Introduction to Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo

From Khyentse Lineage - A Tsadra Foundation Project

Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, the famed 19th century Tibetan polymath and mystic, was arguably the most prolific member of the Khyentse Lineage. Not only in terms of his own writings and revelations, which are presented here in collections that amount to forty-seven Tibetan volumes, but also in terms of the influence he exerted on the religious culture of Tibet and the Himalayan region. The endless list of grand achievements he was able to accomplish for the benefit of the Dharma, are even more astonishing in light of the fact that he reportedly spent the better part of the last three decades of his life cloistered away in retreat at his private residence at Dzongsar Monastery in eastern Tibet. There are several traditional biographies that can be read on this site that recount the details of his life, including his own concise autobiographical account found in the verses of his Essentialized Biography of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo[1] and the more extensive biography written by Jamgön Kongtrul,[2] the translations of which can be found below along with some other suggestions for further reading. However, here, I will merely address the enduring reputation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in order to give a sense of the mystique that continues to surround this illustrious figure two centuries after his birth.

      Though officially recognized and enthroned as the rebirth of Thartse Jampa Namkha Chime, a prominent Sakya scholar and hierarch, he figures into the Khyentse Lineage as the last of the three tulkus of Jigme Lingpa, a.k.a. Khyentse Özer, among whom Khyentse Wangpo was considered the body-emanation (sku sprul).[3] However, for Khyentse Wangpo the list of such recognitions does not end there. Jamgön Kongtrul states that he was the combined emanation of two of the preeminent group of eight Indian vidyādharas (rig 'dzin brgyad) celebrated by the Nyingma, namely Mañjuśrīmitra and Vimalamitra. Elsewhere, Kongtrul omits the former and pairs the latter, Vimalamitra, with the Tibetan King Trisong Deutsen, a claim which is repeated by Dudjom Rinpoche. Though all the sources seem to include the Dharma King among Khyentse Wangpo's former lives, as well as the King's subsequent birth as his own grandson Gyalse Lhaje. In connection with this, Khyentse Wangpo was considered the thirteenth in the line of successive rebirths of Gyalse Lhaje- a line in which every single member revealed treasure over the course of their lives, beginning from the very first Tibetan tertön, Sangye Lama and followed by Gya Lotsāwa Dorje Zangpo, Nyima Senge, Kunpang Dawö, Doben Gyamtso Ö concurrent with Zur Pakshi Shākya Ö, Dragom Chökyi Dorje concurrent with Khyung Nak Shākya Dar, Orgyen Lingpa, Dol Ngakchang Ledro Lingpa, Jamyang Khyentse Wangchuk of Nesar concurrent with Ngari Paṇchen, Garwang Ledro Lingpa, Rashi Pema Rigdzin, and Chöje Lingpa.[4] Alternatively, the rebirths of Trisong Deutsen and Gyalse Lhaje are presented as a set of five treasure revealers that, listed chronologically, includes Nyangral Nyima Özer, Guru Chökyi Wangchuk, Ngari Paṇchen Pema Wangyal, Jangdak Tashi Topgyal and the Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyamtso, a line which again culminates with their combined incarnation as Khyentse Wangpo. Though in his own words, he writes in the verses of his Essentialized Biography[5] that he only vaguely remembers some of his former lives in India and Tibet, but nevertheless gives a few examples. Among these he includes his Indian lives as the mahāsiddha Vajraghaṇṭapāda and the paṇḍitas Pratihārānandamati and Vanaratna, while, regarding his Tibetan lives, he mentions the King Trisong Deutsen and Chokdrup Gyalpo, i.e. Gyalse Lhaje, along with Guru Chökyi Wangchuk, Ngari Paṇchen Pema Wangyal, Thangtong Gyalpo and the great Lhatsun Namkha Jigme. Elsewhere he amends this list, adding the early Kagyu master Rechungpa and the Sakya forefather Jetsun Drakpa Gyaltsen,[6] which are also included in Kongtrul's accounts. Furthermore, Khyentse Wangpo revealed cycles of teachings that he claimed were based on the clear recollections (rjes dran) of his former lives as Langdro Könchok Jungne, who is traditionally counted among the twenty-five disciples of Guru Rinpoche, and Chetsun Senge Wangchuk, the circa 11th to 12th century Dzogchen master who figures prominently in the early lineage of the Heart of Essence of Vimalamitra (bi ma snying thig). Though if we consider the implications of the above attributions as well as the claims of his incarnations, this list grows exponentially. Of course, such claims are common in the Tibetan tradition, in which past life attributions function as a type of pedigree. However, in the case of Khyentse Wangpo, many of these connections to earlier figures are borne out of his own writings and revelations, which are often taken as substantiation of the above claims.

      However impressive a list that may be, Khyentse Wangpo was perhaps even more so in his own right. As a scholar, he is counted among the illustrious group of Tibetan masters actually considered to be Mañjuśrī in human form. He is reported to have studied with over one hundred and fifty teachers from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Together with his cohorts Kongtrul and Chogyur Lingpa, he is credited with instituting the nonsectarian revivalist movement known as ris med, which would profoundly alter the religious landscape of Tibet through fostering a more inclusive view of its Dharma traditions. The implications of which would help ensure the survival of many of these traditions in the face of the formidable trials of 20th century. Within the treasure milieu, he is eulogized as Pema Ösel Dongak Lingpa, the Fifth Tertön King.[7] Kongtrul, describing his prowess as a revealer, stated "...Pema Ösel Dongak Lingpa, the sole chariot of the ocean of profound treasures, had been authorized as the steward of the seven authoritative transmissions and thus all of the profound treasures of the hundreds of treasure revealers fell into his hands, in actuality or through their lineages."[8] The figure of Khyentse Wangpo looms so large in the Tibetan annals of the 19th century that it is, in fact, difficult to imagine what Tibetan Buddhism might look like today without him. In an era that witnessed a remarkable period of renewal and creativity, replete with the emergence of towering figures, Khyentse Wangpo can still be described as incomparable. Under his auspices, Jamgön Kongtrul and Loter Wangpo produced literary collections that virtually ensured the survival of more than a thousand years of Buddhist scriptural output. Yet without the complete transmissions of the works contained within the more than a hundred collective volumes of the Rinchen Terdzö, the Damngak Dzö, the Kagyu Ngak Dzö, Gyude Kuntu and the Drupthab Kuntu, which were painstakingly gathered and embodied by Khyentse Wangpo, those collections might have amounted to little more than dry ink on paper, rather than the life force of a living tradition. Furthermore, his seal of approval brought recognition to figures that would come to shape the tradition we see today. The names Mipham and Chogyur Lingpa might have meant little to us had Khyentse Wangpo not recognized and nurtured their potential early on, thus catapulting them into the spotlight and imbuing their activities with an unassailable authority and stature. Of course, this is not meant to diminish in any way the outstanding achievements of his students, but rather it is a testament to the impact of his counsel and the weight of his influence. Such is the level of esteem that the name Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo commanded in his time and the legacy he left continues to inspire awe up until the present day.

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Further Reading

  • Dorje, Gyurme, and Matthew Kapstein, trans. and ed. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. By Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje (bdud 'joms 'jigs bral ye shes rdo rje). Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991: 849-858.
  • Nyoshul Khenpo. A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City, CA: Padma Publishing, 2005: 270-290.
  • Akester, Matthew, trans. The Life of Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo by Jamgön Kongtrul. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2012.
  1. 'jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po'i rnam thar snying por dril ba.
  2. See rje btsun bla ma thams cad mkhyen cing gzigs pa 'jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po kun dga' bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po'i rnam thar mdor bsdus pa ngo mtshar u dum+ba ra'i dga' tshal.
  3. The others two were Do Khyentse Yeshe Dorje as the mind-emanation (thugs sprul), and Patrul Rinpoche, Jigme Chökyi Wangpo, as the speech-emanation (gsung sprul). It should be noted that apart from the tulku status, Khyentse Wangpo would also become one of the principal disciples, or heart-sons (thugs sras) of Jigme Lingpa's disciple Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu, who is credited along with the first Dodrupchen for introducing the Longchen Nyingthig to eastern Tibet. Khyentse Wangpo is often paired with another of Jigme Lingpa's tulkus, Patrul Rinpoche, as the disciples of Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu that were like the sun and the moon.
  4. See rje btsun bla ma thams cad mkhyen cing gzigs pa 'jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po kun dga' bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan dpal bzang po'i rnam thar mdor bsdus pa ngo mtshar u dum+ba ra'i dga' tshal, pp. 14-15.
  5. See 'jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po'i rnam thar snying por dril ba, p. 394.
  6. For instance, Khyentse Wangpo mentions these figures in an untitled supplication to his former lives that begins with the phrase rgyal kun ye shes gcig bsdus.
  7. The previous four were Nyangral Nyima Özer, Guru Chökyi Wangchuk, Dorje Lingpa, and Pema Lingpa.
  8. zab gter rgya mtsho'i shing rta gcig pu pad+ma 'od gsal mdo sngags gling pa la bka' babs bdun gyi bdag por dbugs dbyung zhing gter ston brgya rtsa'i zab gter mtha' dag dngos dang brgyud pa'i sgo nas phyag tu babs pa.