Having utterly fled the corpse of the ‘eight attachments’, honour and gain, Like deer fleeing in fear of a hunter. Unable to be misled by the trivialities of this life, Sangye Nyenpa, I supplicate at your feet!
Having swiftly discarded karma and afflictions, the causes of samsara, Like discarding a large, poisonous snake. Unconfused by the root of suffering as happiness, Sangye Nyenpa, I supplicate at your feet!
Moreover, having fully woken up in terror of the suffering of birth, aging, sickness and death, Like a deer who suddenly wakes up in fright Not controlled by holding mere appearances as permanent, Sangye Nyenpa, I supplicate at your feet!
Having completely emerged from all wealth and pleasures of samsara’s three realms, Like emerging from the torment of a severe sickness. Unable to be cheated by pleasure-like appearances, Sangye Nyenpa, I supplicate at your feet!
—excerpt from Supplication to the Learned Siddha of Denma by the Eighth Karmapa.
Happy to announce the publication of my second biography on Treasury of Lives on another of the main teachers of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (karma pa 08 mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507–1554), that of the Siddha from Denma (Denma Drubtob), First Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Peljor ((sangs rgyas mnyan pa 01 bkra shis dpal ‘byor, 1457 – 1519). I have reproduced the biography in full on the website post and it can also be read on the Treasury of Lives website here
The first main teacher of the Eighth Karmapa was The Second Tsurpu Gyeltsab, Tashi Namgyel (1490 -1518) see my Treasury of Lives biography about him here.
Primary and Secondary sources
This new biography draws mainly on recent teachings by the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje (Feb-March 2021) on the 8th Karmapa’s life and also a well-known history book by a disciple of the 8th Karmapa, the 16th Century master, 2nd Pawo, Tsuglag Trengwa (1504-1566), called the Scholars’ Banquet/Feast for Scholars (mkhas pa’i dga’ston) which I wrote a previous post about here.
The only previous non-Tibetan scholarly works that have been published on the First Sangye Nyenpa are that of Jim Rheingans’ Eighth Karmapa’s Life and His Interpretation of the Great Seal. A Religious Life and Instructional Texts in Historical and Doctrinal Contexts (2017) (which does not have much detail). The other is an MA (in German) by Gregor Verhufen (1995), A Biography of the 8th Karmapa and his Main Teacher, 1st Sangye Nyenpa (based on his translation of a biography of Sangye Nyenpa written by the 8th Karmapa). For further reading and sources, see below.
First Sangye Nyenpa Biography ( 1457 – 1519)
The First Sangye Nyenpa, Tashi Peljor met the Seventh Karmapa as a child and had huge devotion to him. He then spent many years as a young man in retreat and became blue and thin due to his lifestyle and diet. According to the Eighth Karmapa, Sangye Nyenpa was a strict vegetarian who ate no meat from the age of twelve onwards. He lived frugally with little material wealth or luxuries, giving away whatever was donated to him. The Eighth Karmapa was very influenced by him and had huge devotion to him. He is mentioned often in the opening praises of works by the Eighth Karmapa. For my translation of a Supplication to the Learned Siddha of Denma by the Eighth Karmapa, see here.
Before passing away, the First Sangye Nyenpa bestowed the Kalacakra empowerment and transmission on the Karmapa. For more on Karma Kagyu and Kalacakra, see here.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, January 2022.
BIOGRAPHY OF FIRST SANGYE NYENPA, TASHI PELJOR
Remarkable child with great devotion to the Seventh Karmapa
The First Sanggye Nyenpa, Tashi Peljor (sangs rgyas mnyan pa 01 bkra shis dpal ‘byor) was born into the Nyen family (mnyan tshang) in Denma (‘dan ma), Kham, on the banks of the Drichu River (‘bri chu). Sources state that he was born in the year 1457.
Sources say that he was a remarkable child, able to speak at birth, remember his past lives and to have shaved his own head at age five. His parents brought him to be blessed by the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (karma pa 07 chos grags rgya mtsho, 1454–1506), when he was six years old—a meeting that could only have occurred had he been born in 1457. It is said that merely hearing the Karmapa’s name brought goosebumps and tears, and that his devotion was such that he was unable to eat or sleep. At their first meeting the Karmapa gave him the name Tashi Peljor.
Tashi Peljor received novice vows at the age of eight from Bengar Jampel Zangpo (ban sgar ba ‘jam dpal bzang po) and the First Tsurpu Gyeltsab, Peljor Dondrub (mtshur phu rgyal tshab 01 dpal ‘byor don grub, 1427–1489), most likely at Karma Gon (karma dgon). From the age of nine to sixteen, in Denma, he studied the Five Books of Maitreya, Nāgārjuna’s Collection of Logic, Vinaya, Guhyasamāja, and other teachings of sutra and tantra with a teacher named Segye Pelwa (sras rgyas dpal ba).
At the age of nineteen, he set out to put into practice what he had studied in the scriptures, and sought out the Karmapa, who was then on pilgrimage at Kawa Karpo (kha ba dkar po), the sacred mountain in southeastern Tibet. He walked day and night for eighteen days before encountering the Karmapa in a place called Pumbor or Bumbor (pum ‘bor / bu ‘bor). For the next seven years, he took practice instructions from the Karmapa, Bengar Jampel Zangpo, and the First Gyeltsab, Peljor Dondrub.
“Blueish Nyenpa” who subsisted on the essence, wandering in retreat
When he was twenty-three or twenty-five years old, Tashi Peljor approached the Karmapa and asked him for his approval to go into retreat. According to the great Kagyu historian Pawo Tsuklak Trengwa (dpa’ bo gtsug lag ‘phreng ba, 1567–1630), from whose work the following account is largely drawn, the Karmapa replied,
Do it this way: go first to powerful, wild (gnyan po) places in Do-Khams and then to the places either in the south or north of U and by doing so start practicing in the challenging and wild places. I will also gradually go to U and Tsang.
Sanggye Nyenpa first spent three years at Kampo Nenang (kam po gnas nang), a branch monastery of Tsurpu (mtshur phu), then two years at a place called Bompuk (sbom phug), then finally two years at Tsurpu, followed by a year in Nyenchen Tangla (gnyan chen thang lha), the sacred mountain range not far from Tsurpu. During those eight years, he is said to have not made a fire or ate cooked food, but to have relied on the practice of chulen (bcud len), or “extracting the essence”—a meditative technique said to allow for obtaining nourishment from otherwise non-food items.
According to the Eighth Karmapa, Sanggye Nyenpa also ate no meat from the age of twelve onwards. He lived frugally with little material wealth or luxuries, giving away whatever was donated to him. With the exception of a seat mat in the assembly halls, he owned nothing. For example, it is said that while he was residing in the Karma Kagyu Great Encampment, he would make his meals with the scraps of leftover tormas boiled with used tea leaves. During these times, he observed strict silence and only spoke to his lamas, disregarding the impression he made on others. His body became extremely thin, his skin blueish, and as a result he became known as Gnarled Blue Uncle Nyenpa (mnyan dbon sngon skyog).
His attendant, Serja Drelwa
The Seventh Karmapa assigned a monk named Serja Drelwa Gendun Gyeltsen (gser bya bral ba dge ‘dun rgyal mtshan) to serve as an attendant, helping him fetch water and wood as well as assisting in the “extracting the essence” practice. Together they spent five years at Lake Namtso (gnam mtsho), and then a year each in Domtsang (dom tshang) in Mon, Drowo Lung (dro bo lung), Zangpuk (zangs phugs) and Shambugang (sha+m+bu gangs). During this time in Amdo and central Tibet, he met many renowned yogis, and took full ordination (bsnyen rdzogs) while attending teachings.
When he was forty years old, he proposed to Serja Drelwa that they travel to India, Oḍḍiyāna, and then on to Shambhala. His friend replied,
Oh, please don’t joke! Even Menlung Guru (man lung gu ru, b. 1239) and Orgyenpa (o rgyan pa, 1230–1309,) did not succeed in going to that place. How can we get there? If you are so confident, then it is best to go Oḍḍiyāna. Next best, to Ta-nga Wok (rta nga ‘og) grove in the land of the Rakshas. We could at least get to Jālandhara.
Before they could leave, however, Serja Drelwa suddenly passed away, having contracted a deadly lice-borne disease from a leprous beggar from Lhasa—which Tsuklak Trengwa attributed to a lack of bodhicitta.
Return to Denma
Soon afterward, Sanggye Nyenpa had a dream in which a white-colored person came and said, “You have seen your main mother only once. Aren’t you going to go and make a dharma connection with her?” From this encounter, he developed an intense longing to see his mother, and after reporting to the dream to the Karmapa, he received permission to return to his homeland.
En route to Kham, he had a vision of his mother passing away and becoming a wisdom ḍākinī. In his vision she said to him, “So that I can rise from being an earthwalker to a skywalker (mkha’ ‘gro), great yogi please grant me a Cakrasaṃvara initiation.” So, still seeing her in this vision, he gave her an initiation and also sang a Vajra doha song.
After the death of his mother, Sanggye Nyenpa went to the Clay Vulture (rdza go bo phug) cave and the rock of Ledu (sle du), which is said to look like a ladder to heaven. He resided at Chamla Khakyo cave (‘cham la kha’i skyo du brag) there.
His brother, back in Denma, was murdered by men from the neighboring region of Adro (a gro), as part of an ongoing conflict between the two communities. The killers then sought out Sanggye Nyenpa as well, finding him in his cave. Seeing that he had only a bit of dry grass and wood to sit on, that he was emaciated, and that his cotton robes were in tatters, they were overcome with faith and gave him their possessions. People from both Denma and Adro requested his help in resolving their conflict. However, Sanggye Nyenpa wished to continue staying in solitude and so did not reply to the invite, moving instead to Trapong Cave (khra spong brag).
The Karmapa sent him a letter in which he wrote, “You should establish a community of monks and a temple. When I go to central Tibet to turn a great wheel of teaching, I will bestow offerings in due course.” Sanggye Nyenpa replied that he lacked the qualities to achieve this and thought that maybe the Seventh Karmapa was trying to test the level of his realization. He responded that he was unable to build a monastery and asked again to be allowed to remain in retreat.
The Seventh Karmapa insisted, however, and knowing that he had to follow the guru’s demands Sanggye Nyenpa returned to his homeland, Denma, and established a small center, Orgyen Hermitage (o rgyan ri khrod), where taught Mahāmudrā to the men involved in the conflict that caused his brother’s death. It is said that when these former adversaries realized his impartiality, they developed faith in him. Members of the pre-existing monasteries of Denma, however, reportedly became jealous and worried that people would convert to the Kagyu tradition. When these monasteries went to take up weapons against the new institution, others in the region stopped them from fighting. As some disputes continued, many of Sanggye Nyenpa’s monks were initially forced to spend their time in isolated retreat.
Displaying miraculous abilities
In the midst of the hostilities an earthquake struck the region, destroying most monasteries, including Sanggye Nyenpa’s center. Two of his nephews were killed when the retreat quarters collapsed. Sanggye Nyenpa is said to have flown to safety during the earthquake, as he was found sitting atop one of two walls on the fourth floor that had remained standing. For this miraculous action, he was considered by people to be an accomplished siddha, which earned him the name Denma Drubtob (‘dan ma grub thob), or the Siddha of Denma.
He moved the community to lower ground and rebuilt the monastery with the new name Jangchub Chokhor Ling (byang chub chos ‘khor gling). The Seventh Karmapa next sent him to tour Kham and collect alms. In some places, if monasteries were in disrepair, he would restore them. From that year on, he gave teachings for study, and gathered many skilled hermits and built monasteries on a large scale.
Teacher of the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje
Sanggye Nyenpa served as one of the main teachers of the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (karma pa 08 mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507–1554). It is said that when Mikyo Dorje was four years old, before he was recognized as the Eighth Karmapa, the Seventh Karmapa’s sister, Wangmo Gawa (dbang ma dga’ ba), went to see him and asked him the name of his guru, to which he replied, Sanggye Nyenpa. Nevertheless, after his enthronement, the Eighth Karmapa’s first teacher was the Second Goshri Gyeltsab (go shri rgyal tsab 02, bkra shis rnam rgyal, 1490–1518). The Fourth Zharma, Drakpa Yeshe (zhwa dmar 04 chos grags ye shes, 145–1524), another Karma Kagyu hierarch who would have been expected to train the Eighth Karmapa, was then far away in central Tibet. He is said to have stated that Gyeltsab and Sanggye Nyenpa would be the most suitable teachers. The Seventh Karmapa himself is said to have left a testament stating that of many teachers, Sanggye Nyenpa would be the best person to train his reincarnation.
On the sudden death of the Second Gyeltsab, Sanggye Nyenpa took the position of main teacher to the Karmapa. Mikyo Dorje briefly met him and Dumowa Tashi Wozer (bdud mo ba bkra shis ‘od zer)—another former student of the Seventh Karmapa—in 1514, when he was eight years old, when the two arrived at the Great Encampment (gar chen) to meet him. The Karmapa reported feeling great confidence in them and expressed how he wanted to follow such gurus. As both these teachers’ were named Tashi, they are sometimes known to the tradition as the “two Tashis” (bkra shis rnam gnyis).
Sanggye Nyenpa invited the Karmapa to his monastery in Denma, Jangchub Ling, where he was greeted by a large gathering. They then journeyed to Lijiang in southern Kham, which at that time was a stronghold of the Karma Kagyu, and then returned north-eastwards to Zurmang Monastery (zur mang).
The actual teacher-student relationship with Sanggye Nyenpa commenced properly in 1516, when Mikyo Dorje was ten years old, in the eleventh month of the mouse year. Sources name the location of the instruction as either Degu Monastery (sde gu dgon) or Rati Ganden Ling (ra ti dga’ ldan gling). Their relationship lasted just over two years, until 1519, the twenty-ninth day of the second month of the hare year. During that time, Mikyo Dorje is said to have continually attended him. Mikyo Dorje reported that Sanggye Nyenpa ate no meat, having stopped eating flesh at the age of twelve.
He transmitted the bodhisattva vows from the traditions of both Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna and taught from the Bodhicaryāvatāra and other classics. He gave the Karmapa the empowerments and transmissions for the root and explanatory tantras of the Karma Kagyu tradition, as well Nyingma tantra and other Kagyu traditions such as Barom, Tselpa, Pakmodrupa, Drigung, Taklung, and Drukpa Kagyu. These he transmitted along with the necessary sādhana, side-rituals (las tshog), reading transmissions, and the meditation instructions and esoteric precepts (man ngag) of the creation and completion stages. In his autobiography, Autobiography on Namto Mountain (Karma pa mi bskyod rdo rje’i rnam thar rje nyid kyis rnam thos kyi ri bor mdzad pa), the Eighth Karmapa describes his studies and the instructions he received such as the six Dharmas of Nāropa (nāro chos drug), Mahāmudrā, and the deity recitations and accomplishment of Rechungpa (ras chung pa, 1085–1161).
It was said that the Karmapa spent the entire day with Sanggye Nyenpa uninterruptedly, from the moment the sun rose until the evening, receiving empowerments, reading transmissions, explanations (bshad), and experiential instructions (mnyam khrid). Each morning, the Karmapa would offer the mandala and seven-branch prayer and visualize Sanggye Nyenpa as Vajrasattva. The Eighth Karmapa, in his Autobiography on Namto Mountain, wrote:
Then I touched the feet of Sanggye Nyenpa, mahāsiddha, the nirmāṇakāya of Jowo Smṛtijñānakīrti, I took the novice vows, he gave me the empowerments and blessings of the Kriya tantras, including the Trisamayavyūha, the blessings and empowerments of the Carya tantras, including Vajrapāṇi; the blessings and empowerments of the Yoga tantras including Vajra Dhatveśvari; the blessings and empowerments of the Anuttarayoga tantras, including Kālacakra; and in particular, the blessings of Dzogchen tantras. In brief, he gave me all the empowerments of the Nyingma and Sarma transmissions. I received many instructions of what are known as the Nine Profound Cycles of Instructions and so forth. I held him to be our highest object for accumulation and purification, and day and night, always holding him in my mind, I took the four empowerments through the vajra yoga, never missing a day.
The Karmapa is said to have been completely devoted to his teacher, helping him carry books and dress, and when Sanggye Nyenpa injured his foot, he helped him recover and walk. The Karmapa wrote that it was due to having Sanggye Nyenpa as his guru that he was able to develop wisdom, confidence in the dharma, disgust with saṃsāra, and to consider others as more important than himself.
Travels in Tibet, the final Kālacakra transmission, and passing away
The Eighth Karmapa accompanied Sanggye Nyenpa on travels to various places in eastern Tibet, such as Rabko (rab ko), Rawok (ra ‘og), Tserlungda (tsher lung mda’), and Treyul Domtsa Nang (kre yul dom tsha nang). The community of the great Jonang seat in Dzamthang (‘dzam thang) also received them.
In 1519, the Zhengde Emperor (r. 1505–1521) of the Ming Dynasty invited the Eighth Karmapa to Beijing. The Karmapa declined, choosing instead to travel on to Litang, where he composed a praise of Nāgārjuna.
Sanggye Nyenpa gave the Karmapa the Kālacakra initiation at this time, at a place called Tserpu (tsher phu). The Karmapa reported that during the bestowal of the great commentary of Kālacakra, he saw Milarepa and the deity Kālacakra both merge into Sanggye Nyenpa, to whom he composed a praise following the ceremony. In his extensive biography on Sanggye Nyenpa, the Karmapa stated that the Kālacakra transmission came down from a teacher named Sanggye Pel (sangs rgyas dpal), and he had received the teaching on it from the Fourth Zharmar.
Sanggye Nyenpa passed away at Karma Gon year at the age of sixty-five. According to Rheingans, it was during the first month of the hare year, or 1519. It is reported that he passed away in his “middling monastic seat,” that is, in one of his monasteries near Denma.
On the night of the seventh day after Sanggye Nyenpa’s death, the Karmapa is said to have dreamed of a ḍākinī who sang to that: “In an earlier time Sanggye Nyenpa was Gyelwa Dewai Lu (rryal ba bde ba’i glu); in degenerate times he was Drenpa Yeshe (dran pa ye shes). Currently, to the north of Nampar Kopa (rnam par bko pa) there are 670,000 monks lined up facing Sanggye Nyenpa. That is the way of the Great Siddha from Denma.”
During the funeral rituals, the Karmapa spoke a verse in veneration of his teacher and had a vision of Sanggye Nyenpa on the shoulder of the Buddha statue. The Karmapa sponsored the installation at Tsurpu of a silver statue of Sanggye Nyenpa containing some hair, bone fragments, pieces of the clothes and relic pills (ring sel) from the cremation. It became known as “the silver statue [that floated] in midair” (dngul sku bar snang ma) as it is said to have floated in the air for seven days after the Karmapa had consecrated it. During the destruction of Tsurpu by the Communist Chinese, the statue was saved and buried on the mountain behind the monastery by one of the Tsurpu monks. Decades later, after the monastery was rebuilt, the same monk retrieved the statue, and it is now enshrined at Tsurpu in a large silver reliquary.”
Pawo II Tsuglag Trengwa. Dpa’ bo gtsug lag ‘phreng ba. 1986. Dam pa’i chos kyi ‘khor lo bsgyur pa rnams kyi byung ba gsal bar byed pa mkhas pa’i dga’ston. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang.
Rheingans, Jim. 2017. Eighth Karmapa’s Life and His Interpretation of the Great Seal. A Religious Life and Instructional Texts in Historical and Doctrinal Contexts. Hamburg: Numata Buddhist Studies.
Seventeenth Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje. Teachings on Two Autobiographical Praises by 8th Karmapa. February – March, 2021. For Day 6 (English) see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gI2sVYwl4sM. For Tibetan, see here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtXxd-HHUnA.
Treasury of Lives biography, 1st Sanggye Nyenpa (1457-1519)
Treasury of Lives biography, 2nd Goshri Gyeltsab, Tashi Namgyel (1490 – d.1518)
GURUS OF THE 8th KARMAPA (PART I): 2nd GOSHRI GYELTSAB, THE MAN WHO CHOSE THE 8th KARMAPA DESPITE BRIBES AND BITTER DIVISION IN THE KAGYU GREAT ENCAMPMENT
New Translation: Supplication and Praise to the First Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche composed by Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (2019)
‘IF YOU EAT MEAT YOU ARE NOT KAGYUPA’: The 8th Karmapa and other Karmapas’ strict vegetarianism and the Great Encampment rules (2021)
TEENAGE 8TH KARMAPA’S ADAMANT REFUSAL TO MEET CHINESE EMPEROR: thousands of people, offerings and threats of force could not persuade him. ‘Good Deeds’ teaching by 17th Karmapa (Day 10: part 2) (2021)
Verhufen, Gregor. 1995. “Die Biographien des Achten Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje und seines Lehrers Sangs rgyas mnyan pa: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Karmapa’s Life and his Interpretation of the Great Seal Karma-bKa’-brgyud-pa-Schulrichtung des tibetischen Buddhismus.” Master’s Thesis, University of Bonn