The Samding Dorje Phagmo – The Courageous Female Incarnation Line
I have never heard of the Samding Dorje Phagmo until several weeks ago when my teacher advised me to research and write about this illustrious incarnation line. As I embarked on my research, I became fascinated with this female incarnation line, starting from the 15th century princess Chokyi Dronma, who went against the social norms of her time by renouncing her royal status, taking ordination vows, and embarking on many beneficial projects such as compiling the written works of her teacher, Bodong Chokle Namgyal, improving irrigation works and so forth.
The Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation line is known to have used a combination of skillful political maneuvers, charismatic presence and miraculous deeds to maintain her seat and increase her influence to benefit others. As a result, the holders of this incarnation line were able to continue to uphold their tradition and propagate the Buddhist doctrine.
I hope you will enjoy reading about this illustrious and courageous female incarnation line that has survived many social and political challenges of her time and also be inspired by her fortitude and spirituality. I would like to thank my teacher and mentor, H.E. the 25th Tsem Tulku Rinpoche for the opportunity to learn and be inspired by the Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation line and my friends and colleagues, Pastor David Lai and Beatrix Ooi for their help in editing and uploading this article.
Introduction to the Samding Dorje Phagmo
The Samding Dorje Phagmo is recognised as the highest female incarnation line in Tibet and the third highest incarnation line within the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. This incarnation line is unique because since the 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma, the Tulkus (Nirmanakaya or emanation body) of this line of incarnations have always chosen to be born in female form. She is considered the emanation of Buddha Vajravarahi and the incarnation of Machig Labdrön, a renowned 11th century female Tibetan tantric Buddhist master.
The Samding Dorje Phagmo is associated with the Bodong tradition of Tibetan Buddhism although several incarnations also took teachings from Nyingmapa, Karma Kagyu and Gelug traditions. The current incarnation, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo, has also received teachings and empowerments from Gelugpa Lamas such as His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
The Samding Dorje Phagmo is regarded as the emanation of Vajravarahi, one of the main forms of Vajrayogini that is associated with Chakrasamvara Tantra. According to Judith Simmer-Brown, the Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies at Naropa University, “Vajravarahi’s iconography is very similar to that of Vajrayogini, but she is often [depicted as] having more prominent fangs and a more wrathful expression, and she prominently displays a sow’s head above her right ear.” In general, Vajravarahi is described as having a sow’s head protruding above her right ear, which represents the transmuting of ignorance.
One of the distinctive features in the Samding Dorje Phagmo iconography is the black hat that is similar to the black hat of the Karmapa. This hat is often associated with Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal, the consort of the great Indian Tantric teacher Padmasambhava.
- 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma (1422 – 1455)
- 2nd Samding Dorje Phagmo Kunga Zangmo (1459 – 1502)
- 3rd Samding Dorje Phagmo Nyendrak Zangmo (1503 – 1542/3)
- 4th Samding Dorje Phagmo Orgyen Tsomo (b. 1543)
- 5th Samding Dorje Phagmo Yeshe Tsomo (17th century)
- 6th Samding Dorje Phagmo Dechen Trinle Tsomo (17th century)
- 7th Samding Dorje Phagmo Chodron Wangmo (d. 1746)
- 8th Samding Dorje Phagmo Kelzang Choden Wangmo (1746/7 – 1774/5)
- 9th Samding Dorje Phagmo Choying Dechen Tsomo (d. 1843)
- 10th Samding Dorje Phagmo Ngawang Kunzang Dechen Wangmo (b. 1857)
- 11th Samding Dorje Phagmo Tubten Choying Pelmo (b. 1896)
- 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo Dechen Chokyi Dronma (b. 1938)
Highlights from the Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation lineage:
The 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma (1422 – 1455)
The life of the 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma is narrated in her biography, Ye shes mkha’ ‘gro bsod nams ‘dren gyi sku skyes gsum pa rje btsun ma chos kyi sgron ma’i rnam thar, a manuscript of 144 folios which is currently kept in the archive of Nationalities Palace in Beijing, China.
According to Dr Hildegard Diemberger, the rich details in the text indicate the biography was compiled by the contemporaries and close companions of Chokyi Dronma. At the beginning of the text, the author of the biography revealed the basis of his work:
“In order to complete the deeds of our great Lama, the omniscient Jigdrel (Bodong Chogle Namgyal), Vajravarahi, the female Buddha, took a human body and enjoyed the magic dance in this world. I am therefore writing a short biography of her. (folio 2a).”
– Dr Hildegard Diemberger (When A Woman Becomes a Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet, pg 77)
Chokyi Dronma was born in 1422 in Mangyul Gungtang. She was the daughter of the Buddhist King Tri Lhawang Gyeltsen who descended from the ancient Tibetan emperors of the Yarlung Dynasty. During the time of her birth she had no brothers and the court therefore attempted to present her as a potential heir to the throne in case no son would be born to the king. The court priests considered her as a divine incarnation and was given the name of Konchok Gyelmo or ‘Queen of the Jewel’, from a prophetic dream of her mother to reflect her potential as a great benefactor of the Dharma and to be ‘Victorious in all directions.’
Chokyi Dronma’s circumstances changed several years later when a son was born to the junior queen of King Tri Lhawang Gyeltsen. Now instead of being the potential heir to her father’s throne, she faced the possibility of being sent away to another country as a bride and political pawn. Despite this prospect, Chokyi Dronma continued to enjoy a happy and lively childhood. She enjoyed affectionate relationships with both of her parents and relatives. Her biography described her as having a strong and compassionate character, “compassionate toward animals, aware of worldly impermanence and daring in her choices”. She was an intelligent child, and able to read and write at the tender age of three. She was said to be able to speak Sanskrit, which seems to hint at her true identity as the emanation of Vajravarahi. However, she also suffered from several health problems and illnesses.
In 1438, when she was 17 years old, Chokyi Dronma was married off to the family of Lhato Lo rulers in Shekar in order to provide Mangyul Gungtang with a strategic political alliance. A great sense of loss was felt during her departure, which was said to have affected both humans and other beings in the area. In her biography it is stated that, “All living beings of Ngari felt as if they had lost their protector. It was as if the whole essence of the earth had been taken away and the earth had turned bleak.” During her marriage procession from Mangyul Gungtang to Lhato Lo, she met the master Bodong Chokle Namgyal from Porong Pelmo Choding Monastery who would later become her teacher.
Although her parents-in-law were great supporters of Buddhism, her husband Tshewang Tashi was a Bön religion sympathizer. Chokyi Dronma had a strong view against the Bön religion and openly expressed her delight when the Bönpo priests who came to greet her marriage procession were driven away by her retinue.
Initially, Chokyi Dronma adapted well to her new role as the princess of Lhato Lo. She was generally well-accepted and regarded as the carrier of good fortune to her new kingdom. When she was 19 years old, she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl. When her child turned one, a major dispute broke in her father’s kingdom and she decided to return to Mangyul Gungtang and help in mediating the conflict.
When she was in Mangyul Gungtang, her daughter passed away in Lhato Lo. Although she appeared calm and composed, she was actually deeply affected by the loss. She blamed the passing of her daughter on the deeds against Buddhism. She then declared her wish to be ordained as a nun. Although her parents and in-laws refused to accept her request, she remained firm in her decision. In the meantime, she started to receive teachings from Bodong Chokle Namgyal, to whom she was deeply devoted.
Later, Chokyi Dronma read about the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama and decided to follow his example by renouncing her royal life and strive towards enlightenment. However, her repeated requests to take on the monastic vows were denied by her family. In desperation, she took the drastic action of tearing her hair and injured herself in the process. This horrified her parents-in-law who finally relented and allowed her to renounce her family obligations. To her husband however, she decided to personally explain her decision. Although initially he could not understand her reasons, he eventually allowed her to leave the palace. Chokyi Dronma was not the first woman who resorted to such drastic actions in order to renounce the worldly life:
“The act of unbinding the hair as an expression of madness and transgression features prominently in the life of several female (and male) Indian Buddhist figures.”
Chokyi Dronma entered Porong Pelmo Choding Monastery and she was welcomed by Bodong Chokle Namgyal, who was sensitive to women issues at that time. Although he faced criticism for admitting a female disciple into a monastic community, Bodong Chokle Namgyal firmly defended his decision. Upon obtaining assurance that Chokyi Dronma had received proper permission from her family, she was allowed to take part in her first ritual as a member of the monastic community. From then on, Chokyi Dronma’s life revolved around her teacher and mentor Bodong Chokle Namgyal, from the time she joined the monastic community in 1442 until his passing in 1451.
The princess took her vows as a novice and was given the name Chokyi Dronma, ‘the Lamp of the Dharma.’ She used this occasion to declare her commitment to support the religious practice for women by stating, “Generally, there is no significant difference between those who succeed [in being born as male] and those who fail [and are born as female]. However, from now on, I will focus on supporting Buddhist practices for women, [especially those who follow a religious path], as they are the most trustworthy amongst women.” She was eventually fully ordained as a bhikshuni. According to her biography, the event is described as follows:
“Then she went to [Pelmo] Choding, the great center of meditation, to be fully ordained. She took along numerous monks whom she had invited from the religious colleges of Mangyul Gungtang. [Chokle Namgyal] who was particularly skilled in teaching the eighty-four thousand Dharmaskanda, performed the role of the abbot. Seated on his throne, [while] wearing his [monastic hat], the Venerable Chokyi Wangchuk, who was an expert of the Tripitaka, acted as the master of ceremonies. Surrounded by enough monks who were fully qualified, she reached the final stage and became a [fully ordained] bhikshuni. Further training in the monastic discipline had filled the vase of her mind, and she became an object of worship for all living beings.”
Following the example of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Chokyi Dronma spent a substantial amount of time travelling as a begging nun. The commoners and aristocrats who saw their princess begging alms were touched and lent their support. She was very successful in collecting donations to sustain the religious activities carried out by her master.
Throughout her life, Chokyi Dronma devoted her time and efforts to the recruitment and training of nuns. One of her close disciples was Delek Chodren who would play a crucial role in compiling her biography and finding her next incarnation. Chokyi Dronma was committed to their education as well as their practical needs such as the weaving and sewing of their robes. She taught them how to read and introduced a very effective system of teaching the Buddhist doctrine. Her teacher, Bodong Chokle Namgyal, established new ritual tradition for women and encouraged Chokyi Dronma to initiate the performance of ritual dances by nuns. This was a breakthrough role for women because during that time only monks could perform ritual dances and even female roles were played by monks. She would come to experience more successes in overcoming many social and cultural challenges of her time.
In 1451, at the end of the third month, Chokyi Dronma joined her teacher, Bodong Chokle Namgyal for the last time, in his meditation and to be with him at his passing. After her teacher entered clear light, Chokyi Dronma and other close disciples arranged for the master’s funeral rites. In addition, she mediated disputes that arose over the distribution of the relics from his cremation. “She distributed the bone fragments among all members of the monastic community and had little figurines (tsa tsa) made of clay mixed with his ashes which were given to the lay disciples and patrons.” After the passing of her teacher, Chokyi Dronma fell into a period of erratic behavior while mourning the passing of her teacher, but finally managed to emerge to care for the other students of Bodong Chokle Namgyal.
For the remainder of her life, Chokyi Dronma used her time productively for the benefit of the Buddhist teachings. In 1452, she mobilized the disciples of Bodong Chokle Namgyal and the people of Mangyul Gungtang to fulfill her promise to compile the entire teachings of her masters, to edit and have them published. In addition, she encouraged the use of printing technology in Tibet at the time when it was not common. She also executed an irrigation project that increased the yield of farming activities that would in turn support the Buddhist learning establishments.
Later, Chokyi Dronma met with Tangtong Gyelpo, the great Nyingma master who was famous for his religious deeds and miracles. She went to Lhato Jang where the great master was residing and met him at Chung Riwoche. Chokyi Dronma requested spiritual guidance from this great Siddha. Tangtong Gyelpo gave a prophecy that “… [Chokyi Dronma] would enjoy a long life but would have few disciples if she remained in her region, but would have an uncertain life span and a multitude of followers if she were to leave for the east.” This prophecy spurred her on her final journey to southeastern Tibet and the holy mountain of Tsari and explained her sacrifice in doing so.
Chokyi Dronma helped Tangtong Gyelpo to complete the construction of Chung Riwoche Stupa on the bank of Tsangpo River.
Due to the influence of Tangtong Gyelpo, Chokyi Dronma engaged in the tradition of ‘mahasiddha’ who used unconventional behavior to convey religious messages. Her biography recounts the story of a scholar who visited her when she was meditating in a cave in Lhato Jang. She displayed the strange and startling appearance where her hair appeared light blue in colour and stood on end. The scholar prostrated and asked for her blessings but she ignored him. The scholar’s faith was thrown into imbalance due to this experience, but he later realized “… the importance of not being dependent upon appearances and conventions in assessing religious value.” Chokyi Dronma remained in Lhato Jang until the end of the rainy season of 1454.
Chokyi Dronma travelled widely after her stay in Lhato Jang. During her journey to Shigatse, Rinpung, the Gampa La pass, Lhasa and eventually Tsari, she encountered powerful political and religious personalities such as the Lord of Rinpung, Norbu Zangpo, the Indian Pandita Vanaratna and various local rulers. In 1455, Chokyi Dronma passed away at the age of 33.
At her funeral, Chokyi Dronma fulfilled the prophecy of Tangtong Gyelpo that “A skull with special features will come to this sacred place, together with a mountain dweller from Ngari.” A reference to this skull was also mentioned in a short text that is currently preserved at Samding Monastery.
The 2nd Samding Dorje Phagmo Kunga Zangmo (1459-1502)
The reincarnation of Chokyi Dronma, Kunga Zangmo was born in 1459 in Eastern Kongpo. She was found by the close companion of her previous incarnation, Delek Chodren. This incarnation was confirmed by Tangtong Gyelpo, one of the teachers of the 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma.
When she was five years old, Kunga Zangmo was cared for by Delek Chodren and other nuns who used to be the close companions of her previous incarnation. She took refuge vows with Tangtong Gyelpo who also gave her various other teachings and empowerments. Around that time, her teacher sent her to Mangyul Gungtang to fulfill her previous life’s promise to perform Powa funeral rites for the mother of Chokyi Dronma. Because of this, Kunga Zangmo gained the support and patronage of the royal house of Gungtang and was able to take possession of her previous incarnation’s ritual items and a portion of her wealth.
Several years later, Kunga Zangmo’s niece was married to a powerful political family, Pakmodrupa and provided her with another powerful patron.
At one point in time, Tangtong Gyelpo sent Kunga Zangmo, accompanied by a monk colleague of Chokyi Dronma, to negotiate with the Mongols who had the intention to invade Tibet, an unusual role for a woman at the time. Kunga Zangmo negotiated between the warring parties, gave basic teachings on mantra recitation, ethics and most importantly, she gave divination suggesting the dangers that will be experienced by the Mongols should they invade Tibet. The divination was given based on the interpretation of an inauspicious omen of mice that had destroyed the year’s barley harvest.
Throughout her life, Kunga Zangmo spent most of her time travelling. She liked to visit Chung Riwoche, the seat of her teacher, Tangtong Gyelpo to whom she was deeply devoted. She always offered the alms she gathered to her teacher. In addition, she sponsored the newly gilded roof for her teacher’s residence.
One of Kunga Zangmo’s prominent achievements was the establishment of Samding Monastery in the Yardrok region, with the support of the rulers of that region who were her devoted patrons. She entered clear light in 1502. Following her death, Samding Monastery became the official seat of her subsequent incarnations.
The 6th Samding Dorje Phagmo
According to a famous tale, the 6th Samding Dorje Phagmo (most likely this incarnation due to the year of the invasion) was said to have performed the famous miracle by turning herself and the monks and nuns of Samding Monastery into pigs in order to evade the Dzungar Mongol invaders.
In 1716, Dzungar (a name associated with several Western Mongolian tribes) invaders arrived in Nangartse, where Samding Monastery is located. Their Chief summoned the Samding Dorje Phagmo before him. He wanted to validate the rumors that the Samding Dorje Phagmo had a pig’s head. The request for meeting was refused and the Chief was furious. He tore down the walls of Samding Monastery and was surprised when instead of human beings, he found 80 pigs and an equal number of sows grunting under the lead of a big sow in the congregation hall. Because of this, the Chief and his followers canceled their intention to attack Samding Monastery.
After the Dzungars gave up the idea of attacking Samding Monastery, the pigs disappeared and transformed into venerable monks and nuns alongside their abbess, the Samding Dorje Phagmo. The Chief developed great faith and made abundant offerings to the monastery.
The inscription related to this miracle performed by the Samding Dorje Phagmo is depicted on Samding Monastery’s wall.
The 9th Samding Dorje Phagmo Choying Dechen Tsomo (19th Century)
The 9th Samding Dorje Phagmo was a Tertön (a lama who discovers hidden terma teachings) and famous spiritual master for both the Bodong and Nyingma traditions. She is said to have discovered termas, various hidden teachings that are key to Tibetan Buddhism. Today, the holy relic in the form of her skull is still preserved at a Nyingmapa monastery on the island of Yumbudo in Yamdrog Lake.
The 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo
The current 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo is Dechen Chokyi Dronma. She was born either in 1938 (or 1942, according to another source). When she was around three years old, she fell ill. Her parents asked for divination from a monastery. The result of the divination was for her to become a nun at Tsangkhung. Her parents therefore sent her there to become a novice.
In 1956, Dechen Chokyi Dronma was recognised by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama as the incarnation of the 11th Samding Dorje Phagmo Tubten Choying Pelmo. The following is the recollection of Kesang Dronma, Dechen Chokyi Dronma’s older sister, regarding the events leading to the recognition:
“When the time came to decide who the reincarnation was, there were naturally many other candidates… There are always issues of there being many reincarnations, of body, speech and mind, and so on [because a high lama can reincarnate in more than one body]. In any case, [the other candidates] became nuns. There were people supporting one or the other. Then the Regent of Tibet, Taktra, was asked, and he replied that this was the one. Then Kundun [i.e., the Dalai Lama] was asked. If he gave [his] approval, then the appointment would be definitive. And he confirmed it. The order was then passed on to the monastery and the monastery could not oppose this decision. The process of identification was sorted out in this way.”
In 1958, she went to Lhasa to receive Yamantaka initiation and Vajrayogini initiation from the 14th Dalai Lama and his junior tutor, His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche respectively. By this virtue, she became a student of the 14th Dalai Lama and Trijang Rinpoche.
Although she has received teachings and empowerments from the high lamas of the Gelug tradition, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo Dechen Chokyi Dronma is also trained in the Bodong tradition. The following is an account from Kesang Dronma validating the claim above:
“She had a teacher, a monk from the monastery. His name was Dongag. He was very expert in the scriptures and followed the Bodongpa tradition. This teacher was not a lama in a strict sense. But he had an amazing spontaneous expertise in the texts. He was very learned and knew all the different aspects of religious theory and practice. He was also very good at writing, despite the fact that he never went to school. I learned Tibetan writing from him. She stayed at the monastery until she was sixteen or seventeen. There was another teacher, Jiggyal Rinpoche, a Lama. He was one of the Bodongpa followers. His seat was in Rong in the Rinpung area. Jorra Tulku also gave teachings and empowerments before he died. [Therefore,] the Samding Dorje Phagmo received all the necessary empowerments, those of the Bodong tradition.”
In 1959, when the 14th Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo and her sister decided to follow their leader. The two sisters managed to escape to Bhutan where they became the guests of the Bhutanese princess, Pema Chodron. From Bhutan, the two sisters continued their journey to Assam. They were treated with suspicion by the Chushi Gangdrug, the Tibetan guerrilla fighters who escorted the Dalai Lama and his entourage on their escape from Tibet, because their parents have received some “… some sort of salary from the Chinese government.” Their mother was beaten and their father managed to escape to Lhasa. The family therefore ended up right in the middle of the warring factions. Not long after, the two sisters decided to return to China voluntarily:
“… They sent some people from Phari [near the border with Bhutan, where the monastery of Samding had an estate] to look for us. From them we heard that we should come back and that the monastery did not suffer any damage. They confirmed that during the uprising many people had died, but said that if we were to return to Tibet now, nothing untoward would happen [to them]. In that difficult situation the idea of returning home became the simplest one. Once we have taken this decision, we established some contacts with the Chinese embassy in Delhi and stayed there for a few days.”
Upon her return, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo “… was appointed to various positions in the Chinese People’s Political Consulting Conference (CPPCC) at both the regional and national levels in the 1950s, and early 1960s, and again in post-Mao era. In 1984, she became the Vice President of the People Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR); she reconfirmed [her place] in this position [again] in January 2003.”
Her decisions to return to Chinese-occupied Tibet and to accept appointments to various high positions within the Chinese government opened the doors for her to be accused of collaborating with the Chinese.
Another incarnation lineage in Bhutan
True to the belief that enlightened beings are not restricted to one emanation body at a time, there is another incarnation line of the Samding Dorje Phagmo. According to Dr Hildegard Diemberger, there is another Dorje Phagmo incarnation in Tibet, who was recognised by the Sakya Lama Rikey Jatrel. Rikey Jatrel is considered the incarnation of Tangtong Gyelpo, the teacher of the 1st and the 2nd Samding Dorje Phagmos.
The rise of the Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation line
Upon establishing his Tibetan government in 1642 with the help of Gushri Khan and the Khoshut Mongols, the 5th Dalai Lama granted a prestigious position for the Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation line, particularly due to her association with Tangtong Gyelpo, the spiritual master who inspired him. Due to the rise in her incarnation status, the 6th Samding Dorje Phagmo Thrinley Tshomo or probably the short-lived 5th Samding Dorje Phagmo Yeshe Tsomo became a prominent figure within the world of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Samding Dorje Phagmo’s high incarnation status was further confirmed during the time of the 7th Dalai Lama Kelzang Gyatso. During that time, the 8th Samding Dorje Phagmo Kelzang Choden Wangmo supported the Dalai Lama and his ally, Pholhane who had the backing of Qing emperors against their opponent the Dzungar Mongols. The 7th Dalai Lama gave her the title of Khuthuktu, the Mongolian term for high-incarnate lama to ensure she was afforded the status of a high incarnation by the Chinese as well. During her lifetime, the 8th Samding Dorje Phagmo Kelzang Choden Wangmo had the opportunity to visit and be recognised by the Qing court.
Monasteries associated with the Samding Dorje Phagmo
Samding Monastery or “The Temple of Soaring Meditation” is the official seat of the Samding Dorje Phagmo incarnation line. It is located near Yamdrok Lake, about 10 kilometers east of Nangartse in Tibet, China. The monastery has a branch near Lhasa, in the small island of Yambu. The monastery became famous after an incarnation of the Samding Dorje Phagmo performed a miracle to subdue Dzungar invaders. Please refer to the incarnation line section above, for a recounting of the incident involving the transformation of the monastery’s occupants into pigs.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Samding Monastery was destroyed. Today, the Chinese government has allowed the current incarnation, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo to reintroduce ancient customs and improve the monastic training of the monks and nuns of Samding Monastery. In 1996, the Samding Dorje Phagmo gave an interview regarding these initiatives, saying:
“After the destruction of the Cultural Revolution, Samding Monastery was partly restored, and now we are trying to improve the training of the monks by studying the scriptures of Chokle Namgyal and reintroducing some of the ancient ritual customs. This year, after many decades, we are again observing the great rituals of the 5th Tibetan month, which culminate in two days of sacred dances. These dances are peculiar to the Bodongpa tradition, and the great protector of this tradition, Tashi Obar, is one of the main characters.”
After the Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje escaped from Tibet in January 2000, the Chinese government gave more attention to the high lamas of Tibet. The 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo was not an exception. The Chinese government allocated a substantial amount to the construction funds of the monastery, thus allowing the Samding Monastery administration to execute their restoration works.
The monastery has been a stronghold of the Bodong School of Tibetan Buddhism since the 14th century.
Nyemo Chekar Monastery
Nyemo Chekar Monastery is a Buddhist monastery of the Bodongpa tradition in Nyemo County, Lhasa, Tibet. The monastery was established by Tashi Obar, the 16th century patron and protector of the Bodongpa tradition together with Chime Palsang, a Bodongpa lama.
Nyemo Chekar Monastery is famous for its mural paintings depicting the reincarnation of the Samding Dorje Phagmo, Tashi Obar and so forth.
Some restoration work has taken place in the temple in recent times. By 1996, the old wall paintings in the porch of the temple had been repainted.
Nenying Monastery is a Gelug monastery located in Central Tibet where the 7th Gaden Tripa Lodro Tenpa received his ordination vows. This monastery houses mural paintings of the 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo and the 5th Dalai Lama facing each other. The Samding Dorje Phagmo was recognised as one of the highest female incarnation line in Tibet during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama.
In her book, “When A Woman Becomes A Religious Dynasty: The Samding Dorje Phagmo of Tibet,” Dr Hildegard Diemberger mentioned that Nenying Monastery was given to the Samding Dorje Phagmo by the grateful King of Tibet, Pholhane Sonam Tobgye, writing that “According to the local monastic community, Nenying monastery was offered by Pholhane Sonam Tobgye (1689 – 1747) to the Samding Dorje Phagmo as a reward for a favor in a crucial moment: she presented him with a horse when he was escaping from his enemies. Later, when he became the ruler of Tibet, he remembered this and expressed his gratitude generously.”
Association with other schools of Tibetan Buddhism
Association with the Nyingma Tradition
The 1st and the 2nd Samding Dorje Phagmos have been associated with the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism through the association with their teacher, Tangtong Gyelpo who was a Nyingma lama. In addition, the 9th Samding Dorje Phagmo was considered as the holder of both the Bodong and Nyingma teachings.
Association with the Gelug Tradition
As her status rose to prominence during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama onward, the tradition that the Samding Dorje Phagmo belonged to the Bodongpa started to decline. Some of the Bodongpa monasteries were transformed into places of worship for the Gelug tradition. After some negotiations, some of these monasteries were allowed to retain the image of Tashi Obmar, the blue horseman and the protector of the Bodongpa tradition.
While the current incarnation, the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo is trained in and still upholds the Bodong tradition, she is also known to have received teachings and empowerments from prominent Gelug lamas such as His Holiness Trijang Rinpoche and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.
Association with the Karma Kagyu Tradition
The Samding Dorje Phagmo has a relatively close association with the Karmapa. According to Dr Hildegard Diemberger, “Kunga Sangmo used to meet Karma Chodrag Gyatsho and they would sit on equal thrones, one to the left and the other to the right, indicated not only her high status but also the symbolic complementarity that was achieved in relations to him.” In addition, the Sharmapa Chodrag Yeshe is said to be the root lama of the 3rd Samding Dorje Phagmo Nyendrak Zangmo.
At Nyemo Chekar Monastery, there is a late 16th century painting of the Red Hat Sharmapa surrounded by the Samding Dorje Phagmo’s incarnations, as can be seen above.
The Samding Dorje Phagmo institution has managed to survive many challenges, political turmoil and social convention of a generally patriarchal society. The 1st Samding Dorje Phagmo Chokyi Dronma was everything but conventional. She was able to overcome many social challenges of her time and, against all odds, accomplished much within her relatively short life. Her subsequent reincarnations have been relatively successful in adapting to various political climates. The women who were enthroned to this title are known to be politically savvy, a trait that possibly plays the most important role in the survival of this incarnation line. It is not uncommon to read accounts of them mediating and negotiating between warring factions.
More recently the 12th Samding Dorje Phagmo appears to have been able to adapt to several political upheavals and because of this, has won the support of the Chinese government and managed to maintain her status and official seat at Samding Monastery. The Samding Dorje Phagmo is definitely a unique and illustrious incarnation line that managed to survive the test of time.
Addendum: About The Bodong Tradition
The Bodong School is one of the smaller traditions in Tibetan Buddhism that was founded by Bodong Penchen Lenam Gyelchok. Bodong Penchen was a prolific writer during his lifetime. His most famous work was Compendium of Suchness, which is considered the foundation of the Bodong Tradition.
The main seat of the Bodong School is Bodong E Monastery, which was established by Geshe Mudrapa Chenpo of the Kadam Tradition 1049. This monastery is located in Nyingtri in Central Tibet. Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug (Yellow Hat) Tradition studied the Mirror of Poetry from Lotsawa Namkha Zangpo at Bodong E Monastery.
- A Tibetan Woman-Lama and Her Reincarnations: A Study of the Bsam-Sdings Rdor-Rje Phag-Mo (15th – 21st century)-http://www.innerasiaresearch.org/woman%20lama/holy.html
- Bodong – http://treasuryoflives.org/tradition/Bodong
- Bodongpa – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodongpa
- Diemberger, Hildegard (2007). When A Woman Becomes A Religious Dynasty: The Samding
- Dorje Pakmo – http://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php/Dorje_Pakmo
- Dorje Phagmo of Tibet. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. ISBN 978-0231143219
- Legend of China’s only female Rinpoche – http://eng.tibet.cn/news/1449501375794.shtml
- Nenying – http://treasuryoflives.org/institution/Nenying
- Samding Dorje Phagmo – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samding_Dorje_Phagmo
- Samding Monastery – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samding_Monastery
- Samding Monastery – http://treasuryoflives.org/institution/Samding-Monastery
- Simmer-Brown, Judith (2014). Dakini’s Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 978-0834828421
- The First Samding Dorje Pakmo, Chokyi Dronma – http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/First-Samding-Dorje-Pakmo-Chokyi-Dronma/13205
- The Second Samding Dorje Pakmo, Kunga Zangmo – http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Second-Samding-Dorje-Pakmo-Kunga-Zangmo/13206
- Vajravarahi – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vajravārāhī
For more interesting information:
- The Fifth Dalai Lama and his Reunification of Tibet
- The Life Story of Lama Tsongkhapa in art
- Life of Buddha in stunning paintings
- Sakya Trizin’s Dorje Shugden Prayer
- H.E. the 25th Tsem Tulku Rinpoche’s Biography
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