September 24, 2013
The legend of the Lamdre transmission
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.
When it comes to key figures in lineage transmissions, biographers often have to grapple with inconvenient and conflicting data. These issues remain contentious because lineage holders are vital links in the chains that connects today's teachers to the Buddha. Take, for example, Zhangton Chobar (1053–1135), and the legend surrounding his transmission of the Lamdre teachings.
Zhangton Chobar was the tenth master to hold the Lamdre teachings, brought to Tibet by Drokmi Lotsawa (c.992–c.1072). Born in Dingri, Chobar was the elder of two brothers, both of whom became Lamdre masters. The brothers, hired as workers by Drokmi’s disciple Seton Kunrik (1025–1113), refused remuneration in favor of Lamdre instruction, which they eventually received after offering considerable gifts. At the time, Chobar was already a practitioner of Dzogchen, a practice commonly associated with the Nyingma sect but fairly obscure among the Sakya, to which Chobar belonged. Sources in the Lamdre tradition vary regarding whether Chobar put aside his Dzogchen practice at the time he began engaging in Lamdre. Some suggest he maintained his Dzogchen practice only as a front for hiding the more secretive practice of Lamdre; other sources hold that he maintained both, practicing Dzogchen in the day and Lamdre at night.
That a Lamdre lineage holder maintained a Dzogchen practice, and was a layman to boot (with a consort), reflects the Sakya lineage’s ambiguous relationship with the Nyingma tradition. While Sakya continues to uphold the Vajrakilaya teachings, it rejects other Nyingma scriptures as corrupt or apocryphal.
Some time later Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158), the first member of the ancestral Khon family (closely connected with the origins of the Sakya lineage), also requested Lamdre instruction from Seton, only to be rejected. He then sought out Seton’s student, Chobar, who denied knowing anything of Lamdre, claiming to be a practitioner of Dzogchen only. Misled by the elder lama’s simple appearance, Sachen believed him. But Chobar, upon learning that Sachen was a member of the Khon family and the son of his own lama's master, admitted to Sachen that he did indeed possess the teachings. Having never taught Lamdre before, Chobar sent Sachen away for several months so he could prepare teachings.
When Sachen returned, Chobar gave him empowerments and transmissions, but as he was about to start the actual teachings his tongue swelled—a result, he said, of Sachen's doubt at their initial meeting. After Sachen repaired the damage with Vajrasattva practice, Chobar began four years of teachings during which he transmitted the entire Lamdre teachings.
Emphasizing the need to practice Lamdre in secret, Chobar made Sachen vow not to mention the word “Lamdre” for 18 years, at which point he could begin to teach and write them down. Until Sachen, the tradition holds, the teachings were purely oral.
After Chobar died, his consort offered Sachen several of the master's books that appeared to be Lamdre texts. The Lamdre tradition has thus had to grapple with conflicting accounts of the nature of its transmission. In some cases we have Chobar asserting that the Lamdre teachings were not written, and at the same time there is evidence that Sachen read books in Chobar's possession, which he references in some of his own writings. It appears that Sachen knew about the Lamdre texts and read them, but nonetheless obeyed his master's command to not even admit to having knowledge of the teachings.
Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.