Banished to forgotten ruins the Tantra was nearly lost in Tibet until a visionary master rescued it. Honoring his predecessor who saved it, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche recently gave a rare public empowerment on the Tantra collection known as Drubthab Kuntu
One of the most consequential projects of the Vajrayana Buddhism was undertaken by the great Tibetan master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in the 19th century in Tibet. That of gathering and compiling the Tantra teachings, the golden heritage of Vajrayana Buddhism, which at the time were scattered across the vast silence and seclusion of Tibet’s remote mountains and on the brink of extinction. It was a time, scriptures say, when the Buddha’s teachings in Tibet was “waning like the evening sun”.
The Mongol occupation of Tibet in the 13th century and the ensuing civil wars had spawned religious sectarianism and supremacism, which turned extreme from 18th century after the Qing Dynasty, the last of the Chinese imperial dynasty, defeated the Mongols and Tibet was brought under its control.
Under the new ruler, the Gelukpa school already a powerful political player under the Mongol regime had morphed into a “xenophobic lamaist theocracy” which took not only a dim conservative view of other Buddhist schools, but enforced a rigid intellectual conformity that riveted on scholasticism and monastic discipline, a dramatic departure from the principles of the Vajrayana that taught exactly the opposite things.
The upshot was that the Vajrayana literature called the Tantra that belonged to older Tibetan schools like the Nyingmapa, Kagyupa and Sakyapa including Gelukpa’s own that focussed on the actual practice of the Buddha’s teachings was banished to forgotten ruins with a dwindling population of lineage holders and practitioners spread over Tibet.
Elsewhere the waves of the European Enlightenment, proclaimed as the age of reason and progress, had engulfed India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and much of the Far East into subjugation. The cultures of the natives were getting the rough end of the stick, which were either decimated or scrapped for modern ideals, as the conquerors sought to rebuild the whole of nations in their image.
Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo was only in his early 20s when in the year 1840 he began his journey from his hometown in Derge, a tiny relatively independent kingdom in Eastern Tibet. Acutely aware of the irreparable loss of countless precious teachings and the dire need to find and document them, he left his snug trulku job as the leader of the Dzongsar monastery in Derge and took on the life of a wandering monk, taking with him only his trusted attendant Tsultrim Gyatso.
It was a quest that meant walking for endless hours on foot through the cold and vast abyss of Tibet’s forbidding terrain, knocking on doors, poring over texts, tracking down lineage holders, and spending countless nights and days in monasteries, temples, hermitages and caves making offerings, supplicating and receiving teachings. Many times he was barefoot because his shoes could not keep up.
Like this Khyentse Wangpo trekked across the length and breadth of Tibet for thirteen years. He was, scriptures say, “like a man dying of thirst in search of water”.
‘Tantra was godsend’
Tantra is a body of literature and practice manuals designed to take a devoted practitioner to Buddhahood in one lifetime and is the crown jewel of the Vajrayana Buddhism. It first took root around the 5th century in Oddiyana in ancient India and is believed to have been taught by the Buddha himself in his tantric form, known as Vajradhara, and by the Bodhisattva Vajrapani.
From Oddiyana, Tantra spread and found its way to the fertile East India region of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam, into places like the Nalanda University, where it was built upon the bedrocks of the traditional Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist schools and became known as the Vajrayana, and where in the 8th and 11th centuries it blossomed under the patronage of the great Pala Emperors who ruled over these regions.
From the moment it arrived, Tantra was a magnet because it focussed on putting what had been taught by the Buddha to practice. For those disillusioned or discontent by the scholasticism of the Hinayana and Mahayana traditions, Tantra was godsend. It did not reject the old schools. It instead used them to lay vital foundations of understanding on which the practice of the Tantra was built.
Tantra was an attraction too because literally anyone could practice it—regardless of caste or color or sex or sexual orientation, or occupation or marital status. This principle of tolerance and inclusiveness was what made the Tantra so special. It was what set it apart from other orthodox faiths of the time. The Tantra path put the goal of Buddhahood within the reach of laypersons rather than reserving it only for those who chose the monastic life.
The keepers of the Tantra were the Indian Masters known as the siddhas who had attained the realization of Buddhahood in their lifetime. They were the ones who founded and initiated the siddha lineages in India that passed into Tibet and, through Tibetan Lamas, are still alive today. There were eighty-four such siddhas in India, many of whom lived and flourished under the Pala Empire.
The book ‘Buddha’s Lions: The Lives of the Eighty-Four Siddhas’, translated by James B. Robinson, points out that the Indian siddhas who transmitted their lineages to Tibet were some of the most masterly and famed siddhas to live in India like Saraha, Tilopa, Naropa, Virupa and Nagarjuna, who were renunciate yogins who gave up palaces, academies, homes, families, fame, and wealth to practice in privations.
At the same time, there were many siddhas who retained their worldly status and operated from every realm of the social fabric—from kings and ministers to priests and yogins, to poets and musicians to craftsmen and farmers to housewives and prostitutes. They used hedonism and attendant emotions as the tool and the path to spiritual liberation.
In India and Tibet, the book points out, the siddhas and their lineages were highly revered because: first, the siddhas showed how through the power of their own efforts they successfully followed the tantra path and won the highest spiritual attainment, which was nothing less than the Buddha’s enlightenment; and second, their personal verification of the path guaranteed that those who followed their tradition were following a path that led to success.
Tantra came to Tibet in the eighth century during the hey days of the Pala empire by the hand of the great Indian monk and Tantra master—Guru Padmasambhava. And later through the great Indian master Vimalamitra and Guru Padmasambhava’s Tibetan student and translator—Vairotsana—who was dispatched to India to study under Guru Padmasambhava’s master Sri Singha and despite encountering every hardship imaginable returned home with invaluable Tantra teachings.
Later many other masters would add to the repository. Chief among them were the Indian master Atisha who settled in Tibet and the Tibetan master Marpa, the intrepid translator who, in the 11th century, travelled to India not less than three times, braving the long and sinuous ancient Silk Route where bandits robbed travelers and slit their throats, and returned each time, unharmed, with an armful of precious Tantra texts.
Buddhism, however, came to an end in India, the country of its birth, in the 12th century and along with it the Buddhist Tantra, culminating in the desecration of the Buddha’s Tree of Enlightenment in Bihar by the Turkish soldiers.
By then Tibet had fully adopted the Vajrayana and thanks to a line of Tibetan Dharma Kings, the Indian Buddhist Tantra canon along with the entire corpus of the words of the Buddha and its treatises (Kangyur and Tengyur) had been translated into the Tibetan language.
The Tibetans thus became the keeper of the Vajrayana.
‘Secret sauce recipe’
As Khyentse Wangpo walked through the empty blue valleys and remote mountain peaks in search of the imperiled Tantra, the fact that the Tibetans had failed in their job as the caretaker of the Vajrayana and was, in fact, about to go all up in smoke was not lost on him.
During his 13-year search, he sought out more than 200 teachers and lineage holders from every tradition and school and made sure to get the requisite empowerments and transmissions from each one of them. He studied their teachings and instructions and didn’t leave until he was satisfied.
Because Tibetan schools in general were loathe to question the Indian Buddhist doctrine, departure from the Tantra had been little to none even after a thousand years of its relocation to a new culture and despite the new homeland’s turbulent history.
An uninterrupted and an uncorrupted siddha lineage and teaching traditions still ran the course of the Vajrayana in Tibet in the 19th century.
Tibetans had by then also produced their own siddhas like Milarepa in the 11th century, Longchenpa in the 14th century and Thangtong Gyalpo in the 15th century, among others.
After his mission was fulfilled, Khyentse Wangpo returned to his Dzongsar monastery where he spent another thirteen years studying the collection, writing down instructions, cataloguing and practicing in retreat the entire trove to perfection. His close friend and collaborator Jamgon Kongtrul and student Jamyang Loter Wangpo helped him document the collection.
“His preoccupation,” according to the book ‘The Life of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo by Jamgon Kongtrul,’ “was nothing less than the re-authentication and codification of Tibet’s disparate Vajrayana heritage.”
The enterprise gave birth to the pivotal Buddhist Tantra literary canon known as the Drubthab Kuntu or the Compendium of Sadhana, a fourteen volumes set containing over one thousand sadhanas and nearly 700 empowerments.
Sadhana is the ultimate step-by-step Tantra guide to practice and meditation to Buddhahood. It’s the Tantra’s secret sauce recipe. Siddha tradition, however, requires that to practice the sadhana one must get the oral transmission from a master of unbroken lineage, preferably one who has gained realization of the goal of the Tantra through the techniques described in the sadhana. Practicing it without is not only ineffective and pointless, but a danger to one’s sanity, scriptures say.
Drubthab Kuntu has since then, the book adds, provided the structure and inspiration for the transmission of the Tantra in the Vajrayana world.
In his lifetime, Khyentse Wangpo is said to have given the Drubthab Kuntu empowerments and transmissions four times, to myriad masters of Tibet from all traditions and schools including to his student Jamyang Loter Wangpo who in turn gave it four times to many other masters, who in turn gave it to others.
“If Khyentse Wangpo had not done what he had done,” says Khenpo Choying Dorjee, the former abbot of the Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute in Bir, India, “many of these precious teachings would have been destroyed; countless texts would have disappeared, lineages would have been lost, but because Khyentse Wangpo collected and documented them, received their empowerments and gave empowerments to other masters, who in turn transmitted it to others, these precious teachings and lineages were saved. And it’s because of him that today we can get the empowerments of all these Tantra teachings from one master. Before him, it was impossible.”
‘Meaningful to have eyes on your forehead’
The blessings of Khyentse Wangpo’s enlightened labor showered recently in Bir, India, in the autumn of October and November, when Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche gave the Drubthab Kuntu empowerments and teachings there. The fact that the bestower was none other than an incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo added to the weight and auspiciousness of the event.
More than 3,000 people from 45 countries had come to attend, some as far as from Peru, including hundreds of monks and devotees from Bhutan, Nepal and India. It was given at the Dzongsar Khyentse Chokyi Lodro Institute, a gorgeous Buddhist college nestled into the mountains with rows of snow-capped peaks rising above tiers of green hills against a blue sky. Except dinner, the institute provided all meals for the attendees including evening tea and snacks.
Everyday, for 48 days, from eight in the morning to four-thirty in the evening, inside the hall of the main temple, as the sun rays streamed in through the large red curtains and receded, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche would sit on a small grey sofa in front of the giant gold-plated statues of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshwara and Manjushri, giving empowerments and transmissions and, at the end of the day, teachings.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche always drove home the message that the aim of the empowerments and sadhana practice was to get closer to the truth, to realize the true nature of our minds, which at the moment was obscured by the fog of Samsara. The practice of the Tantra was to clear the fog.
With the giant Buddha overlooking the hall, high brow, the broad slit eyes, the long and fleshy ears, his expression sublime which “lacks both gentleness and passion and speaks instead of a freedom from suffering, hard won and irrevocable,” the atmosphere inside the temple was as surreal as it could get.
Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, in many ways, share the same concern about the decline of Buddhism as his predecessor Khyentse Wangpo, albeit under a different setting and time. Apart from his tireless teaching tours and zooms, and sponsorship of Buddhist studies around the world, a paramount initiative that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has taken to save Buddhism is the monumental 100-year translation project, which he launched in 2010, to translate the Buddhist literary canons the Kangyur (words of the Buddha) and Tengyur (treatises) into modern languages, starting with English. He is the only Vajrayana Lama to do so in modern time.
The Drubthab Kuntu initiations in Bir, which is Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s first, is in the same vein. At a time when the Western Buddhist scholars try, so arrogantly one might add, to reinvent Buddhism based on their cultural prejudices and understanding, the more Tantra blessings and practitioners there are the better. To their campaign that Vajrayana is a primitive superstition, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has countered that Vajrayana is tailor-made for the modern people and their problems.
Scriptures say that to bestow a Vajrayana empowerment, the master must possess a pure and unbroken lineage, which is a line of transmission of the teaching that is traced back to the Buddha himself. It can be oral, or certified in scriptures. “The qualification of a spiritual mentor is that he possesses the lineage,” Naropa, one of the siddhas of India, said.
The Drubthab Kuntu lineage, Khenpo Choying Dorjee points out, was passed down from the Indian siddhas to the Tibetan masters to Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who then passed on to his student Jamyang Loter Wangpo who then passed on to Khenchen Ngawang Samten Lodro and from him to Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, who was the second incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. From there it passed to Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and then to Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, who is the third incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.
With the flames extinguished, the smoke clear and a new sun risen over, Khyentse Wangpo is said to have spent the rest of his days in retreat inside the Dzongsar Monastery from age 40 until he passed away at age 72.
Khyentse Wangpo was a giant among the masters in Tibet, as powerful an expression as exists of the Vajrayana in the 19th century. According to Jamgon Kongtrul’s book, his name commanded a degree of respect and awe unrivaled in the Tibetan world in his lifetime or since. He was also an extraordinary terton.
Jamgon Kongtrul and Khyentse Wangpo collaborated on a number of Vajrayana projects and the former knew the latter first hand. ‘Jamgon Kongtrul the Great,’ as he later became known, would go on to become one of the greatest Tibetan masters of all time in his own right. It was during their partnership that Jamgon Kongtrul, an adept master himself, learnt of Khyentse Wangpo’s beyond belief “breadth of learning and depth of realization”. He was so taken away by what he discovered that years later he wrote in his autobiography:
“Seeing this, I became convinced that he was none other than the great Orgyen (Padmasambhava) and (Panchen) Vimalamitra themselves.”
The great Tibetan master Patrul Rinpoche, the author of the famous book ‘Words of My Perfect Teacher,’ once requested Khyentse Wangpo to come and consecrate a mani wall, a hundred thousand slates carved with mantras, that he and his students had built. Khyentse Wangpo couldn’t make it because he was in retreat at the Dzongsar monastery, on the other side of the mountain. Even so he made sure he sent his blessings. On the day of the consecration, over the mani wall, “a rain of orange flowers” fell from the sky.
Patrul Rinpoche later told his students:
“(Khyentse) is actually the omniscient Longchenpa in person. He is the greatest among the living. Just to see his face once will make it meaningful to have eyes on your forehead.”
Kencho Wangdi (Bonz)
The writer is the former editor of Kuensel