Part 3: Spiritual activities and institutional legacies

The previous two articles of this series have respectively shown the contextual and biographical backgrounds that saw the emergence of Tsangpa Gyare as a leading religious figure of his time. This final article will deal with the fruition of his destined roles, and the institutional and spiritual legacies that he has left behind. Today, they continue to influence not only religious, but also socio-political practices in Bhutan, while at the same time, being periodically reformed and revitalised in response to emerging circumstances and needs.

Completion of learning and embarkation on practice

Tsangpa Gyare’s main master was Ling Repa. His various biographies give different years for his becoming a disciple of Ling Repa. The biographies composed by Marton and Gyaltangpa give the year 1181 (age 21). The ‘Lhorong Choejung’ and one other source state that he met Ling Repa and received oral instructions at the age of 22 (in 1182). The biographies composed by Dremowa Sangyebum, Lorepa, Pema Karpo, an anonymous biographer and the ‘Lhodruk Choejung’ give the year 1183 (age 23). Thus, he seems to have started to study with Ling Repa from 21 to 23 years old.

Ling Repa recognised Tsangpa Gyare’s potentials and earnestly educated him. When he became a disciple of Ling Repa, monks were doing carpentry to build a monastery in Naphu. Tsangpa Gyare requested Ling Repa to exempt him from carpentry in lieu of monetary compensation so that he could devote his time to write a book. Ling Repa did not grant exemption and instead, admonished and urged him to develop patience, or otherwise be able to accomplish both tasks simultaneously.

Later, Tsangpa Gyare often asked Ling Repa for permission to leave for meditation but was rarely ever allowed. Because of his frequent requests, Ling Repa finally gave him permission to leave for meditation and gave him all oral transmissions in advance. However, Tsangpa Gyare came to fervently regret this.

At the age of 28 (in 1188), Tsangpa Gyare was informed that Ling Repa had died when he returned from Karchu in the Lhodak region after finishing his meditation. So, he rushed to Ling Repa’s location. Tsangpa Gyare strongly regretted that he could not be with his master when he passed away and composed a poem of repentance.

After Ling Repa’s death, Tsangpa Gyare concentrated on meditation retreats with a few of his disciples mainly in Kharchu in Lhodrak and Tsari.

He also engaged important masters of the Kagyü school. He met the first Karmapa Duesum Khyenpa (1110-1193) and received oral instructions on the Six Doctrines of Naropa. He also visited Drikung and met Jigten Gonpo (1143-1217) and became acquainted with his three principal disciples.

Full ordination

Most of his biographies and annals give the year 1193 (age 33) for Tsangpa Gyare’s full ordination, except for the biography composed by Gyaltangpa, which gives the year 1178 (age 18).

There are different accounts regarding Tsangpa Gyare’s preceptor. The biographies composed by Dremowa Sangyebum and Mangala Bhadra state that he received full ordination from the preceptor Zepa. Those composed by Marton, Lorepa and the ‘Lhodruk Choejung’ regard the master Zhang (1122-1193) as his preceptor. The ‘Lhorong Choejung’ states that Tsangpa Gyare received full ordination from both masters Zepa and Zhang. The biography composed by Pema Karpo and one other source state that he received novice ordination from the master Zepa and full ordination from the master Zhang.

Founding of Longdol Monastery

As he accomplished his own vast and extensive education and practices, he gained increasing fame and followership, which prompted him to establish a network of influential monastic centres. The biographies and annals state that the Longdol monastery was founded based on the master Zhang’s prophecy. On the other hand, there are variable accounts about the year of its foundation. Tsangpa Gyare’s biography composed by Gyaltangpa and one other source give the year 1189 (age 29), that composed by Mangala Bhadra gives the year 1193 (age 33), and those composed by Marton and Lorepa give the year 1194 (age 34). At any rate, the Longdol monastery was founded early in his monastic career.

Founding of Ralung Monastery

The head monastery of Ralung, located in upper Nyang, was founded based on the prophecy of a deity according to the biographies and annals. It seems that his master, Ling Repa, owned a small hermitage at Ralung, and thereafter, Tsangpa Gyare expanded the monastery of Ralung which became the head monastery of the Drukpa Kagyü school. Only the biography composed by Gyaltangpa gives the year 1196 (age 36) for its founding.

Founding of Druk  Monastery

The Druk Goenpa or Druk Sewa Jangchubling monastery, primary source of the Drukpa Kagyü school’s name, was founded to the southwest of Lhasa based on Ling Repa’s prophecy. Most of the biographies and annals give the year 1205 (age 45) for its founding. The monastery was founded in his later years if we accept the year 1205.

Collected Works

There are three known versions of the collected works of Tsangpa Gyare, one each from Bhutan, Nepal, and Ladakh. The three versions respectively include different works, so it is necessary to create a systematically integrated version of his collected works by comparing variants found in different versions of overlapping works and appropriately addressing them.

Tsangpa Gyare wrote in many genres, such as Sutrayana philosophy and instruction as well as treatises on Mahamudra and Vajrayana meditation. We can thus see that he was a person of various talents and interests.

The biographies and chronicles also show how the practice of meditation was an important part of his life. They also refer to the education in philosophy that he has received in his childhood, his educating of his disciples and his creative pursuits, such as poetry.

Death, renown,  and legacy

Tsangpa Gyare continued to educate and edify his disciples and left many testaments as oral instructions into his later years. Tens of thousands of disciples are said to have gathered to attend his funeral. The biographies and annals give the same year (1211), date (25th) and time (evening) but different months for his death.

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 Avalokiteshvara, and some of these have been preserved even today. The Ranjung Kharsapani is today Bhutan’s most treasured national relic and remains enshrined in Punakha Dzong.

Through a lifetime of commitment to the study and practice of ascetic spiritual pursuits, Tsangpa Gyare has won unparalleled admiration and respect throughout the Tibetan Buddhist world. Of his resounding fame, it is said that

Half the people are Drukpa Kagyupas,

Half the Drukpa Kagyupas are beggars,

And half the beggars are Drubthobs.

After the founding of Druk Monastery, Tsangpa Gyare 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.

Of particular significance for Bhutan is the ‘Tendrel’ or auspicious circumstances surrounding the founding of the Druk Monastery. It is said that when Tsangpa Gyare and his entourage built the monastery, they heard the sound of thunder, which was regarded as the voice of dragon (Druk). The dragon’s voice foreshadowed the universal fame of Tsangpa Gyare and his lineage. Bhutan, which has inherited its name from this great lineage, today continues to shine and bear this name gloriously on the global stage because of the auspicious circumstances of its origin.

Contributed by 

Seiji Kumagai

 (Uehiro Associate Professor, Kyoto University) and 

Dendup Chophel 

(Associated Researcher, Austrian Academy of Sciences)