Tendzin Gyatso

Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso

Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso (b.1883 – d.1966 ངག་དབང་བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ། ngag dbang bstan ‘dzin rgya mtsho) was born at Paro in 1883, the female water sheep year. His father was Sonam Dondrub (bsod nams don grub) and Tashi Pelmo (bkra shis dpal mo). His birth name was Sanggye Norbu (sangs rgyas nor bu).

In 1890 (Male Iron Tiger Year) when he was seven years old, his maternal uncle, Ngawang Chokyi Wangchuk (‘brug rje mkhan po 59 ngag dbang chos kyi dbang phyug, 1860-1941), took him to Dewachen (bde ba can) in Punakha (spu na kha), and gave him an earlyeducation at his retreat house. It was there that he was given the name Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso.

In 1894 at the age of eleven, Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso took the novice vows in the presence of Khenchen Jamyang Rinchen (mkhan chen ‘jam ‘byang rin chen). Five years later, at the age of sixteen, he enrolled at a monastic college to study poetics and grammar, elocution, and the scriptures, and other general scientific and cultural topics.


That same year Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso also went to study and practice the science of grammar at Bumthang Tarpeling (bum thang thar pa’i gling), the seat of Longchenpa Drime Ozer (klong chen pa dri med ‘od zer, 1308-1363). He excelled there and was chosen as one of the three brightest students. Druk Gyelpo Orgyen Wangchuk (‘brug rgyal po o rgyan dbang phyug,1862-1926), who was then the Trongsa Penlob (krong gsar dpon slob) and who later became the first hereditary king of Bhutan in 1907, gave him a letter of support. Later, at Kurje (sku rje), he studied the five sciences (rigs lnga) with Drigung Tendzin (‘bri khung rdo rje ‘dzin, d.u.). He then went to practice at a monastery of Zurmang Terchen Zilnon Namkha (zur mang gter chen zil gnon nam mkha, 19th c.).

In the last years of the nineteenth century, Artsa Lama Namgyel Peldan (A rtsa bla ma rnam rgyal dpal ldan, d.u.), a student of Tokden Śākya Śrī (rtogs ldan shAkya shrI, 1853-1919) arrived from Kham, Tibet, carrying a letter from his master to Orgyen Wangchuk, who was a passionate supporter and sponsor of Śākya Śrī’s activities throughout his life.

At Tarpeling, Artsa Lama gave instructions for the preliminary practices (sngon ‘gro) to Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso and a group of young Bhutanese students. He also imparted the oral instruction of the Mahāmudrā preliminaries (phyag chen sngon’groi zhal khrid).Tendzin Gyatso requested Artsa Lama to take him with him on his return to Tibet to serve as an attendant to Śākya Śrī, and with permission of Orgyen Wangchuk, he was accepted.

Thus, in 1900 at the age of eighteen, Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso arrived in Tibet. He first went on a pilgrimage throughout Tibet and met the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso (ta la’i bla ma 13 thub bstan rgya mtsho, 1876-1933) in Lhasa.

13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso
13th Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso

Accompanying Artsa Lama on an arduous journey, the travel culminated when he met Śākya Śrī at his encampment in Kham and he became one of his earliest Bhutanese students. He undertook an intense period of religious practice under the master’s guidance; with other students, he received both Dzogchen (rdzogs chen) and Mahāmudrā; received the profound instructions for the techniques of Six Yogas of Naropa (na ro chos drug), and additional cycles of teachings. He improved his practice of generating the heat (gtum mo), meditating night and day and relying on alms for his basic needs.

After undertaking pilgrimage to different sacred places and sites in Kham and U-Tsang, Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso returned to Bhutan. Orgyen Wangchuk, his own family, and the monastic community all gave him an elaborate welcome. By then, his father and several of his siblings had died. His remaining family supported his aspirations and sponsored several traditional three-year retreats at Langmodrak (glang mo brag). He entered the first in 1914, at the age of thirty-two. Students began to gather around him to receive teachings, thus marking the beginning of the formation of Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso’s own lineage in Bhutan, which, along with other Bhutanese students, promulgated Śākya Śrī’s (Shakya Shri)  lineage in the region. Among his students from this period were Pelgyi Ozer (dge dpal gyi od zer) and Tashi Wangdi (bkra shis dbang dus) from Bumthang.

In 1918, Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso was invited to receive more teachings by Śākya Śrī, who had by then settled at Kyipuk (skyid phug) in Tsari (rtsa ri), southern Tibet. He joined hundreds of other students and received teachings on all of Śākya Śrī’s own treasure teachings (gter ma), as well as on both old and new translation school practices. The following year Śākya Śrī passed away, surrounded by his students.

Back in Bhutan, Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso strengthened relations with his maternal uncle Ngawang Chokyi Wangchuk who originally taught him when he was a child. The uncle was appointed as Dorje Lobpon (rdo rje slop dpon) in 1922, and ten years later in 1931, he become Je Khenpo (rje mkhan po), serving from 1931 to 1934 as the head of Drukpa Kagyu school in Bhutan. Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso became his uncle’s attendant, and remained in his service until his uncle passed away in 1942 at the age of eighty-one.

Ngawang Tendzin Gyatso continued to follow his uncle’s legacy by becoming Dorje Lobpon and became well-known throughout Bhutan.

He passed away in 1967 at the age of eighty-four. The circumstances around his death revealed his advanced level of realization: it is said that his body and face remained unchanged for seven days; during cremation, his body flared up in demonstration of his tummo prowess; and after cremation, relics imprinted with sacred syllables were found.


Amy Holmes. 2007. The Making of a Bhutanese Buddha: Preliminary Remarks on the Biography of Tendzin Gyatso, a Bhutanese Scholar-Yogi. Journal of Bhutan Studies, 16, pp. 1-37.

Dge slong yon tan ‘od kyis sgro dge slong yon tan ‘od kyis sgro. Dpal ldan bla ma dam pa bstan ‘dzin rgya mtsho’i rnam thar grub pa’i rol rtsed.

Dorje Penjore is a Senior Researcher at The Centre for Bhutan Studies.

Published February 2011


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