Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Luminous Lives - Preface

The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam ’bras in Tibet


It was a summer day in 1989, and the dusty reading room of the National Archives in Kathmandu felt like a sauna. Trying to decipher the script on the glaring screen of the microfilm reader brought a splitting headache within minutes. But there it was, in a tiny scribbled annotation on the last page of the handwritten Tibetan text, “Dmar from the central region,” clarifying the name of Chos kyi rgyal po, the author of the Zhib mo rdo rje (The Incisive Vajra). Written almost eight hundred years ago, this ancient manuscript told the story of the early masters of the tantric tradition known in Tibet as the Lam ’bras, the “Path with the Result.” I had learned that this work was a fundamental historical source, but none of my elder Tibetan teachers had ever seen it, and it was presumed lost long ago. I was ecstatic. With the kind help of Franz-Karl Ehrhard, then director of the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, I acquired a copy of the film.

My teacher, Bco brgyad Khri chen Rin po che (Chogye Trichen Rinpoche), had often emphasized the importance of another work by the same author, Dmar ston Chos kyi rgyal po (c. 1198–c. 1259), for the study and practice of the Lam ’bras. Mkhan po Bstan ’dzin kindly presented me with the gift of an ancient manuscript of the very text my teacher had been telling me about. A few years later, on yet another microfilm made by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project, I located a short biography of Dmar ston. I decided to find out as much as I could about this little-known teacher whose works were so important to the early tradition, and to prepare a translation and study of the Zhib mo rdo rje.

After my return to the United States in 1991, Jeffrey Schoening generously gave me a copy of the Zhib mo rdo rje that he had located in Beijing. A few years later Leonard van der Kuijp also visited Beijing, and upon his return kindly allowed me to copy another manuscipt of the same text that he had found in the library there. The manuscript I located in Nepal contains a number of small handwritten annotations not found in the first text from Beijing. The second work from Beijing contains many of the same small annotations as the Nepal manuscript, with quite a few additional ones. For this reason I have chosen to use the second manuscript from Beijing as the basis for the present study. In the notes, the Nepal manuscript will be referred to as “manuscript N,” and the first Beijing text as “manuscript B1.” The small annotations found in the Tibetan manuscript have been translated in a smaller grey typeface. Most of these original Tibetan annotations were added to the Zhib mo rdo rje in a way that allows them to blend grammatically with the body of the Tibetan text. In the English translation this has not always been possible. All the titles and section headings within the translation have been added for the sake of clarity. Tibetan words in this book are transliterated according to the Wylie system, but with capitalization of the initial letter. Sanskrit words are given with diacritics.

The original Tibetan manuscript of the Zhib mo rdo rje is written in a cursive dbu med script, with numerous tiny annotations scattered between the lines and in the margins. The spellings in the original manuscript are very inconsistent, with the same words being found in various forms at different points. In the translation of the Zhib mo rdo rje the unusual spellings of names, places, and so forth have usually been retained, but in other parts of the book the most commonly recognized forms have been used. In the Tibetan text reproduced in this book the spellings from the original manuscript have been retained, with the following exceptions. All of the condensed words and compounds (bsdus yig) have been unpacked and spelled out in full form. In the manuscript, a retroflex letter ṇa was used as a shorthand sign for the word med, but the word itself has been reintroduced here. The numeral 1 was used indiscriminately throughout the manuscript in place of the words gcig, cig, zhig, and shig. In the reproduced text the numeral 1 has been replaced by the full words. Other numerals used as a form of shorthand have also been replaced with words. Archaic spellings have been retained. The paragraphing of the reproduced Tibetan text corresponds to the paragraphing of my translation. I am grateful to Jeffrey Schoening, Dennis Oliver, Lee Harris, and David Kalil for carefully checking my initial transliteration of the Tibetan text. The Zhib mo rdo rje was never published in Tibet, and has circulated in manuscript form for almost eight hundred years. With this publication, the Tibetan text will finally be accessible to all interested readers.

The Zhib mo rdo rje tells the story of the masters of the Lam ’bras in Tibet during the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, strictly from the viewpoint of the Sa skya tradition. In this work Dmar ston records the words of his teacher, the great Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182–1251). In later Tibetan works these stories were expanded with information from other early sources, particularly from the Zha ma tradition. In the translation of the Zhib mo rdo rje I have followed the example of later Tibetan authors, and supplemented the brief stories in Dmar ston’s work with extensive notes drawn from other sources. The reader will find a great deal of essential information in these storytelling notes, much drawn from rare unpublished works.

The modern reading audience for this book could hardly be further removed from the audience for whom the Zhib mo rdo rje was originally written. With the hope of conveying at least some of the flavor and depth of the oral tradition in these stories, I have decided to present them “on stilts,” as George Steiner has said, with voluminous notes supporting the small original work. Despite the clumsiness of such an approach, it seems more than justified, because the background knowledge assumed by Dmar ston is absent in those who will read this book.

For years I have been inspired by the unforgettable stories from the Lam ’bras tradition, told with peerless eloquence and humor by the late Sde gzhung Sprul sku Rin po che (Dezhung Tulku Rinpoche, 1906–87) and by Bco brgyad Khri chen Rin po che. I am very grateful to Mkhan po A pad Rin po che (Khenpo Apey Rinpoche) for his kind help with several difficult passages in the Tibetan text. David Jackson, Jeffrey Schoening, Dan Martin, and E. Gene Smith all read earlier versions of this book, and provided very helpful criticism and corrections, as well as copies of rare manuscripts. Hubert Decleer also offered very useful suggestions. Mkhan po A pad Rin po che, Guru Lama, Leonard van der Kuijp, and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch graciously provided copies of rare texts. Ulrich von Schroeder generously made photographs of rare art from the Lam ’bras tradition available for reproduction. In particular, my thanks go to Tim McNeill and E. Gene Smith for enduring the difficulties of bringing this book to print, and for including it in Wisdom Publications’s series “Studies in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.” I am also grateful to David Kittelstrom for his fine editorial work.

As the first study of the historical tradition of the Lam ’bras in a language other than Tibetan, I hope that this modest contribution will encourage further investigations in the future. Although Dmar ston’s work was brief, it inspired all the later Sa skya histories of the tradition. Now that it will be widely available in both Tibetan and English, perhaps it will again form a basis for research into the early history of the Lam ’bras in Tibet.


How to cite this document:
© Cyrus Stearns, Luminous Lives (Wisdom Publications, 2001)

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