In my eighteenth year, the Rinpoche was requested to come across to our own Sera Mey College and deliver a discourse on the Steps of the path to Buddhahood. He would receive countless requests of this sort, usually from wealthy patrons who hoped to collect some merit for the future life, or from monks who wanted to receive the transmission of a particular teaching so they could pass it on to their own followers in the future. The Rinpoche would usually promise to consider the request, and then try to satisfy several at one time by delivering a large public discourse. These discourses would be announced months in a advance. The sponsors would rent a huge assembly hall in one of the major monasteries just outside the capital, or reserve one of the great chapels in Lhasa itself. We monks had our regular classes to attend but could sometimes arrange to make the hour’s walk to Lhasa (no cars in Tibet those days), attend the teaching, and walk back quickly before the evening debate sessions at the monastery park. I remember the elderly monks would start out before us and return later, or even get permission to take a room in Lhasa for the duration of the course, since the walk was difficult for them. This particular discourse at Sera Mey went on for a full three months. We sat for six hours a day: three hours in the morning, with a break for lunch, and then three hours in the afternoon. Pabongka Rinpoche went carefully through the entire Lam Rim Chenmo, the great exposition of the entire Steps on the path to Buddhahood written by the incomparable Lord Tsongkapa—who is also the author of the root verses explained by Pabongka Rinpoche in his commentary here. The Rinpoche referred to all eight of the classic texts on the Steps of the path during his discourse, which was attended by about 10,000 monks. Like so many others in the audience, I was stunned by the power of his teaching. Most of it I had heard before, but the way in which he taught it and, I felt, the blessing I had received from him made it suddenly strike home for me. Here I was, living the short precious life of a human, and fortunate enough to be a student at one of the greatest Buddhist monasteries in the world. Why was I wasting my time? What would happen if I suddenly died? In my heart I made a decision to master the teachings, for the benefit of myself and others.
I remember going to my room, to my house teacher Geshe Namdrol, and declaring my change of heart to him: “Now the bad boy is going to study, and become a master geshe!” Geshe Namdrol laughed, and told me, “The day you become a geshe is the day I become the Ganden Tripa!” Now the Ganden Tripa is one of the highest religious personages in Tibet: he holds the throne of Lord Tsongkapa himself, and wins the position by attaining the highest rank of geshe—the hlarampa—and then serving as the head of one of the two colleges devoted to the study of the secret teachings. My house teacher had never gone above the tsokrampa rank of geshe, so could never have become the Ganden Tripa anyway, and we both knew it. I got angry, in a good way, and swore to him that I would not only become a geshe but a hlarampa geshe as well. In my later years, after I had passed the hlarampa examinations with highest honors, Geshe Namdrol used to come a little sheepishly and ask in a roundabout way if I could help him pick a good topic for the day’s debates. This was the great gift I received fromPabongka Rinpoche: I attacked my studies with a passion, keeping my mind on the shortness of life and the value of helping others. Up to this time I had been the house scribe, sort of a clerk who wrote everyone’s letters home. To save time for my studies I took my costly pens and paper one day and, in front of my hundreds of house-mates, gave them away to anyone who would take them. Then things got serious with the government’s plan to send Geshe Namdrol and me to the monastic post in south Tibet. The tenure of the position would be six years, and I calculated my potential loss: one remaining year in the “special topics” class for the perfection of wisdom, two years in the class on the “middle way” or correct view, and the final two years in the classes on transcendent knowledge and vowed morality—all extremely important Buddhist topics. It took some courage, but I went to my teacher and begged his permission to stay and continue my studies at Sera Mey. To everyone’s amazement he agreed, and chose my happy- go-lucky roommate to accompany him instead. He turned over to me the keys to his apartments and left, much to the dismay of all our neighbors, who were convinced I would destroy the entire place. Soon though they were calling me “Gyalrong Chunze”—something like the “bookworm from Gyalrong House”—and my studies had improved enough that I was able to obtain a miksel, or special release from all other duties so I could devote every minute to my course work. I can say it was here that my life turned around, for three reasons: Pabongka Rinpoche had put some renunciation and other good motivation in my heart; I had given up wealth and position to pursue spiritual studies; and I had gained the free time to devote myself to practice. Over many centuries, Tibet has produced an extraordinary number of Buddhist saints and scholars; therefore it is rare for a lama’s teachings to become classics within his own lifetime, as did the works of Pabongka Rinpoche.