Himalayan Art Resources

Item: Teacher (Lama) - Teacher

བླ་མ། 喇嘛
(item no. 80473)
Origin Location Tibet
Date Range 1900 - 1959
Lineages Gelug and Buddhist
Material Ground Mineral Pigment on Paper
Collection Private
Notes about the Central Figure

Classification: Person

Appearance: Monastic

Gender: Male

Interpretation / Description

The Eighty-first Ganden Tripa, Ngawang Norbu (dga' ldan khri pa 81 ngag dbang nor bu) was born in Zungchu (zung chu) in Amdo. [P25].

He was later said to be emanation of Mahāsiddha Sarahapa (grub chen sa ra ha). Sarahapa, originally known as Rāhula or Rāhulabhadra, was one of the mahāsiddhas of the eighth century in India, and is considered to be one of the founders of the tantric tradition, particularly that of Mahāmudrā.

In his youth, Ngawang Norbu briefly studied texts composed by one of the Jamyang Zhepa ('jam dbyangs bzhed pa) incarnations that were preserved in the local monastery called either Zungchu Serpo Monastery or Ganden Chokhorling (zung chu ser po dgon / dga' ldan chos 'khor gling). Thereafter he travelled to Lhasa and matriculated in the Zungchu House of Gomang College of the Drepung Monastic University ('bras spungs sgo mang grwa tshang gi zung chu khang tshan) where he studied Abhisamayālaṃkāra, Madhyamaka, Abhidharmakośa, Pramāṇavārttika, and Vinaya, the major subjects of the Geluk monastic curriculum.

A story is told in his biography that explains Ngawang Norbu's lifelong practice of Yamāntaka. It seems that feel seriously ill while he was studying in Drepung and one night he had a vision in a state of mixed dream and conscious in which he saw a horrible woman who lifted him high in the air and told him that she was going to kill him. Frightened, he begged her to leave. The wrathful woman informed him that she would depart only if he would perform the self-initiation of Yamāntaka at least once a day. Committing to do so, he was released and soon recovered from his illness. Later in life he came to believe that the woman in the dream was Lhamo Dorjedrak-Gyelma (lha mo rdo rje grags rgyal ma), a dharma protector of Drepung Monastery.

Following the completion of his studies at Drepung, Ngawang Norbu enrolled in Gyuto College in Lhasa and studied tantric rites and rituals. Longdol Lama Ngawang Lobzang (klong rdol bla ma ngag dbang blo bzang, 1719-1794) was one of his main teachers, from whom he received many teachings and empowerments, especially empowerments, transmissions, and esoteric instructions on the Ganden Nyengyu (dga' ldan snyan rgyud). After mastering Tantra he served various posts at the monastery, including abbot, that put him in the standing to become Shartse Choje (shar rtse chos rje) at Ganden Shartse Monastery, one of two positions from which monks are elevated to the Golden Throne.

Ngawang Norbu was said to have been a "Powa drong jugpa" ('pho ba grong 'jug pa), one who is able to transfer his consciousness into the corpse of another person. This was a rare tantric practice in which a yogi maintains his life even after abandoning his own body.

In 1850 Ngawang Norbu became the assistant tutor to the Eleventh Dalai Lama, Kedrub Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 11 mkhas grub rgya mtsho, 1838-1856). Following the Dalai Lama's death, he participated in the search for his reincarnation, traveling across Wolga ('ol dga'), Zangri (zangs ri), Dakpo (dwags po), and other regions. The Twelfth Dalai Lama, Trinle Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 12 'phrin las rgya mtsho, 1857-1875), was enthroned in 1860.

In 1876, the year of fire-mouse of the fifteenth sexagenary cycle, Ngawang Norbu ascended to the Golden Throne as the Eighty-first Ganden Tripa, the post that he served for five years, until 1880. Alternate dates for his tenure are 1877 to 1881, and from 1879 to 1884. In addition to his duties as Tripa, he arranged a major restoration of Trandruk Temple (khra 'brug lha khang), one of the earliest Buddhist temples, in Tsetang. It was said to have been built by the Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gampo (srong btsan sgam po, r. 617-650) as one of the so-called demon-taming temples. These temples were built to pin down the supine demoness (srin mo) whose body was mapped across the Tibetan landscape and who was said to be preventing the Chinese Princess Wenchen from bringing the famous statue of the Buddha Shākyamuni (jo bo shA kya mu ni), later installed in the Jokhang, to Lhasa. The Tradruk Temple was the stake that pinned down the demoness' left shoulder.

Among Trichen Ngawang Norbu’s disciples were Khenchen Tenpa Chopel (mkhan chen bstan pa chos 'phel, d.u.), Tadrak Sikyong Yongdzin Paṇḍita (stag brag srid skyong yongs 'dzin paN+ti ta, d.u.), and Ganden Serkong Dorjechang Ngawang Tsultrim (dga' ldan gser kong rdo rje 'chang ngag dbang tshul khrims don ldan, 1856-1918).

Soon after the death of the Eighth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Tenpai Wangchuk Pelden Chokyi Drakpa (paN chen bla ma 08 blo bzang bstan pa'i dbang phyug dpal ldan chos kyi grags pa, 1855-1882) Trichen Ngawang Norbu suddenly passed away himself. According to legend, he explained his own passing by announcing, shortly before his death: “Although I may not be successful, I will rush to (be reborn among the candidates for) the reincarnation of the Paṇchen Lama.”

If this story is true, the year of death of Trichen Ngawang Norbu should be 1882 rather than 1880 as suggested by his passing while still serving as Ganden Tripa, two years short of the customary seven year tenure that started in 1876, presuming, of course that he did in fact begin his tenure that year.

Yeshe Chopel (dga' ldan khri pa 82, khri chen ye shes chos 'phel) was his successor on the Golden Throne.

According to the biographies, his reincarnation was identified in the person with the title of Tri Ngawang Norbu (khri ngag dbang nor bu). The third incarnation was named Kelzang Tubten Wangchuk (khri ngag dbang nor bu 03 bskal bzang thub bstan dbang phyug), identified as the Third Tri Ngawang Norbu by the Thirteenth Dalai Lama.

Samten Chhosphel is an independent scholar with a PhD from the Central Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies in Sarnath, India.


Bstan pa bstan 'dzin. 2003. Chos sde chen pod pel ldan 'bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang grwa tshang gi chos 'byung chos dung g.yas su 'khyil ba'i sgra dbyangs. Lhasa: Dpal ldan 'bras spungs bkra shis sgo mang dpe mdzod khang, pp. 353-354.

Sgo mang mkhan zur dge bshes bstan pa bstan 'dzin. 1992. 'jam mgon rgyal wa'i rgyal tshab gser khri rim byon rnams kyi khri rabs yongs 'du'i ljon bzang (Biographies of Ganden Tripas from 1 to 99). Mundgod: Drepung Gomang Library, pp. 110-112.

Grong khyer lha sa srid gros lo rgyus rig gnas dpyad yig rgyu cha rtsom 'bri au yon lhan khang. Dga' ldan dgon pa dang brag yer pa'i lo rgyus, grong khyer lha sa'i lo rgyus rig gnas deb 02, bod ljongs shin hwa par 'debs bzo grwa khang, 1994, p. 77.

Khetsun Sangpo. 1973. Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Dharamsala: LTWA, vol. 6, p. 209.

A biography of Trichen Ngawang Norbu by Dbyangs can dgyes pa'i rdo rje is listed in Sonam Dondrub's catalog of Tibetan biographies, no. 0205. See: Bsod nams don grub. 2000. Bod kyi lo rgyus dpe tho. Lhasa: Bod ljongs Mi dmangs Dpe skrun khang.

Samten Chhosphel, February 2011

View other items in the Thematic Set: Prajnaparamita: Ganden Throne Holder Lineage