Lhatsun Namkha Jigme statue project commemorates key role in founding of Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim

Last week, I saw on social media that a new statue project is well underway in Sikkim to commemorate the great Dzogchen yogi, Lhatsun Namkha Jigme ( ལྷ་བཙུན་ནམ་མཁའ་འཇིགས་མེད་) (1597-1653) ), who is credited with the “opening” of the hidden land of Sikkim in the mid-17th Century, and was instrumental in the establishment of the royal dynasty of this Himalayan kingdom. He was an important conduit of the Dzogchen teachings and considered to be the combined emanation of Vimalamitra and Longchenpa. He was also student of two of the most influential treasure-revealers of his day, Jatsön Nyingpo and Dudul Dorje.

However, he is perhaps best known for his own pure vision cycle the Rtsa gsum rig ‘dzin srog sgrub, mountain smoke offering from this cycle has become extremely widespread, especially in the West due to its propagation by Dudjom Rinpoche and his students. for more on his life and connection to Sikkim, see below.

The project is being led by Venerable Sonam Lama, who I saw recently received a Guru Padmasambhva statue and letter of congratulations from the 17th Karmapa. Sonam Lama has stated many times that he would like the Karmapa to return to Sikkim and visit Rumtek Monastery there, the seat of the Karmapa in exile India (yet for some unknown reason this permission has not enabled the Karmapa to visit there since he came to India in 2000).

This new project also seemingly shows Sikkimese citizens and politicians asserting their unique culture and heritage as separate from Tibetan exile politics and the Gelugpa-Ganden dominant authoritarian religious and secular power in India, which has been the norm in Dharamsala, India since the 14th Dalai Lama came into exile after the Chinese takeover in 1959. Below I consider briefly the indigenous tribes of Sikkim and why Ljhatsun founded what we now know as Sikkim.

History of Sikkim: indigenous peoples the Lepchas and Bhutias

Four generations of Lepchas

According to online sources: “The Lepchas are the indigenous people of Sikkim. The Lepchas call their land “Nye-Mal-Ale”: “Heaven”. In their language, the Lepchas call themselves “Mutanchi” – “the most loving people on Mother Earth”. They are described in literature as peaceful and shy people. They have their own language and writing, practise agriculture and some of them are still hunter-gatherers today.

Shamanism still plays an important role among the Lepcha people. The Bomthing (shaman) or the Mun (shamaness) is consulted for questions or problems. Every year, Lepcha shamans gather at Kabi Lungchok to show their gratitude and reverence to nature, medicinal herbs and the patron god Mt. Khangchendzonga.  The heartland of the Lepchas lies in Dzongu, in the north of Sikkim. The people live scattered in small villages throughout Sikkim as well as in the area around Darjeeling and Kalimpong.

The Bhutias of Tibetan origin are the second oldest ethnic group in Sikkim and began migrating to Sikkim in the 9th century. They allied with the Lepchas at Kabi Longchok in 1642, introduced Buddhism of the Tibetan Nyingma school, built Nyingma temples and monasteries and consolidated Sikkim into a kingdom. Gompas (monasteries) and lamas (monks) play an important role in the daily life of the Bhutias. Most of the monasteries exist due to donations from the local population. Even today, some Bhutia families still follow the Sikkimese tradition of the second son entering a monastery.”

The Mongolian invasion of Tibet, the Gelugpa takeover, and Jetsun Namkha Jigme’s founding of the state of Sikkim

Lhatsün Namkha Jikmey was an incarnation of both the great pandit and Dzogchen master Vimalamitra, who attained the rainbow body (Tib. འཇའ་ལུས་འཕོ་བ་ཆེན་པོ་, ja lü phowa chenpo), and of the omniscient Longchenpa. He was born in 1597 at Jaryül in southern Tibet. At birth, the space between his eyebrows and the tips of his tongue and nose were all very clearly marked with the seed-syllable AH, ཨཱཿ.

He spent many years practising in some of the most remote and sacred pilgrimage places of central and western Tibet, perfecting his accomplishment. Through this he was able to completely unravel the knot of the energy channels in the throat centre; afterwards every word he spoke was always refined and full of meaning. He subdued an extremist heretical king in India and established him in the Dharma. In central Tibet, he was able to enlist the help of all the local deities to assist him in restoring the temple of Samyé. At Tsari, he stopped a huge avalanche simply by gazing at it while making the ‘threatening mudra’.

Interestingly, around the time of the Mongolian invasion of Tibet and the forced takeover of central Tibet by the Gelugpas, in 1646 Lhatsün went on foot to Lhari Ösel Nyingpo in Sikkim. Here he founded a temple and hermitage, establishing it as one of the most sacred places of pilgrimage in the Himalayas.

This is similar to the founding of the theocratic government in Bhutan by expatriate Drukpa monk, Ngawang Namgyal, (known as Zhabdrung Rinpoche) created Bhutan in 1616 seeking freedom from the Mongolian invasion and domination of the Gelugpa sect led by the 5th Dalai Lama.

These events also explain why even now, the Gelugpas and Dalai Lamas have little power or presence in Sikkim or Bhutan. Some say that they were even banned in Bhutan by the founders who had to flee Tibet and Ladakh.

Through his practice of Riwo Sangchö, Lhatsun was able to remove all human and non-human obstacles to the Dharma in Sikkim, opening it as a “secret land” of the teachings. Because of this, he was able to teach Dzogchen very widely in Sikkim in the remaining years of his life, establishing a vibrant and unbroken lineage that continues to this day, known simply as “Sikkim Dzogchen.” Let us hope that his statue in Sikkim removes all the obstacles from the 17th Karmapa visiting there.

For articles on the sacred pilgrimage sites in Sikkim of Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, which I visited in 2019, see here.

Support Our Dharma Work