Gampopa Sonam Rinchen

Gampopa, the Great Doctor of Dagpo, is considered one of the forefathers of the Kagyu school. He was a direct student of the famed Tibetan yogi Jetsun Milarepa and was known as his “sun-like “disciple.
Gampopa Sonam Rinchen. Image courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources.


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According to tradition, Gampopa’s eminence was predicted by the Buddha himself, in the White Lotus Sutra:

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 Life of Gampopa by Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey.

Gampopa’s Householder Life

There are more than forty namtar (stories of liberation) of Gampopa’s life and liberation. The best known of those by his direct disciples are verses of praise (sol deb) by Je Pagmo Drugpa. The Dialogues of Je Dusum Khyenpa, the 1st Karmapa, also contains a life story. In addition, there is one by Lhayagpa Changchub Ngodrup and by Je Barom (Barompa Darma Wangchuk 1127-1194).

Gampopa was born in a small village in southern Tibet, in the Dagpo region near the Nepalese border. His father was a medical doctor and Gampopa followed his father’s profession and became a well-respected doctor. Gampopa authored a well-known treatise on medicine, with special attention to medicinal plants, for his long-time student of medicine Zhang Menagpa. It was titled the Ocean of Jewels or the Collected/Miscellaneous Teachings of Dagpo. Two transmission lineages of the text developed. One passed from Zhang Menagpa to Yutog Samye Yonten Gyalpo. In the 17th century, the renowned Tibetan doctor Deungma Geshe Tenzin Phuntsog wrote that “among all the transmissions of medicine, Lord Gampopa’s transmission is like the main trunk of them all.”

During his youth, he studied many Nyingma scriptures under the master Bar-rey, and in the Kadam tradition with Sharpa Yonten Drak and became learned in both traditions. Although he dedicated much time to the study of the Dharma, at the age of twenty-two, he married Chogme a wealthy young woman from a neighboring village. The couple had a son and daughter, but both died from a smallpox epidemic. After the death of his children, his wife also fell ill, and despite his brilliance as a doctor, he was unable to cure her.

Gampopa’s Dharma Life

Filled with renunciation, he promised his dying wife to dedicate his life to the Dharma, and so he left the householder life at age twenty-five. He took ordination either in Dakpo or in Penyul, at Gyachak Ri Monastery. At that time he received the ordination name of Sonam Rinchen (Gem of Merit). At the age of twenty-six, Gampopa received the fully monastic ordination from Geshe Loden Sherap of the Kadam order. At the age of twenty-eight, he met Nyukrumpa Tsöndru Gyaltsen and received many Kadampa teachings. He practiced their teachings for many years.

Gampopa and Milarepa

According to the Blue Annals, some years after taking ordination, after spending time in solitary retreat near his home, he overheard three beggars speaking about Milarepa, and he experienced sudden faith. The mere conversation inspired him to go in search of his future teacher, encountering countless difficulties along the way.1Roerich, George N., and Gendün Chöpel. The Blue Annals. Parts 1 & 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 2007, p. 454. In 1109, he finally met the great yogi, who kept him waiting for several weeks although he knew he would become his foremost disciple. It is said he did this in order to reduce Gampopa’s pride.

At their meeting, Gampopa offered Milarepa some gold and a package of tea, both of which Milarepa declined saying he had no need for gold and no means to make tea. Milarepa offered him in return a skullcup filled with wine, which Gampopa, concerned about his monastic vows drank after a lengthy hesitation. Milarepa asked him his ordination name. When Gampopa replied Sonam Rinchen, “gem of merit,” Milarepa then ordered him to drink, looking beyond his vows, saying “Come out of the accumulation of merit, gem of living beings!”

Milarepa explained that Gampopa’s Kadampa training, although excellent as a basis, offered inadequate tantric teachings, due to the reluctance of some masters such as the 11th c. Dromton Gyelwa Jungne’s objections to some of the tantric instructions. Milarepa thus gave Gampopa the empowerment and instructions on Vajravārahī and sent him to meditate in a nearby cave for over a year. After this period, having reported progressive signs of attainment, Milarepa gave him the transmission of his entire teachings, including tummo and Mahāmudrā. He then ordered him back to his homeland, predicting that he would become a renowned teacher.

Gampopa lived for three years in the monastery of Sewalung in Nyang, alongside Kadam monks but following strictly only Milarepa’s meditation instructions. After he had a meditative experience in which he perceived Milarepa as the dharmakaya, he left the monastery for a solitary retreat. He stayed for twelve years away from Milarepa, in a number of remote places such as Gampodar and finally at Ode Gunggyal. On his way back from this last retreat spot, he learned that Milarepa had passed away, attaining parinirvana. Returning to continue with his meditation, he spent more time in solitary retreat before relocating to the Gampo region where he founded his monastery, Daklha Gampo in 1121. The site may have been the location of his previous retreat known as Gampodar.

Gampopa’s Writings and Legacy

Gampopa is greatly revered as a founder of the Kagyu school. He brought together the Lamrim teachings and approach from the Kadampa masters and the Mahāmudrā teachings from Milarepa. He wrote a number of treatises, among the best known being the Damcho Yishingyi Norbu Tarpa Rinpoche Gyan, known in English as the Jewel Ornament of Liberation. He based the text on Atisha‘s Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment.

All future individuals with longing for me, and who think they will not meet me, should please read the works I have written, including the Supreme Garland of this Precious Path and the Jewel Ornament of Liberation. When you read those texts, it is no different than meeting me in person.

Gampopa Sonam Rinchen

Gampopa’s most well-known and closest disciples were: Gampo Tsultrim Nyingpo, Karmapa Düsum Khyenpa, Phakmo Trupa, Saltong Shogam, Barom Dharma Wangchuk, and Zhang Drowae Gönpo. The Golden Rosary lineage heir of Gampopa was the First Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa.

In the introduction to his best-known treatise, The Jewel Ornament Of Liberation The Wish-Fulfilling Gem Of The Noble Teachings, Gampopa advises followers on how to progress toward enlightenment. The entire treatise consists of a practical assessment of the practitioner’s situation and a clear pathway to progress toward the goal. He begins by saying:

Therefore, from today onward, you should make as much effort as possible to achieve unsurpassable enlightenment. What manner of things are needed in order to make this kind of effort? The summary: The primary cause, working basis, contributory cause, method, result, and activities—all discriminating beings should understand that these six comprise the general explanation of unsurpassable enlightenment.

Gyaltsen, Khenpo Könchog, trans. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The Wish-fulfilling Gem of the Noble Teachings. By Gampopa (sgam po pa). Edited by Ani K. Chodron. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1998., Introduction, p. 1.

A few paragraphs later he specifies the things needed to accomplish this goal:

The primary cause is the Essence of the Well-gone One. As a working basis, the precious human life is excellent. The contributory cause is the spiritual master. The method is the spiritual master’s instruction. The result is the body of perfect Buddhahood. The activities are benefitting sentient beings without conceptual thought.

Ibid., p. 1.

The Jewel Ornament remains a fundamental text in monastic shedras (colleges) because of its clear presentation of the path. Moreover, the text is usually studied before undertaking a traditional three-year retreat in the Kagyu tradition.

Gampopa Sonam Rinchen. Image courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources.

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