Jangchub Tsondru (1817 – 1856)

Jangchub Tsondru was a chief lama to the important Bhutanese leader, Trongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyal (krong gsar dpon slob ’jigs med rnam rgyal, 1825-1881), and the inventor of the “Jarog Dongchen” (bya rog gdong can) headgear which protects him. Born in southern Tibet, he was associated with Bhutan at a young age and spent most of his life travelling between Tibet and Bhutan, and especially between Lhodrak and Bumthang. He was a free spirit, travelling almost incessantly, interested in teachings from different religious schools, and detached from material possessions. He also appears to have been a powerful and much sought after lama, said to be able to subdue two categories of spirits, the lu and the gyelpo.

Jangchub Tsondru (byang chub brtson grus, 1817-1856) was born in 1817 at Olka (’ol kha) near Gyantse (rgyal rtse) in Tsang. His childhood name is not known. His father, Tamdrin Wangyal (rta mgrin dbang rgyal), was the son of a tantrist priest named Pel Dorje (dpal rdo rje) whose lineage was traced to Yungton Dorje Pel (g.yung ston rdo rje dpal, 1284-1365). His mother, Dorje Drolma, (rdo rje sgrol ma) belonged to the famous Zur lineage of Uglung (’ug lung) and had among her ancestors the great Nyingmapa lama Zurton Choying Rangrol (zur ston chos dbyings rang grol, 1604-1669), one of the masters of the 5th Dalai Lama. Her father was also a tantrist (sngags pa) called Kunzang Rangrol (kun bzang rang sgrol). Therefore both his parents claimed prestigious religious Nyingmapa ancestry.

In 1823 Jangchub Tsondru entered Wensa (dben sa), a small Gelugpa monastery not far from Shigatse, famous for the Wensa Nyengyu (dben sa snyan brgyud) tradition that was propagated by Wensapa Lobsang Dongrub (dben sa pa blo bzang don grub, 1505-1566), a student of Gedun Gyatso (dge ’dun rgya mtsho, 1476-1542), the Second Dalai Lama. The mainstream Gelugpa lamas largely ignored the Wensa Nyengyu lineage of teachings, considering it unorthodox, and it survived mostly in Wensa.

At Wensa, Jangchub Tsondru took his Genyen (dge bsnyan), or lay, vows, and received the name Palden Tashi (dpal ldan bkra shis). His mother and step-father/uncle (a khu) supported him materially from the age of seven till he was eighteen years old. In 1824, he took his Getshul (dge tshul), or novice vows (which he would keep until he was twenty-one), and was given the name by which he is known, Jangchub Tsondru. At Wensa, Jangchub Tsondru received religious instructions from Lama Yeshe Chodra (ye shes chos grwa) and often visited Tashilunpo (bkra shis lhun po). He also received instructions in Dzogchen and in the Lama Gondu (bla ma dgongs ’dus) treasure cycle of Sangye Lingpa (sangs rgyas gling pa, 14th century).

According to his biography, Jangchub Tsondru encountered a trader from Paro (spa ro) one afternoon while he was resting at a stupa during his round of the Tashilunpo monastery. He asked the trader where he could find a teacher for Six Yogas of Naropa. The man replied that there was one Lopon Decki (slob dpon bde skyid) in Paro who performed extraordinary deeds. Then Jangchub Tsondru received a prophecy from a lama from Tashilunpo that it would be beneficial for his religious practice if he went to Paro.

Much against his family’s wishes, Jangchub Tsondru left soon after for Pari (phag ri) in the Chumbi valley and from there went on to Paro where he placed himself under the protection of the governor Tsultrim Tharchin (tshul khrims mthar phyin).

From Paro dzong, he went up to Gorina monastery where the Head abbot Sherab Gyeltshen (25th Je Khenpo, r. 1836-1839) resided. Jangchub Tsondru became his disciple and, together with other monks from the community and from and Paro Rinpung Dzong, he received teachings on the works of the great Drukpa Kagyu scholar, Padma Karpo (dpal ma dkar po, 1527-1592), the Six Yogas of Naropa, and other Drukpa teachings. According to his biography, Jangchub Tsondru created quite an impression on the Je Khenpo by arguing with him on the validity of Padma Karpo’s views.

Jangchub Tsondru then returned to Tsang and met with Barawa Jampel Dorje (’ba’ ra ba ’jam dpal rdo rje), the reincarnation of Barawa Gyaltsen Pelzang (’ba’ ra ba rgyal mtshan dpal bzang 1310-1391), the famous Kagyu figure who had been to Bhutan in the 14th century. It seems Barawa Jampel Dorje gave Jangchub Tsondru permission to have consort. The period that followed immediately was distressing, as Jangchub Tsondru became entangled in problems involving the denunciation of Barawa Jampel Dorje to the Tsemoling (tshe smon gling) regent in Lhasa by one of his disciples, apparently jealous of the lama’s favors to Jangchub Tsongru. Barawa died amidst the scandal, perhaps of despair.

After this event, in 1834, Jangchub Tsondru started travelling – visiting sacred sites in Tibet, Kham, and Nepal and India such as Tsari (rtsa ri), Mount Kailash and Bodh Gaya. His connection to Bhutan was renewed when he met Ogyen Namgyal (o rgyan rnam rgyal), a lama from Kham from whom he received numerous teachings, including teachings on Pemalingpa (1450-1521), Karmalingpa (kar+ma gling pa, 14th c.) and Dorje Lingpa (rdo rje gling pa, 1346-1405), as well as initiations on various protectors, among them Gesar as a warrior-deity (dgra lha). This lama told him that of all these teachings, those of Dorje Lingpa were the most profound and extensive, and should be propagated far and wide. He, the lama, was now too old and could not do it but Jangchub Tsongru, as he was young, must take on the task.

Jangchub Tsondru left for the monastery of Chukyer Gonsar (chu mkhyer dgon gsar) near Mount Kulakhari (sku bla mkha’ ri) in Lhodrak, which had been a seat of Dorje Lingpa. There he taught the cycle of Dorje Lingpa to some thirty people, including a lama who was a lineage-holder of Dorje Lingpa’s teachings, who resided in Gonsar, and lamas from Buli and Dranla in Bhutan. He gave the teachings from the texts that were available at Gonsar and for those that were not, he gave them by heart. In particular, he gave the instruction on the Tawa Longyang (lta ba klong yangs) a famous Dzogchen treasure revealed by Dorje Lingpa. That Jangchub Tongdru experienced some apprehension at giving such large public teachings is suggested by a vision he experienced after returning to Tsang, in which a protector deity scolded and slapped him for doing so.

After a brief stay at the hermitages of the three important Gelug monasteries in Lhasa, Jangchub Tsondru left for Pari where the monastery’s choir master (dbu mdzad) was a friend, and then went to Sikkim where he visited the temple of Drakar Tashiteng (Tashiding, brag dkar bkra shis sdings). From there he went to Bhutan. He visited Taktsang (stag tshang) and Chumophug in Paro before moving onto Thimphu where he paid homage to the holy places and met the 26th Je Khenpo Yonten Gyamtsho (rje mkhan po yon tan rgya mtsho, r. 1839-1841) to whom he gave various teachings, including some of Tsongkhapa.

Jangchub Tsondru then returned to Pari and from there seems to have gone straight to Lhodrak on pilgrimage, visiting the places related to treasure revealers and Kagyu history: Lhalung monastery, the residence of the Peling Tugse (pad gling thugs sras) and Peling Sungtrul (pad gling gsung sprul); Guru Lhakhang, the residence of the treasure discoverer Guru Chowang (gu ru chos dbang, 1212-1270); Marpa Lotsawa’s (1012-1096) residence and Sekhar Guthok (sras mkhar sgu thog), the tower built by Milarepa; Karchu Monastery (mkhar chu dgon), the residence of Namkai Nyingpo incarnations (nam mkha’i snying po); and Komting Lhakhang (mkho mthing lha khang), a treasure site of Nyangral Nyima Oser (nyang ral nyi ma ’od zer, 1136-1204).

From Lhodrak, Jangchub Tsondru crossed back into Bhutan via the Monla Karchung pass and arrived in the valley of Chokhor in Bumthang. In Bumthang Jakar (bum thang bya dkar) dzong, he met with the then Tongsa Penlop Ugyen Phuntsho (dpon slob o rgyan phun tshogs), who was from the lineage of Pemalingpa in Tamshing and became Jangchub Tsondru’s first lay patron in Bhutan. Jangchub Tsondru also made a pilgrimage through the Tang valley, visiting Ta Rimocen and other temples, as well as Pephug and Bumthangphug (today in Narut and Sarmed villages). He finished his tour of Bumthang with the Ura valley. Returning to Tibet, he encountered Kunzang Rangrol (kun bzang rang grol, d.u.), from whom he received many Dzogchen and treasure teachings, as well as the Peling teachings on the Kunzang Gongdu (kun bzang dgongs ’dus), Guru Dragpo (gu ru drag po) and Norbu Gyatsho (nor bu rgya mtsho).

After travelling all over central Tibet, he went to meditate at Khenpalung Tsheringjong (mkhan pa klung tshe ring ljongs) in Lhodrak. There he was visited by Dzinpa Wangdu (’dzin pa dbang ’dus), the Gonsar lama descendant of Dorje Lingpa.

The Gonsar lama received teachings from Jangchub Tsondru and served for a while as his secretary, noting down several texts on paper. Then Jangchub Tsondru wandered around the Yamdrok lake and finally, at the end of 1844, after a retreat in Talung near the Yamdrok lake, went back to Gonsar in Lhodrak. He was twenty-nine years old at this time and travelling with a consort and their son. There he met Gantey Tulku Ogyen Delek Namgyal and the Peling Thugse from Lhalung (probably the 8th incarnation, Thugse Kunzang Zilnon, thugs sras kun bzang zil gnon, d.u.), who invited him to return to Bhutan. Following this, Jangchub Tsongru, with his wife and son, established a residence in Khenpajong, where he became extremely well-connected with the leading families of the region, receiving invitations to visit their estates and give teachings.

At some point in the second half of the 1840s, having earlier met the mother of the young 11th Dalai Lama, Kedrub Gyatso (ta lai bla ma 11 mkhas grub rgya mtsho, 1838-1855) during a pilgrimage to Tsari, he was invited to Lhasa to perform a long-life ritual for the young boy.

In1849, Jangchub Tsondru left Gonsar for Bumthang via the Monla Karchung pass. He was invited by Rinchen Pelmo (rin chen dpal mo), Peling Sungtrul’s mother, to her estate of Tashi Peling (bkra shis pad gling), near Zangling in upper Chokhor. While there Jangchub Tsondru received a visit from Jigme Namgyal, then the chamberlain of Trongsa. He shifted to Trongsa, where the current penlop, Tsokye Dorje (mtsho skye rdo rje) had previously invited him. During his stay, he had the Simkhang Thubwang (gzims khang thub dbang) temple built. Although the Penlop was his patron, problems developed between Jangchub Tsongru’s servants and those of Trongsa Dzong, and Jangchub Tsondru soon left for Khenpajong, where he established a hermitage. After returning to Trongsa, Jigme Namgyal asked Jangchub Tsondru for an initiation. Jangchub Tsondru explained to Jigme Namgyal that because he had a problem with a malevolent spirit he should therefore worship Tamdrin Yangsang (rta mgrin yang gsang), an aspect of Hayagriva, and recite his mantra as well as a short text that he composed for the occasion.

Tsondru Gyeltsen (brtson ’grus rgyal mtshan), who was the son of Trongsa Penlop Tsokye Dorje and who had become Jakar Dzongpon, invited Jangchub Tsondru to give initiations, and his father, the Trongsa Penlop, invited the lama to Tang Ogyencholing, which was their estate in Bumthang. He gave the Demchog initiation in detail and in the Wensa Nyengyu tradition to several members of the household. While at Ogyencholing, Jangchub Tsondru also subdued two spirits, a lu (klu) and a gyalpo (rgyal po), which were harming Tsokye Dorje’s daughter.

At the time Bhutan was ruled by Tashi Dorje (bkra shis rdo rje), the 37th desi (sde srid), and the country was not stable. The Trongsa Penlop Tsokye Dorje requested the lama to give prophecies for Bhutan and for the power that Trongsa would hold in the future. Jangchub Tsondru declared: “After the political power of the one who rules Trongsa [Tsokye Dorje] is exhausted, a short man with a black mole on the face [i.e. Jigme Namgyal] will take over the power. There are signs of conflicts concerning Trongsa; in order to prevent them, the Kangyur must be read thirty times.”

Tsokye Dorje had the ritual performed. He also gave teachings to a group of patrons, including Tsokye Dorje and his son, the Tamshing Choje Ugyen who later became Jakar Dzongpon; the Ogyencholing Choje Trinle; and the retired Jakar Dzongpon, Tsakalingpa. Jangchub Tsondru continued to give teachings in central Bhutan, but the political situation was not peaceful. In 1850 Tashi Dorje resigned his position and shortly thereafter died, and Wangchen Gyalpo (dbang chen rgyal po) was appointed to this post, but was assassinated at the end of 1850. In the wake of the discord, Jangchub Tsondru decided to return to Tibet. On the way, he stayed in Tsampa, near the border, and as it was quiet, he composed texts based on Dorje Lingpa’s Dzogchen writings, which he had obtained from the Gonsar Wangdu.

Jangchub Tsondru remained in Tibet for three years. He performed rituals for the 11th Dalai Lama’s mother and for other high officials in Lhasa, and took up the education of his son in Gonsar, bringing him also to Wensa. In 1853 he returned to Bhutan. Jakar Dzong had been damaged by a fire and after the restoration works, the lama was asked to come and perform the consecration ceremony. Jigme Namgyal, now the Trongsa Penlop, was famous throughout Bhutan, and he invited Jangchub Tsondru to Trongsa Dzong. At that time, Jigme Namgyal’s chamberlain was Sonam Dondup (bsod names don grub), the elder brother of the 4th Shabdrung Jigme Norbu (zhabs drung 04 ’jigs med nor bu, 1831-1861).

Returning again to Tibet, Jangchub Tsondru was invited by the abbot of Karchu to stay at Muto Gonkhang (rmu stod mgon khang). Jangchub Tsondru so much liked the place, which had water, junipers and grass, that he built a small house for himself. He briefly left this place to go to Lhasa to perform rituals for the recovery of the Eleventh Dalai Lama, who was sick. In Muto, Jangchub Tsondru started writing his autobiography and gave teachings to disciples coming to see him from Bhutan. He also travelled to Tsang and discovered that he was being criticized in Lhodrak and Bhutan.

While he was in Tsang, Jangchub Tsondru received another invitation from Jigme Namgyal carried by the Shabjethang Konyer Karma Lhawang (zhabs rje thang dkon g.yer kar+ma lha dbang). After some reflection, Jangchub Tsondru decided not to go to Bhutan but sent a gold statue of Mahakala. Disappointed, Jigme Namgyal requested the intervention of a close disciple of Jangchub Tsongru’s, the future author of his biography. Finally Jangchub Tsondru agreed but he set the following conditions: The people under the jurisdiction of Jigme Namgyal must respect the five basic vows, and, especially, there should not be any more killing of animals, even the wild ones; lastly, two Kangyur must be printed at Narthang, which would be sent to Nyala and Drangla. Jigme Namgyal proscribed hunting, and after he had sent people to Narthang to make arrangements for the Kangyur printing, Jangchub Tsondru agreed to come to Bhutan.

Together with his elder brother, a monk in Torgu Monastery (thor rgod) in Sikkim who was visiting him in Tibet, Jangchub Tsondru travelled Trongsa, staying briefly again at Pari. Stopping over at Taktsang, he gave teachings on the Longchen Nyingtik (klong chen snying thig) and Madhyamaka, and was visited by a number of prominent Bhutanese lamas, including the Tsamdra Lama Ugyen (brtsam grwa bla ma o rgyan), the Hephug Tulku Tenpei Nyima (bstan pa’i nyi ma), and the Pagar Geshe Chandra.

It seems that Jangchub Tsondru continued to have reservations about going to Trongsa. He was developing leg problems, and his biography has it that he believed that were he to go to Sikkim instead, he would live longer than were he to go to Trongsa. On his way, in Samtengang (bsam gtan sgang), he gave blessings to lay patrons and performed a fire ritual. The Shabdrung Jigme Norbu (zhabs drung ’jigs med nor bu, 1831-1861) was at Ganteng monastery (sgang steng), and Jangchub Tsondru was received in great style with a procession, songs and dances. All the while representatives of Jigme Namgyal were urging him on to Trongsa.

The political instability of the day – the 11th Dalai Lama had died, and there was news that the British were making plans to move into Bhutan – was no doubt partly responsible for the urgency of Jigme Namgyal’s invitation. Jangchub Tsondru’s biography speaks even of a local deity appearing to Jangchub Tsondru to hurry him onwards to Trongsa.

Arriving at Trongsa, Jangchub Tsondru offered a long-life blessing to the ruler. He then announced to his family and disciples that he would enter retreat; when he came out he stated that he would die within the year. He then began teaching on Madhyamaka, Wensa Nyengyu, and White Mahakala (mgon dkar yid bzhin nor bu), which his disciple wrote down; all the members of the entourage wore white cloth during this time.

In poor health, Jangchub Tsondru appears not to have given Jigme Namgyal extensive service. He declined the ruler’s request for an initiation, citing his illness. He gave the ruler a skull cup and requested he have it gilded; Jangchub Tsondru was not entirely pleased with the result, remarking that the work was “is a little thin, but it is precious and it is a good omen.” He related that in Tsang a medium had reported to him that in Trongsa Dzong he should get an offering of rice beer a good horse, “adorned with many things.” He also stated that the Nechung Oracle had told him that the 11th Dalai Lama’s death was a result of insufficient offerings, and he recommended to Jigme Namgyal that a temple (? rgyal khang) be build in Trongsa, facing east, for the well being and prosperity of the state.

Jigme Namgyal’s subsequent request for an initiation from Jangchub Tsondru, this one for Sri Heruka, was accepted, and given, following hasty preparations. Jangchub Tsondru then planned to go into retreat in a distant land, but Jigme Namgyal refused him permission, offering instead a site in Trongsa, Trongsa Ta Dzong for the purpose. There Jangchub Tsondru continued teaching and giving initiations, including to Jigme Namgyal.

Not long after the ruler left, Jangchub Tsondru passed away, at the age of thirty-nine. He was cremated in Bhumtang and the Jampa Lhakhang. Offerings in his honor were made to Wensa, Sekhar, and other monasteries in Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. Eight stupa were constructed by the government, and Jigme Namgyal requested that Jangchub Tsondru’s disciple Kunga Pelzang Shenphen Rolpe Dorje (kun dga’ dpal bzang gzhan phan rol pa’i rdo rje) write the lama’s biography. The work was completed in 1859, and the woodblocks were carved at Trongsa.

Adapted from:

Pommaret, Françoise. 2004. “The fascinating life of lama Jangchub Tsondru (1817-1856) according to his biography.” In Karma Ura and Sonam Kinga, eds., The Spider and the Piglet: Proceedings of the First International Seminar on Bhutan Studies. Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies, pp. 73-89.


Aris, Michael. 1994. The Raven Crown. London: Serindia

Kun dga’ dpal bzang po gzhan phan rol ba’i rdo rje. 1859. Rdo rje ’dzin pa chen po ’phrin las mkha’ khyab mchog gi rdo rje am Byang chub brtson ’grus kyi rtogs pa brjod pa ngo mtshar nor bu’i snying po. In Byang chub bka’ ’bum, vol. ka, 172 folios. (woodblocks preserved at Trongsa dzong. Thimphu: National Library.

Padma Tshedwang. 1994. ’Brug gi rgyal rabs slob dpon padma tshe dbang gis sbyar ’brug gsal ba’i sgron me. Thimphu: National Library.

Françoise Pommaret
January 2010

Source: http://www.tibetanlineages.org/biographies/view/193/11352



3 Responses to “Jangchub Tsondru (1817 – 1856)”
  1. Thom says:

    Interesting read on Gonsar Tulku. I like this.
    Thank you

  2. Sarah says:

    The life of Jangchub Tsondru was really fascinating. He was of Nyingma ancestry but entered a Gelugpa monastery and was able to receive teachings from Kagyu masters. He even took a consort and they had a son. This shows that the attitude towards religious practice was quite liberal in those days.

  3. Arisa says:

    Jangchub Tsondru of Jaros Dongchen is from Bhutan. His parents are from the Nyingma Lineage and also are Tantrists. Jangchub Tsondru got his studies from all the Lineages and have been in the Gelug Monastery . It was said he is very good for subduing spirits called Lu and Gyelpo. He likes to travel a lot to get teachings. While during his travels he would stop at a lot of Monasteries. At one place he stop he ask where he can find a teacher to teach him the Six Yogas of Naropa. And because he had recieved a prophecy from a Lama in Tashilumpo that he go to Paro and teachings in Paro would be beneficial. Janchub Tsondru was in Tibet for 3 years. He performed Rituals for the 11th Dalai Lama’s mother and other high officials in Lhasa. His son also received teeachings from him.

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