Sera Je Dragri Gyatso Thaye
(18th century)

“Dharma Protector that is the Lord of All Power and Capability [Vajrapani]...”

Dragri Gyatso Thaye (brag ri rgya mtsho mtha' yas)1 is the first in the series of recognized Dragri Dorje Chang incarnations. The White Conch Dictionary’s entry for Dragri hermitage says:2

Dragri hermitage, located not far from Sera monastery, was founded in the 18th century by the abbot of Pabongkha monastery, Gyatso Thaye (the first Dragri reincarnation), and the hermitage was maintained by the series of Dragri reincarnations.

This may refer to the founding of the modern institution or structures of this hermitage as Choepal’s pilgrimage guide denotes a much longer history of the hermitage going back all the way to seventh century when Buddhism was established in Tibet; the Buddhist Dharmaraja Songtsen Gampo, Trisong Detsen and the Indian master Phadampa Sangye stayed here. The name of the hermitage precedes the incarnations’ title of “Dragri,” which was designated from the fact that the various incarnations resided at and maintained Dragri hermitage.3 Dragri hermitage, Pabongkha monastery, and Chuzang hermitage, which are discussed below, are all located in the nyang bran valley northeast of Lhasa near Sera monastery.

Pabongkha is another historical monastery where Gyatso Thaye served as abbot. He and other lamas derived the title of Pabongkha from their association with this monastery, hence he is also known as Pabongkha Gyatso Thaye. Pabongkha monastery is located on a huge boulder and also dates back to the time of Tibet’s first Buddhist king, Songtsen Gampo. He stayed there in retreat when there were obstacles to establishing the main temple in Lhasa, the Tsuklhakhang. At that time he had a vision of Avalokiteshvara, who gave him advice on how to tame the legendary supine demoness through building temples and border temples throughout Tibet. Songtsen Gampo later built the structure that became Pabongkha monastery, for his minister Thonmi Sambhota who devised the Tibetan writing system there. Later, the Kadampa Geshe Potowa resided here for an extended period, as well as Je Tsongkhapa himself, and it later became a Gelug monastery.4

In regards to the Dagri reincarnation lineage, these have been listed (with honorifics) by Trijang Rinpoche in zhabs brtan gsol 'debs dang myur byon smon tshig gi skor in volume cha, consisting of prayers to various incarnation lineages to live long and return quickly. Trijang Rinpoche lists the series of incarnations ('khrungs rabs) of Dragri Dorje Chang incarnations in verse as well, going back as far as the Indian and earlier Tibetan masters, which include the direct disciple of Buddha Arhat Kanakavatsa, King Chandrabhadra—prime recipient of the Kalachakra teachings—Dombhipa, Pamting Ngawang Chugje, and mgon po bsod nams mchog ldan, among many others. The official reincarnations are listed at the end:

  1. Gyatso Thaye (mdo rgyud mdzod 'dzin rgya mtsho mtha' yas, born 18th century)5
  2. Lobsang Chojor ('dren chog blo bzang chos 'byor rgya mtsho, born 19th century)6
  3. Lobsang Thubten Namgyal (khas grub blo bzang thub bstan rnam rgyal, born 19th century)7
  4. Lobsang Nyengyu Lungrig Gyatso (blo bzang snyan brgyud lung rigs rgya mtsho, 20th century)

By “official incarnations,” this means that they were recognized within the Tibetan system that has become widely established in the last 500 years. There was no system of officially recognizing incarnations in India, and it was less widespread earlier in Tibet. However, this does not mean that the basic principle of enlightened beings taking birth (skye ba sprul sku) did not exist. Many of Tibet’s “official incarnation” lineages have longer lineages ('khrungs rabs) tracing back further, and as such, have been written down by various masters in their collected works. Whether these claims are true or not is beside the point. Rather, this practice of delineating incarnations back to the earlier times, even as far back to the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, has been widespread and is the norm more than the exception. Even the Dalai Lama’s incarnation lineage is justified on the basis of the earlier Avalokiteshavara incarnations.8

Regarding Dragri Dorje Chang’s official incarnations, Lobsang Chojor was a holder of the Gelug Solitary Hero Yamantaka lineage,9 as can be found in the lineage supplication. He apparently received the lineage from Jangchub Choepal (1756-1838), which would most likely put Lobsang Chojor’s birth at the end of the 18th century or start of the 19th century. The next incarnation, Lobsang Thubten Namgyal, was a teacher of Pabongkha Dechen Nyingpo.

Specifically, the first Dragri official incarnation, Gyatso Thaye, is of principal interest here. He must have been born in the first half of the 18th century. This can be confirmed by the fact that TBRC lists him as a student of Lobsang Namgyal (blo bzang rnam rgyal, 1670-1741) who was renowned as an important teacher of Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsen. On the other hand, he is also listed as a student of 'on rgyal sras rin po che (1743-1811), who would have been definitely younger than Gyatso Thaye. In any case, he was requested by the nuns of Garu nunnery to take responsibility for their nunnery in 1792, which he did over successive lifetimes.10

Gyatso Thaye, like the hermitages described above, is primarily connected with Sera monastery where he studied. Likewise, most of Gyatso Thaye’s students belonged to Sera, who include Longdol Lama (1719-1794), Lcang lung Pandita (1770-1845), and Retreng Tritrul Tenpa Rabgye (1759-1815). One of the exceptions to this is Jangchub Choepal (1756-1838), the first official Trijang Rinpoche incarnation, who belonged to Ganden Shartse.

Retreng Tritrul Tenpa Rabgye was the reincarnation of the first Retreng Rinpoche, a Ganden Throne Holder and important teacher to the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso. Likewise, Tenpa Rabgye himself was one of the most important masters of his time. According to the colophon of Dragri Gyatso Thaye’s ritual to Dorje Shugden called Treasury of the Four Activities: Complete with Offerings, Praises, Fulfillment and Requests to the Dharmapala Dorje Shugden Tsel, Dragri Gyatso Thaye was requested by Retreng Tritrul Tenpa Rabgye himself to write this expansive ritual, although he noted there were already perfect rituals written by Morchen Kunga Lhundup and the Sakya Throne Holders.

This and the content of the ritual itself indicate that it is most likely the first official extensive kangso, or fulfillment ritual, of Dorje Shugden in the Gelug sect, as there are verses composed calling on Dorje Shugden to specifically protect the Gelug doctrine. Earlier Gelug practitioners apparently used the works of Morchen Dorje Chang, Dre'u Lhas, and the Sakya Throne Holders. The colophon also states that it was written at Ganden Yiga Chozin Monastery, which most likely refers to Chuzang, the hermitage located in the same valley as Dragri Hermitage.

Unfortunately, Gyatso Thaye’s collected works have not been made available. However, Treasury of the Four Activities has been published in the Dorje Shugden be bum.11 The Treasury of the Four Activities is quite long compared to other Shugden rituals of its time, being 18 folios. It contains many of the elements of other works, such as praises to the five forms of Dorje Shugden. At the beginning, Dorje Shugden is referred to as “the Dharma Protector that is the Lord of All Power and Capability.”12 This is an honorific title similar to that of Vajrapani. One unique section is a confession in seven verses in the presence of Dorje Shugden:


Lobsang Dragpa, essence of the ocean of mandalas,
Three precious yidams’ mandala attendants,
Especially the principal of the potent dregs,
Dorje Shugden and retinue consider me.

Recklessly drunk from the three poisons,
Accumulated downfalls by nature and transgression
The limits of faultless precepts and commandments,
With an ailing and repenting mind I confess.

Pervasive guru present in the 10 directions,
Peaceful and wrathful Yidams established by the Jina,
Oath bound protectors of the Secret Vehicle,
From my heart I lay bare all samaya transgressions.

Displeasing, disrespect, reproach and wrong view toward
The Glorious Guru Vajradhara,
In the presence of the Yidams and Protectors having the wisdom eye,
I confess all lack of faith.

Especially to the life ruler of the Dregs,
Forgotten, broken and inferior offering tormas,
To the protector performing the four activities
I confess all broken thanksgiving service tormas.

Carelessness of what ought to be accepted and rejected,
The root and secondary [precepts] of body, speech and mind,
To the listening protectors and retinue,
With a regretful mind I confess these faults.

Primordial, naturally pure Dharmakaya,
Free from all conceptual elaboration,
May all faults written with the pen of conceptualization,
Be purified within the sphere of emptiness.

1 TBRC PID 1723.

2 Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las. (2002). Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: Krung go'i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang, p. 1501.

3 Chos 'phel. (2002). Gangs can ljongs kyi gnas bshad lam yig gsar ma (New Guide to Holy Places in Tibet). Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 58-59.

4 Chos 'phel. (2002). Gangs can ljongs kyi gnas bshad lam yig gsar ma (New Guide to Holy Places in Tibet). Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 61-63.

5 TBRC PID 1723.

6 TBRC PID 1505.

7 TBRC PID 3306.

8 Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s long incarnation lineage is written in Panchen Lobsang Chokyi Gyaltsen’s collected works. This point regarding the difference between a spiritual and recognized incarnation is mentioned in a footnote in The Shuk-den Affair with little context to explain the difference. It is mentioned most likely to cast doubt on the authenticity of claims of Tulku Dragpa Gyaltsen’s earlier incarnations. However, when such skepticism is applied, the whole system of Tibetan reincarnation recognition falls apart like a house of cards.

9 Meditation on Vajrabhairava, translated by Sharpa Tulku with Richard Guard, p. 31.

10 The Hermitages of Sera: Garu Nunnery. José Ignacio Cabezón (January 30, 2006), THDL.

11 Guru Deva Rinpoche (1984), pp. 261-297.

12 'mthu stobs yongs kyi bdag po rgyal ba'i bstan bsrung chen po rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal,” Guru Deva Rinpoche (1984), pp. 265.