His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya was born in 1929 in Sakya, Tibet. He was educated to be the head of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the successor to the throne of Sakya, the third most important political position in Tibet in early times. But the Communist Chinese occupation of Tibet, and the peril that ensued, precipitated his departure from the world his family had known for generations, and led him to a new role as a leader in the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.
The throne holder of Phuntsok Phodrang, H.H. J.D. Sakya, received all of the Khön lineage teachings from the last Sakya Throne Holder in Tibet, his Father, H. H. Trichen Ngawang Thutop Wangchuk. He also received teachings of the non-sectarian, Nyingma, and other traditions from great Masters such as Jamyang Chokyi Lodro and Dingo Khyentse Rinpoche. H. H. J.D. Sakya was the sole lineage holder who has both the unbroken Khön family and Dharma lineages, as well as being one of the few living Lamas who was formerly trained and educated in Tibet.
In 1950, at age 21, Rinpoche took a bride: Sonam Tsezom, who descends from a family of lamas and doctors of East Tibet (Kham). She is the niece of His Eminence Deshung Rinpoche. When she married her name became Jamyang and her title Dagmo Kusho.
Later that year Dagchen Rinpoche’s father passed away. Rinpoche suddenly became the interim Throne-holder. Concurrently, Communist Chinese invaders were threatening Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. After a short reign as the head of the Sakya sect, during which Rinpoche’s right to hold the Sakya throne was put into question, he took a leave of absence as ruler of Sakya in order to travel to East Tibet to complete his religious education.
In East Tibet, Rinpoche received teachings from fourteen lamas. Among them were his root lamas, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. They were renowned non-sectarian lamas, of the Sakya and Nyingma traditions, respectively. From Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dagchen Rinpoche received initiations and teachings of the Sakya School’s most valued teaching, the seven-volume Lamdre Lopshey (The Path and Its Fruit in its more esoteric form) and the fourteen-volume Druptap Kundu (Collection of Methods of Realization). From Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Dagchen Rinpoche received teachings on the thirteen-volume Damngak Dzö (Treasury of Esoteric Instructions), a non-sectarian compilation by Jamgön Kongtrul, a great non-sectarian master of Tibetan Buddhism from the Gagyu School. Additionally, twelve other Sakya lamas gave him the teachings from the thirty one volume Gyude Kundu.
His immigration in 1960 makes him one of the first Tibetans-in-exile in North America. He is the first Head of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism to live in the United States. From the Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle, Washington, and its precursor (which he co-founded in 1974), he taught and preserved Tibetan culture and religion. Because he was also a non-sectarian master within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, he defined Sakya Monastery as a non-denominational and ecumenical center for teachings about Tibetan Buddhism. His work has also included the foundation of Tibetan Buddhist communities overseas in India, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Nepal, Bhutan and Southeast Asia, and teaching at Buddhist centers around the world. He was truly a pioneer among religious leaders.
His formal title of “His Holiness” indicates the high degree of esteem with which the Tibetan Buddhist community holds him. Dagchen is a title meaning “Lineage Holder.” Among his followers he is known as Dagchen Rinpoche, or simply as Rinpoche (“Precious One”).
His Revered Ancestors Lineage is all-important in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and Dagchen Rinpoche’s lineage is noble and revered for its holiness. It extends back for over a thousand years. His father was Trichen (“Great Throne-holder”) Nawang Tutop Wangchuk, the last great throne-holder of the Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, and his mother was Gyalyum (“Mother of the Khön Children”) Dechen Drolma.
Rinpoche’s family lineage is thought of as divine because family records and Tibetan histories state that his family is descended from celestial beings from the realm of heavenly clear light. Five generations of these celestial beings are said to have lived in Tibet. A famous ancestor of his from the late eighth century was Khön Lu’i Wangpo (Nagendrarakshita), one of the first seven Tibetans ordained as a Buddhist monk, a noted translator, and a personal disciple of Padmasambhava (who erected the very first Tibetan Buddhist monastery called Samye).
Since the 11th century, the Sakya male progenies are also regarded as emanations of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion, or Vajrapani, Bodhisattva of Power.
As imminent successor to the throne of Sakya, Rinpoche was first tutored by the abbot of the South Monastery of Sakya and by the Secretary of the Sakya Government. With these two teachers, Rinpoche studied the Tibetan alphabet, composition, classical literature, philosophy, and the Four Classes of Tantra (esoteric Buddhism). He also received teachings on the Sakya meditation deities. From Pönlop Sakya of the North Monastery, Rinpoche learned the fundamental esoteric religious rites of the Sakya tradition: religious music, mandala offering, dancing, and ritual hand gestures.
After having successfully completed this training, Rinpoche received from his father the unbroken Sakya-Khon lineage transmission of Vajrakila (a meditational deity whose name means the “Dagger of Indestructible Reality”), and the complete Lamdre Tsokshey (The Path and Its Fruit in its more exoteric form), which is the main teaching of the Sakya tradition. Thus, Rinpoche’s first root lama (his primary spiritual teacher) was his father, Trichen Nawang Thutop Wangchuk, who is well remembered for his kindly leadership, clairvoyance, and miraculous deeds. (See Dharma Lineage for more inspiring details about Rinpoche’s father).
In 1959, owing to the violent changes taking place in Tibet, Dagchen Rinpoche and his family (including his younger brother Trinly Rinpoche and his wife’s uncle Deshung Rinpoche III) fled to Bhutan and then to India. Professor Turrell V. Wylie from the Tibetan Studies Program at the University of Washington, the first such program in the country, invited Dagchen Rinpoche to participate in a research project on Tibet sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. This enabled Dagchen Rinpoche to bring his family to Seattle, Washington, in 1960. The research project funding lasted for three years. Following that, over the next decade Rinpoche had several positions at the University of Washington, including working in the Anthropology Department and at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.
In 1974 Rinpoche co-founded, with Deshung Rinpoche III, his wife’s uncle, the original Sakya Dharma Center called Sakya Tegchen Choling. In 1984, the group reorganized under Rinpoche, and adopted the name of Sakya Monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. For the purpose of the preservation of Tibetan culture and religion, Rinpoche has overseen the religious activities and administration of the center/Monastery since its inception.
Now that the Monastery is completed, Rinpoche is placing greater emphasis on education. The Virupa Educational Institute is devoted to the study of Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhism in general, religions, cultures, and sciences from around the world. Non-sectarianism and education were major components to Rinpoche’s teaching, in keeping with the beliefs of his root lamas. Sakya Monastery in Seattle has hosted visits from leading lamas of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, including H. H. the Dalai Lama.
Rinpoche’s interest in ecumenism stemmed from his training as a non-sectarian master, and his experience as an immigrant who came to this country seeking religious freedom, as well as being a Buddhist in a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture. Like His Holiness The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Rinpoche encouraged inter-religious and interdisciplinary meetings and encounters for Tibetan Buddhists. He regularly travelled to teach in Asia, Europe, Canada, and throughout the United States.