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Katokpa Dampa Deshek

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Katok Dampa Deshek (Wyl. kaḥ thog pa dam pa bde gshegs) (1122-1192) — founder of Katok Monastery. His eldest brother was Phagmodrupa Dorje Gyalpo, one of the main students of Gampopa. Dampa Deshek's teachers included Phagmodrupa, the Sakya patriarch Sönam Tsemo, Dzamtön Drowé Gönpo, a disciple of Zur Shakya Senge, and the first Karmapa, Düsum Khyenpa. He founded Katok in the earth rabbit year, 1159. His extant writings include commentaries on the Sutra Gathering All Intentions (Tib. Düpa Do).


Dampa Deshek Sherab Sengge (bde gshegs shes rab seng+ge) was born in Belmo ('bel mo), Kham, in 1122, the water-tiger year of the second sexagenary cycle. Belmo, later called Serkhang (gser khang), is located in between two rivers – the Serden (chu bo gser ldan) on the right side and the Terlung (gter klung spos chu) on the left.


His father, said to be an emanation of Yamāntaka was a tantric practitioner of the Ga (sga) clan named Tsangpa Peldrak (gtsang pa dpal grags) and his mother was named Tsangmo Rinchen Gyen (gtsang mo rin chen rgyan). He was named Gewa Pel (dge ba 'phel) by his father.

Gewa Pel was the second of four sons and one daughter, the eldest of whom was Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (pag mo grub pa rdo rje rgyal po, 1110-1170), one of the main students of Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (sgam po pa bsod nam rinchen, 1079-1153). Some early Tibetan histories have it that Pakmodrupa was Gewa Pel's maternal cousin and not his elder brother.

Gepel started his basic education in reading, writing, and memorization of prayer and other root texts at the age of six, apparently memorizing the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, which he recited daily. He is said to have also studied the arts as well, such as painting, statuary, and poetry. He received the lay vows of upāsaka from Lama Peldzin (bla ma dpal 'dzin).

At the age of nine he was sent to study with his brother at the monastery of Pelgyi Chokhor (dpal gyi chos 'khor). There he studied Vinaya, Prajñāpāramitā, Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, Samādhirāja Sūtra and tantric materials, receiving empowerments for the Cakrasaṃvara. While there he received the bodhisattva vows, and is said to have experienced visions of the deity Pelden Lhamo (dpal ldan lha mo and also of Padmasambhava.

In 1137, at the age of sixteen, Gewa Pel went to Kampo (kam po) where he encountered Geshe Jampa Namdak (dge bshes byams pa rnam bdag) from whom he received many commentarial teachings on texts drawn from both Sūtra and Tantra, and also empowerment and instructions.

Three years later, at the age of nineteen, he travelled to U-Tsang and received teachings from some of the greatest lamas of the era. From the Sakya scholars Sonam Tsemo (bsod nams rtse mo 1142-1182) and Kunga Lekpa (kun dga' legs pa'i rin chen d.u.) he received Lamdre and Hevajra; Cakrasaṃvara and other tantric systems from Ratna Sengge (rat+na seng ge, d.u.) and Kam Lotsāwa (kam lo tsA ba, d.u.); Kālacakra from Geshe Dotok Telpa Gyeltsen (dge bshes rdo thog thel pa rgyal mtshan, d.u.) and Geshe Gyamarwa (dge bshes rgya dmar ba, d.u.); Vajravārāhī (rdo rje pag mo) from Chokro Lotsāwa (cog ro lo tsA ba d.u.); instructions on miracles ('phrul yig) from Bari Lotsāwa (bA ri lo tsA ba, d.u.); and teachings on the Bodhipathapradīpa, Prajñāpāramitā, Madhyamaka, and Pramāṇa from Senge Zangpo (seng+ge bzang po), a noted Kadam lama, who, at Reting (rwa sgreng), also gave him a number of tantric empowerments.

He is said to have entered into retreat and survived due to the practice of chulen (bcud len), a practice of imbibing only a few pills a day in place of food, done in conjunction with certain physical yogas and meditations.

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At the age of twenty-four, in 1145, he received the vows of primary monk (rab byung) at Gyel in Penyul ('phen yul rgyal) from a Nyingma lama named Jangchub Sengge (byang chub seng+ge, d.u.) who gave him the name Sherab Sengge and and later gave him a great deal of teachings according to Nyingma Tradition. Embarking on further practice, he is said to have gained control over the generation and completion stage practice (bskyed rdzogs) of visualizing tantric deities and also manipulation of energy channels and subtle wind in meditational practice and to have displayed multiple signs of accomplishment.

In 1146, at the age of twenty-five, Sherab Sengge met with and Rechung Dorje Drakpa (ras chung rdo rje grags pa, 1085-1161), one of the close disciples of Milarepa, and received many teachings including on the Heruka Tantra, Formless-ḍākinī, and tummo (gtum mo), a practice of yogic heat.

Subsequently, he received the vows of full ordination (bhikṣu) from Depa Nagkyi Khenchen (sde pa nags kyi mkhan chen, d.u.) at Nartang Monastery (snar thang chos gwra) according to the tradition of Lume (klu mes) and became a lineage holder in Vinaya.

He then met, at the age of twenty-nine, in 1150, Dzamton Drowai Gonpo ('dzam ston 'gro ba'i mgon po, d.u.) a disciple of Zur Shakya Sengge]] (zur shAkya seng ge, 1074-1134), from whom he received the important Nyingma Kama (bka' ma) teachings of the Guhyagarbha, the semde (sems sde) class of Dzogchen, and the Four Root Tantra (rtsa ba'i mdo bzhi). According to his biography, Dzamton predicted that he would accomplish the rainbow body if he meditated at Kampo, or, if he were to return to his homeland and establish a monastery at a place called Katok, he would spread the Buddhist teachings far and wide.

Choosing the later path, Sherab Sengge slowly made his way back east. He first stopped over at Zangri Karmar (zangs ri mkhar dmar) and received teachings on Chod (gchod) and Zhije (zhi byed) from a master named To-nyon (thos smyon) and the "crazy yogi" named Donden (grub thob smyon pa don ldan). At Daklha Gampo (dwags lha sgam po) he received Kagyu teachings, such as Mahāmudrā, from Gampopa. Entering retreat at Tsari (rtsA ri), he returned to Daklha four months later to report on his progress.

Arriving in Kham, he stopped to meet Dusum Khyenpa, the First Karmapa (karma pa 01 dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193) and stayed for some time at his monastery, Karma Gon (kar+ma dgon), recently established in 1147. The Karmapa gave him numerous empowerments and commentaries on various tantric deities, and, according to the Nyingma tradition, Sherab Sengge became a close disciple, a status that Kagyu histories, however, do not support.

In 1154, following his stay at Karma Gon, Sherab Sengge commenced a three year tour of places in Kham including Minyak (mi nyag gi yul), Jang ('jang yul), and Ling (gling yul). He became patron-lama of the rulers of those regions, preached to thousands, and gave monastic vows to over nine hundred devotees, creating a region-wide network of disciples

At the age of thirty-six, in 1157, he returned to his birth-town of Belmo and sat for a retreat. The following year he travelled in search of Katok with his two favorite assistants – Tsultrim Rinchen (tshul khrims rin chen, d.u.) and Dorje Gyeltsen (rdo rje rgyal mtshan, d.u.). According to tradition, at Pema Yungdrung Tangdar (pad+ma g.yung drung thang mdar), the Bon monastery in Horpo (hor po), a village at the confluence of the Dri ('bri), or Yangtze, River, and the Trom ('khrom), or Horpo, River, he had a vision of the protector deity Lhamo Rangjung Gyelmo (lha mo rang 'byung rgyal mo). She pointed to the south and implied that she would aid him. Following her directions, Sherab Sengge arrived at a site where he saw a cliff outcropping in the shape of the Tibetan letters "A" and "Ka" and a double-vajra, as well as a small cliff that he identified as the meditation site of Pagor Vairocana (pa gor bai ro tsa na, 8th century).

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Taking the "A" to represent the primordial emptiness of as understood by the Dzogchen tradition, and the "Ka" to represent the flourishing of the three fundamental dharma practices of prostration, recitation, and dedication (rgyud gsum / rgyun chags gsum), he declared that this was the place foretold by Dzamton, and, in 1159, the earth-hare year of the third sexagenary cycle, set about establishing the monastery of Katok.


Previously, in the Hor regions to the northeast of Katok, Sherab Sengge had encountered a local Bon ruler named Gelu (dge lu). Initially not predisposed to support him, he soon changed his mind and became the first sponsor of the monastery's buildings. He is also said to have sent over a hundred young men to receive monastic vows.


The foundation of the monastery includes an epic battle with a local Bon protector, suggesting, as with the story of the local ruler Gelu, that there was initial Bon opposition to the establishment of a Buddhist monastery. Evidence of Sherab Sengge's Kagyu heritage, he battled the Bon deity with rituals from the Cakrasaṃvara Tantra. According to local lore, the Bon deity remains trapped in a large boulder on the edge of the monastery. Another legend that has it that eight Bon magicians attempted to kill him, but that Pelden Lhamo intervened and saved his life.

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Among the initial sacred objects of the new monastery included the some important scriptures from Samye Monastery (bsam yas gtsug lag khang); tantric texts brought from India; the scholar-hat of Atiśa Dipankara (980-1054); the dharma robe of Dropukpa Shakya Sengge (sgro phug pa shAkya seng+ge, 1074-1134); fifty sesame-sized relics of the Buddha and so forth. He also installed over one thousand three hundred volumes of scripture, both sutra and tantra, some of it written in gold ink. Also as part of the consecration he installed five golden vases (gser 'bum) and ten silver vases (dngul 'bum).

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The monastery, fully named Katok Dorjeden (kaH thog rdo rje gdan), the Vajra Seat upon the (letter) Ka, was, according to its official history, was fully Nyingma from its founding, focusing on the lineage of the Nub (gnubs) and Zur families, although it is more likely that in the twelfth century the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions were less distinct than they might be thought to be now, and the Cakrasaṃvara, Kālacakra and Hevajra tantras were practiced from the beginning.

Gradually nearly four thousand people dedicated to monastic life gathered from different regions of Kham including Minyak (mi nyag), Ling (gling), Tsang Kawa (gtsang ka ba), Jang ('jang) and so forth and received the vows of novice monk (śrāmaṇera).

In 1161, when he was forty years old, Katok Dampa Deshek, as he had come to be known, established a study center (bshad grwa) at Sibri (srib ri) and a practice center (sgrub grwa) at Nyinri (nyin ri). He granted vows of full ordination (bhikṣu) to nearly thousand novice monks, and introduced the Summer-retreat (vārṣika) during which he taught sutra, and, during the winter, he gave empowerments, commentarial teachings, and esoteric instructions on various systems of Tantra including Dzogchen at the Practice Center. At the age of forty-four he gave comprehensive empowerment on Anuyoga, the second highest vehicle among the nine vehicles tantric doxography of the Nyingma tradition (theg pa rim pa dgu) for seven months. He also taught common subjects such as Sanskrit phonological-system, grammar, poetry, astrology and astronomy; epistemology, crafting, medicine; Vinaya and philosophical texts such as Prajñāpāramitā, Madhyamaka, Abhidharma, and so forth. Other subjects drawn from the Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu traditions such as Lamrim, Lamdre, and Mahāmudrā, were also taught.

In addition to Gelu, the ruler of Horpo, local rulers who served as his patron included Tajin of Minyak (mi nyag tA jin), the King of Jang ('jan gi rgyal po), Ling Dralha Dargye (gling dgra lha dar rgyas), and also rulers or leaders of Kongpo Kaleb (kong po ka leb), Eastern Tsongka (shar tsong kha), and Gyelmo Rong (rgyal mo rong), He gave them teachings on various topics, empowerments on various tantric deities as per their wish and requirement.

At the age of sixty-five Dampa Deshek did a retreat on Heruka and subsequently gave comprehensive teaching on some Tantras including Dorjezampa (rdo rje zam pa) for four months. In the meantime, assisted by Dorje Gyeltsen, he reviewed the discipline codes of the monastery in the context of monastic vows and found about sixty monks guilty in violation to the monastic laws who were driven out from the monastery. For two years until the age of sixty-six, he gave comprehensive teachings on Māyājāla (sgyu 'phrul), Dzogchen, and related topics.

Following the death of Dzamtonpa, who is said to have reached the age of one hundred and attained the rainbow body, Dampa Deshek established a commemorative prayer day in his memory.

At the age of seventy, in 1191, Dampa Deshek performed rituals of Bodhicitta and granted vows and empowerment to a large gathering of about seventy-thousand devotees for one month. Subsequently he gave special advice to his disciples and thereafter he gave a scholar-hat (paN zhwa) and an old gown (ber thul rnying pa) to his principal disciple Dorje Gyeltsen, implying that he would be his successor on the seat of the lineage of Katok. Dampa Deshek is said to have chosen him as his successor after experiencing a vision in which the lower part of the valley in which Katok is located was filled with water, over which was an extremely bright light. A deity informed him that the light was a throne for his disciple who abides in the eleventh stage of enlightenment known as "all-bright" (kun du 'od kyi sa). Dampa Deshek announced to Dorje Gyeltsen that he was the one referred to in the vision, at which point Dorje Gyeltsen had a number of visions of deities.

Dampa Deshek then instructed Khenpo Yeshe Gyel (mkhan po ye shes rgyal, d.u.) to take the charge of the study center and Kongpo Lama Buchu (mkhan po kong po bla ma bu chu, d.u.) to take the charge of practice center. Dorje Gyeltsen was further instructed to teach and supervise both the heads of the centers.

Dampa Deshek's compositions were collected into nineteen volumes. The works cover a wide range of subjects in both Sūtra and Tantra as well as non-religious topics. Some of the important titles included General Description of Vehicles (theg pa spyi bcings) Analytical Commentary on Abhisamayālaṅkāravṛttih Sphuṭāthā (mngon rtogs rgyan gyi 'grel pa don gsal rnam 'byed); White Silver Mirror: A Commentary on the Sutra of Bhikṣu Vows (dge slong pha'i so thar mdo'i 'grel chen dngul dkar me long); Jewel Treasure: General Analysis on Abhidharmakośa (mdzod kyi spyi gcod); Commentarial Note on Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Dbu ma rtsa she’i mchan tIk); Precious Lamp: A Systematic Outlines of Bodhisattvacharyāvatāra and its Compendium (spyod ’jug khog dbub rin chen sgron me dang de’i bsdus don); General Description of the Nine Vehicles (theg pa dgu'i spyi bcings); Systematic Detail Outlines of Dzogchen ([[rdzogs pa[chen po'i rim pa'i khog dbub]]); Notes on Lamrim (lam rim mchan); Rituals for Cultivating Bodhicitta (byang chub sems bskyed kyi cho ga); Elegant Sayings on Ethics (zhal gdams).

Dampa Deshek had hundreds of disciples; among them the most prominent was Tsangton Dorje Gyeltsen, who became the second abbot of Katok (kaH thog bla rabs 02 gtsang ston rdo rje rgyal mtshan, 1137-1226).

Despite of requests from the disciples for extension of life he is said to have announced his death through two lines of poetry, and then made an extensive feast offering to deities (tshogs 'khor) and prayers for flourishing of dharma. He passed into nirvana facing to the west in the posture of mind-at-rest meditation (sems nyid nyal gso'i phyag rgya) in 1192, on the full-moon day of the fourth Tibetan month of the water-mouse year in the third sexagenary cycle, at the age of seventy-one.

About three hundred monks headed by Tsangtonpa Dorje Gyeltsen performed the rites and rituals of the cremation. Images were found in the ashes of his cremation and on the skull, such as the Eleven-faced Avalokiteśvara; the buddhas of the five families on the right side; the deity Koseng (ko seng) on the left; Heruka and Samantabhadra on the top; Mañjuśrī in the inner side; Vajrakīla on the back; and also other many small images, including the Buddha with his two main disciples. Other relics were also collected from the ashes in a large quantity. A reliquary stupa was built to house some of the relics, and shrines and a temple was built at Tsara Chokyi Kunga Rawawai Tsal (rtsa ra chos kyi kun dga' ra ba'i tsal) to complete the post nirvana activities for the late lama.

As part of his legend, he is said to have been an incarnation of Ācārya Śāntideva, Sithavira Bharadvaja, Jomo Yeshe Tsogyel (jo mo ye shes mtsho rgyal), and Nyak Jñānakumara Yeshe Zhonnu (gnyags dznya na ku ma ra ye shes gzhon nu, 8th c.).


Bla brang skal bzang. N.d. KaH thog rdo rje gdan in Bod kyi ris med dgon sde khag gi lo rgyus mes po' gces nor. Pp. 1-12.

Dge slong lding po.. Shar kaH thog pa dam pa bde bar gshegs pa'i rnam thar bsdus pa grub mchog rjes dran, pp. 1a-30b.

Dalton, Jacob. 2002. The Uses of the Dgongs pa 'dus pa'i mdo in the Development of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, pp. 104-109.

Dudjom Rinpoche. 2002. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein, trans. Boston: Wisdom, pp. 688-691.

Dung dkar blo bzang 'phrin las]]. 2002. Dung dkar tshig mdzod chen mo. Beijing: Krung go'i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, pp. 4-6.

[[Grags pa 'byung gnas and Rgyal ba blo bzang mkhas grub. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming [[mdzod. Lanzhou: Kan su'u mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 1-2.

'Jam dbyangs rgyal mtshan. 1996. Rgyal ba kaH thog pa'i lo rgyus mdor bsdus. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 19-33, 34, 51.

Khetsun Sangpo. 1973. Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. Dharamsala: LTWA, Vol. 3, pp. 329‑333.

Nyoshul Khenpo. 2005. A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems. Richard Barron, trans. Junction City, California: Padma Publication, pp. 52-53.

Ronis, Jann. 2007. “Celibacy, Revelations, and Reincarnated Lamas: Contestation and Synthesis in the Growth of Monasticism at Katok Monastery from the 17th through 19th Centuries.” PhD thesis, University of Virginia.

Samten Chhosphel March 2011