Sage of the Sakyas: Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s Timeless Legacy

Dive into the saga of Phakpa Rinpoche, the spiritual luminary who scripted history with wisdom and ink, and carved a dynasty from the heart of Tibet. Unravel the mystique of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, whose divine diplomacy and sacred scripts bridged empires, and whose teachings echo through the corridors of time.

Early Life and Education of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, also Known by name Lobsang Gyamtso, when he was young. He was a pivotal figure in Tibetan history. Born in 1235, Phakpa Rinpoche was the fifth patriarch of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism and the founder of the Sakya Dynasty in Tibet. His journey began under the guidance of his uncle, Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen. From a young age, Phakpa Rinpoche showed a deep interest in Buddhist teachings and practices.

Drogon Chogyal Phakpa’s influence expanded further when he met Kublai Khan in 1253. During their encounter, he performed an important empowerment ceremony for Kublai Khan and became his spiritual advisor. This relationship proved pivotal when Kublai Khan ascended the throne. Phakpa rinpoche was appointed as the National Preceptor, granting him oversight of all Buddhists in the Yuan Dynasty.

Contributions to Religion and Politics

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s responsibilities grew as he took charge of the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs in 1264. His role extended beyond spiritual matters to include military and political aspects in Tibet. Notably, in 1268, he developed a new script for the Mongolian language, which was officially adopted by the Yuan court a year later.

Lama Phakpa’s influence reached its peak when he was honored with the titles of Imperial Preceptor and Great Precious Dharma King. Returning to Sakya in 1276, he governed over a vast region, encompassing 130,000 households in Tibet.

Remembering a Tibetan Legend

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s life story is not just a tale of religious leadership; it is a narrative of cultural and political significance. His interactions with key historical figures like Kublai Khan and his role in the shaping of Tibetan and Mongolian history make him a fascinating subject for both scholars and history enthusiasts. His legacy continues to inspire and inform our understanding of this crucial period in Tibetan and Asian history.

八思巴
八思巴

The Remarkable Journey of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa


A Prodigy in the Making

Born into the influential Khön family on March 6, 1235, in Tibet’s Lhokha region, Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, known simply as “Pakpa,” was destined for greatness. The Khön family was instrumental in establishing the Sakya Monastery and the Sakya sect in the early 8th century. Recognized for his exceptional talents from a tender age, Pakpa was able to recite mantras and practice rituals by the age of three. His profound wisdom earned him the name “Pakpa,” which means “Sublime Wisdom” in Tibetan.

Early Encounters with the Mongol Empire

During Pakpa’s early years, the Mongol Empire was rapidly expanding its territories. In 1239, the Mongol military campaign turned its focus towards Tibet. A year later, Koden, son of Mongol Khan Ögedei, launched an invasion of Tibet, then known as Tubo, to establish Mongolian rule.

The Pivotal Liangzhou Conference

In a significant turn of events in 1244, Koden invited Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyeltsen, Pakpa’s uncle and the head of the Sakya sect, to Liangzhou (now Wuwei in Gansu) to discuss Tibet’s governance. Despite his age and frail health, Sakya Pandita embarked on this journey with his nephews, ten-year-old Pakpa and six-year-old Chagna Dorje. This delegation symbolized the future leadership of the Sakya sect and the Khön family.

In 1246, they reached Liangzhou, and in January 1247, met with Koden. This meeting, known as the Liangzhou Conference, marked a critical point in Tibetan history, formally bringing ever lasting Tibet and Mongol Relations. Sakya Pandita became Koden’s spiritual teacher and stayed in Liangzhou, with Pakpa continuing his studies under his guidance.

Pakpa’s Role in Cultural and Political Integration

Pakpa was not only a religious leader but also a cultural and political figure. He authored several works, including the “Manifestation of Awareness.” His influence extended to the selection, design, and planning of Dadu (the Great Capital, now Beijing). His efforts significantly contributed to integrating Tibet with the rest of China, creating the Mongolian script, spreading Buddhism to Inner Mongolia and North China, and the flourishing of the Sakya sect in Tibet. These contributions fostered cultural exchanges between Tibet and other parts of China.

Legacy of a Visionary Leader

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s life story is a testament to his visionary leadership and the profound impact he had on the cultural and political landscapes of his time. His extraordinary abilities and strategic diplomacy played a pivotal role in shaping the course of Tibetan and Mongolian history, leaving a legacy that continues to be celebrated and studied.

drogon choegyal phakpa
Drogon choegyal phakpa

The Rise of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa as a Diplomat and Leader


Ascending to Leadership

In 1251, a pivotal moment in Tibetan history occurred when Sakya Pandita passed away in Liangzhou. At just 17, Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, known as “Pakpa,” stepped into a significant role, becoming the second head of the Huanhua Temple in Liangzhou and inheriting the leadership of the Sakya sect. His expertise in the “Five Sciences” earned him the title “Pandita,” denoting his status as a highly learned scholar.

The Tibetan Census and Feudal System Implementation

The following year, under the directives of Mongke Khan, a census was conducted in Tibet. Phakpa delegated Geshi Dorji and Geshi Sonam to assist the imperial envoys in this task. Additionally, Mongke Khan introduced a feudal system in Tibet, with the Sakya monastery and its lands remaining under the patronage of Phakpa Rinpoche, cementing the Sakya and Mongol influence in the region.

Kublai Khan’s Military Campaign and Meeting with Pakpa

In the summer of 1253, as Kublai Khan, Mongke Khan’s brother, pushed his military campaign to Liupan Mountain and Lintao, Phakpa was invited to meet him. This meeting would prove crucial for Tibet’s future.

Diplomatic Discussions with Kublai Khan

During their encounter, Kublai Khan inquired about Tibetan history and Sakya Pandita’s situation. He then revealed his plans to levy troops and collect treasures from Tibet. Phakpa, understanding Tibet’s remote and impoverished condition, pleaded against such burdens. Initially, Kublai Khan was unresponsive to Pakpa’s arguments. Pakpa, standing firm, requested to return home if Tibetan monks were to be overburdened. This prompted Kublai Khan’s principal wife, Chabi, to intervene, praising Pakpa’s wisdom and virtues, leading to his retention for further discussions.

In their subsequent conversation, Phakpa enlightened Kublai Khan about his ancestors’ significant spiritual roles across various regions, including Han, Western Xia, and Tibet. This discussion shed light on the rich and complex history of Tibetan Buddhism and its influence.

Addressing Tibetan History with Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan, unfamiliar with the nuances of Tibetan history, questioned the existence of Tibetan kings, suggesting it contradicted Buddhist scriptures. Pakpa skillfully recounted the history of Tibetan kings, their conflicts, alliances and rivalries with the Han, and the arrival of Princess Wencheng with sacred statues. He emphasized that these historical events, though not in Buddhist texts, were recorded in other historical documents.

Pakpa’s Influence and Diplomacy

This series of events highlights Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s remarkable diplomatic skills and deep understanding of the political and cultural landscapes of his time. His interactions with influential leaders like Kublai Khan not only shaped the course of Tibetan history but also exemplified his role as a bridge between different cultures and political entities. Pakpa’s legacy as a leader, scholar, and diplomat continues to be a significant part of Tibetan and Mongolian history.

drogon choegyal phakpa
Drogon choegyal phakpa

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa: A Spiritual Guide in the Yuan Dynasty


Establishing a Spiritual Bond with Kublai Khan

During his discussions with Kublai Khan, Phakpa Rincpoche referenced these historical events, which Kublai Khan confirmed through Chinese records. Impressed by Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s extensive knowledge, Kublai Khan sought the Vajrakilaya empowerment, a crucial ritual in Tibetan Buddhism. Phakpa agreed to conduct the ritual, but insisted that Kublai Khan adhere to the traditional protocol of respecting a spiritual master. Chabi, Kublai Khan’s wife, proposed a compromise for formal settings, allowing Kublai Khan to maintain his royal dignity. This agreement solidified Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s role as Kublai Khan’s spiritual teacher and set the stage for Tibetan Buddhism to become the state religion of the Yuan Dynasty, leading to the establishment of the Imperial Preceptor system.

Royal Family’s Esoteric Initiations

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa met Kublai Khan and his family, initiating 25 royal family members into esoteric practices. Kublai Khan honored this empowerment with offerings of treasures, symbolizing the deepening bond between the royal family and Tibetan Buddhism.

A Shift in Plans for Phakpa rinpoche

While Kublai Khan progressed with his southern campaign against Dali, Phakpa Rincpoche returned to U-Tsang with plans to receive monastic ordination from master Wu Yuba. However, upon learning of Wu Yuba’s death, Phakpa had to change his plans and returned from his journey.

A Reunion and Protective Edict

In 1254, Drogon Choegyal Phakpa and Kublai Khan, returning from Yunnan, reunited at Techi. In early May, Kublai Khan issued an edict focused on the protection of monasteries, advising monks to refrain from seeking official positions or misusing imperial decrees. The edict emphasized reverence towards heaven and prayers for the empire, reflecting the growing influence of Tibetan Buddhism in state affairs.

Phakpa’s Monastic Ordination and Religious Activities

In 1255, Phakpa traveled to Hezhou, where he received full monastic ordination from masters Netangba Drakpa Sangpo, Chaba Chekhyi Sangpo, and Yalongba Lama Jonang. He then proceeded to Shangdu (present-day Xilin Gol, Inner Mongolia) to partake in religious activities, further solidifying his role as a spiritual leader.

Visits and Literary Contributions

In 1257, Drogon Choegyal Phakpa visited the sacred Buddhist site of Mount Wutai. Inspired by the serene surroundings, he composed several poems, including “Praises to Manjushri” and “Praises to Manjushri’s Firm Dharma Wheel,” and penned the “Extensive Record of Hearing the Dharma.” These writings reflect Phakpa’s deep spiritual insights and his contribution to Buddhist literature.

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s journey as a spiritual leader and scholar in the Yuan Dynasty showcases his significant role in integrating Tibetan Buddhism with the political and cultural fabric of the empire. His interactions with Kublai Khan and the royal family, coupled with his literary contributions, mark him as a pivotal figure in the spread and influence of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongol, China, Korea, Vietnam and beyond.

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s Role in Resolving Religious Debates and Supporting Kublai Khan


The Great Debate of 1258

In 1258, a significant event occurred under the auspices of Kublai Khan, who was delegated by Mongke Khan to host a major debate in Kaiping. This debate, involving seventeen participants from both Buddhism and Daoism, centered around the authenticity of the Daoist text “Laozi Huahu Jing.” Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, esteemed in the Buddhist community, played a pivotal role in this debate.

When Daoists challenged Buddhist orthodoxy using the “Records of the Grand Historian,” it was Phakpa Rinpoche who pointed out contradictions in their arguments. The debate concluded with Daoism acknowledging defeat, leading to the conversion of seventeen Daoist practitioners, including Fan Zhiying, to Buddhism. This victory also resulted in the transformation of some Daoist temples into Buddhist monasteries. Mongke Khan, impressed by the outcome, held Phakpa in high regard. In the same year, Phakpa authored “Mirror of the Dharma and Fruit,” reflecting his sect’s perspectives.

Supporting Kublai Khan during Turbulent Times

In 1260, following Mongke Khan’s demise and the power struggle between Kublai Khan and his brother Ariq Böke, Phakpa remained a staunch supporter of Kublai Khan. After Kublai Khan’s initial victory in December 1260, he returned to Yanjing (now Beijing), and appointed the then 22-year-old Phakpa as the National Preceptor. In this role, Phakpa was entrusted with a jade seal and given authority over all Buddhist matters in the Mongol Khanate.

Facilitating the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau Route

Recognizing the logistical challenges of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Kublai Khan, now the Great Khan, decided to construct a series of post stations to facilitate travel to Tibet. With Phakpa’s support, a route from Qinghai to the Sakya region was established. Phakpa issued a decree to the Tibetan Buddhist community to assist in this monumental construction effort. As a result, 27 major post stations were established, ensuring smoother travel and communication across the region.

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa: A Central Figure in the Yuan Dynasty


Establishing the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs

In 1264, a significant development occurred when Kublai Khan moved the capital to Dadu (formerly Yanjing, now Beijing) and established the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Drogon Choegyal Phakpa was appointed as its head, reflecting his growing influence in the empire. That same year, Kublai Khan issued a decree acknowledging his initiation by Phakpa, further solidifying Phakpa’s role in overseeing all Buddhist affairs.

Phakpa’s Brother’s Appointment and Administrative Responsibilities

Phakpa’s brother, Chagna Dorje, also played a notable role, being appointed as the King of Bailan. In 1264, the brothers were tasked with establishing an administrative system in Tibet. This move was pivotal in integrating Tibetan governance with the broader Mongolian administrative framework.

In 1265, Phakpa arrived in Lhasa and presented New Year’s greetings to Kublai Khan at the Jokhang Temple. He then proceeded to Sakya to oversee the renovation of the monastery. His efforts included commissioning new Buddha statues, stupas, and transcribing texts. Phakpa also dedicated time to studying various Buddhist doctrines and traditional Tibetan sciences under the guidance of over twenty masters.

Creation of the New Mongolian Script

During his three-year stay in Tibet, Phakpa not only established an administrative system but also created a new Mongolian script. This script, based on the thirty Tibetan alphabets, consisted of forty-one letters. In 1269, he returned to Dadu and presented this new script to Kublai Khan, who immediately adopted it for official use.

Phakpa’s Promotion and Religious Activities

In 1270, following a second esoteric initiation given to Kublai Khan, Phakpa was promoted to Imperial Preceptor and received a new jade seal. His full title emphasized his multifaceted role as a religious leader, scholar, and administrator. As the Imperial Preceptor, Phakpa was responsible for teaching the emperor, empress, and crown prince, conducting prayers for their longevity, and leading extensive Buddhist activities.

In 1269, Phakpa led a seven-day ritual at the Imperial Ancestral Temple, and the following year, he installed a protective white parasol with gold Sanskrit inscriptions in the imperial throne room, symbolizing protection and national peace.

Patronage in the U-Tsang Region

Kublai Khan designated 130,000 households in the U-Tsang region under Phakpa’s patronage, further extending his influence. In 1271, Phakpa left Dadu for Lintao to spend the summer and built a temple to further spread Buddhism. In March 1274, escorted by Prince Zhenjin, he traveled to Lhasa, where his brother Yelü Zhun succeeded him as the Imperial Preceptor and took over the governance of Tibet. During this journey, Phakpa wrote to Kublai Khan, congratulating him on the Yuan army’s conquests and advising on kindness and cessation of killing. He also imparted Buddhist teachings, which later formed the basis of his work “Manifestation of Awareness.”

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa: Establishing the Sakya Sect’s Governance in Tibet


Returning to Sakya and Becoming Sakya Trizin

By the end of 1273, Drogon Choegyal Phakpa reached Sakya, where he was met by local Geshes (Buddhist scholars) and regional leaders. In Sakya, he formally took the title of Sakya Trizin, signifying his position as the head of the Sakya sect. This move was crucial in establishing the sect’s political-religious governance in Tibet. Phakpa appointed Panchen Shakya Sangpo to oversee the 130,000 households in the region, marking a significant step in the consolidation of the Sakya sect’s authority.

Promoting Cultural Exchange

During his leadership, Phakpa facilitated cultural exchange between Tibet and the mainland. He was instrumental in bringing Tibetan art to the mainland and introducing advancements such as printing and theatrical arts to Tibet. These contributions enriched the cultural landscape of both regions.

The Chumi Assembly

In January 1277, Phakpa organized a grand religious assembly near the Natang Monastery in western Tibet, known as the “Chumi Assembly.” Attracting around 70,000 monks, this event, sponsored in Kublai Khan’s name, was a monumental gathering. The Chumi Assembly played a vital role in resolving differences, consolidating the administrative system in Tibet, and expanding the influence of the Sakya sect.

Reappointment of Officials and Ensuing Tensions

While in Sakya, Phakpa made several reappointments of officials in the U-Tsang region. These changes, however, led to some dissatisfaction among the local populace. Following the departure of Zhenjin’s escort army, tensions in the region escalated. Zhenjin is the crown prince and son of Kublai Khan.

The “Han-Tibet History Collection” records a significant event during this period. Panchen Gongkor Sangpo, having betrayed the Sakya sect, reported the matter to Kublai Khan’s court. Given the crucial relationship between the Yuan court and the Sakya sect, Kublai Khan opted to protect the sect. He dispatched minister Sangge, leading a substantial Mongol army of 100,000 soldiers, to address the situation. The Mongol army quickly subdued the opposition, executing Gongkor Sangpo, and subsequently met with Phakpa before returning.

The Legacy of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa


The Passing of a Visionary Leader

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa, a monumental figure in Tibetan and Mongolian history, passed away on November 22, 1280, at the age of 46, within the sacred walls of the Sakya Monastery’s Lhakang. While some sources suggest that his death was due to poisoning by attendants, the exact circumstances remain a topic of historical speculation.

Posthumous Honors by Kublai Khan

After Phakpa’s passing, Kublai Khan bestowed upon him a title that underscored his immense contributions and his high standing in the Yuan Dynasty: “Under the Emperor, Above All Others, Opening the Teaching and Spreading the Doctrine, Great Saint of Supreme Virtue, Fully Awakened in True Wisdom, Protector of the Nation and Auspicious, Great Precious Dharma King, Son of Buddha from the Western Heaven, Imperial Preceptor of the Great Yuan.” This title reflected the profound respect and recognition Kublai Khan had for Phakpa’s spiritual and administrative accomplishments.

Commemorating Phakpa’s Life

Following his death, Imperial Scholar Wang Pan and others took on the task of composing Phakpa’s biography, ensuring that his life and achievements would be remembered for generations. In 1320, Emperor Renzong of Yuan further honored Phakpa’s memory by decreeing the construction of Imperial Preceptor Pakpa halls across the country.

In 1324, the Yuan court commissioned eleven portraits of Phakpa, distributing them to various provinces for veneration. This act of respect illustrates the lasting impact Phakpa had on the empire and the reverence with which he was held.

Continuation of the Imperial Preceptor System

The Imperial Preceptor system, a significant legacy of Phakpa’s influence in the Yuan Dynasty, continued after his death. The position was successively held by monks from the Sakya sect, including his half-brother Renchin Gyamtso and nephew Dampa Paljor. This continuity ensured that several Imperial Preceptors from the Sakya sect guided the spiritual and political realms of the Yuan Dynasty until its conclusion.

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s life and passing marked a significant epoch in the history of the Yuan Dynasty and Tibetan Buddhism. His contributions as a spiritual leader, scholar, and diplomat were monumental in shaping the religious and political landscapes of his time. His posthumous honors and the continued tradition of the Imperial Preceptor system are testaments to his enduring legacy and the profound respect he commanded.

The Profound Influence of Drogon Choegyal Phakpa


Establishing the Sakya Sect and Governing Tibet

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s meeting with Kublai Khan in 1253 at Liupan Mountain marked a turning point in the influence of Buddhism in the Mongol court. During a significant debate in 1258, Phakpa successfully argued against the Daoist leader, asserting the authenticity of Buddhist teachings over the “Laozi Huahu Jing.” In 1264, Phakpa took charge of the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs, overseeing Buddhist monks and the military-political affairs of Tibet.

He also played a key role in establishing military and political institutions in Ü-Tsang after returning to Sakya in 1265. His implementation of the “Labrang” and “Panchen” systems in 1267 solidified the dual religious-secular governance in Tibet. The large religious assembly he organized in 1277 further consolidated the Sakya sect’s position and the administrative system in western Tibet.

Creation of the ‘Phags-pa Script

Kublai Khan tasked Phakpa with creating a unified script for the diverse Yuan Empire. The result was the ‘Phags-pa script, introduced in 1269, which was able to transcribe Mongolian, Chinese, Tibetan, Uyghur languages, and even Sanskrit. This script, based on the Tibetan alphabet, played a crucial role in unifying the writing system within the Yuan Empire, aiding governance and cultural integration.

Historical Evaluations and Literary Contributions

Phakpa is revered in historical texts for his intellectual prowess and mastery of the “Five Sciences.” His literary contributions include “The Ritual of Full Ordination for the Sarvāstivāda School” (1270), “The Abridged Method of Practice for the Sarvāstivāda School” (1271), and “Manifestation of Awareness” (1274), which he wrote for Crown Prince Zhenjin.

Anecdotes and Name Translation

Phakpa’s name, meaning “saint” or “sage,” is translated in various forms in Chinese records. His birth and premonition of death are surrounded by legends, adding to his mystique. Tibetan Buddhism observes “Pakpa’s Parinirvana Day” annually, commemorating his spiritual legacy.

The Legacy in Historical Sources and Impact of the ‘Phags-pa Script

The ‘Phags-pa script’s historical significance is evident in its use for official Yuan documents and its versatility in transcribing multiple languages. After the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the script gradually fell out of use but remains a valuable resource for historical study.

Commemoration and Literary Image

Phakpa is commemorated annually in Tibetan Buddhism and is portrayed in Japanese classical literature as a wise military advisor, similar to his historical role in the Mongol Yuan Dynasty.

Drogon Choegyal Phakpa’s legacy is multifaceted, encompassing religious leadership, linguistic innovation, and diplomatic skills. His contributions to Tibetan Buddhism, the political landscape of the Yuan Dynasty, and cultural integration are profound and enduring. His life and works continue to be a subject of study and veneration, highlighting his significant impact on the history of Tibet and the Mongol Empire.

About the author

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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