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Sgam po pa (Gampopa)


SGAM PO PA (GAMPOPA) . Sgam po pa Bsod nams rin chen (Gampopa Sönam Rinchen, 10791153), also known as Dvags po lha rje, "the doctor from Dvags po," was the figure most responsible for systematizing the doctrines and founding the institutions of the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

According to traditional biographies, he was born in Gnyal, in south-central Tibet, one of several sons of a local doctor. He became a physician in his teens, and later married; he may have fathered one or more children. When he was barely twenty, however, his immediate family died in an epidemic, and he turned his back on worldly affairs. At twenty-five he joined the Buddhist monastic order under the ordination name Bsod nams rin chen, and went to Central Tibet to study with masters of the Bka' gdams (Kadam) sect, founded a half-century before by the great Indian reformer Atiśa (9821054). Although Bka' gdams pas taught and practiced the Tantras, they placed special emphasis on the proper observance of monastic discipline and traversing the path to enlightenment in gradually ascending steps that began with a spirit of true renunciation, extended to development of the wisdom and compassion of a bodhisattva, and only at the end included Tantric methods. Sgam po pa became an accomplished scholar and meditator, but was not fully satisfied with his experiences.

Hearing of the renowned Tantric yogi and poet Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/401111/23), Sgam po pa traveled to the Mount Everest region to meet him in 1109. He remained with him for eleven months, studying a variety of practices that Mi la ras pa had received from his teacher, the farmer and translator Mar pa (Marpa, 10121097), who had studied with the Indian scholar and adept Nāropa (c. 9661040), himself a disciple of the mysterious Tantric master, Tilopa. The practices included complex Tantric meditations in which enlightenment is approached through visualization of oneself in divine form, as well as manipulation of the physical and mental processes in the subtle body. Of these, Mi la ras pa specially prescribed for Sgam po pa the procedure for generating gtum mo, or "inner heat," one of the "Six Dharmas of Nāropa." He also learned the "great seal" (mahāmudrā ; Tib., phyag rgya chen po ), a perspective on reality and a meditative procedure in which enlightenment is reached by direct contemplation of the empty, luminous, blissful nature of the mind. After leaving Mi la ras pa, Sgam po pa spent a decade in various parts of Central Tibet, mostly engaged in meditative retreat, the outcome of which was realization of the nature of his own mind and attainment of an enlightened state.

In 1121, he went to live on Sgam po mountain, in the Dvags region of south-central Tibet. He built a small temple there, offered instruction, and began to attract disciples. He spent most of his remaining years at Sgam po, lecturing to groups of followers and giving individual advice. In the process, he began to systematize the doctrines and establish the institutional base of what would soon be known as the Bka' brgyud (Oral Lineage) sect. A number of his students, most notably Phag mo gru pa (Pakmo Drupa, 11101170), Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Dusum Khyenpa, 11101193), and Dvags po sgom tshul (Dakpo Gomtsul, 11161169), became themselves (or through their disciples) the founders of nearly all subsequent Bka' brgyud monastic centers and teaching lineageslineages that, because of their common source in Sgam po pa's center in Dvags, generally are referred to as the Dvags po Bka' brgyud (Dakpo Kagyu).

Sgam po pa's collected works consists of approximately forty texts, most of which appear to be compilations of notes taken by his disciples or compositions by later members of the tradition. Besides three biographies of Sgam po pa written long after his death, his corpus includes lecture series in which he interweaves teachings on Mahāyāna, Tantra, and mahāmudrā ; dialogues on difficult points with a number of his important disciples; instructions on Tantric deities, rituals, and meditations; discussions of mahāmudrā theory and practice; and Bka' gdams pa inspired writings on the ascending stages of the path to enlightenment.

Among the latter are two well-known works probably composed by Sgam po pa himself, the Lam mchog rin po che'i phreng ba (Precious garland of the supreme path) and the Thar pa rin po che'i rgyan (Jewel ornament of liberation). The former is a collection of numbered lists of things to practice, things to avoid, and things to transcend or understand on the path to enlightenment. The latter is Sgam po pa's longest work and magnum opus, an influential systematic exposition of the entire non-Tantric Buddhist path, from gaining a basic appreciation of our capacity for enlightenment; through developing renunciation by recognizing the perils and vicissitudes of sasāra ; to cultivating the compassion, wisdom, and other virtues of a bodhisattva ; and finally to achieving perfect buddhahood.

Equally important are Sgam po pa's writings on mahāmudrā. There are few texts in which he does not address this crucial term, which connotes the empty nature of reality and of the mind and the perfect, blissful realization of it through meditative insight. He gave systematic analyses of various ways in which mahāmudrā might be categorized in relation to the different vehicles of Buddhism; tailored to the needs of gradual or "instantaneous" practitioners; divided along the lines of view, meditation, action, and result; and practiced through such procedures as the four yogas (one-pointedness, nondiscursiveness, single taste, and nonmeditation). Sgam po pa's signal contribution to the discussion of mahāmudrā, however, was his insistence that it need not exclusively be associated with complex Tantric practice, but might also be taught as an independent topic, suitable even for those who lacked initiation, but had faith in and the blessings of their lama. Sgam po pa saw mahāmudrā as both transcending and pervading all vehicles of Buddhism, and his focus on it helped to establish it as a central concern for all subsequent Bka' brgyud pa masters, as well as a topic of discussion and sometimes debate for scholars in nearly all Tibetan traditions.

Because of his dual focuson monastic purity and a gradual approach to enlightenment on the one hand, and on mahāmudrā as a view, technique, and realization crucial for all practitioners on the otherSgam po pa was renowned for having "combined the two streams of Bka' gdams and mahāmudrā." This dual focus established the doctrinal and institutional ethos for most subsequent developments in the Bka' brgyud sect, setting it apart as a tradition that placed a premium both on Tantric and non-Tantric meditative realization and on adherence to an asceticif not always monasticapproach to religious life.

See Also

Mi la ras pa.


Chang, Garma C. C., trans. and ed., The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa: The Life-Story and Teaching of the Greatest Poet-Saint Ever to Appear in the History of Buddhism. 2 vols. New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962; reprint, Boston, 1989. See vol. 2, pages 463497. Includes songs and stories stemming from Sgam po pa's discipleship under Mi la ras pa.

'Gos lo tsa ba gzhon nu dpal. The Blue Annals. Translated by George N. Roerich. Calcutta, 19491953. See pages 451462. This fifteenth-century classic of Tibetan historiography contains numerous references to Sgam po pa.

Gyaltsen, Khenpo Könchog, trans. The Great Kagyu Masters: The Golden Lineage Treasury. Edited by Victoria Huckenpahler. Ithaca, N.Y., 1990. See pages 187204. Translation of a thirteenth-century collection of hagiographies.

Jackson, David P. Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the "Self-Sufficient White Remedy." Vienna, 1994. See pages 953, 149154. Analysis of early Bka' brgyud pa presentations of mahāmudrā, and the criticism of them by Sa skya Paita.

Karthar Rinpoche, Khenpo. The Instructions of Gampopa: A Precious Garland of the Supreme Path. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso. Edited by Laura M. Roth and David N. McCarthy. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996. Primarily a modern commentary on the Lam mchog rin po che'i phreng ba ; includes the original Tibetan root-text, with English translation.

Kragh, Ulrich. "Culture and Subculture: A Study of the Mahāmudrā Teachings of Sgam po pa." M.A. research paper (speciale ), University of Copenhagen, 1998. Includes excellent summaries of the contents of Sgam po pa's collected works and of his views on mahāmudrā.

Nālandā Translation Committee. The Rain of Wisdom. Boulder, Colo., 1980. See pages 217242. Contains a variety of song-poems attributed to Sgam po pa.

Sgam po pa. The Jewel Ornament of Liberation. Translated and annotated by Herbert V. Guenther. London, 1959. The first translation of Sgam po pa's great "stages of the doctrine" text; there is an alternative English translation by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen Rinpoche (Ithaca, N.Y., 1998).

Stewart, Jampa Mackenzie. The Life of Gampopa: The Incomparable Dharma Lord of Tibet. Ithaca, N.Y., 1995. Drawn primarily from previously translated sources, this is an attempt at a "complete" biography of Sgam po pa.

Roger R. Jackson (2005)

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