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His Eminence Lama Nyingkhula, alias Kunzang Wangdi (1942-2018)

Born (1942, water horse year) to Jurminla and Thinley, he was raised in Pangthang village in Bartsham in Tashigang. In the tradition of non-formal education in villages, his grandfather Nyoendola taught him when he was a child. He retained his parent’s beloved pet name for him, Nyingkhula (སྙིང་ཁུ་ལ). He grew up in the blessed setting of the old Bartsham Chador Lhakhang, which contains the celebrated statue of Chador-Tumpo, a treasure of Pema Lingpa brought ages ago as a wedding gift from Khar Yangkhar Koche. In course of time, he became one of the most learned, reflective and meditative lamas of his age. He had a reputation of being unrivalled in his strivings, erudition and virtuousness. As Buddhist describe the passing away of an important religious figure, Lama Kunzang Wangdi’s body form dissolved into dharmakaya most peacefully on October 6, 2018. In a message paying tribute to him, Dzongar Jamyang Khyentse noted that though there are many peerless lamas, Lama Kunzang was unmatched also in practice of meditation.

During his last days in Genyenkha (དགེ་རྙིང་ཁ་ in old texts), where he had been living for the last thirteen years, His Majesty The King and Her Majesty Gyalyum Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck were gracious enough to visit him. His devoted services to Their Majesties as Their lama-sungkhorpa, or mantra holder (སྔགས་འཆང་སྲུང་འཁོར་བ), from 1992 till his passing away, began with the conferral of the title of lama-sungkhorpa by His Majesty the Fourth King. Between 1995-2009, Lama Kunzang was a member-representative of the gomchens, the communities of non-celibate Vajrayana practitioners, in the Religious Council of the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs. Lama Kunzang was of the gomchen or ngagpa tradition that is widespread in eastern Bhutan. Ngagpa or gomchen tradition, stretching back to Guru Rinpoche, was one of the two communities of practitioners: monks who were celibate sutrayana practitioners and gomchens who were lay or non-celibate Vajrayana practitioners.  In 2009, Lama Kunzang was elected as a member of the Council of Ngajur Nyingma for three years during an assembly of heads of Nyingma lamas.

The accomplishments and perfections of Lama Kunzang were not only due to his own exertions and insights, but also due to his long associations with many distinguished masters. His resume notes that he had the privilege of receiving dharma teachings and skills, roughly in order of timing, from Lama Pema Wangchen (alias Lama Nakulung), Lama Norbu Wangchuk, Dudjom Rinpoche, Jadrel Sangay Dorji, Lama Sonam Zangpo, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Dungse Thinley Norbu and Dzongsar Jamgyang Khyentse. Thus, his practices included both Nyingma and Kagyu streams of Buddhism.  He assimilated and incorporated six cycles of Naropa’s teachings from Lama Sonam Zangpo at Do Rangtha Hermitage (Lam Kesang Chophel, 2014, p. 1981) just as he learnt and mastered astrology comprehensively from Lama Norbu Wangchuk at Yonphula and Drametse. He absorbed many unique hands on (ཕྱག་བཞད་) legacies of Dilgo Khyentse and Dudjom Rinpoche, particularly on manual aspects of rites, because he worked with them for a considerably long time (Bartsham Dorji Lopen Sonam Zangpo, personal communications, 2018).

But his early life as a Buddhist learner and practitioner owes much to Lama Pema Wangchen of Bartsham. Lama Pema Wangchen’s biography by Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi (2013, p. 406) points out that by 1954, Lama Kunzang had become one of his young disciples. Lama Pema Wangchen schooled him in various knowledges and techniques of dough offering (གཏོར་བཟོ), mandala creation, chanting, and liturgical music. He learnt linguistics and grammar from Lama Tenzin Kuenleg, and stupa architecture from Tshong Tshong Lopen. Others taught him xylographic book carving, wood works, metal casting of statues, and calligraphy. Along with such widely appreciated skills he got, Lama Pema Wangchen also imparted to him an extensive range of texts on Buddhist theories, doctrines and practices. By 1961, along with key disciples of Lama Pema Wangchen such as Lopon Yeshey Dondup (1951-2002), Lama Daupo alias Ugyen Namdrol, Lama Nyingkula had received from him empowerments, transmissions and instructions for a huge number of texts including Dudjom Tersar tradition (Khenpo Phuntsho Tashi, 2013, p. 434). Such three-fold method of liberation-teachings culminated in the dzogchen texts and practices of All-Surpassing Realization of Spontaneous Presence (འོད་གསལ་ཐོད་རྒལ) and The Separation between Phenomena of Samsara and Nirvana (འཁོར་འདས་རུ་ཤན). He then went into eight long years of solitary retreat at Bartsham. Since then, it was quite regular for him to go into shorter retreats every year.

Lama Kunzang ’s most productive and prolific period as a scribe, writer and editor was from 1976 to 1986 while he was with Dudjom Rinpoche Jigdrel Yeshey Dorji in Kathmandu in Nepal and Kalimgpong in India. As the chief scribe and editor during that period he received many empowerments, transmissions and instructions not only on Dudjom Tersar but on numerous other earlier lineages such as Peling, Jigling, Longchen Nyingthig, and complete cycles of Ngajur Kama. He worked fruitfully on various projects of writing, editing and anthologies under the close and edifying tutelage and guidance of Dudjom Rinpoche. These monumental writing projects, in which Lama Kunzang was involved, included collected works of the former Dudjom, Dudjom Lingpa (1835-1904) in 27 volumes, collected works or Kabum of Dudjom Rinpoche himself (1904-1987) in 25 volumes, and canonical collections of Ngajur Nyingma (The Early Lineage of Transmitted Precepts) in 57 volumes and the collected works of Sera Khando in seven volumes. Lama Kunzang, assisted by few other calligraphers, wrote and edited these massive volumes; each of these volumes ran on average into eight hundred folio pages. Each volume was originally a manuscript, which was authored by Dudjom Rinpoche and calligraphed and edited by Lama Kunzang, for reprinting and distribution throughout the Vajarayana world steeped in classical choskad. Some of the volumes of Dudjom Rinpoche’s own Kabum or Sungbum that we had the privilege to read, needless to say, reflects Dudjom Rimpoche’s mesmeric erudition and spell biding poetic exposition of all branches of Buddhist scholarship. So, it was not surprising that the copies of these texts ran out quickly. As original edition ran out, Lama Kunzang republished some of them later. The re-publication of the collected works of Dudjom Lingpa and Dudjom Rinpoche in computerised fonts were, for example, sponsored by Lama Kunzang between 2004 and 2006. In some of the collected works of Dudjom Rinpoche, the colophon at the end of each volume denotes that it was calligraphed (ཡི་གེ་པ), by Monpa hearkening to the classical name of Bhutan, Kunzang Wangdi. In fact, Dudjom Rinpoche had named him Kunzang Wangdi who was known until then as Nyingkhula.

Towards the later part of his life, Lama Kunzang was engaged in designing and supervision of several landmark religious structures envisioned by His Majesty the Fourth King and Their Majesties the Queens. In fulfillment of the vision of the Queen Mother, Gyalyum Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, Lama Kunzang was responsible for the construction of Khamsum Yueley Namgyel Chorten in Punakha between 1992-1999.  Between 1997-2001, Lama Kunzang was charged with the restoration of Yongla Goenpa in Dungsam in accordance with the revered-wish of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. Yet the young boy who turned to Buddhist scholarship and practice in mid 1950s never lost touch with his community, and his roots in Bartsham.   Initiated and envisioned by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, Lama Kunzang led his community in Bartsham to construct the new, six-storied Chador Lhakhang in 2006. With the generous stipendiary support of Their Majesties the Fourth King and His Majesty for the Gomdra, he had enlarged the scope of earlier monastery and increased the number of gomchen. He had always hoped that future practitioners will have thus better opportunities of learning and liberation, which would facilitate happiness of all sentient beings.

Contributed by

 Bartsham Dorji Lopen Sonam Zangpo, 

Rinchen Wangdi and 

Dasho Karma Ura. 

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