Biography: The 4th Tagphu Pemavajra Jampel Tenpai Ngodrub
It would not be far-fetched to say that most influential Gelug lamas of today would consider H.H. Kyabje Pabongka Rinpoche as their direct teacher, or as their lineage teacher through his heart son H.H. Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche. However, in present times, few are aware of Pabongka Rinpoche’s teacher, His Holiness the 4th Tagphu Pemavajra Jampel Tenpai Ngodrub, who played a pivotal role in transmitting many significant teachings to Pabongka Rinpoche as well as Trijang Rinpoche, culminating in the preservation of those invaluable teachings to the present day.
A highly accomplished mahasiddha whose great attainments were well-known and acknowledged by innumerable Lamas during his time, Tagphu Pemavajra hailed from an illustrious line of Tagphu incarnations which included amongst them the 20th Gaden Tripa Chodrak Zangpo. The Tagphu incarnations are also commonly known as the Garwang incarnations. This name was first adopted by Tagphu Losang Chokyi Wangchuk, who was also known by the name Tagphu Garwang Chokyi Wangchuk. Tagphu Pemavajra also made references to himself as the 4th Gargyi Wangchuk, shortened to Garwang, in his own writings.
Whilst information about the Tagphu line are scarce, what is clear and undisputed is that the Tagphu incarnations were yogis famous for their visions of the Buddha deities and their ability to astral travel to various pure lands to receive teachings directly from the Buddhas. To illustrate, the title of Gargyi Wangchuk as originally used by Tagphu Losang Chokyi Wangchuk is believed to have come about on account of his mystical visions and astral travels.
Losang Chokyi Wangchuk is credited with founding the Cittamani Tara cycle of teachings, which to this day is a very widespread practice within the Gelug tradition. This unique lineage of Tara’s practice that belongs to the Highest Yoga Tantra class (also known as Maha Annuttara Yoga Tantra) is based on his pure visions of the Goddess Tara from whom he received the initiation as well as the commentary. This is clearly recorded in the text named ‘Thirteen Pure Visions of Tagphu‘, which also contains Tagphu Losang Chokyi Wangchuk’s visions, sadhanas and writings on the Five-deity Amitayus, Hayagriva, Chenrezig Gyalwa Gyatso and so forth.
Another Tagphu incarnation who had pure visions of Tara and received direct teachings from her was Tagphu Lobsang Tenpai Gyaltsen. It is said that he painted an image of Tara and henceforth, was never without a vision of her. He was not only able to perceive her golden face but was also able to receive advice, teachings and complete oral instructions and transmissions.
Tagphu Pemavajra Jampel Tenpai Ngodrub is generally regarded to be the 4th Tagphu incarnation, despite some discrepancies and differing opinions on the actual number of Tagphu incarnations. Such scarcity of information is likely due to their focus and tendency to opt for meditation in isolated places and spiritual realms, away from the demands and dictates of civilisation. Nonetheless, out of great compassion, whatever teachings that these incarnations received as well as realised were transmitted to appropriate lineage holders in order to ensure the spread and perpetuation of those teachings for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Born in 1876 in Naksho (Kham, Tibet), Tagphu Pemavajra started his monastic studies at Drepung Loseling Monastery in Lhasa when he was 12 years old. After six years of studying Pramana, Madhyamaka, Prajnaparamita, Vinaya and Abhidharma, he completed his studies and returned home to Naksho in 1894.
At the age of 30, Tagphu Pemavajra returned to the Lhasa region. It is said that he returned with the intention of meeting with Pabongka Rinpoche, upon receiving a secret prophecy from Tara, his yidam. It is also said that Tagphu Pemavajra and Pabongka Rinpoche had a strong karmic connection developed over many lifetimes. In fact, Pabongka Rinpoche is viewed by many as a later incarnation of Changkya Rolpai Dorje, who was the student of an earlier Tagphu incarnation, Tagphu Lobsang Tenpai Gyeltsen. Thus, it is not surprising that upon Tagphu Pemavajra and Pabongka Rinpoche meeting in Lhasa, they immediately became acquainted and Tagphu Pemavajra spent much of his time at a hermitage called Chuzang Ritro, located above Sera Monastery, teaching and transmitting many vital practices and lineages to Pabongka Rinpoche.
One such teaching was Lojong or mind training, where Tagphu Pemavajra gave Pabongka Rinpoche a detailed commentary on the Four Combined Annotations on the Lam Rim Chenmo, a two-volume version of the Lam Rim Chenmo that encompasses the Lam Rim Chenmo of Lama Tsongkhapa and also annotations to the Lam Rim Chenmo by Baso Chokyi Gyaltsen, Jamyang Zhepa, Ngawang Rabten and Rinchen Dondrup.
Tagphu Pemavajra also gave Pabongka Rinpoche an experiential explanation of the Easy Path Lamrim and practical instructions on the Swift Path Lamrim. Thus, it would be safe to attribute Pabongka Rinpoche’s strong grounding in Lamrim and Lojong in part to Tagphu Pemavajra, alongside teachings on The Blissful Path Lamrim composed by the 4th Panchen Lama that Pabongka Rinpoche received from his root Guru, Dagpo Lama Lobsang Jampel Lhundrub Gyatso. These various Lamrim teachings made it possible for Pabongka Rinpoche to deliver his famous 24-day Lamrim discourse at Chuzang Ritro in 1921, which was subsequently documented by Trijang Rinpoche to become ‘Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand‘, one of the leading Lamrim texts today.
Other teachings received from Tagphu Pemavajra which were widely diffused by Pabongka Rinpoche include Completion Stage teachings such as those of Guhyasamaja and the Six Yogas of Naropa, the initiations and instructions of Cittamani Tara, the Glorious Grant of Immortality long-life initiation, Gaden Nyengyu teachings such as Guru Puja (Lama Chopa), the compilation of a new initiation manual for the Thirteen Pure Visions of Tagphu, Four Empowerments for Chakrasamvara’s Body Mandala in the tradition of Ghantapa on the basis of Changkya Ngawang Lobsang’s syllabus, meditation on accomplishing the combination of peace and wrath on the basis of Chuzang Lama Je Yeshe Gyatso’s writings, explanations on Yongzin Yeshe Gyaltsen’s Essence of Nectar Mind Training, explanations on the meditation and recitation of Samayavajra, and a profound explanation on the Guru Yoga of Gaden Lhagyama.
Interestingly, the dynamics of the teacher-disciple relationship between Tagphu Pemavajra and Pabongka Rinpoche were very unique and akin to the meeting of two enlightened minds. It was common for this teacher and student to reverse their roles, as seen when Tagphu Pemavajra in turn received teachings such as the Completion Stage practices of Heruka Chakrasamvara and the Rinjung Gyatsa initiations from Pabongka Rinpoche.
Another of Tagphu Pemavajra’s remarkable deeds which continues to influence the Gelug lineage significantly relates to his role in ensuring the authenticity of instructions on the practice of Dorje Shugden and his Five Families. In fact, the life entrustment initiation (sogtae), which is an important aspect of the Dorje Shugden practice could have been lost but for the efforts of Tagphu Pemavajra and Pabongka Rinpoche.
Sogtae is not something unique only to the practice of Dorje Shugden but is present in many other Dharma Protector practices, such as Setrap and Nechung. In essence, sogtae is the promissory rite where the Lama seals the spiritual bond between the initiate and the Dharma Protector. In the case of a Dorje Shugden sogtae, both the Protector and the initiate pledge loyalty wherein the initiate swears to take Dorje Shugden as his Dharma Protector until he achieves Bodhicitta and in turn, the Protector is sworn to protect the initiate until the achievement of Bodhicitta. This is premised upon the understanding that with the realisation of Bodhicitta, the initiate no longer needs a Protector’s assistance and becomes a ‘Protector’ for others instead.
According to traditional records, an older Dorje Shugden life entrustment text had been composed by Rinchen Wangyal (1741-1812) of Sera Monastery but was believed to be lost during the time of Pabongka Rinpoche. Out of great compassion, Dorje Shugden via an oracle requested Pabongka Rinpoche to compose another text to replace it. Pabongka Rinpoche then wrote the “seed text” accordingly but felt it was inadequate. Thus, he sought the assistance of Tagphu Pemavajra, whose abilities to astral travel were renowned.
At the request of Pabongka Rinpoche, Tagphu Pemavajra entered deep meditation and astral-travelled to Tushita Pure Land where Lama Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, resides. There, he received the complete instructions on the practice of Dorje Shugden and his Five Families, including the life entrustment initiation, directly from Duldzin Drakpa Gyaltsen, one of Lama Tsongkhapa’s main disciples and also one of the previous lives of Dorje Shugden.
Upon his return from Tushita Pure Land, Tagphu Pemavajra painstakingly documented the instructions and subsequently passed on the practices to Pabongka Rinpoche. As such, the Dorje Shugden line of lineage lamas originates from Lama Tsongkhapa to Duldzin Drakpa Gyaltsen followed by Tagphu Pemavajra, and then to Pabongka Rinpoche, Trijang Rinpoche and so forth. Pabongka Rinpoche also composed his famous fulfilment ritual (kangso) entitled ‘Melodious Drum Victorious in All Directions’ based on the transmissions from Tagphu Pemavajra, and this text continues to be frequently used by practitioners all over the world to this day.
Astral travelling to Tushita Pure Land is but one of the mystical deeds of Tagphu Pemavajra. To name but a few others, when Tagphu Pemavajra did a retreat at Guru Rinpoche’s meditation cave Myang-phug, the dakini sign language was revealed to him three times, and he had a vision of Guru Yab Yum, Trisong Detsen and the 25 disciples. Another time, while giving an initiation of Five Deity Heruka, the Mahasiddha Ghantapa Yab Yum actually came and spoke to Tagphu Pemavajra based on his inquiries.
On another occassion, Tagphu Pemavajra had a clear vision of Heruka Yab Yum surrounded by the pandits, yogis and yoginis of India and Tibet. He received the four initiations directly from Heruka Yab Yum, all the while seeing clearly the deities of the body mandala of Heruka, and was also able to seek advice directly from Heruka in the form of a monk.
Tagphu Pemavajra was also able to reveal the location of Heruka’s sacred cave called Takden near Chuzang. According to traditional sources, the cave was found following the appearance of a shiny crow, who was in actuality Heruka’s sworn Protector. The crow appeared to Tagphu Pemavajra and entourage, which included Pabongka Rinpoche, after they made offerings of incense and prayer flags to the Lamas, Yidams, Protectors and local deities at Umbrella Mountain. It sang various melodies in a powerful voice before flying to a cave in the neighbouring mountain. The crow repeated its actions several times, clearly showing the location of Heruka’s cave. In this sacred abode of Heruka, Tagphu Pemavajra is said to have experienced many extraordinary visions.
On another occasion at Takden Cave, Tagphu Pemavajra and Pabongka Rinpoche were welcomed by countless dakinis and both saw the actual Wisdom Body of Heruka from the top of the cave. And when Pabongka Rinpoche performed a tenshug for the long life of Tagphu Pemavajra, the cave turned into an immeasurable mandala complete in all of its characteristics and activities with the tsog offering merit field comprised of actual wisdom beings. From this assembly came Dromtonpa, who explained that the extraordinary phenomenon was due to Tagphu Pemavajra’s proper reliance and belief in his spiritual guide. Dromtonpa also gave a series of specific and general prophecies which were recorded by Tagphu Pemavajra.
Tagphu Pemavajra had many other illustrious students including Demo Rinpoche, Ula Tulku, Sang Yum Rinpoche and especially Kyabje Trijang Rinpoche, to whom he transmitted the secret jenang of Cittamani Tara (the final empowerment out of a series of three empowerments related to the great Tara) and the Glorious Grant of Immortality long-life initiation, which Tagphu Pemavajra had also bestowed on Pabongka Rinpoche previously. Tagphu Pemavajra also answered Trijang Rinpoche’s request for divination on which deity he should take as his main practice and what would happen to him at the end of his life with eight lines of text, which he received from Tara herself.
He was also highly revered by the public at the time, and had a number of disciples and patrons from the upper echelons of Tibetan society, such as the then Prime Minister Lochen Shatra Peljor Dorje. Although a hermit at heart, Tagphu Pemavajra eventually set up his own monastery in Naksho called Driru Drubde Monastery, also known as Geden Lukzang Kunphel Ling.
The timing and circumstances of Tagphu Pemavajra’s passing are unclear but there is a recorded estimation that he entered clear light in 1922. However, several biographies of Tagphu Pemavajra’s students appear to contradict this and reflect that they received teachings from him up until the mid-1930s.
The life and deeds of this mahasiddha-yogi have heavily influenced Tibetan Buddhism today, but the most impactful is undoubtedly his vision and transmission of the Dorje Shugden cycle of teachings. Just like his predecessor Tagphu Garwang Losang Chokyi Wangchuk, who established the incredibly beneficial Cittamani Tara Tantras after receiving them directly from Arya Tara in Potala Pure Land, Tagphu Pemavajra’s legacy of the Dorje Shugden lineage has impacted the lives of millions and ensured that this highly effective practice remains alive in our degenerate era.
Please support us so that we can continue to bring you more Dharma:
If you are in the United States, please note that your offerings and contributions are tax deductible. ~ the tsemrinpoche.com blog team