Drogon Tsangpa Gyare Yeshe Dorje, the 1st Gyalwang Drukpa, was born in Nyangto Shulay in the province of Tsang, amidst miraculous signs and auspicious omens, in 1161. As he was born fully wrapped in a membrane, his parents were so fearful that they abandoned him. An eagle who was in fact an emanation of a dakini protected him with its huge wings until the baby broke the membrane with his legs, casting a deep footprint in a rock nearby.
After his birth, Tsangpa Gyare was recognized and brought up by some siddhas of that time. The news of his miraculous birth soon spread in the village, and attracted many people to gather around his residence so as to receive his blessings. However, the child was too young and preferred to play with children of his age; he often sat on a rock and gave them teachings on Buddhism. The young Tsangpa Gyare grew up to be a master in Sutrayana and Tantrayana.
When Tsangpa Gyare grew up, he became a disciple of Lingchen Repa, mastering Mahamudra and the Six Yogas of Naropa. Through refining prana (energy) in the nadis (subtle channels), and through the practice of inner incandescence (tummo), he became immune to extremes of heat and cold. Even in the snowy mountains he wore only a white cotton robe, and was known, like Milarepa, as a “repa”, a cotton-clad yogi.
After attaining complete spiritual realization, Tsangpa Gyare went to Lodrak in Central Tibet. There he revealed a treasure of esoteric meditative instructions called “The Six Equal Tastes”, which Rechungpa, the moon-like disciple of Milarepa, had brought back from India and hidden, to be rediscovered at the opportune time by the appropriate person for the benefit of future generations. Later, after meditating under a tree without changing his posture for three months, seven Buddhas appeared before him and revealed the most esoteric pith-instructions, which he called “The Seven Auspicious Teachings”.
Tsangpa Gyare founded the Shedrup Choekhor Ling Monastery at Ralung in Tsang under the instruction of his root guru, Lingchen Repa, who told him to teach widely. Thereafter, Tsangpa Gyare went to U in order to establish a large monastic center in a place especially suitable for spiritual practice. When he and his followers reached Namgyi-phu, nine dragons (later said to be the manifestations of nine Indian mahasiddhas) reared up from the earth and soared overhead, roaring like thunder, while flowers miraculously rained down. Thus, the lineage became known as the Dragon Sect or Drukpa (Druk means “dragon” in Tibetan). The monastery that was established there, Druk Sewa Jangchub Ling (The Awakening Place of the Ultimate Dragon Lineage), remained the principal monastery of the Drukpa lineage for a long time, and the place came to be known as “Nam Druk”, which literally means “Sky Dragon” in commemoration of the auspicious appearance of the nine dragons.
Tsangpa Gyare discovered part of the holy pilgrimage site of Tsari, a powerful place sacred to Chakrasamvara. At this unusual site, he saw his Yidam Chakrasamvara who prophesied that he would be the future Buddha Möepa. According to the secret instructions of the dakinis, he also made many treasures of Dharma accessible in southern Tibet.
Due to his spiritual attainments, the 1st Gyalwang Drukpa became known as Druk Thamchay Khyenpa, the Omniscient Dragon, the Omniscient Dragon, and reverentially called “Je Drukpa” (Lord Dragon-Master) or “The Drukchen” (the Great Dragon). Although often known as Drukchen Rinpoche, the proper name for this enlightened lama, and all his incarnations, is Gyalwang Drukpa.
Tsangpa Gyare was a famous teacher whose teachings were sometimes attended by as many as 50,000 people at once. It was reported that he had 88,000 eminent followers, of whom 28,000 were enlightened yogis. His order became famous for the purity, simplicity and asceticism of its adherents and the profundity of its spiritual teachings. He wrote a renowned commentary on the Tantra of Chakrasamvara, and taught widely.
Tsangpa Gyare passed away in 1211 at the age of 51. When his body was cremated, the heart, tongue and eyes remained intact. His skull bore the image of Arya Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani, and 21 images of Arya Avalokiteshvara appeared on 21 vertebrates of the spinal column. Because the relics of Tsangpa Gyare manifested different forms of Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, his devotees believed strongly that he was indeed the emanation of the Bodhisattva. This explains why Tsangpa Gyare returned again and again, life after life, to watch over the welfare of the beings, and especially those who followed the footsteps of the Dragon lineage. Tsangpa Gyare prophesied that he would be succeeded by nine Seat-Holders with the title “Sengey” (meaning “lion” in Tibetan), after them existed three throne holders who would be emanations of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani, before he returned to his people to guide them personally.
Amongst his students, Gyalwa Gotsangpa spread the Drukpa tradition in western Tibet and his followers came to be called adherents of the Upper Drukpa School. Followers of Choje Lorepa, another of his students, branched out to form the Lower Drukpa School. Onray Dharma Singhe started the Central Drukpa School and Pariwa started the Great Spiritual Sons Lineage of the Central Drukpa School. Another disciple of Tsangpa Gyare, Phajo Druggom Zhigpo (1184 – 1251), left for Bhutan following the prophecy of his teacher who instructed him to go south of Tibet. He founded the first Drukpa monasteries in Bhutan at Phachok Deng and Tango.