Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Teacher (Lama) - Pema Lingpa

བླ་མ། 喇嘛
(item no. 43737)
Origin Location Bhutan
Date Range 1900 - 1959
Lineages Nyingma, Drukpa (Kagyu, Bhutan) and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment
Collection Ariana Maki Photographic Archive
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Appearance: Lay Person

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

Pema Lingpa, 1450-1521 (pad+ma gling pa) was born in Chel Baridrang (chal ba ri brang), in the Tang (stangs) valley in the district of Bumtang (bum thang). His father was Dondrub Zangpo (don grub bzang po) of Sumtrang (sum phrang) and his mother was Pema Dronma (pad+ma sgron ma). His birth was on the fifteenth day of the second month of the male iron-horse year of the eighth sexagenary cycle, corresponding to 1450. His parents named him Dondrub Gyelpo (don grub rgyal po) and his maternal aunt Peldron (dpal sgron) named him Peljor (dpal 'byor). Another aunt of his was Ashe Drubtob Zangmo (a she grub thob bzang mo) was a consort of Tangtong Gyelpo (thang stong rgyal po, 1361-1485).

Pema Lingpa was born into the Nyo (gnyos, alt. smyos / myos) lineage, said to have emerged in Tibet from divine ancestry before arriving in Bhutan via the son of Drigung Kyopa Jikten Gonpo ('bri gung skyob pa 'jig rten mgon po, 1143-1217), the founder of the Drigung Kagyu tradition. Drigung Kyopa experienced a vision that compelled him to send his son Ziji Pel (gzi brjid dpal, d.u.) to the south, where the young man would establish a monastery. The prophecy was fulfilled when Zijipel founded the Chalkha Gonpa (chal kha dgon pa) in Paro (spa gro). This lineage continued through Tenpai Nyima (bstan pa'i nyi ma), who was the grandfather of Pema Lingpa and father of Dondrub Zangpo.

While still young, the boy was sent to live with his maternal grandfather Yonten Jangchub (yon tan byang chub), a blacksmith. His grandfather brought the boy to Lama Choyingpa (bla ma chos dbyings pa), son of the famous terton (gter ston), or treasure revealer, Dorje Lingpa (rdo rje gling pa, 1346-1405), who gave him the name Orgyen Pema Lingpa (o rgyan pad+ma gling pa).

At the age of nine, the young Pema Lingpa began to apprentice as a blacksmith. It is said that he would often pretend to be seated on a throne, giving initiations and teachings, and performing ritual dance ('cham). As he grew up, he crafted many works in various materials, making millstones and objects from iron. He frequently crafted iron pans (go rlang), and buried them throughout the Bumtang region (one of which is now in the collection of the National Museum of Bhutan, Paro). Other objects credited to Pema Lingpa include chain mail, swords and knives.

Despite his early inclinations toward religion, Pema Lingpa spent the majority of his young adulthood working as a blacksmith. However, at the age of twenty-five he experienced a prophetic dream, yet did not know what to make of it. Two years later, on the tenth day of the second month of the Monkey Year, Pema Lingpa fell asleep near Maṇi Gonpa (ma ni dgon pa). A voice awakened him and he saw a shabbily-dressed monk, urging Pema Lingpa to read the small scroll in his outthrust hands. Pema Lingpa took the scroll and the monk disappeared. Unrolling the scroll, Pema Lingpa read an injunction, stating he was to gather five friends and go to Naring Drak (sna ring brag) during the night of the full moon to uncover his destiny from beneath the rock; also included in the scroll was a key to decode the predestined terma (gter ma), or treasure.

When Pema Lingpa showed the scroll to his father, he dismissed it. His mother, however, did not, saying that the treasure revealer Ratna Lingpa (rat+na ling pa; 1403-1479) had had a similar experience. (Some sources have it that a nun named Delek (bde legs) made this statement.)

Pema Lingpa followed the instructions of the scroll, and together with five people he went to Naring Drak on the appointed night. Without warning and without uttering a word, Pema Lingpa stripped naked and dove into the small lake below the cliff. It is said that he found a large underwater cave, and upon entering, saw a throne and a stack of texts. The guardian of the cave took one of the texts and pushed it towards Pema Lingpa and told him to run. Pema Lingpa came to his senses at the surface of the water and felt himself propelled up to the cliff as if by pushed by a wind.

Once home, he shared the contents of the text with his parents and with two masters from nearby Tarpeling Monastery (thar pa gling dgon pa); however, nobody could read it. Back at Maṇi Gonpa, Pema Lingpa looked at the scroll, after consulting the key that had been given to him by the shabby-looking monk, he was able to see the title of the text, Crystallization of the Tantra of Luminous Space (klong gsal gsang ba snying bcud). This is considered the first of his thirty-two terma.

Having decoded the entire treasure, in the pig month of that year, Pema Lingpa began preparing to offer the first initiation from it, which was to occur at Dunkhabi (gdung kha sbi) under the patronage of the lama Rinchen Pel (rin chen dpal). Over the course of three weeks, Pema Lingpa offered the teachings publically. It is said that ḍākinī would visit him in dreams to teach him the steps of different sacred dances and give him further instructions.

Many additional terma revelations followed, with one marking his return to the lake below Naring Drak. By this time, Pema Lingpa had garnered much attention, and not all of it positive. The local Chokhor (chos 'khor) governor had heard of Pema Lingpa, but was not convinced of his authenticity. He assembled a large group of people for the extraction, and said to Pema Lingpa that if the terton were successful in bringing forth the treasure, he would support him; however, if he failed to perform convincingly, he would punish Pema Lingpa for disrupting his district. Pema Lingpa then grabbed a burning butter lamp, and, standing on Naring Drak, made the proclamation, "If I am genuine, let me bring back the treasure with this lamp still burning. If I am a fraud, let me die in the waters below."

Pema Lingpa dove in, and resurfaced some time later holding a small box crafted from joined skulls, a small sculpture, and the butter lamp, which was still alight. According to tradition, this miraculous occurrence caused all those present to become followers and patrons of Pema Lingpa, and the event also gave the small lake its present name, Mebartso (me 'bar tsho), or Burning Lake.

In 1482, the water tiger year, at the age of thirty-three, Pema Lingpa had a dream in which the protector deity Shelging Karpo (shel ging dkar po) told him to go to Kurje (sku rje) to reveal an important treasure teaching. With six friends, Pema Lingpa proceeded there and was given a small box by the same protector deity as in his vision; this was the Lama Drakpo (bla ma drag po) cycle of teachings. In Lhodrak (lho 'brag), Pema Lingpa revealed one of the most famous of his treasures, the Lama Norbu Gyatso (bla ma nor bu rgya mtsho) from the Mendo Drak Karpo (sman rdo 'brag dkar po). The date of this revelation was the tenth day of the eighth month of the rabbit year, 1483.

Other major textual revelations of Pema Lingpa include the Great Compassionate One, the Darkness-Dispelling Lamp (thugs rje chen po mun sel sgron me) from Rimochen in Tang (stang ri mo can); The Attainment of Longevity, Combining Gems with the Path (tshe sgrub nor bu lam khyer) from Bumtang Kurje Drak (bum thang sku rje brag); and the Three Black Teachings (nag po skor gsum) and the Cycle of Small Activities (las phran skor) from Tselung Lhakhang in Bumtang (bum thang rtse lung lha khang), which he revealed over a period of time.

In Tibet, Pema Lingpa revealed the Gathering of Samantabhadra's Intention (kun bzang dgongs 'dus) at Samye Chimphu (bsam yas chims phu). He revealed multiple treasures throughout Lhodrak, including Lama Jewel Ocean (bla ma nor bu rgya mtsho), Indestructible Garland of Long-life Instructions (tshe khrid rdo rje'i phreng ba), The Protector Maning (mgon po ma ning), Vajrapāṇi the Tamer of Spirits (phyag rdor dregs pa kun 'dul), Kīla, the Utterly Secret Vital Razor (phur ba yang gsang srog go spu gri) and Red Hayagriva that Defeats Arrogance (rta mgrin dmar po dregs pa zil gnon).

Pema Lingpa also is said to have revealed numerous material objects, such as an image of Padmasambhava from Sengge Drak (seng+ge brag) in Chume, Bumtang (bum thang chu smad), a skull sealed with wax and filled with precious substances from Mebartso, a sculpture of Hayagrīva from Sengge Namdzong Drak (seng+ge nam rdzong brag) and a vase filled with the elixir of immortality from Tang Rimochen. He is also credited with opening the hidden valley (bas yul) of Khampa Lung (kham pa lung).

In 1501, Pema Lingpa broke ground on his main seat in Chokhor (chos 'khor), Tamzhing Lhundrub Choling Lhakhang (gtam zhing lhun grub chos gling), and, when it was completed four years later, he performed the consecration ceremony. Pema Lingpa's fame continued to grow and he attracted many patrons and students.

Among his peers and disciples were Drukpa Kunlek ('brug pa kun legs, 1455-1529), the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (karma pa 07 chos grags rgya mtsho, 1454-1506), the First Yolmo Tulku Shakya Zangpo (yol mo sprul sku 01 shAkya bzang po, d.u.), and his own two sons, and Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.), and Dawa Gyeltsen (zla ba rgyal mtshan, 1499-1587).

In the dog month of the Iron Dragon year (1520), Pema Lingpa went to Lhalung (lha lung) in Tibet to give initiations into the Lama Norbu Gyatso cycle of practice. It is said that on his return to the Bumtang region, three sculptures of Tsilung (rtsi lung) were weeping, as was the Tongwa Kundol (mthong ba kun grol) sculpture in Tamzhing Lhakhang. In the eleventh month, other negative omens began to appear in the region, and on the eleventh night of that month, Pema Lingpa fell ill. Two of Pema Lingpa's sons, Dawa Gyeltsen and Drakpa Gyeltsen, are said to have had dreams that revealed omens portending their father's death. At the same time, it was reported that at Dechen Ling (bde chen gling) monastery in Tang valley, musical instruments played themselves, and the site filled with the smell of incense.

In 1521, on the third day of the first month of the iron-snake year, Pema Lingpa died at Tamzhing monastery, holding the hand of Dawa Gyeltsen. His body was left undisturbed, and after nine days showed no signs of decomposing. It was then cremated and placed into a reliquary stupa at Tamzhing Lhundup Choling.

Pema Lingpa's teaching transmission lineage is passed down through three primary lines of incarnations: the Peling Sungtrul (pad gling gsung sprul), the Peling Tukse (pad gling thugs sras), and the Peling Gyelse (pad gling rgyal sras), also known as the Gangteng Tulku (sgang steng sprul sku).

Sources do not agree on the relationship between the initial incarnations of these lines. According to the sixty-ninth Je Khenpo, Gendun Rinchen ('brug rje mkhan po 69 dge 'dun rin chen, 1926-1997), the First Peling Tukse, Pema Lingpa's son Dawa Gyeltsen, was the father of the First Peling Gyelse, Pema Trinle (pad gling rgyal sras pad+ma 'phrin las, 1564-1642). The Second Peling Sungtrul, Pema Lingpa's immediate reincarnation, was Yenpa Lode (pad gling gsung sprul 02 yan pa blo bde, 1536-1597), also known as Tendzin Chokyi Drakpa (bstan 'dzin chos kyi grags pa). He was a teacher of the First Peling Gyelse.

Other sources have alternate relationships between the three: Yenpa Lode, the Second Peling Sungtrul, was a disciple of Dawa Gyeltsen (the First Peling Tukse), and the father of Pema Trinle, the First Gyelse. As given in Holly Gayley's Introduction to Sarah Harding's translation of Pema Lingpa's biography, the current Gangteng Tulku, Rigdzin Kunzang Pema Namgyel (sgang steng 09 rig 'dzin kun bzang pad+ma rnam gyal, b. 1955), solves the historical discrepancy by explaining that the Dawa Gyeltsen passed away while his wife was pregnant with the First Gangteng Tulku, Pema Trinle. He entrusted his wife to his disciple, Tendzin Drakpa, who then raised the child as his own. Because the boy was believed to be the activity incarnation of both Pema Lingpa and Padmasambhava, he was given the name Pema Trinle.

The Peling Sungtrul and Peling Tukse each maintain a seat Tamzhing; historically they also maintained a seat at Tekchok Rabgye Ling (theg mchog rab rgyas gling) in Lhodrak. In the more recent past, the King of Bhutan appointed the monastery of Orgyen Choling (o rgyan chos gling) in Tashigang (bkra shis sgang) to serve as a seat for the Peling Sungtrul.

Pema Trinle established the seat for all successive incarnations of the Peling Gyelse line at Gangteng Sang-ngag Choling (sgang steng gsang sngags chos gling) monastery and, since 1682, has maintained a winter monastery at Phuntso Rabten Ling (phun tshogs rab brtan gling).

Pema Lingpa's legend has it that his previous incarnations were Lhachik Pemasal (lha gcig pad+ma gsal), daughter of the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde brtsan, 742-796). The next pre-incarnations of Pema Lingpa were the nun Rikma Sanggye Kyi (rig ma sangs rgyas skyid), from Tibet; Pema Drol (pad+ma sgrol), the consort of Guru Chokyi Wangchuck (gu ru chos kyi dbang phyug, 1212-1270); Ngakchang Rinchen Drakpa (sngags 'chang rin chen grags pa); the terton Pema Ledrel Tsel (pad+ma las 'brel rtsal, 1291-1315); the terton and scholar Longchen Rabjampa (klong chen rab 'byams pa, 1308-1364); and as Thokar (thod dkar), a boy from Bumtang who died at the age of seven.

Name Variants: Dondrub Gyelpo, Orgyen Pema Lingpa, Peljor, Terchen Pema Lingpa.


Anon. 1983. De'i sras pad+ma gling pa dang pad gling sku 'phreng rnams kyi skor. In 'Brug gi smyos rabs gsal ba'i me long. Thimphu: Maṇi Dorji, pp, 233-244.

Anon. 1975-1976. Pad gling 'khrungs rabs kyi rtogs brjod nyung gsal dud pa?i me tog. In Pad gling gter chos, vol. Pha, p. 511-558. Thimphu: Kunsang Tobgay.

Aris, Michael. 1989. Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives. London: Kegan Paul International.

'Brug rje mkhan po 69 dge 'dun rin chen. 1976. Lho 'brug chos 'byung and in the dpal sgang steng gsang sngags chos gling gi gdan rabs nor bu'i phreng ba. Bhutan: Nges don zung 'jug grub pa'i dga' tshal.

Harding, Sarah. 2005. The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa. Boston: Snow Lion Publications.

Pad+ma tshe dbang. 1991. Pad gling lo rgyus drang gtam. Thimphu.

Phuntsho, Karma. 2008. "Ogyen Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), His Life and Legacy." in The Drakon's Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan. Terese Tse Bartholomew and John Johnston, eds. Chicago: Serindia, pp, 66-77.

Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Tshewang, Padma, Khenpo Phuntshok Tashi, Chris Butters and Sigmund K. Saetreng. 1995. The Treasure Revealer of Bhutan: Pemalingpa, the Terma Tradition and Its Critics. Biblioteca Himalayica, Series III, Volume 8. Kathmandu: EMR Publishing House. Ariana Maki April 2011

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. March 2012].

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