Answering the Conch Shell’s Call: Schooling and the Religious Life

This is the second instalment of Life Religiously Lived, a biography of Choje Lama. We opened with the birth circumstances of the boy then-known as Wangchuk Topden, and in this chapter we look at how his school years shaped his life in preparation for his growing religious vocation.


Each human life is an open question. The answers are completely dependent on the individual’s choice, even in restrictive circumstances. The answers that one picks for this open question of life will shape one’s happiness and destiny.

To put it another way, the open question is never answered, not even by death, until the final realization of supreme Buddhahood. But along the endless, eons-long way, we encounter situations or circumstances that nudge us ever more closely to the answer. In our mundane daily lives as struggling human beings, these situations could be called the answering of our calling or vocation. We hear it as a conch shell, blaring into the night of the human condition. It is hard to say whether Choje Lama, or Wangchuck Topden as he was called for now, had such a sense of mission at the outset. At this period of his life, study and familiarization was getting him better positioned to fulfil what, in hindsight, was his spiritual destiny.

It is fair to say that Choje Lama, or as he was known then, Wangchuk Topden, spent his teen years with Khenpo Ngedon. From 1995 to 1999, Wangchuk Topden learned from Khenpo to read Buddhist texts for about five years. The instructions ran parallel to his secular schooling, with the weekends being the only times he could study under the Khenpo. “Khenpo chose literature that he thought was appropriate for my training. I remember the first text he gave me to study: Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend,” recalls Choje Lama. Letter to a Friend is a renowned text in the Vajrayana tradition, classified as a shastra, or commentary. It is said that the famed Nagarjuna, turner of the Second Wheel of Dharma, or the Mahayana, wrote this poem as a way of advising his friend, the king Gautamiputra or Satavahana. It is a concise and comprehensive introduction to Buddhism as understood in the Indo-Tibetan tradition. Aside from Letter to a Friend, Khenpo Ngedon also introduced Wangchuk Topden to literature that he felt was suitable for his monastic tradition. “I could always see him and what he did throughout the whole day and evening,” the now-Choje Lama recalls. “That was more influential on me than the texts that he taught.”

It is here that we begin to see the contours of Choje Lama’s thinking beginning to take shape. His mindset, thanks to his early exposure to noble things of transcendence, is both stable and relaxed. He has clear direction and thinks little of alternatives aside from perhaps the occasional casual comment or post-school banter. But we must remember that despite his inclination toward monasticism, Choje Lama does not grow up in a purely isolated cloister, which would more easily explain a disinterest and detachment from worldly matters. In my conversations with him over the years, he has struck me as being intensely interested in “the world,” but in a manner befitting that of a religious leader: he keeps up to date with current affairs (with reason; not doom-scrolling every day), and is abreast of how COVID-19 has affected Kathmandu and Nepal. Young people find him approachable; women feel comfortable discussing with him honest issues, unlike with many male monastics. Families seek him out. He has found a good balance of love for the world and going beyond it, as per the Mahayana vocation.

I believe this is largely due to the fact that Thrangu Rinpoche made it a specific policy for monks to study at SMD Boarding School. It made for a situation where monks not only mingled and made friends with lay children, but also learned some of the secular subjects that equipped them to move around much more nimbly in the broader world. Perhaps from a distance, it is easy to see how a balanced combination of religious training and secular schooling can result in balanced, well-rounded monks that can understand lay life even if they are not part of it. But this did not always go down well, especially in Thrangu Rinpoche’s traditionally-minded circles. “When he first started the school, many people criticized him for allowing monks to study there, saying that they needed to focus on spiritual studies,” says Choje Lama. He leaves open exactly who criticized him, and this is perhaps a sensitive question even to this day. What he does say, however, seems to be a mild rebuke to those that did not see the foresight and wisdom of Thrangu Rinpoche.

“The idea of monks having modern education was Rinpoche’s idea, but don’t forget that many other good ideas that benefited the school were as well. This is why the seed of the school is still Rinpoche and his pure motivation. That should be acknowledged, even though you need water, soil, sun, and so on to grow that seed. So, Rinpoche had the right conditions, but the right conditions also found Rinpoche.”

The school itself is diverse; in the past, students came from poor and more wealthy, fee-paying families alike. Perhaps the income of the school reflects the hybrid childhood Choje Lama experienced. “When they first opened the school, there weren’t so many donors. The administration badly needed some fee-paying kids of 10-12 years. It was only after that did Rinpoche receive donations and funding to take the financial pressure off wealthier students.” Nowadays, the school is fully funded, with every student enrolment sponsored regardless of personal background. 

Still, in the end, it is his memories with Khenpo Ngedon that he recalls most vividly.  “Khenpo was instrumental in helping me grow as a monk. He guided me how to behave, how to carry myself, and how to embody the attitude of a monastic resident.” Choje Lama is emphatic about Khenpo Ngedon’s behavior: it is what left the greatest impression on him. As he lived in his room, he was able to observe his mentor from sunrise to sunset, from the moment he rose until bedtime. “When you see someone in his seventies doing all this, every single day, that makes a big impact on you.” He likens the words of Thrangu Rinpoche and the late Khenpo to the advice of a doctor: “I feel like they are giving health advice. It is much easier to believe their words.”

It was a happy and simple time. Immersed in a close-knit community, with straightforward concerns and clear objectives: learning at school and under Khenpo gave Wangchuk Topden firm grounding in what he wanted to do with his life. To this day, Choje Lama genuinely does not feel he was given particularly special treatment, and he also feels that he was not “groomed” for a unique destiny as a Vajrayana leader and manager of monasteries. Karma and self-realization are intertwined subjects in our exploration of his journey. Despite not feeling consciously prepared for anything significant, it is possible to observe how blessed he feels in light of everything that prepared him for a more rigorous step of his journey, when he would leave school and have to consider, seriously, following in his uncle’s considerable footsteps. This is not always a happy prospect, especially for a young boy seeking to carve out his own path. Sometimes, it can feel like a tremendous and unsolicited burden, passed down just out of the karmic circumstances of one’s birth.

Nevertheless, the calling became ever clearer after 1999, when it became time for him to join a monastery with other monks. This would be the first step of his vocation.

The conch shell was blowing, and Choje Lama was answering its call.

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