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Teacher: Sakya Pandita, Kunga Gyaltsen

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Biographical Information [TBRC]

Historical Background: After the Sanskrit publication of Sakya Pandita's definitive treatises on Buddhist logic, the Tse ma rig pi ter, Sakya Pandita's fame spread throughout eastern, western and central India. Wishing to debate with Sapan, six Indian Tirtika pandits with Harinanda at the lead traveled to Kyirong in Western Tibet (circa 1240). After 13 days, unable to win in philosophical debate, Harinanda said, "it is not you I cannot defeat, it is the orange being sitting above your right shoulder." Then, challenging Sapan to a test of miraculous powers he flew into the air. With one clap of the hands by Sapan - Harinanda fell to the ground. Accepting defeat the six Tirtakas took refuge in the Three Jewels and offering their long twisted hair each received the vows of a Buddhist monk. Until 1959, the braid of Harinanda was kept before an image of Manjushri in the Utse Nying Sarma temple in the town of Sakya.

"With wide eyes perceiving all things, and compassionately achieving the good of all beings, having power performing acts beyond thought; Guru Manjunata, to your feet I bow my head." (Sakya liturgical verse used in praise of Sapan).

According to Sakya tradition, Sakya Pandita reached complete enlightenment in the realm of Buddha Akshobhya and now resides as the Buddha Vimalashri in the eastern direction. According to Gelugpa tradition the Panchen Lamas of Tashi Lhunpo are the lineal incarnations of Sakya Pandita. From the religious point of view of a Buddha's activity and blessings these two beliefs are not contradictory.

A guruyoga practice for Sakya Pandita was written by Yagton Sanggye Pel (1350-1414) which became a model for the Tsongkapa guruyoga practice which was to follow later.

Jeff Watt 9-1998 [updated 6-2017]

"I have studied Sanskrit grammar, logic-epistemology, and I know prosody and understand the greater part of poetics and synonymy. I have also learned most of the texts of the Vinaya, Abhidharma, and Prajnaparamita. I have learned virtually all the extant transmission of instruction on the four classes of Mantra Vehicle tantras. Nor should any of these studies be discounted as having been merely superficial. I have learned most of the many instructions of the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Mind-Only, and Madhyamaka schools.

With diligence, I have had instructions in virtually all the systems presently known in Tibet: the Shiche ('Pacification'), Dzokchen ('Great Perfection'), Joyul ('Severance'), and the rest; the simultaneous meditations of the eight topics (of the Abhisamayalamkara); the mental disciplines of the Perfections adherents of the Greater Vehicle; the Kadampas' two traditions of instruction; the dohas of Saraha, Tilopa, and Krsnacarin; the Simhadoha of the adept Virupa and many other dohas; the single-mat meditations of the Pancakrama; three traditions of Naro's Six Doctrines; the Jnanapada and Arya sets of instruction on the Guhyasamaja; the Essential Cycle (nying po'i skor) of Hevajra.

Yamari, Bhairava, and so on, as well as the Old and New schools instructions on these; instructions on Cakrasamvara; the six-session yoga of Kalacakra and so forth; the six exegetical traditions of (Manjushri) namasamgiti; Amarasiddhi instructions; the Path with Its Fruit and the rest of the nine cycles of the path; and the many instructions derived from these. Furthermore, I have energetically learned well most of the doctrines nowadays known in Tibet and India."

(A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltshen. Translated by Jared Douglas Rhoton. SUNY, 2002. Page 181-182).

Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen, 1182-1251, (sa skya pan di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) is counted as the fourth of the Five Patriarchs of Sakya (sa skya rje btsun gong ma lnga). He was the son of Palchen Opo (dpal chen 'od po, 1150-1203), who was the son of Sachen Kunga Nyinpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po, 1092-1158), and the nephew of Sonam Tsemo (bsod names rtse mo, 1142-1182) and Drakpa Gyaltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216). Sa-pan's mother was probably Machig Nyitri Cham (ma gcig nyi thri cham).

Sa-pan was the principal disciple of his uncle, the great master Drakpa Gyaltsen. His early teachers also included Shuton Dorje Kyab (shu ston rdo rje kyabs, d.u.) of Sangpu Monastery (gsang phu), Tsurton Shonu Sengge (tshur ston gzhon nu seng ge, d.u.) and Jiwo Lhepa Changchub O (ji bo lhe pa byang chub 'od, d.u.), among others. In addition to training in the Sakya Lamdre and the Kadam traditions, he also studied Dzogchen, Shije, and other systems. Starting in 1204, at the monastery Chumig Ringmo (chu mig ring mo), Sapan became a close disciple of the Kashmiri teacher Shakya Shri Badhra (Sakyasribhadra, 1140-1225) and also studied under the Indian masters Samghashri, Danashila, and Sugatashri. Sa-pan took full ordination with Shakya Shri Bhadra in 1208, who trained him in the entire span of monastic education then current in the great monasteries of India, including Abhidharma, Vinaya, Prajnaparamita, Madhyamaka, logic and epistemology, grammar and poetics. Based on this education Pa-pan was instrumental in transmitting the Indian system of ten major and ten minor sciences to Tibet

Sakya Pandita was known as a formidable philosophical debater in both formal public arenas and in writing. In 1240 he traveled to Kyirong (skyid grong) where he famously debated and defeated the Indian scholar Harinanda. His compositions refuting doctrinal positions of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions continue to exert considerable influence. He authored more than one hundred texts and was also a prolific translator from Sanskrit. His major works include the Treasury of Epistemology (tshad ma rigs pa'i gter), Clear Differentiation of the Three Vows (sdom gsum rab dbye), Clarifying the Sage's Intentions (Thub pa dgongs pa rab gsal), Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels (Legs par bshad pa rin pa che'i gter), and Entrance Gate for the Wise (Mkhas pa rnam 'jug pa'i sgo). His writings are among the most widely influential in Tibetan literature and prompted commentaries by countless subsequent authors. He taught widely and became renowned across Tibet for his scholarship and skill in teaching.

In 1244 Sakya Pandita received an invitation to the court of the Koden Khan, the son of the supreme Mongolian leader Ogodei and the Khan in charge of the regions of the Mongolian Empire that bordered on Tibet. According to some accounts, it was a Drigung lama who, declining the invitation to go to Mongolia, suggested Koden invite Sakya Pandita instead. Mongolian contact with Tibetan lamas had most likely begun with Chinggis Khan's conquest of Tangut kingdom of Xixia in 1227, and deepened with his successors' invasions of Sichuan and Yunnan regions. In 1240 Koden had sent a reconnaissance mission to Tibet to locate authorities who could submit on behalf of Tibet. Finding only large monasteries and family estates headed by charismatic lamas (ordained or not), the Mongolians logically established relations with lamas. Although these relations were almost certainly political in nature, Tibetan histories, which foreground the religious motivations of the Mongolians in inviting lamas to their courts cannot be entirely discounted, as many members of the ruling families were apparently quite devout.

Sa-pan, then aged 63, made the journey to meet Koden at Liangzhou, in the Kokonor region. With him he brought his two nephews, the sons of his brother Sonam Gyaltsen (bsod nams rgyal mtshan, 1184-1239). The two young men, Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) and Chana Dorje (phyag na rdo rje, 1239-1267), both later played important parts in the history of Tibet, Mongolia, and China. The journey took nearly three years since Sa-pan stopped at various locations to give Buddhist teachings en route.

Sakya Pandita reached Kodan's camp in 1246, meeting with Koden the following year. Sa-pan purportedly provided a treatment that cured the Khan's skin disease, possibly leprosy, which put him especially good standing with the Mongols. Sa-pan and his nephew Pagpa eventually developed a script (called the Pagpa script) for the Mongolian, which was previously unwritten. Although they were not the only Tibetans present, and shared the religious stage with Christians, Muslims, and Chinese of various traditions, Sa-pan and his nephews' presence at the court was a key factor in the establishment of Buddhism in Mongolia, and he successfully converted many members of the ruling house.

According to Tibetan histories, in 1249 Koden appointed Sa-pan as temporal ruler of Tibet, although this likely meant very little in terms of real power. Sakya Pandita is said to have sent a letter to other leaders in Tibet urging them to submit to Mongol rule and pay tribute, but the letter seems to have been largely ignored. Nevertheless, Sakya Pandita's relationship with Koden is often cited as a model for the later development of the so-called priest-patron (mchod-yon) relationship between Tibet and its more militarily powerful neighbors, most famously embodied by his nephew Pagpa and Khubilai Khan at the start of the Yuan Dynasty. Sa-pan's ventures in Mongolian power also helped lay the ground for the long standing tradition of linking Buddhist authority and political rule in Tibet.

Sa-pan died in Liangzhou in 1251.


Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Grags pa 'byung gnas. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 1723-1724.

Dungkar Losang Khrinley. 2002. Dunkar Tibetological Great Dictionary (Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo). Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.

Gold, Jonathan. 2008. The Dharma's Gatekeepers: Sakya Pandita on Buddhist Scholarship in Tibet. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jackson, David. 1983. "Commentaries on the Writings of Sa Skya Pandita: A Bibliographical Sketch" in The Tibet Journal Vol VIII no 3.

Jackson, David. 1987. The Entrance Gate to the Wise (Section III): Sa-skya Pandita on Indian and Tibetan Traditions of Pramana and Philosophical Debate. Vienna: Arbeitskreis fur Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien.

van der Kuijp, Leonard. 1983. Contributions to the Development of Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Weisbaden: Verlag.

Ngor chen kun dga' bzang po. 1968. Chos rje sa skya paNDi ta chen po'i rnam thar gsung sgros ma. In Ngor chen kun dga' bzang po'i bka' 'bum, vol 1, pp. 30-36. Tokyo: The Toyo Bunko.

Rgyal ba dpal. 1995. Dpal ldan sa skya paNDi ta chen po'i rnam par thar pa. In Tshad ma rigs gter rtsa ba dang 'grel pa bzhugs, pp. 1-33. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Roerich, George, trans. 1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. 2000. Sakya Dungrab Chenmo. In Holy Biographies of the Great Founders of the Glorious Sakya Order. Trans and ed Lama Kalsang Gyaltsen, Ani Kunga Chodron, and Victoria Huckenpahler. Silver Spring, MD: Sakya Phuntsok Ling Publications.

Sakya Pandita. 2002. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Jared Rhoton, trans. New York: SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam 'bras Traditions in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2006. Taking the Path as the Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdre Tradition. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Yab rje skal ldan rgya mtsho. 1999. Kun dga' rgyal mtshan gyi rnam thar. In Mdo smad sgrub brgyud bstan pa'i shing rta ba chen po phyag na padmo yab rje skal ldan rgya mtsho'i gsung 'bum, vol. 1, pp. 256-264. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Dominique Townsend, January 2010

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