Review of The Magical Play of Illusion
ABSTRACT: Trijang Rinpoche’s book The Magical Play of Illusion: The Autobiography of Trijang Rinpoche (skyabs rje khri byang rdo rje ‘chang chen po’i gsung rnam ‘khrul snang sgyu ma’i zlos gar) describes his life and his work as junior tutor to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. It covers the time from his birth in 1901 to 1975, six years before his death. The book takes place in two main locations, Tibet and India. In the early part of his life, he focuses on areas in Tibet including Lhasa, Chusang Hermitage, Ganden, Chatreng, and Kham as well as a description of his visit to China before his exile. After he enters exile, he discusses regions in India including Sarnath and his new home Dharamsala. He also describes his trips to western countries including Switzerland, England, France, Germany, and Italy. Through the narrative of his own life story, Trijang Rinpoche provides readers with a historical account of the complex political tensions in the region of Tibet in the 20th century as well as a parallel biography of the educational background and upbringing of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He also offers advice and teachings regarding virtuous living and a commentary on the impermanence of material objects and the illusion of happiness that they project onto people that live in pursuit of them. He states that the only motives that he has for writing the story of his life are the requests of others, most notably, the request of The Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Trijang Rinpoche was born in U-Tsang, “the province of Dharma” in the district Kyisho Tsal Gungthang in 1901. His father was named Tsering Dondrup and was the relative of the seventh Dalai Lama and his mother was named Tsering Drolma. His father oversaw the administration of the Gungthang Monastery which was an important role since he chose a monk to be a representative in the central government. He was the oldest child of his mother’s children, and he had half-siblings from his father’s previous marriage.
A supernatural occurrence, a peach tree bearing many fruits and flowers in the winter, preceded his birth, and as a child, he was drawn to monks and items used in rituals. Hearing about a potential reincarnation, Ngakrampa and Geshe Sadul Gendun Drakpa went to examine Trijang Rinpoche. When they arrived, he recognized Gendun Drakpa by name and asked him to wash his feet. In his autobiography, Trijang Rinpoche states that he has no recollection of his previous lives and that this was likely a coincidence. As was common during the examination of potential reincarnations, he was given some objects from the previous throne-holder along with some decoy objects; he was able to pick the correct objects and Trijang Rinpoche was identified as the reincarnation of Losang Tsultrim Palden, The Eighty-Fifth Ganden Throneholder. Another boy from the Chagong Beda Trotitsang family from Upper Chatreng was considered in the identification process but at the Great Prayer Festival representatives from Samling Mitsen and Dokhang House and the abbot and staff of Ganden Shartse College along with the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Chose Trijang Rinpoche as the true reincarnation. The Chatreng Monastery opposed this choice but was unable to focus their attention on this issue because Zhao Erfeng’s invasion of Eastern Tibet in 1905 destroyed their property and killed many of their people.
At the age of four, in 1904, Trijang Rinpoche began his education in Chusang Hermitage under his early teacher Ngakrampa. Ngakrampa was impressed that his student could learn every letter of the Tibetan alphabet in one day. Trijang Rinpoche displayed future-telling powers at an early age when he was able to predict Dzongsur Lekshe Gyatso’s arrival at Chusang Hermitage. He views this as another coincidence. His modest attitude regarding his supernatural powers in the early part of his life is overshadowed by the clear examples of his supernatural abilities described later in his autobiography. He met another one of his great teachers, Kyabje Phabongkha Rinpoche, in Chusang Hermitage in 1912. At the age of seven, he was ordained as a novice monk and he enrolled in Ganden Monastery in the same year. His tutor, Losang Tsultrim of Phukhang house in Ganden, was chosen from his monastic college. Continuing his career of academic achievement, he was awarded kachu for his mastery of ten subjects at the age of nine. He contracted smallpox in 1909 and since modern treatments were not available, the death rate among monks in Ganden was high. With the close care and medication efforts of his teacher, Trijang Rinpoche fully recovered and was well enough to attend debates in the winter. At the age of thirteen he studied calligraphy and debate with his partner Ngawang Losang and at the age of sixteen he learned composition by writing his exercises in verse.
The first time that Trijang Rinpoche had to divert his attention away from his studies and towards the management of his labrang (estate) was when the treasurer Dzongsur Lekshe Gyatso died in 1918. This is when he discovered that the labrang was very poor and had a great amount of debt. At the same time, he had to prepare for the Geshe Lharam Degree. He was well prepared for the exam by the time Lodro Chophel of Nyakre House declared him a candidate. In order to pass the exam, he had to orally present on topics including the five treatises on the Buddha’s word, Logic and Epistemology, topics of Middle Way philosophy and the Perfection of Wisdom, and on Vinaya and Abhidharma. Finally, he had to present an offering which was difficult considering the financial state of his labrang.
In his autobiography, Trijang Rinpoche describes the knowledge that he gained from his preparation for his Geshe exam as an example of the impermanence of education that is not put into practice through acts. When he was twenty, he wrote Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand based on a teaching from Kyabje Phabongkha’s experience of the stages of the path. When Trijang Rinpoche was twenty-five he went to Chatreng. He was instrumental in the reconstruction and revival of the monastery there. His work in Chatreng was an early example of the life of travel, service, and teaching that Trijang Rinpoche led until his death in 1975.
He was repaid with hostility and hatred by the elites and leaders in Chatreng. After being swindled by a bad business deal, plots against Trijang Rinpoche’s life caused him to live in fear until his safe return to Lhasa in 1928. At the age of twenty-nine, he became ill with a kidney disease that made it difficult for him to even leave his room. He recovered from this with prayer and medical treatment. When the Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in 1933, Trijang Rinpoche was instrumental in the preparation of his body. When he was forty-one, he was appointed as the assistant tutor to the Dalai Lama. In addition to traditional topics like philosophy and grammar, he taught the fourteenth Dalai Lama about more difficult and mystical topics including ritual processes for the most secret Dharmaraja and Palden Lhamo. In 1952 he was promoted to the role of Junior Tutor. In addition to his role as a tutor, Trijang Rinpoche served in various managerial roles for the Tibetan government. He was sick with intestinal fever and edema for many days when he was forty-six. At this time, regents Radreng (Reting) Rinpoche and Takdrak Rinpoche were fighting with one another over regency-related power. Plots against Takdrak Rinpoche’s life, stemming from Radreng Rinpoche, led to Radreng Rinpoche’s ultimate demise. This conflict deeply upset Trijang Rinpoche as he respected both Radreng Rinpoche and Takdrak Rinpoche. When he was forty-nine, he struggled with dysentery and intestinal fever. He again used prayers and medical treatment to return to health.
Before China’s 1950 invasion of Chamdo, Trijang Rinpoche noticed several bad omens that signaled the Chinese invasion of Tibet including a comet in the sky, earthquakes, and the sound of gunfire in the sky. After the invasion, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama officially assumed his role as the political and religious leader of Tibet. Trijang Rinpoche was skeptical of the Chinese government’s attempts to communicate with Tibet and only took on state roles suggested by the Chinese government and attended conferences held by the Chinese under the pressure of Chinese and Tibetan leaders. In 1956 he went with the Dalai Lama and his entourage to the Mahabodhi Society’s festival for the two thousand five hundredth anniversary of the Mahaparinirvana (death of the Buddha). Tensions surrounding the Chinese occupation of Tibet delayed their return.
In 1958, The Fourteenth Dalai Lama began his Geshe examinations. Trijang Rinpoche recalls the ease and accuracy with which the Dalai Lama was able to respond to the questions he was given. Trijang Rinpoche received an award for his role in the successful completion of the Dalai Lama’s education. At the advice of Palden Lhamo, the Dalai Lama planned to leave Tibet and go into exile in India. As someone who was eager to escape the oppressive forces of the Chinese government, Trijang Rinpoche was relieved that the Dalai Lama made the choice to leave. Frantically escaping, the Dalai Lama and his entourage of government officials and guards traveled with few possessions. They eventually arrived in the Indian town of Chudangmo and were greeted by the Indian government. Trijang Rinpoche settled with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. In the 1960’s he spent some time traveling through the west to visit Tibetan refugees, care for his health, and consult with world leaders on the state of Tibet, acting as an ambassador for the Dalai Lama. He was generally unimpressed by the lifestyle of western nations such as Switzerland, England, France, and Italy. He states that the western pursuit of material possessions and the illusion of happiness leaves its people lacking in spiritual depth. Trijang Rinpoche’s narrative ends in 1975 with a discussion of his return to his home in Dharamsala from Delhi. In Dharamsala, he visited the Dalai Lama and continued to do his most important work, teaching.