Review by Misha Kaufman
December 7, 2009
Book Review of Brilliant Moon: The Autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse
Abstract: Brilliant Moon is the autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse, a reincarnated Tibetan Monk who achieved an extraordinary amount of spiritual success and was revered as a paradigm of the Tibetan faith. Dilgo Khyentse was born in Mahabhota, a part of outer Tibet south of Amdo in 1910, and he died in exile in 1993 in Dharamsala, India. Dilgo Khyentse’s story focused on his life through an extremely spiritual lens. Unlike others, Dilgo was open about his religious affiliations and the affect that religion played on his life. His journey from laymen, to monk, to great teacher all occurred through a preordained path to help other sentient beings. Along the way Dilgo Khyentse touched the lives of numerous figures (including the Dalai Lama) and people, making him a revered figure in the Tibetan world. Brilliant Moon is an excellent account of a man that believed and lived by the Tibetan faith, not within a political context but within a purely religious one. In his long life he traveled great distances and accomplished an extraordinary amount of great deeds ranging from meetings with the Panchen Lama to the building of great monasteries. To hear the life of a humble spiritual man, Brilliant Moon is an autobiography worth reading.
Brilliant Moon is divided into two separate parts. In Part 1, Dilgo Khyentse recounted his life before the occupation of the Chinese and the Dalai Lama’s flight from China and in Part 2, loved ones reflect on their time with Dilgo Khyentse, telling numerous heart wrenching stories that give insight into the kind of person he was. In Part 1, the major concern and direction of Khyentse’s writing is centered on his studies and the Tibetan faith. In his teens he spent the majority of his time (seven years) in a cave where he studied Buddhist texts and lived a life of seclusion. He saw the cave lifestyle as something that was innately enjoyable to him, possibly a consequence of his previous life. Part 1 additionally discussed what circumstances brought Khyentse to his spiritual identity. He was born into a wealthy merchant family that was not overly religious. In fact Khyentse’s father (Tashi Tsering) disdained the monk lifestyle and wished for his son to follow the merchant path. At every turn he pushed Khyentse into becoming a layman although he constantly received omens from other monks and layman that believed Khyentse to be a reincarnated lama. Eventually Tashi conceded to the pressure and Khyentse became a monk, but he was still forced to live at home to take care of the family. This moment was extremely important to Khyentse’s life because he never lived in a monastic setting and therefore lived a life of greater seclusion. Consequently as Dilgo Khyentse grew up he made many pilgrimages and retreats including living in caves and small huts. Khyentse constantly referred to his life in terms of things he had learned and Buddhist ideology, the importance of his family and other ‘non’ religious pursuits never took hold for him. An instance of this in Khyentse’s writing is that he never dwells on death or human emotions. When his mother died he mentions it in one sentence and then continues with his story, barely dwelling on that emotional moment. This indicates much about Dilgo’s personality and his diligence to the Tibetan faith in which suffering can be overcome through the understanding of the true nature of reality. Khyentse’s lense is attached to this Buddhist framework, and it is the single driving force throughout his life.
Before religion is discussed it is important to get a sense about what Dilgo Khyentse’s family was like and the role that he played in it. Khyentse had a wife and two daughters. His younger daughter died at the young age of twenty, which the Khyentse family attributed to her need to be reincarnated into a higher life form. Khyentse’s wife Khandro Lama recounted their time together in Part 2 of the book. They had an extremely traditional relationship and yet they obviously loved each other dearly. She had an enormous amount of respect for Khyentse and his diligence. She constantly approached Khyentse for spiritual and practical advice and was his companion as they fled to India. Although they were married Khyentse and Khandro were not very close from an American perspective, because Khyentse was constantly reading and studying Buddhist texts. He lived an extremely spiritual life that differed from the more secularized world around him. While others concerned themselves with politics or the Chinese encroachment, Khyentse always concerned himself with Tibetan texts and helping those in need. Those were the only real pursuits of his long life.
Beyond his family Dilgo Khyentse had a close relationship with a variety of different Buddhist pupils and Tibetan monks. They revered him as a father and true practitioner of the faith and called him “the great nyingma lama.” Important historical as well as Buddhist figures such as the Panchen Lama, Dalai Lama and the King of Bhutan went to Dilgo Khyentse for spiritual guidance. An indication of the level with which people revered him occurs when Dilgo is about to die at the age of 82 and thousands of monks send healing prayers to him. When Dilgo eventually died his reincarnation was honored with a visit and the blessing of the Dalai Lama himself.
As mentioned earlier the Buddhist faith played an enormous role in Khyentse’s life. He based his days on learning Buddhist texts and practicing its teachings. He prostrated hundreds of times a day, ate only vegetarian food and practiced taking on the pain of others whenever he could. Khyentse had a whole room filled with Tibetan literature and with the tremendous amount of knowledge he acquired he was asked to translate and teach that which he learned. Almost immediately after Khyentse began teaching he gained respect from high Tibetan officials including the Dalai Lama. Khyentse taught complicated texts to the Dalai Lama and studied even after he fled to India. An interesting aspect of Khyentse’s life was his “ability” to reconnect with his previous lives and to even have visions of the future. He predicted the exact day when he would die along with the route with which to escape from the Chinese into India. Throughout the book people commented on Kheyntse’s clairvoyant abilities. He was said to have received scriptures directly from Padmasambhava, leave footprints on rocks and even speak directly with some Tibetan gods. These stories created a mystical aura to Khyentse that helped him to become such a revered figure. For Khyentse and those that knew him religion was the lens with which they saw and functioned in the world. Supernatural events in this context were completely normal.
On a broader level the story and life of Dilgo Kheyentse connects to the political movements occurring in Tibet between 1930-1960, including the encroachment and eventual takeover of the Chinese, the necessity to flee to India as well as the new institutions created by the Chinese. Dilgo Khyentse was almost captured by the Communist party numerous times, but he was able to escape and make his way over to India. Though Dilgo Khyentse and his followers make it clear that the implications of being caught by the Chinese were not good ones, nevertheless, the Chinese and political life does not play a major role within the autobiography because of Dilgo’s nature to be so spiritual and insular. For him the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama were only viewed from a spiritual standpoint. His biography however was written well after the events, at a time when China was in control of Tibet. Part of the reason for writing the biography thus becomes about maintaining a sense of Tibetan culture and autonomy. This might be one of the reasons that Dilgo Khyentse paints Tibet as a Shangri-la type of place, to help promote the public relations notion that Tibet was a place of peace. However, It is also clear that Dilgo lived an extremely pious life and that it may very well have been in Dilgo’s nature to generally see the world that way.
Khyentse, Dilgo. Brilliant Moon: The Autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse. Published by Shechen Publications. 2008.