October 15, 2013
The end of an incarnation line
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives mine primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized on their website. The following summarizes the biography of Garwang Dorje and Chowang Dorje Dzinpa, originally told by Michael Burroughs.
Tibet is famous for it's incarnation lines—lineages of men (and, sometimes, women) identified at birth as intentional reincarnations of past masters. The theory is straight-up Buddhist—all beings die and will be reborn until the end of samsara, and enlightened beings can choose to return to physical bodies for the benefit of beings—but the practice is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lamas and the Karmapas are only two of thousands of lines. Often the incarnation lines are very successful, with teaching traditions and vast monastic resources passed down along institutionalized reincarnation chains. But there are just as many instances when the reincarnations don’t work out so well. One example is the reincarnation of the great treasure revealer Ngari Terton Garwang Dorje (1640–1685), a highly influential master of the Jangter, or "Northern Treasure," tradition. After his death, disciples identified a boy who failed to distinguish himself, and the reincarnation line ended there.
From childhood, Garwang Dorje, born in Ngari, western Tibet, expressed an inclination toward religious practice. He went into retreat in southwestern Tibet, to pursue a form of Avalokiteshvara practice from the treasure revelations of Dudul Dorje (1615–1672). While sitting below a boulder in the shape of a tortoise, he is said to have had a vision of three naked women who sang and danced for him, eliciting such exhilaration that he flew to a rock shaped like a coiled black snake. Storied to be the guardians of treasure that he was destined to reveal, the three women are said to have accompanied him on subsequent treasure revelations.
His first revelation was The Mirror of the Enlightened Mind of Vajrasattva, a teaching on the six yogas using the language of Dzogchen. Another well-known treasure is The Great Compassionate One, the Heart Essence of the Three Roots, presented as a special practice for women offered by Padmasambhava at the request of his close female disciples.
Garwang Dorje forged relationships with other prominent treasure revealers such as Nyima Drakpa (1647–1710). He also came to the attention of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobzang Gyatso (1618–1682). The Dalai Lama asked the Nyingma hierarch and founder of Mindroling Monastery, Terdak Lingpa (1646–1714), to evaluate his treasures, and later issued a proclamation attesting to their authenticity.
Garwang Dorje's treasures were incorporated into the Jangter tradition. He was later considered an incarnation of the tradition's founder, the 1st Dorje Drak Rigdzin, Rigdzin Godemchen Ngodrub Gyeltsen (1337–1409).
Several years after Garwang Dorje passed away in 1685, his disciples identified his reincarnation in the person of Chowang Dorje Dzinpa, the son of one of Garwang Dorje's disciples. The boy, named Chowang Dorje Dzinpa, was educated first at Mindroling Monastery and then the monastery established by his father, possibly named Yangcho Sangcho Pema Lhunding. Dorje Dzinpa arranged the teachings of Garwang Dorje in liturgies for which he wrote several commentaries. He also composed commentaries on teachings revealed in visions of the Indian saint Jabhir on the practice of Chulen.
Other than this, we know nothing about Chowang Dorje Dzinpa. No further incarnations of Garwang Dorje seem to have been identified. The historical records do not agree on the name or location of the monastery, fabled to disappear during times of war, that would have served as the seat of his teachings. Like Garwang Dorje, it has yet to reappear.
Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.
Image courtesy of Himalayan Art Resources.