Taktsang Repa Ngawang Gyatso

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Taktsang Repa Ngawang Gyatso b.1574 - d.1651

Name Variants: Ngawang Gyatso; Orgyenpa Ngawang Gyatso; Shamonata; Sharchen Repa; Tsewang Lhundrub

Taktsang Repa Ngawang Gyatso (stag tshang ras pa ngag dbang rgya mtsho) was born in 1574 into a branch of the Khon ('khon) family responsible for the administration of Gyantse (rgyal rtse). His father was Gonpo Tsering (mgon po tshe ring), an official for the Gyantse governor Lodewa (blo bde ba). His birth name was Tsewang Lhundrub (tshe dbang lhun grub). Early in his childhood he met the Fourth Drukchen, Pema Karpo ('brug chen 04 pad+ma dkar po, 1527-1592) who urged his parents, unsuccessfully, to send the boy to a monastery.

When Tsewang Lhundrub was ten years old his father grew ill and, in order to gain merit for himself, promised to send his son to Sakya monastery. His mother delayed the fulfillment of the promise, but at the age of fourteen, when the boy came down with smallpox, his mother decided it was time to send him to the monastery. Ngawang Gyatso, however, remained at home, entering government service as a soldier and distinguishing himself in battle.

While still a teenager Tsewang Lhundrub received instruction from a Nyingma lama from Katok (kaH thog), Zabpu Khenpo (zab phu mkhan po), in the Kabgye Deshek Dupa (bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa) treasure cycle of Nyangrel Nyima Ozer (nyang ral nyi ma 'od zer, 1136-1204) and the Bardo Todrol (bar do thos grol).

At the age of twenty Tsewang Lhundrub decided to leave home and enter religious life. He went first on pilgrimage to Lhasa, where he met Karma Tsenpel (kar+ma bstan 'phel, 1569-1637), a disciple of the prominent Drukpa teacher Lhatsewa Ngawang Zangpo (lha rtse ba ngag dbang bzang po, 1546-1615). Setting out to meet Lhatsewa, Tsewang Lhundrub joined a party of a governor named Yargyabpa (yar rgyab pa) with whom he traveled to Nedong (sne gdon) near the entrance to his destination, the Yarlung Valley; at the time Lhatsewa was living in Chonggye ('phyongs rgyas). He met the Ninth Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje (kar+ma pa 09 dbang phyug rdo rje, 1556-1601/1603) at Yarto Tromsatang (yar stod khrom sa thang), and visited Evam Monastery before arriving in Chonggye.

Lhatsewa was the patron of one of two rivals claiming to be the reincarnation of Pema Karpo, Paksam Wangpo ('brug chen 05 dpag bsam dbang po, 1593-1641), the other being Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (zhabs drung ngag dbang rnam rgyal, 1594-1651), the son of a hierarch at Ralung (rwa lung), Drukpa Yabchen Tenpai Nyima ('brug pa yab chen bstan pa'i nyi ma, 1567-1619). With the support of the Tsang Desi (gtsang sde srid) Lhatsewa ultimately prevailed, placing his student, and Shabdrung went south to found the modern state of Bhutan.

Lhatsewa ordained his new disciple, giving him the ordination name of Ngawang Gyatso and calling him, affectionately, Sharchen Repa (shar chen ras pa), because he was already an adult (shar chen pa). Ngawang Gyatso spent the next several years studying at Namgyel Lhunpo (rnam rgyal lhun po) in Gongkar (gong dkar), training also at Taklung (stag lung) with Won Rinpoche Ngawang Namgyel (dbon rin po che ngag dbang rnam rgyal, 1571-1626) in the Naro Chodruk (na ro chos drug) and the teachings of the Kadam tradition.

Ngawang Gyatso then set out on the first of several trips across Central Asia, visiting China, numerous places in Tibet, and, most famously, Ladakh. His first trip was a traditional Kagyu pilgrimage to Milarepa sites in Tolung. He passed through his home region and visited his family before moving on to visit sites central to the Kagyu tradition and joining up with monks and yogis from other Kagyu traditions. He circumambulated Kailash, and then, with a single companion, he visited sites in Kyirong (skyid rong) and Chuwar (chu bar), at Labchi (la phyi), ultimately returning to Chonggye. During this trip his mother passed away and his younger brother urged him to return home to help cure his wife. Ngawang Gyatso, although he made votive images (tsha tsha) with his mother's ashes, declined to further assist his family, arguing that his role was to destroy karma altogether, not simply to mitigate the effects of his family's past misdeeds.

Soon after his return Lhatsewa sent Ngawang Gyatso to Kongpo to serve Lochen Tulku Trinle Wangchuk (lo chen sprul sku 'phrin las dbang phyug, d.u.), the reincarnation of Drubtob Ratnabhadra (grub thob ratna bhadra, d.u.). The monks with whom he was sent apparently behaved poorly, and Lochen Tulku sent them all back save Ngawang Gyatso. Ngawang Gyatso remained for seven years, practicing in a sealed cave for part of the time and wrestling with various demons and serving as chant leader (dbu mdzad).

Following his stay in Kongpo, Lhatsewa sent Ngawang Gyatso to Tsari to meditate in Taktsang (stag tshang) Valley, which had become dominated by the Drukpa Kagyu. There he met the Sixth Shamarpa Chokyi Wangchuk (zhwa dmar pa 06 chos kyi dbang phyug, 1584-1630). Taktsang was then a wild place, and few had managed to remain as long as Ngawang Gyatso did. The Sixth Zharmapa praised him for this, grateful to him for subduing the place for future practitioners. Thus he earned his epithet, Taktsang Repa. In his autobiography Taktsang Repa states that he experienced a vision while at Taktsang to the effect that he would be charged with the wellbeing of Ladakh by a king whose name began with Sengge (certainly Sengge Namgyel, seng ge rnam rgyal, c.1570-1642).

Returning again to Chonggye, Taktsang Repa set off yet again, this time to China. In 1610 he visited Emei Shan, (Tib: ri bo glang po che), the mountain in southern Sichuan sacred to the bodhisattva Samantabhadra and a minor Chinese Buddhist pilgrimage destination. He took the southern route through Kongpo and Tsawagang (tsa ba sgang), through Batang and ultimately Dartsendo (dar rtse mdo, Ch: Kangding), and remained on Emei for only several days. He returned to Tibet, settling in Tsari, in the fall of 1612.

Not long after Taktsang Repa arrived in Tsari Lhatsewa again sent him abroad, this time to the west. Lhatsewa commanded him to visit the sites in North India associated with Naropa and Tilopa and other saints, such as Jalandhar, Kashmir, Ladakh, and O??iy?na (the Swat Valley), advising him to follow the trail of Orgyenpa Rinchen Pel (o rgyan pa rin chen dpal, 1230-1293), whose record of his trip was widely known. Again Taktsang Repa passed through his homeland on his way west, again declining to remain for any length of time to serve his family, and instead charging the deity Pelden Lhamo (dpal ldan lha mo) to aid them in his stead.

Taktsang Repa's route to North India first retraced his earlier journey to Mt. Kailash, passing through the important religious sites of Tsang and Ngari such as Gyantse, Sakya, Labchi, Chuwar, and Guge. He then followed the Sutlej River into Kinnaur and Shimla, down to Jalandhar and Shrinagar. On the way he paused to visit a meditation site of N?g?rjuna and then a temple near Kangra (Nagarkot) said to be the residence of Vajrav?rah?. Also nearby was a meditation cave of Gotsang Repa (rgod tshang ras pa, 1494-1570) and the cemetery of Lagura. He then proceeded to Kashmir, visiting the sites around Shrinagar.

After leaving Kashmir two of his three traveling companions – one named Drakpa Gyatso (grags pa rgya mtsho) fell ill and passed away, leaving only Drangpo Zangpo (drang po bzang po) to accompany him on to to Zanskar. There they passed a year, joined by additional companions, meditating for two months in a cave of Naropa at the invitation of the siddha Dewa Gyatso (bde ba rgya mtsho, d.u.). They were patronized by the king, Tsering Pelde (tshe ring dpal sde, d.u.) and his family, including his sister Sonam (bsod nams), to whom they gave extensive teachings. The companions spent the winter in retreat in Yurdzong (g.yur rdzong). While Taktsang Repa was in Zanskar the king of Ladakh, Jamyang Namgyel ('jam dbyangs rnam rgyal) invited him to Ladakh, pointing out that he was a patron of Drukpa establishments – he was a sponsor of Ralung, as well as monasteries in his own kingdom – and that Taktsang Repa's presence there would benefit the tradition. Upon being rejected, the king bemoaned the fact that charismatic lamas spent so much of there time on pilgrimage to remote places where few could hear their teachings. Taktsang Repa did, however, spend time in upper Ladakh, in the region of Gya (rgya), at the bequest of Gya Drungpa Sherab Zangpo (rgya'i drung pa shes rab bzang po), a disciple of Lhatsewa.

After passing a year in Lahul, in August of 1615 Taktsang Repa pushed on to Swat. Over difficult terrain and with poor directions, and abandoned by several of his companions, Taktsang Repa had the additional bad fortune to run into a group of brigands who knocked him out and sold him into slavery. Bought by another band, he was again attacked in a house after reciting prayers, and escaped, only to be pursued and recaptured in a place called Sithar. Fortunately there he encountered a Brahmin who paid for his freedom, and Taktsang Repa was able to continue on to Bhayasahura where he joined a group of Buddhists. (One might note that here Tucci is in error in his summary of the text: he has it that Taktsang Repa told the Brahmin that he was not from Kashmir but from “Mahacina,” which one would presume to be China. However, Taktsang Repa clearly stated that he was from U-Tsang.)

Taktsang Repa passed some time with the group of Buddhist yogins, who called themselves Munda and who were led by a man called Buddhanata (bud+da nA tha). They received him warmly, giving him the name Shamonata (sha mo nA tha). He joined them in their periodic wresting matches, some of which were apparently fought to the death, and their night-time rituals carried out in a nearby cemetery. While with this group Taktsang Repa encountered a yogin from O??iy?na named Pelanata (pA la nA tha) who promised to bring him to Swat. Together they joined a party of traders and, finally, Taktsang Repa arrived in Swat. There he found only the remains of Buddhist activity, the region having long been converted to Islam. He returned to Tibet via Kashmir, Zanskar and Ladakh, leaving Ladakh in 1620.

Following his return, as he stopped at monasteries and palaces, Taktsang Repa became known for his voyage to O??iy?na, and he eventually acquired the epithet Orgyenpa (o rgyan pa), the one from O??iy?na. Among those to whom he reported his travels were the Tsang King Karma Puntsok Namgyel (gtsang sde srid kar+ma phun tshogs rnam rgyal, 1597-1632) and the Fifth Drukchen, who requested he compose an account of the voyage. Lhatsewa had passed away (in 1615) and Taktsang Repa spent some time at Gangkar Namgyel Lhunpo, his teacher's residence.

Both the new head of Namgyel Lhunpo and the Fifth Drukchen both advised Taktsang Repa to return to the west. He remained in Ladakh for much of the remainder of his life, serving King Sengge Namgyel, during whose reign Ladakh grew to its largest size. It was Sengge Namgyel, the son of Jamyang Namgyel, whose invitation Taktsang Repa had declined, that invaded and conquered Guge in 1630. Under Sengge Namgyel's patronage Taktsang Repa established or restored a number of prominent monasteries, including Hanle, Hemis (which dates to the eleventh century), and Chemre, built as a memorial following Sengge Namgyel's death.




Ngag dbang dkar brgyud rgya mtsho & Yongs 'dzin 05 Ye shes grub pa. 1968. Grub dbang zhwa mo na tha'i 'khrungs rabs rnam thar gsol 'debs dpag bsam 'khri shing. Leh.

Stag tshang ras pa ngag dbang rgya mtsho. 1968. O rgyan mkha' l'gro'i gling go lam yig thar lam bgrod pa'i them skas. In Stag tshang ras pa'i rnam thar dang rdo rje'i mgur. Ladakh Hemis: Byang chub chos gling, pp. 115-155.

Petech, Luciano. 1977. The Kingdom of Ladakh, c. 950-1842. Rome: IsMEO Seria Orientale Roma, vol. 51.

Schwieger, Peter. 1996. “Stag tshang ras pa's Exceptional Life as a Pilgrim.” Kailash 18, pp. 81-107.

Snellgrove, David, and Tadeusz Skorupski. 1977. The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh. Boulder: Prajña Press.

Tucci, Giuseppe. 1971. Travels of Tibetan Pilgrims in the Swat Valley. In Opera Minora, Rome: Dott. Giovanni Bardi, vol 2, pp. 369-418.

Yongs 'dzin 02 Kun dga' lhun grub. 1968 (1663). O di yA Na pa ngag dbang rgya mtsho'i rnam thar legs bris bai rdu rya dkar po'i rgyud mang. In Stag tshang ras pa'i rnam thar dang rdo rje'i mgur. Ladakh Hemis: Byang chub chos gling, pp. 1-113.


Alexander Gardner
December 2009