The Teacher of Teachers
Panchen Sonam Drakpa
Whilst countless beings throughout history have shown remarkable attainments as a result of practising the Dharma, few in Tibetan Buddhism have reached the same level of renown as Panchen Sonam Drakpa. The 17th in an illustrious line of incarnations, one has to be forgiven for thinking that by this point, it would not be easy to achieve, and even surpass, the same great heights as his accomplished predecessors. And yet, Panchen Sonam Drakpa proved otherwise.
Born in 1478 in Central Tibet, this incarnation received his novice monk vows and his ordination name Sonam Drakpai Pel before enrolling in nearby Tsetang Monastery. There, the young boy first showed signs of the great scholar he would become, excelling in his early education which included reading, writing, and the rigorous daily memorisation of prayers and important scriptures.
Sonam Drakpa then furthered his education in a number of monasteries, including Sera Monastery where he studied for 12 years. During this time, he mastered the five major philosophical treatises required for candidates of the Geshe Lharampa degree, the highest academic accolade awarded in the Gelug tradition. He was 20 when he received his full monastic vows and seven years later, he enrolled in Gyutö Tantric College, where he mastered all tantric systems.
After a visit to Tsetang Monastery, where he was awarded the title “Rabjampa” (meaning “One with Unobstructed Knowledge”) in recognition of his dialectical skills and scriptural knowledge, Sonam Drakpa then returned to Gyutö. There, he was appointed to the prestigious post of lobpon, in essence selected to become the lead ritual master of an entire college full of accomplished ritual practitioners.
This would mark the start of a series of highly prestigious appointments for Sonam Drakpa. Respect for his practice, scholarship and mastery of the sutras and tantras was so universal, that there was unceasing demand for his leadership and guidance throughout Tibet. After 13 years as lobpon, Sonam Drakpa retired from his post and the following year, His Holiness the 2nd Dalai Lama appointed him as abbot of Drepung Loseling Monastery. The 2nd Dalai Lama was so moved by Sonam Drakpa’s qualities, that he even composed a prayer in praise of him.
Upon completion of his term as abbot, Sonam Drakpa then rose to the position of Gaden Throneholder, becoming the 15th Gaden Tripa and head of the Gelug tradition. When he ascended the throne, he recited:
May all conducive conditions arise
and all obstacles be pacified,
in order to increase infinitely,
the doctrine of the spiritual king, Tsongkhapa.
Later, at the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo) in Lhasa, which was one of Tibet’s biggest religious ceremonies, he recited:
By the merits of the three times
of myself and others,
May the doctrine of Lama Tsongkhapa