Dokhar Tsering Wangyal’s Reflections of a Cabinet Minister (Bka' blon rtogs brjod)


Mdo mkhar ba Tshe ring dbang rgyal (1697-1763), was an eighteenth century lay official who served in a number of offices such as district commissioner of Shigatse, and chamberlain and secretary to the Stag rtse De si, eventually rising to the position of Cabinet Minister under the rule of Polhane. He was also a celebrated literary figure and polymath, with interests ranging from Sanskrit poetics, Tibetan grammar and esoteric tantric practices. He is credited with writing what is arguably the first Tibetan novel, the Tale of the Incomparable Prince (Gzhon nu zla med kyi rtam gyud). His other works include Miwang rtogs brjod, an extensive biography of Polhane, and a Sanskrit-Tibet dictionary. Bka' blon rtogs brjod, Mdo mkhar ba’s record of his own life, is notable for being the first Tibetan lay autobiography and serves as an invaluable source into the politics of 18th century Central Tibet. Below I will provide a brief summary of the 1981 Sichuan Nationalities Publishing House version of Mdo mkhar ba’s autobiography and conclude by making some comments on his authorial intentions and the motives behind his life writing.

Family Background and Education

Mdo mkhar bTshe ring dbang rgyal was born to Ngag dBang Tshangs pa and his wife Dang drung in 1697, the year of the Female Fire Ox. The Mdo mkhar family, more commonly known by the name of their Lhasa estate, Rag kha shag, trace their lineage to the Ga zi clan, a sub branch of the Dbra clan, one of six important families of the imperial period. The family was of both great political and religious importance. In addition to holding estates in Tsang and Phod mdo in modern day Lhun grub county, the mDo khar family were monastic patrons and one son would always serve as throne holder of Bka' brgyud Byang Stag lung monastery. Tshe ring dbang rgyal himself was supposed to hold the throne at Stag lung, but for "external and internal reasons" managed to escape a religious life.

He began his education at Sera monastery under the instruction of his maternal uncle. After learning the fundamentals of reading and writing, Tshe ring dbang rgyal went on to study composition, calculation and scripture with his father and the first two chapters of the sMyan ngag Me long consecutively with the government accountant Khro rgyal dPal mgon, and dGe slong bLo gsal. Aged fifteen, Dokhar began to study with Lochen Dharmshri at sMin gro gling monastery where he received extensive training in the five minor fields of knowledge (rig gnas chung ba lnga): poetics (snyan ngag), composition (sdeb sbyor) , synonyms (mngon brjod), dramaturgy (zlos gar) and astrology (skar rtsis).

Political Career

Dokhar’s early education prepared him for a lifetime of civil service during a period of political turmoil in Tibetan history. In 1715, the year of the Female Fire Bird, Dokhar took up his first official posting as district commissioner (dzong dpon) of gZhis ka bSam grub rtse. In 1716 he went on to serve as both the chamberlain (mgron gnyer) and secretary (grung yig) of the sTag rtse sde srid Lha rgyal Rab brtan. Dokhar was witness to the Dzungkhar invasion in 1720 and the subsequent arrival of Qing troops to drive them out. When the cabinet minister (Bka’ blon) Khang chen nas was killed by his fellow ministers Nga bo, Lum ba nas and Ja ra nas in 1727, central Tibet was plunged in civil war with Tshe ring dbang rgyal serving as regimental commander (ru dpon) in the Dbus army against the forces of Gtsang led by Pho lha nas. In 1729, the victorious Pho lha nas would appoint Tshe ring dbang rgyal as Cabinet Minister in his government and he received the title of taiji of the first rank by imperial decree. Dokhar would continue to serve Po lha nas for nineteen years and his successor Wang ‘Gyur med rNam rgyal for another three. After ‘Gyur med rNam rgyal’s execution Dokhar was asked to stay on as cabinet minister by the Qing and served until his death in 1763.

Personal Religious Practice

Large portions of the text are devoted to describing Tshe ring dbang rgyal’s extensive education and training at Mindroling monastery, the teachings he receives from some of the famous religious teachers of the time and his commitment to Tantric Buddhist practice throughout his life. He engages in esoteric, and high level practices that are extremely uncommon for an average lay practitioner. Throughout the text, Dokhar draws attention to his relationship with his tutelary deity (yi dam), Vajrabhairava (rdo rje ‘jigs byed). The Vajrabhairava deity is most important of the central meditational deities of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and the practice serves as a preliminary practice to the transformational meditation of the Highest Yoga Tantra (bla na med pa’i rgyud). Building on his already impressive tantric training, he receives a Vajrabhairava empowerment from the tantric adept, rDo rje Chang in 1728 and an ‘auspicious door’ opens for him by taking the deity as his tutelar. In Tibetan such practice is considered secret, and required an empowerment from a duly empowered guru of appropriate lineage to begin the tantra of a particular deity. By taking Vajrabhairava as his yi dam, he begins to build a close relationship with the deity. In theory, the yidam practitioner identifies their own consciousness with that of the deity for the eventual purposes of transformation. This personal meditation, sadhana, was often performed in front of a statue or embroidered tapestry depiction of the deity. Tshe ring dbang rgyal continues to discuss the necessity of proper sadhana practice throughout his biography.

A Genuine Song?

In Reflections of a Cabinet Minister, Tshe ring dbang rgyal relates his role in important events in the Sino-Tibetan relations of the 18th century, such as the Dzungar invasion of Tibet; the ascension of the Tibetan ruler, Polhane Sonam Tobgyel; and the murder of Qing representatives by his successor, Gyur med rNam rgyal. Early in the text, he writes that his authorial intention is to provide an example to ‘the later generations to keep their ancestor’s deeds and accomplishments in their minds’. Family lineage and clan genealogies are of great importance to Tshe ring dbang rgyal, and he readily quotes from the biography of the 5th Dalai Lama and rLangs gi Bo di Se ru, the Genealogy of the rLang Clan:

If one is ignorant of their origins they are like a monkeys in the forest,
If one is ignorant of mother’s ancestry, they are like a false turquoise dragon.
If one is ignorant of the genealogy of one’s father and ancestors, they are just like Mon pa children.

The emphasis on lineage both marks Dokhar’s social status as a member of an elite family that could trace their bloodline back to the Tibetan imperial period, and shows that while Reflections of a Cabinet Minister, as the first lay autobiography was an innovative work, the author still drew heavily from pre-existing antecedents in the Tibetan literary tradition.

In many ways his autobiographical project serves as a record of his service to the dGa’ ldan pho brang. The work features many passages that detail his efficiency and skill as a government servant in a variety of roles such as tax collector to the pinnacle of his career as a cabinet minister. At the same time Tshe ring dbang rgyal often uses words such as ‘selfless’ and ‘tireless’ to describe his work and maintains an obeisance and deference to the authority figures of the Qing Emperor, Pol lha nas, the Tibetan political ruler and the 7th Dalai Lama, Kelsang Gyatso. In Bka' blon rtogs brjod, self-effacement and humility serve as a rhetorical device that allow the author to construct an image of himself as a humble government servant.

Running parallel to his political career is Tshe ring dbang rgyal’s meticulous detailing of his religious life. His elite political status and knowledge of the traditional Buddhist fields of knowledge allows him to receive initiations, empowerments and other teachings from such famous teacher such as the 5th Panchen Lama. Moreover, the esoteric contemplative and meditative practices Tshe ring dbang rgyal engages in hint that a closer study of his religious practice is necessary for a better understanding of him as a historical figure.

Tshe ring dbang rgyal seems to have established a literary genre through which non-religious figures, particular those in elite political positions, began to record their own life stories. Recently Jamchoe Kashopa published a biography of his father, Kashopa Chogyal Nyima, a Tibetan government minister during the early 20th century and a controversial and divisive figure in modern Tibetan history. The contemporary political biographical work still displays many of the literary conventions, detailing of religious practice and self-effacing tone that mark Tshe ring dbang rgyal’s work.

Works Cited

Tshe ring dbang rgyal. Bkaʼ Blon Rtogs Brjod. Chengdu: Si khron Mi Rigs Dpe Skrun
Khang, 1981. Print.