A Handful of Flowers recounts the life and teachings of Butön Rinpoche, (bu ston rin chen grub), 1290-1364, from the perspective of his close disciple, Dratsepa Rinchen Namgyal (sgra tshad pa rin chen rnam rgyal). Butön was active primarily in U and Tsang, travelling widely to teach, but his position as abbot of Zhalu Monastery found him there, between Zhigatse and Gyantse in Tsang. The biography spans the entire life of Butön, foregrounding entirely his activities related to Buddhism, from his auspicious birth to his auspicious death, and enumerating teachings given and received. Butön is remembered as, among much else, an important translator and an ardent proponent of the Kalacakra Tantra. The biography may be most interesting for what it omits: the famed editorial work that gathered together the first (arguably) Tibetan canon and his relationship with the Jonang pa lama, Dolpopa. The biography, which details the close relationship between Butön and the supremely powerful Sakya Monastery, serves to prove the unique and extraordinary qualities of its subject and his institution, whose successor happened to be the biography’s author, Dratshepa Rinchen Namgyal.
Prehistory and Early History
In true Tibetan Buddhist style, A Handful of Flowers begins not with Butön’s birth in 1290, but long before and without any ambiguity: “this great person was a mighty Lord of the twelve stages and reached Buddhahood…turned the Wheels of Dharma and showed his entrance into Parinirvana.” (p. IX) Thus Butön is ‘merely’ an emanation of a buddha and working only for welfare of all beings in ways that are simply incomprehensible to logical processes since the actions of irrational actors cannot always be countered by rational re-actions. Such claims are irrefutable: if you have to ask whether someone is a buddha, you will not be able to perceive it anyway; skepticism is its own obstacle, it seems. But the biography goes further. The person known by the identity Butön will return, in the far future, as the seventh of the prophesied thousand buddhas of this era, the historical Shakyamuni being the fourth of these. The relevance of this back story, which certifies the activities of Butön as unassailable may be this: “He put an end to wrong practices of the doctrine and removed all the impurities of non-understanding and wrong understanding.” (p. XI) Such a stainless legacy would be important not only for his own institution, Zhalu Monastery, the leadership of which the author assumed after Butön, but also for the Sakya order more generally, which was in competition with the Kagyu order for patronage and prestige. Interestingly, the biography gives relatively little importance to the fact that Butön was born into a Nyingma family, well versed in that order’s doctrines and practices, and yet all but rejected those in favor of the more recent transmissions constituting the various Kadam, Sakya, and Kagyu lineages . With regard to those early transmissions, even as a child he “was able to differentiate between the commentaries which were completely pure and the ones which were not completely pure…” (p. 3), suggesting that the aspersions cast toward the Nyingmapas, that their practices were not based entirely on Indic sources, had merit. Even so, the biography relates how, under the tutelage of his grandfather, a well known Nyingma lama, Butön became famous as a scholar and a siddha of sorts. Even so, as if it were the natural course of actions, Butön determines the necessity for taking monastic vows and becomes fully entrenched within the Sakya order.
Butön as Consummate Practitioner
The biography takes great pains throughout to mention Butön’s determined study of the Abhisamayalankara, a text which is attributed to the future buddha Maitreya. Whether this is designed to connect Butön conceptually to the lineage of future buddhas or merely to indicate his connection with the bodhisattva path (which this text is said to illuminate with respect to the perfection of wisdom literature) is unclear, but it does serve to distinguish him as a consummate practitioner. That is, not only does Butön engage in and uphold tantric practice as well as logic and the monastic vows (these sometimes being seen as contradictory in practice), but he also perfected the bodhisattva path which connects them historically. He also trained in Sanskrit and became an important translator, a fact to which the biography gives little mention. At times the biography seems to be little more than an enumeration of the teachings received and given. But most critically Butön became, arguably, the most important champion of the Kalachakra Tantra in Tibetan history, and the biography, from beginning to end, focuses on Butön’s attempts to receive all possible transmissions of its practice, his many opportunities during which he himself then taught the practices to others, and the extent to which the tantra’s astrological features played a role in Butön’s activities. In short, “he became like a brilliant sun mandala in the sky amidst the mere starlike who were holders of either the teachings on philosophy or tantra and many scholars no longer even dared to speak in his presence.” (p 18) And he was still in his twenties.
Soon after, at age 31, Butön was invited to Zhalu Monastery, becoming its abbot for nearly forty years. The biography is relentless in its description of what he taught to whom, and indeed it seems that Butön had learned (and mastered) every conceivable practice available in Tibet, making himself – and Zhalu Monastery – an indispensable locus for teachings. Additionally, Butön spent a good deal of time traveling throughout U and Tsang to give teachings elsewhere, and he is also described as a skillful artist and ‘interior designer’ for temples, since his expertise in the visual aspects of the tantras translated into expertise in directing large scale building projects. Naturally, building projects would require money, and money required patronage, and patronage required skill in communication, at the very least. But at no point does the biography suggest that Butön became involved in any of the political upheavals of his times.
The Politics of Dharma
Some fifty years prior to Butön’s birth, the events which would complicate Tibetan political and religious affairs for the following several centuries took shape. Mongol interest in Tibet, and by extension Tibetan Buddhism, brought the aristocratic Khon family to centralized political power and their Sakya Monastery to the center of religious life. The Mongolian factions gaining dominance over much of Asia supported also Kagyu political power, with some Mongol princes preferring this lama to that lama, and that atmosphere – combining political power with religious authority in a competitive landscape – would play out in bloody terms throughout Tibetan history. Despite his close ties to the Sakya rulers, Butön himself seems to have remained above the fray. His biographer, writing in the same sensitive context, may have emphasized a non-political identity in order to protect his master’s reputation and Zhalu itself from consequences of the shifting sands of political power. Only a single incident (p. 44) is recounted in which Sakyapa anger (manifested by a lightning bolt striking a tree) is related to Butön’s not being given an invitation to teach, and even then no direct claims are made with respect to either social or political upheaval.
Two events which are recounted may be identified for their distinctive reporting – in that they do not portray Butön as unerringly successful in each and every undertaking. The first (pp. 22-25) tells us a time soon after Butön became abbot of Zhalu and, it seems, dissension ensued. The biography attributes the cause to jealousy among nagas and evil spirits at Butön’s spreading fame, but a good amount of space is given to Butön’s doubt about his abilities to succeed as abbot once some people “no longer respected his Dharma discourses and behave rebelliously.” (p. 22) Butön asks his patron to intercede, complaining that his efforts at teaching are for others, who seem to be little more than ‘childish beings,’ and that he would be happier in practice. Forthwith, the offending parties, who were “very surprised” by Butön’s apparent retirement (just how long he “took a rest” is not clear), apologized and pleaded for him to turn the Wheel of Dharma again. Years later, some people criticized his teachings as “diffuse, superficial, and without essence,” and that he listens to teachings he should not hear and says things he should not say (p. 39) but Butön seems to have shrugged this off without rancor. This may be an allusion to a growing sectarianism or to Butön’s continued support of the Nyingma tradition.
Omissions and Understatements
Three things from Butön’s career are passed over with little or no mention. First of these is Butön’s foray into editorship, for which he may be best known in modern times. Butön made enormous effort to determine precisely what should and should not be included in the Tibetan canon, excluding (controversially) everything without a persuasive Indian pedigree. That he was a proponent of the Kalachakra Tantra, which was regarded suspiciously by some (including Chomden Rikral, who made the first formal attempt at canon formation) seems, from that perspective, somewhat strange. Much of Butön’s writing is detailed, often in conjunction with translation work, suggesting that he provided commentaries to those projects which he translated. Another understated aspect of Butön’s career, though perhaps only from a much later perspective, is attitude toward the controversial other-emptiness view associated with the tathatgatagarbha and Kalachakra literatures. Butön was a well known critic of this view, which became a major point of contention in the decades following. In the biography, we get a mere paragraph, which notes that Butön wrote a commentary to refute the misunderstanding that, from a literal perspective, “the Buddha potential does not exist in a fully qualified manner in all beings,” as some contemporaries asserted. Related to that, the proponent of the most odious form of the other-emptiness view, Dolpopa, is given no mention in the biography. The Jonang lineage contends that Dolpopa challenged Butön to a debate, but Butön evaded the meeting altogether. The tone of the biography is always positive, so perhaps such an incident, assuming it happened, could not be described in a way that would not cast a negative light on either Dolpopa or Butön in some way. In any case, one could only speculate.
Butön retired from leadership of Zhalu after 37 years, but his pace hardly slowed. He continued to teach at breakneck pace, and he gave hints about his passing several years prior to his death. He continued to write and to give detailed instruction on mandala creation and astrology, chiding others that after his death they would have no way to consult a proper authority. He also gave advice on how various lineage holders should complement their particular practices to become well rounded as scholars. Then he began to show the aspect of illness over the course of more than a year prior to his death, and then finally in 1364 he passed away after cryptically passing the torch to his successor, the biographer himself. Long before this, Dratshepa Rinchen Namgyal informs us bluntly: “Altogether this biography of the great Buton Rinpoche is inconceivable and inexpressible.” (p. 41) Soon afterwards he assures us: “In a pure biography like this one, there is no exaggeration nor falsehood, nor any deprecation of truth.” (p. 42) For all the discussion of Butön’s remarkable prehistory and the indefatigable career of learning, teaching, editing, composing and so forth, there is relatively little fanfare surrounding his death. Perhaps given the breadth of his work in life, there was little that a dramatic death could add.
Dratshadpa Rinchen Namgyal. A Handful of Flowers: A brief biography of Buton Rinchen Drub. Trans. by Hans van der Bogaert. New Delhi: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.
Entry by Ted Arnold. November 2013.