A Biography of Klong chen rab ’byams (5)

Publié le 6 Mai 2021

[To return to the beginning of this biographical series, click here] Digression on Klong chen rab 'byams and the Bön

One point is worth emphasizing in passing (since studies of the rDzogs chen and the rNying ma pa are often open to the Bön, given the doctrinal similarities and textual similarities between these two branches of Tibetan religion): I have noted almost no occurrence of the very word Bön[1] in the numerous volumes of Klong chen rab ’byams’ writings, nor any trace of links with this tradition in his biographies. Of course, one might say that this very silence speaks volumes, and that he would not have omitted the Bön so well if he had not thought of it very often. But, with such arguments, one would soon go looking for the Bon sources of the writings of Sa skya paṇḍita or Tsong kha pa.

Even if it were true that some of the texts of Klong chen rab ’byams have their ultimate source in the Bön, which it is permissible to believe, it is no less likely, in any case, that he was not clearly aware of this.

On the other hand, he does not hide the fact that he often reworked material received from earlier generations of sNying thig masters (this is clearly shown in some colophons of the Zab mo yang tig, for example, and it partly explains why he was able to compose such a vast work in a rather short life). It is quite possible that the author may have unknowingly assimilated Bön elements in this way. What is important to us, at least, and this does not imply any value judgment, is that there is no evidence, until further notice, that Klong chen rab ’byams was ever consciously interested in Bön as such.

I am not trying to show that Klong chen rab ’byams was “a pure Buddhist.” This question is of no interest. Even if he had found the key to the interpretation of certain Buddhist texts in the literature of the Bön, this would not detract from his status as a great Buddhist thinker, any more than the partly Mazdean inspiration of a Sohravardî would remove his work from the sphere of Islamic thought. What we simply want to say is that the idea of a “Bön influence on Klong chen pa's thought” seems to me, in the present state of research, to be largely devoid of philological and historical positivity, or even of any precise meaning.

Jean-Luc Achard, in an appendix to his Essence Perlée du Secret presents facts - the translation of textual fragments from one corpus to another – that are undeniable. It is true that the antiquity of the Bön text that Klong chen rab ’byams is supposed to have demarcated is not solidly established in Jean-Luc Achard’s reasoning; I think that, so many years later, he would be no less critical of the Bönpos’ assumptions about the antiquity of their literature that he was then of the rNying ma pa’s  ideas about theirs. But the general thesis - that of reciprocal borrowings between rNying ma pa and Bon po, especially in the field of rDzogs chen - is well established, beyond all doubt, though most Tibetans would not be willing to admit it. In any case, and this is the main point in my view, there is no reason at this stage to suppose a conscious borrowing on the part of Klong chen rab ’byams. bSam grub rin chen and Kun dga’ ’od zer

When he was twelve or thirteen years old (according to the sources, 1319 or 1320), he received the monastic consecration[2] in bSam yas. The “abbot” was bSam grub rin chen[3] and the “master”[4] was Kun dga’ ’od zer. This precision, which is not found in the mThong ba don ldan, was certainly borrowed by sMyo shul mkhan po from the Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba of the Bla ma yang tig yid bzhin nor bu (no. 263, p. 68).

He received the name of Tshul khrims blo gros and applied himself to the study of the code of monastic discipline (Vinaya)[5] and, at the age of fourteen or fifteen (1321 or 1322), “as he had given a new exegesis of it, his fame as a scholar broke through” (sMyo shul chos ’byung, p. 254: bshad gsar mdzad pas mkhas pa’i grags pa thon).

It may be assumed that it was also in bSam yas that he received the teaching of the three masters who are the subject of the following paragraphs. This monastery, according to tradition, was the first to be founded in Tibet under royal protection in the eighth century, under the direction of Śāntarakṣita and with the blessing of Padmasambhava. Until the end of his life, incidentally, Klong chen rab ’byams was called bsam yas pa (“[monk] of bSam yas”). It is not clear that this was due solely to his ordination to bSam yas; indeed, many of his works were written in mChims phu, not far from this monastery, which seems to indicate that he retained ties there until the end of his life - it was also in mChims phu that he died. bKra shis rin chen[6]

When he was sixteen (1323), he received from the master Rin chen bkra shis (sMyo shul chos ’byung) or rather bKra shis rin chen (mThong ba don ldan, p. 172, and especially Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba, p. 68)[7] the consecrations and precepts of the two Lam ’bras[8] of the Sa skya pas, the two versions of the “Six Dharmas”,[9] the six dharma of Vajravārāhī (according to the Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba), Phyag na rdo rje ’khor lo chen po[10] and bDe mchog dril bu pa[11] , i.e., the cycle of Cakrasaṃvara in the tradition of the mahāsiddha Gaṇṭapada. The gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123), which omits several of the terms in this list, adds the Ṣaḍaṅgayoga (sByor drug) of the Kālacakra,[12] the Zhi byed and the rDzogs chen sems phyogs. The mThong snang ’od kyi dra ba (p. 245) gives a slightly different list, including the gCod yul and the Pañcakrama (from the Guhyasamāja).

The Deb ther sngon po (Blue Annals, p. 309)[13] mentions, in the chapter devoted to the posterity of Atiśa, a bKra shis rin chen, who appears to be a contemporary of Klong chen rab 'byams. Indeed, he seems to have been active around 1337, the date of the monastic consecration of a certain brTson ’grus bzang po, born in 1310, who studied under him. Similarly (op. cit., p. 528), Grags pa seng ge (1283-1349), the future “first Zhwa dmar pa,” would have received full monastic consecration from him. The exact date is unknown to us, but it remains in the first third of the 14th century. In fact, the episode takes place at least five years before 1332, a date that appears a little later in the biography, i.e. in 1327 at the latest.

A master by the name of bKra shis rin chen also appears in the chapter devoted to the various lineages of the Kālacakra in Tibet; but, in the absence of historical indications or sufficient context, it is difficult to equate him with any certainty with the personage before us. That said, it is worth recalling what the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus says about the fact that our author received the Ṣaḍaṅgayoga from him. But, according to the TBRC database, it seems that there was, in addition to Klong chen rab ’byams’ master, another bKra shis rin chen in the 14th century, younger. This can only make us cautious about hasty identifications.


[1] There is  at least one exception in a work of certain authenticity, text no. 232 in our catalog, but it is insignificant, since the word good appears in a ready-made locution: ban bon rnams kyi mthu rtsal rgyas-bya'i phyir | ka ba chu-srin la los brgyan par byas | (description of a detail of the interior architecture of the Zhwa'i lha khang)

[2] The word “ordination” should of course be banned as fully improper.

[3]  Also mentioned in the gTer 'byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (mKha’ ’gro yang tig), p. 122, which however speaks of his thirteenth year (1320, according to the Tibetan way). This text says nothing about Kun dga’ ’od zer.

[4]  We should remember that these names of abbot (mkhan po) and master (slob dpon) refer only to two functions in the consecration ceremony and are not necessarily related to homonymous titles or dignities in the hierarchy of a monastery. The mkhan po (upādhyāya) of the ordination is not necessarily the abbot of the monastery where it takes place, and the slob dpon (ācārya) is his assistant, unrelated to the function of rdo rje slob dpon (meditation and ritual master) in tantric colleges (grub sgrwa). These two characters, bSam grub Rin chen and Kun dga’ ’od zer, are not otherwise known to us. Tülku Thondup (Buddha mind, p. 147) calls the second lHa Kun dga’. No doubt he has a more precise idea of his identity.

[5]  The gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 122) is more precise: he would have studied, among other things, the ’Dul ba lung, the So sor thar pa'i mdo and the ’Od ldan.

[6]  This master is not mentioned by the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (mKha’ ’gro yang tig) in the corresponding point of the biography. He appears after Klong chen rab ’byams began his studies at gSang phu, thus a little later in his life. In the mThong snang ’od kyi dra ba (no. 104, p. 245), it is said that Klong chen rab ’byams studied with this master in his twenty-fifth year (1332), apparently after his departure from gSang phu. Moreover, the list of teachings is consistent.

[7]  Note the formula of the gTer byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123): Slob dpon bKra shis Rin chen la sogs pa las..., which forbids the strict attribution of all the teachings listed below to bKra shis Rin chen alone.

[8]  According to the mThong ba don ldan, Lam ’bras gnyis. These are probably the two forms of this major Sa skya pa teaching, the Tshogs bshad (a less esoteric version, “for the public”) and the Slob bshad (a more esoteric version, “for the disciples”). The gTer 'byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123) speaks only of the Lam ’bras in general. This could simply be the bipartite nature of this system, involving the “three visions” (snang ba gsum) and the “three lines” (rgyud gsum).

[9]  Perhaps that of Nāro and that of Nigu. This is in fact the interpretation of Glag bla Chos 'grub (op. cit., p. 26). But there is no mention of either in the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123). Moreover, there is little evidence of any association of Klong chen rab ’byams with the Shangs pa tradition, apart from the affinities that some have remarked between the self-commentary on the sgyu ma lam rim of the pseudo-Niguma and the self-commentary  on the sgyu ma Ngal gso by the master of Gangs ri thod dkar.

[10] The two previous cycles of teachings are not precisely known to us. They are omitted in the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123).

[11] bDe mchog, without precision, in the gTer ’byung rin po che’i lo rgyus (p. 123).

[12] This is a point of great importance. On the one hand, in Klong chen rab ’byams’ youth, two of the greatest masters of this tantric system in the history of Buddhism in Tibet, Bu ston Rin chen grub and Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan, were already at the height of their fame. [It is also a fact that Karma pa III Rang byung rdo rje, to who Klong chen pa was more closely associated than with any of those two figures, was a Kālacakra specialist, among other many other things. This escaped my attention when I was preparing the doctoral dissertation and even the 2007 French book. It might be around Rang byung rdo rje that bridges were set up between the Kālacakra and the sNying thig] On the other hand, Ṣaḍaṅgayoga includes visionary practices that are not without some analogy to those of Thod rgal, the ultimate practice in the sNying thig tradition. Now it is clear, on the one hand, that the philosophical construction of Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan is in part inspired by the visionary experience of Ṣaḍaṅgayoga, just as, on the other hand, that of Klong chen rab ’byams has largely as its source the visionary experience of Thod rgal. Two of the most curious and original systems in the history of Tibetan thought, whose authors, moreover, are contemporaries, have, in some respects, related motivations, even though the results are in more ways than one dissimilar.

As early as his work on Bu ston (1966, 1973) Ruegg had observed the curious revival of interest in speculations on Buddha-nature in early fourteenth-century Tibet; but it does not seem to me that he focused his attention on the tantric background of the philosophical reflection of that time. It is true that it is always exceedingly difficult to see all the ins and outs of a discussion which is apparently taking place on the sole plane of Mahāyāna scholasticism, but whose deepest roots plunge into the heart of the Vajrayāna.

[13]  I have already mentioned in passing this great history of Buddhism in Tibet, the work of ’Gos lo tsā ba gZhon nu dpal (1392-1481). It has the advantage of being particularly detailed for the period of interest to us here, on the one hand, and of having been the subject of a very correct English translation (Roerich, 1949, 1953, 1976) which, above all, has an extremely well-done index. It is largely thanks to this very useful tool that we have been able to identify some of the masters of Klong chen rab ’byams, whose names traditional biographies hardly mention.

For the next episode of this series, please click here.

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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