Open Letter to Gen Rinpoche's Students

An Open Letter to Gen Rinpoche's Students Everywhere
Commemorating the passing of on 11 August 1995 of Our Supreme Spiritual Friend and Peerless Teacher, The Most Venerable Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

Dear Friends,

For all of us here in Dunedin, the passing of our dear Gen Rinpoche has been a very sad time. We feel his loss deeply, like children newly orphaned. Yet, in ways beyond the capacity of ordinary parents, he continues to care for us though his body is gone.

Each Sunday morning we listen to a tape of his teachings, and each week since his passing there has been something there to comfort us. Yet these are not special tapes chosen for the occasion, they are just part of a sequence we have been following for months. It is an aspect of Gen Rinpoche's true Buddha activity that his teachings of the past can spontaneously help us now. As the weeks go by, we see more and more the full extent of his greatness.

For years, Gen Rinpoche prepared us for the time of his passing. First in teachings about impermanence and death, and then in the decline of his own body, he made us aware that no human body can escape death. Through his kindness, during his last years he demonstrated to us the reality of illness and old age. At the same time, he showed us that it is possible to remain tranquil, accepting, loving and compassionate in the face of constant and debilitating physical suffering. Through the beauty of his being he showed us the living Dharma.

Because many of Gen Rinpoche's oldest students were not able to be here in Dunedin during the last months of his life or at his passing, I will try to give an idea of what this extraordinary time was like.

As most people know, Gen Rinpoche had had diabetes for more than twenty years. As frequently happens with diabetes, eventually his organs began to fail. Although in 1992 he began to take a new Tibetan medicine which reduced and finally eliminated the immediate symptoms of diabetes, it was too late to reverse or even halt the deterioration that was already taking place.

In 1993 his eyesight failed, and though surgery produced a brief improvement, he was soon almost completely blind. At that time he was teaching Lamrim Chenmo and Nagarjuna's Friendly Letter, and instead of abandoning his classes since he could no longer read the texts, he continued to teach, with Losang reading the texts line by line, and Gen Rinpoche teaching as clearly and profoundly as before. Thinking back on it now, we realize how difficult that must have been, and how kind Gen Rinpoche was to us at that time.

By the beginning of 1994 he was becoming more and more frail and we urged him to retire. He agreed to a partial retirement but continued to teach on Sunday mornings whenever he could, though at times he was so weak that he had almost to be lifted onto the throne. It was clear to us how much he loved to teach his students -- his wish to benefit us totally over-rode his own discomfort and weakness.

During that year we could see his health failing, and on a number of occasions he could easily have abandoned his body. But each time, he chose to stay with us. In this way, over long, painful months, he demonstrated to us the sufferings of old age, of illness and of total dependence, and he prepared us for his eventual passing.

During this time Gen Rinpoche was cared for twenty-four hours a day by one of his two western attendants, the New Zealand monk Ven. Sönam Tenzin. Sönam Tenzin says that he was continually amazed at how Gen Rinpoche's focus remained on the welfare of others rather than on his own illness. Suffering from progressive kidney failure, which in turn affected his blood, his lungs and his heart, Gen Rinpoche needed a great deal of nursing, and at one time he asked Sönam Tenzin whether it would be easier if he went to a private hospital, rather than remaining at the Centre where he might be a burden on his attendants. Only another monk could fully appreciate the sacrifice involved in Gen Rinpoche's suggesting that he be nursed by people who were not ordained. Sönam Tenzin found it deeply moving. Needless to say, Gen Rinpoche remained at the Centre, lovingly cared for by his attendants, by Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche who had come from India to be with him, and by his nephew Rinchen.

During the last months of his life, Gen Rinpoche, who had loved going for walks and picnics, who had love reading texts and talking with his students, was too ill to leave his rooms. Living in darkness since he was blind, unable to read or to talk much, and frequently in physical discomfort, Gen Rinpoche nevertheless remained mentally at ease and peaceful, without any of the frustration or despair that might have seemed normal for one in his situation. At this time and Rinchen spent many hours reading aloud to him, while Sönam Tenzin and one or another of his attendants and disciples, sat with him.

To the end of his life Gen Rinpoche was willing to receive visitors, though often his body was not strong enough for it. Even when he was just too ill for visitors, he would ask how people were and what was happening. Right up until his last communication, Gen Rinpoche's thoughts were with his students and the people dear to them.

As was inevitable, eventually Gen Rinpoche's body could no longer sustain life. His heart and breathing stopped, and he entered the death process in the afternoon of Friday 11 August 1995. He was seventy-four years old.

With the beginning of Gen Rinpoche's passing, a quite extraordinary time began for all of us here in Dunedin. It now became clear, as never before, just how remarkable Gen Rinpoche was.

To give a sense of this, I would like to present some of the entries from a diary of those days. Though words cannot express how we felt at that time, and though I haven't the wisdom to interpret the things that happened, I have been able to record most of what we did, and saw, and heard.

Friday 11 August 1995

This afternoon at 3.33pm, Gen Rinpoche began his journey to the next life. He was sitting in meditation, and when and Sönam Tenzin realized that he had begun the death process, they wrapped his chöga (golden monk's robe) around him, placed a silk kata around his neck and, with his other attendants, began prayers. Later in the afternoon they phoned Mongolia, to inform His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

This evening we did Vajrayogini Self Initiation, Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche leading the chanting. At the end, we visited Gen Rinpoche to pay our respects and make prayers.

Saturday 12 August

At 9.30 this morning, we began a complete reading of the 8,000 Verse Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra, in Tibetan. Thubten taught us how to form a chain of readers as they do in the monasteries, so that every single page is read.

This afternoon we did Vajrayogini Self Initiation again. Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche has asked Ani Chödrön to lead the chanting from now on.

Sunday 13 August

9am Continued reading the Prajnaparamita. While we were reading, Geshe Doga arrive from Melbourne and Geshe Pal Tsering from Auckland.

10.30am. Instead of our usual Sunday morning meditation, we did Lama Chöpa, followed by the Samantabhadra and other prayers. The gompa was packed -- more than fifty of Gen Rinpoche's disciples and students were there. At the end, everyone was invited to visit Gen Rinpoche to make prayers and offerings.

This afternoon, we did Dorje Jigje Self Initiation. Soon after it began, a large and very vivid rainbow was seen arching above the Centre from the Otago Peninsular, in a clear blue sky.

This evening Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche decided that we would be able to hold a funerary fire puja, and Dieter offered his land at Portobello for it.

Monday 14 August

First thing this morning Felicity and Ani Chödrön had an appointment with Dunedin City Council to ask for permission to hold a private cremation. What had seemed unlikely has proved possible, and we have permission.

At 9.30am we offered another Lama Chöpa and Samantabhadra Prayer, and at 11.00 finished reading the Prajnaparamita.

This afternoon was wondrously active: Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering and the Tibetans began a complete reading of The Sutra of Good Fortune; Roy Fraser and Sally Walter arrived from Mahamudra Centre and Roy was given responsibility for building the cremation stupa; Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche went out to Portobello to choose and bless the place where the stupa will be built; and the nuns began collecting the ingredients for the fire puja offerings.

This evening, helped Roy with stupa plans and materials, then explained how to make the funerary garments, headdress and crown.

Tuesday 15 August

This morning, Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering and the Tibetans continued reading The Sutra of Good Fortune while the rest of us began our various jobs. This afternoon went out to the site again while Roy and his team laid the base for the stupa. All the bricks and cement etc for the stupa had to be carried up the hill by hand. Everyone worked until sunset.

This evening we offered Lama Chöpa and tsog at the Centre. The altar shone with candles.

Wednesday 16 August

Reading of The Sutra of Good Fortune was concluded this morning, while Ani Chödrön drew the fire-puja mandala on a huge sheet of paper.

This afternoon, Roy and his team built the square base of the stupa, and placed the mandala in the base. Many people helped transport wood, ground-sheets, blankets, carpets and cushions etc. to the site. Back at the Centre, the nuns prepared the fire puja ingredients and made the tormas. Khejok Rinpoche and Alvin Chua arrived from Perth.

This evening, the Lhagon Rinpoches, Khejok Rinpoche and Sonam Tenzin prepared Gen Rinpoche's holy body for the cremation. Khejok Rinpoche confirmed that Gen Rinpoche had been in meditation for three days before his consciousness left his body.

Dieter and several others stayed out at the stupa site all night. There was a high wind and torrential rain in the early hours of Thursday morning and they were able to secure the tents and protect the stupa and firewood from the rain.

Thursday 17 August

Journey to the Cremation Site. We gathered at the Centre before 8am. When all was ready, everyone except the monks left the house, and Gen Rinpoche, arrayed in headdress, crown and funerary garments, and seated in one of his favourite chairs, was carried to the front porch of the Centre., his senior attendant, circumambulated him carrying katas. Gen Rinpoche was carried past the Centre students who lined the path, to his van. We drove slowly to Portobello in procession.

Once at the site, Gen Rinpoche was carried ceremoniously up the hill, surrounded by the Rinpoches, Geshes and his attendants, with the rest of us in procession behind. As his holy body was lowered into the stupa, a skylark rose up into the air above it and hovered there singing.

When everything was arranged within the stupa the upper walls were quickly built, garlands and kata offerings placed on it, and a wreath laid on the very top. We circumambulated it several times.

Cremation puja. We had expected to start after lunch, but the weather looked changeable and urged haste. We began at 10.30am, the Sangha, and others who could read Tibetan, seated in rows in a large tent, its open front facing the stupa. Kushog Lhagön Rinpoche was Vajra Master, assisted by Khejok Rinpoche. Ani Chödrön led the chanting. Alvin Chua of Perth, a Buddhist who had never met Gen Rinpoche, lit the fire. Losang, Rinchen and Dieter assisted with the fire-puja offerings. The fire burnt magnificently, as befitted a great master of the practice of Dorje Jigje.

This evening, we offered a thanksgiving Lama Chöpa and tsog, marking the first week since Gen Rinpoche's passing.

Friday 18 August

This morning, Air New Zealand staff at the airport phoned the Centre to report seeing a particularly clear and beautiful rainbow over Dunedin yesterday morning, the time of the cremation. We have also heard that at 11.30 yesterday morning, when the cremation puja was nearing its end, instruments at the marine research facility at Portobello, only a couple of kilometres away, registered the lowest air-pressure they had ever recorded, a matter of some interest to the scientists working there.

2pm Vajrayogini Self Initiation.

Saturday 19 August

Opening of the Cremation Stupa. We all went out to Portobello again at nine this morning to witness the collecting of the bones. Once the upper walls of the stupa had been taken down and the ashes removed,, Khechog Rinpoche and some of Gen Rinpoche's oldest disciples removed the fragments of bone from the ashes, placing them in a white cloth. Gen Rinpoche's vajra and bell survived the fire. The bell's clapper has become detached (it must have been tied in with string), but Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche rang the bell several times with the vajra. Its sound is still very pure, clear and resonant.

Once we had recited the ritual for collecting bones, the fragments were placed in the vase, ceremoniously carried to the van, and taken in procession back to the Centre, where they were installed on the throne in the gompa, wrapped in Gen Rinpoche's cloak. We made kata offerings and chanted prayers.

2pm Memorial Service for Gen Rinpoche.

Sunday 20 August

At dawn, Dieter went out to the cliffs at Taiaroa Head, and scattered the remaining ash into the sea.

10am Sunday Morning Class. We listened to a tape of Gen Rinpoche's last teaching in the gompa. We were all in tears.

7.30pm Lama Chöpa and tsog

Each Thursday evening since Gen Rinpoche's passing we have offered Lama Chöpa and Tsog, dedicated to his quick return. During it we chant a prayer just sent to us by Thubten Rinpoche, lamenting Gen Rinpoche's passing and begging him to return quickly.

On Thursday 31 August, Gen Rinpoche's attendants --, Sönam Tenzin and Ani Chödrön -- left for India to fulfil Gen Rinpoche's wish that extensive offerings be made on his behalf at the three great monasteries -- Sera, Ganden and Drepung -- in South India, and in Mussourie and Dharamsala. Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche and Kushog Thubten Rinpoche met them in India, and the five are travelling together to carry out Gen Rinpoche's wishes. There was a brief interruption to their plans when fell ill in Singapore en route, but after ten days in hospital he was fit enough to continue, and we have just heard that they have almost completed their tasks in South India. There was a rainbow at the airport as they left Dunedin and perhaps it will prove auspicious, as the delay in Singapore means that they should be able to see His Holiness in Dharamsala. If they had arrived ten days earlier, His Holiness would still have been in America.

To all of us who were here during Gen Rinpoche's last months and at the time of his death, his greatness was manifest not only in his own loving and compassionate behaviour, in the manner of his passing, and in the signs that followed it, but also in what we, his students, were able to achieve. In the week following his death, we who are very ordinary were able to achieve the extraordinary. Through the power of his teaching and example, and with the practical help of his disciple Lhagon Rinpoche, many people performed familiar and mundane tasks -- concreting and bricklaying; carpentry and sewing; shopping and cooking; fetching and carrying; telephoning and arranging -- that produced an amazing result: the offering of full Tibetan funerary rites arranged and carried out largely by westerners.

Through Gen Rinpoche's blessings we were able to express our devotion to him, within our individual capacities, through our activity. Soon we will be blessed with the new teacher Gen Rinpoche has chosen for us -- Khushog Thubten Rinpoche, one of his oldest disciples. And if we are truly fortunate, Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche will accept our invitation to return to Dunedin to work on a biography of Gen Rinpoche, and to build a stupa.

We pray that we can all continue to work together with the single-minded, open-hearted devotion that our dear Gen Rinpoche instilled in us. If we can, who knows what we will achieve?

With love,

Ven. Sönam Chökyi


First and foremost, to Kushog Lhagon Rinpoche. Without his knowledge and practical guidance, and his compassionate support, we would not have been able to accord Gen Rinpoche the ceremonial rites due to a Lama of his status.

To Khejok Rinpoche and Alvin Chua, who came from Perth to assist with the cremation ritual.

To Geshe Doga, Geshe Pal Tsering, and the members of the Tibetan community, who made it possible for us to complete the auspicious reading of both the 8,000 Verse Prajnaparamita Sutra and The Sutra of Good Fortune, and to Thubten Gendun who arranged the readings.

To Dieter, without whose generosity in offering his land at Portobello the cremation could not have taken place.

To Roy and his tireless team of builders and builders' labourers, who not only built the cremation stupa but also carried the building materials up to the site.

To Ani Chödrön, for drawing the mandala, and for many hours as chantleader during tsogs, self-initiations, and the cremation rituals.

To the nuns and their helpers, who collected and prepared the fire puja offerings, and made the ritual garments.

To all the people who offered wood, puja ingredients, food, lights and flowers, and made donations.

To the many people who shopped, made garlands, helped fetch and carry, set up beforehand and dismantled afterwards.

To Cathi, Sallie and their helpers, who arranged the Memorial Service.

To Ani Kunzang, who bought and set up tsog after tsog after tsog, all of them magnificent.

To Ani Dechen, who arranged ever-expanding lunches for the ever-increasing number of visitors.

And to the entire Centre community, from Dunedin and elsewhere, for your helpfulness, generosity and harmonious, loving energy.

Last, but certainly not least, heartfelt thanks to Gen Rinpoche's attendants -- to Ven. who cared for Gen Rinpoche for more than forty years; to Ven. Sönam Tenzin who nursed Gen Rinpoche with such devotion in his last years; and to Ven. Ani Sönam Chödrön who spent many hours finding and buying the myriad things that made Gen Rinpoche's last months more comfortable. May you complete your tasks in India successfully, and return to us safely.

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