By Tulku Yeshe Rinpoche
Today is the second anniversary of HH Jigdal Dagchen Sakya’s transformation into Guru Rinpoche’s heart.
His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya is one of my root gurus, on both the worldly and spiritual levels. His kindness and wisdom was immeasurable.
When I was in Tibet 25 years ago studying Tibetan history, I read a famous Tibetan history book called the Red Book, by Tsalpa Kunga Dorje, and a commentary upon it by Duhnkar Lobsang Tinley. In this book I found a very short sentence about Dagchen Rinpoche, that said simply that there are two head Sakya lamas; one being Ngawang Thekchen Palbar living in India, and the other Ngawang Kunga Sonam, or Dagchen Rinpoche, living in America. Prior to that I’d read the famous Sakya history written by Dagchen Ame called “The Storage of Treasure; The History of the Lineage of the Sakyapa”. I’d also received many teachings and empowerments from my first root guru, HH Lamo Yongzin Rinpoche, many of which came from the five founding masters of Sakya.
I first met Dagchen Rinpoche in Kathmandu in the mid 1990’s at the Tarig Monastery’s temple. At that time I received some blessings from him, but didn’t have time to receive teachings or empowerments. I told Dagchen Rinpoche that I was writing a history of the Sakyapa, and later wrote a short biography of Dagchen Rinpoche, his sons, and grandsons to include there, along with his photograph.
When I was staying in Tharlam Monastery in Kathmandu in the late 1990’s, the monks told me that the founder of this monastery, the Third Dezhung Rinpoche, was the uncle of Dagchen Rinpoche’s consort, Dagmo Kusho. One of my students from Tharlam, the monk Chime Tenzin, was Dagmo Kusho’s relative. In early 2002 in New York, Chime Tenzin introduced me to Dagmo Kusho. At that time, she invited me, with Dagchen Rinpoche’s approval, to come to Seattle to live at the Sakya Monastery and to write Dagchen Rinpoche’s biography. At the time I had to return to Nepal to fulfill other Dharma obligations, but six months later I traveled to Seattle with the Fourth Dezhung Tulku’s brother Isaac to accept their invitation. I didn’t bring many things with me, except for the 37 volumes of Dagchen Ame’s texts.
I arrived at Sakya Monastery in Seattle late in the evening, and the next morning I was driven to the Sakya’s home by Adrienne Chan, Dagchen Rinpche’s amazing long-time secretary. In the living room I met Dagchen Rinpoche, and was immediately impressed by his blissful, powerful, shining face. I’ll never forget that moment. I did three prostrations, and offered one beautiful long white kata, and some yogi’s cloth which I’d brought from Nepal. Dagchen Rinpoche was so happy, and gave me a blessing with his hands, and said, “I’m so happy you came here to write my biography”, and said he’d been so excited he hadn’t slept much for the previous few nights. During those days he’d been home recovering from knee surgery. Also I immediately felt Dagmo Kusho’s warmth of compassion and kindness like my very own mother.
The next day I started work on Dagchen Rinpoche’s biography. For starters, I could refer to a short version of his biography compiled by unknown author. Secondly, Adrienne provided me with the calendars of Sakya Monastery’s and Dagchen Rinpoche’s activities for the previous 25 years, which was very helpful. Also I began interviewing Dagchen Rinpoche, Dagmo Kusho, and other members of the Sakya family. During the next five years, writing this biography was my main job. I also joined in the activities at the Sakya Monastery from 10-15 days per month. I learned that the Sakya Monastery was the busiest place for Dharma activities in the northwest, due to Dagchen Rinpoche’s limitless blessings and his disciples’ unchangeable devotion.
During the many years I was at Sakya Monastery, Dagchen Rinpoche would drive his black Cadillac to the monastery almost every day. Sometimes Adrienne drove his car, or Dagmo Kusho brought him in her own car. He would arrive usually around 9am, and go directly to his office on the first floor. Later with a new addition, his office moved to the second floor. Many days I offered him tea from the monastery kitchen in his office. Each time in preparing tea, I would wash my hands, then his teacup, then make his favorite green tea, and offer him the tea. For me this was the most important practice, part of guru yoga practice. Each time I saw Dagchen Rinpoche drink this tea, I felt so blissful. I felt that this had never happened in my past millions of lives, and would never happen again in my future millions of lives. After the tea, Dagchen Rinpoche would start work in the main shrine room, cultural hall, or library, managing countless monastery tasks. When he was working, he was so careful and precise with each task. For example, even if he was putting three jars of flowers on the offering table, he knew exactly the best design for which vase belonged in the center, left, or right; myself or careless lazy students wouldn’t notice such details. Another example of his attention to detail was the storage room, in which there were many boxes full of Dharma materials. All of them were labeled as to what was inside, but no matter if the label was correct or not, Dagchen Rinpoche always knew exactly what was inside, as if he could see through the box.
Once a Buddhist publisher from Taiwan sent 50 or 60 boxes of Dharma books as a donation. They were in many languages, English, Chinese, and Tibetan. Under Dagchen Rinpoche’s order, myself, Richard from Taiwan, and Scottie, moved these boxes numerous times from place to place in the monastery. This felt like a task that Marpa might have assigned to Milarepa of building and rebuilding stone buildings; there seemed to be no point or end to this task. But later I found that each of those movements had amazing meaning. Firstly, you cannot leave that much weight of thousands of pounds of books in one place for a long time. Secondly, Dagchen Rinpoche told us that if you want to accumulate merit and purify your negative karma, you must physically and spiritually practice Dharma. It was not only us doing this hard work; Dagchen Rinpoche was helping us. This reminded me of the famous Zen expression, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Dagchen Rinpoche had a habit of working by himself in the monastery kitchen or library. One day I had some question for him, and looked for him in the office and the shrine room, but couldn’t find him. Then I entered the cultural hall and heard someone doing something in the kitchen. Upon entering, I saw Dagchen Rinpoche carrying a big black full garbage bag out the door. I jumped in and said; “Please Rinpoche, let me do it! It’s dusty, smelly, and not good for your eyes!” At that time Rinpoche had some eye issues, and his doctor had told him to avoid dust in his eyes. Also Dagmo Kusho had told us to not let Rinpoche do those sorts of tasks. He also had some blood sugar issue, so that Dagmo Kusho and Adrienne would take great care of what food he ate. But one day Dagchen Rinpoche let on that he didn’t take these controls very seriously, and told me; “They take care of my food and health very carefully, but I already know my birth date and I know my death date too!”
Most Sakya Monastery members have had experience with Dagchen Rinpoche while working around the monastery on work days. Rinpoche would typically take us all out for lunch. One day I’ll never forget. It was a summer day, after Richard, Scottie and I had just moved the boxes of books yet again. Since it was a small group that day, Rinpoche had us drive the old monastery truck. As we were about to get into the truck, Rinpoche says, “Scott, you drive the truck, Tulku you sit next to the driver; Richard and I will ride in the back.” Since this was an open pickup truck, Rinpoche would usually ride in the cab, and others of us would ride in the back. So this command seemed a little unusual! In Tibetan or Buddhist culture, the master would normally ride in the front seat, or at the very least inside the car. But that day, my world was upside down. I begged and almost cried to Dagchen Rinpoche that this was unacceptable, “Please ride in front!” But Rinpoche, in his unchangeable master style, would have none of it. His mind was totally free from ordinary worldly thoughts, so he said ‘No!’ Usually the drive from the monastery to that particular restaurant took 15 minutes, but my mind was full of fear and nervous sadness, so that the drive felt like it took two hours. Even now when I remember that day, I feel that nervous tension, beyond words.
After Dagchen Rinpoche’s knee surgery, he normally walked with a cane. Just after the big Tibetan earthquake in Eastern Tibet in 2014, he was invited to Sakya Dharma centers in Minnesota and New York. A couple of weeks before we left, Rinpoche handed me his cane. I was happy to receive the cane, but since I’m young and healthy, I didn’t know what I’d use it for. But three days before departure, my left ankle became swollen and very painful. So during our travels, I used Dagchen Rinpoche’s old cane, and he used a new one!
On two occasions, Dagchen Rinpoche gave me the clothes he’d been wearing. While there is a tradition of masters giving their clothing to their close disciples, normally Dagchen Rinpoche did not do this. Many times, he gave me a blessing with his hands. A thousand times I would arrange his shoes after he arrived at the teaching throne. That moment to me was also blissful and amazing. When I would bow down to arrange his shoes, Dagchen Rinpoche would lean on my shoulder. Then I’d hold his hand while he stepped up or down from the throne. I had amazing opportunities for Dharma trips with Rinpoche to different states in the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and India. Under his order, I wrote the mantras on the sandalwood pieces which were placed in the center of the Mahakala and Palden Lhamo statues at Sakya Monastery. Many times he gave me blessed food and drink. One of his favorite things after going to a Chinese restaurant was to hold fortune cookies in each fist and say; “Tulku, which one, left or right”! One time, Rinpoche and I went to a Chinese restaurant very close to the Woodland Park Zoo. After lunch, Rinpoche had me choose a fortune cookie in this way. For some reason, I would normally choose the left hand cookie. This day I also chose the left, and the fortune read, “Soon you will go to a beautiful place you’ve never been before.” I hadn’t told anyone before this, but I’d recently made plans to visit Hawaii for the first time. Every time I had unhappy feelings or negative emotions in my mind, the moment I saw Dagchen Rinpoche’s powerful face, those feelings vanished. My mind became full of happiness and bliss.
One day after finishing with Rinpoche’s activities at the monastery, I held his hand and accompanied him out the monastery’s side door. He sat down on a bench to wait for his ride, and I sat down on the concrete at his feet. Suddenly I wanted to ask one important question. I had heard that when Rinpoche was in Kham 50 years ago, he’d tied a knot in a long metal Khampa sword. So I asked him; “What was in your mind when you did that?” He replied, “Mostly our mind thinks that there’s a duality of subject and object. But if you can control or switch your mind into the non-duality of realization, everything is possible; you can do whatever you want!”
Dagchen Rinpoche shared one story many times about his father, Trichen Ngawang Thuthop Wangchuk. When Rinpoche was very young, and his father would be practicing the protector deities offering and beating a big drum, Rinpoche would often see fire emanating between the stick and the drum. Rinpoche’s father also told him, “While I’m here, the Sakya family’s life will be ok, but when I’m gone, things will change, and the family will live in other countries amidst other peoples.” Rinpoche also often told us about another of his root lamas, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, and said what an amazing master he’d been. He said, “Externally, he had a human body, but internally he was Guru Rinpoche.”
Many years after Dagchen Rinpoche’s family moved to Seattle, Rinpoche and Dezhung Rinpoche worked at the University of Washington. For awhile, Rinpoche made some traditional Tibetan masks for the museum, or created exhibits of traditional Tibetan culture. Some of the materials had chemicals on them which hurt Rinpoche’s skin. For many years when I accompanied him to restaurants, I observed him dipping his fingers in ice water. Dagmo Kusho explained that this helped release some kind of pain.
Like his father before him, if powerful, rich or famous people visited him, he would not act like it was anything special. But if someone was poor or suffering, or if someone was sincerely seeking Dharma guidance, he would help them tirelessly. He would always say, “These people are like my karmic debts.” He would use the Tibetan word ‘lanchak’ for this.
He always commented in his weekly teachings or in daily conversation, that “ordinary vision” is such a powerful delusion and that ‘’pure enlightened vision‘’ is very rare. If we had lost or broken some very important expensive object, Dagchen Rinpoche displayed little or no concern. But he’d show much appreciation and enjoyment for a very small cute statue or a plaything of no real importance. Halloween time was his favorite, and each year he’d come to the monastery’s Halloween party wearing a costume. In the beginning, I wondered why this high Tibetan master was interested in this meaningless crazy western holiday. Slowly, after many years, I realized why he enjoyed this type of thing so much. His mind was totally free from meaningful or meaningless. He was very humble, and did not reveal his high realization, so normally you wouldn’t know about his practice or realization. When he gave teachings, his words seemed to come from many random parts of the Buddhadharma, but in the end they all fit together perfectly. For an impatient mind, it maybe seemed confusing; for a scholarly mind, you’d maybe think it was too common or ordinary a teaching. But in the end you’d find this teaching was like an acupuncture needle or moxa that had correctly located your vital spot of pain.
Once I did a Kurukulle retreat in my bedroom on the third floor of the Sakya Monastery. Before I started this retreat I humbly requested Rinpoche to come to my room to bless it. By his blessings, this retreat was amazingly successful. I have received many teachings from him, except for the Sakya Lamdre transmission. I request that I become his disciple in my future lifetimes. His reading of my or others mind was a frequent occurrence. A few years ago, before doing a two day Bumtsok retreat, my students and I ordered a beautiful thangka from Nepal of Guru Rinpoche’s Eight Manifestations. One day when Rinpoche was giving a public teaching at Sakya Monastery, I hung this thangka to his right and requested a consecration. The teaching that day went quite long, and it was approaching the end, and still Rinpoche had not done the consecration. I thought, “Please Dagchen Rinpoche, do the consecration!” One second later, he opened his rice cup and began blessing and consecrating the thangka! He also told Dagmo Kusho that one of my past lives was as a Sakya monk, or old Lama. As a high Khon lineage master, Dagchen Rinpoche had a very strong connection with Guru Rinpoche. So practicing the Guru Rinpoche Tsok was one of his favorite practices. He always said this practice is one of the most powerful for purification and accumulation.
The main Buddha statue in the Sakya Monastery was sculpted by a Bhutanese sculptor, but Rinpoche at first didn’t like the face that had been created. So he re-sculpted it himself. This Buddha’s face is now the most beautiful and powerful I’ve ever seen. Every time when I or others with mental or emotional challenges look at this face, all of those negative emotions and defilements are erased. Also after another Bhutanese sculptor had created the Mahakala statue, Dagchen Rinpoche was not happy with the stomach, and had Lama Mingmar sculpt a new larger bulging stomach. After that this statue became more powerful and magical. Many times when Dagchen Rinpoche sat on the throne and we practiced the Mahakala prayers, and I listened to Rinpoche play the cymbals, I would close my eyes and feel Mahakala and other protectors dancing around all of us.
Dagchen Rinpoche would normally wear ordinary western style clothing, but at spiritual gatherings, he would don the yogi’s clothes with short sleeves. Even in cold weather he wore these. One of his favorite things was snuff; an Asian tradition which some older Tibetan lamas enjoy. I never knew whether his snuff was home-made, or from India or Tibet. Traditionally we believe that when a high realization lama uses this, it helps their realization become stronger and higher. We don’t believe that this is a negative addiction in the usual sense, because their mind is totally free from attachment. When I accompanied Rinpoche to a restaurant, sometimes he’d eat more meat, sometimes more vegetables. When he gave refuge vows, he’d say it’s ok to eat both, but to acknowledge that beings are killed during harvesting vegetables, as well as for meat itself. He’d never say anything negative about anyone else, and when others would gossip about others, he’d just laugh at them.
After I met Dagchen Rinpoche, my dharma practice became amazingly strong and clear, and one by one, I met three of Rinpoche’s root gurus in my dreams. During my first few years in Seattle, I had some depression from the dark wet weather, and from the culture shock of living in the west. But many times Dagchen Rinpoche’s blessings and Dagmo Kusho’s kindness helped release those feelings. In June 2010, on the day I took the immigration test to become a US citizen, Dagmo Kusho later told me that Dagchen Rinpoche left for the monastery that day saying “I have to go pray for Tulku, because he’s taking his immigration test!” By his blessing, I had an amazing examiner at the immigration exam, passed the whole test, and immediately received the certificate and celebration ceremony for citizenship, instead of waiting the customary one or two months! Each time when I asked him to give me a blessing for my retreat, Rinpoche would say in Tibetan, “Thukdham Gongpel”. This means, “May your realization rise higher and higher!”, or “May your practice become better and better!”
A few days before Dagchen Rinpoche transformed into Guru Rinpoche’s heart, he and his family and disciples took some special photos. He sat on an elaborate golden throne from Tibet, and wore his Sakyapa robes and hat. One of the monks gave him a Sashu hat, the traditional Sakyapa master’s hat, but he said to give him Ogyen Penshu’s hat, which is one of Padmasambhava’s hats from the Nyingma tradition. This is one sign that Dagchen Rinpoche transformed into Guru Rinpoche’s heart. The second sign is that after Dagchen Rinpoche’s holy body was cremated in New Delhi, Dagmo Kusho and some of his son’s arrived back in Seattle. Early in the morning of their arrival I had an amazing dream. In my dream some of Dagchen Rinpoche’s sons and I were carrying the traditional Tibetan style casket from his house to the Sakya Monastery. Suddenly, I looked up at the sky, and from the east I saw an amazing brilliant light like a sun I’d never seen before. In the middle of the sun, Dagchen Rinpoche appeared wearing the Sakya Gongma robes. I exclaimed to his sons, “Look at the sky, Dagchen Rinpoche is there!” Rinpoche looked at us, smiling from within the radiant splendor. Then the sun and Rinpoche moved to the south, becoming smaller and smaller, transforming into a circle of five colored rainbows, and finally disappeared in the southwest. Guru Rinpoche’s copper colored mountain is in the southwest direction, so when I pray to Dagchen Rinpoche, I believe he is in Guru Rinpoche’s pure land.
During the last two years, I’ve had many dreams in which Dagchen Rinpoche appeared. Each time, I hold Rinpoche’s hand, sometimes going up, sometimes going down, sometimes in the temple, or in the mountains. Of course I miss Dagchen Rinpoche every day. If this feeling is very strong, and if I cannot control my mind, I look at and touch his cane, or his clothes, or teacup, and look at his photos. Especially I look at one photo where Dagchen Rinpoche is seated in a chair, with his right hand on top of my head. Or I read the letter which he wrote to me two hours before his transformation.
I aspire to finish my video documentary about my root guru Dagchen Rinpoche, in which I interviewed Sakya masters, members of the Sakya family, and his disciples.
Translated on Buddha’s birthday, by Tulku Yeshe Rinpoche, assisted by David Merrill