Our spiritual director, Za Choeje Rinpoche
Tenzin Losang Damcho
Rinpoche, the title by which he is most often called, jokingly calls himself a follower of "Hahayana" Buddhism. Having picked up much of his English from university students in the USA, he has a remarkable ability to convey deep and profound Buddhist principles in clear, simple language, with a heavy dose of humour and his characteristic laugh. It is a great blessing that he accepted our requests to be our spiritual director, and visits us annually to teach.
Rinpoche's life story in brief
Born to a Tibetan family in exile and named Choejor Dhondup, he had an ordinary childhood. His whole life changed when, at the age of 16, Geshe Palden Tsering and Ven. Sangye Yeshe (His Holiness the Dalai Lama's personal thangka painter) visited his family with a letter from His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognising Choejor Dhondup as the 6th incarnation of Za Choeje Rinpoche. Rinpoche then ordained as a novice monk and eventually entered Drepung Loseling Monastery, beginning his studies for the geshe degree. He was guided by Tsulkhang Khensur Rinpoche Yeshe Thupten, Shakor Khensur Rinpoche Nyima Gyaltsen, and Tehor Khensur Rinpoche Losang Nyima. He would complete the lharampa (highest grade of geshe degree) curriculum in eleven years, graduating top of his class. During this time Rinpoche also received his full monk ordination from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He further completed one year of tantric studies at the Gyume (Lower Tantra) Monastery.
In addition to these formal monastic studies, Rinpoche has received hundreds of tantric empowerments, oral transmissions, and commentaries from masters such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Locho Rinpoche Losang Oser Choying Gyatso, Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche Losang Jigme Damcho, Pangnang Rinpoche Jampa Tsultrim, and others. Despite being a fully qualified master Rinpoche continues to receive teachings and transmissions from his living teachers like His Holiness the Dalai Lama, His Holiness Sakya Gongma Trichen, Ganden Trisur Rizong Rinpoche Thubten Nyima Lungtok Tenzin Norbu, Khensur Drakyab Tokden Rinpoche Dakpa Lobsang Tenpai Gyaltsen, Samdhong Rinpoche Losang Tenzin Chokyi Gyaltsen, and Geshe Thupten Rinchen.
Since 2001, Rinpoche has been based in the USA, establishing Emaho Foundation in Phoenix, Arizona and Bodhi Center in Yakima, Washington. He frequently visits Japan to teach. In 2008 he accepted our request to become spiritual director.
Being the 6th Za Choeje incarnate, he is the spiritual leader of the Tehor region in Tibet. In this capacity, he made a historic return in 2006, followed by several further visits. He has been able to support the reconstruction of his main monastic seat in Tibet, Za Gonsar Trashi Ganden Choepel Ling Monastery and is currently working on the reconstruction of Za Pangthang Nunnery.
The Za Choeje incarnation lineage
Za Choeje Rinpoche is an incarnate lama, one of many such lamas in the Tibetan tradition. The Karmapas were the first to establish a formal system of identification for their incarnations. Since then, the practice spread into all Tibetan traditions. Although the Gelug tradition's founder Lama Tsongkhapa does not have an incarnation line, one of his direct disciples Gendun Drub became the first of the Dalai Lamas.
There are many possible ways by which an incarnation line can start and continue. Some are rebirths of sincere practitioners who by virtue of their merits and aspirations managed to attain a human rebirth and had strong inclinations towards Buddhist practice. Other more advanced incarnate lamas gained some mastery over the process of death and rebirth. The highest incarnate lamas are emanations of Buddhas and bodhisattvas on the advanced stages of the path, completely free from the cycle of birth and death, and manifesting themselves in human form only to benefit beings. Still others gained their title through bribery or other schemes. As such, seekers looking for a spiritual teacher or guide must take extreme care to examine any potential teacher based on their actual attributes and qualities rather than their title alone.
In Rinpoche's case, Za denotes a region in eastern Tibet, and Choeje is a title meaning Dharma Lord. Rinpoche means precious one, a common form of address for incarnate lamas. The first several incarnations were also known by the title Hor Choeje, indicating their status as spiritual leader of the five Hor kingdoms. The 5th Dalai Lama bestowed the Za Choeje title to the incarnation of his student Hor Choeje Losang Tenzin who died young aged 23. The first Za Choeje, Rabjam Ngawang Phuntsok Jamphel, continued the spiritual studies and connections that he had made with the 5th Dalai Lama in his previous life. When he finished his studies, the 5th Dalai Lama invested the first Za Choeje with spiritual and temporal authority in the Tehor region. The first Za Choeje then returned home to Tehor and established thirteen Gelug monasteries. The last of these, Za Gonsar Trashi Ganden Choepel Ling, became the seat of successive Za Choeje lamas. You can read more details on the Za Choeje incarnation lineage here.
Currently three of the thirteen Gelug monasteries in Tehor are represented in New Zealand. In addition to our centre, there are connections with Dhargye Monastery and Samdrup Monastery. Geshe Ngawang Dhargye, Geshe Sangye Thinley, Geshe Jamyang Sherab, and Ven. Nyima Gyaltsen all studied at Dhargye Monastery in Tibet. Geshe Ngawang Dhargye established Dhargyey Buddhist Centre in Dunedin which has two branch centres in Christchurch and Whangarei. The Whangarei branch Jam Tse Dhargyey Ling is home to Geshe Sangye Thinley and Ven. Nyima Gyaltsen. Geshe Jamyang Sherab is currently based at his own centre Tashi Choepel Ling in Tauranga. As for Samdrup Monastery, Geshe Ngawang Dhargye's close disciples the late Thupten Rinpoche and Lhagon Rinpoche are senior incarnate lamas of the monastery. After Geshe Ngawang Dhargye's passing, Thupten Rinpoche succeeded him, and since Thupten Rinpoche's passing, Lhagon Rinpoche has acted as spiritual director of the Dhargyey centres.
From left to right: the 4th, 5th (there were actually two recognised 5th incarnations based at different monasteries), and 6th Za Choeje Rinpoche.