Lopön Sönam Tsemo (Tibetan: བསོད་ནམས་རྩེ་མོ) was born in the Male Water Dog year (1142) in glorious Sakya. He was the eldest of the three sons born to the First Sakya Patriarch - Sachen Kunga Nyingpo and Machig Odrön. He was the Second Sakya Patriarch and also the Fourth Sakya throne holder. He was identified as the reincarnation of the Indian scholar Durgachandra (or Durjayachandra) the master of Drokmi Lotsāwa Śākya Yeshé's teacher Viravajra, in India.
When Sönam Tsemo was born, words said to have been written by dakinis appeared above the entrance to the Bodhigaya stupa proclaiming, "The holy abbot Sönam Tsemo, the emanation of Manjushri and owner of all Vajrayana Dharma, has taken birth in Sakya." The renowned Koshambhi Pandita Devamati proclaimed this throughout India, as a result of which Sönam Tsemo was discovered in Tibet.
During his childhood, Sönam Tsemo's main teacher was his father Sachen Kunga Nyingpo. From his father, he received mainly the esoteric teachings, including the mandala practice manual, empowerments, blessings, pith instructions, reading transmissions, and training in the practice. He studied all of these teachings and understood them thoroughly. Before he was even seventeen years old, he could recite from memory the texts of forty different Tantras, and his fame as the most learned scholar of the Vajrayana was proclaimed as far as the Ganges.
When he was seventeen, he transferred his authority to his brother Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen, and left for Sangphu Neuthok monastery to meet Chapa Chökyi Sengé. There, he studied for eleven years with that teacher, and became a great sutric scholar. The great master Chapa Chökyi Sengé had eight foremost disciples, known as the eight great lions. Sönam Tsemo was the most outstanding among all of the disciples.
Sönam Tsemo passed away in 1182 at the age of forty. The details of his death are unclear, but it is recorded that his body disappeared and he left nothing but his robe and a footprint behind. During the 2017 Sönam Tsemo’s Mahaparinirvana anniversary teaching, His Holiness the Sakya Trichen said, “Actually Sönam Tsemo is one of the few great masters who left without leaving his body. He just went straight to Sukhāvatī (Pure Land of Bliss). He is a very very great master.”
(Editor’s note: At the time of death of an accomplished tantric practitioner who has reached the exhaustion of all grasping and fixation through specific practices, the five gross elements which form the physical body, dissolve back into their essences, five-colored light, sometimes passing away in a mass of rainbow light and leaving no corpse behind. Sometimes only hair and nails are left behind. This is known as “rainbow body”. )