Biography Of Sakya Pandita

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Biography of Sakya Pandita

NameKuenga Gyaltshen
Wylie namekun dga' rgyal mtshan
Name etymologyGreat joy of all sentient beings, banner of victory
Naming history 
Person type 
Biographical SummarySakya Pandita is among the most important and influential figures of the Renaissance period. Born in 1182 into the aristocratic Khön family, he is revered as the fourth patriarch of the Sakya tradition and was one of the greatest early scholars. The author of over one hundred titles, he is remembered for his opposition to what he believed were non-Indian innovations, from both Chinese and indigenous sources, to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1244 he was summoned to the court of the Mongol prince Köden (Godan), the grandson of Genghis Khan, where he taught and is reported to have healed the prince of leprosy. Köden granted Sakya Pandita temporal authority over Ü and Tsang in 1249, laying the groundwork for the "preceptor-patron" (mchod yon) relationship that became the model for Mongol/Chinese and Tibetan relations. He named his nephew, Phakpa ('phags pa, 1235-1280), as his successor before he died in 1252 (Rhoton).
Birth date (Tibetan)Water Male Tiger (Roerich 211)
Birth date (international)1182 (Roerich 211)
Birth place (Tibetan) 
Death dateIron Female Hog (Roerich 211)
Death date (international)1251 (Roerich 211)
Death placeLiang-chou
FamilySakya Khön
Main TeacherŚākyaśrībhadra (1140?-1225)
TeachersDrakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan ) (1147-1216); Shutön Dorje Kyab; Tshurtön Shönnu Sengge; Tsek Wangchuk Sengge; Jiwo Lhepa Changchup Ö; Samghaśrī; Dānaśīla; Sugataśrī (Rhoton 11)
Main DisciplePhakpa ('phags pa) (1235-1280)
Spheres of activityÜ and Tsang; Sakya; Samyé; Kyirong; Trulpa’i de in Liang-chou

Detailed Template


TBRC ID: P1056

Names and titles (ming dang mgo sa)

Name (ming gzhan dag/): kun dga' rgyal mtshan


Type (rigs):

  • Primary Name (ming gtso bo/): sa skya pang chen kun dga' rgyal mtshan
  • Primary Title: 4th Sakya Patriarch
  • Title: Lord of the Dharma (chos rje)
  • Personal Name: kun dga' rgyal mtshan
  • Birth names: Palden Döndrup (Rhoton, 11)
  • Nicknames: Sapan
  • Epithets:
  • Family Name: Khön

Types (rigs)

Sentient being type (sems can rigs mi 'dra/):

  • human
    • historical/mythological
    • religious
    • scholar

Gender (pho mo/):

  • male (mo)

Ethnicity (mi rigs):

Birth and death ('khrungs 'das)

Birth International date ('khrungs dus/ _spyi 'o'i lo zla tshes grangs/): 1182 (Roerich 211)

Birth Tibetan date ('khrungs dus/ _spyi lo'i lo zla tshes grangs/): Water Male Tiger (Roerich 211)

Death date ('das dus/ _spyi 'o'i lo zla tshes grangs/): 1251 (Roerich 211)

Death date Tibetan ('khrungs dus/ _spyi lo'i lo zla tshes grangs/): Iron Female Hog (Roerich 211)

Places & Institutions (yul)

Birth place ('khrung yul/):

Death place ('das yul/): Liang-chou

Principal sphere(s) of activity (spyod yul/): Ü and Tsang; Sakya; Samyé (1220s or 1230s); Kyirong (~1240); Trulpa’i de in Liang-chou (1247-1251)

Family (khyim tshang/)

Paternal clan (a pha'i rus pa'i ming/): Khön

Maternal clan (a ma'i rus pa'i ming/):

Related individuals:

Father: Palchen Öpo (dpal chen 'od po)

Mother: Nyithri Cham of Mangkhar (Rhoton 11)

Brother: Sangtsha (1184-1239) (Rhoton 9)

Uncle: Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan ) (1147-1216)

Uncle: Sönam Tsémo

Grandfather: Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (sa chen kun dga' snying po)

Great-grandfather: Könchok Gyalpo (dkon mchog rgyal po) (1034-1100)

Grandmother: Machik Ödrön

Nephew: Phakpa ('phags pa) (1235-1280)



*Main Patron:

*Main Teacher: Śākyaśrībhadra (1140?-1225)

*Teachers: Drakpa Gyeltsen (grags pa rgyal mtshan ) (1147-1216); Shutön Dorje Kyab; Tshurtön Shönnu Sengge; Tsek Wangchuk Sengge; Jiwo Lhepa Changchup Ö; Samghaśrī; Dānaśīla; Sugataśrī (Rhoton 11)

*Main Disciple: Phakpa ('phags pa) (1235-1280)




*Vision: Sapan had a vision of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī during a guruyoga initiation ceremony imparted by Drakpa Gyeltshen (Rhoton 12). He also received a prophecy to Buddhahood from Drakpa Gyeltshen, Virūpa and Krnsapāda (Rhoton 18)

Incarnational pedigree

Past Lives:

Future Lives:

Emanations of: Mañjuśrī (Davidson, 345)

Education (slob sbyong)

Study Institutions: Thrang, Kyangdur, Chumik Ringmo (Rhoton 11)

Teaching Institutions: Sakya; Samyé; Trulpa’i de east of Liang-chou

Lineages: Lamdré lineage: Virūpa > Sachen Kunga Nyingpo > Drakpa Gyeltshen > Sakya Pandita > Phakpa > Khubilai Khan (Davidson 351)

Things studied (doctrines, ritual, literature): Sakya Pandita was sent to Central Tibet in 1200 where he studied yogācāra, madhyamaka, and the logic and epistemology of Dharmakīrti. Under Śākyaśrībhadra he studied the abhidharma vinaya, prajñāpāramitā, and madhyamaka. His non-religious education included the study of medicine, court-epic poetical literature (kāvya), and literary criticism (alamkāra). As a pandita he was "an expert in all recognized branches of Indian Buddhism" (Rhoton 4) .

Things taught



Religious sectarian affilialtion (chos lugs): Sakayapa

Institutional base(s): Sakya

Summary of career activities: Sapan began formal studies in 1200 when he went to Thrang. He met Śākyaśrībhadra in 1204 and began studying with him the following year. Sapan took full monastic ordination in 1208 and took the chair of Sakya monastery following Drakpa Gyeltshen's death in 1216. At some point in the 1220s or 1230s he went to Samyé to teach at the invitation of Shākya Gong (Rhoton 12). He wrote and translated numerous texts including manuals and commentaries. In 1240 he went to the border area of Kyirong where it is reported that he debated and defeated Harinanda, a non-Buddhist Indian scholar. He was summoned to the Mongol court in Kansu in 1244 and he arrived there in 1247. He continued to teach until his death in 1251.


While residing at Samyé, Sapan paid for its renovation and painted an image of Mañjuśrī (Rhoton 12).

Writings (rtsom yig)

*mkhas pa rnams 'jug pa'i sgo (Entrance Gate for the Wise)

*legs par bshad pa rin po che'i gter (Treasury of Aphoristic Jewels)

*tshad ma rigs gter (Treasury of Epistemology)

*thub pa'i dgongs gsal (Clarifying the Sage's Intention)

*sdom gsum rab dbye (A Clear Differentiation of three codes)

*sgra'i bstan bcos

*tshad ma'i bstan bcos sde bdun gyi snying po rig pa'i gter 'grel pa dang bcas pa

*bzo'i bstan bcos

*sku gzugs kyi bstan bcos

*sa brtag pa

*bstan pa rin po che'i rtsis

*yan lag brgyad pa'i bsdus don

*phyogs bcu'i sangs rgyas byang chub sems dpa' la zhu ba'i 'phrin yig dang skyes bu dam pa rnams la springs yig sogs 'phrin yig dang zhus lan mang ba

*grub mtha' rnam 'byed

*pha rol phyin pa'i gzhung lugs spyi'i tshogs chos chen mo

*bdag med ma'i bstod pa'i 'grel pa

*rdo rje theg pa'i man ngag rten 'brel lnga'i yi ge

*lam sbas bshad dang bla ma'i rnal 'byor

*sems bskyed chen mo lung sbyor

*chos nyams su blang ba'i rim pa

*theg pa chen po'i lam gyi rnam gzhag mdor bsdus

*bsngo ba'i yon bshad

*bdag nyid kyi rnam thar nga brgyad ma'i rtsa 'grel

*sdeb sbyor me tog gi chun po

*snyan ngag mkhas pa'i kha rgyan

*mngon brjod tshig gi gter

*zlos gar rab dga'i 'jug pa

*rol mo'i bstan bcos

*byis pa bde blag tu 'jug pa'i 'grel pa

*bstod pa rgyud gsum 'khor lo'i 'grel pa

*sangs rgyas la bstod pa sogs bstod pa mang po mdzad


DD-MM-YYYYTibetan DateTitle of EventDescription of EventSource
1182Water Male TigerBirth Roerich 211
1200 left Sakya to begin studiesSapan went to Thrang in the upper Nyang valley to study with Shutön Dorje KyabRhoton, 11
1203 Death of Palchen ÖpoSakya Pandita's fatherRhoton 11
1204 Met with Śākyaśrībhadra Rhoton 11
1208 OrdinationSapan took the full vows of monkhood with ŚākyaśrībhadraRhoton, 3
1216 Death of Drakpa GyeltshenSapan took the seat at Sakya after Drakpa Gyeltshen's deathRhoton, 14
1220s or 1230s Travels to SamyéSapan went to Samyé to teach at the invitation of Shākya GongRhoton, 12
1240 Debate at KyirongSapan debated Harinanda, a non-Buddhist scholar from India, and defeated him.Rhoton, 15
1244 Travels to KansuSapan left Sakya and travelled to Liang-chou in Kansu after being summoned by Prince KödenRhoton, 16
1247 Met with Köden Rhoton, 17
1249 Köden grants Sapan temporal authority over Ü and Tsang Rhoton, 18
1251Iron Female HogDeath Roerich 211

Short Summary of Life

Sakya Pandita Kuenga Gyaltshen (kun dga’ rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) is one of the most important and revered figures in Tibetan Buddhist history. The fourth patriarch of the Sakya tradition, he is renowned for his scholastic endeavors and abilities and devoted much of his writing to reaffirming the Indic roots of Buddhism in light of what he considered aberrant Tibetan innovations. He was invited to the Mongol court by Prince Köden in 1244 and the time he spent there established the foundation of the patron-preceptor relationship that became the source of Sakya authority in Tibet.

Biographical sketch

The fourth patriarch of the Sakya tradition and one of the most revered figures in Tibetan history, Sakya Pandita Kuenga Gyaltshen (kun dga’ rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) was born in 1182 to Palchen Öpo (dpal chen 'od po) and Nyithri Cham of Mangkar. Born into the powerful Khön clan, Sakya Pandita’s (Sapan) uncle was the famous Drakpa Gyaltshen (grags pa rgyal mtshan, 1147-1216). His grandfather was Sachen Kunga Nyingp (sa chen kun dga’ snying po) and his great-grandfather was the founder of Sakya monastery, Könchok Gyalpo (dkon mchog rgyal po, 1034-1100). Sapan began studying tantric ritual and meditation at a young age under the tutelage of his father and uncle. At the age of eighteen he left home to pursue formal studies in Thrang in the upper Nyang valley with Shutön Dorje Kyab of the Sangphu tradition and who was also a disciple of Drakpa Gyaltshen. For four years he studied epistemology and logic as well as the teachings of the Kadampa, Dzokchen, Shiche, and other systems. He met the famous Indian scholar, Śākyaśrībhadra (1140?-1225) in 1204. Sapan began studying with him the following year and received additional instruction from three other India teachers. His studies were extensive and included training in art, medicine, Sanskrit grammar, epistemology, and Buddhist doctrine as well as the “minor sciences” such as poetry, drama, and metrics (Rhoton, 11-12).

His uncle, Drakpa Gyeltshen, passed away in 1216, at which point Sapan succeeded him as the leader of the Sakya monastery. Because he had been the first Khön in several generations to take full monastic vows, he was very much an instrumental figure in the reestablishment of the full observance of the Vinaya code. The ordination of his disciples is emblematic of his larger project, which was to rescue Buddhism in Tibet from what he viewed as aberrant doctrines and practices. Based on the state of the Buddhism during his lifetime, Sapan believed that the doctrine had entered a period of decline and that this was accelerated by the fact that too many people were carelessly accepting false teachings. In numerous works, Sapan criticized virtually every sect and lineage in Tibet, though he did not disclaim the entire tradition. Instead, he based his criticisms on what he viewed as deviance from the original teachings of the various lineages themselves. Sapan’s criticisms—especially those directed toward the practices of Lama Zhang and other Kagyupa traditions—have been considered by many scholars as little more than polemical attacks initiated for sectarian purposes. In large part this is due to the fact that his critiques were straightforward and appeared to move beyond doctrinal debate to personal enmity. However, his criticisms were grounded in doctrinal and philosophical positions (Jackson, 67-94). His measure of authenticity was largely historical and traditionalist—he insisted that teachings be traced to their Indian sources—but he did not discredit the possibility of revealed scripture and ultimately relied on logic and rationality to gauge authenticity. However, he was adamantly opposed to what he considered to be Chinese or Tibetan inventions. One of Sapan’s major points of contention with his contemporaries was regarding the nature and necessity of the three systems of vows (the prātimoksa, the bodhisattva, and the vidyādhara). Sapan insisted the three vows were neither in conflict with one another nor distinct from one another but were bound together through Vajrayāna initiation (Rhoton, 23).

Though his pointed criticisms were met with significant and often polemical opposition, Sapan’s extensive knowledge and abilities gained him international fame. For example, Sapan was invited to teach and reside at Samyé, one of the most revered sites in Tibet. Furthermore, he traveled to Kyirong a border region north of Kathmandu to engage in a debate with Harinanda, a non-Buddhist Indian scholar. While the deatails of Harinanda’s background are not clear, there is indication that he was a Hindu logician and had defeated other Buddhist scholars in debates prior to meeting with Sapan. According to histories written well after Sapan’s lifetime, he defeated Harinanda and converted him to Buddhism. Additionally, he was invited to the court of a ruler south of Tibet, though he declined the invitation (Rhoton, 18).

The clearest indication of the extent of Sapan’s fame, however, is the fact that he was summoned to the Mongol court in Kansu by Prince Köden in 1244. The circumstances surrounding his summons are not clear, but based on what is reported to be Sapan’s own account, Rhoton and others speculate that he reluctantly agreed to the invitation only because it was accompanied by threat of force against Tibet in the event that he did not comply. Regardless, he reached Ling-chou in Kansu and met with Prince Köden in 1247. It is reported that he healed the Prince of leprosy, and through other miracles and sermons, converted him and his ministers to Mahāyāna Buddhism. Clearly, Sapan impressed the Mongol prince as he was granted temporal authority over Ü and Tsang in 1249. Sapan remained in Ling-chou until his death in 1251 (Rhoton, 16-18).

In many ways, Sakya Pandita’s life, and especially his relationship with the Mongol court, is representative of the close of the Renaissance period. In the wake of the collapse of the Tibetan empire, the Renaissance period was characterized by a lack of centralized authority. Though the rise of institutionalized monasticism appeared to be generating new centers of power, this was interrupted and displaced by the patron-preceptor relationship that was established between the Sakya school and the Mongol empire. While this did not come into fruition until Sapan’s nephew and successor, Phakpa (‘phags pa, 1235-1280), was granted the title of imperial preceptor by Qubilai Khan, the roots of the model were laid with Sapan’s relationship with Prince Göden.


Pramānavārttika of Dharmakīrti (with Śākyaśrībhadra)

Pramānavārttikatīkā of Śamkaranandana (with Samghaśrī)

Samksiptapranidhāna of Candragomin

Amarakośa of Amarasimha (partial)

Kāvyādarśa of Dandin (partial)

Āryaguhyamanitilaka (tantra)


Sarvatathāgatakāyavākcitta Guhyālamkāravyūhatantrarāja




(Rhoton, 13)



Title: Tibetan Renaissance
Author: Ronald M. Davidson
Language: English
Publisher location: New York
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication year: 2004
Edition (par gzhi):

Title: "Sakya Pandita" in Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol II
Author: Ronald M. Davidson
Editor: Robert E. Buswell
Language: English
Publisher location: New York
Publisher: Thomson Gale
Publication year: 2004
Edition (par gzhi):

Title: Enlightenment by a Single Means: Tibetan Controversies on the "Self-Sufficient White Remedy" (dkar po chig thub)
Author: David Jackson
Language: English
Publisher location: Wien
Publisher: Der Österreichischen Akademie Der Wissenschaften
Publication year: 1994
Edition (par gzhi):

Title: A Clear Differentiation of the Three Codes: Essential Distinctions among the Individual Liberation, Great Vehicle, and Tantric Systems
Author: Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltshen, translated by Jared Douglas Rhoton
Language: English
Publisher location: Albany
Publisher: State University of New York Press
Publication year: 2001
Edition (par gzhi):

Title: The Blue Annals
Author: Roerich
Language: English
Publisher location:
Publication year:
Edition (par gzhi):

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Publication year:
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