body will remain soft and warm, and the usual signs of rigor mortis and so on will not occur, until the tukdam ends.  ↩

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