The Autobiography of Terton Pema Lingpa by Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho will be launched at 1.30pm on February 21 at Tarayana Conference Hall in Thimphu

Review: History is a curious thing.  What’s more important, however, is the inquisitive nature of the people with whom the stories are indelibly linked.  Otherwise, narratives have a wonderful tendency to turn to shapes amorphous and meanings incomprehensible.

Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa, the greatest of all five terton kings, according to some accounts, is the face of modern Bhutan.  Indeed.  But what and how much of Pema Lingpa’s life and work do we really know?

Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho’s new book, The Autobiography of Terton Pema Lingpa, is a rare historical gem to come out at a time when technological innovations and rumbling modern-day genius are slaughtering the Bhutanese curiosity to look up for stories of their own past.

What little we have received about the most famous Bhutanese luminary from our elders and available texts are largely based on oral transmission over long decades and centuries.  Much has been lost along the way, and much added, for the life of the saint to contain any relevance or speck of probity.

Researchers have had to refer to texts that differ in records and events of Pema Lingpa, to say nothing about widely varying linguistic and documentation methods.

“Even the most isolated and conservative kingdom of Bhutan has sadly succumbed to such linguistic and literary erosion,” says the author, a leading researcher and historian in the country today. “It has become a matter of great urgency to re/produce more works in traditional Himalayan languages to retain what is left of the fast diminishing number of people, who are fluent in reading and writing in local Himalayan languages.”

There are six different versions of Pema Lingpa’s autobiography in the country today – Gangteng, Ogyencholing, Dungkar, Yagang, Dudjom and Kunzangdra.  Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho has used the version at Kunzangdra as the main exemplar, and says that to do a full text critical edition with dense footnotes would have made the book very difficult for a traditional reader, who would approach this as a hagiographic source of inspiration.  And leaving out all the philological variations would have disappointed a textual scholar.

The Kunzangdra version of Pema Lingpa’s autobiography is also the most popular in the country.  The manuscripts in Gangteng, Dungkar and Yagang are in Umed script, and the rest are in Uchen, also known as Tshugyig in Bhutan.

“I’ve tried to tread a middle way between the two and the outcome, I’m afraid, is a book which isn’t strictly a text-critical edition, but one with a heavy touch of textual criticism. I hope general readers would not find the footnote references too cumbersome.”

The old and disintegrating woodblocks from which the autobiography of one of the greatest Bhutanese saints was printed from (the Kunzangdra version), is currently with department of culture’s conservation division and are being treated and repaired.

Says Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho: “One of my aims for the sampling of textual comparison is also to demonstrate the importance of comparative studies and preservation of variant readings to the local Himalayan scholars, who too often fall for a clean revised edition and have the tendency to erase all variations. I hope to instil in them a better appreciation of the value of variant readings and a keener sense of chronology in their historical analysis.”

Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho’s book will be useful for anyone interested in consulting all the six versions of the autobiography.  The Shejun Agency that Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho heads has also photographed and made digital copies of all the six texts that are available at the National Library and Archives of Bhutan, the Shejun Agency, the British Library and the monastic archives in the country.

If the main aim of this new edition of Pema Lingpa’s autobiography is to make it accessible and available to as many readers as possible, Lopen (Dr) Karma Phuntsho has done an excellent job.

The Autobiography of Terton Pema Lingpa will be launched at 1.30pm on February 21 at Tarayana Conference Hall in Thimphu, together with Shejun’s two other titles to celebrate the Peling tradition and His Majesty’s 35th birth anniversary.

By Jigme Wangchuk