A Brief History of Katok Monastery

a talk given by 

The Fourth Katok Getse Rinpoche, Gyurme Tenpa Gyaltsen

As many people know, Buddhism came to Tibet from India owing to the compassion of three main propagators:  Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the Great Bodhisattva Khenpo (Shantarakshita), and the Dharma King Trisong Detsen.

Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava, and King Trisong Detsen

While there were many students and famous accomplished masters that came from Guru Rinpoche, the most well known are the twenty-five disciples of Guru Rinpoche.  One of these, Nyak Jnana Kumaradza, became the owner and transmitter of the Nyingma teachings called Do, Gyud, Sem Sum, which means the three categories of Sutra, Tantra and Mind teachings.

Nyak Jnana Kumaradza

These three categories of teachings were transmitted in their entirety from master to student as follows:  From Nyak Jnana Kumaradza to to Nup Chen Sange Yeshe to So Yeshe Jungne to Zur Chen Sakya Jungne to Zhur Chung Sherab Trakpa to Samdrak Dro Tukpa to Zamten Gyalwe Gampo to Katok Kadampa Deshek Sherab Senge.


Katok Kadampa Deshek, the founder of Katok, not only received these three categories of  Nyingma teachings in their entirety, but he also studied all of the other Dharma traditions in existence at that time.  While there was not yet a Gelug tradition, there were the Kadampa Geshes, and from them he learned the Bodhisattva path of the Lam Rim, the gradual stages of the path.

Katok Kadampa Deshek

From the Sakya master Sonam Padmo and others he received instructions on Lam Dre, the Path and Fruition.  And from the Kagyu tradition he studied from Milarepa's students Rechungpa Dorje Drakpa, Repa Zhiwa Öd and Gampopa, whose Tibetan name was Dakpo Lhaje, receiving all of the Mahamudra and other instructions of that tradition.  So not only had he received the lineage of the Nyingma tradition in its entirety, but also all of the different lineages of Dharma that were being transmitted at that time.  There was no Dharma that he hadn't received and wasn't a holder of, so all of the lineages converged in him and he studied them all.


Katok Kadampa Deshek was born in eastern Tibet in Kham, in the area of Derge.  After having studied all of the teachings that he received, he was given Lung-Ten – a prophesy – by both of his root teachers, Zamten Gyalwe Gampo and Dakpo Lhaje (Gampopa).  The prophesy was that if he were to go to the mountain of Kumbo, he would achieve Rainbow Body, but if he were instead to establish a monastery of Katok, then his teachings would remain for 1000 years and 100,000 beings would be able to gain enlightenment there.

Katok Monastery is located 4800 metres above sea level on the side of a mountain

Following this prophesy, many manifestations of the great Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Chana Dorje (Vajrapani) appeared to him, and he thought to himself, "Those three Lords would have an opportunity to manifest and benefit beings, and so immense benefit would come through that."  And then he thought to himself, "It's OK if I don't attain Rainbow Body as long as I can bring about this great benefit and enable others to do so."  So then he remained there in Kham and when he was about 30 years old, he established the Katok monastery there as a seat for receiving Dharma teachings.

Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava)

The land on which Katok Monastery was established was given by Guru Rinpoche in a prophesy in one of his writings.  And Guru Rinpoche himself spent 25 days there on that place, so it's very blessed, one of the sacred spots in Tibet.  It's called Ka Tok Dorje Den, one of perhaps 25 very holy sites of Guru Rinpoche in the area of Do Kham.  In that specific location there is a thin flat rock that has the depiction of a double crossed Vajra, which was called "Dorje Gatramo".  And on top of that was the syllable Ka (the first letter of the Tibetan alphabet).  And so "Katok" means, "On top of Ka".  The monastery was built right there on top of that Ka, situated with that double Dorje on that rock.  And so it is a very special place. The words, "Dorje Den" are the same in Tibetan as for Bodh Gaya.  All together Ka Tok Dorje Den means "The Vajra Seat of Katok".  This monastery was first established around 845 years ago or so (sometime around 1159 - 1162 CE).

Tsong Tsem Dorje Gyalten
Sand Dak Jhampa Bum

Between Katok Kadampa Deshek and his two main students Tsong Tsem Dorje Gyalten and Sand Dak Jhampa Bum, they ordained and taught about 80,000 students.  Their main students were “the 3 supreme listeners of Rong-Bo”, who were from an area of Gyarong which is near the Chinese and Tibetan border.  At that time the primary Buddhist practice in Do-Kham was the Nyingma tradition, and at that time there weren’t other schools within the Nyingma.  It wasn’t as it is today.


Then later, the next three major holders of the transmitted lineage were the Bumpa Nam Sum, who were the three Bumpa.  And they were primarily the students of Jhampa Bum, who was mentioned before.  Then after them Lhungten Bum Zhi, the four sons of Lhungten.  And then they did a lot of work – they began to establish many branch monasteries.  At that time the person who stayed in the main monastery was Sonam Bumpa of the four sons of Lhungten.  Sonam Bumpa was the one that actually stayed in Katok and held the seat at the monastery.

Jigme Lingpa

So we’re not going in a completely linear manner, the three that we previously mentioned were Sonam Bum, Yeshe Bum, and Changchup Bum.  At this point there were around 180,000 students practicing within the Katok tradition, all of them fully ordained monks and practitioners.  And these 180,000 different practitioners were not just merely individuals who paid lip service to the teachings and their vows, but sincere practitioners of great knowledge and adept accomplishment.  For instance, they included the omniscient Jigme Lingpa, and the Katok Getse Maha Pandita, and His Holiness Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje, who was the previous emanation of Dudjom Rinpoche and so forth.  And so within the Nyingma tradition we have some very famous and accomplished masters.


At that time there were so many practitioners that when they got together for Sojong for purification of their vows – and also for their traditional 45 day summer retreat – they of course couldn't fit in a shrine room, so they stayed throughout the forest and valleys, which were filled with monks.  For the ceremonies they all wore their patched yellow robes, and there were so many of them that the radiance from the yellow cloth on their backs made the sky turn yellow with a golden shimmer.


Looking at the lineage more in chronological order, we have the Ter Chok Sum, the Lhumpa Sum, the Lung Sem Su Yi – these were all lineage holders who have numbers and some kind of a family name, all of whom were very accomplished masters, all of them very learned, and all relying on the scriptures and on very pure vows of pure ordination.

Temples and stupas at Katok monastery

Then following that there were the Sungrab Chu Sum, which is the thirteen Sungrab, then we have ten Rabjung Suchung – probably there were thirteen of them too – which is like the Great Exalted Khenpos that came.  Then following that we have the thirteen practitioners of Mograb, and then many different holders of the pith instructions and teachings.  Then we have Sag La Ring Jung, and Ringdzin Duddul Dorje, and he was one of the great and famous tertons of Katok, and following him came a whole line of accomplished tertons, treasure revealers.


Then Lung Zhin Cho Dak Katok Denba, and following him we have many of what they call – Cho Dak is a complicated word in English that we don’t have a direct translation for but it’s sort of like the owner or holder of certain Dharma practices and treasures.  And the holders of these within the Katok who help maintain the main seat of Katok, were many accomplished and sacred realized masters.

Longsel Nyingpo

And then we have the famous treasure revealers, tertons, Rigdzin Duddul Dorje and Longsel Nyingpo, the main founders, and it wasn’t until after that the teachings spread out.  We talk about the different Nyingma monasteries that sprouted up that have different names. 


It was only after this flourishing of Katok that other Nyingma monasteries began to sprout up with different names:  Mindrolling, Dorje Drak, Palyul, Dzogchen, Shechen, these began to spread out next. Before that there wasn’t even the name of these different monasteries.  So when we look at the different Nyingma monasteries now, their source was the Katok lineage, and they sprouted from there.


During this time the Katok lineage began to spread throughout Kham and then throughout the whole snowy land of Tibet, into the central regions of Lhasa and U-Sang, Mari, then into Bhutan, Nepal, Ladakh, Sikkhim which then later became their own countries.  Throughout all of these regions and countries during these three or four generations when the Kathok lineage was spreading, there wasn't any place that the Katok tradition didn't reach.

Padma Duddul

So then when we look at the spreading of the Katok lineage, beginning with Kadampa Deshek Rinpoche, according to his own root teachers' prophesy there would be 100,000 fortunate Katok practitioners that would achieve Rainbow Body at that monastery.  So between that time of Kadampa Deshek Rinpoche, the founder of Katok, and a later practitioner called Padma Duddul then there were 100,000 people who were within about 3 or 4 generations and who attained Rainbow Body.  That's not to say that practitioners of this lineage today have no opportunity to attain Rainbow Body, it just won't be as all-pervasive as it was at that time.  That prophesy was for these 100,000 practitioners, and the prophesy was fulfilled.

During the major period of the flourishing of the Katok lineage, practitioners were very serious, always residing in extremely remote and quiet regions, in caves and forests, and so forth.  They would basically live in an extreme kind of solitude, on just enough that they could survive without starving to death, and thus focus all of their energies on practicing, and they were able to attain Rainbow Body.

At that time there were so many of these practitioners and it was flourishing in such a great way that often you could see rainbows sprouting out in different areas and somebody would say, "Oh yeah, a lama must have died" in a very casual way, because everybody was doing it, and so it wasn't considered all that unusual or amazing, but just very commonplace, you would see all these rainbows just sort of sprouting in the sky and they would think, “Yes, somebody must have passed on.”

Not only was Rainbow Body commonplace, but many lamas were able through Tsa-Lung and other practices to attain all kinds of accomplishments and siddhis, and it was quite common that they could fly and move unimpeded in these seemingly miraculous ways.  At that time it was sort of prevalent for those kinds of practitioners.


There were other prophesies about Katok Kadampa Deshek, the founder of Katok.  He was not, obviously, an ordinary being.  The prophesies indicated that he was an emanation of several different reincarnated masters.  One was Shantideva, the great master and saint of India.  Guru Rinpoche's prophesy was that he was an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal.  And then others said that he was an emanation of the great translator Nyak Jnana Kumaradza. These were not Katok Kadampa Deshek's own proclamations, they were the things that were prophesied about his coming.


There are many Katok practitioners today, and many branch monasteries, more than 200 in Tibet that hold the name Katok preceding whatever individual name they have, and perhaps 300 or more if we include the monasteries that are being built outside of Tibet and in the west.


These days whatever monasteries we’re looking at – even of the Gelug tradition – most of the famous lamas who were the lineage holders and ones that people followed after within their own traditions, were followers of Katok and had received teachings through this lineage. I’m not saying 100%, but the vast majority of teachers when we look at the lineage that they came through, boils back down to and is found within the heart of the Katok tradition.


They say that today when many of the Katok monasteries gather at the main monastery for the yearly prayer festival there are usually around 10,000 fully ordained monks and practitioners that gather there for the prayers of the Katok tradition.

Thousands of monks gather at Katok monastery

When we look at the major historical figures within the Katok tradition we have the five Golden Throne Holders.  These were mostly reincarnate masters of tertons, but not completely, and they were all major participants in the holding of the lineage. 


The first Golden Throne Holder is a reincarnation of Gyaltse Sonam Detsen, the son of Rigzin Longsal Nyingpo.  He was reincarnated as Katok Chime Zhingchong.  Then the Tibetan word is "Ringchung", which means, "and all of their rebirths" so the Tulku of the first Katok Golden Throne Holder is always named Katok Chime Zhingchong each time there is a reincarnation. 


The second Golden Throne Holder was a reincarnation of the great terton Namche Mingyur Dorje, who became the succession of the Moktsa Tulkus, the Moktsa Golden Throne Holders.

Katok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu

The third began with Katok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu, whose rebirths became the succession of the Katok Getse Tulkus. 


Then the fourth was Rabo Tsundu Gyamtso, who was one of the main lineage holders of Rigdzin Duddul Dorje and Longsal Nyingpo, the two tertons.  His succession of incarnations are the Golden Throne Holders who are called Katok Chaksa Tulkus. 


The fifth was Nyingun Sange Tashi, a great master whose reincarnations are the Gradual Reincarnate Masters, the succession of Donyen Tulkus, the Fifth Golden Throne Holders. 


These five Golden Throne Holders play very poignant and important roles in holding the Katok tradition, and continue to reincarnate in just that way.


In this way you can see that Katok Gonpa is truly all-pervasive, and this is the overview of this lineage.  In particular, in Tibet when we look at the Golok region there are many Katok branch monasteries there even today.

Chamtrul Rinpoche's monastery is a major branch monastery of Katok Monastery

The Fourth Katok Getse Rinpoche, Gyurme Tenpa Gyaltsen

Katok Getse Rinpoche

Renowned for his mastery of Dzogchen, Katok Getse Rinpoche is one of the five Golden Throne holders of Katok Monastery.


The Katok Geste Rinpoches have strong connections with the past and present incarnations of the Chamtrul Rinpoches and the Dalai Lamas.


His Holiness the Dalai Lama states: ”Katok Getse Rinpoche, like his previous incarnations, illuminates the teachings of Nyingma, the first Buddhist doctrine of Tibet, and embodies a great living legacy of the Buddhist teachings."

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