Dolpopa was one of the most influential Buddhist masters in Tibetan history. He first became an important scholar of the Sakya tradition, but then moved to Jonang monastery. There he became the fourth holder of the monastic seat and constructed a monumental stupa. Dolpopa’s ideas, specifically his famous formulation of the zhentong view and his interpretations of Mahayana and Vajrayana doctrine, have elicited controversy for nearly 700 years.
Dolpopa was born in the Dolpo region of present-day Nepal. He took ordination as a novice monk in 1304 and spent the following years studying the tantras of the Nyingma tradition. In 1309 he traveled to Mustang to study the treatises on the vehicle of the perfections, epistemology, and abhidharma under the master Kyiton Jamyang Drakpa Gyaltsen. Kyiton soon left Mustang and went to teach in the great monastery of Sakya in the Tsang region of Tibet, and Dolpopa followed him there in 1312.
Dolpopa received many teachings from Kyiton in Sakya, the most important of which were the Kalachakra Tantra, the Bodhisattva Trilogy (Sems ’grel skor gsum), the ten sutras on buddhanature (Snying po’i mdo), the five sutras of definitive meaning, and the Five Treatises of Maitreya. He became an expert in the Kalachakra tradition he received from Kyiton and served as his teaching assistant for several years. He also received teachings and initiations from other masters at Sakya, such as the Sakya throne-holder of the Khön family, Daknyi Chenpo Zangpo Pal (1262–1323). From Kunpang Drakpa Gyaltsen (1263?–1347?) he again received the Vimalaprabha commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra. From Senge Pal of the Sharpa family of Sakya, he received the teachings of epistemology, and from that master’s brother, Kunga Sonam (1285-1346), he received the teachings of the Path with the Result and the textual transmission of many tantras of the Hevajra cycle.
In 1314 Dolpopa traveled to many of the great monasteries of Tsang and Central Tibet and received the epithet “omniscient” because of his mastery of scriptures such as the one-hundred-thousand-line sutra on the perfection of wisdom. He also received full monastic ordination from the abbot Sonam Drakpa (1273–1352) of Cholung Monastery and made the vow to never eat slaughtered meat for the rest of his life. During this journey he received many teachings of the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, and the instructions of Severance (gcod) and the Pacification of Suffering (zhi byed).
In the year 1321, when he was twenty-nine years old, Dolpopa ascended to the monastic seat of Sakya Monastery. During the same year he visited Jonang monastery for the first time and was deeply impressed by the tradition of intense meditation emphasized there. He then traveled to Central Tibet, where he had extensive conversations with the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), at the great Karma Kagyu monastery of Tsurpu. The Karmapa significantly prophesied that Dolpopa would quickly become even more expert in the view and practice.
In 1322 Dolpopa left Sakya and went to Jonang monastery, where he received from the master Yonten Gyatso (1260–1327) the complete transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra, the Bodhisattva Trilogy, and the Kalachakra completion stage practices of the sixfold vajrayoga. He then entered a meditation retreat at the Jonang hermitage of Khachö Deden (mkha’ spyod bde ldan). After this retreat, Yonten Gyatso convinced Dolpopa to teach in the assembly at Jonang, and he also taught him many more systems of esoteric knowledge, such as the Path with the Result, the Five Stages of the Guhyasamaja and the Cakrasamvara, the Pacification of Suffering, and Severance. Dolpopa then visited Sakya at the invitation of Tishri Kunga Gyaltsen (1310–1358) of the Khön family, and offered him the Kalachakra initiation.
On returning to Jonang, Dolpopa began a strict retreat at Khachö Deden, meditating on the sixfold yoga for one year. During this time he achieved realization of the first four of the six, beholding immeasurable figures of the buddhas and pure lands when practicing individual withdrawal and meditation, and gaining exceptional experience and realization due to the blazing of blissful warmth when practicing breath control and retention. During this retreat the realization of the zhentong (gzhan stong) view first arose in Dolpopa’s mind, but he would not teach it to others until at least five more years had passed.
In 1325 the master Yonten Gyatso urged Dolpopa to become his dharma heir and accept the monastic seat of Jonang. This was completely at odds with Dolpopa’s own desire to practice meditation in isolated hermitages, but he finally agreed and ascended the monastic throne of Jonang in 1326. When Yonten Gyatso passed away the next year, Dolpopa decided to build a monumental stupa to repay his master’s kindness. In 1330 many skilled artisans and laborers gathered from different regions of Tibet. Building materials and supplies were brought from all directions and hundreds of workers labored while chanting manis and praying to the masters of the lineage. Dolpopa himself sometimes carried earth and stones and sometimes worked on the building of the walls.
During the intense physical labor on the stupa, Dolpopa gave many teachings on the ultimate significance of the Buddha’s doctrine. As the long central poles were placed in the stupa, he taught the Bodhisattva Trilogy to a huge assembly, explaining for the first time the distinction between the relative as empty of intrinsic nature (rangtong, rang stong) and the absolute as empty only of other relative phenomena (zhentong, gzhan stong). He revealed the connection between his realization of the zhentong view, the teachings of the Kalachakra Tantra, and the stupa of Jonang in a series of verses:
Alas, my share of good fortune may be inferior, but I think a discovery such as this is good fortune. Is this discovery by a lazy fool due to the blessing of the Kalki emperor? I have not physically arrived at Kalapa, but has the Kalki entered my faithful mind? My intelligence has not been refined in three-fold knowledge, but I think the raising of Mount Meru has caused the ocean to gush forth. I bow in homage to the masters, buddhas, and kalkis, by whose kindness the essential points, difficult for even exalted beings to realize, are precisely realized, and to their great stupa.
The raising of Mount Meru refers to Dolpopa’s construction of the massive stupa, and the “ocean” that flowed from the blessing and energy thus awakened was his famous work, The Ocean of Definitive Meaning. The stupa was finally consecrated on October 30, 1333. In the following years Dolpopa mostly stayed in meditation retreat and had many visions. In particular, he directly beheld the pure land of Shambhala, the source of the Kalachakra teachings, and once claimed to have actually gone there by visionary means. Beginning in 1334, Dolpopa oversaw the re-translation of the Kalachakra Tantra by his disciples Lotsawa Lodro Pal and Sazang Mati Panchen.
In 1336 Dolpopa was invited to teach several thousand people at Sakya monastery. Calling upon the sutras and tantras as witnesses, he distinguished between relative and absolute truth by means of the categories of an emptiness of intrinsic nature (rangtong) and an emptiness of other relative phenomena (zhentong). In 1338 he passed the monastic seat of Jonang monastery to his disciple Lotsawa Lodro Pal. Mongolian imperial envoys arrived in 1344 with decrees issued by the Yuan Emperor Toghon Temur inviting Dolpopa to China, but he retreated to isolated hermitages for the next four years to evade the request.
Dolpopa became extremely heavy in his later years and it was difficult for him to travel. But in 1358, when he was sixty-seven years old, he decided to make a pilgrimage to Central Tibet and traveled by boat down the Tsangpo River, stopping at different places along the banks to teach dharma. He stayed for one year at the monasteries of Nesar and Cholung, where he gave many teachings. The great Sakya master of the Khön family, Lama Dampa Sönam Gyaltsen (1312–75), came to meet Dolpopa at Cholung, received teachings, and asked him to compose one of his major works, the Fourth Council (Bka’ bsdu bzhi pa).
In 1359 Dolpopa slowly traveled by palanquin through Tsang and into Central Tibet, welcomed by crowds of people lining the roads and escorting him into the different monasteries. When he finally arrived in Lhasa he stayed for about six months and gave the instructions of the sixfold vajrayoga of Kalachakra many times. So many people came to request dharma that they could not fit into the buildings, and doors were broken and stairways collapsed.
At the beginning of 1360 a party arrived to invite Dolpopa back to Jonang. The people of Lhasa were distraught at the thought of his departure, and for some time his palanquin could not be carried through the crowds of people and horses. Many monks had to join hands in a circle around it and people who wanted blessings joined hands and scrambled under his palanquin. The monks recited supplications such as Dolpopa’s General Commentary on the Doctrine (bstan pa spyi ’grel) while the masses of people wailed. Most of the crowd was hysterical and many could not even walk. When Dolpopa was helped into a boat to cross a river, many people jumped into the water after him and had to be saved by others.
As Dolpopa traveled back into the Tsang region he stopped to teach at various monasteries such as Ralung and Nenying. The ruler Pakpa Palsang (1318–70) and his younger brother Pakpa Rinchen (1320–76) had for some time wished to request dharma teachings from Dolpopa, but because of his weight it was too difficult for him to climb the long stairs to their castle. So he stayed on the plain below, where he spread out a huge silk mandala of Kalachakra and bestowed the great Kalachakra initiation.
As the procession of about one hundred people proceeded to Jonang, Dolpopa taught in all the large and small monasteries along the way. It was an emotional scene, with great crowds of people escorting him through the valleys, chanting the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara, making prayers, and weeping from faith. In 1360, Dolpopa arrived back at the great hermitage of Jonang and again stayed in meditation at his residence of Dewachen.
One day toward the end of 1361 Dolpopa said he wanted to go to the stupa, but his attendants said the path was unsafe because snow had fallen and assisted him to his residence. Tea was served and elder disciples were summoned for some private conversation. The master was pleased with everyone, and there was much joking and laughter. Then he went to sleep.
In the early morning his attendant served him, but Dolpopa did not reply to several questions and sat with staring eyes, appearing to be in deep meditation. Thinking he was possibly affected by the intense cold, his disciples took him out into the sun and massaged him. After about midday his eyes closed, and, without any sign of illness, he passed into deep meditation. He was then taken back into his quarters. After a few minutes he adjusted his body into the position of Vajrasattva and passed away into bliss.
Dolpopa’s body was placed in a wooden casket anointed with perfume and adorned with silk and precious ornaments, and put inside the crematorium. The body was extremely flexible, like a piece of cotton-wool. When the cremation began, the smoke rose only a few feet and then streaked to the stupa, circled it many times, and finally disappeared to the west. The men and women practitioners offered butter lamps on the roofs of their individual meditation huts, so that the entire valley sparkled. Until the smoke had faded away, each of them made prayers with tears flowing down their faces.
When the crematorium was later opened, some of Dolpopa’s remains were distributed to the disciples who had received from him the transmission of the Vimalaprabha. Among the ashes were many relics that were clear like crystal. Then many votive images covered with gold leaf were made from the remains. Ashes from the cremation were gathered and put along with other relics into an image of Dolpopa that was placed in the great stupa he had built.
This brief sketch of Dol po pa’s life has been summarized from Cyrus Stearns. The Buddha from Dolpo: A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, 11–39. Albany: State University of New York, 1999. A number of original Tibetan sources were used, the most important of which are: (1) G+ha rung ba lha’i rgyal mtshan. A Biography of the Great Omniscient Jonangpa Dharma Lord. In Tibetan, Chos rje jo nang pa kun mkhyen chen po’i rnam thar. Beijing: Cultural Palace of Nationalities. Unpublished dbu med text, 57 fols. (2) Kun spangs chos grags dpal bzang. Jewel Rosary of Great Excellence: An Array of Bright Lamps Illuminating the Biography of the Great Omniscient Dharma Lord. In Tibetan, Chos rje kun mkhyen chen po’i rnam thar gsal sgron gyi rnam grangs dge legs chen po nor bu’i ‘phreng ba. In the Collected Works of Kun mkhyen Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1. Delhi: Shedrup Books, 1992.