(KHENPO JIGPHUN passed away on the 15th day of the 11th month (6/1/2004), following which this tribute was written. See his praise of Bhutan at the end.)
On January 6, 2004, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Jungnye, a revered Buddhist leader from Tibet, passed away at 70. He had been admitted to Chengdu’s 363 Military Hospital in Sichuan, China, on December 29, 2003, for heart problems. In his later years, he faced health issues and restrictions on his movements and religious activities imposed by Chinese authorities.
Khenpo Jigphun, a formidable lama, was a modern-day Mañjuśri incarnate. He influenced thousands of Tibetan Buddhists and revived Buddhism in Tibet after religious liberalization in 1980. Born in 1932 in Golok Sertar, Kham, he recited Mañjuśri’s mantra at birth and chanted it over 13 billion times in his life.
Like most of his visionary experiences, this event unfolded with an extemporaneous hymn of celebration. He led a life of revelation and composition of religious teachings, known as dgong gter or Mind Treasure. This made him the greatest terton of modern times. In 1937, he was recognized as the reincarnation of Terton Sogyal (1856-1926), the Nyingmapa of the 13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatsho. He became a monk at Nubzur Gonpa, a branch of the Palyul monastery in Sertar. However, he received his formal religious training at Changma Rithro in Dzachukha under Thubga Rinpoche undergoing much hardship.
After completing his education, Khenpo became the abbot of Nubzur at 24. However, the Chinese invasion of Tibet interrupted his religious career. Many of his people suffered from famine due to Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy. The Cultural Revolution in 1959 further devastated Tibet’s cultural and religious heritage. Communist ideology replaced religious teachings, and communal farming replaced the traditional way of life.
Despite their efforts, Communist officials couldn’t force Khenpo to renounce his faith publicly and accept party lines. When the Chinese caught him, his face swelled miraculously, and they feared an infectious disease. Consequently, they allowed Khenpo to return to the remote mountains. Another story reports Khenpo’s power to make himself invisible whenever the Chinese soldiers came in search of him.
With the relaxation of religious restrictions at end of the 1970s, Khenpo resumed his religious activities of teaching and writing. In 1978, Larung Gar Buddhist Academy was founded in Sertar to provide ecumenical training in Tibetan Buddhism, a significant educational achievement.
The slopes of Larung Gar were soon hosts to a rapidly expanding shanty town built by the community of disciples who flocked around him. Registered as an educational establishment rather than as a monastery, Larung Gar became a renowned hub of Buddhist scholarship. At its peak in the early 2000s, it had nearly 10,000 monks and nuns. It also produced hundreds of erudite Khenpos who spread Khenpo’s teachings globally. The monastic sprawl covered hills with three quartiers, forming separate communities for lay disciples, nuns, and monks.
Almost two-thirds consisted of nuns and Khenpo’s niece, Muntsho, who was recognized as a spiritual SKU, headed the nuns.
In the 1980s, Khenpo JigphunI, a committed monk, cleansed Buddhist institutions by expelling corrupt monks, nuns, and those who betrayed teachers in the Cultural Revolution. Simultaneously, Khenpo traveled extensively across Tibet and China teaching Buddhism and rediscovering hidden treasures. In 1989, Khenpo left China to visit India at the invitation of H.H. Penor Rinpoche. During his visit to India, he taught at various monasteries, including the Nyingma Institute in Mysore. At Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama resumed the connections they had in their previous lives by receiving teachings from Khenpo for a couple of weeks.
It was during this trip that Khenpo’s entourage also made a brief sojourn to Bhutan. In the midst of a scrub Chen in Kyichu Lhakhang, conducted by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and attended by His Majesty and The Royal Queen Mother, Khenpo JigphunI had one of his spontaneous revelations of dgongs gter. The ‘rediscovered’ track is a discourse of seven verses praising Bhutan, her King, and the people in elegant and vibrant poetry. It also touches on Bhutan’s future prospects in a figurative style that is typical of other ma prophecies. Ever since, Khenpo had been an ambassador for Bhutan speaking highly of the beautiful country, the pious people, and the rich and thriving Buddhist culture.
Many Bhutanese monks have become his disciples and a few like myself not only received teachings from him in India but also in Larung Gar in Kham. Lam Nidup of Shingkhar even become a well-known person in Khenpo’s center.
The following year, Khenpo toured Europe and North America at the invitation of Buddhist centers there. However, the sophisticated and materialistic West did not appeal to his deeply spiritual inclinations. While on the West Coast, Khenpo reportedly broke down in tears in the middle of his sermon, lamenting the commercialization of Buddhist teachings in the West.
On his return to Tibet, Khenpo Jigphun came under constant Chinese government scrutiny and surveillance allegedly for the link he had made with the Dalai Lama during his trip to India. Besides, the number of his Han disciples gradually increased as devotees from mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong poured in. Of almost 10,000 followers in 2001, over 1000 were Han Chinese.
Despite Khenpo’s apolitical stance, his growing influence among the Chinese and Tibetan public alarmed Beijing. In August 2001, the People’s Liberation Army and Public Security Bureau demolished over 2000 cottages and evicted thousands of members, including all Han disciples at Larung Gar, citing security concerns. This was during their bitter confrontation with Falun Gong. A ceiling of 1400 monks and 500 nuns at one time was imposed and Sertar was closed to foreign visitors. Soon after that Khenpo has hospitalized in Chengdu for his deteriorating health.
The community at Larung Gar continued under the supervision of Khenpo’s senior disciples, with frequent skirmishes between members and the PSB who were residing there. In autumn, 2002, Khenpo returned to Larung Gar, still suffering from failing health. Upon his return, the nomadic people from surrounding regions flocked again in spite of Chinese restrictions.
Despite the fresh scar left by the Chinese crackdown on the landscape and people’s minds, Larung Gar was revived. In 2002, despite Khenpo’s weak health and frail voice, he resumed teaching over seven thousand people from his bed. Disseminating the words of the Buddha was his mission in life and this he did until his last breath. Khenpo Jigphun’s journey from his remote hermitage in Kham to the US has left an indelible mark on Buddhism, especially the Nyingma tradition. During a press conference in Washington, reporters questioned him about the purpose of undertaking this long and tiring journey.
Khenpo plainly replied, “to bring peace and happiness to the people”. When asked about his approach, Khenpo humbly said, “I urge people to cultivate kindness and compassion.” When questioned about dealing with depression, he candidly responded, “In both happiness and sadness, I turn to the Three Jewels.” Thousands worldwide fondly remember this remarkable master, embracing his simple yet powerful message, while his legacies continue to thrive.
Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok Jungnye was a revered Buddhist leader from Tibet. He passed away on January 6, 2004, at the age of 70.
Khenpo Jigphun, a modern-day Mañjuśri incarnate, revived Buddhism in Tibet after religious liberalization in 1980. He was recognized as the reincarnation of Terton Sogyal in 1937 and became a monk at Nubzur Gonpa. He later founded the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in Sertar in 1978.
Despite upheaval and religious restrictions, Khenpo Jigphun lived in remote mountains, herding goats and sheep. He practiced Buddhism, meditated, and taught at night, managing to avoid capture by the Chinese authorities.
Khenpo Jigphun was known for his revelations and compositions of religious teachings, known as dgong gter or Mind Treasure. He expelled corrupt monks and nuns, helping to cleanse Buddhist institutions. He also spread Buddhism’s teachings globally, leaving a lasting impact on the Nyingma tradition
Khenpo Jigphun’s mission was to bring peace and happiness to people. His simple yet powerful message urged people to cultivate kindness and compassion. He fondly embraced worldwide, and his legacies continue to thrive, spreading peace, compassion, and wisdom.