Drogön Chögyal Phagpa

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Drogön Chögyel Pakpa, one of the five founders of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, first vice-king of Tibet

Drogön Chögyel Pakpa or Drogön Chögyal Phagpa (Tibetan: འགྲོ་མགོན་ཆོས་རྒྱལ་འཕགས་པ་Wylie: 'Gro mgon Chos rgyal 'Phags pa, born Lochö Gyäcän[1] (1235 – 15 December 1280), was the fifth leader of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism. Historical tradition remembers him as the first vice-ruler of Tibet under the Mongol great khan. Although this is historically disputed, he played an important political role. He was also the guru and spiritual advisor to Kublai Khan, ruler of the Mongol Empire and the Yuan dynasty.


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. His mother was Jomo Konchog Kyi.[2] He was the nephew of Sakya Pandita 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 Prince Godan, son of the great khan Ögödei, and make peace. He brought with him his young nephews, the ten years old Phagpa and his brother, the six years old Chakna Dorje, who later published a collection of Sakya Pandita's writings. On the way, they stopped in Lhasa, where Phagpa took the vows of a young Buddhist monk at the Jokhang monastery in front of the statue of the Jowo offered by the Princess Wencheng, the Chinese wife of Songsten Gampo.[3] Sakya Pandita preached sermons along his way and arrived at Prince Godan's camp in Liangzhou, in the current province of Gansu, in 1247. There the Mongol troops were exterminating Chinese by throwing them in a river. Sakya Pandita, horrified, gave religious instructions, in particular stressing that killing a sentient being is one of the worst acts according to the Buddhist Dharma.[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 Prince Godan of a serious illness. With the help of his nephew Phagpa, he adapted the Uighur script so that the Buddhist Scriptures could be translated into Mongolian.[4] In return, he was supposedly given "temporal authority over the 13 myriarchies [Trikor Chuksum] of Central Tibet." At any rate, he issued a letter to the 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.[5]

After the death of Sakya Pandita, Phagpa remained at the camp of Prince Godan and learned the Mongolian language. Five years later Kublai Khan asked Godan to give him Chögyal Phagpa, who was then 23, and was converted him to Buddhism by his efforts. Shortly after, Kublai Khan took power in a succession fight, after the death of his brother Möngke, He thereby became the khan, the ruler of the Mongols; even later on he became the Emperor of China. Kublai Khan in turn appointed Chögyal Phagpa as his National Preceptor (guoshi) in 1260, the year when he was proclaimed emperor of the Mongols. 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][6] - that is to say, he developed the concept of the priest-patron relationship. With the support of Kublai Khan, Chögyal Phagpa established himself and his sect as the preeminent political power in Tibet.

Kublai Khan commissioned Chögyal Phagpa to design a new writing system to unify the writing of his multilingual Yuan Dynasty. Chögyal Phagpa in turn modified the traditional Tibetan script and gave birth to a new set of characters called '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 the Chinese ideogrammes and the Uyghur script.[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.[7] The script fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368.[3][8] The script was, though never widely, used for about a century and is thought to have influenced the development of modern Korean script.

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.[9]

Creation of the Sakya-Yuan administrative system[edit]

Thus began a strong Sakya-Mongol alliance, and the see or Dansa (gDan-sa) of Sakya became the capital of Tibet. According to later historiography Kublai 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.[10] However, this tradition has been qualified by recent research. It appears that 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.[11] In about 1260 the appanage system was withdrawn, and Phagpa, receiving the title National Preceptor, was acknowledged as the supreme head of the Buddhist clergy. In 1264 a department called Zongzhi Yuan was installed to take care of Buddhist and Tibetan affairs. Phagpa received the new title of Imperial Preceptor (Tibetan, tishri, Chinese, 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 Zongzhi Yuan. 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 already in 1274 and returned to Sakya, leaving the tishri dignity to his brother Rinchen Gyaltsen.[12]

Kublai Khan made Phagpa's other brother Chakna Dorje viceroy of Tibet in 1264. However, he passed away already in 1267 and no new viceroy was appointed for many years.[13] Temporal administration of Tibet was actually in the hands of officials from Sakya known as ponchen. 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."[14] A ponchen 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 ponchen resided in Gongyo in Doto (Kham) and Lingtsang in Doma (Amdo).[15] The ponchen of Central Tibet in this period were:

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

From all this it can be seen that Phagpa and his successors as Sakya lamas were not literally viceroys under the Yuan Dynasty, although they were at the center of the Yuan administrative system in Tibet. Moreover, after Phagpa the offices of tishri and abbot-ruler of Sakya (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,[16] the authority of the Sakya abbot 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 the Sakya-Yuan authority over the still restless country. Thus he convened a general conference of the Buddhist hierarchs in 1277 with both spiritual and political leanings. He passed away in the Lhakhang palace in Sakya on 15 December 1280. There was an unsubstantiated rumour that he had been poisoned by the former ponchen 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.[17]

The system lasted until about the middle of the 14th century. During the reign of the 14th Sakya Trizin, Sonam Gyaltsen, the myriarch Changchub Gyaltsen of Phagmodru began to expand his power in the Central Tibetan province of Ü, marking the "beginning of the end of the period of Sakya power in Central Tibet."[18][19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ He was also known under the name Drakpa Gyaltsen.
  2. ^ Shoju Inaba, "The lineage of the Sa skya pa: A chapter of the Red Annals", Memoirs of the Research Department of the Toyo Bunko 1963, p. 108.
  3. ^ a b c d e Laird, Thomas. (2006). The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama, pp. 114-117. Grove Press, New York. ISBN 978-0-8021-1827-1.
  4. ^ Norbu, Thubten Jigme and Turnbull, Colin. Tibet: Its History, Religion and People. Chatto & Windus (1969). Reprint: Penguin Books (1987), p. 195.
  5. ^ Luciano Petech, Central Tibet and the Mongols: The Yüan-Sa skya pa period in Tibetan history. Rome 1990, p. 9.
  6. ^ F. W. Mote. Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 501
  7. ^ Rossabi, M. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times, p. 158
  8. ^ F. W. Mote. Imperial China 900-1800. Harvard University Press, 1999. p. 501.
  9. ^ Klafkowski, Piotr. (1977). "History of Buddhism in Mongolia—A Preliminary Survey", p. 28 and note. Buddhist Studies. The Journal of the Department of Buddhist Studies, University of Delhi. May, 1977.
  10. ^ George Roerich, The Blue Annals. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 1976, p. 216.
  11. ^ Petech 1990, pp. 10-2.
  12. ^ Petech 1990, pp. 16-23.
  13. ^ Petech 1990, p. 20.
  14. ^ Petech 1990, p. 44.
  15. ^ Petech 1990, pp. 43-61.
  16. ^ Giuseppe Tucci, Tibetan painted scrolls. Rome 1949, Vol. II, p. 651.
  17. ^ Petech 1990, pp. 24-5.
  18. ^ Penny-Dimri, Sandra. "The Lineage of His Holiness Sakya Trizin Ngawang-Kunga." The Tibet Journal, Vol. XX No. 4, Winter 1995, pp. 71-73.
  19. ^ Shakabpa, Tsepon W. D. Tibet: A Political History (1967), p. 86. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.


Preceded by
Sakya Pandita
Senior ruler of Tibet
Succeeded by
Dharmapala Raksita
Preceded by
Tibetan imperial preceptor
Succeeded by
Rinchen Gyaltsen