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Two Magnificent books: The Life Stories of Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche

8 March, 2012


The eighth and final day of the 29th Kagyu Monlam included a long life offering to two of the heart sons, H.E.Situ Rinpoche and H.E.Gyaltsap Rinpoche. The celebration of these two great lamas was enriched by the offering of two stunning texts. Vying with the most elegant of large format art books, this boxed set presents in words, paintings, and photographs the life stories and activities of Tai Situ Pema Dönyö Druppa and Goshir Gyaltsap Drakpa Mingyur Gocha.

The volume for Situ Rinpoche is covered in pale gold cloth and begins with a full page spread of  the courtyard at Sherab Ling, his monastery in northern India. On the upper balcony sits Situ Rinpoche, with tulkus on either side, while arrayed on the porch and steps below is a sea of hundreds of his monks and lay disciples. This photograph is followed by a letter from the Gyalwang Karmapa, who praises the lineage and activity of the Situpas, noting that the Eighth Situpa took the great responsibility of preserving the Kamtshang teachings when both the Karmapa and Shamar Rinpoche had died on their way to China. The Eleventh Situpa published many volumes of the major treatises and restored the institute for higher studies at Palpung. The Karmapa describes the present Twelfth Situpa as radiating a great clear light to others during these times when the teachings have declined and as spreading to all corners of the world the traditions of study and practice and the transmission of scripture and realization. The Karmapa prays for his long life, asking him to remain until the end of samsara and care for disciples.

The next pages show a photograph of the Sixteenth Karmapa and the Eleventh Tai Situpa, who was his teacher, and then long life prayers for the present incarnation, written by the previous Karmapa, one of them at Palpung Monastery, Situ Rinpoche’s main seat in Eastern Tibet. A photograph of Palpung spreads across the next two pages: its huge main building in deep red commands the top of a mountain of evergreens, set in a high and vast valley.

The account of Situ Rinpoche’s incarnations begins with a radiant photo of the bodhisattva Maitreya, who is the basis for the emanations of the Situpas. Within the first fifteen of these we find Dombi Heruka, Marpa the Translator, and Jetsun Taranatha. The next three emanations are Kagyu and include Drogön Rechen. These are followed by the twelve incarnations of the Situpas. At the beginning of the biography for each of these figures, there is a thumbnail image of a thangka and then a close up of its central figure, which fills a whole page, creating an intimate connection with the lama—one is naturally drawn to gaze upon his face.

The next section tells of the twelve incarnations. It begins with a full page image of the intricate geometry in the seal and the seal itself, which was offered to the First Situpa by the Chinese Emperor, then lost and returned to the Twelfth Situ Rinpoche during today’s ceremony. The first eleven incarnations are illustrated with text and thangkas, and there is a photograph of the previous Eleventh Tai Situpa taken in 1929. The opening page of the Twelfth incarnation is faced by a powerful image of him giving the red crown ceremony. The pages that ensue detail the life of the present incarnation, beginning with a black and white photograph of him at age three, with a smile that would become famous. This is followed by images of his early years at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim where he was trained by the Sixteenth Karmapa. Afterward, Situ Rinpoche founded Sherab Ling Monastery and started his travels for world peace, meeting with world leaders both religious (the Pope, for example) and political (among many, the President of India, R. Venkataraman). There are images of Situ Rinpoche in Tibet as he visits his family and returns to Palpung Monastery. One page exemplifies his nonsectarian view, as he wears the different hats from the four main lineages of Buddhism in Tibet, and other pages show him with the four leaders of these lineages.

In 1992, Situ Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche went to Tsurphu to meet the present Karmapa, then a young boy of eight. Photos of the three together on the roof of the main shrine hall show their delight at being reunited, and another shows Situ Rinpoche continuing to teach the Karmapa in India. These are followed by images of Situ Rinpoche’s travels throughout the world, and finally a two-page spread of the mountains where Sherab Ling’s ever-growing complex—shrine halls, monks’ residences, retreat centers, institute for the study of Buddhist philosophy, and guest houses for disciples—continues to develop and serve as a vital center for the practice of Buddhism. The last pages of the book are devoted to Situ Rinpoche’s activities as an artist. He draws an immense image of Guru Rinpoche that is spread out on the ground covering many meters. There is a traditional thangka of a female protector, which he offered to Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche. Five of his paintings show how he incorporates classical motifs with a modern abstract style. The book closes with a photograph of a flower close-up, its petals dark red in the center and golden on the outside, Dharma colors radiating in the sun. It is titled, Brilliant Beauty, Naturally Arisen.


The volume for Gyaltsap Rinpoche is covered in pale silver cloth and begins with a stunning photograph of his monastery in Ralang, Sikkim, known as Palchen Choling.  The upper stories of the monastery shine a soft gold in the early morning light while Gyaltsap Rinpoche sits alone in front of the shrine room’s double wooden doors. Retreatants who have just completed a three-year retreat stand in a semi-circle in front of him. They are wearing cotton white robes, which have been soaked in water and dried through the force of body heat produced through chandali (tummo) practice, which shows the success of their meditation.  In a second circle behind them are monks of the golden procession, celebrating this achievement with drums, banners, and wind instruments.

A later photo will show one of the four retreat centers that surround Palchen Ling, in each of the four directions. The top floors are the ornately constructed mandala palace of Chakrasamvara, inside which Gyaltsap Rinpoche gives empowerments and reading transmissions. Beneath the mandala is a shrine room for twenty-seven retreatants, the capacity to each retreat building. Illustrated throughout the book, this emphasis on traditional practice underlies the Dharma activities of Gyaltsap Rinpoche.

After the initial photograph of Ralang Monastery comes a calligraphy of the word Foreward which is followed by an introductory letter from the Gyalwang Karmapa.  He praises Gyaltsap Rinpoche, one of the six heart sons, and mentions that in the seventeenth century during a war in central Tibet, Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s skillful means saved the teachings of the Kamtshang when they were about to die out. Moving forward to the present Gyaltsap Rinpoche, the Karmapa writes that he has looked at most of the treatises belonging to the sutra and tantra traditions and gives spontaneous oral instructions that are wonderful. Gyaltsap Rinpoche is so humble that just looking at him from the outside, it is difficult to fathom his depth. Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s name includes the words armor (go cha) and representative of the Gyalwang Karmapa (rgyal tshab). With great diligence, he has indeed implemented their full meaning  as the Karmapa’s representative in Rumtek, serving both the monastery and the Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. The Karmapa’s letter ends with prayers for his long life and the wish that he never let go of his disciples, but look after them until samsara is empty.

Immediately following  the letter and spread over two pages is a black and white photo of the Sixteenth Karmapa, Gyaltsap Rinpoche, and the President of India, Sanjiva Reddy, as they walk together at Rumtek Monastery. Next, an intimate photo shows a young Gyaltsap Rinpoche sitting on the floor near the Sixteenth Karmapa, whose long life prayer for the young tulku follows on the next page. Leading off the following section is the two-page spread of a photograph from 1959. It shows Tsurphu Monastery, the Karmapa’s seat in Tibet, and just behind its main shrine hall stands Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s monastery, known as the Upper Temple (mchod khang gong) as its rich maroon walls are set on slightly higher ground in this narrow valley of Dowo Lung.

The following section begins with a serene image of the blue bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who is the basis for the emanations of Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Afterward come the images of his six emanations, including Ananda, the attendant and cousin of the Buddha; Dromtön, the great scholar and translator; and Milarepa’s moon-like disciple, Rechungpa.  Each of the six is illustrated by brilliantly colored details from thangkas that bring the figures alive.

The twelve incarnations of Gyaltsap Rinpoche follow, each one with a full page image painted in the spacious style of the Karma Gadri. Many of the images reveal the intense inner focus of a great meditator and others, a quality of gentleness, both of which are reflected in his present incarnation. As with Situ Rinpoche, the opening page of the present Twelfth Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s biography is flanked by a photograph of him performing the red crown ceremony. A sequence of black and white photos show a smiling young boy just arrived in India; a serious tulku with his activity hat; a radiant teenager on the roof of Rumtek Monastery, the Himalayas stretching behind him; and a student leaning over his text as he sits outside under a tree and listens to the Sixteenth Karmapa teach.

The next series of photos shows Gyaltsap Rinpoche receiving teachings from great lamas, such as Kalu Rinpoche and Orgyen Tulku, and making connections with his Holiness the Dalai Lama, Benchen Rinpoche, Sakya Tridzin, and Nenang Pawo Rinpoche. Many of the photos detail Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s Dharma activities. He performs the Mahakala dance in Rumtek; in the light-filled room of the young Karmapa at Tsurphu, he plays the cymbals for a Mahakala puja; and at the Karmapa’s enthronement, he offers a stupa, symbol of the enlightened mind. From his simple office at  Rumtek, Gyaltsap guides the studies and teaches the monks; in Nalanda Institute’s shrine hall, he gives teachings on the famous Two Volumes (on Hevajra); he bestows vows on the new monks in Rumtek’s main shrine hall and gives numerous empowerments.

Gyaltsap Rinpoche continued to teach the Seventeenth Karmapa in India, and several photos show him sitting with a text in front of the Karmapa or offering him a mandala. This year, Gyaltsap Rinpoche brought to the Kagyu Monlam three imposing statues of the protectors Mahakala, Mahakali, and Vajrasadhu. A full page spread shows him at Ralang, standing next to the outstretched foot of an unfinished Mahakala and looking into at his fierce face. Two full page photographs beautifully show two sides of Gyaltsap Rinpoche: in one he smiles with a youthful brightness, his eyes playful under the arch of his brows, and in a second, he holds a deep yellow flower in his joined palms, his attention turned inward with deep devotion. The final photograph distills the essence of Gyaltsap Rinpoche’s life: in an image remindful of the subtle and limpid shades in a Vermeer painting, he sits in a simple room of a small temple in the mountains of Sikkim, the light coming in over his shoulder illuminating the text as his hand reaches out to turn the page.


Report by Michele Martin, photos taken by Liao Guo Ming




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