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.)

Until recently this later Dakpo Tashi Namgyal was often conflated with his earlier namesake, the ‘other’ Dakpo Tashi Namgyal—a Sakyapa master who was a contemporary (and student) of Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419) and the successor of Rongtön Sheja Kunrig (1367–1449) as abbot of the important monastery of Nalendra (founded in 1436).[1] Not much has been written in English about this Dakpo Tashi Namgyal but he does feature prominently in David Jackson’s The Early Abbots of ’Phan-po Na-lendra (published in 1989).[2] There Jackson notes that when Tashi Namgyal took over from Rongtön as abbot of Nalendra in 1442, he was not held in the same esteem as his predecessor. Perhaps, Jackson suggests, this was partly due to his “ecumenical leanings” and his connection to the increasingly controversial figure of Tsongkhapa.

A full biography of the first Dakpo Tashi Namgyal is available in Tibetan. Entitled Wondrous Ocean (ngo mtshar gyi rgya mtsho), it was included in a recently published anthology of rare Sakya texts alongside short biographies of Bari Lotsawa Rinchen Drak (1040–1112) and Shalu Lotsawa (1441–1527). Wondrous Ocean is almost 90 pages in length and was written by Tashi Namgyal’s nephew (or great nephew), Karma Trinlepa (karma ’phrin las pa), in Nalendra Monastery in an iron-sheep year—probably 1511. (I first learnt of it when I was given a copy by the late Khenpo Appey Rinpoche during one of our final sessions working through the Ga Rabjampa lojong book. Khen Rinpoche was quite emphatic at the time about the text’s importance.)

Brief as it is, the biography contains much that is of interest. Aside from useful information about Tashi Namgyal himself, such as his dates (1399–1458), what makes it especially intriguing are the references to Tsongkhapa—called Sumatikīrti, a Sanskritization of Lobzang Drakpa, in the text—as well as to Rongtön and the early days of Nalendra. Some of these references are tantalisingly brief, however, and as yet I have not uncovered any startling revelations.

Karma Trinlepa’s text certainly offers a sense of what it was like to study during that ‘golden age’ of Tibetan history, when it was common to receive teachings from multiple lineages and traditions. We learn, for example, that Tashi Namgyal, who was an “ecumenical” Sakyapa—as Jackson notes—received Nyingma teachings on the Guhyagarbha Tantra and other texts from a master called Yönten Zangpo,. He also practised Dzogchen in retreat and even came to see himself later in life as a reincarnation of Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364).

Most of Tashi Namgyal’s studies were undertaken at the great centre of Sangpu Neutok (gsang phu ne’u thog), where Rongtön was his main teacher. Like many of his contemporaries, he also studied tantra with Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo (1382–1457) and travelled to receive further instruction from the most important figures of his day.

Later, when Tashi Namgyal tried to continue Rongtön’s work at Nalendra, he faced some obstacles. As Jackson notes, for example, many of the monks left the monastery in order to study with one of his former students, Jamchen Rabjampa Sangye Pel (1412–1485), who had founded a monastic school of his own near Rinpung. Given these developments, it is not surprising that Tashi Namgyal does not feature as much in many histories as his more celebrated contemporaries—not only his famous teachers, but his students too, who included the likes of Shakya Chokden (1428–1507) and Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429–1489). And as if being overshadowed by his associates were not enough, there is also that matter of his more famous namesake…

With all this in mind, I wish to offer here a short extract from the end of Wondrous Ocean. In it, Karma Trinlepa describes the miraculous events that surrounded Tashi Namgyal’s death. The author describes his parinirvāṇa as the most wondrous Tibet had ever seen—except, that is, for that of Sakya Paṇḍita. Rainbows, earthquakes, rains of flowers and abundant relics, including the tiny pearl-like substances known as ringsel, all feature. Given what we know about the setbacks Tashi Namgyal experienced at Nalendra, it is hard not to read into these descriptions something of a response to his detractors. Did Karma Trinlepa seek to enhance his uncle’s reputation by embellishing the account of his final moments? Or could it be that Tashi Namgyal himself saw in his own death an opportunity to prove a point?

Translation

miraculous(p. 86) On the seventh a great rumbling sound was heard from the mountains in the south, and as it gradually faded the earth shook directly. In the afternoon the sun and moon both appeared encircled by a single rainbow.

When Minyak Yaktön was circumambulating at dusk he saw before him several boys and girls wearing adornments. They were all singing songs and they too were circumambulating. Fearing that they might disturb the master’s meditation, he went after them to try and see who they were. For seven or eight circuits, however, they walked at an ever greater pace and he was unable to catch them. Then, all of a sudden, they disappeared. That night the earth shook three times at dusk and twice at midnight.

Just before dawn the following morning there was a major earthquake. Lama Puntsok was so alarmed that he began to run outside, but then noticed a brilliant white light shining from the east like a stretch of white silk. At its end the light divided into rays, one striking the guru’s teaching throne and one extending to the curtain of his bedchamber. When Lama Puntsok pointed this out to the Dharma Lord Kunga Palwa, they both saw the light penetrate directly through the curtain, so that it touched the guru’s heart. The night sky was perfectly clear and amidst the brilliant constellations a great many shooting stars appeared from all directions.

At dawn the guru said, “Carefully arrange some offerings on the shrine. It’s uncomfortable for me to practise virtue here on the bed, so place three cushions as a seat near the northern skylight.” Then, as soon as the sky became clear on the eighth day, he took his seat there. “You two go outside,” he told them, “and return when I signal that I’ve finished my practice.” Then he sat, audibly reciting the profound path guru sādhana. When the sun had risen fully, the attendants prepared some breakfast and returned to see if the guru was ready to pause his meditation. As they approached they found that he was sitting with his eyes half-closed. They went to fetch the others, and when they returned, they found him seated upright, with his hands crossed at his heart and his legs in the vajra posture. His wisdom mind had already settled into the dimension of reality (dharmadhātu). After a short while, they anointed the body with pleasant fragrances like camphor. They put a crown of the five families on his head, dressed his body in robes, and put a vajra and bell in his hands. There was not the slightest movement in his body, and they returned it to precisely the same posture as before. Then they arranged vast, cloud-like offerings, greater than anything seen before in either the realm of gods or the world of human beings.

From that day onwards a rain of flowers fell, greater than before. There were even flowers of gold and silver. Throughout the region there was soon talk of how the Penpo valley had filled with flowers. After a while, ceremonies were performed as if in secret. Tea was offered in the assembly and rituals were performed inside the lama’s quarters. As a result, the radiance and splendour of the body increased greatly. Red and white bodhicitta flowed from the nostrils and gathered before the body in a small pool which increased in size each day. The guru’s toes became like papillae, and Lama Puntsok put his mouth to them, imbibing a sweet-tasting substance, inexpressible and quite unlike anything he had experienced before. Then the Dharma Lord Kunga Palwa did the same.

[…]

Until the fourteenth the guru’s body did not move at all from its seated posture. In its radiance and brightness, it was just as it was when he had been alive. All who were in its presence experienced vivid awareness, without any sleepiness or lethargy, and found that their minds were naturally inclined towards virtue.

Then, on the morning of the fifteenth, when the attendants went to make offerings they found that the body had slumped to the right. Its hands were no longer in the mudrā of holding the vajra and bell, and its radiance too had diminished. These were clear signs that the master was no longer in the state of tukdam.

On the seventeenth, while a major alms-giving ceremony took place in Penpo, the sky became filled with lights of various colours, some in the shape of parasols, others like victory banners, canopies and so on. In their midst another rain of five-coloured flowers came cascading down, this one even greater than the last. When flowers made from precious substances begin to fall, all blazing with light, people did their best to grab them. And there were many who took flowers of gold, with stalks and with four or eight petals, while others found flowers fashioned from unknown precious metals. The sunlight that day seemed to last three times longer than the day before, and all who gathered for the prayer assembly were joyful; their feelings of sadness having totally disappeared.

That evening the master Lekgyampa performed the cremation ceremony. There were cloud-like gatherings of offerings and the cremation chamber was heavily adorned. When it came time to light the pyre, a fire started spontaneously; it was smokeless and sweet-smelling, and burned easily, giving off a brilliant light.

On the eighth day of the tenth month the main assembly held a day-long practice, and supper was slightly postponed. Before the practice concluded, the cremation chamber was opened and the skull and other relics taken out. When the removal of relics was complete some of the monks realised what was happening and came to the site of the opening. They scrambled to take bone relics, but each and every monk received a share, complete with many ringsel. Chöje Lodröpa received a reliquary bone that looked as if it had been inscribed with an image of Pañjaranātha; Tsulkhangpa Zöpa received a reliquary bone that had on it an image of the King of Medicine; Kachupa Sangye Pal received one with a Hevajra image; Dakpo Palden Gyaltsen received one with the Lord of Yogis formed from melted drops; and Bönpo Trotsang received a piece of bone covered with as many as thirty ringsel. Later, more than a thousand ringsel were gathered and piled in the shape of a stūpa, almost as if they had been produced in a never-ending stream.

When the monks from the assembly had finished taking their share, the attendants collected what was left. They sorted and shared the corpse salt and the wondrous relics. And, when they did so, they found the skull to be intact, with letters marked on its outside and gaps between the letters filled with ringsel of various colours, as if encrusted with jewels. On the inside the brain was transformed into a mass of ringsel. In the right eye socket were ringsel the size of corn, emitting five-coloured rays of light that captivated the mind. The top of the heart was also adorned with corn-sized ringsel. The centre of the breastplate was marked with a web-like pattern of ringsel and entirely undamaged by the fire. The tip of the ring finger too was unburnt and marked with an image of four-armed Avalokiteśvara, as white as conch. Upon a piece of hipbone were several hundred tiny ringsel forming the shape of a stupa. Yet more ringsel were found in a piece of broken tooth. There was a marking like blazing jewels—three of them, surrounded by a perimeter of flame. And, as mentioned above, there were images of the King of Medicine, Hevajra, and the Lord of Yogis. There were also a great many smaller ringsel fragments. All in all, the number of ringsel given to the monks was impossible to count.

1. The confusion originated with Lhalungpa’s introduction to his translation in Mahāmudrā: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation (xxi). This initial confusion was subsequently clarified by Matthew Kapstein (1990) and David Jackson (2006). I am grateful to Dan Martin for bringing their articles to my attention.
2. As Matthew Kapstein (1990, 106) points out, he is mentioned briefly in The Blue Annals (p. 1082) in the account of his teacher, Rongtön.

Bibliography

Ches dkon pa’i sa skya’i mkhas grub chen po khag gsum gyi rnam thar. Dehradun: Sakya College (no date).

Jackson, David P. The Early Abbots of ’Phan-po Na-lendra: The Vicissitudes of a Great Tibetan Monastery in the 15th Century. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Budhismuskunde 23. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für tibetische und buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien, 1989.

———. “Which bKra shis rnam rgyal Wrote the Renowned Tibetan Mahāmudrā Manual?” in Esoteric Buddhist Studies: Identity in Diversity (Proceedings of the International Conference on Esoteric Buddhist Studies, Koyasan University, 5 Sept.–8 Sept. 2006), Koyasan University, 2008, pp. 199–205.

Kapstein, Matthew. “Review of Mahamudra: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation (tr. Lobsang Lhalungpa)” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 13 no. 1, 1990, pp. 101–114.

Martin, Dan. TibSkrit 2015.

Roberts, Peter Alan (trans.). Mahāmudrā and Related Instructions: Core Teachings of the Kagyü Schools. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2011.

Roerich, George N. (trans.) The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. 2 vols. Reprint in one vol.: Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1976.

Takpo Tashi Namgyal. Mahāmudrā: The Quintessence of Mind and Meditation, translated and annotated by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1986.

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