Category Archives: Reflections

(More) On the Dates of Orgyen Tendzin Norbu

Enlightened Vagabond coverI imagine that most readers of this blog will be as keen as I am to read Matthieu Ricard’s forthcoming book, Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche, which is due out (from Shambhala Publications) in July. Fortunately, the book is already searchable over on Amazon.com, and a quick hunt for some key terms and phrases brought up a little matter I would like to address — or rather, return to — below.

In a previous post, I summarised some of the issues surrounding the dates of Orgyen Tendzin Norbu (alias Önpo Tenga), the great nephew of Gyalse Shenpen Thaye, disciple of Patrul Rinpoche, and teacher of Khenpo Shenga. As I wrote at the time:

Biographical information on Orgyen Tendzin Norbu was hard to come by until recently, and his dates are still quite muddled in the various sources. Some, including TBRC [now BDRC], give 1851 as the year of his birth, but, as recently pointed out in a comment on the Treasury of Lives site (on the Khenpo Shenga article) [the comment is no longer accessible] this date no longer seems tenable. Tulku Thondup did not provide any specific dates in his biography in Masters of Meditation and Miracles (pp. 226–227), and noted simply that Orgyen Tendzin Norbu lived in “the 19th century.” Nyoshul Khenpo’s Dzogchen history (2005, p.482) offered 1827–1888, based on the idea that the master passed away at the age of sixty in the earth rat year (1888–9). Yet, according to Tendzin Lungtok Nyima (2004, p.594) in his vast history of Dzogchen Monastery and its associates, while Orgyen Tendzin Norbu did indeed live for sixty years, he died not in the earth rat, but in the iron rat year, i.e., 1900–1. This date, which has since been reproduced in other historical works published in Tibet, seems for the moment to be the most reliable.

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Whose Text Is It Anyway? (And Does It Really Matter?)

Dola Jigme Kalzang blog

Dola Jigme Kalzang

Several years ago I added a note to the Rigpa Wiki entry on Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800–1866) pointing out that a text commonly attributed to Do Khyentse is in fact by Dola Jigme Kalzang (b. 1789). The text in question is Foolish Babble Clarifying Reality: Notes on the Generation and Perfection Stages (bskyed rdzogs kyi zin bris blun gtam de nyid gsal ba). In English it appears interwoven with Ringu Tulku’s commentary in Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness (Snow Lion, 2005). Any confusion surrounding the text’s attribution seemingly stems from the fact that Dola Jigme Kalzang is also known as Zhönnu Yeshe Dorje,[1] the name that appears in Foolish Babble‘s colophon. The case for the revised attribution was made even clearer in 2010 when the text was included among the collected writings of Jigme Kalzang (there referred to as Derge Jigme Kalzang) published by the Ngakmang Institute.[2]

You might well ask whether it really matters who wrote this (or any other) work. After all, it has little bearing on the actual content. It certainly matters more to the biographer or historian than it does to the average student. But association with a highly revered — and, in the case of Do Khyentse, highly unconventional — character inevitably influences how a work is perceived. And while much is known about events in the life of Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje, biographies of Jigme Kalzang offer no more than scanty bits of information. Until recently, for example, the year of his birth was unknown, while the year of his death still remains unclear.[3]  (Incidentally, Tulku Thondup Rinpoche’s brief account of the circumstances of his death by torture in place of a condemned thief in China surely ranks among the most moving passages in Masters of Meditation and Miracles.)

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What’s in a Name?

MañjuśrīAmongst the many things Tibetans inherited from India was a sense that names, when applied to exalted beings, are far more than mere verbal labels aiding identification. Deities’ names capture something of their essence, and reciting them is a form of invocation and praise. Most mantras have names at their heart, and there are whole texts, such as Mañjuśrī–nāma-saṃgīti (Reciting the Names of Mañjuśrī), devoted to lists of alternative names or epithets.

Lamas usually have several names too, and this can obviously lead to some confusion (of the kind already discussed in a previous post). Gene Smith outlined Jamgön Kongtrul’s many names in a lengthy section of his famous introduction to the Treasury of Knowledge (Shes bya mdzod), stating:

One of the greatest problems confronting the would-be bibliographer of Tibetan literature is the plethora of names, titles and epithets by which lamas are known, especially those of the older orders. The case of Kong sprul illustrates this problem especially well. Kong sprul was given seven types of name during his life: childhood name, monastic ordination name, bodhisattva vow name, tantric initiation name, name as a rediscoverer of hidden treasure, name as a grammarian, and finally an incarnation name.[1]

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For Your Ears Only

teachingIn the beginning was the word. And the word was spoken… The teachings of the Buddha, as is well known, were not at first written down, but were preserved and passed on in oral form for several centuries. Even later, once the Buddhist canon became truly literary, newer — or, as the tradition has it, newly discovered — works, such as the Mahāyāna sūtras and, later still, the tantras, continued to be represented as records of oral teaching, prefaced with the famous statement: “Thus have I heard…” (evaṃ mayā śrutam…)

In Tibet, Buddhist literature abounds with texts deriving from the spoken. Consider, for example, such categories (or genres) as zhal gdams, gdams ngag, man ngag, zhal lung or zhal chems, where the oral associations are clear from the terms themselves. The collected works of important teachers in Tibet, too, are known as collected speech bka’ ‘bum or gsung ‘bum — (with speech in the honorific) rather than collected writings. (And let’s not forget that writings were themselves very often dictated to a scribe rather than penned by the actual author). Even the vast literature associated with the various treasure (gter ma) cycles — which is itself contrasted with the Kama (bka’ ma) or ‘Word’ in the Nyingma School — is said to contain the speech of Guru Padmasambhava.

In addition to the genres listed above, Tibetan Buddhism also features entire collections of teachings classed as oral (or aural), so-called ‘whispered transmissions’ (snyan brgyud). In its broadest sense, this category includes even Mind Training, which, according to the histories, was initially taught in secret and taught openly only from the time of Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1101–1175).[1] Other examples are the Dakpo Nyengyü, Rechung Nyengyü, Orgyen Nyengyü and Thangtong Nyengyü. And in Bön there is the well-known Zhangzhung Nyengyü. Included within these collections are various forms of instruction once considered especially secret.

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On the House

On_A_House_crop_editSome Reflections on Building a Library in Cyberspace

In February 1994 I bought my first copy of Sarat Chandra Das’s famous Tibetan-English Dictionary from The Oxford Book & Stationery Co. in Darjeeling. In the years that followed I lugged successive copies of ‘Das’, as we used to call it, back and forth, as I studied Tibetan and Buddhism in London, Kathmandu, Dharamsala, and elsewhere. And in time there were plenty of other dictionaries too in my backpack, along with all the grammar books and works of reference I could carry, not to mention the many Tibetan tomes I would be struggling with at any given time.

This is not to say that consulting dictionaries — much less carrying them — was the key to my becoming a translator. It was not, at least not by itself; even if one of my teachers did once hold up his well-worn, no-longer-bound-together copy of Jäschke’s dictionary as evidence of the kind of persistent page-turning required to master the language, in a sort of bibliophile version of Milarepa’s final instruction to Gampopa.

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