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Previous Lives 

The Tireless Educator

Sonam Yeshe Wangpo

When the life of Sonam Yeshe Wangpo is considered, it becomes impossible to deny the existence of reincarnation. After all, how else could so much have been accomplished by someone so young, and by someone who showed signs of great attainments at an age when most people are still learning how to walk?  

Born in 1556 in the Tolung Lampa area of Tibet, the young boy was just two years old when he demonstrated his clairvoyance by remembering details of his previous life. Two years later, he was taken to Drepung Monastery where he was recognised as the unmistaken incarnation of Panchen Sonam Drakpa. His Holiness the 3rd Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso cut his hair in a symbolic and auspicious gesture of ordination. It was also during this time that the young boy received the name Sonam Yeshe Wangpo.

It would also be the 3rd Dalai Lama who conferred upon the young child the novice monastic ordination vows when he was just nine years old. And whilst many others can and do receive ordination at such a young age, rarely are they giving teachings to large, receptive audiences when they are 11. Yet, Sonam Yeshe Wangpo stunned everyone when, whilst visiting the great monastic seat of Kyormolung just outside Lhasa, he gave flawless teachings without the aid of his tutors. 

It was a sight to behold, and deep faith arose in the assembly who immediately believed they were in the presence of none other than Panchen Sonam Drakpa’s reincarnation. Sonam Yeshe Wangpo followed up on this occasion by travelling to Chakar Dratsang the following year, in order to receive teachings on the great Buddhist treatises. Over time, due to his involvement in the educational curriculum there, the monastic population increased.

Sonam Yeshe Wangpo was 19 when, in front of ten abbots, great masters and monks, he received the full monastic ordination vows in a ceremony presided by the 3rd Dalai Lama. He would then go on to travel with his teacher, the Dalai Lama, at the age of 22, on a historic journey to Mongolia where they were hosted by the Mongol king Altan Khan.

Sonam Yeshe Wangpo’s faith in his teacher was single-pointed and unwavering. He is known to have composed verses of praise of the Dalai Lama, along with many ritual liturgies and treatises on general Dharma teachings. Like his teacher, he travelled extensively to faraway places in order to give teachings and he undertook these journeys by foot. He is also known to have travelled to Central Tibet when he was 33 years old, to make vast offerings to the Sangha at many of the monasteries there, including Gaden, Sera and Drepung, and he also made offerings at the monasteries in Olka and Gyal.

Olka would come to be very significant in Sonam Yeshe Wangpo’s short life. After his extensive travels, Sonam Yeshe Wangpo was appointed as the abbot of Kyormolung where he had greatly impressed everyone with his teachings at the age of 11. In the process of discharging his duties as abbot, he gave numerous teachings on both sutra and tantra. His abbotship in Kyormolung was followed by an appointment for him to be abbot of Chamdo Monastery, something he was unable to fulfil because it clashed with a request he had received from the people of Olka.

Thus, at the age of 37, Sonam Yeshe Wangpo was in Olka when he entered parinirvana. As was befitting a high lama of his accomplishments and deeds, a funerary cremation was arranged as soon as he left clear light death meditation and when the flames died down, many relics and deity images emerged from the ashes and bone fragments which were later enshrined.

Sonam Yeshe Wangpo’s life might have been brief but for countless people, he inspired faith in the Dharma. His life therefore, bears testament to the tenet that determination, compassion and devotion to one’s spiritual guide will move many others onto the path, setting them on track to liberation.