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Drogön Chögyal Phagpa

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Title: Drogön Chögyal Phagpa  
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Subject: Sino-Tibetan relations during the Ming dynasty, Sakya Pandita, Sakya, Tibet under Yuan rule, 'Phags-pa script
Collection: 1235 Births, 1280 Deaths, Creators of Writing Systems, Sakya Lamas, Tibetan People, Yuan Dynasty People
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Drogön Chögyal Phagpa

Drogön Chögyal Phagpa, one of the Five Sakya patriarchs, first Imperial Preceptor of the Yuan dynasty and vice-king of Tibet

Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (Wylie: 'gro mgon chos rgyal 'phags pa, 1235 – 15 December 1280), was the fifth leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was also the first Imperial Preceptor of Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty, division of the Mongol Empire, and was concurrently named the director of the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. Historical tradition remembers him as the first vice-ruler of Tibet under the Mongol Khagan as well as one of the Five Sakya patriarchs (Wylie: sa skya gong ma rnam lnga). Although this is historically disputed, he played an important political role.


  • Early life 1
  • Entering the service of Kublai Khan 2
  • The development of the Phagpa script 3
  • Creation of the Sakya-Yuan administrative system 4
  • Last years and death 5
  • Cultural references 6
  • See also 7
  • Footnotes 8
  • References 9

Early life

Phagpa was born in Ngari (West Tibet) in 1235 as the son of Zangtsa Sonam Gyaltsen (1184-1239), a member of the Khon family which held hereditary power over the Sakya Monastery in the Tsang region.[1] His mother was Jomo Konchog Kyi.[2] He was the nephew of Sakya Pandita (1182-1251), who began the relationship between Sakya and the Mongol conquerors after their first invasion of Tibet in 1240.

In 1244, Sakya Pandita left Sakya in order to visit the royal camp of Godan Khan, son of Ögedei Khan, to act as intermediary between the Mongols and Tibetans. He brought with him his young nephews, the ten years-old Phagpa and his brother, the six years-old Chakna Dorje. On the way, they stopped in Lhasa, where Phagpa took the vows of a śrāmaṇera at the Jokhang in front of the statue of the Jowo offered by the Princess Wencheng, the Chinese wife of Songtsän Gampo.[3]

Sakya Pandita preached sermons along his way and arrived at Godan's camp in Liangzhou in 1247. There the Mongol troops were exterminating Han Chinese by throwing them in a river.[4] Sakya Pandita, horrified, gave religious instructions, in particular stressing that killing a sentient being is one of the worst acts according to Buddhism.[3] He gave religious instruction to the prince and greatly impressed the court with his personality and powerful teachings. He is also said to have cured Godan of a serious illness.[5]

In return, Drogön Chögyel Phagpa was supposedly given "temporal authority over the 13 myriarchies [Trikor Chuksum] of Central Tibet."[6] Since the myriarchies had not yet emerged as a territorial unit, this cannot be entirely correct. Tibetan historians quote a letter that Sakya Pandita wrote to the local leaders of Tibet in 1249 where he stated that they henceforth must carry out the administration of their fiefs in consultation with the Sakya envoys and in accordance with Mongol law.[7]

Entering the service of Kublai Khan

After the death of Sakya Pandita, the Mongol ruler Möngke Khan dispatched new military campaigns against parts of Tibet in 1252-53. He furthermore shared up the main Tibetan sects among the ruling clan. While he patronized the Drikung Kagyu, Godan protected Sakya and there were at least nine further appanages. Phagpa and his brother remained at the camp of Godan, learned the Mongolian language and took up Mongol dress.

Möngke's brother Kublai, after a brief flirtation with Chan Buddhism, found Tibetan Buddhism more to his liking. In 1253 he asked Godan to give him Chögyal Phagpa, who was then 18. Kublai was subsequently converted to Buddhism by his efforts and Phagpa became his tantric guru in 1258. Under the influence of Kublai's wife Chabi, their mutual relation was defined so that Phagpa had a precedence in religious matters and Kublai in temporal affairs. When the prince received religious instruction from his lama, the latter sat on a higher seat, while Kublai sat higher than Phagpa when he conducted court business. Phagpa further strengthened his case by defeating his Daoist opponents in a great debate in Kublai's newly built city Kaiping in 1258.[8]

Shortly after, Kublai Khan took power in a succession struggle after the death of his brother Möngke in 1259. He thereby became the Khagan, the ruler of the Mongols; later on, he became the Emperor of China. Phagpa supported the new lord by presenting him as a chakravartin or universal ruler.[9] Kublai Khan in turn appointed Chögyal Phagpa as his National Preceptor (Guoshi) in 1260, the year when he was proclaimed Khagan. According to Mongol sources, Phagpa was the first one "to initiate the political theology politics of the relationship between state and religion in the Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist world"[3][10] - that is to say, he developed the concept of the patron and priest relationship. With the support of Kublai Khan, Chögyal Phagpa established himself and the Sakya as the preeminent political power in Tibet.

The development of the Phagpa script

Kublai Khan commissioned Chögyal Phagpa to design a new writing system to unify the writing of the multilingual Yuan China. Phagpa modified the Tibetan alphabet to create his 'Phags-pa script, which was completed in 1268. Kublai Khan decided to use the 'Phags-pa script as the official writing system of the empire, including when he became Emperor of China in 1271, instead of Chinese characters or the Old Uyghur alphabet formerly used for Mongolian.[3] However, he encountered major resistances and difficulties when trying to promote this script and never achieved his original goal. As a result, only a small amount of texts were written in this script, and the majority (including most official documents) were still written in Chinese ideograms or the Uyghur alphabet.[11] The script fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan in 1368.[3][12] The script was used for about a century and is thought to have influenced the development of Hangul.

Phagpa's diaries for 1271 mention a foreign friend of Kublai Khan, who was quite possibly one of the elder Polos or even Marco Polo, although, unfortunately, no name is given.[13]

Creation of the Sakya-Yuan administrative system

Tibet within the Yuan dynasty under the top-level department known as the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs (Xuanzheng Yuan).

The Sakya-Mongol alliance was strong, and the see or densa (Wylie: gdan-sa) of the Sakya became the capital of Tibet. According to later historiography, Kublai Khan (who founded of the Yuan dynasty in 1271) granted the three cholka or regions of Tibet (Ü-Tsang, Amdo and Kham) to Phagpa as a reward for the initiation in the Buddhist faith.[14] The donation would have taken place in 1253. However, this tradition has been qualified by recent research. As mentioned above, Kublai's brother and predecessor Möngke Khan divided Central Tibet into appanages obedient under various Mongol princes in 1251. In the next year he issued a decree saying that the main Buddhist precepts to be followed in Tibet were to be those of Sakya.[15] In about 1260 the appanage system was withdrawn, and Phagpa, receiving the title State Preceptor (Guoshi), was acknowledged as the supreme head of the Buddhist clergy.

In 1264, Kublai Khan established the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. At about the same time, Phagpa was sent from the court to Tibet in order to persuade the local leaders to accept the imposition of Mongol administration. It was his first visit to his homeland since childhood.[16] Phagpa received the new title of Imperial Preceptor (Dishi) in 1270, partly as a reward for his invention of the Phagpa script. As such, he was expected to stay close to the emperor and had a paramount influence over the Bureau of Buddhist and Tibetan Affairs. His decrees carried the weight of the imperial court which gave him a strong authority over Tibetan affairs.

However, Phagpa mostly resided in Lintao in Gansu and apparently had desultory contacts with the emperor. He vacated the post by 1274 and returned to Sakya, leaving the title to his brother, Rinchen Gyaltsen.[17]

Kublai Khan made Phagpa's other brother Chakna Dorje viceroy of Tibet in 1264. However, he died in 1267 and no new viceroy was appointed for many years.[18] His untimely death was followed by a rebellion led by the Drikung Kagyu, the main opponents of the Sakya. Kublai Khan sent a punitive force to Tibet, which suppressed the uprising by 1268.[19]

Temporal administration of Tibet was actually in the hands of officials from Sakya known as dpon-chen or pönchen. Their functions were defined as follows: "He governs by order of the lama and by the mandate of the emperor. He protects the two laws (religious and civil) and keeps the realm tranquil and the religion flourishing."[20] A dpon-chen with responsibility for Central Tibet was stationed in Sakya from c. 1264. An implemented Mongol rule began about 1268-69 when a census was carried out and a Mongol administrative structure was set up. By this time Central Tibet was divided into 13 trikor, usually rendered in English as "myriarchies", each under a local lord called tripon. Meanwhile, other Sakya dpon-chen resided in Gongyo in Doto (Kham) and Lingtsang in Doma (Amdo).[21] The dpon-chen of Ü-Tsang in this period were:

  • Shakya Zangpo (c. 1264-1270)
  • Kunga Zangpo (c. 1270-1275)
  • Zhangtsun (c. 1275-?)
  • Chukpo Gangkarwa (?-1280)

Last years and death

Phagpa and his successors as Sakya lamas were not literally viceroys under the Yuan although they were at the center of the Yuan administrative system in Tibet. Moreover, after Phagpa the offices of Imperial Preceptor and Sakya Trizin were kept strictly separate. While the later chronicles depict Phagpa and his successors as ruling over the 13 myriarchies and in an extended sense over the three cholka,[22] the authority of the Sakya Trizin was restricted to spiritual affairs. Given the paramount importance of the Buddhist religious hierarchy in Tibet, this still gave him an amount of influence.

Phagpa spent his last years in Tibet, where he was busy strengthening Sakya-Yuan authority over the still-restless country. He convened a general conference of the Buddhist hierarchs in 1277 with both spiritual and political leanings. He died in the Lhakhang palace in Sakya on 15 December 1280. There was an unsubstantiated rumour that he had been poisoned by the former pönchen Kunga Zangpo, whom he had dismissed some years previously for highhanded conduct. This led to an armed intervention by an army of Mongols and Amdo Tibetans in the next year, resulting in the execution of Kunga Zangpo and the strengthening of Mongol military presence in Tibet.[23][24]

The system lasted until about the middle of the 14th century. During the reign of the 14th Sakya Trizin, Lama Dampa Sonam Gyaltsen, the myriarch Tai Situ Changchub Gyaltsen of the Phagmodrupa Dynasty began to expand his power in the central province of Ü, marking the "beginning of the end of the period of Sakya power in Central Tibet."[25][26]

Cultural references

Phagpa is depicted by James Hong in the 1982 miniseries Marco Polo. In the series he is erroneously depicted as alive at the time of the departure of Marco Polo from China in 1293.

See also


  1. ^ Dominique Townsend (2010), 'Pakpa Lodro Gyeltsen', [2]
  2. ^ Shoju Inaba (1963) "The lineage of the Sa skya pa: A chapter of the Red Annals", Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 22, p. 108.
  3. ^ a b c d e Thomas Laird (2006) The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, pp. 114-117. Grove Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-8021-1827-1.
  4. ^ Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa (1967) Tibet: A Political History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 63.
  5. ^ Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin Turnbull (1969) Tibet: Its History, Religion and People. Chatto & Windus (1969). Reprint: Penguin Books (1987), p. 195, assert that Sakya Pandita, with the help of his nephew Phagpa, adapted the Uighur script so that the Buddhist Scriptures could be translated into Mongolian. This is not clear from more detailed studies, which indicate that the developnent of the new script took place much later, in the 1260s.
  6. ^ Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa (1967) p. 63.
  7. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan-Sa skya pa period in Tibetan history. Rome, p. 9. There are some questions about the authencity of the letter that Sakya Pandita wrote to the Tibetans; see David P. Jackson (1987) 'Sa-skya Pandita's letter to the Tibetans'.
  8. ^ Morris Rossabi (1988) Khubilai Khan: His life and times. Berkeley, p. 41-2.
  9. ^ Matthew Kapstein (2006) The Tibetans. Oxford, p. 112.
  10. ^ F. W. Mote (1999) Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press, p. 501
  11. ^ Morris Rossabi (1988) p. 158
  12. ^ F. W. Mote (1999) Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press, p. 501.
  13. ^ Piotr Klafkowski (1977). "History of Buddhism in Mongolia—A Preliminary Survey", Buddhist Studies. The Journal of the Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi. May, 1977, p. 28 and note.
  14. ^ George Roerich (1976) The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, p. 216.
  15. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) pp. 10-2.
  16. ^ Morris Rossabi (1988) p. 143
  17. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) pp. 16-23.
  18. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) p. 20.
  19. ^ Morris Rossabi (1988) p. 144.
  20. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) p. 44.
  21. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) pp. 43-61.
  22. ^ Giuseppe Tucci (1949) Tibetan painted scrolls. Rome 1949, Vol. II, p. 651.
  23. ^ Luciano Petech (1990) pp. 24-5.
  24. ^ "kun dga' bzang po". Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center. Retrieved 20 June 2015. 
  25. ^ Sandra Penny-Dimri (1995) "The Lineage of His Holiness Sakya Trizin Ngawang-Kunga", The Tibet Journal, Vol. XX No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 71-73.
  26. ^ Tsepon W.D. Shakabpa (1967) Tibet: A Political History. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, p. 86.


  • Coblin, W. South (2006). A Handbook of 'Phags-pa Chinese (ABC Dictionary Series). University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu. ISBN 978-0-8248-3000-7.
Preceded by
Sakya Pandita
Sakya lama of Tibet
(Yuan overlordship)

Succeeded by
Dharmapala Raksita
Preceded by
Tibetan Imperial Preceptor
Succeeded by
Rinchen Gyaltsen
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