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Chogyal Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen

Chogyal Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen (chos rgyal 'phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) was born in Ngari (mnga' ris) into the illustrious Khon ('khon) family that had recently established the Sakya institution in Tsang. His father was Sonam Gyaltsen (bsod nams rgyal mtshan, 1184-1239), the younger brother of the great scholar Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (sa skya pan di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251). His mother was Kunga Kyi (Kun dga' kyid).

In 1244 Pagpa and his younger brother Chana Dorje (phyag na rdo rje, 1239-1267) traveled to the Mongol court of Godan Khan, the son of the Mongol leader ododei, with their uncle Sakya Pandita, or Sa-pan. As Goden was in Yunnan at the time, they did not meet until 1247. Tibetan historians have it that Sa-pan went to Mongolia to serve as religious preceptor, but it is more likely that he was summoned to serve as proxy for a Tibetan acceptance of Mongolian rule. Some scholars have speculated that Pagpa and his brother, the heirs to the Khon family and thus the heirs of Sa-skya monastery, accompanied their uncle as hostages. As both were young boys at the time, it is hard to imagine what other function their presence might have served.

Like his uncle Pagpa was fully ordained, having received his vows from Sa-pan the year they left for Mongolia. He was given his initial instruction in the Vinaya from Sherab Sengge (she rab seng gye).

Pagpa remained in Mongolia after the death of his uncle in 1251. Godan's influence was on the wane, having lost succession first to his brother Guyug and again in 1251 to his cousin Mongke. In 1253 Mongke's brother, Khubilai invited Pagpa to his newly built city of Kaiping (latter known as Shangdu), presumably in part because he believed the Tibetan Buddhist lama could help justify the Mongol's rule of China. In fact the invitation had been for Sa-pan, but he had passed away in 1251 so Pagpa went in his place. In 1254, on his way to meet the Khan, Pagpa went on a teaching tour in Kham where he visited various monasteries, converting several, including Dzongsar (dzong gsar) from Bon to Sakya.

Once Pagpa was settled at Khubilai's court, he gained a significant degree of influence and authority. Beginning in 1258 Pagpa performed Buddhist initiations and empowerments for the Khan and, in that same year, participated in a debate with leading Daoists. According to Tibetan historians Khubilai judged him to be the winner, a victory moved the Khan to burn Daoist texts and force prominent Daoists to convert to Buddhism. Despite this incident, Khubilai was, like his predecessors, an ecumenical ruler who surrounded himself with religious leaders of many traditions, including other Tibetans. Pagpa, however, had a unique position in regards to both Mongols and Tibetans and was therefore particularly suited to form an alliance with Khubilai. Having been raised in Goden's court, Pagpa was intimately familiar with Mongol values and culture. He was also well known and highly esteemed among Tibetan Buddhists, as the nephew of Sa-pan and a member of the powerful Khon family.

In 1259 a succession struggle in Mongolia resulted in the fragmentation of the Mongolian Empire, and Khubilai, who was then in charge of the Chinese territories, turned his focus entirely to the conquest of the Song Empire. In 1260 Khubilai appointed Pagpa national preceptor (guoshi). The young monk had spent the previous years initiating Khubilai into Hevajra and Mahakala mandalas, but again, until the appointment, Pagpa was one of several lamas courted by Khubilai. Now, however, Khubilai saw lamas who had supported his opponents as enemies. He had Karma Pakshi, who had established relations with his rival for control of Mongolia, arrested and burned on a stake. (After three days of flames had left him unharmed; everyone gave up, and the lama was banished to Yunnan, to return to central Tibet a decade later much reduced in influence.)

Pagpa developed a close relationship with the Khan and a particular affinity with his wife Chabi, who biographical accounts describe as an extremely fervent and faithful Buddhist disciple. Khubilai abolished the appanage system that Mongke had established decades earlier, and made the Sakya the (nominal) ruler of the entire country. The national preceptor was made chief of the administrative offices that were to oversee the territory, the Bureau of Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs, the Xuanzhengyuan (named after the hall in which the officials were received).

According to one Sakya history of Pagpa's tenure in the Xuanzhnegyuan, the Emperor initially intended to raise a tax on Tibetan monasteries and initiate a draft of Tibetans into corv?e labor. Pagpa is said to have protested, insisting that Tibet's resources would be overstrained by the taxes and draft and threatening to leave the court and return to Tibet. Tibet is said to have thereby been spared the burden of tax and corv?e.

In 1264 Khubilai Khan sent Pagpa and his brother back to Tibet to convince Tibetans to accept Mongol rule. Pagpa brought along with him the famous Jasa Mutig ('ja' sa mu tig), the "Pearl Edict" which Sakya historians incorrectly claim granted Pagpa control of Tibet; in fact it only exempted Sakya from taxes and corv?e, something that Khubilai was giving to other sects as well. Tibetan historians have also claimed the earlier document has as having granted Sakya lordship over the 13 myriarchies, but since these were not established until the census of 1268, this is clearly mistaken.

The roles that Pagpa and Chana Dorje were expected to play remain unclear, and in any case their supposed authority over Tibet was consistently challenged by Drigung. Chana Dorje passed away in 1267, and, whatever the original plan had been, the abbot of Sakya, Shakya Zangpo (shAkya bzang po, d. 1270), who had run the monastery since Sakya Pandita left, was given the newly created office of Ponchen (dpon chen), and given civil and military authority over all of Tibet. The office of Ponchen was subordinate to the national preceptor. The refusal of Drigung to accept the arrangement forced Khubilai to send in troops to enforce Sakya control, and within a year Mongol control of Tibet was restored. Soon after, a census was conducted, a postal system was devised, taxes were imposed and a Tibetan militia was formed - all under Mongol direction. The system of governance devised for Tibet would consist of a State Preceptor (Pagpa being the official first), who was in charge of Buddhists throughout the empire as well as in Tibet (but who would live in China) and an a second Mongol-appointed official, the Ponchen, who would live in Tibet and administer the region more directly. This system was in place for the next eighty years.

Pagpa wrote about the appropriate relationship between a king and religious rulers, helping to bolster Mongol imperial authority. He also identified Khubilai Khan as Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom and encouraged the identification of Khubilai as a Chakravartin or Universal Emperor. Pagpa helped incorporate Buddhist rituals into the Yuan court, which competed with but did not replace Confucian court rituals. It seems that Pagpa's efforts helped Tibetans to see Khubilai Khan as a universal ruler in the Buddhist sense, and as the legitimate Emperor of China. Pagpa and Khubilai Khan also deepened their relationship through marriage alliances; Pagpa's younger brother, nephew, and grandnephew all married Mongol princesses.

Pagpa's collected works fill three volumes and he is credited with having developed the theory of Buddhist ruler-ship that delineated mutually dependant spheres of secular and religious authority. This model, which he and Khubilai were meant to embody as cooperative religious and secular rulers, was purportedly worked out with the aid of Khubilai's wife Chabi. She settled a dispute between the two men early on in their relationship when neither was content to acknowledge the other as holding a higher position. This arrangement was ritually represented by Khubilai sitting on a lower throne when receiving teachings from Pagpa, and Pagpa sitting on a lower throne when Khubilai conducted court business.

Pagpa and his successors also established Sakya as a center of scholarly activity. They sponsored the translation of poetry, literature, and metrics. Pagpa was able to use the power and other resources of his position to further his uncle's scholarly and cultural projects. Sa-pan is credited with having established the study of the five sciences across Tibet, and Pagpa maintained the momentum through his writing and polemics. It was also largely thanks to Sakya influence that Sanskrit poetry became the basis of high literary culture during their time.

In 1270 Pagpa returned to China to receive the title of Imperial Preceptor (dishi), a title that is generally considered, at least in part, to have been a response to his invention of the short-lived imperial script. The following year Khubilai declared the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty, with its capital at Dadu, (modern Beijing). He spent the next few years in semi-retirement, returning to Sakya in 1274. There he convened a council of lamas at Chumig Ringmo (chus migring mo), known as the Chumig Chokor (chu mig chos 'khor), ostensibly for religious discussions, but probably to persuade the various traditions' leaders to accept Mongol-Sakya rule. It was a fruitless effort if that was its purpose, as Drigung continued to resist.

In 1280, the year after Khubilai conquered the remnants of the Song, Pagpa died at Sakya, allegedly poisoned by an unpopular Ponchen.

Name Variants: Drogon Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen; Lodro Gyaltsen; Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen; Pagpa Lukye


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Rossabi, Morris. 1988. Kublai Khan: His Life and Times. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Wylie, Turrell. 1984. "Kubilai Khaghan's First Viceroy of Tibet." In Tibetan and Buddhist Studies: Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csoma de Koros, edited by Lajos Ligeti. Budapest: Akad?miai Kiad?.

Ye shes rgyal mtshan. N.d. Chos kyi rgyal po 'phags pa rin po che'i rnam par thar pa. No publisher information available.

Dominique Townsend, January 2010

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. January 2010].

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