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Teacher: Dondrub Rinchen

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Choje Dondrub Rinchen (chos rje don grub rin chen, 1309-1385) was born in Amdo in 1309. According to The Clan History of Rebkong (reb kong rus mdzod), he was born as the youngest of the three children to his father Se Tornyin Dondrub Gyeltsen (bse tor nyin don grub rgyal mtshan) and mother Shadrang Za Rinchen Tso (sha sbrang bza' rin chen mtsho), whose bridal name Shadrang Za suggests her non-local provenance. The text also identifies Dondrub Rinchen's paternal grandfather as a member of Se (bse) clan, listing Se Tore Tokden Lhundrub Gyatso (bse to re rtogs ldan lhun grub rgya mtsho) as his uncle, and grandmother as hailing from Sakya, suggestively the Khon ('khon) family. Oral narratives allege that early inhabitants of Shadrang were mostly members of Dru ('bru) clan from Ngari (mga' ris), which seems to suggest descent from the Ladakh royalty. However, Dondrub Rinchen's family is said to have descended primarily from Se clan before it extended matrimonial alliance with members of Sakya which had proliferated in the upper strata of the Rebkong community in the thirteenth century.

Dondrub Rinchen became a monk at a young age and traveled to U-Tsang (dbus tsang). He studied Prajñāpāramitā and the Five Treatises of Maitreya under Nyetang Tashi Sengge (snye thang bkra shis seng ge, 14th century) at Dewachen Monastery (bde ba can), later called Rato (rwa stod). He also studied logic and epistemology, Dharmakirti's Pramāṇaviniścaya in particular, with Dongton Rikpe Sengge (ldong ston rig/s pa'i sengge; aka Dokto Rikpe Sengge, mdog stod rig/s pa'i seng ge), a disciple of Chomden Rikpai Reldri (bcom ldan rig pa'i ral gri, 1227-1305).

According to legend, on encountering difficulties in cracking the fine points of the study of logic, he briefly undertook a rigorous reparative circumambulation around the self-arisen Buddha statue at Zhalu Monastery (zhwa lu dgon). He walked day and night until blisters erupted under his heels. At the end, he developed a profound understanding of logic and became an excellent dialectician. In the ensuing years, he undertook study-tours (grwa skor) to monasteries including Zhalu, when the Buddhist polymath Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364) was its abbot, and held a debate with him, whereby he attained much renown. Modern scholars have retroactively ascribed the title Rikpai Pawo (rig/s pa'i dpa' bo) in connection to him in recognition of his performance during these two study-tours.

Dondrub Rinchen also received extensive initiations, transmissions, and instructions on Tantra including Yamāntaka, Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara, Vajrabhairava and Kālacakra from Menge Yeshe Pelwa (sman dge ye shes dpal ba).

After years of studies in central Tibet, Dondrub Rinchen returned to Amdo and became a teacher at Pakpa Shingkun Desar ('phags pa shing kun sde gsar), later known as Shingkun Ganden Chopel Ling (shing kun dga' ldan chos 'phel gling), a monastery founded by Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) in Lintao, Southern Gansu, between 1271 and 1274. While teaching at the monastery, he was invited to assume the abbacy of Dewachen Monastery in central Tibet, whereupon he left Amdo with a load of provisions. The abbatial appointment did not materialize, however, although the reason is not known. Perhaps the incumbent abbot did not relinquish his post, or a new abbot had already appointed prior to his arrival. Subsequently, Dondrub Rinchen offered a portion of his provisions to Dewachen and Nartang monasteries, and gifted the remaining to Tokden Samten Pel (rtogs ldan bsam gtan dpal, 14th century), one of his meditation teachers. As a result of Samten Pel's instructions, Dondrub Rinchen was held to have experienced the distinctive physical and mental pliancies that are indicative of accomplishment in śamatha (zhi gnas).

Dondrub Rinchen once again returned to Amdo in the early 1340s and founded Shadrang Puntsok Choling Monastery (sha sbrang phun tshogs chos gling) in 1346. Local accounts maintain that an adjacent hill assumed new names—Dorinyin (do rin nyin) and Dornyin (dor nyin), both contractions of Dondrub Rinchengyi Nyinchok Ritro (don grub rin chen gyi nyin phyogs ri khrod)—after Dondrub Rinchen undertook a meditation retreat at the site. There are other interesting place names -- Benzra Lung (badzra lung) and Tashi Dongna (bkra shis dgong sna) -- in Amdo associated to Dondrub Rinchen.

In 1349, he founded and became the first abbot of Jakhyung Tekchen Yonten Dargye Ling Monastery (bya khyung theg chen yon tan dar rgyas gling) on the site of an old Kagyu monastery founded by the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pa 02 karma pakshi, 1204-1283) in the twelfth century. He initially taught Prajñāpāramitā, Pramāṇa, the Treatises of Maitreya, the Hevajra Tantra, and the Bodhicaryāvatāra. Dissatisfied with the outcome, he entrusted Shadrang Monastery to Shakya Zangpo (shAkya bzang po, mid-14th-early 15th century) and remained at Jakhyung Monastery, which became his primary residence thereafter.

Tibetan religious historians allege that Chim Lobzang Drakpa (chims blo bzang grags pa, 1299-1375), the twelfth abbot of Nartang who had been Dondrub Rinchen's teacher, had predicted all the above activity. It is said that Lobzang Drakpa had instructed Dondrub Rinchen to return to Amdo, describing the land as his "destined realm of activities."

At Jakhyung Dondrub Rinchen nurtured a child named Kunga Nyingpo (kun dga' snying po) who came to be known as Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419). According to hagiographies of Tsongkhapa, Dondrub Rinchen asked the father to part with his young son soon after the child's birth, promising to raise him as a monk and offering the family livestock and material goods in exchange for their child. In 1363 he brought the seven-year-old boy to his monastery. He conferred novice vows, and later gave him Tantric initiations, guiding him through esoteric practices and giving him the initiatory name of Donyo Dorje (don yo rdo rje). He gave him the ordination name Lobzang Drakpa after his own teacher, Chim Lobzang Drakpa, who is said to have predicted his relationship with Dondrub Rinchen.

Dondrub Rinchen remained a major source of guidance and inspiration to Tsongkhapa through all stages of the latter's life. He wrote a very personal composition in verses containing a well-strategized guideline to help Tsongkhapa in his life-long pursuit of religious education, career, and practice. Although Tsongkhapa lost the booklet upon his arrival in U-Tsang, he had memorized every particular of the composition, even remembering a considerable portion that he revealed to his disciple and biographer Khedrubje Gelek Palzang (mkhas grub rje dge legs dpal bzang, 1385-1438) in the final years of his life. Meticulously instructing Tsongkhapa on what books to read at what stages of his life, the composition, set in the pure spirit of teacher-disciple relationship and deserving a recognition of a unique genre, remained a constant guide for Tsongkhapa in making a significant impact on the cultural landscape of Buddhism in Tibet.

As an adept practitioner of Vajrabhairava, Choje advised the young Tsongkhapa to embrace Vajrabhairava and Mahākāla as his principal deities; and accordingly, Tsongkhapa later instituted Vajrabhairava as one of the Geluk Tantric trinity of deities, the other two being Guhyasamāja and Cakrasaṃvara, and adopted Mahākāla as the school's guardian deity. A Kadam monk by the virtue of his institutional association, Choje became one of the principal transmitters of some major Tantras followed in the Geluk School such as Mahācakra-vajrapāni, the Nine Manifestations of Amitāyu, Hevajra, Cakrasaṃvara, Pañjaranātha-Mahākāla, and the Vajrabhairava in his Thirteen Deity form.

All biographical accounts concur that Choje lived in the Amdo region from early-1340s till his death in 1385. However, Gyeltsab Darma Rinchen (rgyal tshab dar ma rin chen, 1364-1432), who was born in 1364 and lived in central Tibet his whole life, lists Dondrub Rinchen as one of the three teachers -- the other two being Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro (red mda' ba gzhon nu blo gros, 1349-1412) and Tsongkhapa -- from whom he studied the Asanga's Abhidharmasamuccaya and who inspired him to write a commentary titled Extensive Explanation on the Quintessence of Ocean-like Teachings on Abhidharma (legs par bshad pa chos mngon rgya mtsho'i snying po)

The details on Dondrub Rinchen's life and his disappearance from history for decades during the later part of his life, conveniently swept under the filler garb of "extended meditation retreat," pose challenges to narrating a more accurate and comprehensive biography of this great scholar.

Later writings and oral narratives identify Shadrang (sha sbrang) in Rebkong (reb gong) as his birthplace. As Shadrang, is located in the north of Rebkong bordering Nangra (snang ra) region of Chentsa (gcan tsha), past land disputes between Rebkong and Nangra, such as with the eight border villages in the fifteenth century, and the lack of historical details on the instances of his birth have triggered considerable challenges for later historians. The above circumstances have thus motivated some scholars to maintain that he was instead born in Nangra region of Chentsa.

Dondrub Rinchen spent his final years at Jakhyung Monastery. He wrote an undated commentary to Asanga's Uttaratantra, titled Precious Illumination: A Commentary on Uttaratantra (rgyud bla ma'i 'grel ba rin po che'i snang ba). Days prior to his death, he was believed to have gained a vision of his future rebirth in the pure land of Buddha Dundubhisvarā. Dondrub Rinchen is said to have died at Jakhyung Monastery on February 13, 1385, the twenty-fifth day of the first month of the wood horse year of sixth sexagenary cycle.

Sonam Tsering Ngulphu is a doctoral student in East Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University. Published September 2017. [Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. 12-2019].


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