The Learned Scholar-Sage
Lotsawa Loden Sherab
In Tibetan, the word ‘Lotsawa’ literally means ‘translator’. In the case of the esteemed lama Loden Sherab, it is a formal title given to him for his contribution to the early dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet. Loden Sherab is regarded as one of the ‘Ten Pillars of Tibetan Buddhism’, a group of translators foundational for Buddhism’s spread in Tibet. He also introduced the practice of Dharma Protector Setrap Chen to Tibet.
Born into the Ngok clan in 1059 CE, Loden Sherab was the nephew of the Kadampa master, Ngok Lekpai Sherab. Lekpai Sherab was one of the three foremost disciples of the great Indian master Atisha Dipamkara Shrijñana and the founder of one of the most important monastic seats of that period, Sangpu Neutog Monastery. As the monastery’s abbot, Loden Sherab’s uncle ordained him and gave him his ordination name. His education for the first 17 years of his life was also handled by his uncle; under Lekpai Sherab’s watchful eye, Loden Sherab studied and mastered the Madhyamaka (Middle Way View), valid cognition, the Five Treatises of Maitreya and its commentarial corpus.
Not long after receiving ordination, Loden Sherab was invited to a gathering of the most important Buddhist scholars and masters of that era, not just Tibetans but also Indian and Kashmiri pandits. Known as the Fire Dragon Conference, the gathering aimed to facilitate new and even more accurate translations. One of the initiatives to achieve this was to send bright young Tibetans to India to study Sanskrit under the patronage of the king. Loden Sherab was amongst those handpicked to be sent on a long and arduous journey to Kashmir, India.
Whilst in India, Loden Sherab studied, translated and visited important pilgrimage sites. When his time in India was coming to an end, he extended an invitation to several great pandits to return with him to Tibet to continue working on more translations. Before he could embark on the return journey however, the abbot of a monastery in Bodhgaya entrusted Loden Sherab with the Dharma Protector Setrap.
The abbot clairvoyantly knew that there would be many obstacles for the teachings to be transmitted in Tibet. It is said that he entered the protector chapel of his monastery and made requests for a protector who would journey with Loden Sherab to safeguard the teachings. Only Setrap manifested an answer and was thus chosen as Loden Sherab’s escort.
During their journey to Tibet, Loden Sherab wanted to ascertain if Setrap was enlightened or not, so he used his meditative powers. When they came to a lake, Loden Sherab requested Setrap to ferry him across so Setrap picked him up and began to cross to the other side. Loden Sherab then manifested as his yidam (meditational deity) and pressed down on Setrap, but Setrap never buckled. Setrap thus showed he was enlightened and equal to Loden Sherab’s meditative powers, because unenlightened beings would not have had the strength to hold up Loden Sherab.
Loden Sherab went on to become the foremost authority in the Mind Training teachings. He translated over 137,000 verses and taught innumerable students the topics of philosophy, logic and tantric practice. Hearing of his works and deeds, so many students came to study with him that when he gave formal lectures, 20,000 people would attend. After such lectures, Loden Sherab enlisted up to 2,000 assistant teachers to give further explanations and teachings.
Loden Sherab was not only famous for his translations but also for composing texts, the most notable being the Stages of the Teaching, a Lamrim text in the tradition of Lama Atisha, covering the entirety of the path to enlightenment. He entered clear light in 1109 CE. According to his biography, there was a light earthquake at the moment of his passing, rainbows appeared with many strange lights and celestial music could be heard in the area, all signs of the passing of a truly great master.