The Biography of Tertön Sogyal
Tertön Sogyal or Lerab Linpa was a treasure reveler, a tertön, who was born in the year of the Fire Dragon (1856) in Shiwa Village, in Nearing, Eastern Tibet. His family was descended from a financially secure lineage in upper Nyarong in Kham. Dargye, Sonam Gyalop’s father, encouraged his son to follow in the footsteps of the warrior chief Amgon, a skilled marksman hunter, even though Sonam Gyalpo had an early longing for monastic life. While Sonam Gyalpo reluctantly complied with his father’s orders, his mother, Drolma, knew that he was a child with great capability.
From an early age, Sonam Gyalpo showed great aptitude. Some of his earliest utterances were of memories of past lives, often referring to Padmasambhava. Without instruction, at the age of six, Sonam Gyalpo recognized lantsha letters, a special script often used to write Sanskrit mantras in Tibet. Even after witnessing his son’s display of enormous spiritual potential, Dargye adamantly forced his son to undertake strenuous hunting missions, which caused him to suffer from illness. Drolma brought her son to a mendicant, Pema Dündul, who recognized Sonam Gyalpo as the incarnate lama of Dorje Dudjom, a manifestation of Padmasambhava. It is even said that Padmasambhava had prophesied Sonam Gyalop’s birth and spiritual training in the ancient scripture of the Mirror of Astonishing Manifestations. Thereafter, Pema Dündal recommended that Sonam Gyalpo undertake a pilgrimage to strengthen his conviction to become a practitioner. Blessed by a dakini script he discovered on his journey, Sonam Gyalpo became firm in his conviction and decided to seek refuge in the embrace of the buddha, in the care of Nyala Pema Dündal.
After receiving his initial treasure teachings from Nyala Pema Dündul at Kalzang Temple, Sogyal sat in meditation sessions month after month. Sogyal was then instructed by Pema Dündul to seek out Lama Sonam Thaye at a remote encampment in Drikok, because he knew that the lama’s teachings would be the pillar upon which his meditation practice would be established. Sogyal left his retreat at Drikok encampment to join lama Sonam Thaye and a group of disciples on a pilgrimage to the monastic university of Khatok Dorje Den to receive teachings from throne holders. Sogyal also visited nearby hermitages and received instructions from Dza Choktrul Kunzang Namgyal, who became one of his main teachers. After recovering a prophecy from Padmasambhava in 1844, Sogyal traveled to the fertile Mesho Valley to Dzongsar Tashi Lhatse Monastery to seek out the great master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. During his stay, Sogyal was announced as a revealer of Padmasambhava’s treasure by Khyentse. From that moment on, Sogyal took the formal title of tertön.
After showing outward signs of great yogic accomplishment, Tertön Sogyal took a journey to visit Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpe Nima—a teacher known for asceticism and supreme erudition. Nyoshul Lungtok recognized that Tertön Sogyal’s white robes and long hair would make him well suited to remain a lay yogi, and would play an important role in spreading the Buddhist doctrine within the lay tantric community. Tertön Sogyal then ventured to Gonjo to ask the patriarch for the hand of his daughter, Pumo—a woman of significant spiritual accomplishment who would become the tertön’s consort. In order to prove himself worthy, Tertön Sogyal, indicated an imminent treasure revelation associated with Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. At the moment he revealed the treasure, the tertön had visions of Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal—an assurance that marrying Pumo was the proper course of action to benefit all beings.
In the year of the Earth Rat (1888), accounts of the tertön’s spiritual powers spread throughout Eastern Tibet. Tertön Sogyal received a message requesting his immediate presence at the Dalai Lama’s (Thubten Gyatso) Potala Palace in Lhasa. The tertön was called upon to perform tantric rituals capable of turning back the British army that was deploying forces on Tibet’s southern border. Tertön Sogyal was thus officially appointed as chaplain to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, becoming Tibet’s tantric defense minister. The Dalai Lama later requested that Tertön Sogyal become his guru, requiring that the tertön share with him the tantric empowerments and oral transmissions for Padma’s treasure teachings. During a trip to Eastern Tibet, the tertön revealed a jeweled statue of Padmasambhava, a sacred treasure that was meant for degenerate times. Upon indication by the state of Tibet, Tertön Sogyal performed obstacle-removing rituals and prayers. After returning to Lhasa with the Jewel Guru Statue That Liberates Upon Seeing, Khandro Pumo gave birth to their first child, named Rigdzin Namgyal. Knowing that Tertön Sogyal had to fulfill his duty for Tibet, the tertön continued his journey taking the statue westward.
While traveling, Tertön Sogyal was notified of a prophecy indicating his return to Lhasa to return treasure revelations to their owners. In the same year Tertön Sogyal sensed a threat to the life of the Dalai Lama. With the help of a medium, the tertön discovered that Nyagtrül (well versed in black magic) had gifted the Dalai Lama a pair of boots with a cursed talisman embedded in the heel containing a magic diagram that was inscribed with the message “SUPPRESS THUBTEN GYATSO, BORN IN THE FIRE RAT YEAR.” After imprisoning all who had attempted to assassinate the Dalai Lama, Tertön Sogyal performed rituals to stop Nyagtrül from inflicting any more harm. The tertön returned to Eastern Tibet at the end of 1899 when a prophecy indicated that he construct chapels at Kalzang. Shortly after, Tertön Sogyal and his family sought out teachings from Nyoshul Lungtok and Dza Choktrul in Thromthar, but upon arrival, threats to the Dalai Lama and trouble on Tibet’s borders made it impossible for the tertön to decipher hidden meanings; later, Tertön Sogyal also lost his ability to speak. But on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Iron Rat year (1900), Padma appeared to Tertön Sogyal in a dream, whereafter he was healed.
Tertön Sogyal returned to Kham the following year and resumed his position in the court of the Dalai Lama. The tertön was asked to advise the Dalai Lama on the threat of invasion from British India, Tsarist Russia, as well as the Qing Manchus. The Dalai Lama then instructed Tertön Sogyal to take up residence in Eastern Tibet for protection. Tertön Sogyal remained in retreat, and diligently performed rituals for the preservation of Tibet. While performing the prescribed rituals, Padma appeared to the tertön and told him of the Dalai Lama’s impending death. Tertön Sogyal revealed that he could remove the threat to the Dalai Lama by finding a companion, the daughter of a Muslim warlord, Ma Qi. Two nights after meeting Ma Qi’s daughter, the tertön recalled teachings that he had received in past lives, as well as the location of many terma in Ziling (Xining)— with the assistance of Shinya, the tertön was able to reveal a number of treasures.
Tertön Sogyal returned home to find that his first grandchild had been born, a boy known as Pema Chapel Gyatso—he would later become a fully ordained monk. The tertön was asked to give teachings and consecrate a recently built stupa. Soon after, the tertön began to travel around the region, completing many projects, responding to the requests of his disciples, discovering new termas, and deciphering others. In his 68th year, the tertön began his final journey to Golok and the Derge regions where he taught and gave empowerments. Tertön Sogyal’s attendants began practices to elongate his life and ward off black magic. After six months, the tertön fell ill, and could not be cured; a prophecy revealed that he would suffer illness and harm so as to eliminate obstacles for everyone else. With the knowledge that the end of his life was near, Tertön Sogyal settled into a routine of meditation and ritual practice, offered the occasional teaching, and spent time with his wife and family. And on the tenth day of the first month of the Fire Tiger year (1926), Tertön Sogyal sat in deep stillness while he exhaled his last breath.
Tertön Sogyal has two recognized incarnations, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok and Sogyal Rinpoche, one of them was to be a monk and the other would spread the mantra far and wide.
Pistono, Matteo, and Rinpoche, Sogyal. Fearless in Tibet: the life of the mystic Tertön Sogyal. Carlsbad, California: Hay House, 2014.
Chhosphel, S. “Lerab Lingpa- Treasury of Lives.” Retrieved from http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Lerab-Lingpa/8538 (2011, September).