The fourteenth century Nyingma synthesizer known by the epithet Longchenpa occupies a fascinating space within his tradition. He was among the first treasure discoverers, the hallmark of Nyingma, yet he also studied widely across the ‘new tradition’ (Sarma) topics and was ordained – both somewhat characteristics being aberrational in a tradition that largely values its doctrinal individuality and its non- or quasi-monastic social formation. Born in 1308 in eastern Central Tibet to a mother whose ties reached back to the empire’s aristocratic clans and a father tracing his lineage back through generations of esteemed tantrikas, Dorje Gyaltsen was prophesied to his mother to be an important figure by the ‘primordial wisdom dakini’ Namdru Remati, aka Palden Lhamo, who looked after him throughout his childhood. (29-30) He proved himself exceptional by learning to read and write without effort and memorizing by age nine much of the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Longchenpa found himself an orphan by age twelve, at which time he sought refuge by taking monastic ordination, receiving the name Tsultrim Lodro. Within two years he had mastered the teachings on monastic discipline so fully that he wrote a commentary on the topic. Despite the assurance by Sarasvati, the Indian goddess of learning, that he need not engage in study and training in order to gain great realization, Longchenpa continued to do so diligently, transferring at age nineteen to the Sangpu, the famed seat of logic studies, mastering their curriculum, including an enormous number of Sarma tantric materials. He then took to wandering to debate centers, whereby he became famed as a scholar, though it is noted that he left, Sangpu in part at least, due harassment by Khampa monks. (31-9)
Then in his early twenties, Longchenpa went into a year-long retreat, during which he had a dream vision of an unnamed “exalted lady” who prophesied his meeting with his future guru, Kumaradza. After what appears to be a gap of at least three years, Longchenpa set off to locate Kumaradza, and during the journey it is noted (despite the very spare narrative) that Longchenpa ignored an invitation to meet Karmapa Rangjung Dorje, under whom he had studied several years earlier. Kumaradza, knowing Longchenpa would be his successor at first sight, immediately pledged to bestow all his transmissions upon him, and Longchenpa recognized Kumaradza as Vimalamitra – which may be intended metaphorically, since Longchenpa himself is understood by the Nyingma tradition (see introduction, xxv) to be an emanation of Vimalamitra, the eighth century tantrika and associate of Padmasambhava. Longchenpa received an enormous number of teachings from Kumaradza, specifically Dzogchen cycles and the Vima Nyingthig. (41-45) After this, he went into a six-year retreat, wherein accomplishments came quickly, including trips to Vajrayogini’s pure land, Khechara. Three years into the retreat, he began to bestow on disciples the Vima Nyingthig, at which time – terribly interestingly given Longchenpa’s fame as a terton – a disciple discovered a text of the Khandro Nyingthig and a Dharma protector brought him a second copy of the text. At this time, he sought out the lineage holder for this text, who knew Longchenpa to be the prior incarnation of his own teacher, Pema Ledrel Tsal, and protested giving formal transmission to the very ‘person’ who taught him! Longchenpa insisted that the lineage should be upheld for the sake of appearances. (49-52)
After this transmission, Longchenpa and his circle of disciples were visited by a virtually limitless assembly of deities, protectors, dakinis, and dakas. Most importantly, Vajravarahi appeared to him, provided many prophecies regarding his future, which unsurprisingly came to pass, and assured him that he was not a charlatan for teaching the Khandro Nyingthig, despite the gossip – this remains unexplained. Among the important prophecies was that Longchenpa would go to Bhutan and discover many treasures there. Padmasambhava next appeared, as a vision of some sort, and he dissolved into Longchenpa, suggestive of a level of inseparability for the Nyingmapas. The dakini Dorje Yudronma then appeared, declared herself indistinct from Vajravarahi and encouraged his teaching of the Vima Nyingthig, since others – notably the Karmapa – were teaching it improperly and partially. (53-62) After this appearance, Longchenpa discovered a mind terma described as the “innermost esoteric Khandro Nyingthig,” (62) which is described as the most profound, by far, instruction ever disclosed. This characterization comes from Yeshe Tsogyal, who personally instructed Longchenpa on these teaching, and gave him the name Dorje Ziji Tsal. Padmasambhava also appeared and gave him the name Drimed Ozer, and the two of them remained with Longchenpa and his retinue to advise and care for them. Travelling to White Skull Snow Mountain, Longchenpa continued to have extensive visions and began to write on Dzogchen while also restoring temples and averting a Sakya/Phagmodru war, thus engaging in sociopolitical activities. However, due to the ‘misperception’ of his intercession on the part of Phagmodru Jangchub Gyaltsen, Longchenpa had to flee to Bhutan, where he remained for a decade. (62-78)
In Bhutan, away from the conflict in Central Tibet, Longchenpa founded temples, wrote extensively, and gathered thousands of disciples. He also fathered a son, an emanation of Hayagriva, with a secret consort. He brought the Dharma to locations in Bhutan where it had not spread, tamed local spirits, continued to have extensive visionary experiences and discovered significant treasure troves. (79-86) Thus, most of his forties were spent in Bhutan until he was invited back to Tibet, with the Phagmodrupa now in power and Longchenpa no longer suspected of Sakya collaboration. Returning to Central Tibet, Longchenpa took Jangchub Gyaltsen among the thousands of new disciples to whom he taught and gave empowerments. He travelled throughout Central Tibet to teach and to establish monasteries and temples. (86-102) As he knew his final days were approaching, Longchenpa was told by Vimalamitra to give one final mass teaching at Samye. Upon his passing, Longchenpa’s relic multiplied a thousandfold, gods rained flowers, and rainbows filled the skies for several weeks. (103-6)
Among his reincarnations were, somehow, his own son, who carried on the Nyingthig lineage (the suggestion is that the son was an emanation, but the term reincarnation is used); the great terton Pema Lingpa, and the re-revealer of the Nyingthig teachings, Jigme Lingpa. (107-20) This was, of course, prophesied by Padmasambhava hundreds of year earlier, when Longchenpa was the young daughter of Trisong Detsen who received the Nyingthig teachings as a mind treasure directly from Padma. (15) This daughter was, according to the foreword by Yangthang Tulku Rinpoche, the reincarnation of a figure from the time when Padmasambhava, Shantarakshita, and Vimalamitra were the bastard sons of a poor woman who made a stupa for the remains of the previous Buddha, Mahakashyapa. (xxiv) In this way, Longchenpa’s karmic connection with the foundation of the Nyingma tradition was traced back into prehistory.