The Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors

The following article is from the Spring, 2003 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

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Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye (1813-1899) was one of the most influential figures and prolific writers in the Tibetan Buddhist world. He was a founder and the single most important proponent of the nonsectarian movement that flourished in eastern Tibet and remains popular today. Two additional texts discuss his previous lives and recount Kongtrul's final days.

"Reading the autobiography of this supreme master gives us an understanding of the truly wondrous deeds that bodhisattvas perform, filling our minds with awe and our hearts with faith. It inspires us to actualize our own inherent potential that allows the qualities of the bodhisattvas to manifest within ourselves. This book is a priceless treasure to be studied and revered."—KHENPO TSULTRIM GYAMTSO RINPOCHE

Here is an excerpt.

WITH THE COMING OF the new Iron Pig Year [1863-1864], I recited quite a number of liturgies, including an offering ceremony to ensure the spread of the teachings. At Situ Rinpoche's monastic residence, for the benefit of Kuzhap Rinpoche I performed the empowerments of The Union of All Rare and Precious Jewels (which had been the personal practice of the late Situ), Choje Lingpa's tradition of Vajrakila, and other transmissions, as well as the ablution ritual of Vajravidarana. I then returned to my residence.

It was around this time that the armies of the Nyarong chieftain occupied Derge Gonchen and seized control of the entire administrative region. Rumors abounded of a large force dispatched by the central Tibetan government, under the leadership of the government minister Zhape Phulungwa and others, that would cause heaven and earth to shake. Word came from Kartok that the chieftain of Ga had passed away and so couldn't come; so, in view of the great difficulties, I went there briefly and performed a ceremony.

There was a holy woman from Drachen named Tsulthrim Palmo who had great faith and was a very accomplished at writing and chanting liturgies. From an early age she had visions of Amitabha with two bodhisattvas, one on either side. While completing the preliminary practices for The Union of All Rare and Precious Jewels and carrying out other practices, she would effortlessly have visions of many of her personal deities. This faithful woman, who kept her samaya connection well, had followed Chok-atna Vajrargyur Lingpa's advice and served as his guide when he opened up holy sites and as his companion at feast offerings. At this point in time she had fallen ill due to some contamination related to her samaya connection, and although I tried my best through giving her empowerments and performing other rituals, she passed away. At weekly intervals I accomplished whatever virtue I could on her behalf, and during my annual observance of an extensive fulfillment ritual from The United Intent of the Gurus, I added a ceremony called Firelight to purify her of obscurations, and performed other extensive rituals, including one known as Dredging the Pit of Cyclic Existence from the cycle of the peaceful and wrathful deities.

At the end of the first week, I dreamed that I had successfully introduced her to the nature of the intermediate state after death, while after the fourth week I dreamed of showing her the way to the realm of Lotus Light and of us clearly seeing the entire realm arrayed before us. Later on, my esteemed and all-knowing spiritual master related that he had had a vision in which he clearly heard a dakini saying that initially this holy woman Tsulthrim Palmo had taken rebirth as a lowly woman in a charnel ground due to some slight infraction of her samaya connection, but that afterward she had reached a pure realm. The dakini told Khyentse Rinpoche that this was due to my positive efforts on Tsulthrim Palmo's behalf, and to the fact that the three levels of obscuration were less dominant in the deceased's mindstream, while the three kinds of maturation were more so. As virtuous acts in memory of Tsulthrim Palmo and a daughter of the Jadra clan, who had also passed away, we prepared for each a hundred thousand tsa-tsas of Akshobhya and erected tiered stupas for which I performed the rituals of the two Vimalas and the consecration ceremony. Then I left.

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At that point I was required to give counsel and do divinations to find out when the Nyarong foe would strike and from which direction he would come. Such affairs are hardly covered in the explanations concerning divination procedures.

The great terton had discovered some termas from Sengdrak Cliff, including a sacred instruction comprising six scrolls and a biography of Guru Padmakara entitled A Garland of Gems. But due to several circumstances, he had not codified these. Nevertheless, upon my insistent requests he did codify The Heart Essence of Enlightened Mind, a section of instructions dealing with Vajrasattva. He conferred the empowerment and oral transmissions for this on me, saying that he himself had received them after praying to Orgyen Rinpoche. The evening after we had performed the feast offering, fulfillment ritual, and supplication prayers from this cycle, I dreamed that someone who I took to be Lord Perna Nyinje was inside a temple. As I bowed respectfully to him, he cast from his hands many objects that all turned out to be crystals. I performed circumambulations on a path encircling the outside of the temple and then gathered up many of the crystals and put them in the folds of my robes.

It was around this time that the queen of Derge and her son were taken hostage by the Nyarong chieftain, and my mind could find no peace whatsoever. I sent word to Dzongsar Tulku Rinpoche to request that he conduct any ceremonies that would be of use. He would reply every month or so, his letter relating any important divinations or dreams, while he spent his entire time diligently performing these ceremonies. During the second month the armies of Nyarong reached Meting, where they caused enormous destruction. Even some of my major patrons were affected, so I performed a ritual based on the cycle of peaceful and wrathful deities; those with faith and pure samaya connection felt some small signs of this benefiting them.

In the third month we began a drupchen ritual focusing on Vajrasattva. hi previous years I had prayed to my precious lord guru that he kindly consent to write an instruction manual for the Innermost Heart Drop of the Guru, for any number of reasons-for one tiling, it would be useful to all the lamas and monks attending this ritual. But he replied that he had absolutely no intention of writing such a manual. Instead he told me, "You are definitely worthy of writing it. The instruction manual for this Mindroling tradition of Vajrasattva is certainly useful as a basis, for it is easy to understand and broad in its application. It covers material that is not dealt with very much in Longchenpa's own writings on the Innermost Heart Drop of the Guru, so you should base you work on the Mindroling manual." He spoke insistently about the value of such an undertaking. As I lacked the confidence to write such a book, I begged him to divine what the outcome would be if I did agree to do so. On the fourteenth day I offered a large feast, and after praying that night my lord guru dreamed in the early morning that he was sitting in a meadow filled with flowers, on top of a high white cliff overlooking a deep ravine. The sun rose in the east and he felt a sense of delight, whereupon he awoke. Immediately he heard a voice saying, "The heart drop teachings of the supreme secret will blaze ever greater, like a lamp fueled with sesame oil." He took this voice to be that of the dakini Shridhara. With this encouragement to write the text, I began composing an instruction manual for the "mother and child"cycles of the Heart Drop teachings. That same evening my dreams were filled with positive signs—images of  the sun rising, of many vultures gathering, and so on—and I completed the work.

In the eighth month Kuzhap Rinpoche sponsored the Vajrakila drupchen ritual. When I was coming down from my hermitage, my legs became swollen and painful. From the day that the actual ritual began, both lamas and patrons were greatly afflicted by a viral infection. Although I didn't really have the strength to get up, I aroused my resolve and attended the group practice. The illness cleared up on the twenty-ninth, and on the first day of the next month 1 went back up to my hermitage, where the eruptions on my skin cleared up without a trace. This was a sign of something major affecting the patrons. For a time, then, I made preparations for, and performed, a wrathful ritual focusing on Vajrakila, all the while undertaking appropriate personal retreats and giving empowerments and instructions at the upper and lower meditation centers. With this, the contagion cleared up.

Toward the end of the year I did a personal retreat on the protective deity Sang-gon Mukpo and attended the group torma ritual based on the protective deities.

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It was about this time that the delegation from the Nyarong chieftain came to Derge Gonchen and began taking hostages, rounding up all the lamas and notable laypeople who were under that jurisdiction. Although I was contacted by them briefly, by the grace of the Three Jewels the matter was dropped. Then, during the ninth month, there came a great force commanded by the nobleman and government minister Phulungwa and his brother, as well as many able leaders from the executive, military, and administrative branches of the central government. The force included troops from the central Tibetan army, as well as reinforcements from Dragyap, Gonjo, Richap, and other areas. This force recaptured the area around Derge Gonchen and fought with any in the surrounding area who did not submit. Our monastery of Palpung was in danger of being attacked, since it harbored some who were very hostile to the government force, but just at that point the Dongkham Thripa, the leader of the Dragyap contingent, suddenly fell ill. The commander summoned all who knew the Derge region and they told him I would be the best one to call in, so a messenger was dispatched to bring me. Although I was greatly concerned over the Nyarong chieftain and the war he was waging, the divinations turned out well, so I trusted in that fact and crossed over a desolate pass to come down to the military camp at Ngulsip.

Although I performed empowerments, ritual ablutions, and so forth for the Dongkham Thripa, the problem was deeply rooted. I did a divination to determine whether he should stay or leave, and the result indicated that it was preferable that he leave, which he did. I met the great commander and offered him a ceremonial scarf. He ordered me to spend a few days performing offering rites to the protective deities. Once I had finished these, the armies of the Nyarong chieftain approached and there was great tumult and anxiety—an experience that reminded me what circumstances would be in the intermediate state after death. At. that point I was required to give counsel and do divinations to find out when the Nyarong foe would strike and from which direction he would come. Such affairs are hardly covered in the explanations concerning divination procedures, so I just spoke whatever came to mind and by the blessings of the Three Jewels everything I said turned out to be accurate. Even the commander was impressed.

On the actual day of battle, the central Tibetan forces were victorious and congratulations were heaped on me. I made a petition on behalf of everyone connected with Palpung, mentioning every name I knew, and this landed well on the ear of the commander, who gave me his promise that everyone under the jurisdiction of Palpung, both the monastery and the surrounding country. We would be spared any aggression. Then, while the war with the Nyarong forces was still raging, I returned home.

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