Lama Pema Wangchen– Bartsham’s Most Illustrious Son and Its Greatest Benefactor
By Tshering Cigay Dorji
Written on 25th January 2021
Since the 1960s and 70s, Bartsham had become an important spiritual centre in Eastern Bhutan with its famous Bartsham Chhador Lhakhang serving as its base. It not only hosted various religious events such as Tshechus, Drubchhen and Tshog offerings on auspicious dates, but it was also one of the few villages in the area that hosted a full three-day annual Tshechu in those days with various masked dances like in the Dzongs.
All these were introduced under the personal initiative and guidance of Lama Pema Wangchen, including the re-construction of the Chhador Lhakhang in 1977 which became one of the most beautiful Lhakhangs in eastern Bhutan during those times. Before that, there was an old dilapidated Lhakhang in its place which was said to have been constructed in the 1930s by Trongsa Dronyer Drepa Sangay Thinley of Bainangkhar Nagtsang in Bartsham. The main nang-ten (inner relic) of Chador Lhakhang has been the much-acclaimed self-arisen statue of Vajrapani (Chagna Dorje) since those times, hence the name Chador Lhakhang.
Yet, this great man started his journey of life in the most humble of circumstances. He was born in 1923 and was raised by a single mother and his sister on a small farm. At the age of 12, he entered Trashigang Rabdey as a monk and studied there for about six years. In 1939, His Holiness Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche visited Trashigang and consecrated the newly rebuilt Trashigang Dzong along with Lama Sonam Zangpo at the invitation of Trashigang Dzongpon Thinley Tobgay alias Sey Dopola. After the consecration, Lama Pema Wangchen, then as a young boy of 17, was one of the monks chosen to accompany and reach Lama Sonam Zangpo to his retreat place in Tsari Kiphug in Tibet.
After Lama Pema Wangchen reached Lama Sonam Zangpo to Tsari Kiphug and came back to Trashigang Dzong, his heart longed very strongly to go to Tibet to study and practise the Dharma under the great masters there. In those days, Tibet was the place where the Dharma was flourishing with many great masters, while Bhutan was seen as a peripheral place. Therefore, he approached his teachers and Lama Neten in Trashigang who granted him the permission to leave. He then went to see his mother and sister in Bartsham and then left for Tibet with nothing but great determination.
In Tibet, life was very difficult as he hardly had any personal resources to support himself. It was only his steely determination and perseverance that kept him going. He trained under masters such as Lama Thupten Nyendrag of Kongyul, Lama Kunzang Namtrul, Lama Menlam Rabzang, Lama Thupten, Jadrel Sangay Dorji and Kyabje Dudjom Rinpocehe among others.
In particular, he had great devotion for Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche having received teachings and initiations from him since he was 17 years old at Trashigang Dzong, and he excelled in the teachings and practices of Dudjom Tersar lineage.
When he returned to Bartsham in 1951 from Tibet, he had accomplished much spiritually because of his unfaltering devotion to his teachers, determination and perseverance. Yet, he was very humble and kept a very low profile and lived like an ordinary Dharma practitioner.
In those days, the community of Bartsham used to conduct an annual Tshechu at Cheten Lhakhang. Since Bartsham did not have any accomplished Lama, the people of Bartsham used to invite a lama called Galing Lopen from Galing to lead the ceremony. Lama Pema Wangchen, a young man then, attended the ceremony as one of the lay monks on one occasion. Galing Lopen struck up a conversation with Lama Pema Wangchen during the break, and the former was awestruck by how learned the young Lama Pema Wangchen was. So, Galing Lopen called all the monks and people together and said to them, “You have a great master among yourselves here, and yet you take all the pains to call me all the way from Galing. Lopen Nakulung (former name of Lama Pema Wangchen) is well qualified to lead all religious ceremonies and look after your welfare. He will benefit you all greatly in the future. I am also now quite old and I don’t think I can make it to your village from next year.”
It was only from then that Lama Pema Wangchen assumed a more important role and took in a number of followers and students. A number of existing Dharma practitioners in Bartsham became his disciples in addition to new ones joining. Among his most accomplished disciples are Lama Kunzang Wangdi alias LamaNyingkhu (1942 - 2018), a highly accomplished and multi-talented master, and the equally accomplished incumbent Bartsham Lama Ugyen Namdrol alias Lama Daupo who also studied and practised under Dudjom Rinpoche.
My uncle Ajang Wangchuk Dorji who studied as a kid under Lama Pema Wangchen recalls, “One of the greatest qualities of Lama Pema Wangchen was his humility and respect for other Lamas. He invited so many great masters and Lamas to Bartsham and let his own students and disciples learn from them. It was not just well known Rinpoches like Dungsey Rinpoche and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, but others.”
He recalls the following Lamas being invited to Bartsham to conduct religious ceremonies when he was a kid: Hao Hao Lama (real name could not be recalled), Bazaguru Lama, Trulku Karma Ugyen and Geshe Sangay from Tongmi Yangtse. In addition, elders recall that Lama Pema Wangchen gave practical advice and guidance to the people on all aspects of life.
In particular, Ajang recalls that Lama Pema Wangchen invited Dungsey Rinpoche in 1969 to give Dudjom Lineage teachings, and Rinpoche stayed for about six months in Bartsham Dupchu Gonpa conferring all the important teachings.
Lama Pema Wangchen started the three-day annual Tshechu from 13th to 15th day of 10th month of the Bhutanese calendar with masked dances in 1966. This is the most important annual festival of Bartsham village to which people from most neighbouring villages used to come too. This replaced the one-day event called Dawa Tshechu that used to be held on the 10th day of the 3rd month of the Bhutanese calendar in the past.
I mentioned earlier that Chador Lakhang was constructed in 1977. However, completing all the intricate internal works, including the statues, carvings and paintings normally take a long time to complete. So, it was only in 1985 that all internal and external works of the Lhakhang were complete in every sense. To mark the occasion, Lama Pema Wangchen invited Dzongsar JamyangKhyentse Rinpoche, then only 24 years old, to preside over the first Vajrakilaya Drubchen held in Bartsham Chador Lhakhang. Since then, it has become an annual event.
It was then that Lama Pema Wangchen and the community leaders of Bartsham unanimously decided, with deep devotion and prayers for future well-being of the community, to hand over Chador Lhakhang to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for his care and patronage. Given the genuine love and devotion with which the offer was made, Rinpoche accepted it although it might have been an additional responsibility and burden for him. Since then, the strong ties of samaya between the people of Bartsham and Rinpoche remains unbroken to this day, and I think this is thanks mainly to the untainted prayers of our Lama Pema Wangchen.
Today, there is a thriving monastic school in Chador Lhakhang with many young monks supported by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s foundation. On top of that, Khyentse Rinpoche chooses Bartsham as the venue for some of his most important Dharma teachings in Bhutan as we have seen in recent years. This brings immense benefit to the people, not only spiritually, but also economically since many of Rinpoche’s followers from around the world flock to Bartsham for these teachings.
It is thanks to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s support and guidance that Bartsham Lama Kunzang Wangdi alias Lama Nyingkhu was able to build the new and bigger Lhakhang in front of the old Lhakhang. The new Lhakhang construction was funded mainly by the foreign devotees of Lama Kunzang Wangdi and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and was completed in 2018 just before Lama Kunzang Wangdi passed away untimely due to kidney failure.
The present Lama of Bartsham, Lama Ugyen Namdrol alias Lama Daupo is an equally accomplished Lama like Lama Kunzang Wangdi. Devoid of any interest in worldly material pursuits, he invests whatever he receives in the form of offering from his devotees to Dharma activities. These are ultimately, the living legacies of Lama Pema Wangchen.
As the scent of a beautiful flower spreads far and wide and attracts bees from afar, so did the fame of our Lama Pema Wangchen’s spiritual accomplishments spread far and wide and attracted many followers from places beyond Bartsham. In 1974, His Majesty the Fourth King had just been formally crowned. Lyonpo Tamzhing Jagar, the powerful Home Minister who had served since the reign of the Third King, felt that the nation would need to conduct some powerful tantric rituals to cleanse any simmering obstacles for the well being of the nation. And his search for a master to conduct this ritual narrowed down to Lama Pema Wangchen.
So, the Government sent messengers with the invitation to Lama Pema Wangchen to come to Thimphu. And in Thimphu, his Tantric accomplishments became even more well known. Needless to say that this brought Bartsham to the notice of higher authorities and might have helped in bringing developmental benefits to the village too.
For one ritual, it is said that a drop of blood from an owl was needed and the Government sent soldiers into the jungle to catch one. But they failed to get one. When this was reported to the Lama, he said it was not a problem. Then an owl mysteriously appeared at the window of the altar room. So, it was caught and a small drop of blood drawn with a syringe and let free. Attracting the owl from nowhere was attributed to the Tantric power of the Lama.
Lama Pema Wangchen spent his time mostly in Thimphu conducting important rituals for the nation from the late 1970s until his death in 1990. While in Thimphu, he lived in his simple residence in Zilukha and this is where he passed away too.
A very elaborate funeral befitting the Lama of his stature and accomplishments was conducted at a peaceful hillock with a great view of the surrounding areas called Ridi Sirsa in Bartsham. Today, a Chorten dedicated to his memory stands there, where devotees still come to pray and offer their respects to this great man who uplifted and transformed his community within his lifetime.
1. Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, Nyima Shargi Choglay, Sharwai Karma Namsum, Tshokye Dorje Foundation, Thimphu, 2013.
2. Oral Interviews of older generation Bartshampas