Whose Text Is It Anyway? (And Does It Really Matter?)

Dola Jigme Kalzang blog

Dola Jigme Kalzang

Several years ago I added a note to the Rigpa Wiki entry on Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800–1866) pointing out that a text commonly attributed to Do Khyentse is in fact by Dola Jigme Kalzang (b. 1789). The text in question is Foolish Babble Clarifying Reality: Notes on the Generation and Perfection Stages (bskyed rdzogs kyi zin bris blun gtam de nyid gsal ba). In English it appears interwoven with Ringu Tulku’s commentary in Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness (Snow Lion, 2005). Any confusion surrounding the text’s attribution seemingly stems from the fact that Dola Jigme Kalzang is also known as Zhönnu Yeshe Dorje,[1] the name that appears in Foolish Babble‘s colophon. The case for the revised attribution was made even clearer in 2010 when the text was included among the collected writings of Jigme Kalzang (there referred to as Derge Jigme Kalzang) published by the Ngakmang Institute.[2]

You might well ask whether it really matters who wrote this (or any other) work. After all, it has little bearing on the actual content. It certainly matters more to the biographer or historian than it does to the average student. But association with a highly revered — and, in the case of Do Khyentse, highly unconventional — character inevitably influences how a work is perceived. And while much is known about events in the life of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, biographies of Jigme Kalzang offer no more than scanty bits of information. Until recently, for example, the year of his birth was unknown, while the year of his death still remains unclear.[3]  (Incidentally, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche’s brief account of the circumstances of his death by torture in place of a condemned thief in China surely ranks among the most moving passages in Masters of Meditation and Miracles.)

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What’s in a Name?

MañjuśrīAmongst the many things Tibetans inherited from India was a sense that names, when applied to exalted beings, are far more than mere verbal labels aiding identification. Deities’ names capture something of their essence, and reciting them is a form of invocation and praise. Most mantras have names at their heart, and there are whole texts, such as Mañjuśrī–nāma-saṃgīti (Reciting the Names of Mañjuśrī), devoted to lists of alternative names or epithets.

Lamas usually have several names too, and this can obviously lead to some confusion (of the kind already discussed in a previous post). Gene Smith outlined Jamgön Kongtrul’s many names in a lengthy section of his famous introduction to the Treasury of Knowledge (Shes bya mdzod), stating:

One of the greatest problems confronting the would-be bibliographer of Tibetan literature is the plethora of names, titles and epithets by which lamas are known, especially those of the older orders. The case of Kong sprul illustrates this problem especially well. Kong sprul was given seven types of name during his life: childhood name, monastic ordination name, bodhisattva vow name, tantric initiation name, name as a rediscoverer of hidden treasure, name as a grammarian, and finally an incarnation name.[1]

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For Your Ears Only

teachingIn the beginning was the word. And the word was spoken… The teachings of the Buddha, as is well known, were not at first written down, but were preserved and passed on in oral form for several centuries. Even later, once the Buddhist canon became truly literary, newer — or, as the tradition has it, newly discovered — works, such as the Mahāyāna sūtras and, later still, the tantras, continued to be represented as records of oral teaching, prefaced with the famous statement: “Thus have I heard…” (evaṃ mayā śrutam…)

In Tibet, Buddhist literature abounds with texts deriving from the spoken. Consider, for example, such categories (or genres) as zhal gdams, gdams ngag, man ngag, zhal lung or zhal chems, where the oral associations are clear from the terms themselves. The collected works of important teachers in Tibet, too, are known as collected speech bka’ ‘bum or gsung ‘bum — (with speech in the honorific) rather than collected writings. (And let’s not forget that writings were themselves very often dictated to a scribe rather than penned by the actual author). Even the vast literature associated with the various treasure (gter ma) cycles — which is itself contrasted with the Kama (bka’ ma) or ‘Word’ in the Nyingma School — is said to contain the speech of Guru Padmasambhava.

In addition to the genres listed above, Tibetan Buddhism also features entire collections of teachings classed as oral (or aural), so-called ‘whispered transmissions’ (snyan brgyud). In its broadest sense, this category includes even Mind Training, which, according to the histories, was initially taught in secret and taught openly only from the time of Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175).[1] Other examples are the Dakpo Nyengyü, Rechung Nyengyü, Orgyen Nyengyü and Thangtong Nyengyü. And in Bön there is the well-known Zhangzhung Nyengyü. Included within these collections are various forms of instruction once considered especially secret.

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Approaches to Non-Sectarianism

The following post is based on my paper at the recent IATS conference in Bergen entitled ‘Highlighting Unity: Two Approaches to Non-Sectarianism in 20th Century Tibet’.



Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo

The story of the Rimé (ris med) Movement is well-known — at least in outline, if not in detail. Although scholars have debated the appropriateness of the term “movement” (a controversy which I shall ignore in what follows), the achievements of Jamgön Kongtrul (1813–1899), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892), Dza Patrul (1808–1887), and many more, are beyond dispute. And most followers of Tibetan Buddhism these days are familiar with how Eastern Tibet, particularly the Derge region, became the hub of a spiritual renaissance in the late nineteenth century: how texts were collected (or revealed) and compiled; how study colleges and retreat centres were founded; and how teachings and practices were transmitted on a vast scale.

But how non-sectarian was this Non-Sectarian Movement?

Some have suggested that it might not have been entirely impartial or unbiased. For one thing, it had little or no involvement from members of the dominant Gelug school — an apparent omission that prompted Geoffrey Samuel to contrast “Rimé shamans” with “Gelug clerics”. And some have even portrayed the movement as a reaction against the Gelug, a deliberate challenge to its ascendancy through the strengthening of the other schools and the preservation of once-endangered lineages.

Clearly, the Rimé did indeed lead to a strengthening of the non-Gelug schools. But this strengthening did not require their merging or combining. This is a point made emphatically by Ringu Tulku in his 2006 book, The Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great: “Ri-me is not a way of uniting different schools and lineages by emphasising their similarities.” Rather, he says, it involves “an appreciation of their differences and an acknowledgement of the importance of variety to benefit practitioners with different needs.”

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On the House

On_A_House_crop_editSome Reflections on Building a Library in Cyberspace

In February 1994 I bought my first copy of Sarat Chandra Das’s famous Tibetan-English Dictionary from The Oxford Book & Stationery Co. in Darjeeling. In the years that followed I lugged successive copies of ‘Das’, as we used to call it, back and forth, as I studied Tibetan and Buddhism in London, Kathmandu, Dharamsala, and elsewhere. And in time there were plenty of other dictionaries too in my backpack, along with all the grammar books and works of reference I could carry, not to mention the many Tibetan tomes I would be struggling with at any given time.

This is not to say that consulting dictionaries — much less carrying them — was the key to my becoming a translator. It was not, at least not by itself; even if one of my teachers did once hold up his well-worn, no-longer-bound-together copy of Jäschke’s dictionary as evidence of the kind of persistent page-turning required to master the language, in a sort of bibliophile version of Milarepa’s final instruction to Gampopa.

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Original Sins and the Mythical Origins of a Confessional Practice




The “sins” of the title are not necessarily my own, although the origin of this post does perhaps lie in some mistakes I made in the (not too distant) past. In 2001, when Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche taught on the practice of confession known as Narak Kong Shak in Lerab Ling I served as his translator—a truly nerve-racking experience, as others can testify. I found the task particularly difficult when Rinpoche recounted the story translated below. Faced with a barrage of unfamiliar names and terminology, I could offer no more than a hopelessly garbled summary. What follows is therefore a long-delayed attempt to make amends for that initial mistranslation, and, hopefully, to provide an introduction to a significant but previously unexamined (in English, at least) myth.

The story of the brahmin Conch-Garlanded (Dung gi phreng ba can) and his betrayal at the hands of his own student, a prince—named Virtue-Beholder (dGe mthong) in some later versions—is referred to extensively in Nyingma literature, both in early terma revelations and in later kama (bka’ ma) compilations. It provides the origin for the confessional practice known as the ‘sovereign of remorseful purifications’ (’gyod tshangs rgyal po) and even the entire category of practices that appear under the rubric of “Dredging the Depths of Hell” (Na rak dong sprugs).

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The Miraculous Death of the ‘Other’ Dakpo Tashi Namgyal


ches dkon

Ches dkon pa’i sa skya’i mkhas grub chen po khag gsum gyi rnam thar

There are times when the apparent paucity of names available to Tibetans can prove confusing. If it seems as if Dharamsala has more than its fair share of Tenzins, for example, this is because so many of its residents have taken refuge with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso—who, following tradition, bestows his own first name on others. Still, when a second name is added the resulting permutations usually suffice to bring at least a degree of clarity. Yet there are some names that seem to have been deliberately contrived purely to confound the historian or the compiler of databases. Such a name is Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (dwags po bkra shis rnam rgyal), for as common as “Tashi Namgyal” might be in general—and TBRC lists at least sixteen notable examples from Tibetan history—it seems to defy the odds that there should have been two eminent teachers by that name who also acquired the prefix “Dakpo”.

Of these two, the later Dakpo Tashi Namgyal (1512/13–1587) is perhaps the better known today. He is chiefly remembered for being the author of a major work on Mahāmudrā, The Rays of Moonlight (phyag chen zla ba’i ’od zer), which has been translated into English by Lobsang Lhalungpa. (Another of his works on Mahāmudrā is included in the recent Mahāmudrā and Related Instructions, translated by Peter Alan Roberts.)

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