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A Reader’s Guide to Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye

 

 

Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye was one of the greatest masters of Tibetan history, who the Tibetologist Gene Smith referred to as Tibet’s Leonardo. It’s difficult to imagine a master who was so learned, spent much of his time in retreat, gave countless initiations and teachings, and yet still managed to write 100 volumes inclusive of all the traditions of Buddhism.


The Books

Shambhala has published twenty-nine titles Kongtrul, wrote, compiled, or is central in. There are eighteen more on the way. Below you will also find references to a handful of other excellent books not published by us but highly recommended.

 

 

 

The first two books have the most information about Kongtrul himself. These will be joined in 2018 by a definitive biography looking at the life, works, and legacy of this great figure. For a short biography online, please see Alak Zenkar Rinpoche’s biography hosted by Lotsawa House.

 

Wisdom Nectar Image

The Autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors is one of the most fascinating accounts of a Tibetan Buddhist figure available. It also includes The Marvelous Gem-Like Vision: An Account of the Passing of and Funeral Observances for the All-Seeing Lord by Nesar Karma Tashi Chöphel and The Mirage of Nectar: A Fragmentary Account of the Past Lives of Pema Gargyi Wangchuk Thrinlé Drodul Tsal (his own secret name) by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Thaye.

 

Wisdom Nectar Image

The Ri-me Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great: A Study of the Buddhist Lineages of Tibet is the compelling study of the Ri-me “movement”—really a revitalization of many of the traditions within Tibet. It includes an introduction to the history and philosophy of those behind the Ri-me phenomenon; a biography of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great; helpful summaries of the eight lineages’ practice-and-study systems, which point out the different emphases of the schools; an explanation of the most hotly disputed concepts; and an overview of the old and new tantras.

 

 

The next section focuses on the two major Treasuries that are available or are in process. Kongtrul actually wrote or compiled five of them. The Treasury of Kagyu Vajrayana Instructions, the Treasury of Precious Terma, and the Treasury of Vast Teachings are not included here but are detailed in Ringu Tulku’s book, Kongtrul’s Autobiography, as well as Gene Smith’s Among Tibetan Texts.

 

 

The Treasury of Knowledge

The Treasury of Knowledge is the largest single work by a Tibetan author translated into English. In Tibetan religious literature, its ten books stand out as a unique, encyclopedic masterpiece embodying the entire range of Buddhist teachings as they were preserved in Tibet. In his monumental work, Jamgön Kongtrul presents a complete account of the major lines of thought and practice that comprise Tibetan Buddhism.

Here is a brief history of this work from Ringu Tulku’s Ri-me Philosophy detailed above:

Then, in the Dog and the Pig years [1862–63], when he was fifty years old, Kongtrul wrote the Treasury of Knowledge, both the root text and the commentary. He wrote the root text in the second month of the Water Dog year [1862], when he did a seven-day retreat on the hearing lineage teachings. Earlier, Lama Ngedön had said that Kongtrul should write a treatise on the three vows, and when that was done Lama Ngedön would write a commentary on it. However, Kongtrul thought that several texts on the three vows were already available, and that if he had to write something, it should be more comprehensive in scope and helpful for people who had not studied very much.

With that in mind, during the breaks between sessions of a one-week retreat, he wrote the root text of the Treasury of Knowledge, a treatise on the three higher trainings of discipline, meditation, and wisdom. Later on, he showed this to Jamyang Khyentse, who told him, “When you wrote this you must have been inspired by the blessings of the lamas, and your channels opened by the power of the dakinis. You should place the Treasury of Knowledge at the head of the Five Great Treasuries, and you need to write a commentary on it.”

To encourage him, Khyentse gave him many gifts along with these words. So, in only three months, from the fourth month until the seventh month of the Iron Pig year [1863], Kongtrul wrote the commentary to the Treasury of Knowledge, with Khenchen Tashi Özer acting as the scribe. The part that was left undone was finished during the warm weather of the following year.

 

Book One: Myriad Worlds
This first book of the Treasury, which serves as a prelude to Kongtrul’s survey, describes four major cosmological systems found in the Tibetan tradition—those associated with the Hinayana, Mahayana, Kalachakra, and Dzogchen teachings. Each of these cosmologies shows how the world arises from mind, whether through the accumulated results of past actions or from the constant striving of awareness to know itself.

 

Books Two, Three, and Four: Buddhism’s Journey to Tibet
Beginning with the appearance of the Buddha in our world (Book Two), it describes the Buddha’s life, his enlightenment, and what he taught (Book Three) from a multitude of Buddhist viewpoints. Buddhism’s transmission to and preservation in Tibet is the focus of the main part of this volume (Book Four), which describes the scriptural transmissions and lineages of meditation practice as well as the Buddhist arts that together make up the world of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

Book Five: Buddhist Ethics
This volume is the fifth book of that work and is considered by many scholars to be its heart. Jamgön Kongtrul explains the complete code of personal liberation as it applies to both monastic and lay persons, the precepts for those aspiring to the life of a bodhisattva, and the exceptional pledges for practitioners on the tantric path of pure perception.

 

Book Six, Parts One and Two: Indo-Tibetan Classical Learning and Buddhist Phenomenology
The first two parts of Book Six, contained in this volume, respectively concern Indo-Tibetan classical learning and Buddhist phenomenology. The former analyzes the traditional subjects of phonology and Sanskrit grammar, logic, fine art, and medicine, along with astrology, poetics, prosody, synonymics, and dramaturgy. The principal non-Buddhist philosophical systems of ancient India are then summarized and contrasted with the hierarchical meditative concentrations and formless absorptions through which the “summit of cyclic existence” can genuinely be attained. Part Two examines the phenomenological structures of Abhidharma—the shared inheritance of all Buddhist traditions—from three distinct perspectives, corresponding to the three successive turnings of the doctrinal wheel.

 

Book Six, Part Three: Frameworks of Buddhist Philosophy
This volume, Frameworks of Buddhist Philosophy, is his masterful survey of the broad themes and subtle philosophical points found in more than fifteen hundred years of Buddhist philosophical writings. In a clear and systematic manner, he sets out the traditional framework of Buddhism’s three vehicles and four philosophical systems, and provides an overview of the key points of each system. His syncretic approach, which emphasizes the strengths of each of the systems and incorporates them into a comprehensive picture of philosophical endeavor, is well-suited for scholar-practitioners who seek awakening through the combination of analytical inquiry and meditation.

 

Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra
The tantric path is often referred to as the indestructible way of secret mantra, the essence of which is the indestructible union of wisdom (the understanding of emptiness) and method (immutable great bliss). This volume sets forth the various systems that constitute this path, both those of the ancient tantra tradition and of the new tradition.

 

Book Seven and Book Eight, Parts One and Two: Foundations of Buddhist Study and Practice
Foundations of Buddhist Study and Practice comprises Book Seven and Book Eight, Parts One and Two of the Treasury of Knowledge. Book Seven elucidates the various keys needed to correctly interpret, understand, and contemplate Buddhist teachings, including the secret teachings of the Vajrayana. Parts One and Two of Book Eight explain how the teachings are to be integrated into one’s life through the practice of meditation, which unites a state of one-pointed attention with profound insight into emptiness. Jamgön Kongtrul’s evenhanded, elegant, and authoritative statement of such controversial doctrines as unqualified emptiness (“self-empty”) and qualified emptiness (“other-empty”), provisional and definitive meaning, and conventional and ultimate truth as presented in the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism will appeal to both serious Dharma practitioners and advanced students and scholars.

 

Book Eight, Part Three: The Elements of Tantric Practice
The Elements of Tantric Practice sets forth the essential components of the path of highest yoga tantra, a system of meditation that unites wisdom and compassion in its two phases of practice. The first phase, that of creation, relies primarily on the use of the imagination to effect personal transformation. The phase of completion allows the practitioner to perfect the process of transformation by training in methods that manipulate the energies and constituents of the mind and body. The result of this path is the direct experience of the fundamental nature of mind and phenomena. The Elements of Tantric Practice concerns the meditative processes of the inner system of secret mantra—that of highest yoga tantra—and is based primarily on tantric sources. The author introduces the subject by describing the path of tantra and its underlying principles. The main body of the book deals with two major elements essential to all highest yoga tantras: the practice of the creation phase and that of the completion phase. For the first phase, Kongtrul describes the visualization sequences in which ordinary perceptions are transformed into the forms of awakening and explains how these practices purify the stages of cyclic existence—life, death, and rebirth. The creation phase prepares the practitioner for the techniques of the completion phase, which entail focusing directly on the channels, winds, and vital essences that form the subtle body. Kongtrul presents the key elements of a variety of tantras, including the Guhyasamaja and Yamari, belonging to the class of father tantras and the Kalachakra Hevajra Chakrasamvara Mahamaya Buddhakapala and Tara mother tantras. All these tantras share a common goal: to make manifest the pristine awareness that is the union of emptiness and bliss.

 

Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions
This volume, Esoteric Instructions, deals with meditation—specifically tantric meditation. Esoteric Instructions is a collection of intimate records of personal teachings by masters that simplify tantric meditations by providing pertinent examples and very personal and helpful hints to disciples based on the master’s own experience. Although originally oral in nature, they have been codified and passed down through specific lineages from teacher to student.

 

Books Nine and Ten: Journey and Goal
Journey and Goal focuses on the spiritual path—the journey and the resultant state of enlightenment to which it leads—the goal. Extensively varied perspectives are offered not only from within the many schools of Buddhism but also from the different levels of practice and attainment. This is in fact the most comprehensive treatment of these themes to appear in the English language.

 

 


The Treasury of Precious Instructions

 

 

2016 saw the first release in this eighteen-volume work on the eight lineages of accomplishment, one model for the classifications of practice traditions in Tibet. This collection was compiled in a roughly chronological order:

  • Nyingma - Two Volumes (876 pages)
  • Kadampa Tradition - Two Volumes (1,190 pages)
  • Sakya Path & Result - Two Volumes (930 pages)
  • Marpa Kagyu - Four Volumes (1,567 pages)
  • Shangpa Kagyu - Two Volumes (1,304 pages)
  • Pacification & Severance - Two Volumes (900 pages)
  • Kalachakra & Orgyen Nyendrup - One Volume (626 pages)
  • Miscellaneous Teachings - Two Volumes (1,088 pages)
  • Jonang Tradition & Catalog - One Volume (630 pages)

We are publishing the volumes asynchronously and releases will spread out over the next few years. See the first volume listed below.

 

Resource Guide to The Treasury of Precious Instructions

 

The next book is the first from the Treasury of Precious Instructions, on Chöd, followed by two other of his works on Chöd.

 

Chöd: The Sacred Teachings on Severance: Essential Teachings of the Eight Practice Lineages of Tibet

In this volume, the fourteenth in the Treasury of Precious Instructions series but the first released in English, Kongtrul compiles the teachings on Severance, or Chöd. It includes some of the tradition’s earliest source scriptures, such as the “grand poem” of Āryadeva the Brahmin, and numerous texts by the tradition’s renowned founder, Machik Lapdrön. Kongtrul also brings together the most significant texts on the rites of initiation, empowerments for practice, and wide-ranging instructions and guides for the support of practitioners. Altogether, this quintessential guide to Severance offers vast resources for scholars and practitioners alike to better understand this unique and remarkable tradition—the way of severing the ego through the profound realization of emptiness and compassion.

Introduced and translated by Sarah Harding, this contains twenty-nine selections that include source scriptures and commentaries, instructions, guides, and more from a variety of authors including Machik Lapdrön, Āryadeva (the Brahmin, not the Nagarjuna disciple), Rangjung Dorje, Tāranātha, Karma Chakme, Kongtrul himself, and many more.

 

Chöd Practice Manual and Commentary is a rich resource for Chöd practitioners. It contains the Chöd sadhana written by the Fourteenth Karmapa in three versions: Tibetan, a phonetic rendering of the Tibetan, and English translation. Jamgön Kongtrul’s commentary on the sadhana, which forms the bulk of this book, supplies the necessary amplification and clarification; it is given both in English and Tibetan. An important feature of the commentary is the inclusion of illustrations for the different stages of visualization discussed within the commentary. All in all, this is an essential practice tool and reference guide for the serious Chöd practitioner.

 

 

Sacred Ground: Jamgön Kongtrul on “Pilgrimage and Sacred Geography” describes two journeys: a journey outward to specific pilgrimage places in eastern Tibet, and a journey inward to the sacred world of tantra, accessible through contemplation and meditation. It sheds light on Himalayan Buddhists’ concepts of sacred land, places of pilgrimage in tantric Buddhism, and how pilgrimage is undertaken. It enhances our appreciation of the world and its sacred aspect everywhere—first and foremost, where we sit now. On the basis of this judicious choice of rare Tibetan texts, translated here for the first time, correlating inner and outer pilgrimage, this book is of considerable value to the Buddhist practitioner.

Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd (Expanded Edition)

While this is not by Kongtrul, his influence comes clearly across throughout the translator’s introduction. This expanded edition also includes Machik Lapdrön’s earliest known teaching, the original source text for the tradition, The Great Bundle of Precepts on Severance (Chöd), which is found in Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions. This pithy set of instructions reveals that the teachings of the perfection of wisdom are the true inspiration for Chöd. Machik developed a system, the Mahamudra Chöd, that takes the Buddha’s teachings as a basis and applies them to the immediate experiences of negative mind states and malignant forces. Her unique feminine approach is to invoke and nurture the very “demons” that we fear and hate, transforming those reactive emotions into love. It is the tantric version of developing compassion and fearlessness, a radical method of cutting through ego-fixation.

 

This next section includes works Kongtrul wrote himself.

 

Enthronement: The Recognition of the Reincarnate Masters of Tibet and the Himalayas

Even the most casual contact with the culture, politics, or religion of Tibet and the surrounding region brings outsiders face-to-face with the institution of reincarnate spiritual masters. Past masters are identified as small children installed in their predecessor’s monastery in a ceremony called “enthronement” and educated to continue the work of their former incarnation. This custom has provided a principal source of spiritual renewal for Himalayan Buddhists for the past thousand years. The introduction places the subject of reincarnate meditation masters within two major contexts: the activity of bodhisattvas, and in modern Tibetan society, where the reappearance of past masters is both natural and profoundly moving. Tai Situpa Rinpoche, a contemporary reincarnate master and a leader of the Kagyu lineage, describes the process of finding other reincarnate masters.

The Great Path of Awakening: The Classic Guide to Lojong, a Tibetan Buddhist Practice for Cultivating the Heart of Compassion

Here is a practical Buddhist guidebook that offers techniques for developing a truly compassionate heart in the midst of everyday life. For centuries, Tibetans have used fifty-nine pithy slogans originally presented in the Kadampa master Chekawa’s Seven Points of Mind Training—such as “A joyous state of mind is a constant support” and “Don’t talk about others' shortcomings”—as a means to awaken kindness, gentleness, and compassion.

This edition of The Great Path of Awakening contains an accessible, newly revised translation of the slogans from Chekawa’s text. It also includes illuminating commentary from Jamgön Kongtrul that provides further instruction on how to meet every situation with intelligence and an open heart.

Jamgön Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual

The Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Himalayan tantric Buddhism require a long period of intensive training in meditation—a three-year, three-month retreat—before a practitioner is considered to be a qualified teacher. Jamgön Kongtrul’s Retreat Manual was written in the mid-nineteenth century and is intended for those who wish to embark on this rigorous training. It guides them in preparing for retreat, provides full details of the program of meditation, and offers advice for their re-entry into the world.

The Teacher-Student Relationship 

It is crucial for students of Vajrayana Buddhism to find an authentic wisdom teacher and know how to properly rely upon that teacher in order to awaken to their Buddha Nature and thereby attain full enlightenment. Fortunately, the topic has been thoroughly explored by Jamgön Kongtrul in the tenth chapter of The Treasury of Knowledge, singled out here. This essential text clearly lays out what credentials and qualities one should look for in a wisdom teacher, why a wisdom teacher is necessary, and how the relationship between this teacher and disciple best develops once it is established.

The Torch of Certainty is Kongtrul’s famous ngöndro text, exploring the nature of impermanence, the effects of karma, the development of an enlightened attitude, and devotion to the guru. Kalu Rinpoche, Deshung Rinpoche, and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche also add commentaries and explain the significance of The Torch of Certainty for modern-day students and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.

 

The next three books focus on Kongtrul’s works related to Buddha Nature.

 

Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary

This is Kongtrul’s The Unassailable Lion’s Roar, a commentary on one of the five Maitreya texts: the Uttaratantra.  This text discusses the nature of our mind as the very basis of everything on the Buddhist path and presents Maitreya’s text as a background for the Mahamudra teachings in a way that is especially clear and easy to understand. Also included in this volume is a translation of the text itself, as well as Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso’s additional commentary.

When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra

This extensive explanation of the Uttaratantra includes refers to Kongtrul nearly 100 times and includes a translation of his Guiding Instructions on the View of Great Shentong Madhyamaka—Light Rays of the Stainless Vajra Moon. Kongtrul refers to this text as "the highest of all dharmas taught by the Buddha, being the unsurpassable one or the peak of the mahāyāna scriptures"

On Buddha Essence: A Commentary on Rangjung Dorje’s Treatise

Thrangu Rinpoche uses the commentary Kongtrul wrote in 1870 as the basis of this work on the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s famous work.

 

This last section includes a variety of works Kongtrul contributed to, compiled, or is central to.

 

The Profound Inner Principles with Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Taye’s Commentary Illuminating “The Profound Principles”

With masterful clarity and precision, The Profound Inner Principles delineates the principles and foundations of Vajrayāna practice. Rangjung Dorje presents the nature of things—mental and physical—and looks at the cause of delusion, what delusion creates, and how delusion is corrected. His explanations capture the principles of the Vajrayāna’s niruttara tantras, with a special focus on the structure and functioning of the body. Just as sugatagarbha, or Buddha Nature, is the nature of our mind, the potential for awakening lies within our body. The Mahāyāna literature refers to this pure potential as the evolving gotra, whereas the Vajrayāna refers to it as the “vajra body”—the subtle body of channels, winds, and bindus with six elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space, and wisdom-bliss). The vajra body is not only our innate capacity, it is also our path. Understanding its components and properties is essential for most meditators. The overarching theme of the text is that we need to understand how Buddha Nature is present in sentient beings, those on the path, and buddhas. All the details concerning the mind’s workings, the vajra body’s structures, and the meditations, paths, and stages will reinforce that understanding and give us insight into how and why the Vajrayāna path provides access to wisdom through the body.

This translation includes a commentary by Jamgön Kongtrul with extensive footnotes containing extracts from all the other important commentaries to The Profound Inner Principles, several glossaries with annotations by the translator, a works cited list, a selected bibliography, and an index.

Timeless Rapture: Inspired Verse of the Shangpa Masters

This book is a compilation of the songs of the Shangpa Kagyu masters and offers a rare glimpse into the mysticism of this tradition based mainly on the profound teaching of two women, Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. Kongtrul compiled this compendium of spontaneous verse sung by tantric Buddhist masters from the tenth century to the present and includes translations as well as short descriptions of each poet’s life and a historical overview of the lineage. Kongtrul chooses songs that are also teachings. They address thepractical and relevant questions for all Buddhists: how to live a meaningful life, how to confront death, and how to enter and remain within the sacred sanctuary of the mind’s nature: enlightenment.

Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times

Kongtrul was known to say that “there was no area of Tibetan soil larger than a horse’s hoof untouched by Guru Rinpoche’s feet.” This collection has four very different Tibetan accounts of his story: one by Jamgön Kongtrul; one according to the pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion Bön, by Jamyang Kyentse Wongpo; one based on Indian and early-Tibetan historical documents, by Taranata; and one by Dorje Tso. In addition, there are supplications by Guru Rinpoche and visualizations to accompany them by Jamgön Kongtrul.

Buddhist Fasting Practice: The Nyungne Method of Thousand-armed Chenrezig

While not by Kongtrul, Wangchen Rinpoche relies heavily on Kongtrul’s writings, referencing him throughout the book. Nyungne is a profound, two-and-a-half-day practice of purification and healing developed by a nun (from varying accounts Kashmiri or from the Swat area of present-day Pakistan) who developed this practice and healed her leprosy. It involves the keeping of strict vows; the second day is devoted to complete silence and fasting. The meditation centers on the recitations, mantras, and guided visualizations of the Thousand-Armed Chenrezig, the embodiment of all the buddhas’ loving-kindness and compassion. Translated as “abiding in the fast,” Nyungne is said to be effective in the healing of illness, the nurturing of compassion, and the purification of negative karma.

Tibetan Treasure Literature Revelation, Tradition, and Accomplishment in Visionary Buddhism

This exploration of the terma tradition has Kongtrul featured, no surprise considering the vastness of his work with terma texts.

Another excellent source of Kongtrul on terma is his own Hundred Tertons published by KTD.

 


Other titles by Kongtrul include the volumes of Light of Wisdom and Creation and Completion.

Lotsawa House hosts many other translations of Kongtrul.