Ricard, Mathieu. Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche [1808-1887]. Boulder: Shambhala, 2017
1 March 2019
Matthieu Ricard’s Enlightened Vagabond offers an episodic non-linear account of the life of one of Tibet’s most revered nonsectarian scholars and wandering ascetics, a nineteenth century lama from Kham, Patrul Rinpoche. Between episodes, Ricard translates Patrul’s teachings, written as songs of realization, that make the text a hybrid of a Buddhist biography and philosophical work. Throughout the text, Richard uses his own photographs, sometimes of himself in important places where the ascetic once wandered, to show the reader the textures of the Tibetan landscape. The result is three parallel timelines: the life of the ascetic, the propounding of his teachings, and the devotion of the author, all crossing and uncrossing in a kind of Tibetan Buddhist hauntological cyclone.
Histories and Hauntologies:
Matthieu Ricard’s Enlightened Vagabond
Several threads run through Matthieu Ricard’s translation of the life and teachings of Patrul Rinpoche, one of Tibet’s most revered scholars and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. On one level, the text marks Ricard’s three-decade-long journey in Tibet, gathering stories about Patrul Rinpoche passed down through oral histories and translating texts about the life of Patrul. Sprinkled throughout the text are photos of Ricard meditating at the foot of Tibet’s mammoth mountains where Patrul once sat or walking through valleys across which Patrul once wandered. Between photos are short episodes from Patrul’s life arranged somewhat chronologically and somewhat topically to form a coherent, through at times disjointed, narrative of the life of this great master. Parallel to these threads extends another that offers the reader translations of Patrul’s teachings, written and translated in verse, offering the reader a glimpse into the philosophy of the nonsectarian Buddhist systems Patrul subscribed to. Through all of this, an episodic portrait of early-19th century Tibet is painted, wherein a wandering ascetic encounters all manner of people and responds with the kind of humor one often hears from enlightened Buddhist masters.
It is difficult to write a coherent summary of the life of Patrul Rinpoche based on these small episodes Ricard has gathered, but a few undeniably emerge as memorable and important in the overall timeline of Tibetan history. He begins the text with Patrul’s elucidation of his familial lineage, a trait common in Tibetan biographies. Patrul was born in 1808 at Karchung Khormo Olu located in Dzachukha, Kham in Eastern Tibet (Patrul was often called “Dza Patrul,” in honor of his origins in the Dzachukha region; moreover, “Patrul” is derived from a combination of Palge, his familial name, and trulku/tulku, the Tibetan term for an emanation or reincarnation of a previous master). Importantly, because of the high altitude, “there are few farmers in Dzachukha, as only a handful of crops can survive the harsh, short-summered climate” (Ricard 1). These nomads from Dzachukha depend on horses and yaks, as they change locations two to four times per year, perhaps providing Patrul with his comfort in wandering across Tibetan regions, rather than settling in a single location or at a single monastery. As Ricard notes, “These are places where the outer landscapes are naturally conducive to an expansive inner life and contemplative practice” (1), seeming to imply that Patrul’s birthplace had an unquestionable effect on his life. Ricard outlines Patrul’s familial lineage and the details of his birth.
Perhaps most interesting about the circumstances of Patrul’s birth is that his mother recognized the common signs of the birth of a tulku but decided to keep it a secret: “She did not want people teasing and saying sarcastic things like, ‘Oh, the son of a well-born mother always turns out to be a tulku!’” (4). This anecdote is interesting in thinking about the reputation of the tulku institution among ordinary Tibetans who seem to have been skeptical of these reincarnations, particularly when they come from well-off families. In fact, the politics of reincarnation seem to extend even into the present, though perhaps with more complexity. Her son’s abilities did not remain a secret for long, as they were soon recognized by Dola Jikme Kalzang who recognized Patrul as a reincarnation, leading to Patrul’s entrance into the monastic order, though he only took the 33 vows of a novice monk, rather than the 253 vows of a fully ordained monk. This is attributed to the fact that Patrul was predicted to become a terton, or revealer of hidden teachings, and married yogi; Patrul did not desire to marry and “strictly adhered to the monastic vows of celibacy” (9).
Patrul was most often recognized for his vast knowledge of Śantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva and, numerous times throughout the text is requested to give lengthy teachings on the text. Moreover, his advice most often to other monks is to give the same teaching. For example, after he finished a teaching on the text, he advises a monk, his student named Tsanyak Sherab, to give the teaching one hundred times in a haunted fortress to dispel evil spirits that gave local villagers trouble. Sherab gives the teaching, at first to no one visible, before a crowd of nearby villagers begin to gather to hear the teachings. From then on, the evil spirits of the fortress did not give them trouble any longer. This anecdote shows how much importance Patrul placed on this text and its ability to clear obstacles.
One particularly interesting episode comes when Patrul is passing a Geluk school, Dargye Monastery in Kham. According to the text, monks from Dargye were particularly preoccupied by sectarianism, favoring their Geluk lineage above all others: “When they found out someone belonged to a school other than their school, they’d insult him rudely and sometimes beat him up” (31). When they approached Patrul, famous for being nonsectarian, he refused to answer their prying questions and, instead, when asked to reveal his secret name (the Tibetan word for which Ricard notes is the same as the word for male genitalia), Patrul lifts his robes, exposing himself to them, and yelling “Dick!” in his nomadic dialect of Tibetan. Episodes like this seem to echo those from the lives of other “holy madmen” in Tibet, perhaps most famously Milarepa, who was often seen naked in caves, only occasionally covering himself with nettles, or Shabkar, the well-known Amdopa wandering ascetic whom Patrul tried to meet before his passing.
Throughout Patrul’s biography, he encountered many renowned lamas throughout Tibet (Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul, for example) and both requested teachings from them and offered his own brand of subtle wisdom and commentaries on important Tibetan texts. In one episode, for example, Patrul was with the Dzogchen Pönlop, pretending to be in excruciating pain which startled Pönlop. When Pönlop began to worry, Patrul joked that he is being “torn apart—by the five poisons!” (113). Dzogchen Pönlop “turned around and left,” leaving Patrul to laugh alone at the exchange. These episodes briefly outline what the life of a wandering ascetic was like and the difference between various Tibetan areas and different schools under the umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism. Moreover, it reads like a who’s-who of 19th century Tibetan Buddhist masters, many of whom can be found in tulku figures alive today.
In about 1886, Ricard notes that Patrul’s behavior began to change; when asked for advice he would curtly reply: “It’s up to you. Do whatever you think is best” (157). Shortly thereafter, in 1887, his health began to decline. During one ritual, Patrul noted that he fell asleep briefly, only to wake up and hear a voice say, “You will benefit beings in the East!” (158). Patrul asked his attendant whether or not he thought he could truly be of use to any sentient beings, a mark of the humility common in so many lamas and present in their biographies. Not long after, Patrul snapped his fingers and rested his hands under his robes in the mudra of equanimity and passed into the “infinite, luminous space beyond birth and death” (159). After his death, monks from all schools came to pay homage to him until his cremation in Karchung Khormo Olu where he was born. Accompanying that passage is a photo of Ricard meditating near a stupa built on the ground where Patrul was cremated, reminding one of Ricard’s own journey across Tibet, living where Patrul lived, gathering countless anecdotes and translating stories about his life.
What distinguishes Patrul and this work from so many other lamas about whom hagiographies have been written was his ability to travel across Tibet completely incognito, fooling all except the highest lamas familiar with Patrul and his unremarkable appearance. He was able to see how an ordinary monk was treated, giving him more authentic insight into monastic culture and Tibetan culture at large. He positioned himself on the outside, looking in, at least until he was recognized and invited to join the monastic community. He was tested constantly by sectarian politics that divided Tibetans, the same politics which often caused political unrest on the Tibetan plateau. Patrul, with his brand of humor and crazy wisdom, was able to subvert these politics and taught those around him valuable Buddhist lessons. Perhaps Ricard saw something of his own story, a French molecular geneticist turned Buddhist monk, in Patrul’s life and, in the pages of his new book, has found a way to weave together the threads that make the two alike. Or, perhaps as he suggests of Patrul in the final lines of his text: “one could not bear to be apart from him” (166).
Ricard, Mathieu. Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche. Boulder: Shambhala, 2017.