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Biography: Dragpa Gyaltsen

Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, 1147-1216, (rje btsun grags pa rgyal mtshan) of the aristocratic Khon family was the third Sakya Jetsun Gongma Nga (sa skya rje btsun gong ma lnga), the men who were credited with founding the Sakya order. He was also the fifth Sakya Tridzin (tri dzin) or throne holder. His father Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po) and his elder brother Sonam Tsemo (bsod names rtse mo) were the first and second Sakya patriarchs. His mother was called Machig Odron (ma gcig 'od sgron). Like his father and elder brother, Dragpa Gyaltsen was not a monk. He received lay vows from his teacher Dawa Gyaltsen (zla ba rgyal mtshan) when he was eight years old and was known for his close observance of the vows. Biographical accounts indicate that he wished to receive full ordination but never did. Throughout his life most of his close disciples were monks and he encouraged strict observance of their monastic vows. As an indication of his reverence for the monastic robes, he is recorded to have personally served all the Sakya monks tea during the bimonthly ceremony to purify monastic vows. He also abstained from meat and alcohol except during special ritual occasions.

Dragpa Gyaltsen's first teacher was his father Sachen who gave him intensive instruction from the ages of eight to twelve. His brother Sonam Tsemo was also an important early teacher. When Drakpa Gyaltsen was ten he received instructions from Sachen on Chandragomin's Twenty Verses on the Bodhisattva Vows, the Hevajra sadhana, the Samvara Vimshatika and the Sararodhbuta sadhana. He began teaching these at the age of eleven. At twelve, after Sachen passed away, Dragpa Gyaltsen famously taught the Hevajra root tantra to the entire assembly at Sakya. When he was just thirteen, his elder brother Sonam Tsemo left Sakya to pursue his philosophical education at a monastery in U. Dragpa Gyaltsen was left to take on the responsibilities as effective head of the monastery although he did not formally assume the throne until he was twenty-six.

Following the death of this father, his main teachers included Sonam Tsemo, Dawa Gyaltsen, both mentioned above, as well as Tsugtor Gyalpo (gtsug tor rgyal po), Tsultrim Drag (tshul khrims grags), Wangyal (dbang rgyal), the Nepali teacher Jayasena (Tib. dza ya se na), Darma Yontan (dar ma yon tan), and Palchog Dangpo Dorje (dpal mchog dang po'i rdo rje). His teachers did not allow him to teach the Lamdre (lam 'bras) for several years, in order for him to have more time to receive instruction himself, but he continued to give other teachings from a very young age.

During the period of intensive instruction he went through as a youth, the teachings Dragpa Gyaltsen received included commentaries on the Hevajra root tantra and the entire Chakrasamvara root tantra, several explanations of the Guhyasamaja tantra and many others. His education also included instruction in the history of Buddhism and the sutras. Beyond the instructions he received, he is recorded to have read everything he could find related to the Tripitika. His biographical data suggest that he incorporated practice in his daily routine so thoroughly that he could perform the mandalas of up to seventy deities in the course of a normal day. He is described as having had the appearance of practicing constantly, and was famous for his clear teaching style. He had many prominent disciples, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (kun dga' rgyal mtshan) foremost among them.

He and his elder brother were among the first disciples to receive Lamdre teachings from their father in 1141. This was immediately after an eighteen-year gap between when Sachen received the teachings himself and when he began transmitting them to students. Dragpa Gyaltsen was instrumental in the preservation of the Lamdre, through recording his father's oral teachings, annotating previously written Lamdre teachings and writing commentaries, as well as through his own numerous treatises.

Dragpa Gyaltsen's written works also include spiritual songs and instructions to disciples as well as at least one medical text and one astrological treatise. He composed texts on the four classes of tantra and wrote an important consecration manual which strongly influenced authors of later manuals in various Buddhist traditions.

Dragpa Gyaltsen wrote biographies of his father and elder brother, as well as a history of the early rulers of Tibet and the Khon clan, histories of Lamdre in India and in Tibet and a commentary on the Bodhicharyavatara. He compiled a collection of Sakya writings called the Po Ser (pod ser) which included teachings he had received from his father and brother. Until that time most of the teachings had been transmitted only orally. He included annotations to explain his father's writing as well as the related work of Sachen's student Pagmodrupa (phag mo gru pa), who studied at Sakya before Dragpa Gyaltsen's birth and wrote about the Lamdre based on the oral teachings he received from Sachen. In addition to his written work, Dragpa Gyaltsen was an important source of oral histories about his family and the Lamdre lineage, which were later recorded by his disciples. He is also well known for his masterful drawings.

During his years as throne holder, Dragpa Gyaltsen sponsored the making of a statue of his grandfather Khon Konchog Gyalpo (khon dkon mchog rgyal po) who founded of Sakya monastery, and a stupa to hold his grandfather's relics. He also sponsored a stupa for his father Sachen and golden statues of both his elder brother Sonam Tsemo and his younger brother, Palchen Opo (dpal chen 'od po) who was Sakya Pandita's father. He was also responsible for the construction of the main temple at Sakya and a Kangyur (bka' 'gyur) written in golden ink.

Dragpa Gyaltsen's biography recounts many significant dreams that he had about his previous lives and his future reincarnation.

There are also several famous accounts of miraculous adventures involving Dragpa Gyaltsen and the Kashmiri teacher Shakyashri Bhadra, which describe Dragpa Gyaltsen's ability to suspend his ritual instruments in midair. He is also recorded to have correctly predicted that his nephew Sakya Pandita would play an important role in Tibetan-Mongolian relations.

Dragpa Gyaltsen was the official Sakya throne holder for forty-three years and effectively headed the monastery for fifty-seven years, from age thirteen till his death at nearly seventy. Despite the great wealth that passed through his hands as the Sakya throne holder, his biographers claim that he did not accumulate material wealth and when he passed away he possessed only his robe and meditation cushion.


Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dungkar Losang Khrinley. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.

Drakpa Jungne and Lobzang Kedrup. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming dzod. Kan su?u mi rigs skrun khang

Ngorchen Khonchog Lhundrub. 2002. Three Visions: Fundamental Teachings of the Sakya Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Lobsang Drakpa and Jay Goldberg, trans. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Roerich, George, trans. 1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. Sakya Dungrab Chenmo, Cho Trin Vol. 2 Number 1. Synthesis of rnam thar as translated by Venerable Lama Kelsang Gyaltsen and Ani Kunga Chodron.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam 'bras Traditions in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2006. Taking the Path as the Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdre Tradition. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Dominique Townsend, 2009

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