Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo

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Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo b.1382 - d.1456

Name Variants: Dorje Chang Kunga Zangpo; Kunga Zangpo; Ngorchen 01 Kunga Zangpo; Ngorchen Rinchen Chok

Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (ngor chen kun dga' bzang po) was born in 1382 at Sakya monastery in Tibet. His mother was Sonam Pelden (bsod nams dpal ldan). The identity of his father is somewhat complicated. According to the biography writen by his chief disciple, Muchen Konchok Gyeltsen (mus chen dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1388-1469), Ngorchen's father was Pontsang Drupa Yonten (grub pa yon tan) (dpon tshang grub pa yon tan), the "great attendant" (nye gnas chen po) of the Sakya Tsok, which was most likely a special section of the Sakya general assembly. His forefathers, after having moved from Dringtsam ('bring mtshams) to Sakya, had lived as nomads and then served as personal valet (gsol ja ba) to the head lama of the Zhitok Labrang (gzhi thog bla brang) at Sakya. However, some sources have it that Pontsang Drupa Yonten was only Ngorchen's father outwardly (phyi ltar), and that inwardly (nang ltar), his hidden or secret father (sbas pa'i yab) was Tawen Kunga Rinchen (ta dben kun dga' rin chen, 1339-1399) of the Zhitok Labrang, who served as the Seventeenth Sakya Tridzin.

At age six Kunga Zangpo began his formal studies and at nine he took lay and novice monastic vows from his early teacher, Sharchen Yeshe Gyeltsen (shar chen ye shes rgyal mtshan, 1359- 1406). Under Sharchen's guidance, Kunga Zangpo went on to take full monastic, bodhisattva, and mantrayana vows, and became an expert in both sutra and tantra. He had an especially strong grasp of the rituals and practices particular to Sakya and became Yeshe Gyeltsen's principle disciple.

At age twenty-five, after Yeshe Gyeltsen passed away, Kunga Zangpo traveled to Shang Chokor Kang (shangs chos 'khor sgang) to study with Kyabchok Pelzang (skyabs mchog dpal bzang, d.u.). During his studies with Kyabchok Pelzang, Ngorchen was not able to receive the full Lamdre transmission, and afterwards he searched for a qualified Lamdre teacher. In Sakya, however, qualified teachers had either recently passed away or were not present at the time. Ngorchen then heard about Buddhaśrī (bu d+ha shrI, 1339-1420) aka Sanggye Pel (sangs rgyas dpal), who was at Zhe Monastery (zhe dgon). It is said that when he arrived at Zhe he found the monastery and Buddhaśrī exactly as he had previously seen them in a vision.

After studying with Buddhaśrī at Zhe, Kunga Zangpo returned with this master to Sakya where he continued to study with him. In addition to the masters mentioned above, Kunga Zangpo's teachers included Pelden Tsultrim (dpal ldan tshul khrims, 1333-1399), Kunga Gyalsten (kun dga' rgyal mtshan, d.u.), Zhonnu Lodro (gzhon nu blo gros, 1358-1412/24), Tashi Rinchen (bkra shis rin chen, d.u.), and Lotsāwa Kyabchok Pelzang (lo tsA ba skyabs mchog dpal bzang, d.u.).

When Kunga Zangpo was twenty-nine, he went to Sabzang monastery (sa bzang dgon) and took up a position of authority, offering his students a broad range of religious instruction including commentaries on texts, empowerments and reading transmissions, and ordination ceremonies. He remained at Sabzang for three years.

In 1429, at the age of fourty-eight, Kunga Zangpo established Ngor Ewaṁ Choden Monastery (ngor e waM chos ldan), which subsequently developed into the seat of the Ngor sub-tradition, one of the three main divisions of the Sakya tradition. According to his autobiography, Kunga Zangpo, who strictly observed the Vinaya's monastic codes, found Sakya too active, and sought out a place for quite practice. The Ngor Valley, he wrote, was a "remote place devoid of barmaids." Nevertheless, Ngor soon developed into a major center of Sakya practice, and at its largest supported over a thousand monks. The curriculum at Ngor was based directly on the Sakya lineage, oral instructions, and the four classes of tantra, and it was the institutional center of the Tsokshe (tshogs bshad) transmission of the Lamdre teachings. At the new monastery Kunga Zangpo oversaw the construction of a main temple as well as many statues and other material supports for religious practice. He also a created a monastic college and commissioned a Kangyur written in gold.

Following the invitation of the kings of Mustang (glo bo smon thang), Ngorchen travelled three times to this kingdom. His first two journeys took place in 1427 and 1436 following the invitation of Ame Pel (a me/ma dpal, 1388-1440), the king of Mustang, and his third journey from 1447-1449, following the invitation of Amgon Zang (a mgon bzang, b. 1420), the son and successor of Ame Pel. During his three journeys, Ngorchen established a Vinaya seminary called Tenchen Duldra Domsumling (steng chen 'dul grwa sdom gsum gling), the Drakar Chode Tekchen Dargyeling (brag dkar gyi chos sde theg chen dar rgyas gling), and the Jampa Lhakang (byams pa lha khang). Moreover, he lead the production of an edition of the Kangyur and initiated the creation of a Kangyur in golden letters. He also ordained the king of Mustang Ame Pel, as well as the king of Guge, Tri Namkhai Wangpo (khri nam mkha'i dbang po, d.u.) in Khorchak ('khor chags).

Kunga Zangpo's many students included the next seven abbots of Ngor: the Second Ngorchen, Muchen Sempa Chenpo Konchok Gyeltsen (mus chen sems dpa' chen po dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1388-1469); the Third Ngor Khenchen, Jamyang Sherab Gyatso ('jam dbyangs shes rab rgya mtsho, c.1396-1474); the Fourth Ngorchen, Kunga Wangchuk (kun dga' dbang phyug, 1424-1478); the Fifth Ngorchen, Pelden Dorje (dpal ldan rdo rje, 1411-1482); the Sixth Ngorchen, Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489); and the Seventh Ngorchen, Konchok Pelwa (dkon mchog 'phel ba, 1445-1514). Other students included Lodro Wangchuk (blo gros dbang phyug, b. 1402), Shakya Chokden (shakya mchog ldan, 1428-1507), Paṇchen Bumtrak Sumpa (paN chen 'bum phrag gsum pa, 1432/3-1504), Markam Drakpa Zangpo (smar khams pa grags pa bzang po, d.u.), and the Second Drukchen, Kunga Peljor ('brug chen 02 kun dga' dpal 'byor).

Kunga Zangpo was extremely prolific, and his collected works contain nearly two hundred titles. Due to his many written works, the teachings he gave, his accomplishments as a practitioner, and the major monastic institution he established, Kunga Zangpo is included among the famous Sakya masters who came to be known as the Six Ornaments of Tibet.


Early abbots of Ngor, known as the Ngor Khenchen:

1. Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (ngor chen kun dga' bzang po, 1382-1456), tenure: 1429-1456.

2. Konchok Gyeltsen (dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, 1388-1469), tenure: 1456-1462.

3. Jamyang Sherab Gyatso ('jam dbyangs shes rab rgya mtsho, 1396-1474), tenure; 1462-1465

4. Kunga Wangchuk (kun dga' dbang phyug, 1424-1478), tenure: 1465-1478.

5. Pelden Dorje (dpal ldan rdo rje, 1411-1482), tenure: 1478-1482.

6. Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489), tenure: 1482-1486.

7. Konchok Pelwa (dkon mchog 'phel ba, 1445-1514), tenure: 1486-1501.

8. Muchen Sanggye Rinchen (mus chen sangs rgyas rin chen, 1450-1524), tenure: 1501-1516

9. Lhachok Sengge (lha mchog seng+ge, 1568-1535), tenure: 1516-1535.

10. Konchok Lhundrub (dkon mchog lhun grub, 1497-1557), tenure: 1535-1557.

11. Sanggye Sengge (sangs rgyas seng+ge, 1504-1569), tenure: 1557-1569.

12. Konchok Pelden (dkon mchog dpal ldan, 1526-1590), tenure: 1569-1579 and 1582-1590.

13. Namkha Pelzang (nam mkha' dpal bzang, 1532-1602), tenure: 1579-1582.

14. Jampa Kunga Tashi (byams pa kun dga' bkra shis, 1558-1603), tenure: 1590-1603.

15. Kunga Sonam Lhundrub (kun dga' bsod nams lhun grub, 1571-1642), tenure: 1603-1642.




Dkon mchog rgyal mtshan. 1455. Rje btsun bla ma dam pa kun dga' bzang po'i rnam par thar pa. Manuscript.

Dung dkar blo bzang ’phrin las. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: China Tibetology Publishing House.

Grags pa 'byung gnas. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 449-450.

Heimbel, Jörg. Forthcoming. "Biographical Sources for Researching the Life of Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po (1382–1456)." In Proceedings of the 2009 International Society of Young Tibetologists, Paris.

Mu po. 2002. Gsung ngag rin po che lam 'bras bla ma brgyud pa'i rnam thar kun 'dus me long. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 55-60.

Sangs rgyas phun tshogs. 1688. Rgyal ba rdo rje 'chang kun dga' bzang po'i rnam par thar pa legs bshad chu bo 'dus pa'i rgya mtsho yon tan yid bzhin nor bu'i 'byung gnas. Dege blockprint.

Sangs rgyas phun tshogs. 1976. Dpal kye rdo rje'i phyi nang bskyed rim nyams len gnad kyi gsal byed snyan brgyud bstan pa rgyas pa'i nyin byed. New Delhi: Trayang and Jamyang Samten.


Dominique Townsend and Jörg Heimbel
April 2010