Sachen Kunga Nyingpo

ISSN 2332-077X

Print this Biography
Cite this biography

Sachen Kunga Nyingpo b.1092 - d.1158

Name Variants: Kunga Nyingpo; Sakyapa Chenpo Kunga Nyingpo

Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po) was the son of Khon Konchok Gyelpo ('khon dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034-1102), the first Sakya throne holder and the founder of Sakya monastery. Sachen's mother was known as Machik Zhangmo (ma gcig zhang mo, d.u.).

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 Lotsāwa (ba ri Lo tsa ba rin chen grags pa, 1040-1112), the second Sakya throne holder and a great translator, was an important early teacher for Sachen. Khon Konchok Gyelpo passed away when Sachen was eleven, at which time Bari Lotsāwa took the Sakya throne since Sachen was too young to replace his father. Over the course of his education, Darma Senggye (dar ma seng+ge, d.u.); Darma Nyingpo (dar ma snying po, d.u.); Bari Lotsāwa Rinchen Drakpa; Chak Tarwa (lcags thar ba, d.u.); Drakchor Sherab (grags 'byor shes rab, d.u.); Chokyi Gyeltsen (chos kyi rgyal mtshan, d.u.); and Zhangton Chobar (zhang ston chos 'bar, 1053-1135), aka Gonpawa, would be among his most influential teachers.

At the age of twelve, under Bari Lotsāwa's guidance, Sachen did a six-month retreat on Mañjuśrī 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 Ngurmik (rong ngur smig) to meet the teacher Darma Nyingpo and receive instructions on the Abhidharmakośa. While at Rong Ngurmik, Sachen contracted smallpox from a sick monk whom he reportedly nursed to health. Sachen recovered and was able to continue his studies under Darma Nyingpo. He returned to Sakya in order to receive teachings from the elderly Bari Lotsāwa. Just before passing away in 1111, Bari Lotsāwa 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 Dralhawar ('khon skyi chub gra lha wa, d.u.). From him Sachen received the Hevajra teachings transmitted by Drokmi Śākya Yeshe ('brog mi ShAkya ye shes, 992/993-1043/1072) and Go Lotsāwa ('gos lo tsa ba, d.u.) as well as Cakrasaṃvara teachings transmitted by Pamtingpa (pham 'thing pa, d.u.). 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 Karchungba, but was unable to receive many teachings before the old teacher passed away. He later studied with Khon Gyichu Dralhawar's teacher, Mal Lotsāwa Lodro Drakpa (mal lo tsa ba blo gros grags pa, d.u.), who gave Sachen teachings on Cakrasaṃvara, Yamari, Panjaranatha and the yoga tantras. Mal Lotsāwa also gave him a black Mahākāla 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 Chobar (zhang ston chos 'bar, 1053-1135), a former student of Se Karchungba (se 'khar chung ba, d.u.). When Sachen went to ask for the teachings, he found Zhangton 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. Zhangton 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 Zhangton realized Sachen was the son of Khon Konchok Gyelpo, 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 Zhangton Chobar. At the age of forty-six he had a vision in which Virūpa 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 (a seng, d.u.) an important lama from Kham, followed by Sachen's own sons Sonam Tsemo (bsod nam rtse mo, 1142-1182) and Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216).

Sachen had many prominent students, including Pakmodrupa (phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po, 1110-1170). 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 Drakpa Gyeltsen, 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, d.u.), died in his early twenties while returning from a period of study in India. The youngest son, Pelchen Wopo (dpal chen 'od po, d.u.) never held the throne but went on to father Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen (sa skya paN+Di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251), the important scholar and fourth Sakya patriarch. Sachen had two consorts, sisters from a noble family in Tsamo-rong. The elder sister, Machik Wodron was the mother of Sonam Tsemo, Drakpa Gyeltsen and Pelchen 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 Nyak Wangchuk Gyeltsen (dbang chug rgyal mtshan) is arguably the most lastingly significant of these works and was later annotated by Sachen's son Drakpa Gyeltsen. The Dorje Tsig kang, Sachen's commentary, and Drakpa Gyeltsen'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 Zhangton 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.




Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dungkar Lobzang Khrinley. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.

Drakpa Jungne and Lobzang Kedrup. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming dzod. Kan su'u mi rigs skrun khang.

Ngorchen Khonchog Lhundrub. 2002. Three Visions: Fundamental Teachings of the Sakya Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Lobzang Drakpa and Jay Goldberg, trans. Ithaca NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Roerich, George, trans. 1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.

Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. Sakya Dun grab Chen mo. Cho Trin Vol. 1 Number 1.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam ‘bras Traditions in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2006. Taking the Path as the Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdre Tradition. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.


Dominique Townsend
December 2009