The Life of Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Gyurme Namgyal (1871-1926)
Shechen Gyaltsap was the disciple and heart-son of Mipham Rinpoche, one of the most prominent Nyingma scholars of the late 19th and early 20th century. He studied with some of the greatest Nyingma teachers including Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgon Lodro Thaye. He has written many extensive commentaries including an annotated commentary of Zurchungpa's Testament and Chariot to Freedom--a detailed commentary on the Vajrayana preliminary practices (ngondro).
In addition, Shechen Gyaltsap was the principle teacher of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the root teacher of many of today's great teachers including Rabjam Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, as well as the French Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard.
Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Gyurme Namgyal is often referred to as the Fourth. However, as noted in Practicing the Great Perfection:
The numbering of the incarnations in the Shechen Gyaltsap lineage is somewhat complicated. The first in line was a master known as Aja Lama Drupwang Pema Gyaltsen. His incarnation, Pema Sangak Tendzin Chögyal was referred to as Shechen Gyaltsap, the “regent of Shechen,” in the sense that he was the regent or representative of the previous incarnation. The name “Gyaltsap” therefore begins only with the second incarnation and cannot, logically speaking, be applied retrospectively to the first. As the incarnation of the second Gyaltsap, Orgyen Rangjung Dorje, Gyurmé Pema Namgyal is consequently counted as the third Shechen Gyaltsap, even though he is the fourth in the incarnation line.
In Journey to Enlightenment, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche recalls his teacher Shechen Gyaltsap with the following:
"Generally speaking, my teacher Shechen Gyaltsap appeared to genuinely possess all the qualifications of a master that are taught in the sutras and tantras, and he was especially grounded in the experience of the highest view of the Great Perfection as it is. Subsequently, when I studied, reflected, and pretended to teach these aspects, I felt that having the good fortune to actually receive such a golden doctrine like a wish-fulfilling gem from my precious master, the perfect Buddha, made gaining a human birth worthwhile, and I felt even more devoted and inspired than usual.
Even nowadays, while pretending to teach these aspects, I keep my precious master in mind and feign to invoke him to make the exposition and study meaningful. While he was giving empowerments, I was often overwhelmed by the splendor and magnificence of his expression and his eyes as, with a gesture pointing in my direction, he introduced the nature of mind. I felt that, apart from my own feeble devotion that made me see the teacher as an ordinary man, this was in fact exactly the same as the great Guru Padmasambhava himself giving empowerments to the twenty-five disciples. My confidence grew stronger and stronger, and when again he would gaze and point at me, asking “What is the nature of mind?,” I would think with great devotion, “This is truly a great yogi who can see the absolute nature of reality!” and I began to understand myself how to meditate.
On my next visit to Shechen, I received ordination as a novice monk from Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Khenpo Shenga had already given me these vows once, but I told Gyaltsap Rinpoche that I would like to receive them again from him. He replied that it was legitimate to receive vows twice, just as a stupa can be embellished with several layers of gold."
While less well known compared to Patrul Rinpoche's Words of My Perfect Teacher, Shechen Gyaltsap's A Chariot to Freedom, is a highly respected set of teachings intended for the practice of ngöndro. As it is not specific to a single lineage, it is univerally applicable no matter which ngondro one is engaged with, and universally beloved throughout Tibet.
According to the Buddhist tradition, one can only make progress with a mind that is properly directed toward enlightenment. Included in his teachings on the 'four thoughts that turn the mind,' Shechen Gyaltsap gives a clear introduction to the importance of appreciating one's precious human life, considering on the reality of impermanence and eventual death, understanding the role of karma, and reflecting on the defects of samsara or cyclic existence. Furthermore, he offers guidance and encouragement for completing the 5 x 1000,000 states of the uncommon preliminaries.*
According to the tradition, the ngöndro (translated literally as 'before going') is completed in order to accumulate the appropriate qualities of mind, such as mental calm, clarity, renunciation, and devotion, in order to continue along the Vajrayana path.
*The 'uncommon preliminaries' includes the accumulation of 100,000 recitations of refuge with prostrations, 100,000 recitations of the bodhichitta prayer, 100,000 vajrasattva mantra, 100,000 mandala offerings, and 1,000,000 vajra guru mantras.
A set of essential works on Dzogchen by Shechen Gyaltsap. Included here are essential instructions for those who practice, or aspire to practice, the teachings of the Great Perfection. Written with a clear simplicity that belies their profundity, these teachings give practical and pointed advice on how to meditate on the nature of mind, self-arisen primordial wisdom, and how to sustain this practice in daily life. They begin with an extensive reflection on the problem of self-clinging and the analytical meditation designed to uproot it, and proceed to more specific instructions for the mind practice itself, at all times insisting on the fundamental, indispensable attitudes of renunciation and bodhichitta—the determination to awaken for the benefit of all beings.
The translators' introduction, filled with wonderful stories, also gives extensive and fascinating background to Shechen Gyaltsap's life and works.
Advice for Awakening on the Vajrayana Path
A Practice of Padmasambhava: Essential Instructions on the Path to Awakening
by Shechen Gyaltsap, Rinchen Dargye and translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee
A Practice of Padmasambhava presents two practical and compelling works related to a visualization and mantra practice of Padmasambhava. This practice is based on the most important revelation of the renowned nineteenth-century treasure revealer Chokgyur Lingpa, Accomplishing the Guru's Mind: Dispeller of All Obstacles. These two works give an introduction to the preliminary trainings, outline the primary elements of visualization practice and mantra recitation, and supply a detailed explanation of the practice of Padmasambhava's wisdom aspect, Guru Vadisimha. Through practical step-by-step instructions on this deity, the reader is guided into the general world of tantric practice common to all of Tibetan Buddhism.
by Shechen Gyaltsap, Kunkyen Tenpe Nyima and translated by Dharmachakra Translation Committee
Vajra Wisdom presents the commentaries of two great nineteenth-century Nyingma masters that guide practitioners engaged in development stage practice through a series of straightforward instructions. The rarity of this kind of material in English makes it indispensable for practitioners and scholars alike.
Shechen Gyaltsap's work is entitled Illuminating the Jeweled Mirror and is a general guidebook for development stage practitioners of any particular yidam deity. In that way it serves the purpose of tying together the features of all sādhanas, thus highlighting their universal functions and meaning.
*The hardcover is out of print but the paperback edition will be released in 2022
The Great Medicine That Conquers Clinging to the Notion of Reality
by Shechen Rabjam and Shechen Gyaltsap IV
The basis of this book is Shechen Gyalstap's work of the same name that is a concise, profound, and elegant elucidation of the relative and absolute bodhichitta, or “enlightened mind.”
In his warm and informal style, Rabjam Rinpoche shines a light on these teachings in a way that will appeal to anyone who would like to find more meaning in life. His commentary is fresh, humorous, and sharply insightful. Here is a modern Tibetan teacher who appreciates the challenges of living in today’s world. The Great Medicine will help contemporary readers draw on ancient teachings to find their way to wisdom, freedom, and joy amid the struggles of real life.
by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Shechen Gyaltsap and translated by Padmakara Translation Group
Zurchungpa’s Eighty Chapters of Personal Advice is the distillation of a lifetime’s experience and practical instructions from a master who truly embodied the teachings of the Great Perfection. Organized into eighty chapters covering the entire path of Dzogchen, this book contains a complete detailed teaching on Zurchungpa’s text by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, based on Shechen Gyaltsap’s notes. Originally intended as essential instructions for a group of practitioners in three-year retreat, it will undoubtedly serve as an indispensable guide to anyone who seriously wishes to practice the Great Perfection.
Other Books Related to Shechen Gyaltsap
by Ringu Tulku and translated by Ann Helm
Along with many scholars and practitioners of the 19th and 20th century, Shechen Gyaltsap spoke of the importance of upholding lineage while remaining respectful of other Buddhist traditions. Ringu Tulku includes Shechen Gyaltsap's extraordinary Refutation of the Criticism of the Dzogchen Teachings along with a number of Nyingma rebuttals and a detailed history of the various Buddhist schools of Tibet.
by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Rabjam Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and Many More
Through lively anecdotes and stories this highly revered Buddhist meditation master and scholar tells about his life of study, retreat, and teaching. The formative events of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s life, and those insights and experiences that caused him to mature into the warm, brilliant, and highly realized meditation master and teacher he was, are deeply inspiring.
Stories of Shechen Gyaltsap abound.
The second half of the book comprises recollections by his wife; his grandson, Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche; Tenga Rinpoche; the Queen Mother of Bhutan; and many prominent teachers.
Journey to Enlightenment: The Life of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
by Matthieu Ricard
An inspiring portrait of one of the great spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, this book follows Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in his travels to Tibet, Bhutan, India, and Nepal, revisiting important places from his past. The book recounts many stories of his root teacher, Shechen Gyaltsap.
More from Shechen Gyaltsap's Lineage
While not by or on Shechen Gyaltsap, the books below are from the same traditions he is associated and are complementary to his works.
Oral Instructions on the Three Words That Strike the Vital Point
By Patrul Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Three Words That Strike the Vital Point is the famous seminal statement by Garap Dorje that is said to encapsulate all the myriad dzogchen tantras. The key instructions on it by Patrul Rinpoche—the verses known as “The Special Teaching of Khepa Shri Gyalpo”—form the basis for the discourse in Primordial Purity. It explains that in dzogchen, when one has fully recognized that all the confusion of samsara is the expressive power of great emptiness, confusion is spontaneously liberated into the primordial purity of mind’s essential nature. Compassion spontaneously arises, accomplishing the benefit of sentient beings. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche illuminates this beautifully in this profound work, which will inspire students of Buddhism and deepen their experiential appreciation of the teachings.
The Nature of Mind
The Dzogchen Instructions of Aro Yeshe Jungne
by Patrul Rinpoche, Khenpo Palden Sherab, and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal
The Nature of Mind: The Dzogchen Instructions of Aro Yeshe Jungne is a commentary on a fascinating text by Patrul Rinpoche by the Khenpo brothers Palden Sherab and Tsewang Dongyal. It is centered around a translation of Patrul Rinpoche's Clear Elucidation of True Nature: An Esoteric Instruction on the Sublime Approach of Ati. This text Patrul put together to encapsulate all the teachings from the Aro tradition in a single short text. It is a pithy guide to discovering the nature of your own mind and gives explicit instructions on how to do so for those of us of superior, middling, and lesser capabilities. It is superb.
Finding Rest in Illusion
The Trilogy of Rest, Volume 3
By Longchenpa and translated by Padmakara Translation Group
This, the third volume of the Trilogy of Rest, introduces us to our most basic nature—the clear and pristine awareness that is the nature of the mind. The Padmakara Translation Group has provided us with a clear and fluid new translation of the final volume, Finding Rest in Illusion, along with its autocommentary, The Chariot of Excellence, which describes in detail the conduct of those who have stabilized their recognition of the nature of the mind and how to apply the Buddhist view when relating to ordinary appearances. This is an invaluable manual for any genuine student of Buddhism who wishes to truly find rest through the path of the Great Perfection.
Sublime Prayers, Praises, and Practices of the Nyingma Masters
Trasnlated by Thinley Norbu Rinpoche
Another superb translation of the root text of Patrul Rinpoche's The Practice of the View, Meditation, and Action, Called “The Sublime Heart Jewel”, The Speech Virtuous in the Beginning, Middle, and End is included in Thinley Norbu Rinpoche's collection of translations entitled Sunlight Speech That Dispels the Darkness of Doubt. This text presents advice to practitioners on the path to enlightenment, which is all contained in the three aspects of the correct view, meditation, and action, synthesized in the practice of the Six-Syllable Mantra of Avalokiteshvara.
Heart Essence of the Great Perfection
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
While his Holiness is the head of the Gelug school, here he teaches on an important text of the Nyingma school--Patrul Rinpoche's commentary to Garab Dorje's famous Three Words That Strike the Vital Point, also using other texts such as Longchenpa's Cho Ying Dzod, or Treasury of Dharmadhatu.
Beyond the Ordinary Mind, an extraordinary collection of profound advice on Dzogchen from many great masters, compiled and translated Adam Pearcey, the force behind Lotsawa House. The piece by Patrul Rinpoche is called Uniting Outer and Inner Solitude: Advice for Alak Dongak Gyatso.
This collection contains four of the most cherished Tibetan Buddhist commentaries on the practices of visualization, mantra recitation, and meditative absorption— elements that form the core of development stage meditation, one of the most important practices of Buddhist Tantra.
One of the most important sadhana cycles in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Rigdzin Düpa, or Gathering of Vidyadharas, is practiced by tens of thousands of practitioners around the world. This inner guru practice focuses on Padmasambhava as the central figure and is one of the three root sadhanas of the Longchen Nyingtik treasure cycle revealed by the great Jigme Lingpa.
Thinley Norbu Rinpoche also quotes this at length in Sole Panacea: A Brief Commentary on the Seven-Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche That Cures the Suffering of the Sickness of Karma and Defilement.
Reader Guides Related to Shechen Gyaltsap
Check out more reader guides on Tibetan Buddhism!
The Life of Shechen Gyaltsap by Alak Zenkar Rinpoche can be found at Lotsawa House along with other texts related to him.
And for Tibetan readers, TBRC/BDRC of course provides downloadable pdfs of Shechen Gyaltsab's works in Tibetan