Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, the highly-respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher and founder of Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in eastern Tibet, near the town of Serthar (Ch: Seda) in present-day Sichuan Province, passed away at approximately 9:40 am on January 7, 2004, at a hospital in Chengdu. He was 70.
“Since the tragic news of the passing of the 10th Panchen Lama in 1989, this has been the saddest news to come from Tibet,” said Mr. Lodi Gyari, Special Envoy of the Dalai Lama.
“Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok worked very hard for the preservation and promotion of the unique religious faith of all Tibetans,” Gyari added.
According to information received from Tibet, the Khenpo underwent heart surgery in the beginning of this year in a hospital in Chengdu after having been admitted to Chinese military hospital number 363 on December 29, 2003. In recent years he was reportedly in poor health, and in 2001 he was reportedly suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok had become a well-known Buddhist figure not just in Tibet and among the Tibetan people, but also throughout China and the Chinese-speaking Buddhist world. The Buddhist Institute that he founded in Larung Gar, near Serthar, in 1980 with fewer than 100 disciples expanded and by 2002 it had over 8,000 disciples, including a sizable Chinese population. He had also traveled extensively within China, giving Buddhist teachings in Beijing, Ningbo, Jizu Shan, Guanzhou, and Shenzhen, although in the last four years authorities reportedly only allowed Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok to travel for medical check ups and did not allow him to teach outside of Larung Gar.
The Khenpo’s institute saw a trend of several thousand Chinese Buddhists coming to receive teachings and participate fully in Tibetan Buddhist practice. David Germano, a Tibetologist at the University of Virginia who made several visits to Serthar, has written: “Not only are there Chinese monks and nuns resident in [Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s] Golog centre and Chinese lay Buddhists periodically making the long pilgrimage there, I have heard reports of Khenpo literally being mobbed by Chinese Buddhists or simply the curious seeking his blessings or teachings during visits to Chengdu.”
With Larung Gar’s growth, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was responsible for educating thousands of teachers who upon graduation returned to their home areas.
“Perhaps the greatest achievement of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was spreading authentic Buddhist scholarship by educating thousands upon thousands of teachers, both monks and nuns,” said John Ackerly, President of the International Campaign for Tibet. “Not only have they spread throughout the Tibetan plateau, but his students are now in China, India and the west.”
Chinese authorities began cracking down on the Khenpo’s institute in the late 1990s. On 18 April 2001, the Chinese authorities issued a notice reiterating their command that Serthar must have a ceiling of 1,400 residents, which resulted in the eviction of over 7,000 students. The International Campaign for Tibet was the first to break news of the crackdown.
The Khenpo had traveled widely outside of China and Tibet in the early 1990s, including visiting India and met with the Dalai Lama. However, since the mid 1990s, the Chinese authorities had denied him permission to travel abroad. Many of his overseas Tibetan and Chinese disciples had attempted unsuccessfully to get permission from Chinese authorities to allow the Khenpo to travel to the West for medical treatment.
“Chinese authorities should allow his followers to conduct traditional funeral rites in Tibet and also provide details of the medical condition causing his death,” said Ackerly.
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was known for his scholarship. He was the first monk in modern Tibet who succeeded in building a major, successful monastic teaching center. His religious charisma was matched by an ability to work with authorities and to push them to their limits.
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s name means “The master scholar of fearless sublimity.” His disciples referred to Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok simply as “Yeshe Norbu” or “Wish Fulfilling Jewel.”
One of his unfulfilled desires was a visit to Maratika Caves in Nepal, a sacred site where Guru Rinpoche was believed to have attained eternal life.
Brief Biography of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok:
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was born into a nomadic family in 1933 in present Serthar county. After being recognized as an incarnation of an important Buddhist teacher, he started his education around the age of six. His father passed away when he was seven.
When he was 14 he took novice monk’s vows from the renowned scholar Khenpo Sonam Rinchen and when he was 18 he went to Dzachukha to study under Thubten Choepel Rinpoche. At the age of 24 he returned to his home monastery of Nubzor, about 30 kilometers east of Serthar, and began teaching Buddhist philosophy and meditation.
In 1980 he founded the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute near Serthar.
In 1987 Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok traveled to Wutaishan (sacred Buddhist mountain site in Shanxi Province) accompanied by several thousand of his disciples. He also visited the Panchen Lama in Beijing during the same trip.
At the end of 1988, at the request of the Panchen Lama, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok taught at the Tibetan Buddhist Institute in Beijing.
In the summer of 1989, he went on pilgrimage to the central Tibetan cities of Lhasa and Shigatse. From there, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok traveled to Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Nepal and India. In India, he had an audience with the 14th Dalai Lama.
Throughout the 1990s the number of students at Larung Gar continues to grow by the thousands, including nearly one thousand Chinese disciples of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s residing there by the late 1990s.
In 1993, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok gave Buddhist teachings in Singapore, Malaysia, France, Germany, England and the USA. Returning to Larung Gar, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok continued to teach extensively and write commentaries from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages, spending most of his time at Larung Gar in the late 1990s. By the end of the 1990s, approximately 4,000 nuns and 4,500 monks lived, studied and practiced meditation at Larung Gar.
On a scale not witnessed since the Cultural Revolution, massive demolition of monastic homes and large scale eviction of monks and nuns by Chinese security forces began in July 2001. All Chinese students were evicted. During this time, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s health deteriorated and he moved between hospitals in Barkham (Ch: Maerkang) and Chengdu for medical care.
In 2002 and early 2003, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok spent time in Larung Gar, medical clinics in Barkham, and hospitals in Chengdu, constantly under heavy scrutiny and surveillance by Public Security Bureau. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok taught infrequently during this period due to ill health.
Late November, 2003, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s sister, Ani Mundron in her late 60s at Larung Gar.
On December 3, 2003, Khenpo began to teach at Larung Gar from the Gyu Sangwa Nyingpo Tantra but is unable to continue after two days after his health condition worsened. He was taken to a medical clinic in Barkham but local doctors recommend that he be transferred to Chengdu.
On January 7, 2004, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok passed away in Chengdu in a military hospital reportedly from heart failure.
Biographical Timeline of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche
1933. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok was born the first son of a nomadic family the third day of the first lunar month in the Dzume Chola valley on the north side of the Do river near Drupchen Monastery in present day Serthar county. His given name at birth was Kelsang Namgyal.
1937. Terton Wangchuk and Khenpo Dontock Lharig recognized Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok as the incarnation of Terton Sogyal Lerab Lingpa (1856-1926), a teacher to the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso.
1940. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s father passes away.
1947. Formally enters a monastery at the age of fourteen, receiving novice vows from the renowned scholar Khenpo Sonam Rinchen of Dragzong Monastery in Nyarong, eastern Tibet.
1951. At the age of eighteen, he begins six years of intensive study and solitary meditation retreats with Thubten Choepel Rinpoche at Cangma Monastery in Dzachukha region of eastern Tibet.
1950. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s mother dies.
1955. At twenty two, he became a fully ordained monk.
1957. At twenty four, Khenpo returned to his home monastery of Nubzor, where Terton Sogyal had passed away, to resume his spiritual and administrative role.
1960-1980. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok evades the People’s Liberation Army, the Red Guard and Chinese authorities by wandering as a goat herder and nomad in the remote valleys of Serthar in eastern Tibet. During these years, he continued to practice meditation, write commentaries on Buddhist philosophical texts, as well as informally transmit teachings to students.
1980. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok went with less than a dozen students to a desolate valley near Serthar and built simple earthen wall meditation huts for meditation retreats. This became Larung Gar Buddhist Academy.
1981. Begins to write his autobiography at the request of his close disciples. More than a hundred students live around Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s mud hut.
1983. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok experiences his first problems with his heart at the age of 50. He continues to teach extensively at Larung Gar as the number of students building permanent earthen homes increases.
1982-1986. Numbers of students coming to Larung Gar to temporarily reside to study and receive teachings begins to increase by the thousands. By 1986, more than six thousand monks and nuns from all different regions of Tibet are attending the ecumenical teachings of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok which included his commentary on texts of Padmasambhava, Sakya Pandita, Naropa, and J? Tsong Khapa. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok travels in throughout eastern Tibet teaching.
1987. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok meets the Panchen Lama in Beijing.
1987. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok makes a pilgrimage with thousands of students following to Wu Tai Shan, the Five Peaked Mountain in China, as well as Emishan Peak.
1988. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok returns to Beijing to teach from Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelugpa texts at the Tibetan Buddhist Institute, at the request of the Panchen Lama.
1988. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok visits holy places in and around Lhasa and Shigatse at the invitation of the Panchen Lama.
1989. In June, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok travels to Nepal on pilgrimage and makes arrangements to travel to India.
1989. July 16, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok arrives in Dharamsala, India and meets the Dalai Lama. They renew their previous lives’ student-teacher relationship by bestowing empowerment and teachings to each other. The Dalai Lama recognized Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s niece, Muntso (born 1966) as the incarnation of a famous female teacher of Mindroling monastery, Minling Jetsun Migyur Peldon.
1990. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok returns to Larung Gar to resume teaching. He continues to travel in China and Tibet giving religious discourse, empowerments, and pith instructions on meditative practices. Thousands of students continue to study at Larung Gar.
1991. At Larung Gar, nearly 150 students had graduated since 1980 with the degree of “Khenpo” under Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s intensive Buddhist curriculum of study, meditation, and debate. Within the next ten years, that number swells to 600. Thus, Larung Gar Khenpos are able to return to their local monasteries throughout Tibet and China to teach the next generation of students. At Larung Gar, simultaneous translation into Chinese of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s teachings by bilingual teachers if fully functioning, as the number of Chinese students from China, Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere continues to grow.
1993. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok teaches and givs empowerments at the invitation of Buddhist centers in Singapore, Malaysia, France, Germany, England and the USA.
1994-1998. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok continues to teach extensively and write commentaries from all schools of Tibet, spending most of his time at Larung Gar. Chinese authorities’ concern begins to grow for the large number of monastics at Larung Gar. Requests are made by local authorities to decrease the number of monks and nuns.
1998. The number of Chinese students of Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s residing at Larung Gar approaches 1,000; approximately 4,500 Tibetan nuns and 4,000 Tibetan monks live, study and meditate at Larung Gar.
2001. On a scale not witnessed since the Cultural Revolution, massive demolition of monastic homes and large scale eviction of monks and nuns begins in July. All Chinese students are evicted, overseen by Public Security Bureau and People’s Liberation Army. Police occupy the housing facility formerly used by Chinese students.
2001. During the demolition, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s health deteriorates and moves to hospitals in Chengdu for medical care. His movements are under constant surveillance by Chinese authorities. At Larung Gar, the curriculum is severely disrupted from the demolition, eviction and Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok’s absence, although teachings by junior teachers continue.
2002-2003. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok spends time in Larung Gar, medical clinics in Barkham, and Chengdu, constantly under heavy scrutiny and surveillance by Chinese authorities. Serthar Public Security Bureau personnel continue to occupy monastic building at Larung Gar. Skirmishes break out occasionally between monks and police. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok teaches infrequently due to ill health…
2004. January 7. Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok dies in Chengdu in a military hospital reportedly from heart failure.