José Cabezón’s brief study of long-life prayers (or zhab brtan) in Tibet (“Firm Feet and Long Lives: The Zhabs brtan Literature of Tibetan Buddhism”), which appeared in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre in 1996, makes the claim that “the zhabs brtan [genre] seems to have developed almost exclusively within the dGe lugs school until very recent times.” In a note, he goes on to say that he “searched, in vain, for examples of zhabs brtan in the works of Tāranātha (b.1575), ‘Brug pa pad ma dkar po, 1526-1592), Jaya Paṇḍita (b.1642) and ‘Ju Mi pham rgya mtsho (1846-1914).” Well, with the benefit of the TBRC database, we can now say that plenty of zhabs brtan prayers do appear in the writings of Minling Terchen Gyurme Dorje (smin gling gter chen ‘gyur med rdo rje,1646-1714), an important figure in the Nyingma school.
Although it might be true that the Gelugpa were the first to compose such texts, it is clear from Minling Terchen’s collected writings that followers of the Nyingma tradition were requesting and composing zhabs brtan as early as the late seventeenth century. Volume Ca of the writings includes a text called bshes gnyen dam pa ‘ga’ zhig la bstod pa brtan zhugs su spel ba dag snang dad pa’i me tog, which is a compilation of brtan zhugs/zhabs brtan works, as well as the closely related genre of prayers for swift rebirth (myur ‘byon gsol ‘debs). The phrase zhabs brtan gsol ‘debs is used in several of the colophons, as is the more unusual form zhabs brtan rten ‘byung.
Among these various zhabs brtan and myur ‘byon prayers, we can easily identify several of the subjects and therefore establish approximate dates for their composition. A prayer for the swift rebirth of Dzogchen Pema Rigdzin, for example, must date from the period between his passing in 1697 and the birth of his incarnation, Gyurme Tekchok Tendzin (‘gyur med theg mchog bstan ‘dzin), in 1699. A long-life prayer for the latter, also included in the collection, features “the interweaving of the syllables of the master’s name into the prayer itself”, which, as Cabezón notes, is an “interesting and unique feature of most zhabs brtan“:
chi med ‘od snang mtha’ yas ye shes kyi/ / rnam rol mi zad rgyan gyi ‘khor lo’i mdzod/ / padma* ‘byung gnas rgyal ba’i spyi gzugs su/ / yongs shar mgon po mchog des dge legs mdzod/ /
mi ‘gyur zag med ‘pho ba chen po’i lam/ / theg mchog gsang ba’i bstan ‘dzin sprul pa’i sku/ / skal bzang gdul bya rgya mtsho nyer ‘tsho’i gzhir/ / g.yo med rdo rje lta bur ‘tsho gzhes gsol/ /
snga ‘gyur rdo rje theg pa’i bshad sgrub bstan/ / snyigs dus ‘gro la phan bder ‘dzin pa yi/ / zhabs zung mi g.yo rtag tu brtan pa dang/ / phrin las phyogs dus kun tu khyab par shog/
(*Although the Padma is not always included as part of his name, the colophon to the prayer clearly refers to him as Padma ‘gyur med theg mchog bstan ‘dzin.)
There are many names mentioned in the various colophons and it is therefore a rich source of information for anyone interested not just in the early history of zhabs brtan, but also in Terdak Lingpa’s life and the history of the period. It is perhaps worth noting too that the collection includes prayers for at least two female subjects: a prayer for the long life of Tsewang Lhamo (tshe dbang lha mo), the mother of the Sixth Dalai Lama, and a prayer for the swift reincarnation of Dechen Trinlé Tsomo (bde chen phrin las gtso mo), fourth in the line of Samding Dorje Pakmo (bsam sdings rdo rje phag mo) incarnations, the most important lineage of female tulkus in Tibet.