Gampopa OPL1: Who was Gampopa?

When Guru Vajradhara Chamgon Kenting Tai Situpa (Situ Rinpoche) began broadcasting an intensive course on Ornament of Precious Liberation some years ago from his home seat of Sherabling in India to his worldwide network of Palpung monasteries and centers, including KTC, he spent the first six sessions on Gampopa’s life. He explained that if we didn’t understand what an extraordinary being Gampopa was, we would not appreciate how extraordinary his teachings were.

We won’t go into much detail here — I envision my class notes for this course as mainly an outline of key points to remember, since we’re just using two main sources and it’s easy to read the original material. But I highly recommend Jampa Mackenzie Stewart’s English biography, The Life of Gampopa: The Incomparable Dharma Lord of Tibet, if you have time. Though just over 100 pages, it’s full of wonderful and inspiring stories.

Both Ken Holmes’s translation of Ornament of Precious Liberation and Ringu Tulku’s companion book, Path to Buddhahood, include brief biographies of Gampopa. Below are among the most important points to remember about the author of this comprehensive guide to the path of awakening that is still the primary how-to manual in the Kagyu lineage, nine centuries after it was written:

When and where he lived: Gampopa Sonam Rinchen lived in the Dakpo district of central Tibet from 1079-1153, spanning the eleventh and twelfth centuries. (During that same period, here in the West the High Middle Ages were underway. The Great Schism, the break between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, occurred in 1054. The Battle of Hastings which sealed the Norman conquest of England, took place in 1066. The Crusades began in 1095. Gothic architecture made its first appearance in twelfth-century France. The Vikings had established small settlements in North America early in the eleventh century, but it would be more than 300 years before Christopher Columbus would set foot here.)

His early life: Like his father, Gampopa was a physician, and also a dharma practitioner and scholar. At age 22, he married the sister of the local king, and they had a son and daughter. Several years later an epidemic broke out in the region, and his son, daughter, and wife died one after the other. Seeing that his renowned medical skills could not save even his own beloved family, Gampopa made an oath to his wife on her deathbed that he would give up worldly life and become a monk. At age 26, he took full monastic ordination and was given the name Sonam Rinchen (“Precious Merit”).

His teachers: Gampopa received full monastic training and mastered the view and practice of the buddhadharma during his years in the monastery, following the tradition of Atisha (who is also the source of the seven points of mind training). One day he overheard three beggars talking about a great yogin named Milarepa who lived in a mountain cave. He fainted at the mere mention of Milarepa’s name, knew he had to find him, and underwent great hardships to do so. Milarepa transmitted all his teachings to Gampopa, whom he considered his heart son and most accomplished student.

His accomplishments: Gampopa was the founder of the Kagyu lineage as we know it, bringing together the monastic tradition of Atisha and the yogic Mahamudra path handed down by Milarepa, Marpa, Naropa and Tilopa, in “the merging of the two streams.” This is what he presents in his best-known work, Ornament of Precious Liberation. Ringu Tulku says, “Gampopa’s teachings brought these two traditions together in such a way that they could be practiced together as one experience. They quickly became one of the most important and effective foundation texts used in the teaching of Buddhism in Tibet from the [twelfth] century onward. The whole Kagyu tradition is based mainly on this teaching.”

After being sent away by Milarepa to fulfill the prophecy that he would benefit vast numbers of beings, Gampopa established the first Kagyu monastery at Daklha Gampo (hence his name) and his lineage became known as the Dakpo Kagyu. He is said to have had more than 50,000 students, including the first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa. Gampopa’s disciples later established the four primary and eight secondary Kagyu lineages invoked in the Mahamudra Lineage Prayer, or Dorje Chang Tungma, composed by the 15th-century master Bengar Jampal Zangpo, principal teacher of the Seventh Karmapa.

So now that we know a little bit of Gampopa’s extraordinary qualities as a teacher and Kagyu lineage master, we’re ready to explore his extraordinary legacy to us, Ornament of Precious Liberation.

Class audio 10.4.2018: Click here or in the blogroll

Next: A note on translations and titles

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