Pete Faggen
Jamgön Kongtrul: A Rimé Treasure Digger in Dergé
Born in 1813 in Rongyap, Longtri, Kham, Tibet, Jamgön Kongtrul, of the Karma Kagyü Tibetan Buddhist sect, was a prolific author, well-known religious master, founder of a retreat/meditation center (at Pelpung Monastery), terma revealer, and even a historian according to Jamgön Kongtrul’s biographer, Nesar Karma Tashi Chopel. In The Autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul, Jamgön Kongtrul describes, year by year, a list of his religious activities, including the various teachings and empowerments he transmitted to various disciples, monks and Dergé (Kham) government officials throughout the better part of the 19th century. (377) A participant and prominent figure in a non-sectarian Buddhist movement known as Rimé, Kongtrul died at age 87 in 1900, but not until after he revealed numerous treasures and published over ninety volumes and commentaries, including My Five Treasuries, a work he deemed as “his life’s work” without sectarian bias. (377)

Jamgön Kongtrul’s autobiography provides a clear window into one of the more ecumenical figures of his time, providing important religious details about the non-sectarian movement (Rimé) that took place in the borderlands regions, primarily in the Dergé area of Kham where Jamgön Kongtrul lived. Jamgön Kongtrul received numerous teachings from high-lamas living in the region, including Tai Situ, who served as a tutor for the Gyelwa Karmapa, the head lama of the Kagyü sect. Jamgön Kongtrul also received teachings from other Tibetan sects, including Mindroling (Nyingma) and White Tara in Atisha's tradition (Kadampa); various Nyingma rituals; the Kalacakra tradition of the Sakya and the United Intent of the Gurus, to list a few. (23, 26) From the lama who Jamgön Kongtrul considered as his guru, Jamyang Khentse of the Nyingma Pelyul tradition, Jamgön Kongtrul received training on uncovering numerous treasures (a skill used primarily by the Nyingma sect), that helped establish Jamgön Kongtrul’s legitimacy and fame as both a teacher and writer in Kham, and with the Dergé government. During his dreams, which Jamgön Kongtrul describes vividly throughout the text, dakinis and tertons often revealed the details about certain terma, such as, for example, revealing to Jamgön Kongtrul “wealth objects concealed to the east…. Jamgön Kongtrul explains, that, after awakening from this dream, 'I would recall the details of the terma quite clearly.'” (186) On another occasion, high lamas including Gyelwa Karmapa Thekchok Dorjé told Jamgön Kongtrul: “We want to receive a number of transmissions from you, including your termas.” (188)

Jamgön Kongtrul wrote several Buddhist commentaries, including: The Highest Continuum, (154) The Stages on the Path (173), and biographies of The Hundred Revealers of Hidden Teachings (223). In addition to My Five Treasuries, Jamgön Kongtrul also penned the biography of his teacher, the influential Nyingma master Jamyang Khenytsé. Kongtrul’s writing prowess illuminates the large literary Tibetan culture centered in Dergé, the home of one of the most productive printing presses in existence in Tibetan cultural areas.

Along with describing aspects of Tibetan literary culture in Dergé, Jamgon
Kongtrul’s autobiography helps elucidate the political implications of the Rimé movement from Dergé – a movement that formed as a response to the Gelukpa hegemony in central Tibet. Jamgön Kongtrul minimizes the presence of the Gelukpa sect throughout the autobiography; in fact, Jamgön Kongtrul does not even mention the founder of the Gelukpa sect, Tsongkhapa, by name. Rather Jamgön Kongtrul refers to the Gelukpa sect as the “New Kadampa,” sect. (270) Jamgön Kongtrul only references central Tibetan places as a pilgrimage sites for certain lamas. Early in his autobiography, Jamgön Kongtrul reveals his true feelings about the Gelukpa sect’s emphasis on scholarly, textual tradition. He writes that he cannot “abide even seeing books by those sectarians who chase after fame, for speaking judgmentally is the way of fool. (53)… I trust renunciation more than studying books, for it is better to tame the mind even a bit, than to be very learned in scripture and logic.” (54) Moreover, he writes that he has “more faith in the methods of tantra than of sutra.” (54)

Furthermore, Jamgön Kongtrul’s minimization of the Gelukpa sect indicates how Dergé, ruled by a king and queen, sought to protect its independent political and religious existence. Even though Jamgön Kongtrul provides scant details about the actual political establishment of Dergé, his autobiography reveals how Dergé’s government encountered challenges to its regime. It was during the mid 19th century, particularly when a certain Nyarong chieftain (from the East) attacked Dergé in 1865, that Jamgön Kongtrul provided services, offering prayers and empowerments, to protect Dergé officials. Kongtrul earned legitimacy for his religious divinational work, and in exchange, provided legitimacy to the rulers of Dergé. Jamgön Kongtrul also mentions the “imminent” arrival of troops from Lhasa to fight the Nyarong chieftain (132, 135) and to protect Dergé in this fight against the Nyarong chieftain. Jamgön Kongtrul mentions how the central Tibetan government officers offered congratulations for his successful work in helping defeat the Nyarong enemy. (139 Jamgön Kongtrul earned a great deal of legitimacy and wealth in terms of land deeded to him by central Tibetan officials for his divinational work. (142)

That central Tibetan officials ceded land to Jamgön Kongtrul indicates that the Lhasa government asserted more influence in the Kham borderland area, even though throughout his autobiography Jamgön Kongtrul downplays the overall effect of the central Tibetan government’s political relations with and control of the borderland region. Jamgön Kongtrul describes tension between Kham and Lhasa when the Dalai Lama’s central government “ordered” the governor of Nyarong to send either Jamgön Kongtrul’s guru or Jamgön Kongtrul himself to go to Lhasa to carry out the preparation of “precious pills (an “esteemed medicine”), which was related to the process of refining mercury. (179) Jamgön Kongtrul writes: “(The governor) insisted that I go, which upset me very much and even made me physically unwell. I respectfully insisted that I be excused from this duty. “ (179) He did not go because of the Twelfth Dalai Lama, Trinlé Gyatso’s, death in 1875. The Dalai Lama’s death contributed to the further destabilization of central Tibet and therefore hindered its ability to exert its influence on the borderland regions.