A Short Biography of Kathog Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, also known as Khenpo Ngaga and Khenpo Ngakchung (1879–1941)
Excerpted from The Guide to the Words of My Perfect Teacher
Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang, also known as Osel Rinchen Nyingpo Pema Lendrel Tsel and popularly called Khenpo Ngakchung or Ngaga, is a remarkable example of a particular kind of lineage holder among the broad variety of personalities of those who held and transmitted the different traditions of Buddhism in Tibet, for if they were all similar in their wisdom and compassion, they differed widely in the particular guises each took in order to pass the teachings on to others most effectively. Some lamas were recognized tulkus, enthroned as the heads of great monasteries, with considerable spiritual in.uence over the large communities of monks under their care and over the local lay populations. Others, like Patrul Rinpoche and Milarepa, were respected on account of their total disregard for wealth, fame, and position, inspiring and teaching through the example of their humility and simple lifestyle. Yet others chose to undertake many years of intensive academic training, mastering the texts of sutra and tantra and their commentaries in order to qualify as khenpos. The khenpos were learned professors responsible for the education of the tulkus and monks in the monasteries and at the same time faultless upholders of the Vinaya who continued its transmission in ordaining thousands of monks and supervising their training. It should not be imagined, however, that they con.ned themselves to their duties in the monasteries, for many of them also spent years meditating in retreat and transforming the texts they taught into inner spiritual realization. And if they did not occupy the thrones of recognized incarnations, this did not necessarily mean that they had not been “someone” in their previous births.
In Khenpo Ngakchung’s case that "someone" was a whole series of accomplished beings in India and Tibet—scholars, yogis, translators, Dharma kings, treasure discoverers—summarized in one biography as twenty-five great incarnations. Foremost among these was Vimalamitra, the great Indian master who was responsible, with Guru Padmasambhava, for introducing the Nyingtik teachings to Tibet and who promised on his departure from Tibet to send an emanation every hundred years. Khenpo Ngakchung had also been, in a previous life, the Indian master Sthiramati, Vasubandhu’s foremost Abhidharma student, and this was to hold him in good stead when he came to study this difficult subject.
His teacher Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpai Nyima (1829–1901/2*), himself an incarnation of the great abbot Shantarakshita, spent twenty-eight years constantly in the company of Patrul Rinpoche, receiving from him all the Nyingtik teachings, practicing them under his guidance, and attaining full realization of the Great Perfection. When at the end of this time Patrul Rinpoche told him to return home, he could not bear to leave, but Patrul Rinpoche comforted him by telling him that in due course he would meet Kunkhyen Longchenpa. The truth of this prediction duly became clear when, following a series of signi.cative dreams, a small boy, the future Khenpo Ngakchung, was presented to him.
Khenpo Ngakchung was indeed a most unusual child. Even as a baby he displayed miraculous powers and had visions of deities. From his early teens he accompanied Lungtok Tenpai Nyima constantly, serving him, listening to his teachings, and, in his spare time, practicing. Even before completing the preliminary practice he had meditative experiences usually associated with the main practice of the Great Perfection. While doing the mandala practice he had a vision of Longchenpa, in which he was introduced to the nature of mind. Lungtok Tenpai Nyima downplayed these experiences, insisting that Ngawang Pelzang go through the whole path in the proper order so that he could achieve stable realization and truly benefit beings. In this way, he completed all the stages of the practice—the preliminaries, sadhana recitations, yogas, and the two aspects of the Great Perfection, trekchö and thögal—by the time he was twenty-one, when his teacher recognized him as his Dharma heir and sent him to Dzogchen Monastery to study under the learned khenpos at the monastery’s Shri Singha shedra (college). While there he met Mipham Rinpoche, who entrusted him with the Introduction to Scholarship (mkhas ’jug) which he had just finished writing. Two years later, after Lungtok Tenpai Nyima had passed away, he performed several retreats, all marked by extraordinary signs of accomplishment. He continued to study and practice, and to receive further teachings and empowerments from other great teachers, in particular the second Kathog Situ, Chokyi Gyatso (1880–1925). He also began giving teachings himself. His calling as a khenpo was no doubt encouraged by a vision he had of Patrul Rinpoche in which the latter stressed the importance of education and monastic observance. At the age of thirty he was appointed to teach at Kathog Monastery’s newly opened shedra, at first as assistant to Khenpo Kunpel (author of an important commentary that synthesizes Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings on the Bodhicharyavatara), and later as the shedra’s khenpo. He stayed there for the next thirteen years, teaching, giving empowerments, and ordaining thousands of monks, as well as receiving many important transmissions.
The “experiential” instructions (myong khrid) that Lungtok Tenpai Nyima had received from Patrul Rinpoche and passed on to Khenpo Ngakchung became the tradition of Nyingtik practice at Kathog Monastery, and it was Lungtok Tenpai Nyima’s Kathog followers who built the Nyoshul monastery in Derge, of which Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang became the first abbot. After his years at Kathog he traveled widely in east Tibet, establishing monasteries and shedras, giving teachings, practicing in retreat, and writing. The thirteen volumes of texts he composed include commentaries on Madhyamika treatises by Chandrakirti and Aryadeva, texts on sadhana practice, commentaries on Vajrayana, and works on the Great Perfection, many of which were teachings that he had received from Lungtok Tenpai Nyima. He was also responsible for propagating the teachings he received from Shenga Rinpoche on Nagarjuna’s fundamental texts of the Madhyamika.
The visions, meditative experiences, and miraculous events that occur throughout Khenpo Ngakchung’s life may seem to us almost the stuff of legend, yet some of them took place less than seventy years ago, and there are still one or two of his disciples living. The spiritual renaissance in eastern Tibet with which he was intimately connected is perhaps all the more remarkable for the fact that the region was not always an oasis of calm and often had its share of troubles and unrest. His activity in benefiting beings has extended to the West, where Buddhists practicing the Nyingtik teachings have been taught by masters who can trace their lineage back to him through his disciples, among them Nyoshul Shedrup Tenpai Nyima, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, and Chatral Rinpoche. This, and the fact that the Zintri is now accessible to the English-speaking world, was perhaps foreseen in a dream Khenpo Ngakchung recounted to his teacher. In it he saw an immense stupa being destroyed and washed away by a river flowing west into the ocean, and he heard a voice from the sky saying that millions of beings in that ocean would be benefited. Lungtok Tenpai Nyima later explained that this dream foretold the destruction of the doctrine in the East and its spread to the West.