Achi Chokyi Drolma – Chief Protectress of the Drikung Kagyu
I wanted to share with all of you some information about the holy Dharma protector Achi Chokyi Drolma from the Drikung Kagyu school. The great-grandmother to the founder of the school, Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon, her practice is widespread and very efficacious. Her story and practice is very unique, and something I thought many people would find interesting, and at the same time educational. Please enjoy reading it.
Pastor Niral Patel
Overview of Tibetan Buddhism
Buddhism has a particularly long history in Tibet. It first entered Tibet during the reign of Emperor Songtsen Gampo around 650 CE. It was only a century later that Buddhism actually began to seep deeper into the fabric of Tibetan civilisation. This occurred during the period between the reigns of Emperor Trisong Detsen in 775 CE and Emperor Tri Ralpachen in 838 CE.
After this period there was a decline in Buddhism due to the reign of Emperor Langdarma from 838 to 842 CE, who actively sought to exterminate Buddhism from Tibet. He was to be the last Tibetan Emperor, and upon his death, Tibet entered a dark age lasting over 200 years. During this dark age there was no centralised system of rule and no patrons for the Dharma either. However, Buddhism somehow managed to survive this challenging period in history.
Between 900 and 1200 CE there was a revival of Buddhism due to a lively exchange between Tibetan translators who travelled to India to bring back Buddhist knowledge, and Indian masters who made the journey to Tibet to share their knowledge. By the 14th Century, Buddhism in Tibet became systemised into the four major School of Tibetan Buddhism that we know today, namely the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. All four schools, however, trace their origins back to the historical founder and enlightened one, Buddha Shakyamuni.
Overview of the Drikung Kagyu School
The Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its specific origins back to the great Indian Mahasiddha Tilopa. Tilopa was originally a monk who later undertook the wandering life of a Mahasiddha. He is famous for his mastery of higher tantric practices, which he passed on to his primary disciple, Naropa (1016-1100 CE). A Mahasiddha in his own right, Naropa is known for his devotion towards his teacher. The teachings given to Naropa by Tilopa in regards to certain tantric completion stage practices, known today as The Six Yogas of Naropa, are considered an essential teaching of the Kagyu lineage and have spread among many other Tibetan Buddhist lineages.
Naropa is also famous for having visions of Vajrayogini. This form of Vajrayogini is known as Naro Kacho, or Naropa’s Vajrayogini, and is currently practiced in many lineages in Tibetan Buddhism, including the Sakya and Gelug schools. Some of the teachings held by Naropa, such as the Six Yogas, were passed down to Marpa Chokyi Lodro, who in turn passed them to the great Milarepa (1040-1123 CE). Milarepa is known to have been one of Tibet’s greatest yogi practitioners. Milarepa’s teachings were then carried by Gampopa (1079-1153 CE), who was known as the physician from Dakpo. From Gampopa’s disciples sprang the first of the four main lineages of the Kagyu School. The founder of the Phagdru Kagyu was Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170 CE). His main disciple, by the name of Kyobpa Jigten Sumgon (1143-1217 CE) then established his own lineage, the Drikung Kagyu, upon the foundation of Drikung Thil Monastery in Meldro Gungkar County, an act which his teacher had previously predicted.
Having received the teachings, oral transmissions, initiations, explanations and blessings in their entirety from Phagmodrupa, Jigten Sumgon in turn passed these to his main disciple Gurawa Tsultrim Dorje (1154-1221 CE). Jigten Sumgon hailed from the Kyura clan, and at the beginning of the Drikung Kagyu, the throneholders came from the male offspring of the same clan, however there were no set rules for the succession among the family. The lineage was setup in such a way that both spiritual and secular matters were separated, under the throne holder and civil administrator respectively.
In 1373 CE, the founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, the glorious Lama Tsongkhapa (1357-1419 CE) travelled from Amdo to Drikung. There he become the student of the 11th Drikung Kagyu throneholder, Chenga Chokyi Gyalpo, for a period of five years. Lama Tsongkhapa was passed the complete Drikung teachings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, the outer and inner texts of Jigten Sumgon, the treatises of the ‘Possessing Five’ Mahamudra and the Guhyasamaja Tantras.
After the passing of Gyalwang Konchog Rinchen (1590-1655 CE), a system of two lineage holders developed, of the Chetsang (elder) and the Chungtsang (younger). This became a system that searched for the reincarnations of the throneholders as the Kyura clan died with the passing of Gyalwang Konchog Rinchen and his brother Kunkhyen Rigzin Chodrak (1595-1659 CE). They were given the titles of the 1st Chetsang and the 1st Chungtsang respectively. This system of succession within the Drikung Kagyu has continued up until today.
The current 8th Chungtsang Rinpoche is His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Tenzin Chokyi Nangwa and is the 36th lineage holder, considered an emanation of Manjushri. The current 7th Chetsang Rinpoche is His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Tenzin Thrinle Lhundrup, and is the 37th lineage holder, considered the emanation of Chenresig.
Special Teachings of the Drikung Kagyu
The name ‘Kagyu’ is made up two syllables, ‘ka’ refers to the spoken word of the Buddha and the oral instructions of the guru, while ‘gyu’ refers to tradition or lineage. As such the Kagyu School emphasises the oral instructions passed on from a guru to disciple. A literal translation of ‘Kagyu’ means ‘the lineage of the oral instructions.’
Central to the Drikung Kagyu practices, as reflected in their refuge tree, is the Buddha Vajradhara. Vajradhara is the embodiment of the Dharmakaya, or the ‘truth body’. The Dharmakaya is the unmanifested and inconceivable ultimate aspect of full enlightenment, from which all Buddha forms arise. The Buddha Vajradhara is central to the lineage, as the Mahasiddha Tilopa received teachings directly from Vajradhara. Thus it can be said that the Kagyu lineage originated from the very nature of Buddhahood itself. Tilopa’s teachings form the core of Kagyu practice.
Possessing Five Mahamudra
One of the main teachings from the Drikung Kagyu lineage is known as the ‘Possessing Five’ or ‘The Five-fold Profound Path of Mahamudra.’ This teaching again stems from Tilopa who taught it to Naropa. Mahamudra literally meaning ‘Great Seal’, is a meditation technique that focuses on the nature of the mind in order to understand the true nature of reality, also known as emptiness. This Mahamudra lineage can also be found in the Gelug lineage, as Lama Tsongkhapa and several other Gelug lineage lamas received the teachings from the Kagyu tradition. This unique form of Mahamudra is known as the ‘Gelug-Kagyu Mahamudra’ lineage, although also sometimes translated as both ‘Gelug Whispered Mahamudra’ or the ‘Gelug Oral Mahamudra’ lineage. Through this practice it is possible to achieve enlightenment in one lifetime.
Traditionally the practice of Mahamudra is engaged in after completing a series of four Ngondro, or foundational practices. These are (1) going for refuge, (2) Vajrasattva purification practice, (3) Mandala offering, and (4) Guru-yoga practice. These practices are considered completed when one has engaged in each practice 100,000 times. The set of teachings is categorised into five ‘folds’ or interrelated sections. These are, developing Bodhichitta, meditation on the Yidam, Guru Yoga, Mahamudra and dedication.
Six Yogas of Naropa
Tilopa’s disciple, Naropa, is famous for having systemised and enumerated a series of six techniques for use when practicing highest yoga tantra in order to achieve a more rapid attainment of enlightenment. According to the lineage, Tilopa received these teachings directly from Heruka Chakrasamvara himself.
These yogas require empowerment into at least one higher tantric yoga deity, most often Heruka Chakrasamvara or Vajrayogini/Vajravarahi and firm stability in the generation stage of the practice. The yogas themselves have no empowerment but they need to be learnt from a qualified teacher. They include:
- Tummo (Skt: Candali): the yoga of inner heat.
- Gyulu (Skt: Mayakaya): the yoga of illusory body.
- Osel (Skt: Prabhasvara): the yoga of clear light.
- Milam (Skt: Svapnadarsana): the yoga of the dream state.
- Bardo (Skt: Antarabhava): the yoga of the intermediate stage.
- Powa (Skt: Samkranti): the yoga of transference of consciousness to a pureland.
Yang Zab – The Profound Vision
The Yang Zab is a unique teaching within the Drikung Kagyu lineage. It is actually a Dzogchen practice, usually only practiced in Nyingma traditions. It was revealed by the 17th Drikung Kagyu throneholder, Rinchen Phuntsog, known as the Drikung Terton (hidden treasure revealer). This teachings was first taught by Padmasambhava to his holy consorts Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal as well as Prince Mutik Tsenpo (the son of King Trisong Detsen). Padmasambhava prophesied that these teachings would be most effective in the future, when there was spiritual darkness and so they were hidden by Yeshe Tsogyal for future generations. Rinchen Phuntsog, himself an reincarnation of Prince Mutik Tsenpo, again revealed this teaching during the first half of the 16th century. Since then it has been practiced in the Drikung Kagyu tradition.
Life of Achi Chokyi Drolma
Achi Chokyi Drolma is a Dharma protector (Skt: Dharmapala) practiced within the Drikung Kagyu lineage. She also appears in the Karma Kagyu lineage in the form of Achi Chodron. In this form she is also considered a protector, who specifically protects the teachings of the Karma Kagyu lineage. She also appears as both a Dharma protector and dakini in the life of Terton Tsasum Lingpa of the Nyingma lineage. She is considered an emanation of Vajrayogini, as such she is considered the embodiment of the wisdom and compassion of all the Buddhas, and it is said her coming was prophesised within the Heruka Chakrasamvara tantra.
Around the 11th century there was a couple who lived in the area of Drikung, Tibet. They were childless, so embarked on a pilgrimage to Swayambhunath in Nepal. There they prayed to bear a child. One night, Driza Dharzam, the soon-to-be mother dreamt of a sun shining radiantly from the east appearing, its light spreading into the ten directions, and then the sun dissolving into her womb, while the soon-to-be father Nanam Chowopal dreamt of a rosary made of bright and clear light emanated from Akshobya’s Buddhafield and entered his wife’s womb. The couple upon waking realised that they were to give birth to a special child, so engaged in a tsok (skt: ganachakra) puja, made strong aspirations and returned to Tibet. There they gave birth to daughter, Achi Chokyi Drolma, whose body was extraordinarily white, amid rays of bright and luminous light. As a child she constantly recite the holy mantra of the Buddha Tara, at aged three began to teach it to others. Her parents died early, so from that point onwards she lived with her uncle.
Due to her incredible beauty, many sought to marry her. However she stated that she would only marry a particular yogi descended from the noble Kyura family. Travelling to Kham she came across the yogi, named Ame Tsultrim Gyatso, whom she married, stating that their descendants would become enlightened, help to enlighten others and spread the Buddha’s teachings. Ame Tsultrim Gyatso did not have enough possessions to arrange their wedding, so Achi Chokyi Drolma danced holding a damaru (ritual drum) and kapala (skull-cup) in her hands while gazing up into the sky. The house was instantly filled with the best foods, drinks, and finest clothes for them to wear during their wedding. Upon eating the food it is said the guests felt great bliss and were very satisfied.
Achi Chokyi Drolma and Ame Tsultrim Gyatso gave birth to four intelligent and scholarly sons: Namkhe Wangchuk, Pekar Wangyal, Sonam Pal and Kathung Trushi. In turn Pekar Wangyal gave birth to four sons himself including Naljor Dorje. Naljor Dorje in turn gave birth to Jigten Sumgon, also known as Ratnashri, a reincarnation of Nagarjuna and founder of the Drikung Kagyu lineage.
At the end of her time on earth, Achi Chokyi Drolma stated that she had purposefully taken rebirth into samsara in order fulfil her aspirations to protect the Buddhas teachings for the welfare of all sentient beings and to those who follow her, she will bestow both ordinary and supreme siddhis. Together with her disciples she travelled to the Tingring cave. This cave is famous for housing many self-arisen statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, yidams, dakinis and Dharma protectors. A human corpse was brought into the cave, which Achi Chokyi Drolma transformed into a tsog offering. Those disciples that partook of the offering gained both ordinary and supreme attainments. It was then that she herself composed a sadhana of herself as the central deity, promised to look after the teachings of the Buddha, and the essence of the Buddha’s teachings that would appear in the future. With that she stated that the activities of her body had come to an end, and flew to Kechara pureland on a blue horse without leaving her physical body, reminiscent of seventy-five of the famous eighty four great Mahasiddhas of ancient India.
Using a human corpse and transforming it into an offering may seem violent, disturbing and unbecoming of a supposed enlightened being, but this should be understood from a tantric point of view since Achi Chokyi Drolma was a great practitioner of tantra. Within tantric practices, one does not attempt to change the world on the external level in order to further one’s practice. On the contrary, the external world remains the same but tantra actually transforms the internal world, which is our own mind.
In Buddhism, it is not about changing the outer world but the internal one. Normally we operate from our attachments and aversions, things we like, we don’t like, things which look nice, things that disgust us, etc. It is because we think in this manner that we are still bound to samsara because we hold on to projections of how things are. This governs how we live, driving our actions towards the accumulation of what we are attached to and avoiding those things we have aversion for. Through this process we make distinctions and label things as good, bad, beautiful, ugly, clean, unclean, etc. This in turn creates further karma to take rebirth in samsara, and we live our lives based on these projections of how things should or should not be.
In Tantric Buddhism, we engage in certain rituals that break this usual view we have, with the aim of realising that the world does not exist based on our current perceptions which are based on attachment and aversion. The transformation of the human corpse into a tsog offering symbolises the transformation of our ordinary view (the corpse) into the ultimate view of the Buddha (tsog offerings), which is that all things have the same nature known as ‘suchness’, by the power of Achi Chokyi Drolma’s attainments.
The transformation is due to the fact that all that exists is made up of the four elements, known as earth, water, fire and air, which do not deteriorate, or cease to exist but are recycled into varied forms. For example physical fire contains all the four elements, but the element of fire is the strongest, whereas the element of water is the weakest. In physical water, the element of water is the strongest, whereas the element of fire is the weakest. Both physical fire and physical water, however, contain all four of the elements. Similarly our bodies include the four elements in differing qualities as does a piece of fruit or a table.
The use of a corpse as an offering for tsog, or tantric feast, shows a person’s inner attainments over attachment to the body, and their meditation on the fact that all phenomena are in essence the same, made up of all four elements in differing quantities. Hence to taste meat or alcohol, usually ascribed the projection of being pollutants by spiritual practitioners, a tantrika during ritual is able to see the oneness, or ‘suchness’ in all substances and existence. In tantra, these substances are partaken of as a method to ‘taste’ the oneness of all phenomena, free of attachment, rather than to allow our views about them to control our mind and how we live, cutting away the very aspect that binds us to samsara.
This use of a corpse may seem repulsive or disgusting to many people, this is because a human corpse is universally reviled and something to be kept away from. In many cultures around the world a corpse is seen as unclean, for example in both Indian and Chinese cultures it is tradition to wash after attending a funeral in order to wash away any negative energy that one may have picked up from being in close proximity to a corpse.
This is one of the reasons a corpse was used by Achi Chokyi Drolma in order to break this very same and ingrained perception. Another reason is that the body is literally the very embodiment of our attachment. From washing it daily, feeding it, keeping it healthy, clothing it in fine clothes and jewels, to making it comfortable, are all activities which betray our attachment. In this way, the use of a corpse within tantric ritual, usually visualised rather than actual, is used to overcome this very strong attachment to the body. The transformation of the corpse is only done by an attained practitioner like Achi Chokyi Drolma. The normal tantric offering is the tasting of meat and alcohol during tsog offering as symbolic transcendence of attachment and the tasting of the ‘one taste’.
The Nature of Achi Chokyi Drolma
Though Achi Chokyi Drolma is now considered an enlightened Dharma protector within the Drikung Lineage, she was at one point in time considered a female demon who was an oath-bound protector. Many of her biographers took great lengths to disprove this theory and prove her to be the wisdom dakini Vajrayogini, who intentionally took worldly existence as a method to educate practitioners. Even though Jigten Sumgon, himself the founder of the Drikung Kagyu, wrote extensive prayers to Achi Chokyi Drolma, others still considered her to be unenlightened. This caused a great deal of debate and friction, she was not accepted throughout the entire Drikung Kagyu until a later period.
Some have claimed that she was a flesh-eating demoness, while others claimed that she was similar to the Sakya Bamo Sum. These claims are refuted again and again by citing Jigten Sumgon’s texts on her practice. These claims are also refuted by other masters, such as the 28th Drikung throneholder, who cite various texts and Buddhist logic in proving Achi Chokyi Drolma an enlightened being, worthy of being prayed to. Another argument purported is that she is very close in appearance to the Tsering Goddess and her sisters, known as the Five Long-Life Goddesses, who also appear as beautiful women, dressed in ornate garments, riding animal mounts. This again is refuted by examining their natures, the Five Long-Life Goddesses are well accepted to be worldly protectors, whereas Achi Chokyi Drolma is enlightened due to her being an emanation of the Buddha Vajrayogini.
By comparing Achi Chokyi Drolma’s biography to those of other figures within Tibetan Buddhism such as Machig Labdron, it is made clear the arguments used to prove that she is an accepted Buddha figure. These include an auspicious birth, miraculous abilities and physical attributes. Her position as the great-grandmother to Jigten Sumgon is also stressed, providing credence against those who decry her enlightened nature. The case of tracing a bloodline back to a supernatural maternal ancestor is not unusual with the biographies of many great and historical figures from Tibet. These would not have been necessary if she was accepted as an enlightened Dharma protector from the outset of her practice.
Even great masters from other traditions strove to ensure that Achi Chokyi Drolma was legitimised as an enlightened protector. His Holiness the 2nd Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Gendun Gyatso (1476-1542 CE) said:
“From the Vast Valley of the Unconditioned Blissful Sky, Chokyi Dron propagated the Great Vehicle in the Ten Directions. [She is] the Teaching Guardian Grandmother of Jigten Gonpo (Jigten Sumgon).”
Since Drikung is near Amdo, her practice also spread to the monasteries of other lineages, including the Gelugpa monasteries of Gaden, Sera and Drepung. In fact, in recent history, when Pomra Khangtsen left Sera Mey Monastic University to start Serpom Monastery in 2008, those few monks who stayed behind renamed their fraternity Pobhor Khangtsen and took Achi Chokyi Drolma as their Khangtsen’s protector, in light of the current political issues surrounding the practice of Dorje Shugden.
What is striking and most highlighted by both biographers, practitioners and commentators is the fact that Achi Chokyi Drolma, rather than a native mountain god or spirit, is an actual emanation of Vajrayogini, separating her from the realm of lower and worldly Dharma protectors. This elevates her status to Buddhahood, a level at which there can be no mistake that her practice is beneficial, and without issue.
Practice of Achi Chokyi Drolma
Apart from the originally sadhana, composed by Achi Chokyi Drolma herself there are many other sadhanas and practice texts that exist today within the Drikung Kagyu lineage. The most notable is the sadhana composed by her great-grandson, Jigten Sumgon, the founder of the Drikung lineage. It is said that while staying at Jangchub Ling in Drikung Thil, he heard the sound of a damaru, together with mystical singing. One of his disciples asked him about the sounds and songs. Jigten Sumgon stated that they were from his great-grandmother, Achi Chokyi Drolma who is a wisdom-dakini. His disciple, Drubthob Khamba Gyagarwa, immediately requested a sadhana for propitiating Achi Chokyi Drolma. Jigten Sumgon agreed, and this sadhana is now part of a set of texts to Achi Chokyi Drolma, known as the Achi Pebum. Jigten Sumgon also established her as the principal Dharma protector of the lineage.
As a Dharma protector she is visualised on a blue wisdom horse, in the garb of a celestial dakini. Her wisdom horse symbolises the swiftness of her enlightened activities to help sentient beings, long life, health and success. In her left hand she holds a kapala (skull-cup) at the level of her heart. The skull-cup contains a wish fulfilling jewel, symbolising she has the ability to bestow everything necessary for both secular and spiritual life, when needed and asked for. In her left hand she plays the damaru (ritual drum), the sound representing the power of the Dharma. Her practice is beneficial to clear both inner and outer obstacles to practicing the Dharma, while bestowing great protection. Unlike many other Dharma protectors, her countenance is peaceful rather than wrathful.
There are many examples of Achi Chokyi Drolma aiding practitioners. For example when the current His Holiness Chungtsang Rinpoche was imprisoned in a labour camp after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, a woman was seen visiting him and bringing him food. This was impossible due to the restrictions placed on prisoners at the time. It is said that this lady was actually Achi Chokyi Drolma. In another case Achi also helped His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche cross over the Himalayas into India, while escaping from Tibet. Finding that his route was barred by a crevasse in a glacier, he started to turn back the way he had come. Looking over his shoulders, however, he saw a woman standing on the other side of the crevasse and thought to himself that there must be a way over the crevasse. He retraced his steps to find that the crevasse was no longer there, so he could continue his journey to India. The woman herself was nowhere to be seen either.
The extent to which Achi Chokyi Drolma is venerated and as testament to her enlightened nature, she is propitiated in more roles than just a Dharma protector. The above thangka shows just how important Achi Chokyi Drolma’s role is within the Drikung Kagyu. The thangka portrays the Pure Vision Achi practice that was revealed by His Eminence Tritsab Rinpoche in 1969. This practice was transmitted to His Holiness Chetsang Rinpoche and since then has been spread throughout the Drikung Kagyu. This practice includes meditating on Achi as:
- The central figure in Guru Yoga practice – similar to how Gelugpas concentrate on Lama Tsongkhapa or Nyingmapas concentrate on Padmasambhava.
- As a Yidam – a meditational deity similar to Manjushri or Yamantaka.
- As a long life dakini to lengthen one’s life.
- As a practice to invoke prosperity.
- As a Dharma protector.
The Pure Vision Achi practice even involves a concise ngondro practice (foundational practice used to purify negative karma and accumulate merit), a concise tsog offering (ritual tantric feast), an incense offering, a repelling practice for protection against negativities, a chod practice and even a divination practice. This is very unique as Achi has all the functions of guru, yidam, dakini and protector. Practitioners are said to be able to rely on Achi all the way until enlightenment just by this practice and it is said to be very powerful for our modern day and age, as her practice was revealed less than 48 years ago.
Achi Chokyi Drolma, even though known of and respected by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, is for the most part practiced purely within the Kagyu lineages. In fact one of her main roles as a Dharma protector is to protect the holy Drikung Kagyu lineage and its precious teachings.
For more detailed information regarding Achi Chokyi Drolma, you can read an academic thesis entitled ‘Outward Beauty, Hidden Wrath: An Exploration of the Drikung Kagyu Dharma Protectress Achi Chokyi Drolma’ by Kristen Kail Muldowney here.
Praise to Achi Chokyi Drolma
From “The Glorious Treasury of All Desirables Sadhana of Pure Vision Achi”
CHOEYING MIGYUR PEL GYI YUM
TEN SUNG ACHI CHOE DRON MA
RIG KYI TSOM BU TRUL KHOR CHE
DECHEN THINLE DRUB LA TOE
The mother of the glorious unchanging dharmadhatu
Is the dharma protector Achi Choedron ma.
I praise you and the assembly of your family,
Including the emanations and retinues,
who enact the activities of great bliss
OM MAMA TSAKRA SOHA
YAR DU SARWA DU
RA DZA RA DZA DU
MAMA DU HUNG PHET SOHA
I’ve learnt a lot during the research for this article, and it has really shaped the way I see other traditions and their practices. Personally for me this article was meaningful because the Gelug lineage, which i practice, is linked to the Drikung Kagyu lineage. The practices of Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa were taught to Lama Tsongkhapa by the 11th Drikung Kagyu throneholder, Chenga Chokyi Gyalpo, therefore the lineage of Gelugpa practice shares part of the same lineage as the Drikung Kagyu. I make a prayer that this blog post will provide information to others regarding this most holy Protectress, Achi Chokyi Drolma.
Pastor Niral Patel
PS. Special thanks to Pastor David for the great advice and editing.
Addendum – Similarities to Dorje Shugden:
Over the course of writing the above article, I had many people from all walks of life read it and give the their thoughts and opinions on the subject. One thing that came across the most was the similarity between Achi Chokyi Drolma and Dorje Shugden. I’ve listed some of these questions asked, with some quick answers below. I wanted the above Achi Chokyi Drolma article to be an informative blogpost on its own, which she deserves, but along the way I observed the similarities with her arising as a Dharma protector and the conflict within her lineage with issues surrounding Dorje Shugden. So I decided to add the question and answer sections here separately. I don’t mean to ‘entrap’ you to learn more about the Dorje Shugden issue by using Achi Chokyi Drolma, but the similarities are so starkly evident, I was compelled to put this here.
1. Are they both enlightened beings?
Yes both are definitely enlightened beings. Achi Chokyi Drolma is an emanation of Vajrayogini and Dorje Shugden is an emanation of Manjushri. They both emanated out of enlightened compassion to benefit sentient beings by protecting certain lineages or teachings.
This is seen in Achi Chokyi Drolma’s life story, in which she married and gave birth to sons who would propagate the teachings of the Buddha, and vowed to protect the lineage that her descendants would found. Similarly in his previous incarnations as attained masters (such as the Mahasiddha Virupa, Duldzin Drakpa Gyeltsen and Panchen Sonam Drakpa), Dorje Shugden practiced and promoted the Buddha’s teachings, he also arose in the form of a Dharma protector to safeguard the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa so that people can benefit from them on the path towards enlightenment.
Due to their enlightened compassion, Achi Chokyi Drolma at the end of her life rose into the sky on a blue horse and departed to Kechara pureland becoming a Dharma protector, whereas Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen surrendered his life and arose in the form of Dorje Shugden.
2. What was their purpose for arising as protectors?
Achi Chokyi Drolma emanated specifically to protect the teachings of the Drikung Kagyu lineage, whereas Dorje Shugden arose to protect the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa within the Gelug tradition. This can be seen as protectors who have sectarian intentions. They both had the same intention, to ensure that the teachings of the lineage continue to benefit practitioners on their path towards enlightenment. Since their intentions are altruistic although attached to a specific lineage it cannot be seen as sectarian, but they have a special relationship with their certain lineage. Therefore the practitioners of these protectors also cannot be seen as sectarian, so devotees of Achi Chokyi Drolma and Dorje Shugden who specifically propitiate them to protect their lineages, cannot be seen as sectarian.
Many Dharma protectors are considered to protect certain teachings, such as Caturmukha Mahakala who protects the Chakrasamvara tantras or Citipati who protects the Vajrayogini tantras. Would we call Caturmukha Mahakala and Citipati bias because they are protecting a certain lineage only? Of course not, although they protect their particular affinity tantras, they can protect an individual who supplicates them sincerely. So somebody who practices something other than the Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini tantras, would be protected by them if propitiated. Therefore it is not uncommon for protectors to arise for certain reasons, such as protecting lineages or teachings. But that does not make them sectarian or biased.
Due to their enlightened nature, however, anyone who sincerely propitiates them will receive the benefits of their practice whether they are within that sect or practice that particular tantra or not.
3. Are their practices in essence the same?
Both the practices of Dorje Shugden and Achi Chokyi Drolma have the same function which is to remove obstacles facing a practitioner, and to create conducive conditions to practice the Dharma to gain enlightenment through the spiritual path. Another similarity is that both Dharma protectors have divination methods, Dorje Shugden’s involves throwing dice, whereas Achi Chokyi Drolma has two, one involves throwing dice and the other the creation of an elaborate elephant shaped torma, left outside and eaten by birds and then interpreted.
A slight difference occurs when comparing Dorje Shugden’s practice to that of the Pure Vision Achi practice. Whilst Dorje Shugden is currently propitiated as a Dharma protector, in the Pure Vision Achi practice, Achi Chokyi Drolma is propitiated as more. In this practice, her sadhanas can lead a person all the way until Buddhahood. Achi Chokyi Drolma has come a long way as she is also practiced as a yidam, when she was first seen as a flesh-eating demoness by many within her own lineage. In this practice she is considered a guru, yidam, dakini and Dharma protector. Dorje Shugden is currently propitiated as a Dharma protector, and a guru when in the form of Duldzin during trance of a qualified oracle. However this is not to say that Dorje Shugden is just a Dharma protector. In fact in Dorje Shugden’s Kangsol, or liturgy, he is stated as being a guru, yidam and protector, just like Achi Chokyi Drolma:
“You are the Guru who teaches the excellent path of abandonment and practice,
The Yidam who bestows the common and supreme attainments,
The Dharma Protector who assists us with the four actions;
We honour you as the embodiment of the Guru, Yidam, and Protector.”
– Requesting Uncommon Protection, Dorje Shugden Kangsol
Both Dorje Shugden and Achi Chokyi Drolma, as emanations of enlightened beings can be propitiated as either guru, yidam, dharma protector or all three. It is simply that a practice of propitiating Dorje Shugden as either a guru or yidam does not currently exist. This is not to say that it will never exist, as the example of Achi Chokyi Drolma is clearly a testament to.
Achi Chokyi Drolma was originally practiced as a Dharma protector, and over the course of time, was practiced as guru and yidam as well. This was due to her enlightened nature as an emanation of Vajrayogini. Since Dorje Shugden is an emanation of Manjushri, it is possible, even probable given the example of Achi Chokyi Drolma, that in the future he too will be practiced as a guru and yidam as well.
4. Historically, was there any opposition to these practices?
Yes, both practices were not accepted in the past at one time or another. For example Achi Chokyi Drolma was not widely accepted as a Dharma protector at the beginning, but this has since changed and she is widely accepted to be a Drikung Kagyu Dharma protector. The same occurred with Dorje Shugden. When he arose many thought he was an evil spirit, however when the enlightened methods of the high lamas at that time failed to destroy him, these same lamas realised that he was in fact a fully enlightened being.
Historically both were considered to be unenlightened and vicious beings by some, but the works of holy and attained masters were used to prove, over time, that they were enlightened. For example Jigten Sumgon, composed prayers to Achi Chokyi Drolma in order to recognise her as an enlightened Dharma protector. Even masters from other traditions such as His Holiness 2nd Dalai Lama Gyalwa Gedun Gyatso wrote a praise to her enlightened nature and position as a Dharma protector. This mirrors the works of not only Gelugpa but also Sakyapa masters in relation to proving Dorje Shugden is a fully enlightened Dharma protector.
5. Why is Dorje Shugden’s practice more wrathful?
Thinking that Dorje Shugden’s practice is more wrathful compared to Achi Chokyi Drolma and therefore that her practice is better, is a mistake. Whereas Dorje Shugden’s form is more wrathful compared to Achi Chokyi Drolma’s, whose form is rather peaceful, both practices mirror common Dharma protector liturgies that include a lot of violent imagery.
For example, one of Achi Chokyi Drolma’s emanations is known as the Flesh Eating Karma Dakini, who holds the heart of someone who has violated their samaya. From this heart comes forth blood which she pours into Achi Chokyi Drolma’s mouth, who drinks it. This shows the wrathful nature of Achi Chokyi Drolma’s practice. In fact, towards the end of her life Achi Chokyi Drolma transformed a human corpse into a tsog feast as described and explained in the article above.
Most Dharma protector practices include violent imagery, therefore it is not fair to single out one protector for their violent imagery, while ignoring the violent imagery existing in other Dharma protector prayers. This violent imagery is actually testament to the compassionate nature of the enlightened beings who manifest different activities in order to tame and purify our very heavy and negative karma. It is believed that meditation on blessed violent symbolism is more swifter in purifying heavy impending karma. Hence, most Dharma protectors are in a wrathful form because enlightened angry energy is considered swifter in carrying out protective activities.
6. In the article, Jigten Sumgon recognised Achi Chokyi Drolma as a Dharma Protector by composing her sadhana. On the other hand, Lama Tsongkhapa did not recognise nor did he enthrone Dorje Shugden as a Dharma protector. How do you explain this?
At the time of Lama Tsongkhapa, Dorje Shugden was still incarnating as illustrious high lamas with highest realisation. He was the great student of Lama Tsongkhapa, Dulzin Drakpa Gyeltsen who was considered equal to Lama Tsongkhapa in terms of realisations. He was also known to have pledged to be a protector of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and this came to fruition in a later lifetime. In order for a Dharma protector to be recognised, a lama of the highest realisations would compose praises and prayers or would openly proliferate the practice of that protector. Within the Drikung Kagyu tradition, it was Jigten Sumgon who recognised and composed the sadhana of Achi Chokyi Drolma.
Within the Gelug tradition, there are many high lamas of that realisation and calibre who are capable of recognising Dorje Shugden. The Panchen Lama is an example of such a high lama, second only to the Dalai Lama. He had installed Dorje Shugden as one of the main protectors of his monastery of Tashi Lhunpo by dedicating a whole chapel to Dorje Shugden and he also composed prayers to Dorje Shugden as well. Other high lamas within the lineage, past and present, such as Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Domo Geshe Rinpoche, Kyabje Zemey Rinpoche and so forth, have also composed prayers and proliferated the practice. Compared with the Drikung Kagyu who are smaller in numbers compared to the Gelug lineage, the Gelug lineage has many more high and enlightened lamas who have recognised Dorje Shugden as a genuine Dharma protector. In this regard, the Drikung Kagyu needed to cite Jigten Sumgon again and again while proving Achi Chokyi Drolma is an actual enlightened Dharma protector.
7. Why did the Drikung Kagyu lineage lamas pick a controversial and ‘homegrown’ Dharma protector like Achi Chokyi Drolma instead of an established and older Dharma Protector from the Indian tradition?
The reason for the choice of Achi Chokyi Drolma as Dharma protector is due to the place, karma and affinity of practitioners at that particular time. All Buddhas are of equal realisation and strength but the difference between them is the affinity with sentient beings, due to the vows made by the enlightened ones, and also the general karma of the practitioners of that particular time.
Historically, there are many protectors of Indian origin that were once popular and are no longer practiced. They were emanations of enlightened beings, who arose for specific purposes. However over time the potency of their practice fades due to the time, place and karma of practitioners. Due to their compassion, the older protectors ‘phase’ out and the same enlightened beings continually emanate out as new Dharma protectors in order to perpetuate the Buddha’s teachings and to benefit practitioners and sentient beings in general. This is the case with Achi Chokyi Drolma and Dorje Shugden as well.
In the case of Achi Chokyi Drolma, she made firm commitments when she composed her own sadhana before her great passing and transformation into a Dharma Protector. On top of that, the Drikung Kagyu lineage arose from her own descendent, Jigten Sumgon. Hence, the affinity with practitioners of this lineage is particularly strong. However, being an emanation of Vajrayogini, she has compassion for all beings. Therefore, anybody who practices her would receive her great blessings and protection. This mirrors Dorje Shugden’s affinity to practitioners of the Gelug tradition, as he has a connection with the lineage due to his previous lives as high Gelugpa lamas. He also vowed to protect the teachings of the lineage’s founder, Lama Tsongkhapa. As an emanation of Manjushri, his propitiation will also benefit anyone too.
8. What do you think is the main difference between the relative ease it took Achi Chokyi Drolma to be accepted as an emanation of Vajrayogini within a few hundred years after she arose, when compared with Dorje Shugden who is an emanation of Manjushri?
The main difference is the fact that no high lama within the Drikung Kagyu tradition that we know of has outlawed the practice in modern times. However, even after Jigten Sumgon’s recognition of her as a Dharma protector, many lamas and disciples within the lineage did not accept her as a Dharma protector. Many had to cite Jigten Sumgon and other lamas in order for Achi Chokyi Drolma to be accepted, which took a couple of hundred years. Only after this occurred was she fully accepted. This is in stark contrast to the ban on Dorje Shugden issued by His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself, in which Dorje Shugden was accepted for 400 years and now suddenly is not. Therefore, it is easy to refute any doubts and rumours regarding the nature of Achi Chokyi Drolma. On the other hand, the ban on Dorje Shugden has essentially pitted Gelug lamas against each other in regards to his nature. However, most of the highest lamas of the Gelug tradition like the Panchen Lama, Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche, Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, Domo Geshe Rinpoche, Kyabje Zemey Rinpoche, Kyabje Zong Rinpoche and so forth have all proclaimed Dorje Shugden as the enlightened nature of Manjushri and the principle protector of the Gelug tradition. Some of the Gelugpa lamas had to politically align their allegiance to the Dalai Lama and therefore agree with the ban, irrelevant to whether Dorje Shugden is enlightened or not. To be aligned with the Dalai Lama and to receive his public support could result in the financial and popularity gain of their individual centres.
Ultimately how is it ascertained that His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statement regarding Dorje Shugden’s nature is correct? Is it through his attainments or his rank that you use to come to this conclusion? If you are coming to this conclusion based on the Dalai Lama’s attainments, are you at a level to ascertain his attainments, to determine if he is qualified to make such a statement regarding Dorje Shugden? Since we are not of the same level as the Dalai Lama to ascertain his attainments (and therefore qualifications), us concluding that his statement on Dorje Shugden is accurate based on our ‘assessment’ of his spiritual attainments is not feasible.
Therefore the assertion that the Dalai Lama’s statement about Dorje Shugden is correct is actually based on rank (Tibet’s leader) rather than attainments. Rank in this case overrides attainments because it provides those who agree with the Dalai Lama the opportunity for financial and popularity gain. And if it is indeed the case that rank overrides attainments, then attainments are no longer relevant and those with higher rank can override the instructions and practice given by any teacher ranked below them regardless of attainments.
This conflict between attainment versus rank has fueled the controversy surrounding Dorje Shugden, and likewise would have fueled the controversy surrounding reliance on Achi Chokyi Drolma in the early days of her practice. Therefore in regards to spiritual practice, one should revert to the infallible advice common to all traditions, whether Gelug, Nyingma, Sakya or Kagyu – follow the advice of your teacher. Just as Achi Chokyi Drolma was recognised and praised as a Dharma protector by teachers from other traditions, so was Dorje Shugden. In the Sakya tradition, in which Dorje Shugden was first practiced, many high lamas recognised and praised him, including five Sakya Trizins who had propagated Dorje Shugden’s practice. These include the 30th Sakya Trizin Sonam Rinchen, 31st Sakya Trizin Kunga Lodro, 33rd Sakya Trizin Pema Dudul Wangchuk, 35th Sakya Trizin Tashi Rinchen and 39th Sakya Trizin Dragshul Trinley Rinchen.
9. In the life story of Achi Chokyi Drolma, she danced and performed a ritual that filled her house with food and drink. In that sense, she was used to fulfil material gain. This is similar to Dorje Shugden’s role to provide material/worldly resources, enabling practitioners to concentrate on their spiritual practice. If Dorje Shugden is accused of being propitiated for worldly and material reasons, shouldn’t Achi Chokyi Drolma also be treated in the same respect?
All Dharma Protectors, whether enlightened or worldly, confer worldly benefits and eliminate obstacles to spiritual attainments for their practitioners. The difference between worldly versus enlightened protectors in a worldly form, is the fact that worldly protectors bestow only material or temporal benefit. On the other hand, enlightened protectors in worldly form can confer both worldly benefits and eliminate obstacles to spiritual attainments. Therefore, the worldly benefit that they confer leads one further along the spiritual path, while the material benefits accrued do not distract one away from spiritual practice. Both Achi Chokyi Drolma and Dorje Shugden grant material benefits, with the purpose of creating conducive conditions for one’s practice, without distracting from the spiritual path.
10. If the biography of Achi Chokyi Drolma is a valid method to prove her legitimacy as a Dharma protector, why should Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen’s (previous life of Dorje Shugden) recognition and biographical details by Panchen Lama Losang Chokyi Gyaltsen be rejected?
History shows that politics has played a huge role in the suppression of certain lines of incarnations, like that of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen’s. The high lama Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen was censored and his line of incarnations was outlawed because it was seen to pose a direct threat to His Holiness the 5th Dalai Lama’s rule. This was because he was extremely popular, in fact more popular than the 5th Dalai Lama and gathered powerful patrons and disciples. This led the Desi, the private secretary of the 5th Dalai Lama to feel threatened. Therefore Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen had to be eliminated and his future incarnations banned in order to cover this political crime. In essence, it is because of politics that the legitimate recognition and biographical details of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen was rejected. Furthermore, the more recent ban on Dorje Shugden adds further support to the rejection and censorship on the authentic life story of Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen. On the other hand, Achi Chokyi Drolma did not have any such political complications, therefore nobody actually challenges the biographical details of Achi Chokyi Drolma, though it did take some time before she was fully accepted.
Both biographies do in fact clearly prove the legitimacy and compassionate enlightened nature of both Dharma protectors.
11. Since Achi Chokyi Drolma arose specifically to protect the Drikung Kagyu, doesn’t that make her sectarian against all other lineages? Isn’t Dorje Shugden sectarian too?
No. Neither Achi Chokyi Drolma nor Dorje Shugden are sectarian. Both arose for a specific reason linked to their lineages but they cannot be sectarian due to their enlightened nature. Achi Chokyi Drolma, as the great-grandmother of Jigten Sumgon arose to protect the very lineage that she had the greatest affinity with, the Drikung Kagyu that her great-grandson would found. She arose to protect the teachings of the Drikung Kagyu so they can continue to benefit others. The same is true for Dorje Shugden, who was the great lama Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen, who arose to protect the teachings of Lama Tsongkhapa in the Gelug lineage. Both arose for their purposes due to a strong connection with the teachings of that particular lineage. Achi Chokyi Drolma was Jigten Sumgon’s great-grandmother while Tulku Drakpa Gyeltsen had been a student and practitioner of Lama Tsongkhapa’s teachings and had sworn to be a protector of the teachings.
Some people think that because they arose for a specific lineage they are sectarian. This in itself is wrong view as they are emanations of enlightened beings. As they are Vajrayogini and Manjushri respectively, they do not have bias to be sectarian. In fact they will help anyone who sincerely prays to them. Both have been and continue to be practiced within more than one tradition, which would not be possible if they were sectarian in nature. For example Achi Chokyi Drolma, as shown above is practiced in both the Kagyu and Gelug schools, whereas Dorje Shugden has been practiced in the Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu traditions as well as the Gelug tradition. Therefore, the assumption that these protector practices are sectarian is unfounded. In fact due to their enlightened nature, they help everyone regardless of which lineage you belong to.
In conclusion, we can clearly see that both practices of Achi Chokyi Drolma and Dorje Shugden are in fact very similar. Both protectors are emanations of fully enlightened beings who arose specifically to protect a particular lineage or teachings within a lineage, while removing obstacles and creating conducive conditions for spiritual practice. However they are also practiced in other traditions as well, a testament to their enlightened nature, benefiting anyone who propitiates them. In this regard, they both assume the same function as many other deities – that of a Dharma protector. The practices are similar, inclusive of wrathful imagery, which is not something unique to either one.
Both practices even took some time to become mainstream within their respective lineages. Both have had many great masters from the lineages they arose in and even from other traditions, praise their enlightened nature and spread their practices. Just as Achi Chokyi Drolma went from being propitiated as a Dharma protector to a guru and yidam due to her enlightened nature and compassion, this also seems likely to occur with Dorje Shugden as he is none other than Manjushri. In light of Achi Chokyi Drolma becoming the chief protector of the Drikung Kagyu tradition due to her very strong affinity and connections with the lineage, it is likely that Dorje Shugden too will one day become the chief protector of the Gelugpa tradition, which is what is happening now.
Pastor Niral Patel
PS. Special thanks to Pastor David Lai, Pastor Khong Jean Ai and Joy Kam for the help with compiling these questions and answers.
For more information:
- The Great Council of Lhasa
- The Sakya Lineage & Dorje Shugden
- Shangmo Dorje Putri – the Bamo of Sakya
- The 14th Dalai Lama’s Prayer to Dorje Shugden
- The Dalai Lama Speaks Clearly About the Dorje Shugden Ban
- Dorje Shugden Teaching Videos
- Mandala Offerings – A Powerful Method to Accumulate Merits
- Tsongkhapa’s Daily Practice
- Vajrasattva and Prostrations Practice
- Cosmic Tantra
- 28 Amazing Verses
- Yanga Rinpoche
- Articles on Lama Tsongkhapa
- Articles on Vajrayogini
- 6 Yogas of Naropa by H.H. Zong Rinpoche
- 84 Mahadsiddhas
- Milerepa’s Cave
- Puja at Naropa’s Cave, Kathmandu Nepal
- Buddha Shakyamuni Comic Book
- Excellent Travelogue of Holy Places in Tibet
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