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Interview with Karma Senge about Kyere Gompa

Photograph by Marvin Moore

Halifax, 10 July 2005

The following conversation with Karma Senge (Karseng) Rinpoche was interpreted by Peter Roberts, transcribed by Jessie Litven (who has since become an apprentice with the Nalanda Translation Committee), and reviewed by Larry Mermelstein. We are pleased to have the opportunity to work with the translators. A condensed version of this interview is available on the NTC site. Karseng Rinpoche's brother, Sonam Wangdu, was present during the interview.

Kyere, a remote area about 25 air miles south of D├╝dtsi-til, has been home to Trungpa Rinpoche's immediate family since he left Tibet in 1959. In this interview Karma Senge Rinpoche talks a little bit about the history of Kyere Gompa, the needs of the people in the region, and his plans to build a medical clinic there. We have also provided a way for people to contribute towards this project. Please see How to donate funds below.

WF: Rinpoche, rather than asking you for further stories about Trungpa Rinpoche today, I'd like to ask you to talk about Kyere Gompa (monastery). 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. I think many of us would like to know how things are there and what your needs are. Hopefully the Chronicles could encourage donations that will help support the work that you are doing and needs of the people in Kyere.

Karma Senge: The founder of Kyere Gompa was Khyungdrak Dorje. He was one of the N├╝den 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 N├╝den Dorjes1.

According to Jamgön Kongtr├╝l'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

Steven Seagal

In February of 1997, His Holiness Penor Rinpoche recognized the Hollywood action star, Steven Seagal as an incarnation of Khyungdrak Dorje, the founder of Kyere Gompa. Here is a letter from Penor Rinpoche regarding Mr. Seagal. Although Karma Senge Rinpoche and Mr. Seagal have not met face to face, they had several video conferences during KSR's visit to North America last summer.


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.

WF: 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 nyengy├╝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 [US $12,500 at current exchange rates]. 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 Tobd├╝, 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 Gongd├╝, ("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.

WF: 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.

(click to enlarge)

Photo by Gaye Carlson

WF: 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.

WF: And D├╝dtsi-til is not part of Lha-thok?

KSR: No, D├╝dtsi-til is in Nangchen.

WF: But Surmang is the whole area?

KSR: No.

WF: 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.

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

KSR: Yes, he was the principle one.

WF: I understand that before Trungpa Rinpoche left Tibet, he moved his family from D├╝dtsi-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 Gang3. 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'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.

WF: 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.

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

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

WF: 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.

WF: Was Damchö Rinpoche harmed in any way?

KSR: No, he was never harmed because of T├╝lku Drubgy├╝, 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.

WF: How did he keep Damchö Rinpoche safe?

KSR: T├╝lku Drubgy├╝ took on the blame himself and spent 22 years in prison. So then there was no blame against Damchö Rinpoche.

WF: 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.

WF: 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.

WF: 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.

WF: 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.

WF: 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.

WF: You weren't discovered as a Tulku until later?

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

WF: Who recognized you as a Tulku?

KSR: First, Drupchen Karma Norbu.

WF: Who is that?

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 Kongtr├╝l, 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 D├╝dtsi-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.

WF: And he's the one who recognized you as a tulku?

KSR: Yes.

WF: Was he your lama?

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

WF: Did you travel away from Kyere and D├╝dtsi-til at some point to study?

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

Karseng Rinpoche at Weyching
Ani Gompa (nunnery) in Kyere.
Photo by Bob and Lindy King, Summer 2005

WF: Could you talk about the needs of the people in Kyere now?

KSR: These days, I have full responsibility for everything at Kyere Gompa. There's a main temple, which is probably about 24-25 khontris wide.5

WF: Has it been rebuilt since the Chinese tore it down?

KSR: It's three stories high. It was rebuilt about twenty five years ago, but it still hasn't been built properly.

WF: What facilities are needed?

KSR: There's no electricity, so we need wood for fuel. The trees aren't very far away, but most people have to carry the wood on their backs or by yak.

WF: What about medical facilities?

KSR: There's no hospital or clinic. If you need to go to a clinic, you have to walk or go by horse. If you go by horse, it takes one day. It's far.

WF: What about the clinic in D├╝dtsi-til?

KSR: Although there is one in D├╝dtsi-til you can't make it in a day—not if you're traveling by horse. People don't have cars. There is a doctor in Kyere, but he doesn't have any medical facilities. There's a doctor, but no medicine.

WF: Is that a Tibetan doctor?

KSR: Yes, it's a Tibetan doctor.

WF: Do people in Kyere prefer to see a Tibetan doctor or a western doctor?

KSR: There are a lot of Tibetan doctors and these days many people are sick. There hasn't been any western medicine except for Chinese medicine. Some people have taken some Chinese medicine.

WF: If a clinic were to be built, should it be a modern medical clinic or would people prefer to have traditional Tibetan medicine?

KSR: We would need both Tibetan and Chinese medicine. 4 I do have a plan for building a medical clinic. There is a 500 khontris piece of land. It's an expansive area and it's centrally located. If we built a clinic there, it could provide care for 2,000 to 3,000 people. It would be greatly beneficial. There are a lot of people with severe headaches, other illnesses, etc. Many people can't reach a doctor and they die, particularly a lot of young children.

Karma Senge stands on the medical clinic site.
Photo by Bob and Lindy King, summer 2005

WF: What is your main priority?

KSR: The most important thing is the medical clinic.

WF: If the people here and in the west in general wanted to send money to you to help build this facility, how could they do that?

KSR: It is possible to send money to the clinic. There's a woman in San Francisco named Gaye Carlson.

WF: Is she raising money for the clinic?

KSR: Well, she sends money over. I built a nunnery with her donations and she continues to send money every year. She's been to the area where the nunnery was built and stayed five days. She gives at most about 24,000 Yuan a year [there are about eight Yuan to the US dollar]. At most she sends that much and sometimes it's less, around 5,000 to 6,000 Yuan. These funds are used for the nunnery.

WF: I'm going to publish this interview about Kyere Gompa and everything you've told me today on the Chronicles website. Would you like us to say that funding is needed for a medical facility in Kyere?


Kyere medical clinic fund

A small gift to KSR from Chronicles readers.

Karma Senge Rinpoche receives
a small gift donated by
Chronicles readers.

Karma Senge was in Halifax for three weeks in June 2006 to attend the Blossoming of the Sun wedding festival and to work with the Nalanda Translation Committee. While he was here, we were delighted to present him with $465 (the $482 minus paypal processing charges) donated by our readers, a very small step toward a medical clinic in Kyere.

Please see
Interview with Karma Senge Rinpoche for more information on Kyere and CTR's family members who have lived there since 1959.

Konchok Foundation

In terms of ongoing support, the Konchok Foundation has agreed to accept tax deductible donations earmarked for Kyere. We have also been in touch with Gaye Carlson who has established a reliable way to send funds to Karma Senge in Kyere. Please visit Weyching Gompa for a look at the wonderful work that Gaye has undertaken.


KSR: That would be fine.

WF: I'll talk to Gaye. Should we send the money we raise to her?

KSR: Yes, that's good. I think that would be really helpful. I myself don't have the wealth, but I have a very strong intention to help people by building this medical clinic. If I could build this clinic, it's like the generosity of giving life, saving lives. Thinking that, I acquired this land and have made plans to build a clinic there. So, when I go back to Kyere at the end of July, we'll get started on the work for the clinic.

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

KSR: Yes, there are 10.

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

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

WF: 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 nyengy├╝ practice and he finished this year.

WF: Well, thank you very much for this interview Rinpoche. I think this will really help us to begin to connect more fully to the Mukpo family and the sangha in Kyere.

Karseng Rinpoche with his wife (does anyone know her name?) and two children.
Photo by Bob and Lindy King, summer 2005
Lyndon Comstock wrote in to say that her name is Galde Lhaso (phonetic spelling). Thanks Lyndon.

1N├╝den. One of the classes of important tertöns: the eight and sixteen Lingpas, the 108 tertöns, and so on. go back

2 Nyengy├╝. Surmang Hearing Lineage tradition, a special Chakrasamvara teaching of Surmang, originally handed down by Tilopa. go back

3 Tsawa Gang is where Lady Könchok, Sakyong Mipham's mother is from. go back

4 Chinese medicine. After the interview, Peter Roberts commented that when Karseng Rinpoche refers to Chinese medicine, he's talking about modern medicine or what we would call western medicine, rather traditional Chinese medicine. go back

5 Khontris. Does anyone know how long a khontirs is? go back

© 2006 The Chronicles of CTR