The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds: The Life and Times of a Realized Tibetan Master, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug
A Review of The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds
By Sebastian Espinosa
The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds is a biography about Tibetan tulku Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug from birth to death by his nephew Chögyal Namkhai Norbu. Born in 1909 in a valley near Derge in the Kham region of Tibet, Chökyi Wangchug was recognized at an early age as a tulku and thus was given special treatment and quickly ascended the monastic hierarchy. Not much for politics, the holy man spent the majority of his time focusing on cultivating the buddha within himself through practice and much study. The author’s recounts anecdotes, from his personal time with his uncle or from word-of-mouth reputable sources, about his uncle’s mystical deeds and the respect he garnered in the period leading up to the Chinese invasion. During the invasion, the holy man was captured and tortured by the Chinese invaders. Never to abandon his practice, he chose to die peacefully meditating with his peers in prison instead of being lynched in 1960. The final section of the book recounts the birth of the author’s son in Italy, Khyentse Yeshi, who is conveniently the reincarnation of Khyentse Chökyi Wangchung and a successor to his Dzogchen practice. The book was originally written in 1985 in Tibetan verse in the tradition of namthars —effectively a Tibetan hagiography— to elucidate the practice, and lifetime of this tulku in a key period of Tibetan history. The English version of this biography was translated in 2012 from the Italian version, which abandoned the traditional Tibetan verse for more readable prose.
In the Biography The Lamp That Enlightens Narrow Minds, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu tells the comprehensive history of his uncle, the Lama Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug, along with his relevant past and future. His hagiography is fairly traditional, effectively listing major events, developments and changes in those lives, but much of it is seeped it personal thoughts from the author actually having been there for part of it. This text was originally written in verse and was translated from Tibetan to Italian to English with the transition from verse to poetry. Although the essential story is still there, much is lost in the move to prose and the writing becomes quite dull. For example, while speaking of the year 1944 in the life of Chokyi Wangchug, it is written that he “left without warning for the Detsen Ritrö hermitage, where he remained for more than a year in strict retreat” as he then chooses to meditate “in the larger one [of the caves], which was usually used for gatherings” (45). Speaking on the writing style of the book, these prior lines are pretty definitive; the book gives you the raw details as they most likely occurred with few embellishments. Waterlogged with jargon, name-dropping, and geographic references, this book was written in mind of those both familiar with the faith of Tibetan Buddhism and the geographic region of Tibet. Admittedly though, the pictures provided are a nice added touch. Photographic portraits of characters, landscapes, and pictures of temples sporadically appear in the biography and add a tangible feeling to a writing-style and story that lacks concrete adjectives or descriptive text. The hagiography begins as a very conservative book by simply explaining Chökyi Wangchug’s lineage and his youth, being determined to be a tulku and ascension in practice, but the text improves in detail when the author is finally able to speak from his privileged position as family.
The middle of the text focuses on fleshing out the character of the holy man that was Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug and establishes the conflicts that existed in his life. Much of his youth and early twenties are spent with him going on retreats into caves, to meet and study with new masters, and to meditate on Buddhist teachings. Not much is mentioned of him having interpersonal relationships with others or having many connections at all, and he seems to shun much of the administrative problems and local politics that his peers would partake in. The author clearly is trying to paint his uncle as a man of pure spirituality- a man, true to what he taught, was truly spiritual in that he wanted to focus entirely on Buddhism. For the discerning reader, also embedded and somewhat hidden, are stories of events which point to or illustrate as aspects of the Dzogchen path. Although I cannot claim to be an expert, Dzogchen is a state of being consisting of evocations of awareness and keeping your mind protected. Both Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug and his nephew were practitioners and masters of the Dzogchen Buddhist path. I am confident that a reader better educated on the practice could get more out of this book and appreciate parts such as Chapter 15: The Importance of Pure Vision. This chapter is a more direct recital of Khyentse Chökyi’s opinions which, on the surface level, is a damning of those who practice Dzogchen and Tibetan Buddhism, but still become absorbed with the impurities of power and administration that come to monasteries. Although this dislike for administrative part of spiritual leadership is consistent with the holy man’s actions, there is a significant lower layer to this chapter about the actual way to practice and remain aware on this path that I simply cannot entirely comprehend.
The climax of the text gives an illuminating look at the brief time prior to and the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Usually, In the West, it is generally believed that China annexed Tibet during the invasion of 1950-1951, but this book actually shows the slow personal progress of assimilation that came to a crash in 1959 with the expulsion of the Dalai Lama and collapse of the Tibetan government and social structures. Our author had no choice but to escape to India through a trail that took him from Kham, where skirmishes broke out in 1956, through Nangchen in 1957, to “the relatively safe” Lhasa and escape to India in 1958. He recalls that the last words he heard of his uncle, Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug, where that he had been summoned by the government to be harassed which, he would later found out through word-of-mouth, led to his peaceful death in prison while meditating. In the time between 1951 and 1956 though, things seemed to progress as usual; our holy man had spent 1955 in retreat and planned to spend his remaining years there, but he finally pushed his nephew to escape Tibet and continue their practice. In the preceding chapters, from 13 to 17, which focused on the years 1947 to 1955, there is little to no direct mention of the Chinese or the crisis of political identity. The impending martyrdom of Khyentse Chökyi Wangchug and his opinions on the invasion only become apparent through close readings of the chapters focusing on mysticism. For example, in 1951 the discovery of a sacred object called an earth Terma triggers the off-handed warning from a master that an “era of grave calamities that will be very difficult to avert” would overtake them; to these practitioners and holy men, the point of this emergency was to dedicate themselves more fully to “the essence of the practice” while restoring an important Anyen Tampa temple (p. 69). From there on, there are anecdotes that preach the virtues of fast-acting karmic punishments and an acceptance of death in the cycle of Samsara that provides comfort in the face of the impending conclusion. Overall, Chökyi Wangchug found his death inevitable and advises that the only path was to continue with daily life and to focus on your practices as much as you could. Truly, he was not a man for political or governing opinions, and held himself above them as enlightenment was unattainable with them.
The book both begins and finishes upon interesting chapters that logically fit into the Tibetan tradition. Naturally, a Tulku would reincarnate and produce a new emanation — as with Tibetan religion, the life of the soul does not end at death— and thus the biography had to continue. As previously mentioned, the first chapter begins with an exercise in name-dropping and an explanation of the lineage of Chökyi Wangchug. Although this chapter is seemingly excess for someone with care only for the biography, it’s relevance to the author and his community comes from their practice and thus adds value to the book overall, providing a complete story. Similarly, the final three chapters deal with the life after death of Chökyi Wangchug in the form of metaphysical emanations, continuations of his teachings, and the tulku continuing as the author’s son. The tulku appears in spirit on multiple occasions that correspond with the time after his physical manifestations death to connect with his nephew. The first time to promote his teachings, as his spirit continues to “direct compassion,” while the second time he appears in a dream in 1969 that signals the impending holy pregnancy of the author’s wife (here the author immediately understands that the dream implies reincarnation). The book ends on the final wish of the author that he “hopes that in this lifetime [his uncle] can bring to fruition whatever virtuous action furthers the teaching and procures the happiness of beings” (p. 111). Despite being so similar in content, I found the first chapters dreadfully dull, while the last were revelatory and enjoyable. The richness of the last chapters comes from our author’s personal attachment to the period after he lost his Uncle and the effect on his life that tulku still had on him after. Here the text evolved from a simple namthar to a modern story on a culture in diaspora and the continuing effects of family and religion on a man’s life. In conclusion, I found this hagiography to be a mildly interesting, albeit sparse, read for anyone not familiar with the Dzogchen practice, but a valuable and possibly emotional read for people who can focus on the teachings or the personal history of the author and his uncle, in the context of his culture.