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Discovering Sangding Monastery: Unique Tibetan Buddhist Gem

The Enchanting Location of Samding Monastery

Nestled atop a hill in Nagartse County, near the southwestern shores of the Yamdrok Lake, lies the serene Samding Monastery, also known as “Sangding Gonpa.” This sacred site, with its alternate names like “Samding Gonpa,” stands as a beacon of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality.

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The Historical Saga of Sangding Monastery


Founded in the mid-14th century (around 1440) by the Shangpa Kagyu lineage’s disciple Shonu Drak, Samding Monastery is a marvel of architectural beauty, reminiscent of the Potala Palace. It comprises distinct sections – the Red and White Palaces. Initially a modest structure, it underwent expansions under the guidance of the second and fifth Dorje Pakmo, with significant enhancements to the Buddha Hall, stupa, and statues.

Samding Monastery: A Unique Blend of Monks and Nuns

What sets Samding Monastery apart is its unique status as a co-residence for monks and nuns, presided over by Tibet’s only female living Buddha, Dorje Phagmo. Dorje Phagmo, meaning “Diamond Sow” in Tibetan, is a revered deity in Tantric Buddhism. The lineage of Dorje Phagmo, recognized first by Thang Tong Gyalpo (1385–1464), has a rich history of reincarnations. The second female living Buddha in this lineage was the niece of the sixth Panchen Lama, Lobsang Palden Yeshe (1738–1780). This lineage has continued through twelve generations to the present day.

Samding Monastery’s Treasures and Practices

The monastery houses the physical remains of previous Dorje Pakmos and possesses a priceless artefact – the Ushnisha Vijaya Crown. The primary practices here involve the secret rituals of Vajrayogini, drawing from Indian yogic traditions. Despite destruction during the Cultural Revolution, the monastery was restored in 1983 and now is home to over 50 monks and nuns.

Meeting the Twelfth Female Living Buddha


An intriguing aspect of Samding Monastery is the twelfth female living Buddha, Dorje Pakmo Dechen Chokyi Drolma. Her residence, adorned with various flowers and housing sacred shrines, offers a glimpse into her spiritual life. As she explained, her ascension to the role of a living Buddha followed the traditional search for a girl born on the same day and hour as the previous Dorje Pakmo’s passing.

Sangding Monastery: A Beacon of Tibetan Spirituality

Samding Monastery stands as a testament to the resilience and spiritual depth of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s not just a place of worship but a living museum, echoing centuries of religious history and cultural significance. This sacred site continues to inspire and attract visitors and devotees from around the world, seeking a piece of Tibetan spiritual heritage.

The Living Legacy of Female Living Buddha Dorje Phagmo


Sipping traditional Tibetan butter tea, Dechen Chokyi Drolma, the twelfth Dorje Phagmo, actively recounts her early days and admits that her young age makes some memories vague. She vividly remembers a pivotal moment when, following the previous living Buddha’s passing, authorities searched for his reincarnation. They invited various girls to choose from an array of items. Instinctively, Dechen Chokyi Drolma picked a porcelain cat, a former possession of the late living Buddha. This choice confirmed her as the reincarnated living Buddha and led her to the Samding Monastery.

There, she embarked on a rigorous journey of learning scriptures, blessing the faithful, and even meeting the Dalai Lama at the Potala Palace. In 1955, her unique status garnered her meetings with prominent Chinese leaders like Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai, and Marshal Zhu De.

Dechen Chokyi Drolma: A Prominent Tibetan Figure

Today, Dekyi Chodon holds significant positions as the Vice-Chairperson of the Autonomous Regional Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a member of the National Committee of the CPPCC, a delegate of the National People’s Congress, and an executive member of the China Buddhist Association.

The Dorje Phagmo Lineage: A Blend of Spirituality and Leadership


Dorje Phagmo, (བསམ་སྡིང་རྡོ་རྗེ་ཕག་མོ) 桑顶多杰帕姆 a revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism, is considered an embodiment of Vajrayogini, a principal deity. This lineage, now in its twelfth generation, has a rich history of incarnations in Tibet, India, and Nepal.

The First Dorje Phagmo: Jigten Chökyi Drönma རྗེ་བཙུན་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྒྲོན་མེ།(?–1489)


A descendant of the Tibetan royal lineage of Langdarma, Jetsun Chökyi Dröma is believed to be a reincarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal, the Tibetan consort of Padmasambhava. Born to parents Chila Wangcham Tsang and Dode Jam, she demonstrated an early inclination towards Buddhist teachings. Ordained as a nun by Pawo Tsuglak Nyingpo, she received the name “Gongchok Jam.” Under his guidance, she travelled across Tibet, studying the Tripitaka and receiving esoteric teachings. Later, she achieved enlightenment under the tutelage of Thang Tong Gyalpo and, with support from the nobleman Namkha Jangchub, founded Samding Monastery in 1440, establishing it as the seat for successive Dorje Phagmo incarnations.

The Second Dorje Phagmo: Jetsun Kunga Zangmo ཀུན་དགའ་བཟང་མོ།(1490–1533)


Born in the Myangkhar region (modern-day Nyingchi), her parents were the accomplished masters Chodan Dorje and Jomtso Dolma. Recognized by Thang Tong Gyalpo as the reincarnation of the first Dorje Phagmo, she began her spiritual training at age five. She later moved to Samding Monastery, studying under Pandita Maitripa Zang and receiving esoteric teachings. With support from Chalpa Namkha Tashi Darje, she founded Chalchode Monastery and expanded Samding Monastery with help from local patrons.

The Third Dorje Phagmo: Jigten Nyendrak Zangmo སྙན་གྲགས་བཟང་མོ།(1534–1574)


Nyendrak Sangmo was born in the Nyêmo region to parents Pawo Lonchu and Tashi Pabey. Recognized and enthroned by the master Mipham Sangpo, she took the name “Nyendrak Zangmo” and studied various Buddhist scriptures at Sangding Monastery. She established a debate courtyard, attracting numerous disciples and spreading the teachings. Her literary contributions include works like “The Stages of the Path for the Three Types of Persons” and “A Commentary on the Union of Method and Wisdom.”

The Fourth Dorje Phagmo: Orgyen Tsomo ཨོ་རྒྱན་མཚོ་མོ།(1575–1584)


Born in the Sowa shi region of Kham, Orgyen Tsomo was the daughter of Banpo Jangchu and Khadroma Taguo. Recognized and enthroned by Jangyang Dam Drakpa and others, she unfortunately passed away at the young age of about 10.

The Fifth Dorje Phagmo: Yeshe Tsomo མཁའ་སྤྱོད་ཡེ་ཤེས་མཚོ་མོ། (1585–1640)


Yeshe Tsomo was born in the Gama Zongsar region of Gong. She received novice vows from Kunchok Leknam Je. She significantly spread the teachings of Pawo Tsuglag and expanded the practices of secret mantras. Her efforts led to the systematic organization and institutionalization of religious rituals and teachings at Samding Monastery, thus establishing a comprehensive religious system that continues to this day.

The Sixth Dorje Phagmo: Dechen Trinle Tsomo བསྟན་འཛིན་བདེ་ཆེན་འཕྲིན་ལས་གཙོ་མོ།(1641–1707)


Born in the Dzogang Darlong region, Dechen Trinle Tsomo received ordination from Juela Ichikyab Chokyi Gyatso, adopting the monastic name “Tenzin Dechen Trinle Tsomo.” She studied both exoteric and esoteric Buddhist teachings and the secret teachings of Pawo Tsuglag under masters like Jogang Dorje Ningpo. She presided over the monastery, extensively spreading the Dharma, and lived to the age of 66.

The Seventh Dorje Phagmo: Chödron Wangmo དཔལ་ལྡན་གསང་སྔགས་འཁོར་ལོའི་དབང་མོ།(1708–1752)


Chödron Wangmo was born in Ningmu Tongxi. She studied under masters like Ichikyab Chokyi Gyatso and Jogang Pema Chokyi. Renowned for her miraculous abilities, a famous incident occurred during an invasion by Dzungar forces led by Tsewang Rabtan. As they attacked Sangding Monastery, Chödron Wangmo instructed the monks to hide while she stayed behind. Meditating in the White Palace, she transformed into a ferocious, fiery wild boar, performing various magical acts. When the Dzungar soldiers entered the protector deity’s temple, the elephant-headed deity reportedly spewed blood, forming a sea that subdued the army. They surrendered their weapons and vowed not to harm the monastery again. This story is widely known across Tibet.

The Eighth Dorje Phagmo:  Kelzang Choden Dechen Wangmo སྐལ་བཟང་ཆོས་ལྡན་བདེ་ཆེན་དབང་མོ།(1753–1802)


Kalsang Choden Dechen Wangmo, born in Namling and the niece of the Sixth Panchen Lama, journeyed to Samding Monastery where the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kalsang Gyatso, ordained her. She studied Pawo Tsuglag’s teachings under masters like Mingyur Rinchen Tsangpo and Gelek Jamyang Zang. She received teachings like “Great Might” from the Sixth Panchen Lama at Tashilhunpo Monastery. The Panchen Lama granted her the Gyangtse Nainang Temple in Kangmar County. Along with its lands and people, for the benefit of Samding Monastery. Emperor Qianlong reportedly invited her to the inland and bestowed upon her the title of “Hutuktu,” a designation for a high-ranking lama.

The Ninth Dorje Phagmo: Choying Dechen Tsomo ཆོས་དབྱིངས་བདེ་ཆེན་དབང་མོ།(?–1856)

Choying Dechen Tsomo was born into the Lhasa Lhalu family. She took monastic vows at the age of nine from Tsemoling Ngawang Jamphel. She was given the name “Jetsun Ngawang Lobsang Choying Dechen Tsomo by him. Choying Dechen Tsomo is also a niece of Gyalwa Jamphel Gyatso and Panchen Tenphel Nyima. She studied various teachings under masters like Chokyi Lundup and Rigzen Nangwa, and the Nyingma teachings from Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo. From her time, Sangding Monastery widely practised the Nyingma secret teachings. She authored texts like “Sublime Treasure Revealed” and “The Ritual of Fulfillment Fire Offering,”. She also expanded and renovated the temple buildings and stupas of Sangding Monastery.

The Tenth Dorje Phagmo: Ngawang Rinchen Kunsang Wangmo ངག་དབང་རིན་ཆེན་ཀུན་བཟང་དབང་མོ།(1857–1897)

Ngawang Rinchen Kunsang Wangmo played a key role as a recognized lineage holder of the treasure revealer Dechin Lingpa’s terma (hidden treasure) tradition. She actively propagated the teachings of Pawo Tsuglag and dedicated herself to practicing and spreading terma revelations.

The Eleventh Dorje Phagmo: Thubten Chöying Pelmo ཐུབ་བསྟན་ཆོས་དབྱིངས་དཔལ་མོ། (1898–1937)


Born in Toilung, she was the daughter of Namgya Dorje and Jangchuk Drolma. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, granted her monastic vows and named her “Jetsun Tubten Chöying Pelmo.” Under masters such as Gelek Dorje and Songdan Pawo Wangchuk, she mastered all the teachings and secret instructions of Pawo Tsuglag. When the Thirteenth Dalai Lama returned from India, she and her disciples received numerous empowerments and teachings at Samding Monastery, leading to her elevation to the rank of “Great Hutuktu.”

The Twelfth Dorje Phagmo: Dechen Chokyi Drolma, བདེ་ཆེན་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྒྲོལ་མ། (born 1938)


Dechen Chokyi Drolma was Born in Nyemo. Daughter of Rigten Gyalpo and Sonam Dolkar, Dechen Chokyi Drolma was recognized as the reincarnation of Dorje Phagmo at the age of 6 at the Lhasa Tsangkung Nunnery and subsequently brought to Samding Monastery. At age 12, Regent Taktra Rinpoche ordained her, and she adopted the name “Jetsun Ngawang Dechen Chokyi Drolma.” She studied all teachings of Pawo Tsuglag under master Ngawang Gyurmey Thupten Nengjie and received empowerment from masters like Sikyong Rinpoche and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In 1959, she travelled from Bhutan, India, Afghanistan, through the former Soviet Union to Beijing for the National Day celebrations.

Visiting Sangding Monastery: Tips for Travelers

  • Admission Fee: There is no entrance fee, but donations are welcome.
  • Visiting Hours: The monastery is open from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
  • Travel Information: The monastery is about 10 kilometres from the county town. Visitors can either hire a car or drive themselves, with car hire costs ranging from 30 to 50 yuan. The journey also offers an opportunity to visit the scenic Yamdrok Lake.
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The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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