On the second day of the 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the four Dharmas of Gampopa, he taught the first part of the life-story of Gampopa (Dagpo Lhaje). Covering topics such as how he was a renowned doctor whose loss of wife and children due to a smallpox epidemic, led to him becoming a monk. Also, how Gampopa achieved amazing samadhi (being able to meditate without any food or drink for days) and his subsequent Kadampa teachers who helped him realise bodhicitta. Here is a short review and write-up of the teachings, with Tibetan sources given where possible. I have also provided a brief catalogue of some the Tibetan life-stories of Gampopa that are available online.
Gampopa’s ‘Life-Liberation’ Texts and Sources
The Karmapa first explained why life-liberation stories (rnam thar) are important to read, not just for academic reasons, but as inspiring tales regarding the possibility of enlightenment:
“There’s an old Tibetan saying. If you don’t know the history of the grandparents then you don’t know where the origin of the children. Similarly, like this saying, if we don’t know the history of our gurus or lineage, or someone upholding it, there is danger we will have no source or authority for ourselves. So when we talk about history or stories, it is like a big mirror. We can see things like ourselves in it, but also things we can take as examples. For example, the life liberation of Gampopa, how is that we ourselves can achieve the qualities of the Buddha? Their examples give us guidance. That is why in Tibetan, they are not called history or biographies, but life-liberations (rnam thar). So if these life-stories were treated only as research, or a topic for a conference that would be a real loss. We have to bring it them into our practice and have steadfast courage we can also do what they did.
With Gampopa there are over forty stories of his life and liberation. In terms of the main ones, if we take the ones by his direct disciples, we can have more trust in them. Among those, the best known are by Je Pagmo Drugpa, which is a life story in verse in the form of a Praise[i]. There is also a life-story in the Dialogues (Zhulen) of Je Dusum Khyenpa [1st Karmapa][ii]. In addition, there is one by Lhayagpa Changchub Ngodrup and by Je Barom (rje ‘ba’ rom, 1127-1194)[iii]. It is very important for us to read and study these.”
I found several biographies of Gampopa, which have been uploaded online on TBRC and list them below for reference. Some of them are from the Golden Rosary of the Drukpa Kagyu, an anthology of the successive life stories of masters in the Drukpa Kagyu order, written by the 13th century author Gyaltang Dechen Dorje. The 3rd and 8th Karmapas also wrote life-stories about Gampopa.
The Doctor of Dagpo (Dagpo Lhaje)
The Karmapa then went on to speak about Gampopa’s early life studying medicine and his influence on Tibetan medicine, including the seminal text the Four Tantras (rgyud bzhi):
“Now when was Lord Gampopa’s birth? In Pagmo Drugpa’s Praise (sol deb) it says the place of his birth in the 11th Century, so he was born in 1079 in the region of Nyel, Tibet. In the Lhogpa city district. When he was young, he was known by the name Dharmata and some stories say Dharma kyab. So he had a couple of names as a child. From the age of five, he began to study reading and writing. At the age of seven, since his father and family members were doctors, he began to study the medical sciences. What we need to understand here, is that Dagpo Lhaje (Dvags-po lha-rje) was his name. Lhaje means doctor or physician. In my own home region, we don’t call doctors or physicians, we call them Lhaje. “
The 17th Karmapa then referred to how Gampopa was prophesised by the Buddha and in these prophecies he was called the Bikshu physician[iv]. This appears to refer to the White Lotus Sutra, in which there is a clear prediction of his coming, as follows:
“One day, at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha turned to his disciple Ananda and said, “Ananda, after my entrance into parinirvana, in the northern direction of this hemisphere there will be a fully ordained monk who will be known as the Bhikshu Doctor.” “He will be someone who has gone through many previous lives of completely dedicated practice of Dharma, and who has had many spiritual teachers.”
The 17th Karmapa explained that this should be taken to mean Dagpo Lhaje and is an important name for Gampopa. He then went on to describe the influence Gampopa had on Tibetan medicine, and even possibly the seminal medical text, Four Tantras:
“So basically, from his childhood onwards he studied medicine and he had about thirteen different teachers, and he reached the culmination of studies and became a very skilled doctor. Not only that, there are also well known medical students who were his students. It is even said that Gampopa wrote a medical text called the Summary of the Eight Branches. But there is a shorter text called the Medical Text of Dagpo, and the doctor who compiled this, Dagpo Mengagpa, and it mainly contains his notes and instructions on medicine. This shorter text of Gampopa, seems to have been written before the Four Tantras, the well-known text of Tibetan medicine[v]. So it is an important text to study for researchers on Tibetan medicine. He also said there are many well-known treatments of Tibetan medical practice, such as the Dagpo instructions on Pho Men, the Fifteen Dagpo medicines, the long medicine Sangthar 25 and so on were passed down from Gampopa it is said.
Regarding the Four Tantras, the main text of Tibetan medicine. Some say it is the words of the Buddha, some say a treatise some say a terma, and the revealer of the terma, Dragpo Ngonshe, (gter ston grwa pa mngon shes) (1012–1090))[vi] revealed it in Dagpo[vii]. So Dagpo (Gampopa) was also included in that lineage. For that reason, Gampopa also had an influence on the spread of the Four Tantras.”
Married with children: the personal tragedy that led to monkhood
Even before he became a monk, he received secret mantra teachings on Chakrasmavara and so forth from Bari Lotsawa and Sankhar Lotsawa. When he reached sixteen years, his parents insisted that he had to get married. So he married the daughter of Chim Jose, she was called Chogme (mchog-med). At that time, his main work was caring for and giving medicine to patients. Sometimes, he also did farm work, including ploughing fields and such. He had two children, a son and daughter. They all lived a happy family life together. However, one year there was a smallpox epidemic, and his son, who was 8 years old, died. Then soon after, his three year old daughter also died. When he was bringing the daughter’s body to the charnel ground and then returned, his wife had also fallen sick. Whatever medical treatments he gave her didn’t help and she was on the verge of dying. Yet she was unable to let go and stop breathing. She was unable to die or get better, so it was a difficult situation. At that point, Dagpo Lhaje said there is something she is not letting go of. So he asked her “what are you attached to, what can’t you let go of?” She said “I can’t let go of you. I am worried that after you die, you will continue life with another woman.” [viii] Dagpo said, you don’t need to worry about that at all, from the very beginning I have wanted to become a monk, so if you die I will do that for the rest of my life and practice Dharma. At her insistence and in order to make his wife feel comfortable, he also took a strong oath that he would do that and she then died.
Afterwards, out of his wife’s ashes, bones and clay, Dagpo made many votive tablets with the impressions of the statues of Enlightened Beings.made a stupa with it, which is called the ‘Remains of Chogme Stupa’, [mchog med mchod rten] even now the ruins of that stupa can be seen. He prepared an elaborate funeral rite for his wife’s cremation.
Samadhi-bliss and Kadampa teachers
The 17th Karmapa then went onto explain how Dagpo Lhaje became a monk:
“Then he met a Kadamapa monk, named Gongton (‘gongs ston), became friends and went to Dagpo together. At the 26 he took the ordination, the going forth, novice and full ordination all on the same day. In the Tibetan tradition, once one becomes a monastic, it is seen like beginning a human life, so the Khenpo gives them a new name. He got a monastic name which was Sonam Rinchen[ix].
The Karmapa then explained how Gampopa developed bliss and clarity in his meditation practice and was able to meditate for many days without food or drink:
“Gampopa followed the instructions of his then teachers, Geshe Changchub Sempa, and after seven days he got some realizations. He had good experiences of bliss and clarity so much that he didn’t know whether it was day or night. His body and mind were so clear and light. Jangchub Sempa told Gampopa that he had developed samadhi. Then his friend, Gongton noticed there was something different about Gampopa and said: ‘something has happened to you. Please tell me what happened, what did you do?’ Gampopa replied: ‘I have developed samadhi’ and Gongton got excited about that and said: ‘OK, I am also going to do meditation. I am going to meditate, if I don’t develop Samadhi, then I will die on this seat.’ He probably asked Gampopa for instructions. He then also developed strong experience in meditation. He was so excited that he wrote on his bed, ‘I Gongton developed meditation’. It is reported like that in the accounts.
During that time, Gampopa’s meditation improved so much until he could meditate as long as he wanted, 5, 6 or 7 days. He would even forget to eat. The bliss of Samadhi was so great he forgot to eat food. The afflictions had not been completely suppressed but he didn’t feel pleasure from the five senses when meditating. He wondered how many days he could meditate, and he was able to meditate continually for thirteen days. Gampopa reported this. Then, when he was 28 years old, he thought ‘oh my meditation has become really good but I heard that the Kadampas are well instructed on the conduct of a Bodhisattva and I should study that’. So he and Gongton went together to central Tibet. They went to the area of Chang, Penyul, which is like the source of the Kadampa teachings. All of the most famous Kadampa Geshes lived there.”
The Treasury of Lives‘ Gampopa biography says that:
“He then trained in Cakrasaṃvara and the Rinchen Gyendrukma (rin chen rgyan drug ma) in Dakpo (dwags po) under Loden Sherab after which he went to Penyul to continue Kadam teachings with Chayulpa Zhonnu O (bya yul pa chen po gzhon nu ‘od, 1075-1138), Nyukrumpa Tsondru Gyeltsen (snyug rum pa brtson ‘grus rgyal mtshan, 1042-1109), and Chakri Gongkhapa (lcags ri gong kha pa, d.u.). He also studied with Potowa Rinchen Sel (po to wa rin chen gsal, 1027-1105) and his student, Sharawa Yontendrak (sha ra ba yon tan grags, 1070-1141).”
The 17th Karmapa further explained that:
“One of his Kadamapa teachers was called Nyukrumpa because he lived at Nyukrum. Gampopa requested teachings from him on the stages of the path and in particular, relative bodhicitta. After getting those teachings, for his entire life he was never without bodhicitta, he said.
Gampopa then went to Gyacharewa, a student of Geshe Langri Tangpa (glang ri thang pa) (1054–1123)). He received many instructions and secret mantra teachings. After he got an empowerment, Gampopa reported that ‘on that night I had some really good dreams. There were signs and indications that my own misdeeds had been purified’. Langri Tangpa at that time was a student of Potowa, Langdar and Sharawa and was the author of the eight verses on training the mind (blo sbyong tshigs brgyad ma) that we know and practice. Geshe Langri Tangpa only practiced Bodhicitta. So in the area around the Langdar monastery, none of the birds and animals ever harmed each other. When an old woman arrived, she thought Langdar had passed away, because the animals used to kill each other and now they no longer did.”
After studying with these Geshes and practicing their instructions, Gampopa then went to meet Milarepa, which the Karmapa said he would teach about the following day.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 30th December 2020.
English Language Sources
- Jampa Mackenzie Stewart, The Life of Gampopa (shambhala.com), (Shambhala Publications, 2004).
- Alexander Berzin, The Life of Gampopa — Study Buddhism
- Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, The Instructions of Gampopa: A Precious Garland of the Supreme Path (Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications, 1996).
- Alexander Gardner, “Gampopa Sonam Rinchen,” Treasury of Lives, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Gampopa-Sonam-Rinchen/3168.
- Trungram Gyatrul Rinpoche Sherpa. 2004. Gampopa, the Monk and the Yogi: His Life and Teachings. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
- Sonam Rinchen by Barompa (Bsod nams rin chen, transcribed by ‘Ba’ rom pa). 1972. Untitled biography of Bsod nams rin chen. In Bka’ brgyud yid bzhin nor bu yi ‘phreng ba, O rgyan pa rin chen dpal, ed. Leh: Tashigangpa, pp. 245-270.
- Gyalthangpa Dechen Dorje (Rgyal thang pa bde chen rdo rje). 1973. Dags po rin po che’i rnam par thar pa. In Dkar brgyud gser ‘phreng. Pelimpur: Tashijong, pp. 267-339.
- 2nd Zhamarpa (Zhwa dmar 02 Mkha’ spyod dbang po). 1978. Sgam po pa’i rnam thar kun khyab snyan pa’i ba dan. In The Collected Writings (Gsung ‘bum) of the Second Zhwa dmar Mkha’ spyod dbang po. Gangtok: Gonpo Tseten, vol. 1, pp. 318-433.
[i] This seems to be “bde gshegs sgom po pa’i bstod chen bcu gcig.” In gsung ‘bum/_rdo rje rgyal po/ (sde dge par ma/). TBRC W1KG10493. 1: 947 – 964. lhun grub steng/: sde dge par khang /, [2010?].
[ii] . “dus gsum mkhyen pa’i zhus lan/.” In karma pa sku phreng rim byon gyi gsung ‘bum phyogs bsgrigs/. TBRC W3PD1288. 2: 214 – 239. lha sa/: dpal brtsegs bod yig dpe rnying zhib ‘jug khang /, 2013?.
[iii] Sonam Rinchen by Barompa (Bsod nams rin chen, transcribed by ‘Ba’ rom pa). 1972. Untitled biography of Bsod nams rin chen. In Bka’ brgyud yid bzhin nor bu yi ‘phreng ba, O rgyan pa rin chen dpal, ed. Leh: Tashigangpa, pp. 245-270.
[iv] In the White Lotus Sutra, there is said to be clear prediction of his coming, as follows: “One day, at the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha turned to his disciple Ananda and said, “Ananda, after my entrance into parinirvana, in the northern direction of this hemisphere there will be a fully ordained monk who will be known as the Bhikshu Doctor.” “He will be someone who has gone through many previous lives of completely dedicated practice of Dharma, and who has had many spiritual teachers.”
[v] The Four Tantras (rgyud bzhi) is believed to have been created in the twelfth century and still today is considered the basis of Tibetan medical practise. The Four Tantras is the common name for the text of the Secret Tantra Instruction on the Eight Branches, the Immortality Elixir essence. It considers a single medical doctrine from four perspectives. The basis of the Four Tantras is to keep the three bodily humors in balance; (wind rlung, bile mkhris pa, phlegm bad kan.)
[vi] Dragpo Ngonshe was regarded as the simultaneous emanation of Shüpu Palgyi Sengé and Vairochana. See his biography at Treasury of Lives here: Drapa Ngonshe – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region
[vii] Some believe the Four Tantras to be the authentic teachings of the Buddha ‘Master of remedies’ which was translated from Sanskrit, others believe it to be solely Tibetan in creation by Yuthog the Elder or Yuthog the Younger. Believers in the Buddhist origin of the Four Tantras and how it came to be in Tibet believe it was first taught in India by the Buddha when he manifested as the ‘Master of Remedies’. The Four Tantra was then in the eighth century translated and offered to Padmasambhava by Vairocana and concealed in Samye monastery. In the second half of the eleventh century it was rediscovered and in the following century it was in the hands of Yuthog the Younger who completed the Four Tantras and included elements of Tibetan medicine, which would explain why there is Indian elements to the Four Tantras
“Gampopa wondered why she couldn’t die. What was keeping her from death? What was it that she could not give up in this life, a life with no hope, only the promise of continual pain and suffering? Feeling great compassion for his wife lying there so ill, Gampopa gently asked, “I have done whatever I could to heal you. I have tried many doctors, remedies and all types of prayers and rituals for your recovery, but all of them have failed. They have not been effective because of your own previous actions. The karmic forces and prayers of our former lives unite you and me. But now, although I have a great deal of affection and love for you, I must ask what is it that is actually keeping you here? Any wealth that we have in the house, any material possessions we have accumulated together, if they are holding you or if you have a great deal of attachment for any of them, I will give them all away. I’ll sell them or give them away to the monastery as an offering or will give them to the poor. I will get rid of anything that might be holding you back from dying. Whatever you wish me to do, I shall do.”
Chogmey replied, “I’m not attached to wealth or anything in the house. This is not what is holding me back. My great concern is for your future and, because of that, I cannot die. After my death, it will be easy for you to remarry and have many daughters and sons, more than we had together. I see, however, that this kind of life does not have any kind of meaning for you. That is why my concern is so great for you. If you promise me that instead of leading such a life, you will become a dedicated practitioner of the Dharma – which is the most effective and efficient way to achieve your own happiness and the happiness of all sentient beings, then I’ll be able to peacefully leave this life. Otherwise, I shall remain like this for a long time.”
“If this is the case,” said Gampopa, “then, by all means, I shall give you my word of honor that I shall become a dedicated practitioner of the Dharma and give up this way of life.”
Chogmey replied, “Although I trust you, in order to make me completely happy and assured of your pledge, please bring a witness.”
Gampopa asked his uncle to witness his vow. Standing before his beloved wife, with his uncle as witness, Gampopa made his pledge to dedicate his life to the Dharma. This made Chogmey very happy, and she said, “Even after my death, I will be looking after you.” So saying, she held his hand and, with many tears, passed away.”
According to another account (The Kagyu Lineage: the Tibetan Lineage Masters: Gampopa (samye.org)):
“His wife said, “I am not attached to possessions, nor wealth, nor faith, but I am very attached to you. Because you are only 24 years old, and you are very handsome, it is very hard for me to leave you. It is because my attachment to you is so very strong that I am unable to die.” Knowing there was no cure for her illness, and at the same time understanding that her attachment to him prevented her from dying properly, Sonam Rinchen promised that he would take the vow of complete celibacy, never to marry another woman, and to become a monk. This promise released her from her unnatural attachment, and she left her pain-racked body and died.”
[ix] From the Treasury of Lives biography: “In 1104, at the age of twenty-five he took ordination, either in Dakpo (dwags po) or in Penyul, at Gyachak Ri Monastery (‘phan yul rgya lcags ri), receiving the name Sonam Rinchen (bsod nams rin chen). The names of his ordinators are given as Geshe Loden Sherab of Maryul (mar yul dge bshes blo ldan shes rab, d.u.), Gyachilwa (rgya mchil ba, d.u.), and Geshe Shapa Lingpa / Nyingpo (dge bshes sha pa ling pa / snying po, d.u.).”