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.
Nyingma Founders, Part 2: Dampa Deshek, founder of Katok Monastery
The Nyingma tradition was first organized in the 11th and 12th centuries in response to the second propagation of Buddhism in Tibet. Since then, it has maintained the dual transmission lineages of kama, or spoken word, and terma, treasure revelation. Both date the importation of their fundamental scriptures to the first propagation of the Tibetan Imperial Period of the 7th and 8th centuries. Adherents to terma claim that their scriptures were concealed during that era to be gradually uncovered by terton, or treasure revealers, and thus uphold a continuity through the historically problematic period of the 9th century following the collapse of centralized power in Tibet, a time when institutional Buddhism was lost. In contrast, kama, the lineage of spoken word, claims to preserve an unbroken line of person-to-person transmission.
A central figure in the formulation of the kama tradition, and certainly the first to leave a great deal of writing on the topic (19 volumes), was Dampa Deshek, the founder of the Nyingma tradition’s first monastery. Dampa Deshek was born in Kham in 1122, the younger brother of the great Kagyu patriarch Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyelpo (1110–1170), one of the main students of Gampopa Sonam Rinchen (1079–1153). Dampa Deshek followed his brother to central Tibet where he trained in the new translation traditions of the Kadam, Kagyu, and Sakya, and practiced many of the newest tantric technologies then in circulation; it is said that he survived an extended retreat by practicing chulen, surviving on a few pills a day in place of food. He took novice ordination at the age of 24 from a Nyingma lama named Jangchub Sengge, mastered the Dzogchen practices of generation and completion stages, and then took full ordination from a Kadam monk at Nartang Monastery, which shares the same lineage transmission of ordination as the Nyingma.
He was greatly influenced, perhaps more than any other teacher, by Dzamton Drowai Gonpo, a disciple of Zur Shakya Sengge (1074–1134) who Dampa Deshek met at the age of 29. Dzamton, a member of the Zur clan, whose members had probably been the first to codify the spoken-word teachings, gave Dampa a wide range of transmissions. According to legend, Dzamton also told him that he would accomplish the rainbow body if he meditated at Kampo Nenang, a monastery in Kham established by his friend the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (1110–1193), and, alternately, if he were to return to his homeland and establish a monastery at a place called Katok, he would spread the Buddhist teachings far and wide.
He chose the latter path, slowly making his way back to Kham over the next several years in search of the place called Katok. On his tour of the region he gained the patronage of local rulers, developed a large and devoted following among the people, and ordained hundreds, if not thousands, of monks.
At the age of 38, he had a vision of a deity who pointed him to a mountainside where a rocky outcrop formed the lines of the Tibetan letters “ka” and “a” and a double-vajra. The legend follows with an epic battle against a local Bon protector that Dampa subdues using the Chakrasamvara Tantra, a central text of the Kagyu tradition. His use of the tantra suggests that in the early days, the community was not self-consciously or strictly Nyingma, and that perhaps the traditions were not then strictly differentiated. The story also reflects that the local Bon ruler named Gelu, who ultimately became a supporter, was initially opposed to the construction of a Buddhist monastery in his territory. Dampa Deshek is said to have trapped the deity in a large boulder, which can still be seen at the monastery.
The local ruler Gelu is said to have sent 100 young men, possibly orphans, to serve as the new community’s first members. Gradually, hundreds more gathered from across Kham. In 1161, Dampa Deshek established a monastic college and a practice center, and instituted observance of summer retreat and a yearly teaching schedule, putting in place the foundational systems of a Buddhist monastery.
In 1191, at the age of 70, Dampa Deshek passed control of the monastery to his disciples, Dorje Gyeltsen the chief among them. Dampa is said to have had a vision in which the lower part of the valley below Katok was filled with water, over which hung an extremely bright light. A deity informed him that the light was a throne for his disciple, who abided in the 11th stage of enlightenment known as “all-bright.” When Dampa Deshek announced to Dorje Gyeltsen that he was the one referred to in the vision, Dorje Gyeltsen had a number of visions of deities.
Dampa Deshek passed away in 1192, and the relics found in the ashes of his funeral pyre were collected in a reliquary stupa. Eight hundred and fifty years later, Katok Monastery continues to thrive.
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