III – Khunu Lama: Teachings from his life

Khunu lama teachings

Khunu lama or Negi lama Tenzin Gyaltsen (1894-1977) was the storehouse of the rich Buddhist tradition and practices passed down from centuries. Buddhism bore the brunt of the 1959 Chinese occupation of Tibet that resulted in the weakenening of the tradition and fate of the many great lama becoming untraceable. In that precarious scenario, Khunu lama was one of the few to have absorbed such vast range of teachings and be able to bequeath the key concepts to the leading lamas of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because of Bodhicitta by Khunu Rinpoche

“It is because of bodhicitta that one gives up

the pleasure of meditative concentration,

and in order to relieve others of their suffering

goes down to the deepest hell as if into a pleasure park.”


Apart from the scholarly teaching,  there are other compelling aspects of his lifestyle as a Buddhist practitioner that we can all learn from…

Non Sectarianism

Khunu lama cannot be more different from other highly realized lama. He is not only a non-Tibetan but also a layman who practiced Tibetan Buddhism. He remained unordained all his life despite almost always being in the company of ordained monks, lamas and rinpoches. After imbibing the  assorted teachings and practices from masters of all sects, he remained unaffiliated to any particular sect. He continued to emphasize the futility of sectarianism and would give a common book Shantideva’s “Guide to Bodhisattva way of life” to all his students, be it H.H the XIV Dalai lama, Ling Rinpoche or H.H the XVIth Karmapa. He is renowned as one of the most influential teachers in the rime (non-sectarian) movement within  Tibetan Buddhism which was founded in Eastern Tibet during the late 19th century.

Lay man Practice

In early 20th century and still today, layman or unordained practitioner mostly limit their practice to the surface of the Tibetan Buddhism, leaving the sophisticated applications to the ordained and realized. Khunu lama showed that formally practicing the highbrow teachings as a layman could secure the same profound result and is a great example of that possibility.

Mastering the Language

Before engaging in Buddhist studies, Khunu lama learned the grammar, composition and literacy of Tibetan language. He considered it a prerequisite to master the Tibetan language, the lingo franca of Buddhism to develop clear understanding of it. He spent more than a year in Sikkim and Khamda monastery polishing the Tibetan language and then after becoming a highly realized master in Tibet, moved to India to learn Sanskrit and spent 6 years perfecting it. The emphasis he put on the proper understanding of the scriptures instead of mechanical learning left traces on the type of education given nowadays  in many Buddhist institutions.


Khunu lama had a different take on retreat. He never engaged in formal retreat but tried  instead to make his every living moment a retreat and advised students to do the same. Baling lama, his disciple and attender said “Khunu lama would encourage people to make every moment of their life a retreat. This meant creating space in the unruly mind, allowing it to slow down and experience a greater clarity, so its negative aspect declined and its positive aspect grew.”

Root Guru

Despite learning in all the renown monasteries of Tibet and from hundreds of masters, he never chose or revealed who his root guru was. He advised students to think it through before choosing someone as the root guru, explaining that it doesn’t matter what the level of realization is, but the feeling the guru invokes in the heart of the student. He remains the root guru for many.

Despite the profound equanimity he displayed through his life long spiritual journey, he has no qualms about not fitting in or defying the status quo. He remains the embodiment of altruism, humility and courage. 

For more about Khunu lama, read the article Dalai Lama called him the Shantideva of our time


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One Response

  1. Aziia

    Interesting and enlightening Personality

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