Jangchub Tsondru

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Jangchub Tsondru b.1817 - d.1856

Name Variants: Drukpa Jangchub Tsondru

Jangchub Tsondru (byang chub brtson grus) was born in 1817 at Olkha ('ol kha) near Gyantse (rgyal rtse) in Tsang. His childhood name is not known. His father, Tamdrin Wangyal (rta mgrin dbang rgyal), was the son of a tantrist priest named Pel Dorje (dpal rdo rje) whose lineage was traced to Yungton Dorje Pel (g.yung ston rdo rje dpal, 1284-1365). His mother, Dorje Dolma, (rdo rje sgrol ma) belonged to the famous Zur lineage of Uklung ('ug lung) and had among her ancestors the great Nyingmapa lama Zurton Choying Rangrol (zur ston chos dbyings rang grol, 1604-1669), one of the masters of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682). Her father was also a tantrist (sngags pa) called Kunzang Rangrol (kun bzang rang sgrol). Therefore both his parents claimed prestigious religious Nyingmapa ancestry.

In 1823 Jangchub Tsondru entered Wensa (dben sa), a small Gelukpa monastery not far from Zhigatse, famous for the Wensa Nyengyu (dben sa snyan brgyud), tradition that was propagated by Wensapa Lobzang Dondrub (dben sa pa blo bzang don grub, 1505-1566), a student of Gendun Gyatso (dge 'dun rgya mtsho, 1476-1542), the Second Dalai Lama. The mainstream Gelukpa lamas largely ignored the Wensa Nyengyu lineage of teachings, considering it unorthodox, and it survived mostly in Wensa. At Wensa Jangchub Tsondru took his Genyen (dge bsnyan), or lay, vows, and received the name Pelden Tashi (dpal ldan bkra shis). His mother and step-father/uncle (a khu) supported him materially from the age of seven till he was eighteen years old. In 1824 he took his getsul (dge tshul), or novice (which he would keep until he was twenty-one), and was given the name by which is is known, Jangchub Tsondru. At Wensa Jangchub Tsondru received religious instructions from lama Yeshe Chodra (ye shes chos grwa) and often visited Tashilhunpo (bkra shis lhun po). He also received instructions in Dzogchen and in the Lama Gondu (bla ma dgongs 'dus) treasure cycle of the fourteenth century treasure revealer Sanggye Lingpa (sangs rgyas gling pa, d.u.).

According to his biography, Jangchub Tsondru encountered a trader from Paro (spa ro) one afternoon while he was resting at a stupa during his round of the Tashilhunpo monastery. He asked the trader where he could find a teacher for Six Yogas of Nāropa. The man replied that there was one Lobpon Deki (slob dpon bde skyid) in Paro who performed extraordinary deeds. Then Jangchub Tsondru received a prophecy from a lama from Tashilhunpo that it would be beneficial for his religious practice if he went to Paro.

Much against his family's wishes, Jangchub Tsondru left soon after for Pari (phag ri) in the Chumbi valley and from there went on to Paro where he placed himself under the protection of the governor Tsultrim Tarchin (tshul khrims mthar phyin) From Paro Dzong, he went up to Gorina monastery where the head abbot Sherab Gyeltsen, the Twenty-fifth Je Khenpo (shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1772-1848) resided. Jangchub Tsondru became his disciple and, together with other monks from the community and from and Paro Rinpung Dzong, he received teachings on the works of the great Drukpa Kagyu scholar, Pema Karpo (pad ma dkar po, 1527-1592), the Six Yogas of Nāropa, and other Drukpa teachings. According to his biography, Jangchub Tsondru created quite an impression on the Je Khenpo by arguing with him on the validity of Pema Karpo's views.

Jangchub Tsondru then returned to Tsang and met with Barawa Jampel Dorje ('ba' ra ba 'jam dpal rdo rje, d.u.), the reincarnation of Barawa Gyeltsen Pelzang ('ba' ra ba rgyal mtshan dpal bzang, 1310-1391), the famous Kagyu figure who had been to Bhutan in the fourteenth century. It seems Barawa Jampel Dorje gave Jangchub Tsondru permission to have consort. The period that followed immediately was distressing, as Jangchub Tsondru became entangled in problems involving the denunciation of Barawa Jampel Dorje to the Tsemoling (tshe smon gling) regent in Lhasa by one of his disciples, apparently jealous of the lama's favors to Jangchub Tsondru. Barawa died amidst the scandal, perhaps of despair.

After this event, in 1834, Jangchub Tsondru started travelling visiting sacred sites in Tibet, Kham, and Nepal and India such as Tsari (rtsa ri), Mount Kailash and Bodh Gaya. His connection to Bhutan was renewed when he met Ogyen Namgyel (o rgyan rnam rgyal), a lama from Kham from whom he received numerous teachings, including teachings on Pema Lingpa (pad ma gling pa, 1450-1521), Karma Lingpa (kar+ma gling pa, fourteenth cent.) and Dorje Lingpa (rdo rje gling pa, 1346-1405), as well as initiations on various protectors, among them Gesar as a warrior-deity (dgra lha). This lama told him that of all these teachings, those of Dorje Lingpa were the most profound and extensive, and should be propagated far and wide. He, the lama, was now too old and could not do it but Jangchub Tsondru, as he was young, must take on the task.

Jangchub Tsondru left for the monastery of Chukyer Gonsar (chu mkhyer dgon gsar) near Mount Kulakhari (sku bla mkha' ri) in Lhodrak, which had been a seat of Dorje Lingpa. There he taught the cycle of Dorje Lingpa to some thirty people, including a lama who was a lineage-holder of Dorje Lingpa's teachings, who resided in Gonsar, and lamas from Buli and Dranla in Bhutan. He gave the teachings from the texts that were available at Gonsar and for those that were not, he gave them by heart. In particular, he gave the instruction on the Tawa Longyang (lta ba klong yangs) a famous Dzogchen treasure revealed by Dorje Lingpa. That Jangchub Tongdru experienced some apprehension at giving such large public teachings is suggested by a vision he experienced after returning to Tsang, in which a protector deity scolded and slapped him for doing so.

After a brief stay at the hermitages of the three important Geluk monasteries in Lhasa, Jangchub Tsondru left for Pari where the monastery's choir master (dbu mdzad) was a friend, and then went to Sikkim where he visited the temple of Drakar Tashiteng (Tashiding, brag dkar bkra shis sdings). From there he went to Bhutan. He visited Taktsang (stag tshang) and Chumopuk in Paro before moving onto Thimphu where he paid homage to the holy places and met the Twenty-sixth Je Khenpo, Yonten Gyatso (rje mkhan po 26 yon tan rgya mtsho, 1780-1840) to whom he gave various teachings, including some of Tsongkhapa.

Jangchub Tsondru then returned to Pari and from there seems to have gone straight to Lhodrak on pilgrimage, visiting the places related to treasure revealers and Kagyu history: Lhalung monastery, the residence of the Peling Tukse (pad gling thugs sras) and Peling Sungtrul (pad gling gsung sprul); Guru Lhakang, the residence of the treasure discoverer Guru Chowang (gu ru chos dbang, 1212-1270); Marpa Chokyi Lodro's (mar pa lo tsA ba chos kyi blo gros, 1012-1096) residence and Sekhar Guthok (sras mkhar sgu thog), the tower built by Milarepa; Kharchu Monastery (mkhar chu dgon), the residence of Namkai Nyingpo (nam mkha'i snying po) incarnations; and Komting Lhakang (mkho mthing lha khang), a treasure site of Nyangrel Nyima Ozer (nyang ral nyi ma 'od zer, 1136-1204).

From Lhodrak Jangchub Tsondru crossed back into Bhutan via the Monla Kharchung pass and arrived in the valley of Chokhor in Bumtang. In Bumtang Jakar (bum thang bya dkar) dzong, he met with the then Trongsa Ponlob Orgyen Puntsok (dpon slob o rgyan phun tshogs), who was from the lineage of Pema Lingpa in Tamshing and became Jangchub Tsondru's first lay patron in Bhutan. Jangchub Tsondru also made a pilgrimage through the Tang valley, visiting Ta Rimochen and other temples, as well as Pepuk and Bumtangpuk (today in Narut and Sarmed villages). He finished his tour of Bumtang with the Ura valley. Returning to Tibet he encountered Kunzang Rangrol (kun bzang rang grol, d.u.), from whom he received many Dzogchen and treasure teachings, as well as the Peling teachings on the Kunzang Gongdu (kun bzang dgongs 'dus), Guru Drakpo (gu ru drag po) and Norbu Gyatsho (nor bu rgya mtsho).

After travelling all over central Tibet, he went to meditate at Khenpelung Tseringjong (mkhan pa klung tshe ring ljongs) in Lhodrak. There he was visited by Dzinpa Wangdu ('dzin pa dbang 'dus), the Gonsar lama descendant of Dorje Lingpa. The Gonsar lama received teachings from Jangchub Tsondru and served for a while as his secretary, noting down several texts on paper. Then Jangchub Tsondru wandered around the Yamdrok lake and finally, at the end of 1844, after a retreat in Talung near the Yamdrok lake, went back to Gonsar in Lhodrak. He was twenty-nine years old at this time and travelling with a consort and their son. There he met Gante Tulku Orgyen Delek Namgyel (o rgyen bde legs rnam rgyal, d.u.) and the Peling Tukse from Lhalung -- probably the eighth incarnation, Tukse Kunzang Zilnon (thugs sras kun bzang zil gnon, d.u.) -- who invited him to return to Bhutan. Following this, Jangchub Tsondru, with his wife and son, established a residence in Khenpajong, where he became extremely well-connected with the leading families of the region, receiving invitations to visit their estates and give teachings.

At some point in the second half of the 1840s, having earlier met the mother of the young Eleventh Dalai Lama, Kedrub Gyatso (ta lai bla ma 11 mkhas grub rgya mtsho, 1838-1855) during a pilgrimage to Tsari, he was invited to Lhasa to perform a long-life ritual for the young boy.

In 1849, Jangchub Tsondru left Gonsar for Bumtang via the Monla Kharchung pass. He was invited by Rinchen Pelmo (rin chen dpal mo), the Peling Sungtrul's mother, to her estate of Tashi Peling (bkra shis pad gling), near Zangling in upper Chokhor. While there Jangchub Tsondru received a visit from Jigme Namgyel ('jigs med rnam rgyal), then the chamberlain of Trongsa. He shifted to Trongsa, where the current Ponlob, Tsokye Dorje (mtsho skye rdo rje) had previously invited him. During his stay, he had the Simkhang Tubwang (gzims khang thub dbang) temple built. Although the Ponlob was his patron, problems developed between Jangchub Tsondru's servants and those of Trongsa Dzong, and Jangchub Tsondru soon left for Khenpajong, where he established a hermitage. After returning to Trongsa, Jigme Namgyel asked Jangchub Tsondru for an initiation. Jangchub Tsondru explained to Jigme Namgyel that because he had a problem with a malevolent spirit he should therefore worship Tamdrin Yangsang (rta mgrin yang gsang), an aspect of Hayagrīva, and recite his mantra as well as a short text that he composed for the occasion.

Tsondru Gyeltsen (brtson 'grus rgyal mtshan), who was the son of Trongsa Ponlob Tsokye Dorje and who had become Jakar Dzongpon, invited Jangchub Tsondru to give initiations, and his father, the Trongsa Ponlob, invited the lama to Tang Ogyencholing, which was their estate in Bumtang. Jangchub Tsondru gave the Cakrasaṃvara initiation in detail and in the Wensa Nyengyu tradition to several members of the household. While at Ogyencholing, Jangchub Tsondru is said to have subdued two spirits, a lu (klu) and a gyelpo (rgyal po), which were harming Tsokye Dorje's daughter.

At the time Bhutan was ruled by Tashi Dorje (bkra shis rdo rje), the Thirty-seventh Druk Desi (brug sde srid), and the country was not stable. The Trongsa Ponlob Tsokye Dorje requested the lama to give prophecies for Bhutan and for the power that Trongsa would hold in the future. Jangchub Tsondru declared: “After the political power of the one who rules Trongsa [Tsokye Dorje] is exhausted, a short man with a black mole on the face [i.e. Jigme Namgyel] will take over the power. There are signs of conflicts concerning Trongsa; in order to prevent them, the Kangyur must be read thirty times.” Tsokye Dorje had the ritual performed. He also gave teachings to an group of patrons, including Tsokye Dorje and his son, the Tamshing Choje Orgyen who later became Jakar Dzongpon; the Orgyencholing Choje Trinle; and the retired Jakar Dzongpon, Tsakalingpa

Jangchub Tsondru continued to give teachings in central Bhutan, but the political situation was not peaceful. In 1850 Tashi Dorje resigned his position and shortly thereafter died, and Wangchen Gyelpo (dbang chen rgyal po) was appointed to this post, but was assassinated at the end of 1850. In the wake of the discord Jangchub Tsondru decided to return to Tibet. On the way, he stayed in Tsampa, near the border, and as it was quiet, he composed texts based on Dorje Lingpa's Dzogchen writings, which he had obtained from the Gonsar Wangdu.

Jangchub Tsondru remained in Tibet for three years. He performed rituals for the Eleventh Dalai Lama's mother and for other high officials in Lhasa, and took up the education of his son in Gonsar, bringing him also to Wensa. In 1853 he returned to Bhutan. Jakar Dzong had been damaged by a fire and after the restoration works, the lama was asked to come and perform the consecration ceremony. Jigme Namgyel, now the Trongsa Penlop, was famous throughout Bhutan, and he invited Jangchub Tsondru to Trongsa Dzong. At that time, Jigme Namgyel's chamberlain was Sonam Dondrub (bsod names don grub), the elder brother of the Fourth Zhabdrung Jigme Norbu (zhabs drung 04 'jigs med nor bu, 1831-1861).

It was likely around this time that Jangchub Tsondru created the famed "Jarog Dongchen" (bya rog gdong chen), or "Raven Crown" that is now symbol of Bhutanese kingship. The crown features a garuḍa head and wings, the eyes of Mahākāla, and a goose's head crested with a vajra.

Returning again to Tibet, Jangchub Tsondru was invited by the abbot of Kharchu to stay at Muto Gonkhang (rmu stod mgon khang). Jangchub Tsondru so much liked the place, which had water, junipers and grass, that he built a small house for himself. He briefly left this place to go to Lhasa to perform rituals for the recovery of the Eleventh Dalai Lama, who was sick. In Muto, Jangchub Tsondru started writing his autobiography and gave teachings to disciples coming to see him from Bhutan. He also travelled to Tsang and discovered that he was being criticized in Lhodrak and Bhutan.

While he was in Tsang Jangchub Tsondru received another invitation from Jigme Namgyel carried by the Zhabjetang Konyer Karma Lhawang (zhabs rje thang dkon g.yer kar+ma lha dbang). After some reflection, Jangchub Tsondru decided not to go to Bhutan but sent a gold statue of Mahākāla. Disappointed, Jigme Namgyel requested the intervention of a close disciple of Jangchub Tsondru's, the future author of his biography. Finally Jangchub Tsondru agreed but he set the following conditions: The people under the jurisdiction of Jigme Namgyel must respect the five basic vows, and, especially, there should not be any more killing of animals, even the wild ones; lastly, two Kangyur must be printed at Narthang, which would be sent to Nyala and Drangla. Jigme Namgyel proscribed hunting, and after he had sent people to Narthang to make arrangements for the Kangyur printing, Jangchub Tsondru agreed to come to Bhutan.

Together with his elder brother, a monk in Torgu Monastery (thor rgod) in Sikkim who was visiting him in Tibet, Jangchub Tsondru travelled Trongsa, staying briefly again at Pari. Stopping over at Taktsang, he gave teachings on the Longchen Nyingtik (klong chen snying thig) and Madhyamaka, and was visited by a number of prominent Bhutanese lamas, including the Tsamdra Lama Orgyen (brtsam grwa bla ma o rgyan, d.u.), the Hepuk Tulku Tenpei Nyima (bstan pa'i nyi ma, d.u.), and the Pagar Geshe Chandra.

It seems that Jangchub Tsondru continued to have reservations about going to Trongsa. He was developing leg problems, and his biography has it that he believed that were he to go to Sikkim instead, he would live longer than were he to go to Trongsa. On his way, in Samtengang (bsam gtan sgang), he gave blessings to lay patrons and performed a fire ritual. The Shabdrung Jigme Norbu (zhabs drung 'jigs med nor bu, 1831-1861) was at Ganteng monastery (sgang steng), and Jangchub Tsondru was received in great style with a procession, songs and dances. All the while representatives of Jigme Namgyel were urging him on to Trongsa.

The political instability of the day – the Eleventh Dalai Lama had died, and there was news that the British were making plans to move into Bhutan – was no doubt partly responsible for the urgency of Jigme Namgyel's invitation. Jangchub Tsondru's biography speaks even of a local deity appearing to Jangchub Tsondru to hurry him onwards to Trongsa.

Arriving at Trongsa Jangchub Tsondru offered a long-life blessing to the ruler. He then announced to his family and disciples that he would enter retreat; when he came out he stated that he would die within the year. He then began teaching on Madhyamaka, Wensa Nyengyu, and White Mahākāla (mgon dkar yid bzhin nor bu), which his disciple wrote them down; all the members of the entourage wore white cloth during this time.

In poor health, Jangchub Tsondru appears not to have given Jigme Namgyel extensive service. He declined the ruler's request for an initiation, citing his illness. He gave the ruler a skull cup and requested he have it gilded; Jangchub Tsondru was not entirely pleased with the result, remarking that the work was “is a little thin, but it is precious and it is a good omen.” He related that in Tsang a medium had reported to him that in Trongsa Dzong he should get an offering of rice beer a good horse, “adorned with many things.” He also stated that the Nechung Oracle had told him that the Eleventh Dalai Lama's death was a result of insufficient offerings, and he recommended to Jigme Namgyel that a temple (? rgyal khang) be build in Trongsa, facing east, for the well being and prosperity of the state.

Jigme Namgyel's subsequent request for an initiation from Jangchub Tsondru, this one for Śrī Heruka, was accepted, and given, following hasty preparations. Jangchub Tsondru then planned to go into retreat in a distant, but Jigme Namgyel refused him permission, offering instead a site in Trongsa, Trongsa Ta Dzong for the purpose. There Jangchub Tsondru continued teaching and giving initiations, including to Jigme Namgyel.

Not long after the ruler left, Jangchub Tsondru passed away, at the age of thirty-nine. He was cremated in Bumtang and the Jampa Lhakang. Offerings in his honor were made to Wensa, Sekhar, and other monasteries in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. Eight stupa were constructed by the government, and Jigme Namgyel requested that Jangchub Tsondru's disciple Kunga Pelzang Zhenpen Rolpai Dorje (kun dga' dpal bzang gzhan phan rol pa'i rdo rje) write the lama's biography. The work was completed in 1859, and the woodblocks were carved at Trongsa.


Adapted from “The fascinating life of lama Jangchub Tsondru (1817-1856) according to his biography.” In Karma Ura and Sonam Kinga, eds., The Spider and the Piglet: Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies. Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2004, pp. 73-89.




Aris, Michael. 1994. The Raven Crown. London: Serindia

Kun dga' dpal bzang po gzhan phan rol ba'i rdo rje. 1859. Rdo rje 'dzin pa chen po 'phrin las mkha' khyab mchog gi rdo rje am Byang chub brtson 'grus kyi rtogs pa brjod pa ngo mtshar nor bu'i snying po. In Byang chub bka' 'bum, vol. ka, 172 folios. (woodblocks preserved at Trongsa dzong. Thimphu: National Library.

Padma Tshedwang. 1994. 'Brug gi rgyal rabs slob dpon padma tshe dbang gis sbyar 'brug gsal ba'i sgron me. Thimphu: National Library.


Françoise Pommaret
January 2010