Rinchen Zangpo

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Richen Zangpo: Line Drawing by Robert Beer Courtesy of The Robert Beer Online Galleries.

Rinchen Zangpo (T. Rin chen bzang po) (958 - 1055) was a Tibetan translator of Indian Sanskrit texts who played an important role in the later transmission (phyi dar) of Buddhism from India to Tibet.[1]

The Princeton Dictionary states:

He was born in the western Tibetan region of Gu ge. According to traditional histories, at the age of seventeen, he was sent to India together with a group of twenty other youths by King Ye shes 'od to study Sanskrit and Indian vernacular languages. Rin chen bzang po made several trips to India, spending a total of seventeen years in Kashmir and the monastic university of Vikramaśīla before returning the Tibet.[1]

Sam van Schaik states:

When he was just two, his parents noticed him tracing Sanskrit syllables in the dirt or just sitting quietly with his palms together. Like Gewasel, he was born into a family of non-Buddhist ritualists, but it was Buddhism that drew him. When he turned thirteen he took the Buddhist vows and was given the religious name Rinchen Zangpo. He started to study straight away, but it was only when he caught sight of a beautiful Indian book from what is now northern Pakistan a few years later that he began to think of travelling to India.
Though still only a teenager, Rinchen Zangpo convinced his parents of the sincerity of his desire to study Buddhism in India, and they agreed to let him go provided he took a travelling companion. So he and a friend set out in old clothes, carrying money, presents and bundles of food cooked by Rinchen Zangpo's mother. In the early days of the journey through Kashmir the two young travellers were swindled by unscrupulous toll-keepers, laid low by illness, narrowly avoided being robbed, and were both impressed and confused by the religious devotion of ordinary people and the puzzling behaviour of naked holy men.
One day they came to a town, where, as usual, children ran after them, shouting about their light skins and strange clothes. Going to beg for alms in the town centre, they met an old Brahmin who took Rinchen Zangpo's outstretched hand and looked at his palm. The Brahmin then went back inside his house and offered Rinchen Zangpo a silver incense bowl with a bunch of flowers inside and, taking hold of his robe, prophesied for him a life of learning, of great benefit to living beings, and ultimately the achievement of enlightenment. The old Brahmin, whose name was Shraddhakaravarman, became Rinchen Zangpo's first guru. With him, Rinchen Zangpo began to study the philosophical and ritual texts of tantric Buddhism in the original Sanskrit. After a few years of this he decided to return home, but a series of dreams convinced him instead to visit the famous teacher Naropa and then travel to eastern India, where he studied and translated non-tantric works. When he finally turned back towards Tibet, thirteen years had passed.
Back home, Rinchen Zangpo found to his great sadness that his father had died. He berated himself for remaining so long in India, and tried to make up for his absence by commissioning a series of paintings of a special mandala for liberating the dead from unhappy rebirths. Then he discovered that, while he had been away in India, a charismatic teacher calling himself the ‘Buddha Star King’ had gathered a devoted following in Western Tibet, displaying magical powers such as levitation and styling himself as a kind of modern buddha. Rinchen Zangpo determined to expose this teacher as a fake. He spent a month deep in meditation, and then went to where the Star King was teaching while levitating above the ground, as was his wont. Rinchen Zangpo went up to the Star King and pointed a finger at him, at which the Star King spun head over heels and dropped to the ground. Humiliated and clearly bested, the Star King skulked away, never to be seen again in Western Tibet.
News of this magical duel reached the royal court in Western Tibet where the king, Yeshe O, had declared that Buddhism would be followed in his realm, and was determined that it should be practised properly.[2]

Yeshe O offered Rinchen Zangpo a position of court preceptor, "with responsibility for teaching tantric Buddhism and advising Yeshe O on his temple-building projects."[2]

[Rinchen Zangpo] accepted and was soon joined by a number of Indian masters, working with them to make new translations from the Sanskrit, drawing inspiration from the translator teams of the old Tibetan empire.[2]

Rinchen Zangpo also assisted Yeshe O in the construction of many new temples in Western Tibet.

All the new temples under construction needed to be decorated with suitable Buddhist murals. Rinchen Zangpo was thus sent to Kashmir to find artists willing to come and work in Tibet. [...] Not content to stay in Kashmir, he led his Tibetan party deep into Central India in search of new texts. After six long years of travelling, Rinchen Zangpo returned with over thirty Indian artists. Over the following decades they would work inside the temples of Western Tibet to create masterpieces of Buddhist art, a few of which can still be seen today. Rinchen Zangpo also continued to study and master tantric practices on this journey, and brought back the rituals for fierce deities sworn to protect Buddhism, such as Mahakala, ‘The Great Black One’.
So it was that Rinchen Zangpo, known to posterity as the Great Translator, blazed the trail for a new influx of Buddhist teachings into Tibet.[3]

According to tradition, when Rinchen Zangpo was eighty-five he met Atiśa at the Toling monastery. He received instruction from Atiśa and spent the next ten years in retreat. He passed away that the age of ninety-eight.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Rin chen bzang po.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 van Schaik 2011, pp. 93-95.
  3. van Schaik 2011, pp. 98-99.
  4. Gardner 2011


  • van Schaik, Sam (2011), Tibet. A History, New Haven & London: Yale University Press 

Further reading