Notes on the Biography of Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen
........Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen, who stands as not only the most prominent and influential figure in the Tibetan Bön religion in the twentieth century, but also at the center of a controversy within his own lineage. While his supporters revered him as an enlightened teacher whose non-sectarian sensibilities were perfectly suited to the times, his critics accused of him of championing an unorthodox movement that transgressed sectarian boundaries and mixed Bön with Buddhism.
One text was a comprehensive, rather advanced guidebook to Bön practice. It was entitled The Self Dawning of the Three Bodies (sku gsum rang shar) and it covered a systematic array of subjects related to Dzokchen (rdzogs chen) or 'Great Perfection' meditation in concise, instructional chapters.2 This particular text was intended for those who had completed a series of preliminary practices (sngon 'gro), and it comprised the fundamentals (dngos gzhi) of Dzokchen contemplation. ......the text's author, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan, 1859-1934), ranks as the best-known, most influential and arguably the most highly-regarded member of the Bön lineage to have lived in modern times
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen has come to be best known for: 1) the authorship of at least thirteen volumes of texts including Dzokchen doctrinal works and a traditional Bön history; 2) a pluralistic, non-sectarian attitude in response to the religious diversity of eastern Tibet; and 3) a dedication to advanced contemplative practice, publicly illustrated through a saintly death.
Shardza's body of publications totaled thirteen volumes— Headed by a set of compositions he conceived as “Five Treasuries” (mdzod nga), these scholarly tomes represented a diverse collection of titles on vital topics including Dzokchen theory and practice; scriptural tenet systems; soteriology; history; and Tantric initiation. These publications are augmented by additional works such as a popular introductory practice text, The Ocean of Oral Precepts and Scripture, or Kalung Gyatso, (bka' lung rgya mtsho), which has served as an
accessible gateway to the 'preliminaries' (sngon 'gro) traditionally undertaken by both monks and laity. His collected works also contains influential guidebooks on Dzokchen meditation such as The Self-Dawning of the Three Bodies, or Kusum Rangshar (sku gsum
rang shar), which is highly valued in present-day Tibet by Bön contemplatives like Aku Shöyang.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen is widely esteemed among Bönpo communities today. On a popular level, he is perhaps most notably revered for his dedication to contemplation and the resulting signs of spiritual mastery he reportedly displayed at the time of his death.
While his virtuoso status as a contemplative owes to a long-standing commitment to a retreat lifestyle, this found dramatic expression in his
final attainment of the highest religious achievement possible in the Dzokchen system,
the so-called 'rainbow body' or 'body of light' ('ja' lus). According to tradition, in such
cases the dying process culminates in the intentional dissolution of the physical body into
its subtle ‘elements,’ yielding uncanny appearances of multi-colored light as well as the
absence of an ordinary corpse.
...... in 1991, the venerable Tenzin Namdak, the former Head Teacher
(slob dpon) of Menri Monastery, provided oral teachings in English on Shardza’s Kusum
Rangshar, transcriptions of which were edited and made available by the independent
scholar John Myrdhin Reynolds.13 In 1993, Tenzin Namdak authorized the widespread
publication of The Heart Drops of Dharmakaya, his commentary on another of Shardza's
Dzokchen meditation guides, the Kunzang Nyingtik (kun bzang snying thig). Here he also
introduced Shardza's life-story to an English-speaking audience through a twelve-page
synopsis extracted from the shorter of two biographical accounts, The Pleasure Garden
of Wish-fulfilling Trees, which is translated in full here in Part II. This important
inclusion not only replicated a traditional intertextual dynamic—in contemporary Tibet
Shardza’s full-length biography is published together with his collected works—but also
functioned traditionally by instilling faith in Shardza’s example among a new class of
practitioner. Tenzin Wangyal, a Bönpo geshé who founded and directs the Ligmincha
Institute for the study and practice of Bön in the West, also cites Shardza's writings and
his life-example as an inspiration and continues to lead retreat programs for Western
students based upon practices Shardza lays out in his guidebooks.
Shardza is described as "a famous Bonpo master who gave teachings to students of other schools of Tibetan Buddhism as well as to many students from the Bon community," a depiction that strongly underscores his broad-mindedly nonsectarian
orientations and his apparent authority in broader religious circles (Namdak 1993, p. 7).
...Tenzin Wangyal relates that "I have always been impressed with the story of
Shardza Rinpoche, a great Tibetan master, who, when he died in 1934, attained the body of light ('ja' lus), a sign of full realization. During his life he had so many accomplished students, wrote many important texts, and worked for the benefit of the country in which he lived. It's difficult to imagine how he could have been
so productive in his external life, fulfilling the many responsibilities and long projects he undertook for the benefit of others, and still have been able to accomplish such attainment through spiritual practice
(Wangyal 1998, p. 14)." In July 2006, the Ligmincha Institute hosted a retreat led by Tenzin Wangyal centering on the Tummo (gtun mo) section of Shardza's Kusum Rangshar.
Shardza: A Biographical Overview
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen was born in 1859 to an unheralded Bönpo family of
modest means in the rural area of Kham (khams) known as Dzakhog (rdza khog). Despite the initial objections of his parents, he formally entered the religious life as a novice monk at the age of nine. Having reportedly discerned strong religious predispositions in the young boy, Shardza's first teacher and 'root lama,' Ratrul Tenzin Wangyal (dpra sprul bstan 'dzin dbyang rgyal), successfully convinced Shardza's reluctant parents to commit their only son (and potential heir) to the local monastery of Tengchen (steng chen). It was here that the young Shardza would gradually acquire his primary religious training.
During his time at Tengchen, Shardza's religious life centered on performing ritual
services in the protector temple, assisting his teacher in fulfilling the requests of local
patrons, and beginning a process of self-study that involved reading and reflecting on
scriptures. Shardza reportedly revered his teacher as far more than a provincial lama—
recounting deeply transformative transmissions of Tantric realization that ensued from
their relationship. However, the young Shardza eventually grew dissatisfied with routine
monastic affairs, longing instead to follow the example of important visiting figures he
met in his youth—many of whom were liberal treasure-revealers—who advocated a
After undertaking a formative period of pilgrimage in his mid-twenties, he returned to
his home region and began teaching on a limited basis, and by the age of thirty-four he
had garnered enough support to establish his own small hermitage on a remote
mountainside. Devoting significant time to advanced Dzokchen contemplation, he began
attracting like-minded students who took up residence nearby. Amidst this environment
he commenced the practice of writing, with many of his compositions owing directly to
his esoteric experiences and visionary encounters.
By this point in his life, Shardza had also assumed full monastic ordination and
appears to have been uncommonly fastidious in adhering to the discipline, eschewing the
eating of meat or the use of animal skins, among other self-imposed restrictions. It is
worth noting that the ideal as presented here thus seems to encompass, and to attempt to
harmonize, several potentially competing orientations to the religious life. This is because
for Bönpo communities in nineteenth and twentieth century Tibet, the available socioreligious alternatives typically would have involved choices between the unconventional power of an esoteric path and the moral purity of the monastic lifestyle; conflicting levels of commitment to contemplative training as opposed to academic study and scholarly exegesis; and widely differing attitudes towards revelatory innovation and scriptural conservation. In Shardza’s case, he emerges as something of an ideal moderate, who proves capable of embodying the proverbial Middle Way.
In the years that followed, from approximately his early forties to his mid-sixties,
Shardza traveled and taught widely in eastern Tibet, gradually making a name for himself
while circulating and teaching from his written works. While he is portrayed as generally
maintaining the modest demeanor of a hermit throughout his adulthood, ultimately his
reputation as an effective interpreter of Bön texts, an experienced contemplative, and a
well-qualified lama earned him acclaim from several quarters. The vaunted position he
came to enjoy left him well-poised to engage in productive dialogue with a diverse array
of religious personages (including non-sectarian Buddhists), and to successfully raise
funds throughout eastern Tibet for the restoration of his home monastery of Tengchen, as
well as for the construction of a new practice center in Dzakhog.
By his early sixties, his textual corpus and regional renown had attracted the attention of leading Bönpos throughout the Tibetan cultural world, stretching from as far away as Dolpo in western Nepal to Aba prefecture in contemporary Qinghai province.
The last several years of his life were spent back in his small hermitage, where he offered personal instruction to close disciples, presided over ritual performances, gave annual teachings to sizable audiences, and received visitors.
Upon his death in 1934 at the age of seventy-five—highlighted by
his inspiring demonstration of Dzokchen self-mastery—he was succeeded by numerous
disciples, led by his nephew and chosen successor, Lodrö Gyatso (blo gros rgya mtsho).
The Climate of Rimé
The 'non-partisan,' 'non-sectarian', 'universalist' or rimé (ris med) movement
represents no less than the most far-reaching and broadly influential phenomenon to mold
the Tibetan religious terrain of Shardza's lifetime. It refers to an important constellation
of socio-religious trends encompassing many leading Buddhist figures and institutions in
the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo, and it has been aptly described by Gene Smith as,
"without a doubt, the most important development during the 19th century in the Lamaist
world."20 A development, one might add, with continuing and substantial influence on
Tibetan religion down to the present day.
Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé ('jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha' yas, 1813-1899)
rejected the 'intellectual petrification' associated with Geluk scholasticism, instead
advocating fresh interpretations of original Indic texts across sectarian lines.23 This
ultimately led to a reformulation of curricular materials among the non-Geluk sects,
which served as a basis for new schools for doctrinal study and interpretation (bshad
this movement provided a promising avenue for Bönpos to contribute. For while they
disagreed with their Buddhist contemporaries on matters as fundamental as the status of
the Buddha Shakyamuni, Bönpos shared with the Nyingmas the position that the
Dzokchen view represented the apex of all doxographical systems, and they maintained
vigorous traditions of practice associated with it. Shardza's own keen interest in
practicing and writing about Dzokchen undoubtedly left him well-positioned to
participate in this type of dialogue.
A related and fundamental feature of rimé involves its focus on the collection,
organization and transmission of diverse streams of esoteric practice in ways that valued
experiential efficacy over and above rigorous adherence to orthodox scholarly
methodologies, such as the categories and procedures of Geluk-style monastic debate. In
what might be described as a contemplatively-based approach to hermeneutics, rimé
authors reinterpreted material from the ancient past—including imperial mythology, the
cult of Padmasambha, the Gesar epic, and ritual praxis from older Tantras—in light of
ongoing new revelations. So it was that several leading rimé scholars were also known as
inspired visionaries, including both Khyentsé and Kongtrul, and a number of newly
disclosed 'treasure texts' came to prominence. Many of these ‘treasures’ won great
popularity, imbuing local landscapes with esoteric meaning and asserting karmic
connections between contemporary figures and Tibet’s greatest religious and political
In central Tibet, the Bön tradition was headquartered at Menri monastery, which was
situated in Tsang province about two day's journey west of the capital of Lhasa. Menri
was established in 1405 on the foundations, metaphorically speaking, of prior small-scale
Bön institutions by the 'peerless' Nyammé Sherap Gyantsen (mnya' med shes rab rgyal
mtshan, 1356-1415), who continues to be revered by Bönpos as the consolidator of an
extremely valuable spiritual heritage. The institution he founded, and its affiliated
'branch' monasteries of Yungdrung Ling (g.yung drung gling) and Kharna (mkhar sna),
Yungdrung Ling was founded in 1834 by Nangtön Dawa Gyantsen (snang ston zla ba rgyal mtshan, b. 1796) and Kharna was established within a few decades by his disciple, Sherap Yungdrung (shes rap g.yung drung, b. 1838)
In the east, Bön evolved differently. In keeping with the trends of their Buddhist
contemporaries and their eclectic patrons, their own history of distinctive family lineage
traditions, and the needs of their largely autonomous, localized populations of supporters,
a broader range of teachings and practices found expression. Moreover, relationships
with Buddhist institutions and individuals seem to have benefited from somewhat more
egalitarian dynamics, such that they were decidedly more cordial. As previously
mentioned, the religious landscape in the east accommodated different types of religious
specialists including, but not limited to, celibate clerics. Among these Bönpo specialists
were 'treasure-revealers' or tertön, including noteworthy figures such as Kundrol Drakpa
(kun grol grags pa, b.1700), Dechen Lingpa (bde chen gling pa, b. 1833) and others with
close ties to Buddhists.
.......when Shardza traveled to the Ngawa (rnga ba) region of Amdo in
1920 at the age of sixty-two, in response to repeated invitations from the Bönpo
monastery of Togden Gön (rtogs ldan dgon, alias bkra shis 'khyil gling). As is still the
case today, this monastery is situated very near to another (and larger) Bön monastery—
Nangzhi (snang zhi)—and there is a history of strained relations between the two.64 At a
time coinciding with Shardza's visit to the region, the geshé Sherap Drakpa was visiting
the nearby Nangzhi.
With two distinguished lamas visiting the area, a decision was made to jointly stage a
religious event in a tent set up in an open area between the two monasteries. However,
64 Sherap Dargyé (shes rab dar rgyas), a Togden monk studying at Menri, explained that a disagreement developed around the representation of monks from the two monasteries at the performance of household rites and funerals in the area. Evidently there was an established custom of inviting one monk from Togden for every two from Nangzhi (a much larger institution) for such occasions, and this system had worked well
in the area up to a certain time. However, some families began to invite monks from only Togden and others from only Nangzhi. The lamas reportedly did not have a problem with this, but many village patrons did, and as a result the issue was brought before the King of Meu (rme'u rgyal po), a regional authority who administrated the area. He is described as a Gelukpa who had no special interest in the case, but made a summary ruling that henceforth required households to choose monks from either one monastery or the other to perform household rituals—not both as had been the custom. This apparently created a more competitive and potentially divisive atmosphere that has persisted to the present day. Cech apparently learned of another source of enmity between these two institutions, namely, the propitiation of a protector deity at Nangzhi named Genyen (sge snyan) that was regarded as demonic by the Bonpos of Togden (Cech 1987, p. 88).
......problems reportedly arose both from the protocol that was followed as well as from
comments that were made. While oral accounts seem to vary slightly, they agree that the
height of the thrones reserved for the two lamas was one source of offense; Shardza's was
either slightly higher than, or else equal to, that of the erudite, degree-holding geshé.
While this arrangement could perhaps be justified based on Shardza's regional reputation
and his seniority, he lacked the geshé's formal credentials. The seating arrangement and
what it implied is said to have displeased Sherap Drakpa.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen's religious life and career comes to us through the medium of
two religious biographies: a relatively brief portrait named The Pleasure Garden of Wish-
fulfilling Trees and a comprehensive portrayal entitled The String of Wondrous Gems: A
Necklace for the Wise Desiring Liberation. Both were produced in eastern Tibet in the
mid-twentieth century, yet they each represent an example of traditional Tibetan life-
writing, or namtar (rnam thar), a significant class of Tibetan literature with a long
history. This vital genre, which exhibits historiographical traits and yet remains
comparable in many ways to Christian hagiography, presents a reader with particular
interpretive challenges. The present chapter will address these by bringing attention to the
texts themselves, specifically examining the genre to which they belong, their authorship
and audience, and their compositional qualities of structure and style.
The String of Wondrous Gems thus approaches the present life of Shardza through a
basic three-fold chronology. Straightforwardly beginning with Shardza's youth (sku
gzhon dus) and continuing to explore his adult life (sku tshe'i stod, 'the upper [or nascent
part] of his life'), this primary segment duly concludes with an account of his later years
(sku tshe smad, 'the lower [or latter part] of his life'). The three sections are respectively
linked to "the ripening [empowerments] and liberating [instructions] he received and
contemplated"; "the meditations and practices he brought into his experience"; and "the
explanations [or scholarship] and practices [that constituted his turning] the wheel of
[enlightened] activity." In all three sections, the text proceeds with an annual chronicle of
events in Shardza's life, in which each year is introduced and set off from the previous
year and each annual segment is concluded with poetic verses highlighting the particular
events discussed and the virtues illustrated.
Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen was born in a rural, mountainous area located between the
four river valleys that converge in the southeast of Tibet in the province of Kham, and the
epithet "Shardza" refers to his birthplace, the eastern (shar) part of the area known as
Dzakhog (rdza khog). His biographer quotes from a document in the abridged biography
that he describes only as "a beautiful text" depicting the area of his teacher's birth:
It was in the eastern part of the Land of Snow, the country of Tibet, in the
great region of Dokhammé (mdo khams smad, the lower or southern part of
eastern Tibet), in the eastern part of Nguldza Zalmo Gang (dngul rdza zal mo
sgang), in the mountain range of Dagang Ringmo (zla sgang ring mo).
Many, many learned and accomplished beings came [there], and this blessed
region was called Dzakhog. [It was located] in between the gently flowing
rivers of Dzachu (rdza chu) and Dachu (brda chu, bsda chu), in the vicinity of
the power place for meditation practice known as Yungdrung Lhunpo (g.yung
drung lhun po) [mountain, an area] which was protected by the three
[mountain ranges] of Gyer, Za and Che (gyer za mched). [Here], on the side of
the mountain range called Da was a village that was [to become] his locus of
Even as an accomplished teacher, Shardza seems to have regarded himself as an
unsophisticated rustic who was never fully conversant with the protocols of elite society.
During a period of mid-career travel to the royal houses of ruling monarchs in eastern
Tibet, Shardza reportedly stated: "From when I was small, I've stayed in the style of a
humble renouncer. In the presence of different kinds of important people, whatever
respectful gestures and things I do aren't enough. Most people look at me as if I'm proud.
It is very difficult for me to [follow] the customs and such of royalty."
According to The String of Wondrous Gems:
When Shardza was twenty-four years of age, there was a great drought in
the region once again. Shardza was attending his lama in an effort to bring
rain, and there was a strong windstorm, so that the rain clouds were unable to
remain in the area. An elder man had offered an old sword upon which
mantras had been written, and Ratrul had instructed Shardza to concentrate on
the mantras and "push down the wind," after which he was to strike a tree with
the sword. Suddenly the lama appeared unexpectedly, grabbed the sword and
exclaimed, "Not like that!" The lama knocked Shardza down and danced in a
wrathful manner; he jumped up and down and struck Shardza with the sword
five times and rebuked him, saying, "You need this!" He then put the sword
back in Shardza's hand and departed. Shardza was left with a large wound and
there was a lot of blood. He fell into a dark unconsciousness and woke up as if
from sleep. He saw his lama making the gesture for subduing demons in the
space before him, and he received the blessings of the Mind Lineage (dgongs
brgyud). Naked awareness beyond expression and thought directly
manifested. Like the pure sky being infused by daylight, an effortless
realization was born in his heart, boundless and continuous day and night in
the expanse of the great radiant light of primordial purity. In about the time it
takes to prepare tea, the scar from the wound on his body disappeared.
This first example of Shardza's receipt of religious teaching outside of the Bön
tradition provides the first instance in the biography of the ecumenical climate for which
Kham in this period was well-known. One might note that the inter-sectarian exchange
reported here occurs within the context of an individual teacher-student relationship in an
isolated setting, and it focuses primarily on esoteric experience. Dispensing with
formalities, the Buddhist yogin finds familiarity with and progress in meditative states to
be useful ground for dialogue. Unfortunately, it is not clear to what extent Shardza may
have actively sought him out, or to what extent it was a chance encounter. It is tempting
to suggest, however, that other Bönpos were aware of the presence of this yogi and may
have similarly approached him and received instruction.
Shardza's early esoteric education culminates with his training in the Great
Perfection, the 'ultra-pure' system at the pinnacle of traditional Bön doxographies. As
mentioned previously, Shardza received instruction and undertook his first Great
Perfection 'dark retreat' under the guidance of Samten Yeshé, leading him to complete
several such periods of retreat as he moved into his thirties. Even amidst a so-called
'outer' biography, it is not altogether surprising to find some treatment of the content of
these formative experiences given how essential Shardza's esoteric qualifications are to
his religious standing.
Indeed, the reader learns that Shardza was instructed to undertake four sessions of
practice per day for fifty days (intended to correspond with the seven weeks of the bardo,
the postmortem transitional period), during which time he advanced through the stages of
visionary experience traditionally recognized as indicators of progress. For example,
during the first week, visions of five-colored spheres (thig le) of luminous light appeared;
in the second week, these visions intensified and manifested everywhere, and peaceful
forms of deities became visible within the space (klong) of these spheres; and during the
third week, he saw not only the principle deities but a great variety of images of the five
Buddha-families, who were in union with their consorts and displaying different gestures
and attire.194 All of this imagery—light spheres appearing in various configurations,
followed by the envisioning of Buddhas within their cores and a gradual intensification of
these experiences—corresponds well with the ideal visionary stages characteristic of the
Great Perfection practice known as tögal ("direct crossing," thod rgal). It thus provides
important foreshadowing for his later meditative attainments in this system, which, as we
shall see, are most remarkably evident at the end of his earthly life.
This particular retreat also marks the most significant description of Shardza's
practice of 'dream yoga' (rmi lam rnal 'byor), a topic upon which he would later write
instructional guidelines. It was mentioned above that Shardza's experience with tsalung
practice had granted him a natural facility for the dream and clear light practices; the
reader also discovers that during the period of his dark retreat Shardza experienced many
lucid dreams and recalled them, and succeeded in gaining control over the dream state.
Tenpé Gyaltsen elaborates: "In S••tra it says, 'If you see one jackal in a dream, make
many! Make a cemetery.... Understand it as a celestial palace... If you see a bird, change
it into a garuda and ride on it. Go to the wish-fulfilling tree on the peak of the universe
and look at the world.'"195 Further explaining that in the dream state one can consciously
transform and manifest objects, see the spectacle of the universe, go under the earth and
through rock, and emanate many kinds of bodies, Tenpé Gyaltsen affirms that Shardza
successfully mastered a full range of dream experiences as well as the ability to maintain
dreamless, 'clear light' sleep.
In The String of Wondrous Gems, Tenpé Gyaltsen's summary remarks on the
outcomes of these important retreats boldly proclaim Shardza's esoteric
accomplishments, and with unmistakable implications for his religious knowledge.
"Through the power of the dark retreat yoga," the biography states, "[Shardza] didn't
intellectually analyze whatever arose spontaneously as the wisdom of his own awareness.
After that, he didn't have to make effort... he was beyond effort."
Moreover, he scanned "thousands of pages of books" in his dreams, effectively speed-reading three lines at a time, something reportedly made possible by predispositions from former lives.198 This essential link between his inner experiences and his understanding of
scriptures—previously noted in his unconventional initiation from Ratrul—naturally
plays an important role in the portrayal of his later authorship.
Generally speaking, exert yourself in four practice periods and meditative experience and
realization [should be] made the center of the practice; regarding this, both master and
student need to focus.
On these occasions, one deepens the wind and channel training in the
Main Practice [section of] the Kusum Rangshar. Then, stay in strict retreat [in the dark] for
forty-nine days [according to] both the Ösel Dun section of the [Zhangzhung] Nyengyü
and the Ösel Dun (od gsal bdun) section of the Kusum Rangshar. According to one's
faculties, one should take Breakthrough (khregs chod) as the center of one's spiritual practice [according to] the Main Practice (dngos gzhi) [section] of the [Kunzang] Nyingthik or the Kusum Rangshar.
At this time, apply oneself day and night, morning and evening according
to the Thablam Druk ("The Sixfold Path of Skillful Means") in the Kusum Rangshar or the
Denö Dzö (The Treasury of Collected Scriptures). Spend your life in the practice of Direct
Crossing (thod rgal), utilizing such things as the two gatherings of light rays applicable at
daybreak and sunset, the time of the full moon, and [the light of] butter lamps.
Spending your life on these [practices] for either three, seven, nine or twelve years, you should gain confidence in the practice.
The life of a Bonpo luminary: Sainthood, Partisanship and Literary Representation in a 20th Century Tibetan Biography
William M. Gorvine's doctoral dissertation University of Virginia, 2006. About Shardza Rinpoche.