Enlightened Beings - Selections

Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition


318 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861710683

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Namtar as Literature and Liturgy: A General Definition

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, written accounts of the lives of accomplished practitioners form a distinct genre of literature. That genre is referred to as namtar, an abbreviation of nampar tarpa (rnam par thar pa), which literally means “complete liberation.” Such liberation life stories are meticulously recorded, narrated, and studied, not simply as the biographies of highly regarded persons, but as accounts serving to make manifest that liberation by describing its process. Thus, namtar serve as both inspirational and instructional models for practitioners of the Buddhist path. Because they center upon beings who are revered as having accomplished enlightenment by using tantric means—“in one lifetime, in one body, even in these degenerate times,” as the traditional phrase goes—the subjects of these biographies are called siddhas: “accomplished” or “perfected ones.” Namtar, then, as the lives of Buddhist siddhas, present the lives of enlightened beings, and thus they may be characterized as sacred biography.

The very definition of namtar highlights an important distinction between Western and Buddhist notions concerning the biographies of holy persons. In the West, the term “sacred biography” is generally reserved only for the life of the founder of a particular religion, while the term “hagiography” is used in reference to the biographies of all the succeeding saints in that tradition. In Buddhism, however, and especially in its Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna forms, the belief is that anyone can become a Buddha. In fact, these forms of Buddhism assert that it is not only possible, but incumbent upon the adept, to attain Buddhahood. There are thus countless enlightened beings, and for Tibetan Buddhists the written lives of all of them are considered to be sacred biography.

It is important to note that Buddhism traveled from India into Tibet primarily in its tantric or Vajrayāna form. Thus, while figures like Śāntirakṣita and Kamalaśīla were instrumental in propagating the rules of monastic discipline and the nontantric philosophy and practice of both the Theravāda and Mahāyāna branches of Buddhism, it was tantric Buddhism that successfully captured the minds of Tibetans, and thus it was the tantric adepts, the siddhas, who succeeded in effectively advancing the new religious tradition of Buddhism in Tibet.

The pre-Buddhist world of Tibetan folk religion was populated by multifarious spirit beings, many of them malevolent. Even after the various strains of the broader-based shamanism of the area and the more localized folk traditions were finally brought together and systematized as the religion of Bön, this basic psychospiritual worldview continued to hold sway. For Buddhism to gain acceptance in such an environment it would have to prove itself on that environment’s own terms. Thus almost all accounts agree that Padmasambhava, the figure usually credited with establishing Buddhism in Tibet, was able to do this precisely because he was a siddha possessed of a siddha’s wonder-working powers. By subjugating Tibet’s malevolent spirits, Padmasambhava effectively demonstrated the power and efficacy of the Buddhist religion, and it was owing to this superior display of power that, together with Śāntirakṣita, he was able to found the first Tibetan lineage of Buddhism, called the Nyingmapa (rÑiṅ-ma-pa).

Over the next seven centuries, several other schools were founded in Tibet as the Buddhist Dharma made continued inroads there. And as each new order came into its own, more and more namtar were produced glorifying the persons most influential to a given school’s creation and development.

Generally speaking, though the style and content of siddha biographies may differ from one historical period and setting to another [as between Indian and Tibetan examples of the genre], and from one Tibetan order to another, all share some of the same ingredients. It is to these shared ingredients, and to a method of interpreting them, that I now turn.

First, all siddhas are said to have attained siddhis, or magical powers of various sorts. Indeed, the terms siddha and siddhi go hand in hand, each term being part of the definition of the other. In written accounts, siddhas are said to speak at birth, to fly through the air, to read other’s thoughts, and to pass through walls unhindered. Additionally, miracles are said to have accompanied their births, and they are said to have had exceptional childhoods. [It is interesting to note that many of the early Christian “confessor” hagiographies include similar descriptions.]

It is largely in reaction to the prominent place of siddhis in siddhas’ life stories that some Western Buddhist scholars have judged namtar to be the products of popular spirituality and, therefore, to be of little scholarly or historical value. Using this “peculiar hermeneutical device,” such scholars belittle the genre and close themselves off to the wealth of information and inspiration that it contains.

The six Gelukpa namtar presented here reveal quite another picture of this literature’s value and richness, for they provide us not only with a wealth of valid historical information but with an entrée into the world of tantric practice itself by setting forth, even if only in veiled language, descriptions and instructions regarding tantric meditations. It is particularly with respect to this latter feature that, I believe, Tibetan namtar go beyond Western hagiography in creating a religious literature of richness and depth.

We can begin to appreciate this by considering two important points. First, a namtar, by presenting the significant experiences of a tantric adept in his or her quest for enlightenment, is first and foremost a piece of tantric literature. To put it another way, siddha biographies, in terms of their content and function, are comparable to and complement the tantras and their commentaries. One of their main functions is thus the imparting of esoteric and exoteric practice descriptions and instructions. Viewed in this way, namtar are indeed vehicles for providing inspirational models; but they are, in addition, vehicles for providing detailed instructions to persons seeking to put the teachings of a particular siddha into practice.

Second, it should be borne in mind that all Tibetan namtar contain elements of what are actually three distinct levels or kinds of life story: (1) chi namtar (phyi’i rnam thar), the so-called “outer biography,” which most resembles Western notions of biography, presenting details about birth, schooling, specific teachers, texts consulted, etc.; (2) nanggi namtar (naṅ gi rnam thar), or “inner biography,” which chronicles the specific meditation cycles, initiations, etc., imparted to the future siddha; and (3) sangwai namtar (gsaṅ ba’i rnam thar), or “secret biography.” This last level or kind of narrative describes the meditative accomplishments, mystic visions, and other spiritual realizations and experiences of the accomplished one. The first two levels of namtar as described here do not seem to present problems for the scholars who work with this literature. It is from the third, the so-called “secret biography” that most have usually shied away, calling it magical or fantastic, folkloric or obscure. My own suggestion, as I have already stated, is to view this third level as providing inspiration and encouragement, along with descriptions of esoteric practices and instructions for their accomplishment.

This traditional threefold structured model of namtar can be usefully employed to introduce Western readers of these life stories to their multifaceted richness and ambiance. I suggest that we take it to represent respectively what, for purposes of organization, I term: (1) the “historical,” (2) the “inspirational,” and (3) the “instructional” levels of the stories. Furthermore, I suggest that levels 1 and 3 may be fruitfully discussed under the broader rubric of “literature” [where the first level speaks to us directly, though the third level requires further elaboration] and that level 2 naturally lends itself to consideration under the heading of “liturgy” and, in fact, often functions that way within the tradition. Moreover, as might be expected, the “inspirational” and the “instructional” levels of namtar overlap in many respects.

Applying this three-tiered model to the six biographies presented here, one could say that the outer or “historical” level of these accounts introduces us in a direct way to the lived world of mid-fourteenth to mid-seventeenth century Gelukpa practitioners. Figures previously known only because their names appear in lineage enumerations or religious chronicles become living, breathing human beings. We witness their childhoods and education, their practice hardships and triumphs. In addition to learning more about them as individuals, we see the world, with all its historical and political vicissitudes, in which they moved: the cultural, social, and political contexts in which they practiced the Dharma. Moreover, we learn about the world experienced by these siddhas’ disciples and by the general populace of Tibet during this time.

Next, by “inspirational” I refer to the data within these stories that serve to inspire Buddhist practitioners themselves, the nangpa (naṅ pa) or “insiders,” those who already profess the faith and wish to emulate its exemplary figures. Here we witness the utter devotion and commitment to practice demonstrated by these siddhas, how each pleased his guru, the dynamics of the guru-disciple relationship, and how, for each of these “realized ones,” study and compassionate teaching—both verbal and through written compositions—were continued unbroken. All of this combines to uplift, encourage, inspire, and empower those seeking to practice.

Lastly, by “instructional” I mean those elements in the stories that serve advanced practitioners seeking to learn more about how and when to put into practice the diverse skillful methods of the Vajrayāna. Even today, the most erudite Tibetan teachers continually refer to ancient namtar. Within namtar themselves, a future siddha is often shown searching out a particular namtar or requesting permission to study it. Moreover, the authors and the readers of such biographies have often been the most venerated teachers, the elite of the tantric tradition, precisely because namtar are instructional. Thus, in addition to shedding much light on what the world of the traditional Tibetan tantric practitioner was like, the particular accounts translated here tell us how these Gelukpas practiced Mahāmudrā and inform us about the specific contours of the Ganden Oral Tradition. They are not just fantastic tales. Nor are they “merely inspirational,” if by that one means products of and for popular spirituality. Rather, they are spiritual biographies brimming with information on many levels.

In what follows I briefly attempt to indicate how the threefold model I have suggested and the two rubrics of literature and liturgy can help reveal the depth and richness of this genre. Because each translation is accompanied by abundant annotation, I will address only a few points by way of example here.

Chi, the Historical

In his monumental work Tibetan Painted Scrolls, published in 1949, the great Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci compared namtar with Christian hagiography and suggested that “history” was never the intended purview of the genre. He wrote:

rNam t’ar much resemble the lives of saints widely circulated during our Middle Ages; they must be considered neither histories nor chronicles. The events they relate with a particular satisfaction are spiritual conquests, visions and ecstasies; they follow the long apprenticeship through which man becomes divine, they give lists of the texts upon which saints trained and disciplined their minds, for each lama they record the masters who opened up his spirit to serene visions, or caused the ambrosia of supreme revelations to rain down upon him. Human events have nothing to do with these works, and how could they, being a vain flow of appearances in the motionless gleam of that void, never to be grasped, into which the experience of truth dissolves and annuls us?… All the rest is shadows.

For all its poetry, it must be admitted that Tucci’s description of namtar does not do much to inform us about the actual nature or function of the genre. To be sure, the siddha’s spiritual biography [the inner and secret levels] takes precedence over the outer biography in such literature. Still, for the six Gelukpa examples translated here, Tucci’s assessment would be quite inappropriate. For in these six, human events do figure in. Names, places, and verifiable dates are mentioned, and human beings are historical as well as religious actors in the central drama which unfolds the path to enlightenment.

To begin, the six siddhas and their respective dates should be considered. They are:

1.         Tokden Jampel Gyatso [1356–1428]

2.         Baso Chökyi Gyeltsen [1402–1473]

3.         Drubchen Chökyi Dorje [?]

4.         Gyelwa Ensapa [1505–1566]

5.         Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe [1525–1591] and

6.         Jetsün Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen [1570–1662].

Again, as can be seen from their dates, these six lives span some three hundred years of Tibetan religious history, particularly that period covering the rise to power of the Yellow Hat, or Gelukpa, order. Because the lives are contiguous, through them we are able not only to witness a continuous lineage of Gelukpa Mahāmudrā practitioners but to view continuously unfolding historical developments—both as they impacted upon and were influenced by these six. Through them, one learns who knew whom, what places were frequented, and where certain monasteries were founded and why. Moreover, through this particular set of lives, we can observe directly the intricate interweaving of politics and religion in Tibet during this period.

It is of interest, for example, to learn that four of these six siddhas, who succeeded Tsongkapa [1357–1419] in the Geluk Mahāmudrā lineage, were personally connected with the first five Dalai Lamas. Baso Chökyi Gyeltsen became abbot of Ganden (dGa’-ldan) monastery on the order of the First Dalai Lama, Gendündrub (dGe-’dun-grub) [1391–1475]. One of Baso’s Mahāmudrā disciples, Pelden Dorje (dPal-ldan-rdo-rje), studied with and taught the Second Dalai Lama, Gendün Gyatso (dGe-’dun-rgya-mtsho) [1476–1542]. Later, Gyelwa Ensapa was ordained by the Second Dalai Lama and studied under him. Following the death of Ensapa, Sanggye Yeshe accompanied and served the Third Dalai Lama, Sönam Gyatso (bSod-nams-rgya-mtsho) [1543–1588], until the latter went to Mongolia. Lastly, the First Panchen Lama, Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen, was the chief tutor of both the Fourth Dalai Lama, Yönten Gyatso (Yon-tan-rgya-mtsho) [1589–1616], and the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Losang Gyatso (Ṅag-dbaṅ-blo-bzaṅ-rgya-mtsho) [1617–1682].

Tsongkapa had not been seeking to found a new order of Buddhism in Tibet. Yet, owing to his vast intelligence, the great assiduity he evidenced towards his studies, the purity of his moral and monastic discipline, and his tireless energy for teaching, that new order gradually came into being. Two other factors, however, contributed to its development: an ever-growing number of devoted disciples and a conducive political climate in and around the environs of Lhasa. Speaking to this latter point, Snellgrove has observed:

In and around Lhasa Tsong-kha-pa found ready support from the local nobility and people. This was a sort of border zone between the old religious rivals, ’Bri-khung and Sa-skya, and had more recently come under the influence of the Phag-mo-gru and gDansa-mthil who gave a friendly welcome to the teachings of Tsong-kha-pa and his disciples. The example of a religious school which was as yet taking no part in the political rivalries of the day and insisted on the observance of strict monastic discipline, may well have appealed to many who were critical of the apparent worldliness of the older established orders.

While it would be impossible in the space of an introduction such as this to go into any detail regarding the numerous vicissitudes of Tibetan history, one general comment can be posited: one would be hard-pressed to distinguish Tibet’s religious history from its political history. Owing to the pervasive power exerted by religion throughout Tibet, whatever rival factions existed—whether indigenous royal houses or foreign hegemonies—all found it necessary to ally themselves with sectors of the religious community. Similarly, a religious order often waxed or waned depending upon the stabilities of its secular alliances.

If the political climate during Tsongkapa’s own lifetime greatly served his new order, the situation immediately following his death took a turn for the worse. Prior to his death, not only had Tsongkapa founded—with the aid of his disciples Je Darma Rinchen (rJe Dar-ma-rin-chen) and Je Dülwa Dzin (rJe ’Dul-ba-’dzin)—his own monastery, called Ganden [erected in 1409], but two others of his disciples, Jamyang Chöje Tashi Pelden (’Jam-dbyaṅschos-rje bKra-śis-dpal-ldan) and Jamchen Chöje Shakya Yeshe (Byams-chenchos-rje Shākya-ye-Śes), had founded the great monastic establishments of Drepung (’Bras-spuṅs) [in 1416] and Sera (Se-ra) [in 1419], respectively. These monasteries are famed as the Three Great Seats of the Gelukpa. All were constructed very near to Lhasa during Tsongkapa’s lifetime.

Now the namtar of Baso Chökyi Gyeltsen translated here provides us with a brief but interesting comment on the Gelukpa tradition’s development just after Tsongkapa had passed away. One of Tsongkapa’s youngest and most energetic disciples was Gendündrub. He was twenty-five years old when, in 1415, he joined Tsongkapa in Lhasa and became one of his most devoted followers. Tsongkapa was already advanced in age. Later, in 1445, Gendündrub founded what became the fourth most important Gelukpa monastic establishment, the famed Tashilünpo (bKra-śis-lhunpo). Even more importantly, he built this monastery not in Lhasa but far to the west of it, near the town of Shigatse (gŹi-ka-rtse) in Tsang (gTsaṅ). This action was of great importance and is usually interpreted as the chief activity that signaled the active expansion of the new order and its evergrowing prestige. However, this expansion was not, by Gendündrub’s time, viewed with the acceptance and warmth that Tsongkapa had experienced some thirty-five years before.

As previously noted, Baso Chökyi Gyeltsen became abbot of Ganden on the order of Gendündrub. From Baso Je’s namtar we get an insider’s view of the reasons behind this decision, for here we find the dramatic words of Gendündrub himself. The relevant passage reads:

At that time, the All-knowing Gendündrub Pelsangpo was residing at Tashilünpo, carrying out numerous virtuous activities… Then the precious throne-holder of Ganden and many other illustrious lamas of that institution prayed to the Venerable Gendündrub, urging him to become the next Regent of the Second Buddha [Tsongkapa]. But Gendündrub replied saying: “I myself must hold the Dharma reins of Je Rinpoche right here [at Tashilünpo] since it is necessary to build a fortified mansion [here] in the midst of an enemy camp.”

After offering appropriate praise to Baso Je, Gendündrub then advised the monks of Ganden to name Baso Je to the position, which they did.

Within the few years between Tsongkapa’s passing and the founding of Tashilünpo, many changes had occurred, and these would continue as the growing prestige and power of the new order began to arouse the hostility of the older orders and their lay patrons. Without going into this quite complicated history here, suffice it to say that the above remarks by Gendündrub are of historical importance and that they appear within a namtar.

A survey of the next five namtar in this set shows that while all of these siddhas continued to journey to and study at one or another of the Gelukpa monasteries in Lhasa, for the most part the main seats of their religious activity remained in the province of Tsang. Monasteries like Gangchen Chöpel (Gaṅs-can-chos-’phel), Rong Jamchen (Roṅ-byams-chen), Neynying (gNas-rñiṅ), and especially Ensa, and hermitages like Riwo Dechen (Ri-bobde-chen) and Garmo Chö Dzong (mGar-mo-chos-rdzoṅ)—all located in Tsang—were the primary centers for this group. And for all of them, the great Tashilünpo shone like a dazzling beacon, signaling the Gelukpa’s expanding influence throughout the region. Thus, through the lives of these six, we witness the Wheel of Dharma of the Gelukpa advancing into and establishing itself in new territory.

This particular set of six namtar concludes with a figure of great importance to Tibet’s religious and political history: the First Panchen, Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen. In his namtar we can observe the various ebbs and flows of seventeenth-century Tibet, when not only the various orders and royal families vied for authority, but foreign powers as well. The First Panchen is renowned not only because he served as chief tutor to two Dalai Lamas [one, the greatly powerful Fifth Dalai Lama] but also because on numerous occasions he himself sued for peace among various rival factions. The First Panchen was extremely important to the Gelukpa Mahāmudrā lineage and to other practice lineages for his compositions explicating them. Like those of the great Ensapa, the First Panchen’s writings extended and clarified Gelukpa meditative practice, ritual, and liturgy. His namtar reveals him to be a humble though greatly influential figure, incredibly learned, and an accomplished yogi, astute diplomat, prolific writer, and thoroughly compassionate teacher of the Buddha’s doctrine.

An important issue relating both to Tibetan religious and political history is the concept of reincarnation. In Tibet, the older Buddhist notions of transmigration and rebirth were transformed and refined in such a way as to become a tool for ensuring the stability of religious authority, prestige, and wealth. Thus the concept of the tulku (sprul sku), or incarnate lama, evolved. Prior to the general acceptance of this new concept, “the previous pattern in Tibetan society had been one of a religious aristocracy passing both religious and secular power from father to son or from paternal uncle to nephew.” The Sakya (Sa-skya) order, for example, made use of the latter “inheritance” channel. However, in time, the incarnate lama lineages took priority over familial claims in the transmission and safeguarding of religious authority.

While the Gelukpa did not invent this practice in Tibet, reincarnation did become a most important means of ensuring the stability of the new order’s ever-growing authority, given the fact that it enjoined strict celibacy on its monks. Within the six namtar presented here, we see accounts of early instances of the use of reincarnation within the Gelukpa tradition.

For example, the First Panchen was recognized as being the reincarnation of Gyelwa Ensapa. The fact that Ensapa had chosen to reincarnate is recorded both in the namtar of Sanggye Yeshe and of the First Panchen. In the latter’s namtar, we are told that Ensapa had informed his chief spiritual son, Sanggye Yeshe, regarding the details of his next incarnation, and we learn how Sanggye Yeshe went about having his teacher’s rebirth verified.

The concept of reincarnation is mentioned as well with regard to other teachers referred to in the six stories. For example, Ensapa is instructed by the ḍākinī Vajrayoginı to entrust his teachings to one Künkyen Lekpa Döndrub (Kun-mkhyen Legs-pa-don-grub), who is further described as being “the reincarnation of the great siddha Peldre Dorje (dPal-’bras-rdorje).” Likewise, Langmikpa (gLaº-mig-pa), one of the chief tutors of Sanggye Yeshe, and the lama who confirmed the First Panchen as being Ensapa’s reincarnation, is himself described as “the reincarnation of Jamyang Lekpai Lodrö (’Jam-dbyaṅs-legs-pai-blo-gros).”

In other passages, the subjects of these stories are given additional prestige by being born in places where other revered masters had been born, taught, or served as abbots. Thus, Ensapa’s birth is said to have occurred “in a place that had itself been blessed by the presence of many holy ones of the past, all of princely lineage, like Sönam Choklang (bSod-nams-phyogs-glaṅ) and others….” Now, this Sönam Choklang is none other than the lama who retroactively became recognized as the second in the lineage of Panchens, in which Ensapa himself was later recognized as the third.

Not all of the “outer” information in these namtar concerns religious or political issues. For example, we are told twice about a widespread epidemic of smallpox. Ensapa first meets his Mahāmudrā guru, Chökyi Dorje, when he [Ensapa] is continuing his meditations in spite of having contracted the disease. The relevant passage reads:

When the great Ensapa was seventeen years old, there was a widespread epidemic of smallpox, and he also contracted the disease. One day, while reciting verses regarding Dependent Origination near his door, he heard a voice. The moment he heard the sound of this voice, the hairs of his skin stood on end, and [immediately] he went outside. There he saw a monk with a white mustache and goatee, wearing religious robes of the finest cloth, whose bearing and purity were striking. Instantly realizing that this person must certainly be a great siddha, Ensapa invited him inside and there paid him the appropriate respect.

Because the passage mentions Ensapa’s age at the time of his meeting his chief guru, we know that Tibetans, at least in the regions of Tsang, experienced an epidemic sometime in 1521. Another epidemic is mentioned in the namtar of the First Panchen. Reference is also made to it in Sanggye Yeshe’s story. We are told that this second epidemic occurred when the First Panchen was nineteen years old, making the year 1588. Since the time of each epidemic is remembered and recorded, it can be assumed that the disease had a widespread and perhaps even devastating impact on Tibetan society. One other bit of information is of interest in this connection. It is the fact that, of these six Geluk siddhas, the two who are remembered as having contracted the disease are the same two who are said to be bound directly to each other through the process of reincarnation. Gyelwa Ensapa contracted the disease, and, some sixty-seven years later during another epidemic, his reincarnation, the First Panchen, also contracted it.

But these stories inform us about more than just the various external factors affecting these six practitioners; they also provide an inside look at the dynamics of Gelukpa monastic life, describing in detail such things as monastic organization, college curricula and examinations, and ordination ceremonies. Most of the subjects of these six stories were at some time affiliated with one or more of the Three Great Seats of Gelukpa learning near Lhasa, though Sanggye Yeshe and the First Panchen were more closely tied to Tashilünpo in Tsang. We hear of all these institutions and of their respective colleges. We also hear of important colleges or institutions which by the seventeenth century were no longer thriving, like Sangpu (gSaṅ-phu), the famed college of logic where Jampel Gyatso had studied.

From these accounts, we get a clear sense of what Tibetan monastic education involved. The Gelukpa order has emphasized that training in logic be coupled with proper meditation on the Buddha’s teaching, and we see that approach come to life in these stories. Siddhas are usually viewed as wild yogis who shun book-learning in preference for yogic meditation. These stories, though, show the Gelukpa’s style of joining the two. Jampel Gyatso’s namtar gives a good example of this through its descriptions of his early encounters and subsequent meditation retreats with Tsongkapa.

Further, all of these siddhas, being followers of the Gelukpa, became at some point in their lives fully ordained monks and, therefore, holders of the three sets of vows. Here, we are allowed to view the ordination ceremonies for each, and all relevant data regarding their ordinations are described in detail.

None of these six enlightened beings founded great monastic institutions. One could say that that is to be expected of siddhas. While each was affiliated with one or more of the famed Geluk monasteries [the First Panchen at one time served as abbot of five such institutions simultaneously!], each spent considerable time meditating in isolated retreat. Some, like Chökyi Dorje, became primarily associated with specific retreat sites, rather than with any monastery. Gyelwa Ensapa’s small monastery is probably the most venerated of those places today. Still, Baso Je, Sanggye Yeshe, and the First Panchen are remembered for the generous financial and other donations each made to the monasteries with which they were connected. Each was a true patron of the arts and did much to enrich the Dharma through art.

Another fact becomes apparent as one reads these six accounts: that each siddha studied not only the major treatises that formed the standard curricula for Gelukpa institutions but also a wide variety of other texts and meditative systems, including many that are usually associated only with the other Tibetan orders. Thus, these siddhas are shown studying the manuals of Lamdre (Lam-’bras) and Taknyi (brTag-gñis), two systems associated mainly with the Sakya tradition. The First Panchen not only observed for a time the Kagyü practice of wearing only a cotton covering but, on another occasion, made the practice of “taking only essences” his main meditative endeavor. All six siddhas received instructions on the oral tradition of Chöd (gCod), and, because they were Mahāmudrā siddhas, they of course received full instruction in Nāropa’s Six Yogas. Thus, like the great Tsongkapa, these are examples of the unbiased and true nonsectarian character and spirit with which the lamas of old approached the Buddha’s teachings.

Lastly, each of these six contributed to the Gelukpa lineage in direct and lasting ways. Jampel Gyatso upheld the purity of the Ganden Oral Tradition of Mahāmudrā through his strenuous efforts in meditating just as his guru had instructed him. He thus maintained the practice lineage for future disciples. Baso Je successfully trained three disciples in the Oral Tradition. Chökyi Dorje won the siddhi of immortality, becoming a vidyādhara, and passed on the living practice tradition to the great Gyelwa Ensapa. Ensapa not only successfully completed the tantric path but composed numerous treatises on its practice, as well as texts that clarified, refined, and advanced Gelukpa ritual and liturgy in general. Sanggye Yeshe upheld the teachings of Ensapa even as he generously provided for the spiritual and material well-being of his followers. And the First Panchen—owing as much to his peacemaking activities as to his tireless efforts in study, meditation, and teaching—placed the Gelukpa order on sound footing to continue its spiritual work.

Many other observations regarding Tibet’s religious, political, and social history could be cited, drawn solely from the information provided by the “outer” level of the six namtar translated here. It is my hope that the notes accompanying each translation will help the reader to draw out more of these, and I move on now to what I have called the “inspirational” level of these accounts.

Nang, the Inspirational

It is easy to see how such exemplary figures as these six siddhas would inspire those coming after them. The accounts of their selfless deeds, often performed under the most difficult circumstances, have remained as trusted guides for later practitioners.

The names of these six are found enumerated—along with those of thirty other Geluk Mahāmudrā lineage-holders—in the short liturgical text called the Prayer, with Supplement, to the Lineage Lamas of the Ganden Oral Tradition of Mahāmudrā. This prayer, written in verse, is chanted daily in convocations of monks and nuns engaged in tantric practice and by individuals practicing in isolated retreats. It is usually intoned very slowly and with great sincerity, solemnity, and devotion.

After offering homage to the Mahāmudrā meditative system, the prayer proceeds in thirty-six verses, each composed of two eight-syllable lines that briefly describe the life and merits of each lineage-holder, with a third line bearing that one’s name. These are then followed by refrains of four eight-syllable lines. For example, after naming Vajradhara, the first member of the lineage, the refrain is recited as follows:

By generating a mind of compassion and loving kindness,

And by completely severing the continuum that clings

to holding a “self,”

May I be blessed to quickly attain the highest state

Of Mahāmudrā, [through] the path of total integration.

As this prayer is solemnly intoned, attention is focused on the verse summations of each lineage holder’s liberation life story: upon his struggles, efforts, and accomplishments. Supplication is made to each lineage-holder in turn, and the practitioner prays to be blessed by each of them so as to attain the ultimate realization of Mahāmudrā in his or her own lifetime.

At the prayer’s conclusion, a fervent wish is posited, a wish characteristic of tantric practice in general and of this system of guru yoga in particular: that one be enabled to receive the direct transmission of insight from one’s own root guru, which alone can usher in consummate realization. The prayer’s concluding verses state:

Having developed strong revulsion for dwelling in saṃsāra

And taking full responsibility for liberating all sentient beings

[without exception],

And seeing my Blessed Guru as Lord Buddha himself,

May I be blessed to quickly attain the state of Mahāmudrā,

That most exquisite state of total integration.

Your body, Father, and my own body;

Your speech, Father, and my own speech;

Your mind, Father, and my own mind:

May I be blessed to realize quickly

Their true inseparability!

Chanting this prayer helps to bring to mind the continuous living lineage of those who have, in following the Buddhist path, successfully reached its goal. Moreover, because it causes one to contemplate the good qualities of each siddha of the lineage, it trains the mind to appreciate goodness and virtue and to dwell on such qualities as a direct and practical means of generating them in oneself. The solemn request for inspiring strength from those who are identical with the Buddha himself is continuously made. Whenever there is a break in the daily routine of practice, the fuller namtar themselves are read and contemplated if they are available. Throughout all these activities, there is an air of heartfelt devotion; the accomplishments of the siddhas are inspiring. And they are empowering.

“What concrete benefits do people derive from reading namtar?” “How do they function within the lived world of Tibetan Buddhist thought and practice?” I asked these questions of many lamas. A remarkably concise and candid response was given me by the Gelukpa Geshe, Jampel Tardö, who said:

Well, some people use them in their teaching or to write books! Lamas, too, use them to teach and write books. But they are much more useful and interesting when associated with one’s practice. For example, if one is practicing the Guhyasamāja Tantra, first one reads the prayer to the lineage lamas. Second, for understanding in detail the qualities of each lama in the lineage—in order to obtain that lama’s power—one reads the namtar of that lama.

In point of fact, lamas often use namtar in their teaching activities. No lama would, for example, introduce a new teaching or begin a series of initiations without first narrating one or more namtar of the teachers in the lineage who practiced that teaching or meditation successfully. This makes for very practical instruction. The recitation of namtar sets the stage for practice by giving authority and credence to the lineage of teachings, by prefiguring the conditions conducive to practice, and by subtly sowing the seeds for similar liberation.

Such preparations are all the more necessary when the imminent undertaking is tantric practice. Deciding to commit oneself fully to the tantric path—with its strict discipline, rigorous yogic practices, and numerous pitfalls—is by no means a small matter. Thus it is only natural that it is inspirational, even joyously uplifting, to contemplate real persons who have traveled that path successfully. Namtar provide examples of human beings not very different from ourselves, who, owing to the guidance of a kind teacher and through their own efforts in practice, were able to transform themselves for the better. Were namtar solely tales of miraculous births and fantastic feats, their capacity to inspire would be lacking, as they would seem to place success out of the reach of ordinary human beings. In truth, only those examples that are capable of being replicated are also capable of inspiring.

Central to all of this—to the success of the siddhas of the past and to our own future success—is the guru. One could say, in fact, that devotion to the guru is the central thread running through all namtar. In the Tibetan tradition, the lama (bla-ma), or “superior teacher,” is the sine qua non of all practice. The title of “lama” is not applied, as is sometimes wrongly assumed, to just any Tibetan monk but rather is strictly reserved for a teacher who is capable of leading disciples to a direct and genuine experience of the Buddha’s teachings. Anyone may teach the words of a particular doctrine, but only a lama is able to give those words life, to reveal to a disciple their ultimate meaning and true spirit. Thus, a lama is one who can confer both instruction and power, the living spirit of the teachings. We see this central theme of guru devotion echoed in the concluding verses of the Geluk Mahāmudrā Lineage Prayer and throughout these six accounts. It is what lies behind the statement in Sanggye Yeshe’s namtar that “Ensapa gave him instructions for tasting [the Teachings].” Indeed, the lama is so essential for preserving and ensuring the continued vitality and purity of the teachings that he or she is placed first in the traditional Tibetan Buddhist Refuge formula. Tibetans hold that “Without the lama, there is no Buddha,” and it is said that Sanggye Yeshe always advised his followers that “Before there is the guru, there is not even the name of the Buddha!” Ensapa’s main practice was always “to train the mind to see the guru as the Buddha,” and he is quoted as having said: “The size of one’s realizations is completely dependent upon the size of one’s guru devotion.”

It is the lama who introduces us to the teachings, and it is he or she who assists us all along the way. It is from the lama that we derive the benefit of the Buddha’s actual presence as a teacher. The Buddha ⁄ākyamuni passed away more than 2,500 years ago. We cannot see or communicate directly with that historical being, but we can do these things with our guru of this life. Since the guru embodies all good qualities, he or she is identical in essence with the absolute nature of the Buddha.

Commenting on the importance of guru devotion, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has said:

In order to safely traverse the paths and stages that untie the knots of emotional and karmic bondage, one must correctly apply an effective method. The most certain way to ensure this correct application is to rely upon a fully qualified spiritual friend, someone who has personally realized the fruits of spiritual training and who has gained the ability to communicate his or her experiences to trainees… In general, the more powerful the method being applied, the more qualified must the teacher be. For instance, one must rely upon a guru who is a fully enlightened Buddha in order to engage successfully in the final yogas of Highest Tantra….

Another account says: “Without the guru, there would be no teachings and no path. Therefore devotion makes possible the transmission of sacred outlook, enlightened mind, from guru to disciple. Devotion to one’s guru is thus the ground, path, and fruition of vajrayāna….”

This is especially true with regard to tantric practices such as the Mahāmudrā. In fact, it is held that the ultimate realization of the supreme siddhi, Mahāmudrā itself, is attainable only through the guru’s blessing. This realization is not something that can be learned from books. In order to experience it, one must learn directly from a teacher who has such realization. Then one must follow that teacher’s instructions. The practices of guru devotion and guru yoga are, therefore, the ones that immediately precede Mahāmudrā practice itself.

After carefully choosing a guru—and there are numerous texts on how one ought to go about investigating before doing so—the disciple should observe three general types of behavior toward him or her. These behaviors are known as the “three ways to delight a guru” or the “three joys”: to make material offerings to the guru, always to show respectful behavior towards the guru, and always to follow the guru’s instructions. In this context, the special bonds between lama and disciple are unique, and owing to their closeness, the two are often referred to as “father and son.”

In these six namtar we see the dynamics of these guru-disciple relationships played out, and we witness in them the continuous transmission of the living lineage of Buddhist realization. The Buddha’s teachings have come down to us without interruption through a continuous stream of realized ones, all of whom, it may be said, now stand before us in the form of the guru. This is the central meaning of “lineage” in Tibetan Buddhism.

Jampel Gyatso’s utter commitment to practice, for example, not only pleased his root guru, Tsongkapa, but also greatly inspired the other members of the famed Wölka (’Ol-kha) retreat. When Chökyi Dorje first approached his Mahāmudrā guru, Baso Je, his namtar tells us that he did so “as if he were approaching his own father; and arriving at his feet, with much reverence and single-pointed devotion, he no longer thought of anything of this world, not even of his actual mother and father of this life.” The great Ensapa had two gurus whom he counted as his root gurus, and through his strenuous efforts he delighted them both. Sanggye Yeshe was incredibly intelligent, but it was only after surrendering himself to Ensapa that he became “truly learned, both from the side of thought and of practice.” The first meeting of a future siddha with the lama destined to become his guide to the ultimate siddhi is a momentous event. Often the disciple has had many illustrious teachers prior to this all-important meeting and has trained with zeal in numerous studies as well as in practice. Ensapa’s story is an excellent example of this; Chökyi Dorje has a dramatic impact on him! Jampel Gyatso is completely turned around when he finally comes face to face with Tsongkapa. Each disciple knows when the real lama comes along. And for each future siddha, once the bond is made, there is the complete giving over of full commitment to the lama. Knowing that the lama’s instruction is the vital link to highest attainment, nothing is held back.

These six life stories are inspirational not only for Buddhist practitioners today. They show us that not only were these six practitioners inspired by their own gurus and by siddhas previous to them, they themselves were inspiring to their own contemporaries. Thus, there are numerous layerings of inspiration woven throughout these stories that continually become manifest to the reader.

For example, having won the ultimate fruit of practice, these siddhas go on to exhort and to inspire those around them. Thus Ensapa, famed for having completely abandoned the eight mundane concerns, and who was, it is said, “completely without guile,” exhorted practitioners of the Dharma with these simple words of advice:

If the Dharma is listened to, pondered, and practiced merely for the sake of attaining honor and reputation in this life—even if one really desires to learn the path to enlightenment—these actions, being connected with saṃsāra, become tainted, like turning aṃṛta into poison, and serve only to render this precious human rebirth completely empty. Instead, when hearing, pondering, and practicing the Dharma, one’s aim should be first of all to subdue one’s own mind. Then one should carefully investigate the path, continuously using stainless reasoning as the antidote for the defiling emotions. Moreover, anyone who claims to study the Dharma without thoroughly investigating all the traditions of the Mahāyāna, and who likes to bicker over the slightest points of language—saying “You say this, but I say this”—completely misses the point!

Even though Jampel Gyatso desired only to meditate in isolated retreat, news of his unique intimacy with Lord MañjuŚrı brought people of every sort to him seeking counsel. As already mentioned, the First Panchen was admired so much that at one time he was requested to assume the abbacy of five Gelukpa monasteries simultaneously. In Baso Je’s namtar he is praised by the distinguished Shabdrung (Źabs-druṅ) of Neynying, Künga Delek (Kun-dga’bde-legs), with the following words:

I do not take pride in having been born into an ancient lineage, but I do take pride in being a student of Baso Chöje.

One of the students of the First Panchen, known as Shungkang Rabjampa (gŹun-khaṅ Rab-’byams-pa), was himself a famous teacher from the Gomang (sGo-maṅ) college at Drepung. Still, referring to the First Panchen, he said:

Even though I have received many Dharma teachings from many lamas in Central Tibet and Tsang, including even Ganden’s throneholder himself; and even though I am myself extremely hardheaded, all of your teachings have so helped my mind that a supreme reverence for you has been born in me that formerly was not possible for any others.

Finally, through these accounts we witness the reverence with which each of these six regarded the great siddhas who lived and practiced before them, like the tantric master Nāropa. The First Panchen wished to imitate the great siddhas Milarepa and Śabaripa. His namtar mentions Chökyi Dorje and Saraha in the same sentence. Like others of the six, he also went on pilgrimage to visit the places where the famed Wölka retreat had taken place and where Jampel Gyatso had later practiced and where his relics were enshrined. Naturally, they all revered Tsongkapa, that living example of the “model of virtue” and of accomplished practice; we see each of them reflecting continuously upon the life of Tsongkapa as inspiration for their own practice.

The Tibetan tradition holds that in addition to a lama’s ability to confer instruction and initiation, he or she should also possess three other “perfect virtues.” These are the abilities to explain the Doctrine; to debate, skillfully refuting an antagonist’s position; and to compose, committing one’s own system of explanation to writing. As their respective namtar attest, these six Gelukpa siddhas were masters in all these areas, and their tradition greatly reveres them for this.

Sang, the Instructional

I have already suggested that one of the major ways in which namtar surpass Western hagiography is in their role as vehicles for specific instruction. This is because, being the biographies of tantric practitioners, they operate in ways similar to other tantric literature. One of the things we know about tantric literature in general is that, in it, things are not always as they seem. Intricate systems of symbolic correspondences are used, and ordinary language is called upon to function in an extraordinary way to suggest the richness, the taste, of a reality that is ultimately ineffable.

The “secret biography” of a siddha is said to describe that siddha’s meditative accomplishments, mystical visions, and other spiritual experiences. For many who work with this material, this amounts to saying that a secret biography simply presents descriptions of siddhis. In the judgment of some Western scholars, it is the inclusion of this kind of material that makes namtar “popular” compositions of dubious value. I would only suggest again that these assessments betray a narrow and elitist perspective that prevents such scholars from seeing that these texts can be, at the same time, both popular and profound.

Now it seems to me only natural that the biographies of siddhas should include some mention of siddhis, or magical powers, since the latter go hand-in-hand with the very definition of the former. Moreover, the inclusion of descriptions of siddhis not only testifies to the truth of the title “siddha” but enhances the siddha’s capacity to inspire. The importance attached to Padmasambhava’s ability to display such powers has already been noted. These six Geluk siddhas also, owing to their success in practice, are shown to have had these attainments.

Jampel Gyatso’s namtar tells us that he came to possess “fierce siddhis” to cure illness, subjugate evil spirits, make predictions, and even prolong life. He is even credited with extending Tsongkapa’s life through his prayers to Mañjuśrī. Chökyi Dorje is famed for having won the siddhi of immortality. The great Ensapa, as a result of his training with Chökyi Dorje, was able to pass through walls unhindered, count the individual particles of a mountain, and speak foreign languages without prior study.

Ensapa’s life was also tremendously rich in visionary experiences. At a very early age, as he was practicing meditation in a cave, he was visited by the Buddha and Tsongkapa, both of whom blessed him. At the age of eight, he envisioned that he flew upwards one night and seated himself upon the moon, holding in his hands a dorje (rdo rje) and bell with which he proclaimed the spread of the Buddhist Dharma. Numerous miraculous displays are said to have accompanied Ensapa’s birth. It is said that upon being born he uttered the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteśvara and that the gods, in response, rained down flowers throughout the region.

Having successfully mastered the propitiation of the wrathful Lord of Wisdom, Vajrabhairava, Sanggye Yeshe overpowered frightening apparitions with the force of his samādhi. The First Panchen Chökyi Gyeltsen also enjoyed a visionary life. He was visited and blessed by goddesses and yoginīs and by Tsongkapa himself. Using his “subtle body” in the dream state, he is said to have memorized by heart all the root commentaries of the Mahāyāna. These are but a few examples.

Because they do figure so prominently within namtar, the question of siddhis must be tackled head on. Magic plays no part in a siddha’s meditative discipline, nor is it viewed as a means to his or her ultimate realization. Indeed, the term “magic” is itself so negatively charged in the West as to be almost completely inappropriate in such contexts. Still, so-called “magical” or “miraculous” displays do have a prominent place in almost all namtar. Because of this, siddhas are often referred to in Western translations as “magicians” and even as “sorcerers”! All such characterizations, however, miss the mark of accurately describing a siddha, who is, viewed properly, “an accomplished one, possessed of power.”

Now, the Buddhist tantric practitioner’s main goal is not to gain such powers but rather to win ultimate realization in this very life. This is the highest, the superior, siddhi or success. All other siddhis are subordinate; however, the lesser siddhis are said to come by the way as one advances along the path. Buddhist texts are very careful to distinguish between “mundane” or “worldly powers,” attainable by yogis of any ascetic tradition, and the highest, supramundane siddhi, enlightenment, which alone is to be sought by the true Buddhist adept. In the six namtar translated here, this highest siddhi is called the “siddhi of Mahāmudrā” because it was by using this particular tantric method that these six practitioners attained enlightenment.

The crux of the problem regarding siddhis seems to have to do not so much with “magic” as with “power.” Siddhas are said to possess powers, mainly powers to control natural phenomena. Still, and in spite of the fact that quantum mechanics has discredited much of Newtonian physics, as one modern scholar puts it: “Contemporary science continues, despite its relativistic tendencies, to expect a certain stability and uniformity in nature, and to be suspicious still of alleged events which seem to disturb its expected order….” Within the Buddhist tradition, though, siddhis are viewed as quite natural phenomena: the results that accrue to those who, through rigorous meditation, have gained an increased awareness regarding the true nature of reality. Owing to such increased awareness, reality itself becomes malleable in a siddha’s hands. It is then said that such a one has gained extraordinary powers: the ability to control or to alter certain natural and psychic forces.

It should be noted that while much is made of the possession and displays of siddhis in tantric literature, this same sense of power appears under the name ṛddhi in some of the earliest strata of Buddhist literature. For example, perhaps the best known enumeration of the mundane siddhis is that found in Dīgha-Nikāya, I. 78. There, when the Buddha enumerates for King Ajātasattu the fruits of the life of a monk, he mentions the attainment of various ṛddhi and describes them as follows:

Being one he becomes many, or having become many, he becomes one again; he becomes visible or invisible; without obstruction he passes through walls, through fences, through mountains, as if they were but air; he penetrates up and down through solid earth, as if it were but water; he walks on water without parting it, as if it were solid ground; cross-legged he travels through the air, as a bird on the wing; he touches and handles the moon and the sun, though they be so potent and mighty; even in this body of his, he scales the heights of the world up to the heaven of Brahma; just as a clever potter could succeed in making out of clay any shape of vessel he wanted to have.

In the context of this sūtra, the Buddha describes thirteen progressively higher fruits of asceticism and the monastic life. His description of the attainment of such magical powers immediately precedes the final fruit for the Theravādin monk: “realization of the Four Noble Truths, the destruction of the defiling emotions, and the full attainment of Arhatship.” Even while such ṛddhi are subordinate to complete liberation, they are ranked high in terms of the aspirant’s progressive meditational development and accomplishment.

Indeed, accounts of the Buddha’s own life—especially the later, more embellished ones—record numerous instances when he himself demonstrated such powers. The Sanskrit Lalitavistara as well as the earlier Mahāvastu offer good examples of this. And it is well known, even in the early Theravādin literature, that the Buddha had two greatly renowned disciples: Śāriputra, famed for his wisdom and insight, and Mahā-Maudgalyayāna, renowned for his mastery of ṛddhi.

As mentioned above, all siddhis, except the supreme siddhi of complete enlightenment, are regarded as only mundane and worldly powers—even if they appear extraordinary to us! Nonetheless, such siddhis are a feature of namtar. Their presence highlights the esteem accorded to a given siddha; they are signs of his or her holiness and success along the path. Moreover, such powers are said to be employed by tantric adepts as a means to aid, teach, and inspire others. For a true Buddhist practitioner, who has abandoned the false idea of “self ” and who, with developed compassion for all beings, treads the path toward complete enlightenment, siddhis are never sought after or used as ends in themselves. A Buddhist tantric adept must already have had some genuine realization of the Bodhisattva’s vow of compassion before even embarking upon the tantric path. Thus, the tradition holds that all powers are manifested and employed only to “help a bodhisattva in the attainment of all his aims for his own good and for the good of others.”

Having noted all of this, I wish here to make an additional observation that bears directly upon the special nature—and what I suggest is the dual sense—of the term “secret” in the context of namtar. Within the genre of Buddhist sacred biography as a whole there are various kinds of narrative, which bear different titles. For example, there are the namtar, or “complete liberation” life stories; there are other narratives termed dzepa (mdzad pa) that focus primarily on the specific deeds and spiritual activities of the accomplished one; and there are still others that bear the name tokjö (rtogs brjod). This latter group is of particular interest here, since this title literally means an “utterance” or “declaration” [jöpa] of the siddha’s own spiritual realization [tok].

Above, I have given a general definition of the “secret” level of siddha biographies. Here, I present what an eminent Tibetan lama had to say on the subject. Geshe Lobsang Jampa described for me what “secret” means in the context of a secret biography:

A true yogi does not wish to become famous in the world. That would be to mix up Dharma practice with worldly concerns. The great yogis, therefore, would keep their innermost realizations and meditative accomplishments secret. They might sometimes, however, have told their very closest disciples about such experiences in order to spur the disciples’ faith, and sometimes these disciples later wrote down these experiences.

While such an explication of “secret” may be surprising to those intrigued solely by the esoteric features of Tantric Buddhism, Geshe Jampa’s remarks are surely reliable and are borne out by many examples. One need only recall, for example, a text that forms an essential part of every Gelukpa monk’s recitations: the Secret Biography of Tsongkapa, written by Jamyang Chökyi Tashi Pelden [1379–1449], one of Tsongkapa’s direct disciples. After some initial verses of praise, the text consists almost entirely of an enumeration of Tsongkapa’s meditative and mystic experiences and realizations:

At the age of seven you directly perceived

Dipaṃkara Atīśa, the great Path Clearer,

And Vajrapāṇi, Lord of the Secret.

The exhortations of both the sutras

and tantras dawned upon you;

O illustrious lama, at your feet I pay homage…

You directly perceived Mañjuśrī…

Seated in a radiant aura as blue

as the color of perfect sapphire…

From this time onward, O High One,

Whenever you desired you could invoke

Mañjuśrī … and listen to the teachings…

When practicing the seven-limbed ritual

Of the Thirty-five Purification Buddhas,

Continually and clearly you beheld them

And all their forms, mudrās and symbols…

All the mahāsiddhas of India and Tibet…

Appeared to, then constantly cared for, you…

Having touched your heart

To the wisdom sword of Mañjuśrī,

A stream of undefiled ambrosia

Flowed into the depths of your being

Spontaneously arousing the propitious

Absorption of highest joy…

Your mind absorbed in the mystic circle of Heruka…

Myriads of ḍākinīs of the outer, inner, and secret places

Made you offerings of vajra songs,

Transporting you in ecstasy;

O illustrious lama, at your feet I pay homage.

Clearly, the meditative realizations and achievements being described above are Tsongkapa’s own, visions and mystical events that could have been experienced and known only by him. They were later told to Tashi Pelden, who recorded them. According to tradition, such personal disclosures qualify as secret biography.

Countless other examples of this level of biography can be found throughout the vast corpus of Tibetan sacred literature. When we read, for example, in the namtar of Jampel Gyatso that he “experienced a continuous, steady, and clear appearance of the body and speech of Jetsün Mañjuśrī,” we are reading secret biography. We are also reading secret biography when, in a passage describing the performance of the Completion Stage practice of Guhyasamāja, Jampel Gyatso says that “During that time, I held to the practice [of not allowing the bodhicitta—here, semen—to slip away] for twenty-six full days.”

But is a secret biography merely an enumeration of the siddha’s magical/mystical accomplishments? Is it only a listing of siddhis? I think not. The enumeration of such realizations and powers is what defines and validates a siddha, and in a sense there would be no siddha biography without the incorporation of at least some of these descriptions and accounts. Yet, while such a listing may certainly be viewed as a basis for faith, inspiration itself is not the sole aim of the secret level of these stories. This is why I suggest that they also often contain the siddha’s own personal advice and pith instructions on practice for future practitioners, and this is why I believe that this instructional character is the second meaning of “secret” in these contexts. On the one hand, “secret” refers to those innermost meditative achievements experienced by the siddha. On the other, it refers to the tantric text’s use of veiled or hidden analogical and symbolic language to prevent the uninitiated reader’s ready access to practice instructions that might be too advanced. The meanings of these passages are thus hidden or secret until one is prepared and able to interpret the symbolic language with the proper understanding. Thus, what is “instructional” to advanced practitioners is “secret” to unskilled, ordinary beings.

The following passage from the namtar of the Gelukpa siddha Chökyi Dorje [there are no dates given for him since he is said to have gained the siddhi of immortality], best demonstrates the convergence of these two meanings of the term “secret”:

In accordance with the words of advice of Chökyi Gyeltsen, he wandered to many solitary places—to lonely forests and ravines as well as to snow-covered mountains. Then, at one time during this period, as he meditated near the sacred water of Pema Chan (Padma-can), all the surrounding areas were suddenly transformed, becoming in an instant like the actual twenty-four places [in India], while the earth surrounding the water itself turned into sindhura. Thereupon at that famous spot, he performed the contemplations on guru yoga related to the Completion Stage, and he beheld the countenance of the King of Dharma, the great Tsongkapa. It was then that Je Rinpoche himself gave to this holy one the complete instructions of the ordinary and extraordinary Oral Tradition. In particular, Je Rinpoche taught him the extraordinary practice of the three-tiered mental exercise of guru yoga wherein he visualized his own outward form as that of an Indian pandit and his inner aggregates and sense organs as a host of deities. In his heart, the Buddha Shakyatubpa was clearly manifest, and in that one’s heart resided Vajradhara.

It is clear that this passage describes events that could have been experienced directly and known only by Chökyi Dorje himself. We are given a description of his meditative visions: his surroundings are “transformed,” and Tsongkapa appears and instructs him. We, too, are “told” these instructions. Even so, there is yet another level to this particular account, and several of its features are intriguing. To begin with, the name of the supposed “place” where this event occurred is of interest because Pema Chan—literally, “having a lotus”—is often a veiled reference to a woman. [“Lotus” in this context may mean the vagina.] Moreover, Pema Chan sometimes refers to a female sexual partner in certain advanced tantric practices, particularly those of the mahānuttara yoga category. The Pema Chan of the Chökyi Dorje account may or may not be a tantric consort, but I do think that there is at least the suggestion that the place-name Pema Chan may indicate the Completion Stage practice of using sexual union, whether actual or imaginary, as a means to higher insight.

Now, with regard to the “twenty-four places” mentioned in the passage, there can be little doubt that these refer simultaneously to the so-called “outer” pilgrimage places, called pīṭhas, said to be the dwelling places for various groups of yoginıs or ḍākinīs, and also to the “inner” places, yogically generated and located throughout an adept’s body. The body-maṅḍala of the long Heruka Sādhana mentions these twenty-four places, and the theory of the twenty-four places is also found in the Hevajra Tantra.

Shin ‘ichi Tsuda has given a detailed analysis based on the Hevajra Tantra of the various correspondences among these external and internal pīṭhas in his A Critical Tantrism. As with tantric literature and practices in general, the whole of ultimate reality, external and internal, is made manifest through an intricate and delicately balanced ordering of correspondences. These correspondences are expressed symbolically. As there are external pīṭhas, so there are internal pīṭhas. The external pīṭhas have corresponding points on the “vajra body” once this is successfully generated by a tantric adept, such that the twenty-four sacred external places are matched with corresponding places on the body: head, fingernails, teeth, ears, backbone, liver, shoulders, eyes, nose, penis, thighs, thumbs, knees, etc. Successfully generating the vajra body adorned with these twenty-four spots, the tantric practitioner is said to be able to compel the ḍākinīs of the external pīṭhas to approach and enter the corresponding spots on his or her body. This again is symbolic, or intentional, language. To quote from Tsuda:

Internal pīṭhas’ are abodes of veins (nāḍīsthāna) as ‘external pīṭhas’ are abodes of ḍākinīs. There are twenty-four parts of a body, such as the head corresponding to the external pīṭha Pullīramalya, etc. There are twenty-four veins (nā˜ı) which rely on these internal pı˛has such as (a vein) flowing through fingernails and teeth (nakhadantavahā), etc. These veins (nāḍī) are regarded as deities (devatā), that is, ḍākinīs. A nāḍī is nothing other than a ḍākinī… A human body is composed of these twenty-four ‘internal pīṭhas’ such as the head, etc., as the world, that is, the Jambudvīpa in this case, is composed of twenty-four ‘external pīṭhas,’ i.e., twenty-four countries such as Pullıramalya, etc. An ‘internal pīṭha’ is existent as long as it is an abode for a vein. A vein in turn is existent as long as it conveys a humour in it or it flows in an internal organ. Therefore, if one makes (the) twenty-four veins of one’s own body active, through (the) yogic practice of making each of the humours flow through the corresponding veins or each of (the) veins flow through the corresponding internal organs, he transforms his body into an aggregate of internal pīṭhas or an aggregate of ḍākinīs, a homologous miniaturization of the world as an aggregate of external pīṭhas or an aggregate of ḍākinīs (ḍākinījāla). Thus he can unite himself with the ultimate reality on the basis of the Tantric logic of symbolism.

One other element of this passage from Chökyi Dorje’s namtar deserves mention here: the “sacred water” itself. Tibetan tradition says that there is a certain type of water found in sacred caves in Tibet that is a kind of holy nectar. Padmasambhava is said to have given long-life initiations to his disciples using this holy nectar. However, there is room for further elaboration with respect to this. In tantric literature, water is often a symbol for the female or, more specifically, for menstrual blood. The fact that the earth surrounding the water mentioned here is said to have turned into sindhura would seem to have specific reference to the supreme ḍākinī-consort, the Goddess Vajrayoginı, chief consort to Lord Cakrasaṃvara, since marking the disciple’s “three doors” with a sindhura powder is a special feature of the initiation into the higher tantric practice using this particular deity. In fact, it would seem that this episode narrates—using the veiled language of the tantras—the unfolding and acting out in Chökyi Dorje’s own body of the yoga of the Completion Stage techniques involved, in this case, with the practice based upon the cycle of Cakrasaṃvara. If this is so, then this passage, in addition to providing us with a list of siddhis or mystical visions, also employs the symbolic language of the tantras to describe and to impart information about the advanced practice associated with Cakrasaṃvara.

The above is an analysis of a brief and isolated event in a single namtar, but similar events appear in other life stories as well. Studying these texts has strongly suggested to me that an approach to this literature like the one I have indicated above may indeed prove helpful. Treating a given namtar as a piece of tantric literature that is intended to provide instructions and inspiration to practitioners can help us to glean valuable information about the Vajrayāna in general and about specific practices in particular. In this way, Tibetan sacred biographies become less obscure and certainly less folkloric and are shown to be capable of providing us with valuable insights into the lived world of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.

Before concluding this Introduction, one specific and unique feature of these six namtar should be mentioned: the so-called Miraculous Volume of the Gelukpa. It is said that the text is of “mystical origins” and that it is “accessible only to the most holy of the lineage gurus.” As will be seen, the Miraculous Volume figures prominently in these namtar, where it is said to be entrusted to each succeeding disciple once that one has accomplished the highest goal of practice. It thus functions in these stories as a type of seal of accomplishment. It should be noted that many Gelukpa lamas claim that, from the time of the First Panchen, the Volume has been entrusted to the deity Kālarūpa for safekeeping. One can find more information about the Miraculous Volume in the notes to the various translations here.

Regardless of our individual approaches, I believe that there is much in these namtar to inspire us. These six figures contributed greatly to ensuring the purity and vitality of the Gelukpa tradition in particular and of Buddhism in Tibet in general. For their selfless efforts in mastering and spreading the Dharma, they have fully earned the title “siddha” and “enlightened being.” Such exemplary figures have continued to inspire those within the Tibetan tradition to this very day. May that inspiration, like ambrosia, spill across cultural boundaries to inspire us as well.


How to cite this document:
© Janice Dean Willis, Enlightened Beings (Wisdom Publications, 1995)

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