There are some common misunderstandings of what a khenpo is and why they are so highly regarded. Individuals who wish to pursue Dharma studies usually enter and complete a course of studies in a monastic college or shedra. Those who excel in their studies and are outstanding teachers must be appointed by a lineage holder or the head of a monastery.
A khenpo must possess learning in five areas of Buddhist scriptures: Abhidharma (scriptural collections that analyze all types of phenomena); Pramana or Valid Cognition (classifications of mind and reasoning); Vinaya (presentations of monastic discipline); Prajnaparamita (scriptures on ultimate wisdom and the bodhisattva path); and Madhyamaka or Middle Way (refutations of all assertions and identification of emptiness).
However being a khenpo is something more than mere learning alone: they must possess three qualities: learning, nobility of conduct, and an excellent altruistic intention and the ability to help others (khay-tsun-zang sum). Just being learned but behaving improperly with a worldly motivation does not make a khenpo. All three qualities must be complete. Otherwise, an ordinary householder with a Phd. in Buddhist studies would be a khenpo.
There are also distinctions among khenpos. Those rare individuals who have brought learning, reflection, and meditation to perfection–in whom the intent of all scriptures has coalesced in their mind– they are the most highly venerated. Such great khenpos are the holders of various explanatory lineages and are responsible for transmitting them to the next generation of lineage holders.
In our lineage, the primary examples are Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche (holder of the explanatory lineages of Ngok Choku Dorje and Ju Mipam Rinpoche) and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche. They are often called Khenchen or “Supreme Khenpo” to signify that they are the senior-most khenpos in our lineage. Together they have bestowed a rain of Dharma upon the vast majority of Kagyu lineage holders, tulkus, khenpos, and lamas.
There is another important meaning of the word khenpo: a monastic preceptor or abbot and the most venerable vinaya holder in a monastery. Often these two usages of khenpo overlap. For example, Kyabje Thrangu Rinpoche is the senior-most monastic preceptor and teaching khenpo in the Kagyu lineage.
Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, is a Choje Lama and the senior khenpo of the Karmapa’s seat of KTD. Bokar Khenpo, Lodro Donyo Rinpoche is the regent of Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, a senior teaching khenpo of the Shangpa and Karma Kagyu, and a senior monastic preceptor and vinaya holder.
Lama Zopa first studied in the Shambhala tradition, and in1992 became a student of Kyabje Thrangu Rinpoche. Lama Zopa studied Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language under Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche at Pullahari Monastery. He completed two three-year retreats under the guidance of Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at Karma Ling. Lama Zopa is currently the resident lama at the Albany KTC. (Copy from kagyu.org)