Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, First Panchen Lama. “Chos Smra ba’i dge slong blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan gyi spyod tshul gsal bar ston pa nor bu’i phreng ba (=nor bu’i phreng ba)”, Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan gyi gsung ’bum (Collected Works of the First Panchen Lama Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen). Tashi Lhunpo Edition. Vol.1, ff.1r-225v. Also see TBRC W23430 (5 vols.)
Panchen Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen
An unconventional autobiography
Panchen Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen’s (Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570-1662) Nor bu’i phreng ba, though partly written and completed by the Second Panchen Lama Lobsang Yeshe (1663–1737), serves as a personal memoir or autobiography of the former. Quite unconventionally, the book covers events from his birth through death, and extends further into his previous lives and beyond through his own post-funerary phases.
This was obviously facilitated by the unique Tibetan Buddhist reincarnation system, which firstly allowed the founding of the very lineage of Panchen Lama at the behest of the Fifth Dalai Lama Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682) and then the retroactive recognition of Khedup Gelek Palsang (1385–1438), Sonam Choggi Langpo (1438–1505) and Ensapa Lobsang Dhondub (1505–1566) as the first, second and third Panchen Lamas based on mystical revelations of several masters, thereby consequently relegating Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen to the fourth in the line of succession. The same reincarnation system enabled the Second Panchen Lama to write an autobiography of his predecessor in a first-person tone.
Although classified within the collected writings (gsung ’bum) of the First Panchen Lama, the colophon attributes this work to the Second Panchen Lama Lobsang Yeshe, who worked on the memoir of his predecessor at the request of and with additional information provided by the former’s chamberlain Lobsang Gelek, treasurer Phuntsok Rabten and butler Lobsang Tenzin.
Ubiquitously interspersed with beautiful interstitial poems to give the writing a verse-prose hybrid (spel ma) feel, the only diversion in this long narration is the shift in its use of calendar system. While the earlier portion of the text heavily, and sometimes exclusively, reckons the years according to the 60-year Rabjung cycle, the latter portion largely seem to enumerate the dates based on a correspondent Chinese zodiac system that employs a combination of five elements and twelve animals.
Narration of Panchen’s life
According to Nor bu’i phreng ba, Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen was born in Druggya village of Lhan in Tsang province of Tibet in 1570 (Iron Male Horse year). He was born as Choegyel Palden Sangpo to his physician father Tsering Paljor, aka Kunga Woeser, and mother Tsogyal in a family that traces its origin to the ancient Tibetan family of Ba (also ‘Wa’), which takes pride on having produced some important historical figures such Ba Yitshab (6th cen.), Ba Selnang (8th cen.), and Yakde Panchen (1299-1378).
Amazed by the young Panchen’s ability to recite by heart several prayers including the extensive Praise in the Names of Manjushri (’Jam dpal mtshan brjod) at the age of five, Khedrub Sangye Yeshe suggested that the young kid become a monk. At the age of 13, he joined Ensa Monastery and received the vows of novice monk (getsul) from Sangye Yeshe, whereupon he was named Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen. There, he received training and education in Buddhism, medicine and astrology. At 18, he joined Thoesam Ling college of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery to pursue higher studies in both exoteric and esoteric aspects of Buddhist study in religion, spirituality and practice. In 1591, at the age of 21, he received the vows of fully ordained monk (gelong) from the abbots of Tashi Lhunpo monastery Panchen Damchoe Yarphel and Paljor Gyatso. He simultaneously began imparting teachings, which eventually earned him great repute. He has taught extensively in various other places such as Guge, Ladakh, Mon, and Bhutan, and inspired people from all walks of life.
He finally died at his monastery in Water Male Tiger year, 1662 at the age of 93, unknown of the fact that his legacy would retroactively extend to three of his predecessors and progressively through his eight successors, and that his current recognition would be subjected to much controversy as result of the ongoing Sino-Tibetan political complications.
Although this autobiography, with its journal-like entries, reports his personal life and other events as first-hand accounts, it nonetheless requires readers to tally the dates with other autobiographical works.
On spiritual roles
To some extent the work serves as Gsan yig, which not only registers initiations, transmissions and instructions that Panchen Lama received during his lifetime, but also the names and titles of the teachers who bestowed them. In its extensive narration, Panchen Lama lists all his kind masters, namely Sangye Yeshe, Jetsun Namkha Gyaltsen, Damchoe Yarphel, Gyuechen Sangye Gyatso, Paljor Gyalpo, Kachupa Pelgon, Namgyel Pelzang, Geshe Drangchenpa, Jetsun Gedun Gyaltsen, Drungtso Tamdrin Sangpo, Zhiney Kachupa Tsultrim, Neynying Ralo Tulku, Ayupa Ngawang Dakpa, Ganden Tripa Damchoe Palbar, Segyue Geshe Jampa Gyaltsen and others. The work provides an even more illustrious list of disciples including the fourth Dalai Lama, the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the Mongol Sechen Gushri Khan and numerous Tibetan lay officials, high lamas, prominent scholars and adept practitioners.
It also records the abbatial positions and responsibilities held at various monasteries, namely Gangchen Choephel (1598), Tashi Lhunpo (1601), Riwo Gephel (1608), Drepung (1617), Sera (1617), Ganden Jangtse (1626) and Zhalu (1642). In addition the text lists renovation and restoration of monasteries, temples and religious object d’art commissioned by the First Panchen Lama. It also lists his charitable works ranging from offering of simple tea at lay and monastic gatherings to offering of inconceivable amount of gold and silver to monasteries including Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, where he, by the virtue of his title, remained its ex-officio Head Lama. It also provides considerable detail on how he generated such a huge amount to his disposal.
The work allows us to gauge his lofty stature as a spiritual master through his association with various religious leaders including the Fourth and the Fifth Dalai Lamas, the Tenth Karmapa and his disciples, and others. It recounts how the First Panchen Lama personally oversaw the tonsuring and ordination of the young Fifth Dalai Lama, who he named as Lobsang Gyatso in 1624.
On secular roles
The work highlights his diplomatic skills, which earned him much acclaim under various Tibetan rulers. As a result, he was not only able to extend cordial relations within other Tibetan Buddhist schools, but also with Buddhist in China, Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh. He continually played host to various emissaries and representatives from these places. Throughout his life, he was actively involved in mediation and securing truce in conflicts of both religious and secular nature, such as those between Tsangpa rulers and Gelukpa (1619), Mongol forces and Tsangpa warriors (1621), Drigung and Phagdru sects of Kagyudpa (1623), and Karma Kagyud and Geluk-favored Mongol rulers (1641). In the process, he has since 1612, saved thousands of lives and inspired an equal number of people to give up arms altogether in one of the most volatile periods in Tibet’s history. Despite his reluctance in expressing his views on inter- or intra-sectarian tensions, he narrates some important events that might have great relevance to the study of Tibetan history of the 16-17th century.
Highly respected as a prodigious author, Longdol Lama’s Mtshan tho attributes some 108 works on philosophy, liturgy and biographical works to the Panchen Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen. His interstitial composition begins with a 16-stanza-long praise to White Saraswati based on strict standards of Indian poetics, which he claims as extemporaneous and a result of month-long meditation on the goddess, was written at the age of 14. His work include Bla ma mchod pa, which forms the most standard liturgical text for Guru-devotion in the Gelukpa tradition. He has sponsored and even involved himself as editor for the publication of various works and collections of Buton including the Kangyur. The text provides great details into efforts he put in the process of book-making, such as generation of fund, creating of infrastructures, arraning for logistics, such as dispatching people as far as Kham to procure mercury for printing.
In all, it serves a good resource for the studying of some peculiar aspects of Tibetan Buddhist autobiographical study—divinity as a tool for legitimization, reincarnation theory and perpetuation of secular influence, priest-patron relationship, ‘cultural’ and ‘economic’ capitals, religious influence and political power, personal humility and mystical claims, and others.
Ka chen Ye shes rgyal mtshan. “Blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan gyi rnam thar”, Lam rim bla ma brgyud pa’i rnam thar. Lhasa:
Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang, 1990. Vol.1, pp.500-572. (e-text at TBRC W1CZ2730)
Klong rdol Ngag dbang blo bzang. “Rgya bod du byon pa’i bstan ’dzin gyi skyes bu dam pa rnams kyi mtshan tho,” Klong rdol Ngag
dbang blo bzang gi gsung ’bum. Lhasa: Bod ljong dpe rnying dpe skrun khang. 1991
Karmay, Ssamten G. Secret Vision of the Fifth Dalai Lama. London: Serindia.1988
Willis, Janice D. Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.
 Gyalwa Ensapa (1505-1566), Khedrub Sangye Yeshe (1525-1591) and Langmigpa Choekyi Gyaltsen (16th entury).
 Samten Karmay dates the event in 1625 (Karmay 1988:7)
 Pan chen blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan gyi gsung ’bum. New Delhi: Mongolian Lama Gurudeva. 1973 (Block Print based on Tashi Lhunpo edition) Also see TBRC holdings W23430 (5 vols.)