Open View, Solid Ground

Jamgon Kongtrul championed the view of rimay, recognizing the inherent value of all Buddhist teachings. But as Alex Gardner explains, he remained firmly loyal to his own tradition.

By Alexander Gardner

Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye surrounded by buddhas, deities, and teachers in his lineage. Tibet, 19th century. Kaygu and Buddhist lineages. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection Rubin Museum of Art item no. 65265

Practitioners today enjoy exposure to a great variety of Buddhist traditions. In the last several millennia, the Buddhist teachings have branched into innumerable traditions and lineages, each with their own doctrines and ritual techniques. The Buddha is often quoted (erroneously, it turns out) as telling his disciples to “be a light unto themselves” in evaluating the teachings; this message of individual choice has come to form a core part of Western Buddhism. There is a temptation to treat this bounty as one might a well-stocked buffet: take what appeals to us and leave what does not. Surely only we know best what is in our own interest, and anyway, as the thinking goes, in adhering too fast to any one tradition, we run the risk of falling into sectarian bias, closed to the marvelous abundance of teachings. For some, the solution is to reject tradition and focus only on those things that are common to us all. Yet what is lost in this approach is precisely the diversity and expansive opportunity that we ought to be celebrating. The other approach, the buffet model, is no more a solution, for it denies the fact that our impulses and perceptions are flawed—after all, isn’t that the problem that Buddhism claims to address?

The exposure to multiple religious traditions and the anxiety and opportunity it represents is often thought of as a modern phenomenon, a product of globalization and the breakdown of closed communities. But this is not necessarily the case. Within the Tibetan historical context, there are precedents for understanding and appreciating multiple Buddhist traditions and also figures who serve as models for engaging different traditions without mixing them or denying the need to rely on one. Chief among these would be Jamgon Kongtrul (1813–1899), a Karma Kagyu lama who is often credited with creating something known in the West as rimay, an ecumenical approach to the teachings.

Jamgon Kongtrul was born into a Bön family, initially trained in a Nyingma monastery, and later transferred to a Karma Kagyu monastery where he would establish a Shangpa Kagyu hermitage. Within the following decade, he began his famous collaboration with the brilliant Sakya lama Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820–1892), and later with the Nyingma treasure revealer Chokgyur Lingpa (1829–1870). These multiple affiliations afforded him an appreciation of the value inherent in the diverse religious traditions of Tibet.

In 1842, Jamgon Kongtrul, then just thirty years old, was about to enter into a three-year retreat at the site where he would later develop his personal hermitage of Tsadra Rinchen Drak. Before beginning, he wrote a lengthy statement, which he later included in his autobiography, expressing his aspirations and his values. It includes the following passage:

Thanks to the power of the three roots [e.g., the Buddha, dharma, and sangha],
from an early age my mind was inclined toward virtue.
Casting off [my] Bön [heritage], I entered the door of the Buddhist teachings.
These days, I am not satisfied with my practice in view and action,
and I aspire to follow those of yore.
I have reviewed many unbiased treatises
and examined many biographies of the wise and accomplished ones.
I cannot endure even to see the books
of partisans who arrogantly chase after fame.
Declaring what is good and bad is the way of fools.
Knowing this, I have experienced the taste of the innermost part of the enlightened intent of the old and new schools without partiality.
I cultivate a pure view regarding all the teachings of the Victorious One;
rejecting [any part] of the dharma is a heavy burden I do not contemplate bearing.

This is one of the finest expressions of the Tibetan ideal of rimay (or rimé, rime, ri-me, rimed, and so forth—ris med in Tibetan).

Kongtrul uses two related words in the above passage: “nonpartisan” (ris med), a word that is also reasonably translated as “nonsectarian” and “ecumenical,” and a close synonym, “unbiased” (phyogs med), as well as its opposite, translated here as “partisan” (phyogs zhen). Kongtrul did not invent the term “rimay,” and his readers would have been familiar with all the variations he used. These terms have appeared in Tibetan literature for centuries, and in almost every instance as a term of praise for a teacher who strives to be unbiased in his or her approach to the teachings of the Buddha—that is, whose view is buddha-like in its impartiality. It refers to an understanding that other views or activities ought to be treated as equally valid means of achieving liberation. This is based on the teaching of skillful means: the Buddha taught different views and methods to different students, each according to their needs, in order to reach the common goal of enlightenment. To denigrate one method or teaching over the other is to lose sight of this. Thus rimay teachers, even as they are confidently loyal to their own tradition and institution, do not disparage other views or activities but instead recognize their value and strive to learn from them.

Tibetan teachers who have commented on the rimay ideal, from Jamgon Kongtrul to the contemporary master Ringu Tulku, have stressed that rimay does not mean merging traditions or abandoning one’s own tradition. Indeed, they are very clear that one’s received institutional structure is the necessary foundation for one’s religious activity. Rimay might conceptually refer to the unbounded and unbiased view of a buddha, but in practice one must know where one stands in order to effectively cast a wide gaze. One must, in other words, engage deeply with some part of the Buddhist teachings in order to embark on the Buddhist path. Thus, even as Tibetan masters have held up the rimay ideal as the right way to approach the diversity of traditions, they each remained firmly grounded in their own tradition. To do so means taking one’s own tradition as the pinnacle of the Buddha’s teaching—not unlike the admonition to the tantric practitioner to see his or her teacher as a buddha. This, again, is the doctrine of skillful means: each tradition has its own “highest teachings” that bring its members to enlightenment, and these vary across traditions.

Whatever their affiliation, whatever their personal belief, a rimay teacher would not shoulder the burden of rejecting any part of the Buddha’s teaching.

To hold the rimay view, one must acknowledge the need for partiality without denigrating other methods or imposing one’s own method on others. What this means is that there is actually no “rimay method”; there is only an attitude toward all methods. A rimay teacher could be a Nyingma tantric practitioner or a Geluk geshe—whatever the affiliation, whatever their personal belief, they would regard all other views and practices as valid steps on the path to enlightenment, even as they advocate the method in which they themselves engage. They would not shoulder the burden of rejecting any part of the Buddha’s teaching.

Jamgon Kongtrul certainly can be credited with embodying this ideal, arguably more explicitly than anyone in Tibetan history, and he has inspired countless people to strive to do the same. Yet there is some confusion in Western writing regarding rimay and Kongtrul’s relationship to it. Jamgon Kongtrul has sometimes been portrayed as having created a new way of engaging with the Buddhist teachings, a reformist “rimay tradition” (or movement, school, project, and so forth) that entailed rejecting all established institutional affiliations. This was not the case. Institutionally, he was firmly Kagyu (although he followed both Karma and Shangpa traditions).

The common misperception that Kongtrul invented rimay, rather than simply embodied the ideal in a way few before him had done, is largely a result of the way the term was introduced to the West. This was first done in an introductory essay to a 1970 edition of one of Jamgon Kongtrul’s main compositions, Encyclopedia of Knowledge. The essay was by E. Gene Smith, the brilliant scholar whose own library later served as the nucleus for the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, which he founded in 1999. In this introduction, Smith included a survey of Jamgon Kongtrul’s life and situated him in a context Smith called the “Ris-med Tradition.” Of Kongtrul himself, Smith wrote that his “life story is in effect the story of the Ris-med ideals and their impact on Kham [eastern Tibet].”

Smith ascribed to Kongtrul a weariness toward sectarian bigotry that resulted from his childhood experience of being moved from one institution and religious tradition to another: from Bön to Nyingma and then to Karma Kagyu. One of Kongtrul’s successes later in life, his ability to work effectively with members of other institutions and other religious traditions, no doubt stemmed in part from this experience—having been moved away from places he loved, he seems to have been able to hold his mind open to the value of institutions other than his own. Yet Smith and several later commentators on the life of Jamgon Kongtrul portray Kongtrul as a reformer, and there seems to be a lingering belief that rimay has something to do with an antipathy toward institutions and traditions and a preference for practice unencumbered by either. Because of this and the excessive identification of rimay with Kongtrul, rimay has come to mean, for many people, a rejection of tradition and an embrace of the buffet approach to Buddhist practice.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in his 1974 inaugural lectures at Naropa Institute (published in 1981 as Journey Without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha), assailed what he called “spiritual materialism,” specifically the tendency to “collect” empowerments, which, he said, was a “recent corruption in the presentation of [the] Vajrayana” perpetrated by Tibetans. According to Trungpa, that corruption was what Jamgon Kongtrul had responded to in initiating “a reformation of Buddhism in Tibet, which he called the Rime school.” Trungpa described the institutions that had been originally founded to promote the Buddhist teachings as having ossified into ornate houses of ritual and recitation, little more than hollow shells. According to Trungpa, Jamgon Kongtrul initiated a reform that foregrounded “practice” as opposed to tradition and institution. Trungpa has Kongtrul appealing to the leaders of Tibet’s religious traditions, saying, “Let us unite; let us work together within this contemplative tradition. Let us experience this tradition for ourselves, instead of inviting hundreds of artists to build glorious shrines. Let us experience how it feels to sit on our meditation cushions and do nothing.” For Trungpa, the key element of Jamgon Kongtrul’s legacy was the revival of a “practice lineage” that would be available to all, outside of the monasteries and established religious communities. It could thereby be freely exported from a Tibetan context. It was that practice lineage, Trungpa told his students in Colorado, “that we ourselves belong to.”

There has long been a strong suspicion of organized religion in the West, leading many practitioners to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious.’

Other authors have also depicted rimay as being somehow in opposition to religious institutions, such that the Tibetan ideal has become a means for Western practitioners to give voice to an antipathy toward established religious structures. There has long been a strong suspicion of organized religion in the West, leading many practitioners to describe themselves as “spiritual” rather than “religious.” And of course once “tradition” and “practice” are conceived of as being able to exist independently, one can drop the former and focus exclusively on the latter. As Donald Lopez convincingly explained in Prisoners of Shangri La, Western scholars often projected their own anti-Catholicism onto Tibetan religion, dismissing its abundant rituals and elaborate monastic systems as not just empty of significance but also harmful to authentic religious practice.

In several books on Jamgon Kongtrul that have appeared in the last few decades, this negative view of religion has been projected onto Kongtrul himself. Kongtrul is portrayed as having viewed monastic centers as corrupt, concerned only with political power and wealth, viciously sectarian, and no longer able to provide an environment conducive to meditative practice. Authors have also read into Kongtrul’s writings a call to surmount sectarian divisions by abandoning Tibet’s dominant religious traditions in favor of a common practice lineage. It is largely for this reason that readers have been led to believe that there is such a thing as a “rimay tradition,” a new religious movement somehow apart from the religious traditions within which Kongtrul operated.

Yet there is nothing in the writings or the activity of Jamgon Kongtrul to support that he intended to reject, mix, or unite traditions. In fact, for centuries one of the hard-held beliefs in Tibet has been that traditions should not be mixed, and Kongtrul never indicates it should be otherwise. Ringu Tulku, in The Ri-med Philosophy of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great, makes this point repeatedly. He writes:

Ri-me is not a way of uniting different schools and lineages by emphasizing their similarities. It is basically an appreciation of their differences and an acknowledgement of the importance of variety to benefit practitioners with different needs. Therefore, the Ri-me teachers always take great care that the teachings and practices of the different schools and lineages, and their unique styles, do not become confused with each other.

Kongtrul’s rimay is best understood through his writings. His literary output, among the largest of any Tibetan, is often said to be one of the finest examples of rimay activity that Tibet has produced. Together, the works are known as the “Five Treasuries”: Encyclopedia of Knowledge, Treasury of Kagyu Tantras, Treasury of Revealed Scripture, Treasury of Precious Instructions, and Expansive Treasury (otherwise known as his Collected Works). All but one of these, Treasury of Kagyu Tantras, can be said to include teachings from and discussion about multiple traditions of Tibetan religion, both Buddhism and Bön; as a group, they certainly earn the right to be described as rimay.

It is in Treasury of Knowledge, and a short religious history in Collected Works called Nonpartisan Religious History, that Kongtrul perhaps most clearly expressed his own positions. Although commonly described as being a treatment of traditional Tibetan topics of study, Treasury of Knowledge is as much a work of religious history, outlining the development of the Buddhist teachings from the early teachings of the Buddha through the differentiation of the doctrine into the various schools of thought. As such, Treasury of Knowledge sets forth what Kongtrul considered to be the pinnacle of the Buddhist teachings. As Gene Smith pointed out, the “special intention” of Treasury of Knowledge was “to stress the virtues of the Dzogchen atiyoga approach of the Nyingma sect.” Not only does the entire work conclude with a discussion of the Dzogchen fulfillment stage of tantric practice, but most sections likewise also conclude with a discussion of Dzogchen. According to Kongtrul, we are to understand that Dzogchen is the highest teaching, the final development of the Buddhist doctrine, and the most effective path to liberation.

Similar to how Treasury of Knowledge sets forth Dzogchen as the highest practice, Nonpartisan Religious History, which is included in Expansive Treasury and is the only one of his compositions that has the term rimay in its title, positions shentong as the definitive philosophical view. Shentong, literally translated as “other-empty,” is a philosophical position in which ultimate reality is described in positive terms—empty of only relative characteristics but possessing characteristics of its own. Dzogchen teachings of the Nyingma tradition are a main venue for shentong language, replete with references to “primordial purity,” “intrinsic awareness,” and the like, which are asserted to be characteristics of the ultimate. Likewise, tantric teachings on immediate enlightenment, drawing on the Yogacara philosophy of the tathagatagharba, or buddhanature, also presuppose a notion of innate buddhahood replete with positive characteristics. In contrast is the more common Madhyamaka view known as rangtong (“self-empty”), which argues that ultimate reality has no characteristics whatsoever; rangtong language will only describe ultimate reality in terms of what it is not. Rangtong is the position of the dominant tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Geluk, and is held by most Sakya and Kagyu lamas as well.

Jamgon Kongtrul, perhaps more than any other master in Tibetan history, exposed himself to as wide a range of teachings and practices as were available to him. But in reading Kongtrul’s works, we find two remarkable things: not only that he respected all the teachings that he encountered, seeing in them valid means to pursue the Buddhist (and Bön) goals, but also, at the same time, that he clearly advocated for his own particular view and practice. For him, Dzogchen and shentong were the definitive teachings.

Kongtrul’s institutional identities, and his doctrinal and ritual allegiances, were the things that allowed him to traverse the path. They were the ground on which he walked as he surveyed the religious landscape with his expansive vision. It is this that makes him such a model for contemporary practitioners, who face an even more varied landscape than he did. Like Kongtrul before us, we need not fear partiality toward our own tradition or view as long as we remember that everything to which we adhere and for which we advocate is just as provisional as that of the next person. Traditions matter, as do institutions; these are the things that preserve and support our practice.

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner is executive director of The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation and director and chief editor of Treasury of Lives, an online bibliographic encyclopedia of Tibet, Inner Asia, and the Himalaya.