A Biography of Klong chen rab ’byams (6)

Publié le 7 Mai 2021

[To return to the beginning of this biographical series, click here] bKra shis rin chen[1]

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)[2] the consecrations and precepts of the two Lam ’bras[3] of the Sa skya pas, the two versions of the “Six Dharmas”,[4] the six dharma of Vajravārāhī (according to the Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba), Phyag na rdo rje ’khor lo chen po[5] and bDe mchog dril bu pa[6] , 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,[7] 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)[8] 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. dBang phyug ye shes

From the master dBang phyug ye shes he obtained in bSam yas “most of the modern[9] tantras, such as the Kālacakra.” This master is the one whom the Lo rgyus rin chen phreng ba (p. 69), and the Life Worth Seeing[10] (p. 172) call by the shortened name Slob dpon dBang ye. Is he the master of that name (1277-1337), referred to (Blue Annals, p. 280) in the chapter of Deb ther sngon po devoted by ’Gos lo tsā ba to the lineage of Atiśa? There is nothing historically impossible about this. We have not, to date, reached a definitive solution.

According to various biographies, he received further teachings from this master in the period 1326-1332, when he was a student at gSang phu. We take the liberty of specifying them here, preferring to mix up the eras rather than risk losing the reader among the names of the many masters of Klong chen rab ’byams. He obtained from him (sMyo shul chos ’byung, p. 157) the “practice instructions of the tutelary deity” (yi dam dmar khrid), which seem to be, in view of the mThong ba don ldan, precepts relating to the Six Yoga of Nāropa (but it is not very clear); the Buddhakapāla (Śrī buddha-kapāla-yoginītantrarāja); the mKha’ ’gro gur, Vajrabhairava in the tradition of Rwa lo tsā ba;[11] the Rlung ’khor[12] and instructions pertaining to all kinds of deities, which are listed in the biographies. The formula Yum drug (sMyo shul chos ’byung, p. 258, correcting the mThong ba don ldan, p. 175, where it reads Yum sgrub, as well as in the biography of Glag bla Chos ’grub, p. 31) certainly refers to a text of Yang dgon pa entitled Ma drug (Blue Annals, p. 690). Za lung rin po che

From Za lung rin po che,[13] he received the teaching of the tradition of Zhang tshal pa,[14] the Instructions of the Way of rGod tshang pa,[15] Dam pa sangs rgyas’ “anterior, posterior and intermediate” Zhi byed and Ma gcig Lab sgron’s gCod.

This Za lung rin po che is probably not the one who (Blue Annals, pp. 196-197) gave the monastic consecration to Me long rdo rje, one of our author's predecessors in the Bi ma snying thig tradition. He was born in 1243 and was ordained at the age of nine; since the monks who perform the function of mkhan po in ordinations are usually of middle age, he would have been more than one hundred years old at the time Klong chen rab 'byams is supposed to have received teachings from him. This same Za lung pa is mentioned elsewhere in the Deb ther sngon po as a dge bshes (kalyāṇamitra)[16] of central Tibet, a disciple of Ko brag pa Dam pa rgyal mtshan (1182-1257), which makes him, we may assume, a contemporary of Sa skya paṇḍita, not of Klong chen rab ’byams. The one we are interested in may have been a reincarnation (sprul sku) of this Za lung pa, or his successor in the Za lung abbots dynasty; but at this stage it is difficult to know more.[17]

This is a pity. Indeed, the links of Klong chen rab ’byams with the tradition of Zhi byed (which he seems to have studied with this master) interest us in many ways. On the one hand, a polemic that runs from one treatise to another (notably in the mDzod bdun) seems to be aimed at a certain follower of this school, whom we have not identified. On the other hand, and above all, there is a close historical link between the lineage of Zhi byed and the filiation of the Adamantine Bridge of oral tradition (rNa brgyud rdo rje zam pa), the main channel (as far as we know) of the transmission of the precepts (man ngag) of the “Space Section” (Klong sde) of the rDzogs chen. Now it is a matter of perplexity to us whether Klong chen rab ’byams has any relation to this branch of the rDzogs chen. He often alludes to it in a vague and general way, but there is nothing in his known work to show that he had a deep personal knowledge of the Klong sde, and, moreover, the master of Gangs ri thod dkar does not appear in what we know of the chronicles and hagiographies of this tradition.[18] bTsan dgon pa, Bla brang pa Chos dpal rgyal mtshan and gZhon nu rin chen or Chos grags pa

Having reached his nineteenth year (1326[19]), he went to the monastery of gSang phu ne’u thog, the great center of scholastic studies at that time. The monastery of gSang phu ne’u thog

It is difficult to get an idea today of what gSang phu was like in the Tibet of the time. Nowadays, in fact, despite the “neutralist” utopia maintained by the dGe lugs pa, one can hardly imagine a monastic college that is not the very place where sectarian positions are affirmed. Indeed, in our modest experience, monks who are keen on debate today are almost never seekers of philosophical truths, but rather skilled masters of a kind of parlor game full of subtleties, but where winning openings and triumphant feints have been recorded for generations. The time of Klong chen rab ’byams appears to us as the philosophical time par excellence, since it was the time of the unfinished elaboration of the dogma and of the canon, as it was also the time when the construction of a unified Tibetan state was still being sought.

The very place of scholastic philosophy in Tibet was gSang phu, a monastery founded in 1073 by rNgog Legs pa’i shes rab, a disciple of Atiśa. It is not known when the decline of this institution began until the point of total annihilation noted by mKhyen brtse dbang po in the nineteenth century, during his trip to central Tibet.[20]

The next section of this series can be read here.


[1]  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.

[2]  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.

[3]  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).

[4]  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.

[5] 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).

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

[7] 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.

[8]  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.

[9] gSar ma’i rgyud, the tantras introduced or retranslated in Tibet during the second diffusion of Buddhism, from the eleventh century onwards.

[10]  Here again, we notice that sMyo shul mkhan po is in a way smoothing over the mThong ba don ldan: he replaces the obscure mention of a Collection of Modern Tantras (gSar ma’i rgyud ’bum), a real or imaginary compilation of modern tantras, with the expression “most of the modern tantras” (gsar ma'i rgyud phal che ba).

However, it is not certain that this gSar ma'i rgyud ’bum is only an invention of the biographer, by imitation of the titles of the compilations of the ancient tantras (rNying ma[’i] rgyud 'bum). Indeed, one can guess, especially from the Triumph over Error (’Khrul pa rab ’joms) attributed to Klong chen pa (whoever the author may be), that in the previous century and in his own century there must have been a proliferation of compilations of sūtra and tantra. According to the ’Khrul pa rab ’joms, the composition of these collections was clearly not without sectarian motivations, in many cases, as regards the choice of texts included and excluded. It was necessary to go through a number of provisional editions before arriving at a consensual collection, such as the present bKa’ ’gyur, whose variations from one edition to another are not very considerable. There may indeed have been a gSar ma’i rgyud ’bum of which Klong chen rab ’byams would have received the consecrations and precepts of this dBang phyug ye shes. In order to make progress on this question, it would be necessary to work with specialists of the history of the compilations of the bKa’ ’gyur.

[11]  The dates of this famous personage, a contemporary of Mar pa lo tsā ba, do not seem to be well known. Yet he left a deep mark on the Tibetan mind. He is illustrious, indeed, for his travels in Nepal and India (see the curious description of Bodhgāya in his biography) and for his activity as a prolix and reputedly very rigorous translator of Sanskrit texts. He also left his mark on Tibetan memory for his qualities as an active teacher and for his immense material donations to various masters and institutions. But his name remains mostly attached to the legend of the many deaths of rival and impertinent masters whom he is supposed to have dispatched to the other world by his magical power. Moreover, the tradition of Vajrabhairava practice originating from him has enjoyed immense fortune, since this wrathful form of Mañjuśrī has virtually become the principal tutelary deity (yi dam) of the dominant school in modern times, the dGe lugs pa, who borrowed it from the Sa skya pa. [When this was written, Brian Cuevas’ book, Ra Yeshé Sengé – The All-Melodious Drumbeat [2015] was not published yet. He gives 1016 as a date of birth for Rwa lo tsā ba, but does not seem to suggest a date for his death.]

[12] Unknown to us. The title is not specific enough to allow us an identification.

[13]  Zab lung is read in the sMyo shul chos 'byung. But this is probably a mistake.

[14]  Or the doctrines of the Tshal pa bka’ brgyud school (tshal pa’i chos skor), as sMyo shul mkhan po writes. But it is more or less the same thing, since Zhang tshal pa or Zhang g.Yu brag pa brTson ’grus grags pa (1123-1193) is the founder of this school.

[15]  rGod tshang pa mGon po rdo rje or mGon po dpal (1189-1258), one of the founding masters of the ’Brug pa bka’ brgyud pa. His biography can be found in the Deb sngon (Blue Annals, pp. 680-687). He seems to have composed a treatise entitled Ro snyoms sgang ’dril (op. cit., p. 687) [This is actually found in vol. 3, p 219 sq. of his gSung ’bum, now on TBRC : W3CN22956].

[16] That is to say, in the terminology of the time, a very literate monk, since the academic title of dge bshes was not yet well established.

[17] See also below gZhon nu rdo rje.

[18] We shall see later for what reason Samten Karmay says, in The Great Perfection (p. 209), that the Chos dbyings mdzod (no. 60) of our author is connected with the teachings of the Klong sde and the Sems sde.

[19]  Not the year of the male earth tiger (sa pho stag), as an interpolated note in the modern Beijing edition of the mThong ba don ldan falsely states, but the year of the fire tiger (me stag). This is confirmed by all other sources, including the mThong snang ’od kyi dra ba (no. 104, p. 244). This is the year when the great philosopher of the Jo nang pa school, Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292-1361), became abbot of Jo nang. This remark is not accidental: Indeed, the absence of Dol po pa, not only in the work (with the exception of a few mentions in the ’Khrul pa rab 'joms (no. 31), whose authorship is doubtful), but also in the biography of Klong chen rab ’byams, the absence of almost any contact between these two thinkers, who were more or less contemporaries, perhaps the most original in the history of Tibetan thought and both famous in their time (Dol po pa probably more than Klong chen rab 'byams), may be surprising. Klong chen rab ’byams is attached by multiple indirect links to Bu ston, whose (powerless) opposition to Dol po pa is reported in several hagiographic traditions. If the Triumph over Error (’Khrul pa rab ’joms) were to be attributed to our author (which is at least uncertain) ; if, according to Gene Smith's hypothesis, ’Bri gung dPal ’dzin, author of the polemical treatise to which this text responds, is indeed a jo nang pa author, a disciple of Dol po pa (which is all the more likely since quotations from the Kālacakra tantra and its commentaries - specialties of the Jo nang pa - are much very frequent in the 'Khrul pa rab ’joms), then one may wonder whether there was not some hostility between Klong chen rab ’byams and Dol po pa. It remains to try to unravel the whole thing.

There is another point of contact between the two authors: both were associated with Dam pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan. It was at the request of the latter, in particular, that Dol po pa composed the essential summary of his doctrine, the bKa’ bsdu bzhi pa, as Cyrus Stearns explains in his indispensable book, The Buddha from Dolpo - A Study of the Life and Thought of the Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen. Now, this text has a certain parallelism with the address to Dam pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan (no. 143) found in Klong chen rab ’byams’ gSung thor bu. Is it possible that Dam pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan put these two masters, and perhaps others, in rivalry by inviting them to compose on the same subject? Certainly, Klong chen rab 'byams’ treatise is not comparable to that of Dol po pa: on the one hand, we have a small piece of occasional writing, far below the average level of Klong chen rab ’byams’ production, and on the other hand, perhaps the most dazzling and comprehensive expression of Dol po pa's very particular genius. Whether there is any connection between these two writings is a question that we are not, for the moment, in a position to decide.

[20] Cf. Tülku Thondup, Buddha Mind (p. 147) for this remark on the decline of gSang phu. For its source, cf. Ferrari, Mk'yen Brtse's Guide to the Holy Places of Central Tibet (Rome, 1958).

Rédigé par Stéphane Arguillère

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