A newer image that resembles the few 13th century frescos that are said to be portraits of Rinchen Sangpo at the right side of the statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, Chenrezig at Lord Buddha’s left side, in front of the ancient mural of the central shrine in the Lotsawa Lhakhang, the “Translator’s Temple,” Alchi in Ladakh.
Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, the Great Translator
The Office of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa teaches that there are ten pillars, ka-chen-bcu, of Tibetan Buddhism. They are ten Tibetans “especially singled out for their foundational role in the transmission of Buddhism to Tibet:”1
1. Thonmi Sambhota, who developed the Tibetan script and formulated the written Tibetan language for the first time.2. Vairochana, who was the great Tibetan translator and one of the first seven Tibetan monks ordained by Shantarakshita at Samye Monastery in Tibet.3. Kawa Paltsek, also being one of the first seven monks ordained at Samye Monastery, was a direct student of both Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita and contributed to the translation of the Tripitaka and Nyingma Gyübum into Tibetan.4. Chokro Luyi Gyaltsen was one of the 25 disciples of Padmasambhava and was very important in transcribing and concealing treasure texts.5. Yeshe De was also a direct disciple of Padmasambhava and helped translate more than 200 texts into Tibetan.6. Lochen Rinchen Sangpo was the first translator of the New Translation School period.7. Dromtön Gyalwe Jungney was the heart-son of Atisha and founder of Reding Monastery. He became the main lineage-holder of the Kadampa Tradition.8. Ngok Lotsawa Loden Sherab became one of the most important Tibetan translators after he studied with many great Indian Panditas for 17 years. He translated the Abhisamaya-Alamkara and Pramana literature into Tibetan.9. Sakya Pandita was one of the most famous 13th century scholars, became throne-holder of the Sakyapa when he was 25 years old, and was the teacher of the Mongolian Emperor.10. Gö-Khukpa Lheytse, a contemporary of Marpa Lotsawa, studied with 72 Panditas in India and was one of the most important translators in the New Translation School, after Lochen Rinchen Sangpo.
Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, Lo-chen-ri-chen-bzang-po, was a foremost translator of the New Translation School or New Mantra School period, which began in the late 9th and early 10th century. Translations from the 7th through the 9th centuries are called the “Old School of Early Translations” (snga-‘gyur-rnying-ma) and later ones are known as the “New Schools of Later Translations” (phyi-‘gyur-gsar-ma). The New Schools are Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug; the Old School is Nyingma.
Thrangu Rinpoche spoke about the dark episode that divided the Old and New Translation Schools of Buddhism and wrote, “King Langdarma persecuted the Dharma and it almost vanished from Tibet. People had to flee to high mountain regions of the country. Because of these conditions, the great Indian teachers no longer came to Tibet. This meant that the people who lived there had books and teachings on Buddhism, but they had to sit around and speculate on what these teachings meant. One person would say, ‘Well, I think it means this,’ and then another would say, ‘No, I think it means this.’ They would discuss this way and as a result the Dharma became corrupted and no one really knew what the genuine Dharma was. After Langdarma ruled, a king whose name was Yeshe Öd of Guge thought that it was necessary to purify the Dharma.”2
In the meantime, in the year 957 C.E., Rinchen Sangpo “was born in the Ngari region of western Tibet. He was ordained at the age of thirteen by Abbot Yeshe Zangpo. The King of Ngari sent him to Kashmir and India to study Buddhism. He studied with over 75 great teachers of India and became well versed in the Sutras and Tantras. He invited many Indian Panditas to Tibet” 3 – including Palden Atisha.
Born of a noble family in Bengal, Palden Atisha (982-1054) accepted the invitation generously extended by Yeshe Öd and forwarded by Rinchen Sangpo to visit Greater Tibet. He offered his services and stayed in Tibet for more than 12 years to establish a proper perspective and understanding of the teachings presented by Lord Buddha. Being the most revered Indian teacher at Vikramashila University in India, 4 Atisha also assisted Rinchen Sangpo in his endeavour of rendering sacred Sanskrit texts into Tibetan faithfully. It has been recorded that when Palden Atisha met the great translator, he asked his attendants, “Why do I have to be in Tibet when they have Rinchen Sangpo?”
Lama Yeshe taught that when Atisha arrived at “the Todin Golden Monastery, he was received by Jangchub Yöd (Yeshe Öd) with a great procession. Lochen Rinchen Sangpo also invited him to his own monastery. Here, when he had listened to Atisha expound the Madhyamaka philosophy, particularly the Sambara-Abhisheka, as well as other sacred matters and Dharma teachings, holy thoughts sprang up in the Abbot’s mind as well as a wide comprehension of the teachings; therefore he offered everything he had to Atisha. On being asked by Atisha to accompany him as his interpreter, the Abbot pointed to his head and begged Atisha to allow him to engage in religious practice as he had grown old and grey. Atisha, in response to his plea, exhorted him: ‘O Rinchen Sangpo! Since you righteously wish to practice religion, let not your mind wander into evil.’ Rinchen Sangpo, keeping these teachings in mind, sealed his meditation house with iron nails, writing on the lintel of the door: ‘If any mundane thoughts occur in this place, may the protectors of the Dharma cut off my head!’ He sat in contemplation for ten years and the mandala of Sambara manifested itself before him.“One day, Jangchub Yöd, shedding tears, related fully to Atisha how, although Buddhism had been introduced by his paternal ancestory, yet it had since been reduced to ashes and scattered. He told him, ‘Now it lies with you, O gracious Atisha, to bestow on the rude and rough Tibetan converts the profound teachings of the Dharma. O compassionate one! I pray you compose a treatise setting forth the essential points of the Buddha’s doctrine in a manner very easy to practice for the benefit of the whole Tibetan people.’ Atisha responded gladly by writing The Bodhipathaprabha Treatise (his famous ‘Light on the Path of Liberation’).”5
The website of His Holiness the Dalai Lama added that Rinchen Sangpo had “travelled to Kashmir and received medical teachings such as Ashtanga Samhita (Tib. Yan-lag brGyad-pa’i sNying-po bsdus-par; Engl. ‘Condensation of the Essences of Eight Branches’), and its commentary, Dhaser (‘Moonlight’), as well as the veterinary text, Shali Hotra from the great Pandit Chandra Ananda, which later he translated into Tibetan. His work enhanced the development of Buddhism as well as medicine in Tibet.”6 The Kagyu Office of His Holiness the Karmapa states that “his translations consist of about 17 volumes in Kagyur, 33 volumes in Tagyur, and over 100 volumes of Tantras. He edited the earlier translations as well.”7
Lama Chöying Namgyal wrote: “At the beginning of the eleventh century of the general calendar, in the time of Hla Lama Yeshé Ö, who marks the eighth generation counting from King Langdarma, the extraordinary translators Rinchen Sangpo, Ngok Lekpé Sherap, and others made a third set of codes governing the translation of texts. By doing so they demonstrated uncommon and exceptional concern for the teachings. For those in contemporary times who would contribute even in minor ways to the proliferation of the teachings in the lands enclosed within darkness, the legacy of the excellent ones who have preceded us persists as a dignified testament to truth. We are grateful to those fortunate ones who rejoice in the great waves of such activity and who have conviction that a relationship, direct or indirect, with the work of translation will bring beneficial results. May everyone rejoice also in the portion of merit that is one's own, for to engage with the work of translation is thoroughly pure activity that benefits both the teachings and those who wander in samsara.”8
A Few Sacred Sites Associated with Lochen Rinchen Sangpo
Lochen Rinchen Sangpo is credited with having supervised the building of 108 temples when he returned to West Tibet from India. Myths and legends surround the magical construction of these precious temples and monasteries that seem to have been built overnight. There is no doubt that an inscription on a wall in the Lotsawa Lhakhang in Alchi pays homage to Palden Atisha, to his disciples and spiritual sons, and certainly pays deepest homage to Rinchen Sangpo, too:
“Lamas who come into the world in succession like Buddhas of the Good Age (‘Lord of the Dharma’), protector of living beings, father and son with their great unequalled love, Rinchen, the Jewel, King of Initiations, giving contentment to living beings, I bow in salutation to these peerless Lamas, the leaders of living beings.”9
Rinchen Sangpo built the foundation of Alchi and all nearby sites and planted the papal tree atthe entrance of the Sumtsek Lhakhang.
Tradition associates Mangyu Monastery with Rinchen Sangpo.It is now seat of the Old Buddhist School in Ladakh. 10
A field of stupas below the ruins of the Nyarma Monastery, which consisted of 8 temple halls and is alsoassociated with Rinchen Sangpo.
It is said that the monastery of Wanla, which is situated on the ridge of a crag within the ruins of a once major castle and built at the confluence of two rivers in a side valley below Lamayuru, was founded by Rinchen Sangpo under the patronage of King Yeshe Öd, but there is no evidence for these claims. Architects from the Achi Association found that the temple is resting fully on solid rock and not, as previously thought, on partially man-made stone supports; they saw that some of the cracks in the lower portions of the walls must have remained unchanged for centuries.Gerald Kozicz from the University of Graz in Austria wrote that the Wanla temple “is one of the most neglected monuments in the context of academic research on Tibetan and in particular Ladakhi history. Although the temple is - almost in its entirety - of the founding period and even contains an extensive inscription relating to the background leading to the foundation of the temple, it has never been published in any detail. Together with the art-historical evidence, the Wanla inscription provides information on an otherwise practically unknown period of Ladakh’s history, the late 13th or early 14th century. This information also appears to be highly relevant for the history of Tibetan Buddhism in general, as the art preserved at Wanla shows the process of reception and adaptation of Central Tibetan Buddhist art in the Western Himalayas."11
It is furthermore said that Rinchen Sangpo established five temples and constructed many stupas at Lamayuru. There are stupas dating back to the 11th century at Lamayuru, yet there is no evidence to testify these claims. In any case, the Senge Lhakhang was restored by the Achi Association in the 1980s, but the murals are in an extremely bad condition.12
Chritian Luczanits wrote, “Shalkhar is a few kilometers northwest of Chango in upper Kinnaur. Its monastery, called lHa-brang, is connected by the local tradition with the famous translator Rinchen Zangpo. One temple of Shalkhar called Samdrub Chöling was destroyed in the earthquake of 1975 and only a few pieces of sculpture and some manuscripts remind one today of this once important centre of Buddhism at the time of the early West Tibetan Kings. A carved wooden capital, miraculously well preserved and still in use today, is probably the earliest remaining element of this temple and may be attributed to the 11th century."13
A legend surrounds the construction of the Monastery of Nako in Ribba (situated close to the border of Spiti). Rinchen Sangpo is believed to have felled a gigantic tree and built the temple overnight exactly where the top of the tree landed. The entire temple is said to be made from the wood of that tree. When the villagers woke up the next morning and were surprised to see the new temple, “they saw Rinchen Sangpo fly from the roof to the other side of the Rarang River nearby, from where he consecrated the precious site. A rock can still be seen at Rarang with an impression of Rinchen Sangpo’s back.”14
The Kailashzone Charitable Foundation wrote that the Tholing Monastery in Guge “was founded in 997 by the second Guge King, Song-Ngi (his ordination name was Lha Lama Yeshi-O) and Rinchen Sangpo. The monastery, which was built some 20 kilometers away from the ancient palace, symbolizes Mount Sumeru. It is architecturally unique to the world, as it had been constructed without any pillars to support the roof. Inside the monastery, there were seven main temples, including the Golden Temple, White Temple and Gathering Hall, and some of those temples contained several smaller shrines in which to place the precious images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dharma books, paintings and Dharma products.”15
Lochen Rinchen Sangpo passed away in the year 1055 C.E..
For professional photos and excellent accounts by Christian Luczanits of earliest monasteries in West Tibet, see the ITBA photo gallery at the left side in the following link and enlarge the pictures that you would like to look at:
See especially his site at the University of Graz:
Please click on “Frühe buddhistische Architektur,” then “Übersicht der Einzelgebäude” at the bottom of the page. Now you are free to enlarge the photos of the monasteries that you would like to see. The descriptions of each picture are in English.
Blessings and prayers!All photos of Ladakh in this short account taken by Gaby Hollmann (1983 & ’84), compiled in 2007.
1 The website of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, The Ten Pillars of Tibetan Buddhism, in: Kagyuorg, 2007.2 Thrangu Rinpoche, The Four Dharmas of Gampopa, Namo Buddha Publications, Boulder, 2000, p. 4.3 Buddhism, in the site of H.H. the Gyalwa Karmapa, Kagyuoffice.org.4 In the archaeological site of India it is noted that Vikramasila University is situated a few miles away from the ancient site of Nalanda University in Bihar and that the “Tibetan Taranatha’s description in his work, History of Indian Buddhism, in the early 18th century and other minor historiographical works and from references in the colophon of a number of manuscripts recovered from Tibet, elaborate Vikramalasila was the greatest and most famous educational establishment of that time. It was the Augustan period of Buddhist Pala kings of Bengal (7th and 8th centuries). Having completed his education at Odantapuri University, Dipankara Atisha became the head of the Vikramasila.” Rohan L. Jayetilleke, The historic Vikramasila university, in the site: India Archaeology, message 2547, Jan. 2006.5 Lama Yeshe, Atisha. A biography of the renowned Buddhist sage. Translated by Thubten Kelsang Rinpoche and Ngodrub Paljor, with John Blofeld. First published by the Social Science Ass. Press of Thailand, Bangkok, 1974; reprinted by Mahayana Publ., New Delhi, 1983 & 1984; website of Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive. See specifically Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, The Seven-Points of Mind Training. A commentary on Lord Atisha’s 11th century text on Lojong, in this website, “Teachings by Thrangu Rinpoche.”6 Tibetan Medical & Astrological Institute of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Lochen Rinchen Sangpo, in the site: Men-Tsee-Khang, Jan. 2006.7 Buddhism, in the site: Kagyuoffice, ibid.8 Lama Chöying Namgyal, A Letter to Light of Berotsana, online: Berotsana.org, Oct. 2005.9 David L. Snellgrove & Tadeusz Skorupski, The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, Prajna Press, Boulder, 1977, p. 7110 See Snellgrove & Skorupski, ibid., p. 22.11 Gerald Kozicz, The Wanla Temple, in: Deborah E. Klimburg-Salter & Eva Allinger (eds.), Buddhist Art and Tibetan Patronage Ninth to Fourteenth Centuries, vol. 2. PIATS 2000: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, edited by Henk Blezer. Brill, Leiden, 2002, pp. 127–36.12 See Christian Luczanits, Short summaries of the activities of the Achi Association, 1998 and 2004, in the website: Achiassociation.org/activities, updated March 2007.13 Christian Luczanits, Early Buddhist Wood Carvings from Himachal Pradesh, in: Orientations 27 (6) 1996: pp. 67-75.14 Benoy K. Behl, Treasures in Monasteries, in: Frontline, vol. 20 (17), 2003, & website online, 2006.15 Kailashzone.org, website online, 2006.