Jikten Gonpo Rinchen Pel

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Jikten Gonpo Rinchen Pel b.1143 - d.1217

Name Variants: Dorje Pel; Drigung Kyobpa Jikten Gonpo; Drigungpa Rinchen Pel; Jigten Sumgon; Kyobpa Jikten Gonpo; Rinchen Pel; Tsunpa Kyab; Welbar Tar

Jikten Gonpo Rinchen Pel ('jig rten mgon po rin chen dpal) was born to an illustrious clan called the Kyura (skyu ra) at a town in Kham called Tsungu (tsu ngu), in 1123. His father was a tantric specialist in Vajrabhairava practices, and even headed a group of five hundred practitioners. His mother had some sympathies with Bon, so after his birth she called a Bonpo for the naming ceremony. His first name was thus a Bon name, Welbar Tar (dbal 'bar thar). This was later changed to Tsunpa Kyab (btsun pa skyabs), and later on Dorje Pel (rdo rje dpal)

Already as a young child, Tsunpa Kyab demonstrated an aptitude for memorization, reading and meditation. It is said that by age eight he had clear visions of deities, and in the following year he started instructing others in meditation. Biographies describe him as the sort of person who simply could not bear to see other beings in distress. Once he found a dog that had nearly died of hunger. No other food being available, Tsunpa Kyab vomited out the contents of his stomach in order to feed it. He was even known to offer massages to lepers. When there was a widespread famine, his father was forced to sell his Vajrabhairava texts in exchange for barley to feed his family. Years later Jikten Gonpo would tell this story with the comment, “Never get married. If you do you will have children, and if you are unable to feed them you will end up selling all your refuges like my father did, since eating is necessary.”

Tsunpa Kyab's father died when he was fifteen, and his mother passed away a year later. He was forced to support himself and his siblings from donations he received in return for reading scriptures in people's houses. When a younger sister married a man named Akhar (a mkhar) as his second wife, she was unable to withstand his abuse and committed suicide. Akhar, possibly out of regret, become an important patron for Jikten Gonpo in his early years of meditation retreats. Akhar's name  appears on the back of a magnificent circa 13th-century painting of Marpa Chokyi Lodro (mar pa chos kyi blo gros, c.1012-1097), credited with sponsoring the work.

Tsunpa Kyab developed a reputation as a healer and a magician, and was sought out for his blessings. According to legend, a thief once stole an ox and a horse from Akhar, and then proceeded to Tsunpa Kyab's hermitage and demanded to have everything he possessed. Before long he was satisfied that there was nothing there worth stealing and left. That very night while enjoying a beer with his friends he fell down dead.

Tsunpa Kyab is said to have first heard the name of Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (phag mo gru pa rdo rje rgyal po, 1110-1170) from a Tibetan paṇḍita who had just come back from U-Tsang. His biography reports his heart was stirred up by devotion just like the leaves of a tree fluttering in the wind. He was twenty-five when he traveled to U. Upon his arrival at Densatil (gdan sa thil), he was unable to meet Pakmodrupa for three days. Then he went into his presence bearing gifts of brocade and a horse. Pakmodrupa refused to accept the horse, saying that doing so would be an omen that he would soon leave for another place, perhaps even die. Tsunpa Kyab felt as if he were being scolded, and wept, begging to be accepted as a disciple. Pakmodrupa said, “I will take special care of you, and grant you all the teachings you desire, so why the unhappiness?”

It is said that he received the entire span of Pakmodrupa's teachings over the course of just two days, starting with generating bodhicitta and continuing through Mahāmudrā. He concentrated so intently on the practices that he hardly had a chance to prepare food or even time to eat. Sometimes he just drank water with ashes mixed into it, or heated his gruel by burning tree leaves instead of wood.

Tsunpa Kyab never took ordination, studying and practicing as a layman. Although Pakmodrupa often urged him to become a monk, and he did take the Bodhisattva vows along with the name Rinchen Pel,  he remained a layperson for the two and a half years (some say thirty-two months) that he stayed with Pakmodrupa.

When Pakmodrupa died, Rinchen Pel went on to study with a master of Lamdre (lam 'bras) teachings named Tsilungpa (tsi lung pa, 12th century), and a number of other teachers of various schools. Then he went into a five-year retreat at Yechung (dbye chung) where he concentrated on generation and completion stages of tantric meditation. Later, during another two-year retreat at Yechung he contracted the dreaded disease of leprosy in his foot. At first he felt that he was the lowest of the low, but then it occurred to him how fortunate he was to have the highest teachings from Pakmodrupa including those on the post-mortem state and transference so that he had no need to fear death. Finally, he felt sorrow at the thought that there were so few people who have these teachings. According to tradition, while meditating he felt the disease going out of his foot like dust swept away in the wind, or like a field being plowed. Eventually he had a vision of a giant snake-spirit going to another valley and at last he fully recovered. Based on his own experience he devised a practice that other victims of the disease could use to cure themselves.

At the age of thirty-five Rinchen Pel finally fulfilled his teacher's wishes by taking monastic vows. It was the year 1177. For a while he served as abbot of Densatil, where he required the monks' strictest adherence to the Vinaya rules of discipline. According to The Blue Annals he was forced out after only a few years, and so he went to meditate at a place that was then occupied by a teacher named Lama Menyak (bla ma me nyag). About a hundred students gathered around him there, and in 1179 he established Drigung Jangchub Ling ('bri gung byang chub gling), an institution that would grow into the seat of the Drigung Kagyu tradition. Some time before his death Jikten Gonpo assigned his cousin, Dorje Sengge (rdo rje seng ge, born c. 1200), to administer the civil affairs of Drigung. Dorje Sengge was given the title of Drigung Gompo ('bri 'gung sgon po), Protector of Drigung, the first in a long line of civil administrators.

He continued to supervise Densatil, for a time in uneasy partnership with Taklungtangpa Tashi Pel (stag lung thang pa bkra shis dpal, 1142-1209), his fellow disciple of Pakmodrupa. In 1198 they collaborated on the construction of a major temple at Densatil to house the reliquary of Pakmodrupa. Further controversy erupted when he decided that his master's books were not being well maintained at Densatil and decided to move them to Daklha Gampo (dwags lha sgam po), Gampopa Sonam Rinchen's (sgam po pa bsod nam rin chen, 1078-1153) monastery. According to The Blue Annals, Takluntangpa's anguish at this move caused his early death. In 1208 Jikten Gonpo sent his disciple Chennga Drakpa Jungne (spyan nga sgrags pa 'byung gnas, 1175-1255) to Densatil to serve as abbot, a post he held until being recalled to Drigung in 1235.

After some years of traveling at the invitation of various patrons who wished to receive his teachings Jikten Gonpo once more settled down at Drigung. By the early 1190's there were as many as four thousand monks attending his teachings, as many as thirteen thousand by the year 1200. During this time he often recommended that his serious students do retreats at the holy places of Tsari (tsa ri) in the east, Mount Tise (ti se) in the west, and Lachi (la phyi) in the south.

As an elderly man his fame had reached as far as the kingdoms of the Tanguts, the Khitans and China. Since he had become a vegetarian at the time he became a monk — he was a lifelong teetotaler — he refused the medicine made of yak lungs prescribed by his doctor. As his health declined, he passed on the abbot's chair to Gurawa Tsultrim Dorje (gu ra ba tshul khrims rdo rje, 1154-1221), and passed away while seated in meditation posture. Accordint to tradition, when his body was cremated his skull did not burn in the fire, but was found to have a complete maṇḍala of Cakrasaṃvara inscribed inside it. His nephew and disciple Sherab Jungne (shes rab 'jung gnas), who would later serve as the third abbot of Drigung, took responsibility for building the Ornament of the World ('dzam gling rgyan) as a reliquary for his remains to serve as a focus of devotion for future generations.

Jikten Gonpo and his Drigung lineage are best known for the set of teachings known as The Five Profound Paths of Mahāmudrā (phyag chen lnga ldan). Some of his sayings were collected by Sherab Jungne into what is known as the Single Intention (dgongs gcig), teachings of a profoundly philosophical character further developed in commentarial works written in the following generation. Some of Jikten Gonpo's teachings were collected by yet another disciple into what is known as the Heart of the Great Vehicle's Teachings (theg chen bstan pa'i snying po).




Dbon shes rab 'byung gnas. 1995. Skyob pa'i rnam thar phyogs bcu dus gsum ma. Dehra Dun: 'Bri gung bka' brgyud rdo rje dbyings gtsug lag slob gnyer khang. TBRC W29634.

Dkon mchog rgya mtsho. 2003. 'Bri gung skyob pa 'jig rten gsum mgon gyi rnam thar snying bsdus. Lhasa: Lha sa bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W29147.

Khenpo Konchog Gyeltsen. 1984. Prayer Flags: The Life and Spiritual Teachings of Jigten Sumgon. Ithaca: Snow Lion.

Khenpo Konchog Gyeltsen. 1990. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Ithaca: Snow Lion (Ithaca 1990), pp. 220-69.

Kun dga' rin chen. 2003. 'Jig rten mgon po rin chen dpal gyi rnam thar tshogs kyi bang mdzod. In Gsung 'bum / kun dga' rin chen, vol. 1, pp. 132-162. Delhi: Drigung Kargyu Publications. TBRC W23892.

Liu Kuo-wei. 2001.'Jig rten mgon po and the Single Intention (dgongs gcig): His View on Bodhisattva Vow and Its Influence on Medieval Tibetan Buddhism. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.

Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, pp. 596-601.

Sobisch, Jan-Ulrich. 2202. Three-Vow Theories in Tibetan Buddhism. Wiesbaden: Verlag, pp. 329-35.

Sperling, Elliot. 1987. "Some Notes on the Early 'Bri-gung-pa Sgom-pa." Journal of the Tibet Society, pp. 33-56.

See TBRC for an extensive list of biographical material.


Dan Martin
August 2008