The First Zhechen Rabjam, Tenpai Gyeltsen

ISSN 2332-077X

Print this Biography
Cite this biography

The First Zhechen Rabjam, Tenpai Gyeltsen b.1650 - d.1704

Name Variants: Dzogchen Rabjam Tenpai Gyeltsen; Tenpai Gyeltsen; Zhalam Rabjampa Tenpai Gyeltsen

Peer reviewed

The First Zhechen Rabjam, Tenpai Gyeltsen (zhe chen rab 'byams 01 bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan) was born in 1650, the iron-tiger year of the eleventh sexagenary cycle. His parents belonged to a powerful noble clan at Uru in Penpo (dbu ru 'phan po) named Depa Tonpo (sde pa mthon po) that ruled over a large number of families in their region.

According to his hagiography, his past rebirths include Indian and Tibetan masters such as Mañjuśrīmitra (fl. 55 CE); the Dharma King Aśoka (ca. 304–232 BCE); Kamalaśīla (713-763); Lhase Mutik Tsepo (lha sras mu tig btsad po); one of the first ordained monks in Tibet, Ma Rinchen Chok (rma rin chen mchog, ca. 700); the Kagyu patriarch Milarepa (mi la ras pa, 1040-1123); Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1367-1449); and Drigung Rinchen Puntsok ('bri gung rin chen phun tshogs, 1509-1557).

At the age of thirteen he ran away from home and went to the large college at Dreyul Ketsel Monastery ('bras yul skyed tshal), a renowned center for dialectical studies in the Sakya tradition. The abbot there gave him the primary monastic vows (rab byung sdom pa). He memorized many important texts of the monastery's main curriculum, including prayers, rituals, and root-verses and subsequently studied the collection of seven Pramāṇa texts (tshad ma sde bdun) of Buddhist logics and epistemology. He continued to study under many teachers at various Sakya monasteries including Pelkhor Chode (dpal 'khor chos sde) in Gyangtse, Tanak Tubten Ling (rta nag thub bstan gling), Serdokchen (gser mdog can), and Ngor (ngor). The Sakya Gongma, likely Ducho Labrangpa Jamgon Sonam Wangchuk (dus mchod bla brang pa byams mgon bsod nams dbang phyug, 1638-1685), reportedly praised him highly for his scholarship in the tradition.

At Sangpu (gsang phu), he continued to study Pramāṇa philosophy for an extended period of time. He focused on epistemology, and eventually became an authoritative scholar on the subject. He participated in traditional tests of debating skills and demonstrated his knowledge of Pramāṇa at Sangpu, Rato (ra ba stod), and Dreyul Ketsel monasteries, all well known for their studies in epistemology. Consequently, he received the title Rabjampa (rab 'byams pa), meaning "immense".

He also studied under many outstanding teachers from the Geluk tradition at the three great monasteries of Sera, Drepung, and Ganden, and he studied tantra according to Geluk tradition at both Gyume and Gyuto colleges in Lhasa, including Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara, Yamāntaka, earning his name amongst Geluk scholars as well.

He later acted as an assistant to Pabongkhapa Jamyang Drakpa (pha bong kha pa 'jam dbyangs grags pa, d.u.), a close assistant to the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 05 ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682). He received many teachings from both Jamyang Drakpa and the Dalai Lama himself.

At some point, Jamyang Drakpa is reported to have predicted that although Tenpai Gyeltsen was already an expert in the new translations (sar ma) of the tantras (tantric texts that had been translated into Tibetan from the eleventh century or thereafter), his future success depended on the study and practice of the old tantras of the Nyingma school (the tantric texts that had been translated into Tibetan during seventh to tenth century), especially the Dzogchen system.

At that time, the First Dzogchen Drubwang, Pema Rigdzin (rdzogs chen grub dbang 01 pad+ma rig 'dzin, 1625-1697) was giving advanced Dzogchen teachings at Yerpa Lhari (yer pa lha ri), to the north near Lhasa. These teachings were being attended by most of highly designated government officials of the Fifth Dalai Lama's administration, which included Jamyang Drakpa. Tenpai Gyeltsen joined them, and it was not long before he emerged as the top student in regards to his understanding and accomplishment in the view and practice of the Dzogchen. He thereby earned the title "Dzogchen Rabjampa" and became one of the closest disciples of Dzogchen Drubwang Pema Rigdzin.

On the instruction of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Rabjam Tenpai Gyeltsen accompanied Dzogchen Drubwang on a journey to Kham as his attendant. In 1685, with the support of the thirty-seventh king of Derge, Sanggye Tenpa (sangs rgyas bstan pa, d.u.), Tenpai Gyeltsen assisted Pema Rigdzin in establishing a hermitage called Orgyen Samten Choling (o rgyan bsam gtan chos gling) in the valley of Rudam Kyitram (ru dam skyid khram), to the northeast of the capital of Derge. The monastery developed gradually and later became one of the six main monastic centers of the Nyingma tradition, known as Dzogchen Monastery.

According to one monastic history (khams phyogs dkar mdzes khul gyi dgon sde so so'i lo rgyus), in 1690 at the age of forty-one, Rabjam Tenpai Gyeltsen founded a monastery named Zhechen Orgyen Chodzong (zhe chen dgon o  rgyan chos dzong), consisting of a monks quarters and main assembly hall, not far from Dzogchen. The first abbot was named Pema Wangchuk (pad+ma dbang phyug, d.u.), nicknamed "The Laughing Lama" (gad yag bla ma). It is said the curriculum there emphasized both study and practice. Rabjam Tenpai Gyeltsen taught during both winter and summer sessions. During the summer, his students would listen and contemplate teachings on foundational texts from the Tripiṭaka. During the winter, they would practice and meditate on Tantric teachings. In this way, it is said they emulated a previous tradition of integrating both study and practice.

Upon his monastery's inception, it is reported that Tenpai Gyeltsen made a prediction that a "treasury of dharma" would flourish in that spot; however it would be on the face of a mountain across from it that the teachings would reach their highest point. The Second Rabjam, Gyurme Kunzang Namgyel (rab 'byams 02 'gyur med kun bzang rnam rgyal, 1713-1769) founded an extension of Zhechen across from the original site in 1734 or 1735. It was this location that eventually grew into the Zhechen monastery known today, one of the major Nyingma monastic centers in Tibet. Based on his being credited with establishing Zhechen Monastery, he has become known to history as the First Zhechen Rabjam.

Later, the King of Derge offered Tenpai Gyeltsen the monastery of Trasho Pomdrak (khra shod spom brag), which had been seat of the Kagyu lineage patriarch Pomdrakpa Sonam Dorje (spom brag pa bsod nams rdo rje, 1170-1249). He spent a few years in a newly built meditation house there. However, it seems that some of the monks there took a dislike to him, suspecting him of an intention to convert the monastery from the Kagyu tradition to Nyingma. It is said that due to that, Dzogchen Rabjampa left the monastery and moved elsewhere, preferring to teach more non-sectarian disciples.

At a certain point, Tenpai Gyeltsen decided he would spend the rest of his life in retreat and settled at Tsangrong Shardzong Hermitage (gtsang rong shar rdzong ri khrod) in Drigung ('bri gung). During his practice, however, he heard his teacher Dzogchen Drubwang had passed away, and soon left for Rudam to join another of Dzogchen Drubwang's close students, Dzogchen Ponlob Namkha Osel (rdzogs chen dpon slob nam mkha' 'od gsal, d. 1726), in order to complete extensive funerary rituals for their late teacher. Thereafter, he remained at Dzogchen Monastery, exclusively dedicating himself to giving teachings and empowerments.

He later assisted Dzogchen Ponlob in selecting and identifying the Second Dzogchen Drubwang, Gyurme Tekchok Tendzin (rdzogs chen 02 'gyur med theg mchog bstan 'dzin, 1699-1758), who was born to the lineage of the Orod Mongolian kings. Together, they brought the young boy to Dzogchen Monastery, enthroned him, performed his tonsure ceremony, and gave him the names Pema Wangchen (pad+ma dbang chen) and Pema Wangdrak (pad+ma dbang drag).

Tenpai Gyeltsen's most well known disciples included the Second Dzogchen Drubwang, Gyurme Tekchok Tendzin ('gyur med theg mchog bstan 'dzin, 1699-1758), and the Hor Rongpa Tsawa, Pema Wangchuk (hor rong pa tsha ba pad+ma dbang phyug, d.u.). Additionally, he is said to have had twenty five lineage holders who primarily focused on Dzogchen, including Orgyen Samten (o rgyan bsam gtan); Pema Gyeltsen (pad+ma rgyal mtshan); Lama Dargye of Luse (klu bse bla ma dar rgyas); a Tokden of Khardo Monastery named Orgyen Tsultrim (mkhar mdo rtogs ldan o rgyan tshul khrims); and Orgyen Kelzang of Ling Ratak (gling ra rtags bla ma o rgyan skal bzang).

Rabjam Tenpai Gyeltsen passed away in 1704, the wood-monkey year of the twelfth sexagenary cycle, at the age of fifty-five. A reliquary-temple in his memory was built at Dzogchen Monastery by his disciples. His line of reincarnations came to be known as Zhechen Rabjam.


Successive Incarnations of Zhechen Rabjam

First Zhechen Rabjam, Tenpai Gyeltsen (bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, 1650-1704)

Second Zhechen Rabjam, Gyurme Kunzang Namgyel  ('gyur med kun bzang rnam rgyal, 1713-1769)

Third Zhechen Rabjam, Peljor Gyatso (dpal 'byor rgya mtsho, 1771-1807/1770-1809)

Fourth Zhechen Rabjam, Garwang Chokyi Gyeltsen (gar dbang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1811?-1862?)

Fifth Zhechen Rabjam, Gyurme Kunzang Tenpai Gyeltsen ('gyur med kun bzang bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, 1864-1909)

Sixth Zhechen Rabjam, Nangze Drubpai Dorje (snang mdzad grub pa'i rdo rje, 1911-1959)

Seventh Zhechen Rabjam, Gyurme Chokyi Sengge ('gyur med chos kyi seng ge, b.1966)




Anon. 1995. Dkar mdzes khul gyi dgon sde so so'i lo rgyus gsal bar bshad pa, vol. 1, pp. 535-536. Beijing: Krong go'i bod rigs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W19997

Bstan 'dzin lung rtogs nyi ma. 2004. Snga 'gyur rdzogs chen chos 'byung chen mo (snga 'gyur grub dbang rgyal ba rdzogs chen pa'i gdan rabs chos brgyud dang bcas pa'i byung ba brjod pa'i gtam yid bzhin dbang gi rgyal po'i phrang ba). Beijing: Krong go'i bod rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 323-335, 493-496. TBRC W27401


Samten Chhosphel
July 2012