Vajrayogini’s instructions on the ‘Great Compassionate One’: Tsembupa’s Lineage


Today, for Ḍākinī day (and the launch of a new website section) here is a short post on Avalokiteśvara (the Great Compassionate One) in the lineage of 13th Century yogi, Tsembupa Dharma Ozer (tshem bu pa dar ma ‘od zer), that came directly from the deity, Vajrayogini [i]. This post considers the origin of this lineage, which he passed on to six main disciples and how, over time, it became one of the five great systems of Avalokiteśvara practice in Tibet, called the Tsembu tradition (tshem bu lugs). In particular, it is still important today in Karma Kagyu (HH 17th Karmapa recently gave an empowerment and extensive teachings on it), Sakya, and is one of the four main practices of the Jonang lineage. Several of the most renowned Jonang Kālacakra masters hold this lineage and it is considered to be one of the six vajra yogas of Kālacakra. These masters passed it down to Karma Kagyu, via Bengar Jampel Zangpo, 1st Sangye Nyenpa and 8th Karmapa.

In addition, in a couple of days, I will publish the first translation of the 8th Karmapa’s Direct Instructions on the Great Compassionate One[ii], contained in his Collected Works which is from the Tsembupa lineage (with annotations from the 17th Karmapa’s recent oral commentary on it)[iii]

Five Main Tibetan Traditions of Avalokiteśvara


According to 17th Karmapa and Tibetan sources, there are five main traditions of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet:

  1. Bikkshuni Palmo (dpal mo) from the nun, Palmo. This is the one practiced in the Nyungne. According to the Blue Annals, Lakshmi (dge slong ma dpalmo) imparted it to  Śrībhadra (dpal gyi bzan po). The latter to Ratnabhadra  (rinchen bzang po), who imparted it to Atiśa[iv].
  2. Kyergangpa tradition from Atisha, Dimpamkara, he taught this to Geshe Lhatshorwa who passed it to Kyergangpa. He received the complete Avalokiteśvara teachings from a great practitioner of Avalokiteśvara, Pakpa Chegom. Through practicing in solitary retreat for four and half years Kyergangpa received a vision of Avalokiteśvara.
  3. Dawa Gyaltsen, a great Dzogchen siddha who appeared in Tibet who saw Avalokiteśvara face to face in a pure vision and received instructions, which he then passed on in a lineage from master to disciple. This is called the Dagyal tradition.
  4. Mitra from Mitra Yogi (mi tra dzo gi). A siddha from India who received teachings from Avalokiteśvara who appeared to him. The transmission of his “Six Vajra Yogas” is still alive and can be found in Volume 16 (Ma) of the gdams ngag mdzod of Jamgön Kongtrül (‘jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas, 1813-1899). Mitra then gave it to the great translator, Thropu (khro phu brgya rtsa), this tradition is called the Mitra tradition.
  5. Tsembupa from 13th Century Mahasiddha Tsembupa (tshems bu pa), who got the instructions directly from Vajrayogini.

Some say there are seven traditions, if one includes the King’s Tradition of King Thrisong Detsen, and the Karma Chagme tradition, that unites Mahamudra and Dzogchen and Avalokiteśvara.


The 17th Karmapa explained that of the five oral (whispered) transmissions, the Tsembupa one is very closely related to the unexcelled Highest Secret Mantra tradition. It has both stages of generation and completion and it is also a very simple and easy practice to do. Yet, as the pith instructions are very profound, it is treated as a secret pith instruction by past masters.

Vajrayogini’s Instructions to Tsembupa

Tshembupa – the ‘Stitched-Up One’

In terms of the history of Tsembupa, the dates when he was born and died are not clear. Nyen is his family name. He was born at Shego (Shad sgo). He did not accept the monastery of Tonmolung (ston mo lung), and others which were offered to him by Ngogtsun Karmo (rngog btsun dkar mo), and practised meditation only on the mountain of Yeru (g.Yas ru), attaining spiritual realization. His nickname was Tsembupa, means the one who is ‘stitched up’[v] as he would wear lots of ragged clothes that were stitched/sown together. According to 17th Karmapa:

“He had a great knowledge of the sutras and tantras and had spent a large amount of time studying them and practicing in isolation. So one day, after much practice, he saw the ‘face’ directly of Vajrayogini and he supplicated her and she gave him the pith instructions on the ‘Great Compassionate One’, and the ‘six instructions in the flow of the river’, these six instructions were not clear, so he then practiced again and saw Vajrayogini again, supplicated her and received the instructions again. Having seen her face twice he explained his realisation to people but did not teach it and practiced it one-pointedly and through that he was able to achieve accomplishment in this life. Tsembupa had six disciples who held his lineage.”

These six disciples (according to Book 14 of the Tibetan history classic, Blue Annals[vi]) are as follows:

“He bestowed them on a kalyanānamitra of Drintsham Chimlung (‘bring mtshams lchim lung) and on the scholar of the yul la monastery. These two also attained spiritual realization, and later sent on three occasions offerings to him. He also bestowed it on his younger brother, Chilpo Wangchug Drag (spyil po dbang phyug grags) and on his attendant Chedragpa (che brag pa), as well as on a female Nogtsun Karmo (rngog btsun dkar mo). These also attained spiritual realization with the help of this doctrine.  Chilhepa (spyi bo lhas pa), studied many sutras and Śastras, but he did not know how to practise them combined. He therefore went to  Lhasa to pray to the Lord (jo bo), and there he met Nyen Tshembupa, and understood him to be a siddha. He made his request to him, and the Teacher understood him to be a suitable vessel (snyod ldan) and bestowed on him the phyi theg pa lam rim spungs kyi don khrid and the nang gsang sngag skyi dmar khrid.  He practised according to them, and attained spiritual realization. He imparted them to Changchub Tsultrim (byang chub tshul khrims), the upādhyāya of Red Rock Tiger (stag bde brag dmar). The latter bestowed them on the  Lhatsunpa (lha btsun pa), the upādhyāya of Chidrum Gonsar (phyi ‘brum dgon gsar). The latter on Kunpangpa (kun spangs pa) and it  became one of the great guide books of the Jonangpas.”

The Tsembupa Lineage: Jonang and Karma Kagyu

Kunkhyen Dolpopa – Tshembu Lineage holder

The lineage of Tsembupa, according to the text by 8th Karmapa[vii], includes several great Jonang Kālacakra masters from Kunpangpa onwards such as Jamsem Gyalwa Yeshe[viii], Yonten Gyamsto and Kunkhyen Dolpopa. As the 17th Karmapa explained, this lineage of Tsembupa is very important to the Jonang tradition and represents one of their four main practices[ix]. More information about these masters is also in my prior post about the Kālacakra lineage here

It is contained in the 108 Instructions of the Jonang (Jo nang khrid brgya), a famous set of teachings, compiled and composed by Jetsun Kunga Drolchog (1507-1566), and then completed by his lineage successor Jetsun Tāranātha. It is even considered to be one of the six vajra yogas of Kālacakra. According to the Blue Annals:

“This (Doctrine) spread in all directions, and great was the benefit. Some of the methods of exposition appear to agree with those of Mahāmudra. In other texts it was described as agreeing with the pratyahara (restraining the organs, sor sdus) of the Saddaṅga yoga [six vajra yogas of Kālacakra].”

The lineage according to 8th Karmapa’s text is :

Avalokiteshvara, Vajrayogini, Mahasiddha Tsembupa, Chilhepa,  Tagte Dragmar (stag ste brag dmar ba)[x], Lhatsun (lha btsun dgon gsar ba),

Kunpangpa (1243-1313, kun spangs pa)[xi],

Gyalwa Yeshe (1247-1320, rgyal ba ye shes), 

Khetsun Yonten Gyamtso (1260-1327, mkhas btsun yon tan rgya mtsho)[xii],

Choje Kunkhyen Chenpo [Dolpopa]  (1292-1361, chos rje kun mkhyen chen po),

Ngagwon Kunga Pel (1285-1379, bsnyags dpon kun dga’ dpal),

Ngagwon Sonam Zangpo[xiii] (1341-1433, bsnyags dbon bsod nams bzang po),

Kunkhyen Jampel Zangpo[xiv] (15th C., kun mkhyen ‘jam dpal bzang po),

Mahasiddha Tashi Paljor (1457-1555, grub chen bkra shis dpal ‘byor) [1st Sangye Nyenpa].

Jampel Zangpo – Karma Kagyu master and holder of Tshembu lineage (Image: HAR)

It was via Jampel Sangpo, who wrote the renowned Vajradhara Lineage Prayer and was the teacher of the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, that the instructions entered the Karma Kamtsang lineage. The transmission then came to 8th Karmapa, from one of his teachers 1st Sangye Nyenpa (Tashi Paljor).  The 8th Karmapa wrote the preliminaries, refuge, bodhichitta, and so forth and the field of accumulations, the main practice, and mahamudra, come from Thropu Gyatso (khro phu brgya rtsa) the essence of which is based upon the mahasiddha Tsembupa’s instructions.

17th Karmapa shared a story about Tsembupa’s view of the lineage:

“There is a story that when Tsembu taught these pith instructions the disciples asked him what is the lineage of these instructions. When they asked him, Tsembu scolded them a bit. He said, you’re only asking about the lineage because you want to teach that, the only reason you want to know is so you can teach it. So when you teach something, if you can say this is the lineage, it looks good, doesn’t it? Lama Tsembupa said, ‘my Dharma is not Dharma for teachings, my Dharma is Dharma for practicing. This Dharma is what you need to practice’.”

Sakya and Gelug

The Tsembupa tradition is also followed in Sakya and there is a published collection of practice texts  of the Sakya order[xv].   It includes a Very Concise Practice of the Great Compassionate One composed by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo[xvi], which I will translate and publish soon as part of this research, and a Lineage Supplication by Khyentse Wangchug.[xvii] The practice was also popular with the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, 1617-1682), who is said to have both received and gave Tsembupa’s teachings many times.

The Visualisation and Mantra

More on the visualisation in the next post with 8th Karmapa’s text. Avalokiteśvara’s mantra Om Mani Padme Hum can be heard here by HH 17th Karmapa chanting a new melody composed by himself.

May all beings achieve the Great Compassionate One!

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 12th October 2020.


[i] It is called the Detailed Exposition (dmar khrid) of Tsembu Lineage of the Cycle of the Great Compassionate One (Mahākaruṇika).

[ii] mi bskyod rdo rje.  phags pa spyan ras gzigs dbang thugs rje chen po’i dmar khrid/. In gsung ‘bum/_mi bskyod rdo rje. TBRC W8039. 19: 529 – 540. [lha sa]: [s.n.], [2004].

[iii] In a teaching in January 2017, HH 17th Karmapa taught on the 8th Karmapa’s text, an edited summary of HH’s five days teachings can be read here and the oral instruction watched here:

[iv] The latter bestowed it on yol chos dban. The latter on Rog ston. The latter on rtse ston lo sras. The latter on zhang ston chos dbang. The latter on phra ston zhig po. The latter on rnal ‘byor skyabs se. The latter on rin po he ne mig pa. The latter on the upādhyāya rin byung. The latter on the upādhyāya sangs gzhon. The latter on the bla ma kun brsod pa. The latter transmitted it to mkhas grub chos dpal, father and son.

[v] Some online accounts say it means ‘tailor’, so it is not clear. As any native speaker of English knows, ‘stitched up’ in English can also mean someone who has been set up to look like they did something, which they didn’t, and ‘in stitches’ means cracking up with laughter.  So perhaps it also refers to those meanings as well.

[vi] Deb ther sngon po. Composed by Go Lotsawa (Gos lo tsā ba gzhon nu dpal). Kan su’u: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, vol. 2, p. 1213, 1994.

[vii] These names were not written in the English summary of 17th Karmapa’s teachings on the text but they are in the 8th Karmapa’s text.

[viii] The Second Throne Holder of Jonang monaster, Jangsem Gyelwa Yeshe (byang sem rgyal ba ye shes) was born in 1247 in Dokham (mdo khams). As a child he was a monk among the followers of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (karma pa 02 karma pak shi, 1204-1283). According to his biography: “Karma Pakshi was a fierce man, and Gyelwa Yeshe was said to have been very frightened of him. According to legend, Gyelwa Yeshe was once out gathering firewood and suddenly ran into Karma Pakshi alone in the middle of the forest. Gyelwa Yeshe was terrified and fled, but the Karmapa called him back, telling him that if he fled from his master now he would do so in the intermediate state between lives.” See:

[ix] Coincidently, he 17th Karmapa pointed out that the twentieth Winter Debates (at which he was giving the teaching) is the first time a Jonang Khenpo was invited to be a judge, ‘so there is wonderful internal and external connection at play’.

[x]!rid=P10159  teacher from the zhu lineage; one of the students of sa chen kun dga’ snying po

[xi]  Kunpangpa (kun spangs thugs rje brtson ‘grus) was one of the main Jonang masters and founders of the ‘Dro Kalacakra tradition and compiled the seventeen lineages of Kalacakra, see my post on this here.

[xii] Yonten Gyatso was a major Jonang master in the ‘Dro Kalacakra tradition. See:

[xiii] From the age of seventeen he served as Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen’s (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361) close attendant and practiced the teachings he received from him.He became the teacher of many of the great masters of the fifteenth century, such as the Sakya master Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1369-1449) and the Sixth Karmapa, Tongwa Donden (karma pa 06 mthong ba don ldan, 1416-1453). He was honored by the Pakmodru ruler of Tibet, Drakpa Gyeltsen (dbang grags pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.), and eulogized as the finest yogin in Tibet by the Indian paṇḍita Varnaratna. At the age of ninty-two he taught the great Vimalaprabhā commentary on the Kālacakra Tantra. See bio at:

[xiv] Jampel Zangpo, 15th Century Karma Kagyu master, he was the teacher of the 1st Gyaltsab Rinpoche and the 7th Karmapa. He received teachings from Rongton Sheja Kunrik (rong ston shes bya kun rig, 1367-1449) and Lhapuwa (lha phu ba, d.u.). Je Donden Zhab (rje don ldan zhabs, d.u.) gave him teachings on the Naro Chodruk (na ro chos brug) over a period of four years. Jampel Zangpo was also a close disciple of Tongwa Donden, the Sixth Karmapa (karma pa 06 mthong ba don ldan, 1416-1453). See bio at:

[xv]  thugs rje chen po’i dmar khrid nges don dpyid kyi thig le sogs thugs chen tshem bu lugs kyi chos skor/ W27927, computerized input text and hand written manuscript in U-chen script.

[xvi] mkhyen brtse’i dbang po . “thugs rje chen po’i tshem bu lugs kyi nyams len shin tu bsdus pa zung ‘jug bde lam/.” In thugs rje chen po tshem bu lugs kyi chos skor/. TBRC W27297. : 117 – 122. [kathmandu?]: [s.n.], [2000?]. The Collected Works of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo also contain two texts on the Tsembu lineage of the Great Compassionate One: 1) thugs rje chen po’i bla ma brgyud pa’i gsol ‘debs lam rim smon lam dang bcas pa byin rlabs mchog stsol mkhyen brtse’i dbang po; gsung ‘bum/_mkhyen brtse’i dbang po/; W21807, 15 ff. (pp. 107-135). gonpo tseten, gangtok. 1977-1980. 2) thugs rje chen po’i dmar khrid tshem pu lugs kyi sa bcad/ mkhyen brtse’i dbang po; gsung ‘bum/_mkhyen brtse’i dbang po/; W21807, 8 ff. (pp. 137-151). gonpo tseten, gangtok. 1977-1980.

[xvii] mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug . “thugs rje chen po tshem bu lugs kyi bla ma brgyud pa’i gsol ‘debs lam rim smon lam dang bcas pa byin rlabs mchog stsol/”. In thugs rje chen po tshem bu lugs kyi chos skor/. TBRC W27297. : 113 – 116. [kathmandu?]: [s.n.], [2000?].

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