Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives mine primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalayas, all of which are organized on their website. The following summarizes the biography of the Jigme Rigpai Lodro (1910–1985) by Nicole Willock.
Many readers of this blog are familiar with the received narrative of Tibet in the 20th century: in 1959, the Red Army invaded, destroying monasteries, torturing and imprisoning monks, and forcing the most educated and accomplished Tibetan teachers to flee. As the story goes, since then, Tibetan Buddhism has been remarkably successful in the occident, while continually suppressed, demeaned, and controlled within the borders of Tibet itself. Fortunately, this is not entirely accurate.
In certain regions and periods there has been resurgence and even flourishing of Buddhist studies, practice, and arts within Tibetan regions. This is largely due to the charismatic and devoted leadership of some teachers who, either by choice or forced by circumstance, remained in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution, survived, and, against tremendous odds, were able to navigate the dramatically altered political landscape of their homeland and re-establish great centers of Buddhist practice and learning. In a series of blog posts, we will be highlighting contemporary masters who have significantly contributed to the preservation of Tibetan Buddhism in its homeland.
Jigme Rigpai Lodro (1910–1985) is one such figure. Born to a Chinese father and Tibetan mother, he was posed to play an important role in the revival of Buddhist culture in Tibet. At the age of 2 he was recognized as the incarnation of the 5th Tseten Zhabdrung, a Geluk incarnation line, despite having been given his name by a Nyingma teacher. He soon took up residence at Garwaka, a group of six monasteries in Amdo, northeastern Tibet, which included a college, printing house, and retreat center. In addition to completing the traditional Geluk curriculum, he was also well versed in both Nyingma and Sakya liturgies, and led prayers at his monastery according to a Nyingma system, as was the tradition. He excelled in upholding his monastic vows, and was an incredibly prolific author—his collected works now span nine volumes. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was studied in modern science, and was known to teach and write about a round earth, the scientific reasons for eclipses, a more accurate historical dating system, and other topics on which the traditional education system in Tibet had lagged far behind. In this way, he was similar to the iconoclastic scholar Gendun Chophel (1903–1951).
Harry Einhorn is a student of Tibetan language and performance traditions in Dharamsala, India, and an educator at the Rubin Museum of Art. He serves as an editor at the Treasury of Lives and also composes music and theater inspired by Tibetan Buddhist themes.
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