Chogyur Lingpa: A Profile

Chogyur Lingpa

By www.treasuryoflives.org [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Few Treasures of the Nyingma School have left a larger imprint on contemporary Tibetan Buddhism than those of the famed nineteenth century master Chokgyur Dechen Shigpo Lingpa (1829-1870). Since the time of his revelations a century and a half ago, Chokgyur Lingpa’s Treasures have become pop­ular not only within the Nyingma School but also in the Kagyu lineage where they have been actively promulgated by such prominent figures as Jamgön Kongtrul, the Dazang and Situpa Tulkus, and, above all, several Karmapa hierarchs. The Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa together with their commentaries are known collectively as the New Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa. Today they comprise an extensive collection in 39 volumes including more than 1000 in­dividual titles and several genres that, prior to the time of Chokgyur Lingpa, had never been revealed as Treasure but only existed in the older lineage of Transmitted Precepts.

In addition to his role as a Treasure revealer, Chokgyur Lingpa was an influential figure in the ecumenical (ris med) movement that arose in eastern Tibet during the nineteenth century around the figures of Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. It was in large part the close relationship that Chokgyur Lingpa enjoyed with these two extraordinary masters that helped the New Treasures to become a widespread and popular tradition. Considering its significant impact on nineteenth and twentieth century Tibetan thought and society, it is surprising that the ecumenical tradition so far has received little scholarly attention.144 Still, although the ecumenical tradition is only peripheral to our topic here, given the active involvement of Kongtrul and Khyentse in the revelations of Chokgyur Lingpa, future studies of the New Treasures will doubtless yield significant information on the workings of that movement.

The features of the New Treasures that make it so valuable—its vastness, visionary variety, and philosophical complexity—are at the same time also the greatest challenge to engaging with this collection and getting a basic overview of Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelations. As a result, the New Treasures have previously remained almost unnoticed by Western research.145 In this light, the present study aims to provide a general introduction to Chokgyur Lingpa and his tradition by outlining the major events, features, and people related thereto and so create a preliminary platform from which future, in-depth studies may proceed. For this, we first turn to the rich hagiographical literature concerned with the spiritual life and visionary achievements of Chokgyur Lingpa himself.

We are fortunate to find in the New Treasures a wealth of information collected and composed by several central figures of the lineage, including Chokgyur Lingpa himself. In colophons throughout the New Treasures Chokgyur Lingpa writes about the nature of his Treasures and the way they were discovered, often noting the details of time and place and thereby providing valuable information for a chronological reconstruction of his career. Besides the information supplied in colophons, Chokgyur Lingpa also composed a brief autobiography (predominantly in verse) written sometime during 1867 or early 1868 that later was joined with various accounts of Treasure revelation likewise recounted by Chokgyur Lingpa himself. This compilation was included in the New Treasures under the title Basic Account of the Emanated Great Treasure Revealer’s Biography Combined with a Few Treasure Chronicles. These writings of Chokgyur Lingpa are of great value for understanding his role within the ecumenical movement, especially a section in the autobiography in which he expounds on the philosophical values of the ecumenical tradition and the role of the Treasure tradition within this movement.147 It is generally well known that Chokgyur Lingpa was a prominent figure within the ecumenical tradition,148 but little is known about his specific views on ecumenicalism. In this chapter, Chokgyur Lingpa encourages spiritual practitioners to abandon one-sided critique of other traditions and instead to appreciate the commonalities between the many Tibetan religious traditions while still remaining respectful of their individual unique features. Specifically in relation to the Treasure tradition, Chokgyur Lingpa admonishes the followers of the Nyingma School to abandon attachment to the revelations of individual revelers and, instead, to focus on the relationship between all Treasures and the general Buddhist tradition and so acknowledge that the philosophical roots of the Treasures are firmly planted in the general teachings of sutra and tantra.149

Besides Chokgyur Lingpa’s own writings, the New Treasures contain sev­eral early writings by his foremost teachers, Jamgön Kongtrul and Khyentse Wangpo. These sources form the basis for all the subsequent hagiographical works on Chokgyur Lingpa. Most central is a short praise to the career of Chokgyur Lingpa composed by Jamgön Kongtrul under the title Auspiciously Curling Tune: A Supplication to the Life of the Emanated Great Treasure Revealer Chokgyur Lingpa. In this work Kongtrul outlines the most significant events in Chokgyur Lingpa’s life, listing his most prominent teachers, students, Treas­ures, and visions. The supplication is augmented with numerous annotations (mchan ‘grel) in which Kongtrul provides a commentary on the events of the supplication. In the colophon Kongtrul notes that he composed the supplica­tion at the request of Chokgyur Lingpa’s consort Dechen Chödrön and several other devoted students.151 As with so many works in the New Treasures the text is undated, but it was most likely composed soon after the death of Chokgyur Lingpa.152 Later, at the request of Chokgyur Lingpa’s famed scholar-student, Karmey Khenpo Rinchen Dargye (nineteenth century), Khyentse Wangpo composed an outline (sa bcad) of this praise, which he named Divisions of the Auspicious Tune: The Condensed Meaning of the Supplication to the Great Treasure Revealer Chokgyur Lingpa.

On the past lives of Chokgyur Lingpa, Dazang Karma Ngedön Tenpa Rabgye (1808-1864), another of Chokgyur Lingpa’s foremost teachers, com­posed a supplication to the past existences that Chokgyur Lingpa previously had occupied. This work, entitled Rosary of Red Pearls: a Supplication to the Past Lives of the Vidyadhara Master—The Great Treasure Revealer Chokgyur Lingpa,154 was composed while Chokgyur Lingpa was still alive. It presents the details of his past lives predominantly based on information found in Treasure literature but also, to a lesser degree, on information accessed through medita­tive visions. As an elaboration on this supplication, Khyentse Wangpo com­posed a slightly longer text; Lapis Lazuli Drama: General Notes on the Rosary of Red Pearls Past Lives Supplication.  The main source for both works (and other subsequent descriptions of Chokgyur Lingpa’s past lives) is a Treasure text revealed by the visionary Shigpo Lingpa Gargyi Wangchuk (1524-1583) named Radiant Lamp, which recounts Shigpo Lingpa’s past lives in great de­tail.  These previous existences of Shigpo Lingpa are relevant for Chokgyur Lingpa as well since Shigpo Lingpa came to be regarded as one of Chokgyur Lingpa’s previous incarnations, whereby the Radiant Lamp became an account of Chokgyur Lingpa’s past lives as well.  Khyentse’s work, which consists almost entirely of a lengthy quotation from the Radiant Lamp, establishes the authority of this prophesized account by categorizing the past lives experi­enced in meditative visions as merely an appendage (kha skong) to the revealed descriptions.  The past lives of Chokgyur Lingpa are presented below as they are recounted in these two sources.

Khyentse Wangpo composed yet another biographical text entitled Breeze of Requesting the Auspicious Tune: Replies to Questions Arising from the Hagiography of the Great Treasure Revealer, which is a series of answers to questions posed by Chokgyur Lingpa’s students regarding the life of their master. This text forms the basis for the subsequent hagiographies of Chokgyur Lingpa by both Kongtrul and Dudjom where longer passages often are quoted verbatim. Khyentse presents events central to Chokgyur Lingpa’s life and career in a structured manner that gives an excellent overview of the identity of Chokgyur Lingpa’s main teachers, the divisions of his Treasures, his sevenfold trans­mission of teaching, and the major group practice sessions over which Chokgyur Lingpa presided.

Apart from the works of famed authors like Khyentse, Kongtrul, and Dazang, we .nd another important source of information in the so-called “general hagiography” (phyi’i rnam thar) of Chokgyur Lingpa entitled Melody of the Fifth Auspicious Birth: A General Outer Biography of the Great Treasure Revealer Chokgyur Lingpa composed by Pema Yeshe (nineteenth/twentieth century)—a student of Chokgyur Lingpa and an important chant master (dbu mdzad) within his tradition. This hagiography, written at the request of the first Chokling reincarnation in the Neten lineage, Pema Gyurme Thegchok Tenpel (1873-1927), builds on the themes raised by Kongtrul and Khyentse but also gathers information from several smaller manuscripts in the New Treasures. In addition to this formal hagiography, Pema Yeshe also composed a lengthy description of Chokgyur Lingpa’s journey to central Tibet at the end of his life.166 Elsewhere in the New Treasures we find a brief account by an anonymous author describing Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelation of Seven Profound Cycles.

The richest source for information on Chokgyur Lingpa is surely the 600 page hagiography A Clarifcation of the Branches of the Auspicious Tune: The Life of the Great Treasure Revealer Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa composed by the first Chokling reincarnation in the Kela lineage, Könchog Gyurme Tenpey Gyaltsen (nineteenth/twentieth cent.). This text offers a wealth of informa­tion regarding both the outer events in Chokgyur Lingpa’s life and his inner experiences and meditative realizations. It was composed in 1921 and draws heavily on the above mentioned early works, but also incorporates new sources in the form of previously unpublished notes and manuscripts related to the life of Chokgyur Lingpa. Curiously, the works of Pema Yeshe are not men­tioned in this text, and it seems possible that Könchog Gyurme might not have been aware of them.169 Like the earlier works, Könchog Gyurme’s biogra­phy is also structured along the framework previously established by Khyentse and Kongtrul.

The Tibetan hagiographical genre is unique in that it does not limit itself to a single life but often recounts the saint’s existence within a framework of past, present, as well as future lives. Not only does Könchog Gyurme provide de­scriptions of all such lives of Chokgyur Lingpa, he also uses several biographi­cal sub-genres that lend further uniqueness to the hagiographical literature of Tibet. The main body of the text is structured into three sections: 1) a brief teaching on the definitive and the provisional hagiographies, 2) an expand­ed explanation by means of ten amazing accounts,171 and 3) a conclusion by means of supplication and aspirations.172 The definitive and the provisional ha­giographies introduce two variant modes of hagiography: 1) the ultimate and essential hagiography and 2) the symbolic, provisional hagiography.174 The first of these divisions is a brief philosophical chapter that presents Chokgyur Lingpa as primordially inseparable from the basic nature of all phenomena. In spite of this being a condensed hagiographical exposition this chapter is nevertheless billed as the essential and true way to appreciate the actual being of Chokgyur Lingpa:

In reality, his nature, all-pervading like the sky, is primordially the
supremely luminous dharmakaya of great bliss, the indivisibility of
ground and fruition.

This chapter is termed “ultimate” and “essential” even though it barely covers two full pages, supporting the position that underneath the detailed historical narrative of the Treasure cosmos lies a reality of timelessness (dharmakaya), which gives historical events a relative quality and frees them from the confines of a strictly linear historical consciousness. Thus, similar to the historical nar­ratives of Treasure revelation that rely on the backdrop of timeless reality, the acts of a Buddhist saint such as Chokgyur Lingpa are likewise to be viewed with a hermeneutic that acknowledges their occurrence in the world as reflections of this “ultimate and essential” way of being.

The following explanation of the symbolic provisional hagiography is a one-page listing of the topic for the main part of the text—Chokgyur Lingpa’s achievements as perceived from the framework of relative existence. This leads into a more formal historical narrative structured on a three-fold division of Chokgyur Lingpa’s past existences, present life, and his activity in future lives for the continuous benefit of sentient beings. The chapter devoted to his past lives consists of two divisions: 1) a general explication of the hagiography of the three kayas and 2) a particular division of the way that Chokgyur Lingpa appeared in this world. The first of these categories once again highlights the importance of approaching the Tibetan hagiographical genre with sensitivity to the general Mahayanist metaphysical conception of rupakaya emanations emerging from the underlying dharmakaya matrix. Here Könchog Gyurme describes the manner in which buddhas and bodhisattvas take birth in the world without ever moving from the reality of dharmakaya and how they engage in the benevolent actions of converting sentient beings through the activities of “the fourfold taming” (‘dul ba bzhi) of body, speech, mind, and miracles. Having reminded the reader of Chokgyur Lingpa’s inherent affilia­tion with the basic nature of existence itself, Könchog Gyurme has prepared the ground for the ensuing detailed discussion of the events in Chokgyur Lingpa’s “garland of lives”—the numerous preambulary existences preceding his feats in nineteenth century eastern Tibet. Below, we shall return to a closer look at these past lives.

In spite of the various hagiographical sub-categories presented up to this point, the main part of Könchog Gyurme’s work is, after all, devoted to the life and career of Chokgyur Lingpa. In presenting his life, Könchog Gyurme follows Khyentse Wangpo’s ten chapter outline that describes 1) Chokgyur Lingpa’s youth, 2) the awakening of his karmic potential, 3) teachers, 4) spiritual development, 5) meditative realization, 6) visionary experiences, 7) Treasure discoveries, 8) students, 9) his sanctification of the environment, and 10) his passing into nirvana. Since Könchog Gyurme, like Pema Yeshe, bases his presentation on the early sources, there is a great deal of duplication found in his hagiography, but as his narrative is other­wise richly adorned with quotations from both Treasure texts and classi­cal scriptures, the repetitiveness is not as pronounced as one could expect. Könchog Gyurme also incorporates several oral accounts into his narrative, but considering the vulnerability of the oral tradition in the turbulent social upheavals of the twentieth century, an even greater number of such reports would have been desired. Still, as Könchog Gyurme begins to unravel anec­dotes of Chokgyur Lingpa’s visionary life and the many extraordinary events connected thereto, we obtain a valuable look into the inner workings of the Treasure tradition. In these chapters (6 – 9), we not only receive a tour into the fascinating world of Treasure discovery with its rich symbolic lan­guage and ritual but also encounter the main protagonists in the ecumeni­cal tradition as they relate to Chokgyur Lingpa’s revelations. Previously, the main .gures of the ecumenical tradition such as Khyentse, Kongtrul, and Chokling have been studied only little, but here valuable data on their work and relationship are presented.179 Finally, having covered the main events of Chokgyur Lingpa’s life, the author completes his work with a brief descrip­tion of Chokgyur Lingpa’s future lives (silent on the fact that he himself was one of them!).

Apart from the hagiographical material of the New Treasures, Jamgön Kongtrul also included a hagiography of Chokgyur Lingpa in his survey of the Treasure revealers. This in turn formed the basis for Dudjom’s chapter on Chokgyur Lingpa in his history of the Nyingma School, which is most­ly a verbatim copy of Kongtrul’s writing. It is also said that a longer and more detailed biography was written by Chokling’s student Karmey Khenpo Rinchen Dargye (nineteenth century), but it is uncertain whether this work still exists. Now, before we consider the life of Chokgyur Lingpa any further, let us first look closer at some of the many lives leading up to the birth of our Treasure revealing protagonist.

The past lives of Chokgyur Lingpa are recounted on the basis of the Radiant Lamp, a text revealed in the sixteenth century by the visionary Shigpo Lingpa as testimony to his own previous lives. As this scripture is a Treasure revelation, these past existences are not presented as if narrated by Shigpo Lingpa himself but instead by Padmasambhava back in the eighth century as a prophesy of what is yet to come. In Tibet it was standard prac­tice that Treasure revealers discover this kind of ex post facto prophecy in which Padmasambhava foretells, as Ratna Lingpa puts it, “even the moles and physical marks on their body” although, not surprisingly, this was a type of writing often looked upon with suspicion by many, even among the followers of the Nyingma School.

In any case, Shigpo Lingpa’s revelation lists his many past lives in India, China, Tibet, and elsewhere his karma and aspirations are said to have tak­en him. Since Chokgyur Lingpa is considered the reincarnation of Shigpo Lingpa this text is extensively quoted throughout the biographical texts of the New Treasures, where it becomes the primary source for retelling the past lives of Chokgyur Lingpa. Here we are told how he (Shigpo Lingpa/ Chokgyur Lingpa), in a distant past, .rst connected with the dharma in general, and especially with the all-important .gures of the Treasure lineage: Padmasambhava and his royal disciple Trisong Detsen.

The Radiant Lamp begins in the early days of this aeon with the well-known story of Padmasambhava, Trisong Detsen, and Santarakita (in their former lives) building the stupa called Mistakenly Granted Permission. Here we are told that the future Trisong Detsen witnessed a black bird landing on the stupa and made a wish that, in the future it would become his son. As the bird was none other than the Chokgyur Lingpa-to-be, the original karmic connection was thus established between him and the Buddhist dharma. The seed having been planted in the mind of the future Treasure revealer, he embarked on a series of rebirths predominantly unfolding in India and Tibet. As the fortu­nate black bird passed away it was, according to the Radiant Lamp, first born in Bodhgaya as Kirti Jìana, son of the elder Dharmabhadra. At that time he jokingly offered flowers to a representation of a buddha, thus sowing the seeds for liberation. This act in turn led to rebirth in the Tushita Heaven as a divine being. Thereafter he was born as Aniruddha, the Buddha’s cousin and one of the ten close disciples. In that existence he attained the state of an arhat and, even though he had perceived the truth of dharmata, he still wished to enter the resultant vehicle. Thus, he continued in existence and assumed a series of animal and human existences in various regions of India, Nepal, China, and Tibet.

Finally, however, the obscurations of the future Chokgyur Lingpa were pu­rified during his life as a prince from the Indian kingdom of Bedar. From this point onwards, all subsequent reincarnations are said to be conscious and voluntary. This is also the time when he enters the Tibetan religious scene as well-known historical personae such as the famed minister Garwa at the court of King Songtsen Gampo (ca. 617-649/650). Then follows a life as the prince of Entse before we arrive at the all-important birth as Murub Tsenpo, the sec­ond son of King Trisong Detsen.

In describing this life the text shifts to present tense as Padmasambhava (who in the Treasure text is recounting the lives of Shigpo Lingpa) now speaks in person directly to his Tibetan disciples. Padmasambhava lists the various names given to Murub Tsenpo and tells of the karmic bond be­tween this prince and his wife Bumcham who, upon death, according to Padmasambhava’s prophecy, will be united in the pure buddha fields.191 Chokgyur Lingpa’s life as Murub Tsenpo is of central importance as it is during that existence he comes into contact with Padmasambhava, receives empowerment and is prophesized as a major Treasure revealer. Now, once again, Padmasambhava changes his narrative and speaks in future tense as he prophesizes the future lives of Murub Tsenpo.

As this prince passes away, Padmasambhava predicts, he will be born as a king in the country (pure land?) of Urgyen Zangling from which he will continuously send out emanations, working for the welfare of all beings. Padmasambhava then brie.y describes a series of other births as various tant­ric practitioners of mixed prominence including, notably, two lives as female Treasure revealers. Then follows a description of his life as the great Treasure revealer Sangye Lingpa (1340-1396), known for his revelation of the influen­tial Embodiment of the Realization of the Master Treasure cycle. Having proph­esized the life of Sangye Lingpa in detail, mentioning his birthplace, looks, name, etc., Padmasambhava continues by predicting Murub Tsenpo’s subse­quent birth as the female Treasure revealer Bummo Cham from Nyang in up­per Tsang, as an unnamed minister also from the Tsang region, and finally, the life as Shigpo Lingpa whose virtues are extolled in considerable detail. As the Lamp is a revelation by Shigpo Lingpa, the account goes no further. Still, it is surprising that the New Treasures contains no attempt to recount the in­terim existences that presumably would have followed from the time of Shigpo Lingpa up until his rebirth as Chokgyur Lingpa—leaving a period of roughly 250 years unaccounted for.

Having in this way considered the traditional recounting of Chokgyur Lingpa’s genealogy of past lives, we may now turn to some of the events of his life as they occurred in the nineteenth century, in particular his numerous revelations that secured him such fame and influence with a number of the greatest religious figures of his time.