Modest Master

Memories of the late Tulku Urgyen (1920-1996). 

Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt

© Jean-Marie AdaminiA generation of American dharma teachers has matured, and many younger students will never know the Asian masters who were their teachers’ teachers. One such teacher to Western students was Kyabje Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920—1996). Among the most revered Tibetan Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, Tulku Urgyen was instrumental in bringing to the West the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings that have become so popular in North America. He influenced the well-known American teachers Joseph Goldstein, Lama Surya Das, and Sharon Salzberg, as well as many prominent Tibetans teaching in the West, including Sogyal Rinpoche, Ponlop Rinpoche, and Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche.

Tulku Urgyen was born in 1920 in Eastern Tibet and was recognized as the reincarnation of Guru Chöwang Tulku, one of the Five Terton Kings, who were said to be the major revealers of secret texts hidden by the founder or Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava. As a major lineage holder, Tulku Urgyen received Dzogchen and Mahamudra transmission from the greatest masters of the time. He in turn passed these teachings on to the next generation of Tibetan masters and many of his contemporaries, including the Sixteenth Karmapa, to whom Tulku Urgyen was a close and trusted advisor. In 1958, Tulku Urgyen fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet and went on to establish six monasteries and retreat centers in the Kathmandu region of Nepal, where he encountered that area’s first wave of eager Western students.

Despite Tulku Urgyen’s influence and widely acknowledged status as a meditation master—he spent over twenty years in retreat, including four three-year retreats— he spoke little of his own attainments. While his students Eric Hein Schmidt and Marcia Binder Schmidt were compiling Blazing Splendor, his recently published memoirs, he insisted that the emphasis of the book be on the accomplishments of others. As Sogyal Rinpoche notes in the foreword to the book:

You will not learn so much in these pages about the author of these memoirs, the Tibetan master Kyabje Tulku Urgen Rinpoche. This is inevitable, because of his humility and his discretion. And yet he is the heart of this book, not only because it is his eyes witnessing these amazing events, his voice recounting them, and his mind making sense of them for us, but also because he was of the very same caliber as the exceptional individuals he is describing. He inherited their wisdom completely, and he embodied their incredible qualities. 

Tulku Urgyen died in February 1996 at his hermitage Nagi Gompa on the southern slope of Shivapuri Mountain in Nepal. Carrying on his legacy are his sons, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Chokling Rinpoche. In the following excerpt from Blazing Splendor, Tulku Urgyen remembers an exceptional Tibetan Buddhist master of humble means.

The Master in the Hollow Tree
Let me tell you about the extraordinary scripture the Light of Wisdom. This fundamental text by Padmasambhava reads like a poetic song. As a guidance manual for practice, it is strikingly clear all by itself. The Light of Wisdom is immense in its scope, including virtually every aspect of the Buddhist path to enlightenment.

In my youth, the eccentric master Jamdrak was regarded as the person to go to for an explanation of the Light of Wisdom. At the end of the root text several paragraphs prophesied individuals who in the future would work for the benefit of the Dharma and all living beings, and exactly how they would do so. Jamdrak is said to be among those predicted eight hundred years before by the Lotus-Born master {Padmasambhava} in the scripture itself.

Before Jamdrak passed away, my uncle Tersey sent a gifted khenpo [learned teacher], known as Jokyab, to receive instructions from the old lama. Uncle Tersey had given him a letter with this request, “Please give your particular lineage of explanation on the Light of Wisdom to this learned monk so that it will not disappear.”

By the time Jokyab had set off to see him, Jamdrak was eighty-three years old. He lived contentedly in the hollow formed by the roots of a huge tree at a remote hermitage way up in the mountains. The old master couldn’t sit up straight, as his spine had curved with age. Jamdrak was not only extremely old by Tibetan standards, but he was quite particular in his ways. He wore a large cotton bib around his neck because he tended to drool, and he never blew his nose but let it run freely. He couldn’t care less what people thought about how he looked. He was a real yogi.

He didn’t wear the shirt and shawl of an ordained practitioner—just a coat fashioned out of scraps of old sheepskin, the outside patched together with different kinds of cloth. One of these was a large piece of exquisite brocade with a golden dragon design. Apparently, he had stitched this fine swatch of silk on his tattered robe after someone offered it to him, though it cost him a few bitter remarks from the manager of the nearby monastery, who hated to see such good brocade go to waste like that.

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