Himalayan Art Resources

Teacher: Rinchen Zangpo Main Page

Rinchen Zangpo Page | Sakya Tradition Main Page

Subjects, Topic & Types:
- Rinchen Zangpo Biography (below)
- Atisha
- Nyag Lhakang Karpo
- Masterworks
- Confusions
- Others...

Principal Lineages of Rinchen Zangpo:

Pal Chog etc., Mahayoga Tantras and Branch Lineages: Vajradhara, Vajrapani, Gyalpo Rabsal Dawa, Acharya Rabjor Kyang, Kunga Nyingpo, Sherab Kyang, Shiwa Nyingpo, Getsen Shenyen, Shraddhakara Varman, Jowo Rinchen Zangpo, Drag Tengpa Yontan Tsultrim, Lama Mal Lotsawa, The Lord of Dharma Sakyapa, Nyagton Wangyal, Jetsun Chenpo, Choje Sakya Pandita (1182-1251).

The Cycle of Panjaranata Mahakala Lineage: Vajradhara, Dramze Chogse, Naro Bulingpa, Deva Vajra, Shraddhakara Varman, Jowo Rinchen Zangpo, Drag Tengpa Yontan Tsultrim, Lama Mal Lotsawa, The Lord of Dharma Sakyapa (1092-1158).

Vajradhatu Lineage, Mahamandala and Abhisheka: Vajradhara, Gyalpo Rabsal Dawa, Acharya Rabjor Kyang, Kunga Nyingpo, Sherab Kyang, Shiwa Nyingpo, Getsan Shenyen, Deva Vajra, Shraddhakara Varma, Ngowo Rinchen Zangpo, Nangpa Tsundru Gyaltsen, Nyalpa Shima Sherab, Nur Nyimai Odzer, Nurpa Vajra Siddha, Tsakyab Dragpa Gyaltsen, Lama Lokkya Wangchug Dragpa, Lama Ngong Sherab Pal, Lama Chokyi Gyalpo (1235-1280).

Mahavairochana Mandala Lineage, Mahamandala and Abhisheka: Buddha, Pupawo Bodhisattva Vajrapani, Gyalpo Rabsal Dawa, Dei Lobmai Chog Nga Ni, Pad Kar Yeshe, Jnana Vajra, Gyalpo Drag Chen Dzin Zangpo, Nyimai Nyingpo, Gyalrig Sarapao, De Nga Kai Lobma Kunga Nyingpo, Tatagata Vajra, Shraddhakara Varman, Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo, Cholung Legpai Sherab, Sumton Yeshe Bar, Nyanton Tsultrim Bar, Todpa Bentsa Dragpa, Tsang Rong Gi Lobpon Chokyi Gonpo Pal, Lama Chokyi Gyalpo (1235-1280).

Jeff Watt, October 20, 1989 [updated 10-2017]


Rinchen Zangpo (rin chen bzang po, 958-1055 [TBRC P753]) was born in 958 in a town called Khatse Wingir (khwa tse wing gir) in an area of Guge (gu ge) called Nyungwam Ratna (snyung wam ratna), or, alternately Khyungwang (khyung wang). His father was Zhonnu Wangchuk (gzhon nu dbang phyug) and his mother was named Cokro Kunzang Sherab Tenma (cog ro kun bzang shes rab bstan ma). Their clan was the Yudra (g.yu sgra), which might indicate that he was not actually ethnically Tibetan. His parents named him Rinchen Wangchuk (rin chen dbang phyug). He had an elder brother, Sherab Wangchuk (shes rab dbang phyug) and a younger brother, Yonten Wangchuk (yon tan dbang phyug). He also had a sister, Kunring Shetso (kun sring shes mtsho). Both his younger brother and sister took religious vows; his sister's ordination name was Neljorma Chokyi Dronma (rnal 'byor ma chos kyi sgron ma).

Neither of his parents were Buddhist, yet, at least according to tradition, they supported his childhood aspiration to immerse himself in the religion. He was ordained at the age of thirteen by Khenpo Yeshe Zangpo (mkhan po ye shes bzang po, d.u.). In 975, while still a teenager, he convinced his parents to allow him to go to India to study Buddhism. (As will be mentioned below, later histories have it that he was sent to India by royal decree.) He set off with a travelling companion named (according to some sources) Tashi Tsemo (bkra shis rtse mo) and food provided by his mother. On the road they met considerable difficulties, including theft, illness, and bizarre customs, passing into Kashmir via Spiti and Kulu.

In Kashmir he met his first teacher, Sraddhakaravarman, and began studying Sanskrit texts on philosophy and tantric practice. He remained there for seven years, after which he went to the southeast, to Vikramasila for several years, before returning again to Kashmir. He then returned to Tibet, possibly in 987, after thirteen years in India.

According to tradition, Rinchen Zangpo used his Buddhist accomplishments to expose a teacher who was attracting a large crowd by levitating; Rinchen Zangpo is said to have pointed a finger at him, at which point the teacher spun head over heals and fell from the sky, slinking off never to be heard from again.

Such an incident perfectly placed Rinchen Zangpo to be noticed by King Songnge (srong nge), whose ordination name was Lha Lama Yeshe O (lha bla ma ye shes 'od, 947-1024; abdicated in 988). The king of Guge at the time, he was then engaged in reforming Buddhism in Tibet, sweeping away what he considered the Tibetan corruptions of the religion that had arisen since the collapse of the Yarlung Dynasty in the mid ninth century.

At the new royal monastery of Toling (thod ling) that Rinchen Zangpo had a hand in constructing, he was joined by a number of Indian panditas and with them set about making new translations. He is known to have worked in two temples there, Pel Leme Lhungyi Drubpa (dpal dpe med lhun gyis grub pa) and the Golden Temple (gser kyi lha khang).

Rinchen Zangpo went again to India, travelling this time in fine style, contacting Indian artisans to create the icons and murals for the new temples, and returning to Guge after six years.

Some of his biographies have it that Rinchen Zangpo's initial trip was sponsored by Yeshe O, who sent twenty-one young Tibetan men to India to learn Sanskrit and bring back scripture; all died in India save Rinchen Zangpo and Legpai Sherab (legs pa'i shes rab, d.u.), the son of his paternal uncle, who became known as the Lesser Translator (lo tsA ba chung ba). He was also known as Dragjor Sherab (grags 'byor shes rab)

Whether he went first on his own or both times in royal employ, during his two trips to India (some sources have it that he went three times) Rinchen Zangpo is said to have studied with over seventy-five Indian panditas. Among them, he learned the Yogatantras from Ratnavajra, Guhyasamaja from Naropa, the Durgati Parisodhanatantra from a teacher whose name in Tibetan was Norbu Lingpa (nor bu gling pa), and, at Vikramashila, he studied with Dipamkarabhadra, Jinakara, and Duryachandra, whose commentary on the Chakrasamvara was later of significant importance for the Sakya tradition. In Tamalasinta he studied Yogatantra with Shraddhakaravarman. In Tibet he also studied with Shraddhakaravarman, who taught him the system of Vajrodaya (rdo rje 'byung).

Among the Indians who worked with him in Toling was Dharmashribhadra, who contributed, together with Shakya Lodro (shAkya blo gros, d.u.) to the translation of the Bodhicharyavatara. The name of at least one artist he hired is known: Bhidhaka, who created a statue of Avalokiteshvara of the size of his father that was installed at Gokhar Lhakhang (go khar lha khang) in Khatse (kha tse) and still exists today.

He is credited with promoting the Prajñaparamita literature in Tibet, having translated several important works, including the Prajñaparamita in 8,000 verses (Ashtasahastrika), as well as in 20,000 verses, and the Abhisamayalamkara, one of the most important commentaries on the Prajñaparamita literature. In addition to his translation work he also composed commentaries on topics such as Prajñaparamita, sadhana, and abhisheka.

He promoted several tantric traditions, particularly Yogatantra, translating numerous commentaries on the Sarvatathagatatattvasamgraha, and he was the first to introduce the Cakrasamvara tantra to Tibet. He also is credited with disseminating the "mother" (ma rgyud) and "father" (pha rgyud) classes of the Anuttarayoga tantra.

He is said to have taken full ordination at the age of forty-nine with Chandraprabha, Kamalarakshita, and another teacher named Bhi-na-se, presumably during the second Indian trip.

Rinchen Zangpo is equally famous for his contribution to the creation of temples; he is said to have constructed one hundred and eight temples, a number that Tibetans use to signify a considerable amount. His fame is such that perhaps even more than that number of small temples are now claimed to have been built by him.

Most of the attributions to Rinchen Zangpo must be taken with some suspicion, as they are the invention of later tradition. Some of the more notable contributions he is said to have made include what would have been his first major temple, after Toling, Khachar (kha char; also spelled 'kha' char and 'khab char), a royal temple sponsored by either King Lhade (lha lde, 996-1024), the nephew of Yeshe O and the uncle of Jangchub O (byang chub 'od, r. 1037-57) who invited Atisha Dipamkara (982-1054) to Tibet, or, alternately, by King Khorre (khor re, r. 988-996), Lhade's father and the brother of Yeshe O. This temple is likely near a town called Langka northwest Ladakh. Another temple was named Nyarma (mya ma), now a pile of ruins near Thiksay in Ladakh. He is also credited with establishing the famous Tabo Monastery in Spiti in 996.

Not all his temple building was welcomed. According to tradition, the local guardian deities vigorously opposed the construction of Radni (rad nis), in his birthplace. Radni contains the oldest representation of the Guhyasamaja mandala, which Rinchen Zangpo brought to Tibet. He subjugated them, and defeated their priests -- most likely the local Bon priests still in power in what was once the kingdom of Zhangzhung.

Among Rinchen Zangpo's most prominent disciples were Ma Lotsawa Gewa Lodro (rma lo tsA ba dge ba blo gros, 1044-c.1089) who translated the Pramanavarttika of Dharmakirti, the first time a work of logic was translated in Tibet, and who was a teacher of Khon Konchog Gyalpo ('khon dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034-1102). (The work was later retranslated by Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (sa skya pan di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251), and Shakyasribhadra, 1127-1225.) Ngog Lotsawa Loden Sherab (rngog lo tsA ba blo ldan shes rab, 1059-1109), the nephew of Ngog Legpai Sherab (1059-1109), the founder of Sangpu Neutog Monastery, was also a disciple.

According to the Blue Annals, four of Rinchen Zangpo's disciples were collectively known as the Four Heart Sons: Dragrin (grags rin), Gya Yetsug (rgya ye tshuk), Gungpa Yeshe (gung pa ye shes), and Konchog Tseg (dkon mchog brtsegs). Other names associated with him are Chokyi Lodro (chos kyi blo gros), who studied with him at Samada; Gyangpo Cholo (rgyang po chos blo); and Gungshing Tsondru Gyeltsen (gung shing brtson 'grus rgyal mtshan). He is also known to have taught Dragtengpa Yonten Tsultrim (brag steng pa yon tan tshul khrims, d.u.).

When Rinchen Zangpo was eighty-five he met Atisha at Toling. At Atisha's request he listed his accomplishments and outlined his understanding. Atisha exclaimed "If there are men like you in Tibet, then there was no need for me to come here!" But when Atisha asked him how one should practice the tantras, and Rinchen Zangpo replied that one should practice each tantra in its own way (or, more specifically, Guhyasamaja on the ground floor, Hevajra on the second floor, and Cakrasamvara on the top floor), Atisha exclaimed "Rotten translator! Indeed there was need for me to come! The tantras should all be practiced together!" Atisha then gave him instruction and told him to enter meditation retreat.

Following his encounter with Atisha, Rinchen Zangpo practiced for ten years. According to tradition, he wrote three inscriptions above consecutive doors to his medication cell, each corresponding to one of the three vehicles (Mahayana, Hinayana, and Vajrayana); above outer door to his meditation cell: "Within this door, should a thought of attachment the phenomenal world arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapala split open my head." Over the middle door he wrote: "Should a thought of self-interest arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapala split open my head." Over the inner door he wrote: "Should an ordinary thought arise for even a single moment, may the dharmapala split open my head."

Rinchen Zangpo passed away at the age of ninety-eight in Khatse Wingir (khwa rse wing gir).

Alexander Gardner is Executive Director of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and the Director and Chief Editor of the Treasury of Lives. He completed his PhD in Buddhist Studies at the University of Michigan in 2007. Published July 2011.

Blo bzang bzod pa. 1978. Lo ts+tsha ba chen po rin chen bzang po'i rnam thar. Spiti: Lama rdo rje tshe brtan.

Blo bzang chos grags and Bsod nams rtse mo. 1988. Lo tsA ba rin chen bzang po'i rnam thar. In Rtsom yig gser gyi sbram bu, vol 1, pp. 507-522. Xining: Tsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Blo bzang dpal ldan rin chen rgya mtsho. 1977. 'Jig rten mig gyur lo chen rin chen bzang po'i rnam thar gsol 'debs sogs chos tshan khag cig. Rdo-rje-tshe-brtan.

Bstan 'dzin lung rtogs nyi ma. 2004. Ku sA lu che ba. In Snga 'gyur rdzogs chen chos 'byung chen mo, pp. 156-157. Beijing: Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang. TBRC W27401.

Chos dbang grags pa. 1988-1989. Lo tsA ba rin chen bzang po'i rnam thar. In Rtsom yig gser gyi sbram bu, p. 507. Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W19680.

Gangnegi, Hira Paul. 1998. "A Critical Note on the Biographies of Lo chen Rin chen bZang po." Tibet Journal 23, pp. 38-48.

Grags pa 'byung gnas. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 1670-1671.

Khu byug. 2004. Lo chen rin bzang gis mtho lding gser gyi lha khang du mdo sngags kyi bshad sgyur mdzad nas 'chad nyan spel ba. In Bod kyi dbu ma'i lta ba'i 'chad nyan dar tshul blo gsal mig 'byed, pp. 79-81. Beijing: Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang. TBRC W28813.

Khyi thang dpal ye shes. N.d. Bla ma lo tsA ba chen po'i rnam par thar pa dri ma med pa shel gyi 'phreng ba. W4CZ1547.

Legs bshad thogs med and Zla ba rgyal mtshan. 2003. Skyabs rje rin chen bzang pos rang dgon la bya ba mdzad pa'i skor. In Dpal bsam yas mi 'gyur lhun gyis grub pa'i gtsug lag khang gi dkar chag, vol. 1, pp. 183-186. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang.

Luczanits, Christian. 2004. Buddhist Sculpture in Clay: Early Western Himalayan Art, Late 10th to Early 13th Centuries. Serindia.

Martin, Dan. 2008. "Veil of Kashmir — Poetry of Travel and Travail in Zhangzhungpa’s 15th-Century Kavya Reworking of the Biography of the Great Translator Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055 CE)." Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines vol. 14, pp. 13-56.

Ngag dbang rgyal po, Legs bshad thogs med, and Zla ba rgyal mtshan. 2003. Skyabs rje rin chen bzang pos rang dgon la bya ba mdzad pa'i skor. In Dpal bsam yas mi 'gyur lhun gyis grub pa'i gtsug lag khang gi dkar chag, pp. 183-186. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W00KG02759

Ngag dbang kun dga' bsod nams. 1995. Slob ma grags che ba byon tshul. In Bka' gdams chos 'byung, pp. 98-106. Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W10319.

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

Snellgrove, David, and Skorupski, Tadeusz.1977-1980. The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh. London: Aris & Phillips, Warminster. Pp. 85-116.

Tsepak Rigdzin. 1984. "Rinchen Zangpo: The Great Tibetan Translator." Tibet Journal 9, pp. 28-37.

Tucci, Giuseppe. 1988 (1932). Rin-chen bzang-po and the Renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet Around the First Millennium. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.

Van Schaik, Sam. 2011. Tibet: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 52-59.

Read more at TBRC