Transcribing the oral tradition...

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Patrul Rinpoche Talk

by Vessantara

Patrul Rinpoche Talk

by Vessantara


According to some scientists all human beings, all the billions of us on this planet, are
traceable back to a common ancestor in Africa. Just as genetically it seems we can trace
our lineage back to that one individual, similarly spiritually we can trace our lineage as
Buddhists back to the Buddha Shakyamuni. Whether we are Theravadins, Zen
practitioners, Tibetan Buddhists and so forth, we all ultimately draw our spiritual
inspiration from his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi-tree.

Sometimes in the history of Buddhism this fact has been lost sight of, and factionalism
has developed. Instead of appreciating the different ways in which Shakyamuni’s vision
has been expressed, people have developed a narrow-minded and closed-hearted view of
Buddhist schools and traditions other than their own.

In this talk we are going to meet someone who was at the heart of a very important
development in Tibetan Buddhism in the 19th century, known as the Rimay movement.
Rimay means ‘without limits or boundaries’. Factionalism between different schools had
been a serious problem in Tibetan Buddhism at times, with all kinds of power struggles.
Early in the 19th century a number of great lamas – including Jamyang Khyentse
Wangpo, Jamgon Kongtrul and Mipham Rinpoche – worked together to break down
factionalism and to re-inspire the tradition by cross-fertilisation between the schools.
They did this by swapping teachings and initiations. They didn’t mix up the various
teachings, but they taught the doctrines and practices of the four main schools of Tibetan
Buddhism impartially. In this way they transcended the narrow-minded sectarianism of
thinking ‘My school’s the best’, recognising that all four were quite capable of producing
enlightened practitioners.

These great lamas thought of themselves principally as Buddhists, rather than as
adherents of a particular school. They studied and practised all the Buddhism available to
them in 19th century Tibet. Nowadays we have far more Buddhism available to us.
Buddhists in the West are like merchants waatching their ships come in from all parts of
the Buddhist world, bringing with them all the treasures of South East Asian, Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, and Central Asian Buddhism, as well of course as Tibetan Buddhism.
So, like those Rimay lamas, we need to think of ourselves first and foremost as just
Buddhists. And even though we may be practising within a particular school or lineage,
we can have an open attitude to the whole Buddhist tradition, that whole great treasure

In my own small way I have been reflecting this in my teaching. I’ve published a book
called Tales of Freedom that includes stories from the Pali Canon, Tibetan Buddhism and
Zen. To explore such a range of teaching would virtually never have been possible before
in Buddhist history. We are very fortunate in the richness of what is available to us.
Through seeing the many forms Buddhism has taken, we can more easily discern the
quintessence of all of them.

In this short series we shall be meeting one of the greatest of these nineteenth-century
Rimay masters. His name is Patrul Rinpoche. I am very happy to be talking about this
particular teacher, because I have been very struck by his character and qualities. In each
talk we shall examine an incident or two from his life, to get a feel for the man, as well as
exploring some of his teaching, trying to see its implications for us. As this is the first
talk in the series, I am going to start by giving you a short biography of Patrul Rinpoche -
to give you a sense of his life overall, so that you have a context for the stories and

Patrul Rinpoche was born in 1808 into a nomadic tribe in Eastern Tibet, in an area of vast
grassland known as Dzachu Kha. As a small child he displayed a sharp intelligence,
natural kindness, and an aptitude for the Dharma. He was soon recognised as a tulku, as a
spiritual practitioner of an earlier time, who had taken rebirth in order to continue his
service to humanity. The practitioner of whom the child was recognised as the rebirth
was called Palge of Dzogchen Monastery. So ‘Palge Tulku’ became shortened to ‘Patrul’.
‘Rinpoche’ is an honorific term, meaning ‘Precious One’.

Later in his life, Patrul Rinpoche was described by his biographer (the third Dodrupchen
Rinpoche), as follows:

“His head is broad like a parasol. His face is like a blossoming lotus, and his sense-
faculties are very clear. Usually he has very little sickness. From childhood he has been
endowed with great wisdom, compassion and courage. He has great confidence and is a
brilliant orator. “

Patrul Rinpoche studied all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions with great masters in Eastern
Tibet. His two principal teachers were Dö Khyentse Rinpoche and Jigme Gyalwai
Nyugu. Dö Khyentse was a very unusual teacher indeed - a wild and iconoclastic
caharacter whom we shall meet in the third talk in this series. Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu was
also an extraordinary practitioner. He spent years living alone in a remote valley near the
snowline. He did not live in a hermitage, or even in a cave like Milarepa, but simply
practised meditation in a small depression on a windswept hillside, subsisting on wild
plants and roots, devoting himself uncompromisingly to transforming his mind through

Patrul Rinpoche was deeply influenced by this teacher’s example. The best known of
Patrul Rinpoche’s writings is called The Words of My Perfect Teacher (kunzang lama’i
shalung) which he claimed was simply what he had heard from Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu
about the fundamental teachings of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Like all
Patrul Rinpoche’s writings, it is a wonderful mixture of the profound and the down-to-
earth: deeply encouraging and kind, but also hard-hitting and critical where he sees
people causing themselves suffering by failing to practise the Dharma correctly.

Although he was an important tulku and entitled to a high place in a monastery, Patrul
Rinpoche renounced his obligations and became a hermit and a wanderer. As we shall see
in the second talk, his main practice was compassion. Although some people were wary
of him because he communicated very directly and could be very unflattering, he was
unfailingly kind. He spent much of his time teaching the violent tribesmen of Golok in
Eastern Tibet, encouraging them to give up fighting and quarrels. He was great -hearted,
and able to communicate with all kinds of people. He taught ordinary people the basics of
the Dharma, especially the recitation of OM MANI PADME HUM, the mantra of the
Lord of Compassion. He had memorised many Dharma texts in his youth which he could
teach from memory.

He was particularly devoted to the Bodhicharyavatara of Santideva, which he taught from
memory, often to very large gatherings, over 100 times. He was also a great exponent of
Dzogchen, the highest form of practice in the Nyingma School, and he helped many of
his disciples to arrive at profound realisations of the nature of the mind.

Despite all this, Patrul Rinpoche was completely humble and unassuming. He would
often wander unrecognised, clad in a ragged robe which made him look more like a
beggar than a great lama. He made no show of any spiritual attainment. But to a few
close disciples he admitted that he could remember over a hundred previous lives, and
that he had no emotional defilements left.

After being a beacon of kindness and wisdom for Eastern Tibet, he died in the Fire Pig
Year (1881) at the age of 78 or 79.

This is a very brief account of the life of the extraordinary man whom we shall be
meeting in these talks. However, although just getting a sense of Patrul Rinpoche as a
human being will have a good effect on our minds, we shall also be trying to draw out
from incidents in his life something of the spiritual qualities which he embodied, and to
see how they can be developed, on a lower level, in our own lives. To do this we are
going to follow a scheme which is very common in Tibetan Buddhism: known as the 3
Principal Paths.

According to this scheme, the path to enlightenment can be divided into 3 great stages of:

1) renunciation - seeing the faults of mundane existence and emotionally disentangling
oneself from it;

2) bodhichitta - developing the compassionate desire to help all living beings to escape
from suffering; and

3) wisdom - the understanding of the nature of reality which cuts through the root of all
our suffering. We shall concentrate on one of these in each of our three talks.

These three qualities can be seen in different relations to one another. They can be seen,
as it were on the same level, as the antidotes to the three poisons of craving, aversion and
ignorance. With renunciation we decisively abandon craving; the compassion of
bodhichitta overcomes aversion; wisdom dispels the thick fogs of ignorance. They can
also be viewed as progressive, with renunciation ...

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