Kong Sprul Blo Gros Mtha' Yas (Kongtrul Lodro Taye)

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KONG SPRUL BLO GROS MTHA' YAS (KONGTRUL LODRO TAYE) (18131899). Kong sprul was the founder of an extraordinary movement emphasizing the internal harmony of the various spiritual traditions of Tibet. The essential outlook of the nonsectarian or Rime approach in Tibetan Buddhism is respect for all approaches to realization. But followers of this approach believe equally in the necessity of personal practice, initiations, deity yoga, and guru devotion derived from one of the other traditions.

Kong sprul, his friend the Sa skya (Sakya) master 'Jam dbyang Mkhyen brtse'i dbang po (Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo, 18201892), and the visionary revealer of concealed teachings Chogyur Lingpa (18291870) together changed the spiritual landscape in eastern Tibet and eventually brought forth a renaissance of Tibetan culture, education, and spiritual practice. Their friends included teachers from all the competing religious traditions of the Tibetan lands. They met often to exchange teachings and profoundly influenced each other.

Buddhism and other written religious traditions came into Tibet from India, China, and central Asia over centuries, beginning in the seventh century. During the Royal Dynastic period (seventh to ninth centuries) Buddhism and Bon struggled for supremacy, each of their claims supported by different factions at court. Buddhist monastic practices were gradually standardized, and methods and terminology for translation into Tibetan were decreed. But Tibet was then and remains largely local, and the local weather makers and ritual specialists provided religious needs for the vast majority of the population. These followed a bewildering variety of practice forms, some of which had little to do with the Buddhism and Bon of the court circles.

With the collapse of the central dynasty and the breakup of a national political authority, family-based religious businesses became the rule. Members of these families began to travel in quest of special teachings, which were passed to family members and favored students within protected transmissions. There were great rivalries for patronage from local princes and nomadic headmen.

The roots of eclecticism and tolerance are sunk as deep into the soil of the Tibetan tradition as those of sectarianism and bigotry. Early masters of the Tibetan systems of practice sought teachings and methods of spiritual transformation from a variety of sources. There was a continuing and vital sustenance between the religious philosophy of the greater tradition and the practice of village wizards.

Kong sprul was born in Rong rgyab (Rongyab), a remote area in Kham. His father was a lay village priest of the Bon tradition. Kong sprul was a remarkable student and mastered in a short time the writing and all of the books available in his area. Kham was filled with turbulence and war during these years. Eventually the young Kong sprul's skills as a scholar and secretary came to the attention of a Rnying ma (Nyingma) monastery in Kham.

These were times of tremendous sectarian conflict between followers of Bon and the Buddhist traditions as well as within the Buddhist traditions in all of eastern Tibet. The young Kong sprul moved to Dpal spungs (Palpung), where he became a valued scribe and scholar. In order to prevent him from being taken by the Sde dge (Derge) authorities into the service of the court, he was recognized as an incarnation of a former monk at Palpung from Kong po (Kongpo) far to the west. This meant that he could not be inducted by the prince, and he became and remained a monk of Palpung.

During his long career at Palpung, Kong sprul penned over ninety volumes. The first of his five great treasuries is Kagyu ngak dzo (Treasury of Tantric empowerments of the Mar pa Bka' brgyud [Kagyu] school). The second is Damngag dzo (Treasury of practice instructions). The third and longest of the five, Rinchen ter dzo, is an anthology of all of the hidden teachings that had appeared in Tibet. The fourth is the Treasury of Extensive Teachings, Gyachen ka dzo, which comprises Kong sprul's own writings. The fifth, the three-volume Sheja dzo (Treasury of the knowable), is the shortest and is an encyclopedic work. The essence of the Rime movement is expressed in Damngag dzo, which enshrines the empowerments and instructions that had been transmitted by all of the Buddhist lineages that had come into Tibet.

The emphasis is shifted from colors of hats and sect names to a broad system of eight lineages of practice. Each of the eight lineages were passed on by masters who taught special insights into methods of spiritual transformation. Four of these persist in Tibet in the early twenty-first century as the four Buddhist orders. The other four at the time of Kong sprul had almost died out as active functioning sects; they survived only as transmissions of word and a few empowerments. Kong sprul and Mkhyen brtse gathered together these rare word transmissions from all over Tibet. Kong sprul included them in his eightfold architecture, and the teaching transmissions were spread throughout the land and became revived and revitalized.

Of course no mortal can attempt to practice all of the eight systems in one lifetime. The followers of the Rime movement emphasize that what is important is the development of an attitude of respect for all systems and philosophical outlooks while maintaining a firm commitment to a personal practice. Many great masters of the Indo-Tibetan tradition taught the moral dangers of denigrating proponents of any practice, even the adherents of the Hindu and Jain traditions. What is important is the commitments to one's own spiritual master and to the practice that the teacher has enjoined.

The Eight Systems

The first of the systems is the Early Translation school or the Rnying ma. These teachings consist of the practice of the three yogas: mahāyoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga. The master who systematized these teachings and their philosophy was Klong chen Rab 'byams pa (Longchen Rabjampa) ((13081364), although the teachings first began to be translated into Tibetan in the eighth century. The highest fundamental outlook of this tradition is Rdzogs chen (Dzogchen) or the Great Perfection. In the eighteenth century 'Jigs med gling pa (Jigme Lingpa, 1729/17301798) produced the cycle of revelations known as the Longchen Nyingtig after receiving profound visions of Longchen Rabjampa. The Early Translation school has maintained its strength because of ongoing revelation.

The second of the systems, the Bkaʼ gdams (Kadam) pa, flourishes strongly in the early twenty-first century in its offshoot, the Dge lugs (Geluk) pa, founded by Je Tsong kha pa (13571419). This school became the paramount sect of Tibet under the Dalai Lama. The basic teachings of the Bkaʼ gdams pa and Dge lugs pa are mental training (lojong ), the graduated path, and careful observance of monastic discipline. The Bkaʼ gdams pa approach has profoundly influenced all of the other systems of Tibet.

The third system is centered around the teachings of the Path and Its Fruition (Lamdre) derived from the Vajra Verses. The empowerments of the Lamdre system are derived from the Hevajra Tantra. These teachings became widely spread through the efforts of Sa chen Kun dga' snying po (Sachen Kunga Nyingpo, 10921158), the first of the five great patriarchs of the Sa skya school. The teachings remain strong in the early twenty-first century among the followers of the Sa skya tradition.

The Mar pa Bka' brgyud school begins in Tibet with the great translator Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (Marpa Chokyi Lotro, 1002/10121097). The Mar pa Bka' brgyud school subsequently split into a multitude of kindred traditions following the mahāmudrā outlook, realized through the practice of the Six Yogas of Nāropa. The empowerments for the Mar pa Bka' brgyud are the Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi.

All of the above four traditions survive as separate sects or schools to the early twenty-first century. The other four were absorbed into the four major schools and did not enjoy a separate sectarian presence after the seventeenth century.

The Shang pa Bka' brgyud school has experienced a great revival because of the teachings of Kong sprul and Khenpo Kalu (19051989). The teachings passed from Niguma, the female counterpart of Nāropa (10161100), and another ākinī, Sukhasiddhi, to Khyung po Rnal 'byor (Khyungpo Naljor) (978/9901127). The primary sources are a set of Vajra Verses, the outlook of mahāmudrā, and the practice of the Six Doctrines of Niguma. The teachings were amplified by the long-lived builder of bridges, Thang stong rgyal po (Thangtong Gyalpo) (13611485), and Jo nang Rje btsun Tā rā nā tha (Jonang Jetsun Tārānātha) (15751634). These precepts are widely practiced in the Bka' brgyud in the early twenty-first century.

The sixth system is the Zhi byed (Zhije) school with its auxiliary system known as Gcod (Cho).The Zhi byed, or Quelling of Suffering, came to Tibet with the eleventh-century Pha Dam pa sangs rgyas (Pha Dampa Sangye, d. 1105/1117). The Gcod, or Severance, teachings come from a great female disciple of Pha Dam pa, Ma gcig lab sgron (Machig Labdron, c. 10551149). These practices have spread through almost all of the other traditions of Tibet.

Vajra Yoga, the seventh system, exists in two flavors, the Zhwa lu (Zhalu) and the Jonang, both of which at one time had separate identities. The focus is upon the Kālacakra (Wheel of time) Tantra and the methods enshrined in the Six Branches of Union. The Jonang school survives as a sect in 'Dzam thang (Dzamthang) and a number of affiliated monasteries in Sichuan Province. The Zhwa lu sect has largely merged with the Dge lugs tradition.

The final and last of the eight systems is no longer extant except as empowerments and textual transmissions among the Bka' brgyud. These were received by O rgyan pa (Orgyenpa) from enlightened women in Swat in the borderlands where India, Pakistan, and central Asia meet.

The followers of the Rime movement began to question the banning of books of sects regarded as heretical. Many of these had been banned beginning as early as the fifteenth century. Zhwa lu Ri sbug Blo gsal bstan skyong (Shalu Ribug Losal Tenkyong) (b. 1804) was ultimately successful in persuading the Tashilhunpo authorities to permit the opening of the Dga' ldan Phun tshogs gling (Ganden Phuntso Ling) and Byang Ngam ring (Jang Ngamring) printeries in Gtsang (Tsang). The writings of Jo nang masters, including Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen) (12921361) and Jo nang Rje btsun Ta rā na thā (Jonang Jetsun Tarānathā) (15751634), were again permitted to be printed and distributed. The blocks for many of the banned works of great Sa skya masters, such as (Go rams pa) Gorampa (14291489), and Karma Bka' brgyud thinkers like the eighth Karma pa Mi bskyod rdo rje (Mikyo Dorje, 15071554) were recarved onto blocks at the great Rime centers of Sde dge Dgon chen (Derge Gonchen) and Palpung.

Under the influence of Mkhyen brtse and Kong sprul a resurgence of interest in histories took place. Many new religious histories were written and distributed throughout Tibet. Important figures in this movement included Zhwa lu Ri sbug, Dga' ldan The bo Ye shes bstan pa rgya mtsho (Ganden Thewo Yeshe Tenpa Gyatso) (b. nineteenth century), Brag dgon Zhabs drung (Dragon Shabdrung) (18011866), and Mkhyen brtse himself. This new historiography was infected with the ideals of the Rime.

Religious Education

Religious education was another area in which the teachers of the Rime tradition had a great impact. Mkhyen brtse and his teaching school at Rdzong gsar (Dzongsar) served as a model for new forms of religious education. The Rdzong gsar syllabus, created by Mkhan po Gzhan dga' (Khenpo Zhenga) or Gzhan phan chos kyi snang ba (Zhenpen Chokyi Nangwa) (18711927), focused on a return to the Indian śastra tradition and the memorization of thirteen basic verse texts (gzhung chen [zhungchen ]). Zhenga wrote annotated commentaries to each of these. The annotations simply attempted to explain the grammatical meaning of the great Indian authors and eschewed sectarian polemic and debate. Their purpose was simply to lead the student into the understanding of the difficult phraseology of the Indic originals. While the great Dge lugs monasteries of Tibet and their affiliates continued to use the time-honored syllabi (yigcha ) presented for debate, the students at Rdzong gsar and affiliates focused on mastering the basic texts. Even here there were attempts to rewrite the yigcha of the great Dge lugs monastic colleges.

Finally, teachers who had been inspired by the ideals in the air began to write more simply and produce works intended to improve the spiritual lives of ordinary laypeople, villagers, and nomads. Dpal sprul (Patrul Rinpoche) (18081887) and nomad teachers like Rig 'dzin Gar dbang (Rigdzin Garwang) (18581930) began to pen simple literature intended for common people, which included exhortations to give up hunting and adultery and to practice the ideals of the simple Buddhist life. There are few Tibetan Buddhist teachers living in the early twenty-first century who have not been influenced by the ideals of the Rime movement.


Barron, Richard (Chökyi Nyima), trans. and ed. The Autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors. Ithaca, N.Y., 2003.

Smith, E. Gene. Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. Boston, 2001.

E. Gene Smith (2005)