D. L. Snellgrove. Four Lamas of Dolpo, Autobiographies of Four Tibetan Lamas (15th–18th Centuries). By Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Summary by Michaela Sawyer
MERIT INTELLECT (bSod-nams blo-gros) 1456-1521, Abbot of Margom (dMar-sgom). A biography constructed by Merit Intellect’s favorite disciple and eventual successor Religious Protector Glorious and Good. In his own biography Religious Protector tells us that he wrote down all his lama told him about his life. He completed the work in 1513 (see p. 123), seven years before Merit Intellect’s death.
Tibetan Life Writing is an essential and expository aspect of Buddhism and Tibetan literary tradition at large. The historical impact of individual stories being relayed for subsequent generations to learn from and reference is logically apparent but deeper still is the spiritual-cultural impact as the major tenants of Buddhism and its lifelong undertaking are indistinguishable from the literature. One encounter with a Tibetan autobiography is inevitably riddled with a multitude of distinct references to intricate Buddhist practices and deploys regional, denominational, or generational jargon that situates the tale within not only a specific region of Tibet but a specific epoch of the evolution of Buddhism. With this summary, I will examine the chronological development of one The Great Sage Merit Intellect’s journey into Lama-hood and the constant interplay between his instinct as a human being and his wisdom as a spiritual leader. Investigating the tension between his physical existence as a human man and his metaphysical journey through Buddhism will expose the practical marrow of Tibetan Buddhism and how one can successfully evolve from a mere human baby to a revered spiritual guide.
“’I do not have a biography like those of previous lamas. There are just a few fragments as would befit me, and even if you could make something of them, it would come to nothing more than a lot of praise and of blame” (Snellgrove 83).
The self-effacing exterior of Merit Intellect is a key proponent of his biography and over-arching spiritual fortitude first harkened upon in these opening lines. Merit Intellect’s humility and humble nature are so poignant that he resisted the construction of his own biography when originally prompted. It was not until years later when surrounded by offerings to the Attendant Goddess and the Defenders of Religions did he concede and begin to render his life for textual record. Presumably, it was the deep reverence he encompassed for the Attendant Goddess, the perfected female being within Buddhism characterized by her holding of the dharmachakra, or the Buddhist wheel of wisdom (Snellgrove 85). This is one of the first instances of the conflict between Merit Intellect’s resistance to human desires such as self-aggrandizing via the construction of a biography being curtailed with the appropriate spiritual context. With time and deep reflection under the guise of the wheel of wisdom, Merit Intellect was emboldened to share his life’s journey and then realized that its deployment could usher others toward a life of spiritual salvation that he reached.
At the start of Merit Intellect’s retelling, he efficiently frames the totality of a life’s work with one phrase, “In the beginning, I have a happy tale, in the middle a sad one, and to end with a merry one. As there is no reason to conceal them, I may as well tell you:” (Snellgrove 84). With these hallmarks in mind, I will tease out key events that Merit Intellect relays throughout his biography that effectively characterize his trek and standout as key moments of learning and spiritual clarity. In the beginning, a happy tale as chapter 1 tells of his birth and the influential words of his Mother which would energize his spiritual journey from adolescence into adulthood. Unsurprisingly, Merit Intellect hails from a robust lineage of spiritual leaders, kindred to several reincarnated figures, his mother was of the Phyug-’Khor family which evoked the Attendant Goddess. His mother and father had four sons of which Merit Intellect was the youngest. He describes his mother feeling a lightness in her body while pregnant with him and that there were many “auspicious signs” to his eventual spiritual prowess. Woefully, his mother died when he was a mere three years old, but not without leaving an illuminating testament for her youngest son, “Since this boy has the makings of a good man of religion, see to it that at all costs he enters the religious life” (Snellgrove 86). In close consideration of this testament Merit Intellect from eight to nine closely studied the foundational tenants of Buddhism by way of reading, writing, and liturgical practice.
At the tender age of 11, he formally embarked upon the religious life and studied under the Virtuous Adherer. Shortly thereafter, at 13 he received complete instruction from the “peerless lord of religion” Sher mKhan-po through the ‘ripening’ consecration in the colored-powder mystic circle of Hevajra. The mystic circle is primarily the symbolic representation of all the psychophysical conceptions that fit into the fivefold scheme of a center and four main directions, namely: the Five Elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space), the Five Components of Personality (body, feelings, perception, impulses, and consciousness), the Five Evils and the Five Buddhas (who purify the evils) (Snellgrove 22). The Hevajra Tantra is ardently fundamental to the study of Buddhism and has roots in multiple languages and regions in which Buddhism flourished thus Merit intellect’s encounter with this teaching at such a young age reflects his deep commitment to religious life in light of his mother’s prophecy. He characterizes it as a “ripening consecration” which a close reading of would entail a distinct moment of transition into his spiritual apprenticeship that laid the formal theological groundwork for his adherence to Buddhism.
In the middle a sad one, this period references the bulk of intense pilgrimage, solitude, and near-starvation Merit Intellect endured in order to effectively traverse the spiritual odyssey that is the life of a Lama. He describes arriving at Sa’dga where he meets a woman carrying a pot of butter which upon her interaction with Merit Intellect falls from her hands and completely splits down the middle. She pacifies Merit Intellect’s worry by describing, “It does not matter. It’s an auspicious sign that you are on your way towards doctrine which is good and subtle” (Snellgrove 94). With these invigorating words in mind, similar to the motivation he experienced when his mother gestured him toward a path of religious study, Merit Intellect began an extensive journey between several monasteries starting at rNam-kha above Ting-khyu where the revered lama Intellect Might instructed him to collect alms in Ban-tshang and Nang-khong to supplement his oncoming pilgrimage. Upon completion of this task, though a dry spell left little surplus in these towns for alms, Merit Intellect gathered three bushels of barley which he showed to Intellect Might asking for his guidance through the “sand initiation”. Merit Intellect describes this period as utterly tumultuous as he struggled with hunger and extreme malnutrition, “Then I mixed my barley with that sand, and thereafter for the period of three years, throughout summer and winter, I gave no further thought to my livelihood, except for occasional collecting of alms. I was never anything but hungry, but as a result of this privation of food as well as its spiritual quality, my religious practice progressed continuously” (Snellgrove 94).
As his spiritual journey progressed intensively, Merit Intellect recalls this period as a constant oscillation between a metaphysical fulfillment from learning and a physical emptiness from a lack of nutrition, “By reason of eating the sand my body became light, my gait rapid, my sleep short and my dreams very clear.” These three years of learning were proven fruitful by the impressive list of scripture that Merit Intellect absorbed from his lama, scriptures such as the consecration of the One Mother, the Anchoress and Leafy Anchoress, the Deathless, and Wish-Granting Gem of the White Protector, Intellect Might’s own collection of songs.
To end a merry one, Upon Merit Intellect’s completion of Intellect Might’s teachings he left him with a short list of advice that would guide the latter half of his life,
“From today onwards, never take part in factional discussions.
Do not be the lama in charge of a community.
Keep an open mind towards all religious schools and all persons.
Do not keep possessions which would exceed a year’s livelihood.
Wear only yellow garments.
Frequent unknown places of retreat.
Set up the banner of good practice” (Snellgrove 96).
As this was the last encounter Merit Intellect would ever have with his lama, he absorbed these teachings deeply and abided by them closely as a distinct road-map toward the fulfillment of his spiritual journey. With these tenants in mind Merit Intellect would continue to travel and meditate throughout Tibet, eventually settling his practice in Nai-gu.
When discussing the end of his life, naturally in a truly Buddhist cyclical format, he recalls the very beginning. He describes his natural impulse to religious life at a very young age, “I would build a throne of stones and set up a lot of other stones all around, and then make as though to give them religious instruction… Up in the ravine above our village there were places where many hermits had stayed in earlier times, namely the Divine Cave, the Three Storeys and the Translator’s Cave. In those places of hermits, I had slept and made their sacrificial offerings” (Snellgrove 112). Merit Intellect’s wondrous spiritual salvation and lama-hood were seemingly predisposed as his lineage, early childhood, and adolescence all established a seedling foundation that through deliberate learning and spiritual fortitude he blossomed.
His final decree entitled “Salutation to my Lamas”, is an illuminating final poem that truly encompasses Merit Intellect’s impressive journey from a novel student to a wise teacher of Buddhism. In it, he utilizes spiritual and natural imagery to package his advice to rising lamas on how to adequately embark on a trek of salvation. With a closing line such as,
Thus by the virtue of their practice I beg that for all these practisers
Adversities and obstructions may all be removed,
That their understanding may increase like the waxing moon,
And that all their wishes may be realized as religion requires!
It is clear that Merit Intellect’s final wishes lie with the expansion of Tibetan Buddhist thought and that his life of learning, hunger, and rapid spiritual growth is an allegory for future lamas to absorb and apply.