The First Gemang Rinpoche


Gyalse Shenphen Thaye (1800-1855) was the manifestation of the great translator Vairotsana. His birth in a region of Eastern Tibet called Gemang was accompanied by many auspicious signs. His father was Getse Adon Tsewang Norbu and his mother was Karma Chodron. From a very early age he was naturally endowed with faith, perseverance, compassion, wisdom, and all the other qualities of the Noble Ones. When he was still a young boy, several of his family’s horses were stolen by bandits and when his father gave chase, they killed him. This, together with the natural feeling of renunciation that he already possessed, aroused in him a single-minded desire to wander aimlessly in solitary places. He went on to study with many great Nyingma and Sarma masters, especially the First Dodrupchen Rinpoche Jigme Trinle Ozer (1745-1821), Jigme Gyalwe Nyugu (1765-1843), the Fourth Dzogchen Rinpoche Migyur Namkhe Dorje (1793-1870), Dola Jigme Kalzang, and others. He received all of the teachings of Sutra and Tantra, especially the profound and secret Nyingthik. In this way, he eliminated all doubts and misunderstanding through listening and reflection. By practicing in many of the sacred places from the snowy upper regions of Mount Kailash down to Five-Peak Mountain in China, he became a master unrivaled in his learning and accomplishment (Khedrup Chenpo).


Later, Paltrul Rinpoche and other masters entreated him to become a ngakpa (an ordained but non-celibate yogi) in order to extend his life and accomplish the enlightened activity of a treasure-revealer, but he refused. Thinking that since, in this latter age, in what are renowned as the great monasteries of the Nyingma, the teaching of the Vinaya had become like the mere drawing of a butter lamp, and thinking also that the precious Vinaya is the foundation for the longevity of the Buddha’s Teaching, he sought out full ordination as a monk from the great abbot Sengtruk Pema Tashi. Because he kept all of the major and minor precepts of the Vinaya perfectly, it was as if the great Arhat Upali had returned to the world. 


Gyalse Shenpen Thaye created a 9-volume collection of the Kama teachings of the Nyingma tradition at the request of Minling Trichen Sangye Kunga, the seventh throne-holder of Mindroling, and Petrul Pema Wangyal. He went on to initiate the practice of the Thirteen Kama Sadhanas in monastic assemblies at Dzogchen Monastery, a tradition that was taken up by many other Nyingma monasteries in the region. Dzogchen Monastery still upholds this tradition of the public practice of tantric mandalas.

In 1842 he took over responsibility for Dzogchen Monastery after it had been almost totally destroyed in an earthquake. He entirely rebuilt the monastery. In 1848, he established Shri Singha Monastic University there. According to the histories, he intended to establish a great monastic university and traveled throughout Tibet looking for an appropriate location. While in the Dzogchen region of Eastern Tibet, he passed an Indian yogi sitting on a rock who was no longer to be found there when he later returned. He then realized that the appearance of the yogi had been a sign from the great Vidyadhara Shri Singha as to an auspicious location for the shedra. Therefore, he named the university after Shri Singha. That was not the only auspicious incident surrounding the university. The histories also record that when Gyalse Shenphen Thaye was considering which master to invite to give the blessings at the groundbreaking ceremony of Shri Singha, a great yogi of the time, Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, appeared suddenly and blessed a spot with his sword. The institution was built on that very spot, which is on the left-hand side of the valley of Dzogchen Monastery. Shri Singha Monastic University became the leading Nyingma educational institution and served as a model for all other Nyingma monasteries. It was truly a second Nalanda.


One of the greatest Nyingma monastic reformers of the nineteenth century, Gyalse Shenphen Thaye established the Vinaya as a daily discipline and newly instituted the practice of the Three Ritual Foundations of the Vinaya at Shri Singha and at all of the branch monasteries.


His students included Khenchen Pema Dorje, Paltrul Rinpoche, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Shechen Mahapandita Tutob Namgyal, the 8th Peling Rinpoche Kunzang Dechen Dorje, Minling Trichen Sangye Kunga, Dordrak Rigzin Chenpo, and Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje. His successive incarnations became the third of the three Abbots of Dzogchen Monastery, sharing responsibility for administering Dzogchen, and particularly taking responsibility for Shri Singha. Under his guidance, Shri Singha Monastic University grew into one of the most prestigious academies in Tibet. He departed for other pure realms in 1855. His surviving writings exist in a two-volume collection and as single works that have appeared recently in Tibet.