A Biography of Klong chen rab ’byams (4)

Publié le 5 Mai 2021

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1.1.3. The life of Klong chen rab ’byams His family, his early childhood and his past lives

He was born in the village of sTod grong, in the Grwa valley of the g.Yo-ru region, in central Tibet. His father was BsTan pa Srung,[1] and he was also his first master. He was of the Rog clan, reputedly descended from rGyal ba mchog dbyangs, one of the twenty-five principal disciples of Padmasambhava, accomplished in the practice of Hayagrīva. His mother was Dam pa rgyan of the ’Brom clan.

According to various sources, at the time of her conception, she saw in a dream a great lion whose head was adorned with two suns illuminating the world, which melted into her. In all the biographies, it appears that Klong chen pa was born on a date which, according to Guenther's calculation (Kindly Bent to Ease Us, vol. I, p. XIII), would be Friday, March 1st, 1308. This author omits the supernatural events which precede and accompany Klong chen rab ’byams’ birth and then follow him in his childhood. It is true that they are not directly relevant to the interpretation of his thought. However, as we shall see, the interpretation of a prophecy made to Klong chen rab ’byams in circumstances which, for us, are of a marvelous nature, is one of the only elements which make it possible to date some of his works approximately. Moreover, as Prof. Per Kvaerne pointed out to us during the defense of this dissertation, there would be something artificial in sorting out the elements of the hagiographies, as if they were more or less reliable, as archives for the historian, according to whether they report phenomena that are more or less admissible to modern reason. We will therefore report the facts, real or supposed, as tradition has recorded them, except in cases of internal contradiction.

At the time of his birth, it is said, the guardian goddess (srung ma) Nam gru Re ma ti appeared before the mother of the future Klong chen rab ’byams in the form of a black woman with prominent canines, brandishing a sword. Taking the child in her arms, she said, “I will watch over him.” Then she handed him to the mother and disappeared. He was given the name rDo rje rgyal mtshan.[2]

It is said that one day, while she was working in the fields, a hailstorm hit and she fled for cover, forgetting the child. When she remembered him, she went back but could not find him. She burst into tears; the black woman appeared again and gave him back to her.

The hagiographies further report that, when he could speak, he reported accurate and abundant memories of his past lives and that he was spontaneously endowed with faith, compassion, and great intelligence (blo gros). In his fifth year[3] (1312, he was three or four years old according to the Western system), Klong chen rab ’byams could read and write, “without effort, after he had just been shown the signs,” that is, the letters.

According to the rNying ma pas, Klong chen rab ’byams was the reincarnation of the treasure finder (gter ston) Padma las ’brel rtsal. He himself was convinced that he was, as is evident from the colophons of some of the texts in the mKha’ ’gro yang tig, of which he is the author, which are not supposed to be “treasures” (gter ma), but which are signed with this name, Padma las ’brel rtsal. This visionary master was himself considered to be the reincarnation of Princess Padma gsal, daughter of King Khri srong lde’u btsan, who died in childhood. According to legend, guru Padmasambhava had resurrected her for a few moments in order to impart to her the transmission of the quintessential Drop of the ḍākiṇī (mKha’ ’gro snying thig), which Padma las ’brel rtsal was to rediscover at the end of the thirteenth century, and of which Klong chen rab 'byams was to complete the revelation and shaping. Summary reminder on the nine Vehicles in general and on the subdivisions of the heading of the precepts (man ngag sde) in particular

In this regard, it is perhaps not unhelpful to recall that the rNying ma pa presents the whole of the Buddhist teaching in nine tiered degrees (or Vehicles) (theg pa rim pa dgu). The first three are the Vehicles of the Śrāvaka, Pratyekabuddha, and Bodhisattva; the last six are the six classes of tantra, three external (Krīya, Caryā, and Yoga) and three internal (Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga).

The last class of tantra is the rDzogs chen or Great Completeness. This has many subdivisions, including three sections, the outer section of the mind (sems sde), the inner section of the sphere (klong sde) and the secret section of the precepts (Man ngag sde). The latter is in turn subdivided in various ways; in any case, according to the system generally followed by Klong chen rab 'byams, its most profound section is the “quintessential drop” (sNying thig). The sNying thig in turn is divided into two types of teachings: one is essentially the oral tradition (bka’ ma), which is said to have been uninterrupted since the royal period (eighth century), while the other belongs to the genre of “hidden treasures” (gter ma).

As far as Klong chen rab ’byams is concerned, the main tradition of the “hidden treasures” of which he was the heir is that of the mKha’ ’gro snying thig, a corpus precisely revealed by Padma las ’brel rtsal. Other great cycles of very similar rDzogs chen appeared around the same time, for example the Yang tig nag po, “invented” by Dung mtsho ras pa during the childhood of Klong chen rab ’byams (1316),[4] or the dGongs pa zang thal, revealed by Rig ’dzin rGod ldem in 1366 or 1367, thus not many years after our author’s death. The same is true of the rDzogs chen revelations of Rin chen gling pa and rDo rje gling pa (contemporaries of the master of Gangs ti thod dkar), which, in contrast to slightly older gter ma, such as Guru Chos dang’s Yang ti sangs rgyas mnyam sbyor, hardly differ in substance from the two great sNying thig.

Klong chen pa’s main specificity in relation to these discoverers of hidden treasures (gter ston), in addition to his great philosophical and tantric erudition in general, is that he was at the same time the repository of the oral tradition (bka’ ma), on which the “hidden treasures” are based in many respects. The oral tradition, in this case, is mainly the “seventeen tantras of the essence of the heart of clear light”,[5] on the one hand, and the corpus of the Bi ma snying thig, on the other hand, which elucidates its practice and explains the obscure points. But we have anticipated a lot. Slob dpon bsTan pa srung

From his seventh[6]year (1314, shing stag), he began to receive from his father the consecrations and instructions of the bDe gshegs ’dus pa [7], Hayagrīva, Vajrakīla, the Basic Text of the Guru’s Ritual Activities (Gu ru’i phrin las gzhung) [8], and the teaching of medicine and astrology (sman rtsis).[9]

This is interesting in that it shows that Klong chen pa, although he later received a monastic education and more than sufficient scholastic training, as we shall see, had first been trained in a family tradition, like most of the great rnying ma pa masters throughout history and particularly at that time.[10]

His mother died in 1315.[11]

By the time he was nine years old (1316[12]), he knew by heart the Prajñāpāramitā in twenty thousand stanzas (Nyi khri) and the Prajñāpāramitā in eight thousand stanzas (Aṣṭasāhasrikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra) after reciting them two hundred times (mThong ba don ldan) or one hundred times (sMyo shul mkhan po, Guru bKra shis).


[1]  According to Guru bKra shis (Chos ’byung, p. 214), Klong chen rab ’byams’ grandfather was called lHa srung; he had performed the practice of “taking the essence of nectar” (bDud rtsi’i bcud len) and lived to be one hundred and five years old.

[2] sMyo shul chos ’byung, p. 253.

[3] The seventh (1314), according to the mThong snang 'od kyi dra ba (n° 104, p. 243).

[4] [This might be wrong – the gter ston might rather be Dung mtsho ras pa phyi ma, a bit later.]

[5] Od gsal sNying thig gi rgyud bcu bdun. I give a short summary of these points in the preface to my translation of the Song of Illusion by sMyo shul mkhan po.

[6] All these elements are confirmed by the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (mKha’ ’gro yang tig), p. 121 sq.

[7]  Most certainly Nyang ral Nyi ma’i ’od zer’s gter chos, the bKa' brgyad bde gshegs ’dus pa (see bibliography), of which Klong chen rab 'byams was to receive the transmission again, perhaps in a more developed form, from the master mThing ma Sangs rgyas ’od.

[8] sMyo shul mkhan po (op. cit., p. 254) gives Gu ru zhi drag rnams kyi dbang lung, which is more vague, certainly deliberately so, as the expression Gu ru’i phrin las gzhung is unusual and does not refer to any precise text known to date. It is not excluded that sMyo shul mkhan po had in mind the ritual arrangements for practice found in the gSung thor bu, vol. I, fourth section: ritual texts related to Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (pp. 395-514)’s gter ma - no. 71 (Nyang gter bla ma zhi ba’i phrin sgrub rin po che'i sgron me - pp. 396-472); no. 70 (Drag sgrub gsal ba’i me long, pp. 472-477); no. 158 (Phrin sgrub kyi bu yig thugs rje’i lcags kyu, pp. 477-514). This would imply a connection between the family tradition of Klong chen pa’s father, Slob dpon bsTan pa srung, and the posterity of Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer’s gter chos. The texts of the gter chos of Nyang to which the writings of Klong chen rab ’byams we have just quoted refer are the following: Bla ma yongs rdzogs bla sgrub, Rin chen gter mdzod, vol. VIII (pp. 457-537) for the peaceful form and vol. XVII (pp. 271-413) for the wrathful form. The cycle of Guru drag po dmar po is found in the bKa’ brgyad bde gshegs ’dus pa.

[9]  The mThong snang ’od kyi drwa ba (no. 104, p. 243) speaks only of Chinese astrology (rgya nag po’i rtsis) and says that he was studying it, in his eleventh year (1318) when his father died.

[10]  A comparison would be interesting, on this point as on others, between the biography of Klong chen rab 'byams and that of Rig ’dzin rGod ldem can, alias dNgos grub rgyal mtshan (1337-1408), a figure who is in many respects analogous from the point of view of the revelation of the rDzogs chen teachings, even if he is not otherwise comparable as a universal Buddhist scholar. Indeed, he left no (or very few) known works apart from his very extensive gter chos (if it is relevant to distinguish between personal works and visionary revelations), and he does not seem to have been so closely associated with the monastic and scholastic tradition.

[11] According to the mThong snang ’od kyi dra ba (n° 104, p. 243).

[12]  This is the year that Dung mtsho ras pa is supposed to have discovered his gter chos. This remark is not insignificant, insofar as the following idea seems to have spread among some students of rDzogs chen: the practice of visions of clear light in a dark cell (mun khang) would be, among Buddhist rDzogs chen pa, the proper of the only black Quintessence (Yang tig nag po), gter ma of this Dung mtsho ras pa (it is known that it is found besides in the Zhang zhung snyan rgyud of the Bon po). In fact, this is quite wrong. One only has to read the Bi ma snying thig and the mKha’ ’gro snying thig, as well as Klong chen rab ’byams’ three Yang tig, to be convinced. But, as will soon be seen, Klong chen rab ’byams made a dark retreat, apparently in the winter of 1332-33, i.e., before his meeting with his principal teacher, Ku ma rā dza. Some have naturally wondered what he might have been meditating on there, since it seems (but even this remains undecidable) that he had not yet received either of the two sNying thig [actually, the more I think of it, the more it seems likely that he had received the mKha’ ’gro snying thig either from Karma pa III Rang byung rdo rje or from someone connected to this master's circle]. We assume that this may refer to certain practices of the completion phase (rdzogs rim) of the Guhyagarbhatantra. This question will be taken up in its place. In any case, there is no need to imagine occult filiations with the Black Quintessence of Dung mtsho ras pa, [if it was actually revealed by the 1st Dung mtsho ras pa] of which there is no trace in the work of Klong chen rab 'byams, nor, a fortiori, with the Zhang zhung snyan rgyud.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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