The Meaning of Sundok and Tenshuk: the Traditional Long Life Ceremony


Lerab Ling, 19 July 2015

The Meaning of Sundok and Tenshuk: the Traditional Long Life Ceremony


Lerab Ling, 19 July 2015

At Lerab Ling in 1996, prompted by one of His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s divinations, Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche and his monks performed a Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik drupchen and a ceremony dedicated to Sogyal Rinpoche’s long life. Since then, this drupchen has become an annual event. The long-life ceremony Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche performs is based on a text by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo that involves a sundok and tenshuk, the principles of which Rinpoche explains in this teaching.

According to the Tibetan calendar, tomorrow is the fourth day of the sixth month of the Water Sheep year in the seventeenth cycle, and the anniversary of Buddha turning of the wheel of the dharma for the first time.

We are currently the middle of a Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik drupchen. Our main reason for doing this drupchen is to spread the teachings of the Buddha far and wide and to promote the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings. But we also do it for ourselves, so that we may be free from illness, live long lives and quickly attain the state of omniscience free from suffering – enlightenment.

A very special feature of the Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik is that it is the supreme practice we do to protect all the great holders of the teachings, and to lengthen their lives. It’s a terma and so it contains the vajra words of Guru Rinpoche, Vimalamitra and Shri Singha.

We therefore have many important reasons for performing the drupchen of Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik here in Lerab Ling. And perhaps our greatest reason for doing it is to ensure the long life of Sogyal Rinpoche. So, it has become a kind of tradition that every year, within the framework of the Chimé Phakmé Nyingtik drupchen, we offer Sogyal Rinpoche a long life ceremony. This ceremony has two aspects: the tenshuk, to request that he remains with us for a long time, and the sundok to turn back the summons of the dakinis. Here in Lerab Ling our tradition is to practise both.


The sundok, or turning back the summons of the dakinis, is a ceremony we do for great practitioners who are holders of the teachings. These great masters choose to be reborn in this world from Akanishtha, as a result of their karma, aspiration prayers and great compassion, to fulfil their vision of spreading the teachings of the Buddha and helping all sentient beings by bringing them true happiness.

These great masters are the expression of the two wisdom kayas. They are great practitioners who have accomplished the level of Vajradhara (the Lord of the sixth family), whose manifestation is determined by wisdom, karma, the world with which they are connected and samaya, and they are leaders of the dakinis. When they appear in the world to help sentient beings, they come in the form of a nirmanakayas (Skt.) – a ‘tulku’ (Tib.).

In Jamgön Kongtrül Rinpoche’s autobiography, he describes going to a pure land and visiting a large palace, inside which were billions and billions of dakinis, all making offerings to a stupa that had been built to enshrine the corpse of a great master. Jamgön Kongtrül asked the dakinis whose relics were in the stupa and was told that they were those of ‘Pawo Thöpé Dumbu Tsal’ the chief of the dakinis, Lord of mahasiddhas and an incarnation of the Lord of Secrets, Vajrapani. This is who they were making offerings to. The dakinis also said that from time to time, Pawo Thubpé Donpé Tsal would appear in this world with the express purpose of helping receptive beings, and that he also visited other buddhafields to help those living there. But at the same time, he would manifest in the form of relics which do not speak and that whenever his emanation returned to the stupa it dissolved in the relics. Pawo Thöpé Dumbu Tsal would then turn the wheel of the dharma for the dakinis and accomplish infinite enlightened activities for their benefit.
“How long does he stay in the buddharealms?” asked Jamgön Kongtrül.
“At most, one hundred human years,” replied the dakinis.
“Where is he now?” he asked.
“In Tibet,” they said.
This indicates that Pawo Thöpé Dumbu Tsal was the basis from which Jamgön Kongtrül himself manifested.

So, when the incarnations of these great beings – tulkus – are reborn in this world, if their students have broken samaya, or circumstances work against them and they cannot help sentient beings, or they are faced with obstacles or negative influences, the wisdom dakinis invite them to return to the pure realms. They also summon these great beings at the end of their lives, once they've completed their activities in that world.

If a great master’s lifespan is already exhausted and he has also completed his activities, then the sundok practice won't help. But if a master has not yet completed his activities and their lifespan is not exhausted, by doing a sundok practice to ask the dakinis not to summon him, any obstacles to his life can be eliminated. This is why we're doing a sundok, to turn back or reverse the summons of the dakinis.

The person who leads the practice and offers the sundok should be a vajra master who is confident in their realization of the view and in meditation, and who needs the assistance of worldly dakinis of the five families. These worldly dakinis will help the master remain in this world after the wisdom dakini’s invitation has been repelled.

Great masters who have attained a high view and meditation must increase the ‘three gatherings’ and the ‘three blazes’ related to the channels, inner-air and energies, and to do that they rely on dakinis whose nature is wisdom – they are the most important. Of the many groups of five we talk about in Buddhism – the five wisdoms, five aggregates, five elements, etc. – the most important are the five categories of wisdom dakinis.

A great vaster master will invite the wisdom dakinis of the five families by using the power of various substances, mantras, mudras and samadhi and by making outer, inner and secret offerings to them. The offerings include tormas, serkyem and offerings of praise. He also requests that the dakinis carry out the activities necessary to help the master live a long life so that he is able to remain in this world for a long time.

The teachings of the Secret Mantra Vajrayana are rich with skilful means and we use the power of these skilful means to make an effigy of the master to whom the tenshyuk is offered. The effigy is then blessed with substances, mantra and samadhi before it’s sent away. Only then is the vajra master himself invited to sit on a lion throne marked with a vajra.

We visualize the vajra master as Amitayus and invite Amitayus to merge as one with him, then make offerings. Amongst the offerings we make are substances that have been blessed by the vajra master through the practice – in this case, the Chimé Pakmé Nyingtik – for example, the long-life vase, long-life torma, long-life pills, long-life alcohol, etc. Then the practice of summoning longevity is performed. This is all part of the sundok practice, then you do the tenshuk.


As we want the master to remain in the world for long time, we must pray to him to ask him to stay. Praying is extraordinarily important. For example, it was only when disciples of the Buddha Shakyamuni prayed to him and asked him to remain longer in the world that he extended the length of his own life. Therefore praying and requesting is very important. And to support our request, we offer a mandala. Just saying the words without making an offering to show you mean what you say, is like the western custom of just saying “Thank you” when someone has done something for you, and not accompanying your words with a meaningful gesture.

Once the mandala has been offered, you must offer representations of the enlightened body, speech, mind, qualities and activities. To request that the master’s body remains forever stable and unchanging, you must offer an enlightened body. As the Bhagavan Buddha Shakyamuni said, “In this World of Endurance, in Sukhavati, there is a buddha whose life is infinite (‘Amitayus’). Not only is his life is never-ending, but he has the ability to eliminate all of life’s obstacles.” So, by offering a statue of Amitayus, what you are doing is asking the master to live as long as Amitayus lived. So we also pray: “May you live as long as Buddha Amitayus.”

For example in our ordinary perception, 'the land of Great Bliss', Sukhavati, in the World of Endurance, has existed for many kalpas – long before this world. Buddha Shakyamuni spoke about Sukhavati for two weeks to explain what it is like and paint a clear picture of the features of this pure land. So basically that's the reason we offer this particular representation of the body.

Just the body of the master isn’t enough really to help beings. To truly help he must be able to turn the wheel of the dharma. So we must also offer a representation of enlightened speech, as speech is the main enlightened activity buddhas use to help sentient beings. Since the Buddha’s 'inexhaustible wheel ornament of enlightened speech’ appears in the form of letters and syllables, the representation we offer is a book.

Buddhas manifest the three aspects of enlightened body, speech and mind, of which the main aspect is mind. The support for enlightened mind, the unmoving primordial purity of dharmakaya, is the stupa. Of all the representations of the Buddha in this world, the most sacred and important is the stupa. Enlightened mind is the ability to relate completely and precisely to the wisdom of the Buddha.

The enlightened body, speech and mind can be divided into different groups of ‘enlightened qualities’. The ‘qualities’ of the Buddha are his abilities to fulfil the wishes of all sentient beings exactly as they conceived them. These qualities are everywhere and everlasting, and we offer the vase as the symbol of their support. According to Indian lore, there's a wish-fulfilling vase that can manifest everything that we may wish for.

The symbol of enlightened activity is the vajra. The vajra represents immutability throughout all four times and is the symbol of the ‘continuously turning wheel of enlightened activities’. Vajras have a hub in their centre. When the hub is surrounded by four vajras, one in each of the four directions, it is described as a 'crossed vajra'. The central hub represents the fundamental nature of all phenomena and manifests as the four types of activity – pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating which can be divided further to make twelve aspects, and so on.

Each support of body, speech, mind, qualities and activity is offered with a katak the colour of its respective buddha family.

To say a prayer or make a request you must use your voice, you must speak. Since Rigpa students are experts at long-life practices because you recite so many long-life prayers again and again, you should know the meaning of such prayers.

In any case, the person who makes the request shouldn't be faking it, it should be genuine and come from the depth of his or her heart. If you're just mouthing words without thinking about what they mean, you’re little more than a sweet-talker. If you don't agree with what you are saying, but still say it, that’s deception. Mind is the most important aspect, so we must make our request with deep, heartfelt conviction.

For the mind to be pure, you must confess and purify all the thoughts that make your mind busy, all your negative thoughts and actions, all breakages of samayas, and all kinds of pollution. Be sure to purify through confession practice.

Basically, to be able to make this request, the students’ devotion and samayas must be utterly stable. If you pray with a completely pure mind, there's no doubt that your prayers will be granted. “All the qualities of the Buddha arise from aspiration prayers.” Therefore praying is extremely important.

In order to express the unstained purity and stability of our mind, we hold a katak of white silk. White is a colour that hasn't been changed, hasn't been distorted, it's completely clean.

When we offer this prayer to the glorious protector, the glorious guru, whose nature of mind is compassion, he is moved by our request and replies, “If it will help sentient beings and the teachings of the dharma, I will remain in this world for one hundred and eight years, or more.”

This long-life ceremony will work if we create the perfect circumstances: the perfect place, the perfect teacher, the perfect assembly, the perfect teaching and the perfect time. Then it will help.

So this is what we now need to do. But if we do it just because it’s what we do every year, it will become another empty tradition and there will be nothing extraordinary about it – like eating dinner every night. Therefore, you should know and understand what must be done and then actually do it.

After the great teacher agrees to live for hundred and eight years or longer, we must celebrate! Why? Because it means the teachings of the Buddha will remain in the world and will spread. So we celebrate all the happiness and well-being that will result from those teachings. And we also celebrate for ourselves because the lama is the source of everything good. As he is the source of all the good circumstances we experience in this life and in the next, the lama’s long life is very positive and very important to us. This is why we thank him for agreeing to remain by offering a mandala. And if we’d like to, we can also make other offerings. If you don’t have anything to offer, just to rejoice is already extremely good.

We celebrate by drinking tea and eating rice – that's the celebration. Actually eating rice is an Indian way of celebrating, not Tibetan. When Tibetans have a party they eat meat. Gedun Chopel wrote that before the Buddha's teachings came to Tibet, Tibetans would celebrate by killing a yak then drinking its blood and eating its meat. But we don’t do that anymore. Now we eat rice and drink tea.

When people are happy they sing and dance, don’t they? Even animals run around, leap up and down and wag their tails when they're happy. They also make a noise, for example, when a sheep is happy, perhaps because it can see its father or mother, it baas. Therefore, there's no reason not to chant.

I felt it was important to say all this today, so that tomorrow during the ceremony, you will be able to recognize the different stages of the practice. I don't expect you to remember everything, but if you can just remember 10% it would good.

Help translate more teaching from Orgyen Topgyal Rinpoche.


If you would like to support maintaining this website, the translation of further works and publications of Rinpoche's teachings please consider helping us by making an offering.

Latest Additions

List of additions to the website

13 January 2022: The Sacredness of Sri Lanka and Sri Pada, new short teaching

13 December: Nyaluk Phurba Mantra Recitation: The Aspect of Mind, new Vajrayana teaching

30 November: Marmé Mönlam—Lamp Aspiration, new short teaching

17 October: Rangjung Pema Nyingtik: A mind terma revelation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, new Vajrayana teaching

19 September: Why We Do Drupchens, new public talk

See full list >>

All Teachings