Drakpa Gyeltsen

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Drakpa Gyeltsen b.1619 - d.1656

Name Variants: Zimkhang Gongma 04 Sonam Drakpa Gyeltsen

Drakpa Gyeltsen was born in 1619 in Tolung Gekhasa (stod lung gad kha sa) into a noble family by the same name as the village. His family had previously produced the Twenty-fifth Ganden Tripa, Peljor Gyatso (dga' ldan khri pa 25 dpal 'byor rgya mtsho, 1526-1599). His mother was called La Agyel. He was a candidate for the recognition of the rebirth of the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 04 yon tan rgya mtsho, 1589-1616), but was passed over. The Fourth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Chokyi Gyeltsen (paN chen 04 blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570-1662) instead recognized him, at the age of six, as the reincarnation of the Fifteenth Ganden Tripa, Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa (dga' ldan khri pa 15 paN chen bsod nams grags pa, 1478-1554). Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa himself was the reincarnation of Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen('dul 'dzin grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1374-1434), a close disciple of Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419). With the recognition the Paṇchen Lama gave him his novice vows and the name Drakpa Gyeltsen.

Drakpa Gyeltsen studied with the Paṇchen Lama at Drepung Monastery, living beside the Paṇchen Lama's other disciple, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso, who had been chosen as the Fifth Dalai Lama (ta la'i bla ma 05 ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682). He lived in the Upper House, and so carried the title "Zimkhang Gongma" (gzims khang gong ma).

He studied with notable lamas of Kyormolung (skyor mo lung), Rawato (rwa ba stod) and other monasteries as well, and practiced at Olkha Cholung ('ol dga' chos lung) and Ribo Gephel (ri bo dge 'phel). Sources on his life contend that in his youth Drakpa Gyeltsen was as sought-after as the young Fifth Dalai Lama, the two of them together presiding over the Lhasa Monlam, their thrones places side by side.

The circumstances around his death are a large part of the legend of the deity Dorje Shukden (rdo rje zhugs ldan). Although causes and motives for his death -- he was reportedly discovered in his quarters with a kata stuffed down his throat -- vary considerably, it does appear that Drakpa Gyeltsen's reputation inspired considerable jealousy among the Dalai Lama's supporters, and there were several highly-placed officials who wished him ill.

According to Dungkar and his sources, Drakpa Gyeltsen was murdered by Nangso Norbu (nang so nor bu), the brother-in-law (sku mched) of the regent of Tibet, Sonam Chopel (sde srid / zhal ngo bsod nams chos 'phel, 1595-1658). The deed took place on the thirteenth day of the fifth month of the fire-snake year, 1656, a year after the Fifth Dalai Lama returned from Beijing with considerable new authority in the control of Tibet.

Following his death a silver reliquary was constructed and installed in the residence at Drepung, but this was destroyed following the claims that Drakpa Gyeltsen had been reborn as an evil spirit. This part of the story appears to have been initiated by the Sakya Lama Morchen Kunga Lhundrub (rmor chen kun dga' lhun grub, 1654-1726), who wrote a small ritual manual to the deity.

In other tellings, Drakpa Gyeltsen killed himself via the same method, weary of foiling attempts on his life by the Fifth Dalai Lama's faction. He instructed his disciples to burn his body, and predicted that the smoke from his funeral pyre – if he was innocent of all accusations made against him by his enemies were false – would rise straight into the sky and form a menacing black cloud in the form of an open hand. When this occurred, the disciples prayed to their deceased teacher that he not leave the world but remain and take revenge on the Dalai Lama and his supporters.

Soon after, the story goes – and there are many stories, most of which, based on the art-historical evidence, seem to be quite late, possibly even early twentieth-century –  all sorts of calamities befell the residents of Lhasa and the region: diseases, deaths, and crop failures. The Fifth Dalai Lama was unable to eat his noon meal in peace, as dishes would mysteriously overturn. The Tibetan government enlisted the aid of either a Sakya or a Mindroling hierarch, who attempted to destroy the evil spirit that was identified as being causing the disruptions by means of a fire ritual (sbyin sreg). The attempt was unsuccessful, and the Tibetan government instead beseeched the spirit to protect, rather than harm, the Geluk tradition.

Alternately, having taken his own life, Drakpa Gyeltsen was reborn in a god realm and came out of his own benevolence to protect the Geluk tradition as the deity Dorje Shukden (rdo rje shugs ldan), also known as Dogyel Shukden (dol rgyal shugs ldan), a deity around whom considerable controversy has raged in recent decades.




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Alexander Gardner
October 2010