Achim Bayer. The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga' (1871-1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet. Hamburg Buddhist Studies. Bochum: Projekt Verlag, 2019. xxi + 394 pp. $39.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-89733-495-3.
Reviewed by Adam Pearcey (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Buddhism (June, 2021)
Commissioned by Lucia Galli
Achim Bayer's The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga' (1871-1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet provides a comprehensive account of the life and literary output of gZhan-phan chos-kyi-snang-ba, one of the most significant figures in recent Tibetan Buddhist history. As the subtitle indicates, gZhan-dga', as he is generally known, is remembered chiefly for his reform of monastic education in eastern Tibet in the early decades of the twentieth century. He brought about this reform through his role as a teacher and founder of scriptural colleges (Tib. bshad grwa) where he instituted a curriculum centered on the so-called thirteen major treatises, or thirteen great texts (gzhung chen bcu gsum).
Bayer's book, adapted from his master's thesis (University of Hamburg, 2000), is divided into three parts: the first covers gZhan-dga's life in more or less chronological order; the second discusses his "gloss commentaries" (mchan 'grel) to the thirteen major treatises in detail, as well as his minor writings; and the third provides the Tibetan text (in transliteration) of some key sources. Appendices then offer a wealth of additional information, including details on gZhan-dga's ordination lineage and biographical notes on no fewer than seventy-three of his main disciples.
The author is under no illusion as to the challenges of accurately piecing together and conveying gZhan-dga's life story. In the absence of a single, book-length biography in Tibetan—the long-searched-for namthar (rnam thar) attributed to his student mKhyen-rab Chos-kyi 'Od-zer (1889-1959) is presumed lost, if it ever existed at all—Bayer is compelled to rely on a variety of sources, including accounts from the master's contemporaries and interviews with more recent representatives of his lineage. The large number of sources consulted, both written and oral, is impressive and results in an engaging narrative. There is some inevitable disagreement between sources, as well as a general reluctance to discuss topics that might be deemed inauspicious, such as gZhan-dga's apparent antipathy toward the extrinsic emptiness or emptiness-of-other (gzhan stong) philosophy, which proved controversial during his tenure at dPal-spungs Monastery. Bayer thus offers what he refers to as "a possible sequence of events," noting discrepancies in the historical record and suggesting possible motives for omissions (p. 25). This approach is not without its perils, and some stories from the oral tradition, in particular, have perhaps been accepted without sufficient caution. The reference to mKhyen-brtse'i-dbang-po (1820-92), rDza dPal-sprul (1808-87), and 'Jam-mgon Kong-sprul (1813-99) as "three dorm mates" during their studies at Zhe-chen, for instance, is closer to what might be termed "Ris-med fan fiction" than it is to a reliable chronicling of events (p. 5).
Following E. Gene Smith and others, Bayer presents gZhan-dga' as a participant in the Ris-med tradition, and more specifically as a nonsectarian author, teacher, and founder (or "founding principal," as Bayer has it). gZhan-dga's efforts helped to preserve "the Ris-med legacy" and "had an enormous impact on Tibetan intellectual life" (pp. 6, 8). He brought about "a fundamental reform in Tibetan Buddhist education" within the rNying-ma, Sa-skya, and bKa'-brgyud schools (p. 178). Still, Bayer argues, he did not necessarily set out to do so. His activity as a prolific founder of scriptural colleges—"explanation colleges" and "exposition seminaries" in the book's literal rendering—arose largely from being in the right place at the right time, combined with an obvious reputation for erudition and willingness to accept invitations. This willingness waned in his later years, however, as it conflicted with his ambition to remain in retreat. Yet even when he retired to the mountains, he still continued to teach and involve himself in the politics of sprul-sku succession.
Bayer does not broach the topic of whether gZhan-dga' should be classified as the author or editor of the gloss commentaries on the thirteen major texts, a legitimate question given that they are cribbed from the works of Indian authors. But he does make clear that the texts served a practical purpose: for students seated cross-legged on the floor without a desk, simultaneously consulting two or more loose-leaf books—a "root text" and its commentary or commentaries—poses something of an ergonomic challenge, to which a single combined volume offers an elegant solution. Bayer also provides a mass of bibliographic information for each of the works and discusses the circumstances surrounding their composition (if that is the word). He lists their various pre- and post-1959 editions and identifies a likely precedent in the "eighteen [treatises] of great renown" (grags chen bco brgyad) particular to the Sa-skya tradition (pp. 188-90). As Smith observed in his seminal essay on Kong-sprul and the nonsectarian movement, the gloss commentaries represented a "reorientation" toward Indian originals that predated many of Tibet's philosophical controversies and sectarian wrangling. Bayer underscores this point and makes the further observation that the commentaries' nondenominationalism facilitated their adoption by colleges of different sectarian affiliations, as they could be taught at a foundational level prior to the defining tenets of a given tradition.
The choice of thirteen treatises, selection of commentaries, and choice of passages within them all reflect gZhan-dga's pedagogical approach but do little to reveal his philosophical standpoint. Even his minor writings, in which he had more freedom to express his views, leave some room for speculation as to what he actually believed. It is clear that he had a fondness for Candrakīrti's approach and was an admirer of both Sa-skya Paṇḍita Kun-dga' rgyal-mtshan (1128-1251) and Go-rams-pa bSod-nams seng-ge (1429-89), yet questions remain. Why are there no pramāṇa titles among the thirteen great texts, for example? Bayer addresses two key issues in particular detail: gZhan-dga's supposed critique of the emptiness-of-other view and his attitude toward pramāṇa and debate. Historians of Tibetan scholasticism will appreciate the thoroughness with which Bayer treats these topics. It is a pity though that he fails to identify 'Jigs-med gling-pa's Yon tan mdzod as the source for a key citation in The Mirror Illuminating the Objects of Knowledge (Shes bya gsal ba'i me long), gZhan-dga's longest minor work. The reference to 'Jigs-med gling-pa here as the "later Omniscient One" (kun mkhyen phyi ma) shows the extent to which gZhan-dga' was embedded within the Klong-chen snying-thig tradition, a point Bayer himself makes elsewhere in the book.
Such quibbles aside, Bayer's book represents a significant contribution to the history of Tibetan Buddhism in the twentieth century and an essential work of reference for anyone with more than a passing interest in traditional Tibetan education, scholasticism, or nonsectarianism. It sheds light not only on gZhan-dga's life but also on the lives of those around him, including Dil-mgo mKhyen-brtse bkra-shis dpal-'byor (1910-91), whom gZhan-dga' believed to be the incarnation of his main teacher O-rgyan bstan-'dzin nor-bu (1841-1900?), and it paints a vivid picture of intellectual life in and around the monasteries of Khams in the early twentieth century. In this respect, it complements David Jackson's Saint in Seattle: The Life of the Tibetan Mystic Dezhung Rinpoche (2003), on the life of sDe-gzhung Rin-po-che (1906-87), which was both a reference for, and beneficiary of, Bayer's research. Additional sources, as they become available, may clarify some episodes in gZhan-dga's career that still remain contested or obscure. Even so, all future research on gZhan-dga's life and works and on monastic education more generally will surely benefit from the foundations laid in this monograph, an admirable work of scholarship that befits its illustrious (and somewhat enigmatic) subject.
. See E. Gene Smith, Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau (Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2001), 246.
. One such source, perhaps, is the biography of O-rgyan bstan-'dzin nor-bu, to which Matthieu Ricard has access but that has not yet been made available to researchers. A recently published biography of dBon-stod mkhyen-rab Chos-kyi-'od-zer (1889-1959), gZhan-dga's successor at Khams-bye college at rDzong-gsar, also warrants attention. See Nyi ma blo gsal (rab brtan pa dge legs phun tshogs), "dbon stod pa mkhan chen mkhyen rab kyi nyi ma'i rnam thar," in dbon stod mkhyen rab chos kyi 'od zer gyi gsung 'bum (Lhasa: Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 2015), 1-47.
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Adam Pearcey. Review of Bayer, Achim, The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga' (1871-1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet.
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