Becky Best

The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin

Abstract: The Life of Shabkar is the autobiography of Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol (1781-1851). Tracing his spiritual development and activities from birth through age 56, the autobiography is noteworthy for its songs which convey a rich mixture of sorrow, exuberance and sly wit. The story of Shabkar’s life takes him from his home in Amdo to Lhasa, Nepal and Mt Kailash. Always seeking solitude to pursue his practice, he nonetheless finds himself increasingly called upon to intervene in the lives of those around him, addressing physical, social and spiritual needs. He is especially passionate about vegetarianism, and indeed interacts personally with animals at least as much as with humans.

The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, translated by Matthieu Ricard, records the life of Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) up to age 56. Born in Amdo in 1781, as a teenager Shabkar dedicated his life to meditation and teaching and grew to be a renowned and influential lama who traveled all over the Tibetan cultural region. Shabkar’s life is not only a namthar quite representative of the genre, but also expresses the unique life and voice of an individual. Not only that, but as a text it is a valuable resource for imagining life and Buddhism in Tibet at the turn of the 19th century. Here I will briefly discuss four aspects of Shabkar’s life story: his relationship to community, his relationship to sentient beings, his historical context, and his songs.

Shabkar and Community
For many Buddhist renunciates, seeking to pursue the Dharma wholeheartedly means making significant breaks with one’s home community. Following this pattern, Shabkar rejects marriage with a denunciation full of vivid metaphor, calling domestic life "a pit of fire, a cannibal island, a nest of poisonous snakes" (27). His widowed mother begs him to take a wife and settle down. She cites the examples of relatives of his who pursue the Dharma and still stay near home. Shabkar wants no part of this kind of practice (29). He not only rejects marriage, but decides to leave his mother and sister altogether. He decides that it is what he must do to pursue teachings without encumbrance, and lies to his family in order to make good his permanent escape from home. Shabkar reasons that, after all, all sentient beings were once his mother in another lifetime (74) and lying for the sake of the Dharma must be a minor offense (40). When he leaves, he promises to return soon, but puts off his return for years until just before his mother dies. His intense sorrow and regret when he discovers that by the time he gets back, it is too late to see his mother in this life shows his human struggle to live up to his Buddhist ideals. It is a rare and meaningful moment in his otherwise Herculean spiritual life.

Time and again in his songs and in his prose, Shabkar expresses his desire to undertake his practice in solitude (e.g. 401). When he does find solitude, he sings songs of praise and joy. Interestingly, however, he often mentions the animals living in the place, which as I discuss below. As he becomes more advanced as a practitioner, his reputation grows and more and more people seek teachings from him. This forces him out of solitude and draws him into society.

Shabkar and Sentient Beings
Perhaps the most noteworthy and enjoyable element of Shabkar’s life story is his relations with animals. He interacts with them very much as he would with human peers. He teaches them Dharma, he learns spiritual lessons from them, he scolds them, converses with them, and worries about their physical and spiritual welfare. No animal is too small or lowly to escape his compassion. He goes to extreme lengths to save even tadpoles and ants. One part of Shabkar's attitude towards animals that may come as a surprise to contemporary readers is that he holds animals morally accountable for their actions. One good example of this is when he defends the small prey of an eagle and even raps the eagle on the beak and wings to reprimand it for trying to eat them (139).

Naturally, this concern for animal welfare leads Shabkar to be a staunch proponent of vegetarianism, a practice that cut against the grain of Eastern Tibetan daily life. Even so, he makes it his goal to convert as many people as possible to vegetarianism. Through a growing familiarity with Shabkar’s personality over the hundreds of pages of his autobiography, it becomes clear to the reader that this evangelical passion for vegetarianism is not driven by doctrinal fanaticism, but by heartfelt concern—not only for the animals, but also for the karma of the meat-eating humans. One rather small but significant expression of his genuine devotion to welbeing and not mere dogma is that he not only counsels hunters to give up hunting, but asks the wealthy to see to the support of former hunters and their transition into new professions (349).

Finally, it is also worth mentioning that Shabkar’s world is richly inhabited by all kinds of sentient beings. These include bodhisattvas, dakinis, demons and local gods (e.g. 108). For Shabkar, they are not ethereal religious abstractions, but rather present and powerful beings as immediate as the humans and animals around him.

Shabkar’s Songs
In the tradition of great Tibetan saints--especially Milarepa, to whom Shabkar is often compared--Shabkar expresses Buddhist ideas through song. His life story is so filled with songs, they seem to comprise about half of the whole text. His songs tend to involve extended metaphors, often taking the natural world (plants, animals, geographical features) as inspiration. They are clever and usually lengthy, sometimes taking the form of an acrostic. They are not the sort of songs to have a refrain, but many do have a single line that is repeated often, especially songs of admonition meant to get the attention of a specific audience. The songs of Shabkar are often humorous, using puns, exaggeration and sometimes a casual tone (as it is rendered in English, at least). This allows him to be gently but firmly didactic and to get a point across in a way that may be more effective and more memorable than an oral teaching alone. Shabkar is loathe to let an opportunity for Buddhist teaching slip by and likes to answer questions with playful songs that avoid a clear answer to the question posed. That is not to say that all of his songs are for moral instruction. Many are for his own amusement, to express his own sorrow or joy, or as a challenging game posed to himself. As readers of his autobiography, however, we cannot but take his claims at spontaneity and private pleasure with a grain of salt since we are reading the words of the songs transcribed for posterity. Perhaps all his claims to be joking around are ultimately meant to be both self-effacing and disarming, drawing us in to hear a very serious dharma lesson within the playful words. Some of the songs are serious indeed, reminding listeners of the certainty of death and the uncertainty of one's lifespan.

Shabkar in his Historical Context
Shabkar's life story is illustrative of the time and place in which he lived. For example, political authority and rule of law were quite variable. In many cases, Shabkar himself mediates long-standing feuds between clans in Amdo which had been otherwise leading to seemingly endless rounds of bloodshed (493). We see that bandits posed a significant threat in Amdo as well (58, 167, 502). For wandering pilgrims like Shabkar, the dogs raised by nomads to fend off bandits were a threat in themselves. One wealthy family had fifteen dogs who chased and attacked him (106). While visiting Lhasa, Shabkar discovers one man deceiving children and selling them into servitude. He rebukes him, using Buddhist reasoning and also calls upon the moral and legal authority of the Ganden Podrang, reminding the man that "he would certainly be punished if the Palace of Ganden heard about it," (388). This suggests two things: first, that the Ganden Podrang held some power and authority to punish wrongs, and second that the reach of its arm was not necessarily very long. The reference to the Ganden Podrang comes across more as a general admonition rather than a specific threat to punitive action.

Another source of political authority was the Qing court. On a few occasions, Shabkar interacts with the Manchu ambans and we see the reach of their power. When Shabkar and some of his Buddhist compatriots have plans to donate sizable amounts of gold to a holy site in Nepal, the representative of the Qing in the region is understandably concerned to know more about the nature of this movement of gold. The amban sends a report to the court conveying the regional intelligence report on Shabkar's activities. The court responds that his religious efforts are cleared as permissible, and Shabkar's followers are relieved. This shows that they were concerned about the amban's ability to potentially block their offering, which itself shows that the ambans represented real power and authority in the region.

The translation of The Life of Shabkar into English is a major contribution to the field, giving readers a glimpse into the life of a Tibetan yogin, a man of 19th century Amdo, and a bold and impressive individual. The autobiography stands as a compilation of theology and poetry, an amusing story of a spiritual adventurer, and a record of a man who lived an exemplary Buddhist life. There is an urgency and an electric energy that comes through the pages of Shabkar's autobiography, provoking the reader to sense that she has seen the world through another's eyes, a landscape vibrant with life and with struggle over righteousness and ruin.