Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition traces the life stories of six Tibetan Siddhas from the 14th through 17th centuries. The narratives describe these figures’ early childhoods and characteristics, their entrance into monasticism, and inauguration into the Ganden Oral Tradition, a secret lineage of oral teachings deriving from interactions between Je Rinpoche and the wisdom bodhisattva Manjusri. These six works outline the immense spiritual fulfillment engendered by experiencing the Ganden Oral Tradition by linking its mastery to the attainment of Enlightenment. While each story focuses on one Siddha, the narratives overlap with the six figures appearing as lamas and students in each other’s histories. By framing the Enlightenment stories in relation to one another, the life writings play a vital function in instantiating a Tibetan Buddhist lineage and explicitly defining one transmission pattern over time. Despite the text’s emphasis on secret scripture and divine pedigree, Enlightened Beings does not exclusively appeal to Buddhist practitioners. Instead, its focus on inspiring relationships outlines the salience of human interaction and imitable life practices in society, such as generosity, a strong work ethic, and a willingness to learn.
Jan Willis’ Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition recounts the lives of the first six Gelukpa practitioners of the Ganden Oral Tradition in Dagzê County, Lhasa, Tibet. These figures include: Tokden Jampel Gyatso, Baso Je Chokyi Gyeltsen, Drubchen Chokyi Dorje, Gyelwa Ensapa, Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe, and Jetsun Losang Chokyi Gyeltsen. Each Siddha has a unique biographical account, and their stories progress chronologically, ranging from 1356 to 1662 A.D.
The stories commence with the life-writing of Jampel Gyatso, who lived from 1356 – 1428 A.D. He was born in Tsongka and decided to pursue the Buddhist path from a young age. Jampel Gyatso demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to master Buddhist texts through memory. When he turned eighteen, he ventured out of his home to continue his journey in the Central Region of Tibet. The narrative asserts how Jampel Gyatso had grown weary of life’s pleasures and thereby rejected them. During his trip, Je Rinpoche advised Jampel Gyatso, who told him to take up studies at a monastic college. After his studies, the Siddha accompanied Je Rinpoche and six other lamas on retreat, settling at a camp near Wolka in South-Eastern Tibet. There, the monks focused on both the “ordinary path” of meditation and “tantric practices” (35). Jampel Gyatso witnessed several exceptional life events, such as a miraculous manifestation of a portrait and teachings. Later on in the retreat, the Siddha became nicknamed “Juniper Berry” after he provided the camp with sustenance by mastering ascetic practices. Jampel Gyatso survived on only thirty, instead of eighty, juniper berries and gave his leftover plenty to the others.
During this time on retreat, Je Rinpoche gave the teachings of the Ganden Oral Tradition to Jampel Gyatso. The narrative traces the lineage of the tradition: from Manjusri to Je Rinpoche to Jampel Gyatso and explains its function in bridging sutra and tantra. After the retreat, Jampel Gyatso went into isolated meditation and sealed the door to his room shut with mud. Eventually, word of his excellence spread, and people from the region came to seek Jampel Gyatso’s advice. While he gave it, he never revealed his face to these followers. During this time, Jampel Gyatso performed many miracles, like healing disease, augmenting fortunes, and lengthening lives. The Siddha attained Enlightenment after meditating for twenty-six days in bodhicitta. After Enlightenment, he received the life story of Je Rinpoche from Manjusri and, in turn, gained many more unique characteristics. Jampel Gyatso also continued teaching to spread Buddhist instruction and eventually appointed Baso Chokyi Gyeltsen to become the new master of the Ganden Oral Tradition. Once satisfied with his life’s work, Jampel Gyatso passed away at age seventy-three.
The other five stories follow a similar format, relaying the siddha’s life arc from birth until death. Structurally, the six writings take nearly identical forms and convey congruent parts: birth, early teachings, dismissal of worldly comforts for monastic life, accession into the Ganden Oral Tradition, Enlightenment, community service, the appointment of the subsequent master, and death. While variations occur in terms of style and intimate details, the tone of the narratives remains universal, speaking to the exceptional qualities of the Siddhas and their capacity to inspire.
These six narratives are densely thematic works that intertwine chronological experience, doctrinal references, and miraculous myths about secular and religious leadership. However, they are simultaneously straightforward and universally comprehensible. There are descriptions of family life, academic and artistic learning, bonds with mentors, and generosity. These narratives are potent examples of Tibetan Buddhist life writing, not only as pieces that illustrate a religious lineage’s exceptionalism but as tales that directly speak to the overall human experiences through familiar images and metaphors.
Willis, Janice D. 1995. Enlightened beings: life stories from the Ganden oral tradition. Boston: Wisdom Publications, pp. 33 – 96.