Panchen Sonam Drakpa

Great Scholar and Spiritual Master of the Dalai Lama

In 1478, a special child was born in Tsethang, in the Lhoka region of Central Tibet. He grew up to become known as the great scholar, Sonam Drakpa. ‘Panchen’ is translated from the Sanskrit word ‘Pandit’ and is an honorific title referring to Panchen Sonam Drakpa’s unparalleled mastery of the Sutra and Tantra teachings, and his legendary spiritual accomplishments.

At a young age, Panchen Sonam Drakpa was enrolled into the great seat of learning, Sera Monastery. There, he came under the personal tutelage of great masters like Venerable Donyo Dangden and His Holiness the Second Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Gyatso.

Like all scholar aspirants, Panchen Sonam Drakpa studied the entire breadth of Sutra, Tantra and their various commentaries with great intensity. His outstanding learning and comprehension began to shine brightly. Supplemented by various empowerments, personal advice and the blessings of his Gurus, Panchen Sonam Drakpa’s capabilities and zeal for learning enabled him to rapidly mature spiritually.

Panchen Sonam Drakpa was famous for having served as the Abbot of Gyuto Tantric College, Ganden Monastery, Drepung Monastery and Sera Monastery. Furthermore, while serving in Gaden Monastery, Panchen Sonam Drakpa also ascended Je Tsongkhapa’s throne as the 15th Throne Holder (Gaden Tripa) of the Gelugpa lineage.

Panchen Sonam Drakpa was elected into every position he undertook by the monks, and was unanimously approved and supported by them throughout his time in office. He is the only person in history to have been elected as the Abbot of all these monasteries within a single lifetime; to date, no other Lama has come close to holding this same honor. It shows clearly how highly this great Lama was regarded by his students and the monastic community at large.

In the literary field, Panchen Sonam Drakpa was an unparalleled scholar, penning numerous and highly penetrative works. He composed a whole host of written commentaries on Sutra and Tantra, covering the full range of exoteric and esoteric aspects of Buddha’s teachings.

Panchen Sonam Drakpa also composed 45 major written works and a number of minor works on spiritual songs. His works are highly regarded by all three main monastic institutions. To this day in Drepung Loseling and Ganden Shartse Monasteries, Panchen Sonam Drakpa’s texts are among the principal texts relied on by monks studying for their Geshe degrees.

Panchen Sonam Drakpa is legendary for having composed these verses of dedication when he served as the Ganden Tripa:

May all conducive conditions arise
And all obstacles be pacified in order
To increase infinitely the doctrine
Of the spiritual king, Tsongkhapa

By the merits of the three times
Of myself and others, may the
Doctrine of Lama Tsongkhapa
Blaze forever more.

This hallowed prayer is recited daily as a dedication after teachings and pujas performed by Gelugpa monasteries and Dharma centers all over the world.

In his later years, Panchen Sonam Drakpa became the spiritual guide for the newly-discovered Third Dalai Lama, who received his ordination vows and a spiritual education from him. Panchen Sonam Drakpa foretold a deep potential in the young incarnate Lama by ignoring the traditional incarnation name of Gendun and choosing instead to name him Sonam Gyatso. In doing so, Panchen Sonam Drakpa established the line of Dalai Lamas with the name Gyatso, meaning ‘Great Ocean’.

When he was older, this protégé of Panchen Sonam Drakpa was invited to Mongolia. When Sonam Gyatso arrived there, the Mongolian king Altan Khan and his subjects were so impressed by him that they converted to the peaceful ways of Buddhism.

In turning the ‘killer hordes’ of Asia away from the battlefield, and onto the path of studying and understanding Buddhism, Sonam Gyatso changed the course of world history. The joyous Khan gave Sonam Gyatso a special title, ‘Dalai Lama’, which literally means ‘Oceanic Lama’. The same title was also bestowed posthumously onto his two previous incarnations.

With unmatched zeal, Panchen Sonam Drakpa worked for the welfare of others and the Dharma until he entered clear light at the age of 77 years.

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