Himalayan Art Resources

Teacher: Changkya Rolpai Dorje (Biography)

Changkya Rolpai Dorje Main Page

Changkya Rolpai Dorje Biography [TBRC P182]

Changkya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa'i rdo rje, 1717-1786) was a principle Buddhist teacher in the Qing court, a close associate of the Qianlong emperor and an important intermediary between the imperial court and Inner Asia. He was born at Langdru Deshi Nup Padmo Depa Drogne Dragkar (lang gru'i sde bzhi'i nub padmo'i sde pa 'brog gnas brag dkar). His father was Tsangpa Guru Tenzin (tshangs pa gu ru bstan 'dzin, d.u.) and his mother was called Bukyi (bu skyid). Changkya was of Mongour descent, born in Northeastern Tibet and raised primarily within the imperial court. His main monastic seat in Tibet was Gonlung Jampaling (dgon lung byams pa gling), one of the four most important Gelug monasteries in Amdo. Some of Rolpai Dorje's main teachers were Lobsang Yeshe (blo bzang ye shes, 1663-1737), Ngagwang Jampa (ngag dbang byams pa, 1682-1762), Lobsang Chozin (blo bzang chos 'dzin, 1717-1786). In addition to Qianlong, Rolpai Dorje's students included Konchog Jigme Wangpo (Dkon mchog 'jigs med dbang po, 1728-1791), Lobzang Chokyi Nyima (blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, 1737-1802), and Kalsang Tubten Jigme Gyatso (skal bzang thub bstan 'jigs med rgya mtsho, 1743-1811). His collected works contain more than two hundred titles.

As a child Rolpai Dorje was recognized as a reincarnation of the previous Changkya Lama (lcang skya bla ma, 1642-1714) in 1720 and taken to court in 1724, after his home monastery was destroyed by Qing troops in response to the rebellion led by Lobsang Danjin (blo bzang dan jin, d.u.). Rolpai Dorje was later identified as an incarnation of the great Sakya scholar and statesman, Pagpa Lodro Gyaltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) as well. At the Yongzheng Emperor's court, Rolpai Dorje was educated in close proximity to the prince who eventually became the Qianlong emperor. This relationship proved extremely significant; Changkya served as Qianlong's main Buddhist teacher and adviser in matters related to Buddhism, including art, literature, religious initiations and practices, and diplomacy. His education included training in most of the languages in use under the Qing, including Manchu, Chinese, Mongolian, and Tibetan as well as the various Buddhist topics suited to his role as a lama.

In 1734 Changkya made his first trip to Lhasa when Yongzheng permitted him to accompany the seventh Dalai Lama to the Tibetan capital [Lhasa]. This trip gave Changkya the opportunity to study with the Dalai Lama as well as to make offerings to Lhasa's major monasteries and present gifts from the Qing emperor. In 1735 Changkya traveled to Shigatse, where he met the Panchen Lama Lobzang Yeshe (blo bzang ye shes, 1663-1737) at Tashilhunpo monastery. Changkya took the vows of a novice with the Panchen Lama, who named him Yeshe Tenpe Dronme (ye shes bstan pa'i sgron me). A few days later, he took the vows of a fully ordained monk, under the supervision of the Panchen Lama and other high lamas. When Yongzheng died in 1736, Changkya had to give up his plans to study under the Panchen Lama and returned to Beijing. The Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama offered religious statues and other significant gifts as parting presents.

When Changkya Rolpai Dorje arrived in Beijing, the new emperor, who had been his childhood peer, named him chief administrative lama in Beijing. Early in his career as administrator, Changkya urged the Qianlong to grant disputed border areas to the Dalai Lama. Although the emperor refused to grant the land, he did follow Rolpai Dorje's advice in part, by granting the Dalai Lama a sizable yearly allowance. After internal political tensions in Lhasa came to a climax in 1751 with the execution of the secular leader Gyurme Namgyal ('gyur med rnam rgyal), Qianlong officially named the Dalai Lama the political and religious leader of Tibet. Rolpai Dorje's disciple and biographer Tukwan Lobzang Chokyi Nyima (thu'u bkwan 03 blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, 1737-1802) asserts that this significant decision was largely due to Rolpai Dorje's advice.

After the death of the Seventh Dalai Lama, Qianlong sent Changkya on a second mission to Lhasa. There was debate among Tibetan officials over whether the new Dalai Lama's regent would have both religious and secular power. The Kalon (bka' blon) or cabinet members aimed to take over secular control and let the Dalai Lama manage religious matters only. Changkya advised the emperor to entrust the regent with full religious and secular authority in order to avoid conflict among the cabinet members. The emperor granted the regent religious authority and relied on the ambans (ambassadors from the Qing court in Lhasa) to limit the power of the lay elite cabinet members.

In 1757, Changkya departed for Lhasa again, this time with a large entourage including a minister, several officials, and two Imperial physicians. During this stay, Changkya performed various religious and political tasks for the emperor, keeping Qianlong apprised of the situation in various Inner Asian locales, as far west as Ladakh. He was closely involved with identifying the Eighth Dalai Lama and wrote the Seventh Dalai lama's biography. At the same time, Changkya studied under major lamas, most significantly the Panchen Lama. In 1779, Changkya arranged for the Panchen Lama to undertake a trip to Beijing to celebrate Qianlong's birthday. A monastery modeled after Tashilhunpo was built in Jehol in honor of the visit. During the Panchen Lama's visit Changkya Rolpai Dorje performed religious and diplomatic functions such as instructing the lama on how to approach the emperor and translating Dharma teachings between the two. The Panchen Lama contracted smallpox and passed away during this visit.

Changkya's work as a translator was by no means limited to oral translations although that was one of his primary duties at court. He also oversaw the creation of (Mongolian, Tibetan, Manchu, Chinese, and Chagatay language) dictionaries and translations of Buddhist teachings in textual form. As a Buddhist administrator in Beijing, he played an important role in founding Yonghegong, a monastic college for Mongol, Manchu, and Chinese monks. Like Wutaishan, this college combined an Imperial palace and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. He was also instrumental in developing the systems of iconography, cataloguing, and inscribing that would prove so important to the Qianlong emperor's projects in Buddhist art.


Berger, Patricia. 2003. Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.

Grags pa 'byung gnas. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzou: Kan su'u mi rigs skrun khang.

Illich, Marina. 2006. "Selections from the life of a Tibetan Buddhist polymath: Chankya Rolpai Dorje (lcang skya rol pa'i rdo rje), 1717-1786." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University.

Tuttle, Gray. 2005. Tibetan Buddhists in the Making of Modern China. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wang Xiangyun. "The Qing Court's Tibet Connection: Lcang skya Rolpa'i rdo rje and the Qianlong Emperor." In HJAS vol. 60 no. 1. June, 2000.

Dominique Townsend, March 2010
[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan Lineages Website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. April, 2010].