Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Enlightened Beings - Preface

Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition


According to the Buddhist tradition, until we reach enlightenment we are ordinary beings living within the diverse realms of suffering known as saṃsāra. Indeed, a late Mahāyāna scripture, the Ārya-tathāgatagarbha-sūtra, describes our current situation like this:

Until you reach the path, you wander in the world

With the precious form of the Sugata

Completely wrapped, as in a bundle of rags,

By things degrading and dirty.

Then, shortly afterwards, the same sūtra tantalizingly extends to us the following offer:

Here it is. You have this precious Tathāgata

Wrapped in rags. Unwrap it, quickly!

If we have any feeling at all that the earlier description might be accurate, this offer strikes us as a wondrous possibility, indeed as a priceless and jeweled opportunity: the rare chance to abandon completely—in this lifetime— countless lifetimes, past and future, of mundane miseries, and to unwrap, reveal, and make manifest the supreme enlightened being, the Buddha, resting in the very palms of our hands. If we are successful in this, we will ourselves become enlightened beings. This challenge is the promise that fuels and infuses the vehicle of Buddhist practice called the Vajrayāna.

“Buddha” is not a proper name. It is, rather, a generic term that is given, as a title, to one who has attained enlightenment [bo dhi]. The term “Buddha” is actually derived from the Sanskrit root budh [“to awaken,” “to wake up,” “to realize,” “to understand”]. What is understood is the true nature of reality, how things exist, and both the causes and the cessation of suffering. What flows out of such understanding is selfless compassion— offered fully, universally, and spontaneously—for all beings still bound in suffering. Thus, while we most often associate the term “Buddha” with the sixth-century B.C. historical figure Siddhārtha Gautama, the great Indian teacher who founded the tradition, there are, have been, and will continue to be countless Buddhas whenever and wherever beings awaken to the truth. This fact is made especially clear in the literature of the Mahāyāna, with its proliferation of enlightened beings, in which the Buddha himself assures us that he has no corner on the market.

Though there are, have been, and will be countless enlightened beings, there is no doubt that the life of Siddhārtha provides us with the chief model for a Buddha’s career. Coming down to us after centuries of oral and literary accretions, the Buddha’s various biographies have taken on all the qualities of legendary hagiography, replete with miracles, prescience, and other displays of supernatural power. Yet for all their diverse embellishments, these biographies agree on the fundamental importance of two “events” or “acts,” two activities by virtue of which a Buddha is a Buddha in truth. First, such a one has, often through practicing the most rigorous ascetic austerities, won through to consummate understanding and insight, and, second, flowing naturally out of such understanding, that accomplished being illumines the way for others through compassionate and well-suited teaching. While the various Buddhist traditions offer numerous definitions of a Buddha—”Embodiment of all-goodness,” “Vanquisher of the foes (of hatred, greed, and ignorance),” “Transcender of all negative qualities of mind,” “Treasury of compassion and wisdom,” “Truth-finder,” and “Way-shower,” etc.—the fact remains that what a Buddha does, through his or her efforts in meditation and teaching, most directly defines the term’s central meaning.

These two chief activities of meditation and teaching are the same ones associated with the persons known to us as siddhas; and in whatever lifetime an ordinary being becomes an enlightened being, that one properly earns the title of siddha as well. This is borne out even by the name ascribed to the historical founder of the tradition; for while his family name was Gautama, all accounts agree that his given name was Siddhārtha—that is, one whose aims (artha) have been accomplished or perfected (siddha).

The translations that follow chronicle the lives of six renowned Tibetan Gelukpa (dGe-lugs-pa) siddhas who, armed with loving compassion and the insight that cognizes the truth of voidness, took up the challenge of becoming enlightened beings for our sakes and were successful. These six practitioners, men who lived between the mid-fourteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries in Tibet, were accomplished followers of the Ganden Oral Tradition—variously referred to in Tibetan as the Ganden Nyen Gyü (dGa’ ldan sñan brgyud) or Genden Kagyü (dGe ldan bka’ brgyud)—a system of tantric practice first conceived and taught by the great Je Rinpoche, Tsongkapa [1357–1419]. This tradition is also known, more fully, as the Ganden Oral Tradition of Mahāmudrā or, concisely, as the Gelukpa Mahāmudrā. According to the Gelukpa tradition, the Ganden Oral Tradition teachings are uniquely fashioned to bring about the swift attainment of enlightenment. The Ganden Oral Tradition relies heavily upon two components in particular: first, a specialized form of guru yoga, and, second, a unique combination of advanced practices based upon the so-called Three Chief Deities: Guhyasamāja, Cakrasaṃvara, and Vajrabhairava. Indeed, it is said that “this tradition teaches that one can achieve Buddhahood within a period of only twelve years by holding guru yoga as the most vital element of the path and practicing the paths of the three tutelary deities Guhya Samaja, Cakra Samvara, and Vajra Bhairava all at once.” It is further declared that for some of the six adepts upon whom the present translations focus, the practice of the Ganden Oral Tradition made possible the attainment of enlightenment within the even shorter time-span of only three years.

Again, this study focuses on the lives of the first six Gelukpa practitioners of the Ganden Oral Tradition, the earliest siddhas to immediately succeed Tsongkapa in this lineage. The six are:

1.         Tokden Jampel Gyatso (rTogs-ldan ’Jam-dpal-rgya-mtsho) [1356–1428]

2.         Baso Je Chökyi Gyeltsen (Ba-so-rje Chos-kyi-rgyal-mtshan) [1402–1473]

3.         Drubchen Chökyi Dorje (Grub-chen Chos-kyi-rdo-rje) [?]

4.         Gyelwa Ensapa (rGyal-ba dbEn-sa-pa) [1505–1566]

5.         Kedrub Sanggye Yeshe (mKhas-grub Sangs-rgyas-ye-śes) [1525–1591]

6.         Jetsün Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen (rJe-btsun bLo-bzaṅ-chos-kyi-rgyalmtshan) [1570–1662].

As can be seen from their dates, these six contiguous lives span some three hundred years of Tibetan religious history, covering in particular that most crucial period of the rise to power of the so-called Yellow Hat school, the Gelukpa. But these six life stories do much more than this. Considered within the Tibetan tradition as namtar (rnam-thar), that is, “liberation life stories,” these accounts inform their readers on many different levels—historical, inspirational, and instructional—in ways geared to make manifest Buddhist liberation and enlightenment by describing its multilayered process.

Those readers familiar with the tantric traditions may think of siddhas only in connection with the group of wild, yogi-iconoclasts known as the Eighty-Four Mahāsiddhas of India. In the context of Tibetan practice, moreover, because of the fame of such great yogis as Milarepa, it might be assumed that siddhas are to be found only within the lineages of the Kagyüpa (bKa’ brgyud pa) school of Tibetan Buddhism. Some years ago I, too, made such erroneous assumptions, and a brief note about how I initially came to undertake this project may prove instructive here. It was my own precious root guru, Lama Thubten Yeshe, who in 1979 first suggested that I translate the lives of some of the earliest Gelukpa siddhas. I was en route to Nepal to conduct some oral history research and had stopped in Zurich, where Lama Yeshe was spending a few days, to confer with him about it. After showing general approval of my proposed work, he said with a rather emphatic tone, “First, I want you to translate some of the early Geluk siddha life stories. Western readers should know that there were Gelukpa siddhas too!” At the time, I must have looked somewhat baffled. The thought went through my mind, ‘But weren’t all the siddhas Kagyüpas?’ At that instant, Lama Yeshe looked at me piercingly and, with a brief look of disgust, turned abruptly and left the room. It was a wonderfully enlightening teaching! It took me only a few seconds to realize that a siddha is any accomplished being who wins enlightenment in one lifetime, using tantric means; that neither those means, nor the persons employing them, are limited to any one particular school or sect; and that of course there were Gelukpa siddhas—just as there have been and continue to be accomplished tantric adepts in all the orders and wherever and whenever beings win through to enlightenment. Though embarrassed by my lack of sensitivity and insight, the next time I saw Lama Yeshe I told him that I’d be glad to do the translations he’d requested.

Still, I was not alone in my misconception. The siddha tradition is generally thought to be associated only with the Kagyüpa order, and this assumption is especially evidenced in most Western accounts of that system. However, as the present translations will attest, this tradition was also always present in the Gelukpa. Indeed, according to Gelukpa tradition, the great Tsongkapa, who founded the order, synthesized three great Indian lineages: the “profound,” or wisdom lineage of Mañjuśrī and Nāgārjuna; the “vast,” or method lineage of Maitreya and Asaṅga; and the “practice” lineage of the Eighty-Four Mahāsiddhas, tantric adepts such as Saraha, Tilopa, Nāropa, and Luipa. This fact notwithstanding, the Geluk order, especially in the West, continues to be regarded predominantly as a scholastic tradition that produced few accomplished tantric practitioners. It is my hope that the present translations will help to reverse this misconception.

As sources for the complete written accounts of the lives of these six Ganden Oral Tradition siddhas, I had access to two Tibetan editions of the great compendium of Kadam (bKa’ gdams) and Gelukpa biographies compiled in the late eighteenth century [circa 1787] by the great Yongdzin Yeshe Gyeltsen (Yongs ’dzin Ye-śes-rgyal-mtshan) [1713–1792] called Byaṅ chub lam g yi rim pa’i bla ma brg yud pa’i rnam par thar pa rg yal bstan mdzes pa’i rg yan mcho g phul byung no r bu’i phreṅ ba (Biographies of the Eminent Gurus in the Transmission Lineages of the Graded Path Teachings, called The Jeweled Rosary). One edition was the woodblock-printed version kept in the library of the Nepalese Mahayana Centre Gompa (dGon-pa) of Lama Yeshe in Kopan, Nepal. The other was the edited, and often much abbreviated, version found in Volume V of Ketsün Sangpo’s Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism [Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1973]. Ketsün Sangpo’s versions of the biographies abbreviate— either by summarizing or by omitting certain sections—the lengthier standard namtar. This abbreviation is particularly noticeable in Sangpo’s treatment of the Baso Chökyi Gyeltsen account and in his presentation of the biography of the First Panchen, Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen.

Taken together, the six namtar translated here comprise some 286 folio sides of the Jeweled Rosary collection, with the First Panchen’s life alone running to 155 folio sides. [The First Panchen himself wrote an autobiography that runs to some 447 folios!] In order to give more balance to the presentation of the lives here, I have not translated the account of his life in full. While I read both versions of the namtar, in producing the translations I have been guided more by the length of the biographies as treated in Sangpo. However, where it seemed to me that Sangpo had omitted material that was pertinent to a fuller appreciation of a given biography, I have incorporated material from the lengthier Tibetan versions. In addition to the two editions of Gelukpa namtar referred to above, I also read and have included as Appendix II the short Gelukpa liturgical text called dGa’ ldan bka’ sro l phyag rg ya chen po’i ’khrid kyi bla brg yud gso l ’debs kha sko ṅ bcas bźugs (Prayer, with Supplement, to the Lineage Lamas of the Ganden Oral Tradition of Mahāmudrā.) The prayer’s colophon declares that it too was composed by Yongdzin Yeshe Gyeltsen and that additions were made by the first Pabongka Rinpoche, Dechen Nyingpo (Pha-bong-kha Rin-po-che, bDe-chen-snying-po) [1878–1941].

What I have tried to present in the following pages is as full and helpful a picture of these six Gelukpa siddhas’ lives as possible. Primarily, I have attempted to do two things: to present accurate and readable translations of the life stories themselves and to provide enough critical apparatus to give Western readers of these accounts an appreciation of the ambiance and richness of this particular genre of religious writing. It is my hope that the material in the Introduction will help to accomplish this latter aim.

Translating these life stories presented several difficulties. Before doing them, I had been accustomed primarily to working with philosophical texts, and, while my former work with Tibetan meditation cycles proved helpful, I soon came to realize that the translation of namtar offered unique problems.

To translate them accurately and well requires knowledge of a variety of subjects and areas not frequently met with in other types of Buddhist literature. For example, in addition to being familiar with colloquial forms of the Tibetan language, including some archaic forms, one needs to know about such diverse things as geography, monastic calendars and curricula, and even the names of certain monastic apparel. Often, a term that has one meaning in other types of literature has another in these contexts. As examples, one could note that the term damcha (dam bca’), which is normally rendered “vow” or “oath,” in these namtar usually refers to the debates conducted by the different monastic colleges, and that in the account of the First Panchen’s life, zimkangpa (gzim khang pa) does not mean “room” or “house,” but refers instead to a certain monastic official chosen by the government. In an interesting twist, some terminology that has a mundane and concrete meaning in other literature seems to take on a “mystic” sense in these stories. This is so for the term zamatok (za ma tog), for example. Generally, the term means “receptacle,” “vessel,” or even “the human physique,” but in the namtar of Chökyi Dorje it takes on the additional meaning of “a magically assumed and mystically supported appearance of a physical body” taken on as a means, or vehicle, in order to communicate with disciples.

Since these namtar are biographies of tantric adepts, it should not be surprising that the language in them is sometimes employed in a tantric, or “veiled,” way. However, it sometimes happens that the translator of namtar may be tempted to read into a given text mystical occurrences where none are present. This was made clear to me in dramatic fashion when I attempted to translate a particular passage in the namtar of Sanggye Yeshe. The passage clearly was a description of one of Sanggye Yeshe’s meditative experiences. As part of the account, the text said that once it had happened that Sanggye Yeshe had awakened from sleep because of feeling very cold. He had then envisioned his guru, Ensapa, perched above the door to his meditation cell. Ensapa then covered him with his kubem (sku bem). Sanggye Yeshe at once felt a suffusion of warmth and bliss, and this event ushered in an experiential breakthrough for him.

Now, the term that presented the difficulty was, of course, kubem. Ku alone is a common honorific term for “body.” Bem is a bit more unusual and is hardly ever, to my knowledge, used in isolation. Given the context of the term’s appearance, I read into the description all sorts of mystical connotations. I knew that kubem must refer to some ineffably pure and wholly intangible offering, some indescribable direct transmission. The reader can perhaps imagine, then, my stunned surprise when later, as I was talking one day with some monk-teachers at Kopan, they asked, “Oh! Haven’t you seen Lama Yeshe’s kubem yet? Surely he will show it to you if you ask.” My knees were trembling as I made my way across the courtyard, determined to ask him, even if it meant my life! When I finally got the question out to him, Lama Yeshe jumped up from the table and left quickly, promising to return with it. My wait seemed interminably long. Then Lama Yeshe reappeared, holding up a heavy winter robe. It was battered and beaten, faded red, and lined inside with wool. “This is my kubem,” he said. So, kubem is the name for a lama’s winter meditation robe. It is special, in the sense that it is part of the apparel allowed only to lamas of the tantric colleges, but it is no t an indescribable mystic entity. For reasons like these, then, one has to be careful when translating this type of literature.

Equally important, I feel, is the issue of proper transcription and transliteration. Over the course of many years of Tibetan scholarship, inconsistencies and confusion have resulted from the various attempts to deal with the difficulties of Tibetan spellings. Because Tibetan has an abundance of homophones, phonetic spellings often create more problems than they solve. For example, though the terms bka’ bcu and dka’ bcu sound exactly alike, the first refers to a novice monk who observes the ten (bcu) precepts (bka’ ) while the second is used only in reference to an accomplished teacher who, having completed the difficult (dka’ ) higher studies, can explain the meaning of a text from ten different points of view! In this case, even though both terms apply to monks, in terms of meaning they are quite distinct, and to render them only as “ka chu,” for example, completely obscures this important distinction. Thus, phonetic spellings may sometimes do considerably more harm than good. I should like it if everyone interested in Tibetan studies learned to spell Tibetan properly.

However, there is the issue of readability. Especially in a work like the following—replete with Tibetan names for persons, places, deities, and texts—had we correctly transliterated each name at every appearance we would have produced an unwieldy book. To avoid this situation, the editors and I have agreed to use phoneticized forms. Each first appearance of phoneticized terms will appear in italics, followed immediately in parentheses by the appropriate transliteration. The names of deities, people, and places will not be italicized. In this way, we hope to enable interested readers to distinguish and to spell correctly the actual Tibetan terms.

It will quickly be observed that my notes are extensive, as they provide information that is intended to help round out the picture of each siddha’s world as he might have experienced it. Though stylized in form, namtar are the life stories of actual people, historical figures who lived and breathed, who read and wrote books, who traveled to various places, and who meditated and taught unceasingly. I hope that my notes will help foster an appreciation of these siddhas’ humanity.

In countless respects, this work belongs to Lama Yeshe. It was his idea that I undertake it and his guidance that oversaw it and nudged it along when it lagged. I hope that he knows it’s done, and I hope that it pleases him.


How to cite this document:
© Janice Dean Willis, Enlightened Beings (Wisdom Publications, 1995)

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