Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen b.1182 - d.1251
Name Variants: Kunga Gyeltsen; Sakya Paṇḍita
Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen (sa skya pan di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan), commonly known as Sapaṇ was born in 1182, the son of Pelchen Wopo (dpal chen 'od po, 1150-1203), who was the son of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po, 1092-1158) and the nephew of Sonam Tsemo (bsod names rtse mo, 1142-1182) and Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216). Sapaṇ's mother was probably Machik Nyitri Cham (ma gcig nyi thri cham).
Sapaṇ was the principal disciple of his uncle, the great master Drakpa Gyeltsen. His early teachers also included Shuton Dorje Kyab (shu ston rdo rje kyabs, d.u.) of Sangpu Monastery (gsang phu), Tsurton Zhonnu Sengge (tshur ston gzhon nu seng ge, d.u.) and Jiwo Lhepa Changchub Wo (ji bo lhe pa byang chub 'od, d.u.), among others. In addition to training in the Sakya Lamdre and the Kadam traditions, he also studied Dzogchen, Zhije, and other systems. Starting in 1204, at the monastery Chumik Ringmo (chu mig ring mo), Sapaṇ became a close disciple of the Kashmiri teacher Śākyaśrībhadra (1140-1225) and also studied under the Indian masters Saṅghaśrī, Danasīla, and Sugataśrī. Sapaṇ took full ordination with Śākyaśrībhadra in 1208, who trained him in the entire span of monastic education then current in the great monasteries of India, including Abhidharma, Vinaya, Prajñāpāramitā, Madhyamaka, logic and epistemology, grammar and poetics. Based on this education Sapaṇ was instrumental in transmitting the Indian system of ten major and ten minor sciences to Tibet.
Sakya Paṇḍita was known as a formidable philosophical debate in both formal public arenas and in writing. In 1240 he traveled to Kyirong (skyid grong) where he famously debated and defeated the Indian scholar Harinanda. His compositions refuting doctrinal positions of the Jonang, Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions continue to exert considerable influence. He authored more than one hundred texts and was also a prolific translator from Sanskrit. His major works include Tshad ma rigs pa'i gter (Treasury of Epistemology) Sdom gsum rab dbye (Clear Differentiation of the Three Vows), Thub pa dgongs pa rab gsal (Clarifying the Sage's Intentions), Legs par bshad pa rin pa che'i gter (Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels), and Mkhas pa rnam 'jug pa'i sgo (Entrance Gate for the Wise). His writings are among the most widely influential in Tibetan literature and prompted commentaries by countless subsequent authors. He taught widely and became renowned across Tibet for his scholarship and skill in teaching.
In 1244 Sakya Paṇḍita received an invitation to the court of the Koden Khan, the son of the supreme Mongolian leader Ogodei and the Khan in charge of the regions of the Mongolian Empire that bordered on Tibet. According to some accounts, it was a Drigung lama who, declining the invitation to go to Mongolia, suggested Koden invite Sakya Paṇḍita instead. Mongolian contact with Tibetan lamas had most likely begun with Chinggis Khan's conquest of Tangut kingdom of Xixia in 1227, and deepened with his successors' invasions of Sichuan and Yunnan regions. In 1240 Koden had sent a reconnaissance mission to Tibet to locate authorities who could submit on behalf of Tibet. Finding only large monasteries and family estates headed by charismatic lamas (ordained or not), the Mongolians logically established relations with lamas. Although these relations were almost certainly political in nature, Tibetan histories, which foreground the religious motivations of the Mongolians in inviting lamas to their courts cannot be entirely discounted, as many members of the ruling families were apparently quite devout.
Sapaṇ, then aged sixty-three, made the journey to meet Koden at Liangzhou, in the Kokonor region. With him he brought his two nephews, the sons of his brother Sonam Gyeltsen (bsod nams rgyal mtshan, 1184-1239). The two young men, Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen ('phags pa blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1235-1280) and Chana Dorje (phyag na rdo rje, 1239-1267), both later played important parts in the history of Tibet, Mongolia, and China. The journey took nearly three years since Sapaṇ stopped at various locations to give Buddhist teachings en route. Some scholars have speculated that Pakpa and his brother, the heirs to the Khon family, accompanied their uncle as hostages. However, it is more likely that they went along simply as disciples and attendants to their teacher and uncle.
Sakya Paṇḍita reached Kodan's camp in 1246, meeting with Koden the following year. Sapaṇ purportedly provided a treatment that cured the Khan's skin disease, possibly leprosy, which put him especially good standing with the Mongols. Sapaṇ aided his nephew Pakpa in developing a script (called the Pakpa script) for Mongolian, which was previously written in Uighur. Although they were not the only Tibetans present, and shared the religious stage with Christians, Muslims, and Chinese of various traditions, Sapaṇ and his nephews' presence at the court was a key factor in the establishment of Buddhism in Mongolia, and he successfully converted many members of the ruling house.
According to Tibetan histories, in 1249 Koden appointed Sapaṇ as temporal ruler of Tibet, although this likely meant very little in terms of real power. Sakya Paṇḍita is said to have sent a letter to other leaders in Tibet urging them to submit to Mongol rule and pay tribute, but the letter seems to have been largely ignored. Nevertheless, Sakya Paṇḍita's relationship with Koden is often cited as a model for the later development of the so-called priest-patron (mchod-yon) relationship between Tibet and its more militarily powerful neighbors, most famously embodied by his nephew Pakpa and Khubilai Khan at the start of the Yuan Dynasty. Sapaṇ's ventures in Mongolian power also helped lay the ground for the long standing tradition of linking Buddhist authority and political rule in Tibet.
Sapaṇ died in Liangzhou in 1251.
Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.
Grags pa 'byung gnas. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 1723-1724.
Dungkar Lobzang Khrinley. 2002. Dunkar Tibetological Great Dictionary (Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo). Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.
Gold, Jonathan. 2008. The Dharma's Gatekeepers: Sakya Paṇḍita on Buddhist Scholarship in Tibet. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Jackson, David. 1983. “Commentaries on the Writings of Sa Skya Paṇḍita: A Bibliographical Sketch” in The Tibet Journal Vol VIII no 3.
Jackson, David. 1987. The Entrance Gate to the Wise (Section III): Sa-skya Paṇḍita on Indian and Tibetan Traditions of Pramāṇa and Philosophical Debate. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien.
van der Kuijp, Leonard. 1983. Contributions to the Development of Tibetan Buddhist Epistemology from the Eleventh to the Thirteenth Century. Weisbaden: Verlag.
Ngor chen kun dga' bzang po. 1968. Chos rje sa skya paNDi ta chen po'i rnam thar gsung sgros ma. In Ngor chen kun dga' bzang po'i bka' 'bum, vol 1, pp. 30-36. Tokyo: The Toyo Bunko.
Rgyal ba dpal. 1995. Dpal ldan sa skya paNDi ta chen po'i rnam par thar pa. In Tshad ma rigs gter rtsa ba dang 'grel pa bzhugs, pp. 1-33. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang.
Roerich, George, trans. 1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas.
Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. 2000. Sakya Dungrab Chenmo. In Holy Biographies of the Great Founders of the Glorious Sakya Order. Trans and ed Lama Kalsang Gyeltsen, Ani Kunga Chodron, and Victoria Huckenpahler. Silver Spring, MD: Sakya Puntsok Ling Publications.
Sakya Paṇḍita. 2002. A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems. Jared Rhoton, trans. New York: SUNY Series in Buddhist Studies.
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.
Yab rje skal ldan rgya mtsho. 1999. Kun dga' rgyal mtshan gyi rnam thar. In Mdo smad sgrub brgyud bstan pa'i shing rta ba chen po phyag na padmo yab rje skal ldan rgya mtsho'i gsung 'bum, vol. 1, pp. 256-264. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang.
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- Historical Period