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Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
Kagyu Founders, Part 4: Pakmodrupa and Gyergom Tsultrim Sengge
The Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism is said to be divided into four major and eight minor traditions. The major traditions were initiated by four disciples of Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, the man more responsible than anyone else for merging the Indian siddha practices taught by Marpa and Milarepa with the monastic tradition, into which Gampopa had previously been ordained. One of these four disciples was Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (1110–1170), whose disciples included eight men who initiated the so-called minor traditions. They are "minor" only in their founders' being one generation removed from Gampopa—some of the dominant Kagyu traditions such as the Drigung, Taklung, and Drukpa Kagyu are all included in the category. Others, such as the Shukseb Kagyu established by Pakmodrupa's disciple Gyergom Tsultrim Sengge (1144–1204) remained small, localized to a single monastery.
Dorje Gyelpo was born into an impoverished family in eastern Tibet. His younger brother was Dampa Deshek (1122–1192), the founder of Katok, the great Nyingma monastery in Derge. Dorje Gyelpo found religion very early, following the death of his parents and under the care of his paternal uncle, who was a monk. When he was 20 years old he went to Central Tibet, where he studied Lamdre with the early Sakya patriarch Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158), and then met Gampopa, from whom he received the full transmission of the Kagyu teachings.
After Gampopa passed away, a hermit who was staying in a place called Pakmodru, which means "sow crossing," gave his simple hut to Dorje Gyelpo to practice in. Disciples gradually gathered around him, building dwellings, and forming a community that ultimately became Densa Til Monastery, the "headquarters" for the monastic tradition that Pakmodrupa engendered. (The monastery later served as the base of a family that ruled Tibet during the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the Pakmodru Dynasty.) People came from all over to be near him, and it is said that his teachings were so effective that all who attended would experience powerful meditative states. His disciples would cover the ground of his route from his hut to his teaching chair with their hats, clothing, and katak scarves for him to step on and bless.
One of these men who lay his hat and robes on the ground in hopes that Pakmodrupa would tread on them was Tsultrim Sengge, a member of a ruling family of the nearby Yarlung Valley. As a novice monk Tsultrim Sengge could only find a spot on the outer edge of Pakmodrupa's customary path where he might lay his things. According to legend, Pakmodrupa made a detour so as to walk on them, pausing to state, “The vajra-holding monk is very powerful.” Tsultrim Sengge protested that he was only a novice and not a monk, but Pakmodrupa just repeated his words and afterwards, at the assembly, Tsultrim Sengge is said to have experienced an overwhelming combination of bliss and clarity.
The young novice went home to gather provisions, intending to settle at Densa Til, but family tragedy forced him to delay his return, and he never again met Pakmodrupa. Seeking another student of Gampopa named Neljor Choyung, he first met a Zhije teacher named Mel Khawachenpa (d. 1211) who allowed the monk into his presence only when he learned that the young man had a bit of yogi in him—Tsultrim Sengge had apparently boiled his tea in a dog dish without cleaning it first. Neljor Chenpo, when they finally met, gave him Mahamudra and other teachings, and Tsultrim Sengge then went out to wander and practice. In 1181, on the site where the famous Chod master Machik Labdron (1055–1149) had once practiced, he established Shukseb Monastery, thus initiating the Shukseb Kagyu tradition. The monastery did not thrive; it became a Nyingma center following the residence of Longchenpa (1308–1364), and later was converted to the Geluk tradition. It was returned, nominally, to the Kagyu by the famous female Nyingma teacher Shukseb Jetsun Choying Zangmo (1853–1959), also known as Ani Lochen Rinpoche. Today the Shukseb community upholds a mixture of the Kagyu, Nyingma, and Chod traditions.
Meet your Treasury of Lives blogger: Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.
Taglung Tangpa Chenpo. Tibet, 1200–1299. Taklung (Kagyu) and Buddhist lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Private collection.
Pagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo. Tibet, 1300–1399. Kagyu and Buddhist Lineages. 45.09x35.56cm. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.
Pagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo. Tibet, 1300–1399. Kagyu and Buddhist Lineages. 40.01x33.02cm. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art.