Je Phabongkhapa, or Phabongkha Rinpoche, (1878-1941) ‘was one of the great lamas of the twentieth century. He attained his geshe degree at Sera Monastic University, Lhasa, and became a highly influencial teacher in Tibet. He was the root Guru of both tutors of the present Dalai Lama, and the teacher of many of the other Gelug lamas who have been bringing the Dharma to the West since they fled Tibet in 1959.’
But the Fourteenth Dalai Lama now defames this great Teacher. As recently as March 27th, 2006 the Dalai Lama implied that Je Phabongkhapa developed a sectarian bias due to his association with Dorje Shugden:
‘In the case of Kyabje Pabongkha Rinpoche, he was, in the earlier part of his life, a practitioner of ecumenical faith. Gradually, he developed a relationship with Dholgyal. Need I say more?’
But the Dalai Lama gives no evidence for saying that Je Phabongkhapa was sectarian later in his life.
On another occasion the Dalai Lama said that although ‘Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche was really an incredibly great master…. virtually the supreme holder of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim) and Mind Training (Lo jong) traditions’ and ‘was a highly realized being’, that nevertheless ‘with regard to Dholgyal [Dorje Shugden] he seems to have made mistakes.’
The following account illustrates the low esteem in which Je Phabongkhapa is held within certain sections of the Gelugpa Tradition as a result of the Dalai Lama’s defamation. In August 2009 there was a Rigchung degree ceremony (for those who have successfully completed their study of the Pefection of Wisdom Sutra) held at Sera-Mey Monastery in South India. During the ceremony for a monk from the Gungru Khamtsem section fo the monastery, the disciplinarian of the monastery Geshe Ngawang Yonten publicly read out the ‘refuge letter’ (in which a patron writes the names of his family and spiritual masters for blessing by the assembled monks). The refuge letter included the names of Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche and Drana Rinpoche (another prominent Dorje Shugden practitioner).
After the ceremony the disciplinarian received phone calls from monks complaining about his reading out the names of these two Lamas. The next day in the assembly hall, the disciplinarian apologised: ‘I didn’t get prior notice before reading this letter. The person who wrote the names has accumulated negativity, as I did for reading it [the letter]. Therefore we should purify our sin by offering katag [traditional Tibetan offering scarf] to the Protector Thawo. These Lamas did not sign and pledge that they will never worship Shugden, and we will never share material and religious ties with Shugden followers.’
During the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s time, Je Phabongkhapa was the most famous and influential Lama who engaged practically in spreading the doctrine of Je Tsongkhapa throughout Tibet. He was greatly influential in reviving the Gelug Tradition at this time, emphasizing the practical application of Buddha’s teachings instead of just scholastic knowledge, and was the lama most involved in promoting the practice of Dorje Shugden. Because of this, detractors of this practice such as the present Dalai Lama have tried either to maintain that Je Phabongkhapa rejected the practice of Dorje Shugden towards the end of his life, or to smear him with the accusation of being sectarian and promoting Dorje Shugden practice as a way of damaging other Buddhist traditions.
There may be another reason for the present Dalai Lama’s defamation of Je Phabongkhapa. As Goldstein says ‘Phabongka was famous for his view that lamas should not become involved in politics…’ which is not an attitude the Dalai Lama can accept, especially from such an important figure within the Gelug Tradition.
With regard to the many rumors being circulated about Je Phabongkhapa, someone asked Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, ‘Is it true what some people say about Je Phabongkhapa rejecting the Nyingma Tradition?’ Geshe Kelsang Gyatso replied:
‘This is a hundred-percent not true. Though careful investigation I came to understand that when Je Phabongkhapa visited the Kham area in eastern Tibet he gave extensive teachings everywhere. Many thousands of people gathered for his teachings. People of Kham deeply respected him and were devoted to him. At that time, some people, due to jealousy and in order to destroy Je Phabhongkhapa’s reputation, circulated false information saying “Phabongkhapa is evil, he rejects the Nyingma tradition and he destroyed statues of Padmasambhava”. Gradually this false information spread throughout Tibet, but I clearly understand that these people lied.’
There are a number of personal accounts of Je Phabongkhapa that testify to his enormous spiritual power and his ability to turn people’s minds towards spiritual practice. Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, who was for fifteen years abbot of Rashi Gempil Ling, a Kalmuck Mongolian temple in New Jersey, USA, and founder of the Mahayana Sutra and Tantra Centers, recalls attending Lamrim teachings given by Je Phabhongkhapa:
‘Like so many others in the audience, I was stunned by the power of his teachings. Most of it I had heard before, but the way which he taught it and, I felt, the blessings I had received from him made it suddenly strike home for me. Here I was, living the short precious life of a human, and fortunate enough to be a student at one of the greatest Buddhist monasteries in the world. Why was I wasting my time? What would happen if I suddenly died?”
Geshe Tharchin remembers a Tibetan nobleman who held a ‘powerful position equivalent to Minister of Defense’ attending Je Phabhongkhapa’s teachings, showing up in his:
‘… best finery … decked out in silk, his long hair flowing … A great ceremonial sword hung from his belt, clanging importantly as he swaggered in. … By the end of the first section of the teaching he was seen leaving the hall quietly, deep in thought–he had wrapped his weapon of war in a cloth to hide it, and was taking it home. … finally one day he threw himself before the Rinpoche and asked to be granted special lifetime religious vows for laymen. Thereafter he always followed Pabongka Rinpoche around, to every public teaching he gave.’
In his autobiography Khyongla Rato, founder of the Tibet Center in New York, writes that Tibetans referred to Khangser Rinpoche and Phabongka Rinpoche as ‘the Sun’ and ‘the Moon’. He also writes of the tremendous power of Je Phabhongkhapa’s teachings:
‘During that summer session several traders and at least two high government officials found their lives transformed by his eloquence: they forsook their jobs to study religion and give themselves to meditation.’
Khyongla Rato requested and received full ordination from Je Phabongkhapa and would often pray ‘… that like Pabongka Rinpoche, I might learn to help people by teaching, writing and discussion.’
In a short account about his life, Rilbur Rinpoche says:
‘That was the time of the great lama Pabongka Dorje Chang, who was the most outstanding unsurpassable lama of that time. It was him and nobody else. I’m not saying there weren’t any lamas except Pabongka – there were Kyabje Kangsar Rinpoche, Tatra Rinpoche, and many other great lamas – but he became the principle teacher, the one who was giving continuous teachings.’
‘I have had some success as a scholar, and as a lama I am somebody, but these things are not important. The only thing that matters to me is that I was a disciple of Pabongka Rinpoche.’
None of these highly-respected teachers who knew Je Phabongkhapa personally make mention of any sectarian bias whatsoever. In an interview given in the FPMT Mandala magazine, Mogchok Rinpoche, shortly after being appointed resident teacher of the FPMT centre in Lavaur, France, said that his previous incarnation had first belonged to the Shangpa Kagyu tradition:
‘In my past life, Mogchok Rinpoche was student of Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche; it was then that he changed to the Gelug tradition. He received many initiations and teachings from Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche.’
However, it is clear that Je Phabongkhapa did not put any sectarian pressure on his new disciple. As the interview continues:
‘Q: Do you know why he chose to change tradition?
‘A: I think he found that the Gelugpa tradition contained a lot of wisdom. But the previous Mogchok Rinpoche didn’t abandon Shangpa Kagyu completely, he practiced according to that tradition as well.’
Je Phabongkha’s spiritual influence – over government ministers and even lamas from other traditions – was undoubtedly a source of jealousy. As a Gelugpa lama he was responsible for promoting the pure teachings of Je Tsongkhapa, but there is no evidence of him action out of sectarianism, or in any way that was damaging to other traditions. The claims made by the present Dalai Lama are completely false.