This series of articles belongs to a biography I am writing of Choje Lama Wangchuk Topden. Formally, “Choje Lama” is a rare title bestowed upon him by His Holiness the Karmapa, and he has been given the task of realizing Ven. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche’s vision for the monastic community of the Vajrayana Kagyu school. It is perhaps inevitable that he is better known to some as the nephew of Thrangu Rinpoche. Such an illustrious master needs no introduction in a series about someone else. This story is about Choje Lama alone, told on his terms as a Buddhist leader.
This biography has been envisioned as an ongoing series, written at the conclusion of many interviews I held with Choje Lama from November 2021 onwards. It has modest goals. After all, Choje Lama is still young by any standards (and especially by the standards of Buddhist leaders). Choje Lama has indicated to me his wish that I produce an accurate and engaging account of how he has pursued his religious vocation, and how he has responded to outside events beyond his control by demonstrating his leadership and empathy for his community.
A biography should emphasize the subject’s agency, of course, but it is also the biographer’s duty to understand the causes and conditions that shaped the subject’s choices. The first autobiography in recorded history was a spiritual one, in which Saint Augustine of Hippo looked back on his life and saw just how little of it was actually in his hands, and was instead in the guiding hands of God. Choje Lama’s life is not one in which he had much control over his destiny, either. Most people would see this notion as a violation of free will, but karma is simply the causes and conditions and shape the present person. The true exercise of free will is the decisions that person makes and the actions they take in the current moment. It is within this framework of religious service where his dedication, assiduousness, and compassion shine through, offering unique lessons and insights that (hopefully) make any biography of any person worthwhile. Some people are karmically blessed to discover their calling a bit earlier than others, and this was the case for Choje Lama.
I began writing this biography during the ongoing pandemic, and I have depended on many appointments over Zoom with Choje Lama to put this work together. I wish to thank Choje Lama’s Hong Kong-based community, in particular Simone Ng, for so assiduously and generously liaising between Choje Lama and myself and arranging generous times for interviews, during which I was able to glean hitherto-unpublished information about his life and work.
This is his story.
2 February, 2022
Nepal: My Home and My Monastery
Majestic, scenic, and comfortable: the city of Kathmandu and its immediate environs have a climate with cool nights and mornings, with the days being warm. The average winter temperature is 20°C, and the summer average is 28°C – 30°C. Nepal is a relatively young nation-state, but its Indo-Himalayan cultural complex is ancient, with Hindu and Buddhist continuities that have endured longer than what might be found in neighbouring India and China. However, Nepal also suffers from economic difficulties, endemic poverty, and widespread illiteracy. 25 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line and suffers from hunger. In recent years, the country has also suffered from inflation of everyday goods, political instability, and, of course, the devastating April 2015 Kathmandu earthquake. This perfect storm, along with the economic devastation and health issues wrought by the COVID pandemic, have caused considerable chaos and suffering in the country. The contrast between the country’s natural beauty and its considerable political, economic, and social challenges is one contrast. The other contrast pertains to the region’s geography. The hinterlands around the spacious Kathmandu Valley are quite mountainous. It is in these two surroundings where two of Choje Lama’s critical institutions stand: Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery, and Shree Mangal Dvip (SMD) Boarding School.
Khenpo Ngedon was a senior Kagyu teacher from Tibet, but he was not a prominent “celebrity monastic.” Nor did he wish for the spotlight to be shone on him, for he had crossed into Kathmandu after having arrived in India from Tibet during the tumultuous decade of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In Tibet, the khenpo was fairly senior and learned. He had met Thrangu Rinpoche in India, and Thrangu Rinpoche personally requested him to come to Kathmandu, to bless the birth of a special boy. He was to go to Bir Hospital, where Choje Lama was born on 20 November, 1983, the full moon of the tenth month according to the Tibetan calendar.
There were several auspicious signs marking the birth of Choje Lama: firstly, there was a Deepawali festival happening at the time, and Bir Hospital is itself near the Mahankaal Temple, erected to worship the divinity of time (the god is worshipped by both Buddhists and Hindus in Nepal). Finally, his birth coincided with the sunrise of 20 November, and it was Khenpo Ngedon himself who suggested, jokingly, that perhaps Choje Lama would be special. He would not only be correct, but be intimately involved in assisting this boy into becoming that unique person himself.
Choje Lama was welcomed into the world by an elder brother and sister, who were already in their teen years. His mother is the sister of Thrangu Rinpoche, and when he was born, Khenpo Ngedon was in the maternity ward to give him and his joyous family his blessings. During his early years, Choje Lama did not have his title yet; Thrangu Rinpoche personally gave him the name Wangchuk Topden, and it has been his only name for his entire life, in contrast to the second or multiple names that monks often receive. For now, until we reach that fateful day when the Karmapa bestows upon him his title, I will refer to Choje Lama within the biographical narrative as Wangchuk Topden.
Choje Lama recalls these early periods of his life over our Zoom discussions. He tells me: “You might be interested to know that I have a different birth date listed in the Nepalese government records: 26 September 1982. Families in the 70s and 80s had an interesting habit of adding one year to their children’s dates of birth, so that they could gain full citizenship and start working earlier: children could only attain both at sixteen.” He continues to recall, smiling at the memory: “The completion of high school and reaching age sixteen was a big deal for families back then. There were entire classes of kids that were registered as one year older than the actual dates of their birth. But the strategy, as I remember, it wasn’t very successful.”
Speaking of classes, Wangchuk Topden had turned four by the time Thrangu Rinpoche had built Shree Mangal Dvip (SMD) Boarding School in 1987. This is a famous school with lodgings where Choje Lama would spend a formative period of his life. Before his move into SMD, he had lived at Thrangu Tashi Choling Monastery, where Namo Buddha Meditation and Education Centre (or Namo Buddha for short) is also located. In the early 1980s there were still very few monks in the monastery, and because Thrangu Rinpoche was Wangchuk Topden’s uncle, the latter’s entire family was permitted to live in Thrangu Tashi Choling. He lived in the monastery until the early 1990s, when the monastic population began to grow in earnest. It was then that Thrangu Rinpoche asked Wangchuk Topden’s parents to move.
Around this time, Wangchuk Topden’s became a student at SMD, which offers a broad and progressive curriculum that focuses on the arts and sciences as well as Buddhist studies. By Choje Lama’s own admission, “I wasn’t a very good student – I didn’t fail, but neither did I excel. I’d say I was average.” He seems to have been inclined to languages like English and Tibetan, but did not do so well in Nepali and Math. That dragged overall his grades down. It was not just his grades that were average: he had a good-natured and relaxed attitude about his family background, which was made easier by the fact that children rarely consider each other’s social status as much as adults. “I never made a big deal out of the fact that I was Thrangu Rinpoche’s nephew, even though he founded the school and led the monastic community,” he says. “Nor, for that matter, did any of my friends. I recall lining up with my schoolmates every day and I felt as much part of everyone’s friendship circles.”
A critical distinction did exist between Wangchuk Topden and his peers: many of the latter were monastics, while he was a boy that had not yet entered the cloistered lifestyle. SMD school’s uniqueness is that monks study subjects like other lay children, attending school just like anyone else but in robes. Wangchuk Topden found that visually striking and would always walk to school with the monks he had made friends with. “I always felt closer to the monks than the other girls and boys,” he reveals, indicating that the religious virtues of sobriety, celibacy, and study had been attractive prospects to him from a very young age. This can be attributed to his early contact with his uncle, the two Tibetan Khenpos, and his friends. “I always remember the monks being better than us lay kids,” he recalls with a small smile. Whether or not better grades were part of the equation, it was no doubt the virtuousness and purity of the monastic aesthetic and lifestyle that left a deep impression on Wangchuk Topden, and would inspire what was soon to become his first dive into true religious study.
By the age of six, Wangchuk Topden had felt the interior calling of religious vocation; the stirrings of aspiration for the monastic life. He would request to become a monk by seven, but his parents thought he was too young, leaving him with little choice but to continue studying until 1995, when he was finally able to enter the monastic life.
More formative to Wangchuk Topden’s education was his personal teacher. These days, Khenpo Lobzang resides in the Kagyu retreat centre in Colorado. He still tells the Choje Lama of today that Khenpo Ngedon always invested great hope in him, because of the auspicious day and circumstances of his birth. Khenpo Ngedon quickly grew close to the child, and became his tutor. Thrangu Rinpoche would end up permitting Wangchuk Topden to live in Khenpo Ngedon’s room. This provided a comfortable and intimate environment that allowed Wangchuk Topden to learn under him and work as his attendant. He would live with his de facto master until he graduated from SMD. Khenpo Ngedon would be instrumental in helping him grow as a monk, guiding him in the texts of the Kagyu school, and setting a personal example for his life as a monastic.
It is at this critical junction, under Khenpo Ngedon and his uncle’s increased interest in his institutional participation, that his journey of spiritual development and leadership truly begins.