John P. DeSerio
Precious Essence: The Inner Autobiography of Terchen Barway Dorje
In Precious Essence: The Inner Autobiography of Terchen Barway Dorje, Kagyu Tashi, a disciple of Terchen Barway Dorje (Gter chen Bar ba’i rdo rje, c.1837-1920), records Terchen Barway Dorje’s autobiography. There are two autobiographies of Barway Dorje’s life: an inner and outer autobiography. However, the outer autobiography is not included and does not accompany the inner autobiography in this work because of it’s “extremely modest account” of Barway Dorje’s life as well as it’s concealing nature of Barway Dorje’s “qualities” (Gyamtso x). The inner autobiography focuses on Barway Dorje’s powers of interpreting his dreams and visions. According to the translator, Yeshe Gyamtso, the work was created to document Barway Dorje’s various “visions and discoveries” of Buddhist religious materials (245). The work is Kagyu Tashi’s attempt at fulfilling Barway Dorje’s final wishes to uphold the teachings and dharma of Padmasambahava. The inner autobiography itself is separated into four parts: a prelude of the circumstances under which Barway Dorje tells Kagyu Tashi his life story, an account of past lives and deeds, the inner autobiography itself, and the conclusion of Barway Dorje’s telling of his life story close to his eminent death.
Terchen Barway Dorje was the reincarnation of both Nupchen Sangyé and Yeshé Tsogyel (ix). As a rebirth of one of the Padmasambahava’s twenty-five original disciples, Barway Dorje was a treasure revealer from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century (ix-x). Barway Dorje was the disciple of the revered treasure revealer Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa and eventually founded the Raktrul Monastery in Kham, which still exists today (x). Referred to as “Glorious Mahavajradhara in human form,” Barway Dorje was a humble yet gifted and empowered treasure revealer who reluctantly told his own story (8). Barway Dorje told Kagyu Tashi, “My life is without even a trace of meaning. There is no point in putting effort into deceiving others”(9). Terchen Barway Dorje is also known by the names Dechen Barway Dorje, Dudul Lingpa, and Jampel Dorjé Tritsun, among others. Kagyu Tashi refers to his teacher by Terchen because it means “great revealer of treasure” and respectively his other names translate to have similar vaunted meanings: “Blazing Vajra of Great Bliss,” “Treasure Revealer Who Subdues Mara” and “Mahavajradhara Noble Throne” (241-2, 249).
Barway Dorje, throughout his inner autobiography, discovered hundreds of treasures and met or saw hundreds of unworldly beings. The treasure Barway Dorje revealed ranged from medicinal and sacred objects that have protective powers, to mind treasures that spontaneously revealed themselves to only Barway Dorje. These treasures were revealed to Barway Dorje through either sleeping or waking visions wherein spirits and deities inform him of the nature of the treasures and their locations. At times, associates of Barway Dorje had visions or were visited by various deities and they helped locate the treasures. One of the dominant and significant elements of Barway Dorje’s treasure revealing process is that once he has had a vision or dream referring to a treasure and it’s location, the treasure was then found in physical reality. Barway Dorje’s dreams-turned-reality or reality-reflecting-dreams convoluted the distinction between dream and reality. Establishing a connection between the reality of a dream or vision and the reality of the physical world, Barway Dorje reiterated a message consistent with his Buddhist teachings: sentient beings live an illusionary existence in the cycle of samsara. His message of emptiness in and outside of oneself is represented in a song he dedicates to Tsering Yangdzom, a female companion and consort. He sings,
Look to see if experience and thought are two.
If there are no looked-at and looker,
That is what is called the ‘mind’s empty nature.’…
Appearance-emptiness and clarity-emptiness are each indivisible. (119)
The various treasures were revealed to Barway Dorje to communicate and pass them on as teachings and blessings. Barway Dorje passed the treasures on by presenting them as physical objects or teachings to monks and other worthy recipients. At times, dreams and visions acted as an indicator of the dissemination of the treasures and their teachings. Other individuals, for example, may have had dreams or visions of Barway Dorje and when they told him of these visions Barway Dorje would take them as an auspicious sign to transmit his treasure, teachings and empowerments.
Barway Dorje and his assistants traveled across areas of eastern and central Tibet. In this context the area of Tibet, which is referred to in Barway Dorje’s travels (mid-1800 to early-1900) can be understood as the area that constitutes cultural Tibet. Barway Dorje often makes reference to Lhasa and areas of northern and southern Kham. In these areas he and his assistants discovered sacred relics, scrolls, magical objects and images, as well experienced auspicious events like multi colored flowers falling from the sky (141) and rainbows (118). Treasures in Barway Dorje’s experiences have a strong association with nature and aspects of his visions always have a connection to the natural world.
There are few instances in Barway Dorje’s travels in which he was informed of or located a treasure that was not located in nature. Barway Dorje’s discoveries were often in the caves or at the base of holy mountains, in rivers and water or sand. This may have had to do with his karmic relationship with previous bodhisattvas or yogis that practiced at or near the sites of discovered treasures, but this is also indicated in his connection to nagas (Tib, lu) and dakinis (Tib. khandro, 126). Commonly, when treasures were physically enclosed in objects, the objects would be in the shape of an animal and parts of the sacred text or symbols would be on tree bark or the treasure would be accompanied by a thunder crack or cloud.
Interestingly, Barway Dorje did not reveal all the treasures he was informed of in his dreams and visions. In a few cases, due to the level of difficulty required to reveal a certain treasure he did not decide to pursue those concealed treasures. However, this sometimes backfired and in a particular case led to “displeasure” by the deity, Red Gongtsen Lightening Lasso (130). In this case, Barway Dorje was visited by the same deity when he was a child and again when his caravan was attacked by the elements when he was sixty years old. Red Gongtsen Lightening Lasso persistently insisted that Barway Dorje reveal the sacred treasure, “the pills of the five amritas” (130).
Barway Dorje revealed treasures to continue Buddhist religious teachings of what is now known as the Kagyü tradition. Instructed at times by Guru Rinpoché and Yeshé Tsogyel, known to him as the father and mother of Tibetan Buddhism, along with various deities, bodhisattvas, local protectors, and non-humans, Barway Dorje discovered and revealed various teachings and sacred objects for the good of all sentient beings. Precious Essence: The Inner Autobiography of Terchen Barway Dorje gives a compelling account of the spiritual life of this seminal figure of the Kagyü tradition. This autobiography focuses on the worldly and unworldly beings he meets and the places and spiritual gains that Barway Dorje discovered and revealed to his followers.
Kagyu, Tashi. Precious Essence: The Inner Autobiography of Terchen Barway Dorje. Trans. Yeshe Gyamtso. Woodstock, New York: KTD Publications, 2005.