Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. Tibetans have kept such meticulous records of their teachers that thousands of names are known and discussed in a wide range of biographical material. All these names, all these lives—it can be a little overwhelming. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the Tricycle blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition.
The Second Nalanda: Gyelse Zhenpen Taye Ozer and the Founding of Sri Simha College
The Treasury of Lives is currently posting the complete biographies of the abbots of Sri Simha College of Dzogchen Monastery. This is the first time that these biographies are available in English. These men upheld the integrity and quality of this important Nyingma institution by teaching the scriptures and commentaries, upholding the monastic rules, composing new works, and leading scholarship on canonical works of Mahayana literature in the Nyingma tradition. The focus of these teachings was not merely theoretical, however. After completing their studies, many of the students who passed through Sri Simha would receive instructions on Dzogchen and enter long periods of intensive retreat in the mountain caves surrounding the monastery, sometimes remaining in retreat for the rest of their lives.
The abbatial ranks of Sri Simha college include well-known luminaries such as Patrul Rinpoche and Mipam Rinpoche, as well as many others who dedicated their lives to the mixing of the scholastic and contemplative traditions of Buddhism. The biography of Gyelse Zhenpen Taye Ozer (1800-1855/1869), the founder of Sri Simha, offers a rich view into the lives of the people upon whom the greatness of Sri Simha was built.
Gyelse Zhenpen Taye Ozer was born in 1800 in Kham. He must have been a very unusual and bright child, as several monasteries are said to have competed to claim him as a reincarnation of their leaders. His parents declined to give him away, but he was spurred to follow the religious life after his father was murdered by a gang of roaming bandits. He enrolled at Dzogchen Monastery, the major Nyingma monastery that was the seat of the Dzogchen Ponlob and Dzogchen Rinpoche incarnations. There he completed the traditional course of studies, which included learning all of the ritual practices, memorizing the core texts of their tradition, and receiving instructions on Dzogchen and other tantric practices. For a time, he studied under Jigme Gyelwai Nyugu (1765-1842), whose instructions were enshrined in Patrul Rinpoche’s Words of my Perfect Teacher. He was also a student of the First Dodrubchen, Jigme Trinle Ozer (1745-1821). After completing his studies, he traveled across Tibet practicing in various sacred sites and collecting Nyingma texts that had not been available in his homeland before.
In 1842 a devastating earthquake destroyed Dzogchen Monastery. The king Derge, in whose territory Dzogchen lay, supplied the funds to rebuild the monastery, and Gyelse Zhenpen Taye Ozer was put in charge of supervising the reconstruction. The outpouring of donations from disciples was so great that they were able to establish a new monastic college with the excess funds. Legend has it that when they were surveying a spot to build the new college, they saw Sri Simha, the teacher who is said to have given Dzogchen teachings to Padmasambhava, sitting on a rock near the monastery. This became the location of the new college, and their visionary experience provided its name. Later it is said that during the groundbreaking ceremony, the great Nyingma siddha Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje (1800-1866) appeared and drove a dagger into the ground, sanctifying the new location. The school was finished in 1848.
Gyelse Zhenpen Taye Ozer and his cohorts went on the carefully design the new school’s curriculum, making the conscious decision to focus on early Indic texts rather than later Tibetan compositions. This collection, featuring works on the Vinaya, Abhidharma, Mādhyamaka, and the Five Treatises of Maitreya, would form the basis of the flourishing scholastic community at Sri Simha for the next hundred years, until the college was destroyed by the Chinese army in 1960. He became the college’s second abbot, a post he held for several years, after which he went on to found another monastery, Gemang.
Sri Simha College was famed throughout Tibet as one of the finest Buddhist institutes of its day; it became known to many as the Second Nalanda. During a time when a bias against the Nyingmapas led many to believe that the tradition was lacking in rigorous scholarship, Sri Simha College revitalized and energized the intellectual traditions of the Nyingmas and became a center of learning where intensive study led to dedicated practice.
Meet your Treasury of Lives blogger: Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.