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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Original Sins and the Mythical Origins of a Confessional Practice

Introduction

Vajrasattva

Vajrasattva

The “sins” of the title are not necessarily my own, although the origin of this post does perhaps lie in some mistakes I made in the (not too distant) past. In 2001, when Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche taught on the practice of confession known as Narak Kong Shak in Lerab Ling I served as his translator—a truly nerve-racking experience, as others can testify. I found the task particularly difficult when Rinpoche recounted the story translated below. Faced with a barrage of unfamiliar names and terminology, I could offer no more than a hopelessly garbled summary. What follows is therefore a long-delayed attempt to make amends for that initial mistranslation, and, hopefully, to provide an introduction to a significant but previously unexamined (in English, at least) myth.

The story of the brahmin Conch-Garlanded (Dung gi phreng ba can) and his betrayal at the hands of his own student, a prince—named Virtue-Beholder (dGe mthong) in some later versions—is referred to extensively in Nyingma literature, both in early terma revelations and in later kama (bka’ ma) compilations. It provides the origin for the confessional practice known as the ‘sovereign of remorseful purifications’ (’gyod tshangs rgyal po) and even the entire category of practices that appear under the rubric of “Dredging the Depths of Hell” (Na rak dong sprugs).

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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.)

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The Final Words of Orgyen Tendzin Norbu (1841–1900)

Introduction

Orgyen Tendzin NorbuOrgyen Tendzin Norbu (o rgyan bstan ‘dzin nor bu, 1841–1900) is something of an elusive figure in recent Nyingma history. Until recently, not much was known about his life, and even his dates were a mystery; his own writings appear to have been lost, and his final testament, recorded in the few brief biographies available to us, is decidedly enigmatic.

And yet he was certainly important, especially in the Nyingma scholastic tradition, not least as an intermediary between Gyalse Shenpen Thayé (rgyal sras gzhan phan mtha’ yas, 1800–1855) and Khenpo Shenga (gzhan dga’) or Shenpen Nangwa (gzhan phan snang ba, 1871–1927). Shenpen Thayé was Orgyen Tendzin Norbu’s uncle and the founder of the famous Shri Singha college at Dzogchen Monastery, and Shenga, his most illustrious disciple, helped, through his writings and teaching, to inspire a flourishing of scholasticism in early twentieth century Kham. Yet Orgyen Tendzin Norbu was more than simply a human bridge linking these two more prominent lamas; having studied with Dza Patrul Rinpoche (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan chos kyi dbang po, 1808–1887) for thirty years, he became an acknowledged scholar, Dzogchen master and important teacher in his own right.

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, 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) 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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Uniting Outer and Inner Solitude: Patrul Rinpoche’s Advice for Alak Dongak Gyatso

Introduction

Patrul_Rinpoche_new

Dza Patrul Rinpoche, Orgyen Chökyi Wangpo

In his account of the famous debate between Ju Mipham Namgyal Gyatso (’ju mi pham rnam rgyal rgya mtsho, 1846-1912) and Alak Dongak Gyatso (a lags mdo sngags rgya mtsho, 1824–1902),[1] Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche tells us that Alak Dongak was so upset at losing the contest and seeing his treatise on Dzogchen burned in front of his teacher, Patrul Rinpoche (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan chos kyi dbang po, 1808-1887), that he broke down and wept.[2]

When I recently asked Tulku Thondup Rinpoche about this, he mentioned another possible explanation for Alak Dongak’s distress:

Khenpo Chemchok, my own teacher, used to say that on one occasion Könme Khenpo, my predecessor, asked Alak Dongak if it was true that he had cried after the debate with Mipham. Yes, he replied, he had wept, but it was not because he had lost the argument. In fact, he said, he had cried because Patrul Rinpoche had chastised him. Whenever he was winning, he said, Patrul would say to him, “I told you to meditate on love and compassion, but instead you’ve filled your head with all this scholarly stuff!” Yet whenever Mipham was winning, Patrul Rinpoche said nothing. Alak Dongak told Patrul, “I didn’t neglect your instructions. I have meditated on bodhicitta.” But it was the accusation of failing to apply his teacher’s instructions, he said, and not the humiliation of losing, that made him weep.

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Remembering a Genius: Professor Alexander Piatigorsky

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

Alexander Piatigorsky in a scene from Philosopher Escaped

I learned recently that Viktoria Lysenko, professor of Oriental philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, is compiling a book on the late great Alexander Piatigorsky (1929-2009), émigré philosopher and scholar of Buddhist and Indian thought. The book will be in Russian and will include some of his papers on topics including Early Buddhism and the Abhidharma, in addition to recollections from his former students. As someone who had the great good fortune to study with Piatigorsky in the late 1990s, if only as an undergraduate, I answered some questions for the project and thought I would also share some memories here.

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Words of Wonder: Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö on Kolkata

Chowringhee_Square_Mosque1945Introduction

Much has been written in recent years about the life of Gendün Chöpel (dGe ‘dun chos ‘phel, 1903–1951) and his travels through India and Sri Lanka in the 1930s and 40s. The very latest offering, Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler (trans. Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez Jr, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), is in many ways the most fascinating, and is highly recommended to readers of this blog. Part of what makes Gendün Chöpel’s story so intriguing is that the attitude of openness and curiosity that he exhibited in his travelogues, translations and essays was in such marked contrast to the official policy of insularism then prevailing in his homeland. And it was all the more tragic, therefore, when he was condemned and imprisoned by the Tibetan authorities before his premature death. For it meant that the country lost a liberal, modernising voice, precisely at a time when, it might be argued, it needed one most of all.

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