This great master became famous because of his long and intense fasting retreats to the 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara. Hence, he was bestowed the title Nyungne Lama and also sometimes known by his Sanskrit name, Jnanabhadra.
At a young age, he was enrolled into the monastery and was ordained by one of the most influential Gelug masters of his time, Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen. It was then that he was given the name, Yeshe Zangpo. Therefore, he studied devotedly under Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen and his student Lama Yeshe Tenzin, accomplishing a sound understanding of the Sutras and Tantra, including the three highly revered practices of Guhyasamaja, Heruka and Yamantaka Tantras.
After his studies, Yeshe Zangpo went into a cave and entered into intense meditational retreats and austerities in the same manner as the great yogis and Mahasiddhas of old. However, he was called back to the monastery at the request of his Lama to serve as the Abbot of the monastery. During his tenure, he became famous for giving extensive annual teachings on the Lamrim.
Yeshe Zanpo also left a wealth of written works based upon his wisdom and practice. His collected works is divided into two volumes and is based upon traditional subjects like the Lamrim, Mind-Training and Mahamudra. He became one of the main lineage masters that upheld the torch of the Gelug tradition when many luminaries like Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen, Purchog Ngawang Jampa and Longdol Lama were passing away.
Of his many contributions to the cannon of texts in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, one of his most important writings was a long ritual text written to the Protector Dorje Shugden. In this text, Yeshe Zangpo describes the mandala of Dorje Shugden and its inhabitants in graphic detail.
Then, he gives further clear and vivid descriptions of the environment from which the mandala arises. This is very important for the purposes of visualization for practitioners engaged in the practices. This text is especially significant for it offers evidence that significant texts to the Protector were being composed quite some time before Pabongka Rinpoche. It is evidence too that Pabongka’s writings drew from previous existing texts such as this one.
In the invocation portion of the fulfillment ritual text, Yeshe Zangpo mentions the various holy places from which Dorje Shugden is invoked. These places include Gandhav-yuha paradise, the pond from which the earthly remains of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen is believed to have gathered, a Sakya Temple at Mug Chung, Ngor Monastery that has a Dorje Shugden shrine, the Gelug Riwo Choling Monastery in Yarlung that manages Trode Khangsar in Lhasa, ‘On Valley in Yarlung valley, a monastery near Gaden, the famous Trode Khangsar, which was founded by the Great Fifth Dalai Lama and the ruins of the hermitage of a Sakya Lama at Khau Drakdzong. This list reflects the holy pilgrimage sites that were popular in the 19th century, many of which had shrines to Dorje Shugden.
In the colophon of this fulfillment text, Yeshe Zangpo wrote that he was requested to compose this text by the Abbot of Tashi Choling monastery in Lhodrag along with the monks of the monastery and various other practitioners of the protector. This means that Dorje Shugden practice had already become deeply entrenched in Southern Tibet and its peripheral regions. This text became widely distributed and found its way to Mongolia where it eventually entered into Lobsang Tamdin’s Bepum collection of Dorje Shugden texts. This is significant because that means that the text was already in wide circulation at that time.
When this text is examined, a new terminology, description of the mandala, epithets and longer Dorje Shugden mantra seemed to have been developed by Yeshe Zangpo. These elements seemed to have been incorporated into later fulfillment texts by Serkong Dorje Chang and Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche.
It seemed from the newer terminology and epithets used, Dorje Shugden had moved up in prominence within the lineage and practices. Serkong Dorje Chang and Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche would later use the titles and epithets developed by Yeshe Zangpo as they wrote about and promote the practice of Shugden. Examples include “Dharma Protector of the Conqueror Tsongkhapa”, “Lord of All Kings of the Powerful War Gods”, “Life Force Owner of All Beings of the Three Worlds” and “The Emanated Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden”.
An important title, “Five Families of Dorje Shugden” – which is now very much used to describe the arrangement of the four emanations surrounding the principal – is also found throughout Yeshe Zangpo’s text. Later, highly attained Lamas like Rongchen Kirti Lobsang Trinley and Serkong Dorje Chang further endorsed these titles and references to Dorje Shugden when they used it in their own writings.
These use of such epithets revealed the great change that was happening at the time, where Dorje Shugden was beginning to figure more prominently as the main Dharma Protector of the Gelug sect. The very existence of this text shows that this change was taking effect during Yeshe Zangpo’s time – quite some time before Pabongka Rinpoche who people commonly (perhaps mistakenly) believe to be the starting point of the practice.
Certain scholars believed that Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche made up the titles and epithets used on Dorje Shugden. However, in studying the texts composed by Yeshe Zanpo, it becomes clearer that it was actually Yeshe Zangpo’s writings that ushered in a new era of Dorje Shugden as being the Protector of the Gaden tradition.
Later, through the guidance of his guru Tagphu Pemevajra, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche further emphasized the importance of this newly elevated status of Dorje Shugden, giving it further prominence by writing a most central text, Melodious Drum Victorious in All Directions. The practice then spread like wildfire throughout Central Tibet, Amdo, Kham and Mongolia.
In his writings, Yeshe Zangpo also makes reference to a time when he was said to have witnessed Dorje Shugden taking possession of the oracle at Trode Khangsar. During the trance, he was told by Dorje Shugden to compile a torma offering ritual text in the same style as the wrathful enlightened Dharma Protector Kalarupa and a fulfillment text on the five emanations. It seemed that for Dorje Shugden to be elevated as the main Protector of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings, such a system of practice was essential.
However, this in no way means that the protectors of old – such as Kalarupa – were being replaced by Shugden. In fact, even Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche maintained Kalarupa propitiation even within the Vajrabhairava cycle of practice and Kalarupa remains a very important and central practice in Gelug institutions around the world.
Yeshe Zangpo’s writing and contributions towards elevating the role of Shugden in the Gelugpa school must be remembered for marking a turning point and important changes in the history of the lineage. They had set the groundwork, so to speak, setting forth practice texts and establishing powerful epithets that would begin to ground the people’s faith in this “newer” Protector. It was by these initial efforts of Lamas like Yeshe Zangpo that Pabongka was later able to easily introduce the practices and popularize it for modern day practitioners.