Disharmony Within the Sakya?
On May 8, 2014, His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin Ngawang Kunga Wangyal and His Holiness the late Dagchen Jigdral Ngawang Kunga issued a joint statement regarding the amendment of the traditional rule of lifetime succession within the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Acting on advice given over 50 years ago by Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, the term of office for the throne holder of the lineage has been amended to a three-year term, after which the post passes to the next designate from one of the two Sakya Podrangs or ‘palaces’.
This decision has a significant impact on the Sakya tradition, since it drastically changes the established term in which a Sakya Trizin governs the lineage. It is a change that has raised many questions amongst Buddhist practitioners. In writing this article, we seek to analyse the points raised in this statement which can perhaps provide clues as to why such a drastic change has been implemented.
A special thanks to Pastor David Lai and Pastor Khong Jean Ai for their invaluable help with this article.
Valentina Suhendra and Pastor Niral Patel
Brief overview of the Sakya tradition
The origins of the holy Sakya tradition can be traced back to the Indian Mahasiddha Virupa of the 9th Century. In the scriptures he has several other names, including Birwapa, and his life is recounted as one of the 84 great Mahasiddhas in terms of his miraculous attainments.
His main teachings are called the Lamdre, which literally means the ‘Path and the Fruit’ teachings. Lamdre forms the core of teachings within the Sakya tradition. These teachings were brought to Tibet by the Indian scholar Gayadhara (994 – 1043 CE) and were translated by his Tibetan disciple and translator, Drogmi Lotsawa Shakya Yeshe (992 – 1072 CE). Drogmi Lotsawa in turn transmitted these precious teachings to his main disciple Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034 – 1102 CE). In 1073 CE, Khon Konchok Gyalpo founded the Sakya monastery in the Tsang region of central Tibet. It was named Sakya, which means ‘grey earth’ due to the colour of the surrounding soil. Thus, the Sakya lineage was born and came to be closely linked to the Khon family lineage, who are believed to be celestial beings.
The Sakya tradition was established and proliferated by the five great early Sakya masters – Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092 – 1158 CE), his two sons Sonam Tsemo (1142 – 1182 CE) and Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147 – 1216 CE), his grandson Sakya Pandita (1182 – 1251 CE) and Sakya Pandita’s nephew Chogyal Pakpa (1235 – 1280 CE). These Sakya lamas became so famous that the Mongol emperors of China became their patrons. In 1253 CE, the Mongol emperor of China, Kublai Khan conferred the dominion of Tibet upon his lama, Chogyal Pakpa. The Sakya rule of Tibet during this period lasted for approximately a century.
Apart from the Lamdre teachings, which were derived from the Hevajra Root Tantra, is a set of teachings known as the 13 Golden Dharmas, especially treasured by the various Sakya lineage holders. This set of 13 Tantric practices originated from India and were compiled by Sachen Kunga Nyingpo. They consist of:
- the Three Vajrayogini initiations – the Naro, Indra and Maitri traditions
- the Three Great Red Ones (Marpo Kor Sum) – Kurukulle, Maharakta Ganapati and Takiraja
- the Three Small Red Ones (Marchung Kor Sum) – Kurukulle, Red Vasudhara and Tinuma
- and the four additional initiations of Singhananda, Shabala Garuda, Black Manjushri and Red Dzambala
In addition, there are several other important Higher Tantric systems besides the Vajrayogini Tantras that are featured in the 13 Golden Dharmas. These include the Hevajra, Vajrakilaya and Guhyasamaja Tantras, each of which has their own special Dharma protectors. The important wisdom protectors practiced within the tradition are Panjaranatha Mahakala (the special protector for the Hevajra Tantras), Citipati (the protectors of the Vajrayogini Tantras) and Four-Faced Mahakala (the protector of the Guhyasamaja Tantras).
Besides these protectors, there are several other general protectors practiced within the tradition including Palden Lhamo, Ekajati and Chamsing (a protector practice proliferated by Sachen Kunga Nyingpo). The Sakyas also rely on the Three Kings (Gyalpo Sum) which consists of Dorje Shugden, Dorje Setrap, and Tsi’u Marpo (Kache Marpo). Finally, unique to the Sakya tradition is the practice of the three Bamo witches who are powerful unenlightened oath-bound protectors.
Lineage of succession within the Sakya tradition
Having been established by Khon Konchok Gyalpo, the Sakya tradition is closely linked to the Khon family. As such, the Sakya lineage throne holder has always hailed from this family line. Once a throne holder is chosen, this position is held for life. When the current Sakya throne holder (the Sakya Trizin) passes away, it falls to the next in line to assume leadership of the lineage and this throne holder will hold the position for life.
In the 14th Century, Tishri Kunga Lodro Gyaltsen (1299 – 1327 CE), who was the eldest grandson of Sakya Pandita’s brother, established four dynastic houses, of which only Ducho Ladrang has survived to this day. In the 18th Century however, Ducho Ladrang was split between two ‘palaces’, namely Dolma Podrang and Phuntsok Podrang. Pema Dudul Wangchuk established the Dolma Podrang, whilst Phuntsok Podrang was established by his youngest son, Kunga Rinchen. Ever since then, the leadership of the Khon Family (and therefore the Sakya tradition) has alternated between Dolma Podrang and Phuntsok Podrang.
The current head of Dolma Podrang is His Holiness the 41st Sakya Trizin, Ngawang Kunga Wangyal. When he passes away, leadership of the Sakya tradition will fall to the head of Phuntsok Podrang, His Eminence Avikrita Vajra Rinpoche who will become the 42nd Sakya Trizin. According to the traditional plan of succession, Avikrita Vajra Rinpoche would have held this office until his own passing. With the current Sakya Trizin’s announcement however, that will no longer be the case and a centuries’ old tradition has ceased to exist.
New directive concerning the future leadership of the Sakyas
On May 8, 2014, the 41st Sakya Trizin released a statement regarding a discussion between Dolma Podrang and Phuntsok Podrang. The statement is titled ‘A Private Discussion between the Dolma Phodrang and Phuntsok Phodrang about a Resolution and New Directive Concerning the Future Role of the Sakya Trizin, the Head of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism‘. In the directive, the Sakya Trizin addressed the role of the Sakya throne holder. The tradition of holding lifetime office of the Sakya Trizin has formed an integral part of the Sakya tradition since the inception of the lineage by Khon Konchog Gyalpo. Meanwhile, the lineage’s leadership alternating between the two Podrangs has taken place since the palaces were established centuries ago.
This new directive however, marks a fundamental change to the line of succession within the lineage. Before his passing in 1959, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro suggested that “the post of Sakya Trizin be made like the four Labrangs of the Ngor Monastery, which take turns every three years”. Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, a great practitioner of the past who had received teachings and transmissions from all four major Tibetan Buddhist traditions, was primarily a Nyingma practitioner. Though he had significant influence due to his role as a great teacher, his suggestion was not immediately implemented at the time. However, it was this suggestion that the Sakya Trizin used as the basis for their change, announcing that both Podrangs have agreed to implement a new system of three-year terms for the office of Sakya Trizin, alternating between the senior members of each Podrang.
The implementation of this directive has a number of implications and repercussions, not in the least that the position of Sakya Trizin is no longer a lifetime office. Out of all the heads of the various lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, this would make the office of Sakya Trizin the shortest. The role of Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu tradition or the Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition for example are all lifetime offices. Even in the case of the Gelug tradition, the Gaden Tripas, hold office for a seven-year term. This office however is not hereditary, like the Sakya tradition, nor a line of recognised reincarnations as is the case in the Karma Kagyu; the office of the Gaden Tripas is an elected office.
Regardless of which lineage is being addressed, the rules of succession for their leadership have existed since the beginning of each respective lineage. Therefore, since the Sakya Trizin’s recently-announced directive changes a centuries-established tradition of the Sakya lineage, it is natural to wonder why these rules are being changed so dramatically from a lifetime to such a short period.
Some people may feel that the reason for this new directive is to ensure all members of the family have the opportunity to teach the Dharma through their position as the Sakya Trizin. However, it has never been the case that a lama needs a high position or title in order to teach the sacred Dharma, uphold the lineage and make a true mark on the spiritual landscape, as seen in many examples throughout all Tibetan Buddhist traditions.
It bears further investigation as to why an established tradition is being changed and why now, given that the suggestion by Jamyang Kyentse Chokyi Lodro was made more than 50 years ago. In fact, if the Sakya Trizin or other high lamas intended to change the tradition in this manner, and thought such a change was a good idea, it would have made more sense to change the tradition soon after the statement was made. Instead they waited over 50 years to implement it. This most obviously brings up the question as to why this change is being implemented now.
The question of timing is intimately linked to the question of why this change needs to be implemented in the first place, since the established lifetime term of the Sakya Trizin has been successful in the past. It has been effective for centuries in allowing previous throne holders to uphold and spread their holy lineage, as a throne holder is supposed to do. So why would a change even be necessary and to put it simply, why fix something that is not broken?
We may find the answer if we compare the office of a throne holder with a system that the majority of us would be more familiar with, that of political office. Whenever terms of office for political leaders are changed, it is usually to curb the duration in which a politician can exert their power and influence over a country.
In the United States of America, for example, the Congress passed in 1947 the 22nd Amendment to the American Constitution. This Amendment limits the number of times someone can run for and sit as the President of the United States, and it was in response to the case of President Franklin D. Roosevelt who decided to run for a 4th term despite his ill health. The Amendment limits the number of terms to two terms of four years each, following in the example of President George Washington who stepped down after two terms in office to avoiding the presidency from becoming a lifetime institution like the monarchy. Washington was also serious about preventing any one person from exercising totalitarian power and staying in office to the point of becoming uncontested.
In a more recent example, the Indonesian parliament restricted both the positions of President and Vice-President to two terms of five years, following the resignation of President Soeharto. His presidency, which lasted for 31 years, was marred by corruption and the oppression of those who opposed him. He resigned from his office after violent riots broke out against his rule in May 1998.
Whereas the examples given above are secular in nature, they have some relevance to the limitation of power that is taking place among the Sakyas now. It again begs the question as to why the new term of office for the Sakya Trizin is so short. Even the secular Presidencies of the USA and Indonesia are four- and five-year terms, respectively, and candidates can be elected for a second term as well.
A three-year term hardly seems long enough for a throne holder to ensure their medium to long-term plans to effectively administer their lineage are carried out with the desired results, as the previous thrones holders have done. Three years also opens the lineage to the danger of instability due to policies frequently changing between one Sakya Trizin to another.
What is more troubling though, is when measures to restrict a term of office are being taken in response to accusations of office bearers taking advantage of their position. In this case we find that in the Sakya Trizin’s own announcement, the Sakya Trizin himself states that he has “been seen to have benefited from privileges”. It is clear from his statement that there are people who criticise him for taking advantage of his position as the throne holder of the Sakya lineage. Who or how these allegations were made are not mentioned in the letter itself. However, the allegations troubled the Sakya Trizin enough to address them in the same statement where he announces the change of the lineage’s succession plans.
One has to wonder why the Sakya Trizin felt it was necessary that he address these allegations in the announcement. Were the allegations so vociferous and frequent that it became a matter of urgency that they should be addressed? Is there some truth to the rumours that the Sakya Trizin felt it necessary to quash the allegations as soon as possible?
Whatever his reasons are for addressing the accusations, what can definitely be concluded is that the relationship between both Podrangs has become strained. Accusations were made that the Sakya Trizin exploited his position and enough people had voiced their unhappiness about this, to a point where even the succession of the Sakyas had to be changed in order to quell the arguments. To give everyone an equal chance to assume the leadership and have access to all the resources, power and influence that such a position entails, changes had to be made to the Sakya line of succession.
It is a distant possibility that two Podrangs’ leaders made this announcement to herald a new, more open era in the succession plan of the Sakya Trizins. This is unlikely though, because the succession lineage is still limited within the two Podrangs and no one else is allowed to be considered for the role of the Sakya Trizin. Similarly, the succession is still limited by the rules of primogeniture; female offspring of the Sakya Trizins are never considered in any succession plans, even though they are said to be as attained as the Sakya Trizins themselves.
One would also assume that given the significance of this directive, the authors would have put more effort towards giving better reasons for the changes. It cannot be overstated how significant this change is. It is not minor in the way of considering whether tea should be served at pujas; it addresses one of the fundamental tenets of the Sakya tradition, and that is the succession of their leaders based on the fact they are emanations of Manjushri. However, the authors of the directive saw it fit to provide (in passing, no less) just one reason for changes to something so integral to their tradition – because Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro suggested for them to do so. In fact, more of the directive was devoted to the 41st Sakya Trizin addressing criticisms about him, than to providing legitimate reasons for making such a significant change to the Sakya Trizin succession.
What is interesting to note is that these tensions have probably existed since the founding of the two Podrangs. Remember that Dolma Podrang and Phuntsok Podrang, the two current households, were previously one household – Ducho Ladrang (household). After their split, it was only a matter of time before each Podrang would vie for the position of Sakya Trizin since each Podrang’s leader is equally entitled to the position. And while the Podrangs may be led by attained beings, they are not populated by enlightened staff and students who are susceptible to power struggles and games. Perhaps tensions between both Podrangs have been slowly growing since the time of their split, and these tensions came to a head with the allegations directed against the 41st Sakya Trizin as referenced to above.
As we have seen, the statement issued regarding the change in rules of succession between both Sakya Podrangs has repercussions for the office of Sakya Trizin. This much shorter term of office hardly seems long enough for a Sakya Trizin to carry out the traditional roles expected of this position. The fact that this change has been implemented recently, as opposed to over 50 years ago when the suggestion was first made by Jamyang Chokyi Lodro also confounds the issue.
Upon analysis of the situation, this change could be a precautionary measure against the possibility of any one Sakya Trizin developing totalitarian power over the lineage. The change has come about because of growing tensions between both Podrangs, which has existed since Ducho Ladrang split into two. Hence this decision was made in an attempt to curb the power and authority of a lifetime throne holder, and to give everyone equal access to the power, influence and resources that accompany the office of the Sakya Trizin. Whatever the case may be, both of these issues have a significant impact on the lineage, and only time will tell the far reaching consequences of these actions, not only for the Sakya tradition but Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.
For more interesting information:
- The Sakya Lineage & Dorje Shugden
- Sakya Trizin’s Dorje Shugden Prayer
- Shangmo Dorje Putri – the Bamo of Sakya
- Dharma Protectors of Tibetan Buddhism
- Karma Kagyu’s Lodreu Rabsel Rinpoche Asks the Dalai Lama for Religious Freedom
- The Prophecy of the 16th Karmapa
- Who is Kache Marpo?
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