THE ‘SINGLE-SITTING’ VEGETARIAN PRACTICE: Sakya Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo’s vegetarianism; Kālacakra master, Śākyaśrī and the four monastic communities (Joden Tshogpa Zhi); the Gedun Gangpa’s monastic ordination of the 4th-8th Karmapas

Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, 15th Century Tibetan thangka (1382-1456) (see Teacher (Lama) – Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (Himalayan Art))

Hey! Followers of mine, give up the impure lifestyle of consuming meat, alcohol, and the like! Being the sole basis of all marvelous qualities, cherish the precious discipline more than your life!

–Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, An Epistle Benefitting Students, tr. J. Heimbel (2019)

“How on earth do all these thousands of monks spend their time? How are they supported? And what good, if any, do they do?”
—Spencer Chapman [1938]

“At that time, I received the blessings of serving the great Khenpo of Tsok Gendun Gang, an individual who was emanated by the great siddhas from the tradition of the omniscient Jonang, who was certain to go from this life to the presence of the Dharma King in Shambhala, the guru precious buddha Chodrup Senge and the great being born as Je Karma Tre, who transcends humans, a master of yoga, a god victorious over all directions whose mind has been ripened well by discipline and samadhi.”

–8th Karmapa on his taking full ordination from his teacher and Gedun Gang abbot, Chodrub Senge


In his recent teachings on the strict vegetarianism of former Karmapas’ and Kagyu masters’, the 17th Karmapa (2021) referred to the food practice of Dokar (‘vegetarian broth’) of monastics who chose a vegetarian diet, in monasteries where meat was not explicitly forbidden. The Karmapa also spoke about other Tibetan Buddhist masters who were vegetarians, such as the Sakya Master, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (ngor chen kun dga’ bzang po, 1382-1456).

Dr. Joerg Heimbel, the world’s leading English-language scholar and expert on Ngorchen, has written in detail about this practice of ‘white’ vegetarianism (dokar), which was generally combined with the ‘single-sitting’ practice (denchig) of one meal sitting per day. This practice originated in the four influential monastic community lineages, Joden Tshogpa Zhi (Jo gdan tshogs pa bzhi), which arose from the Vinaya lineage of Indian master, Śākyaśrībhadra and was often practiced by those who took monastic ordination from them (for more detail see below). Many biographies make mention of this food practice when masters took full monastic ordination.

One of these Joden Tshog lineages, the Gedun Gangpa (whose eighth abbot was the Jonang and Kālacakra master, Tselmin Sonam Zangpo) gave some of the Karmapas and Zhamarpas their full ordination vows. The 17th Karmapa also explained about how, since the time of the 3rd Karmapa up until the 8th Karmapa, they all received their full ordination vows from the Gedun Gang community. It is likely that the reason for the Karmapas’ strong vegetarian stance and practice came as a result of their connection with the lineage holders of this ‘Single-sitting’ vegetarian practice.

In this brief post, I compile and summarise some of Heimbel’s fascinating work on Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo’s vegetarianism, the origin of the ‘single-sitting’ vegetarian practice, the four Joden Tshogpa and the Gedun Gangpa’s connection to the Karmapas and other Kagyu masters.

In conclusion, it is clear that Tibetan Buddhist monastics in 13th to 16th Century Tibet engaged in very strict practices associated with food, aimed at reducing harm to animals and personal attachment to sensory pleasures. This is far removed from cooking and eating meals in 21st Century Tibetan Buddhist monastics. While it is important to have nutritious and fresh food, the Buddha explicitly encouraged monks to beg for alms for a reason: not to become too obsessed with, or attached to, food and other material and sensory pleasures. Monastic discipline and rules were there for a reason, monastics are given funding and support by those devotees outside the monastery. The question asked by Spencer Chapman [taken from Berthe Jansen’s book (‘The Monastic Rules’ (2018)] is still a relevant one, perhaps even more so today. Monastic life is not supposed to be easy or comfortable per se, or the same as a layperson (wearing monastic robes).

May this post be of benefit in encouraging lay-people (and monastics) to think carefully about food choices and diet, in a way which is kind to animals, the planet and themselves!

Adele Tomlin, 28th March 2021.

Ngorchen’s strict vegetarianism and the ‘Single-sitting’ vegetarian practice
Ngorchen Zangpo

The Sakya master, Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo, founder of the Ngor monastery, took a strict stance against the consumption of meat and alcohol.  In  Ngorchen Künga Sangpo on the Faults of Alcohol and Meat (2019), Heimbel writes that Ngorchen gave up eating all meat from the age of twelve:

To highlight Ngorchen’s tough stance against eating meat, Sangye Phuntsok (1649-1705), the twenty-fifth abbot of Ngor, included in his biography of Ngorchen a small section on how his protagonist gave up eating meat. According to his presentation, Ngorchen himself related that he could not remember having eaten offal or raw meat as a child. When he grew older, from his sixth year on, by merely seeing meat or blood or others eating it, especially monastics, he is said to have lost his appetite for many days. Thinking that it was not the proper lifestyle for monastics to eat meat, and that the Buddha himself had not allowed eating it, he became a vegetarian at age twelve. Later, the smell of meat alone could reportedly harm his well-being. Ngorchen also adhered to a specific form of asceticism, the so-called ascetic discipline of the single mat with white (i.e., vegetarian) ingredients, which should be considered another of his influences. This single-mat discipline demanded that food was not eaten more than once per day, whereby a whole day’s food was taken at a single sitting at noon. One finds this discipline included as the fifth among the Mahayana tradition of the “twelve qualities of a purified ascetic,” as listed in the Mahdvyutpatti. (2019:82).

Ngorchen is known to have observed the ‘single-sitting’ practice since his monastic ordination at age eight, as well as what appears to have been the even stricter form of practice that was limited to a ‘white’ meatless diet[1].  The degenerate conduct of monks in relation to diet, alcohol and women at his Sakya monastery was what led him to leave the monastery and, in early 1425, write his treatise against meat and alcohol, An Epistle Benefitting Students (2019:81). Heimbel explains that:

“Four years after the compilation of the Epistle, Ngorchen institutionally incorporated his personal condemnation of alcohol and meat into the monastic code he established at his new monastic seat of Ngor. To counter those developments at Sakya, he enforced a strict monastic discipline, prohibiting the consumption of meat and alcohol, banning women from entering the
monastic complex, and forbidding his monks to engage in any form of sectarian debates. Moreover, in the territories of his benefactors, he is said to have put restrictions on hunting wild animals and fishing, stopped meat and blood sacrifices, and banned meat and alcohol from monastic institutions.” (2019:82).

Sadly, this strict vegetarian practice that became very common with the Ngor tradition, also degenerated as time went on:

“Emulating Ngorchen’s example, many of his successors on the abbatial throne of Ngor are known to have either observed the ascetic discipline of the single mat in its vegetarian form or adhered to a meatless diet, though most took up this discipline at the time of their monastic ordination. Nevertheless, the biographies of some of those abbots make it very clear that a vegetarian diet was mandatory for the incumbent abbot of Ngor.  At one point, however, Ngorchen’s prohibition of alcohol and meat was broken by members of the monastic community. Rinchen Migyur Gyaltsen (1717-1780), the thirty-seventh abbot of Ngor, complains that during his tenure there were only a few people left following Ngorchen’s instructions. On top of that, by then the use of tobacco had become a huge problem as well, and so the Ngor tradition were slowly losing the reputation they once enjoyed as adherents of a very strict monastic discipline.” (2019: 84).

8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje also a strict vegetarian who banned all meat consumption in or around the Kagyu Great Encampment, image from Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim

In his recent teachings, 17th Karmapa (2021) also referred to this tradition of ‘white broth’ (dorkar) in relation to the vegetarianism of the 4th to 10th Karmapas and eminent Kagyu masters staying in Kagyu monasteries, or the Kagyu Great Encampment. What is this practice and where did it originate from? Heimbel, who translates dor (sdor) as ‘ingredients’, explains the different meanings of the term (2019: 79: fn. 167):

“The Tibetan term denchik dokar (gdan gcig rdor/sdor dkar) or its variant dokar denchik ( rdor/sdor dkar gdan gcig) is made of two elements: denchik designating the single-mat practice, and dokar referring to white (i.e., pure or virtuous and thus vegetarian) food. Another variant of dokar that is attested in biographical works is the term kardor (dkar rdor), which Dungkar Losang Trinle describes in his dictionary as a general term for a vegetarian diet by monastics and devout laypeople who make use of cheese, vegetables, and fruits as ingredients (rdor) for their foodstuffs, which are not mixed with other foodstuffs such as meat, fat, eggs, and bones; see Dungkar Losang Trinle, Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. There exists also a homophone variant of dor (spelled sdor), which Zhang explains as nutritious ingredients such as meat or fat that are added to soup or broth; (see Zhang, Bod rgya tshigmdzod chen mo, 1482). Similarly, Dobi Tsering Dorje et al. give as an example for the use of dor (sdor) the word thugdor (thug sdor), which is explained as meat or bones that are put into a soup; (see Dobi Tsering Dorje et al., Deng rabs bod skad tshig mdzod, 975)· In addition to meat and fat, Padma Dorje et al. specify dor (sdor) also as vegetables and seasonings that can be added to soup or broth to make them nutritious and add flavor; (see Padma Dorje et al., Bod kyi nyer mkho’i zas rigs tshig mdzod).”

In the 17th Karmapa’s explanation, the term dorkar refers to the latter, as stock that is put into a soup.

According to Heimbel, these practices were not obligatory in terms of the Vinaya:

“In the Indian Buddhist context, these were ascetic practices “the Buddha authorized monks to adopt voluntarily for the purpose of cultivating contentedness with little detachment, energy, and moderation. These austerities are not enjoined on monks and nuns by the Vinaya, but are rather optional practices that monastics were sanctioned to adopt for limited periods of time in order to foster sensory restraint.” (2019:80).  

Origin of the ‘Single-Sitting’ Vegetarian practice  

Monastic ordination and the Vinaya lineage of Śākyaśrībhadra
Monks in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition

According to recent research, the single-sitting practice, and also its stricter vegetarian form, were practiced by adherents of the Sakya school and of the Drigung branch of the Kagyu school, whereby the former inherited the practice most likely from the Vinaya tradition and related ordination lineages that the Kashmiri scholar and Kālacakra master, Śākyaśrībhadra introduced during his ten-year stay in Tibet (1204-12I4) and from the four monastic communities that were founded in his tradition. Ngorchen also received full monastic ordination at age eighteen (or nineteen) within this tradition, and prior to that, most likely also his monastic ordination at age eight. [2]

Monastic Ordination Lineages in Tibet

Heimbel (2013: 187) describes the monastic ordination lineages brought to Tibet:

“The Tibetan Buddhist tradition follows the Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya, and a total of three different monastic ordination lineages (sdom rgyun) of the prātimokṣa precepts (so sor thar pa’i sdom pa) were brought to Tibet. There were three monastic ordination lineages in the Vinaya tradition brought to Tibet from India”.

These lineages are:

  1. Eastern Tibetan or Lower Region Vinaya (Medul: smad ’dul), established by the eighth-century Indian Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita[3] during the reign of Trisong Detsen (Khri srong lde btsan (r. 754–797)). It was later revived from eastern Tibet with the full monastic ordination of Lachen Gongpa Rabsel (Bla chen dGongs pa rab gsal (832–915 or 892–975) and his disciples from central Tibet. The Nyingma and Gelug order preserve the Medul lineage as passed down from Lachen Gongpa Rabsel.
  2. Western Tibetan or Upper Region Vinaya (Todul: stod ’dul), introduced by the East Indian scholar Dharmapāla, who had visited Guge (Gu ge) in Ngari (mNga’ ris) following the invitation of Lha Lama Yeshe O (lHa Bla ma Ye shes ’od (947–1019)). “At a certain point in time, the Todul lineage of Dharmapāla appears to have become extinct.”
  3. Middle Region Vinaya (Bardul: bar ’dul) as well as Khache Tradition (kha che lugs) or paṇ chen sdom rgyun,  reached Tibet at the beginning of the thirteenth century with the visit of the Kashmiri scholar Śākyaśrībhadra (1127/40s–1225; hereafter Śākyaśrī), better known to Tibetans as Khache Panchen (Kha che Paṇ chen). The Bardul lineage transmitted from Śākyaśrī became the chief ordination lineage in the Karma Kagyu and Sakya traditions.

Most laypeople generally regard monastic ordination as when a layperson is given monastic vows and dons monastic robes. However, as Berthe Jansen remarks, in ‘The Monastery Rules‘ (2018:7) defining who is a monastic, is not always so clear-cut and generally means someone with full or novice ordination vows:

“There does not appear to be a consensus on the definition of the term “monk” in the context of Buddhist Studies. Silk, while acknowledging that the monastery would have been populated with various kinds of Buddhists, appears to translate the word “monk” only for the term bhikṣu (Gelong: dge slong). Similarly, Clarke also excludes “novices” (S. śrāmaṇera, dge tshul) from the classification of monks. Were we to follow such an “exclusive” definition of the term “monk” we probably would not be able to classify the majority of Tibetans living in monasteries, today and in pre-modern Tibet, as monks…. the word “monk” covers a broad range of Sanskrit and Tibetan terms. In the genre of Tibetan literature under consideration here, we come across several terms referring to (male) inhabitants of a monastery, such as ban de, Drapa (grwa pa), Tsunpa (btsun pa (S. bhadanta), Lama (bla ma), and Gedunpa (dge ’dun pa). This overarching group of people who have “renounced” lay life or “have gone forth” (Rabjung: rab tu byung ba, S. pravrajyā) is most regularly subdivided into Gelong (dge slong) and Getshul (dge tshul). Sometimes, when an author wants to include everyone in the monastery, the genyen (dge bsnyen) (S. upāsaka) are also mentioned, but in this context the genyen (dge bsnyen) refer not simply to lay practitioners but to “aspiring monks.” These are usually young boys who have not yet been allowed to take Getsul (dge tshul) vows or are not (yet) able to.”

Śākyaśrībhadra (1127­- 1225) – Kālacakra lineage holder and bestower of four transmissions in Tibet
Śākyaśrī Bhadra (1127­- 1225)

The ‘single sitting’ practice is said to have been one of the four transmissions of the (Middle Region Vinaya) from Śākyaśrī[4] (see his Treasury of Lives bio, here). Śākyaśrī Bhadra (1127­- 1225)’s immense learning was said to be incomparable, even in India. He was head of the famed dharma universities of Vikramaśilā  and Nalanda, and had visions of Arya Tara. He was the last of the great panditas to visit Tibet. His eleven-year stay in Tibet from 1204 until 1214 had a great impact on the development of Buddhism.

Heimbel (2013) explains that Śākyaśrī was credited with several major activities there, including introducing four major teaching transmissions (bka’ babs bzhi) to Throphu Kagyu master and translator, Throphu Lotsawa (1172-1236) [5] and Sakya Pandita, Kunga Gyaltsan.

Throphu Lotsāwa (Khro phu Lo tsā ba), translator and student of Indian master, Śākyaśrī

These are:

(1) the transmission of a philosophical tradition (mtshan nyid kyi bka’ babs) comprising Dharmakīrti’s Pramāṇavārttika to Sakya Pandita (Sa skya Paṇḍi ta) Kunga Gyeltsen (Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182–1251));

(2) the transmission of a corpus of oral instructions (man ngag gi bka’ babs) such as the so-called “four uncommon instructions” (thun mong ma yin pa’i gdams pa bzhi) to Throphu Lotsāwa (Khro phu Lo tsā ba);

(3) the transmission of a tantric system (sngags kyi bka’ babs) to Pel Lotsāwa Chokyi Zangpo (dPyal Lo tsā ba Chos kyi bzang po);

(4) the transmission of a Vinaya tradition (’dul ba’i bka’ babs) to his group of “single sitting practitioners” (stan gcig pa);

(5) calculating a Buddhist chronology (bstan rtsis) “which differed considerably from that of the other Tibetan traditions before then, being much closer to the estimates of modern scholars on the probable dates of the Buddha Śākyamuni; and

(6) cooperating with Throphu Lotsāwa in the building of the great Maitreya statue at Throphu (Khro phu) monastery in Shabme (Shab smad) of western Tsang (gTsang). 

Kālacakra mandala

Śākyaśrī was also the lineage holder of two of the seventeen main Kālacakra lineages that came to Tibet from India (which seems to be included in the third transmission above). As Jonang master. Jetsun Tāranātha writes in One Hundred Blazing Lights, (see here), the founder of Jonang, Kunpang Chenpo compiled all the different Kālacakra lineages, condensing them into seventeen main ones. Two of these descended from Śākyaśrī:

“That which great Kashmiri Pandit Śākyaśrī gave to the translator Pelo Chokyi Zangpo using the esoteric instructions of Nāropa’s great commentary on the Hevajra Tantra. That which the great Śākyaśrī also gave to the Lord of Dharma Sakya Panchen, distinguished by the Six Vajra Verses of the hearing lineage.These [above] are the two lineage traditions from the Kashmiri Scholar, Śākyaśrī (Khache Panchen).”

—Jetsun Tāranātha , One Hundred Blazing Lights

Innate (Sahaja) Kalacakra, 18th Century Karma Kagyu thangka (source HAR: Kalachakra (Buddhist Deity) – Sahaja (1 face, 2 hands) (Himalayan Art)

[For more on Kālacakra, the Karmapas and Karma Kagyu, see here.]

The Four Monastic Communities (Joden Tshogpa Zhi)

In his 2013 paper, The Jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi: An Investigation into the History of the Four Monastic Communities in Śākyaśrībhadra’s Vinaya Tradition, Heimbel discusses Śākyaśrī’s Vinaya tradition:

“When Śākyaśrī returned in late 1214 to his native Kashmir via Puhrang (Pu hrangs), he left behind a group of disciples whom he had trained in Vinaya practice, “thus establishing an important new monastic community.” Successive divisions in this original community led to the formation of four different assemblies that became known as the the four Joden Tsogde (Jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi). Via these communities, Śākyaśrī’s monastic ordination lineage was passed down and received by a variety of prominent Tibetan Buddhist masters and spread in different Kagyu traditions and within the Sakya order. Along with this lineage, the Sakya school preserved a second distinct ordination lineage that also originates from Śākyaśrī, namely the one that was transmitted from Śākyaśrī directly to his disciple Sakya Paṇḍita.” (2013: 213-4) [6]

Heimbel (2013: 200). writes that “we should not understand the term the Four Joden Communities “as referring to four fixed communities that remained together as single groups at just one monastery. Instead, we need to think of them, initially, as wandering encampments with no fixed abode or means of support that over time branched off into further sub-communities whose members settled at different locations beyond the borders of the wider region of Nyemo (sNye mo). Such a development is indicated, for example, by the writings of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (’Jam dbyangs mKhyen brtse’i dbang po (1820–1892). In his abbatial histories of Tibetan monasteries, he specifies the four monastic communities as:

  1. Gedun Gangpa ( dGe ’dun sgang pa)
  2. Cholungpa (Chos lung pa),
  3. Tshamigpa (Tsha mig pa), and
  4. Jedzingpa (Bye rdzing pa)

Why did they become so influential and prevalent and why did the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism not give monastic ordination from within their own lineages? Heimbel suggests that it is probably because the monastic ordination transmitted by the Four Communities was considered extremely pure because of the Vinaya ascetic practices to which they adhered and for which they appear to have been famous, even more pure than the lineage of the tradition one belonged to. 

The Gedun Gangpa community, the 8th Gedun Gangpa abbott Jonang Tselmin Zangpo’s ordination of the 5th and 6th Karmapas

The relation between the Karma Kagyu and the Gedun Gang was a two-way one (Heimbel (2013: 215-6):

“In relation to the Kagyu and Karmapas, it was the Gedun Gangpa community (2013:201) who had close ties with the Karmapas and Zhamarpas in terms of monastic ordinations. The 5th Zhamarpa bestowed ordinations on members of the Gedun Gangpa. The 5th Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa )bDe bzhin gshegs pa’s (1384–1415) was given śrāmaṇera (dge tshul) and bhikṣu (dge slong) ordinations by the Gedun Gang when they went to Kongpo.[7]

The Feast For Scholars (mKhas pa’i dga’ ston) reports a prophecy by Śākyaśrī that at some future time when abbots of the Gedun Gangpa community would emerge as manifestations of the Sixteen Arhats, they would preside over the monastic ordination of successive Karma pas. As the first abbot in question, the Feast For Scholars specifies Nyagbon Sonam Zangpo (sNyag dbon bSod nams bzang po.) He can be identified as Joden Nyag (Jo gdan gNyag/sNyag phu ba) alias Tselchen Minpa Sonam Zangpo (mTshal chen min pa bSod nams bzang po (1341– 1433)), the eighth Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang abbot (tenure: 1384-1399), who was recognised as a manifestation of the Arhat Bakula. “

Arhat Bakula, a vegetarian who was a disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. For more on the vegetarianism of Bakula, see recent teaching by 17th Karmapa (2021) on it here.

Sonam Zangpo (bSod nams bzang po) was one of Jonang Kunkhyen Dolpopa’s major disciples who also studied with the 4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje and was installed as the eighth abbot of the Gedun Gangpa[8].  In 1403, he was offered the monastery of Tselmin (mTshal min) by the Fifth Karmapa, Dezhin Shegpa (bDe bzhin gshegs pa (1384–1415), where he instituted a teaching system based on the exegetical tradition of the Kagyu order (Heimbel (2013:215)).

Heimbel elaborates:

“In his position as ordination abbot of the Gedun Gangpa, Sonam Zangpo had already formed a connection with the Fifth Karmapa when he, along with other masters of the Gedun Gang, presided over the Karmapa’s śrāmaṇera as well as bhikṣu ordination and bestowed teachings on him, too. The former ordination took place during the community’s visit to Tselhagang (rTse lha sgang) in Kong po in 1390 and the latter in 1402 when the Gedun Gang community was invited to Namthokyi Riwo (rNam thos kyi ri bo), also located in Kongpo.  Thereafter, he also presided over the śrāmaṇera ordination of the Sixth Karma pa Thongwa Donden (mThong ba don ldan (1416–1453)) at ’Ol kha bKra shis in 1424 and accepted the request to perform the bhikṣu ordination at a later time. His bestowal of full monk’s vows, however, never materialised due to intrigue caused by a close attendant of an imperial messenger (gser yig pa zhig gi nye gnas).  Along with the Karmapas’ ordinations, Sonam Zangpo also bestowed full monastic ordination on the Third Zhamarpa, Chopal Yeshe (Zhwa dmar Chos dpal ye shes (1406–1452)) and taught Karma Kagyupa masters such as Ngompa Jadral Namkha Gyaltsen (Ngom pa Bya bral Nam mkha’ rgyal mtshan (1370–1433)) and Sogwon Rinchen Zangpo (Sog dbon Rin chen bzang po).  Nevertheless, Sonam Zangpo was not the first abbot of the Gedun Gang community to bestow ordination on a Karmapa.”

3rd, 4th and 8th Karmapa’s monastic ordinations from Gedun Gangpa Abbots

According to Heimbel (2013:216), the 3rd, 4th and 8th Karmapas and Zhamarpa incarnations were also given full monastic ordination by Gedun Gangpa abbots, which attests to the close link between the Gedun Gangpa and Karma Kagyu tradition. These are summarised below:

  • 3rd Karmapa and 3rd Gedun Gangpa, Zhonnu Jangchub
3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje

“By 1301, Zhonu Jangchub (gZhon nu byang chub), the third Tshog Gedun Gangpa abbot, had bestowed full monastic ordination and teachings on the Third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje (1284–1339) and on the First Zhamar Togden Dragpa Senge (Zhwa dmar rTogs ldan Grags pa seng ge (1283– 1349)) as well.”

  • 4th Karmapa and 5th Gedun Gang, Jamyang Dondrup Pal
4th Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje with student

“Likewise, the Fourth Karmapa, Rolpe Dorje (Rol pa’i rdo rje (1340–1383)) received from Jamyang Dondrup Pal (’Jam dbyangs Don grub dpal), the fifth Gedun Gangpa abbot, both the pravrajyā and śrāmaṇera vows along with Vinaya teachings in 1353 and full monastic ordination in 1357.”

  • 8th Karmapa and Kenchen Chodrub Senge
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

“Regarding the period of time after Sonam Zangpo’s tenure, we know of one later abbot from the Gedun Gang community who presided over the full monastic ordination of a Karmapa. The person in question is Kenchen Chodrub Senge (Chos grub seng ge), considered a manifestation of the Arhat Rāhula, who in 1527 presided at Namthokyi Riwo (rNam thos kyi ri bo) over the ordination of the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507–1554).”

Image of Chodrub Senge, given by 17th Karmapa in recent teachings (2021)

According to the 17th Karmapa (2021: Day 7) on the life of Khenchen Chodrub Senge, who was also one of the main teachers of the 8th Karmapa:

“Chodrup Senge wanted to undertake retreat in a solitary place, but he had received the Red Spear Vaishravana empowerment from Khenchen Chokyi Wangchuk, who asked him to oversee Tsokde Gendun Gang Monastery. He started as discipline master and eventually became the abbot of that monastery, spending the rest of his life as a spiritual and political leader there. “

“Mikyo Dorje was advised to take ordination from Khenchen Chodrup Senge because of an auspicious interdependent connection. When the Seventh Karmapa came to Gendun Gang, there was a golden procession to welcome him. Each person held a different offering; Chodrup Senge carried a beautiful golden mandala with piles of different colored jewels. He was able to make his offering and received the gift of a very nice outer robe from the Seventh Karmapa. Chodrup Senge made an aspiration to arouse bodhicitta, and Chodrak Gyatso looked at him and smiled. So Chodrup Senge felt the foundation had been established to give full ordination to Mikyo Dorje. 

We need to know that from the time of the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, all of the Karmapas had taken vows at the Gendun Gang community. The Karmapas and the abbots had a great connection, there is a saying of Gedun Gangpa that for each of the incarnations of the sixteen Karmapas would appear one of the sixteen arhats. In fact, Chodrup Senge himself was said to be an emanation of the Ahat Rāhula. When you talk about the four places of Vinaya, Gendun Gang was considered to be one of the most important communities, and so the Karmapas received the lineage of vows from them. 

For his ordination, Mikyo Dorje wrote a letter to Chodrup Senge saying: “I wish to take the vows of full ordination from someone who is qualified in the Vinaya. If you do not come you will breach your Bodhisattva vows. So the letter was strict and commanding him to come to the Great Encampment to bestow the vows. When Chodrub Senge opened the letter he is reported to have said it was like a conch blowing in a puja, so it was a very auspicious connection and was delighted by it. However, he was then 79 years old, and it would take seven months to travel from Central Tibet to Kongpo. Because of his age and the great difficulties involved in travelling (there were no cars or airplanes, they had to ride horseback there, and sometimes people would not ride animals) so he replied that he would not be able to come. However, Mikyo Dorje sent people to convince him. Since the Karmapa was so insistent, and because of his profound connection to the Gedun Gang Tshogde and the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, Chodrup Senge finally agreed to come.

So, on the 3rd day of the 9th month of the Year of the Pig, he met a great Lotsawa (probably Zhalu Lotsawa) and they discussed the Dharma. Then, Chodrup Senge eventually arrived at the Great Encampment in the 11th Tibetan month of that year. He met Mikyo Dorje the same day he arrived. After a few days of rest, as he was very old, he offered Mikyo Dorje the full ordination vows. On that day, the sky was very clear, rainbows filled the sky and a rain of flowers fell. He then went to see Mikyo Dorje every day, and they discussed difficult points of sutra and tantra. At that time, he probably also introduced the Karmapa to the Shengtong view. He gave him the Amitayus and Red Spear Vaishravana empowerments as well.

In the liberation-story, Mikyo Dorje wrote about his other main teacher, 1st Sangye Nyenpa, he said of Chodrup Senge:

At that time, I received the blessings of serving the great Khenpo of Tsok Gendun Gang, an individual who was emanated by the great siddhas from the tradition of the omniscient Jonang, who was certain to go from this life to the presence of the Dharma King in Shambhala, the guru precious buddha Chodrup Senge and the great being born as Je Karma Tre, who transcends humans, a master of yoga, a god victorious over all directions whose mind has been ripened well by discipline and samadhi.

The Eighth Karmapa also wrote about taking ordination from Chodrub Senge and Karma Trinlepa in his autobiography. In this he writes that in his lifetime the greatest thing he did was getting full ordination and getting that from an emanation of an arhat was of indescribable benefit to him. He also kept cuttings of Chodrup Senge’s hair, which produced relics.

The Khenpo himself had an auspicious dream on the day he gave ordination to the Eighth Karmapa, of going up a high pass and resting  there. The reason why he was called the Joden Khenpo was he was from the Gedun Gang, which was one of the four Joden Monastic communities. The reason they were called Joden, was because they only had ‘one-sitting’ on a single mat of eating food.”

The Zhamarpa incarnations and Gedun Gangpa ordination
5th Zhamarpa, Konchog Yenlag

Heimbel (2013: 216-7) further describes how these ordinations by Gedun Gang abbotts were also given to various Zhamarpa incarnations:

“This close relationship was further maintained as illustrated by the biographies of such eminent figures as the Fifth 5th Zhamarpa, Konchog Yenlag (Zhwa dmar dKon mchog yan lag (1525–1583) and Ninth Karmapa Wangchug Dorje (dBang phyug rdo rje (1556–1603). From the former’s biographical sketch, we come to learn, for instance, that the Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang abbot Shākya Gyatso (rgya mtsho) functioned as secret revealing preceptor in the Zhamarpa ’s full monastic ordination; an unnamed abbot from Tsog Gedun Gang was, along with the Zhamarpa , involved in the full monastic ordination of the Fourth mTshur phu rGyal tshab Grags pa don grub (1547–1613); and that the Zhamarpa held, as mentioned above, the prayer festival of the Tibetan new year of 1570 at Gyelchenling (rGyal chen gling), bestowing both teachings and ordinations on members of Tsog Gedun Gang .

That link was also maintained by other masters; for example the Fourth Zhwa dmar Chos grags ye shes (1453–1524) was a disciple of Rab ’byor seng ge (1398–1480), the nineteenth abbot of Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang (tenure: 1463–1471?), who functioned as ceremony master in the Zhwa dmar’s full monastic ordination in 1476 and whom the latter honoured by writing his biography.

Moreover, the Zhamarpa himself bestowed teachings on the Tsog Gedun Gang community. Similarly, to receive full monastic ordination, the First dPa’ bo Chos dbang lhun grub (1440–1503) sent some of his monks to the dGe ’dun sgang community. The tradition to recognise abbots of the Tsog Gedun Gangpa as manifestations of the Sixteen Arhats also found its expression in paintings, as illustrated by a surviving thangka in the Karma sgar bris style. This thangka depicts as its main figure the Arhat Vanavasin, identifiable from an inscription. He is surrounded by the lineage of early dGe ’dun sgang pa abbots, whose original names are furnished by inscriptions as well. The main figure was identified by David Jackson to be Byang chub dpal, the community’s original founder.”

Use of meat during Ganachakra

The 17th Karmapa also taught about how the use of meat in Ganachakra offerings was explicitly forbidden by the 8th Karmapa up until the 10th Karmapa, during the times of the Kagyu Great Encampment, see here. Ngorchen also spoke against it’s use from both a sutric and tantric perspective in his well-known composition, An Epistle Benefitting Students (translated by Heimbel (2017). It is one of the longest Tibetan literary works of its kind, in which he urgently argues from both sutric and tantric points of view against the consumption and tantric use of alcohol and meat by monastics, and which he compiled in 1425 at age forty-three when he was still based at Sakya Monastery.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 28th March 2021.

Further Reading

Heimbel, Jörg. 2019 “Ngorchen Künga Sangpo on the Faults of Alcohol and Meat.” In Geoffrey Barstow (ed.), The Faults of Meat: Tibetan Buddhist Writings on Vegetarianism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, pp. 77–118. Ngorchen Künga Sangpo on the Faults of Alcohol and Meat | Joerg Heimbel –

Heimbel, Jörg. 2013. “The Jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi: An Investigation into the History of the Four Monastic Communities in Śākyaśrībhadra’s Vinaya Tradition.” In Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Petra Maurer (eds.), Nepalica-Tibetica: Festgabe for Christoph Cüppers. 2 vols. Beiträge zur Zentralasienforschung 28.1–2. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies GmbH, vol. 1, 187–242. The Jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi: An Investigation into the History of the Four Monastic Communities in Śākyaśrībhadra’s Vinaya Tradition | Joerg Heimbel –

Heimbel, Jörg. 2017. Vajradhara in Human Form: The Lift and Times ofNgor chen Kun dga’ bzang po. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute.

Heimbel, Jörg. 2017. “The Dispute between mKhas grub rJe and Ngor chen: Its Representation and Role in Tibetan Life-Writing.” In Fifteenth Century Tibet: Cultural Blossoming and Political Unrest, edited by Volker Caumanns and Marta Sernesi, 249_89 . Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute.

Jansen, Berthe, 2018. The Monastery Rules: Buddhist Monastic Organisation in Pre-Modern Tibet (University of California Press).

Sangye Phuntsok (Sangs rgyas phun tshogs, 1649-1705). I983. Rdo rje ‘chang kun dga’ bzang po ‘i rnam par thar pa legs bshad chu bo ‘dus pa’i rgya mtsho. In Path with the Fruit I, vol. I (ka), 47s-s8s. –· 2oo8. Bya bral ba sangs rgyas phun tshogs kyi myong ba brjod pa nges ‘byung gtam gyi rol mtsho. In Path with the Fruit 2, vol. 29 (ha), I45-264.

Nicole Willock, Thu’u bkwan’s Literary Adaptations of the Life of Dgongs pa rab gsal, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines Number 31, Février 2015 – Papers for Elliot Sperling, pp. 577-591.

Kashmiri Śākyaśrībhadra | Lotsawa House

Nyakpuwa Sonam Zangpo – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

Śākyaśrībhadra – The Treasury of Lives: A Biographical Encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia and the Himalayan Region

Śāntarakṣita (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)


[1] Interestingly, Heimbel (2019:82) notes that this strict vegetarian stance may have been what underscored the dispute between Ngorchen and Je Tsongkhapa:

“For instance, Ngorchen became involved in a gradually intensifying religious dispute with the polemic-loving Khedrup Je (1385-1438) on a variety of tantric topics; see Heimbel, Vajradhara in Human Form, 229-48; Heimbel, “The Dispute between mKhas grub rJe and Ngor chen.” This dispute may also have been over the issue of meat eating, and Khedrup Je’s Vinayabased defense of meat eating could thus be understood as a critical response to Ngorchen’s prohibition of meat. Khedrup Je presented his position in an undated work about the three vows that he wrote while living at the monastery of Riwo Dangchen in Nyangto (Ri bo Mdangs can, Nyang stod) of Tsang Province. It is asserted that Khedrup Je would have written this work between 1427 and 1431, and thus after Ngorchen had written his own work against meat eating in 1425. For Khedrup Je’s position on meat eating, see chapter 4 of this volume.”

[2] On the Sakya relation and those four monastic communities (tshogs sde bzhi or jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi), see Heimbel, “The Jo gdan tshogs sde bzhi.” On the Drigung relation, see Hou, “Some Remarks.” On Ngorchen’s ordinations, see Heimbel, Vajradhara in Human Form, 103-8.

[3] Śāntarakṣita (zhi ba tsho,725–788), was an important and influential Indian Buddhist philosopher, particularly for the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Śāntarakṣita was a philosopher of the Madhyamaka school who studied at Nalanda University under Jñānagarbha, and became the founder of Samye, the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.

[4] Sakyasribhadra, also known as Sakyasri or Khache Panchen, was an important Kashmiri pandita in the 12th and early 13th centuries who came to Tibet. His full biography is on the Treasury of Lives site. He has a connection with many of the lineages in Tibet extant during his visit. When Śākyaśrī was seventy-seven he was invited to Tibet by Tropu Lotsāwa Rinchen Sengge (khro phu lo tsA ba, 1173-1236?) who went to the Chumbi Valley in search of him; they met in a town called Vaneśvara. Śākyaśrī was initially disinclined to accept the offer, as Rinchen Sengge was, at the time, quite young. Tropu Lotsāwa was able to ask questions on doctrine to each of the paṇḍitas in his retinue, and the following discussion impressed Śākyaśrī sufficiently to convince him to go to Tibet, arriving in 1204.

[5] In 1204, he traveled with several students by way of the Chumbi Valley to a trade market in Assam to invite Śākyaśrībhadra, who was seventy-eight years old at the time, and staying in Jagaddala Monastery. During Śākyaśrī’s decade-long stay in Tibet, Jampa Pel acted as his translator, earning him the title of Tropu Lotsāwa.

[6] The impact of these communities is summarised in Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas’s (1813–1899) Shes bya kun khyab and ’Jam dbyangs mKhyen brtse’i dbang po’s (1820–1892) gSang sngags gsar rnying gi gdan rabs.  From these two presentations, we learn that successive Karma pas received Śākyaśrī’s ordination lineage as transmitted by Byang chub dpal via abbots of the dGe ’dun sgang community and that Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po (1382–1456) took full monastic ordination in Śākyaśrī’s lineage as passed down through rDo rje dpal via the abbots of the Tsha mig community. In this way, Śākyaśrī’s lineage spread among the Karma bKa’ brgyud and Sa skya order, especially in the latter’s Ngor branch. The lineages that passed down through the communities of Chos lung and Bye rdzing, however, had died out by the time Kong sprul was writing his encyclopaedia. Generally speaking, as he puts it, the monastic ordination lineages of the individual communities had, at a later point in time, been broken off at their respective seats, but continued to flourish via other religious traditions.”

[7] Heimbel explains:

“With the establishment of the dGe’ dun sgang pa at rGyal gling, the groups’s new home temple developed into the main seat of the monastic community.  Nevertheless, the entire community continued to be known as dGe ’dun sgang pa or Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang, even though they had become established at rGyal gling. The name of their seat at rGyal gling, the rGyal gling tshogs pa, was seemingly never used as the proper name for the whole dGe ’dun sgang community, but only referred to the monastery at rGyal gling. It even appears that the rGyal gling tshogs pa itself was known and referred to as dGe ’dun sgang pa. This can be seen in the biographies of certain Karma pa and Zhwa dmar incarnations who maintained close ties with the dGe ’dun sgang community, for which I have come across three examples. The Fourth Zhwa dmar Chos grags ye shes (1453–1524) bestowed teachings on the Yar rgyab dGe ’dun sgang pa while travelling in lHo kha; following the invitation of the Yar rgyab dPon chen, the Fifth Zhwa dmar dKon mchog yan lag (1525–1583) journeyed to rGyal chen gling and held a great prayer festival on the Tibetan new year of 1570, on that occasion also bestowing teachings and monastic ordinations on members of the Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang; and still later, when the Fifth Zhwa dmar was again invited by members of the Yar rgyab ruling house to Byams gling and Dol, he made a tea offering and spoke auspicious words (legs ja shis brjod) to Rin chen shes rab, the then abbot of the Tshogs dGe ’dun sgang.”

[8] Heimbel (2013: ) “bSod nams bzang po was an eminent figure, who served Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292–1361) from the age of seventeen as close attendant and, after his master’s passing, pursued further studies under Dol po pa’s major disciples. Along with that, he also studied under great Sa skya pa masters such as Bla ma Dam pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan (1312–1375) and Theg chen Chos rje Kun dga’ bkra shis (1349–1425) as well as with the Fourth Karma pa Rol pa’i rdo rje (1340–1383). 157 bSod nams bzang po was honoured by an invitation from the Phag mo gru pa ruler dBang Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1374–1432; r. 1385–1432) and installed as abbot of the dGe’ dun sgang pa.”

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