An Interview with Choekhortshang Rinpoche
Apponted as Rinpoche
Recently Geshe Nyima Woser Choekhortshang added “Rinpoche” to his name. Curious about how he got this title, the editors invited Geshe-la for an interview, and asked him to explain titles as Geshe, Tulku, Rinpoche and some other.
Choekhortshang Rinpoche at Menri Monastery in 2015 during the enthronement ceremony.
Ton: Rinpoche, I want to start with some personal questions. Where were you born?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I was born in Dolpo, a culturally Tibetan region in the north-western part of Nepal, bordered in the north by Tibet. It is located to the west of Mustang. This remote region has preserved its Tibetan culture in relatively pure form, and the Dolpo are generally adherents of Bon and Buddhism. Politically it is part of Nepal now but many of the older generations still don't speak Nepalese.
Frits: Can you compare it to Ladakh?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: Yes in some points, but people of Ladakh are trying to present themselves these days as Indian stronger. I visited Ladakh and even neighboring regions Lahaul and Kinnaur a few times. They are all changing. Culturally they are rooted with Tibet.
The Samling Monastery in Dolpo, Nepal.
Frits: Is Dolpo interesting because there are a lot of Bon monasteries?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: That is one reason since there are around thirteen Bon monasteries in the area and it was a home of many great masters. And then the history of the Dolpo is the second reason. Besides that, for the Bonpos the Yangton Lamas of Dolpo are very important. For example Yangton Chenpo, the Great Yangton, put the oral teaching of the Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyud onto the script. And later, other members of this family played a very important role in bringing this teaching into the monastic curriculum. Before Menri Monastery was established in Tibet, the Yeru Wensakha Monastery was the main Bonpo Monastery in Tibet. In thirteenth century, Dru Gyalwa Yungdrung, the main lama of the Yeru Wensakha requested Yangton Gyaltsen Rinchen, the founder of the Dolpo Samling Monastery, to give the teaching of Zhang Zhung Nyen Gyud to him.
Ton: Can you tell about your family?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: My father Tsewang Tashi was a practitioner and also a priest in the village called Tra. His father was from Buddhist family lineage called ‘Choekhortshang’ and his mother was a daughter of a Yangton Lama of Bon. Both of these two lineages are recorded as the two most important families of Dolpo by Prof. Snellgrove in his book The four lama's of Dolpo: Tibetan Biographies. My paternal grandfather Karma Choewang was a Buddhist during the first phase of his life. And then he married a daughter of a Yangton Lama who is the most important family of Bon in Dolpo. Therefore he adopted the Bon in the later period of his life. Since then my father was adopted by his own maternal grandfather, Yangton Yungdrung Dradhul Rinpoche, who was the lama of the famous Samling monastery and also the founder of the
new monastery called Tashi Namgyal in Tra village. He then trained my father to become his successor as lama of the Tashi Namgyal Monastery since my father is the eldest son of his daughter. That is the connection, the background of my family lineage.
When my father was young he studied with the present lama of Samling Monastery, who is also from the Yangton family lineage. He learned meditation, even became a physician of Tibetan medicine. And then he served as a priest in the village having a title of ‘Chichoe’ (spyi-mchod) that means ‘common priest,’ who's responsible to serve villagers without differentiation between Bonpo and Buddhist. So he was a priest for both. There were certain responsibilities on him like making rituals, taking care of the crops, like making rain, stopping hail, or something like this in general. Later when his maternal grandfather passed away he became the head lama of the Namgyal Monastery in Dolpo.
Ton: Is your mother a practitioner?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: Yes, my mother, her name is Sangmo, is a practitioner belonging to a Buddhist family. The name of her family lineage is called Chokro, and this family lineage is very wellknown in Tibetan world. My mother is a semi-nun. I introduced this term ‘semi-nun’ and ‘semi-monk’ when I gave a presentation amongst Tibetologists. It is a very typical tradition in Dolpo, where many Tantric or Dzogchen practitioners have many involvements in the monastic activities, and they have a family. It is somehow a practitioner's life in -between celibacy and lay people. Many of my relatives are semi-monk and semi-nun.
Ton: Do you have brothers and sisters?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I have three brothers and one sister. Two of us studied in the monastery, and one is at home in Dolpo, and takes care of our mother. My youngest brother, Amchi Yungdrung Tsewang studied Tibetan medicine to follow our father's steps. He is a physician in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he practices Tibetan medical knowledge and teaches at the ‘School of Four Medical Science of Early Tradition,’ which is near to Triten Norbutse Monastery. My brother Geshe Yungdrung Gyatso is now a resident lama at Chamma Ling Poland. My sister Palsang Lhamo lives in Kathmandu.
Choekhortshang Rinpoche with his mother, two brothers and sister
Ton: Can you tell about your education?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: When I was around six years old, I went to a Nepalese government school in our village. There were similar schools in many parts of Dolpo. Since these schools didn't teach Tibetan, many families did not send their children to the school. Therefore, those schools closed one after the other. I began learning Tibetan reading and writing from my father. I also served as a shepherd for two years in my village, looking after the goats and sheep. When I was eight years old, I went to India with my grandfather, my father and the lama of Samling Monastery. There, I studied in the Central School for Tibetan in Dolanji of Tibetan Bonpo Settlement for eight years. Back in my homeland, later, the
local Dolpo people started new private schools in different regions, where they teach in Tibetan and teach Tibetan religion. The school uniform is a chuba, which is a Tibetan traditional dress; so it is different from schools in Kathmandu.
Ton: Can you tell about your education as a monk and how that evolved?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: At the age of seventeen, in 1992, I became a monk at Menri Monastery, the mother monastery of Bon. There, I joined Bon Dialectic School and studied Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen as main courses. Besides them I learned meditations, healing rituals, astrology, sacred dances, yogas and many others. Anyhow, after studying sixteen years in the Menri monastery, I became a Geshe in 2008.
During my study I had an opportunity to serve as a personal secretary for His Holiness the 33. Menri Trizin Rinpoche; the spiritual leader of Bon for eight years. I also served as president for the Bon Dialectic School for a year and also treasurer of Menri Monastery for three years. I have been the chief editor for Bon-sGo-nak, the first journal of the Bon, which is very popular amongst the Tibetan society. Recently the education department of Tibetan Administration in India declared it as one of the three best Tibetan journals in exile.
Ton: Why did you come to the West?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: Initially, my intention was to go back to Dolpo and teach there. But while studying at the Menri Monastery I discovered some personal interests: writing poetry and doing research in a more traditional way. The writing brought me in contact with many Western professors and researchers, and I started to work with some of these Tibetologists. In 2006 I was invited for the biggest conference for Tibetologists at the University of Bonn in Germany. I attended that conference and then later in 2008 I was invited by Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung Rinpoche for a conference in Shenten, France. In 2009 I was invited by Leiden University in the Netherlands to work as an affiliated fellow in religious studies. There was a plan to study and live there for a longer time, but I had to go back to India. In 2009, a Czech Professor, Daniel Berounsky, invited me to Prague to study in Charles University. There, at the Tibetan department, I also teach Tibetan language, tradition, textual reading and some context of the religion to the bachelors, masters and Ph.D. students.
His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima Rinpoche and Geshe Nyima Woser Choekhortshang Rinpoche.
Frits: When are you going back to Dolpo?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: Since I was enthroned officially in Menri Monastery, the community in Dolpo has been waiting for my return. Their hope and request is that I should go back now. They started to reconstruct the monastery. But I came here for academic purpose and interest, and want to finish my Ph.D. study first. My research topic of the Ph.D. dissertation at Charles University in Prague is concerned with a Bonpo family of Dolpo. It will be based on its family genealogy. Right now I haven't decided anything about returning to Dolpo. Recently we started a Master project at the university for Tibetology, and I want to stay till it is finished. While I was studying in the monastery I had been wondering about the academic world, so doing research in Western universities is somehow my personal interest.
Jantien: Did you ever get homesick?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I never felt homesick, because I left home when I was very young, but sometimes I miss my monastery. I miss the monastery more than my family. Once my mother told me the first time I was leaving for India, she felt that she was going to cry, and when she felt that, she immediately stopped. And later when my brothers left, she never cried. She told me that this decision made her stronger.
Ton: I read in the Tibetan Book of the Dead,that people who stay behind should not cry, because it would make the process of the bardo of the person who died more difficult. So your mother practiced this.
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: That is true. When I was young and if I had seen the tears in my mother's eyes, I would have remembered it when I was studying and it probably would have made me homesick. But now I had a positive memory to my mother and my departure, because she seemed happy with it.
Ton: When did you meet Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche the first time?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I met him when I was very young. One of his sisters was my school classmate. I got the opportunity to know him better when I was studying at Menri Monastery. Since then I have always stayed in contact with him, and sometimes we spend time together in Europe.
Ton: We would like to ask you some questions about the Bon tradition and sangha. Can you tell about the difference between a monk, a lama, a Geshe, a Tulku, a Rinpoche, a Khenpo, a Lopon and a Ponlop?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: A monk lives in celibacy. Usually there are two kinds of monks; one is called novice monk; generally in Bon it is a monk who has taken twenty-five vows. And then the second is the monk who has taken a fully ordination, which has two hundred and fifty vows.
Geshe is a monk who completed the scholastic phase of monastic training and holds the highest monastic education degree from the educationally qualified monastery. It is something like a traditional monastic degree or title. You can compare it with the title of professor in the West, but it takes longer and is a higher study. I spent sixteen years to receive my Geshe title. Another difference is that a professor has normally studied on one topic. We have no choice of what we want to study. We have to go through the entire curriculum. In the Tibetan schools only the Gelug, Bon and Sakya use the Geshe title, the Kagyu and Nyingma don't use it normally.
For lama there are three different categories. The first category is a family lineage lama. In Tibetan the term is Dhung-gyue. These lamas belong to the family lineage of very famous spiritual masters, like Shen in Bon. Shen is the family lineage of Tonpa Shenrab, the founder of Yungdrung Bon. All the children of the Shen family become automatically a lama. They don't need to study in the monastery, they are genetically lama. It does not matter if they are lay people or ordained, once they are involved in a religious practice, they will be respected and accepted as a lama. In Bon we have five main such family lineages. One of them, called Dru, could not continue their lineage because of the recognizing of fifth and eighth Penchen Lamas from this family.
When the eighth Penchen Lama was recognized from this family, he was taken to Tashi Lhunpo Monastery and became a monk along with his brother, and his brother was then entitled as a Ta lama. So the Dru could not continue their family lineage since both of their last boys were made Gelugpa monks. This family lineage was very important and connected with the Yeru Wensakha and Menri Monastery.
The second category is the Tulku lama; a young child or an adult person who is recognized as a reincarnation of an important lama. It can be recognized by written note of the previous life, it can be recognized through auspicious dreams or signs of certain lamas, or it can be recognized though religious lottery. However, it can be confirmed with the test such as where they have to choose possessions of the previous lama. If he or she chooses correct, he or she can be recognized as a reincarnation. For example Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a tulku. Unfortunately, in Tibet, some tulkut were not recognized during their life.
The third category of lama is an officially appointed lama, through education, meditation, qualification and contribution. The Tibetan term for this lama is called Lama Tripa. All the heads of monasteries like the Lopon and the Khenpo belong to the third category. Both His Holiness the Menri Trizin Rinpoche and His Eminence the Yongdzin Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche belong to this category, because of their education, achievement and contributions to the Bon.
Rinpoche means ‘Precious One.’ In general a Tulku is naturally called Rinpoche. However, according to Bon tradition the Tulku system is not that important as it is in other schools. In Bon most of the Rinpoche titles are given only by official enthronement. Some family lineage lamas are not called Rinpoche but just lama. Majority of the great lamas of Bon are officially given the title of Rinpoche for the purpose of teaching, administration or maintenance of a monastery.
In my case I was given the title of Rinpoche by His Holiness the Menri Trizin Rinpoche through an official enthronement at Menri Monastery. It was because the people of Dolpo requested His Holiness for my enthronement as a Rinpoche of Namgyal Monastery in Dolpo. Actually the maternal grandfather of my father was a Rinpoche of the Namgyal Monastery and was a Yangton Lama – and my father succeeded him. When my father passed away the villagers choose me as his successor, because I was the eldest son. In the Bon tradition when a monk is given the title of Rinpoche, the monastery should enthrone him. When that happens, the person has to spend time in the monastery and teach there. In 2000, while I was studying at Menri Monastery, I received a journal where I read that they had registered my name in the religious department of the Nepalese government in Kathmandu as the head lama of Namgyal Monastery. Then they gave me the responsibility to take care of the monastery and the villagers. Actually, then I became a Rinpoche and it was approved by the Nepalese government. However, in a way, I refused the title Rinpoche, because for me it felt not as the right time to go back to Namgyal Monastery; instead I came to the West. When I would have gone to Dolpo, the monastery would have enthroned me. So, it happened in 2015 that some important people from my village wrote a letter to His Holiness Menri Trizin Rinpoche and asked to enthrone me. This way they tried to get me back to my village. I went to Menri Monastery to edit few editions of Bon-sGo journal, and then all this happened so quick, that I could not tell even my mother and some of my close friends what was going to happen. So, officially I am enthroned as Rinpoche at Menri Monastery in February 2015.
Amongst the officially appointed lamas, Khenpo is a title that is designated as an Abbot for the learned and accomplished master through an official enthronement for the purpose of the monastic administration.
Lopon means ‘head teacher,’ which is enthroned officially for the purpose of educational responsibility amongst the qualified spiritual teachers.
However, it is important of know that the implement of Khenpo and Lopon titles in some Buddhism schools are very different than in Bon.
Ponlop is a typical Bon term which is an abbreviation of ‘Ponse Lopon.’ In Bon, the Khenpo and the Ponlop of Menri Monastery are the most important. The Khenpo of Menri Monastery becomes His Holiness of the Bon. In the case of Menri Lopon, when his disciple will be the new Abbot of Menri Monastery then his title will be promoted to the Menri Yongdzin.
Then, there are monks who have finished a meditation retreat of more than three years. Usually,
they are called Drupthonpa. Drupthonpa.
Frits: Do you have a sangha in Prague?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: No, I don't have any sangha right now, because I want to keep all my time for my work at the university here in Czech Republic. Initially, I wasn't available for giving teachings. I even never thought of it then. However, everything happened spontaneously when I visited Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche in Berlin 2010. I attended his evening talk and there I was introduced to Ulrike Bross and other Sangha members. Then Rinpoche asked me to give an introduction of Nine Ways of Bon to Ligmincha Berlin. I agreed because I thought that it would be just only that. But it continued since students asked Rinpoche for more, and Ligmincha sanghas from Austria, Poland, Italy, Slovakia and Hungary also invited me respectively through Rinpoche's suggestion. Still invitations have been coming from many other countries such as Norway, Ukraine, Lithuania, United Kingdom, Argentina and even Columbia, but I could not accept them at the moment because of my involvement at the Charles University in Prague. Therefore, in Czech Republic I don't give teaching as I do in other European countries. However, I used to give just public talks in different towns of Czech Republic such as, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, Opava, Plzen, Luhacuvice and Prague. Those were very successful and halls and theaters were mostly packed.
Choekhortshang Rinpoche's weekend teaching in Hungary in 2015
Frits: Do you feel more a researcher than a teacher?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I don't know. I learned a lot from spending time at different universities. I have attended many international conferences as a researcher and did many presentations. This interest made me travel to many countries, like Japan, Canada, Mongolia, the United Kingdom and many European countries for academic purposes. I spent one month at Oxford University and had opportunity to teach there.
Frits: What do you think about preserving the Bon-Buddhist wisdom in the West?
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: I am sure it will succeed, because I can see many sanghas, and outside of the sanghas people opening to the practices and teachings, and the number of people is growing. I started to teach in Berlin, and never thought I would also teach in other European countries. While teaching I saw many attendances coming from other Buddhist groups too.
Frits: Do we need a monastery in Europe to preserve the Bon teachings
Choekhortshang Rinpoche: It would be good if there are one or two monasteries, but without it can also survive. There are many ways we can teach the community. If it was only S Sutra we
teach, then it would be important to have a monastery. But since we also teach Tantra and Dzogchen, it can survive in a lay community.
As I mentioned about the semi-monk of Dolpo, it is somewhere between a monk and a lay practitioner. They have a family, their own life, and they practice. So I think this kind of life can be adopted in the West.
Interview by Frits de Vries, Jantien Spindler and Ton Bisscheroux
You can read its original version in Ligmincha Europe Magazine