Dzongpa Tradition

Gongkar Choede and the Dzongpa Tradition

For centuries Gongkar Choede (Gong dkar chos sde) was a vital centre of tantric learning in Ü Province of Central Tibet. It was famed for its elaborate mandala practice, for skill in tantric ritual and for high expertise in the artistic tradition of Khyentse Chenmo (i.e. mKhyen lugs). The community engaged in a wide religious curriculum based on Indian tantric texts and on commentaries and instructional manuals that were written mainly by Tibetan masters of the Sakya sect. Those texts were the heart of the tradition at Gongkar Choede: they were the source for the liturgies and rituals in the monastery, for its scholastic investigations and polemic debates, and based on those texts the monks practiced a long series of worship, complex rituals and meditation. This practical knowledge, together with the sacred books that helped conveyed it, was passed on from one generation of monks to the next. This guaranteed the continuation of the system of learning at Gongkar Choede and its nearby branch temples until the 1950s.

Gongkar Choede or Gongkar Dorjeden (Gong dkar rDo rje gdan) was founded in 1464 by the tantric adept Dorjedenpa Kunga Namgyal (1432–1496), a scion of the noble Yargyab family who governed a large territory on the southern Tsangpo banks at that time. In his youth, Dorjedenpa trained under several masters from the different Tibetan-Buddhist lineages and he felt particular faith in the teachings of the Sakya (Sa lugs) and Shalu traditions (Zhwa lugs or Bu lugs). The distinctive tradition at his monastery, located in the heartland of the old Gongkar district, became later known as the Gongkar tradition (Gong dkar lugs), a minor Sakya branch that represented the tradition in the Southern Ü-Province. Not long after its founding, Gongkar Choede became closely associated with another exegetical strand of the Sakyapa, the so-called the Dzong tradition (rDzong lugs) that had originated a century earlier at Sakya monastery. By the early fifteenth century, proponents of the Dzongpa teachings had gained some prominence in the scholastic circles of the Tsang Province, and in Sakya histories, eminent teachers who followed the Dzongpa exegesis are portrayed as having been prolific writers and leading scholars at such leading monastic centres as Sakya or Ngamring.

In terms of its esoteric tradition, the Dzongpa shared crucial points with Dorjedenpa's tradition that then flourished around Gongkar in the southern part of Central Tibet. Regarding the exegesis of Hevajra and other Sakya practices, the Gongkar and the Dzongpa branch disagreed doctrinally with Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo (1382–1456) and his followers (i.e. Ngor lugs), who represented yet another reformative strand originating from the Sakyapa at the same time. [1] Because of evident similarities in how they taught the tantras, the Gongkar tradition became also called the “Later Dzongpa” (rdzong pa phyi rabs pa). [2] Strictly speaking, however, their main system of teaching and transmission is not identical with that of the Tsang-based Dzongpa. As for the Lamdre, the Gongkar branch follows a distinctive exegetical tradition running through Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen (1312–1375) and his nephew Thegchen Choeje Kunga Tashi (1349–1425) down to Dorjedenpa. The Lamdre of the Dzongpa, on the contrary, passes through another prominent disciple of Lama Dampa with the name Dzongchungwa or Ngagchang Zungi Pal (1306–1389). In some old sources, this specific lineage transmitted through Thegchen Choeje of the Lhakhang Palace of Sakya is called the Thegchen tradition (Theg chen lugs). Up to the present day this lineage forms the key exegetical system that is followed in the Gongkar tradition. [3] Nevertheless, there are several instances in which transmissions of the Dzongpa and the Gongkar branch overlap – already during the lifetime of Dorjedenpa's disciples. [4] In this way, the Dzongpa exegesis found its way into the study programme at Gongkar Choede, and vice versa.

The origin of the Dzongpa goes back to the above-mentioned Zungi Pal, a resident of the Dzongchung Palace (rDzong chung bla brang) at Sakya. Therefore, the esoteric system that he was teaching became known as the Dzong tradition. Since the time of Ameshab (1597–1659), Zungi Pal and later teachers in his lineage were called the “Early Dzongpa” (rdzong pa snga rabs pa), while the exegetically related tradition going back to Gongkar Dorjedenpa was called the “Later Dzongpa”. [5] In answer to criticism from the Ngorpa side, some Gongkar authors referred to themselves as “adherents of the Old Sakyapa” (sa skya rnying ma'i srol 'dzin). [6] In addition to the polemic presentations in Dorjedenpa's own writings, this self-designation clearly reflects the claim of the young tradition to represent the Sakya teachings in accordance with the “Tradition of the Early Founders” (i.e. gong ma'i lugs). Early masters from Gongkar, including its founder, accused Ngorchen and his followers of deviating from the writings of the Five Sakya Founders and of Lama Dampa. The writings of Lama Dampa were specially studied at Gongkar Choede, [7] and he became venerated as an additional, sixth Sakya founder by the community. [8]

Nowadays, the Dzongpa tradition as a whole – including Gongkar Choede as its later representative – represents a revitalised branch within the Sakya tradition. For many years, Gongkar Choede with its temple affiliates and the exile branch in Northern India were the only institutions that had preserved this specific teaching lineage. In recent years, a few much smaller Dzongpa monasteries in Ngamring county of Tsang have also been restored. Yet the literature and intellectual history of the Gongkar and the Early Dzongpa branch remain still unstudied. [For initial research on the history of the two branches, see the DLP bibliography.]

by Mathias Fermer
[version: 2019-02-17]


[1] Cf. Heimbel 2017 (pp. 399-404); Dorjedenpa himself criticized the Ngorpa in several of his writings on the Lamdre, Sarvavid and Ganacakra practice.

[2] This classification goes back to the Sakya historian Ameshab Ngawang Kunga Sonam (1597–1659); cf. note 5.

[3] Cf. Fermer 2010 (p. 185); also Jackson 2016 (pp. 26f.). On the Thegchen Tradition, cf. Fermer 2010(pp. 177-180.

[4] Cf. Fermer 2010 (pp. 182-184, 380). The links between the Dzongpa followers in Tsang and the Gongkar tradition are discussed in Fermer 2010 (pp. 181-189); their overlapping in the Lamdre transmission are shown in the chart on p. 380, appendix G.

[5] Cf. lam 'bras ngor rdzong rnam bshad [2000] (f. 3a-b) for the main transmission line of the Early Dzongpa and the Later Dzongpa.

[6] Gyaton Jangchub Wanggyal, Dorjedenpa's successor and biographer, for example uses the designation “Old Sakyapa” for the exegetical tradition at Gongkar Choede; cf. gong dkar ba lam 'bras dris lan_A1 [xyl] (f. 7a2-3), Fermer 2010 (pp. 172f., 278f.). Gyaton had received the Lamdre according to both, the Thegchen and the Dzongpa system; cf. 'phrin las rnam rgyal thob yig [2008] (pp. 16, 23, 31) and pp. 23, 27 13 respectively.

[7] Cf. Jackson 2016 (pp. 111f.). Regarding Lama Dampa's impact on the monastic programme at Gongkar Choede; cf. rdo rje gdan gyi sgrub mchod phyag len [ms] (f. 1b-3a). Lama Dampa's role for the intellectual development of the Early Dzongpa branch is to be investigated more closely from the writings of Tsang-based Dzongpa masters like Mus srad pa rDo rje rgyal mtshan.

[8] Portraying Lama Dampa in this exceptional iconographic form clearly reflects his scriptural authority in the tradition.