August 20, 2013
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives are currently mining the primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized for easy searching and browsing. Every Tuesday on the blog, we will highlight and reflect on important, interesting, eccentric, surprising and beautiful stories found within this rich literary tradition. This biography summarizes the life of Jangchub Tsondru on the Treasury of Lives by Françoise Pommaret.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, which has enjoyed independence for well over a century, has a long tradition of political and religious interaction with Tibet. Lamas regularly traversed the high passes between the two countries, teaching and often advising government leaders. One young man by the name of Jangchub Tsondru (1817–1856) attained renown on both sides of the border in the first half of the 19th century. Despite his early death, the lama developed a close relationship with the father of the first modern king of Bhutan, Jigme Namgyel (1825–1881). His fame was such that he was also called on to give a long-life blessing to the 11th Dalai Lama, Kedrub Gyatso (1838–1855).
Jangchub Tsondru was born near Gyantse in central Tibet to parents of illustrious Nyingma heritage. In 1823 he entered the small but important Geluk monastery of Wensa, home of the Wensa Nyengyu tradition of Chod, where he received novice ordination. In addition to those teachings and more mainstream Geluk instruction, he received Dzogchen teachings in the treasure tradition of Sanggye Lingpa (1340–1396).
In Bhutan he became a disciple of the 25th Je Khenpo, Sherab Gyeltsen (1772–1848), from whom he received Drukpa Kagyu teachings in the tradition of the great Pema Karpo (1527–1592). Returning to Tibet, he ran into trouble by associating with a lama who was soon denounced by the regent in Lhasa; it seems this lama was openly violating the Vinaya monastic precepts and advocating that his disciples do so as well. Jangchub Tsondru left Tibet for a few years on pilgrimage, no doubt in hopes of escaping the trouble caused by his taking a consort, and made his way back to Bhutan where he gave and received teachings, establishing himself as an expert in the Nyingma treasure cycles of Pema Lingpa (1450–1521) and others.
Traveling back and forth across the border sometime in the late 1840s, he met the mother of the young 11th Dalai Lama Kedrub Gyatso (1838–1855), who invited him to Lhasa to perform a long-life ritual for the young boy. Returning to Bhutan, he made acquaintances with several influential Nyingma lamas as well as rulers of Trongsa, a major power in the region, including Jigme Namgyel, who was then acting as chamberlain. There he found himself in the midst of a major political upheaval in which disputes broke out between the servants of the Trongsa ruler and those of Jangchub Tsondru, forcing the latter to leave. Jangchub Tsondru maintained close relations with Jigme Namgyel, however, and gave him a prophecy that political power in Bhutan would soon shift to Trongsa and Jigme Namgyel. Not long after the ruler of Bhutan, the 37th Druk Desi, stepped down, his replacement was assassinated. Jangchub Tsondru fled the ensuing chaos, but was called back to serve Jigme Namgyel, for whom he created the now famous symbol of Bhutanese kingship, the Raven Crown.
His service to Jigme Namgyel, according to his disciple and biographer, appears to have cost him his life. Mostly unsuccessful in resisting demands for more and more ritual performances demanded by Jigme Namgyel, Jangchub Tsondru's health failed. He died at the age of 39.
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 National Museum at Paro.