Gorampa Sonam Sengge

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Gorampa Sonam Sengge b.1429 - d.1489

Name Variants: Ngor Khenchen 06 Sonam Sengge; Sonam Sengge

Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge) was born in 1429 in the Gowo (go bo) region of Kham in a place called Bomyungda ('bom yung mda'). His father was Rutsa Zhangkyab (ru tsha zhang skyabs, d.u.) and his mother was Gyelwaman (rgyal ba sman, d.u.). He took monastic vows at age eight or ten under the tutor Kunga Bum (kun dga' 'bum, d.u.) and continued his early studies under Gowo Rabjampa Sherab Pelwa (go bo rab byams pa shes rab dpal ba) and Kachupa Chinzang (bka' bcu pa sbyin bzang), who are recorded to have been extremely impressed with his intellect. A biographical account states that during a period when he was propitiating Mañjughoṣ, he had a special dream about brandishing a dagger in the air. Around the same time he became known as Gorampa, due to his reputation for great learning. Over the course of his life he had many prophetic and visionary dreams.

At age nineteen Gorampa went to Nalendra monastery where he met and received teachings from the great Sakya master Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1367-1449) who passed away just a year later. At twenty-one Gorampa moved on to Drayul Kaytsel ('bras yul skyed tshal) monastic college, where he studied Prajñāpāramitā, Vinya, and Abhidharma with Sanggye Pel (sangs rgyas 'phel, 1412-1485) and others.

In his early twenties, Gorampa fell ill and was prevented from going on a tour of various monastic colleges as he had intended. Instead, in 1453, he went to live at Ngor Evam Choden (ngor E vam chos ldan) where he began to study tantra extensively under Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (ngor chen kun dga' bzang po, 1382-1456). He also received teachings from Muchen Konchok Gyeltsen (mus chen dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1388-1469), Khenchen Khacharwa (mkhan chen kha phyar ba) and Gungru Sherab Zangpo (gung ru shes rab bzang po, 1411-1475). It was Gungru Sherab Zangpo who eventually instructed Gorampa to write his most famous philosophical work, known in English as Distinguishing the View (lta ba'i shan 'byed).

Gorampa was fully ordained when he was twenty-six. He received the full Lamdre teachings twice as well as many other tantric instructions from Kunga Zangpo and the other teachers at Ngor. Among these teachings was the Dākārnava Tantra, which Gorampa passed on to Khenchen Konchok Tsultrim (mkhan chen dkon mchog tshul khrims, d.u.). After Kunga Zangpo passed away in 1456, Gorampa continued his studies at Ngor, primarily under Muchen's guidance. In addition to the teachers already mentioned Gorampa's teachers included Konchok Gyeltsen (dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1388-1469), Kunga Wangchuk (kun dga' dbang phyug, 1424-1478), and Chopel Sherab (chos dpal shes rab, d.u.).

When he was thirty-two Gorampa set out for Kham, having been urged by family members to return home. He stopped to visit Drayul Kaytsal on his way. His former teachers there were so impressed with his learning that they persuaded him to stay and teach. Over the next several years he taught, practiced, and wrote extensively. When his early teacher Sanggye Pel stepped down from the abbacy of Drayul Kaytsel and went into retreat, Gorampa returned and took over as head of the monastery and continued to teach.

In 1466 Gorampa founded Tanak Serling monastery (rta nag gser gling), where he stayed and taught for several years, although he also made occasional teaching trips to other monasteries. He wrote prolifically during that period and composed some of his most important works, receiving support from nobles associated with the Rinpung (rin spungs) court in Tsang. In 1473 Gorampa founded another monastery called Tanak Tubten Namgyel (rta nag thub bstan rnam rgyal), where he established a curriculum that thoroughly addressed both exoteric and esoteric subjects.  He taught there for most of the following decade.

In 1483, Gorampa was enthroned as the sixth abbot of Ngor. He taught various esoteric and exoteric subjects there, particularly Lamdre, until 1486. He then stepped down as abbot and oversaw the enthronement of the seventh abbot, Konchok Pel (dkon mchog 'phel, 1445-1514).

At the various institutions where he spent time, Gorampa was famous as a great teacher. He traveled extensively giving empowerments and instructions to disciples. Some of his most notable students included Bumtrak Sumpa ('bum phrag gsum pa, 1432-1504), Wangchuk Drupa (dbang phyug grub pa, d.u.), Sanggye Rinchen (sangs rgyas rin chen, 1450-1524), Jamyang Kunga Chozang ('jam dbyangs kun dga' chos bzang, 1433-1503) and Konchok Pel, among others.

After turning over the throne at Ngor, Gorampa retuned to Tanak where he taught and wrote extensively until the end of his life. He was on the road to Tanak from Sakya when he fell ill and passed away, in 1489. In the course of his life, due to his great intellect, Gorampa was widely recognized as the reincarnation of Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216).

Gorampa's writings fill thirteen volumes. His most well-known and influential work was the Distinguishing of the View, a highly influential study of Tibetan Madhyamaka that describes in detail different interpretations of the Middle Way philosophy debated in Tibetan monasteries. This work was critical of the views espoused by Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361), of the Jonang tradition, and Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419), founder of the Geluk tradition (dge lugs). As a result, the Tibetan government banned Gorampa's work in U and Tsang during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. His writing seems to have continued to be read and circulated in Kham and Amdo, and today his work serves as the basis for the curriculum at various monasteries associated with Sakya.




Cabezon, Jose Ignacio, and Geshe Lobzang Gargyay. 2007. Freedom from Extremes: Gorampa's Freedom from Extremes and the Polemics of Emptiness. pp. 33-41.

Sangs rgyas phun tshogs. 1985 (17th c.) Dpal e waM chos ldan gyi gdan rabs nor bu'i phreng bzhes bya ba zhugs Dehradun: Sakya Center. pp. 13-14

Van der kuijp, Leonard. 1978. “Phya-pa chos-ski seng-ge's impact on Tibetan epistemological theory.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol 5, number 4.


Dominique Townsend
May 2010