Interview with Karma Senge about Kyere Gompa

Kyere Gompa, a remote area about 25 air miles south of Düdtsi-til, has been home to Trungpa Rinpoche’s immediate family since he left Tibet in 1959. Photo by Gaye Carlson.

The Chronicles (TC): Rinpoche, rather than asking you for further stories about Trungpa Rinpoche today, I’d like to ask you to talk about Kyere Gompa. I’d also like to ask about your family, Trungpa Rinpoche’s family—your brothers and sisters and other family members who are living in Kyere and elsewhere in Kham.

Karma Senge (KSR): The founder of Kyere Gompa was Khyungdrak Dorje. He was one of the Nüden Dorje tertöns of two categories of eight and 16 tertön Lingpas. So there are different classes of tertons, the nine Lingspas, and the 108 Lingpas. So it seems Khyungdrak Dorje was one among these nine Nüden Dorjes.1

According to Jamgön Kongtrül’s biography of the 108 Tertöns, Khyungdrak Dorje was a contemporary of the 10th Karmapa, the first Mingyur Dorje, and the fifth Dalai Lama. Though it’s not entirely clear, Kyere Gompa was probably founded in the water female ox year of the tenth sixty year cycle [1673]. So the monastery has been around since then. But it went through a period of decline.

Khyungdrak Dorje’s tülku, AKA Steven Seagal

In February of 1997, Penor Rinpoche recognized the Hollywood action star, Steven Seagal as an incarnation of Khyungdrak Dorje, the founder of Kyere Gompa.

The patron responsible for the revival and rebuilding of Kyere Gompa was the 50th King of Lha-thok, Sonam Gyurme. There are four kingdoms of Kham: Lha-thok, Dege, Ling, and Nangchen. These were independent kingdoms, neither under Tibet nor under China, and they all had equal status. So the King of Lha-thok, Sonam Gyurme, revived Kyere Gompa for his lama the 10th Trungpa Rinpoche, Chökyi Nyinche. The two of them revived Kyere Monastery together.

TC: So that was just in the last 100 years?

KSR: Yes, about 100 years. They built a slightly larger temple than that of Khyungdrak Dorje and they created a retreat center for the nyengyü.2 There were 100 families who lived near Kyere Gompa who were tied to the monastery. Everyone in the Lha-thok had to pay taxes to the king. So instead of paying the king, these families paid the monastery. Every year Kyere Gompa received something like 100,000 yuan from these families. This income supported the practices that where done at Kyere Gompa. Many great practices were performed each year, including

  • the Drupchen of Dorje Phurba [San. Vajrakilaya] according to Ratna Lingpa, Ratna Lingpa’s Vajrakilaya, which took a month to complete,
  • Rolpa Dorje’s terma called Deshek Tobdü, The Concentrated Power of the Tathagathas, which also lasted for one month,
  • the Khandro Tsok Gar, the Ganachakra Dance of the Dakinis, which took ten days.
  • the practice of the Four Armed Mahakala,
  • and then, after the 10th Trungpa, there was the 11th Trungpa and at the time, the Tsasum Gongdü, (“Embodied Realization of the Three Roots”) was established.

Both the 10th and the 11th Trungpa spent about five to six months there each year. In particular, the 10th Trungpa would do a hundred pairs of nyungne each year at Kyere Gompa.

Karma Senge at Marpa House in Boulder (2005)

TC: Nyungne?

KSR: Nyungne, the fasting practice. Each one lasts two days, so he did 100 nyungnes in 200 days. The 2nd day you don’t eat or drink at all, and you don’t speak. The first day you don’t eat after noon, but you can drink. The second day, you don’t need to drink, just practice all day. You also do ten circumambulations every day.

After the nyungnes, the 10th Trungpa would give everyone the nyungne empowerment, instructions and teachings. Each day there would be between 200 to 500 people practicing the nyungne with the 10th Trunpga. It varied, but it was never less than 200 people. There’s a continuation of that even now; many people practice nyungne at Kyere Gompa. One lama in particular has been practicing nyungne for about 15 years without a break.

TC: Were the 10th and 11th Trungpas the main Rinpoches for Kyere Gompa?

KSR: The 10th Trungpa was the main Rinpoche. It was his monastery. The land where Kyere Gompa is located is part of Lha-thok.

TC: And Düdtsi-til is not part of Lha-thok?

KSR: No, Düdtsi-til is in Nangchen.

TC: But Surmang is the whole area?

KSR: No.

TC: I thought Kyere was one of the Surmang monasteries.

KSR: Yes, it is a Surmang monastery. But it’s not a part of the Surmang land. The King of Lha-thok offered it to the 10th Trungpa. Because of that, the land, the monastery and everything now belongs to Surmang.

TC: Was the 11th Trungpa the main tulku for Kyere Gompa?

KSR: Yes, he was the principle one.

TC: I understand that before Trungpa Rinpoche left Tibet, he moved his family from Düdtsi-til to Kyere because he felt it would be safer for them there.

KSR: Yes. Before Trungpa Rinpoche left for India, he was staying at Tsawa Gang.3 One day he sent two monks named Tsado and Sönam Tseten to Surmang with a message for his family. The message was that they should move to Kyere. So they moved. There were five family members: his mother Tungtso Drölma, his sister Kalsang Drölma (who is my mother), his brother Damchö Tenphel Rinpoche, and his younger sister Tri-me Palmo. There was also a nun named Ani Palmo who came with them and lived with them at Kyere. She was related to both Trungpa Rinpoche’s father and mother.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s youngest sister Tri-me Palmo and her son with Bob and Lindy King. This photo was taken in July 2005 during Bob and Lindy’s visit to Kham. Lindy writes: It was very late as you can see, in open country with only one house nearby, most likely theirs. They were tending their yak herd when we drove up in the late twilight.

TC: Was the family safe in Kyere?

KSR: Yes, it wasn’t dangerous because all of the Lha-thok people had such great faith in Trungpa Rinpoche. Because of that they protected Trungpa Rinpoche’s mother and family very well.

TC: Were all the buildings at Kyere Gompa destroyed during the Cultural Revolution?

KSR: Yes, everything was destroyed. The Chinese destroyed everything.

TC: But your family was safe?

KSR: Yes, there wasn’t any danger. Damchö Rinpoche was marked as a ngapda by the Chinese. A ngapda is a title and it means that you’re a criminal. So, Damchö Rinpoche was marked as a ngapda because he was a lama, but the rest of the family was not.

TC: Was Damchö Rinpoche harmed in any way?

KSR: No, he was never harmed because of Tülku Drubgyü, who was Trungpa Rinpoche’s regent or representative at Kyere Monastary. It was the previous Trungpa, the 10th Trungpa who placed him as his Regent.

TC: How did he keep Damchö Rinpoche safe?

KSR: Tülku Drubgyü took on the blame himself and spent 22 years in prison. So then there was no blame against Damchö Rinpoche.

TC: Did Rinpoche’s mother have to hide her identity?

KSR: No. Everyone knew that she was Trungpa Rinpoche’s mother. The Chinese knew. The people in the community said that even though the Chinese knew that she was Trungpa Rinpoche’s mother, she hadn’t committed any crime, so she was not to blame. She was innocent.

TC: I would like to know a bit more about Trungpa Rinpoche’s mother, your grandmother. I understand that she was a practitioner and that she was a student of Khenpo Gangshar. I’m interested in knowing about her practice and what she was like.

KSR: Yes, yes.

TC: Did she have a chance to spend a lot of her later years in meditation or retreat?

KSR: It seems that she did practice but there were no retreats during that period of time. Reciting anything was against the Chinese law.

TC: So you had to do sadhana practice in private, quietly?

KSR: They could only practice in secret, without anyone seeing anything. The whole monastery was destroyed and all the ruins were given away. All of the things in the monastery, ritual objects, statues, and so on were distributed by the Chinese to the Lha-thok families—maybe given to the poor families.

TC: In your own life at that time, did you have to hide the fact that you were a Rinpoche?

KSR: I didn’t have the title of a Rinpoche. I was just a child.

TC: You weren’t discovered as a Tulku until later?

KSR: Yes, it was later. I was recognized when I was about 13 or 14.

TC: Who recognized you as a Tulku?

KSR: First, Drupchen Karma Norbu.

TC: Who is Drupchen Karma Norbu?

KSR: Karma Norbu was a pupil of the 10th Trungpa Rinpoche, and he was there with the 11th Trungpa Rinpoche at Tsawa Gön when Trungpa Rinpoche did the Rinchen Terzod empowerment. Karma Norbu was also the pupil of the second Jamgön Kongtrül, Situ Pema Wangchub (the 11th Situ), and Chenzig Chuju Lodro. He was like Jetsun Milerapa. He drank only a drop of water and a bit of food each day—about that much (KSR holds up his thumb and index fingers half an inch apart.) He only wore a thin white cotton shawl or zen (outer monk’s robe) and apart from that he was naked. He spent four years in retreat at Dorje Khyung Dzong in Düdtsi-til, then six years in Palpu retreat. After that, he went to U (Central Tibet) and Lhasa. There he was the retreat Lama at Tsurphu Monastery. He and Kalu Rinpoche were companions in retreat. Then, on his way to India, the 16th Karmapa Rigpe Dorje told Karma Norbu not to go. He told him to stay in Tibet and to take responsibility for recognizing all the Tulkus reborn in Kham.

Drupchen Karma Norbu

TC: And he’s the one who recognized you as a tulku?

KSR: Yes.

TC: Was he your main teacher?

KSR: Yes, my main lama was Karma Norbu, and I was also a student of Khenpo Karma Tseten, those two.

TC: Did you travel away from Kyere and Düdtsi-til at some point to study?

KSR: Yes, I’ve studied with Karma Norbu at Gyu-ne in Dege.

TC: I understand that there are ten siblings altogether, including yourself and Sonam?

KSR: Yes, there are 10.

TC: Would it be proper to refer to you as the Mukpos?

KSR: Yes, Trungpa Rinpoche has given us title Mukpo.

TC: Could you list who those 10 siblings are?

KSR: I am the oldest, Karma Senge. Under me is:

  • a brother, Ati Rinpoche, who is a tulku of Drunglam Gompa, a big Karma Kamtsang monastery in Dege,
  • a sister, Sonam Chokyi, who is married and lives near Jekundo,
  • another sister, Gyume Chodron, who lives with her family near Kyere Gompa,
  • a sister, Tseyang Lhamo, who also lives with her family near Kyere Gompa,
  • a brother, who is married and lives with his family near Kyere Gompa,
  • another brother, Jangchub Chopel, who lives at Kyere Gompa with my father and is not married, nor is he a monk,
  • a sister, Tinle Yongtsam, who is 30 years old and has a family,
  • Sonam Wangdu, is a monk at Kyere Gompa. [Sonam is traveling with KSR as his attendant and is present during this interview.]
  • and the youngest is Dechen, who is about 14 or 15 years old and is a monk at Kyere Gompa. When our mother died, Deche was about one year old. When he was four he started doing the nyengyü practice and he finished this year.

TC: Thank you very much for this interview Rinpoche.

  1. Nüden. One of the classes of important tertöns: the eight and sixteen Lingpas, the 108 tertöns, and so on.
  2. Nyengyü. Surmang Hearing Lineage tradition, a special Chakrasamvara teaching of Surmang, originally handed down by Tilopa.
  3. Tsawa Gang is where Lady Könchok, Sakyong Mipham’s mother is from.
This conversation with Karma Senge (Karseng) Rinpoche was interpreted by Peter Roberts, transcribed by Jessie Litven, and reviewed by Larry Mermelstein.
Originally Posted: 10 July 2005