Notes on the Biography of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen
"Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen, who stands as not only the most prominent and influential figure in the Tibetan Bön religion in the twentieth century, but also at the center of a controversy within his own lineage. While his supporters revered him as an enlightened teacher whose non-sectarian sensibilities were perfectly suited to the times, his critics accused of him of championing an unorthodox movement that transgressed sectarian boundaries and mixed Bön with Buddhism.
One text was a comprehensive, rather advanced guidebook to Bön practice. It was entitled The Self Dawning of the Three Bodies (sku gsum rang shar) and it covered a systematic array of subjects related to Dzokchen (rdzogs chen) or 'Great Perfection' meditation in concise, instructional chapters.2 This particular text was intended for those who had completed a series of preliminary practices (sngon 'gro), and it comprised the fundamentals (dngos gzhi) of Dzokchen contemplation. ......the text's author, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan, 1859-1934), ranks as the best-known, most influential and arguably the most highly-regarded member of the Bön lineage to have lived in modern times
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen has come to be best known for: 1) the authorship of at least thirteen volumes of texts including Dzokchen doctrinal works and a traditional Bön history; 2) a pluralistic, non-sectarian attitude in response to the religious diversity of eastern Tibet; and 3) a dedication to advanced contemplative practice, publicly illustrated through a saintly death.
Shardza's body of publications totaled thirteen volumes— Headed by a set of compositions he conceived as “Five Treasuries” (mdzod nga), these scholarly tomes represented a diverse collection of titles on vital topics including Dzokchen theory and practice; scriptural tenet systems; soteriology; history; and Tantric initiation. These publications are augmented by additional works such as a popular introductory practice text, The Ocean of Oral Precepts and Scripture, or Kalung Gyatso, (bka' lung rgya mtsho), which has served as an accessible gateway to the 'preliminaries' (sngon 'gro) traditionally undertaken by both monks and laity. His collected works also contains influential guidebooks on Dzokchen meditation such as The Self-Dawning of the Three Bodies, or Kusum Rangshar (sku gsum rang shar), which is highly valued in present-day Tibet by Bön contemplatives like Aku Shöyang.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen is widely esteemed among Bönpo communities today. On a popular level, he is perhaps most notably revered for his dedication to contemplation and the resulting signs of spiritual mastery he reportedly displayed at the time of his death.
While his virtuoso status as a contemplative owes to a long-standing commitment to a retreat lifestyle, this found dramatic expression in his final attainment of the highest religious achievement possible in the Dzokchen system, the so-called 'rainbow body' or 'body of light' ('ja' lus). According to tradition, in such cases the dying process culminates in the intentional dissolution of the physical body into its subtle ‘elements,’ yielding uncanny appearances of multi-colored light as well as the absence of an ordinary corpse.
"In 1991, the venerable Tenzin Namdak, the former Head Teacher (slob dpon) of Menri Monastery, provided oral teachings in English on Shardza’s Kusum Rangshar, transcriptions of which were edited and made available by the independent scholar John Myrdhin Reynolds.13 In 1993, Tenzin Namdak authorized the widespread publication of The Heart Drops of Dharmakaya, his commentary on another of Shardza's Dzokchen meditation guides, the Kunzang Nyingtik (kun bzang snying thig). Here he also introduced Shardza's life-story to an English-speaking audience through a twelve-page synopsis extracted from the shorter of two biographical accounts, The Pleasure Garden of Wish-fulfilling Trees, which is translated in full here in Part II. This important inclusion not only replicated a traditional intertextual dynamic—in contemporary Tibet Shardza’s full-length biography is published together with his collected works—but also functioned traditionally by instilling faith in Shardza’s example among a new class of practitioner. Tenzin Wangyal, a Bönpo geshé who founded and directs the Ligmincha Institute for the study and practice of Bön in the West, also cites Shardza's writings and his life-example as an inspiration and continues to lead retreat programs for Western students based upon practices Shardza lays out in his guidebooks.
Shardza is described as "a famous Bonpo master who gave teachings to students of other schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as to many students from the Bon community," a depiction that strongly underscores his broad-mindedly nonsectarian orientations and his apparent authority in broader religious circles (Namdak 1993, p. 7).
...Tenzin Wangyal relates that "I have always been impressed with the story of Shardza Rinpoche, a great Tibetan master, who, when he died in 1934, attained the body of light ('ja' lus), a sign of full realization. During his life he had so many accomplished students, wrote many important texts, and worked for the benefit of the country in which he lived. It's difficult to imagine how he could have been so productive in his external life, fulfilling the many responsibilities and long projects he undertook for the benefit of others, and still have been able to accomplish such attainment through spiritual practice (Wangyal 1998, p. 14)." In July 2006, the Ligmincha Institute hosted a retreat led by Tenzin Wangyal centering on the Tummo (gtun mo) section of Shardza's Kusum Rangshar.
Shardza: A Biographical Overview
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen was born in 1859 to an unheralded Bönpo family of modest means in the rural area of Kham (khams) known as Dzakhog (rdza khog). Despite the initial objections of his parents, he formally entered the religious life as a novice monk at the age of nine. Having reportedly discerned strong religious predispositions in the young boy, Shardza's first teacher and 'root lama,' Ratrul Tenzin Wangyal (dpra sprul bstan 'dzin dbyang rgyal), successfully convinced Shardza's reluctant parents to commit their only son (and potential heir) to the local monastery of Tengchen (steng chen). It was here that the young Shardza would gradually acquire his primary religious training.
During his time at Tengchen, Shardza's religious life centered on performing ritual services in the protector temple, assisting his teacher in fulfilling the requests of local patrons, and beginning a process of self-study that involved reading and reflecting on scriptures. Shardza reportedly revered his teacher as far more than a provincial lama— recounting deeply transformative transmissions of Tantric realization that ensued from their relationship. However, the young Shardza eventually grew dissatisfied with routine monastic affairs, longing instead to follow the example of important visiting figures he met in his youth—many of whom were liberal treasure-revealers—who advocated a retreat-based lifestyle.
After undertaking a formative period of pilgrimage in his mid-twenties, he returned to his home region and began teaching on a limited basis, and by the age of thirty-four he had garnered enough support to establish his own small hermitage on a remote mountainside. Devoting significant time to advanced Dzokchen contemplation, he began attracting like-minded students who took up residence nearby. Amidst this environment he commenced the practice of writing, with many of his compositions owing directly to his esoteric experiences and visionary encounters.
By this point in his life, Shardza had also assumed full monastic ordination and appears to have been uncommonly fastidious in adhering to the discipline, eschewing the eating of meat or the use of animal skins, among other self-imposed restrictions. It is worth noting that the ideal as presented here thus seems to encompass, and to attempt to harmonize, several potentially competing orientations to the religious life. This is because for Bönpo communities in nineteenth and twentieth century Tibet, the available socioreligious alternatives typically would have involved choices between the unconventional power of an esoteric path and the moral purity of the monastic lifestyle; conflicting levels of commitment to contemplative training as opposed to academic study and scholarly exegesis; and widely differing attitudes towards revelatory innovation and scriptural conservation. In Shardza’s case, he emerges as something of an ideal moderate, who proves capable of embodying the proverbial Middle Way.
In the years that followed, from approximately his early forties to his mid-sixties, Shardza traveled and taught widely in eastern Tibet, gradually making a name for himself while circulating and teaching from his written works. While he is portrayed as generally maintaining the modest demeanor of a hermit throughout his adulthood, ultimately his reputation as an effective interpreter of Bön texts, an experienced contemplative, and a well-qualified lama earned him acclaim from several quarters. The vaunted position he came to enjoy left him well-poised to engage in productive dialogue with a diverse array of religious personages (including non-sectarian Buddhists), and to successfully raise funds throughout eastern Tibet for the restoration of his home monastery of Tengchen, as well as for the construction of a new practice center in Dzakhog.
By his early sixties, his textual corpus and regional renown had attracted the attention of leading Bönpos throughout the Tibetan cultural world, stretching from as far away as Dolpo in western Nepal to Aba prefecture in contemporary Qinghai province. The last several years of his life were spent back in his small hermitage, where he offered personal instruction to close disciples, presided over ritual performances, gave annual teachings to sizable audiences, and received visitors.
Upon his death in 1934 at the age of seventy-five—highlighted by his inspiring demonstration of Dzokchen self-mastery—he was succeeded by numerous disciples, led by his nephew and chosen successor, Lodrö Gyatso (blo gros rgya mtsho).
The Climate of Rimé
The 'non-partisan,' 'non-sectarian', 'universalist' or rimé (ris med) movement represents no less than the most far-reaching and broadly influential phenomenon to mold the Tibetan religious terrain of Shardza's lifetime. It refers to an important constellation of socio-religious trends encompassing many leading Buddhist figures and institutions in the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo, and it has been aptly described by Gene Smith as, "without a doubt, the most important development during the 19th century in the Lamaist world."20 A development, one might add, with continuing and substantial influence on Tibetan religion down to the present day.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé ('jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas, 1813-1899) rejected the 'intellectual petrification' associated with Geluk scholasticism, instead advocating fresh interpretations of original Indic texts across sectarian lines.23 This ultimately led to a reformulation of curricular materials among the non-Geluk sects, which served as a basis for new schools for doctrinal study and interpretation (bshad grwa).
this movement provided a promising avenue for Bönpos to contribute. For while they disagreed with their Buddhist contemporaries on matters as fundamental as the status of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Bönpos shared with the Nyingmas the position that the Dzokchen view represented the apex of all doxographical systems, and they maintained vigorous traditions of practice associated with it. Shardza's own keen interest in practicing and writing about Dzokchen undoubtedly left him well-positioned to participate in this type of dialogue.
A related and fundamental feature of rimé involves its focus on the collection, organization and transmission of diverse streams of esoteric practice in ways that valued experiential efficacy over and above rigorous adherence to orthodox scholarly methodologies, such as the categories and procedures of Geluk-style monastic debate. In what might be described as a contemplatively-based approach to hermeneutics, rimé authors reinterpreted material from the ancient past—including imperial mythology, the cult of Padmasambha, the Gesar epic, and ritual praxis from older Tantras—in light of ongoing new revelations. So it was that several leading rimé scholars were also known as inspired visionaries, including both Khyentsé and Kongtrul, and a number of newly disclosed 'treasure texts' came to prominence. Many of these ‘treasures’ won great popularity, imbuing local landscapes with esoteric meaning and asserting karmic connections between contemporary figures and Tibet’s greatest religious and political leaders.
In central Tibet, the Bön tradition was headquartered at Menri monastery, which was situated in Tsang province about two day's journey west of the capital of Lhasa. Menri was established in 1405 on the foundations, metaphorically speaking, of prior small-scale Bön institutions by the 'peerless' Nyammé Sherap Gyantsen (mnya' med shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1356-1415), who continues to be revered by Bönpos as the consolidator of an extremely valuable spiritual heritage. The institution he founded, and its affiliated 'branch' monasteries of Yungdrung Ling (g.yung drung gling) and Kharna (mkhar sna),
Yungdrung Ling was founded in 1834 by Nangtön Dawa Gyantsen (snang ston zla ba rgyal mtshan, b. 1796) and Kharna was established within a few decades by his disciple, Sherap Yungdrung (shes rap g.yung drung, b. 1838)
In the east, Bön evolved differently. In keeping with the trends of their Buddhist contemporaries and their eclectic patrons, their own history of distinctive family lineage traditions, and the needs of their largely autonomous, localized populations of supporters, a broader range of teachings and practices found expression. Moreover, relationships with Buddhist institutions and individuals seem to have benefited from somewhat more egalitarian dynamics, such that they were decidedly more cordial. As previously mentioned, the religious landscape in the east accommodated different types of religious specialists including, but not limited to, celibate clerics. Among these Bönpo specialists were 'treasure-revealers' or tertön, including noteworthy figures such as Kundrol Drakpa (kun grol grags pa, b.1700), Dechen Lingpa (bde chen gling pa, b. 1833) and others with close ties to Buddhists.
.......when Shardza traveled to the Ngawa (rnga ba) region of Amdo in 1920 at the age of sixty-two, in response to repeated invitations from the Bönpo monastery of Togden Gön (rtogs ldan dgon, alias bkra shis 'khyil gling). As is still the case today, this monastery is situated very near to another (and larger) Bön monastery— Nangzhi (snang zhi)—and there is a history of strained relations between the two.64 At a time coinciding with Shardza's visit to the region, the geshé Sherap Drakpa was visiting the nearby Nangzhi.
With two distinguished lamas visiting the area, a decision was made to jointly stage a religious event in a tent set up in an open area between the two monasteries. However, 64 Sherap Dargyé (shes rab dar rgyas), a Togden monk studying at Menri, explained that a disagreement developed around the representation of monks from the two monasteries at the performance of household rites and funerals in the area. Evidently there was an established custom of inviting one monk from Togden for every two from Nangzhi (a much larger institution) for such occasions, and this system had worked well in the area up to a certain time. However, some families began to invite monks from only Togden and others from only Nangzhi. The lamas reportedly did not have a problem with this, but many village patrons did, and as a result the issue was brought before the King of Meu (rme'u rgyal po), a regional authority who administrated the area. He is described as a Gelukpa who had no special interest in the case, but made a summary ruling that henceforth required households to choose monks from either one monastery or the other to perform household rituals—not both as had been the custom. This apparently created a more competitive and potentially divisive atmosphere that has persisted to the present day. Cech apparently learned of another source of enmity between these two institutions, namely, the propitiation of a protector deity at Nangzhi named Genyen (sge snyan) that was regarded as demonic by the Bonpos of Togden (Cech 1987, p. 88).
......problems reportedly arose both from the protocol that was followed as well as from comments that were made. While oral accounts seem to vary slightly, they agree that the height of the thrones reserved for the two lamas was one source of offense; Shardza's was either slightly higher than, or else equal to, that of the erudite, degree-holding geshé. While this arrangement could perhaps be justified based on Shardza's regional reputation and his seniority, he lacked the geshé's formal credentials. The seating arrangement and what it implied is said to have displeased Sherap Drakpa.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen's religious life and career comes to us through the medium of two religious biographies: a relatively brief portrait named The Pleasure Garden of Wish- fulfilling Trees and a comprehensive portrayal entitled The String of Wondrous Gems: A Necklace for the Wise Desiring Liberation. Both were produced in eastern Tibet in the mid-twentieth century, yet they each represent an example of traditional Tibetan life- writing, or namtar (rnam thar), a significant class of Tibetan literature with a long history. This vital genre, which exhibits historiographical traits and yet remains comparable in many ways to Christian hagiography, presents a reader with particular interpretive challenges. The present chapter will address these by bringing attention to the texts themselves, specifically examining the genre to which they belong, their authorship and audience, and their compositional qualities of structure and style.
The String of Wondrous Gems thus approaches the present life of Shardza through a basic three-fold chronology. Straightforwardly beginning with Shardza's youth (sku gzhon dus) and continuing to explore his adult life (sku tshe'i stod, 'the upper [or nascent part] of his life'), this primary segment duly concludes with an account of his later years (sku tshe smad, 'the lower [or latter part] of his life'). The three sections are respectively linked to "the ripening [empowerments] and liberating [instructions] he received and contemplated"; "the meditations and practices he brought into his experience"; and "the explanations [or scholarship] and practices [that constituted his turning] the wheel of [enlightened] activity." In all three sections, the text proceeds with an annual chronicle of events in Shardza's life, in which each year is introduced and set off from the previous year and each annual segment is concluded with poetic verses highlighting the particular events discussed and the virtues illustrated.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen was born in a rural, mountainous area located between the four river valleys that converge in the southeast of Tibet in the province of Kham, and the epithet "Shardza" refers to his birthplace, the eastern (shar) part of the area known as Dzakhog (rdza khog). His biographer quotes from a document in the abridged biography that he describes only as "a beautiful text" depicting the area of his teacher's birth:
It was in the eastern part of the Land of Snow, the country of Tibet, in the great region of Dokhammé (mdo khams smad, the lower or southern part of eastern Tibet), in the eastern part of Nguldza Zalmo Gang (dngul rdza zal mo sgang), in the mountain range of Dagang Ringmo (zla sgang ring mo). Many, many learned and accomplished beings came [there], and this blessed region was called Dzakhog. [It was located] in between the gently flowing rivers of Dzachu (rdza chu) and Dachu (brda chu, bsda chu), in the vicinity of the power place for meditation practice known as Yungdrung Lhunpo (g.yung drung lhun po) [mountain, an area] which was protected by the three [mountain ranges] of Gyer, Za and Che (gyer za mched). [Here], on the side of the mountain range called Da was a village that was [to become] his locus of activity.
Even as an accomplished teacher, Shardza seems to have regarded himself as an unsophisticated rustic who was never fully conversant with the protocols of elite society. During a period of mid-career travel to the royal houses of ruling monarchs in eastern Tibet, Shardza reportedly stated: "From when I was small, I've stayed in the style of a humble renouncer. In the presence of different kinds of important people, whatever respectful gestures and things I do aren't enough. Most people look at me as if I'm proud. It is very difficult for me to [follow] the customs and such of royalty."
According to The String of Wondrous Gems: When Shardza was twenty-four years of age, there was a great drought in the region once again. Shardza was attending his lama in an effort to bring rain, and there was a strong windstorm, so that the rain clouds were unable to remain in the area. An elder man had offered an old sword upon which mantras had been written, and Ratrul had instructed Shardza to concentrate on the mantras and "push down the wind," after which he was to strike a tree with the sword. Suddenly the lama appeared unexpectedly, grabbed the sword and exclaimed, "Not like that!" The lama knocked Shardza down and danced in a wrathful manner; he jumped up and down and struck Shardza with the sword five times and rebuked him, saying, "You need this!" He then put the sword back in Shardza's hand and departed. Shardza was left with a large wound and there was a lot of blood. He fell into a dark unconsciousness and woke up as if from sleep. He saw his lama making the gesture for subduing demons in the space before him, and he received the blessings of the Mind Lineage (dgongs brgyud). Naked awareness beyond expression and thought directly manifested. Like the pure sky being infused by daylight, an effortless realization was born in his heart, boundless and continuous day and night in the expanse of the great radiant light of primordial purity. In about the time it takes to prepare tea, the scar from the wound on his body disappeared.
This first example of Shardza's receipt of religious teaching outside of the Bön tradition provides the first instance in the biography of the ecumenical climate for which Kham in this period was well-known. One might note that the inter-sectarian exchange reported here occurs within the context of an individual teacher-student relationship in an isolated setting, and it focuses primarily on esoteric experience. Dispensing with formalities, the Buddhist yogin finds familiarity with and progress in meditative states to be useful ground for dialogue. Unfortunately, it is not clear to what extent Shardza may have actively sought him out, or to what extent it was a chance encounter. It is tempting to suggest, however, that other Bönpos were aware of the presence of this yogi and may have similarly approached him and received instruction.
Shardza's early esoteric education culminates with his training in the Great Perfection, the 'ultra-pure' system at the pinnacle of traditional Bön doxographies. As mentioned previously, Shardza received instruction and undertook his first Great Perfection 'dark retreat' under the guidance of Samten Yeshé, leading him to complete several such periods of retreat as he moved into his thirties. Even amidst a so-called 'outer' biography, it is not altogether surprising to find some treatment of the content of these formative experiences given how essential Shardza's esoteric qualifications are to his religious standing.
Indeed, the reader learns that Shardza was instructed to undertake four sessions of practice per day for fifty days (intended to correspond with the seven weeks of the bardo, the postmortem transitional period), during which time he advanced through the stages of visionary experience traditionally recognized as indicators of progress. For example, during the first week, visions of five-colored spheres (thig le) of luminous light appeared; in the second week, these visions intensified and manifested everywhere, and peaceful forms of deities became visible within the space (klong) of these spheres; and during the third week, he saw not only the principle deities but a great variety of images of the five Buddha-families, who were in union with their consorts and displaying different gestures and attire.194 All of this imagery—light spheres appearing in various configurations, followed by the envisioning of Buddhas within their cores and a gradual intensification of these experiences—corresponds well with the ideal visionary stages characteristic of the Great Perfection practice known as tögal ("direct crossing," thod rgal). It thus provides important foreshadowing for his later meditative attainments in this system, which, as we shall see, are most remarkably evident at the end of his earthly life.
This particular retreat also marks the most significant description of Shardza's practice of 'dream yoga' (rmi lam rnal 'byor), a topic upon which he would later write instructional guidelines. It was mentioned above that Shardza's experience with tsalung practice had granted him a natural facility for the dream and clear light practices; the reader also discovers that during the period of his dark retreat Shardza experienced many lucid dreams and recalled them, and succeeded in gaining control over the dream state. Tenpé Gyaltsen elaborates: "In S••tra it says, 'If you see one jackal in a dream, make many! Make a cemetery.... Understand it as a celestial palace... If you see a bird, change it into a garuda and ride on it. Go to the wish-fulfilling tree on the peak of the universe and look at the world.'"195 Further explaining that in the dream state one can consciously transform and manifest objects, see the spectacle of the universe, go under the earth and through rock, and emanate many kinds of bodies, Tenpé Gyaltsen affirms that Shardza successfully mastered a full range of dream experiences as well as the ability to maintain dreamless, 'clear light' sleep.
In The String of Wondrous Gems, Tenpé Gyaltsen's summary remarks on the outcomes of these important retreats boldly proclaim Shardza's esoteric accomplishments, and with unmistakable implications for his religious knowledge. "Through the power of the dark retreat yoga," the biography states, "[Shardza] didn't intellectually analyze whatever arose spontaneously as the wisdom of his own awareness. After that, he didn't have to make effort... he was beyond effort." Moreover, he scanned "thousands of pages of books" in his dreams, effectively speed-reading three lines at a time, something reportedly made possible by predispositions from former lives.198 This essential link between his inner experiences and his understanding of scriptures—previously noted in his unconventional initiation from Ratrul—naturally plays an important role in the portrayal of his later authorship.
Generally speaking, exert yourself in four practice periods and meditative experience and realization [should be] made the center of the practice; regarding this, both master and student need to focus.
On these occasions, one deepens the wind and channel training in the Main Practice [section of] the Kusum Rangshar. Then, stay in strict retreat [in the dark] for forty-nine days [according to] both the Ösel Dun section of the [Zhangzhung] Nyengyü and the Ösel Dun (od gsal bdun) section of the Kusum Rangshar. According to one's faculties, one should take Breakthrough (khregs chod) as the center of one's spiritual practice [according to] the Main Practice (dngos gzhi) [section] of the [Kunzang] Nyingthik or the Kusum Rangshar.
At this time, apply oneself day and night, morning and evening according to the Thablam Druk ("The Sixfold Path of Skillful Means") in the Kusum Rangshar or the Denö Dzö (The Treasury of Collected Scriptures). Spend your life in the practice of Direct Crossing (thod rgal), utilizing such things as the two gatherings of light rays applicable at daybreak and sunset, the time of the full moon, and [the light of] butter lamps. Spending your life on these [practices] for either three, seven, nine or twelve years, you should gain confidence in the practice.
Excerpts From..... The life of a Bonpo luminary: Sainthood, Partisanship and Literary Representation in a 20th Century Tibetan Biography
William M. Gorvine's doctoral dissertation University of Virginia, 2006. About Shardza Rinpoche.
John Hopkins.....Northern New Mexico….May 2013