Portraits of Wisdom and Courage

Review of biographies Dilgo Khyentse and HH Dudjom Rinpoche, by Benjamin Bogin.

Benjamin Bogin
1 December 2008
Khyentse Rinpoche at Amala’s house in France

Brilliant Moon: The Autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse
Translated by Ani Jinba PalmoShambhala, 2008
400 pages; $35 (hardcover)

Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom: The Life and Legacy of HH Dudjom Rinpoche
By Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal
Snow Lion, 2008
360 pages; $18.95 (paperback)


Dudjom Rinpoche (1904–1987) and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910–1991) were two of the most influential Tibetan lamas of the twentieth century. They both gained fame and veneration during their youth in Tibet as precocious masters of the teachings. Both became beacons of hope and courage for Tibetans-in-exile after the Chinese occupation of their homeland. And both were also pivotal in establishing Tibetan Buddhism in Europe, North America, and East Asia. The parallels between the two figures and their personal connections as friend, guru, and disciple to one another make the nearly simultaneous publication of their biographies a most fortuitous coincidence.

Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom is the biography of Dudjom Rinpoche written by his student Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal. It begins with an account of seven of his most important previous incarnations, and then moves on to the story of his birth in the remote region of Pema Kö, a “hidden land” at the densely forested border of Tibet and India. The prophecies and miraculous signs that accompanied his birth led to his recognition as the reincarnation of the great treasure-revealer Dudjom Lingpa. The child confirmed this identification by greeting the disciples of his previous incarnation by name when they arrived in Pema Kö to examine him. By the age of eight, he had already delivered his first public teaching (on the first four chapters of Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva).

Over the next few decades, Dudjom Rinpoche studied with dozens of the most important lineage holders in Tibet, receiving transmissions for an astonishing variety of practice traditions and cultivating them through meditation retreats and scholarly efforts to collect and edit scattered texts. After a few years in Lhasa, where he developed a lasting connection with the young Dalai Lama, Dudjom Rinpoche fled from the approaching Red Army in 1956. He established his new residence in the old Indian hill-station of Kalimpong and devoted himself to transmitting the teachings to the next generation of lamas; in 1960 he was recognized as the Supreme Head of the Nyingma School. His globe-circling 1973 journey to Hong Kong, the United States, and Europe was truly historic and marked the beginning of his intimate connections with many of the first Western students of Tibetan Buddhism.

Dudjom Rinpoche’s disciples remember his elegance and the power of his presence. Descended from a family that traces its roots to the royal family of Tibet’s medieval golden age, Dudjom Rinpoche seemed to be a visitor from another world who was perfectly at ease in any surroundings. This refinement was coupled with a sense of courage and freedom rooted in the Buddhist ideal of cutting through attachments. In the mid-fifties, as Tibetans were fleeing the Communist occupation, Dudjom Rinpoche composed a poem predicting his own flight across the Himalayas that proclaimed, “I, a silken lion, do not need a palace./ The lion’s glacial heights are my palace./ Anywhere I like, I shake my turquoise mane,/ Roaming about, enjoying any snow ravine.”

Many of the songs in the biography demonstrate Dudjom Rinpoche’s ability to express the Dzogchen view in poetry of sublime beauty and with instructions of immediate clarity. He inspired many of the present generation of lamas through his words and personal guidance, and his humility, realization, and refinement are wonderfully reflected in the writing of his close disciple, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal.

Brilliant Moon, though presented as the autobiography of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, is actually much more. The autobiography does occupy the center of the book, but the materials around it are not mere window dressing. There are numerous forewords that precede the autobiography, and recollections that follow it, which serve to reflect, clarify, and draw one closer to the uniqueness of the being they evoke.

In his foreword, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche reflects on the contrast between his teacher’s apparent disregard for clothing, often receiving guests (including royalty) half-naked, and the care and elegance with which he wore the exquisite costumes for the performance of ritual practices. He concludes that for Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the purpose of adhering to these traditions “was not to impress people, but to create an atmosphere of inspiration.” Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s foreword, along with those by the Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, serves as inspiration guiding the reader toward encountering the autobiography itself as a source of blessings.

From the first page, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s humor and humility gives the reader a sense of his inimitable voice. The traditional declaration of reluctance to compose an autobiography (itself often an occasion for ornate poetic showing-off) exemplifies the characteristic earthy, wry style of the author: “In my case, the dung heap of my defects makes Mount Meru look small, and even though I was able to grow a sprout of the appearance of holy qualities, it could not survive but has withered into a yellowish green and is now on the verge of drying up.”

The content of everything that follows contradicts this critical self-assessment in every way. The tenderness and gratitude with which Dilgo Khyentse recalls his childhood connection with Mipham Rinpoche conveys more of the meaning of devotion than countless treatises on the topic. His youthful struggle to pursue a life devoted to study and practice rather than assume his responsibilities to manage his noble family’s estate sheds light on the difficult choices made by someone whose life was often considered predetermined. The accounts of his years spent in meditation retreat, his recognition as an incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and his studies with the greatest lamas of his time are all related with an unadorned simplicity and gentleness, as if there were nothing particularly remarkable about these events.

The recollections of his disciples, patrons, and relatives that make up the final section of the book offer a variety of perspectives of this remarkable figure. We learn how Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s own extraordinary abilities and dedication enabled him to play a leading role in the revival of Buddhism in occupied Tibet (visiting twice himself), and that many of the most famous lamas in the West revered him as a guru, including the Dalai Lama, Chögyam Trungpa, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, among others.

Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche (the grandson of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche) contributed an essay called “My Grandfather, My Guru,” which contains many touching anecdotes from his childhood. He also wrote “Death and Rebirth,” an essay that describes the many omens that pointed toward Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s death and the efforts by his disciples to prolong his life, as well as the dignity with which he eventually passed from the world. This final section also introduces Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s reincarnation, now a fifteen year-old boy, who has spent his life studying at the monasteries in Nepal and Bhutan, where his previous incarnation resided.

Stylistically, the two biographies differ in significant ways. Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal’s Light of Fearless Indestructible Wisdom was originally written in Tibetan, and it retains many of the literary conventions of classical Tibetan biography. The prose narrative of Dudjom Rinpoche’s life is interwoven with his letters, songs, and teachings, as well as the stanzas of a 211-verse poem that Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal composed about his guru.

The challenges that this poem poses for readers who are unfamiliar with this Tibetan literary form are addressed by the author’s personal introductory essay and Toy-Fung Tung’s helpful “Essay on Tibetan Poetry” in an appendix. Although reading classical Tibetan poetry does require some effort from the reader, Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal’s mastery of the form and the excellent translation ensure that the reader’s efforts will be amply rewarded.

Brilliant Moon’s combination of personal remembrances about a great teacher and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s own straightforward autobiography make for a highly readable collection—one that offers both profound insights into the nature of reality and down-to-earth reflections on the experiences of daily living. Both books also make generous use of photographs (and drawings in the case of Dudjom Rinpoche) that reveal the powerful physical presence of each lama.

The portraits of these two extraordinary lamas that emerge from their biographies provide a vivid image of perfection that will inspire and delight those encountering these teachers for the first time and will deepen and strengthen the connections held by those who were fortunate enough to have met them in person.