Part 2: Birth, family background, education and practices

Tsangpa Gyare was a charismatic Buddhist figure whose subsequent lineage holders and spiritual tradition fundamentally shaped the societal and political fabric of proto-Bhutan through a network of monastic estates administered from Ralung. In the seventeenth century, this network eventually enabled a Drukpa lineage hierarch, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, to establish the sovereign Bhutanese nation state. Despite the great formative influence of Tsangpa Gyare on Bhutan’s history, precious little is actually known of his life. What little that is known about him can be shrouded in myths. Thus, this article will reconstruct his life based on a comprehensive analysis of all available textual and material evidence about him, and seek to establish his true historical significance to the Buddhist world in general and to Bhutan in particular. 

Birth and family

Most of Tsangpa Gyare’s biographies, and the annals referring to him, give the same information about his date and place of birth, and his family. Tsangpa Gyare is said to have been born on the morning of the 15th of the first month of summer in the year of the snake (1161).

He is said to have been born in a village of the Gya clan in Saral in Khule at the bottom of the Hawo Kangzang mountain in the upper Nyang region of the eastern Tsang region in central Tibet.

He was born as the youngest among the seven sons of his father Gyazurpo Tsape and mother Marza Darki. His childhood name was Yungdrungpel, and he was called Pelnag by his family members and fellow villagers. According to Tsangpa Gyare’s biography composed by Gyaltangpa, his mother’s name is Mar Darmakyi (a Tibetan who enjoys Buddhism). She was highly intelligent, had a soothing voice with an overwhelming beauty and was a veritable Vajra Dakini.

During her pregnancy, she experienced many miracles; she felt comfortable when she became pregnant, had loving kindness (jampa) and compassion (nyinje), and became devoted to Buddhism. She also dreamt of the sun appearing from her navel. When Tsangpa Gyare was born, she watched flowers showering down from the sky, twin suns, rainbow, and enjoyed plenty of light rays in her bedroom. 

The ‘Lhodruk Choejung’ gives the names of his six brothers as Lhanyen, Lhabum, Kelden, Jotsul, Gompe and Mangtsen.

His grandfather was Gyadarseng, who is said to have had a noble mind and a strong faith in Buddhism. His maternal grandmother was Darmagyen, who is said to have had supernatural knowledge and the marks of a Dakini.

Bon influence

Tsangpa Gyare’s family seems to have had a strong relationship with the Bon religion. Both Buddhist and Bonpo monks are said to have performed rituals and educated Tsangpa Gyare after his birth.

Among his brothers, Kelden seems to have been his tutor. Kelden took Tsangpa Gyare to see a Bon master who educated him during his childhood. Tsangpa Gyare kept up a relationship with the Bon master and studied with him even after becoming a Buddhist monk. While the master seems to have belonged to the Bon religion, he must have taught Buddhism to Tsangpa Gyare as there is no evidence that he studied the Bon doctrines. There is actually no trace of either doctrinal or customary influence of Bon in his collected works. So, Tsangpa Gyare probably learnt only Buddhism from the Bonpo master, a highly probable scenario given the fluid mixing of Bon and Buddhism in actual practice.

The biographies and annals state that Tsangpa Gyare was a noble, handsome and wise child. Even in his play-act, he is said to have pleased people by building temples, teaching Dharma, and practicing his Bodhisattva vows. Such noble dispositions and behaviours proved that Tsangpa Gyare was wise and had the requisite personality to become a monk.

Most of these sources state that Tsangpa Gyare was loved by his parents, family members and relatives even though one source mentions that his father did not especially cherish him because he had many sons. They give scant descriptions of his father, while they refer to many positive virtues and conducts of his mother, such as auspicious experiences at the times of his birth and her death. It thus seems that his mother influenced Tsangpa Gyare and formed his character much more than his father in his childhood.

Many of the biographies and annals state that his mother passed away when Tsangpa Gyare was eight years old (in 1168), while the biography composed by Gyaltangpa, the Ladakhi version of his biography composed by Mangala Bhadra and the ‘Lhorong Choejung’ give the year 1167 (at the age of seven).


The name Tsangpa Gyare means “cotton-clad practitioner from the Gya family of the Tsang region” and describes the fact that he was a retreat meditator wearing only a thin cotton cloth. From the title of Repa, one may surmise that he was a lay practitioner in retreat. However, he also had the aspect of a fully ordained monk.

Tsangpa Gyare seems to have renounced the secular world at around 12 years of age, although the year of his renunciation differs according to each biography and annal. The biographies composed by Dremowa Sangyebum and Marton give the year 1171 (age 11); that by Lorepa gives the year 1171 or 1172 (age 11 or 12); and those by Mangala Bhadra, Pema Karpo and an anonymous biographer give the year 1172 (age 12).

The master who cut Tsangpa Gyare’s hair when he renounced the world is regarded as Tathangpa in many biographies. But the biographies composed by Gyaltangpa and Mangala Bhadra affirm that it was done by the Bon master. The ‘Lhorong Choejung’ states that Tsangpa Gyare renounced in front of the Bon master at age 12 (in 1172) and renounced in front of Tathangpa at age 13 (in 1173); that is, he became a Bonpo monk and then a Buddhist monk.

He has two Dharma names. The biographies composed by Dremowa Sangyebum, Marton, Lorepa and Pema Karpo give the name Sherab Dutsi Khorlo. On the other hand, the biography composed by Mangalabhadra, the ‘Lhorong Choejung’ and one other source give the name Sherab Pel. Sherab Dutsi Khorlo seems to be his full name, while Sherab Pel is presumed to be an integrated version of his Dharma name Sherab Dutsi Korlo and his lay name Yungdrungpel.

Education and practices

After his renunciation, Tsangpa Gyare studied both sutras and tantras with many scholars and masters. He studied Vajrayana Buddhism such as tantras, meditation practices and rituals while he studied Sutrayana Buddhism such as Pramaṇa, Madhyamaka and Paramita. His collected works also prove that he studied both Sutrayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.

Tsangpa Gyare’s biographies state that he studied the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). But he did not write any treatise about the Great Perfection. He may not have written about the doctrine belonging to another sect, which he may have studied only secondarily.

Similarly, as already mentioned, though he received education from a Bonpo master, no work on the Bonpo doctrine can be found in his collected works.

There is one episode that proves his mastery of Sutrayana Buddhist philosophy, a debate with his master Ling Repa. Tsangpa Gyare was asked one day by his master Ling Repa to have a debate. He initially refused the proposal to avoid debating against his master, but Ling Repa ordered him to ask a question. Tsangpa Gyare then asked him a question about the definition of the “body of reality” (Dharmakaya), and Ling Repa answered that the definition is “that which has no arising, ceasing and dwelling”. Tsangpa Gyare pointed out the contradiction: “In that case, the space would also become the body of reality.” Ling Repa admitted his own contradiction, appreciated Tsangpa Gyare’s eminent competency at debate and prohibited him from further debating with the other disciples to avoid potential jealousy and conflict. 

Contributed by 

Seiji Kumagai

 (Uehiro Associate Professor, Kyoto University) and 

Dendup Chophel 

(Associated Researcher, Austrian Academy of Sciences)