I – Khunu Lama, the quiet master

Khunu lama

Khunu lama Rinpoche Tenzin Gyaltsen, also known as Khunu lama or Negi lama was a prominent scholar of Rime, the non-sectarian movement in Tibetan Buddhism. He was born in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh in Northern India. He went to Tibet to study and practice Dharma for about three decades and then returned to India  for the remainder of his life. He continued learning and teaching at many sacred places, passing on the rich heritage of Tibetan Buddhism to the leading Buddhist masters in India. H.H the XIV Dalai lama is the most eminent of the student, who duly exalted Khunu Lama as the Shantideva of our time at 1985 Kalachakra in Bodhgaya.

Life Account

Khunu lama was born in 1894 in Sunam village in the forest clad district of Kinnaur ,one of the administrative district in modern day Himachal Pradesh. It is located in the northeast corner of the state bordering Tibet to the east. His mother was a Drukpa Kagyupa and his father, a Nyingmapa. He was born in an affluent family but left home in his late teenage years to embark on a spiritual journey that lasted a lifetimeHe left for Kullu first and then moved to  Gangtok to learn  grammar, literacy and composition of Tibetan language from the renown literary scholar and grammarian Orgyen Tendzin Rinpoche (1863-1936). Khunu lama was focused on mastering the language as the tool for proper understanding of Buddhist text and teachings. After learning the language rigorously, he moved to Tibet.


Central Tibet

He traveled extensively in Tibet, learning from different masters in different monasteries. On his  way from Sikkim to Lhasa, he stopped at the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse where he continued his studies of grammar and poetry and began serious study of  Buddhist philosophy.  After three years there, he went to Lhasa where he studied further at Sakya, Drepung and Ganden monasteries, the great three of Gelugpa lineage. He taught literary science at the famous Medical and Astrological centre and was a tutor to several noble families. At Drikung Til, he studied with the accomplished Drikung master Drubwang Amgon Rinpoche. He also studied Mahamudra at a Drukpa Kagyu centre called Khamda.

At the request of the Sixth Panchen Lama, Chokyi Nyima (1883-1937), he returned to Tashi Lhunpo monastery and taught at the school for prospective civil servants. It was there that he met Katok Situ Chokyi Gyatso, who was on pilgrimage in Central Tibet. His command of Tibetan grammar earned him fame, which  also resulted in jealousy that prompted him to move to eastern Tibet, Kham where he  stayed for about 15-19 years.

Kham, Eastern Tibet

Khunu lama initilly stayed at the King’s palace in Derge, teaching Tibetan grammar to the royal family members. He then studied with Katok Situ Chokyi Gyatso, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, Khenpo Shenga, Minyak Kunzang Sonam, Khenpo Kunpal, Khenpo Jamyang Gyaltsen, and many other masters from all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He also taught Sanskrit to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Dezhung Rinpoche. He received multiple tantric initiations and rare teachings  from highly realized lamas and masters. He was never a Trulku/incarnate or even a Bikshu/monk. He practiced Buddhism as a lay man. Similarly, many of his more than 100 masters were laymans dedicated to contemplation and meditation in the wilderness of Tibetan plateau.  During those time, a particularly revered masters gave him extensive teachings connected with the Dukhor,  Kalachakra-Tantra, which took about nine months. However, his best-loved teaching was the Shantideva’s Bodhisattva charyavatara, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. Over the course of time, he  came to be known as the Gyalama, or master from India in Kham region of Tibet.

Despite having received and absorbed such vast teachings, he was still unsatisfied and felt the need to learn Sanskrit, the original language of Mahayana Buddhism and returned to India.



On his way to India, Khunu Rinpoche passed through Kinnaur, his birthplace and stayed there for few years. Khunu Lama took the opportunity to correct the draft of an extensive grammatical treatise, a commentary which was a written version of the lectures he had given years ago in Lhasa. This was to be Khunu Lama’s first book and  the manuscript was sent to Lhasa where it was printed on woodblocks at the Mentsi khang.

He then left for Calcutta where he stayed for a year as a guest of a rich Khampa family. He first tried to learn Sanskrit in the Bengali metropole but as he was not able to find a good teacher he decided to move on to Varanasi.


In Varanasi, he learned Sanskrit for about 5-6 years from an Indian pundit and stayed at the Hindu temple of Lakshmi Kund Tekramat. He became a scholar in Sanskrit language.

In 1956, Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, the head-lama of the Spituk Monastery in Ladakh, came to know about him and invited him to Srinagar in order to receive teachings from him. Unfortunately, Bakula Rinpoche got caught up with official work for the meeting to materialize.  Khunu Lama continued to live a humble life, teaching and studying. Baling Lama, Khunu lama’s disciple and attender revealed that he would never participate in formal retreat. Instead, Khunu Lama’s whole life was like an inner retreat. He would read and meditate on the pages of A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, day and night. Baling Lama has never seen him sleeping, only pausing to eat and, on rare occasions, rest his head in front of the text.


Khunu lama taught at Sarnath University as a Professor. Around that time, he wrote The Jewel Lamp: Verses in Praise of Bodhichitta which is translated in English as ‘Vast as the Heavens, Deep as the Sea’. The book was published in Tibetan in 1966 and finally in English in 1999 by Wisdom Publications.



After meeting H.H the XIV Dalai lama and passing on the teachings requested by Dalai lama and others like Ling Rinpoche, Khunu lama considered his life’s work accomplished and planned to settle in Nalanda, the most well-known place of Buddhist scholarship, where a new Pali-Institute had just been opened. But the then Prime Minister of India, Smt. Indira Gandhi on an official visit to the institute, made everyone staying in and around the institute move to the surrounding villages for security reasons.


He, therefore went back to Bodhgaya, where he spent the last 8–9 years of his life, looked after by his two nun-disciples from Kinnaur in the Tibetan monastery which at that time was headed by his former disciple, Ling Rinpoche.


Despite his reputation as a highly realized lama, Life wasn’t easy for Khunu Lama. Many still questioned his authenticity due to his appearance. Baling Lama said that the places Khunu Lama tried to stay at would refuse him entry and people often harassed him if he meditated in public, throwing stones and kicking him. Khunu Lama’s incredible kindness and patience would shine through as he failed to react to such encounters, only ever calmly wishing his attackers well.

Baling Lama also said “Khunu Lama lived every moment in equanimity with no judgement, criticism or differentiation between high lamas and beggars, treating each with equal respect, compassion and kindness. He didn’t agree with the emphasis people tended to place on the lineage leaders and how they would often forget the importance of Shakyamuni Buddha, but looks at himself rather as a disciple of Nagarjuna.”

When he was in Tibet, Khunu lama always made it a point to visit all the monasteries everywhere. Khunu lama never believed in sectarian affiliations. To help remind others of non-sectarisnism, he would give a copy of “Praise to Shakyamuni Buddha” to everyone who visited him whoever they were, even His Holiness the 16th Karmapa from the Kagyu school.

Two months before his death, he left Bodhgaya for a visit to Kinnaur and Lahaul, where he went from village to village teaching mostly from Gampopa’s  “Jewel Ornament of Liberation”. He died at the age of 82 on February 23rd, 1977 at Shashul monastery while on his way through Lahaul. Jangchhub Nyima was recognized by H.H the XIV Dalai lama and Sakya Trizin Rinpoche as the  reincarnation of Khunu lama rinpoche.

The journey that Khunu Lama Rinpoche embarked on lasted a lifetime and an inspiration forever. If you wish to experience the joy of such spiritual quest, you may start small with our specially designed trip called Following the Buddha’s Path Journey


http://cdn.fpmt.org/ as told to Beth Halford, an FPMT student by Ven. Thubten Tsewang, known as Baling Lama, a disciple of and attendant to the Indian Buddhist master Khunu Lama Tenzin Gyaltsen Rinpoche (1894-1977) http://info-buddhism.com/ in a preliminary account of the life of a modern Buddhist saint. Sangnak Tenzin shared his personal account with Thierry Dodin, Institute of Central Asian Studies, Bonn University.

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2 Responses

  1. Ruby

    Please keep me posted on new events

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