Sakya Throne Holders:
Sonam Rinchen (1705-1741)
& Kunga Lodro (1729-1783)

“He who is known as Dolgyal is not mistaken on the path to liberation, and is in essence the Great Compassionate One.”

The Sakya throne (sa skya khri chen) is a hereditary line, wherein Sonam Rinchen (1705-1741), the 31st throne holder, was the father to Kunga Lodro (1729-1783),1 the 32nd throne holder. Sakya itself is a monastery complex in Western Tibet. North Sakya had temples that contained many sacred objects, such as the sgo rum founded by Khon Konchok Gyalpo in 1073 which contained the flying mask of Mahakala.2 In the same complex was rmug chung mgon khang, also known as the Gyalchen Dorje Shugden Protector House.3 A modern travel guide lists it as still being extant.4

The ritual rgyal gsol log 'dren tshar gcod,5 Requesting to Annihilate Interfering Forces, is attributed in some cases to Sonam Rinchen and in other cases to Kunga Lodro. However, in Kunga Lodro’s autobiography it is attributed to his father (yab rje mchog gi gsung), from whom he received this particular transmission.6 Although this ritual is relatively short, being several folios in length,7 it describes how to lay out the various offering substances and the details of the ingredients and adornments of the torma to be offered. In this particular case, the ritual is done through Secret Hayagriva (rta mgrin gsang sgrub). Following this is the invocation and the offering of the torma (gtor bsngo).

The ritual includes offering substances for fulfillment (bskang rdzas) of the sacred bond (thugs dam), which reminds the protectors of their promises. This is followed by a verse for subduing activities ('phrin las bcom) and an exhortation for fierce activities (drag bskul). Interestingly, in one part of this ritual, the name rdo rje shugs ldan mthu rtsal is used, in addition to the name rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal. Dreyfus has stated that this name is used only by 20th century adherents,8 but this ritual clearly shows it existed quite early with the Sakyas, and it is found in many earlier Gelug rituals as well.

One of the forms of Dorje Shugden unique to the Sakyas is Dorje Shugden riding a black horse (rta nag can), which is the form specified in the ritual rgyal gsol log 'dren tshar gcod:

From the midst of black wind enclosed immeasurable celestial mansion,
The Great King with a dark red face and two hands,
The right hand brandishing a club in the sky,
Holding a human heart in the left hand,
Wearing a leather hat and the three monk’s robes.
Riding a black horse surrounded by inconceivable emanations.

In this verse, Dorje Shugden is referred to with the epithet Great King (rgyal po chen po); however, in the invocation verse following this (spyan 'dren) he is specifically called Dorje Shugden by name. Examination shows that this form riding the black horse was not ultimately assumed by the Gelug development of Dorje Shugden to a large or documented degree.

One of the most interesting diffusions of the rta nag can form of Dorje Shugden from the Sakya is to a Tibetan clan living in Gyasumdo in rural Northern Nepal. This is one of the subjects of Stan Mumford’s book Himalayan Dialogue which documents his findings while living in this locality in the early 1980s:9

Most of the Tibetan family guardians in Gyasumdo are described in ritual texts which had been written for that family at some point in its Tibetan past, the text having been brought with the forefather that first migrated to Nepal... I will examine the most popular Srungma in Gyasumdo, rGyal-po Shugs-ldan... He is extremely popular, but held in awe and feared among Tibetans because he is highly punitive.

Mumford quotes a villager of Tshad-med who relates a story similar to the founding narrative of Dorje Shugden, namely that Shugden previously was a lama more famous than the Dalai Lama and was killed. They performed a “fire exorcism” against Shugden in which the first lama performing it died; next, Shugden was burned by a second lama at which time Shugden became a god.10 This contains the obvious minor variations that go along with an oral account; however, this shows that the protector Dorje Shugden in this locality, removed from the Gelug sphere of influence, was regarded with the same essential founding narrative. In fact, the slight variation from Gelug narrative seems to more or less follow the account found in Kunga Lodro’s writings that the later Gelugpas explicitly quote to detail the origins of this practice.

Furthermore, one interesting feature of this diffusion is that, although it is Sakya in origin, this village followed the Nyingma tradition:11

In Gyasumdo, each Tibetan household has its altar on the male (right) side of the hearth. The image of Padmasambhava is seen, but household heads admit that the altar is thought of primarily as that of the lineage Srungma. Those who take this relation seriously perform offerings on a regular basis.

According to Mumford, each family has its own Dorje Shugden text written by a lama in the family’s past. In one text that he was able to examine, Dorje Shugden is described as:12

From the syllable Thi arises the protector of the dharma, the great king rDo-rje Shugs-ldan. The color of his face dark red, he has two hands, the right raised in the sky, the left holding a skull containing a human heart... He rides a black horse. His emanations are unimaginable.


Protect the dharma in general, and in particular the Sakyapas. I praise you, who have agreed to be the Srungma of the Sakyas.

There are several unique observations with this account. First, Dorje Shugden was not only appointed as a protector in the monastic institutions and high lamas, he was also taken as a family protector for lay devotees. Second, for these adherents he was not simply a nuisance or “minor, dangerous” protector as suggested by Dreyfus, but an important part of their daily life, heritage and their spiritual views. Third, these adherents and their local lamas were followers of the Nyingma tradition, which shows Dorje Shugden is not by nature opposed to Nyingma. Although Dreyfus references this subject in Himalayan Dialogue in the online version of The Shuk-den Affair,14 he does not disclose this point.

Moreover, Shugden’s long-standing presence can be found in a locality on the course to a Kailash pilgrimage:15

Tumkot is the main gompa of the Sakyapa sect in Humla... When the Sakyapa sect had great influence in western Tibet (Tucci, Giuseppe, 1980, p. 251), all Humla and Karnali were under its control. Tumkot Gompa is very famous for the Sakyapa’s fierce guardian deity, Shugden. Tumkot Gompa belongs to the Yultshodun community... Their culture is similar to that of the Taklakot people, and they even intermarry across the border. Nowadays these communities respect the Tumkot monastery only because they fear the Shugden deity; otherwise, they are more influenced by the Yalbang Gompa.

Assessing the scope of Sakya worship of Shugden, Dreyfus also claims that propitiating Dorje Shugden was absent at Ngor monastery of the Sakya sect.16 However, quoting Gene Smith’s unpublished paper on Shugden, David Jackson writes:17

One of the most important mgon-khang of rDo-rje-shugs-ldan was the rTen-mkhar at Ngor.

Reference to this protector house is also made in Nyungne Lama’s ritual described below as Ngor gyi rten mkhar;18 thus, it appears to have been existent as far back as the early 19th century. From the translation by Nebesky-Wojkowitz:

To drive back the war-hordes of the rgyal btsan demons of the “black quarter,” please come from Ngor gyi rten mkhar.

Dreyfus further argues that Shugden practice disappeared from the Sakya sect likely due to its sectarian implications. However, this claim needs examination. First, as will be shown, when the Gelug tradition of Shugden branched off it took on characteristics of its own, and there is little evidence that these characteristics, such as the title 'jam mgon rgyal ba'i gnyis pa'i bstan srung (referring to Dorje Shugden as Je Tsongkhapa’s Dharma Protector), diffused back into the Sakya.

Second, the essay The ‘Bhutan Abbot’ of Ngor: Stubborn Idealist with a Grudge Against Shugs-ldan by David Jackson illustrates that within the Sakya there was a prevalent number of followers of Shugden in the mid-20th century when an iconoclastic campaign was started by the Ngor abbot Ngag dbang yon tan rgya mtsho (1902-1956), because he believed that Shugden was a demon who had shortened the life of his preceding incarnation.19 This even led to a personal conflict between him and the preceding Ngor abbot,20 described below as being a Shugden follower:

The senior Khang-gsar abbot, Ngag-dbang-mkhyen-rab-'jam-dpal-snying-po (1871-1952) was a well-known devotee of Shugs-ldan. He was a skilled artisan, capable of making fine masks and images though he had never received formal training, and he had personally made a number of masks for the worship of Shugs-ldan. Both he and his late uncle mKhan-chen Ngag-dbang-blo-gros-snying-po visited Khams and established there in the 1890s in numerous monasteries the cult of Shugs-ldan.

Although David Jackson mentions that the Ngor abbot Ngag dbang yon tan rgya mtsho disliked Pabongkha Rinpoche’s propitiation of Dorje Shugden, the actual iconoclastic incidents mentioned in this account are limited to internal Sakya affairs. In fact, there is not a single mention of an incident of the Ngor abbot directly confronting Gelugpa Shugden followers. Thus, there is no visible sign of Dorje Shugden propitiation in the Gelug causing entanglements with the Sakya. Moreover, the internal struggle in the Sakya over Shugden, as mentioned in this account, was not based on sectarianism but rather taking issue with his fierce actions (i.e., the Ngor abbot blaming the premature death of his previous incarnation). Finally, this account does not mention a lot about the Ngor abbot confronting Dorje Shugden within the actual 'Khon family.

Although Sonam Rinchen clearly recognized and propitiated the form of Dorje Shugden riding a black horse, it was Kunga Lodro who fully culminated the various forms and rituals. In addition to inheriting all of the transmissions and initiations (such as Lamdre) of Sonam Rinchen, he also received all of the lineages from Morchen Kunga Lhundrub’s heart disciple Nesar Dorje Chang.21, 22 In his biography of Nesar Dorje Chang, Kunga Lodro lists Dorje Shugden among his various writings; therefore, Kunga Lodro was aware of Morchen’s rituals on Dorje Shugden.23 However, it would appear that it was Kunga Lodro himself who fully culminated this as the five forms of Dorje Shugden (rigs lnga), with main figure termed 'dul 'dzin or Vinayadhara. This was described in a text written by Sachen Kunga Lodro called 'dul 'dzin mchod chog phun ‘tshogs 'dod 'khyil.24 Moreover, various evidence gives little reason to doubt that this tradition of Dorje Shugden was incorporated by Sachen Kunga Lodro.

Item number 39325 from the Rubin Museum of Art Collection, contains an explanation of these five lineages based on their depiction in a Sakya thangkha from the 19th century. Also pictured in the thangkha is the grandson of Sachen Kunga Lodro, the 34th Throne Holder pad ma bdud 'dul dbang phyug (1792-1853). This thangkha was most likely painted while he was the throne holder (early 19th century). The central figure Shugden is shown sitting on a lion throne, similar to the description written by Morchen Dorje Chang, also holding a vajra club and lasso. The four cardinal emanations with their standard conventions: the Great Peaceful King (zhi ba'i rgyal chen), the Great Increasing King (rgyas kyi rgyal chen), the Great Powerful King (dbang gi rgyal chen) and the Great Wrathful King (drag po'i rgyal chen). Also, on the back of the thangkha, there is a long inscription which includes: om ma hA rA dza ba dzra bi gI bi krA na+ta... This contains the key component of the mantra used by Gelug adherents.

Examination of Sachen Kunga Lodro’s autobiography provides another perspective on the early Sakyas’ views on Shugden as well as a catalog of his own writings. In the introduction, which contains various prophecies of the past lives of Kunga Lodro, the Great Protector Dorje Shugden Tsel (chos skyong rdo rje shugs ldan rtsal) is quoted stating that Kunga Lodro was an emanation of the Indian master Jetari,26 a guru of Atisha. For the sake of developing conviction in Dorje Shugden’s revelation (lung bstan) that Kunga Lodro was an emanation of Jetari, the text expands on this claim:27

From the Nyingma tantra rin chen sna bdun, the one entitled the Great King, Dolgyal, he who is known as Dolgyal is not mistaken on the path to liberation, and is in essence the Great Compassionate One (Avalokiteshvara).

Later in the autobiography, there is a catalog (dkar chag) of his various writings. There is a work listed28 called mchod dpon sde drug mkhan por gnang ba'i shugs ldan gtor bsngo which apparently is a Dorje Shugden torma offering ritual given to blo bzang rnam rgyal a master of offerings (mchod dpon mkhan po) to the Seventh Dalai Lama.29 It appears in another catalog30 of Kunga Lodro’s collected works, in volume 6 (cha). Also listed in the autobiography’s catalog is shugs ldan rtsal gyi drag po'i gtor chen, the Great Wrathful Torma Offering to Shugden Tsel,31 as well as Request to Gyalchen Five Families in One Verse (rgyal chen rigs lnga'i 'phrin gsol shlo ka gcig) and shugs ldan thug chog gi zin bris.32

1 TBRC Person RID: P805.

2 Vitali, Roberto (2001). Sa skya and the mNga ris skor gsum legacy: the case of Rin chen bzang po’s flying mask in Lungta, Amnye Machen Institute, p. 11.

3 Schoening J. (1990). “Religious Structures at Sa-skya” in L. Epstein and R.F. Sherburne eds., Reflections on Tibetan Culture, Essays in Memory of Turrell V. Wylie, Studies in Asian Thought and Religion, Mellen Press, Lewiston-Queenston-Lampeter, p. 26.

4 Gyurme Dorje. (1999). Tibet Handbook. Footprint Travel Guides, p. 281.

5 According to Dreyfus in The Shuk-den Affair: “Pl 480/ IASWR microfilms 08.043. 'Dpal bsam yas lhun gyis grub pa'i gtsugs lag khang gi srung ma phrin las kyi mgon pa kun khyab rdo rje drag po rtsal gyi spyan 'dren bskang pa phrin bcol, 12.b-16.a. It is by no means sure, however, that the present version is identical to the text written by So-nam-rin-chen. The colophon mentions the fact that the text was revised (bcos) by Ngak-wang Kun-ga Lo-dro (ngag dbang kun dga' blo gros). The text is found among a collections of ritual texts of Anye Zhab (amyes zhabs ngag dbang kun dga',) 1597-1659).”

6 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 410.

7 The printing of the text examined here is from 'Jam mgon rgyal ba'i bstan srung rdo rje shugs ldan gyi 'phrin bcol phyogs bsdus bzhugs so. Bylakuppe, India: Ser smad gsung rab 'phrul spar khang (1992), pp. 24-28.

8 Dreyfus (1998), p. 240: “To his twentieth century followers, Shuk-den is known as Gyel-chen Dor-je Shuk-den Tsal, the “Great Magical Spirit Endowed with the Adamantine Force.” If we look at earlier mentions, however, we can see that Shuk-den also appears under another and less exalted name, i.e., as Dol Gyal (dol rgyal).”

9 Mumford (1989), p. 125.

10 Mumford (1989), p. 125.

11 Mumford (1989), p. 126.

12 Mumford (1989), p. 127.

13 Mumford (1989), p. 264.

14 The Shuk-Den Affair: Origins of a Controversy.

15 Tsewang, Lama. (2002). Kailash Mandala: a Pilgrim’s Trekking Guide. Humla Conservation and Development Association, p. 72.

16 Dreyfus (1998), p. 241.

17 Jackson (2001), p. 96.

18 Nebesky-Wojkowitz (1956), p. 141.

19 Jackson (2001), p. 96.

20 Jackson (2001), p. 93.

21 TBRC Person RID: P803.

22 Stearns (2006), p. 274.

23 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 260.

24 rgyal chen srog gtad kyi sngon 'gro bshad pa'i mtshams sbyor kha skong bzhugs so, folio number 535 vol. ja.

25 Worldly Protector (Buddhist)-Dorje Shugden at

26 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 312.

27 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 322.

28 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 399.

29 He is listed several times in the collected works of the Seventh Dalai Lama. Once as among those who urged Changkya Rolpei Dorje to write the biography of the Seventh Dalai Lama and as the scribe in rgyal mchog bskal bzang rgya mtsho'i rnam thar. He is also listed in a work written by Yeshe Gyaltsen called dga' ldan phyag chen gyi gnad gsal bar ston pa, in which he is listed with one other person as urging him to write this.

30 TBRC Work RID: W19837.

31 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 400.

32 Sa-skya Bdag-chen Gong-ma Kung-dga'-blo-gros (1983), p. 401.