Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa

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Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa b.1478 - d.1554

Name Variants: Sonam Drakpa ; Trichen 15 Sonam Drakpa; Tsetang Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa ; Zimkhang Gongma Sonam Drakpa

The Fifteenth Ganden Tripa, Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa (dga'  ldan khri pa 15, khri chen bsod nams grags pa) was born into the family of Nangpa Ralampa (nang pa ra lam pa) that was based near the Tsetang Monastery in Lhoka (lho kha rtse thang dgon pa) in 1478, the earth-dog year of the eighth sexagenary cycle. At the young age Sonam Drakpa received the vows of novice monk from Lechenpo Sonam Tashi (las chen po bsod nams bkra shis, d.u.), who gave him the ordained name Sonam Drakpai Pel (bsod nams grags pa' i dpal).

Sonam Drakpa enrolled at Tsetang Monastery and received his primary monastic education such as reading and writing, and memorization of daily and frequent prayer texts and other root-verses of important texts. He studied Pramāṇa (tshad ma) for some time, and then went to Yabzang (g.ya' bzang) for some clarification on the critical points of the subject with some scholars. There he studied traditional philosophical texts under the tutorship of Choje Dakpo Rabjampa (chos rje dwags po rab 'byams pa, d.u.) and other scholars. He also studied grammar, poetry, composition, and so forth.

Sonam Drakpa travelled to Lhasa and then matriculated at Sera at the age of sixteen. There he studied Abhisamayālaṃkāra, Mādhyamak, Abhidharmakośa, Pramāṇavārttika and Vinaya, the five major subjects of the Geshe Lharampa curriculum, mainly under the three eminent masters: Donyo Pelden (don yod dpal ldan, 1445-1524), the tenth abbot of Sera Monastery; Nyelton Peljor Lhundrub (gnyal ston dpal ' byor lhun grub, 1427-1514) and Tonpa Khetsun Yonten Gyatso (thon pa mkhas btsun yon tan rgya mtsho, 1443-1521). While studying these traditional texts he also received many teachings on tantra. In the meantime he received the vows of full ordination at the age of twenty from Wona Lama Sanggye Zangpo ('od na bla ma sangs rgyas bzang po, d.u.).

At the age of twenty-seven Sonam Drakpa enrolled in the Gyuto College and studied tantra in detail for three years under the tutorship of Tantric Lobpon Choden Lodo (rgyud pa' i slob dpon chos ldan blo gros, d.u.) who gave him many and various teachings, initiations, empowerments, esoteric instructions, and transmissions on tantra. Thus Sonam Drakpa became a scholar in tantra too. He took a demonstrative test in Tsetang Monastery at the age of thirty that remained very impressive and a memorial event. The following year Sonam Drakpa returned to Gyuto College and resumed his further studies in the advanced tantra under the same tutor. He studied the tantra extensively and more deeply. Consequently he became an outstanding scholar in tantra and composed a comprehensive commentary on Tantra in general.

Other teachers of Sonam Drakpa include Kunga Gyeltsen (kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1432-1506), an important Geluk master and historian who studied at Tsetang Monastery and also Rinchen Chozang (rin chen chos bzang, d.u.) whose details are not known.

Sonam Drakpa was appointed to the post of lobpon, the master at Gyuto College at the age of thirty-four and served for fourteen years, giving comprehensive teachings on tantra. He retired from the post at the age of forty-seven but in the following year he was appointed to the abbot of Drepung Loseling Monastery ('bras spung blo gsal gling grwa tshang) by the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (ta la' i bla ma 02 dge ' dun rgya, 1475-1542) who was also one of his teachers. Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa served for five years as the abbot.

At the age of fifty-two, in 1529, Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa was enthroned to seat of the Fifteenth Ganden Tripa and served for seven years with the responsibilities of giving teachings and leading important religious activities and events. After serving till the age of fifty-eight, Trichen Sonam Drakpa retired from the seat and settled in Ganden Monastery, where he lived without official duties for eight years. Thereafter he served as the lama to several monasteries including Kyormolung (skyor mo lung), Pakmo Chode (phag mo chos sde), Nyiding (nyi sdings), and Chode Rinchenling (chos sde rin chen gling).

At the age of sixty-six, Sonam Drakpa accepted the post of abbot in Drepung Monastic University ('bras spung spyi mkhan) and served for four years. He gave the vows of upasaka to the Third Dalai Lama, Sonam Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 03 bsod nams rgya mtsho, 1543-1588) and served as his tutor. Sonam Drakpa then served as the abbot of Sera Monastery for about nine years, from the age of sixty-nine to seventy-seven. Thus this Trichen, Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa was a unique in having served as abbot of all the three main Geluk monasteries in Lhasa.

Some of Sonam Drakpa's disciple included the Twenty-First Ganden Tripa, Gelek Pelzang (dga'  ldan khri pa 21 dge legs dpal bzang, 1505-1567); Lhatsun Sonam Pelzang (lha btsun bsod nams dpal bzang, d.u.) who studied in Tashilhunpo, the Twenty-Fifth Ganden Tripa Peljor Gyatso (dga'  ldan khri pa 25 dpal 'byor rgya mtsho, 1526-1599) and the Second Demo Peljor Tashi (de mo 02 dpal 'byor bkra shis) whose year of birth is not known but who lived for sixty-three years according to sources.

Sonam Drakpa began his major compositions on both sutra and tantra from the age of thirty-six. They include works on Guhyasamāja, commentaries on Prajñāpāramitā, Madhyamaka, Vinaya, Pramāṇa, and Abhidharmakośa, the five the major subjects of Geluk monastic curriculum, as well as history and other subjects. His works were collected into six volumes and constitute some of the main texts still used in most Gelukpa monasteries, especially by Drepung Loseling and Ganden Shartse monasteric colleges. His works are also used as textbooks in some monasteries of Geluk tradition in Mongolia.

At the age of seventy-seven, in 1554, the wood-tiger year of the ninth sexageanry cycle, Trichen Paṇchen Sonam Drakpa passed into nirvana; extensive nirvana-prayers commemorate the anniversary of his death.



Bya bral lha dbang rgya mtsho. 1998. Pan chen bsod nams grags pa'i rnam par thar pa dad pa'i rol rtsed. In Tshad ma rnam 'grel gyi dka' 'grel dgongs pa rab gsal, pp. 1-24. Beijing: Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang.

Don rdor and Bstan 'dzin chos grags. 1993. Gangs ljongs lo rgyus thog gi grags can mi sna. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, pp. 577-580.

Grags pa 'byung gnas and Rgyal ba blo bzang mkhas grub. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 986-988.

Sde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho. 1989 (1698). Dga' ldan chos 'byung baiDU r+ya ser po. Beijing: Krung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, pp. 81-82.


Samten Chhosphel
September 2010