The 12th Tai Situpa

The XIIth Tai Situpa
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The Tibetan namthar, or biography of an incarnate lama, always contains the history of the subject's lineage of incarnations, because the current incarnation is seen as the same enlightened entity, though he is inhabiting a different body. There are actually hundreds of tulkus to be found in Tibetan tradition. Every monastery of any size usually has several tulkus attached to it. There are a few incarnate lamas who hold exalted positions from which, for centuries, they have exerted considerable influence in the parts of Tibet where they lived and travelled. The Tai Situpa is twelfth in a line of incarnations that spans over a thousand years and whose history is integral to the religious and scholastic development in Eastern Tibet, particularly Kham, where his large monastic seat, Palpung, is located.

The history goes back to before the title of Tai Situpa was bestowed upon this line of tulkus, to the time of the Indian mahasiddhas, or "great accomplishers," who gained renown for their sanctity, often accompanied by miracles. According to tradition, the Tai Situpa is an emanation of the bodhisattva Maitreya, who will become the next Buddha, and who has taken form as numerous Indian and Tibetan yogins since the time of the historical Buddha. The mahasiddha mentioned in the biographies as such an emanation is Dombipa, king of Magadha, disciple of Virupa.
He was a saintly man who practised tantra secretly for twelve years before he abdicated in favour of a contemplative life in the wilderness. Another incarnation was Denma Tsemang, one of the twenty-five main disciples of Padmasambhava, who was noted for his phenomenal memory. One of the first Tibetan incarnations of significance was Marpa (1012-97) who, as previously mentioned, studied in India, returning with the lineage transmission from Naropa and others, as well as with texts for translation. He made three trips to India in all, and his biography is of great interest to modern practitioners of Buddhism. He was a family man and a farmer, cantankerous by all accounts, who experienced such vicissitudes of life as the untimely death of a beloved son, but who managed to include scholasticism and fruitful practice into his layman's routine, with the assistance of his exceptional wife, Dagmema.

The incarnation of Drogon Rechen (II48I2.I8) established the link between the line which became the Tai Situpas and the Karmapas, a link which exists to this day. Drogon Rechen was one of the principal students of the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, and since that time these two high incarnate lamas have maintained a continuous guru-disciple interrelationship, which has been instrumental in the continuity of teachings and practices of the Karma Kagyu. It has become a custom for the Karmapa to recognize the Tai Situpa and become his main teacher, and for the Tai Situpa to recognize the Karmapa and transmit the teachings back to him.

Two other incarnations as yogins of considerable attainment, Yeshe Nyingpo and Ringowa, followed the incarnation as Marpa. Yeshe Nyingpo was a disciple of the extraordinary second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Another incarnation was a Chinese emperor with unusual spiritual power whose name was Tai Tsu, who was the disciple of the fifth Karmapa, Teshin Shekpa. He was clairvoyant and was able to perceive an ornament on the head of his teacher that could not be seen with ordinary sight, so he bad a crown fashioned that resembled what he perceived. He presented the crown to the Karmapa to wear so that more people could become aware of it and benefit from seeing an outer representation of the inner crown symbolizing advanced realization. This offering was the beginning of the traditional Black Crown Ceremony, which the Karmapas are noted for, and which they have performed up until present times.

The Tai Situpas

Chokyi Gyaltsen (1377I448) was the first incarnation to bear the title Tai Situ, conferred upon him in I407 by the Chinese emperor Yung Lo of the Ming Dynasty. The complete title as it was given in Chinese is quite lengthy and is often shortened to Kuang Ting Tai Situ, which conveys the gist of it and is translated "far reaching, unshakable, great master, holder of the command." Chokyi Gyaltsen was a close disciple of the fifth Karmapa and was appointed by him to the position of head instructor of Karma Gon, the Karmapas chief monastery at the time, located in Eastern Tibet.

The second Tai Situpa, Tashi Namgyal (I450-1497), was recognized and enthroned by the sixth Karmapa, who later gave Karma Gon Monastery to him. Karma Gon (c. II85) was known for its library, which contained many Sanskrit texts, as well as for the exquisite art that embellished it. Until its recent destruction it provided a unique example of the best of Tibetan caning, sculpture, painting, and scholarship. It was the original seat of the Karmapas, founded by the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa (III0-1193).

The third Situpa, Tashi Paljor (I498-I54I), and the fourth Situpa, Chokyi Gocha (I542-1585), continued the beneficial work at Karma Gon and other monasteries within its sphere of influence in Eastern Tibet. Situ Tashi Paljor discovered the eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (I507-1554), and was one of his principal teachers. He in turn became the teacher of the fourth Situpa. Chokyi Gyaltsen Palsang (I586-I657), the fifth Tai Situpa, was distinguished by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje, who bestowed upon him the Red Crown in acknowledgment of his high level of spiritual accomplishment. The fifth Situpa built the large Yermoche Monastery and added to several existing ones while the Karmapa was away in China.

Situ Mipham Chogyal Rabten (I658-1682), the sixth Tai Situpa tulku, was a yogi credited in the texts with miracles that seem fanciful to the modern materialist mind, such as hanging prayer beads from a sunbeam and leaving footprints in rocks. The seventh Tai Situpa, Mawe Nyima (1683-1698), was the son of the king of Ling and died at an early age.

Of all the incarnations, that of the eighth Tai Situpa, Chokyi Jungne (I700-1774), may well be the most extraordinary to date. He was a sage of great insight, a Sanskrit scholar, a doctor, and an innovative thangka painter. Even as a child he was a brilliant scholar and known for his ability to accurately predict future events. In 1727 be founded Palpung, the monastery in Dege that was subsequently the seat of the Tai Situpas. He was invited to China with the twelfth Karmapa, Changchup Dorje, but he remained behind to look after the monastery.

When the Karmapa and the eighth Shamarpa died within a few days of each other in China, Situ Chokyi Jungne was left with the responsibility of the Karmapa's monasteries in addition to his own. He became the teacher of the thirteenth Karmapa, Dundul Dorje, of the ninth Shamarpa, and of Tenpa Tsering, the king of Dege. With the patronage of the Dege king, who had asked him to revise the Kangyur and the Tengyur, the eighth Tai Situpa set up the Dege Printing Press at Lhundrup Teng. Texts printed there were of such excellent quality that they have been reprinted in modern facsimile editions, with copies residing in Tibetan archives throughout the world. He was a linguist who taught in Sanskrit, Nepali, and Chinese, and his text on Tibetan grammar is still in use today. The eighth Tai Situpa traveled widely in Tibet, Nepal, and China. He composed numerous texts on astrology and medicine, and he established styles of drawing and painting that were later developed and passed on by his students. Palpung Monastery itself became one of the most important monastic centers in Tibet, and it developed a unique scholarly and artistic tradition which radiated to subsidiary monasteries in places as far flung as Shitzang, Yunnan, Chinghai, and Szechwan. With the Dege king's sponsorship he established many monasteries besides Palpung.

Situ Chokyi Jungne was an outspoken critic of the hypocrisy and greed that was rampant in some monasteries at the time. He deplored those who violated their vows and sacrificed compassion in favour of exploiting others for gain or fame. He characterized them in one poem as "charlatan gurus" who "attain the siddhi of the fourteen root downfalls" and "sow the seeds of hell without purpose." He was an inspiration to his students, a number of whom became masters in their own right. He predicted the details of his next incarnation before he passed away.

The ninth Tai Situpa, Pema Nyinje Wangpo (I774-1853), mastered scholarly disciplines at an early age, and it was under his influence in the stimulating intellectual climate of Palpung that a renaissance of Buddhist thought was precipitated. He recognized the innate greatness of the child who was to achieve renown as Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, the primary genius of the nineteenth century renaissance now called the Rime, or "non-sectarian," movement. Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye (I813-1899) was one of the truly magnificent scholars in the history of Tibet; he called upon his profound knowledge of all traditions, from the Bon family into which he was born to the other lineages he later studied. Situ Pema Nyinje had the ability to recognize genius and foster it, and he did so without making sectarian distinctions, which were all too common at the time. As a result he was surrounded by some of the finest minds of his age. He was one of the main teachers of the fourteenth Karmapa, and he was closely associated with the yogi Chogyur Lingpa and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, who became important figures in both the Nyingmapa and Kagyupa traditions.

The ninth Situpa spent the last thirty years of his long life in retreat, during which time he often amazed his monks at his seeming omniscience in managing monastery affairs from his seclusion. One story is told about how he admonished a monk to stop drinking, much to the monk's surprise. The monk naturally thought his weakness was well hidden, at least from the head lama who was holed up in strict retreat.

Situ Pema Kunsang (1854-1885), the tenth Tai Situpa, was recognized and enthroned by his former illustrious students, the fourteenth Karmapa and Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. He spent his relatively short life as a yogi who developed extraordinary powers through his meditation practices.

The eleventh and immediately previous Tai Situpa, Pema Wangchok Gyalpo (1886-I950), was another incarnation with the reputation of tremendous power and productivity. He was evidently quite a character as well. People are still around who remember him, and some recount anecdotes about his tough and relentless discipline. He expanded Palpung Monastery, which by his time was the center of administration for the spiritual and temporal needs of thirteen monastic estates in different provinces of Central and Eastern Tibet. His representatives were sent to each of those communities to handle administrative and religious affairs.

He himself traveled constantly to teach and refine conduct and discipline in the 180 monasteries under his care. He was held in awe by everyone, due to his reputation as a stickler on monastic propriety who had no qualms about delivering beatings to offenders. He recognized the sixteenth Karmapa's incarnation without benefit of seeing the fifteenth Karmapa's predictive letter, which had been spirited away after the latter's death by an absconding monk who was afraid of Situ Pema Wangchok. When the letter was finally recovered, it confirmed that the tulku recognized by the Tai Situpa was correct, supporting every detail. The eleventh Situpa was the main teacher of the sixteenth Karmapa.

The current and twelfth Tai Situpa, Pema Tonyo Nyinje, was born in 1954, in the Tibetan year of the Male Wood Horse. He was born in the Palyul district of Dege, Eastern Tibet, to a farming family by the name of Liu. His birth was accompanied by the auspicious signs that are associated with the birth of a high incarnate lama, including the recognition of his birth by the sixteenth Karmapa. The Karmapa was visiting Beijing as part of a delegation with the Dalai Lama when he became aware of the imminent birth of the twelfth Tai Situpa. He composed a letter in which he gave a clear description of the identity of the parents and their place of residence, and that letter, coupled with the unmistakable signs surrounding the birth and unusual physical phenomena such as a rainbow inside the house and an earthquake, enabled accurate recognition of the current incarnation. At the age of eighteen months he was escorted to his monastic seat, Palpung Monastery, to be enthroned there by the Karmapa according to tradition.

When political hostilities became acute in Eastern Tibet he was taken to the Karmapa's main monastery, Tsurphu, near Yangpachen in Central Tibet, where he performed his first Red Crown Ceremony, a practice that has become a tradition since the fifth Tai Situpa received the Red Crown from the ninth Karmapa. He stayed in Tsurphu Monastery for one year. At the age of five he left Tibet with his attendants for Bhutan, where King Jigme Dorje and the Queen Mother had been disciples of the previous Situpa Pema Wangchok. He then went to Sikkim, where he lived in Gangktok until he fell ill with tuberculosis, at which time he moved to Darjeeling, where he could be close to medical facilities. After his recovery he returned to Sikkim, this time to Rumtek Monastery, where he remained under the care of the Karmapa and received his formal religious training under his guidance.

As a child the present Tai Situpa, formerly head of great monasteries, had to struggle to survive with his few attendants, all suddenly refugees in India. He and his three monks barely scraped by until an American relief organization provided a sponsor for the young lama. Nola McGarry, his American foster mother, contributed to his support while he grew up and also encouraged him to learn English, both in her letters and by sending him books to study. She did not meet him until I980., during his first teaching tour in America.

At the age of twenty-two, Situ Rinpoche assumed responsibility for founding his own new monastic seat on some land that had been offered to him by disciples from Dege and Nangchen. With the blessing and encouragement of the Karmapa, he left Sikkim for Himachal Pradesh, a Himalayan state in Northern India. There he had tents set up on some forested land in the hills near Palampur, close to the Tibetan community of Bir, and began construction of Sherab Ling Monastery.

For five years the monastery grew slowly. Along with the monks came a small group of Western students, some of whom sponsored the construction of retreat houses on the land, where people could engage in serious meditation practice under the Tai Situpa's direction. He made his first visit to the West in I981, when he taught at Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, Scotland. He made his first teaching tour of America in I982, having been there once before, unofficially, at the time of the passing of the sixteenth Karmapa in Chicago in November of I98I. He also toured Southeast Asia. Since that time his activities have been divided between international teaching tours and his own quiet monastery in the hills of Himachal Pradesh.

Besides his role as a Buddhist monk, teacher, and abbot, Situ Rinpoche is a particular commitment to world peace, which resulted in I989 in his Pilgrimage for Active Peace, involving religious leaders and humanitarians around the world in the effort to evolve practical means by which individuals can actively contribute to developing inner and outer peace for themselves and others. His concern to share the principles of Buddhism with others led him in I983 to found Maitreya Institute, a forum where different approaches to spiritual development can be explored and shared through the arts as well as through philosophy, psychology, art healing, without sectarian or religious bias.

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Last updated 28 January 1997