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by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

BEFORE SETTING OUT ON THE PATH of liberation and enlightenment, we need to meet a true qualified master. To find such a person we must first understand the

characteristics that exemplify such an individual. When we go to school we need a good teacher. If your teacher is a complete moron without any skill, how can you learn anything from him? In the same way, the kind of spiritual teacher we are looking for is a person who can guide us all the way to liberation

and the omniscient state of enlightenment. Isn’t that true? “Liberation” means taking rebirth in a pure buddhafield after this life. The “omniscient state of enlightenment” is complete buddhahood endowed with all perfect qualities and totally free from any defects whatsoever. We should be seeking the kind of

teacher who can surely lead us to that state. The most qualified teacher is called a “vajra-holder possessing the three precepts.” He or she should possess the perfect qualities of being outwardly endowed with the vows of individual liberation, called pratimoksha, while inwardly possessing the trainings of a

bodhisattva. On the innermost level, the qualified master must be competent in the true state of samadhi. A person who possesses only the vows of individual liberation that correspond to Hinayana practice, is called a “virtuous guide.” If a person in addition possesses the bodhisattva trainings, he

or she is called a “spiritual teacher.” If a person is adept in the Vajrayana practices along with these vows and trainings, he or she is called a dorje lobpön, or “vajra master.” A true vajra master should have already liberated his own streamof-being through realization. This means actualizing the

authentic state of samadhi. Furthermore, he or she should be able to liberate others through compassion and loving kindness; that is a second essential quality. To illustrate some characteristics of a qualified vajra master I will

tell you about my teacher. My guru was my uncle, Samten Gyatso. Samten Gyatso was my father’s older brother and was the fourth incarnation of Ngawang Trinley. The first Ngawang Trinley was one of three brothers; the others were called Sönam Yeshe and Namgyal Tulku. These three became known as the “three

wishfulfilling sons.” In his succeeding lives, Ngawang Trinley’s incarnation was known under the same name, Ngaktrin, depending upon where he was born; thus, Argey Ngaktrin, Tersey Ngaktrin and then Tsangsar Ngaktrin. This fourth incarnation from the Tsangsar bloodline was my uncle. I feel a little shy

telling this story because there is no way I can avoid praising this person. I really don’t want it to sound as if I’m indirectly praising myself by lauding a family member. However, there is a crude example I can use to illustrate this. My guru was excellent, and I am related to him, in the same way

that excrement is akin to the very good food it initially was. Understand the analogy. I am just being honest. Even though I’m telling the truth, it’s embarrassing because I must praise someone of my own lineage. Samten Gyatso’s background, both in family line and Dharma lineage, was Barom Kagyü. This

lineage originated with a master named Barom Dharma Wangchuk, one of the chief disciples of Gampopa. Gampopa’s guru was Milarepa. Milarepa’s guru was Marpa, the Translator. Marpa’s guru was Naropa. Naropa’s guru was Tilopa. Tilopa’s guru was Vajradhara. That was tracing the lineage upwards. Now, tracing

the line back down, Barom Dharma Wangchuk had a disciple named Tishi Repa. Tishi Repa’s disciple was Sangwa Repa Karpo, whose disciple was, in turn, Tsangsar Lümey Dorje who was my family ancestor. His chief disciple was Tsangsar Jangchub Shönnu, who was his nephew. The Barom Kagyü lineage was passed on

from father to son through ten generations all the way down to Tsangsar Lhatsün who attained rainbow body. These men were the kings of the country of Nangchen. In addition, they held political and religious positions,

called Tishi, Pakshi or Gushi, assigned to them by the Chinese emperor. When the Nangchen kingdom was eventually divided into two, my family gave up their right to the throne and became ngakpas wearing white skirts and shawls. The bloodline continued, but the family members were no longer kings of the

country. During this time, what we now call Greater Tibet was divided into the several regions that include Central Tibet and the eastern kingdoms of Derge and Nangchen. After Tsangsar Lhatsün attained rainbow body, seven more generations followed until my father. I am not bringing this up as a way to brag

about having a special background, only to explain that the teaching and family lineage were one. As I mentioned before, my uncle, my root guru, was from the Tsangsar family line. Samten Gyatso’s mother, Könchok Paldrön, was the daughter of the tertön Chokgyur Lingpa. Samten Gyatso held as well that lineage

known as Chokling Tersar, the New Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa. Within the Barom Kagyü lineage, Samten Gyatso was regarded as an emanation of four-armed Mahakala. The second incarnation of Chokgyur Lingpa once had a pure vision of Samten Gyatso in which he saw him as an emanation of Vimalamitra. Externally,

Samten Gyatso kept the Vinaya very purely and strictly. In his entire life, he never tasted alcohol nor ate any meat. Inwardly, in tune with the bodhisattva trainings, he always kept a low profile. He never dressed up; instead he wore the robes of an ordinary monk. He was never adorned with anything

special, such as brocade. People said he had a very high view or realization, but he did not talk about it. Once though, he told me, “At a young age I was introduced to mind essence. Since then until now, I have not had any great problems at all in sustaining the view; as a matter of fact, there does not seem

to be any difference between day and night.” To repeat, a “vajra-holder possessing the three levels of precepts” holds the external precepts, that are the moral disciplines of individual liberation. He also holds the internal precepts, that are the bodhisattva trainings, and the innermost Vajrayana precepts

called samaya. Samten Gyatso had perfected all three. His gurus were Karma Khenpo, Rinchen Dargye, Chokgyur Lingpa’s son, Tsewang Norbu, and the 15th Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje. Besides them, Samten Gyatso received teachings from many other masters. Later on, the

transmission of the Chokling Tersar that most of the great lamas of those days received came through Samten Gyatso. He offered the transmission of the entire Chokling Tersar to the 15th Karmapa, to Drukchen Rinpoche, the head of the Drukpa Kagyü School, and to Taklung Tsetrül Rinpoche, at the main seat of

the Taklung Kagyü School in central Tibet. Samten Gyatso was also invited to Tsechu Monastery in Nangchen, the foremost monastery in the kingdom. There he gave the transmission of the Chokling Tersar to the king of Nangchen and thereby became one of the king’s gurus. At one time, Samten Gyatso was invited to

Palpung Monastery, one of the chief monasteries in the Derge kingdom, which was headed by Situ Wangchok Gyalpo, the predecessor of the presentday Situ Rinpoche. He transmitted part of the Chokling Tersar to Situ Wangchok Gyalpo and was therefore counted as one of Situ Rinpoche’s gurus. Dzongsar Khyentse,

the reincarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, came to Samten Gyatso’s mountain top hermitage of Randza Dzong-go. There Dzongsar Khyentse requested the transmission of the sections of the Chokling Tersar composed by the 15th Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje, that he had not received. It is said that the confidence

of the Dharma influences other people’s experience. Because of possessing this courage Samten Gyatso was never afraid of anyone. He always wore ordinary simple clothing. He never dressed in a special fashion, no matter who came to see him or whom he went to meet, even though he encountered some of the

highest masters of Tibet. Although he never put on any conspicuous finery, when he entered a room people always made way for him. Even if they were important dignitaries, people were completely terrified of him. They would immediately move to the side to make a path for him to walk. Even the Karmapa

was a little afraid of Samten Gyatso. He once told a companion, “I’m really terrified of that lama. I don’t know why, but he really scares me.” Even I would have to tell myself, “I don’t have to be afraid; after all, he’s my uncle!” Yet every morning when I stood

before the door to my uncle’s quarters, I would always hesitate and think twice before daring to open the door. There was nothing to really be afraid of, but everyone, including me, was somehow intimidated by Samten Gyatso. He possessed some remarkable quality, an intensely commanding presence. One of Samten

Gyatso’s gurus, Karmey Khenpo Rinchen Dargye, was reborn as the son of Samten Gyatso’s sister. He was called Khentrül, meaning the incarnation of Karmey Khenpo. This young incarnation once said to me, “Why should we be scared of him: Samten Gyatso is our uncle.” The young Khentrül was quite courageous, and

eloquent in a remarkable way. However, whenever he came into Samten Gyatso’s presence and saw his bald head Khentrül would forget what he was about to say. He would lower his gaze and start to tremble very slightly. Since he was guru to the king, Samten Gyatso was often summoned to the palace, where he would preside over the various religious ceremonies. He would stay in the old palace, while the king and his family resided in the new palace. In the new palace was an assembly hall called the Square Hall, where the big chieftains, ministers and dignitaries sat with their haughty airs. The king, who was quite

eccentric, would not allow any upholstered seating in this room — only hard wooden benches. No matter how special the ministers might be, they had to sit on bare wooden planks. Nevertheless, they sat there in their fine brocade chubas with long sleeves. When they strutted about, they kept their noses in the

air and did not pay any attention to ordinary people. When Samten Gyatso came to see the royal family each morning, he had to pass through this hall. He would often cough slightly before entering. When the dignitaries heard the “cough” approaching, they would all try to stand up at once. Sometimes they

tried to stand up by leaning on the shoulder of the person next to them. Then, because they were all using the same support system, they would all tumble here and there and make a mess of themselves. They were all completely terrified of Samten Gyatso.

I was often one of the two attendants who accompanied Samten Gyatso on his visits to the living-quarters of the royal family. When Samten Gyatso entered their room, the queen prince and princesses would all immediately abandon whatever they were doing and leap to their feet. The king himself had long before

turned over his rule to the prince and was seldom seen because he remained in meditation retreat. Samten Gyatso never flattered others by playing up to them or telling them how wonderful they were. He spoke in a very straightforward manner. If something was true, he would say it was; if it was not, he

would say it was not — without adding or subtracting anything. He never talked around the subject. If anyone started to speak to him directly concerning his amazing qualities, he would not allow them an opening. For instance, if they began to say, “Rinpoche, you are very learned.” or “You must be very

realized.” he would scold them immediately. He never tolerated that. Samten Gyatso kept to the “hidden yogi style” whereby he did not show his accomplishments to anyone, and definitely did not behave as if he was someone special. He never blessed people by placing his hand on their heads, he did

not permit others to prostrate to him and he never sat on a high seat. He spent most of his early life living in caves. If he had any understanding or special powers, he did not ever show them to anyone. He did not build temples or erect statues. During the first part of his life, he always had four or five private scribes with him. He had the entire Chokling Tersar, almost 40 volumes, copied out. In fact, this is the only thing he actually put any effort into, having the whole Chokling Tersar written down exactly. How then was Samten Gyatso installed as a vajra master? It happened in the following way. The 15th Karmapa had wanted to receive the transmission of the Chokling Tersar from Chokgyur Lingpa’s son, Tsewang Norbu. At that time, Tsewang Norbu had arrived in Central Tibet and was staying in Lhasa at a benefactor’s home. Khakyab Dorje sent for him and Tsewang Norbu agreed to go. Unfortunately his

self-important benefactor, not wanting to let go of his resident priest, made it difficult for Tsewang Norbu to leave. Tsewang Norbu died soon after without ever having the chance to travel to Tsurphu and transmit the Chokling Tersar. Karmapa then sent for Tsewang Norbu’s nephew, Tersey Tulku. He was a reincarnation of Tsewang Norbu’s brother, another son of Chokgyur Lingpa who died while still very young and was eventually reborn as the son of Chokgyur Lingpa’s daughter, Könchok Paldrön. He was the youngest of her four sons, being my uncle and the brother of Samten Gyatso. Tersey Tulku was extremely learned and paid great attention to details. He was totally qualified to give the Chokling Tersar in a very precise way. After he arrived in Central Tibet, the Karmapa sent him a message, to come to Tsurphu. Karmapa sent Tersey Tulku his most trusted servant, a monk from the

Golok province named Jampal Tsültrim, to make this request. Jampal Tsültrim was of very good stock and character. Though he served as Karmapa’s servant, he was a master in his own right. He was the Karmapa’s scribe and a very pure monk. He was a very impressive and reliable personage, so the Karmapa sent him

on this mission. However, since he was from Golok, he was quite tough-minded and extremely self-assured. When he visited Tersey Tulku, he told him, “The Karmapa requests that you come and give him the Chokling Tersar.” Tersey Tulku was, like his brother Samten Gyatso, a hidden yogi type, so he refused outright, saying, “This is utterly ridiculous! How can a dog put his paw on a man’s head? Why are you making this demand?” Gelong Jampal Tsültrim said, “I’m not asking you to do this; it’s the Karmapa giving you the command. Do you want to break samaya with him?” Tersey Tulku said, “No, he’s a bodhisattva

on the tenth bhumi. I’m the same as a dog. I’m nothing. How can I act as his guru, giving him empowerments? There is absolutely no question about this — how can I do it?” Then they got into a heated argument and Gelong Jampal Tsültrim finally slapped him across the face and said, “You lowlife!” He then

walked away. He returned to Khakyab Dorje and said, “This man is impossible — the lowest of the low! I argued with him, but he totally refuses to come.” The 15th Karmapa was not upset about this. He merely said, “That’s all right. We’ll see. Maybe it will work out in the end.” Khakyab Dorje then invited Samten Gyatso to come to Tsurphu, but he didn’t tell him exactly what the purpose of the

visit was supposed to be. Sometime after Samten Gyatso had arrived at Tsurphu, he was invited to come to Khakyab Dorje’s private chambers. When he got there, he saw a throne set out with brocade robes, a crown and all the paraphernalia of a vajra master. He was told to sit on the throne. At first there was much protesting back and forth, but finally Khakyab Dorje said, “I command you to sit there. From now on, I install you in the position of vajra master.” It was not only the Karmapa who forced the role of vajra master on Samten Gyatso; Tsewang Norbu did so as well. Tsewang Norbu was once invited to Riwoche to give the Rinchen Terdzö empowerments. Since Chokgyur Lingpa had already passed away, they wanted to receive this cycle from, at best, Jamgön Kongtrül, but he was quite elderly and weak. Next best, they wanted Khyentse, but he was too old. Then both Khyentse and Kongtrül decided to send the son of Chokgyur Lingpa, Tsewang Norbu, as their representative to give the Rinchen Terdzö. Many great tulkus were present there, including the two

reincarnations of Chokgyur Lingpa. Each evening after the ceremonies, the tulkus and great lamas would gather in Tsewang Norbu’s private room for discussions and question and answer sessions. One night, they were discussing the future of the Chokling Tersar. Tsewang Norbu was a very large man, with a

commanding presence and piercing eyes. He just glared at them. Then he pointed his finger at Samten Gyatso, who had been sitting silently near the door keeping a low profile. Tsewang Norbu said, looking at Tersey Tulku [Tersey means the son of the tertön], “You think that you are the incarnation of

Chokgyur Lingpa’s son!” Looking at the two Chokling tulkus he said; “You two think you are incarnations of Chokgyur Lingpa himself. All three of you think you are someone very special! But you aren’t compared to that one over there!” Pointing to Samten Gyatso, he continued, “He will be much more influential

in maintaining the lineage.” Samten Gyatso was very frightened by this statement. Although Tsewang Norbu was his maternal uncle, everyone was a little afraid of him. When he made a statement like this, it was like a prophecy that really

sunk in. When Tsewang Norbu left for Central Tibet many years later, he seemed to know he would never meet Samten Gyatso again. He enthroned Samten Gyatso privately in his chambers and, giving him his vajra and bell, Tsewang Norbu said, “I entrust you with the lineage of the Chokling Tersar. You will have to

pass it on in the future.” Although Samten Gyatso protested, he was still invested with this responsibility. That’s why he didn’t refuse later on when Khakyab Dorje invited him to come to Tsurphu. He said, “All right,” and he gave the empowerments. When Samten Gyatso was giving Khakyab Dorje the entire

transmission of the Chokling Tersar, Khakyab Dorje was not staying at Tsurphu proper, but remained in his retreat place above Tsurphu. He was elderly at this time. He had recently remarried and his consort was called Khandro Chenmo, meaning the Great Dakini of the Karmapa. She was only about sixteen years

old then; the Karmapa died three years later when she was 19. Tersey Tulku was also there at that time. He was no longer shy about coming to Tsurphu once his brother had agreed to give the empowerments. In the evenings they would often talk with Khakyab Dorje, sometimes until midnight or later. Khakyab Dorje

would then leave Samten Gyatso’s retreat hut and return to his quarters. One night, after they had parted, Khakyab Dorje joined his palms and told his consort, “At this time and during this age, probably no one except Samten Gyatso has authentic realization of the innermost essence of the Great Perfection.” That was the kind of pure appreciation the Karmapa had for Samten Gyatso. The Great Dakini herself told this to me later. To be established in

the role of a vajra master can be a bit problematic. In the case of Samten Gyatso he was forcefully installed in that position by Tsewang Norbu, his root guru, and by Khakyab Dorje. Samten Gyatso never said much about this to anyone. Shortly before Samten Gyatso died, I spent many evenings in his room. Samten Gyatso would lie in his bed and I would sleep

at his feet on the floor near him. One night we were talking, and Samten Gyatso began to speak for the first time about his innermost realization. He also told the details I’ve just related above about his relationship with Khakyab Dorje, Tsewang Norbu and so forth. Apart from this time he never related this personal information to anyone. “From that point on,” he told me, “I really fell under the power of one of the four Maras, the demon of distraction called

the “heavenly son.” Before that, my only ambition was to remain in a cave and do practice. But since Karmapa forced me into this, I now have to behave like a vajra master and give empowerments, reading transmissions, etc.” This is something he had never done before. He had always side-stepped it completely. But from then on, he had to undertake that position. When looking back, there is now no doubt that he became the one responsible for widely propagating the

Chokling Tersar teachings. Samten Gyatso himself said: “I was happy just to live in caves. I never had the intention or desire to act like a lama. At the age of eight I was introduced to mind nature, and I have remained in it as much as possible till this time.” So when Samten Gyatso grew older, he often thought, “I should have stayed in caves; instead, I fell under the power of hindrances.” It was not empty talk when he said this; he actually did feel that

way. He had no ambition to become a vajra master or sit above anyone else. He once told me, “Being successful is actually called the “pleasant obstacle.” While unpleasant obstacles are easily recognized by everyone, the pleasant obstacle is rarely acknowledged to be an obstacle.” Unpleasant obstacles are, for example, being defamed or implicated in scandals, falling sick, meeting with misfortune and so forth. Most practitioners can deal with these. They

recognize these situations as obstacles and use them as part of the path. But pleasant obstacles, such as becoming renowned, collecting a following of disciples, and superficially acting for the welfare of others, are much more deceptive. One starts to think, “My goodness! I’m becoming really special. I’m benefiting many beings. Everything is perfectly fine!” One does not readily notice that one is falling prey to pleasant

obstacles, and this is why they are a major hindrance for progress. Samten Gyatso warned that people rarely recognize these hindrances. They usually only think, “My capacity for benefiting others is expanding!” Well, this is what one tells oneself while failing to notice that one has fallen prey to an obstacle