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The Tai Situpa, the Ganden Tripa and the Dalai Lama: My Meetings with Great Masters in India

Image courtesy of the author

By the time you read this, I will have just returned from India. During this extended pilgrimage-cum-art journey from late September to early October, I was able to visit the Alchi monastery complex at Ladakh and go to Dharamshala to attend a series of teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, as well as receive his Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara Initiation. The teachings were to be given over the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of October, before the initiation was to be transmitted on the 4th.

It was already set to be a wonderful and special journey, even without what ended up unfolding. I confess to hoping that I might meet His Holiness in person, and indeed, give him one of my paintings. This turned out not to be possible, because he had sadly been in ill health, and he was not even able to teach the classes that I had come to Dharamshala for.


He was, however, able to transmit the empowerment on the 4th, and so last Wednesday, I joined his Holiness in chanting “Om Mani Padme Hum” 1008 times, the purpose of which was to prepare for the Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara Initiation. This beloved Gelug master radiated golden light and compassion to everyone in the room. I felt tears of joy running down my cheeks, feeling his personal warmth as he gave me—and everyone else—his blessing and empowerment. I felt extremely appreciative that despite his feeling physically ill, he extended to us one of his classic lessons based on his famous maxim: that the simple recipe of kindness and love are the ingredients of world peace. He also revealed his secret practice of merging bodhicitta with emptiness, which is one of the most difficult teachings to grasp as it involves reconciling a self’s desire—even to do good and become a Buddha—with the deconstruction of all selves and beings into sunyata.

Rebecca Wong meets Tai Situ Rinpoche on 2 October 2023. Image courtesy of the author

I am so grateful and humbled to have received the teachings of His Holiness at his temple in Dharamsala. But I had no idea that the crowning glory of my Indian visit lay in two unexpected meetings. The first encounter was with the eminent Tai Situ Rinpoche, or Pema Dönyö Nyinje. He is one of the great Vajrayana masters of our times, not only because of his illustrious rank in the Karma Kagyu school—the Tai Situpa has been a reincarnated office since the Yongle Emperor’s conferral of the rank in 1407—but also because Pema Dönyö Nyinje has been prolific in spreading Buddhism across the West and guiding the contemporary Diamond Vehicle on matters of lineage and legitimacy. For example, Pema Dönyö Nyinje recognized Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the true Karmapa during the Karmapa controversy several years ago.  

I met him on 2 October and was not sure what to expect. Part of the anticipation was riding a car deep into the woodlands for two hours, which eventually opened up into a secluded, scenic center where Tai Situ Rinpoche welcomed us. But as my friend and I began our discussion with him I found him frank, forthright, and delightful to speak to. When I entered his Golden Pavilion banquet room, I exchanged gifts with him—earlier in the morning I had prepared a Green Tara bodhi leaf painting for him. His gift to me was an album that reveals his artistic side, displaying his own paintings as the cover and inserts. Through his soulful paintings, Rinpoche communicates his spiritual enlightenment and perspective of Buddhist philosophy, giving the viewers a glimpse into his Bodhisattva world.

We conversed for over an hour, and he shared with me a dazzling spectrum of topics, from fine art to the Buddha nature of Mao Zedong. I found him to be a master of mirth, and warm and unpretentious. I became part of his lineage despite his deference to my discipleship under the late Thrangu Rinpoche, and to my greatest delight, he watched me dance the dance of the “Vajra Sixteen Offerings.” I was also pleasantly surprised that he recognised my every move, pointing out the postures and mudras. I have never had any teacher, not even my root guru, Thrangu Rinpoche, say all this. He declared that he would be seeking to reintroduce the sacred dances to his monasteries. He was shining with golden light, and I felt like I was shining too. It was an unforgettable and sacred day.

Vajrayogini dance in Tai Situ Rinpoche’s hall on 2 October 2023. Image courtesy of the author

My second meeting was actually directly connected to the Dalai Lama’s absence over the past week. For three days, before the Four-Armed Avalokiteshvara empowerment, we had been receiving instructions from a “substitute teacher.” After some clarification with friends, I realized that this substitute was technically His Holiness’ spiritual superior—the current, 104th Ganden Tripa, Jangtse Choejey Kyabje Jetsun Lobsang Tenzin Palsangpo. He was explaining the essence of Tsongkhapa’s Songs of Experience on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment and Geshe Chekhewa’s Seven Point Mind Training.

Unlike the Dalai Lama, which is a reincarnated office, the Gaden Tripa is an appointed one, the spiritual head of the Gelug school. When the great Gelug founder Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) decided not to reincarnate, the highest seat of Gelug became appointed on the basis of hierarchical progression based on merit. I began enquiring with my Geshe contact about a potential meeting with the Ganden Tripa, and as my good karma would have it, I was able to get a private audience in with him. On the 5th of October, I made my trip to meet him. The venerable elderly master greeted me by grabbing my head and rubbing me on both sides, like a grandfather seeing his favourite granddaughter. We had barely exchanged words, but I was already sweating profusely. I guess this was a sign that I had been transported to some divine realm, or enlightened plane of being.

Rebecca Wong with the Ganden Tripa, 5 October 2023. Image courtesy of the author

Then he did an extended prayer to consecrate a pair of Kalachakra and Manjushri statues I had brought. Before I knew it, my time with him was up, as his precious schedule was fully monitored and managed. But I got what I was searching for, no, more than what I ever had hoped for. I had seen my past life’s grandfather-emperor. He recognised me just as I recognised him, through my tears of devotion and feeling. He went straight into the ritual of refuge in the three treasures, explaining to me each step and eventually, at the third time of affirming refuge, asking me to become the Bodhisattva—to feel and manifest myself as one. I did so, and it was a truly incredible experience.

Upon returning to Hong Kong I now realize that the presences of the Dalai Lama, Tai Situ Rinpoche, and the Ganden Tripa in my journey were all connected. They all revealed a part of my journey, a facet of myself that I had been searching for. They reflected my desire right back at me, allowing me to integrate what they transmitted with what I already knew about myself. The three masters helped me “leap ahead” in self-understanding and insight, and two eminent teachers, the Tia Situpa and the Ganden Tripa, showed me the way of kindness, empathy, and infinite compassion, filling my heart with love for all living creatures. For this, I am forever grateful to them.

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Paul Singh Gill
Paul Singh Gill
8 months ago

Thank you, Rebecca, for this most exciting article! I read it with enthusiasm, happy at the realisation that you have met these most noble of souls in your recent journey to India.