Khenpo Ngawang Lodro Drakpa (1920-1975), a vajra master (rdo rje slob dpon) at Tsangwa Monastery in the Dzamthang region of Amdo — often referred to as “Mati Rinpoche” — was one of the leading intellectual figures and most prolific Jonangpa authors of the twentieth century. He is regarded by the living Jonang tradition as a miraculous manifestation (rnam rol) of the Tibetan masters Kunkhyen Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361), Jetsun Kunga Drolchok (1507-1566), Jamgon Tāranātha (1575-1635) (1575-1653), Rigzin Namnang Dorje, Terton Khachod Lingpa, and the Nyingma luminary Mipham Jamyang Namgyal Gyatso (1846-1912).
Born into the bloodline of the nomadic Zira (bzi ra) family in the Budkang Da (bud khang mda’) district of Dzamthang in the northeastern Tibetan cultural domain of Amdo, he was the son of Tsewang Pal and his wife Gyaza Gyurlo. As a child, before he received his formal education, it is said that he would wander from his nomad encampment into the nearby forests in Dzamthang where he would peel bark from the trees and write on the back of the bark with stones. After his parent’s discovered what he was doing, they found their son a teacher to instruct him in reading and writing when he was seven years old. He soon learned Tibetan grammar and spelling (sum rtags), Indian and Chinese astrology (rtsis dkar nag), the details of ritual performance (cho ga’i phyag len), and how to perform the arts of dance, maṇḍala drawing, and song (gar thig dbyangs).
Lodro Drakpa entered the Darna (dar rnga) Mountain Retreat under the guidance of Dzamno Dorje Kunga Ngawang when he was twelve years old. As the story is told, Mati arrived at the mountain retreat (ri khrod) with a friend of his who was the same age. Seeing these boys, Dzamno Dorje did not want to instruct children so in order to deter them, he told the boys that they could only stay if they memorized the entire litany of practice texts on the six-fold vajrayoga of the Kalachakra by the next morning. Dzamno Dorje then handed them each a copy of the large body of texts and disappeared. By the next morning, at the surprise of both his friend and Dzamno Dorje, Lodro Drakpa had memorized all of the liturgical texts, forcing the master to keep his promise and let him stay in retreat.
In a dream the evening before he received instructions on the practices of the Kalachakra from Dzamno Dorje, extremely large stūpas appeared to proliferate in the four directions of his mind. When Dzamno Dorje learned of this, he proceeded to gradually instruct the young boy in the common tantric preliminary practices of going to refuge (skyabs ‘gro) and generating bodhicitta (sems bskyed), as well as the uncommon preliminary practices on the generation stage (bskyed rim) meditation practices of imagining the connate form of the Kalachakra deity (lhan skyes).
When he was thirteen years old, he took the monastic vows and precepts from Ngawang Monlam Zangpo and was given the name, Ngawang Lodro Drakpa. He was then instructed in the three practices of isolation (dben pa gsum) according to the Kalachakra system by Dzamno Dorje before progressing onto the profound path of the completion stage practices. As is typical at this point, he was guided through Tarānātha’s instruction manual on the completion stage six-fold vajrayoga (rdo rje rnal ‘byor yan lag drug) titled, Meaningful to Behold along with its supplemental volume, which he practiced in retreat for three years.
It is said that his yogic experiences deeply enriched his interior life and at the age of fifteen, after receiving a host of tantric empowerments (dbang skur) on various meditation deities (yi dam), he began to have visions where he would actually encounter these deities, and then spontaneously compose songs of realization (nyams mgur) to them. At this stage of his life, he was described as being like a vase that was seeking to be filled to the brim with the practical instructions (dmar khrid) of the magnificent secret Vajrayāna, and who was continually requesting esoteric transmissions, empowerments, and instructions.
At the age of eighteen, Lodro Drakpa went to the Rashug (ra shug) mountain retreat where he began his formal scholastic education with Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso (1880-1940), an immediate disciple of Bamda Thubten Gelek (1844-1904). Lodro Drakpa then spent four years studying the core textbooks (yig cha) within the Jonang curriculum including the major collections of sūtra and tantra along with Bamda Gelek’s extensive work on the collected topics in Buddhist epistemology (bsdus grwa).
Following these studies, Lodro Drakpa moved to Dzamthang Tsangwa Monastery, the primary seat (gdan sa) of the Jonang today. While at Dzamthang, he continued his studies with Lama Lozang Tsultrim, and it is said that after receiving very hurried instructions, Lodro Drakpa took to heart through memorization all of the words and their meaning within the condensed Prajñāparamitā within the period of eight months. By this time, he had become a very impressive student who astonished his peers and instructors with his intellectual prowess. During these early years at Dzamthang Monastery, he received many of the essential reading transmissions from the Jonang scriptural tradition (gzhung lugs) including Tāranātha’s entire collected works from Ngawang Dorje Zangpo, the residing vajra master at Tsangwa Monastery at that time. He became familiar with the specific tradition upheld at Tsangwa, and studied the works of the previous lineages masters associated with this monastery.
He also received a variety of esoteric transmissions from Lama Ngawang Tenpa Salshed from Jonang Awa Monastery in Ngawa. In particular, he received instructions on the inner and outer yogas of Niguma, the tantric meditations on Vajrakīlaya, Yamāntaka, and the Kalachakra, exorcise rituals from the Nyingma tradition, various liturgical texts, as well as numerous others.
By the time he was thirty, Lodro Drakpa had taken up residence at Tsangwa Monastery where he was deepening his studies in epistemology (tshad ma), the Prajñāparamitā literature (phar phyin), progressive stages on the path (lam rim), Madhyamaka, Abhidharma, ethics (‘dul ba), the inner and outer sciences of the Kalachakra, etc. Most of these studies, his advanced training in the six-fold vajrayoga, transmissions on the complete Kalachakra, and several cycles on the Cakrasaṁvara, he received from Ngawang Konchok Dargyas of Tsangwa Monastery. He also received transmission and instruction on the entire collected works of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen from the learned Rinchen Odzer. At this time, it is said that he truly began to comprehend the consummate intent of all of the sūtras and tantras, and that the view and practice of zhentong (gzhan stong) from the Madhyamaka of definitive meaning was born deeply within his mind.
Having studied for many years, at the age of thirty-nine, Lodro Drakpa decided to dedicate more time towards meditation practice. Though it is understood that he began to assimilate many of the teachings and contemplative systems that he had been trained in up to this point in his life, he gave particular attention to intensifying his practices of the Kalachakra’s six-fold vajrayoga and the cycle of teachings by the yoginī Niguma. During this period it is said that he would spend hours each day absorbed in meditative stabilization, and that he would occasionally come out of meditation to write.
In fact, Khenpo Lodrak wrote on a wide variety of subjects during the latter period of his life. Many of these works were composed in his room at Tsangwa Monastery in Dzamthang where he would often dictate his thoughts to his close disciple Yontan Zangpo (1928-2002) who would then transcribe his words verbatim on to a long black sketch slate. Once the slate was full with words, Yontan Zangpo would write them in cursive script on leaves of paper. Works worth mentioning here include his Great Exposition on Zhentong, History of the Jonang Tradition, Presentation of Inner and Outer Philosophical Systems, Condensation of Topics on Epistemology, Guidance Manual on Practicing the Connate Kālacakra Deity, Biographies of the Successive Lives of Dolpopa, A Biography of Padmasambhava, and several works on tantric zhentong.
It is repeated by many who were around him during this period of his life that Khenpo Lodrak would meditate and write throughout the day and night with an incomparable tenacity. Then, during the Cultural Revolution, he was imprisoned for two years. After being released under the condition that he would not stay at the monastery in Dzamthang or wear monk’s robes, Khenpo Lodrak took up residence in a small house about twenty minutes away from Tsangwa Monastery, below the Darna Mountain Retreat where he was introduced to the Kālacakra as a boy. Then one day during his fifty-sixth year, Khenpo Lodrak is said to have been absorbed in a deep state of samādhi when his attendant arrived and furiously banged on his door, startling him and causing a heart attack. Khenpo Ngawang Lodro Drakpa passed away in June of 1975.
Original Tibetan sources: (1) Mkhan po Kun dga’ shes rab gsal byed. Mkhan po ngag dbang blo gros grags pa’i rnam thar bsdus pa. An unpublished manuscript. Collected by Jonang Foundation. (2) Btsan lha Ngag dbang tshul khrims. Rtsom pa po’i lo rgyus ngo sprod. In Ngag dbang blo gros grags pa. Jo nang chos ‘byung zla ba’i sgron me, 1-3. Qinghai: Nationalities Press (Khrung go’i bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang), 1992.