Patrul Rinpoche 1808-1887: Ricard, Matthieu, Enlightened Vagabond: the Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche. Shambhala Publications: Boulder, Colorado, 2017.
Summary by Darius Rubin
Enlightened Vagabond is a biography of Patrul Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was given the name Orgyen Jikme Chokyi Wangpo. He lived from 1808 to 1887 and was a wandering practitioner in the ancient tradition of vagabond renunciants. He became one of the most respected teachers in Tibetan History. Rinpoche was born in the nomadic area of Golok Dzachuka, and spent his life wandering and travelling around Tibet. The main focus of the narrative is the philosophy that Rinpoche practiced and taught; that of solitude, that of travel without fixed plans, that of the wilderness and that of the cultivation of bodhichitta, so that all human sentient beings can be relieved from suffering by abandoning the eight worldly concerns. This book is written by a western man, who converted to Buddhism, and it is tailored to western audience perhaps with the aim of teaching westerners about the merits of this eastern yet universally beneficial philosophy.
In his biography of Patrul Rinpoche, published in 2017, Mathieu Ricard gives the unfamiliar reader a deep understanding of the life of a pilgrim and a teacher who practiced his philosophy around Tibet in the 19th century so that the reader might be able to put some of the lessons they learn into practice within their own lives. Ricard gives the reader an understanding of a man who was never the head of a large monastery and who spent his life as a wandering hermit. He never had the infrastructure to be a formal teacher at an institution. However, Patrul Rinpoche, the Enlightened Vagabond, held within him the purest Buddhist ideals of renunciation, wisdom and compassion. He wandered with no fixed plans or accommodation, but practiced and taught along the way his principle of the Bodhichitta which held his principle to relieve all sentient beings from suffering by taking them to enlightenment. To do this, according to the Enlightened Vagabond, one must give up the eight worldly concerns, which consist of everyone’s ordinary hopes and fears. Such as, hoping for gain and fearing loss; hoping for pleasure and fearing pain; hoping for praise and fearing blame; hoping for fame and fearing disgrace. Rinpoche turned away from the transient nature of the temporal world, which is built upon the embracing of these aforementioned eight worldly concerns. Via his pilgrimage and his practice and those he encountered and shared wisdom with along the way, Rinpoche would teach by example about the merits of rejecting such a temporal lifestyle in order to find enlightenment. And Ricard, for his part, is trying to carry on the teachings of the unstructured Rinpoche via the retelling of Rinpoche’s life in this biography.
Patrul Rinpoche’s early life was spent amongst the nomads and herders who dwell in the high-altitude pastures. He was constantly on the move and after his early lifestyle, he lived the rest of his life as a nomad as well. At twenty years old, Rinpoche inherited a large estate, yet he renounced all his material wealth and properties. On top of that, he renounced worldly affairs and devoted the rest of his life entirely to his practice, to his journey towards enlightenment and to his ability to help others get there. When he wrote about why he renounced his wealth, he explained that “when your position is lofty, vanity and envy flourish, when your position is lowly, you’re at ease and your practice can flourish. The lowest seat is the abode of great masters.” It is clear through these words that from the age of twenty years old he was committed to his way of life. His idea of perfection was enlightenment, and in order to reach enlightenment, he knew he must not be concerned about material gain or pleasure, and so he renounced all his resources that might engender material gain or pleasure. Even though his life might have been a lot more comfortable, comfort was not his end goal; truth and enlightenment were his goals. Both Rinpoche and Ricard, through these quotations and the reproduction of them were in agreement with western Christian philosophies about the difficulty of being truly good and divine when one is materially rich.
Despite his purity of self and commitment to his practice and philosophy, there were moments within his life, as retold by Matthieu Ricard, when Patrul Rinpoche was operating on such a high plane of complete truth that he would be almost unaware of societal mores that dictate how one must behave in a civil manner. As a result, there were times throughout his life that Patrul’s actions could be viewed as almost rude or insensitive; however, these are included in his biography, I believe, so that the reader can understand the effect of society that places obstacles of civility that prevent us from operating simply, on a plane of high and unadulterated truth. For example, as a student, Patrul Rinpoche displayed unconventional and unpredictable behavior in the monasteries. He would often try to hide out of his Lama’s line of sight. Not because he was shirking his duties as a student, but merely because he preferred to practice by himself. He would be hard on himself, he would starve himself when he thought his practice was lacking, thus he didn’t need teachers to be hard on him, yet when he would hide from them, it would appear in a worldly sense that he actually had something to hide, even though he didn’t. Moreover, he would sleep a lot which drew the ire of his classmates, yet he could recite everything his teachers taught without studying. He was gifted, yet he repudiated unnecessary pedagogical conventions, in the same way that he repudiated unnecessary societal mores that got in the way of the truth.
Moreover, he could be seen as being disrespectful, for example when he laughed at the grieving widow of a drowned man who thought that her late husband would be punished in the afterlife for the manner in which he died. Yet the only reason he laughed was because he knew that this man was to be reborn in the highest of realms despite his widow thinking he was going to hell. Of the incident he said that “the contradiction was so great that I just broke into laughter. When people hear me laughing, they think I’m a little odd, but when I hear them wailing when their old man is already a celestial being, I think they’re much stranger.” Through this example, it is clear how Patrul Rinpoche was unable to conform to many restrictive common practices, despite seeming to be irreverent.
Yet it was through his lack of conformity that he was able to be such a true and respected teacher to the students he encountered along the journey that was his life. In the Ari Forest wilderness, where Rinpoche would teach his students the arts of transmission and meditation, he would have tea and give individual instruction to all his students. When students listened to him, they felt they were being naturally drawn into profound contemplation, without effort. Rinpoche did not bother with the rules of how to teach, or how to practice, he simply embodied the values of enlightenment, and he inspired his students to do the same.