Kathok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu was born in Sangen Sowa, in Kham. His father Dupa Ati Gonpo and mother Goza Dorje Tso were of the Go clan. His uncle, the great Tertön Pema Dechen Lingpa, declared him an incarnation of Lama Pema Norbu from Ta.
In his youth, Tsewang Norbu wrote down a volume of treasure revelations, but being displeased with them, he burned them. At twenty one, however, he was satisfied with some further revelations that he’d made, and these are preserved in his collected works.
When he was twenty two, Tsewang Norbu went to Kathok Monastery for the first time, receiving teachings from Sonam Deutsen, the son of his uncle’s Lama. In the wake of the Dzungar invasion of Tibet, there was an influx into Kham of Nyingma lamas fleeing the destruction of their monasteries like Mindrolling and Dorje Drak. Tsewang Norbu was able to receive teachings from many of them, including the sons of the murdered Terdak.
At twenty three, Tsewang Norbu travelled to Markham Wendzong to meet Surmang Chetsang Sungrab Gyamtso, whom he came to consider his second root Lama.
Surmang Chetsang gave his new disciple both Kagyu and Nyingma teachings, in keeping with the Karma Kagyu traditions of the region. It was due to receiving Mahamudra practices that Tsewang Norbu stabilised his meditation.
At twenty-four he returned to Kathok, taking further teachings from Sonam Deutsen who wanted to enthrone him as a regent of Kathok. Not wishing to take on this role, Tsewang Norbu declined, and continued to maintain a mendicant lifestyle.
When Tsewang Norbu went to Central Tibet in 1725, he received an audience with the Twelfth Karmapa, Changchub Dorje, and the Eighth Shamarpa, Palchen Chökyi Döndrub. He also met the Third Trewo Lama Karma Tendzin Dargye who became his third main Lama, and introduced him to the Jonang tradition. Tsewang Norbu later received the entire Jonang transmission from Drubchen Kunzang Wangpo, and is credited with bringing about a renaissance of the teachings, particularly of the Jonang Shentong view.
After a journey to Nepal, he returned to Tibet the following year and stayed with Drubchen Kunzang Wangpo. At that time, he received further extensive transmissions at the hermitage Genden Khacho in Tsang, which used to be known as Rulag Drepung prior to its forced conversion to Gelug.
In 1733 both the Twelfth Karmapa and the Eighth Sharmapa died en route to China, and Tsewang Norbu became involved in the search for their reincarnations. Through this role, he attained a heightened level of influence among the Kagyu community. He continued his involvement in Tibetan politics and Karma Kagyu religious affairs for the next several decades, serving as a representative in Ladakh for the King of Tibet, Polhane, successfully mediating a peaceful resolution to a conflict there.
Tsewang Norbu transmitted the Jonang teachings to many Kagyu and Nyingma lamas, most importantly to the Eighth Tai Situ, Chökyi Jungne, with whom he spent time at the Swayambunath Stupa in Kathmandu in 1748.
Only in the 1750s did Tsewang Norbu return to his Nyingma roots and to Kathok monastery. Not impressed by the terma traditions that the monastery had adopted, nor by its lax observance of the monastic code, he attempted to change its leadership. The monastery had been taken over and controlled by the Drungpa lamas in the sixteenth century. Tsewang Norbu considered this era of the thirteen Drung abbots to be the period of the monastery’s decline. He tried to install the young Tenth Shamarpa, Chödrub Gyamtso as the abbot of Kathok but remained unsuccessful, despite having elicited the aid of the Seventh Dalai Lama and Situ Panchen.
Tsewang Norbu spent a considerable amount of time travelling in Western Tibet and Nepal, where he restored the famous stupas of Boudhanath and Swayambunath and collected ancient Buddhist manuscripts. He first visited them in the 1720s, and made several trips thereafter, in the 1740s and again in the 1750s. He passed away in Kyirong in 1755.