Chapter One Birth and Childhood at Dong-go Click here to print PDF booklet
Konchog Gyaltsen was told that early one summer, some wild birds came to his village.
These birds usually lived in the forest but they landed on the roof of the house
where his mother lived, and stayed there for a few days. No one could chase them
away and so the villagers thought of it as an unusual sign.
It was then that Konchog Gyaltsen was conceived.
Soon afterward, his mother had a dream in which she saw blazing sunlight coming from
the east and radiating toward her. All sunshine, bright, beautiful, golden sunshine.
It pervaded her dream, her senses, her very being. It was as if she was being bathed
in wonder. The light dissolved into her, and she woke up.
Konchog Gyaltsen’s mother gave birth to him early in the morning on the 25th day
of the Second month of the Fire Ox year (1937) in the house where the forest birds
had landed. There were four other boys in the local Gar area who were born in that
very same year, and it is said that some of them bore the exact same astrological
sign: Tsering Phuntsok, Ngudrub Gyamtso, Dampa Yeshe, and another boy who, incidentally,
was also given the same name as Konchog Gyaltsen.
When Dampa Yeshe’s mother was carrying him in her womb, many unusual dreams came
to her. One day, a cuckoo bird gently landed on her shoulder. It said cuckoo, cuckoo
a few times, and then, as gently as it had landed, it unhurriedly glided away. That
was unheard of for a cuckoo bird to land on a human shoulder and to declare its presence
by calling out to her.
Extraordinary too was the dream that Ngudrub Gyamtso’s father
had of the previous 7th Gar Rinpoche, Thinley Yongkyab when Ngudrub Gyamtso was
conceived. He saw this high lama come to his house and cut open the stomach of his
pregnant wife with a dri-gug, a ritualistic curved knife that symbolizes transcendent
wisdom to cut through delusions. The lama took out the infant from the mother’s
womb, cut open the infant and pulled out the infant’s heart. Then, he cut open the
heart in which he carefully inserted a small, sparkling piece of crystal. Having
done that, the lama sealed the infant’s heart, put the heart back inside the infant’s
body and put the baby back in its mother’s womb.
Another benefactor had a dream in which he saw the previous 7th Gar Rinpoche came
to stay at his house. Then, another girl in the village also dreamed of him. She
saw Gar Rinpoche appear and bringing with him a retinue of monks, horses and dri
– female yaks – carrying all of his precious belongings. The retinue arrived at the
house of Konchog Gyaltsen’s mother and took residence there.
This Lama, the 7th Gar Rinpoche, a great siddha of crazy wisdom, had passed away
a few years earlier at his monastery called Gar Gön, about a day by horse from the
All five boys, the two Konchog Gyaltsens, Tsering Phuntsok, Ngudrub Gyamtso and Dampa
Yeshe grew up to become great practitioners and followers of the Dharma. But under
the force of their own individual karma, they led contrasting lives as different
as the landscapes of summer and winter pasture land. These lands, lives after lives,
have relented to the unswayable drama brought by the impermanence of seasons and
However, in ways that only the heart can fathom, Konchog Gyaltsen until this very
day, considers that he and his four companions are no different than the rainbow
colors of the prayer flags that he saw hanging everywhere in the monastery of his
youth. He sees that they exist interdependently, like the five rainbow colors. In
his heart and mind, he sees them not as five but as one.
The place where Konchog Gyaltsen was born is called Dong-go drong. It lies near
the Dza-Chu river in the old Kingdom of Nangchen in the region Kham of Eastern Tibet.
A drong is a small village, and in this remote village of Dong-go drong, there were
no more than forty to fifty families.
From the house where little Konchog Gyaltsen was brought into this world, he could
see Kango Gön, a small Drikung Kagyu monastery setting on top of a hill, not more
than a dozen houses away. Kango Gön was where people in his village usually visited
on special occasions to pray and make offerings to the Buddhas, pay respect to the
monks, and receive blessings and advice. Then, there is Lho Migyel Gön in close
proximity, another Drikung Kagyu monastery about half-a-day by horse.
When Konchog Gyaltsen turned five, his mother brought him to a tsam-kang – a retreat
house – to see Lama Konchog Tengye, a great yogi-monk whom she got to know from his
early days at Kango Gön. She had deep devotion toward this kind and wise lama,
and wished for her son to take his refuge vows from him. Lagin Konchog Tengye was
a disciple of the 7th Gar Rinpoche of Gar Gön, and spent almost all his life in meditation.
The day Konchog Gyaltsen’s mother brought him to see this old, respectable monk for
his first hair-cutting and refuge ceremony, there happened to be many Tantric disciples
gathering around him for a teaching.
Little Konchog Gyaltsen did not understand much of what was going on but on that
day for once, he knew that he had to follow what the old teacher and his mother asked
him to do. He heard his mother whisper to him in a soft, hazy voice, as if the morning
wind had blown it far across the rolling hills and barren fields that surrounded
In the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, from this day onward, you will take refuge...
Sang Gye Chö Dang Tsog Kyi Chog Nam La... Now, do what Lagin says...
Some of the Tantric practitioners gazed at the wide-eye, mischievous five year-old
boy and said to one another in amusement:
“Today, we found a new member for our sangha whois going to sit below us at the
end of the row!”
Little Konchog Gyaltsen did not like what he heard. He would rather not sit at all,
any where, anyway! His mother smiled shyly at the practitioners but to her and everyone’s
surprise, the yogi-monk turned to his students and said:
“No, this child is not someone who is going to take a seat below us! We would be
very fortunate if we could just take a seat below him!”
Then, the Lagin said nothing else.
When mother-and-child finally left the monastery, little Konchog Gyaltsen was happy,
and whatever the lama declared a moment earlier did not make a single etch in the
little boy’s memory.
But his mother went on remembering the scene, as if it had been yesterday… the quiet
retreat hut, the kind and wise old monk, the flickering butter lamps, the lingering
smell of incense, her son’s anxious-looking face and his dirt-covered fingers pulling
hard at her chuba.
Ama, let’s go home now, let’s leave.
In Dong-go drong, all families were farmers. Their houses were built of bricks and
mud of ochre color, with flat roofs that dubbed as terraces where people would climb
up and make smoke-offerings every morning. Other than the monastery, retreat houses
or monk’s quarters which are painted in white, the rest of the residences bear the
same color of muddy ochre on the outside. Most of the houses were one-story high
although some families with animals also built a living space for the animals below
their living. Others built a separate stable away from the main house to keep their
horses although unlike the nomads, all families in this village survived by cultivating
their fields and had very few animals.
There was almost no tree in sight – well, almost none, except for the few that scattered
around the village looking water-deprived in the summer and sadly limp in the winter.
This whole village of rugged terrain was surrounded by layers of rocky mountains
in the far distant.
Its only striking landmark was actually the small Kango Gön monastery situated on
an elevated hill. Next to it, a rising pole of colorful prayer flags stood proudly.
These prayer flags, or wind-horses (lung-ta) as the Tibetans called them, fluttered
in the wind day and night like a flock of gigantic butterfly-wings being caught
and strung together. Aside from that, the only other greatness of the village seemed
to lay with the endlessly vast fields that stretch across from one end to another
like an ocean of absolute stillness.
All families in Dong-go drong grew wheat, barley, turnips, potatoes and they had
very little meat, butter or other kinds of vegetables. Their livelihood depended
solely on their harvests, and the wheat and barley that they grew was of very good
quality. They traded wheat, barley, flour and tsampa for butter and meat from the
nomads according to the barter system.
In a nearby village about five kilometers away, there were other families who could
produce salt. These families knew of a secret formula to make salt from the salty
water that they collected from various areas. In Tibet, salt was very rare and people
usually had to travel for months with their yaks to find salt, sometimes across treacherous
mountain passes that could cost them their lives. These salt-producing families
did not have to work in the fields; their main business was making, trading and selling
salt! They would exchange their salt for wheat, barley, butter and meat.
Occasionally, the whole village gathered in one or the other family houses, and together,
they recited mantras and sang devotional songs of beautiful and sweeping melodies.
Then they took turn serving thukpa, the Tibetan noodle soup. At New Year’s time,
they celebrated with songs and dances, and with various traditional, delicious food.
As a simple village boy, Konchog Gyaltsen did not have much to do. He liked to pick
fight with other young boys, and took pride in beating up and bossing all the other
village children around! One time, he got so furious at one of his rivals that he
even threw dirt at this poor boy’s face!
In his village, there lived a nun by the name of Ani Yep-Zang. She was a relative
of little Konchog, and he was rather fond of her. He used to drop by her room to
visit, and being a naughty boy, Konchog liked to put his head under her bed every
time he came to see her. Ani Yep-Zang used to scold him:
“Don’t! Don’t put your head under my bed! It’s very dirty! It’s not good for you
to put your head under someone’s bed.”
But the more Ani Yep-Zang forbade him, the harder he would try to pester her by sticking
his head under her bed. He could not remember why he loved to do it, but it was a
mischievous game that he nevertheless enjoyed.
One time, little Konchog Gyaltsen went to visit Ani Yep-Zang with a small toy in
his hand. He played around with it, and after a while, misplaced it somewhere inside
the room. He called out to her:
“Ani-la, where is my toy?”
To which she replied, “I don’t know.”
He then inquired again, persistently:
“Where is my toy? Tell me where is my toy! You know where it is! Tell me where!”
“I don’t know!” she answered.
Konchog Gyaltsen glared at the nun. He quickly grew impatient and started to tug
at her maroon robe; his tantrum suddenly flared up:
“But you do! You do! Just close your eyes and you will see it!”
Ani Yep-Zang hesitantly closed her eyes, and the moment darkness covered her sight,
she clearly saw the toy underneath a rug made of fur laying beside her. She was
astounded. What Ani Yep-Zang experienced was entrancing as he had been given a special
kind of power, for she had never encountered this before, and never would again.
Other than those stories, the painting of Konchog’s early days at Dong-go drong had
very simple strokes and few colors to it. The little fragments of recollection that
he buried deep in his heart mostly revolved around his mother and the time he spent
with her. Even though they lived in the same household with his maternal grandparents,
his reflection of them was like passing clouds.
His mother’s name was Dechei Yangzom but everyone in the village called her Dega,
and she was known throughout the area for her kindness and compassion. People in
the village said that Dega had no anger and no hatred in her heart, and that no such
trace could ever transpire under the power of her compassionate mind.
To her young son, she was Amala, the one and only person in the world whom he had
the most love and affection for. She always called him by his baby name, Kon-Gyam,
short for Konchog Gyaltsen, always spoke to him with kind words, and had never laid
a hand on him no matter how naughty or brusque he unwittingly turned out to be. He
remembered her long hair that he had pulled several times when he was throwing a
terrible temper tantrum at her. He even remembered pushing her when he was mad while
crying in exasperation. He remembered her coarse hands and the sweet cream that she
put on her face that he loved to lick off!
In the winter, when it was bitterly cold, his mother would spread a thin layer of
cream mixture made of honey and brown sugar on her cheeks, a sort of moisturizer,
to help keep her skin healthy and smooth-looking. Later, she would wash it off, and
that was how women in the village would do to batter off the northern winds that
rushed across the mountains and brought much damage to their already sunburned skin.
In Tibet, at that time, sugar was even rarer than salt. Little Kon-Gyam was very
fond of sweet but there was never any sweet around to indulge on. Being clever and
devious, he often found ways to steal his mother’s face cream, and savored it to
the very last. How delicious such a tasty mixture was!
His mother came from an ordinary family that was neither rich, nor poor. Food was
never scarce and they were blessed to always have enough to eat.
As Konchog Gyaltsen grew older, he also learned from his mother that her family had
always been the benefactor of the former 7th Gar Rinpoche, the great siddha of crazy
wisdom. Again, he was told that this master had passed away a number of years ago
at Gar Gön monastery, situated in the vastness of a forest green valley about a day
by horse from where he lived. Konchog Gyaltsen did not remember visiting this place
during the first seven years of his life.
Years ago, long before the 7th Gar Rinpoche passed, when Konchog Gyaltsen’s mother
was still a small girl, one time, this great siddha of crazy wisdom asked for her
and handed to her a letter which he personally wrote. He told her to keep it with
her in a safe place but being very young and not paying close attention to the Lama’s
instructions, she somehow misplaced it. As an illiterate village girl, she could
neither read nor write, and she never found out what was written inside. Years later,
when she suddenly remembered the letter that the 7th Gar Rinpoche had given her in
her youth, she looked high and low for it but could not find it again.
As benefactors, his mother’s family members occasionally made short trips to the
monastery to bring wheat, barley, potatoes, flour, tsampa and what other little food
they could gather to make offerings to the monastery. Not long before the passing
of the 7th Gar Rinpoche, Dega and her parents came to pay their respects; they brought
with them a bag of tsampa to offer to the aged lama. To their surprise, the 7th
Gar Rinpoche refused to accept it this time, and told Dega and her parents to wait
for the appearance of a great monk in their family home. It was to him that they
should offer this bag of tsampa! This great monk, they were told, would show up
in their house one day. Konchog’s mother went home and waited anxiously for the
monk to appear, but he never came. He never came the way she envisioned it. Not
on foot, nor on horse. He did not come dressed in a robe with a wooden staff in
his hand. He never came the way Dega envisioned him.
A few years later, he entered
her house, and was brought into this world, through a different gate of life.
Until he was seven years old, Konchog Gyaltsen did not remember that he ever wondered
about his father. Somehow in his unpretentious mind, the world that he lived in was
already full and complete. His mother, being a treasure-trove of affection, and a
provider of all ordinary things that a child ever needed, appealed to him far beyond
any other imaginable sphere of existence.
Until one day, a letter came from very far away...
It made its way through endless vistas, through abandoned terrain, through a monotony
of land and sky, through the changing shades of olive, beige and ochre of the passing
mountains to reach a monastery that for generations had quietly situated itself in
the vast of a forest-green valley surrounded by cliffs and mountains. Here, in the
winter time, pines and junipers rise high and surrender to the brutal winds and abrupt
downpour of hail and snow, but in the spring time, the valley comes alive with boundless
dancing wild poppies. The hillsides of yellow and violet-blue flowers embrace the
whole of time and space, stretch far beyond what the eyes can see under the azure
Photo: Kanaya Chevli (Garchen Institute)
Soon afterward, his mother had a dream in which she saw blazing sunlight coming from
the east and radiating toward her. All sunshine, bright,beautiful, golden sunshine.