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Sonam Tsemo

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Sonam Tsemo (tib.: bsod nams rtse mo; 1142–1182), an important Tibetan sprititual leader and Buddhist scholar, was the second of the so-called Five Venerable Supreme Sakya Masters of Tibet, the founding fathers of the Sakya-tradition.

Sonam Tsemo (1142 - 1182), bsod nams rtse mo

Sonam Tsemo was the son of Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, from which he obtained a majority if his empowerments and teachings. For eleven years he studied with Chawa Chokyi Senge at Sangphu. Sonam Tsemo did a lot of work to systemize the Tantric system. According to tradition he reached the second bodhisattva bhumi level. At the age of 41 he obtained the rainbow body during giving a teaching to his disciples, and he ascended to the realm of Kechara

 Sonam Tsemo (bsod nams rtse mo) was born in 1142. His father was the Sakya patriarch Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po, 10920-1158). His mother was called [[Machik] Wodron]] (ma gcig 'od sgron). Like his father he remained a layman throughout his life, although he never married or had children. He was identified as the reincarnation of the Indian scholar Durgachandra (or Durjayachandra) the master of Drokmi Śākya Yeshe's ('[[brog mi lotsawa [shakya ye shes]], 992-1070) teacher Viravajra, in India.

During his childhood, Sonam Tsemo's main teacher was his father Sachen Kunga Nyingpo. His studies with his father focused on esoteric topics, and it is said that he could recite fourteen esoteric scriptures, including the Hevajra and Samvara tantras by the age of sixteen. He received oral Lamdre (lam 'bras) instructions from Sachen during this time. After Sachen passed away, Sonam Tsemo's education was strongly inflected by the Indian monastic model. At seventeen he went to the Kadampa monastery Sangpu Neutog (gsang phu ne'u thog) to study Madhyamaka philosophy and epistemology with the great master Chapa Chokyi Sengge (phya pa chos kyi seng ge). This teacher had disciples from several of the most prominent families in U-Tsang and Sonam Tsemo's biography claims that he became the most accomplished of the students. He studied with this master on and off for eleven years and became well versed in Mahāyāna texts such as Pramanaviniscaya and Bodhicharyavatara. Sonam Tsemo also received some instruction from the Indian or Nepali Acarya Sri Anandagharba.

Sonam Tsemo's work Chola jugpai go (chos la ‘jug pa'i sgo), which he composed at the age of twenty-six at Nalatse, was extremely influential on the work of his nephew Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen (sa skya paN+Di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan), the fourth Sakya patriarch and a widely renowned scholar. Sonam Tsemo's written works address topics including the Bodhicharyavatara, a schematization of the tantra; an explanation of the last two chapters of the Hevajra root tantra; a commentary on the Samputa tantra; instructions for reading Sanskrit, and commemorative texts for his main teachers.

Sonam Tsemo first gave the Lamdre teachings in Sakya at the age of twenty-eight. Many famous masters attended the teaching, and he became renowned as a clear and skilled teacher, but his biographical data reflect a career more focused on study, practice and composition of texts than on teaching. His few close disciples included his brother Drakpa Gyeltsen (rje btsun grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216), Ngodrup (dngos grub), Chagkyi Dorje (lcags kyi rdo rje), and Tsugtor (gstug tor). He was the active Sakya throne holder for only three years, after which he passed the responsibility on to his younger brother Drakpa Gyeltsen, in order to devote the rest of his life to study and retreat.

Sonam Tsemo passed away in 1182 at the age of forty. The details of his death are unclear, but it is recorded that his body disappeared and he left nothing but his robe and a footprint behind.


Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance. New York: Columbia University Press.

Drakpa Jungne and Lobzang Kedrup. 1992. Gangs can mkhas grub rim byon ming dzod. kan su'u mi rigs skrun khang

Gold, Jonathan. 2008. The Dharma's Gatekeeper: Sakya Paṇḍita on Buddhist Scholarship in Tibet. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Roerich, George, trans. 1976. The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas

Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. synthesis of rnam thar, Cho Trin Vol. 1 Number 2.

Sakyapa Ngawang Kunga Sonam. 2000. Holy Biographies of the Great Founders of the Glorious Sakya Order. Lama Kalsang Gyeltsen, Ani Kunga Chodron, and Victoria Huckenpahler, trans and eds. Silver Spring, MD: Sakya Puntsok Ling Publications.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives: The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam ‘bras Traditions in Tibet. Boston: Wisdom Publications.

Stearns, Cyrus. 2006. Taking the Path as the Result: Core Teachings of the Sakya Lamdre Tradition. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Dominique Townsend
December 2009

He was born in the year of the water dog of the second cycle at Sakya and was acclaimed as an incarnation of Durjayachandra. He received extensive spiritual training from his father, Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, the first of the five founding fathers of the Sakya-tradition. At age 17, he went to Sangphu Neuthok and deepened his studies under the famous scholar Chapa Chokyi Senge. His studies included Paramita, Madhyamaka, Pramana, Vinaya and Abhidharma. By the time he was eighteen he had mastered the triple discipline of teaching, debate and composition. After his return to Sakya, he held the throne of the monastery for three years and then passed the authority to his younger brother, Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen, the third of the five founding fathers. He dedicated the rest of his life to studies and meditation and died in 1182, the water tiger year, at age 41. He is said to have attained the second bhumi.


Wikipedia:Sonam Tsemo

Wikipedia:Sonam Tsemo