INVINCIBLE COURAGE AND LOVE: LIFE-THREATENING BRAVERY IN A CHINESE JAIL AND ROOT GURU, DZOGCHEN MASTER, KHENPO MUNSEL. Guru Stories (Part 3) by 8th Garchen Rinpoche
—Je Jigten Sumgon
‘In that moment of anger, instead of looking at that person or what made you angry. Look at the anger itself. Meditate. You know the nature of the mind, you know how to meditate on that. So when anger arises, realize that self and other do not exist and are not separate. This dualistic perception of self and other is delusion’
They will quickly go beneath the bodhi tree,
And tame Mara with all his hordes.”
Here is Part 3 transcript of the Guru Stories by 8th Garchen Rinpoche (for video, see here). This teaching focused mainly on Rinpoche’s time in prison and meeting ‘one of the greatest teachers in Tibet, Dzogchen master, Khenpo Munsel (mkhan po mun sel, 1916-1993), for a biography see here. There is also a video of a pilgrimage to Khenpo Munsel’s place of meditation in Tibet,
In his teachings, Garchen Rinpoche first spoke about the importance of seeing the guru as no different from the Buddha. Then, he spoke about about his life at the time of the Chinese Communist regime’s takeover of Tibet. When he travelled to the Chinese prison, he was in the same sleeping compartment with another Tibetan Buddhist master, Buddhist master, Adeu Rinpoche (see image), who gave him some short instructions and also later told him that Khenpo Munsel was the greatest lamas among all the lamas and tulkus inside the ‘lama’s jail.’
Then, Garchen Rinpoche explained the very strict restrictions in the jail that forbade any Dharma practice and Mani recitations, and how people were constantly monitored to make sure no one was practising. He then spoke about how he went on a secret hunger strike and gave his food to other prisoners out of compassion. He explained how he wanted to die and risked his own life to express his wrath at the hospital boss as so many people were being killed by hard work and starvation in the camp. It was both heartbreaking and hilarious to hear how while lying sick in bed, he punched and spat at the hospital boss in order to express his annoyance at the situation there and the communist regime, yet was met with compassion and later, at his request, unlimited food.
Later, after Garchen Rinpoche had recovered, his act of courage had got back to Khenpo Munsel, still in the prison, who asked him about it and gave him direct instructions on how to bring anger onto the path, and that practice and daily activities are never separate.
Rinpoche then spoke about the miraculous power of Munsel and how he was able to stay in the prison for twenty years, feigning sickness, without working and meditating cross-legged without moving much for more than twenty years. How he taught prisoners in the camp and was able to recall the entire oral transmissions of Nyingma perfectly. How he even managed to conduct a secret 100 000 Guru Rinpoche recitation and accumulation feast, despite the fact it was strictly forbidden and punishable even by death. Then, when Munsel was finally released from prison, he just got up and walked out without any crutches or assistance. Rinpoche said it was like the verse in the ‘Prayer for Excellent of Conduct’, not even armies of maras could harm him.
Garchen Rinpoche ended with a reminder why it is important to have devotion for the gurus and that this was one of Khenpo Munsel’s important instructions too. Their life-stories inspire us and thus open the heart and mind for the blessings of the guru and lineage to enter our minds, without which attainment of superior qualities is not possible.
On a personal note, I never met Khenpo Munsel, but merely hearing about his life and conduct and seeing his powerful photos, always makes me weep and laugh with both sadness and joy. The story about how he just stood up and walked out of the prison after twenty years seated, feigning sickness, is not only incredible as a physical feat but hilarious too at the sheer courageous audacity of it!
One can only imagine how inspiring it must have been to be in the presence of such ‘living Bodhisattvas’ in such ‘harsh and brutal’ conditions and to see them practice the actual Bodhisattva way. Music? You Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer or Unstoppable by Sia…. ‘I’m invincible, yeah, I win every single game I’m so powerful, I don’t need batteries to play…’
Transcribed and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 25th October 2021.
“So Dharma friends, nowadays, the world is going through many difficulties and we have to stay inside and maybe people get tired of staying inside, so even though I may not be able to teach the Dharma that eloquently, but I thought of sharing some stories about my ow gurus, the lamas I personally have connected to. That is very significant. Jamgon Kongtrul said, the guru should be seen as the actual Buddha in human form. The guru is a human and often people make these distinctions and they say the guru it the guru and the lama is the lama and the Buddha is the Buddha, they are different. But actually if you think about it again and again it is not like that. As Lord Jigten Sumgon has said:
So all the gurus, my own gurus as an example, all of them is really a Buddha, that is not because I am went towards them out of respect but is because they all came to me and helped me with kindness. It is very meaningful to hear the stories of those gurus and that is why I am going to continue with more guru stories.
Last week, I told some stories about Lama Chime Dorje, before the turmoil broke out in Tibet, and today, I am going to speak about the time the turmoil and troubles broke out in Tibet. Generally speaking, first of all, all the difficulties we encounter in this world, arise from the cause, which is negative karma and obscurations. That leads to the condition of the obstructors , evil spirits and harm-doers and so on. They cause the result of illness and suffering, there are different age/kalpas in this world, so there is the age of weapons, starvation and of disease, during that time, it was the time of weapons and starvation. Now we are in an age of disease. In brief, all these difficulties arise from karma and negativities and obscurations. What is that cause? From self-grasping and from that arises attachment and aversion, and then stinginess and greed and from that arises hatred. From that we end up in times of disease and starvation and weapons.”
“So, during that time, it was a time of starvation and weapons. At that time, due to the force of my own karma, I ended up in prison, we were first transported there. I was together with many other different lamas and lay leaders and so on. Among them, was a great master from Nangchen, called Adeu Rinpoche (a lde’u 08, 1931-2007). There were also seven lamas from the Ngachu Yarney Shabten Monastery, which is in Ngachu, close to Lhasa. There were also other Rinpoches. That is when I met him myself, as I came from Nangchen, I have seen him before but only from far away, I was never able to speak to him before that and I could not really come close to him. However, at that time, I met him directly, he was a lama of great kindness. he was very peaceful and loving like a real Bodhisattva, that is when I met Adeu Rinpoche for the first time.
At that time, we had not actually yet arrived at the prison. I was in the same sleeping area as Adeu Rinpoche, so from my time with Chime Dorje Rinpoche I had memorised the 37 Practices of a Bodhusattva. Within the 37 Practices, especially at that time, he mentioned one verse:
He said the unbearable suffering of the lower realms comes from negative actions, and he also said that, however, the suffering we experience in a precious human body, is actually a great merit. The more we suffer as a human being the greater merit. It is said that in the precious human being’s body, a single headache purifies the negativities that would cause one to wander for a long time in the lower realms. One might have the karma to experience suffering for a long time in the lower realms and in a very short time as a precious human being one purifies all the suffering. So he said we should really rejoice in that and that what we experience is the full ripening of our own karma. He spoke a lot about, and went into great depth on the teachings on karma. We were in the same sleeping area and he gave many instructions.
Then, finally, we arrived at the actual prison in the Xining area, which is a higher security prison where all the higher lamas and leaders from the various areas of central Tibet, Amdo and Kham and so on, all came together. There were about four hundred or so lamas, monks, chant masters, leaders and so on. Especially those whose names were well-known like leaders and so on.
About a year or two after we arrived, I asked Adeu Rinpoche, in the prison there are so many lamas but which one is the most precious one? He replied secretly to me , that among all of them, the most precious was Khenpo Munsel and that I should really meet him. So, at that time, sometimes I was also in the same sleeping area as Adeu Rinpoche and he had received instructions himself from Khenpo Munsel and wrote these down secretly in the form of notes that he kept hidden. Anyway, he was the lama who first gave me the opportunity to me meet Khenpo Munsel.”
“In terms of Khenpo Munsel’s outer life story, he was in prison but he was one of the sick people. Basically, the entire time he was in prison for over twenty years, he never had to work, he was sitting crossed-legged the entire time. He had some wooden crutches he could only get up on them otherwise he would not walk and was crippled, or so they thought!
At that time, the officials would examine everyone who claimed to be sick or unable to work. As there were people who would try to feign sickness etc. they would take these people and really examine them, and give them all kinds of injections and examine them all over until their lie was exposed and they had some difficulties. Basically, whoever was able to work had to do so. It was really difficult to hide that from them.
However, Khenpo Munsel was different. For the entire twenty years. he claimed to be sick and crippled in his legs and no one ever actually examined him, they just took his word for it and thought he must be right. No one ever checked that, the entire twenty years he never had to work and they saw him walking on his crutches the entire time.
Yet, when he was released in 1979, he basically just stood up and walked out of prison. That was the time the Chinese President released everyone from the prison. Khenpo Munsel was released with others, and he instantly got up without any signs of being crippled and walked out of prison. That is his outer story.”
Dharma Practice forbidden but entire collected oral Nyingma instructions teachings from Khenpo Munsel taught to others from memory
“In prison, people were always monitored and were not allowed to do Dharma practice, or hold a mala or count mantras, we were not even allowed to say OM MANI PADME HUM. Often the officials would walk around and monitor and see if someone was secretly silently, reciting the Mani mantra. When it looked like someone was doing that, then they would demand: ‘what are you doing? Are you reciting the Mani mantra?!’
There was one prisoner, a businessperson from Nangchen who was very feisty and one of the prison officials accused him of reciting the Mani mantra. As he was quite feisty and thought ‘if you die you die’, he said to the official: ‘don’t you know that to say the Mani mantra, you have to move your mouth and lips when you say the mantra? Have you seen my mouth moving? I have not moved them. So you do not know how to recite the mantra it seems.’ So the official said ‘I have seen your neck moving’, so then the prisoner said ‘that is just my life vein moving, it is a sign I am alive and not dead yet, that is why it moves’. They were arguing and he said’ just take me then, just kill me’. So then he was handcuffed and taken. That is how it was in prison, we were not allowed to even read any Dharma texts, or have a mala or recite Mani mantras.
Khenpo Munsel had memorised the entire collected tantras of the oral lineage of the Nyingma tradition and he taught us, and Adeu Rinpoche would take notes and write it down. All the teachings came from Khenpo Munsel’s memory.
Later, when we were released from prison, we were given a notebook of Adeu Rinpoche’s writings of Khenpo Munsel’s teachings from memory. It was amazing how accurate it was compared to the original texts. Adeu Rinpoche was amazed at how precisely matching they were. That is how Khenpo Munsel preserved the lineage of Nyingma instructions.”
“In the early 1960s. I got very sick, there were two sections of the prison, lower and upper, in the lower section there was the hospital, and so they sent me there. There were a lot of very sick people, and many who died there every day. When I was there, I had a thought that I would rather die and not live. So I made up my mind to stop eating any food. If I ate a little bit of food I got hungry really quickly. However, if I didn’t eat any food at all, I would not get so hungry and thought it would be better to die. So I stopped eating, and shared my portion of food among the cellmates, there were seven of them, secretly and gave each one a little bit of food. I stopped eating and I did not feel that hungry. My father had taught me how to retain the winds and extract the essence. So I did not feel hungry despite not eating and shared my food with the sick people.
However, one day they started fighting over the food and so the doctors found out about my sharing my food portions. There was one person there who was an official, who spoke both Tibetan and Chinese. Anyway, I really wanted to give the others food out of compassion for them. So then the doctors found out and came and restrained me. I was already in a poor, physical state, I could not get up anyway, and they said ‘why are you are not eating’ and in my mind I felt quite angry and annoyed. Because what this communist regime has done is not just to one country or one city but to the whole world, they were destroying with their ideology the Dharma and also the worldly ways. Thus, in my mind they really were like an ‘enemy in whom the ten grounds are complete’; beings who cause a lot of harm to Buddha’s teachings and to all sentient beings. So at that time, I was very annoyed and thought it would be better if they did not exist and to destroy them. So they restrained me and put me in solitary confinement.
I was told by this friend who knew Chinese and Tibetan, that he leader of the hospital wanted to speak with me, so I asked him how to say ‘bring him here’ in Chinese, and he taught me how to say that (Rinpoche said it in Chinese), and I asked them to bring the hospital head like that. This person I knew was translating, and so the head came and I basically thought to myself that if I do something bad, then they will kill me. At that time, I was lying in the bed, and very weak and could not get up. I wanted to punch him but I could not move. So I asked him to come closer. Then, he came closer and closer, and when he was really close, I spat in his face and punched him. After I punched him, he started laughing. The doctors came and they restrained me again and said ‘oh he is crazy and has lost his mind’.
In the prison kitchen, one of the cooks was Gabey Lama’s father, there were some 40 cooks or so, they were in a better state as they had more food to eat. Later, that is where I ended up. Anyway, so I punched the hospital chief and they restrained me and said I am crazy and he brought the same translator, and asked me, ‘ why did you hit me and beat me?’ I said, whichever way you look at it, this regime is causing a lot of harm to beings and the Dharma, I did not want to live and thought it would be better to die and so stopped eating. Then I thought if I hit you, as that is a grave offence, I will be killed and that is why I punched you. Again, he was laughing. He said ‘you poor thing, you have a mother and father and it is better you do not die. I know why you punched me because you wanted to die, you thought I would be angry and then I would kill you. However, he said ‘I understand, but it does not matter to me, it does not harm me, I am not angry or upset with you. I am not upset because we have a personal issues etc. like you killed my father and vice versa, you punched me because you are angry with the communist regime, so I cannot be angry with you.’
This official, who was the leader, had a lot of compassion and love for me from his heart. I was still in bad shape, and he really took care of me and visited every day and said you have to eat. I told him, ‘it is not that I do not eat, it is that you people do not give us anything to eat, look around! There are so many people here are dying of starvation. Can you not see that?!’
He then said he would provide food, and would I eat it? So I told him ‘if you want me to eat. you have to give me as much as I want, or I won’t eat it’. Then, he then wrote an official letter to the cooks saying whatever I ask for, they should give it to me. Generally, in the hospital, there were different levels of how much food a sick person was apportioned, based on their level of sickness, such as getting four, five or six portions. That official said give him what he wants, so I got all the six portions, and was eating all the time. If I did not eat, I felt hungry again, so I was eating a lot, and day by day I got better. After one month I recovered and was able to get up again. The hospital boss had a lot of love for me and his mind was relaxed and laid-back. I wondered why he had that much compassion for me.
Also, later after I was released from prison, his official secretly created paintings of each of the things that happened to me in prison. He called it the ‘sixteen enlightened deeds of the sick person, Konchog Gyaltsen’. He painted it almost like a mandala thangka, of different images in picture form where he painted my story, such as getting arrested, going to the hospital and so on. Looking at the images later, it really was exactly my story and there was one called Nangchen Trinley Kunkhyab, who was the son of the Nangchen King, who said what he painted was your story in the sixteen deeds when you were in prison. Around that time, I was still in the hospital when these images were painted. I was able to leave the hospital there, put on my working clothes and got ready to leave. Before, I left, I went to see Lama Drubchen RInpoche who also did not eat. I encouraged him to eat and said ‘Rinpoche, please eat for the sake of sentient beings, this is what happened to me and I am now better and I can get up again. So he said ‘OK’ and there was some bread which he ate, but then soon after passed away.
“He had already heard about what happened in hospital. ‘I heard you punched that official. You have learned how to take suffering as the path’. Then he introduced me to the abandoning, transforming and knowing, the three levels of the path of practice. He said: ‘you know the 37 Bodhisattva practices, you really are a Dzogchen yogi. You have already abandoned, and transformed, but now you have to know. Knowing means, from the Vajrayana perspective, you have to see the essence of your anger/hatred. The reason why you got angry with that official was not because of self-grasping though. Out of concern for others, you gave up even the thought of your own life and that if they kill you that is alright, there was no self-grasping. No thought of ‘what will happen to me?’ In that moment of anger, instead of looking at that person or what made you angry. Look at the anger itself. Meditate. You know the nature of the mind, you know how to meditate on that. So when anger arises, realize that self and other do not exist and are not separate. This dualistic perception of self and other is delusion’. In that way, through anger, he introduced me to the teachings of Dzogchen. That was really beneficial and was an instruction to take the afflictions as the path.
Before I got those teachings, I saw practice and the work I had to do as separate. I was angry with that official and punched him, and he had great compassion and love for me and that was what caused my mind to feel more relaxed. That is why we say in the Bodhisattva path, we transform the affliction through love and compassion. So I was angry at him, but my anger was transformed through his love and compassion. That was how my mind calmed down. That is what I learned from Khenpo Munsel Rinpoche. He said there is nothing else necessary to practice, there is no separate practice from the work you do. Putting those teachings into practice, I learned how to take anger as the path. Khenpo Munsel said to me that in the Dzogchen path, where one particularly takes anger as the path, ‘You are the perfect candidate for such practice. Now you did that well and you know how to take anger as the path’.
Secret 100 000 Guru Rinpoche mantra accumulation and Tsog offering in the Chinese prison “Then later, when we came closer to the actual cultural revolution, another event happened on the tenth day of the lunar month, which is Guru Rinpoche day. At that time, Khenpo Munsel, Adeu Rinpoche and Aten Tenzin Gyamsto?, seven great lamas met secretly on that day to accumulate 100 000 seven-line prayers to Guru Rinpoche, which was followed by a Tsog offering. At that time, I was with an official and a tulku, we went there with seven people and got some of the Tsog blessing, which was made from butter and sugar. We knew about the secret Tsog offering, as did the tulku. At that time, when we left, I did not really trust that tulku. Later on he ran into some trouble and it slipped out of his mouth and he told the officials that we had this secret Tsog offering and accumulations of the seven-line prayer. That was a huge offence in prison, and could mean even a death sentence.
At that time, there was a secretary who was Tibetan, he was a great scholar too, and he ended up in the prison hospital because he fell out of an airplane and broke his legs and he was the secretary in that hospital there. So then, miraculously, doctors were brought together to issue a letter to say that there was no fault and that they did not perform the Tsog offering and so on. Even though the tulku had snitched on them. They did not even investigate it and did not say anything and they were not accused of any wrongdoing. In addition, as I said, there were doctors who accepted Khenpo Munsel was not sick and he was never examined. They were not allowed to beat or harm them in any way.
This was like a miracle to me, and I thought about the line in Samantabhadra’s Prayer for Excellent Conduct; that even the legions, armies of maras and tirthikas cannot defeat them. That was how it was, no matter what he did, they could not defeat Khenpo Munsel. Even though he was not sick at all , he never had to work for twenty years and nobody questioned it. Same with the secret Tsog offering, even though it was exposed still nothing happened and it fell back onto the tulku, who later got into trouble.
Later, in 1979, when we were released from prison, Khenpo Munsel (despite there being laws that it was a great offence) just walked out of prison and died a natural death. That is a story but there were many incredible and amazing stories about him. That is just an example of how he was able to remain completely unharmed, without having to work, without being accused of any offence, and spend his whole time sitting down cross-legged and teaching the Dharma and them writing it all down. Then he left prison and died a natural death.
“So what is the important point to keep in mind when hearing this? So, now when we think about the enlightened activities of these great masters, like Khenpo Munsel, he did not have to work in prison, and got up and left like nothing had happened. He sat for twenty years without moving, and even that would cripple most people, even if they were not crippled before. So he remained completely unharmed. Others were also not allowed to move their mouths reciting the mani mantra but he managed to do this 100 000 supplications and secret tsog and nothing happened. So the officials not only not accuse them of any offence, they also praised them for being really great. When we were all released from prison, Khenpo Munsel then turned the Dharma wheel extensively .
This is the kind of root guru I have met. He is really the greatest guru in all Tibet. His enlightened activities are really like it says in the Prayer of Excellent Conduct, and many lamas were like that. What is the benefit of hearing that? Guru Rinpoche said that when you hear the life stories, then clear inspiration arises in you, and due to that the mind can slowly open up and then grasping at a concrete reality and clinging thoughts diminishes. Then. Padmasambhava says by seeing the qualities faith arises and then when trust arises, the blessings enter one’s mind.This is why the teachings of the Buddha’s three jewels have become so widely renowned.
Through hearing about these masters and getting their blessings, the Buddha Nature that all sentient beings possess can awaken and open up. By cultivating trusting faith, blessings will enter one’s mind, and when the mind is free of doubts, then one’s wishes will be accomplished.
As for this trusting faith, Khenpo Munsel said it means you must have devotion. It is said that if you have great devotion to an inferior or bad lama, you will become the best Dharma practitioner. However, if you have little devotion, to a great lama then no blessings will enter your mind still. It depends mainly on your own faith and devotion and pure perception. This is what Khenpo Munsel also taught me, that guru devotion is very important. It has benefited me greatly and that is why I thought sharing these stories with you my friends will also benefit you.
So when you hear the stories of various gurus, faith and devotion increases. Personally, that is why I find it important and benefited myself. Generally, you can read the life story of any guru that you are devoted to yourself, like Guru Rinpoche and Milarepa. For example, I read Milarepa’s life story again and again and it really benefited me. I saw how through reading those life-stories faith and trust really can arise in the mind. When they arise, the obscurations in the mind, such as doubt is eliminated. Then one realises that all the Buddhas are actually one. They all are an embodiment of the three jewels. Their body is the sangha. their speech is the Dharma, and their mind is the Buddha. In this way, one can also recognise` that their mind is also Buddha and your mind becomes free of doubts. As Jigten Sumgon said, your own mind, the guru’s mind and the Buddha’s mind are one. The Buddha is like space or an ocean.”
Transcribed and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 25th October 2021.
 In relation to this remarkable ability of recall and memorization: “Munsel’s biography estimates he studied one hundred voluminous texts, out of which he mastered twenty-five. His performance during the public tests administered by the monastery is remembered as a demonstration of this erudition. He was also known to have specialized in the Dzogchen Nyingtik (rdzogs chen snying thig) tradition. Munsel eventually founded a dharma center in Ponkor Ngakgon (dpon skor ngag dgon) where he served as abbot for around twenty years.”
 “At some point in 1959, Munsel was assaulted by members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. He was beaten close to death, but was said to have remained mentally stable and peaceful during the attack. Afterwards, he was imprisoned in the district jail for about a year, and was then transferred to the so-called “Lama’s Jail” in Xining, the provincial capital of Qinghai. The facility lacked sufficient food, clothing and shelter, causing great hardships for its residents, but it is reported that the conditions did not adversely affect Munsel, and that he was able to continue to practice in secret. He was known to have given a share of his food to his companions in jail, and at one point lived without food for several weeks during a period when nourishment was scarce. Despite fasting for such a long time, his health was observed to be even better than before his imprisonment; as a result, many of his fellow prisoners and even many of the jail’s staff are reported to have become his students.
As conditions slowly improved, Munsel began to give Dzogchen instructions to those imprisoned with him, including a number of high lamas. While in jail, he became the root guru of the Eighth Garchen, Konchok Gyeltsen (mgar chen 08 dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, b.1936), an important Drigung lineage holder who currently travels widely; and gave Dzogchen instructions to the Eighth Adeu Rinpoche (a lde’u 08, 1931-2007), a Drukpa Kagyu lineage holder. One of his elderly Chinese devotees was even said to have attained a rainbow-body (‘ja’ lus) at the time of his death.
Munsel spent a total of eighteen years doing hard labor at Dzagyo Factory (rdza gyo bzo grwa) in Xining. His biography relates that he practiced Dzogchen throughout this period by mentally visualizing the factory as a meditation cabin and the tools he was using as ritual implements. Through these methods, he is believed to have gained great spiritual accomplishment. While in jail, he composed a note on the essential teachings of Dzogchen, but burnt it when he acquired a similar note that was written by his teacher, Khenpo Ngawang Pelzang.
After spending a total of twenty-two years in prison, Munsel was released.”