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.”

Ringu Tulku also notes that Rimé followers believe “all the great tenets of Buddhism arrive at the same ultimate point.” This means that even if the emphasis in the Rimé propounded by Jamgön Kongtrul and his allies was on difference or distinctiveness, it would still be possible — theoretically at least — to emphasise the (teleological) similarity of the various schools. Such an approach would downplay any differences, dismissing them as merely superficial — reflections, for example, of the character, temperament or capacity of individual followers. In fact, at least one twentieth century Tibetan writer did precisely this: he espoused a form of Rimé in which the emphasis was more on unification than differentiation. To see how and why this might have come about requires a little background.


In his pioneering article on Jamgön Kongtrul, the late E. Gene Smith noted that one feature of the Rimé Movement was a strengthening of scholasticism among the non-Gelug schools. The roots of this development can be traced further back in the history of Kham, but we can say that there were at least two significant developments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries:

  1. The widespread establishment of scriptural colleges, or shedra (bshad grwa), and
  2. An increased reliance within these colleges on the commentarial writings and scholarly interpretations of key ‘iconic’ figures — i.e., Ju Mipham (1846–1912) for the Nyingma, and Gorampa Sonam Senge (1429–1489) for the Sakya.

1. The establishment of scriptural colleges

Dzogchen Monastery’s Śrī Siṃha scriptural college, which Gyalsé Shenpen Tayé (1800–1855/1869) founded in 1848, became a kind of regional model, and, in the early decades of the twentieth century, similar colleges were established at other major monasteries in and around Derge, including Palpung, Kaḥtog (in c.1909), Dzongsar (in 1918) and Palyul. Graduates of these colleges then went on to establish further branch colleges of their own in subsequent decades.

2. Increased reliance on iconic figures

First at Dzogchen, and then in Palpung and Dzongsar, Shenpen Chökyi Nangwa, or Khenpo Shenga (1871–1927), helped to establish the “thirteen great texts” (gzhung chen bcu gsum) as the core of the curriculum. But in parallel with this promotion of purely Indian sources, distilled in Shenga’s own annotated commentaries (mchan ’grel), the unique doctrinal message of each school also came to be emphasised. This happened as works by Mipham and Gorampa Sonam Senge circulated and played an increasingly important role in instruction.


Gorampa Sonam Senge

The printing of the collected works of Gorampa in Derge between 1906 and 1910 gave a significant boost to Sakya scholasticism. Prior to this, some restrictions had been placed on the copying of these texts, which were notorious for their criticisms of Tsongkhapa.

We know from the writings of Amdo Geshe Jampal Rolwé Lodrö (1888–1936) that the dissemination and popularity of Gorampa’s works, as well as those of Shākya Chokden (1428–1507) and Taktsang Lotsāwa Sherab Rinchen (b.1405), contributed to anti-Gelug sentiment in the Derge area. By the mid–1920s, Amdo Geshe felt compelled to address this in a letter challenging to a debate those taking the ‘polemical works’, as he calls them, of these three Sakya scholars as definitive, and “refuting the precious doctrine of the noble dharma-king, the great Tsongkhapa”. We don’t know whether anyone responded to the challenge, but even as late as 1940, the Gelug teacher, Pabongkhapa Dechen Nyingpo (1878–1941) was still decrying the publication of Gorampa’s works. In a message sent to a Chinese disciple, he criticized “Gorampa’s wicked compositions and faulty statements”. And he noted scornfully that reading transmissions and teachings were being granted even in the absence of an unbroken lineage.

Ju Mipham


Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso

Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso is often portrayed as a participant in the Rimé movement, even though his life was dedicated entirely to promoting the interests of the Nyingma school. As Karma Phuntsho notes:

…Mipham was a staunch proponent of rNying ma doctrine, and repeatedly refuted other schools igniting new doctrinal controversies. It still remains a perplexing question whether Mipham was a ris med pa in the same way as Kong sprul and dPal sprul.

One reason for Mipham’s inclusion within the Rimé fold is that it was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who first encouraged him to compose his famous treatises. Yet Karma Phuntsho says he finds it “bewildering” that Khyentse Wangpo did so, given the controversial nature of these texts.

Hostility to Mipham’s commentarial works sprang from various quarters, including at first from within the Nyingma school itself. At Dodrupchen Monastery in Golok, for example, Khenpo Damchö Özer, one of the so-called “four great khenpos of Dodrupchen,” penned a refutation of Mipham’s 1876 commentary on the Madhyamakālaṃkāra. Khenpo Damchö was a student of Japa Dongak (1824–1902), another influential figure from Golok, who also criticized Mipham, this time for his Norbu Keṭaka commentary on the Bodhi(sattva)caryāvatāra’s ninth chapter.

Much of the initial opposition to Mipham’s scholastic writing came from figures in the Golok area. Here, Nyingma monasteries maintained close connections with the major Gelug centre of Labrang Tashikyil in Amdo. This was also the region in which the influence of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol, who had taught a Lamrim–Dzogchen synthesis and promoted an especially accommodating form of non-sectarianism, still persisted, not least through Japa Dongak, who was one of his disciples.

At Dodrupchen Monastery, geshes from Labrang were still using the works of Jamyang Shepa in order to teach exoteric subjects, including Mādhyamika, until as late as 1950. Only then were Mipham’s works finally adopted as the basis of the curriculum.

Dodrupchen Jigme Tenpé Nyima (1865–1926)


Jigme Tenpé Nyima

Events in the life of the Third Dodrupchen, Jigme Tenpé Nyima, highlight some of the tensions that existed as Ju Mipham and his followers set about strengthening Nyingma scholasticism.

Enthroned as the Dodrupchen incarnation, Jigme Tenpé Nyima was also — like his teacher, Japa Dongak — rumoured to be an incarnation of the eminent Gelug scholar, Gungtang Tenpé Drönme (1762–1823) of Labrang Tashikyil. And Jigme Tenpé Nyima’s early education seems to have involved a combination of Nyingma and Sarma instruction. It would appear that at least some of the Sarma elements came from Japa Dongak.

As I have discussed elsewhere, Japa Dongak’s own writings have not survived, and the details of his life are still unclear, but his alleged ideas are mentioned briefly (and refuted) in Mipham’s Trilogy on Fundamental Mind (gNyug sems skor gsum). It’s possible that it was Jigme Tenpé Nyima’s association with Japa Dongak which prompted Mipham to express concerns that his student was becoming unduly influenced by Sarma views. In a rather cryptic prophecy, Mipham told Jigme Tenpé Nyima that from the age of thirty-five obstacles would clear away, so that he could then “uphold [his] own lineage tradition” i.e., the Nyingma (and, we must assume, Mipham’s brand of it in particular).

The main biography of Jigme Tenpé Nyima seeks to confirm the truth of Mipham’s prophecy. It says that Jigme Tenpé Nyima did indeed experience a dramatic shift in allegiance at the age of thirty-five. Then, from the age of about forty, the biography tells us, “It was as if New and Old reversed their positions, and he practised only his own tradition of the Nyingma.” Yet, in spite of this shift, Jigme Tenpé Nyima didn’t simply repeat Mipham’s views. His collected writings don’t employ Mipham’s favoured terminology, for example. Nor do they claim that the Gelug position on emptiness — that “a vase is not empty of itself but of true existence” — constitutes a form of ‘other-emptiness’ (gzhan stong).

Instead, Jigme Tenpé Nyima, especially in his Dzogchen corpus, sets out a comparative theory of clear light (’od gsal). In this view, clear light was first revealed in the sūtras of the final turning, but it is only with the Highest Yoga tantras that the methods for bringing about its effective realisation are introduced. Jigme Tenpé Nyima distinguishes the methods of Highest Yoga Tantra from those of Dzogchen. He says that the former ‘involve effort’ (rtsol bcas), and are ‘forceful’ (btsan thabs) and ‘coarse’ (rtsub mo), while the latter is ‘effortless’.

In both Highest Yoga Tantra and Dzogchen, Jigme Tenpé Nyima says, the wind-energies (rlung) are brought within the central channel, where they dissolve. In Highest Yoga Tantra this brings about a “limited” (re ’ga’ ba) or “fragmented” (khol bu pa) experience; in Dzogchen, by contrast, the experience is all-pervasive and involves “settling within the essence of clear light itself”. Moreover, in Highest Yoga Tantra ordinary thought processes must be halted in order for clear light to dawn; whereas in Dzogchen, thoughts and other mental processes can continue, ‘pervaded by’ clear light.

Dzogchen meditation is often portrayed as a simultaneous or direct method. In Jigme Tenpé Nyima’s account, however, it’s a combination of the sudden and the gradual. First, there is a ‘sudden’ introduction to the wisdom of clear light, then gradual familiarisation with it. As a consequence, and perhaps surprisingly, Jigme Tenpé Nyima points out that Dzogchen practice can be slower than that of Highest Yoga Tantra; yet it is ultimately more stable, and its effects longer-lasting.

What emerges in these writings is a nuanced theory of clear light, in which Dzogchen eclipses Highest Yoga Tantra primarily through method. Unlike some of his contemporaries and later writers, such as Böpa Tulku Tenpé Nyima (1898/1900/1902–1959), who sought primarily to differentiate Nyingma and Sarma, Jigme Tenpé Nyima highlights commonality as much as difference. And while Dzogchen is presented as superior, this superiority is not tied to Mipham’s scholastic innovations regarding the view.

Dongak Chökyi Gyatso (1903–1957)


Dongak Chökyi Gyatso

The Gelug teacher Dongak Chökyi Gyatso (aka Tulku Sungrab) went further than Jigme Tenpé Nyima in seeking to reconcile Nyingma and Sarma views. His surviving works contain several texts on Dzogchen, some of them involving comparisons with the Gelugpa forms of Highest Yoga Tantra. In writing about Dzogchen, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso followed two of his own teachers: Amdo Geshe and Drakkar Tulku Lobzang Palden Tendzin Nyendrak (1866–1928). The latter was an opponent (and later a student) of Mipham. But in addition to his two teachers, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso also emulated his own previous incarnation, Japa Dongak, whose Dzogchen treatise does not survive, burnt, so the story goes, after he lost his famous debate with Mipham.

In his treatises, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso doesn’t simply offer his own explanation of Dzogchen, as his teachers had done, but seeks instead to reconcile Dzogchen with mainstream Gelug thought. The Jewelled Mirror Establishing a Single View of the New and Old [Traditions of] Secret Mantra (gsang sngags gsar rnying gi lta ba gcig tu sgrub pa dag snang nor bu’i me long) is a prose text in twenty points, which seeks to prove that certain key tenets of Tsongkhapa are compatible with the Nyingma views of Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo and Longchen Rabjam. The Offering Clouds of Nectar: A Path of Reasoning Establishing the Single Viewpoint of the Scholars of New and Old [Traditions] (gsar rnying mkhas pa’i dgongs bzhed gcig tu sgrub pa rigs lam bdud rtsi’i mchod sprin) is a verse summary of The Jewelled Mirror, written at a later date and covering the same twenty points.

In the introduction to The Jewelled Mirror, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso states explicitly that his project is non-sectarian (ris med). He says he has seen how the traditions of Earlier and Later Translations only appear to differ, but ultimately share a single point of view (dgongs pa’i gnad gcig). He intends, therefore, to resolve difficult points by means of scripture and reasoning. He is aware that such an undertaking is unlikely to please those who only seek to sow dissension, but will persist all the same, “like a herdsman playing a flute in an empty valley”. His text will focus on what he calls the “two great traditions” of the Nyingma and “the peerless Riwo Gendenpa” (i.e., Gelugpa). In the current age, he says, as a result of a degeneration in views and the extreme rarity of any proper assessment based on scripture and reasoning, these two traditions have come to be seen as contradictory. Presenting his text as a means to “dispel the darkness of sectarian division”, he states his wish that it might be of help to others in avoiding the fault of rejecting the Dharma. His introduction concludes with an appeal to learned scholars, in which he requests their assistance in his quest to promote non-sectarianism.

In presenting the Nyingma view, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso relies primarily on older sources, especially works by Rongzom and Longchen Rabjam. Ju Mipham is mentioned only once — and in respectful terms — but many of the points Dongak Chökyi Gyatso raises directly contradict Mipham’s key assertions. In fact, the text covers remarkably similar ground to Mipham’s Torch of Certainty (Nges shes sgron me), and it is hard not to see it as a response to it. The task Dongak Chökyi Gyatso sets himself is comparable to Mipham’s project of creating a theoretical foundation for Dzogchen. Yet, even though both Dongak Chökyi Gyatso and Mipham look to the same works by Rongzom and Longchenpa for support, their interpretations of these authors are often at odds. And while Mipham is keen to emphasise doctrinal difference, in order to establish the uniqueness of the Nyingma view, especially vis-à-vis the Gelugpa, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso essentially denies such differences.

In another text, Memorandum on the Subject of Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen Instructions, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso makes a distinction between “instructions that apply more generally” and “teachings that are intended for specific individuals”. The advanced instructions of Dzogchen (and Mahāmudrā) are suitable only for those of especially high capacity, he explains, and could pose a risk if taught indiscriminately. “Even though [these instructions] are extremely powerful,” he writes, “this is dependent on the level of one’s faculties, and it is crucial that they are not misapplied.” He claims that Dzogchen’s own followers have failed to recognise this: they mistakenly believe that their own teachings can be made available to all, right from the beginning of the path. This then allows him to extol the virtues of Lamrim, which provides a useful foundation for students of all capacities, without potential risk or danger. Still, he is critical of some Gelugpa teachers for failing to acknowledge the existence of any swifter paths, in the belief “that Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen and the like are unacceptable” and that the Kagyü and Nyingma are evil.

As a Gelugpa who accepts the validity of the Dzogchen teachings, Dongak Chökyi Gyatso advocates an intermediate course. He seeks to avoid what we might call Dzogchen (or Mahāmudrā) elitism on the one hand, and a more exclusivist form of Gelugpa gradualism on the other. Most practitioners must proceed gradually, he says, beginning with the scriptural approach, as taught by the Gelugpa. But in exceptional cases there are those for whom direct access to the highest doctrines of Dzogchen or Mahāmudrā is appropriate.

Dongak Chökyi Gyatso was not the first Gelugpa to write about Dzogchen. (Incidentally although José Cabezón claims he was a Nyingmapa, I have found no evidence for this, and it is itself perhaps an indication of just how atypical a Gelugpa he was.) His texts had only limited impact at the time of their composition, but they are currently reaching a wider audience through occasional citations by the current Dalai Lama.


The growth of scriptural colleges and the distribution of key texts in the early twentieth century must have boosted the intellectual self-confidence of the Nyingma and Sakya (and, to a lesser extent, the Kagyü) schools throughout Eastern Tibet. As Nyingma and Sakya scholars relied increasingly upon works by Ju Mipham and Gorampa Sonam Senge in order to establish and reaffirm their positions, they defined many of their key tenets by challenging the assertions of Tsongkhapa and his successors. Some Nyingma scholars in the Golok region initially resisted Mipham’s philosophical innovations. And, in due course, figures from the same region, who had been exposed to both Nyingma and Sarma teachings, emphasised commonality as much as difference.

The writings of Jigme Tenpé Nyima on clear light chart common ground between Nyingma and Sarma, relegating distinctions to method rather than view. Dongak Chökyi Gyatso’s works — which, incidentally, include a tribute to Jigme Tenpé Nyima for his famous text on dhāraṇī — go even further, explicitly appealing to followers of the Nyingma and Gelug schools to set aside their superficial differences and acknowledge a fundamental compatibility.

Should we conclude that Rimé figures, such as Mipham (and therefore, indirectly, Khyentse Wangpo) or those involved in the publishing of Gorampa’s works, contributed to or exacerbated sectarian tension? Did a new atmosphere of scholarly debate and disputation inspire a renewed form of non-sectarianism? Perhaps. And, if so, such developments might provide fresh evidence for the so-called ‘law of unintended consequences’.

What is certain, however, is that the differing approaches considered here illustrate a fundamental choice that exists in basic human interaction: whether to highlight difference or commonality. Why is it that some strive to distinguish themselves (as individuals or as groups), while others seek what the philosopher John Gray has called “the lure of harmony”[1]? In answering this question and explaining why the writers considered here chose one approach over another, we must take account not simply of philosophical ideas, but also of the broad array of (potentially competing) loyalties — to gurus, previous incarnations, monastic and regional affiliations, and so on. For Dongak Chökyi Gyatso, at least, consideration of potential consequences also played its part.

Any attempt to promote distinctiveness runs the risk of encouraging division and divisiveness. But if things should actually take such a turn, it is surely unsurprising to discover that there are those who would seek to avoid conflict and turn instead towards harmony, or that — in the present case — they would also claim that this too is in keeping with the spirit of Rimé.


1. In reviewing The Face of the Buddha (Oxford University Press, 2016) by the renowned literary critic William Empson, John Gray notes that, in his life and work, Empson “resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world.” (New Statesman, 24–30 June 2016, p. 38).


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