summarized by Shan Wu
Source: Achard, Jean-Luc. 2008. The life and works of Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen [1859–1935]. Leiden: Brill.
Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen (1859-1934), born as bKra shis rgyal mtshan, was arguably the most important Bönpo masters of the last century. He was referred to by his contemporaries as rTogs Idan rin poche (“Realized Rinpoche”) and ‘Ja’ lus pa chen po Shar rdza bKra shis rgyal mtshan (“the Great Rainbow-body of the Eastern rDza”) to signify his famed realization of the Rainbow Body (‘ja’ lus), the ultimate sign of rDzos chen, or the Great Perfection practice, at his passing in 1934. Beside being celebrated for the publicly pronounced spiritual achievement to which dream practice was of central importance, Shardza had many accomplished students and composed texts on a panoply of subjects including the doctrines of rDzos chen systems and a traditional Bön history. Shardza is also remembered for his persistent endeavor to promote a pluralistic, non-sectarian attitude in response to the religious diversity of eastern Tibet.
Early Years: Discipleship
Shardza Tashi Gyeltse was born to a Bönpo family in 1859 in bsDa (brDa) in Eastern Tibet, one of the twenty five holy places in mDo khams known for its exquisite natural beauty. Illustrated by sacred mountains and rivers valleys, bsDa is believed to have been blessed by a long lineage of masters and witnessed several self-arisen (rang byon) svāstikas. According to the birth prophecy, Shardza was identified as the emanation of the Immortal Dran pa nam mkha’ (‘chi med dran pa nam mkha’), the second of the three Dran pa nam mkha’ recognized by the modern Bön tradition. His father, named bKra shis dga’, belonged to a clan of Hor (hor rus) which, according to the tradition, came from the lineage of the Phya gods. His mother Bo legs is said to possess signs of a Wisdom Sky Dancer (ye shes kyi mkha’ ‘gro). Even in his young age, the disinterest Shardza showed towards worldly things and activities was particularly noteworthy, which involved his predilection for staying in empty places (sa stong) and pretending to be reading and practicing meditation, during which he claimed to have visions of deities and heroes transmitting secret knowledge. His parents nevertheless nicknamed him “The Bored One” (Nyob be) due to his uncommon nature. Despite the initial objections of his parents to whom Shardza was the only potential heir at the time being, he was formally ordained as a novice monk at the age of nine, and then took vows of tshangs spyod dge bsnyen from Grub rje rin po che (dBra sprul) when he was eleven. In the years following his mother’s passing away in 1872, he began receiving numerous transmission, including reading authorizations (lung) and entrustments (bka’ gtad) from dBra sprul and was installed as the mgon bla thus made responsible for performing ritual services and assisting his teacher in everyday practice at the local monastery of Tengchen (steng chen).
Hermit Life and Teaching
Having longed for the retreat-based lifestyle advocated by many liberal treasure-revealers he met and admired, in 1891 Shardza went with his friend Tshul khrims bdang phyug into a retreat based on the Tshe dbang bad yul ma cycle in the wilderness of the high plateaus, where they had the vision of wondrous signs of rainbow tents. At the age of thirty-four he returned to the bKra shis khyung lung site established his own humble hermitage on a remote mountainside. In his self-study there that involved reading and reflecting on root-texts, Shardza favored the Madhyamaka View (dbu ma’i lta ba), or the Middle Way; the understanding of which is, in his view, integral to both Mahāmudrā and rDzogs chen.
Three years after devoting significant time to advanced contemplation, he had an extraordinary experience of Awareness which demonstrated that he had reached a percept certitude (nges shes) and had merged his own mind of that of all the deities. In the meantime, Shardza commenced the practice of introducing his direct esoteric experiences and visionary encounters into his writing, and completed a manual of practice of the preliminaries (sngon ‘gro) for the benefit of the students who had come to stay near his hermitage. As a teacher he distinguished himself from so-called erudites (mkhas pa), siddhas (grub thub) who were constantly preoccupied with trade business and so on, and followed the example of Siddhārtha Gautama and rejected completely worldly pleasure, had wild animals for friends, lived in uncommonly fastidious solitude, and practiced many self-imposed restrictions.
In the years from his forties to mid-sixties, Shardza traveled and taught widely in eastern Tibet and earned acclaim from several quarters both as a hermit and an active lama who gave essential guidance (dmar khrid) according to the disciple’s natural capacities. In particular, he guided sMon sras, the son of the fifth Kong sprul for a long time. He also conferred upon his old father mindful instructions.
Mystic Practice and Nonsectarian Attitude
During his mature age, Shardza is known for engaging intensively in night practice and had many visions of Clear-Light (‘od gsal gyi snang ba) in which numerous divine Bodies appeared surrounded by rainbow lights. From that time on, Shardza began to initiate teachings directly arose in his mind that were previously unheard of. He was engaged in conversation with a diversity of religious sects, including non-sectarian Buddhists, and is recognized as part of the non-sectarian (ris med) movement during which Tibetan mind-body practices, such as channel breaths and magical movement, regained importance. He also had strong connections with the Rnying ma pa. Shardza was a practitioner of both Old Treasure as well as the new wave of teachings spread by Gsangs sgnags gling pa. His support of Gsangs sgnags gling pa with his validation of the latter’s Treasure discoveries through his writings and practices at his hermitage further reinforced the trend. Having synthesized many Bönpo teachings, Shardza’s work paved the way for the subsequent migration and medicalization of these practices.
Travel was the integral to establishing his credential and creating a network of support. Shar dza pa visited Nyag rong and particularly Ye shes monastery during the Dgon gsar monks’ invasion and destruction of Bonpo monasteries of the region in 1902. His visit of Dbal khyung, Ye shes and other centers in Nyag rong must have been an important moment for legitimating local masters and disciples at their respective monasteries. By his early sixties, his cross-regional renown and the spread of his textual corpus had attracted the attention of leading Bönpos throughout the Tibetan cultural world, stretching from as far away as Dolpo in western Nepal to Aba prefecture in contemporary Qinghai province.
Literary Legacy and Famed Passing
Shardza’s body of publications totaled thirteen, and according to some, eighteen volumes, including the “Five Treasuries” (mdzod nga) on Dzokchen theory and practice, scriptural tenet systems, soteriology, history, Tantric initiation etc. He drew extensively on Longchenpa’s own Great Perfection corpus and based his compositional system on the Seminal Heart. Perhaps the most popular writings of him were the complete manuals of practice which had served as an accessible gateway to new students, both monks and laity. His collected works also contains influential guidebooks on Dzokchen meditation such as The Self-Dawning of the Three Bodies, or Kusum Rangshar (sku gsum rang shar).
The last several years of his life were spent back in his small hermitage, where he presided over ritual performances, received guests on occasions, gave annual public teachings and offered personal transmission to close disciples. His passing in 1934 at the age of seventy-five as the Rainbow Light Body involves a rare physical Ascension into higher dimensions, as the body is reported to have literally vanished from sight, leaving no mortal decay. He was succeeded by numerous disciples, led by his nephew and chosen successor, Lodrö Gyatso (blo gros rgya mtsho). Another famous student, Raton Kalzang Tenpa Gyaltsen (Ra ston sKal bzang bstan pa rgyal mtshan) wrote the biography of his teacher.