Drenpa Namkha 8th cent.
Name Variants: Lotsāwa Dranpa Namkha; Pungbon Gomar
Drenpa Namkha (dran pa nam mkha') is claimed by both the Buddhist and Bon traditions as an important religious figure. The sources discussing Drenpa Namkha’s life very widely, even within a single tradition: within Bon sources there is thought to be one master with the name Drenpa Namkha in Zhang Zhung and one in Tibet, though his existence is never questioned. Little can be known for certain.
According to Buddhist sources Drenpa Namkha was initially a Bon master who converted to Buddhism. He later became one of the twenty-five disciples of Padmasambhava, and is said to have gained the yogic power of being able to tame wild yak with the wave of a hand.
Padmasambhava initiated him into the secret mantra and gave him a red lotus hat, earning him the name Pungbon Gomar (phung bon mgo dmar), the source of his being depicted with a Bonpo hat. He instructed him to practice at Lake Namtso (gnam mtsho). He is said to have expressed his realization with the statement: “There is no use to introduce distinctions into the shining knowledge of the mutual sphere of sentient beings.”
Drenpa Namkha is given credit for organizing many of the Dzogchen Semde (rdzogs chen sems sde) and then disseminated the translations, commentaries, and oral teachings of Padmasambhava.
Within Bon sources, Drenpa Namkha is a highly reputed teacher, believed to have been born in the eight century in Khyunglung Ngulkhar (khyung lung dngul mkhar). Bon legend tells that Drenpa Namkha married a woman Oden Barma ('od ldan 'bar ma), who was born of high-cast Indian parents. The couple had twin sons. The first was named Yungdrung Donsal (yung drung don gsal) who would later be named Tsewang Rigdzin (tshe dbang rig 'dzin). The second was named Pema Tongdrol (padma thong grol). It is said that through meditations Tsewang Rigdzin accomplished the feat of long life, while Pema Tongdrol gained dangerous and powerful magical powers. Both are now revered as Bon saints.
After some time, Drenpa Namkha and his wife separated and the two children followed different parents. Tsewang Rigdzin stayed with his father, and Pema Tongdrol left with his mother. The two twins subsequently lived very different lives: Tsewang Rigdzin lived a quiet, contemplative life of retreat, and Pema Tongdrol was adopted by a barren royal couple and spent his life practicing his magical, mystical gifts. Bon mythology conflate Pema Tongdrol with Padmasambhava.
Drenpa Namkha is credited with authoring a number of texts, both written and orally transmitted through a terma system. He is said to have written the most important commentary on the Dzopuk (mdzod phug), a text that is thought within the Bon imagination to be the word of Tonpa Shenrab (ston pa gshen rab), the founder of the Bon tradition.
Bon sources maintain there was a persecution of Bon adherents and Bon practices in Tibet after the establishment of Samye (bsam yas) Monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. It is said that many Bon priests were banished from U-Tsang, and those that stayed outwardly adopted Buddhist practices and concealed their scripture in order to save them from destruction. Bon histories have it that Drenpa Namkha was one of these who remained, thereby explaining his conversion to Buddhism as an act of preservation of the Bon tradition.
Several later masters were said to be reincarnations of Drenpa Namkha, both Bon and Buddhist treasure revealers. These include Bonpo Traksel (bon po brag tshal, d.u.), Rigdzin Trinle Lhundrub (rig 'dzin phrin las lhun grub, d.u.), and Drenpa Zungi Namtrul (dren pa zung gi rnam 'phrul, d.u.).
Gyermi Nyi O (gyer mi nyi 'od, d.u.), who lived in the twelfth century, claimed to be a disciple of his and to have received orally transmitted texts from him via visions. The Bon treasure revealer Sanggye Lingpa (sangs rgyas gling pa, b.1700) also received visions of Drenpa Namkha. He taught that Drenpa Namkha had visited both Mt. Murdo (dmu rdo) in Gyarong (rgyal rong) and Mt. Kailash in Ngari (mnga' ris). Sanggye Lingpa established a pilgrimage, circumambulating Mt. Kailash and Mt. Murdo in the horse month and especially in the horse year.
The stone statue depicted here was excavated from a hilltop in western Tibet by the celebrated Bon lama Khyungtrul Jikme Namkha Dorje ('khyung sprul 'jigs med nam mkha' rdo rje, 1897-1956) in the 1930s. According to him it is a likeness of Drenpa Namkha. It was found at a site that in the local Bon tradition is identified with the Khyunglung Ngulkhar (khyung lung dngul mkhar), a capital of Zhang Zhung. This exceptionally rare statue appears to have been fashioned in a style peculiar to Zhang Zhung.
Karmay, Samten. 1972. The Treasury of Good Sayings. London: Oxford University Press, pp. xxxii.
Karmay, Samten. 2007. “A Historical Overview of the Bon Religion.” In Bon: The Magic Word, The Indigenous Religion of Tibet. New York: Rubin Museum of Art.
Karmay, Samten. 1998. The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu, Nepal: Mandala Print Point.
Ramble, Charles. 2007. “The Bon Tradition of Sacred Geography.” In Bon: The Magic Word, The Indigenous Religion of Tibet. New York: Rubin Museum of Art.
Gu ru bkra shis. 1990. Gu bkra’i chos ’byung. Beijing: Krung go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, p. 174.
Tarthang Tulku. 1975. Bringing the Teachings Alive. Cazadero, CA: Dharma Publishing, pp. 77-78. TBRC W19801 http://tbrc.org/link/?RID=P4261#library_work_Object-W19801
Arthur Mandelbaum with additional information by John Bellezza
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- Historical Period