King of the Empty Plain provides a translations of a biography of Tangtong Gyalpo (thang stong rgyal po), who lived from approximately 1361 to 1485 and was famed for his longevity, bridge-building, unconventional lifestyle reflecting a form of divine madness, and eclectic and influential religious teachings anchored in the Nyingma and Northern Treasure traditions. He is widely celebrated in Tibetan history for enriching Tibetan culture through these contributions and in addition to being the greatest engineer in Tibetan history, he was able to physically alter Tibet’s spiritual topography on a scale that remains unparalleled.


Cyrus Stearns’s King of the Empty Plain is a grand hagiography covering the life of the singularly influential Tangtong Gyalpo (thang stong rgyal po, 1361? -1485), whose contributions to Tibetan culture endure in physical structures he constructed that have survived to the present and in his diverse contributions to religious tradition. Tangtong was born at Ölpa Lhartse in upper Tsang circa 1361 as a mind emanation of Padmasambhava and reincarnation of Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, though his extensive would take him throughout Tibet and into India, Bhutan, and Nepal. In King of the Empty Plain, Stearns describes and analyzes the most remarkable and controversial features of Thangtong’s life, which are treated here in turn.


All of Tangtong’s biographies maintain that he lived an exceptionally long life, and many claim that he lived for 125 years. These reports have long been controversial and Stearns devotes a chapter titled “A Tibetan Methuselah” to evaluating the evidence for and against those claims. The issue was made significantly more challenging because Tangtong was often evasive when asked how old he was, saying, for example, “I can be old and I can be young. I haven’t counted the years since I was born to my mother. To display emanations that are old, young, or in the prime of life, it doesn’t matter how many years have passed.” After reviewing all of the Tibetan sources, Stearns concludes that “The tradition of his longevity should not be dismissed by using the argument that such a long life was attributed to him simply to instill confidence in practitioners of his longevity techniques… It is more probable that his teachings were treasured and passed down through the centuries in Tibet precisely because of his longevity.”

Religious Practices and the Glorious Giver of Immorality

Stearns also provides exhaustive analysis of the religious practices of Tangtong and his successors. Tangtong was said to have mastered the practices of all the religious systems in Tibet, and his teachings reflect this eclectic approach. His own blend of the traditions he inherited became known as the Chaksam, or “Iron-Bridge Tradition” (lcags zam lugs), which was centered at his main monasteries of Chuwori in Central, Riwoche in Tsang, and an independent school in Bhutan where it reached a level of influence comparable to the other major religious orders. While Tangtong’s efforts to ensure that his hereditary descendants would transmit his system of Dharma to new generations was unsuccessful and the reasons for that outcome are unclear, the teachings of the Iron-Bridge Tradition persist as currents found in virtually all of the major Buddhist schools in Tibet.

Tangtong was extremely involved with Nyingma teachings and particularly influenced by the Northern Treasure tradition within the school. Two of his four masters conveyed all of the Nyingma teachings that had been passed down in sequential lineage to Tangtong and placed particular emphasis on the visionary Northern Treasure teachings. His involvement in both traditions was central to his religious identity and legacy. Tangtong was eventually recognized as an emanation of Padmasambhava, a founder of the Nyingma tradition who used the practice of the Iron Tree (Lcags kyi sdong po), a section of Gokyi Demtruchen’s hidden treasure teachings. The Iron Tree ultimately became central to Tangtong’s famous longevity – before he requested the Northern Treasures, it was prophesized that he would use the Iron Tree to extend his lifespan.

Tangtong ultimately created the Glorious Giver of Immortality (‘Chi med dpal ster), a series of famous life-sustaining techniques thought to be based on both pure visionary revelation and hidden treasure teaching. Though the Northern Treasure tradition claims that Tangtong’s longevity was based on his meditation on the life-sustaining practices of its system, there do not seem to be direct links between the two sets of techniques. These teachings have survived into the 21st century primarily due to Tangtong’s special link with Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, who received and transmitted them in the 19th century. Khyentse Wangpo was regarded as an incarnation of Tangtong and the link was so close that some who met him believed that he appeared to actually be Tangtong.

Building Symbols of Liberation

As indicated in the work’s title, Tangtong was renowned as a bridge-builder and had a distinguished career as a engineer, metallurgist, and architect. He built his first iron suspension bridge over the Kyichu River near Llasa in 1430, which established his reputation, earned him the epithet “Iron-Bridge Man” (lcags zam pa), and touched off an impressive career in construction. The biography says that he built 58 iron bridges, 60 wooden bridges, 120 temples, 11 stupas, and thousands of religious statues. In addition to their practical utility, Tibetans also invested these structures with religious meaning. They were intended to prevent natural disasters, protect against disease, and avert Mongol invasion and were also said to subdue demonic influences and bring Buddhism into barbarian regions.

Stearns also provides a compelling account Tangtong’s motivations for taking on this novel preoccupation. The use of bridges as symbols for liberation is an old feature of Buddhist literature and Tangtong repeatedly insisted that his construction activities were motivated by his concern for the welfare of others. This altruism first found expression in connection with bridges during a meditation retreat in India; he had a vision in which he lowered long ladders into four puts and rescued many living beings trapped within them. His Indian master interpreted the vision by suggesting that the four pits represented the lower forms of existence in samsara and that Tangtong’s efforts to elevate those trapped within to higher forms of existence indicated that he would construct unprecedented iron bridges over (metaphoric) turbulent rivers. The bridges came to represent the liberation of sentient beings, a point that Tangtong emphasized by referring to them as “iron-bridge pathways to enlightenment” (byang chub kyi rgyu lam lcags zam).

His consort explained that “As symbols of the liberation of all living beings from the ocean of existence, you cast a net of iron over the great rivers.” These bridges had lasting temporal power and many are still in use today. Chemical analysis of the chain link in one of his Bhutanese bridges indicated that it had an unusually high content of arsenic, which kept the chains from corroding for over 550 years. Because there were few, if any, iron bridges before Tangtong’s time and because he gained such renown as a bridge-builder, most iron bridges that have survived are customarily attributed to him, though several were certainly built after his time.

A “Mad Yogin” Embodying Divine Madness

In addition to these famed dimensions of his life, Tangtong was also known as one of the great “mad yogins” of Tibetan history and was known for a style of unconventional behavior sometimes referred to as divine madness or crazy wisdom. In the context of Tibetan tantric literature, the testing and enhancement of the realization of advanced practitioners was achieved though conduct known as deliberate behavior, which holds a wide variety of meanings that Stearns does not exhaustively explore but which included the use of feigned madness. In short, the eccentric acts of mad yogins serve to enhance the practitioners’ realization of equal taste, the view that all phenomena are of equal value (“taste the same”) because of their basic lack of self-nature. A lifestyle that disrupts conventions is also thought to disrupt the habitual functions of dualistic consciousness, illuminates the fragility of ordinary distinctions and value judgements, and helps to develop equanimity toward the eight wordly concerns.

Tangtong and his contemporaries lived these principles in dramatic fashion. Representative acts included jumping on a king’s head, beating him, and then urinating on this head and riding horses through the main halls of a monastery (a repeated habit of Tangtong’s). In some cases, he was even mistaken for a demon and there reaction to this kind of behavior was predictably critical. But in the view of the mad yogins, it was ordinary people whose lives were deficient – they were in a sense sleepwalking or mad in their quest for ephemeral worldly pleasures. And Tangtong often arranged for his deliberate behavior to advance the common good; on one occasion, he and his disciples robbed a women of barley, was beaten and bound in retaliation, and induced the local chieftain to repay the women and for his disciples to give the stolen barley to common people to alleviate a famine. Tangtong lived in a social environment that was ultimately willing to accept the behavior of the mad yogins provided that they were convincing practitioners of tantric practice. Stearns believes that his overall legacy was much the same by invoking Emily Dickinson: “Much Madness is divinest Sense–To a discerning Eye.”