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.

When such esoteric instructions belong to an exclusively oral or whispered lineage, their transmission can be restricted to those deemed qualified to receive them. Orality therefore affords some measure of protection and control, ensuring that secrets don’t fall into the wrong hands (or ears). The act of writing compromises this security, to some extent, because a text can be seen and copied in a way that words spoken privately cannot (or, rather, could not, prior to the invention of microphones and recording devices). Yet breaches of trust still occurred. One example concerns the Dzogchen teacher, Nyoshul Lungtok Tenpé Nyima (1829–1901/2), who once sent a text of secret instructions to his disciple, Nyala Rangrik Dorje (1847–1903). The text was accompanied by an instruction specifying that it should be destroyed after reading — and indeed it was, but not before the messenger had surreptitiously made a copy for himself, thanks to which the text survives to this day.[2] On another occasion, Nyoshul Lungtok actually gave permission for the secret, whispered instructions on Dzogchen to be written down, as is related in the autobiography of his most illustrious disciple, Khenpo Ngawang Palzang (1879–1941):

The teacher (Nyoshul Lungtok) asked whether I had memorised the words. “For now,” I said, “But I can’t say whether I will forget them in future.” And so I requested his permission to take notes. “What’s that?” he said, “Don’t you understand what is meant by ‘The oral transmission is not to be set down in writing’?” Then, after a while, he said, “Well, if you’re worried that you might forget things, there’s no fault in writing notes on the root verses. The great Omniscient One (Longchenpa) wrote down secret, previously unwritten cycles, such as the Trilogy of Oral Transmission from the Lama Yangtik and Instruction on the Secret, Unwritten Oral Transmission of Zabmo Yangtik. The likes of you and I should not presume to imitate such acts, of course. But, while it is regrettable to set down in writing this instruction from the oral transmission, it would be equally regrettable were it to disappear.[3]

Thus, it was out of concern for the preservation of the lineage that this particular oral transmission was transcribed. First came the notes; then, later on, several texts composed on the basis of these notes, all of which remain restricted even now in their written form, classed as kagyama (bka’ rgya ma), or ‘sealed’ with secrecy.

It could be argued that the transition from spoken to written form affects the very nature of instructions. Unwritten instructions, held only in the mind of a teacher, are readily adaptable to a given situation, even if they are based on a particular structure; they can be improvised, you might say — simplified or extended, for example, according to the time available, or to suit the particular capacity and inclinations of a student. But whenever such instructions are written down, they lose some of this flexibility, as they are addressed to an ideal or generic reader. Teaching from a text is always a form of commentary, or exegesis, which lacks the spontaneity of extemporary speech. Instructions can still be adapted, but texts, rather like musical scores, impose constraints.

Still, from a traditional viewpoint, the greatest loss to come from writing, and especially from copying and distributing previously secret material, is what we might term spiritual deflation. “Divulging secrets reduces the value of the pith instructions,”[4] wrote Ju Mipham Rinpoche, in a text called The Old Sage’s Honest Talk: On the Need for the Pith Instructions to Remain Secret. Secrecy creates mystery, reinforcing the notion of the sacred. For something to be considered sacred, it must be extraordinary, removed from the day-to-day, and therefore, in a sense, restricted —“set apart and forbidden,” in the words of Émile Durkheim. When what is sacred becomes more accessible — as it inevitably does whenever texts are written down — this reduces its sacredness. As Mipham Rinpoche puts it: “When everybody knows, who will be considered an expert? On an island of gold, gold itself is of little value.”[5]

Perhaps this explains why even teachings represented as extraordinarily powerful and beneficial can still be restricted, with the transmission limited to only a few worthy recipients at a time. To give just one example, Longchenpa specifies in his commentary to the All-Creating Monarch that while the text should be kept secret from the uninitiated and unqualified, even teaching it to more than five qualified students at a time will bring punishment from the ḍākiṇīs.[6] (Incidentally, the text is now available in English without restriction).

In the battle to prevent spiritual deflation, as once-secret instructions are translated, published and made ever more accessible, teachers — Mipham’s experts — may adopt new strategies in their efforts to stabilise and retain the value of spiritual gold. But, in this, they are also competing against advances in technology and a general drive towards openness of knowledge and freedom of information: developments which only serve to reinforce the lessons of Tibetan Buddhist history, i.e., that secrets are hard to keep, and that the written word is, by its nature, difficult to control or suppress.

Even as some teachers try to limit the translation and publication of particularly esoteric instructions, there are others who take a more liberal view, and there are also scholars who operate outside the tradition. Moreover, modern books are usually conceived as objects that facilitate independent study, altering the nature of transmission through their introductions, footnotes and the like, as Jay Garfield has pointed out.

Reading an instruction will never quite match the experience of hearing it spoken (or whispered) in a special environment, just as listening to recorded music will never compare to attending a live performance. When attempts to maintain secrecy fail, the challenge for the tradition is to create situations that feel — and are, in fact — precious and rare, even if the information being conveyed is no longer as uncommon or as restricted as once it was.

It is also worth remembering that listening is only the first step in a process of assimilation or deeper integration, which also requires contemplation and meditation. A written text can certainly help with this, especially at the earlier stages, but there is always a risk that its apparent durability might encourage procrastination, or that its very materiality might make the simple fact of possessing it feel like a substitute for actual learning.[5] In fact, these points apply equally to audio recordings, so what is at issue here is not so much a dichotomy between the aural and the written, as one between the live and the recorded. And, as with music, while the live performance is ephemeral, the ability to perform is based on many years of dedicated training. In answer to Mipham Rinpoche’s question, then, perhaps it is this genuine mastery of the instructions — rather than any superficial knowledge of, or familiarity with, them — which truly determines who is an expert. Whether such spiritual virtuosity can retain its value in the modern world, however, remains to be heard.


1. <shameless plug> Which is why To Dispel the Misery of the World (Wisdom Publications, 2012) is subtitled Whispered Teachings of the Bodhisattvas </shameless plug>
2. This story is recounted in Thondup 1996, 225.
3. mKhan po ngag chung gi rnam thar 75: tshig rnams yid la e ’jags gsungs da lta yid la ’jags kyang phyin chad brjed e ’gro mi shes pas zin bris zhig btab na zhus pas ci zer/ snyan brgyud dpe la ma bkod gsungs pa de ma go’am gsungs/ bar zhig na da brjed kyis dogs na rtsa tshig tsam zin bris su btab kyang skyon med/ gsang ba yi ge med pa’i skor rnams kun mkhyen chen pos yi ger btab pa bla ma yang tig gi snyan brgyud skor gsum dang/ zab mo yang tig gi gsang ba yi ge med pa’i snyan brgyud kyi khrid rnams yin kyang da ’u bu gnyis kyis de ’dra’i lad mo mi ’ong yang/ snyan brgyud kyi khrid ’di bshad du’ang phangs nub tu’ang phangs gsungs byung bas…
4. Mi pham 2007, 675: gsang ba ‘chal na man ngag rin thang chung/
5. Mi pham 2007, 681: kun gyis shes na mkhas par su zhig rtsi/ gser gyi gling na gser nyid rin thang chung/
6. Byang chub kyi sems kun byed rgyal po’i don khrid: snod min la gsang zhing snod ldan la yang lnga las mang na mkha’ ‘gro’i bka’ chad byung bas rab tu gsang ngo/
5. Cf. Umberto Eco on the “alibi of photocopies” in How to Write a Thesis, MIT Press, 2015, 125: “A student makes hundreds of pages of photocopies and takes them home, and the manual labor he exercises in doing so gives him the impression that he possesses the work. Owning the photocopies exempts the student from actually reading them.” A broader version of this principle might be termed the alibi of books, particularly when some effort or expense went into acquiring them.


Dri med ‘od zer, Byang chub kyi sems kun byed rgyal po’i don khrid in Kun mkhyen klong chen rab ’byams kyi gsung ’bum. 26 vols. Peking: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2009, vol. 22: 504–532.

mKhan po ngag chung gi rnam thar. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2000.

Mi pham, Man ngag gsang dgos pa’i tshul brjod pa drang srong rgan po’i bden gtam in Mi pham gsung ‘bum, 32 vols. Chengdu: Gangs can rig gzhung dpe rnying myur skyobs lhan tshogs, 2007, vol. 32: 674–684

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts: History & Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston: Wisdom Publications. 2001.

Tulku Thondup. Masters of Meditation and Miracles: The Longchen Nyingthig Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala. 1996.

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


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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Uniting Outer and Inner Solitude: Patrul Rinpoche’s Advice for Alak Dongak Gyatso



Dza Patrul Rinpoche, Orgyen Chökyi Wangpo

In his account of the famous debate between Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso (’ju mi pham rnam rgyal rgya mtsho, 1846-1912) and Alak Dongak Gyatso (a lags mdo sngags rgya mtsho, 1824–1902),[1] Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche tells us that Alak Dongak was so upset at losing the contest and seeing his treatise on Dzogchen burned in front of his teacher, Patrul Rinpoche (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan chos kyi dbang po, 1808-1887), that he broke down and wept.[2]

When I recently asked Tulku Thondup Rinpoche about this, he mentioned another possible explanation for Alak Dongak’s distress:

Khenpo Chemchok, my own teacher, used to say that on one occasion Könme Khenpo, my predecessor, asked Alak Dongak if it was true that he had cried after the debate with Mipham. Yes, he replied, he had wept, but it was not because he had lost the argument. In fact, he said, he had cried because Patrul Rinpoche had chastised him. Whenever he was winning, he said, Patrul would say to him, “I told you to meditate on love and compassion, but instead you’ve filled your head with all this scholarly stuff!” Yet whenever Mipham was winning, Patrul Rinpoche said nothing. Alak Dongak told Patrul, “I didn’t neglect your instructions. I have meditated on bodhicitta.” But it was the accusation of failing to apply his teacher’s instructions, he said, and not the humiliation of losing, that made him weep.

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