The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga’ (1871–1927)
rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet
HAMBURG BUDDHIST STUDIES 11
2019; 435 pages
The rDzogs-chen master and scholar mKhan-po gZhan-dga’ is perhaps best known for being unknown. Raised in the vast plains of northern Khams, he came to inherit the scholarly tradition of rDza dPal-sprul Rin-po-che and revitalize the college belonging to rDzogs-chen monastery, in the shadow of the snowcapped Ru-dam mountain range. In the spirit of the non-sectarian movement, students from all traditions of Khams came to learn from him, some following him as he moved on to teach near the capital sDe-dge dGon-chen, to become the tutor of the Tā’i Si-tu incarnation at dPal-spungs and to establish the college at mKhyen-brtse’i-dbang-po’s estate near rDzong-gsar. In this way, this scion of nomad nobility eventually became a teacher at the most important centres of the settled communities, a rNying-ma-pa established and respected among the most exalted Sa-skya-pa scholars. gZhan-dga’s specific curriculum led to a wave of colleges being founded by his disciples in the rNying-ma, bKa’-brgyud and Sa-skya traditions, effecting a leap in higher education all over the Tibetan plateau.
The reason for gZhan-dga’s fame was at the same time the reason for his invisibility: in order to provide a curriculum for students from all Tibetan Buddhist denominations, he had written his textbooks based on the explanations of Indian Buddhist masters exclusively, without mixing them with even a hair (spu tsam yang ma bsres par) of specific Tibetan opinions, including his own.
gZhan-dga’s activity unfolded in the network of social and spiritual issues of his time, issues as diverse as the relation between Pramāṇa and Madhyamaka, the royal succession of sDe-dge and the war of 1908/09, the debates about gZhan-stong and the interpretation of cittamātra, the succession of the mKhyen-brtse estate, the role of monasticism in Khams-pa society, the enthronement of Dil-mgo mKhyen-brtse Rin-po-che, the British-backed offensive in sDe-dge near the end of WWI, the ethical and political dimensions of debate, the rDzogs-chen lineage of ’Bo-gangs-dkar Rin-po-che, rDza dPal-sprul’s Klong chen snying thig lineage(s), Sanskrit studies in Khams, the revival of Go-rams-pa studies, and, at the very peak, Klong-chen-pa’s interpretation of Madhyamaka. Readers will find musings on these issues interwoven with gZhan-dga’s biography and a catalogue of his works.