As prophesized by Dzogchen Thubten Chokyi Dorje, Zhichen Ontrul Rinpoche was born in Amdo of Eastern Tibet. He was recognized as a manifestation of one of the greatest yogis of Tibet, Thangtong Gyalpo. His immediate past life was one of the head masters of the Nyingma Kathok lineage and he was residing at Zhichen monastery, the same monastery as my father.
After accomplishing his common monastic education until the age of 18, he was in charge of looking after the welfare of the various branch monasteries of Zhichen. He took the responsibility of searching for the reincarnation of Zhichen Vairochana in Derge and Dzongsar, and discovered my father with the help of the late Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche. Later on, he enthroned my father in the Zhichen monastery.
Then he realized that taking responsibility of the monasteries and looking after the administrative activities were similar to mundane affairs, so he wanted to go into retreat and follow the genuine masters so as to learn the uncommon path of spirituality. But he was requested by his people not to leave his monastic responsibilities. He decided to fall sick and he told his subjects, “If you don’t allow me to follow the uncommon spiritual path, there is no point for me to live and carry on this way. It is your choice to let me go or stay.”
Like many of those enlightened masters, I think Ontrul Rinpoche somehow knew that the situation of Tibet was getting dangerous and there would not be any reason to develop monasteries materially, so he preferred to go on searching for a spiritual path which would be beneficial to others in a spiritual way, rather than the monastic way.
His people had to let him go eventually according to his wishes. So my father took the responsibility of taking care of the monasteries.
Ontrul Rinpoche’s first destination was Baney Retreat, where he followed the master Choktrul, from whom he received the spiritual teachings of Changthir tradition of Nyingmapa. After staying at the Baney Retreat for a number of years, he heard about the reputation Shugchung Tsullo, one of the greatest masters in the late 19th century, and he went to follow his teachings.
From Shugchung Tsullo, Ontrul Rinpoche thus received the uncommon Dzogchen practice as well as the common teachings of three yanas of Buddhism continuously for 18 years. Right at the end of an uncommon introduction to the Great View of Dzogchen, Shugchung Tsullo qualified him as a lineage master, and asked him not to hesitate to teach whoever approached him. But Ontrul Rinpoche did not leave the retreat place of Shugchung until his guru passed away.
Shugchung Tsullo was one of the important lineage holders of the Do Drupchen lineage as well as the Changthir lineage. He was not only a learned scholar, but also a realized Dzogchen master; secretly, he was also a terton, although externally he was mostly reserved about his qualities. Ontrul Rinpoche recalled the day before Shugchung Tsullo passed away, there had been a domestic dispute between his niece and his young monks, when he was told of the problem, he felt, “I have been teaching for more than 30 over years and yet my teachings have not helped those people, even my own people are not able to live harmoniously, so there is no point to live on.” Therefore, Shugchung Tsullo ‘caught’ a flu the same evening of the dispute, and he passed away peacefully in meditation posture the following day. After that he was in meditative state for six weeks and the wondrous smell of his body permeated equally in about 1km radius. As soon as he was out of his meditative state, all the followers requested Ontrul Rinpoche to take the responsibility of cremation.
On the night of cremation, Ontrul Rinpoche dreamt of his guru riding confidently on a white horse in the direction of a high and gigantic spiraling mountain, telling him, “I am leaving for the Copper-Colored mountain to be reunited with Guru Padmasambhava. And you will follow my footsteps, but not now.”
In early 1960’s, Ontrul Rinpoche fled to India with many other masters and his own subjects, and he told me that he could manage to practice on his way to India, even though it was a very dangerous period, amidst gun shots and military activities. He had no fear because he was confident of his guru’s guidance, but he felt sorry that lives were sacrificed easily, for example wild animals were killed to feed the hungry people, and people were killed by the harsh weather and the aggressive military activities. At the same time, Ontrul Rinpoche was able to differentiate among his group of escapers, practitioners who were calm and compassionate in such a tragic situation and non-practitioners who simply panicked and distressed over the pain and loss of their possessions and loved ones, among these people, many were great masters in his time. Therefore, through this experience, Ontrul Rinpoche was given a great opportunity to learn from genuine masters whose attitude was a exemplified model for him to follow for the rest of his life and to abstain from following those who were putting up a shallow front which simply broke down in time of tests.
Later on, in Kalimpong, India, Ontrul Rinpoche took the initiation of Dzogchen lineage from the late Dudjom Rinpoche and many exchanges took place during this time with many other genuine Dzogchen masters. He later told me that he wanted to stay in a monastic environment of Nyingmapa school. But that time he could not find any. So he thought about follow a great abbot and Dzogchen master, Polokhen Rinpoche, but he found out that Polokhen Rinpoche had no permanent retreat place that he could reside and practice. And then he decided to stay at the Drepung Gomang because he said to me, “By staying in that kind of monastic community, I would have no obstacles in spiritual practice, such as mundane attractions.”
Ontrul Rinpoche stayed at the Drepung Gomang until the late 1980’s, when my father and I requested him to be my guru, and for that purpose, he moved to my monastery. Years later, he went to Tibet to fulfill his final responsibilities, and he benefited many people there. Unfortunately, after a short stay in Tibet, he passed away. All of us who had followed him did not have enough positive accumulations to have him with us any longer.
I think Ontrul Rinpoche must be in the Amitabha’s pureland right now because he was constantly making preparations to go to Amitabha’s pureland after he expired from this world. When he was with me, he sometimes jokingly said, “I don’t think I will be welcome by those dakinis in Copper-Colored mountain because I am not a yogi, therefore I cannot fulfill their wishes. So I think the Amitabha’s pureland would provide me with a more welcoming reception, because there may be more vinaya Gelongs, where I may fit in comfortably.” And he also said, “There should not be any problem for me to visit Copper-Colored mountain once I am in Amitabha’s pureland.” Ontrul Rinpoche would never say such things to the public, except to me and his closest attendant. When he was about to pass away, he told this attendant, “You don’t have to worry for me, I will be going to Amitabha’s pureland directly.” This was followed by some personal advice to the attendant.