Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
Kagyu Founders, Part 5: Taklungtangpa and Sanggye On
The Taklung tradition, one of the eight “minor” traditions of the Kagyu, was primarily based at two monasteries, Taklung and Riwoche, each of which were major centers of learning and practice. The founders of the two monasteries, Taklungtangpa (1142–1209) and Sanggye On (1251–1296) were at least a generation apart; had it not been for a succession struggle at Taklung, Riwoche, laying far to the east, would never have been established.
The boy who would later be known as Taklungtangpa lost his mother as a young child. He tried several times to run away from home after his father remarried, but it was not until he was 18, when he joined a monastery and took novice vows with the ordination name Tashi Pel, that he was able to leave. While studying the Kadam scriptures that had only recently been brought from India, Tashi Pel was moved by the hardships of the local people, and resolved to go to India to study Buddhism so that he could help ease their suffering.
Tashi Pel never made it to India, but instead encountered Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (1110–1170), the famous Kagyu master based at Densatil Monastery in southern Tibet. He was 23 when he arrived at Densatil, where he remained until Pakmodrupa’s death six years later. He served his teacher as an attendant and scribe, writing everything his master taught until his mind, it is said, became so clear that he could remember every word without touching pen to paper. Pakmodrupa transmitted the esoteric instructions of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa, which, combined with the strict observance of the Vinaya monastic codes, is the hallmark of the Kagyu tradition.
After Pakmodrupa passed away, Tashi Pel returned to a Kadam institution, where he took full ordination in 1172 and spent time living in retreat hermitages. Around 1179 he settled with some of his disciples at a hermitage site in the Taklung Valley, about 100 kilometers north of Lhasa, that had previously been used by the great Kadam master Potowa Rinchen Sel (1027–1105). About a year later he established Taklungtang Monastery on that site.
Taklung quickly grew in size and importance; it is said that during Taklungtangpa’s lifetime some 7000 monks resided there. His beloved disciple Kuyelwa Rinchen Gon (1191–1236) served as the next abbot, followed by Sanggye Yarjon (1203–1272), who greatly expanded the monastery.
It’s not quite clear what happened next. Sanggye Yarjon had two accomplished nephews, Tashi Lama (1231–1297)—also known as Mangalaguru, the Sanskrit version of his name—and Sanggye On Drakpa Pel. Differing sources report that Sanggye Yarjon declared upon his death that either Tashi Lama or Sanggye On, or both, should ascend to the abbot’s chair.
Sanggye On was born in Kham and travelled to Taklung as a child, where his uncle gave him novice vows at the age of 13. He quickly distinguished himself in scholarship, in counterpoint to his cousin, Tashi Lama, who had been sent by their uncle into a retreat.
It seems that the two cousins could not agree on who should be abbot following their uncle’s death. It is possible that Sanggye On briefly held the position or was prevented from doing so entirely. The struggle for the abbacy was perhaps too acrimonious for Sanggye On to remain at Taklung, or maybe his brief foray into monastic leadership inspired him to pursue other avenues in leadership. Either way, he soon left for Kham, taking with him a number of treasured relics, including Milarepa’s staff and ladle, and a piece of his uncle Sanggye Yarjon’s excrement—a peculiar relic, to say the least.
In 1276 Sanggye On established his own monastery, Riwoche, which soon rivaled Taklung in size and went on to become a center of Kagyu and Nyingma fusion. Its main temple, with its distinctive red, grey, and white stripes, is an impressive monument visible from far away. There has been little conflict between the two branches of the Taklung tradition since they divided into the “upper” Taklung and “lower” Riwoche branches.
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