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Jeff Watt [updated 8-2017]

Biography: Gampopa Sonam Rinchen

Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, 1079-1153 [P1844], (sgam po pa bsod nam rin chen. Name Variants: Da'o Shonnu; Dagpo Lhaje Sonam Rinchen; Dharma Drag; Sonam Rinchen), also commonly known as Dagpo Lhaje (dwags po lha rje) was born in 1079 in the Nyal valley, in a place called Budnyi Chedrag Serlung (gnyal bud nyi'i bye brag ser lung). His father's name is recorded as Lhaje Utso Gabar Gyalpo (lha rje dbu gtso dga' 'bar rgyal po), Utso Gyalbar (u tsho rgyal 'bar), or Nyiwa Gyalpo (snyi ba rgyal po), the third name making reference to the name of his family, Nyiwa (snyi ba). His mother was called Shomo Zachecham (sho mo gza' che lcam) or Demchogcham (bde mchog lcam). His birthname is recorded as Kunga Nyingpo (kun dga' snying po), Nyiwa Kunga (snyi ba kun dga') or Darmadrag (dar ma grags). He studied medicine as a youth, married a daughter of a man named Chim Jose Darma Wo (mchims jo sras dar ma 'od) and had a child, but they both died, causing him to renounce the householder's life.

In 1104, at the age of twenty-five he took ordination, either in Dagpo (dwags po) or in Phenyul, at Gyachag Ri monastery ('phan yul rgya lcags ri), receiving the name Sonam Rinchen (bsod nams rin chen). The names of his ordinators are given as Geshe Loden Sherab of Maryul (mar yul dge bshes blo ldan shes rab, d.u), Gyachilwa (rgya mchil ba, d.u.), and Geshe Shapa Lingpa / Nyingpo (dge bshes sha pa ling pa / snying po, d.u.). He then trained in Chakrasamvara and the Rinchen Gyaldrugma (rin chen rgyan drug ma) in Dagpo (dwags po) under Loden Sherab and then went to Penyul to continue Kadam teachings with Chayulpa (bya yul pa chen po gzhon nu 'od, 1075-1138), Nyurumpa Tsondru Gyaltsen (snyug rum pa brtson 'grus rgyal mtshan, 1042-1109), and Chagri Gongkhapa (lcags ri gong kha pa, d.u.). He also studied with Potowa (po to wa, 1027-1105) and his student, Sharawa Yontandrag (sha ra ba yon tan grags, 1070-1141).

Some years after taking ordination, after sitting a short retreat near his home village, he overheard three beggars speaking about Milarepa (mi las ras pa, 1052-1135), and he experienced a rush of faith. Asking the beggars where he might find Milarepa, they answered somewhat cryptically that he was at Drin Nyenam (brin snye nam), but that people were unable to see him other than in the form of a stupa. Sonam Rinchen requested leave of his Kadam teachers to search for Milarepa, one of whom gave his permission with the qualification that he not renounce his monastic vows. Sonam Rinchen set off with a companion named Gongton ('gongs ston), but the later soon fell ill and he continued on his own.

Upon meeting Milarepa in Drin, in 1109, Sonam Rinchen offered him a piece of gold and a package of tea, both of which Milarepa declined to accept. In turn Milarepa offered Sonam Rinchen a skullcup of wine, which Sonam Rinchen, a monk, drank after hesitating. Asking for Sonam Rinchen's ordination name, which means "gem of merit," Milarepa then gave a playful command to look past his monastic restrictions, singing "Come out of the accumulation of merit, gem of living beings!"

According to the Blue Annals, Milarepa explained to Sonam Rinchen that the Kadam tradition possessed inadequate tantric teachings, owing to Dromton ('brom ston, 1005-1064) and other members of the Eastern Vinaya tradition objecting to Atisha's (982?-1054) preaching of the Vajrayana. Milarepa then gave Sonam Rinchen instructions on Vajravarahi and sent him off to meditate in a nearby cave, supported by a local householder to whom Sonam Rinchen gave two pieces of gold. After thirteen months, during which Sonam Rinchen reported ever-advancing signs of attainment, Milarepa gave him the transmission of his entire teachings, including tumo (gtum mo) and Mahamudra, and sent him back to his homeland, predicting that he would become a renowned teacher.

Sonam Rinchen spent the next three years in the monastery of Sewalung (se ba lung), in Nyang, living together with Kadam monks but keeping to the meditation instructions given him by Milarepa. Following an experience in which he perceived Milarepa as the dharmakaya, he set out for solitary retreat, residing in a number of remote places such as Gampodar (sgam po gdar) and Ode Gunggyal ('o de gung rgyal). It was from Ode Gunggyal that Sonam Rinchen decided at last to return to Milarepa, finishing the twelve year period that his teacher had recommended he remain in meditation before returning.

While passing though Yarlung (yar lung) on his way to Drin, Sonam Rinchen learned that Milarepa had passed away. He returned to Ode Gunggyal and continued with his meditation, before moving on to the Gampo region (sgam po) where he founded his monastery, Dag lha Gampo (dwags lha sgam po) in 1121. The site was likely on the spot of his prior hermitage, Gampodar.

Although he had previously resisted accepting disciples, by this point Sonam Rinchen was attended by a number of students. Unlike Milarepa, according to the Blue Annals he taught Mahamudra and sexual yoga (euphemistically referred to as 'upaya-marga') separately, restricting access to the sexual yoga teachings to a select few. Among the chief disciples were his nephews Dagpo Gomtsul (dwags po sgom tshul, 1116-1169) and Dagpo Gomchung (dwags po sgom chung, d. 1171?), the sons of his brother Gyapa Sere (rgya pa se re). Four of his disciples went on to establish four subdivisions of the Kagyu tradition: Pagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo (phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po, 1110-1170), who founded Densatil (gdan sa thil) and established the Pagdru Kagyu; Barompa Darma Wangchug ('ba' rom pa dar ma dbang phyug, 1127-1199/1200), who established the Barom Kagyu; the 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (kar+ma pa 01 dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193), who established the Karma Kagyu; and Shang Yudragpa (zhang g.yu brag pa, 1123-1193), who established the Tsalpa Kagyu.

Gampopa is credited with establishing the Kagyu path, combining Kadampa Lamrim teachings with the Mahamudra teachings he received from Milarepa, and bringing together the Kadam monastic and scholastic traditions with Indian tantric practices brought to Tibet by Marpa. He wrote a number of treatises, among the best known being the Damcho Yishingyi Norbu Tarpa Rinpoche Gyan (dam chos yid bzhin gyi nor bu thar pa rin po che'i rgyan), translated into English as the Jewel Ornament of Liberation first by Herbert Guenther in 1959 and again by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen in 1998.

Gampopa passed away in 1153.

The Blue Annals gives a list of Gampopa's disciples known as the Sixteen Great Sons:

The Four Heart Sons, or the Four Siddhas (thugs kyi sras bzhi'am grub pa thob pa bzhi):

1. Shogom Jangchub Yeshe (sho sgom byang chub ye shes, d.u.), also known as Shoram Pagpa (sho ram 'phags pa) and Shogom Pagpa (sho sgom 'phags pa)

2. Zimshing Yeshe Nyingpo (zim shing ye shes snying po, d.u.).

3. Sergom Yeshe Nyingpo (gser sgom ye shes snying po

4. Naljor Choyung (rnal 'byor chos g.yung, d.u.), also known as Ramnyi Chokyi Yungdrung (ram nyi chos kyi g.yung drung).

The Four Sons who Hold the Lineage (brgyud pa 'dzin pa'i sras bzhi):

1. Dagpo Gomtsul, also known as Wongom Tsultrim Nyingpo (dbon sgom tshul khrims snying po).

2. Pagmo Drupa Dorje Gyalpo.

3. Barompa Darma Wangchug.

4. The 1st Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa.

The Four Close Sons (nye ba'i sras bzhi):

1. Dagpo Duldzin (dwags po 'dul 'dzin (1134-1218)

2. Gagom Shikpo (l'gag bsgom zhig po, d.u.) AKA Gargom Karpo (mgar sgom dkar po).

3. Layagpa Jangchub Ngodrub (la yag pa byang chub dngos grub, d.u.), also known as Layag Jose (la yag jo sras) and Lawachen (bla ba can).

4. Kyepo Yeshe Dorje (skyes po ye shes rdo rje, d.u.), also known as Kyepo Yedor (skyes po ye rdor)

The Four Attendants (nye gnas bzhi):

1. Joton Legdze (jo ston legs mdzes, d.u.).

2. Gompa Sheshon (bsgom pa sher gzhon, d.u.).

3. Nyene Saljang (nye gnas gsal byang, d.u.).

4. Salye (gsal yes, d.u.).


Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, pp. 451-462.

Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen, trans. 1990. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Ithaca: Snow Lion, pp. 187-203.

Stewart, Jampa Mackenzie. 2004. The Life of Gampopa, Second Edition. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Sgam po pa bsod nams lhun grub. 1972. Bsod nams rin chen gyi rnam thar. Palimpur: Sungrab Nyamso Gyunphel Parkhang, Tibetan Craft Community, vol. 2, pp. 1-235.

Bsod nams rin chen, transcribed by 'Ba' rom pa. 1972. Untitled biography of Bsod nams rin chen. In Bka' brgyud yid bzhin nor bu yi 'phreng ba, O rgyan pa rin chen dpal, ed. Leh: Tashigangpa, pp. 245-270.

Rgyal thang pa bde chen rdo rje. 1973. Dags po rin po che'i rnam par thar pa. In Dkar brgyud gser 'phreng. Palimpur: Tashijong, pp. 267-339.

Zhwa dmar 02 Mkha' spyod dbang po. 1978. Sgam po pa'i rnam thar kun khyab snyan pa'i ba dan. In The Collected Writings (Gsung 'bum) of the Second Zhwa dmar Mkha' spyod dbang po. Gangtok: Gonpo Tseten, vol. 1, pp. 318-433.

Alexander Gardner, December 2009

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. December, 2009].

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