Drubthob Thangtong Gyalo (1385-1466/58?) had a son from Bhutan. But, none of his three biographies mentions Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo.
Buchung or son Gyalwa was born in Merak, a nomadic community in modern north-eastern Bhutan bordering Tibet. There is a clay statue of him in the Gengo Lhakhang in the highland hamlet. Surprisingly, another statue of Buchung was discovered in the Choetsi Lhakhang in Paro.
Historical accounts state the people of Merak migrated to Bhutan from Tibet in the 14th century. The small and culturally distinctive hamlet nestled in the alpine highland lies along the trade and pilgrimage route to Lhasa. Not far from Merak is the village of Barshong, which holds the two foremost iron deposits of eastern Bhutan.
It was during his second visit that the Drubthob, who had attained great spiritual height, entered Bumthang from Lhodrak. He travelled to Mangde, Kheng, and Trashigang. It is possible that it was during this time that the great adept had his son Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo. So far, no details have surfaced.
During his stay in Eastern Bhutan, the Great Iron Bridge Builder built the two Chagzams or iron chain suspension bridges of Tashigang and Doksum.
Popularly known in the West as the ‘The King of the Empty Plain’ (Thangtong Gyalpo), stories recount of how he lived amidst the nomadic community in East Bhutan. One such oral account tells of how he introduced the Tibetan Ache Lhamo opera in Merak.
People of Merak share oral stories of the origin of the opera. It is said that while the adept was constructing one of the chain link suspension bridges in Tibet, he picked seven sisters from the labour force. He dressed them up, and made them sing and dance to raise funds to help complete the construction of the bridge. The opera is one of the highlights of annual festival in Merak even to this today.
While the Tibetans and Bhutanese generally refer to the adept as Drubthob Chagzampa, in Merak, he is known as Chagzam Wangpo. The locals also reverently address him as the father of Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo.
Oral stories recorded by the Trashigang Dzongkhag Administration state that in 1445 the great saint traveled to East Bhutan with three of his chief disciples – Chopa Zangpo, Nima Zangpo, and Dewa Zangpo.
The entourage trekked all the way from Paro to Merak following a prophecy to withdraw a vajra from Lake Meghada. Today the journey of 528 km takes about 20 hours by car and another one of trekking to reach the main village of Merak.
In the hamlet of Merak, oral tradition maintains that the Drubthob sat on a stone slab alongside his disciples to test whether his religious tradition, i.e., the Chagzampa tradition would flourish.
Chagzam Wangpo was convinced when a full-grown tree sprouted from the walking stick he thrust into the ground. The tree still stands as testimony to the story.
The Gengo Lhakhang in Merak currently has several statues and eight choetens, all claimed to be crafted by Chagzam Wangpo himself. It is said that the Trashigang Dzongpon Sey Dhopala, Thinley Tobgay, built the Phongmey Lhakhang and arranged for one of the stupas to be installed in it as nangten or the holy relic. The Peypung Choeten can still be seen in Phongmey Lhakhang in Trashigang.
Drubthob’s three biographers were Konchok Palsang, Sherab Palden, and Dewa Zangpo. All three were his major disciples and the first two were Tibetans. Dewa Zangpo was from Paro. Konchok was the spiritual son. None of them mentions about their master’s son.
Outside Merak few people know about Buchung Gyalwa. Dasho Karma Ura and Dr Karma Phuntsho are the only ones Bhutanese who mention him.
In 1997, the author of Chakzampa Thangtong Gyalpo, Manfred Gerner stumbled across a clay statue of Buchung in Choetsi lhakhang in Paro. The following year he found a statue in Gengo lhakhang in Merak.
In Gerner’s 128-page book published by Centre for Bhutan Studies in 2007, he quotes, Dasho Karma Ura’s translation of Lam Rinchen’s assertion, “the most thing to see in Gengo village is its temple…In his temple, is the holy mummy relic of Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo, the son of Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo.”
Professor Gregor Verhufen translated Gerner’s book from German to English and in it Dasho Karma Ura describes the Buchung as a, “young man with a Buddhist face without a beard, but with the bun of the Arhats and Mahasiddhas. The right hand holds a small chain above the level of the head and the left hand rests in the meditation gesture in the lap. The figure does not sit crossed legged nor on a double lotus throne, but on a simple piece of cloth.”
Some believe that Buchung Gyalwa was born from the rib cage of the Drupthob. Dasho Karma Ura said that while Buchung Gyalwa may have been born in Merak, he was sent to India at the age of 21 to search for spiritual treasures.
Dr Karma Phuntsho in his book, “The History of Bhutan,” mentions Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo’s son, “Nothing is known about his son Gyalwa Zangpo, whose body is still preserved in Merak in East Bhutan.”
Drubthob Thangtong Gyalpo had at least two Tibetan wives and a Bhutanese one. From his Tibetan consort, Khandroma Senge, he had a son, Tenzin Nyima Zangpo. His other Tibetan consort was Jetsun Chokyi Dronme (1422-55). In Dr Karma Phuntsho’s book, ‘The History of Bhutan,’ he mentions the Drubthob’s consort was the daughter of Somthrang Choje, Drubthob Zangmo. The Drubthob was also the aunt of Terton Pema Lingpa and it is said that he lived with her in the village of Pangkhar in Ura.
Chopa Zangpo, the disciple
The Gengo Gonepa in Merak has a mural depicting the Drubthob’s disciple Chopa Zangpo. The fresco depicts the disciple discovering two vajras from Lake Meghada. It is said that he was 25 years old at the time the discovery took place on the 17th day of the fourth lunar month while he was travelling from Serkemla to Shingkhar Lauri.
If the oral story is to be believed, it is said that while returning from Lake Meghada with the two vajras, Chopa Zangpo passed away on the 13th day of the seventh month below Gengo Lhakhang near a tall stone pillar, or doring. Hand prints can still be seen on the stone today, reflecting the belief that he passed away while holding on to the tall pillar.
Unfortunately, at some point, people from across the border, the Mon Tawangpas, quietly removed these two vajras. Today, these treasures are displayed in the museum of Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
Chagzampa Wangpo’s other disciples, Nima Zangpo who was the heart son and spiritual successor chose to live in Kham in Tibet. Dewa Zangpo is believed by some to be his physical heir but without a doubt was his closet Bhutanese disciple who set up his seat in Tachogang Goenpa in Paro. Chopa Zangpo decided to stay in Merak, where he became popularly known as Chung Gyalwa Zangpo in the Brokpa dialect. Upon his passing, his mortal remains were placed in a Tashi Gomang Chorten that is still preserved in Gengo Lhakhang with that of the son of Drubthob Thangtong Gyalpo.
Chagzam Wangpo or Drupthob Thangtong Gyaplpo was a renaissance man who lived ahead of his time and was highly respected in Bhutan. Interestingly, none of his biographers mention his Bhutanese son Buchung Gyalwa Zangpo.
Contributed by Tshering Tashi