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’.

Introduction

Jamyang_Khyentse_Wangpo

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

Introduction

Vajrasattva

Vajrasattva

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

Introduction

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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The Final Words of Orgyen Tendzin Norbu (1841–1900)

Introduction

Orgyen Tendzin NorbuOrgyen Tendzin Norbu (o rgyan bstan ‘dzin nor bu, 1841–1900) is something of an elusive figure in recent Nyingma history. Until recently, not much was known about his life, and even his dates were a mystery; his own writings appear to have been lost, and his final testament, recorded in the few brief biographies available to us, is decidedly enigmatic.

And yet he was certainly important, especially in the Nyingma scholastic tradition, not least as an intermediary between Gyalse Shenpen Thayé (rgyal sras gzhan phan mtha’ yas, 1800–1855) and Khenpo Shenga (gzhan dga’) or Shenpen Nangwa (gzhan phan snang ba, 1871–1927). Shenpen Thayé was Orgyen Tendzin Norbu’s uncle and the founder of the famous Shri Singha college at Dzogchen Monastery, and Shenga, his most illustrious disciple, helped, through his writings and teaching, to inspire a flourishing of scholasticism in early twentieth century Kham. Yet Orgyen Tendzin Norbu was more than simply a human bridge linking these two more prominent lamas; having studied with Dza Patrul Rinpoche (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan chos kyi dbang po, 1808–1887) for thirty years, he became an acknowledged scholar, Dzogchen master and important teacher in his own right.

Biographical information on Orgyen Tendzin Norbu was hard to come by until recently, and his dates are still quite muddled in the various sources. Some, including TBRC, give 1851 as the year of his birth, but, as recently pointed out in a comment on the Treasury of Lives site (on the Khenpo Shenga article) this date no longer seems tenable. Tulku Thondup did not provide any specific dates in his biography in Masters of Meditation and Miracles (pp. 226–227), and noted simply that Orgyen Tendzin Norbu lived in “the 19th century.” Nyoshul Khenpo’s Dzogchen history (2005, p.482) offered 1827–1888, based on the idea that the master passed away at the age of sixty in the earth-rat year (1888–9). Yet, according to Tendzin Lungtok Nyima (2004, p.594) in his vast history of Dzogchen Monastery and its associates, while Orgyen Tendzin Norbu did indeed live for sixty years, he died not in the earth-rat, but in the iron-rat year, i.e., 1900–1. This date, which has since been reproduced in other historical works published in Tibet, seems for the moment to be the most reliable.

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