When reading the lives of amazing beings one is humbled. That is especially true when learning about Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. His activity in life was so vast and his desire to benefit so strong that afterward he passed away, he took many simultaneous rebirths. Two of them—Shechen Kongtrul and Palpung Kongtrul had direct connections with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Shechen Kongtrul was one of the Vidyadhara’s main gurus.
As an aside, I’d like to say that is interesting to note that three of the Vidyadhara’s main teachers—Shechen Kongtrul, Khenpo Gangshar, and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche were successive abbots of the Shechen shedra or monastic university. The founder and first abbot of the Shedra at Shechen was Mipham the Great, the Sakyong’s predecessor. Shechen at the time of the Vidyadhara’s youth was like Oxford or Cambridge, a great university that everyone aspired to go to.
Jamgon Kongtrul was born in 1813. His father, or as we’d say, his stepfather who raised him, was not a Buddhist, but a practitioner of Bon, the native religion of Tibet. Historians suspect this probably influenced Jamgon Kongtrul’s non-sectarian approach. He genuinely wanted to find the heart of every tradition along with preserving what was unique in each tradition. As a child he loved to dress like a monk, play at performing rituals and he learned the alphabet as soon as he saw it. Details like these are seen differently in the Buddhist perspective. Being able to read that easily isn’t just ‘being smart.’ It means that positive habitual tendencies and aspirations from prior lives are very strong.
As a youth, even before he’d practiced intensively, he had great faith in Padmasambhava and saw him and other teachers in his dreams. He was well liked because of his gentle demeanor and at sixteen his employer, a local chieftain, sent him to Shechen Monastery to study with a guru there, Shechen Ontrul. At this time there was no shedra although it was a famous monastery. While at Shechen he studied a great many topics and soaked things up quickly. At this time he began receiving empowerments and teachings on terma, quite normal at Shechen, a Nyingma monastery. The Konchog Chidu which we received the other day was among the first practices he received there.
Jamgon Kongtrul took full ordination at the age of 20, and at 21 the local chieftain who’d sent him to Shechen now insisted he now go to Palpung Monastery. Palpung was presided over by the great Kagyu teacher, Tai Situ Pema Nyinche Wangpo. Ontrul Rinpoche sent Jamgon Kongtrul off with the advice, ‘Don’t become sectarian.’ At Palpung Jamgon Kongtrul furthered his studies immensely and he received many, many Kagyu and Nyingma teachings from His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche and others. By this time he was also studying medicine. When requested what meditation deity would be best for to practice, Situ Rinpoche told Jamgon Kongtrul to practice White Tara, a feminine aspect of compassion that has a strong connection with long life and vitality. He had a very successful retreat on White Tara in the Jonang tradition—a school of Tibetan Buddhism which was thought to have been destroyed by the Cultural Revolution until ten or fifteen years ago when several gurus emerged from Tibet.
By his mid-twenties Jamgon Kongtrul had done many retreats on a variety of yidams and he’d already started teaching. The 14th Karmapa insisted that Jamgon Kongtrul teach him Sanskrit. His name, Kongtrul, came from being recognized by Situ Rinpoche as the rebirth of a former student of his, Kongpo Bamtang Tulku. This name became contracted to Kongtrul—trul being short for tulku, meaning emanation or enlightened manifestation. Lodro Thaye, Limitless Intellect, is the name he received when taking the bodhisattva vow, the vow to liberate all beings from suffering. Jamgon means gentle protector and is a name for Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
In his late twenties, Jamgon Kongtrul began an extended retreat in a hermitage above Palpung. This began as a three year, but soon extended to the rest of his life. He only came out of retreat in order to teach, join intensive group practices, mediate in wars or disputes, or in some way benefit beings. Although they’d met around eight years earlier Jamgon Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo began to work together intensively around the time Kongtrul was 36. They both had the same desire to go beyond the sectarianism that was causing the deterioration understanding and good relations between the many different schools of Buddhism as well as Bon. Together with Chogyur Lingpa they collected and exchanged whatever teachings they could. This began what is now known as the Rime movement, a renaissance of unbiased teaching that continues to this day.
For many years Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo urged Kongtrul to write his Five Great Treasuries. The Rinchen Terdzo, The Treasury of Precious Termas is one of these. The best known is probably the Treasury Of Knowledge. It is a massive ten-part presentation of all objects or topics one could know, starting with the variety of Buddhist cosmologies and moving from there to describe the appearance of the Buddha from many perspectives, the various schools of dharma, the classical sciences and all aspects of training from entering the dharma up to the fruition. Everything is described from a variety of perspectives, impartially. The last three great treasuries are the 8 volume Tantric Treasury of the Kagyu Vajrayana Instructions, the 18 volume Treasury of Spiritual Advice, and the 20 volume Treasury of Extensive Teachings. Two of his other major works are The Compendium Of All Sadhanas and The Compendium Of All Tantras. Jamgon Kongtrul wrote a large number of smaller works, some of them very influential too.
We’ll pick up on Jamgon Kongtrul’s life in a later entry.