This edition of the Great Masters Series focuses on Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991). This, like the other posts in this series, is not meant to be an exhaustive biography, but rather a look at the life and teachings of this great master through the lens of his works published in English.
For those interested in his life story, we have posted his brief biography by Tulku Thondup that appears in volume two of his Collected Works here. For a more detailed treatment, there is no better place to start than his autobiography, Brilliant Moon. “Brilliant Moon” is a translation of Rabsel Dawa, which was the ordination name given by the great Rimé master, Khenpo Shenga at the time Khyente Rinpoche became a novice monk. This is not only a beautiful autobiography, but, since Khyentse Rinpoche grew up in the presence of and was educated by some of the most renowned scholars, adepts, and lamas active at the turn of the twentieth century, his life provides a bridge from the flourishing teachings of the nineteenth century to us today. The back section of Brilliant Moon includes reminiscences from his consort Khandro Lhamo, his grandson Shechen Rabjam, Tenga Rinpoche, Trulshik Rinpoche, and many more. There is also an excellent film about his life, also entitled Brilliant Moon, with some amazing footage that you can see on the film’s website.
Another account of his life is Matthieu Ricard’s beautiful, full-color Journey to Enlightenment. Though that volume is now out of print, many of the photos and all the text appear in volume one of the Collected Works. And yet another short biography can be found on the wonderful Treasury of Lives site.
Khyentse Rinpoche was born in 1910 to the family of Dilgo in eastern Tibet near Dege on the day that Mipham Rinpoche (see previous Great Masters post) was there completing a ganachakra feast offering after six weeks of teaching. Shortly afterward he blessed and named the infant Tashi Paljor. Though Khyentse Rinpoche was only two when Mipham passed away, the latter’s impact on him was immense, as it was for so many in Eastern Tibet. Throughout his life, Khyenste Rinpoche taught extensively from Mipham Rinpoche’s teachings, and we will see in a few examples below.
While still an infant, he was recognized as the tulku of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and when he was fourteen, he went to Shechen Monastery where he was enthroned as Khyentse Wangpo’s tulku by Shechen Gyaltsap. Over the next four years he was immersed in study and practice of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, primarily with Shechen Gyaltsap and Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro (whose tulku is Dzongsar Khyentse), but also with Khenpo Shenga, Adzom Drukpa, and many more. Throughout his life, Rinpoche had over sixty teachers from all the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
A few years later, Shechen Gyaltsap passed away, and the eighteen year old Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche went into solitary retreat for the next thirteen years, mostly living and practicing in caves in Eastern Tibet. After he emerged from retreat the next fifty years of his life were devoted to practicing, teaching, and helping invigorate all the practice lineages. After fleeing Tibet and the communist repression in 1959, he settled in Bhutan as the spiritual advisor to the Bhutanese Royal family, but he also continued to teach widely in Nepal, India, and later, the West. He also made three trips back to Tibet in the 1980s, teaching, giving empowerments, and helping to restore monasteries and other institutions, regardless of their lineage. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a student of Khyentse Rinpoche, said, “you see his basic belief, basic attitude, is nonsectarian, which I very much appreciate.”
Rinpoche’s writing in Tibetan are contained in twenty-five volumes consisting of over ten thousand pages. Including those mentioned above, there are altogether fourteen books plus some translations of his poetry, all of which are contained in the three volumes of his Collected Works, except where indicated below.
There exists a tradition in Tibetan literature of masters composing short, easy-to-memorize texts that serve almost like crib sheets, making up practical instruction texts based on the classical teachings. With the proper instructions, these can serve as keys that open up a whole range of teachings and enable them to be put into practice. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was a master at unpacking these pith instructions for practitioners, and there are four examples of this in English: commentaries on texts by Padampa Sangye, Zurchungpa, and two by Thogme Sangpo.
Khyentse Rinpoche has two books based on the teachings of Ngulchu Thogme Zangpo, the fourteenth-century Sakya master—and teacher to greats like Buton Rinchen Drup—whose teachings are a core part of the study curricula for all Tibetan Buddhists. Enlightened Courage, gives a detailed explanation on the Thogme Zangpo’s commentary of the Seven Points of Mind Training, a core lojong text.
In The Heart of Compassion, Rinpoche gives a commentary on Thogme Zangpo’s most famous text, The Thirty-Seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva. This also contains a fourteen-page biography of Thogme Zangpo.
In 1987 Khyentse Rinpoche gave a teaching on a text by the siddha Padampa Sangye, which was published as The Hundred Verses of Advice. In his commentary on this text in which Padampa Sangye addresses the people in his adopted home of Tingri on the Nepal-Tibet border, Khyentse Rinpoche explains why and how laypeople can and should lead a life completely in accordance with dharma, overcoming pettiness, emotional afflictions, and the trials and tribulations of life. His advice on these matters are all as applicable today in the West as they were for the villagers of Tingri in the eleventh century.
In Zurchungpa’s Testament, Rinpoche wrote a commentary on his own teacher, Shechen Gyaltsap’s, annotations to Zurchungpa’s Eighty Chapters of Personal Advice. In it Khyentse Rinpoche expands on what was really Zurchungpa’s last teaching, his testament before dying.
Dilgo Khyentse often used the writings of his own teachers, their teachers, or their previous incarnations as the basis of his teachings.
In The Excellent Path to Enlightenment: Oral Teachings on the Root Text of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Rinpoche gives a commentary on a short Ngondro practice composed by the great treasure revealer and master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, the previous incarnation of his own teacher, Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro.
While The Excellent Path to Enlightenment contains a pithy explanation of guru yoga, Khyentse Rinpoche also wrote a more elaborate commentary on that specific component of the practice in The Wish-Fulfilling Jewel: The Practice of Guru Yoga according to the Longchen Nyingthig Tradition. The Nyingthig tradition, which is covered in detail in Tulku Thondup’s classic Masters of Meditation and Miracles, came from Guru Rinpoche via Jigme Lingpa.
Dilgo Khyentse gives a separate commentary on the same section of that text in Guru Yoga According to the Preliminary Practice of Longchen Nyingtik. This book, not included in the Collected Works, is a distinct take on the practice and includes some brief contributions by Dzongsar Khyentse, Dzigar Kongtrul, and Tsikey Chokling.
Khyentse Rinpoche also offers commentary on another text by Jigme Lingpa, written at his simple hermitage in Tsering Jong, A Wondrous Ocean of Advice for the Practice of Retreat in Solitude. This work, which is really an exhortation on how to practice correctly in order to actually achieve the goal, appears in volume three of the Collected Works.
Rinpoche gives a wonderful commentary on a text by Mipham Rinpoche (see Mipham Rinpoche post in the Great Masters series) entitled The Wheel of Investigation: An Explanation of Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche’s Instructions for Examining the Mind. In this short text and commentary, which appears only in the Collected Works volume two, the two masters analyze the mind that is responsible for the close identification we have with the sense of self. The point is that through this rigorous methodical examination, one realizes the empty nature of both mind and all phenomena and sees how the roots of samsara have taken hold.
The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones: The Practice of View, Meditation, and Action contains Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary on a text by Patrul Rinpoche. The first section is an exhortation to reflect on the defects of cyclic existence. The second part explains how the antidote is Dharma and what we need to do to put it into practice within the context of the sutras (refuge, generating bodhicitta, purification, and offering) and tantra (empowerment, pure perception, development and completion stages). The final section details how the results of practice are expressed in a life that is in harmony with the teachings and not caught up in worldly busy-ness.
While it is hard to categorize the works of a master like Dilgo Khyentse when a teaching on the so-called basics come from the highest possible view, there are three works that are explicitly on Vajrayana and Dzogchen.
The first is Pure Appearance, which is based on a set of teachings Rinpoche gave at Karma Dzong in Boulder, Colorado, shortly after officiating at the cremation of Chögyam Trungpa in 1987. This focuses on the development and completion stages of Vajrayana practice. This is available in volume three of the Collected Works.
After the teaching in Boulder, Rinpoche went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and again taught, this time on Garab Dorje’s famous text, Three Words That Strike the Vital Point, a vital Trekchö text. This was the basis for the book Primordial Purity, which is found in volume three of the Collected Works.
The final work is a commentary on Mipham Rinpoche’s The Lamp that Dispels the Darkness: Instructions That Point Directly to the Nature of Mind According to the Tradition of the Old Meditators. Mipham Rinpoche, whom Khyentse Rinpoche said was Manjusri in human form, wrote this short text that really contains the whole of Dzogchen practice. Rinpoche said that Mipham Rinpoche’s words fall into the category of martri, literally “red instructions,” thus called “because they show the essential points of practice as if someone had opened his chest and shown the red of his heart.”
There are two other works in English should be mentioned here. The first is the recent On the Path to Enlightenment edited by Matthieu Ricard, which was inspired by Khyentse Rinpoche who features very prominently in it. The second is The Life of Shabkar, in which is found information about Khyentse Rinpoche’s connection with this amazing nineteenth-century yogi. When he once stopped under a tree where Shabkar had sat singing songs of realization, the tree let down a shower of flowers on him, which Khyentse Rinpoche indicated to be a sign of a special karmic connection.
There are also a few short translations available online from the good folks at Lotsawa House.
Some words that Rinpoche wrote in his commentary to Jigme Lingpa’s advice to those on retreat certainly applies to all his work: “as you read this precious text and my commentary on it, please do so with the perfect motivation of bodhicitta to establish all beings under the sky in the supreme level of the vajradharas and the profound view of the Mantrayana.”
Dilgo Khyentse’s written works are in themselves a great treasure, but just as important a part of his legacy are the great teachers still with us who were educated at his feet, making the warmth of his realization still so present to all who yearn to practice for the benefit of all sentient beings.