Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö writes in his own autobiography that he was born in the female Water Snake year. He is unsure of the precise date, but says that it was during the autumn. This means it was certainly 1893. The Water Snake began in February 1893 and continued until the following February, but the reference to autumn precludes 1894.
I was born […] in the female Water Snake year—from The Play of Illusion: An Autobiography
during the autumn months, I heard it said.
My parents had little concern for such things,
so they left no written record
of the planets and stars, or dreams and signs.
This date is reiterated in another autobiography and in the biography written by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (translated into English in 2017), as well as in the same master’s catalogue to Jamyang Khyentse’s writings.
So far so clear. Yet, many sources, including recent ones, state that Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö was born in 1896. One such is E. Gene Smith’s Among Tibetan Texts (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001), and Smith’s unimpeachable authority may account for some of the other instances. Another is Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2012), although the book does note (p. 141, n. 28) that Tulku Thondup’s Masters of Meditation and Miracles (Boston: Shambhala, 1996) and other texts give the birth year as 1893.
The chapter in Among Tibetan Texts in which the 1896 date appears is an updated version of the author’s famous introduction to Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé’s Shes bya kun khyab, originally published in 1970. The date features in a chart showing the previous and subsequent incarnations of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892). This in turn expanded upon a chart in Ariane Macdonald’s 1962 publication Le Maṇḍala du Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (between pages 94 & 95):
Several details on this chart were corrected and updated between 1962 and 1970, but the dates for Jamyang Chökyi Lodrö were not among them.
Yet what makes this all the more surprising (and frustrating) is that it is only the chart of Macdonald’s book that gives the incorrect year. In the text itself, on page 93 (coincidentally), while discussing the various incarnations of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, she writes:
Le second, ‘Jam-dbyaṅs čhos-kyi blo-gros, naquit en 1893 (čhu-sbrul) de ‘Gyur-med che-dbaṅ rgya-mcho, de la lignée de Bdud-‘dul, et de son épouse Chul-khrims mcho-mo, de famille Gru-gu (Grugs-rigs). C’est Koṅ-sprul Yon-tan rgya-mcho qui le reconnut comme l’incarnation des actes (‘phrin-las) de ‘Jam-dbyaṅs mkhyen-brce’i dbaṅ-po…Le Maṇḍala du Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, pp. 93–94 (emphasis added)
Unfortunately, Michael Aris followed what we might call the “chart-date” of Macdonald and Smith by giving Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö’s dates as 1896–1959 in his 1977 article “Jamyang Khyentse’s Brief Discourse on the Essence of All the Ways: A Work of the Ris-med Movement”. Others then did likewise, including Sogyal Rinpoche in 1992 for the first edition of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, a book which introduced Jamyang Khyentse to more than a million readers.
As already noted, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche provided the correct birth date in 1996. Before this, Matthieu Ricard gave accurate dates in The Life of Shabkar (p. 662), published in 1994, and there are many other examples, going all the way back to Macdonald herself in 1960. Still, the chart-date of 1896 is remarkably persistent and can be found in dozens of sources, even in books as recent as A Chariot to Freedom: Guidance from the Great Masters on the Vajrayana Preliminary Practices (p. xxv), published earlier this year.
Aris, Michael. “Jamyang Khyentse’s Brief Discourse on the Essence of All the Ways: A Work of the Ris-med Movement” in Kailash, 5 no. 3. pp. 205–228
Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2012
Macdonald, Ariane. Le Maṇḍala du Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1962
Ricard, Matthieu. The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Shechen Gyaltsap IV, A Chariot to Freedom: Guidance from the Great Masters on the Vajrayana Preliminary Practices. trans. Padmakara Translation Group. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications, 2022.
Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001
Sogyal Rinpoche. The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Tulku Thondup. Masters of Meditation and Miracles. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996