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Teacher: Sachen Kunga Nyingpo Biography

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Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, 1092-1158, (sa chen kun dga' snying po) was the first of the Sakya Jetsun Gongma Nga (sa skya rje btsun gong ma lnga) who were the five founding patriarchs of Sakya. These five men of the Khon family are credited with having laid the foundations for the Sakya tradition. Sachen was a layman and the third Sakya tridzin or throne holder, a position distinct from his later designation as a patriarch. His father, Khon Khonchog Gyalpo ('khon dkon mchog rgyal po), was the first Sakya throne holder and the founder of Sakya monastery. Sachen's mother was known as Machig Shangmo (ma gcig zhang mo). Sachen was identified as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara and has strong associations with Manjushri due to his meditative experiences related to the bodhisattva of wisdom.

Sachen's father oversaw his early education and transmitted the three Hevajra Tantras to him as a young child. In addition to his father, Bari Lotsawa (ba ri Lo tsa ba), the second Sakya throne holder and great translator, was an important early teacher for Sachen. Khon Khonchog Gyalpo passed away when Sachen was eleven, at which time Bari Lotsawa took the Sakya throne since Sachen was too young to replace his father. Over the course of his education, Dharma Senggye (darma seng+ge), Dharma Nyingpo (darma snying po), Bari Lotsawa Rinchen Dragpa (rin chen grags pa), Chag Tharba (lcags thar ba), Dragchor Sherab (grags 'byor shes rab), Chokyi Gyaltsen (chos kyi rgyal mtshan), Shangton Chobar (zhang ston chos 'bar) aka Gonpaba, Khon Gyichu Dralhabar (skyi chub ba), and Nam Kaupa would be among his most influential teachers.

At the age of twelve, under Bari Lotsawa's guidance, Sachen did a six-month retreat on Manjushri and reported a remarkable vision that inspired the now longstanding and widely practiced teaching known as Parting from the Four Attachments (zhen pa bzhi bral). Later that year Sachen traveled to Rong Ngurmig (rong ngur smig) to meet the teacher Dharma Nyingpo and receive instructions on the Abhidharmakosha. While at Rong Ngurmig, Sachen contracted smallpox from a sick monk whom he reportedly nursed to health. Sachen recovered and was able to continue his studies under Dharma Nyingpo. He returned to Sakya in order to receive teachings from the elderly Bari Lotsawa. Just before passing away in 1111, Bari Lotsawa passed the position of throne holder on to the twenty-year old Sachen, who continued to study with various masters after assuming the throne.

Another of Sachen's most important teachers was his paternal relative Khon Gyichu Dralhabar. From him Sachen received the Hevajra teachings transmitted by Drogmi Lotsawa ('brog mi lo tsa ba) and Go Lotsawa ('gos lo tsa ba) as well as Chakrasamvara teachings transmitted by Pamtingpa. Before this teacher passed away, he appointed Sachen to take over his monastery and numerous disciples. Sachen took over his teacher's monastic seat and prepared to take ordination at that time but the Sakya master Nam Kaupa convinced him to remain a layman so he could have children and carry on his family lineage. Sachen also stayed briefly with his father's disciple Se Karchungwa, but was unable to receive many teachings before the old teacher passed away. He later studied with Khon Gyichu Dralhabar's teacher, Mal Lotsawa Lodro Dragpa (mal lo tsa ba blo gros grags pa), who gave Sachen teachings on Chakrasamvara, Yamari, Panjaranata and the yoga tantras. Mal Lotsawa also gave him a black Mahakala mask that was said to have the power to communicate with humans and fly. This mask was passed down as a precious heirloom of the Khon lineage.

When Sachen was ready to receive the Lamdre (lam 'bras) teachings, which would become the core of the Sakya tradition, he sought out Zhangton Gonpaba Chobar, a former student of Se Karchungba (se 'khar chung ba). When Sachen went to ask for the teachings, he found Shangton Chobar with matted hair, half clothed in a goatskin cloak, idly chatting with villagers and spinning thread from wool. Sachen prostrated to him, tried to make an elaborate offering, and asked him for the Lamdre teachings. Shangton Chobar claimed to know nothing about new Tantra teachings such as Lamdre, and said he only had some modest knowledge of Dzogchen (rdzogs chen), which he assumed Sachen would disapprove of. However, when Shangton realized Sachen was the son of Khon Khonchog Gyalpo, he admitted that he held the Lamdre teachings after all. Since he had never taught the Lamdre before he said he needed some time to reflect and asked Sachen to return the following spring. Sachen did so and over the course of the next eight years Shangton Chobar transmitted the Lamdre to Sachen in two parts, each requiring four years of instruction. When the teachings were complete, Shangton advised Sachen not to teach Lamdre for eighteen years, after which time he could teach and write about it freely.

Sachen followed this advice and over the course of the next eighteen years he meditated intensively on the sequential transmission he received from Shangton Chobar. At the age of forty-six he had a vision in which Virupa bestowed a direct transmission of the Lamdre. In 1141 he began teaching and writing on both the sequential and direct transmissions of the Lamdre. His first disciple was Jangchub Sempa Aseng, an important lama from Kham, followed by Sachen's own sons Sonam Tsemo (bsod nam rtse mo) and Dragpa Gyaltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan).

Sachen had many prominent students, including Pagmodrupa (phag mo gru pa). His eleven closest disciples are remembered for having either continued Sachen's oral Lamdre teachings, for writing commentaries on his writings, or for becoming great teachers. His sons Sonam Tsemo and Dragpa Gyaltsen, who followed Sachen as the next Sakya throne holders and patriarchs, were two of his closest disciples. He had two other sons as well. The eldest son, Kungabar (kun dga' 'bar), died in his early twenties while returning from a period of study in India. The youngest son, Palchen Opo (dpal chen 'od po) never held the throne but went on to father Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (sa skya paN+Di ta kun dga? rgyal mtshan), the important scholar and fourth Sakya patriarch. Sachen had two consorts, sisters from a noble family in Tsamo-rong. The elder sister, Machig Odron was the mother of Sonam Tsemo, Dragpa Gyaltsen and Palchen Opo. The younger sister had four sons by Sachen.

Sachen was purportedly the first to write down the previously oral Dorje Tsig Kang (rdo rje tshig rkang) or Vajra Verses, a foundational teaching of the Lamdre tradition that is attributed to Virupa and was transmitted to Tibet by Shakya Yeshe. Many other written texts are also attributed to Sachen. The most important are eleven commentaries on the Dorje Tsig Kang. These teachings were apparently created for specific disciples ? eight men and three women. (Some scholars question whether Sachen authored all these works.) The commentary called Nyagma or Explication of the Treatise for Nyag, written for Nyag Wangchug Gyaltsen (dbang chug rgyal mtshan) is arguably the most lastingly significant of these works and was later annotated by Sachen's son Dragpa Gyaltsen. The Dorje Tsig kang, Sachen's commentary, and Dragpa Gyaltsen's annotations form the theoretical and practical basis for the Lamdre teachings.

Later in life, as the result of an attempted poisoning while he was in Gungtang, Sachen went into a coma. When he awoke he suffered from complete memory loss, forgetting all the teachings he had received. He was able to find lamas to replace all the teachings except the Lamdre, for which there was no living teacher nor written text available to him at the time. He went into retreat and reported that he remembered some of the lost teachings and then in a dream Shangton Chobar transmitted the remainder. When he woke up he had completely recovered his memory.

Sachen died at the age of sixty-seven, in 1158 at the monastery of Kyabo Kadang in Jang.


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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].