“This is an accurate, readable translation of an important Tibetan autobiography, rich with details about Tibetan culture, religion, attitudes, and practices.”Janet Gyatso, Amherst College
The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yoginby Matthieu Ricard
The Life of Shabkar has long been recognized by Tibetans as one of the master works of their religious heritage. Following his inspired youth and early training in his native province of Amdo under the guidance of several extraordinary Buddhist masters, Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol devoted himself to many years of meditation in solitary retreat. With determination and… See more details below
The Life of Shabkar has long been recognized by Tibetans as one of the master works of their religious heritage. Following his inspired youth and early training in his native province of Amdo under the guidance of several extraordinary Buddhist masters, Shabkar Tsodruk Rangdrol devoted himself to many years of meditation in solitary retreat. With determination and courage, he mastered the highest and most esoteric practices of the Tibetan tradition of the Great Perfection. He then wandered far and wide over the Himalayan region expressing his realization. His autobiography vividly reflects the values and visionary imagery of Tibetan Buddhism as well as the social and cultural life of early nineteenth century Tibet.
Meet the Author
Shabkar (17811851) was a renowned practitioner and teacher both of the Mind-Training and the Dzogchen traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a free spirit who chose to live as a hermit or wandering pilgrim without home or possessions, far from the organized life of religious establishments. He left behind many volumes of teachings, including a celebrated autobiography. He is famous for his concern for animals.
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Read an Excerpt
First, I will describe the place and circumstances of my birth,
which were the result of my past good karma and pure aspirations
Within the realm tamed by the peerless Buddha Shakyamuni, north of the Diamond Throne of India, the center of the southern continent of Jambudvipa, lies the Golden Valley of Rekong where Jetsun Kalden Gyatso, "Fortunate Ocean," an emanation of the sublime Avalokiteshvara, benefited countless beings. To the west lie the Pure Realms of U and Tsang where the Buddhas Amitabha and Padmapani emanated as the saffron-clad Victorious OnesFather and Son. To the north, in Domey, stands the mountain Tsongkha Kyeri, the birthplace of the Second Buddha, the great Tsongkhapa, who reigns supreme over the three worlds.
There are many villages of the Golden Valley of Rekong, and the inhabitants are intelligent, courageous, and skilled in the sciences of religious art, medicine, and astrology. All take delight in practicing the Dharma [13a].
Nearby are Rekong's Eight Places of the Accomplished Ones and many hallowed spots where Lord Kalden Gyatso once practiced. The most eminent of these sacred places is Shohong Lakha, the actual palace of Chakrasamvara, located near the temple of Chuchik Shel. Both farmers and nomads live in this land of cliffs, forests, and flower-filled meadows. Here, by following the practice of Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini, the great tantric practitioner known as Kawa Dorje Chang Wang, who had come from Eastern Kathok, attained the vajrarainbow body in a single lifetime.
In this region, ten villages of various sizes lie scattered in all directions. Among these is Nyengya, a village at the foot of the local god Jadrön's mountain abode. This is my homeland, the place of my birth.
My ancestral line is Cho. Its history and genealogy follow. Close to the banks of the Machu River is the mountain range abode of Machen Pomra, the Lord of the Tenth Bhumi, who first conceived the thought of enlightenment in the presence of the omniscient guide, Buddha Shakyamuni. Machen Pomra is the patron deity of the whole region; among the spirits of his retinue is the powerful Trika, a spirit as real as any person.
In this area which carries the name of Trika, there were many large tribes, which abided by the laws of the kingdom and were favorably inclined toward the Dharma. One clan called Megya began a feud with the rich and powerful Namkhai Gyalpo and his household, and forced them to leave the province. They settled at Nyengya and, because they worshiped the local deities, their property and wealth flourished still further [13b]. Namkhai Gyalpo, "King of the Sky," had three sons whom he named "Lion": Nyima Senge ("Sun Lion"), Dawa Senge ("Moon Lion"), and Changchup Senge ("Lion of Enlightenment"). Each of these sons had many male descendants, multiplying the family tree so that eventually there were established three paternal bloodlines called Ngakor, Damtsang, and Gongpa. I am from the family branch called Damtsang, descended from Changchup Senge.
My ancestor, Changchup Senge, had a son, a grandson, and a great-grandson. In the fourth generation, a handsome boy was born. Gifted with a pleasant voice and a good heart, he was named Apo Yag, "Good Fellow." As a young boy, while herding cattle at a place known as Gyang Yaktser, he found a large vase filled with gold and other precious things. Even after three generations had passed, his descendants were still showing the vase to their sons, saying, "Should our descendants ever be faced with hard times, all they need do is help themselves to some of this gold."
This ancestor of mine fathered a son named Tashi Gyal, "Victorious Goodness," who was expert in both religious and secular affairs. Tashi Gyal had a son called Tsewang, "Lord of Life," a man of great merit who lived to a ripe old age. Tsewang's son, Ngawang, "Lord of Speech," was an honest and guileless man skilled in song and storytelling. This Ngawang was my mother's father. He had five daughters followed by one son whom he named Kyabgo, who was inclined toward the Dharma. My mother was third of the five daughters [14a].
Before my mother was born, my grandparents had sponsored a reading of the Tashi Tsekpa, a sutra of the Victorious One, in hopes that a boy might be born. Not a boy, but a girl was born, my mother. They named her Tashi Tsek, "Heap of Goodness," and later she was affectionately nicknamed Tsekgo.
|Taking birth neither in a rich family |
Nor in a poor one
But in a family of moderate wealth,
May I thus be able to renounce my home.
In accordance with this prayer made by Shariputra, my mother's family was neither rich nor poor, but of average means. My grandparents had only one son, their youngest child. Among their many daughters, my mother proved to be the most capable, and so enjoyed greater consideration than did the others. She was intelligent, and became adept at managing the household and taking care of the family and servants. Her parents decided to keep my mother at home to care for their only son while her sisters were given away in marriage [14b].
As my mother grew older, she met many lamas and spiritual masters of the area and listened to teachings on the karmic law of cause and effect and other subjects. Inspired by their instructions, she took delight in the Dharma and refrained from misdeeds. On each full moon, new moon, and on the eighth day of each month, she observed the eightfold precepts of lay ordination. Reciting praises to Tara daily, she did prostrations. Eventually she completed a hundred thousand such praises as well as a million prostrations. In short, my mother was both skilled in the activities of daily life and eager to practice virtue.
My father's identity was never openly revealed, but almost everyone agreed that it was Tsodu Khen Rinpoche, also known as Ngakchang Dorje Namgyal, the "All-Victorious Adamantine Yogin," an emanation of the Bodhisattva Khyeu Chubeb, "The Youth who Brings Water." Born in a noble family, he had attained perfection in the five sciences. A great lord among siddhas, he could make rain fall when needed.
Before my conception, my mother dreamed that the village chief, Uncle Ngaktruk, brought her a statue. Handing it to her, he said, "Keep this image in your home for a while. But you won't keep it forever, for someday it is destined to be placed upon everyone's head." She also dreamed of finding a white lotus flower with which she adorned her hair, and a white conch that she blew. Later, she dreamed that a resplendent image of Avalokiteshvara, about an inch in size, entered the crown of her head and dissolved into her. It was then that I entered my mother's womb, filling her mind and body with boundless bliss.
Causing my mother little pain, I was born in the year called Pharwa, the Female Iron Ox. Just after birth, I opened my eyes and thereafter grew faster than most other infants. Without crying, I would lie on my bed with a joyful expression that endeared me to everyone [15a].
At this time, a relative named Kyablo calculated my astrological chart. He said, "The placement of the stars at his birth is good. Because this boy was born on the day known as the `One Man Who Makes a Hundred Take Flight,' if he leads a worldly life, he will become a hero who can defeat a hundred men. However, should he practice the Dharma, he will become a siddha who can defeat the eighty-four thousand obscuring emotions." On hearing this, our village chief, Ngaktruk, made offerings to the divinities associated with my birth and freed animals that were about to be slaughtered. I was given the name Ngawang Tashi, "Auspicious Lord of Speech."
The year I was born, the entire country enjoyed good fortune and an abundant harvest. When a feast was held to celebrate my birth, the wise elders who had gathered for the occasion said, "Calling the boy `Auspicious Lord of Speech' was an excellent choice. He truly deserves his name." The local people rejoiced and gave me other names, "Auspicious Long Life" and "Auspicious Prosperity."
From early childhood, I never told lies or spoke harshly, and I avoided any kind of cruel games or mischief. I preferred to recite prayers, sing the mantra Om mani padme hum, and beat a drum or play other temple instruments. In this way, I found entertainment through activities inspired by the Dharma. Naturally honest and good-hearted, I was kind to my playmates. When I ate even a handful of tsampa, I divided it up and shared it with others.
At night, lying on my mother's lap and looking into the darkness, I sometimes saw many rainbow lights, circles, and the images of deities like the paintings in temples. I told my mother about this, saying, "Mother, when I look into the air, I see many different-colored things" [15b]. She answered, "Don't tell fibshow can anyone see such things in complete darkness? Just quiet down." A few days later, I saw the same things again and told her about them. She asked, "You're not making it up, are you?" I replied, "Really, I'm not lying." Mother told Ngaktruk, the village chief, about this. "It could be true," said he. "You must keep this child clean and guard him from defilements. If he is the incarnation of a good practitioner and practices the Dharma, he will benefit both himself and others." Years later, when I was practicing Thögal in mountain retreats and many similar things manifested, I wondered if what I had seen as a child was a reawakening of previous tendencies.
Once, when I was six or seven years old, after the spring fields had been sown and the days were growing longer, our village chief sat down in a warm, sunny spot with a copy of the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish. A crowd gathered around him while he gave teachings on the karmic law of cause and effect. I had come to listen, too. He said:
"Listen! In future times, beyond this lifetime, it will be difficult to find a precious human birth, free and well-favored. We must therefore try hard to practice Dharma, now that we have this precious body. The time of our death is uncertain. Who knows? We might even die tonight.
"After death, we will enter the presence of Yamaraj, Lord of Death, who will weigh our good and evil deeds. Those who have done wrong will be sent to suffer the pains of hell, while those who have acted with virtue will enjoy the happiness of the higher realms. Is it not therefore foolish to do wrong? [16a].
"Of all misdeeds, taking the life of a sentient being is the most heinous, and cannot fail to lead you to the hell realm. Avoid this at all costs!
"Do what is good. Serve the Sangha respectfully, make offerings, be generous. Prostrations, circumambulations, reciting mantras, and keeping a good heart lead to rebirth in the Blissful Realm. Work hard at them! The reasons are explained in the Sutra of the Wise and the Foolish, which I shall now read."
While reading it, Ngaktruk would pause from time to time to explain the meaning. In this way, he benefited the minds of those who had gathered there. I, too, gained some understanding, and resolved that, from then on, I would refrain from any wrongdoing and practice only virtue.
As I grew older, I never forgot this vow and even avoided crushing the tiniest of earthworms. I didn't allow others to kill the horseflies that had settled on meat and gave them my own blood to drink. Whenever my mother did prostrations, I prostrated myself, too. I offered incense and flowers at our altar, and recited whatever mantras and prayers I knew, like the mani and the Miktsema Prayer.
* * *
One autumn, the harvest was excellent. Both rich and poor families said this was something to celebrate, and thus many scores of sheep were slaughtered. This grim spectacle horrified me and filled me with compassion. I couldn't bear to remain at the slaughtering-place and had to go and wait elsewhere. When the killing was over, I returned, and I saw the sprawled carcasses of the sheep being carved into pieces. I thought, "These people are doing evil, even though they know they will experience the results in their next life. When I grow up, I will turn away from evil actions and only practice Dharma." I reaffirmed this promise again and again [16b].
At this time, my old grandfather, Ngawang, was teaching the alphabet to my cousin Nam Lhajam. I used to sit behind them and, just by looking on, I learned the letters with little difficulty. When, after a long time, Nam Lhajam hadn't learned, Grandfather scolded him, saying, "though I am teaching you, you still haven't learned. Your little cousin has learned without being taught. What is to be done with you?" To me he said, "You are quite bright," and treated me very kindly. In the same way, I learned to read by looking on while other children were being taught, thus, without formal training, I mastered both printed and cursive scripts.
Then my old grandfather and a nun living with us died. Following this, my mother's young brother, Kyabgo, died suddenly at the age of twenty-one. The strain of these and other difficulties caused my mother to age prematurely.
By the age of nine or ten, I had learned the liturgy used by the community of ngakpas living in Shohong Lhaka, as well as printed and cursive script calligraphy. Thus, for a child my age, I had mastered reading and writing quite well.
When I turned eleven, I joined that community of ngakpas, a community known for their pure samaya and unshakable faith in the Secret Mantra tradition of the Early Translation school. I became good at chanting the rituals, thus pleasing most of the older ngakpas who commented, "This young ngakpa really sings well!" They called me Tashi Tsering, "Auspicious Long Life" [17a].
One day, a relative of ours, an old spinster by the name of Ayi Lumo Pal, was sitting alone in a warm, sunny spot near her door. I went over to her and said, "Don't feel sad. When I grow up, I will help you in any way I can." I went home, took some butter from our kitchenwithout my mother knowing itand gave it to the old woman. As I grew older, from time to time I helped Ayi Lumo Pal. This made her very happy; she would call me whenever she saw me and often share with me whatever nice food she had. Even now, I remember how she treated me with the affection she would have shown to her own child.
* * *
One day, the root guru and crown jewel of the Sangha and of everyone in our district, Gedun Tashi Gyatso Chumar Rinpoche arrived. To many monks and lay people he gave the refuge vows and the oral transmission for the Confession of Misdeeds, the Hundred Deities of Tushita, the Miktsema Prayer, and the mani. He gave general teachings on the difficulty of obtaining a precious, free, and well-favored human birth, on death and impermanence, on the karmic law of cause and effect, and on the defects of samsara in as much detail as necessary, benefiting everyone. At this time he advised:
"Parents, if you have several children, don't let them all become householders. How excellent if some of them became ordained and practiced the Dharma! [17b]. Our teacher, the Buddha Shakyamuni, was saddened at the sight of the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, but was pleased at the sight of a monk. Forsaking his kingdom, he renounced the world in front of the Stupa of Great Purity.
"Then, after practicing austerities on the banks of the Nairanjara River, he attained complete enlightenment, seated under the Bodhitree at Vajrasana, the Diamond Throne of India. In the light of his example, consider the good fortune of practicing Dharma in this way."
After hearing this, I returned home. We had seven thangkas that illustrated the twelve great deeds of the Buddha's life. Considering them deeply, I thought, "This is what was meant." My heart was filled with the aspiration to become like the Buddha.
This precious master instituted chanting of the mani in our area. Turning everyone's mind toward the Dharma, this venerable lama showed great kindness to the people there. From this time on, without fail, I observed the eightfold precepts on each eighth lunar day as well as on the days of the full and new moons.
When I grew older, I painted frescoes depicting stories from A Drop of Nourishment for the People on either side of the lama's door; they pleased him greatly. Even now, I can remember the spiritual conversations we had in those days. When he was about to die, he left his final testament:
Unfailing refuge for whoever relies on you,
Source of all excellence in this and future
Treasury of all accomplishment, gracious
Teachers whom I have met and those of
Sustain me until enlightenment.
You beings, who have continuously
wandered in samsara
Like a river flowing on and on,
Consider the sufferings of old age, sickness,
and death [18a].
Give up the ten evil actions and try to
practice the ten virtuous deeds.
Always keep in mind that you are walking
into the maw of the Lord of Death.
Don't let your mind be too involved with
Turn it inwardbetter to ascertain
The true nature of mind within.
Though you may be unable to experience
That is naked, brilliant emptiness,
If you don't have some certainty about the
Guiding others is like the blind leading the
When the time comes to enter the mouth
of the Lord of Death,
If you lack the small but crucial shield of
this oral instruction,
Other instructions, like dull instruments,
Won't be much help at that crucial
Don't miss the main point!
Visualize the Great Compassionate One
above your head.
With your voice, recite the six-syllable
With your mind, generate compassion for
all suffering beings,
So that this and future lives may be filled
with virtue and excellence.
Devoted people of future generations,
Keep this in mind.
Had you met me in person,
I would have nothing to say beyond this.
May all faithful men and women
Who have some connection with me
Take rebirth in the paradise Arrayed in
May this region be endowed
With auspiciousness and abundant
And its people enjoy fulfillment and
There was great meaning in his words.
Some time later, when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I went to Orgyen Trinley Namgyal, "All-Victorious Activity of Orgyen," a lama living at lower Tashikhyil who was skilled in the practices of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and subjugating according to the Nyingmapa school of the Secret Mantra. I received teachings from him on the ritual liturgies of the Eight Commands, Union of the Sugatas, the Most Secret and Unsurpassable Dagger, the Lord of the Dead Who Destroys Arrogant Spirits, Hayagriva, and others [18b]. He also taught me how to make tormas and draw chakras for protection and for averting evil according to these traditions. Since I learned these without difficulty, he was pleased with me.
When I asked him for some oral transmissions for my daily practice, he said, "If you want the Dharma, I will give it to you, but first you must be able to withstand some hardships." I replied, "I can," and, from then on, I fetched water up to thirteen times each day to make mud for the walls of his retreat hut. I beat the mud, and he applied it to the hut. After many days of carrying water, my back ached. "My back is sore now," I told him. But he replied: "Haven't you heard how, in the past, the great Jetsun Milarepa carried enormous quantifies of earth and stonesmuch more than you've doneand three terrible sores broke out on his back?" "That's true," I thought, and after I had brought water for fifteen more days, he was pleased and gave me all the transmissions I wanted. These included the daily practices of the White Path of Liberation, the Guru Yoga of Ondyen Rinpoche, the meditation and recitation practice of Peaceful Manjushri, the smoke-offering Spiral of Auspiciousness, and the general torma offering to the samaya-holding prorectors.
"Now, avoid a worldly life, lead a life of pure Dharma practice and you will succeed," he said. I asked, "What is the best way to practice the Dharma?" He replied, "If you genuinely wish to practice, look at the life of Jetsun Milarepa. The best way of all would be to follow his example."
When I was fourteen I met Jampel Dorje Rinpoche, "Adamantine Gende Glory," the great lord of siddhas who had attained full realization in the development and completion stages, and in the Great Perfection of the Diamond Vehicle of the Secret Mantra . When the ngakpas of Shohong received the empowerment of Vajrasattva and seven days of teachings on the oral instructions of the Dzogchen Ati Zabdon, the Profound Unsurpassable Meaning of the Great Perfection, I, too, sat in the gathering and listened.
When he explained the more general teachings, renunciation and weariness with samsara grew in everyone's minds. When he reached the main part of the teachings, he had us look for the nature of mind. He called each ngakpa up before him, and questioned him. At one point, I, too, was called on. He asked, "What is mind like?" I said, "I could find nothing at all." He replied, "You're still very young. If you weren't able to find it, that's fine."
Then, when all the ngakpas had gathered and he gave the "pointing-out" instruction, I recognized that the nature of mind is like the sky: empty, luminous, and beyond duality. The master and most of the elderly ngakpas said to each other, "This is surely someone with good karmic potential from his former lives."
After that, every year when the community of ngakpas and the practioners who perform the offerings of the tenth day received teachings, I also went to listen. Thus I received the empowerment of Vajra Kilaya and the permission-blessing for the practice of Khecari, the Sky Dweller, as well as the transmission for the Supplication to Guru Rinpoche in Seven Chapters, the Prayer for the Spontaneous Fulfillment of Aspirations, the Sadhana of the Lineage of Awareness-Holders, the Praises to Tara the Savioress, the Sutra of the Heart of Wisdom, the dharanis of the White Umbrella and of the Lion-faced Dakini, the Long-Life Dharani, and others. From then on, my character became more gentle. I had meditation experiences of bliss, clarity, and nonthought, and was able to get on well with whomever I met [19b].
* * *
At the age of fifteen, I thought, "I should pray to the precious Master [Padmasambhava], the source of blessings. I recited one million Vajra Guru mantras, based on the ritual of the Lineage of Awareness-Holders. I dreamed of flying in the sky, seeing the sun and moon, walking uphill, finding jewel-treasures, and so forth. From then on, by the grace of Orgyen Rinpoche, I became filled with intense devotion toward the guru, affection toward my Dharma friends, compassion for sentient beings, and pure perception toward the teachings. I had the good fortune to accomplish without obstacles whatever Dharma practice I undertook.
After that, at the age of sixteen, I thought I should do some practice on a meditation-deity of knowledge. So, I stayed in retreat for a year, reciting the mantra of the peaceful Manjushri according to the spiritual treasure of Minling Terchen. My mother helped me during the retreat. Having recited the Arapatsa mantra ten million times, I dreamed of finding books written in gold and silver; I dreamed of wheels, swords, the vajra and bell, and so forth. From then on, by the grace of the noble Manjushri, my intelligence increased, and I acquired a general understanding of most of the vast and profound teachings.
At seventeen, I learned religious painting from Tenpa Dargye, "One who Spreads the Dharma," a religious artist from Ling Gya, and became able to make good drawings. I drew many of the chakras and lingas that are in general use among the holders of the mantra teachings for protection and for averting evils. I also made many icons and amulets that liberate the wearer, and gave them away to Dharma friends and faithful people. I copied many books for myself and others [20a], and I became so skilled at writing that, on a single spring day, I wrote a hundred folios. People were amazed.
Around this time, I met Jamyang Gyatso Rinpoche, "Ocean of Gentle Melody," a lord among accomplished beings, who was thoroughly versed in the teachings of both the Old and the New Traditions, Nyingma and Sarma. He had been invited to Tashikhyil by the venerable Gyal Khenchen, the "Great Victorious Abbot." With the congregation of ngakpas I received the empowerment of Taktsang Phurba; I received the oral instructions on the Great Perfection teachings of the Heart Essence of Samantabhadra three times.
Moreover, when many monks and ngakpas requested further teachings from him, I received them as well. These included the empowerment of the Hundred Supreme Peaceful and Wrathful Families and of the All-Embodying One, as well as the oral transmissions and instructions on the Offering to the Gurus, the Condensed Meaning of the Graded Path, the Seven Points of Mind Training, the Supreme Medicinal Nectar of the Garland of Questions and Answers, the Liberation Through Hearing, the pointing-out instruction Awareness Seen in its Nabedness, Cutting off Errors and Deviations; the Oral Teaching of the Omniscient One called the Drop of Amrita and also the instructions on tummo, inner incandescence, based on the Sole Ornament of the Five Families of Vajrasattva.
I completed the required number of recitations in the preliminary practices of the Great Perfection, and through their blessing acquired some understanding of the meaning of the teachings of the Victorious Ones.
One day, at eighteen, I thought, "Food and wealth have no real essence; I must practice the Dharma." Just then, a goldsmith came by with a golden image depicting Orgyen Rinpoche seated upon a lotus flower on a lake and accompanied by the divine lady Mandarava and the princess Yeshe Tsogyal. Although I owned only two dzomos, I offered him these along with some silver coins as payment; it pleased him [20b]. For the consecration, I invited my kind root master, Jetsun Jamyang Gyatso Rinpoche. Together with many ngakpas, he threw the flowers of consecration. I held a great feast, and the local people rejoiced. Afterward, Kashul Nyengyal and others called upon the goldsmith, who as a result received commissions for many more gilded statues.
While my kind root master, Jamyang Gyatso, was staying at Tashikhyil, I went to visit him many times and offered him whatever I possessed. Because I did exactly as he asked, he treated me with great affection.
A Commentary on the Bhikshuni Pratimoksha
By Bhikshuni Wu Yin
Translated by Bhikshuni Jendy Shih
Edited by Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron
Snow Lion Publications
Copyright © 2001 Venerable Bhikshuni Wu Yin. All rights reserved.
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