Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa (gzhan phan chos kyi snang ba) was born in 1871, the iron-sheep year of the fifteenth sexagenary cycle, to the Gyakong Pontsang (rgya kong dpon tshang) family of Khana (kyi kha na), a nomadic community in Upper Dzachu (rdza chu). He spent his early life working domestically for his family.
There are several stories relating to his leaving home for monastic life, variously at age thirteen, eighteen, or twenty. One such story describes a visit by the Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang, Tubten Chokyi Dorje (rdzogs chen 05 thub bstan chos kyi rdo rje, 1872-1935) to his homeland. It is said Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa’s father became a devotee of the well-known lama and served him during the coarse of his stay. On the day before Tubten Chokyi Dorje’s departure, Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa’s father presented a huge quantity clothing, horses, and other animals as an offering, but the Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang did not accept them, saying “I do not want any of these goods, but there is one thing that I do want. Will you give that to me?” referring to the young Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa. His father consented, and Tubten Chokyi Dorje promptly performed the young man’s tonsure ceremony. They left together soon afterwards, and traveled to Gemang Hermitage (dge mang ri khrod), associated with Dzogchen Monastery (or rgyan bsam gtan chos gling), where Tubten Chokyi Dorje asked Orgyen Tendzin Norbu (o rgyan bstan ‘dzin nor bu, b. 1851), a close student of Dza Patrul Orgyen Jigme Chokyi Wangpo (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan ‘jigs med chos kyi dbang po, 1808-1887) to take care of his young disciple.
In other hagiographies the young man renounced worldly life by his own accord, and left home on his own in search of instructions from the renowned Dza Patrul directly. According to this version of events, it was Dza Patrul who gave him a letter of introduction to Orgyen Tendzin Norbu.
Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa had not yet learned to read or write, and so began his studies with much younger children, who, according to his biography, teased him calling him “the old kid.” He is said to have been extremely diligent in his studies, despite many hardships related to difficultly procuring provisions and a nervous condition which caused him to limp. At one point, Orgyen Tendzin Norbu granted him empowerment of White Sarasvatī and recommended he perform a retreat on the practice. After two weeks of practice, his hagiography reports Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa experienced a vision of the deity and his powers of intellect increased greatly.
He became a highly noted scholar and teacher, gaining the respect of all monks at the retreat center. He purportedly memorized vast amounts of text, and was able to refer people’s questions to a specific page and location with perfect recall. Orgyen Tendzin Norbu recognized him as an incarnation of his uncle, the second abbot of Dzogchen, Zhenpen Taye Ozer (rdzogs chen mkhan rabs 02 gzhan phan mtha’ yas ‘od zer, 1800-1855), who founded Śrī Siṃha College (shrI sing ha chos grwa) at Dzogchen. The identification was later reconfirmed by Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (‘byam dbyangs mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros, 1893-1959). He shared this designation with the Second Gemang, Tenpai Nyima (dge mang 02 bstan pa’i nyi ma, 1857-1825/29), who had also been recognized as an incarnation of Zhenpen Taye Ozer.
Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa remained with his teacher for thirteen years, during which he studied large number of texts including the Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, the Mūlamadhyāmakakārikā, the Four-hundred Verses on Mādhyamaka, Prajñāpāramitā, the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, the Abhidharmakośa, the Mahāyāna-sūtrālamkāra-kārikā, the Uttaratantra, The Seven Treasuries and other texts of Longchenpa, commentaries on Guhyagarbha-tantra, various texts on Vinaya and Pramāṇa, as well as teachings and transmissions on all the tantras of the Nyingma tradition. Additionally, he studied medicine, Sanskrit grammar, poetics, and Indian and Chinese astrology.
Osel Tendzin Norbu eventually gave his student his own copies of commentaries on the sutras and tantras, particularly the Indian commentaries on the “Thirteen Great Source texts” written by the Indian Masters and included in the Tengyur. He made a prophecy saying if Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa based his teachings on the Indian Classics, his lineage would be widespread and strong.
In addition to his studies in teachings of the Nyingma school, he received the full commentaries, empowerments, and esoteric instructions of the Sakya system of Lamdre (lam ‘bras) from Jamgon Loter Wangpo (‘jam mgon blo gter dbang po, 1847-1914), becoming an important master and lineage holder of the Sakya tradition as well. In return, Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa gave Loter Wangpo teachings on The Dzogchen Sangwai Nyingtik (rdzogs chen gsang ba snying thig). Additionally, he advised the carving of woodblocks and printing of the complete works of the Sixth Ngorchen, Gorampa Sonam Sengge (go rams pa bsod nams seng ge, 1429-1489). The project was subsequently completed successfully in Derge. Due to these activities, Gato Ngawang Lekpa (rga stod ngag dbang legs pa, 1867-1941) proclaimed him to be incarnation of Sakya Paṇchen Kunga Gyeltsen (skya paN chen kun dga’ rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251).
Among his other important teachers were Ju Mipam Namgyel Gyatso (‘ju mi pham rnam rgyal rgya mtsho, 1846-1912), Ngawang Lekpa (ngag dbang legs pa, 1867-1941), and the Fifth Shechen Rabjam, Pema Tekchok Tenpai Gyeltsen (zhe chen rab ‘byams 05 pad+ma theg mchog bstan pa’i rgyal mtshan, 1864-1909).
After the death of Orgyen Tendzin Norbu, Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa assumed his seat at Gemang Hermitage as his regent. From there he continued to teach the Sutras and Tantras for a number of years, focusing on the treatises of the Indian tradition, as per his teacher’s advice, and continuing to receive teachings from the masters at Shechen, Dzogchen, and other neighboring monasteries
At the invitation of the Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang, he was enthroned as the nineteenth abbot of Śrī Siṃha college where he continued to teach, focusing on the thirteen great Indian texts and their Indian and Tibetan commentaries. These classics were broken down into two texts on Vinaya (Pratimokṣa and Vinayasūtra); two on Abhidharma (Abhidharmakośa and Abhidharma-samuchaya); four on Mādhyamaka (Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Catuḥśataka, and Madhayamakāvatāra); and the groups of texts known Five Treatises of Maitreya (byams chos sde lnga). In addition, he composed many additional commentaries to these works himself. His fame grew, and students from widespread regions were reported to have come to receive his teachings, including the Indian Himalayas, Bhutan, China, and Mongolia. Due to his great knowledge and skills in teaching, he came to be known as Omniscient Zhenpen (thams cad mkhyen pa gzhan phan) and Buddha Zhenpen (sangs rgyas gzhan phan).
After his retirement from the abbacy at Śrī Siṃha, he continued to be invited by a number of influential teachers to teach at their monasteries and establish study centers. Khyentse Chokyi Lodro invited him to Dzongsar Monastery, where in 1918 he founded the Khamshe (kham byed) college and served as its first abbot for two years.
It is said he and his disciples established and taught at nearly one hundred monastic colleges (bshad grwa) throughout Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, including Zhungshe School at Pelpung (dpal spungs gzhung bshad slob grwa) and Kyergon Dondrub Ling (skyer dgon don grub gling). Additionaly, he taught at Drigung Nyima Changra college (‘bri gung nyi ma lcang ra’i bshad grwa), and Gato Kegu college (rga stod skye dgu’i bshad grwa), where he introduced and promoted the study of the Thirteen Great Texts as the main curriculum. His Critical Commentary on the Thirteen Great Texts (gzhung chen bcu gsum gyi mchan ‘grel) came to be adopted by many monasteries as their main textbook.
He spent most of his later life practicing meditation in secluded retreats such as Rudam Gantro Gongma (ru dam gangs khrod gong ma) and Gyawo Nepung (rgya bo gnas phung), though he continued to teach his disciples during his breaks. His teachings mainly focused on Dzogchen, specifically Longchenpa Drime Ozer’s (klong chen pa dri med ‘od zer, 1308-1364) Seven Treasures (klong chen mdzod bdun) and Three Cycles of Resting at Ease (ngal gso skor gsum).
Over six-dozen names are listed as disciples of Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa, making him one of the most influential teachings of his time. Some sources classify his main students as the following; the two Holders of Buddhadharma: the Eleventh Situ, Pema Wangchok Gyelpo (si tu 11 pad+ma dbang mchog rgyal po, 1886-1952) and Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, with whom he also exchanged teachings; the two Great Sons: the Dzogchen abbot, Yonten Gonpo (rdzogs chen mkhan chen yon tan mgon po, 1899-1959), and Khen Chime Yeshe (mkhan ‘chi med ye shes, d.u.); the two Scholars: Rahor Chodrak (rwa hor chos grags, d.u.) and Serkha Chodrak (gser kha chos grags, d.u.); the two Accomplished Yogis: Adro Khenpo Yeshe Gyatso (a gro’i mkhan po ye shes rgya mtsho, b. c. 1888) and Khenchen Loden (mkhan chen blo ldan, d.u.); the two Polymath-scholars: Khenchen Pema Tsewang (mkhan chen pad+ma tshe dbang/a paN tshe dbang, 1902-1959) and the second abbot of Khamshe college, Wonto Khenrab (dbon stod mkhyen rab, 1889-c.1960); the two Powerful Tantrikas: Apaṇ Chopel (a paN chos dpal, d.u.) and Khen Noryang (mkhan po nor dbyangs, d.u.).
Additional students include the eighth abbot of Dzogchen, Pema Vajra (rdzogs chen mkhan rabs 08 pad+ma ba+dz+ra, c.1807-1884); Dzogchen Khenchen Tubten Nyendrak (mkhan chen thub bstan snyan grags, 1883-1959); Sakya Tubten Jangchub (sakya thub bstan byang chub, d.u.); the Ninth Gangkar Lama, Karma Shedrub Chokyi Sengge (gangs dkar bla ma 09 karma bshad sgrub chos kyi seng ge, 1892-1957); Geshe Rinchen Dorje (dge bshes rin chen rdo rje, d.u.); Khunu Lama Tendzin Gyeltsen (khu nu bla ma bstan ‘dzin rgyal mtshan, 1894-1977),; and Lodruk Khenpo Tenpa Rinchen (lho ‘brug mkhan chen bstan pa rin chen, d.u.).
His compositions included comprehensive commentaries on Bodhisattvacaryāvatāra, Catuḥśataka, Madhyamakāvatāra,Mūlamadhyāmakakārikā as well as other major texts on Mādhyamaka; the five treatises of Maitreya (byams chos sde lnga); Abhidharma; Vinaya, and Guhyagarbha-tantra; and critical commentaries of the Abhidharmakośa and Madhyāmakāvatāra. He also composed many treatises on other topics such as biography in verse of his teacher, Orgyen Tendzin Norbu, eulogies (bstod tshogs) of other teachers, religious songs of experience (nyams mgur), and advisory discourses (zhal gdams).
Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa passed away in 1927 at the age of fifty-seven, at Gyopu Drubdra (rgya bo phu grub grwa) near Tro Maṇḍala Monastery (khro maN+Dal dgon) to the east of Derge. It is said that he died without any illness or pain, and that his body shrunk to about eighteen inches. His funeral was supervised by a number of his students, including Situ Pema Wangchok Gyelpo and Yonten Gonpo (rdzogs chen mkhan chen yon tan mgon po, 1899-1959). A one-story reliquary was built and installed at Pelpung Monastery.
Source: The Treasury of lives