Who gets to be omniscient in Tibetan Buddhism? More to the point, who gets to be called omniscient or all-knowing (kun mkhyen), an epithet more readily associated with the Buddha himself? This question surfaced while reading Achim Bayer’s carefully researched, recently published monograph on Khenpo Shenpen Nangwa, alias Khenpo Shenga—The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga’ (1871–1927).
Bayer introduces a citation (p.108) that appears in Shenga’s treatise The Mirror that Clearly Reveals the Knowable (Shes bya gsal ba’i me long) where it is credited to the ‘later omniscient one’ (kun mkhyen phyi ma). Bayer was unable to identify the passage and speculates as to the identity of this later omniscient one. Could it be Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), he wonders, or possibly Gorampa Sonam Sengge (1429–1489). The fact that there are multiple contenders owes something to Khenpo Shenga’s own intellectual development (as described in wonderful detail in Bayer’s book), which began with a thorough Nyingma education and evolved over time so that in his Divine Music he expressed a newfound appreciation for, and confidence in, Sakya views.
Even though Shenga’s cited version differs slightly from the standard and alters the sequence of the lines, the reference is in fact to Jigme Lingpa’s (1730–1798) Treasury of Precious Qualities (Yon tan rin po che’i mdzod).
Shenga’s reference to Jigme Lingpa here as the ‘later omniscient one’ is significant. It shows Shenga to have been an adherent of the Longchen Nyingtik. Within this tradition Longchen Rabjam stands as the earlier and Jigme Lingpa the later omniscient one, so that they are also at times referred to as ‘the omniscient father and son’ (kun mkhyen yab sras). This sets Shenga apart from his older contemporary Mipham (1846–1912), who (to the best of my knowledge) does not refer to Jigme Lingpa in this way—and indeed hardly refers to him at all.
Bayer notes that there are other recipients of the title of omniscient one within the Nyingma School, such as Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo or Mipham. Here, however, ‘know-it-all’ (if you’ll pardon the translation) must compete with other epithets. Thus, Rongzom is mostly Rongzom Mahāpaṇḍita, the great scholar (or paṇḍita) Rongzom, while Mipham tends to be Jamgön Mipham, the ‘gentle protector’ by association with the bodhisattva/deity Mañjuśrī whose name means Gentle Splendour. Similarly, Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419) is mostly Jé (rje), or Lord, Tsongkhapa, whereas Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182–1251) is often called Chöjé (chos rje, ‘Dharma Lord’) Sapaṇ. Indeed, Jigme Lingpa is most commonly Rigdzin—the vidyādhara—Jigme Lingpa (pace his current BDRC entry). Some epithets or honourifics are so commonly used that it is hard to know where an epithet ends and a name begins, as already noted in a previous post.
While the epithet kunkhyen can be, and often is, applied to numerous figures in Tibetan history, including those listed above, there are very few for whom it is the primary epithet. Longchen Rabjam is one of this select group, along with Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), Butön Rinchen Drup (1290–1364) and Padma Karpo (1527–1592).
But how did these luminaries first acquire their titles? It seems unlikely that they were so-called during their lifetimes; the appellation is almost certainly posthumous. Indeed, as I have noted in the past, we can witness this process even now in the case of Mipham, who is increasingly referred to as Kunkhyen Mipham. There are other questions here too: when was this appellation first used of anyone other than the Buddha? What explanations might there be for this development within the tradition itself? Are there clear criteria to the usage? There is certainly much to discover. If only there were someone to ask, someone with all the answers, a genuine know-it-all.
1. The synonymous thams cad mkhyen pa is also used of the Buddha and individuals in Tibetan history; its relative rarity as an epithet for Tibetan figures is possibly due to the fact that, unlike kun mkhyen, it is not condensable into two syllables. The obvious exception to this is Butön, who is often referred to as Butön Tamché Khyenpa (bu ston thams cad mkhyen pa).
2. Bayer (2019: 108 n.489) gives it as: ’di ni ’og ma’i rnam pa thams cad dang|| brtsad cing brtag pas gong mar nor mi ’gyur|| gzhan dbang dngos por ’dod lta’i kun rdzob dang|| de yi grub pa’i mtha’ rus mkhas [sic] ma blang|| de ni thal ’gyur shing rta’i srol ’byed che|| mkhas dbang zla ba grags pa’i khyad chos yin|| He translates this as: “This [view] will be unmistakenly [established] as the higher one,/ when one has debated and examined/ all the manifestations of the lower [views]./ The deceptive [truth] of the [Vijñānavāda] view/ which holds the dependent [nature] (i.e., consciousness) to be a thing and/ the [respective] philosophical tenet should not be accepted./ That is the specialty of the Mighty Savant Candrakīrti,/ Who opened the tradition of the Thal-’gyur chariot.” The latest edition of the ‘Jigs med gling pa gsung ‘bum (vol. 1: 37) has: gzhan dbang dngos por ‘dod pa’i kun rdzob kyang|| de yi grub pa’i mtha’ ru khas ma blangs|| de ni thal ’gyur shing rta’i srol ’byed che|| klu dbang zla ba grags pa’i khyad chos yin|| ’dir ni ‘og ma’i rnam pa thams cad la|| brtsad cing brtags pas gong ma nor mi ’gyur|| The Padmakara Translation Group (2018: 74) translate this as: “To hold back from asserting the position/ That on the level of the relative, dependent things exist—/ Such is the special teaching of Nagarjuna and of Chandrakirti,/ The founders of the great way of Prasangika./ Able to examine and contest the views of all the lower schools,/ This is the supreme way and free from all mistake.” It is possible that Shenga was citing the passage from memory. Perhaps we should not read too much into the fact that his version omits Nāgārjuna.
3. Jamgön remains Mipham’s usual epithet but kunkhyen is especially common in the writings of Khenpo Jigme Puntsok (1933–2004) and his disciples. See Pearcey 2018: 210 n. 743.
Rig ‘dzin ‘jigs med gling pa’i gsung ‘bum. 9 vols. Chengdu: Si khron bod yig dpe rnying bsdu sgrig khang & bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 2017?
Bayer, Achim. The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga’ (1871–1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet. (Hamburg Buddhist Studies 11) Freiburg: Projekt Verlag, 2019. Available here.
Pearcey, Adam S. A Greater Perfection? Scholasticism, Comparativism and Issues of Sectarian Identity in Early 20th Century Writings on rDzogs-chen. Unpublished PhD thesis. SOAS, University of London, 2018. Available here.
Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa. The Treasury of Precious Qualities Called The Rain of Joy. Trans. the Padmakara Translation Group. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2018.