Early in life, he was recognized as the reincarnation of the Lawudo Lama Kunzang Yeshe, from the same region (hence the title "Rinpoche"). He took his monastic vows at Dungkar Monastery in Tibet where he travelled in 1957, but he had to flee due to severe treatment on monks inflicted by the Chinese army after the 1959 Tibetan uprising. Instead of continuing in Tibet, his spiritual teacher, Geshe Rabten, entrusted him to the care of Lama Thubten Yeshe. Thubten Zopa learned English at the Young Lamas Home School. Lama Zopa has received teachings from many high lamas.
Lama Zopa met the previous Panchen Lama in Nepal in 1986 and in Tibet.
Zopa's books are published by Wisdom Publications. Free transcripts of some of his teachings are available from the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. There is an extensive biography of him in the book The Lawudo Lama by Jamyang Wangmo.
Lama Zopa supports — apparently in accordance with the dying wish of Lama Yeshe — the Maitreya Project, a planned 152 m (500 ft) high Maitreya statue in Kushinagar, northern India. If built, it will be one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, only one meter shorter than the Spring Temple Buddha in China's Henan province.