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.
Amongst 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.