During an era of great sectarianism, the Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye (1813–1899) learned, compiled, and transmitted teachings and practices from across traditions, culminating in his Five Great Treasuries, including the extensive Treasury of Knowledge. Now, a new biography offers one of the most comprehensive accounts of Kongtrul’s life.
In The Life of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (Snow Lion, July 2019), author Alexander Gardner, the director and chief editor of the online biographical encyclopedia Treasury of Lives, looks beyond the legends and hagiography to present the human side of Kongtrul. He delves into the history of war-torn 19th-century Tibet and shows how Kongtrul, along with his contemporaries Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Chokgyur Lingpa, championed ecumenism and preserved ritual traditions that may otherwise have been lost to time.
Tricycle spoke with Gardner about Kongtrul’s life, the dangers of idealizing great teachers, and how history can inform practice.
You have been writing biographies of Tibetan figures for years, but this is your first book. Why did you choose to write it about Jamgon Kongtrul?
One reason is I’ve been studying his life for a long time. Kongtrul was an aggregator of teaching traditions. By Kongtrul’s time, various tantras, sutras, and Buddhist materials had come over from India to Tibet. Tibetans had interpreted them in new ways and came up with new practices, sadhanas [tantric rituals], initiation rites, and instructions. At the same time, there were new treasures [Tib., terma, teachings or relics believed to have been hidden by past masters] that revealers [Tib., terton] like Chokgyur Lingpa were pulling out of their minds, or out of temples. They developed ritual traditions based on new forms of old gods, which were then transmitted down. Kongtrul and another figure Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo were voracious collectors of these traditions. They loved them, and they rightly saw that some were in danger of vanishing.
I imagine Kongtrul as an hourglass because so many of the teachings that came in and out of Tibet passed through him. He traveled all over to receive different transmissions and empowerments. He did the practices, understood them, mastered them, and even wrote new manuals for his teachers. Later in his career, he collected those teachings into massive compendiums that were printed and distributed all over Tibet. That’s why for many of the people doing these practices today—in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions and, to some extent, Sakya and Jonong—their teacher’s teacher’s teacher was Jamgon Kongtrul.
Kongtrul also founded of the non-sectarian Rimé school. Is that correct?
That’s a good question. He’s credited with starting what’s called the Rimé movement, and he is described as a non-sectarian. But that’s not entirely accurate, and part of my reason for writing this book was to clear that up.
The scholar Gene Smith, who created the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center and introduced so many of us to the teachings of Tibet, wrote an introduction to his translation of Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge in 1970—which was the first time that people were really exposed to Kongtrul and his ideas. In the introduction, Gene talks about Kongtrul’s ecumenicalism, and he used the phrase Rimé movement. (Rimé gets translated as “non-partisan” or “without bias.”) That gave people the idea that Kongtrul was a social reformer, but being ecumenical is different from being anti-sectarian. Kongtrul wasn’t interested in starting anything new. In fact, he was very conservative. He preserved these teachings exactly. He said very clearly, many times in his diary, that we should preserve the teachings without mingling or merging them. He in no way was interested in tearing down the walls of the monasteries. He found those institutions valuable because they were the structures upon which these teachings were passed down.
Also, Kongtrul wasn’t alone in being ecumenical. Kongtrul was exceptionally wide-ranging, but other Tibetans were crossing sectarian boundaries in the same way. I’ve had discussions with other scholars about the phrase Rimé movement, and many now say Rimé period instead.
But he was non-sectarian to the extent that he believed we should respect other traditions, right?
To be ecumenical means taking a stand against the type of sectarianism that disparages others and the long history of sectarian strife, violence, bullying, shutting down monasteries, and forced conversions. That doesn’t mean the religious orders in themselves are a negative thing, but we can recognize the dignity of each other’s religious pursuits. I don’t have to convert you; you don’t have to convert me. I don’t have to denigrate you; you don’t have to denigrate me.
Kongtrul never disparaged any teaching. He believed that having a mastery of all the traditions makes you a better practitioner and a better teacher. But the notion of not being part of a particular tradition would have been a foreign concept to him.
Can you say more about the world that Kongtrul was growing up in? To what extent did that inform his ecumenicalism?
He grew up in the Kingdom of Derge, in the Kham region. During that period, both Tibet and China had claimed the area, but neither one of them was able to rule it directly. Derge emerged as one of the more autonomous kingdoms in the region because they were able to maintain good relations with both countries, and one of the reasons they were able to do this was that their royal religious setup was ecumenical. They had royal preceptors from Nyingma, Kagyu, and Sakya traditions. So Kongtrul was born into a sort of Rimé place.
Kongtrul didn’t seem to be particularly aware of the global power politics of the time, but he’s definitely aware of the Tibetan and Chinese armies. In the 1860s—when Kongtrul was in his fifties—a warlord from the Nyarong valley, Nyake Amgon Gonpo Namgyel, started attacking and taking control of the neighboring villages. Gonpo Namgyel was seeking power, he wanted a big kingdom, and he was a very good fighter. The Chinese armies kept trying to stop him because he was disrupting the tea and horse trade between Tibet and China, but he kept vanquishing them and conquering more and more territory.
Early on in Gonpo Namgyel’s campaign, Kongtrul performed rituals for him, as did the 14th Karmapa [head of the Karma Kagyu school]. Later on, Gonpo Namgyel started rounding up lamas as hostages so that, when he marched into a village, the locals wouldn’t attack him for fear that he would harm their Rinpoche. Finally, the Tibetan army came, and they also summoned Kongtrul, who did some rituals and divinations for them as well. In his writings, he said that he didn’t know what he was doing and was saying whatever came to his mind, but his predictions came true. As a result, when the Tibetan army defeated Gonpo Namgyel, they credited Kongtrul with helping them.
He actually wrote that he was just winging it?
Kongtrul was very nervous because the Khampas [residents of Kham] didn’t necessarily want to help the warlord, but they didn’t want to help the Tibetans, either. After Tibet defeated Gonpo Namgyel, the army occupied Nyarong. By the time Kongtrul was writing, the Tibetans had been in Nyarong for several decades, and they were awful. Tibet had a viciously sectarian Gelug government, and they abused their power and made people miserable. So Kongtrul had to say that he didn’t really help them—that he only did what they said because they were going to destroy his monastery.
Some people also thought that Gonpo Namgyel was going to unify the little kingdoms in Kham, and to this day, there are still some Khampas who believe that if he had been successful, they would have been able to withstand both China and Tibet.
Would this warlord really have been a good leader?
It’s not really clear. There are horror stories told, like he murdered lamas and destroyed monasteries, or that he would throw babies over a wall to see them splat. But it’s hard to tell if he was really all that vicious. I think he was just power hungry.
For some practitioners, Kongtrul is a saintly figure. How do you approach the issue of hagiography?
Kongtrul left a diary, and he didn’t present himself as a buddha or an enlightened being. He presented himself as a person and showed his humanity. I find that very exciting. Yet, while there is fantastic scholarship around Kongtrul, I often read introductions that say things like Kongtrul was never involved in politics or the quotidian affairs of daily life; he was pure and perfect; he never got his hands dirty; his feet never touched the ground. The introduction to my book says that Kongtrul was a man whose feet were firmly on the ground.
Hagiography washes out any individual characteristics of a person: he was born, mastered all the scriptures at age three, and never had a negative thought in his mind. If they come out of the womb perfect, what sort of model for path is that? I think that’s a terrible way to depict the Buddhist teachings.
I often think of the passage in the Life Story of Milarepa when a disciple asks Milarepa, “What deity are you an emanation of?” Milarepa responds that the student has missed the entire point of his life story. Milarepa was a murderer, a horrible practitioner of black magic who destroyed entire villages, but the teachings are so powerful that he was able to attain liberation—he went from being a murderer to a buddha in one lifetime. If you think of him as a perfect deity, you miss this important point.
What do you think the impetus behind that idealization is?
I think it’s devotion. In tantric practice, guru yoga is a very powerful teaching tool that asks you to see your teacher as the Buddha. You do visualization, you prostrate, you make offerings, and so forth in order to experience a devotion that is so powerful that the Buddha appears in front of you, in the face of your lama. Your teacher is transformed into the Buddha, and as the Buddha, they have the ability to reach over and show you the nature of your mind. If you engage in this practice, you’re probably not going to say that your teacher is a jerk, because you would be disparaging the Buddha.
Look at the sexual abuse scandals happening in Buddhist communities. People make the mistake of thinking that their teachers are perfect and are incapable of harming anybody. If you can’t separate the guru yoga, which can be a very beautiful practice, from the person your lama is outside the shrine room, then you can’t see what’s going on. It becomes difficult to recognize harm, or you justify it and turn a blind eye.
You also mentioned Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Chokgyur Lingpa. What role did they play in Kongtrul’s life?
My dissertation was on Kongtrul’s work with Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and the Nyingma treasure revealer Chokgyur Lingpa in the Kham region of eastern Tibet during the 19th century. Khyentse and Chokgyur Lingpa never wrote about Kongtrul or gave their opinions of him, but their perspectives enrich our understanding about the world that he was living in.
Khyentse Wangpo didn’t leave a diary, which is really too bad, because he’s a fascinating person. But there are a lot of biographies about Chokgyur Lingpa, including a short autobiography. Chokgyur Lingpa’s story is about a nobody who became a real somebody through his own efforts. He was a treasure revealer, but people in Tibet didn’t just take his word for it at first. He had to prove that he was real, that he wasn’t a charlatan, and he was able to convince people, which is fascinating. For instance, Kongtrul and Khyentse weren’t interested in Chokgyur Lingpa at first. Kongtrul forced him to spend years and years proving that his revelations were valid before he would take any transmissions from him. Again, Chokgyur Lingpa was a person. He was charismatic, and he had ambition. He did what he needed to do to show people that he had real value, and people eventually recognized him.
What do you see as the benefit for practitioners of reading an objective historical biography?
It reminds us that the teachings didn’t drop out of the sky, fully formed from divine intervention. They came out of practices. The Buddha was a practitioner, who overcame suffering. There’s inspiration to be found in the beautiful, flowery praise of the masters, but there’s also inspiration to be had in the story of how they got there—facing up to the obstacles, engaging with negative emotions, and struggling with bad situations.
We can have faith in these masters, and see them as valid teachers, without surrendering our critical thinking. Faith without critical thinking results in dogma, which closes the mind and heart and leads to sectarianism and strife. I wanted to show Kongtrul in all his glory and all his humanity because, to me, that makes him a better teacher and brings me closer to him.
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