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Teacher: Tendzin Rabgye (Lama, Bhutan)

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Tendzin Rabgye

Tendzin Rabgye (bstan 'dzin rab rgyas. 1638-1698) was born in 1638 to Tsewang Tendzin (tshe dbang bstan 'dzin, 1574-1643), the grandson of Drugpa Kunleg ('brug pa kun legs; 1455-1529). Tsewang Tendzin was also a distant cousin of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (zhabs drung ngag dbang rnam rgyal; 1594-1651), linking him to the important Gya (rgya) lineage of Ralung.

Tendzin Rabgye was thus born into a family at the center of Bhutanese political and religious power. As the Zhabdrung sought to consolidate Drukpa Kagyu power in western Bhutan, Tsewang Tendzin offered the Zhabdrung control over the site of Tango (rta mgo), which had first been established by Phajo Drugom Zhigpo Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (pha jo 'brug sgom zhig po, 1184-1251), an ancestor of Tsewang Tendzin of whom he was said to be an incarnation. The temple had been maintained in Tsewang Tendzin's family since its establishment. Later, Zhabdrung offered his first wife to Tsewang Tendzin, a woman named Damcho Tendzin (dam chos bstan 'dzin), a descendant of Phajo's son Nyima from Changgankha (lcang sgang kha). She and Tsewang Tendzin had three children; two sons, Tendzin Rabgye and Drubtob Jinpa Gyaltsen (grub thob byin pa rgyal mtshan), and a daughter Jetsun Tendzin (rje btsun bstan 'dzin), aka Rinchen Pelzom (rin chen dpal mdzom). Lacking a capable male heir of his own, Zhabdrung groomed Tendzin Rabgye to eventually take over his position, and the young boy was taught by the First, Second and Third Drug Desis ('brug sde srid). Tendzin Rabgye joined Cheri Monastery (lcags ri dgon) in 1646 at the age of eight.

In the Iron Monkey year of 1680, Tendzin Rabgye was enthroned as the Fourth Drug Desi of Bhutan, a position he held until 1695. The ceremony took place at Punakha (spu na kha), where Tendzin Rabgye was given the title of Gyaltsab (rgyal tshab) of the Zhabdrung, which conferred upon him both religious control and political authority. At the time, the Zhabdrung was widely believed to be undertaking a long-term retreat; in fact, the ruler had died in 1651. Through the enthronement ceremony in Punakha, Tendzin Rabgye was established as the de facto ruler of Bhutan and the rightful successor to Zhabdrung.

As Druk Desi, Tendzin Rabgye continued to implement the Zhabdrung's vision for a unified, sovereign nation. Towards this end, he focused on building consensus and a national identity. He patronized multiple religious traditions, such as the Barawa Kagyu, in the hopes of cultivating unity amongst the varied spiritual leaders who lived in Bhutan at the time. Tendzin Rabgye also sought to stabilize relations with neighboring countries, as evidenced by the daughter of Raja Prata Narayan (Ghum Narayan) of Cooch Bihar, who brought valuable gifts of gold, silver and cloth for his enthronement. Under the Fourth Drug Desi's reign, Cooch Bihar and Bhutan re-established their relations, and retained a close relationship until 1772.

It was under Tendzin Rabgye's reign that tsechu (tshes bcu), or festivals, were established throughout the region. After sending one of his attendants to witness festivals in Tibet in 1688, Tendzin Rabgye then instituted similar events in Bhutan, including the establishment of unfurling large appliqu's known as tongdrol (mthong sgrol) as the culmination of the days-long program, an event first revealed at Tashicho Dzong (bkra shis chos rdzong) in Tsechu in 1690. At Punakha Dzong and Tashicho Dzong, Tendzin Rabgye is also credited with introducing the ritual of Sixteen Dakinis and its associated sacred dance. The festivals and their constituent elements were planned in order to bring about a national identity and cultivate relationships with the protector deities. This was especially important in light of the recent peace that had been established with Tibet, who, after more than a half dozen invasions in the mid-seventeenth century, was momentarily held at bay.

During the comparative stability of his reign, Tendzin Rabgye was able to secure the release of the Zhabdrung's consort, the mother of Jampel Dorje ('jam dpal rdo rje), who had been imprisoned in Tibet. Although Jampel Dorje was the lineal successor of Zhabdrung's position, he was somehow unwell and not capable of assuming control, and thus both Tendzin Rabgye and the Third Desi, Migyur Tenpa (mi 'gyur brtan pa) sought to find an heir to the position.

In addition to diplomatic and cultural initiatives, Tendzin Rabgye was also actively supporting religious projects. He is known to have built a new temple at Tachogang (rta mchog sgang) in Paro, as the original had been destroyed after it served as the main seat for the Five Groups of Lamas, a coalition of local leaders who had opposed the Zhabdrung. Tendzin Rabgye directed Dzongpon Au Tsering (rdzong dpon a'u tshe ring) to oversee and fund the reconstruction as a punishment, since Au Tsering and his family had played a role in resisting the Zhabdrung. Tendzin Rabgye also oversaw the renovation of Tango (rta mgo) between 1688-1690, and conducted its consecration in the Iron Horse year of 1690. In the Water Monkey year of 1692, Tendzin Rabgye ordered the construction of a new, two-storied Guru Tsengye (gu ru mtshan brgyad lha khang) at Tagtsang in Paro, an act that was in accordance with the Zhabdrung's wishes, and which carried out by Paro Penlop (governor) Dragpa Gyatso (grags pa rgya mtsho). While visiting the site, Tendzin Rabgye is said to have manifested many miracles, multiplying himself as well as providing abundant food for all those assembled. As a result, many of those present witnessed the form of Tendzin Rabgye as interchangeable with that of Padmasambhava. The work on the new temple was completed in 1694, and Tendzin Rabgye performed its consecration ritual.

In the hopes of further benefiting the effectiveness in teaching monks the Buddhist Dharma, Tendzin Rabgye introduced four subdivisions in the monastic order, assigning a lobpon (slob dpon) to be in charge of each one. These lopons assisted the Je Khenpo, the highest religious office in the administration, and sought to ensure that monastic education was being transmitted effectively. The Dolop Detsen was established under the control of the Dorje Lobpon - also chief of the four Lobpons - and emphasized tantric studies and higher Mahayana; the Yangpai Detsen was instituted under the Yangpai Lobpon, who oversaw the teaching of sacred dance, ritual art and chanting; the Drapai Detsen, under the guidance of the Drapai Lobpon, emphasized the study of language arts; and the Tsenyi Lobpon directed the Tsenyi Detshen, which imparted Buddhist logic and epistemology.

Also, in order to increase the number of monks, Tendzin Rabgye instituted a law requiring every family having three or more sons to send one to the monastery, thereby almost doubling the monastic population during his tenure as Desi.

Unfortunately, Tendzin Rabgye was unable to produce a viable male heir during his lifetime. Although he had multiple children with his consort Wangdi Lhamo, all the males died in their infancy, and the pair had separated in 1686. Tendzin Rabgye did have a daughter, Lhacham Kunleg (lha lcam kun legs, 1681-1722/3), who become a nun and controlled Tango Monastery for a time. However, without a male successor and in the midst of growing political instability, Tendzin Rabgye resigned under pressure in 1695, but not before proposing that Bhutan thereafter be ruled by Zhabdrung incarnations (mchog sprul rgyal tshab) in conjunction with the Desi. He then went to undertake retreat at Tango, where he died soon after in Fire Rat year of 1696. His body was cremated and placed in a reliquary which remains at the site.

Tendzin Rabgye was the last Bhutanese to concurrently wield spiritual and temporal authority. After his death, there was widespread feuding regarding the selection of the rightful Desi, and the overall power that had been consolidated by Tendzin Rabgye was lost until the institution of the monarchy in 1907.

The reincarnation lineage of Tendzin Rabgye began with Mipham Wangpo (mi pham dbang po, 1709-1738) who served as the Tenth Je Khenpo from 1729-1736, and was also nephew of Tendzin Legpai Dondrub (bstan 'dzin legs pa'i don grub, 1645-1726), the second incarnation of the Ganteng (sgang steng) line of Pema Lingpa (padma gling pa).

Name Variants: Drug Desi 04 Tendzin Rabgye; Gyalse Tendzin Rabgye


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Ariana Maki, September 2010

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. September 2010].

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