Once again this year Karma Thinley Rinpoche made the long journey from his monastery in Boudhanath, Nepal to his home land in the ancient kingdom of Nangchen, in Kham, now part of Qinghai Province in China. He was accompanied by his cousin Tsodi and his assistant Kunga. Rinpoche’s advancing years means he finds the rigours of travel more difficult, but fortunately the improvements in infrastructure and travel facilities within China mean the journey is still manageable. In order to reach Nangchen we needed to take 3 separate flights and finally a car journey of several hours, crossing 3 high passes of about 4,000 meters.
This year the weather was particularly extreme, with a lot more rain and snow than normal. The first pass we crossed after landing in Jyekundo was white with snow instead of its usual green and flower bedecked.
In Nangchen Rinpoche based himself in his small temple called Tegchen Choskor Ling (meaning ‘Mahayana Dharma Wheel Monastery), which is located in the administrative capital of Nangchen, a small town called Shonda or also called Nangchen (called Nangqen in Google maps), located beside the River Dzachu, which is one of the main source rivers of the Mekong.
Karma Thinley Rinpoche received a steady stream of visitors throughout the whole time of his stay in his temple. He is the most senior lama of the Bongsar family to which he belongs, and many of his relatives and other families connected with the Bongsar clan came to offer greetings, catch up with news and generally take the opportunity to spend some time with Rinpoche. Often visitors would come bearing offerings, which usually consisted of the things most precious to traditional nomads - fresh yoghurt, milk, butter, cheese, dry meat, and the small wild roots caller ‘troma’, which used to be the only source of sweetness before the introduction of sugar, and is still mixed with yoghurt as a special dish.
One of Karma Thinley Rinpoche’s great uncles was a distinguished yogi lama called Bongsar (Biru) Kunrik. He became famous for his ability to cure sickness by his practice of long-life deity yoga, and even travelled to Sakya in central Tibet when he heard the then Sakya Trizin had fallen ill. He went into retreat near Sakya and through the power of his meditation was able to restore the health of the Sakya Trizin, Dagshul Thinley Rinchen. Bongsar Kunrik lived mostly in retreat, and built several retreat centres around Nangchen, the most prominent of which was called Sharyak Dorje Ling, quite close to the Bongsar ancestral home. When Bongsar Kunrik later passed away, Dagshul Thinley Rinchen predicted he would soon be reborn within the Bongsar family, and later when Karma Thinley Rinpoche was born, Dagshul Thinley Rinchen confirmed that he was the ‘tulku’, incarnation of Bongsar Kunrik. (In recognition of this, Rinpoche gave the name Thinley Rinchen Ling to the Sakya centre in Bristol). The retreat monastery Sharyak Dorje Ling fell into disuse after the passing of the first Bongsar Kunrik, and Karma Thinley Rinpoche has long held the wish to commemorate the site in some way. This year, at Rinpoche’s request, a group of Bongsar family members and friends worked together to erect a large prayer banner above the site of the retreat centre. A large steel central structure was made in Shonda, carried up to the beautiful remote location by truck, and finally 12 strong men manhandled it to the top of the hill above the site, and erected it using steel cables and a heavy concrete base. Rinpoche chose the colours and prayers to be printed on the banners arranged in the four directions.
The same group of Bongsar volunteers also took the opportunity to make and erect a similar prayer banner assembly above the nearby site called Yeyang Sumdo, where the Bongsar palace used to stand, and where Rinpoche was born. Two years ago a large stupa was erected there, sponsored by many Bongsar people, and also a smaller commemorative stupa was erected on the place where Rinpoche’s mother was staying when he was born.
Rinpoche made only one larger expedition out of Tegchen Choskor Ling this year. He wanted to visit the birthplace of the first Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa (Chokling), one of the most famous tertons, and actually one of Karma Thinley Rinpoche’s ancestors. The location is in a remote side-valley near the ancient capital of Nangchen, called Nangchen Gar. With improvements in roads and a good jeep it was possible to reach Nangchen Gar in two hours from Shonda, and the actual birthplace is another hour’s walk over a high ridge. Amongst the ruins of the old Chasu (the name of Chokling’s family) estate a small temple has been built by a monk from the Tsechu Gompa monastery at Nangchen Gar. This monastery used to belong to the Nangchen King, and Chokgyur Lingpa was a monk there in his youth. A small blue temple marks the place at Nangchen Gar where the extensive Royal Palace used to stand until the 1960s, it had more than 180 rooms. Close to the river below the Chasu estate is a large cave, where the first Chokling used to meditate. Karma Thinley Rinpoche told us that there used to be a clay statue of Guru Rinpoche in the Chasu estate temple, made by Chokgyur Linpa himself, and Chokgyur Lingpa received many termas directly from that statue.
By the end of August the short Nangchen summer was already coming to a close, and snow fell on the mountains around Shonda the night before we left. After the long return journey, Karma Thinley Rinpoche is now safely back in Nepal.