Himalayan Art Resources

Teacher: Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo

Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo | Gelug Tradition

Subjects, Topics & Types:
- Dechen Nyingpo Biography (below)
- Dorje Shugden
- Refuge Field (Pabongka Design)
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Pabongkapa, Dechen Nyingpo Jampa Tendzin Trinle Gyatso (1878-1941[TBRC P230]): the name of one of the most important Tibetan Gelugpa teachers in the early 20th century. He was associated with Sera Monastery where he acquired his Geshe degree. He was also the Tibetan teacher that popularized the controversial protector deity, and or spirit, Dorje Shugden in the early to mid 20th century. Since the 1980s this protector has been banned by the 14th Dalai Lama.

Jeff Watt 9-2011


The Second Pabongkha, Dechen Nyingpo (pha bong kha 02 bde chen snying po) was born in 1878 in Yutok Shar (g.yu thog shar), an area just outside of the old city of Lhasa, near the Yutok Bridge (g.yu thog zam pa). His father, Chabpel Tseten Namgyel (chab spel tshe brtan rnam rgyal, d.u.), was a lay government official (shod drung) from Tsang.

At the age of two his mother, Konchok Drolma (dkon mchog sgrol ma, d.u.), took him to see the Eighty-first Ganden Trichen, Ngawang Norbu (dga' ldan khri pa 81 ngag dbang nor bu, d.1880/1882), who gave him the name (chos ming) Ngawang Rabten (ngag dbang rab brtan). At the age of six his mother again took him to meet another lama, this time Sharpa Choje Lobzang Dargye (shar pa chos rje blo bzang dar rgyas, d.u.). According to Pabongkha's most complete biography, The Melodious Voice of Brahma (tshangs pa'i dbyangs snyan), composed by his secretary and student Denma Lobzang Dorje ('dan ma blo bzang rdo rje, 1908-1975), Sharpa Choje immediately saw that the boy was an extraordinary being. In that same year he entered Sera Me College (ser smad grwa tshang) [Sera Monastery]. Despite having been singled out as special by the Sharpa Choje, he lived together in rather poor conditions with the general community of ordinary monks.

At the age of seven he took his novice vows (dge tshul) before the Third Purchok, Yongdzin Jampa Gyatso (phur lcog 03 yongs 'dzin byams pa rgya mtsho, 1824-1901), and received the ordination name Jampa Tendzin Trinle Gyatso (byams pa bstan 'dzin 'phrin las rgya mtsho) with which he is still commonly referred. Two years later, at the age of nine, largely due to the efforts of his mother, he was officially recognized and given the title of "tulku" (sprul sku).

According to The Melodious Voice of Brahma and a secret biographical supplication prayer (gsang rnam gsol 'debs) which the biography quotes, Jampa Tenzin was considered to be an incarnation in the Changkya (lcangs skya) line, which included the Third Changkya, Rolpai Dorje (rol pa'i rdo rje, 1717-1786), the preceptor of the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799). However, because of the apparently sensitive political nature of the title of "Changkya", due in part to Qing politics, Jampa Tendzin was instead officially recognized as the reincarnation of a former abbot of Pabongkha Hermitage (pha bong kha ri khrod), Sera Me Gyelrongpa Tendzin Zangpo (se ra smad rgyal rong pa bstan 'dzin bzang po, d.u.), and thus eventually became known as "Pabongkha" or "Pabongkhapa" (pha bong kha pa).

While he persevered in his studies at the Gyelrong Khangtsen (rgyal rong khang tshan), a residential house at Sera Me, he simultaneously studied and practiced Tsongkhapa's (tsong kha pa, 1357-1419) Great Graduated Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (lam rim chen mo) and other Lamrim (lam rim) texts. By the age of fourteen he completed his studies of Madhyamaka; and by the age of eighteen he was awarded his Lingse (gling bsre) degree. Thereafter he studied the complete Geluk tantric curriculum at Gyuto College (rgyu gtod grwa tshang) for three years. During this time, at the age of nineteen, he received his full bhikshu ordination from Purchok Yongdzin Jampa Gyatso, who had also give him his novice vows.

At this early point in his life, one of Pabongkha's most important teachers was Drakri Dorjechang Lobzang Tubten Namgyel (brag ri rdo rje 'chang blo bzang thub bstan rnam rgyal, d.1902), a teacher associated with several famous monastic institutions north of Lhasa. From Drakri Dorjechang, Pabongkha received teachings on Milarepa's (mi la ras pa, 1040-1123) biography as well as the oral transmissions of Milarepa's collected songs (mgur 'bum), the whole Tengyur (bstan 'gyur), the collected works of Tsongkhapa and his two main disciples (rje yab sras gsum gyi gsung 'bum) as well as those of a number of bebum (be'u 'bum) text collections, together with many others. He also received the initiations of Mahachakra-Vajrapani, as well the various permissions (rjes gnang) of the Rinjung Gyatsa (rin 'byung brgya rtsa), Zurka Gyatsa (zur bka'brgya rtsa) and Nartang Gyatsa (snar thang brgya rtsa) tantric cycles, as well as numerous other teachings, initiations, and oral transmissions.

Apart from Drakri Dorjechang, in his youth Pabongkha also studied with Gomang Khenchen Khyenrab Tenpa Chopel (sgo mang mkhan chen mkhyen rab bstan pa chos 'phel, 1840-1907/1908), Trehor Khangsar Lobzang Tsultrim Tenpa Gyeltsen (tre'u hor khang gsar blo bzang tshul khrims bstan pa rgyal mtshan, 1838/1848-1897), Denma Riku Rinpoche (ldan ma ri sku rin po che, d.u.) and Rongta Chungtsang Lobzang Damcho Gyatso (rong tha chung tshang blo bzang dam chos rgya mtsho, 1865-1917) from whom he received, for example, the oral transmissions of the collected works of many Tibetan teachers, instructions on the measurement and construction of various mandalas, and thorough instruction on the different types of astrology, divination, grammar, spelling, poetry and metrics.

When Pabongkha was twenty-four, Drakri Dorjechang passed away. Soon after Penpo Gangya Rinpoche Ngawang Jangchub Tsultrim ('phan po gang rgya rin po che ngag dbang byang chub tshul khrims, d.u.), requested Pabongkha to bestow on him the permissions of the Rinjung Gyatsa as well as the oral transmissions of the collected works of Tsongkhapa and his two main disciples, the lineages of which he had previously received from Dragri Rinpoche. As Pabongkha had now himself become a teacher, the Fifth Lingtrul, Lobzang Lungtok Tendzin Trinle (gling sprul 05 blo bzang lung rtogs bstan 'dzin 'phrin las, 1856-1902) composed a supplication verse for him.

Pabongkha continued receiving teachings from many eminent teachers. From teachers such as the former abbot of Gyuto Monastery, Trinle Gyeltsen (rgyu stod mkhan zur 'phrin las rgyal mtshan, d.u) and Gomang Monastery's Kangyurwa Chenpo Lobzang Donden (sgo mang bka' 'gyur ba chen po blo bzang don ldan, d.u.), he received Lamrim teachings and many initiations and commentaries, such as those of Guhyasamaja, Cakrasamvara and Vajrabhairava, and the oral transmissions of the works of various masters. At the age of twenty-eight he also received the Sangwa Gyachen (gsang ba rgya can) pure-vision treasure revelation (gter ma) cycle of initiations and instructions of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 05 ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtso, 1617-1682) from Khyenrab Pelden Tenpai Nyima (mkhyen rab dpal ldan bstan pa'i nyi ma, d.u.) of Gungru Gyatso Ling Monastery (gung ru rgya mtsho gling). He also received the cycle of the Thirteen Pure Visions of Takpu (stag phu'i dag snang bcu gsum) from Takpu Pema Vajra Jampel Tenpai Ngodrub (stag phu pad ma ba dzra 'jam dpal bstan pa'i dnogs grub, 1876-1935), who became one of his important teachers after the passing of Dragri Dorjechang. The two figures also gave teachings to each other and thus Pabongkha in turn acted as a teacher to Pema Vajra. In 1906 Pabongkha requested permission from Takpu Pema Vajra to compose a new set on initiation texts for the Takpu pure vision cycle. Although the manual is composed by Pabongkha, it was included in the collection of works attributed to Pema Vajra.

Pabongkha further received instructions from other traditions, such as the Sakya, and his biography notes that he engaged in practices ultimately derived from the Nyingma tradition, such as those of the Most Secret Hayagriva (rta mgrin yang gsang), a meditational deity of Sera Je (se ra byes), and that he regularly recited prayers to Padmasambhava.

Pabongkha's biography, as those of many important Tibetan religious figures, describes mystical experiences. Although Pabongkha's principal exoteric practice was lamrim, his main esoteric deity practice was known to have been Cakrasa?vara. Thus, it is not surprising that the biography tells of a number of his visions associated with this deity. For example, Pabongkha and Takpu Pema Vajra together discovered a cave above the Nyandre Valley (nyang bran) known as Takten (rtag brtan) which was sacred to the deity and his consort in the form of Vajrayogini. This cave, which included a number of auspicious self-arisen signs, together with a sacred spring, became a regular site at which Pabongkha would do retreats and where a number visions appeared to both him and his teacher. As another example of Pabongkha's relationship to Cakrasamvara, in 1908 he journeyed to Drangsong Sinpori (drang srong srin po ri), where he went on pilgrimage to visit a famous statue of the deity said to have been brought from India. There, after having offered a tantric feast (ganacakra), Pabongkha had a vision of the wisdom beings (ye shes kyi lha) of the deity descending into the statue, following which nectar was expelled from its mouth and was subsequently collected by Pabongkha.

It was in this same year, when Pabongkha was thirty, that he received teachings for the first time from his root guru, Dakpo Lama Lobzang Jampel Lhundrub Gyatso (dwags po bla ma blo bzang 'jam dpal lhun grub rgya mtsho, 1845-1919) on an experiential commentary (myong 'khrid) on the Lamrim text The Blissful Path (bde lam) by the Fourth [First] Panchen Lama, Lobzang Chokyi Gyeltsen (paN chen bla ma 04 [01] blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570-1662). From that time on Pabongkha remained completely devoted to Jampel Lhundrub, and received numerous commentaries, oral transmissions, and initiations from the teacher who, in turn, empowered Pabongkha as the holder of his lineage of teachings. The most important transmissions Jampel Lhundrub passed on to Pabongkha were those of the various Lamrim lineages, which Pabongkha continued to receive from him on many occasions. For example in 1914, Pabongkha travelled to Dakpo a number of times, specifically to visit his teacher's monastery of Dakpo Dratsang (dwags po grwa tshang).

By this time Pabongkha was gradually amassing an ever-growing following of students. In order to further transmit the teachings he had received, he travelled incessantly to many regions of Tibet: U-Tsang, Dakpo, Kongpo and Kham. His most important and influential student-base, however, was in Lhasa, and was composed of various government officials and aristocrats of all ranks who also constituted an important sources of patronage. Large sectors of the monastic populations of Sera, Ganden (dga' ldan) and Drepung ('bras spungs) also became Pabongkha's disciples.

While in Lhasa, Pabongkha spent much of his time in and around Tashi Choling Hermitage (bkra shis chos gling ri khrod), a retreat center formerly owned by Ngakpa College of Sera Monastery (se ra sngags pa grwa tshang) that was given to him. From here he would travel to the nearby sites associated with him, especially Chubzang Hermitage (chu bzang ri khrod), where in 1921 he gave his most famous teaching on the Lamrim, based on the Fifth Panchen Lama, Lobzang Yeshe's (paN chen 05 blo bzang ye shes) Quick Path (myur lam) and the Fifth Dalai Lama's Mañjusri's Speech ('jam dpal zhal lung), together with instructions on the seven-point mind training (blo sbyong don bdun ma). Notes from these teachings, along with notes from other discourses given by Pabongkha throughout the years, were eventually edited and published by the Third Trijang Rinpoche Lobzang Yeshe Tendzin Gyatso (khri byang 03 blo bzang ye shes bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho), the junior tutor of the current Dalai Lama, as Liberation in Your Hand (rnam grol lag bcangs). The work was only finalized after Pabongkha's death and continues to be one of the most well-known and accessible presentations of Lamrim.

Apart from Tashi Choling and Chubzang, Pabongkha also gave teachings at many other monasteries in the Lhasa region, including Sera, Drepung and Ganden, often to thousands of disciples at a time. Through these efforts, he forged links between his lineage and numerous institutions which continue to this day. Ani Tsamkhung Nunnery (a Ni mtshams khung dgon) in Lhasa, for example, continues to regard Pabongkha as one of the institution's primary lineage teachers, as during his lifetime he not only acted as a teacher and advisor to the nunnery, but also arranged for its expansion.

During one of his trips to Kham in 1935, he visited numerous monasteries, such as Jampa Ling (byams pa gling) in Chamdo (chab mdo), where Pabongkha gave teachings and initiations. He also visited his teacher Takpu Pema Vajra at his monastery of Takpu Drubde Genden Lukzang Kunpel Ling (stag phu sgrub sde dge ldan lugs bzang kun 'phel gling) in Naksho (nags shod). According to Pabongkha's compositions on the controversial protector Dorje Shugden (rdo rje shugs ldan), it was at this time that Takpu Pema Vajra travelled to the pure land of Tushita and received the complete cycle of teachings related to this deity and his different manifestations, including the method for conferring the life-entrustment (srog gtad). According to the Shugden-related works found in Pabongkha's Collected Works (gsung 'bum), while in Tushita Takpu Pema Vajra met Tsongkhapa and after having made supplications to him, Tsongkhapa glanced at Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen ('dul 'dzin grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1357-1419), who, like Tsongkhapa, is believed to reside in Tushita. Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen, who is described as being of one nature with Dorje Shugden, but appearing in a different aspect, manifested in the form of the protector and his five families (rigs lnga) and issued forth from the throne on which Tsongkhapa sat. The composition of the ritual method for conferring the life-entrustment which was based on these same visions, was thus, if the historical accounts in Pabongkha's biography and Collected Works are accurate, a joint effort by both Pabongkha and Takpu Pema Vajra. It is also clear from these sources that Pabongkha very much believed that Shugden directly requested him to produce much of the new writings on the protector.

Pabongkha already had a close association to Shugden and was consulting his several mediums before 1935. In the one-volume edition of Pabongkha's biography, Pabongkha is quoted as saying that he inherited the practice from his mother. As the protector was his mother Konchok Drolma's maternal family lineage-deity (skyes ma'i brgyud kyi lha) it appears that Pabongkha was exposed to the practice from a very young age.

The several visits that Pabongkha made to Kham created strong bonds with a number of high ranking Geluk teachers, which were then inherited by his principal student, Trijang Rinpoche. It is for this reason that the propitiation of Shugden continues to be extremely popular in certain pockets of the region, such as Chamdo, Drayab (grab g.yab) and Chatreng (cha phreng).

During his travels in U and Tsang, Pabongkha visited a number of smaller monasteries as well as the great seats of Geluk learning, such as Shigatse and its Tashilhunpo Monastery (bkra shis lhun po dgon), where in 1939, for example, he gave a Lamrim teaching to a large gathering. During his several trips to Tsang, he also gave the oral transmissions of various Shugden works, as well as the life-entrustment, to smaller groups of disciples.

For most of Pabongkha's life the Tashilhunpo-based Shigatse administration of the Panchen Lamas had been in regular conflict with Lhasa due to their attempts to establish an autonomous government and had even been in communication with the British and Chinese governments for this reason. In 1923, after the relationship between Lhasa and Shigatse drastically declined following Shigatse's refusal to pay taxes for the upkeep of the Lhasa government's army, the Ninth Panchen Lama Tubten Chokyi Nyima (paN chen bla ma 09 thub bstan chos kyi nyi ma, 1883-1937) and his entourage escaped to China. Pabongkha was extremely concerned about the situation and the rift it created between the Ninth Panchen Lama and the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Tubten Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 13 thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933). Following the death of the Dalai Lama in 1933 he had gone to great lengths in trying to negotiate a satisfactory solution to the stand-off between the Panchen Lama and the Lhasa government. In 1937, Pabongkha travelled to Jyekundo (ske rgu mdo) directly from Chamdo to meet the Panchen Lama. There, despite his best efforts and communications with the regent in Lhasa, the Fifth Reting Tubten Jampel Yeshe Gyeltsen (rwa sgreng 05 thub bstan 'jam dpal ye shes rgyal mtshan), he was, much to his frustration, unable to facilitate a resolution to the conflict.

On his travels and in Lhasa, Pabongkha taught on many subjects ranging from philosophical topics to tantra. Lamrim appears to have been his favorite topic. Although the teachings he gave would often be geared toward a specific audience, he expounded the Lamrim unrestrictedly at almost every location where he was asked to teach. At more advanced levels, he supplemented these with the tantric initiations and commentaries of, especially, Guhyasamaja, Vajrabhairava, Cakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, together with their commentaries. Considered an important teacher of the Ganden Hearing Lineage (dga' ldan snyan rgyud), he also gave teachings on the central practices of this lineage, such as the Geluk-Kagyu Mahamudra (dge ldan bka' brgyud phyag rgya chen po) and the Guru Puja (bla ma mchod pa). The Shugden life-entrustment, on the other hand, was categorized, together with several other practices found in his Collected Works, as an advanced sealed (bka' rgya ma) teaching or initiation, one which could only be given to three people at a time. Pabongkha composed a number of deity sadhanas, especially on Vajrabhairava, Cakrasamvara and Vajrayogini. Pabongkha's popular Vajrayogini teachings were largely based on already existing Geluk and Sakya materials, although according to his lineage they were also supplemented or informed by the teachings of the Ganden Hearing Lineage, as well as his own mystic visions of Cakrasamvara and Vajrayogini.

According to biographical accounts, notes and descriptions of his oral teachings, Pabongkha was a famously engaging speaker to the extent that he was able to explain complex philosophical subjects in an extremely accessible manner. Many accounts specifically describe Pabongkha's mass teachings as having cleared away the incorrect views of his audience, specifically misunderstandings of the correct view of emptiness, and causing great renunciation amongst them, and in some cases, high spiritual realizations. He is also often praised in the writings of his followers for promoting, spreading and clearing up misunderstandings of the teachings and philosophical views of Tsongkhapa and reinvigorating the Buddhist teachings in Tibet with parallels made between him, Atisha Dipamkara Srijñana (982?-1054) and Tsongkhapa.

While Pabongkha has been accused of sectarianism and even of inciting sectarian violence, specifically in Kham, a number of his own students and well-known lineage descendants, while not denying that cases of sectarian persecution may have taken place, have rejected the allegations that Pabongkha was responsible for these incidents. Pabongkha's writings and accounts of his oral teachings show a unique rhetoric that both esteemed all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and simultaneously critiqued aspects of these (including the Geluk) which he considered degenerate. He was particularly adamant that Tsongkhapa and the Geluk tradition's understanding of Madhyamaka was exclusively correct and was critical of certain teachings from other traditions which he believed to be corrupt, such as a number of Nyingma treasure cycles. Pabongkha, however, reserved his strongest criticism for the Bon (bon) tradition, which he saw as a corrupt path, plagiarized from Buddhism, which did not lead to liberation. On the other hand, a number of works attributed to Pabongkha contain passages citing the importance of respecting all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism as well as clear statements of respect for specific religious figures from all traditions, such as Padmasambhava, the five founding figures of the Sakya tradition (sa skya gong ma rnam lnga), and Kagyu teachers such as Marpa Chokyi Lodro (mar pa chod kyi blo gros, 1002/1012-1097) and Milarepa. Pabongkha himself had received a number of treasure teachings and initiations, although he appears to have eventually ceased practicing the majority of these due to events and omens which were interpreted, at least by some of his students and later lineage followers, as manifestations of Shugden's displeasure at his lack of exclusive dedication to the Geluk tradition and its "pure views and tenets" (lta grub gtsang ma).

Pabongkha's relationship with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was complex and may have eventually suffered due to Pabongkha's faith in Dorje Shugden. The one-volume Lhasa edition of The Melodious Voice of Brahma notes an exchange of letters that took place between the Dalai Lama and Pabongkha around 1930. In the final letters of this exchange the Dalai Lama chastises the lama for his propitiation of Shugden and the spread of the practice at Drepung Monastery which appeared to displease the protector Nechung (gnas chung). Pabongkha replied to the letter saying he only propitiated Shugden as he was the protector of his maternal lineage, and that he henceforth promises to give up the practice. It is clear, however, from the dates given in the colophons of his Shugden-works that Pabongkha's propitiation of Shugden continued after 1930.

Before this incident the relationship between the two figures appears to have been amicable. For example, just over ten years earlier Pabongkha had worked for the Dalai Lama on the re-publication project of the Kangyur at the Norbulingkha by composing verses for the intervals in the contents of the set (dkar chag gi bar skabs tshigs bcad).

After the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, two of Pabongkha's important students, the Sixth Ling Rinpoche Tubten Lungtok Namgyel Trinle (gling rin po che 06 thub bstan lung rtogs rnam rgyal 'phrin las, 1903-1984) and Trijang Rinpoche were appointed as, respectively, senior and junior tutors to the subsequent incarnation, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tendzin Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 14 bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, b.1935). Trijang Rinpoche inherited Pabongkha's Shugden-cycle of teachings and continued to compose more works on the subject than his teacher, diffusing them to a wider audience. Ling Rinpoche, on the other hand, had minimal associations with the practice.

Pabongkha's Collected Works are currently widely available in Tibet and abroad in an eleven-volume set, although a more complete twelve-volume edition exists in the collection of the Potala Palace. Out of the more than 130 titles listed as the contents of the twelve-volume edition of the Collected Works (as presented in the catalogue of the Potala collection), five are concerned exclusively with Shugden.

Pabongkha passed away in 1941 at the age of sixty-three. He had been on a Lamrim teaching tour, which included several planned stops, including his root guru's monastery of Dakpo Shedrub Ling. His body was cremated and his remains were interred inside a stupa inside the main assembly hall of Sera Me, which was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Rilbur Tulku (ril 'bur sprul sku, 1923-2006), who also worked together with the Tenth Panchen Lama, Lobzang Trinle Lhundrub Chokyi Gyeltsen (paN chen bla ma 10 blo bzang 'phrin las lhun grub chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1938-1989) in the recovery of holy objects, managed to obtain whatever was left of the remains and enshrined the majority in a new stupa in the same hall. Trijang Rinpoche and other students discovered Pabongkha's subsequent reincarnation some years later, although he passed away in his twenties. The current incarnation, Lobzang Thubten Trinley Kunkhyab (blo bzang thub bstan 'phrin las kun khyab, b. 1969), was identified in the early 1970s.

Joona Repo is currently Andrew W. Mellon- Anne d’Harnoncourt Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. October 2015]

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In some of the images of paintings below Pabongkha is depicted as a secondary figure in the upper portion of the compositions. --- Jeff Watt

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