Pema Trinle

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Pema Trinle b.1874 - d.1950

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Jetsun Pema Trinle was born in 1874 at Sakya. Her parents were Kunga Nyingpo Sampel Norbu (kun dga' snying po bsam 'phel nor bu,1850-1899), who served as the Thirty-seventh Sakya Tridzin from 1883 to 1899, and his wife, Lharitsema (lha ri rtse ma) or Lhagyari (lha rgya ri) Chime Rigdzin Pellha ('chi med rig 'dzin pal lha, d.u.). They resided in the Tārā Palace. Pema Trinle was one of two daughters and four sons. The eldest one was Drakshul Trinle Rinchen (drag shul phrin las rin chen, 1871-1936), who served as the Thirty-ninth Sakya Tridzin from 1915 to 1936. The second son was Ngawang Lhundrub Gyeltsen (ngag dbang lhun grub rgyal mtshan, 1876-1913) who in 1906 married the Sikkimese princess Kunsang Wangmo (kun bzang dbang mo, 1889-1914), the daughter of the Ninth King, Tutob Namgyel and Lhading Yeshe Ngawang Lhundrub Gyeltsen (lha ding ngag dbang lhun grub rgyal mtshan, d.u.). The third and fourth sons were Jamyang Tubten Zangpo ('jam byangs thub bstan bzang po, 1885-1928) and Drakpa Lodro (grags pa blo gros, 1888-1919). Their other daughter was named Ngodrub Wangmo (dngos dbang mo, d.1939).

Her father was a strong religious practitioner and his life is well-documented in histories of Sakya Monastery, but her mother was also remarkable. When she married into the Khon family, Chime Rigdzin Pala received the complete Lamdre (lam 'bras) teachings and did a Vajrapāṇi retreat. Part of her daily practices included chanting the prayer of twenty-one Tārās and giving offerings to the hungry ghosts. She enjoyed reading the life of Padmasambhava, the Sakya genealogies, the biographies of the Sakya masters and many other books. It is said that she and the Thirty-eighth Sakya Tridzin, Zamling Chegu Wangdu ('dzam gling che rgyu dbang sdud, 1855-1919) would frequently pass books back and forth between them, and that their servants were constantly carrying books between the two residences. When her eldest son became ill she secretly undertook a Gaṇapati retreat to help in his speedy recovery. She also sponsored many statues for the major temples of Sakya, including life-sized Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī and Vajrapāṇi for the Utse Temple, nine gilded copper statues of Amitāyus for the Namgyel Stupa, and gilded copper statues of the eight Tārās who protect from fear for the Tārā Temple.

Later in her life, Pema Trinle followed her mother’s example and commissioned a one-story gilded gold copper statue of Maitreya with back rest and halo that she put in the Lhakhang Chenmo.

Pema Trinle and her brother Drakshul Trinle Rinchen both received teachings from their paternal great-aunt, Jetsunma Tamdrin Wangmo. Their father gave them extensive teachings, including, when Pema Trinle was eleven, allowing them to participate when he gave the outer, inner, secret Pañjarnata Mahākāla teachings with extensive oral commentary, which had been requested by a teacher named Gongkar Tulku (gong dkar sprul sku). A teacher named Ponlob Locho (dpon slob blo chos, d.u.) and Drakshul's teacher Jampa Chokle Namgyel (byams pa phyogs las rnam rgyal, d.u.) also attended. She and her brother then did a one-month retreat.

The two siblings received Siṁhamukha empowerments and blessings from Khenchen Tashi Chopel (mkhan chen bkra shis chos 'phel, d.u.). Pema Trinle also received teachings from her elder brother, and from the famous abbot of Ngor, Ngawang Lodro Nyingpo (ngag dbang blo gros snying po, 1876-1852). She considered these two to be her root teachers.

Pema Trinle's main residence was the Latang Labrang, but she would stay at the Tārā Palace when her family was away, in order to supervise the palace. Her great-niece, Jetsun Kushok Chime Luding (rje btsun ku shok 'chi med klu lding, b.1938) recalled her aunt in a 2010 interview at her home in Richmond, British Columbia. She described Pema Trinle's residence at the Tārā Palace as a one-pillar room with an altar on which were statues of Vajrayoginī, Green Tārā and Amitāyus, and possibly portraits of Sakya masters. Later in her life, she lived in the Tara Palace’s Cave near the Khau drak Dzong (kha'u brag 'dzong), a famous temple dedicated to Mahakala. Jetsun Kushok Chime Luding also described her great-aunt as warm and generous, and that she was constantly trying to give the younger woman jewelry and other precious objects. Also she received long life empowerments from her great aunt.

Pema Trinle toured Kham to gather donations and to obtain and transmit teachings. Her main teacher there, at Lang Nak (glang nag) Monastery in Trehor, was the Third Nyendrak, Tenpai Wangchuk (snyan grags 03 bstan pa'i dbang phyug, 1854-1898), who himself was a disciple of her great-aunt, Tamdrin Wangmo. Tenpai Wangchuk lauded Pema Trinle as among the finest of his students. She also received Lamdre teachings from the great Jamyang Loter Wangpo ('jam dbyangs blo gter dbang po, 1847-1914).

Unlike her great-aunt Tamdrin Wangmo, who is well-known for her transmission of many teachings, Jetsun Pema Trinle seemed to have been more reserved and it is difficult to find more than a few instances where she did give public teachings. Her great-nephew, the current Sakya Tridzin, Ngawang Kunga Tekchen Pelbar (ngag dbang kun dga' theg chen dpal 'bar, b. 1945) relates a story of her time in Kham that reflects the difficulty female teachers faced, and might suggest why few records remain of her teaching activity.

It seems that while she was in Kham, Pema Trinle was giving initiations in one of the Sakya monasteries. When the other monasteries heard about this, they were very critical, because they said that it was inauspicious for a woman to give initiations. They sent several dobdob (rdob rdob), or "monastic police" to beat her. The monks came as she was giving an initiation and peered through a curtain. Seeing that they were there and no doubt anticipating their intentions, Pema Trinle caused initiation vase to levitate in the air before her as she adjusted her robes, taking it back to proceed with the ritual. Astonished, the strongmen prostrated, received blessings from her, and left her in peace.

Despite such indications of public disapproval of a woman such as herself giving teachings, she is remembered as one of only several women authorized to give Lamdre transmission. Indeed, the current Sakya Tridzin has stated that the title "Jetsun" is not the appropriate title for her, but that she should be addressed as Kyabgon (skyab mgon) since she conferred Lamdre numerous times; only such vajramasters hold this title and are permitted to wear the special red and gold hat of the Sakya masters.

Jetsun Pema conferred the Drubtab Kuntu (sgrub thabs kun btus) on the Fifth Zimok, Jampa Ngawang Kunga Tendzin Trinle (gzim 'og 05 byams pa ngag dbang kun dga' bstan 'dzin phrin las, 1884-1963), one of the principal teachers of the the Eighteenth Chogye Trichen Tubten Lekshe Gyatso (bco brgyad khri chen 18 thub bstan legs bshad rgya mtsho, 1920-2007).

Pema Trinle had received the Drubtab Kuntu from Jamgon Loter Wangpo, who had compiled the collection. Thus Pema Trinle is a key figure in the transmission of this important collection.

Jetsun Pema Trinle also taught Vajrayoginī to the Third Dezhung, Kunga Tenpai Nyima (sde gzhung 03 kun dga' bstan pa'i nyi ma, 1906-1987). His predecessor, the Second Dezhung, Lungrik Nyima (sde gzhung 02 lung rig nyi ma, c.1840-c.1898) had given her the Vajrayoginī teachings for which she was renowned. The Third Dezhung visited her at Sakya in 1949, while she was staying in the Khau drak Dzong cave hermitage. With him were his younger sister, Ani Chime Dolma (a ni 'chi med sgrol ma, b. 1922) and his niece, Jamyang Sakya ('jams dbyangs sa skya, b. 1934). Pema Trinle taught them for seven days, during which the initiates resided nearby in the Puntsok Palace’s Cave.

Both Ani Chime and Dakmo Jamyang Sakya recalled details about the teaching. During an interview conducted in Tarlam Monastery, Bodhanath, Nepal, on November 14th and 15th, 2007, Ani Chime was effusive in her praise for Pema Trinle, describing her remarkable presence and the faith she inspired in others. When Kyabgon Pema Trinle saw her, she described how “all her [conceptual] thoughts ceased.” Ani Chime paused for minute intentionally to make her point about how spiritually powerful Kyabgon Pema Trinle was. She reported that Dezhung Rinpoche treated Pema Trinle with the utmost respect. In an interview conducted in June, 2007, in her home in Seattle, Dakmo Jamyang Sakya also spoke about Pema Trinle's presence, saying that although she was only fifteen at the time of the meeting she could tell that "she was a lady with special powers" and that when she spoke, "it was as if she saw through you, she could see inside of you, she was not looking outside."

Both Ani Chime and Dakmo Jamyang Sakya remembered Kyabgon Pema Trinle as a short, plump woman with a round face who was always smiling and showing kindness to others. She was constantly saying mantras. She had grey hair that was cut short in the typical Sakya Jetsunma manner. A Sakya Jetsunma normally did not shave her head as a nun but would wear her short hair reaching just below the ears with bangs, similar to the Bhutanese women’s traditional hairstyle. Like other Jetsunmas, she wore maroon robes, with religious ornamentation such as a small kidney shaped amulet box (ga'o) and dzi beads, neither of which were ostentatious. While she stayed in the cave these hung on the wall.

Ani Chime recalled that Kyabgon Pema Trinle and Dezhung Rinpoche discussed their religious experiences and appearances of deities, much of which Ani Chime said that she did not herself understand. Ani Chime confirmed that Kyabgon Pema Trinle wore the special red and gold hat that Sakya masters wear when teaching, the kind that only those authorized to give the Lamdre are permitted to wear.

She also recalled that Pema Trinle possessed a tangka of Pelden Lhamo Makzorma (dpal ldan lha mo mag zor ma) made from a vision she had experienced of the goddess. After explaining her vision to Dezhung Rinpoche, he requested this initiation. When they returned to the Tārā Palace, Dakchen Ngawang Kunga Rinchen (bdag chen ngag dbang kun dga' rin chen, 1902-1950), the father of the present Sakya Tridzin, requested the initiation from Dezhung Rinpoche.

Dakmo Jamyang Sakya emphasized that Kyabgon Pema Trinle was very famous, and that she was considered by many to be highly realized. People sought her blessings and asked her advice when a loved one died. She was also well-known as a prognosticator, and both Jamyang Sakya and Ani Chime asked about their futures. They reported that she predicted that Ani Chime would have a long life and serve Dezhung Rinpoche well and that Jamyang Sakya would become a powerful woman and be lucky in her life. Both prognostications proved correct; Ani Chime is currently ninety years old, and has served both her brother and his reincarnation, the Fourth Dezhung, as well as helping to maintain Tarlam Monastery (thar lam dgon). Jamyang Sakya is married to the current head of the Puntsok Palace, Jikdrel Dakchen ('jigs bral bdag chen), and is a well-respected teacher who travels the world.

Jetsun Pema Trinle was also authorized to interact with a protector deity, Shangmo Bamo (shang mo 'bar mo), one of the three most important Bamo deities with whom the Khon family has a special relationship. Typically control of the deities is the responsibility of the male members of the family. In the Himalayan Art Resources (image #90187), there is a painting of a worldly protector, Shangmo Bamo. On the reverse side of the image here is a lengthy inscription signed by Jetsun Pema Trinle, together with her seal. The family who commissioned the painting asked her for help dealing with a variety of misfortunes. Jetsun Pema Trinle's inscription exhorts the deities to remember their agreement with the Khon family and to honor their promises. She commands the Bamo not to harm the supplicant family and to quickly remove all obstacles from their lives. Thus this is another situation wherein Jetsun Pema Trinle is seen as a powerful siddha who has the ability to control the difficult and, for most people, the frightening bamos.

Pema Trinle died some time in late 1949 or 1950. The current Sakya Tridzin, who never met his great aunt, nevertheless remembers events around her funeral, which happened when he was four or five years old. He relates,

“There is a tradition that when someone dies, clothes of the deceased person is given to Sakya Tridzin. Usually the clothes are put on the floor but these clothes were put on high seat in the main reception/ceremony room on the second floor of the Tārā Palace. I wondered why it was done this way. The clothes were of a nun. It was unusual because for ordinary people their clothes are sold. But in the case of the spiritual person, their clothes are saved as relics and later pieces are given to their devotees. Later I found out that it was the funeral of Kyabgon Pema Trinle, my great aunt.”




Anon. 2011. My revered Guru: the Biography of the Eighteenth Chogye Trichen.

Taipei: Vajrayana Sakya Manjushri Center Publication.

Drag shul 'phrin las rin chen. 1992. Sa skya'i gdung rabs ngo mtshar rin chen kun 'phel, pp. 413-417. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang. TBRC W27310.

Drag shul 'phrin las rin chen, 1974. Rdo rje 'chang drag shul phrin las rin chen gyi rtogs brjod. Dehra Dun: Sakya Center. TBRC W27318.

Jackson, David. 2003 A Saint in Seattle. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Interviews conducted by the author:

Jetsun Kushok Chime Luding, August 2010 in her home in Richmond, BC, Canada.

Ani Chime Dolma November 14th and 15th, 2007, in Tarlam Monastery, Bodhanath, Nepal.

Dakmo Jamyang Sakya, June 2007 in her home in Seattle, Washington, USA


Elisabeth Benard
May 2013