- Remembering the Lotus-Born
- Cover Page
- Title Page
- 1. Karmic Foreshadowing on the Path of Fruition
- 2. Reincarnation and the Return of the Sovereign
- 3. Treasure before Tradition
- 4. Drawing Honey from Historiography
- 5. Delivering the Lotus-Born
- Appendix: Dating the Birth, Life, and Death of Nyangrel
- List of Tibetan Title Abbreviations
- About the Author
1. Karmic Foreshadowing on the Path of Fruition
IN BUDDHIST LIFE-WRITING, as in Buddhist life, the karmic process by which actions produce corresponding results drives the narrative of human experience. This process is necessarily simplified in biography, since the full complexity of actual causality cannot be replicated or effectively condensed into a literary form. Instead, the objective is to present a clear and coherent plot or path for the reader: like a single stone dropped into a still pond, one action or event results in ripples setting off toward the shores in a clear progression of cause and effect. A classic Buddhist example is when Prince Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, having been thoroughly sheltered by the pleasures of his palace life, first encounters the so-called “four sights” of an elderly man, an invalid, a corpse, and an ascetic. In recognizing that life is defined by old age, sickness, and death, he renounces his ignorant existence to discover a path to enlightenment that would ultimately transcend it. Causality in real life is rarely so simple, however: rather than a march of perfectly distinct ripples, life is more analogous to a vast rainstorm spattering the surface of an endless ocean of awareness. It is no wonder then that only the fully omniscient buddhas are said to truly understand the intricacies of karma, the awesome complexity of cause and effect that produces “the world and its inhabitants,” every moment of experience and every atom of its content.
While Tibet had its share of enlightened authors who might claim such omniscience, for biography (or any history for that matter) to be effective as a form of literature, it cannot account for the infinitely vast array of data that represents a moment of real time; biography is necessarily selective so as to make sense of a life that is to be reconstructed and reformulated for the written page, and all the more so in the controlled, often idealized format of hagiography that might evade the complexity of worldly entanglements or omit less saintly elements of character. Analysis of this selective process sometimes betrays that the narrative product tells us more about the author than its subject, but postponing a more elaborate discussion of this until the next chapter, it is important to recognize that in Buddhist biographical writing, this simplification of causality is among the most prominent narrative devices. By 34incorporating Buddhism’s fundamental truth of karma, Buddhist biographies progress in stages from clearly rendered causes to their projected results such that a karmic foreshadowing permeates these narratives as harbingers of the enlightened activities to come.
Like much of Tibetan literature, Tibetan religious biographies take Indic literary traditions as their basis. By according with the biographical traditions of the Buddha in particular, Tibetan biographers sought to retain the same legitimacy, both soteriologically for their subject and textually for their document, while incorporating the tantric tendencies of their tradition. Thus enhanced by the multivalent potency of tantric symbolism, these infallible machinations of karmic process legitimate the protagonist as an authentic adept. Loaded with vivid imagery, the dreams and designations, signs and visions, imbue mundane events with profound significance, thereby indicating the true nature of relative phenomena while confirming the attainment of those who recognize it. Tantric hermeneutics empower the reader to extract the genuine significance of these events just as those who witnessed them, with proper interpretations revealing the implicit prophesies and ultimate meanings embedded within the narrative. In sum, karmic process manifested as tantric symbols is among the most prominent literary devices for the construction of enlightened identity in Tibetan Buddhist life-writing. It not only grounds the accomplishment of the protagonist in causality but also leads the reader along the narrative path of fruition to its ultimate end of “complete liberation” (rnam par thar pa), which is a literal translation of the Tibetan term for the biography genre.
Among the earliest and most elaborate examples of indigenous Tibetan life-writing are the two biographies of Nyangrel Nyima Öser (1124–92), who is renowned as the first of the great Buddhist treasure revealers not because he was the first Tibetan Buddhist to employ this mode of textual and relic recovery — he certainly was not — but he appears to have been more prolific and influential than those that preceded him, thus he retains this mantle of recognition. Another reason may very well be that the details of his life in the twelfth century are preserved within his two exquisitely detailed biographies, titled the Clear Mirror and the Stainless Proclamations, which are the earliest complete accounts of a Buddhist treasure revealer. The statements contained in the latter are “stainless” because Nyangrel is alleged to have provided much of the testimony himself, and both biographies feature first-person episodes that are said to be recorded verbatim from the mouth of the master to his retinue. Indeed, according to the colophons of both biographies, much of their core data was compiled by direct disciples within a generation of his death, a reasonable claim, though both texts clearly contain numerous insertions by later contributors. As shall be thoroughly analyzed in the next chapter, foremost 35among these later contaminants are the brief accounts of Nyangrel’s preincarnations that are to be distinguished from the far more elaborate and complete narratives of his life, the “primary biography” of the Clear Mirror and the Stainless Proclamations, which will serve as the fraternal twin bases of the present discussion.
Due to the inclusion of these first-person statements, it has been suggested that these are autobiographies, but this is not the case in the most literal characterization of the genre: Nyangrel did not write any part of these texts himself. The colophon of the Clear Mirror names another author, and while the Stainless Proclamations explicitly claims to record Nyangrel’s oral narration of his own life, he did not write it.62 His first-person statements often conclude with final honorific verbs that are rarely used in reference to oneself, which corroborates the compositional process of the biographies as attested in the colophons: as much as possible, direct disciples reproduced Nyangrel’s first-person testimony, and these honorific verbs denote their reverential authorship.63 As such, the Clear Mirror and the Stainless Proclamations may transcribe some first-person testimony, but they are not autobiographies.
These two biographies are the main sources for recent portraits of the master, yet in light of the many divergences between them, it appears that little of Nyangrel’s past can be confirmed. A close comparison of the two reveals that only the broad generalities and basic facts concur; the fine details that drive the narrative of his life vary between the biographies to the degree that they compete rather than complement each other. Only his most recent biographers have had access to both texts, but they selectively weave distinct episodes from each biography into a coherent narrative that renders such issues in the record invisible.64 A critical approach to the sources provides a more complete introduction to the information available on Nyangrel.36
While performing text-critical analyses of primary sources, this chapter deliberately avoids attempting to disentangle the historical from the hagiographical: it is difficult if not impossible to discern whatever may have actually occurred from fictional or symbolic embellishments. Besides, with divergent sources stemming from such similar provenance, one biography cannot be elevated above the other as more historically accurate, and we find ourselves no closer to the man himself. Corroboration between the sources seems to support a stronger claim toward historicity, but we must concede that in many respects, the historical Nyangrel is lost to time. Yet even if we take the biographies to be only suggestive of the historical person, they still provide clear insights into who Nyangrel was, his context, and his products. Accepting this, my object in this chapter is not to attempt to historically verify the available information on the early life and adolescence of Nyangrel but rather to interrogate it with an eye toward the narrative construction of his adult identity as an enlightened adept. By focusing on the literary devices used by his biographers, we will see how they promote Nyangrel’s status as a buddha incarnate and establish the karmic pretext to legitimate his later activities, which were foremost expressed through his recovery of the treasures.
Just as Nyangrel’s biographies follow a coherent narrative structure from his birth through his death, the discussion below follows the chronological progression of Nyangrel’s final lifetime. Beginning with his parents’ dreams at the time of conception, it progresses through his childhood training and concludes with the series of tantric empowerments that precipitate his adult life. Thus this chapter focuses on the episodes that function as karmic indicators of how his life will unfold. Episodes from one biography are neither conflated with nor presented in exclusion of those of the other. Redundant episodes with unique details are presented contiguously and analyzed independently.
The identities of Nyangrel’s parents are corroborated in his biographical traditions, where both their common and initiatory or secret names are provided. His father was Nyangtön Chökyi Khorlo, a lay guru with the title “the Nyang teacher” (Nyang ston) who continued the unbroken tantric transmissions of his clan. Far less is known of his mother, Jomo Yeshé Drön, though jomo often denotes a woman of royal lineage. Perhaps she also hailed from one 37of the imperial clans, received the title upon marrying into Nyang, or received it posthumously in recognition of her son’s Dharmic achievements. Any one of these is difficult to confirm given that so little of the parents’ own stories remains outside the biographies of their son. It appears that their greatest impact was in producing him.
The sexual relationship, chemistry, and potency the parents share is somewhat tempered by symbolism and euphemism but can nevertheless be exposed quite explicitly through interpreting the terms provided. While each symbol has a range of meanings and there may very well be additional, equally valid interpretations, some appear especially relevant to this context. To begin, the Clear Mirror introduces Nyangrel’s mother as “the female mudrā,” or religious consort, of his father, thus passion and sexual intercourse in their relationship as husband and wife is a religious practice, a means to enlightenment.65 This sets the basis for their invitation of a nirmāṇakāya, or tulku, the magically emanated reincarnation or embodied form of a buddha, through conception.
Their secret names detail this purpose even more. Given that tantra relies on symbolism to link mundane appearances with their exalted aspects, tantric initiatory names point out the ultimate potential and true nature of the saṃsāric individuals they designate. Only the Stainless Proclamations provides the secret name of Nyangrel’s father: Dorjé Wangchuk Tsal (Rdo rje dbang phyug rtsal), “dynamic expression of the powerful lord vajra,” where the significance of each of these terms should be considered individually.
As a ritual implement depicted in the hands of countless deities, the dorjé, or vajra in Sanskrit, is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of tantric Buddhism. It is most commonly formed by two metal sets of three, five, or nine prongs that extend out in opposite directions from an orb and converge into two tips. Its symbology textually begins with Indra’s lightning bolt, which when striking the earth in the Ṛg Veda was said to produce diamonds, or as the Tibetan literally renders it, “the lord of stones” (rdo rje). In exoteric Buddhist interpretations, the vajra functions as a scepter, where it is often paired with a bell such that this dichotomy unites the vajra, skillful means (thabs, upāya), with its counterpart, discriminative awareness (shes rab, prajñā), the two being ultimately indifferentiable. These are also considered to be masculine and feminine aspects respectively, so in tantric applications the vajra and bell are often 38sexualized: dorjé in tantric “twilight language” is a euphemism for the phallus. Wangchuk (dbang phyug) literally translates as “having much power” and so nominalized may be rendered “powerful lord.” Tsal (rtsal), “dynamic expression,” has the sense that the individual arises impersonally, objectively, selflessly as the play of luminosity, the manifest aspect of ultimate reality; s/he is merely a refraction of enlightened awareness in human form. In sum then, for Nyangtön Chökyi Khorlo or Dorjé Wangchuk Tsal, the “dynamic expression of the powerful lord vajra,” sexual potency is a defining characteristic.
His wife’s secret name testifies that each is the ideal counterpart for the other. Nyangrel’s two biographies nearly agree on his mother’s initiatory name with the exception of one dyad. Whereas the Clear Mirror names her Pema Dewa Tsal (Pad ma bde ba rtsal), “dynamic expression of the blissful lotus,” the Stainless Proclamations reads Pema Wangchen Tsal (Padma dbang chen rtsal), “dynamic expression of the great powerful lotus,” which in addition to the evocative literal translation is an epithet for Hayagrīva, the fierce “horse-necked” deity who will become her son’s tutelary deity, or yidam.66 Here his 39mother’s initiatory name indicates that Nyangrel literally is the son born from Hayagrīva, whereby it subtly interjects some prophetic foreshadowing of his tantric affiliations and introduces an additional semantic shift not present in the variant. Nevertheless, its complementarity with his father’s initiatory name remains the same.
The first term is the key: lotus is a euphemism for the vulva in tantric symbolism, thus Pema is the female counterpart to Dorjé, and the Stainless Proclamations juxtaposes Nyangrel’s parents with gendered constructions of the same name: Dorjé to Pema; Wangchuk to Wangchen; and the shared Tsal, which is often appended to secret initiatory names and is identical in word and meaning here. Given that their tantric names emphasize the “great power” of their genitalia, Nyangrel’s parents are defined by their reproductive potential; their primary purpose within the biographies is to conceive together their destined son.
As is typical when comparing these two biographies, even when the general context of an event concurs, their details often diverge, which becomes evident beginning with the accounts of Nyangrel’s conception. Both emphasize that his mother had an auspicious dream at that time, yet the symbols and experiences described therein are distinct, and even the exact place of conception differs. The Clear Mirror recounts that Nyangrel was conceived when his parents copulated within the local religious center:
Ngadak Nyang Nyima Öser was conceived within the body of the great secret mother, Pema Dechen Tsal, who was the spouse and spiritual consort of his father, Nyangtön Chökyi Khorlo, at Jöpaser hermitage in the male earth-rabbit year (1099 [sic]).67 Concerning the signs of a magically emanated reincarnation, in his mother’s dream countless white lions dissolved into her body, and a five-pronged golden dorjé arose into the sky before implanting into her womb. She swallowed an outer ocean in one gulp. By purging that 40out again, she was filled with the three-thousand-fold universe. She consumed a galaxy into her belly and having mounted the sun and moon circled the four continents. A retinue of ladies tossed flowers, prostrated, and circumambulated her. Many light rays beamed into her body, which was blissful and vibrating, and her radiance intensified — such were the signs that numerously arose. When she told her husband they were very happy, and he replied, “This is a sign that the one to arrive is the magical emanation of a bodhisattva who will benefit transmigrators.” Having said that they paid homage and performed preventative healing rituals.68
Like many Tibetan biographical structures, this account of conception is modeled on the hagiographies of Śākyamuni Buddha, several of which were translated during the dynastic period, and thus whose lore, if not the texts themselves, were available to Nyangrel and his biographers. This becomes especially evident in the close correlates with certain details in hagiographies like Aśvaghoṣa’s Buddhacarita that record the dream and experience of Siddhārtha’s mother at the time of his conception:
Before she conceived she saw in a dream
a white elephant king
entering her body, yet she did not
thereby feel any pain.69
We thus find the white elephant of the Buddha’s famous biography echoed in Nyangrel’s as white lions. Both evoke regality, albeit with inverted time signatures: Prince Siddhārtha is prophesied to become either a wheel-turning monarch (cakravartin) or a Buddha in the future, whereas Nyangrel is the enlightened reincarnation of a past emperor and separated from any immediate political authority based on that status. Nevertheless, the intent of this replication is clear: it suffuses Nyangrel’s conception with the arrival of a magically emanated reincarnation and aligns the significance of his birth with that of the Buddha’s, thereby foreshadowing Nyangrel’s enlightenment and functioning as a basis for the legitimation of his subsequent activities. Such alignment soon becomes standard in Tibetan Buddhist hagiography.
When a protagonist is to attain enlightenment not just in Tibetan but Buddhist hagiographical writing in general, the life of the Buddha remains the 41foremost exemplar, the foundation upon which new layers of culturally specific contexts, language, symbols, and so forth are drawn in reconstructing a narrative path to enlightenment. As for the Tibetan iterations of this process, Nyangrel’s biographies employ details, topoi, and episodic structures from the life of the Buddha, but they also elaborate and expand them through the inclusion of vivid tantric imagery to enrich the narrative.
After the white lions enter the body of Nyangrel’s mother, a golden dorjé is implanted in her womb, which seems to represent an oneiric reenvisioning of intercourse and conception: again referencing her husband’s secret name and phallus, the golden dorjé is also the seed that inseminates her. Tantric language and its attendant symbolic imagery thereby imbues a relatively ordinary event, in this case conception, with its ultimate significance, transfiguring the mundane elements of intercourse into Dharmic symbols rich with meaning. The one conceived will be a buddha, thus the symbolic values are more true than the mundane trivialities of these events as ascertained though ordinary perception. They augur for the reader the extraordinary qualities of the child to be born to them.
While the biographies share the same episodic framework, the Stainless Proclamations diverges from the Clear Mirror’s account of conception at the outset since Nyangrel’s parents are practicing together in a municipal court residence rather than a remote hermitage. The intended symbolism of the mother’s dream is perhaps even more apparent, though the details of the parents’ practice are veiled by tantric terminology as well.
The two, having opened the maṇḍala of Pema Wangchen at the court of Tsenchö town, when they were abiding in approach and accomplishment, in the night on the tenth day of the fifth month of a rabbit year (1123), there arose four extraordinary women in the mother’s dream. A red, thousand-petaled lotus with anthers in the shape of a precious jewel was placed on the crown of the mother’s head and dissolved into her, whereby the ladies circumambulated her three times. Having strewn four handfuls of multicolored flowers, they declared, “This is the Dharma king, the last existence of the bodhisattva. By means of this birth he will not return. He will become a buddha. There is no doubt that those transmigrators who see, hear, or remember him will become liberated.” Then they dissolved like a rainbow in the sky and departed. The next morning she prostrated to her husband upon awakening.70
Compared to the somewhat more explicit imagery of conception in the Clear Mirror, at first glance this account is quite modest, yet while Pema Wangchen indicates a sādhana, or tantric liturgy, of Hayagrīva (“approach and accomplishment” are the two stages of deity yoga meditation), there remains the veiled reading of the passage as well. As in the discussion of the mother’s name above, it is difficult to ignore that she is the “dynamic expression” of the deity and maṇḍala they are practicing; this is a direct reference to her secret name, Pema Wangchen Tsal. Rather than euphemistic symbols conveyed through dream, the sex here is made explicit in describing their “opening the maṇḍala of the great powerful lotus.” While the parents are indeed practicing the sādhana of the fierce tutelary deity, Hayagrīva, they are also consummating their relationship as husband and wife in conceiving together their prophesied son.
The imagery indicates that the one conceived within her will be like a wish-fulfilling jewel satisfying the needs of beings as explicitly confirmed by the ethereal ladies. While a lotus is the throne of all the buddhas, a red lotus specifies the padma buddha family, the fierce emanation of which is, once again, Hayagrīva. References to red phenomena recur as signs throughout the Stainless Proclamations, reiterating Nyangrel’s affiliation with Padmasambhava, Hayagrīva, and the deities of that family.71 With Nyangtön Chökyi Khorlo also having an auspicious dream on the same night, the Stainless Proclamations intensifies the time of conception:
After hearing about her dream, he replied: “I also had a dream in which four extraordinary men arose. Bearing a white conch with 108 petals spiraling to the right, they said, ‘This is the white conch of the Dharma. If it is blown, the sound of the Great Vehicle doctrine will resound. Whoever hears it will become a liberator of transmigrators and a subjugator of wrong views.’ They gave it to me, and I was very pleased. Upon blowing it, 108 melodious and beautiful languages arose from within the 108 petals of the conch, and the sound of my conch was heard in all the lands of the world. This I dreamed. It is a sign that the heir to be born to us will be a magically emanated reincarnation, which is paramount we keep very secret.” Having spoken thus, they were very happy.72
Numerous adjectives specify the significance of the conch, and the father distills the meaning of the dream, so its symbolic indications are apparent. Of particular note is the symmetry between the dreams of the mother and father, where each encounters four “extraordinary” beings who correspond to the gender of the dreamer and bestow on each a single symbolic item.73 Given the emphasis on the esoteric derived from the symbolism of the red lotus in the mother’s dream, it is important to juxtapose it against the white conch received by the father: on the one hand, these clearly correspond to the red ovum essence or thiklé (thig le, bindu) derived from the mother and the seminal white essence derived from the father, which are said to abide at the lower and upper poles of every individual’s energetic subtle body until the time of death. More specific to the hermeneutic provided by the text, however, these two gifts may also symbolize Tibetan Buddhism’s synthesis of the esoteric Vajrayāna with the exoteric Mahāyāna, since the red lotus specifies the family’s tantric affiliations and yet the conch resounds with the doctrine of the Great Vehicle. One prevalent theme here and throughout Nyangrel’s biographies is that, despite the fact that he exclusively practices the supreme vehicle of Vajrayāna and never demonstrates an affinity for or knowledge of sūtra, the conch functions as a harbinger that Nyangrel will master and propound the Mahāyāna as much as the Vajrayāna. This accords with common presentations of Tibetan Buddhism where the Vajrayāna is often (but not always) considered a set of esoteric technologies located within the larger rubric of the Mahāyāna more than a category of soteriological theory and praxis that can be thoroughly isolated from it.
Having oneirically confirmed that the son to be born to them symbolically bears all the promise of the Buddha, the two biographies diverge into variant contexts for rearing the destined son.
The Arrival of the Nirmāṇakāya
In continuing to draw from Indic literary traditions, while both biographies specify that Nyangrel was born in the same month as the historical Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama,74 the Clear Mirror provides little additional information 44aside from the specific date and a set of extraordinary environmental signs at the time of Nyangrel’s birth:
When she was completing the ninth month and starting the tenth, he was born in the constellation puṣya during a female wood-dragon year (1124). Various wondrous signs such as rainbow-colored tents, lights, sounds, earthquakes, and so forth numerously occurred.75
Once again these signs accord with the birth of the Buddha according to his biographical traditions and become standard in Tibetan biographies when describing the delivery of the magically emanated buddha body of an enlightened adept, which again demonstrates an authorial awareness of the tradition exemplified by works like Buddhacarita:
At his birth the earth,
pegged down by the mountain king,
shook like a ship tossed around by the wind;
and from a cloudless sky fell a shower filled with lotuses blue and red,
and with the scent of sandalwood.76
Given the discrepancy and contemporary debate concerning the dates of Nyangrel’s birth and death, it is significant that the Clear Mirror’s inclusion of the element specifies 1124 as the year of his birth; the Stainless Proclamations only remarks that it was a dragon year, thereby failing to identify the twelve-year cycle of his birth and leading to some confusion later (for a complete discussion, see the appendix). Despite such issues, what the Stainless Proclamations lacks in date specificity, it adds in style:
In the following year on the eighth day of the eighth month of a dragon year, just as the sun rose in the constellation puṣya, a son was born. Furthermore, he was untainted by saṃsāric defects and, as for the marks of the lotus buddha family, his body was white with a ruddy complexion. As for the signs that he would not be born again in existence, there was a finger-tall protuberance at the crown of his head. As for the signs of having completed all the qualities of the Great Vehicle, the hairs of his head extended down in [dread?] locks. As for the signs that he had perfected all the qualities of the 45exalted form of all the ones gone to bliss, his body had a white oṃ mole on his forehead. As for the signs that he had perfected the sixty melodies of a buddha’s exalted speech, there was a red birthmark at his throat center in the shape of āḥ. As for the signs that he had mastered exalted mind, the meaning of birthlessness, there was a black birthmark in the shape of hūṃ at his heart center. As for the signs that he had perfected the five paths and ten grounds, there were eight-spoked Dharma wheels on his feet. As for the signs that he was victorious over all māra demons and obstacles, he had four fanged teeth. So he was born with these eight great marks on his body.77
Just as Buddhacarita tallies “the signs on the body of this illustrious one,”78 Nyangrel is also born with an array of signs and marks that prophesize and prove his status as a magically emanated reincarnation, but as would be expected, only some of these signs are direct correlates to the Buddha’s whereas others are more idiosyncratic. Among the eight signs inventoried here, only the protuberance at the crown of his head, the Dharma wheels on his feet, and the four fangs are counted among those found on all buddhas as “the signs of a great man” according to sūtra and the biographies of the Buddha.
These signs and the condition of rebirth within their final lifetime signifies that individuals like Siddhārtha and Nyangrel are on the verge of enlightenment; their only tether to saṃsāra is the karmic residue that propels them to effect the vast benefit of beings, though even aspects of this statement are controversial. Indeed, the issue of whether the Buddha (and later, by extension, any buddha) is born enlightened or becomes so continues to provoke animated argumentation on the debate courtyards of Tibetan monasteries and in academic circles as well.79 Underscoring the paradox, these interpretations of Nyangrel’s birth specify that he has indeed completed the path and is perfected already, and yet later empowerments are still required to provide further “maturation.” Nevertheless, the various marks on his body have manifested as confirmation of that perfection in physical form, resulting in a rather striking appearance in the Stainless Proclamations that, according to his parents, necessitates that he be sequestered from public view. Following his birth they withdraw with their child into a closed retreat, where he will spend the first six years of his life and complete the initial stages of his studies in private.46
Despite being such prominent figures during Nyangrel’s childhood, the importance of his parents ebbs quite soon thereafter. Nyangrel is the protagonist of his own biographies of course, so it is appropriate that the narratives reduce the roles of the parents as the child matures and becomes more independent. The more immediate circumstances that quite literally birthed him become secondary to the karmic thrust from his past lives. While his father also functions as his first guru and thereby fulfills an additional role of primary importance throughout his youth, his mother is solely defined by bearing him and disappears from the biographies thereafter.
Empowerment and Experience
As the biographies progress into Nyangrel’s early childhood, the auspicious signs and omens that attended his conception and birth are confirmed by his development of extraordinary personal qualities. Whereas contemporary studies of child prodigies may gesture toward the origin of a peculiar affinity but can rarely account for their spectacular abilities, a Buddhist context (whether literary or lived) requires karmic preconditioning as an explanatory basis. With the basic concept of reincarnation now popularly known in the West, previous lifetimes of study and practice may be blithely forwarded in lieu of a scientific explanation for preternatural talent, but this is standard in Buddhist contexts, where all manifest effects are necessarily linked to causes in the past, even if only an omniscient buddha can directly discern their correlation.
When causes accumulated in previous lives meet requisite conditions in the present, their expression becomes possible. The Stainless Proclamations attributes Nyangrel’s extraordinary capacity for learning to the special environment created in the seclusion of retreat, where, free from the distractions that would inevitably arrive once people beheld his unusual appearance, the boy could focus on his studies: “Since they were able to keep him secret, he learned how to read and so forth. Because of that, he became learned in everything without obstruction and came to know it as in an instant.”80 The child appears to have emerged from strict retreat in his seventh year, but the Stainless Proclamations maintains that the parents were able to keep their child hidden until the age of nine and attributes his unusual scholastic abilities to individualized instruction. While the Clear Mirror concurs that Nyangrel was a gifted child, it attributes his aptitude to a peculiar familiarity with a more distant past:47
In dependence on having diligently studied many times [in former births], from the age of two or three he knew how to read and so forth without requiring any study. Without studying he also knew the tantras and liturgies of the three, Viśuddha Heruka, Vajrakīla, and Yamāntaka. There arose a zeal for meditation, accomplishment, and general Buddhist conduct. No one could decide whether he was a magically emanated reincarnation or what.81
While the Stainless Proclamations relies on physical signs on Nyangrel’s body to confirm his sanctity as a magically emanated reincarnation, the Clear Mirror introduces other evidence in their stead. His knowledge of various key tantras is compelling as proof for prior lives of intensive practice, and the selection of tantras recollected here is not at all random: Viśuddha Heruka, Vajrakīla, and Yamāntaka are among those attested to have been continuously transmitted by the Nyang clan since the empire, and they will become three of the eight fierce deities that Nyangrel will propagate in his most extensive treasure collection, the Eight Instructions: Gathering of the Ones Gone to Bliss. In sum, Nyangrel’s affinity and natural aptitude for Buddhism during his childhood, particularly with regard to the esoteric Vajrayāna, are evident in the account provided in the Stainless Proclamations.
Within the Clear Mirror, such aptitude serves as a preliminary corroboration of the mother’s dream: the son born to them is indeed a magically emanated reincarnation, and further confirmation arrives at the age of seven, when Nyangrel has the first of many auspicious dreams and visions. Both biographies punctuate his life with the apparition of various divine and semi-divine beings who bestow instructions, encourage practice, and provide companionship and support in lonely times.
When he reached age seven, the people in the area celebrated with much dancing and playing, but he was unhappy. With thoughts of compassion for transmigrators, he took off for the snows of Jötselé. While staying there for one day, he was visited in a dream by four women — white, yellow, red, and green. In one melodious voice they called to him, “Son of the lineage arising from learning, we are your friends. You are the lord of the secret mantra, the oral transmissions, and the treasures: please open the doors to the treasures of the sacred doctrine. Care for those whose karma is ripe, the fortunate students. We and you transcend meeting and parting.” Having 48spoken thus, they faded into the sky. Upon waking, he saw magical apparitions. Then, after returning inside himself, he practiced
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