Klong Chen Rab 'Byams pa (Longchenpa)

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KLONG CHEN RAB 'BYAMS PA (LONGCHENPA) . Longchenpa (13081363) is perhaps the most important philosophical author in the history of the Rnying ma (Nyingma) school of Tibetan Buddhism and one of the great figures in fourteenth-century Tibet, a time of larger-than-life authors and systematizations of sectarian traditions. His renown stems from his huge literary corpus, and three distinctive facets of it. Firstly, he is renowned as the systematizer of the Nyingma tradition of the Great Perfection (Rdzogs chen [Dzogchen]), which he expounded in a series of brilliant texts that balanced architectonic structure, aphoristic poetry, and philosophical nuance and precision. While his writings span the earliest phases of Great Perfection literature, he above all else focused on the eleventh- and twelfth-century Seminal Heart (Snying thig [Nyingthink]) revelations and their highly distinctive reinterpretation of the Great Perfection. Longchenpa articulated a deeply systematic approach to Seminal Heart to create one of the most powerful statements of philosophical Vajrayāna. His writings systematize doctrines and contemplative practices into a structured and integrated whole, while simultaneously definitively defining key terminology with innovative nuance. In large part due to the influence of his corpus, the Seminal Heart came to be the dominant tradition of the Great Perfection right into the present.

Secondly, Longchenpa was one of the few premodern Nyingma authors to incorporate broad learning in exoteric Buddhist literature directly into his writings. He is famed for his integration of the insights, terminology, and practice of the Great Perfection into the broader framework of an encyclopedic overview of the entire Buddhist tradition. While many other Nyingma authors appear to have had solid training in the exoteric literature, relatively few wrote at any great length on the subject, preferring to work in esoteric veins and narrative materials. Longchenpa is thus often discussed within the Nyingma tradition in connection with two other such prominent authors, Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (eleventh century) and Mipham (18461912). These three stand out within the tradition for their great learning in exoteric Buddhist scholasticism, and the expression of that learning in extensive writings.

Thirdly, the Nyingma tradition until the fourteenth century was dominated by the practice of revelations, whereby important new bodies of literature were produced as "treasures" (gter ma, terma) attributed to the distant past of Tibet's imperial greatness (seventh to ninth centuries) rather than to the authorial hand of the present. Longchenpa's writings at times utilized the rhetoric of revelation, but in general were clearly presented as his own personal compositions. While certainly such personal compositions had appeared elsewhere in Nyingma circles from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, the emergence of such a huge corpus of major religious writings attributed to a contemporary figure was a watershed in the history of the Nyingma tradition.

Longchenpa's life can be roughly divided into his first twenty years of youth and earlier studies, his twenties during which he received his seminal intellectual and yogic training, his thirties when he emerged as a major teacher and author, his forties marked by political turmoil and exile even as his literary output continued unabated, and finally his return to Tibet and final years in his fifties. His studies, social experiences, and literary writings were all deeply interwoven into the fabric of his life, with common motifs and images running through both.

Past Lives and Prophecies

Tibetan accounts of the life of a saint begin at starting points that are highly Tibetan and Buddhist in character: past lives and prenatal prophecies concerning birth and life. Longchenpa did not arrive on the historical scene as a recognized member of an established reincarnational line with a clear pedigree and institutional power, though certainly his gestation and birth are framed with prophecies said to indicate his unusual spiritual accomplishments. His most interesting and relevant reincarnational associations, however, are with an obscure visionary from the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Tsultrim Dorjé (12911317), with intimate associations to the Seminal Heart. Through Tsultrim Dorjé, also known as Pad ma las 'brel rtsal (Pema Ledreltsel), he came to be further identified as the direct rebirth of the Tibetan princess Lhacam, daughter of Khri srong lde'u btsan (Trisong Detsen, 742797), and a direct disciple of Padmasambhava. He was also identified eventually as a divine emanation of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of wisdom. Such emanatory identity is common place for great scholars, given Mañjuśrī's traditional function as the patron bodhisattva of intellectual and monastic pursuits.

The Early Years: Samye, Sangphu, and Nomadic Yogis

Longchen Rabjampa was born on the tenth day of the second month of the earth-monkey year of the fifth sixty-year cycle (Saturday, March 2, 1308). He appears to have been a member of an aristocratic family with strong spiritual associations on both sides of his family, including a paternal ancestor dating back to the imperial period and Padmasambhava's original circle of disciples, namely Rgyal ba mchog dbyangs (Gyelwa Chokyang). It is possible that Longchenpa's sense of himself as possessing a certain social and spiritual heritage with corresponding entitlements may explain the tensions and self-perception in his adult life discussed below.

Longchenpa's early education consisted of studying various rites, ceremonies, and "sciences" (rig gnas ) such as medicine and astrology with his father. As a teenager, he memorized lengthy texts, and expanded his interest into the study of Tantric texts from both the ancient (rnying ma ) and modern (gsar ma ) traditions. At the age of twelve, Longchenpa journeyed to Bsam yas (Samyé), Tibet's first monastery, where he took up the study of monastic discipline. Longchenpa's association with Samyé dates back to his paternal ancestor, Gyelwa Chokyang, who was one the original monks ordained there in the eighth century. His own studies there accompanied by his intellectual brilliance led him to be known later as "the polymath from Samyé," which could also be interpreted as "the recipient of Samyé's many scriptural transmissions."

Among the most significant events in Longchenpa's education as a young adult was his entry into the Sang phu ne'u thog (Sangphu Neutok) monastic college. Sangphu, founded by the translator Ngogs legs pa'i shes rab (Ngok Lekpé Sherap, c. eleventh century), was the preeminent institution for the study of logic and epistemology in Tibet. It was the most important institutional support for the rise of scholastic learning during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and remained a dominant academic seat during Longchenpa's lifetime. His educational focus thus shifted during this time from ritual and meditation to syllogism and philosophy in the form of works by Asaga (c. 315390), Dignāga (c. 480540), Dharmakīrti (seventh century), and others. By all accounts he excelled in his studies, and it was this seven-year stay at Sangphu that gave him the superb mastery of traditional Buddhist thought that came to be a hallmark of his literary output.

However, Longchenpa's decisive educational experience was the period he spent living and practicing with his principal teacher Kumārāja (Kumārādza, Gzhon nu rgyal po, 12661343) during his late twenties. Besides receiving his most important Great Perfection teachings from Kumārāja, Longchenpa was also much influenced by the peripatetic way of life of his followers. The biographical materials mention that Kumārāja and his small band of disciples wandered from place to place, living like virtual nomads, exposed to the elements, living and sleeping in crude sack garments. Such a yogic lifestyle stands in clear contrast to the institutional life of so many Tibetan scholars based in large monasteries, presiding over systematic institutional processes, and often bound up with or even directly wielding political power. This quasi-nomadic lifestyle is also consonant with tropes and metaphors commonly found in Great Perfection literature valorizing space, the absence of boundaries, natural freedom, simplicity, and spontaneity. Hence, this training with his teacher Kumārāja may be understood as a period during which these literary images became associated with vivid sociological experiences connected to specific behaviors and lifestyles for Longchenpa.

Teaching and Composition

After approximately two years living and practicing with his principal guru Kumārāja, Longchenpa is said to have been designated as his successor, after which he embarked on a period of intensive teaching and meditation. Thus, during his thirties, Longchenpa emerged as a teacher in his own right and began to pen some of his greatest works. Although Longchenpa's fame as a practitioner and teacher were increasing significantly during this time, he never founded or became affiliated in any significant way with a large religious institution. On the contrary, he apparently preferred the relatively remote hermitage setting of his home monastery called Gang ri thod dkar (White-Skull Mountain). It was here that he composed many of his greatest works.

Longchenpa's corpus consists of compilations typically referred to in terms of the number of texts belonging to each compilation. The most famous is undoubtedly The Seven Treasures (Mdzod bdun ), which integrates standard scholasticism with philosophical poetry to offer a systematic survey of Buddhist thought and practice from its earliest phases up to and including the distinctive synthesis of the Seminal Heart. These seven texts as a set are famous among his fellow Nyingmas, as well as other sects, for their philosophical acumen, their systematization of the Great Perfection, and their ability to integrate distinctive Nyingma esoteric traditions with pan-sectarian Buddhist scholastic traditions. The Wish-Fulfilling Treasury (Yid bzhin mdzod) and The Treasury of Philosophical Systems (Grub mtha' mdzod) focus on the basic Buddhist scholastic systems with modest influence from the Great Perfection. In contrast, TheTreasury of Words and Meanings (Tshig don mdzod) and TheTreasury of the Supreme Vehicle (Theg mchog mdzod) offer a scholastic treatment of the Seminal Heart in its own right. Finally, The Treasury of Reality's Expanse (Chos dbyings mdzod) and The Treasury of Abiding Reality (Gnas lugs mdzod) constitute masterpieces of philosophical poetry focused on the Seminal Heart, while TheTreasury of Esoteric Precepts (Man ngag mdzod) is a lesser work devoted to lists of precepts.

Longchenpa authored at least six other major compilations, each a trilogy devoted to Nyingma esoteric traditions. The Trilogy of Resting-at-Ease (Ngal gso skor gsum ) and The Trilogy of Natural Freedom (Rang grol skor gsum ) are both lovely root poems around which a variety of other commentarial texts have been associated, all of which center around earlier traditions of the Great Perfection known as "mind series" (Sems sde ). In contrast, The Trilogy of Qintessences (Yang ti gsum ) constitute three individual compilations of scores of individual works covering the rituals, yogas, history, philosophy, and other areas of the Seminal Heart tradition. These constitute his ritual and yogic masterpieces of the Seminal Heart, in addition to detailed discussions of many other aspects of the tradition. These were integrated with two similar compilations deriving from the older revelations associated with the Indian saint Vimalamitra, and the more recent revelations associated with the Indian saint Padmasambhva to form The Seminal Heart in Four Parts (though in fact it has five parts). Thus this famous anthology compiles the two main strands of exegetical literature of the tradition along with Longchenpa's extension and integration. Finally, The Trilogy of Dispelling Darkness (Mun sel skor gsum ) was his masterly commentary on The Nucleus of Mystery Tantra (Gsang ba snying po ; Skt., Guhyagarbha ), the chief Tantra of the Nyingma tradition and the center of the Mahāyoga corpus. This trilogy was famed not only for its detailed study of the Tantra, but also for its innovative Great Perfection-based reinterpretation of many of its particulars. Longchenpa wrote widely on many other topics, including exoteric Buddhist scholasticism. However, it appears that the vast majority of these compositions have been lost to the ravages of time and the relative lack of concern for exoteric writings by the Nyingma tradition in premodern times.

Social and Political Conflict

Longchenpa had a lifelong tendency to remain somewhat in the margins of religious institutions and political powers, and yet he was also explicitly critical of social, political, and religious trends and events in Tibet. We have already seen such tendencies in his nomadic years with his teacher Kumārāja, and his proclivity for the isolated retreat center of White-Skull Mountain. The tendency to social criticism and feeling in conflict with the prevailing social norms was equally evident from his early years. For example, toward the end of his stay at Sangphu, we can see Longchenpa's impatience with what he perceived to be the frivolous behavior of ostensibly religious figures. He came into conflict with a group of scholars from Kham (Khams ), who appeared to him to be sectarian and of poor moral character. The literary result of his disgust with these scholars was a thirty-line alphabetically arranged poem entitled "The Thirty Letters of the Alphabet" (Ka kha sum cu ). This bitter but witty work is a savage attack on the dubious conduct of the persons in question, likening them to demons and accusing them of such actions as killing, boozing, and whoring.

The mid-fourteenth century in Tibet was a time of political and social upheaval, yet also a time of consolidation of literary canons and sectarian identity. The sa skya (Sakya) hegemony, together with its Yuan dynasty patrons, was reaching a state of collapse. Religious and regional factions were in open and often violent conflict. Central Tibet in particular was a contested area, with sites like Samyé coming under the control of belligerent factions allied with specific clans and religious sects. Families, politics, and religion were inextricably interwoven throughout the time. Among the prominent competing factions active in Central Tibet at that time were the Sakyapas, the 'Bri gung pa (Drigungpas), and the Phag mo gru pa (Phakmodrupas), whose leader was Ta'i situ byang chub rgyal mtshan (Tai Situ Jangchub Gyaltsen, 13031364). It is roughly during this period that we come upon further literary evidence of Longchenpa's profound antipathy toward these factions and his dissatisfaction with political and religious developments in Central Tibet as he entered a period of political turmoil and even exile during his forties.

Longchenpa's attempts to process his feelings of discontent at the situation in Central Tibet are well documented in a series of didactic narrative poems in which the characters are animals. The plots of several of these narratives revolve around the protagonistinvariably an exalted spiritual personalitybeing set upon by irreligious forces and being compelled to depart for regions more conducive to religious practice. These stories all take the appearance of a subtle social critique, and convey the impression of being thinly veiled autobiography. Probably the best example is The Swan's Questions and Answers (Ngang pa'i dris lan sprin gyi snying po ). In this work, Longchenpa's perception of himself as an unjustly ostracized pariah is clearly evident, and the references to his specific situation are more explicit than in other examples. The story chronicles a noble swan's flight from the formerly sacred precincts of Samyé to more hospitable environs. The swan in the story is in reality an emanation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and is clearly patterned on Longchenpa himself.

From here we must turn briefly to the critical issue of Longchenpa's relationship with Tai Situ Jangchup Gyaltsen, who was the leading political figure in Tibet during the latter years of Longchenpa's life. Not only was he a key figure behind many of the trends in Tibet that Longchenpa found so problematic, but in fact the two came into direct conflict in the 1350s. Jangchup Gyaltsen and the clan he led, the Phakmodrupas, were in constant conflict with various other competing groups throughout most of the early fourteenth century. Among the more prominent of the competing groups were the religious factions of the Sakyapas and the Drigungpas. Longchenpa, while no fan of the increasing military presence in Central Tibet, became implicated in a bitter feud between the leader of the Drigungpas and the leader of the Phakmodrupas, that is, Jangchup Gyaltsen. Jangchup Gyaltsen reportedly came to view Longchenpa as a significant enemy, to the extent that he tried to have him assassinated. This conflict, together with all his other frustrations and disappointments, eventually led Longchenpa to flee to Bhutan in approximately 1353.

Final Years in Bhutan and Tibet

Longchenpa was reportedly very active during his time in Bhutan, establishing and renovating many monasteries and retreat facilities. He taught widely, and is credited with reviving the fortunes of the Nyingma and Great Perfection traditions in that region. He composed several important texts there, very likely including The Treasury of Abiding Reality. His home base was the famous Thar pa gling (Tharpa Ling) monastery, still standing today in Bumthang. He also fathered at least one son with a nun during his stay in Bhutan, indicating that his monastic vows either lapsed at some point or that he viewed his realization as enabling the integration of monastic vows and sexual activity. During this period of exile, Longchenpa received numerous visitors from Tibet who encouraged him to return to Central Tibet. Eventually, a reconciliation between Longchenpa and Jangchub Gyaltsen was negotiated by Sangs rgyas dpal (Sangyepel), such that Jangchub Gyaltsen invited Longchenpa to return to Tibet, made offerings to him, and received Tantric initiations and other teachings from him. In fact, there is a tradition that Longchenpa's most famous epithet (klong chen rab 'byams pa, "infinite open space") was given to him by Jangchup Gyaltsen himself, although the veracity of this story is uncertain. Although we have no definite dates for Longchenpa's sojourn in Bhutan, it may have lasted from roughly 1353 to 1360.

In 1363, when he was fifty-six years old, Longchenpa took ill, and began to prepare for his eventual passing by composing his final testaments (zhal chems ). Finally, late in that same year, Longchenpa had a series of visions and gave his final advice to his disciples. His hagiographies describe his death in terms typical for a saint, specifying that he entered a state of deep meditation, and manifested many miraculous signs such as rainbows, earthquakes, and showers of flowers in his final hours and for twenty-five days following his death.

Influence: Books, Future Lives, and Visions

Religious influence in Tibet can be measured on many registers, but a useful fourfold measure is to consider the institutional, literary, intellectual, incarnational, and visionary impact a figure has after his death. Measured by institutional standards, Longchenpa had minimal impact on his own school, much less on Tibetan Buddhism as a whole. He offered no new institutional models, his disciples were not particularly vigorous in founding new monasteries and temples, and his institutional legacy was limited to modest sites such as the retreat center White-Skull Mountain and the temple in Bumthang. It appears that a family lineage did persist over the centuries in Bhutan from his offspring there.

Longchenpa's most significant contribution is undoubtedly in the intellectual and literary domains, where he is a towering figure historically both within the Nyingma tradition, and outside it in other traditions. Curiously, however, he did not spawn a cottage industry in exegetical literature directly commenting on his work, quite in contrast to many of the other great Tibetan philosophical authors. The reason for this lacuna is twofold. Firstly, Longchenpa's impressive range of scholarly expertise and philosophical nuance in the exoteric traditions remained unusual in Nyingma traditions until the last few centuries. Secondly, ongoing revelation remained a dominant influence in subsequence centuries among Nyingma lineages, and its historical focus on the imperial past discouraged the development of exegesis of post-imperial Tibetan authors. Despite this absence of direct commentarial literature, Longchenpa's influence was pervasive, even if mediated through vision and the explicit citation often thus sublimated. His impact on Great Perfection traditions can already be seen in the revelations of Rig 'dzin rgod ldem (Rinzin Godem, 13371409), or in the later revelations of 'Jigs med gling pa (Jikmé Lingpa, 1729/301798). In addition, his masterly synthesis of esoteric Nyingma traditions with mainstream Buddhist scholasticism was the inspiration for the Mipham's later extensive corpus of exoteric writings, which undergirds much of the Eastern Tibetan ecumenical movement (ris med), and forms the most important basis for the modern monastic curriculum of Nyingma institutions. Over time he thus achieved renown within and without the Nyingma tradition as its greatest intellectual.

Longchenpa never spawned a clear incarnational institution of his own rebirths, not surprising given his contentious relationship with institutions. Incarnational lines known as "tulku" (sprul sku), literally "emanated bodies," of course refer to the phenomenon in Tibet of religious personages being identified after death in young children believed to be their rebirths, and to whom the previous life's title, position, and property were transmitted. This institution of cross-life inheritance was naturally bound up with monastic institutions, which had the institutional resources, memory, and record keeping to maintain such incarnational lines. Longchenpa's failure to found his own large monastic institution almost guaranteed the lack of such an incarnational heritage. There were of course various figures identified as, or claiming to be, his incarnation, right into the presentthe most famous being the Bhutanese Pad ma gling pa (Pema Lingpa, 14501521)but none of these crystallized into a high-profile and continuous series of incarnations in the way of, say, the Karma pa or Dalai Lama incarnational lines. In contrast, Longchenpa has had a highly successful visionary career since his death, and his presence in visions and dreams has become a pervasive feature among Nyingma scholars and yogis. The most important of these is undoubtedly the famous visions experienced by Jikmé Lingpa, which were crucial to his revelation of the Great Sphere ("longchen" ) of the Seminal Heart in the eighteenth century. This cycle came to be the dominant Great Perfection ritual cycle right into the present, and while perhaps subliminal, the use of the term longchen in its title is obviously deeply resonant of Longchenpa's own centrality in the tradition overall.


Aris, Michael. Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom. Warminster, U.K., 1979. A study of the early history of Bhutan, including issues relevant to Longchenpa's exile there.

Aris, Michael. Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives: A Study of Pemalingpa (14501521) and the Sixth Dalai Lama (16831706). Delhi, 1988. A study of the life of Pemalingpa, including an account of his identification with Longchenpa.

Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje (Dudjom Rinpoche). The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston, 1991. An encyclopedic work covering the history and religious traditions of the Nyingma school, with a substantial biography of Longchenpa.

Germano, David F. "Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of rDzogs Chen." The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 17 no. 2 (1994): 203335. This surveys the various forms of the Great Perfection with a concern for Longchenpa's systematization of them.

Germano, David, and Janet B. Gyatso. "Longchenpa and the Possession of the Dakinis." In Tantra in Practice, edited by David Gordon White, pp. 239265. Princeton, N.J., 2000. A look at events of possession and prophecy marking the emergence of Longchenpa in his early thirties as a prominent teacher within yogic circles.

Guenther, Herbert. Matrix of Mystery: Scientific and Humanistic Aspects of rDzogs-chen Thought. London and Boulder, Colo., 1984. A highly interpretative study of Longchenpa's writings on The Nucleus of Mystery Tantra.

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, N.J., 1998. A study of Jigme Lingpa's visionary experiences of Longchenpa.

Kapstein, Matthew. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. New York, 2000. A survey of how Tibetans assimilated Buddhism, including a chapter on the integration of the Great Perfection and exorcistic esotericism within the school by Longchenpa and others.

Kuijp, Leonard W. J. van der. "On the Life and Political Career of Ta'i-Si-tu Byang-chub rgyal-mtshan (1302c. 1364)." In Tibetan History and Language: Studies Dedicated to Uray Géza on his Seventieth Birthday, edited by Ernst Steinkellner, pp. 277328. Vienna, 1991. A survey of the life of Tai Situ Jangchub Gyaltsen and his political activities.

Longchenpa. Kindly Bent to Ease Us. 3 vols. Translated by Herbert Guenther. Berkeley, 1976. A translation and interpretative study of the root verses from Longchenpa's The Trilogy of Resting-at-Ease.

Longchenpa. Looking Deeper: A Swan's Questions and Answers. Translated by Herbert Guenther. Porthill, Idaho, 1983. A translation and interpretative study of Longchenpa's semi-autobiographical didactic narrative The Swan's Questions and Answers.

Longchenpa. The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City, Calif., 1998. A translation of Longchenpa's The Treasury of Abiding Reality and its auto-commentary.

Longchenpa. A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission. Translated by Richard Barron. Junction City, Calif., 2001. A translation of Longchenpa's The Treasury of Reality's Expanse and its auto-commentary.

Roerich, George, trans. The Blue Annals. Delhi, 1976.

Tulku Thondup. Buddha Mind: An Anthology of Longchen Rabjam's Writings on Dzogpa Chenpo. Ithaca, N.Y., 1989. An anthology of different selections of writings by Longchenpa ranging from the more exoteric to the more esoteric.

Tulku Thondup. Masters of Meditation and Miracles: The Longchen Nyingthig Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston, 1996. Biographies of saints involved in the lineage of The Great Sphere of the Seminal Heart, including detailed accounts of the lives of Longchenpa and Jikmé Lingpa.

David Germano (2005)

Gregory A. Hillis (2005)