Review by Zhang Huasha
Rdo ring Pandita’i rnam thar [Doring Pandita’s Biograpy]
Abstract: Rdo ring Pandita’i rnam thar is the autobiography of Rdo ring Bstan ‘dzin dpal ‘byor (Doring Tendzin Peljor), the third generation of the Tibetan aristocratic Doring (Rdo ring) family family. This autobiography records the origin of the Rdo ring family, the experiences of the head of the family’s second generation (Rdo ring Paṇḍita) experiences in the Pho lha nas (Polhané) reign, and Rdo ring Bstan ‘dzin dpal ‘byor’s own experience of the Tibeto-Gurkha war, the strengthening of the Qing court’s control over Tibet, and his detailed account of his journeys to Nepal and China.
Early History of the Rdo ring Family
The Rdo ring family was of the Dga’ bzhi (Gazhi) lineage and the name Rdo ring derives from the name of their home in Lha sa. The first generation of this family is the elder brother of Bsod nams rgyal po (Sonam Gyelpo), Tse brtan bkra shis (Tseten Trashi). His brother, chief of Tibet’s four ministers, and the only Gtsang (Tsang) aristocrat among the four, was murdered by the other three ministers from Dbus (Ü). After that, Tse brtan bkra shis joint with Pho lha nas in a military conflict against Dbus. Tse brtan bkra shis died in the battlefield, but Pho lha nas finally won the civil war and became king of Tibet. Tse brtan bkra shis’s family was taken good care of by Pho lha nas, who married his own daughter Zhabs drung Bde ldan sgrol ma (Zhapdrung Deden Drolma) to Tse brtan bkra shis’s two sons, Rnam rgyal tshe brtan (Namgyel Tsetan) and Mgon po dngos grub rab brtan (Gönpo Ngödrup Rabten). After his elder brother’s premature death in 1739, Mgon po dngos grub rab brtan became the head of the Rdo ring family and filled his brother’s post as minister as well. Mgon po dngos grub rab brtan, who went high as chief minister and was believed to be the reincarnation of 8th century historian Sba Gsal snang (Ba Selnang), was honored by the Tibetan people as Rdo ring Paṇḍita for his administrative, scholastic and religious achievements. The Rdo ring family enjoyed its prime time in his hands, till the outbreak of the Tibeto-Gurkha war in 1788.
Pa sang tshe ring (Pasang Tsering), son of Rnam rgyal tshe brtan (Rdo ring Paṇḍita’s brother) and Pho lha nas’s daughter Zhabs drung Bde ldan sgrol ma, was born in 1731. This presumed heir of the Rdo ring family was cursed by Pho lha nas’s son ’Gyur med rnam rgyal (Gyurmé Namgyel) during the power struggle after the death of Pho lha nas and “became yogi-like and senseless to the mundane world.”[[#_ftn1|]] In order to get the family an acceptable heir, a marriage between Pa sang tshe ring and Tshe ring dbang rgyal’s daughter Rin chen skyid ’dzoms (Rinchen Kyidzom) was arranged, but the bride was taken after the wedding by Rdo ring Paṇḍita as his concubine, and a son was born to Rdo ring Paṇḍita and her in 1760. This boy, Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor (Tendzin Peljor), was nominally the son of Pa sang tshe ring and grandson of Rdo ring Paṇḍita, but was really Rdo ring Paṇḍita’s son biologically, and the Rdo ring family’s only heir.
Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s Early Life
Before Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor was born, Chu bsang mkhan po Dpal ’byor grags pa (Chusang Kenpo Peljor Drakpa) had a close priest-patron relationship with the Rdo ring family. Upon the master’s death, Rdo ring Paṇḍita and his family entreated him to be reborn into the Rdo ring family, and this was granted by the master. When Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor was in his infancy, it was remembered by his family that he often murmured Buddhist terms or talked about the Chu bsang monastery, and chanted sutras. Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor himself humbly denied this saying by claiming that he has no memory of his last life, but according to the text, he was generally believed as to be the reincarnation of Dpal ’byor grags pa.
As the only male heir of the family, Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s education was closely attended to by Rdo ring Paṇḍita. As a young boy, he was already famous for his competence in reciting Buddhist sutras, composing verses and poems, in astronomy, sports, etc. Due to the Rdo ring family’s high social status, he also developed close relationships with the highest levels of the Tibetan society of his time, including the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama, which paved the way for his administrative career. In 1775, he married the sixth Panchen Lama’s (and Zhwa dmar’s) cousin Rnam rgral sgrol ma (Namgrel Drolma). His first son, Mi ’gyur bsod nams dpal ’byor (Mingyur Peljor), was born in 1784.
Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor had been participating governmental affairs since he was a teenager, and he officially entered the Tibetan government service in 1779 and became a low-ranking official. In 1782, Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor became a minister and was promoted to chief minister in 1788. It seems that if Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s had not become involved in the Tibeto-Gurkha War, the Rdo ring family might have continued to be prosperous even after Rdo ring Paṇḍita, then in his late sixties, renounced from governmental affairs.
The Tibeto-Gurkha War and Journey to Beijing
The Tibeto-Gurkha War (1788-1792) which led to Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s capture by the Gurkhas and deprivation of his administrative position broke out because of the dispute between the Tibetan and Gurkha governments about the exchange rate of old and new Nepalese currency. After the Gurkha army’s sudden attack on Tibet and occupation of three Tibetan border towns, the two governments ceased fire and signed a treaty with Tibet paying 300 tam ka coins to the Nepalese government. Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor went to negotiate as the representative of the government, along with representatives from Bkra shis lhun bo (Trashi Lhünpo) and Sa skya (Sakya), and this agreement was approved, according to Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor, by the Qing officials.
In 1791, the Gurkha troops attacked Tibet again. Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor was trapped by the Gurkhalis in his negotiation mission and was taken to Kathmandu. The Qing court then sent an army led by General Fuk’anggan and the Qing-Tibetan side won the war. After Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor was released, the former Gukha-Tibet treaty signed by him was reexamined. As the Qing officials denied of having approved of the treaty, Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor was suspect of treason and was requested by the Emperor to go to Beijing for interrogation.
Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor arrived in Beijing in the autumn of 1792. His audience with the Qianlong Emperor was described in detail in his autobiography with awe, and he enjoyed this journey and his experience in Beijing even though he infected smallpox and nearly lost his life there. The charge against him was dropped after the Qing court’s interrogation, but his position as chief minister was dismissed and five of his family estates were confiscated.
Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor left Beijing in the spring of 1793, and arrived in Lha sa in the autumn of the same year. After returning Tibet, Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor took the position as sde pa of the Shod region for a short time. His son, Mi ’gyur bsod nams dpal ’byor, took over his prior minister position in a very young age, which aroused some people’s dissidence. The family was also involved in a bribery scandal, but by the time when he was composing this autobiography, the family name had already cleaned, and his son’s position of Bka’ blon was secure.
About the Autobiography
Composed in about 1806 by the third generation of Rdo ring family Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor, Pandita’i rnam thar contains twenty-eight chapters, a preface and a postscript. The purpose of composing this autobiography, according to Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor, is to record the Rdo ring family’s several generations of faithfulness, merits and achievements in serving the Gong ma mchod yon, their extravagant offerings to lamas and monasteries, Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s own “shameful” life and journeys to Nepal and China, and at last his offspring’s success in keeping the Rdo ring family’s honor. The format of this autobiography is combination of prose and verse, and at the end of every chapter, a verse is composed to summarize the whole chapter’s content. The family’s income and expenses are recorded in detail. In this autobiography, the family’s compliance with governmental provision and social customs is emphasized repeatly. Li Ruohong finds this as Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s endeavor of defending his family against people’s accusation of embezzlement in her study about the family.[[#_ftn2|]] However, comparing with Lauran Harley’s study on Mdo mkhar ba Tshe ring dbang rgyal[[#_ftn3|]], it seems that portraying oneself as faithful government servant or emphasizing one’s obedience of laws and regulations is not exclusive in Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s autobiography. As Mdo mkhar ba Tshe ring dbang and his family did not experience the Tibetan and Qing governments’ accusations of bribery and embezzlement as the Rdo ring family but also made similar claim as Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s, one cannot rule out the possibility that emphasizing one’s obedience of laws and regulations is a common practice in 18th century Tibetan aristocratic autobiography writings and be affirmative that the purpose of Rdo ring Bstan ’dzin dpal ’byor’s writing is to defend his family against wrongful accusations.
[[#_ftnref1|]] Bstan ‘dzin dpal ‘byor, Rdo-riṅ Baṇḍi-taʾi rnam tha, Beijing : Zhongguo Zang xue chu ban she, 1995, p. 20
[[#_ftnref2|]]Ruohong Li, A Tibetan aristocratic family in eighteenth-century Tibet: a study of Qing-Tibetan contact, P. 257
[[#_ftnref3|]] Lauran R. Hartley, Self as a Faithful Public Servant: the Autobiography of Mdo mkhar ba tshe ring dbring rgyal (1697-1763)