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Shakya Yeshe, Jamchen Choje (1354-1435 [TBRC P3450]), became one of the principal students of Je Tsongkapa when he was between the age of 45 to 50 years. Prior to that he studied according to the Kagyu system of Tsel Gungtang. He journeyed to Nanjing to see the Yongle emperor of China. Shakya Yeshe arrived in Nanjing in 1408 (according to some accounts, others 1415) and remained there until 1418. He founded the Sera Monastery in Lhasa in 1419. Shakya Yeshe again returned to China in 1424 and remained at the court (now moved since 1410 to Beijing) until 1435.

Jeff Watt 9-2014 [updated 2-2019]

Jamchen Choje Shakya Yeshe (byams chen chos rje shAkya ye shes) was born in 1354, the wood-horse year of the sixth sexagenary cycle, in Tsel Gungtang (tshal gung thang). His father was a local official (dpon) in the birthplace of Tselpa Kagyu founder Zhang Yudrakpa (zhang g.yu brag pa, 1123-1193) and had close relation with Kagyu masters in the region. According to legend, he displayed signs of a realized being such as remembering events from his past lives at a very young age.

He received his novice (sramanera) vows from Jamyang Shakya Gyeltsen ('jam dbyangs shAkya rgyal mtshan) at the age of seven, and received the ordination name of Shakya Yeshe together with various teachings and initiations. He also studied under Tokden Yeshe Gyeltsen (rtogs ldan ye shes rgyal mtshan, born c.1300), a Kagyu lama at Tsel Gungtang and author of Histories of the Kagyu Lamas (bka' rgyud rnam thar), as well as other masters.

Shakya Yeshe likely first encountered Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419) in the first years of the fifteenth century. He served as a personal attendant to Tsongkhapa, who was three years younger, during a strict two-year meditation retreat from 1407 to 1409, charged with preparing tea and food for his master. Shakya Yeshe had the rare opportunity to observe his master round the clock for a great number of years and to attend his teachings. Over time, Shakya Yeshe became one of Tsongkhapa’s closest disciples due to his humility and loyalty to his master, and the number of sacred teachings he received.

In 1413 Tsongkhapa received a second invitation to visit the Ming court of the Yongle Emperor (??, r.1402-1424); he had refused an earlier invitation received in 1408. Apparently not wanting to refuse a second time, but unwilling to go himself, in 1414 Tsongkhapa sent Shakya Yeshe in his stead. Traveling from Lhasa along the southern route via Lhokha (lho kha) and Litang (li thang) and received by a series of advance welcoming parties, Shakya Yeshe finally reached the new imperial capital of Beijing in 1415.

In China, Shakya Yeshe was commissioned with the task of observing mandala rituals according to the four classes of Tantra – Kriya, Carya, Yoga and Anuttarayoga. He officiated rituals associated with Guhyasamaja, Cakrasamvara, the 49-Deity Vajrabhairava and the Medicine Buddha, Bhaishajyaguru. In addition to performing rites intended for ensuring well-being to the kingdom, propagation of the Buddhist religion, seasonable rains, timely harvest, immunity from various diseases, prevention of accidental death, and auspiciousness, Shakya Yeshe bestowed long-life initiations on Yongle Emperor. Hagiographies of Shakya Yeshe report that attendees to the rituals heard divine music from the sky, saw five-colored rays of light, and witnessed flowers strewn from the clear sky. Shakya Yeshe himself claimed that he had multiple visions of deities, while the Emperor himself is said to have had visions of the buddhas.

Extremely delighted by the rituals, the emperor gifted Shakya Yeshe an official seal engraved with a golden wheel. In recognition of his greatness, the emperor sent a letter in May 1415 that relieved him from having to kowtow before the emperor, a gesture normally expected by the Chinese emperor from visitors to the imperial court.

In May 1415, Shakya Yeshe traveled to Wutaishan, the mountain in northern China that is considered the abode of Mañjusri. There he administered monastic ordination by bestowing vows for novices (sramanera) and fully ordained monks (bhikshu) to aspirant Chinese Buddhists.

In early 1416, Shakya Yeshe sent word to Tsongkhapa that he would soon return, and he was preparing to travel back to Tibet. In June the Emperor offered him 1000 bolts of cloth and 800 dzomo (mdzo mo, a hybrid of female yak and ox). Other gifts he received included one of the earliest prints of the Northern Ming edition of the Kangyur, the second Chinese edition of the Tibetan Buddhist canon (the first, known as the Southern Ming, was done during the reign of Hongwu [??, r.1368-98]). He also received statues of the Sixteen Arhats made from white sandalwood, the gold-bordered Five-Buddha Hat, and paintings of Sixteen Arhats, which he offered to Tsongkhapa.

He traveled through Litang towards central Tibet in 1416. Following his arrival in Lhasa, he received from Tsongkhapa a series of initiations, transmissions and instructions including the Lamrim Chenmo (lam rim chen mo), Nagarjuna's Prajñamula (rtsa ba shes rab), the Ngakrim Chenmo (sngags rim chen mo), and the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja (gsang 'dus rim lnga). Though only three years older than Tsongkhapa, Shakya Yeshe remained one of his closest disciples throughout his master's life, whom he outlived by a decade and half.

Tsongkhapa composed a text for him, Instruction on the Se Tradition (bse'i gdams ngag), on higher Tantric concepts, which indicates the level of scholarship Shakya Yeshe had reached and the esteem in which Tsongkhapa held him.

By this time Shakya Yeshe was among Tsongkhapa's senior disciples, and while he continued to receive teachings from Tsongkhapa, he had begun to impart teachings to his own disciples. Gungru Gyeltsen Zangpo (gung ru rgyal mtshan bzang po, 1383-1440) wrote that in 1419 he received various teachings including Vajrabhairava and Vaisravana practices from Shakya Yeshe. Jangsem Sherab Zangpo (byang sems shes rab bzang po, 1395-1457), the founder of Chamdo Chokhor Jampa Ling (chab mdo chos 'khor byams pa gling) received teachings relating to Yamantaka, Amitayus, Sitatapatra, Vijaya, Shavari, and Marichi.

In 1419, Shakya Yeshe founded Sera Tekchen Ling Monastery (se ra theg chen gling) on the northern edge of the Lhasa valley. He did so at the behest of Tsongkhapa and with the patronage of Namkha Zangpo (nam mkha' bzang po), the Dzongpon (rdzong dpon) of the Pakmodru fortress of Neudzong (sne'u dzong), who had been a sponsor of Tsongkhapa for some years. The monastery was aimed at offering a curriculum that combined observance of strict monasticism with study and practice of the tantras primarily associated with Guhyasamaja and Cakrasamvara.

In 1426 Emperor Xuande (??r.1425-1435) sent a letter through the official Hou Xian inviting Shakya Yeshe to China in order to conduct post-funerary rites for his father Emperor Hongxi (??r. 1424-1425) and his grandfather Emperor Yongle.

Accompanied by his disciples Nyetangpa Choje Amoghapa (snye thang pa chos rje a mo gha pa) and Choje Sonam Sherab (chos rje bsod nams shes rab), Shakya Yeshe journeyed via the northern route through Amdo, and stopping at Wutaishan. He arrived in Beijing in 1429. There he performed rituals for the deceased members of the imperial family. A number of unusual signs were reported to have occurred, such as the formation of a rainbow, falling of flowers, spontaneous boiling of substances in the ritual skull cup, continuous overflowing of water from an initiatory vase and so forth. In 1429, Xuande granted a seal to Shakya Yeshe. He was also conferred the title of Daci Fawang (????), or Jamchen Choje (byams chen chos rje) in Tibetan, which roughly translates to Dharma Lord of Great Compassion.

On November 14th, 1435, at the age of eighty-two, Shakya Yeshe passed away in Beijing. He is said to have remained in a meditative state for seven days.

Amoghapa and Sonam Sherab, who were later conferred the position of imperial preceptors (??dishi), oversaw his cremation and built a chapel at the behest of Emperor Xuande to house a golden reliquary stupa in Hongua Temple (hongua si) at Dzomokhar (mdzo mo mkhar) on cultural Sino-Tibetan border, currently administered under Minhe County in Qinghai.

Shakya Yeshe has not been considered the originator of a line of incarnations, but several prominent lamas claimed, or were claimed by disciples, to be his reincarnation. These include Khonton Peljor Lhundrub ('khon ston dpal 'byor lhun grub, 1561-1637) and the Changkya line of incarnations.

Sonam Tsering Ngulphu is a doctoral student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University.

Published March 2, 2015


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The images below are primarily textiles. Only two have a central depiction of Shakya Yeshe. All the others have Shakya Yeshe as a secondary figure in the upper right corner.

Jeff Watt 12-2015

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