Tenzin Doma Lama
The Life of Yol mo Bstan ‘dzin nor bu: A critical edition, translation, and study of the memoirs of a seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama
“The Life of Yol mo Bstan ‘dzin nor bu: A critical edition, translation, and study of the memoirs of a seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama” by Bogin, Benjamine E is already a critical edition, which makes this “abstract and summary” paper almost a collage of Bogin’s words and ideas. This autobiography includes phases of internal realizations of Yol mo Sprul sku Bstan dzin nor bu (Yolmo trulku Tendzin Norbu, 1598-1644) with an attempt to encompass most of the external activities, in his own pure perspective. This makes it a very subjective account because it is an autobiography. Keeping the possible historical extraction from his autobiography aside, there are many socio-cultural and political themes existing in a synchronic manner. These themes are collectively represented in a religious light. Two of the recurring themes in his autobiography that I would like to discuss are the friction produced by his final decision to become a sngags pa (nakpa) instead of a monk and his contribution in bridging Buddhism from Nepal and Tibet. Furthermore, one of the major reflections of his autobiography constitutes the mutability of his past responsibilities to his current life, which was to introduce Buddhism to Tibet and construct stupas to support Buddhism. Bogin devotes the entire chapter three to proving “the mutability of the past and the enduring importance of its participation in the present” (15) in Bstan ‘dzin’s life. He introduces many rare local beliefs and tradition through his story telling. His individual life-story embraces most of the historical events occurring in his lifetime. One of the most prominent facts that a reader faces while reading his autobiography is the outstanding spectrum of cultures and traditions, the very same feeling of confusion that Bstan dzin nor bu underwent while he was experiencing his journey through these heterogeneous spaces which have currently become homogenized over time. Anecdotal reflections of Bstan dzin nor bu’s autobiography are the gems of his work because they are not only facts but also a dialogical record that cannot be undermined. Since, Bstan ‘dzin doesn’t address the audience of his autobiography, I have a tendency to believe that these anecdotes exist for the advantage of oral transmission or to easily convert these textual recordings into oral traditions. Lastly, his records of the monastic system shows that during the regime of 5th Dalai Lama, the distinction between the “red” and the “yellow” hat was not stagnant, and it was possible for candidates to move upward in the system.
This unique autobiography of Tibetan Buddhist Lama Yol mo Bstan ‘dzin nor bu starts with his predecessor Nam mkha’ brgya byin’s death. The second Yol mo Sprul sku, Nam mkha’ brgya byin, predicts that he “will take another birth” and in the year 1598 Bstan ‘dzin norbu is born in Kong po, Tibet, to the family of Lo chen Spyan ras gzigs commonly known as Phrin las dbang phyug (ft.142). It is stated that, “many prophetic visions came to him” (101). The vivid description of transmigration is a traditional way to start this radical autobiography. He claims that he remembered the transmigration experience when he was young but not today. I call it radical because he later changes the course of his learning to become a sngags pa from being a monk, whereas in general, individuals on the ladder of Buddhist monastic system desire to stay higher up in the monastic bureaucracy. Bstan ‘dzin nor bu addresses this transformation as “entering the door of my own tradition” instead of conforming to his contemporaries. Being a sngags pa or following tantric Buddhism was vanishing tradition given the creation of the Central Tibet’s monastic bureaucracy in 17th century. His visions are purely ascertained through his learning and depicted through his dreams. His dreams are recurring motifs, which adorn his autobiography. Moreover, it’s his dreams in his current life that recall the responsibility left from his previous life solidifying his transmutability potential. His dreams shape his realizations and his life as a monk, even though, being a sngags pa was almost a derogatory status to his contemporary in the monastic system in Tibet. The sign of civility and reflection of developed political position is well represented by Bstan ‘dzin nor bu because he later decides to physically represent his internal changes and realizations and refuses to conform to the Mongol tradition but cordially follows the Nepali tradition.
Following his beloved wife’s request, he wrote his autobiography including his stories on:
Transmigration, conception, birth, recognition, turning the chariot upward, receiving the upasaka vows, wandering through the field of disciples, gradually entering the gate of intelligence being held by the holy ones. Taking the vows and precepts of a sramanera, progressing along the path of accumulation through study and contemplation. Traveling to the cities of Nepal, ….striving to reach the divine consort, offering supreme reverence, producing a noble daughter. And finding rest. (98)
His transmigration description includes his recollections of his (previous) death when he was young; he said that “ the flames engulfed my brain, there was a snapping sound and I lost consciousness for the first time…yogis came and said, ‘Now your parents are in Kong po.’” (100) An interesting popular cultural notion is introduced in his birth plot: he considered the uncleanliness of the pregnant chambermaid at his birth to be the reason for his intelligence being dull. This form of external disturbance is called dhip in Tibetan and it is believed to have consequences for the interiority of an individual, including their physical health.
Initially, he illustrated the familial attachment through his father’s dialogue of denial of the prophetic claim for him to be the third sprul sku Yol mo rin po che. He quoted his father saying “I cannot part with my son while living” (106). His quotation of his father’s dialogue and his family’s description and respect for their intimacy is an important aspect of his autobiography, and he successfully instilled it with his words about his realizations. It was the secure warmth of his family that he longed for in his lonesome journey of learning. In his 9th (1606) year, he started his learning in Gru dzin and lost his mother and his sister due to chicken pox. He realized this through a dream where he saw his amala climbing a ladder heavily adorned in gold ornaments and his sister “Chos’ dzom”(128) pulling her up “by both hands.” His devotion to being a sprul sku rin po che was keeping him busy and his messenger kept the news of their death secret from him. This work sketches his ritualistic life as a monk as a resistance to learning and his familial ties. Furthermore, he was not happy with his teachers due to the lack of sacred teacher/student relationship and internal conflict between the teachers. The loss of his sister and his mother made his stay like “being in the Crushing hell” and he “did not experience a moment of happiness”(120). He was exposed to the “topics of dialectical philosophy” and he took up the study of Differentiation of the Three Vows (121). In this period of early learning, he considered the teaching from Lo chen ’Gyur med bde chen on the six-branched yoga to be the most useful thing he learned for combating his youthful laziness and in shaping his internal discipline through an external agency. This gave him the gradual realization of entering the “gate of reasoning” and at that time, “everything was mixed with the fragrance of discipline” (124).
For attaining his initial position of novice or the sarmanera precepts he went to Rong, to the foremost disciples and patrons from his previous life (125). Here as well, before the messengers arrival, Mnga’ bdag dreamt of Bstan ‘dzin nor bu’s arrival. The princess of the Rong palace was very hospitable to him and he offered her “the good chest and a little brass vajra which was vomited out of the mouth of Dam can Rdo rje legs pa”(126). His journey through these kingdoms illustrates the heterogeneous places of Tibet. He devoted a few lines to the Stong khun king for his humility and his hospitability and proceeds with his journey to Mchong mo and then to Pa rnam. This journey is where his frustration with the monastic environment started developing because he lagged behind and faced public embarrassment due to lack of ritualistic knowledge. But he acknowledged the patchy learning process by comparing it to “dog food,” cherishing it dearly (132). His hunger for knowledge made him gain a “sharp knowledge of elementary dialectics within a year” (133), and he won a lot of debates. This gave him several chances to yell “khor gsum,” which did help him neutralize his negative attachments to studies of dialectics.
In his youth he traveled to Nepal, in response to the cordial invitation of Sivasimhadeva: The Shaiva Malla king who ruled Kathmandu and Patan before the unification of Nepal (1578/1597-1619). This reflects the parallel of a common political structure in Tibet and Nepal. He was unaware of Newari culture and subjectively states that “I had to go through all of the little lanes for yatra,” which literally means “journey” or “pilgrimage” in Sanskrit. His development of wit and intelligence in his youth was portrayed through his dialogues, such as: his answer to the King’s question on longevity versus reincarnation. During his stay in Nepal, he visited Phar phing, Swayambhu, Red Machindranath, Shaiva temples and his lineage’s temple Bya rung kha shor. This exposure to Hinduism brought him unfathomable joy and curiosity; he was worshipped by religious citizens “as the god of gods.” This visit to Bya rung kha shor recalled his birth from the poultry-woman as her fourth son and his earlier devotion to “ introducing Buddhism to the benighted Tibetan lands north of Himalaya” (9) where his treasure text was kept hidden. At this very moment, he felt like he was “in a state of clarity and was wrapped in bliss”
On his way back from Nepal, he spent two months without learning in a Mongol kingdom without abiding by the Mongol customs, three months in Gzhi ka tse absorbed in studies and headed toward Za dam (144). As he proceeded on his journey towards Tibet, he depicted the monastic environment in ascending systematic order but he noticed “the unmatched knowledge of scripture and the power of fact” during this phase. He stated that, “the worst Tibetan Buddhists are even more of a problem than the non-buddhist extremists” (152). In Ngams ring, he received the dge slong vows from Zhva dmar VI and after that he finally he reached Za dam. In Za dam, he expressed dislike for the shamanistic rituals of “liberating the lingka” and “Tamer of All Haughty spirits” (155). His first exposure to tantric Buddhism was not pleasing and he got entrapped in the “confident trust” of his formal teacher Zhabs drung [Ngag gi dbang po] for seven months in Rnying ma practice (155). Lastly, he reaches Gru dzin and got ordained as a bhikshu. Meanwhile, in the historical plane, Gtsang forces got overturned by the Dge lugs monks in the year 1618. He has even included the dialogue of the king stating that he will not last long enough.
In 1622, after the defeat of the Mongol power, he traveled and studied in Gtsang and finally decided to give up monastic vows and become a sngags pa. He differentiated his acts from the monastic tradition by presenting his humor in serious debate circles and introduced his search for his own tradition. He frequently dreamt about practicing the sadhana of the dakinis of the Tamer of Haughty Spirits practice and many dakas raised up pure white silk (161), symbolizing for him a sign to become a sngags pa. He was even accused, based on speculation, of violating priestly life by people. His discipline of body, speech and mind differed completely from others, and he disclosed his identity as sngags pa physically/externally by wearing a white robe. Internally, he began his search for his own tradition of learning through propitiations of Yi dam dieties. He continued his “pursuit of dharma in the presence of great Rig ’dzin Ngag gi dbang po and noticed the negativity in the monastic environment at the same time. It is important to notice that his criticism for monaticism is directed towards the hypercritical individuals rather than the totality of the tradition (48). Thus, he decided to “take a consort and perform the practices of the yogic discipline of awareness” (185). While Bstan dzin nor bu continued his learning, there were prophecies of Tibet being invaded during the snake year and of being “sloughed off like a snake’s skin.” Later, Tibet was under Gushri Khan’s control and in the midst of it, Bstan dzin nor bu tried to find the reincarnation for his teacher and taught at the Potala and in Gru dzin. He performed marital rites for the Shel dkar in 1630. It is also believed that his sngags pa practice was able to “turn back the Mongol invasions” from “his mastery of protector dieties” in the year 1635 (76). Lastly, he concluded his life by returning to the inner circle of his own family and by deciding to give birth to a daughter to continue his lineage. In the year 1644, he departed the world and identifies Padma ‘phrin las as the reincarnate of his teacher Rig ‘dzin Ngag gi dbang po before departing.
Bojin, Benjamin E. “The Life of Yol mo Bstan ‘dzin nor bu: A critical edition, translation, and study of the memoirs of a seventeenth-century Tibetan Buddhist lama”, Ph.D., University of Michigan, 2005.