Tibetan Buddhism in the Bhutanese tradition

by Gussie Fauntleroy

Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche and other lamas at Yeshe Khorlo in 2007 during a five day ceremony called a Drubchen, meaning “great accomplishment.” Gangteng Rinpoche is second from the left.

Far from the magical valleys and peaks of Bhutan, what kind of place provides the combination of solitude and extraordinary beauty that supports the deepest experience of Buddhist meditation retreat? Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche found the answer when he visited Crestone for the first time in 1996.

Born in Bhutan in 1955, the highly respected Buddhist teacher who became known as Gangteng Rinpoche was recognized as a small boy to be the ninth incarnation of Pema Lingpa, a venerated 15th-century teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan. When Gangteng Rinpoche embarked on his life’s path of study, meditation and initiations in the Nyingma Lineage, 40 years had passed since the death of the previous Pema Lingpa embodiment. During that time the lineage’s monasteries and practices had badly deteriorated in Bhutan and had been completely eradicated in Tibet.

Yeshe Khorlo’s new resident teacher, Khenpo Tenzin Thinley. photo by Tom Fox

Gangteng Rinpoche took up the task of rebuilding and reinvigorating the Pema Lingpa tradition in Bhutan and later in other parts of the world. In 1995 he founded a non-profit organization called Yeshe Khorlo, meaning Wheel of Wisdom, to help spread the teachings. When his travels brought him to Crestone, he knew immediately he had found the site of Yeshe Khorlo’s primary center for meditation and retreat. In the years since then the non-profit organization also has established centers in Canada, Europe, Asia and several cities in the United States, including Boulder and Aspen.

Yeshe Khorlo’s Crestone site, the first spiritual center one reaches on Camino Baca Grande heading south after the road turns to gravel, is called Chöying Dzong. The name refers to a vessel or mandala that holds the space for the “innate pure nature of all phenomena and the very essence of mind itself.” Such a space “maintains its innate purity for all who enter,” as Yeshe Khorlo’s website explains. The center sits on 320 acres donated by the Manitou Foundation, established by Hanne Strong.

A winding dirt road leads up the side of the mountain to a Bhutanese-style temple and grounds, where each morning at dawn, blessings are offered to all beings via piñon smoke spiraling up from a large, hand-built burner. Inside the temple the rich, bright colors of thangka paintings, embroidered banners and altar adornments fill the quiet space, lit by high windows in the two-story center of the room. Much of the work involved in planning and building Yeshe Khorlo’s Crestone center—including carving and painting of the altar—was done by its first resident teacher, Löpon Phurba Dorji, sent from Bhutan to Crestone by Gangteng Rinpoche to establish and lead Chöying Dzong.

Further up the mountainside, tucked away amid stately piñons, are four rustic retreat cabins. Practitioners come here from around the world to spend time in meditative retreat, notes Crestone resident Margaret Vrana, a member of the Yeshe Khorlo sangha (Buddhist practitioners associated with the center), who serves as caretaker for the cabins.

The heart of the Pema Lingpa Lineage of Tibetan/Bhutanese Buddhism is a “startlingly direct, concise and complete cycle of Dzogchen (Great Perfection) practices and teachings,” explains Charles Samuelson, sangha member and president of Yeshe Khorlo. “Together these teachings circumscribe the entirety of conditioned existence, from its most subtle to its most gross. At each point in the cycle the student is led to recognize primordial, all pervasive awareness-compassion.”

This spring Yeshe Khorlo welcomed its new lama, Khenpo Tenzin Thinley, of Bhutan, to Chöying Dzong. Khenpo will serve as resident teacher and retreat master for the next three years, replacing Löpon Phurba Dorji, who continues to reside at Yeshe Khorlo’s Crestone site while also spending part of each year teaching and assisting Gangteng Rinpoche in Bhutan.

Each summer Yeshe Khorlo’s local sangha members are joined by other practitioners and students for teachings by Gangteng Rinpoche, who travels to Yeshe Khorlo centers from the lineage’s spiritual seat at the Gangteng Gonpa Monastery in Bhutan. “Gangteng Rinpoche brings concepts down to earth, accompanied by wonderful stories, heart-touching stories,” Margaret observes. This summer’s visit begins on Monday, Aug. 15 with Gangteng Rinpoche’s arrival at Choying Dzong. Friends are welcome to join in greeting him at the temple around 4pm. Please call a day ahead to confirm the time, in case Rinpoche is delayed in travel.

While most of the teachings during the two-week August retreat will be limited to students who have completed certain teachings in previous years, Gangteng Rinpoche will offer a public teaching on the final day of his visit, as well as in Boulder on Sept. 4 and 5. Check Yeshe Khorlo’s website for details on these events, and for times and dates of a public prayer/chanting service and shared meal, called a tsok (pronounced soak). The tsok is held two to three times a month at Yeshe Khorlo’s Chöying Dzong. For more information, see yeshekhorlo.org.

Resident teacher Khenpo Tenzin Thinley (front row, second from left) and students in front of the temple at Yeshe Khorlo’s Crestone site, called Chöying Dzong.