Michael Monhart
The Biography of Pha-jo-Sgom Zhig-po: Called the Current of Compassion
The biography of Pha-jo-Sgom Zhig-po (1184-1251/1208-1275) gives us a window into a little known period of Bhutanese history. Bhutan was first unified under a single religious/secular leader by the Shapdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a member of the Drukpa Buddhist sect, in the 17th century. The biography of Pajo tells the story of how he came from Tibet in the early 13th century and spread the Drukpa teachings. In the process he faced and overcame violent resistance from the Buddhist school which held local power in the western region of Bhutan. As such he served as a forerunner to the Drukpa ruling system instituted by the Shapdrung and situated Drukpa influence back to the 13th century. The translators though, in their introduction, question whether the production of the biography was influenced by concerns of 17th century politics.


Shapdrung Ngawang Namgyel (1594-?1651) is rightly credited with unifying Bhutan under his rule, instituting the dual religious-secular political system that served as the governmental structure until the establishment of the monarchy in 1907. On the religious side, the leaders were chosen from the predominant Buddhist sect of the Drukpa (‘Brug pa bka’ brgyud). The Shapdrung had come to Bhutan from Tibet after ending up on the losing side of a contested incarnation dispute at the important Drukpa monastery of Rwa lung in the Khams region of Tibet. However, little is known about the activities of Drukpa lamas or the establishment of Drukpa monasteries in Bhutan prior to the time of the Shapdrung. This lacunae in the historical record is partially filled in by the biography of Pajo Gom Zhikpo (hereafter Pajo). His dates are still unclear but can be narrowed down to this range: 1184-1251/1208-1275.[[#_ftn1|[1]]] In any case, he predates the much better known life of the Nyingma lama, Padma Gling pa, who is still widely revered in Bhutan. Thus his biography is not only significant for the life story of its subject, but more so for giving a window into the social and political situation of this little known time in Bhutanese history.

Before a summation of Pajo’s life, a few words about this English edition. The authors are to be commended for what appears to be a fine translation of a set of texts that contained spelling mistakes and difficult idiomatic expressions. The translation is based on a number of sources that apparently all date back to an original text now lost. The book contains a very helpful introduction that discusses these sources, their translating style and gives a good description of the times and legacy of Pajo. The translation itself will probably be most appreciated by those with some knowledge of Tibetan as it is very literal. The translators often resort to adding words and phrases in brackets to make up for the missing assumptions presumed by the Tibetan text. While they say it is then not an elegant translation I did find a certain beauty in the way they faithfully handled the translation in accordance to the Tibetan. It will not be too clunky a read however for those unfamiliar with Tibetan literature. The translation is also extensively footnoted with references explaining people, place names and texts and rituals mentioned in the main text.
Pajo was born in Khams in eastern Tibet. The biography states that he was born into the prominent Rgya clan but the translators retain some skepticism about this claim (for reasons discussed below). He commenced his religious training at age 12 studying under Rnying ma lamas. One day he met some traveling merchants who told him about the eminent lama Gtsang pa rgya ras. Upon hearing the name, Pajo collapsed in tears overcome by devotion. Gtsang pa rgya ras (1161-1211) was the founder of the Drukpa Kagyu sect, residing at Rwa lung in central Tibet. This incident is a crucial juncture in the narrative of Pajo’s life in that it sets up his connection and eventual affiliation with the Drukpa sub-sect of the Kagyu. However, Gtsang pa rgya ras passed away before Pajo could reach Rwa lung. Pajo, now 33, was however able to receive the complete Drukpa teachings from Gtsang pa rgya ras’s nephew Sang rgyas dbon ras (also known as Dar ma seng ge). After years of practice and study, at age 40, he was dispatched to Bhutan by Sang rgyas dbon ras citing a prophecy of his uncle, Gtsang pa rgya ras, who foretold that a man would come from Khams, study and practice the Drukpa teachings and then spread those teachings in the southern lands (Bhutan).[[#_ftn2|[2]]] He first arrived in present day Gling bhzi where he quickly found patrons and support from the local leaders.

At this time while meditating in the Seng phug cave of the Wang valley, a group of girls came to see him. One girl, named A mchog, tells Pajo that she has a younger sister who has been telling their parents since she was three that she was waiting for her lama to come.[[#_ftn3|[3]]] Pajo and A mchog conceived a son who Pajo said would be a reincarnation of Pha dam pa sangs rgyas. He then continued on his travels in the area and had a dream wherein he heard a voice saying that he would meet with the reincarnation of Ma cig lab sgron.[[#_ftn4|[4]]] He then subsequently met a group of girls, one of whom became his consort. This was the woman previously identified as the sister of A mchog and, as a reincarnation of Ma cig lab sgron, is referred to in the remainder of the story by the name Ma cig. They have a daughter, which leads to rumor mongering among rival monks of the Buddhist Lhapa school that Pajo is leading what the biography refers to as a householder’s life full of cunning and magical illusions.[[#_ftn5|[5]]] It is a harbinger of the conflict to come. For the time being though, Pajo and Ma cig do their religious practice, and he travels subduing local demons.
Pajo’s activities brought increased attention from the established Lhapa sect who saw him as a rival religious leader. One day a monk riding a black horse arrived and, after first disparaging Pha ‘Brog as a beggar from Khams unable to read, hands him a letter from a local leader[[#_ftn6|[6]]] in which Pha’ Brog is described as neither a monk nor a layman, told he cannot stay in the south and offered a choice of being a supervisor at a monastery or a stable-keeper. Pajo responds with a reply that both sets his religious practices are of greater value and criticizes the leader for speaking ill of another’s school (of Buddhism). At the same time, Ma cig announces that she is pregnant and recounts a dream of multiple births. Later that year, in the autumn, after a dream in which Pajo himself now sees multiple births, their daughter and a maiden cut his wife’s belly open with a sickle (to no ill effect) and remove “four handsome infant boys and three with ugly features.” Pajo responds by taking all seven sons to a bridge and, after praying to the Kagyu lamas and protector deities to only accept the sons if they will uphold Buddhist teaching, he turns the bridge upside down and dumps the sons in the water. He then returned to his meditation cell.

Ma cig faints when she finds out about the sons and questions Pajo’s own prophecy that his Buddhist teachings would be spread throughout the south (here Bhutan) by his sons and suggests that his mind has gone astray. He agrees and after Ma cig goes in search of the sons, she finds four of them. These sons would later disperse throughout the western part of Bhutan spreading their father’s teachings.

The biography then makes another critical turn chronicling Pajo’s conflict with the existing religious and secular ruler, known as Bla ma Lhapa[[#_ftn7|[7]]]. The miraculous story of the sons spread Pajo’s fame who now, according to the translators, was regarded by Lhapa as a threat to his hegemonic control (x). A series of conflicts ensued incorporating monk armies as well as magical displays of power. In one of the first conflicts Pajo conjures an immense palace surrounded by an army of one thousand. When the monk army of the Lhapas approaches, the leaders (Headmen in the text) ask “What is this? Yesterday there was nothing like this? [This display] is [all] due to the miraculous illusionary creations of [Pajo].” (42) With their army paralyzed in fear, they submit to Pajo after a song in which he identifies his lineage as Drukpa and his convertees as “[all the people of] The Four Approaches of the Southern Land” (44). The subsequent battles between Pajo and the Lhapas feature this combination of physical and magical conflict with the latter being the primary means to Pajo’s eventual victory.[[#_ftn8|[8]]]

After an episode where the local leaders complain about their harsh treatment under the Lhapa, they submit to Pajo and pledge their support. It is worth looking at their statement in detail:[[#_ftn9|[9]]]
Pajo thought to himself: “Now I do not need to confine myself to [this
place of] sGang-chung”. After secretly having summoned the Headmen
of Thed [= Punakha] and Thim [=Thimphu], he said [to them]: “We do not
need anymore to inflict sufferings on the sentient beings [by way of war
or black magic]. Having made prayers to the [Three] Jewels, I shall not
[allow] that the [relationship] between patron and priest (yon [bdag]
Mchod [gnas], i.e., between you and me]) will be destroyed!. The
Headmen answered: “We will not change [in our loyality]. Do not inflict
black magic [upon us]! You Pajo can go to Thed [=Punakha] and Shar
[= Wangdue]! We can suppress [your enemy]. They will flee by themselves
[whereafter] the whole [issue] will be solved! You Pajo will certainly win
[pray], please be the lord of the Four Approaches in the South! (48)

In a final prophecy to his sons he tells them that he has not spread the cycles of migration (i.e., not inflicted suffering) by scratching his arse and that he has been “compelled to involve myself in improper [activities] of worldly living and fighting” (49). He instructs them to properly follow and spread the teachings of the Drukpa while at the same time not allowing any remnant name or reputation of the Lhapa lama to endure. He gave teachings on Mahamudra at his seat of Rdo gdan na, received tribute presents from Assam, and after giving concluding teachings on the nature of death passed away.

As noted in the beginning of this paper, there is no doubt about the dramatic effect the first Shapdrung had on Bhutanese history and his formative part in its ensuing political structure. However, the biography of Pajo suggests that he did play an important pioneering role not only in propagating the Drukpa sect in Bhutan but also in consolidating some degree of regional power through defeat of his enemies and the transmission of political power through his familial line. In his story we see the unification of political and religious power in one person, a political structure also found in Tibet in the early kings and then again in the 17th century in the 5th Dalai Lama. The biography also reveals the “southern region,” Bhutan, to be an active zone of religious activity by Tibetan lamas attempting to spread their teachings and zones of influence.

The translators do a quite admirable job in critiquing the prejudices underlying the production of the text. They note that “most Tibetan sources, even key ‘Brug-pa bka’-brgyud sources, are most often conspicuously silent on his person and activities” (x). They go on to write that the lack of other contemporaneous sources complicate the question of his dates. Pajo’s dates are problematic partly because they must fall early in the range for him to have heard of Gtsang pa rgya ras while he was alive and to meet his nephew at Rwa lung and thus carry with him to Bhutan a legitimate transmission of the main Drukpa tradition. In tracing the history of the text itself, they note that it is attributed in the biography to one of Pajo’s sons who, on his father’s instruction, buried the biography to be discovered later as a gter ma, or treasure. The dates of discovery are under question but the translators give 1623-24 as the most likely. One cannot help but note that the text’s discovery came at an opportune moment, as we will see. The text was revised later in the 17th century judging from overt similarities between this biography and that of ‘Brug pa Kun legs. The revision, the translators argue, shows the attempt to add “an adequate amount of literary, religious and narrative elements” (xiii). They regard as arguably dubious the Rgya clan affiliation of Pajo, another key element in his association with the Drukpa lineage as derived from Rwa lung. The revision of the biography took place as the Shapdrung, himself from the Rgya clan of Rwa lung, arrived in Bhutan and was gathering the support that would eventually enable him to unite the country under a secular/religious (Drukpa) ruling system. Much of the initial support for the Shapdrung came from descendents associated with Pajo’s sons. The story thus reinforces a link between the Shapdrung and his first supporters. A true assessment of Pajo’s legacy will require further study of contemporary documents, as available, from his time and the time of the 17th century. In the meantime, the biography does provide a quite interesting look at the religious and political contests in the “southern lands” of what would become present-day Bhutan.


Dargye, Yonten & Sorensen, P.K (trans). 2001. The Biography of Pajo-Sgom Zhig-po: Called the Current of Compassion. Thimphu: The National Library of Bhutan.

Dorji, C.T. 1994. History of Bhutan Based on Buddhism. Thimphu: Mrs. Sangay Xam.

[[#_ftnref1|[1]]] The authors consider 1184-1251 the most likely dates. Dorji 1994: 59 goes with the date of 1208 but given the extensive review of existing sources by the translators of the biography I regard the dates, as they do, as still uncertain. Dorji also gives a brief account of Pajo (pp. 59-63) which does not differ in its overall description of his life but does give a chronology of succeeding Drukpa lamas leading up to the Shapdrung.
[[#_ftnref2|[2]]] Throughout the text the region and its people are referred to as “southern lands” and “southerners” in clear reference to being south of Tibet. The “south” here is present-day Bhutan, primarily the western region around the Thimpu valley.
[[#_ftnref3|[3]]] The translators use the word sister but say that it is not completely clear whether they were actual family sisters or not.
[[#_ftnref4|[4]]] Ma cig lab sgron (1055-1149) was one of the founders of the Gcod tradition. It is interesting to note that this dream occurs about 75 years after Ma cig’s death, suggesting that her fame had already spread or that it is an attempt by the biographer to link Pha ‘Brog’s eventual consort to Ma cig.
[[#_ftnref5|[5]]] For a short description and chronology of the Lhapa lamas see Dorji 1994: 49ff
[[#_ftnref6|[6]]] The leader here is unclear in the biography, identified as a bla ma lha pa and leader of the southern Gnyos clan.
[[#_ftnref7|[7]]] While the text refers to this leader as bla ma lha pa, as noted above, he most probably represented one in a series of Lhapa lamas who exerted control over the western part of Bhutan at this time. The translation renders his followers as Lhapas.
[[#_ftnref8|[8]]] “The southerners were afraid of the black magic [performed by Pajo]” (46)
[[#_ftnref9|[9]]] Also useful for gaining a sense of the translation style.