The First Drukchen, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje

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The First Drukchen, Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje b.1161 - d.1211

Name Variants: Drowai Gonpo Yeshe Dorje; Drukchen 01 Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje; Gyare Yeshe Dorje; Sherab Dutsi Dorje; Yeshe Dorje

Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje (gtsang pa rgya ras ye shes rdo rje) was the youngest of seven children, born on the slopes of Habo Gangzang (ha bo gangs bzang) in Upper Nyang (nyang stod) in 1161. He belonged to the highly regarded Gya (rgya) clan. His parents, who already had many mouths to feed, handed him over to a Bonpo who gave him the name Yungdrung Pel (g.yung drung dpal).

When Tsangpa was eight, his mother died, and he spent most of young years boarding with his teachers. When he was twelve, his older brother Kelden (skal ldan) took him to Tsangrong (gtsang rong) where he continued his studies. He stayed for three years with his teacher Tatangpa (rta thang pa), who gave him his first tonsure and novice vows. Starting when he was fifteen, he spent an eight-year period under Kharlungpa (mkhar lung pa) learning a large variety of texts and practices, ranging from the common scholastic subjects of Abhidharma and logic to the most esoteric teachings of Zhije and Dzogchen.

At the tender age of twenty-two, while studying with Kharlungpa, he taught Buddhism to a group of people for the first time and was given the position of teaching assistant. Soon after this he went to Ralung, where he met Lingrepa Pema Dorje (gling ras pa pad+ma rdo rje, 1128-1188), who would eventually become his most important teacher, but not at first. Tsangpa Gyare later established Shedrub Chokhor Ling (bshad grub chos 'khor gling), in 1193.

At Ralung he had some heart-to-heart discussions with Lingrepa and he did experience the Lama's blessings, but he soon went on a pilgrimage to Lhasa and Samye and other holy sites. Eventually he met again with Lingrepa, who was traveling to give teachings at the request of one of his patrons in Trengpo Zhora ('phreng po zho ra). Meanwhile, Tsangpa, who was known to his fellow accolytes as Gyaton (rgya ston), the “Teacher of the Gya clan”, had come down with the "black pustule" ('brum nag) disease, which very likely means the dreaded bubonic plague.

Tonpa Dorgyal (ston pa rdor rgyal) said to Lingrepa, "Gyaton's black pustules are in danger of spreading to others, so he ought to be taken to Zangdo Cave (zangs rdo phug)."

Lingrepa responded by saying that the afflicted ones should be taken to his own retreat place called Napu (sna phu). Tonpa Dorgyal, who had complained about the danger, was sent along to be Tsangpa's personal nurse. Tsangpa soon recovered, even before going to Napu. But the climate there did not agree with him and the disease flared up. Once he was well again, he tried to meditate based on Mahāmudrā, but had trouble getting started.

So the brethren told him, “This problem is because when Napuwa (sna phu ba), a common epithet of Lingrepa, came to Ralung (rwa lung) you failed to request a dharma connection.”

In his later years Tsangpa looked back on this and said, “It wasn't that I only had esteem for the brethren and that I was lacking in veneration for the Lama. What they said hurt me, and I thought, ‘Ouch! I must find out how much of this Lama's blessings will enter in and by just how many of his good qualities I can be infected.”

‘Calling the day night,' as the saying goes, he applied himself with renewed energy to the spiritual practices and had such fine meditative experiences that he was unable to get off of his cushion. Telling his teacher about these experiences, Lingrepa said, "That's all. From now on you will be having unadulterated realizations."

A little while later, he would have experiences in which the whole external world would turn into something like a thin shell or a mist, and this would make him extremely happy. Lingrepa said, “Well, that's what we call realization. It would be great if you could keep it up.”

Although Tsangpa Gyare did study scriptural texts with Lingrepa, he also went for specialized tantra studies, as did most early Kagyupas, to a member of the Ngok (rngog) family. In his case he studied with Ngok Dorje Sengge (rngog rdo rje seng ge). He was visiting this same teacher when, on his return, he met on the road two women meditators who told him the sad news of Lingrepa's death. Monks might be expected to control their grief, but Tsangpa Gyare pounded himself with his fists, wept aloud and composed a sorrowful song that made everyone else weep along with him. In the months that followed he was preoccupied with the memorial building and funerary rites.

While the finding of textual treasures (gter ma) is usually associated with the Nyingma school, it is not exclusively so, and Tsangpa Gyare is credited with the discovery of important treasures. When Tsangpa Gyarepa was deciding on a place for an extended retreat, Lingrepa had urged him not to go to Tise or Tsari as was common in those days. He sent him instead to Kharchu (mkhar chu), a river valley that leads into what is today called Bhutan. There he discovered the text of a teaching said to have been authored by the Indian Tipupa (ti phu pa) that was granted to his disciple Rechungpa. According to legend, since there were no suitable vessels for the teaching at the time, Rechungpa concealed the text in Kharchu. The secret of its place of concealment was passed on through the lineage through Sumpa (sum pa) to Lingrepa, who told Tsangpa Gyarepa where to look for it. This was the The Six Cycles of Equal Taste (ro snyom skor drug).

The epithet Tsangpa Gyare signifies first that he was native to Tsang Province, and secondly, that he was a repa (ras pa) or ‘cotton-clad one' belonging to the Gya (rgya) clan. He became famous throughout the central parts of Tibet under the name Tsangpa Gyarepa only a year or two prior to 1193 when he met Lama Zhang (bla ma zhang). This meeting occurred very shortly before this famous teacher's death. Lama Zhang predicted that he would greatly benefit living creatures if he became a monk, so he took full ordination later that year along with the name Yeshe Dorje (ye shes rdo rje).

Tsangpa Gyare's later years were largely occupied with teaching. Sometimes he stayed a few years in one place, but much of the time he toured the central parts of Tibet at the request of abbots and others. In about the middle of the decade of the 1190's he founded Longdol (klong rdol) Monastery, said to have been located not far from Lhasa, but further south along the banks of the Kyichu (skyid chu) River. After a few years the community had increased to about five hundred. A sign of his increasing public stature, he was asked to mediate between warring parties at Nyetang (snye thang) Monastery.

In 1205 Tsangpa Gyare founded the Druk ('brug) Monastery, the monastery that gave the Drukpa its name, and there he gave a series of public empowerments. It was said that half the population of Tibet's central province was present. Still, despite or because of all the increasing public activity, he continued to seek the solitude of remote retreat places. He also sent many of his students into long-term retreats. They say they filled the entire range of the Himalayas and beyond, covering a distance as far as a vulture could fly in eighteen days.

When Tsangpa Gyare died, his body was cremated, and many miracles were reported: his heart and tongue came out of the fire without being burned, and many crystalline relics called ringsel were also found. His vertebrae turned into twenty-one images of Avalokiteśvara, and some of these have been preserved even today. Two his disciples are known as founders of two sub-lineages of the Drukpa school. One is the Upper Druk (stod 'brug), founded by Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje (rgod tshang pa mgon po rdo rje, 1189-1258). The other is the Lower Druk (smad 'brug), founded by Lorepa Wangchuk Tsondru (lo ras pa dbang phyug brtson 'grus, 1187-1250).




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Dan Martin
August 2008