A Biography of Klong chen rab ’byams (10)

Publié le 11 Mai 2021

[To return to the beginning of this biographical series, click here] gZhon nu rdo rje Teachings received from this master

The mThong ba don ldan reports that he spent six years studying at gSang phu, which brings us to 1332. It is difficult to know whether it was during these six years or later[1] that he was a student of a master whom the mThong ba don ldan calls gZhon nu rdo rje, from whom he received the rNying ma rgyud ’bum[2] and “many of the instructions of mdo sgyu sems phyogs,” that is, of the three classes of esoteric[3] tantra of the rNying ma pas.

This gZhon nu rdo rje seems to be otherwise completely unknown, unless it is Shug gseb pa (another master of Klong chen pa, see below no. 16); but he is expressly mentioned (p. 5) in the context of the third of the three lineages which Klong chen rab ’byams claims as regards the teaching of the Vehicle of Characteristics in the Byang chub lam bzang.

From this gZhon nu rdo rje, he also received the teaching of the Bodhicaryāvatāra and Śikśāsamuccaya of Śāntideva[4] and the teachings of the bKa’ gdams pa. Specifically, according to the gTer ’byung rin po che'i lo rgyus (p. 124), these are the Graduated Teaching (bsTan rim) and the Graduated Way (Lam rim). These indications are valuable, insofar as Klong chen rab ’byams’ work clearly bears, in more than one respect, the strong imprint of the influence of Atiśa’s posterity, whom he mentions, moreover, with the greatest deference.

This same text further adds (but here also the name of the master is followed by the phrase “from him and others... [the sogs pa las],” which prohibits strict attribution) the Doha, the Mahāmudrā, and the gCod yul. This is interesting, however, in that the teaching of the Doha and several elements that relate to the Mahāmudrā of the bKa’ brgyud pa would eventually bring this gZhon nu rdo rje closer to the Shug gseb pa master. But this remains exceedingly vague and uncertain.

It should be noted that there is nothing in the Deb ther sngon po to associate Master Shug gseb pa (whom one might be tempted to identify with this gZhon nu rdo rje) with the rnying ma pa teachings, except for his link with the Zhi byed tradition. As has already been said, it is through this spiritual current that the Adamantine Bridge (rdo rje zam pa), i.e. the instructions of the rDzogs chen klong sde, was transmitted. We therefore prefer not to hastily identify these two characters, who perhaps have only their name and their time in common[5]. “Graduated teaching” (bstan rim) and “Graduated path” (lam rim) in gSang phu at the beginning of the fourteenth century

What then are the Lam rim and the bsTan rim that Klong chen rab 'byams studied at gSang phu? The term lam rim is familiar to us, insofar as it immediately brings to mind all the famous literature (of course quite later) of the dGe lugs pa school (beginning with Tsong kha pa’s Byang chub lam rim che ba). That of bstan rim is less so. What was meant by these terms at the beginning of the fourteenth century in gSang phu? An article by D. Jackson[6] sheds considerable light on this. In it he proposes the following criterion for distinguishing these two literary genres: in the set of graded presentations of the spiritual path, starting from the beginner’s level and usually ending with a summary introduction to the tantras, we would call “stages of the path” (lam rim) any text that includes the distinction of the three types of individuals (gang zag chung ’bring che gsum), or three levels of motivation, and “stages of the teaching” (btsan rim) all the rest. In other words, every lam rim necessarily proceeds, in one way or another, from Atiśa’s Lam of the Path to Enlightenment (Byang chub lam sgron); as for the bstan rim, even though in Tibet they generally seem to be not unrelated to that master's tradition, at least they do not necessarily fit into the structural framework proposed by the Lam sgron.

In the work of Klong chen rab ’byams, the Sems nyid Ngal gso and its huge commentary, the Shing rta chen po, fall perfectly into this bstan rim category, as do the last five hundred pages of the Yid bzhin rin po che'i mdzod ’grel Padma dkar po and the corresponding portions of the Yid bzhin rin po che’i mdzod.

However, a comparison of the plan of these bstan rims of Klong chen rab ’byams with those presented in Jackson’s article is instructive: they show a certain structural kinship with the oldest bstan rim recorded, that of Gro lung pa Blo gros ’byung gnas,[7] which Jackson places in the second half of the eleventh century and the beginning of the twelfth. This kinship is due in particular to the fact that, as in Klong chen rab ’byams, in this writing by Gro lung pa we move from engagement in bodhisattva conduct (chapter 9) to meditation on ultimate reality (chapter 10). This is hardly found in this form in the other great bstan rim prior to Klong chen rab ’byams (sGam po pa, Phag mo gru pa, Sa skya paṇḍita). It is true that this same structure would later be found, albeit in a quite different treatment, in Tsong kha pa’s Byang chub lam rim che ba, with its long chapter (240 pages out of the 810 that the entire text comprises in the edition used) on vipaśyanā. Hence it is because of a retrospective illusion that one is not surprised by the order of the materials in Klong chen rab ’byams. Now this kinship between our author and Tsong kha pa on this point is not insignificant; it testifies to the particular interest of both in the work of Gro lung pa. Jackson tells us that Tsong kha pa was very fond of the latter’s bsTan rim.

From Jackson’s article, we discover that Gro lung pa was a disciple of rNgog Blo ldan shes rab (1059-1109) in gSang phu. However, the latter is mentioned by Klong chen rab ’byams in the context of the third of the three lineages he claims as regards the Vehicle of Characteristics in the Byang chub lam bzang (p. 5). Blo ldan shes rab also appears here and there in our author’s work, e.g., Grub mtha' mdzod (no. 33, p. 150, as a mere historical marker); Sems nyid Ngal gso’i ’grel pa shing rta chen po (p. 692); and (if authenticity were to be maintained) ’Khrul pa rab ’joms (p. 65).

The question of the influence of the ancient bka’ gdams pa masters and the kalyāṇamitras of gSang phu on the doctrine of Klong chen rab ’byams remains to be addressed. It may have been exercised in the philosophical field and especially with regard to the interpretation of the great texts of the Mahāyāna, but also, precisely, in the theoretical and practical (pedagogical) conception of the presentation of the stages of the Way. Moreover, these are two aspects that should certainly not be distinguished too strictly. Indeed, one only has to read Tsong kha pa to observe that the conceptual and scriptural framework on which the seemingly purely practical instructions of the “spiritual itineraries” rest is very considerable. Dan ’bag pa gZhon nu don grub and the *Guhyagarbhatantra[8] gZhon nu don grub was indeed one of the masters of Klong chen pa

Klong chen pa also studied under a certain gZhon nu don grub, whom sMyo shul mkhan po (again following Guru bKra shis, op. cit. p. 215) identifies more precisely as Dan 'bag pa gZhon nu don grub. The same element, with a variant in spelling, is found in Tülku Thondup (op. cit. p. 148, “Dan phag pa”). This is confirmed by Deb sngon (Blue Annals, p. 202), where Dan bag (with this other variant spelling) appears as the name of the place where our author studied with this master, and by Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba (p. 71). This was already known from a previous passage of the Deb sngon (p. 157), which also tells us that Klong chen rab ’byams thought that “the commentary of the gSang snying ’grel pa Par khab[9] was unsatisfactory, but that Rong zom’s[10] way was good.” What is more curious in the Blue Annals (same page) is the attribution to Klong chen rab ’byams of two texts on the Guhyagarbha entitled sPyi’i khog dbub pa and rGyud kyi rnam bshad. However, there is reason to believe that ’Gos lo tsā ba (or rather Roerich, the translator) has confused a designation of the contents of the texts with the titles themselves. The second of the two texts is most certainly the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel (no. 161), while the first would be one of the other two texts of the Mun sel skor gsum. We shall see a little later what doubts make us hesitate about the authenticity of one of the three texts that the traditional editors have gathered under the title of Trilogy that dispels darkness, and we shall be less surprised that ’Gos lo tsā ba mentions only two texts and not three.

Dan (')bag pa gZhon nu don grub is also mentioned (p. 68) in the context of the lineage that Klong chen rab ’byams claims to have with regard to the teaching of the Fruit Vehicle of the secret mantras in the Byang chub lam bzang. His name is also found in the gTer ’byung rin po che'i lo rgyus (p. 123). Remarks on the date of composition of the Treatise dispelling the darkness of the ten directions (Phyogs bcu’i mun sel)

Glag bla Chos 'grub (op. cit. p. 28) emphasizes a link between the teachings received from this master and the composition of the great commentary on the Guhyagarbhatantra, the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel (no. 161). This is not an invention on his part: it is indeed from this master that Klong chen rab ’byams claims in the summary of the transmission lineage of the gSang ba snying po that he gives in his Yid kyi mun sel. But Glag bla's passage is equivocal; it could be understood as stating that the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel would have been written at the time Klong chen rab ’byams was a student of gZhon nu don grub, or immediately after. However, Glag bla does not expressly say so, and it is impossible to derive from this biography, which is overloaded with devotional flourishes and rather poor in precise information, a clear hypothesis concerning the date of composition of this commentary.

Moreover, this extensive treatise seems to denote an assurance and maturity of thought, and above all an originality of interpretation, which one is reluctant, perhaps wrongly, to attribute to the young man that Klong chen pa was at the time, if we are still between 1326 and 1332. Glag bla Chos ’grub’s indication can therefore only be understood in this sense: it was the teaching of this gZhon nu don grub that gave Klong chen rab ’byams the first intuition of the synthesis, which he was to attempt much later, of the gSang ba snying po and the sNying thig. This is suggested by the parallel passage in Deb sngon (Blue Annals, p. 202).

An examination of the colophon of the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel shows that the composition of the text was completed in Gangs ri thod dkar, thus (as we shall see), in 1339 at the earliest, a year of the dragon (’brug lo).[11] There was indeed a year of the dragon in 1328, but the author was in gSang phu – not in Gangs ri thod dkar, a retreat he seems to have discovered only after his studies with Ku ma rā dza. Remaining, during the author's lifetime, are the years 1340 and 1352. Let us add that the text is signed with the name of rDo rje gzi brjid, received by Klong chen rab ’byams in a vision which I estimate to be between 1337 and 1339. This point will be dealt with later.

It seems (this will be shown later) that around 1340 the author was busy composing the mKha’ ’gro yang tig, the Bla ma yang tig yid bzhin nor bu and the Theg mchog rin po che’i mdzod (no. 98). Given the considerable volume of these texts (several thousand pages in all), and even assuming, as tradition asserts, that he wrote prodigiously fast, under the dictation of inspiration (and, in our opinion, largely by reworking material from previous generations of masters in his lineage), it is unlikely that he could have completed, in the same time, the composition of Phyogs bcu’i mun sel (681 dense, strong pages, an original interpretation of gSang ba snying po, forming a treatise whose innumerable tree-like subdivisions are well architected apart from an insignificant break in construction). We therefore assume that this book was written in 1352. Let us add, in the same sense, that none of the texts of the Trilogy that dispels darkness is mentioned in the list that the author gives of his principal works in the Grub mtha' mdzod (no. 33), where he mentions, however, several writings subsequent to the Theg mchog rin po che'i mdzod, which is known to be of 1343 approximately. The Phyogs bcu’i mun sel must therefore be dated 1352, and the other two treatises of this cycle are later.

We are, moreover, puzzled by one of these two texts, the Yid kyi mun sel (dPal gsang ba snying po’i spyi don legs by bshad pa’i snang bas Yid kyi mun pa thams cad sel ba).

In the edition of the bDud ’joms bka' ma rgyas pa, this text is found in volume Sha (XXVII), where it occupies pp. 1-182. It hardly explains the main points of the gSang ba snying po, despite its title, and does not resemble the thematic synthesis (spyi don) composed much later by ’Ju Mi pham. As will be seen, the strangeness of this text is certainly one of the reasons why Mi pham must have felt the need to compose a spyi don in the spirit of Klong chen rab ’byams, i.e. in the line of Phyogs bcu’i mun sel.

The composition of the Yid kyi mun sel is indeed strange, especially by the double incoherent classification that one finds there of the philosophical systems of Buddhism. It is hard to believe, when reading it, that it is a great work of the author’s maturity, unlike the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel, in which a perfectly mastered and totally accomplished thought is expressed.

On examining the text, one wonders whether it is not made up of two originally heterogeneous parts, connected with more or less art, the suture apparently being made around p. 63 of the edition used. Indeed, this is the point at which a whole sequence of repetitions begins – which is still nothing, and is not very rare in Klong chen rab 'byams, if not to this degree –, or rather, the repetition of the same themes, treated in a different way, which is perhaps not coherent with the first one.

Another oddity of this text is that it stops rather abruptly, in short, at the threshold of the subject it was supposed to deal with, and has meaning, in the end, only as a preface to Phyogs bcu’i mun sel.

Two hypotheses present themselves to us: either the text is not by Klong chen rab ’byams, as might be suggested by the fact that it is mentioned under a slightly different title in the Ma rig mun sel, which calls the spyi don (or synthesis) of the gSang ba snying po Yid mkha’i mun sel and not Yid kyi mun sel. This assumption is awkward, since tradition is unanimous in considering that it is indeed the spyi don of gSang ba snying po composed by Klong chen rab ’byams.

Or else the Mun sel skor gsum was not composed in one go, and this Ma rig pa’i mun sel would be much earlier than the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel.

Perhaps it is a text composed of earlier sketches on the gSang ba snying po, or formed from the residual material of an early commentary on this tantra, the essence of which may have been incorporated into the Phyogs bcu’i mun sel. One can hardly go any further in the critical analysis of this text without also questioning the authenticity of the Ma rig pa’i mun sel. Nevertheless, this text, which in itself is not of essential doctrinal interest, should be the subject of a philological re-examination.

The next section is here.


[1]  In the Chos’'byung of Guru bKra shis (p. 215), the studies with this master seem to be more or less contemporary with the stay at gSang phu.

[2]  The spelling rNying ma’i rgyud ’bum also exists, but we follow here the usage which seems to us to be the most common (attested in the 46 volumes of the large edition of mTshams brag and confirmed, in the present context, on p. 257 of sMyo shul chos 'byung). It is true that the spelling rNying ma rgyud ’bum is grammatically a bit curious. One also says, in the same style, rNying ma bka’ ma.

[3]  This expression may be surprising, since there is no tantra that is not esoteric. It simply refers to the bipartition of tantras into three external or exoteric classes and three internal or esoteric classes in the rNying ma tradition.

[4] Both are confirmed by the gTer ’byung rin po che'i lo rgyus (p. 124).

[5] There is  also another gZhon nu rdo rje, listed on TBRC : “gZhon nu rdo rje - Primary name: gZhon nu rdo rje [P4419] - Primary title: Za lung Gdan rabs 3 - Born: 1207 d. 1263.” Naturally, the dates are too high for our purposes. However, the mention of the monastery of Za lung can only remind us of Za lung rin po che, n° 6 above. We do not know more.

[6] “The bsTan rim (“Stages of the Doctrine”) and Similar Graded Expositions of the Bodhisattva’s Path” (1996).

[7] Gro lung pa’s text has the full title (Jackson, p. 231): bDe bar gshegs pa’i bstan pa rin po che la ’jug pa’i lam gyi rim pa rnam par bshad pa.

[8]  This tantra, of paramount importance for the rNying ma pa, is found in vol. XX of the rNying ma rgyud 'bum in the edition cited, with a (longer) variant at the beginning of vol. XXI. It is taken either as the fundamental tantra of the Mahāyoga, the first of the three classes of esoteric tantras, or (and Klong chen rab 'byams adopts this interpretation) as the general fundamental tantra of all the esoteric tantras of the three classes. One could say that it provides the general framework for the tantrism of the rNying ma pa school, just as, for example, the Hevajra Tantra serves as the ultimate key to the tantras in the Sa skya pa school.

[9] gSang ’grel spar khab by sGeg pa’i rdo rje, rNying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa, vol. 23, text n° 8.

[10] gSang snying gi ’grel pa by Rong zom Chos kyi bzang po (1042-1136), rNying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa, vol. 25.

[11] This is practically the only case, out of more than 300 titles, where a work of Klong chen rab ’byams is dated in the colophon.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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