Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo (‘jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse dbang po) was a nineteenth-century Tibetan lama, scholar, and visionary from Kham. Born in 1820 to an aristocratic family from the Kingdom of Derge (sde dge), he was recognized at a young age as an incarnate lama (sprul sku). Within his lifetime he was renowned for his impressive scholarship, extensive Buddhist writings, his visionary experiences and treasure revelations, and his non-sectarian approach as part of the wider Ris med movement in Eastern Tibet which occurred during this period.
Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo (‘jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse dbang po) was a nineteenth-century Tibetan lama, scholar, and visionary from the Derge region of Khams. Born in 1820 to an aristocratic family from the Kingdom of Derge, he was recognized at a young age as an incarnation of the Ngor Thar tse mkhan chen, a lama from the Sakya tradition. He was associated with Ngor Monastery in Central Tibet, outside of Gzhis ka rtse, as well as with Rdzong gsar Monastery in his native region of Derge, where he spent most of his adult life. He became widely seen as the mind emanation of the eighteenth-century Buddhist visionary, ‘Jigs med gling pa (1730-1798) as well as an incarnation of Khri srong lde btsan, the 8th Century king of the Tibetan Empire. Within his lifetime he was renowned for his impressive scholarship, extensive Buddhist writings, his visionary experiences and treasure revelations, and his non-sectarian approach as part of the wider Ris med movement in Eastern Tibet occurring during this period.
The legacy of Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo is built around his extensive and highly-praised scholarship, his treasure revelations and visionary experiences, and his involvement in the non-sectarian movement of nineteenth-century Khams. His biographer, Jamgon Kongtrul, spends many pages praising his superior knowledge and expertise in a broad range of Buddhist topics, as well as his exceptional qualities as a spiritual guide and his deep realization. In his youth, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo studied with the preeminent masters of his day, and the list of teachings he received and teachers with whom he studied is extensive, including numbers of masters from all four of the main Buddhist schools of Tibet (Sakya, Nyingma, Kagyu, and Geluk).
The relationship between biographer and subject is significant. Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo and Jamgon Kongtrul, together with Chogyur Lingpa, were referred to as the Khyen Kong Chog Desum (mkhyen kong mchog sde gsum) due to their collaborative efforts and non-sectarian approaches. The three were all active in and around Derge and embodied the approach of learning from and working with masters from outside their own school. The relationship between these three, who mutually legitimated treasure revelations and encouraged each other’s scholarship and literary production, is emphasized by Jamgon Kongtrul in this biography.
The majority of the text, however, is devoted to descriptions of a large number of visionary experiences of Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, including meaningful dreams, encounters with deities, and the visions surrounding his many treasure revelations. The biography is divided into outer, inner, and secret biographies, and the narration of visions and dreams comprises the bulk of each of these sections. Connecting him to the tradition of treasure revealers, Jamgon Kongtrul notes that he was a mind emanation of Jigme Lingpa.
In the outer biography, Jamgon Kongtrul recounts his life chronologically, mentioning his diverse activities. Other than his education and revelatory experiences, deeds highlighted are his travels and his activities at Rdzong gsar Monastery. The account of his pilgrimages and travels in Central Tibet are particularly notable, Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo authored a famous guidebook to Central Tibet, joining a number of lamas from Eastern Tibet traveling to and writing about the holy sites to their West, including the capital of Lhasa. Jamgon Kongtrul emphasizes his subject’s humility (a valued quality in a pilgrim) by explaining that he was accompanied by only one attendant and at times had to go barefoot, experiencing much hardship in order to pay homage and make offerings and prayers at sacred sites. Upon his return to Khams, we also hear of the work he did in expanding Rdzong gsar, building several temples in and around the monastery.
Notably absent from the biography is the connection he possessed to the king and queen of Derge. Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo belongs to a large number of Buddhist adepts in Tibet who keep close ties to royalty and political leadership. This is seen through his birth into a family connected to the royals, through his recognition as an emanation of the ninth-century Dharma king, Khri srong lde btsan, to the rituals and favors he performed at the behest of the political rulers. From other sources we know he was quite closely tied to the state, to the extent that Matthew Akester, in his translator’s introduction, claims that Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo was, at one point, the “de facto ruler of Dégé, and some would say Dharmarāja of all of Tibet.” While it appears from this biography that he had a genuine disdain for worldly affairs, this role, even if he performed it unwillingly, is not highlighted. This being the case, we are also given little information about important events of the nineteenth century, including the chieftain from Khams, Gonpo Namgyal, and the conflict between his rise to power and tensions with the Qing and Lhasa authorities. Thus, the biography reads like many Tibetan hagiographies, which recount the spiritual progress and enlightened activities of their subjects but leave out the political and mundane activities and offer little in terms of broader historical context.
Kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas. The Life of Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo. Translated by Matthew Akester. New Delhi: Shechen Publications, 2012.
Alexander Gardner, “Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo,” Treasury of Lives, accessed May 06, 2015.