By: Shashi Kei
Origins of The Illustrious Sakyapa
The glorious Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins back to the victorious Buddha Shakyamuni. The history of this ancient lineage is punctuated with a long list of illustrious masters including the Mahasiddha Birwapa who was unmatched in his miraculous attainments. The history of the Sakya began 10 generations before the arrival of Guru Rinpoche in Tibet, with a race of heavenly beings from the Clear Light Heavens in the Rupadhatu (Form) realm descending to reside in Tibet to benefit all living beings. These gods were the three brothers, Chiring, Yurig and Yuse, all of whom were said to have emerged from Manjushri. Accordingly, all males born of the Khön line have been regarded as emanations of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Khön lineage holders are known to manifest signs that indicate them to be holy beings, such as having the dharmacakra symbol on the palms of their hands.
At that time, these three brothers were known as the Lha-Rig or gods of luminous clarity. Eight generations after the three brothers descended to Tibet, a conflict arose between the Lha-Rig and a race of demons called the Yakshas. Amidst the conflict, Yapang Kye, one of the clear light gods and the great great grandson of Yuring became involved in a love affair with Yatuk Silima, the daughter of a Yaksha. From their union she bore Yapang Kye a son whom they named Khön Bar Kye, meaning ‘one who is born between love and strife’, and from there the family name Khön emerged.
The Khön family was devoted to the Buddha’s teachings and in 750 CE the Khön family became disciples of Guru Rinpoche. In fact, one of the first seven Tibetans to become ordained as Sangha was Nagendra Rakshita, a Khön, who received his bhikshu vows from Shantarakshita. From 750 CE to 1073 CE, a period that covered 13 Khön generations, the family arose as a central pillar of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism in Tsang.
However, by the 11th century, Dharma practice in Tsang had waned considerably, and the head of the Khön family then, Sherab Tsultrim decided that it was time to seek out new teachings from India. According to a prophecy by Guru Rinpoche, Khön Konchog Gyalpo, the younger brother of Sherab Tsultrim, went in search of Drogmi Lotsawa who was regarded as the emanation of the Mahasiddha Birwapa.
Khön Konchog Gyalpo’s attainments grew as did his renown and in 1073 CE, on a blessed location below a white patch of earth (sakya), Khön Konchog Gyalpo established the first Sakya monastery, Gorum Zimci Karpo as had been prophesied by both Guru Rinpoche and Lord Atisha. He became the very first Sakya Trizin. With this, the Sakya lineage was formed and the illustrious Khön family who were known by their supreme names, Lha-Rig and Khön, became known as the first Sakyapas.
Khön Konchog Gyalpo had a son by the name of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo who displayed extraordinary spiritual attainments, and held all the lineages of Sutra and Tantra. Sachen Kunga Nyinpo in turn had four sons – Kunga Bar, Sonam Tsemo, Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen and Palchen Rinpoche. Kunga Bar became a scholar but passed away at age 22 whilst studying at Nalanda Monastery; Sonam Tsemo became a great adept and ascended bodily to Kechara, Vajrayogini’s pure land. Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen became famed for his spiritual attainments and had many students, one of the brightest of whom was his nephew, the son of Palchen Rinpoche, by the name of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen. Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen’s deeds and works would shine luminously throughout the world of Tibetan Buddhism for generations into the future. According to Sakya tradition, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen attained full enlightenment in the realm of Akshobhya Buddha and now resides as the Buddha Vimalasri in the eastern direction. According to Gelugpa tradition the Panchen Lamas are the lineal incarnations of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen.
The Sakya history continued with the founding of the four Phodrangs (palaces) by the eldest of 15 grandsons of Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen’s brother. The four Phodrangs were Zithog, Rinchen Gang, Lhakhang and Ducho but over time, only the Ducho survived. In the 18th century, during the time of the 29th Sakya Trizin Wangdu Nyingpo, the Ducho Phodrang split into two, with Sakya Trizin Wangdu Nyingpo’s two sons heading one Phodrang each – Padma Dudul Wangchug became head of the Drolma Phodang and Kunga Rinchen the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang.
Since that time, generations of the Khön family have continued in an unbroken lineage to ascend the Sakya throne with many being recognized as emanations of the Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani.
The present head of this great Tibetan Buddhist lineage is His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga Tegchen Palbar Trinley Samphel Wangyi Gyalpo, from the Drolma Phodrang, who was designated to be the Sakya throne holder in 1951 and formally ascended the throne in 1959.
The Turning Point
The entire Sakya lineage history reads like a narrative of divine activities of the trans-mundane Khön family, and it would seem like nothing in samsara could ever contaminate this holy lineage. And yet in December 2014, the present Sakya Trizin made an announcement during the Sakya Monlam (Great Prayer Festival) to indicate that perhaps all is not well within the Sakya lineage.
On that occasion the Sakya Trizin announced changes to the Sakya succession system; traditionally the tenure of the Sakya Trizin or ‘Sakya Throne-Holder’ had lasted till the end of each Sakya Trizin’s life, having passed alternately between candidates from Drolma Phodrang and Phuntsok Phodrang. That would now change according to the Sakya Trizin’s announcement that day. The position of the head of the Sakya lineage would henceforth last only three years, with qualified descendants from each Phodrang taking turns leading the lineage.
The Sakya Trizin’s announcement was a shock to many observers. Three years is a hard turn away from Sakya tradition, and many people wondered what might have prompted this decision. The Sakya Trizin’s explanation did not do much to allay concerns and is in itself very odd. In essence the Sakya Trizin had acknowledged that the decision to curb the tenure of succeeding throne holders was due to a recommendation by the Nyingma lama, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö. In the announcement, the Sakya Trizin confirmed that, “This recommended duration of the term of the Sakya Trizin is based on an opinion of Vajradhara Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö…“
Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö was no doubt a renowned Nyingma lama and one of the present Sakya Trizin’s teachers. But he was not the Sakya Trizin’s only teacher. Some of the current Sakya throne holder’s strongest spiritual influences include his own father who was also his teacher, Vajradhara Ngawang Kunga Rinchen; his main root teacher Vajradhara Ngawang Lödron Shenpen Nyingpo; Vajradhara Ngawang Tenzin Nyingpoi and Vajradhara Khenchen Jampai Sangpo who were all great Sakya patriarchs.
With such a host of eminent and erudite lamas in his life, it is strange that the Sakya Trizin would take the recommendation of a Nyingma lama made over half a century ago, instead of adhering to the norm of his own tradition that has not only lasted for almost 1000 years but also produced a long line of enlightened masters. Many questions have arisen such as why would a Sakya throne holder allow an outsider to interfere in the affairs of the Sakya tradition, and worst, implement drastic changes in the management of his own lineage?
And equally as mysterious is this – if the present Sakya Trizin had found Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s recommendation to be so compelling, then why did he wait for over 60 years to implement it? What was it about a 60-year old counsel that suddenly made sense to the Sakya Trizin?
Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö lived from 1893 to 1959 and the present Sakya Trizin came to power as the head of the Sakya lineage in 1951 and was formally enthroned in 1959. Why didn’t the Sakya Trizin implement the three-year tenure immediately when he was first enthroned or indeed any time during his long reign as the Sakya throne holder? It seems suspicious that the Sakya Trizin would seek to curb the power and influence of future Sakya Trizins after he had personally enjoyed unbridled power for over half a century.
The question here is not about the qualifications and attainments of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö. Jamyang Khyentse was undoubtedly amongst the most respected lamas of his time but the Sakya lineage has survived for almost 1000 years based on a system that is not only time-honored but also proven to be effective in preserving the tradition. And now, the Sakya lineage is about to undergo a change that may very well weaken its standing as one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Weakening the Throne – Offence or Defence?
The new three-year term is a surprisingly short tenure and is in stark contrast to the traditional term where past Sakya Trizins were throne holders till the end of their lives. In fact the position of throne holder in all the Tibetan Buddhist sects are regarded as divine installations made for the benefit of sentient beings, not to be subjected to worldly considerations such as the Eight Worldly Concerns. Even elected positions such as the Gelugpa’s Gaden Tripa is for a term of seven years. So why would the head of the Sakya make a move to curb the tenure of future Sakya throne holders, a move that will most certainly curtail the activities of succeeding Sakya leaders?
Logically, it can be attributed to three possible reasons:
(i) To mitigate potential discord between the two Phodrangs:
While we have not heard of any public disputes between the Drolma Phodrang and the Phuntsok Phodrang, we have to bear in mind that the Khön family divided into these two separate factions during the 18th century and that itself hints at some internal conflict that may still be simmering.
It does not help that the present Sakya Trizin is said to be more interested in currying favor with the Dalai Lama establishment and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) than to attend to matters that advance the teachings, practice and esteem of the Sakya lineage. The Sakya Trizin’s statement itself suggests that he has come under criticism for his comportment during his tenure as throne holder – “…it may be possible that at times I, as Sakya Trinzin, have been seen to have benefitted from privileges” and it is just as curious that a supposedly mature, supposedly highly attained, and supposedly divine throne holder of sacred Buddhist school would use an official and serious occasion to gripe about how he has been misunderstood and seek to explain himself on matters that are so overtly materialistic and worldly in nature.
Nevertheless, if the present Sakya Trizin had become a liability in the eyes of Sakya power brokers, then a short three-year tenure for all Sakya Trizins would make good sense to either abate potential infighting as a result of personal resentment, or to avoid the risk of a life-term Sakya throne holder, such as the present one, being insulated from the consequences of his own mistakes and behavior as the head of the lineage. The present Sakya Trizin is controversial in the way he dragged the Sakya lineage unnecessarily into political commotion instigated by the Tibetan establishment, and in the process undermined the legitimacy of the Sakyapas, as we will see in (ii) below.
As we saw earlier, the Sakya power base rests with two separate Phodrangs. The present Sakya Trizin is from Drolma Phodrang, with the other being Phuntsok Phodrang that was headed by His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya Rinpoche who entered clear light in April 2016. Still, before his passing, Dagchen Rinpoche of Phuntsok Phodrang managed to co-sign the Resolution jointly made by the two Khön houses. While this is only speculation, it may well be that an agreement was forged between the two houses, if it was not otherwise forced out of the Sakya Trizin so that the benefitting of privileges mentioned by the Sakya Trizin is circumvented. It is interesting to note that the new three-year arrangement is to commence in the year 2017 when the present Sakya Trizin’s time as throne holder would end. Contrasted against the established tradition in which throne holders would remain in power till their death, one wonders if this should not be seen as a forced abdication for the current throne holder.
(ii) To sacrifice tradition for political correctness:
Another possible reason for the drastic cut in future Sakya throne holder’s time in power may sound sinister initially, but when examined in light of prevailing power dynamics in Tibetan Buddhism, may hold merits after all.
And this is the submission that the Sakya Trizin based his decision on the recommendation of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö because it is a maneuver that supports the 14th Dalai Lama’s subtle push for what the Dalai Lama claims to be ‘Non-Sectarianism’, but many suspect to be a move to consolidate power. Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö was a strong advocate of Rimé, a new and supposedly eclectic approach to Tibetan Buddhism that breaks away from traditional boundaries of practice, methods, philosophies and approach. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama’s designs for Tibetan Buddhism appears to involve less a respect for all Buddhists traditions and more a concentration of power in his hands that transcends lineage and traditions, and to that end, a weaker Sakya throne fits into his plan perfectly.
A short three-year term for future Sakya throne holders would make it difficult for any one Sakya ruler henceforth to undertake any major tasks with continuity. In that way, it makes it impossible for any one Sakya strongman in the future to establish a legacy and set a strong foothold in the governance of Sakya issues. In this weakness, there are ample opportunities for the Dalai Lama and the CTA to stamp their authority on the Sakya clan as they have on the Karma Kagyus and Gelugs.
But why would the Sakya Trizin undermine his own lineage? It may be because the Sakya Trizin himself believes in Rimé, or it may be because the present Sakya Trizin intends to be on the right side of the Dalai Lama’s politics and prosper from it. Many in the Sakya have lamented how the present throne holder has unabashedly coveted the Dalai Lama’s approval, more so than anyone else. For certain one does not hear of past Sakya Trizins or indeed any head of the 2 Phodrangs ever chasing after the Dalai Lama’s political endorsement. Nor have any Sakya apart from the present throne holder ever been linked to whispers of any covetousness and avarice on their part. The present Sakya throne holder seems to be the exception.
At first, this may seem like an overly harsh and unfair criticism of the Sakya Trizin. Any such thoughts however, pale into insignificance when we examine how the Sakya Trizin gratuitously waded into a Gelug controversy and denounced the practice of Dorje Shugden and in the process, debilitate the foundations of the Sakya lineage.
In 1996, when the Dalai Lama’s assault on Dorje Shugden practitioners first began, it was reported that the Sakya Trizin saw it as an opportune time to gain the Dalai Lama’s favor. He quickly dispatched a letter to the Dalai Lama’s government stating “Today, there is not a single Sakya monastery or center which follows Shugden practice” and that the Sakya establishment had gotten rid of the deity in all Sakya shrines (Source: Dolgyal Shugden: A History, by The Dolgyal Shugden Research Society).
Here, it is vital to draw attention to a number of points. Firstly, the Dalai Lama’s attack on the Dorje Shugden practice was concentrated on Gelugpa monasteries, monks and practitioners, not Sakya practitioners. Secondly, the sacrosanctity of the deity Dorje Shugden has its roots deep in the Sakya lineage long before it became a Gelugpa practice. Even today, prayers used by the Gelugs to invoke the blessings of Dorje Shugden were either written by, or are based on liturgies written by the Sakya Trizin’s forefathers in veneration of the deity. There can be no doubts about that and there is voluminous evidence to affirm this.
There were a number of things the Sakya Trizin could have done in response to the Dalai Lama’s hostilities towards Gelugpa-Shugden practitioners. He could have remained neutral and left it to the Gelugpas to settle their own affairs, seeing that both the Dalai Lama and the targets of his attacks were Gelugpas. Or the Sakya Trizin could have been the first to defend the Dorje Shugden practice against the vicious slanders and lies. An attack on Dorje Shugden is after all an attack on the Sakya seeing that it was the Sakya lineage that first worshipped the deity, and it was Sakya lineage’s high lamas who first codified the rituals and prayers and propagated the worship of Dorje Shugden as an enlightened being. In the rich Sakya history, Dorje Shugden was even regarded a patriarch in the Sakya ancestral line.
But instead, the Sakya Trizin was one of the first to denunciate his own traditions and beliefs which, as a throne holder he was meant to defend. In that decision, it was clear that the Sakya Trizin had made himself available to support the Dalai Lama in the most unholy of hostilities against innocent Buddhists. In so doing the Sakya Trizin demonstrated that he was willing to destroy the tenability and integrity of a long list of illustrious Sakya patriarchs and the legitimacy of the Sakya lineage so long as there was political advantage.
In an interview given to support the Dalai Lama’s efforts to wipe out the Protector practice and emasculate all Shugden worshippers, lamas and masters, the Sakya Trizin referred to Dorje Shugden as a ‘worldly spirit’, saying:
“At the beginning Sakya Throne holder Sonam Rinchen bound Shugden to the oath of protecting Dharma. However, neither Shugden nor other worldly spirits were depended on during prayer meetings at Sakya. The statue of Shugden was in some shrine rooms but in the lowest category in the pantheon. No Sakya followers have ever taken life-pledging empowerment through the medium of Shugden. In fact, no Sakya Lama seems to believe that Shugden holds the life-pledging empowerment.”
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In those few lines, the Sakya Trizin declared seven great Sakya throne holders – the 30th Sakya Trizin Sonam Rinchen, the 31st Sakya Trizin Kunga Lodro, the 32nd Sakya Trizin Wangdu Nyingpo, the 33rd Sakya Trizin Pema Dudul Wangchuk, the 35th Sakya Trizin Tashi Rinchen, the 37th Sakya Trizin Kunga Nyingpo and the 39th Sakya Trizin Dragshul Trinle Rinchen to be in error and incompetent to the point of not being able to differentiate between a worldly spirit and a Buddha and therefore void of any knowledge, omniscience and realizations.
But the implication of the Sakya Trizin forsaking Dorje Shugden was far more damaging than that. The great Sakya patrons, Kunga Lodro and Kunga Nyingpo (the 31st and 37th Sakya throne holders) were recognized to be direct emanations of Dorje Shugden. In fact the Sakyas believe that the Protector Dorje Shugden returned as the 37th Sakya Trizin to help the family line continue. However, by the present Sakya Trizin’s definition of Dorje Shugden, the Sakya lineage has been reduced to a line of incarnations of worldly spirits instead of emanations of Manjushri. One wonders whether the Sakya Trizin realized that by the same definition he had made himself nothing more than the chief wizard or head warlock of a spirit-worshipping sect.
What is incomprehensible is why the Sakya Trinzin would discredit his own lineage when the Dorje Shugden conflict was not even a Sakya issue. There was absolutely no necessity for him to have exposed the lineage to the sway of politics to the point of invalidating the Sakya heritage by denying its history. Like many who have been observing the Dorje Shugden debacle, the Sakya Trizin would have seen how the Shugden conflict triggered by the Dalai Lama wreaked havoc in the Gelugpa sect and divided followers of Tsongkhapa’s lineage all over the world. And yet, it would seem that the Sakya Trizin did not hesitate to imperil his own lineage just to win the Dalai Lama’s approval.
In the 20 years since the first assault on the religious freedom of Shugden worshippers in 1996, none of the other heads of the major Tibetan Buddhist schools – Nyingma, Kagyu or even the leaders of the smaller traditions – had deemed it appropriate to partake in the Dorje Shugden dispute. The Sakya Trizin alone declared his willingness to sacrifice the legitimacy of a 1000-year old lineage to bend to the Dalai Lama’s wish.
Given the Sakya Trizin’s acts of betrayal towards his own clan, there is substance in the proposition that the Sakya Trizin’s act of shortening the tenure of future Sakya throne holders was in fact, an act of aggression to weaken the sect for control.
There is a third explanation for the Sakya Trizin’s move to reduce the span of the lineage’s throne holder’s time in power which is premised on the second proposition above, albeit from another perspective.
(iii) As a buffer from external influence and efforts to control the lineage:
To the casual observer, Tibetan Buddhism is synonymous with the image of Shangri-la, a paradise where men have long abandoned all worldly pursuits. But that is far from reality. The institution of the Dalai Lama itself is a raw creation of politics and the Tibetan Buddhist religion could not be more political than it is now under the 14th Dalai Lama. The conflict with China and the subsequent Tibetan exodus in 1959 imposed upon the 14th Dalai Lama both a necessity and an opportunity to consolidate power. For that to happen, it has to be at the expense of the respective heads of the various Tibetan Buddhist traditions having dominion over their lineages.
Seemingly benign moves like resurrecting the Jonang lineage, formally recognizing the Bön as an official Buddhist tradition, imposing the Dorje Shugden religious ban, creating a split in the Karma Kagyu school, turning a blind eye to the forced conversions of Drukpa monasteries, appointing young and malleable candidates to the abbotship of strategic monastic universities such as Gaden Shartse Monastery (over older and more qualified ones), and even dividing the populace in their dream and method of achieving territorial freedom, may all in fact be the extremely dexterous and Machiavellian moves of a wily old statesman whom the world sees as a ‘simple Buddhist monk’. But within the Tibetan community, many who have dealt with the Dalai Lama know better.
Having seen how the Dalai Lama dispensed of any opposition to his ambitions in the Gelug lineage, and how he exerted control over the Karma Kagyu by acting outside established customs that are centuries old, perhaps the Sakya saw that the seat of the Sakya Trizin was merely another prize the Dalai Lama must acquire in his quest for totalitarian control. And so, the preemptive diminution of the term of any one future Sakya Trizin is a strategy to mitigate the risk of the Dalai Lama enforcing control over the Sakya via a proxy throne holder.
It is difficult to say conclusively which of the three explanations above is most accurate in explaining the Sakya Trizin’s actions. For certain, the Dalai Lama and his favorable view of the Sakya Trizin is a key factor to consider.
The Sakya succession letter presents myriad issues to be concerned and paints a very clear picture of the 41st Sakya Trizin and indeed the Sakya lineage. It is clear that during the past 60 years when the present Sakya Trizin sat on the lineage throne, he had allowed much decadence to creep into the lineage. The Sakya letter doubles as marching orders for the present Sakya Trizin and signals the last stop for his gravy train, and that it is time for the next Sakya Trizin to enjoy the spoils of the dynasty. At least that is what the letter’s language and content seem to convey. It was all very secular and had all the elements of a B-grade telenovela about greed, conspiracy and betrayal – a sensational announcement of a change of CEO, established governance give way to new conveniences that sells out the old dynasty, the most intoxicated of reason dressed up and sold as a sublime epistle, a lame whining at accusations made against the Sakya Trizin and the most infirmed of attempts to justify his actions (the Sakya Trizin spoke as if he was the only Tibetan who went into exile in 1959 and single-handedly rebuilt the lineage), and finally a subservient bow to the overlord of all Tibetan religious fiefdoms, the Dalai Lama. It was a dramatic production filled with histrionic conjuring and ends like a MacBethan orbituary, all performed by the Sakya Trizin, all signifying nothing, and all co-produced by the head of the Phuntsok Phodrang.
How did a divine family of celestial beings who have been upholding the precious Dharma become this way? Who can say but over half a century in the wilderness under a corrupt and incompetent ‘government’, with hopes after hopes of returning home being dashed and living each day upholding a leader’s untruths could not have helped. We have seen the devastating division of the Gelug, the decimation of a pure lineage and the birth of latent rivalry between two Karmapas that threatens to tear the Karma Kagyu apart. So, why should anyone be surprised at the willing ‘corporatization’ of the once glorious Sakya lineage?