Apparitions of the Self is a groundbreaking investigation into what is known in Tibet as "secret autobiography", an exceptional, rarely studied literary genre that presents a personal exploration of intimate religious experiences. In this volume, Janet Gyatso translates and studies the outstanding pair of secret autobiographies by the famed Tibetan Buddhist visionary, Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798). Gyatso's translation marks the first time that works of this sort have appeared in a Western language. It is only one of the many virtues of Janet Gyatso's Apparitions of the Self that it gives us, at last, a full portrait of a Buddhist Saint in all his self-admitted complexity and ambiguity... Lucid and literate... Significant points to ponder and subtle arguments to which to respond.
This exceptional volume combines concise and felicitous translation with clear commentary and insightful analysis... What lends considerable interest to this work is the comparison Gyatso... makes between Tibetan literature and Western literary theory... (Apparitions of the Self) serves as a model of innovative scholarship.
Janet Gyatso is Associate Professor of Religion at Amherst College. She is the editor of In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism.
It is a pleasure to congratulate the author for this complete coverage of a work Dancing Moon in the Water by Jigme Lingpa of the 18th century, A.D., a chief accomplisher of the ancient Tibetan sect Nyingmapa. By realizing or having Apparitions of his Self (atman) or “vase” body in former incarnations-including a playful, talkative Dakini (female spirit), he attained “Treasures”. Visions may appear within circles of rainbow light. The authoress Gyatso used Outer and Secret Autobiographies of this Tibetan author, claiming that it was the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet that led to these autobiographies -of which the present work has a splendid, even striking exposition.
THIS BOOK takes a pair of texts, already esoteric in their traditional context, and draws them into the perilous domain of cross-cultural reflection. The texts, the “secret autobiographies” of the eighteenth-century visionary Jigme Lingpa, are of difficult access in their own right because of their complex locutions and allusions to arcane practices. In translating and explicating these, I have been generously assisted by several traditional Tibetan authorities, cited in the acknowledgments. This consultation, conducted over several years in North America and South Asia, provided me with an extraordinary opportunity to witness how a recondite literary genre like Tibetan secret autobiography is read and responded to by its intended audience: the bearers of the author’s lineage and the practitioners of his teachings. Although my consultants live two centuries after Jigme Lingpa, they have participated in a world of religious practices and institutions that changed little from his day until the Chinese intrusion into Tibet in 195o.
Modern researchers need assistance from traditional authorities in studying many kinds of esoteric Tibetan Buddhist literature, but secret autobiography doubly requires such recourse. In addition to its abstruse content, there is the indirection of its discursive strategies, for it does not construct the sort of systematic structures or edifying narratives to which most scholars of Buddhism have devoted their attention. In fact, Tibetan autobiography has rarely been studied by modern scholars at all; the few academic discussions of this kind of writing are concerned largely with the information on names and dates that it happens to supply.
Autobiography is indeed a key resource for such data, but to see it only as that is to fail to recognize the genre’s other compelling features, features that have to do precisely with its unsystematic and subjective nature. Autobiography offers a view of how Buddhist traditions were embodied in the concrete social and psychological peculiarities of real persons, a view rarely gained from any other kind of writing. It is especially valuable for what it divulges of an individual’s negotiation, via the medium of a text, of the discrepancies between normative ideology, social expectation, and personal desire.
But to ask these questions of a text takes the researcher beyond the emic reading, which is concerned largely with soteriology. It also takes her beyond the conventions of the philology and doxography of Buddhist studies. Secret autobiography, especially as artfully written as Jigme Lingpa’s, is fruitfully read as literature. A tropological analysis uncovers, for example, dissonances in the autobiographer’s self-image with respect to tradition that are never acknowledged overtly. Such analysis also reveals unanticipated complexity in the metaphysics of self-conception, beyond what is indicated in the doctrinal literature to which the autobiographer subscribes. I am even led to speculate that auto-biographical self-figuration became in Tibet a new means to engage personal experience with normative doctrines like “no-self” and “unformulatedness,” doctrines that have never in the history of Buddhism named autobiographical writing as a recommended practice. Literary methods of analysis also help us to recognize direct connections between sociohistorical situations and what is written in a text, extending even to the question of the genesis of the genre of autobiography in Tibet altogether. And this in turn suggests ways to formulate what has been distinctive about Buddhism in Tibet, as compared to other Asian countries.
For me the most significant effect of submitting Tibetan Buddhist texts to untraditional modes of analysis is to bring this material into a broadly based discourse. Outside the Tibetan world, familiarity with Tibetan literature is limited to Tibetologists, a few other Asianists, and the circle of modern devotees of Tibetan Buddhism. This literature has yet to be considered in larger thematic terms, on a par with other objects of study in the humanities. Still relegated to the realm of the exotic and the mystical, Tibetan religion needs to be reevaluated in light of its very real historical and political actualities, not to mention its relevance to general discussions in ethics, the history of religion, philosophy, literature, anthropology, and many other domains. While the latter domestications cannot fail to alter, to some extent, the object under scrutiny, we can hardly argue that this object has ever been pristine or free from extrinsic influence in the first place. Given the beleaguered state of Tibetan culture today, it seems reasonable to assume that even a traditional exponent such as Jigme Lingpa would tolerate a certain distortion if that could facilitate an appreciation for the remarkable richness of his world.
To DISTINGUISH a Tibetan cultural product by bringing it into fields of discourse that render it comparable and contrastable to the products of other cultures benefits not only Tibetan Buddhists and those who would study them. It also impacts upon constituencies that have no intrinsic interest in Tibetan maters as such.
Western literary theorists and cultural historians have long held dear the existence of autobiography, along with a cluster of other factors, among them a sense of personal individuality, as unique markers of modern Western identity. While it is hardly the case that Tibetan autobiography matches Western autobiography in every respect, the fact that there exist notable “family resemblances” problematizes the reputed uniqueness of the latter. The study of Tibetan autobiography and its concomitant concepts of the person serves to correct the record, yielding a more complex picture of world literature and the place of Western representations of the self therein. While it has become imperative in recent years to focus upon difference, and thereby to curtail romantic projections of self upon the other, respect for the other also entails a recognition of practices that, despite undeniable differences, nonetheless accomplish purposes similar to those of Western cultural institutions.
Most important, the recognition of a variant that still shares features with the familiar provides a basis from which to engage the foreign material seriously, and thus to learn from it. Recently, autobiography theorists have become interested in the different ways the genre is approached by women, or by people who are injecting divergent cultural conceptions and, especially, other senses of self, into this mode of writing. A key question that readers will bring to Tibetan Buddhist autobiography is how such an eminently self-obsessed genre can be written by someone who believes the self to be an illusion. At a time when postmodern critics have declared autobiography to be dying along with the demise of essentialism, it is provocative to learn that in Tibet it was precisely the introduction of the ideology of “no-self” that marked the dawn of self-written stories of the self. The observation not only inspires a reconsideration of our historical understanding of what the Buddhist doctrine of no-self really meant for its own adherents; it also suggests that even an autobiographer as alien as Jigme Lingpa might give us some ideas about how to understand-and represent autobiographically-our own recognition of the self’s nonessentiality.
WITH THESE broad issues on the horizon, this book has as its overt focus the detailed analysis of an outstanding pair of Tibetan autobiographical writings. While a secondary aim is to pave the way for future comparison of Tibetan autobiography with other works in world literature, the complexity of this single example is already such that it requires much discussion on its own ground before meaningful comparisons can be made. The book is organized with these concerns in mind. After a brief introduction to Jigme Lingpa and the genre of secret autobiography, I present a translation of the works themselves: Dancing Moon, an account of Jigme Lingpa’s significant religious experiences, and Dakki’s Secret-Talk, a narrative of the events and visions associated with his major scriptural revelation. The chapters following these texts study in some detail how the literary, institutional, and religious scenes in which Jigme Lingpa was situated contributed to his autobiographical self-representation. Chapter I reflects upon the place of the subgenre of secret autobiography in the Tibetan literary milieu, and the sociohistorical reasons for the development of Tibetan autobiographical writing in the first place. This is the most explicitly comparative chapter in the book, for it considers critical issues raised in literary theory, and suggests both parallels and contrasts with European and American auto- biography as well as with the literatures of China and India. Chapter 2 turns to the specifics of Jigme Lingpa’s particular sociohistorical location, looking at his other, more conventional autobiography to gain a sense of his public persona, the institutions with which he was associated, his relationships with students and patrons, and especially how the material reported in the secret autobiographies affected, and was affected by, the rest of his career.
Chapter 3 moves into the substance of Jigme Lingpa’s secret autobiographical account. One of the most arcane, yet most central, components of Jigme Lingpa’s secret autobiographical self is his identity as a “Treasure discoverer,” by virtue of which he simultaneously achieves personal uniqueness and connects his identity to a mythic vision of Tibet’s past and present. Jigme Lingpa “remembers” his Treasure destiny in key passages of the secret autobiographies, which I read closely in this chapter. Chapter 4 surveys the other elements of Jigme Lingpa’s religious ideologies and practices that become ingredient in his secret self-portrait. Tantric visualization, sexual yoga, and Great Perfection theory all had far-reaching impact upon how Jigme Lingpa portrayed both the outer form and the inner experiences of his embodiment.
Chapter 5 departs from a description of normative doctrines and practices and engages instead in a literary analysis of their actual representation-and transformation-in autobiographical writing, bringing inconsistencies and discrepancies to the fore. Yet while Jigme Lingpa’s robust autobiographical self could seem at odds with the classical Buddhist norms of emptiness and no-self, I find that his self-portrait equally betrays his embeddedness in that very tradition. The undecidable “dancing moon” at the bottom of Jigme Lingpa’s secret auto-biographies turns out to represent quite well a Buddhist principle such as “unformulatedness” (if such a non-thing can be represented). A similar destabilizing tendency is uncovered in chapter 6, which proceeds in a feminist key. This chapter explores the “dakini-talk” in the secret autobiographies, whereby the female figure of the dakini becomes the ultimate safeguard against self (or gender) reification, or indeed any simplistic dismissal of the metaphysical and ethical tensions recognized in Jigme Lingpa’s Buddhism.
THE MULTIVALENCE that Jigme Lingpa thematizes in his secret autobiographies parallels the shifting methodological register I have assumed in reading and writing about it. This corroboration can be seen either to confirm the appropriateness of my approach or to reveal its overdetermination. I would like to think that the very recognition of this project’s complexity, which compelled me sometimes to appropriate, and sometimes to reject, aspects of at least three intellectual orientations-the traditional Tibetan, the Buddhological, and the literary critical-is precisely what would best facilitate the representation of Jigme Lingpa’s own complexly ironic position vis-a-vis his visionary experience.
Yet the main factor that determined the heterogeneous perspective of this book-ultimately rendering it, like Jigme Lingpa’s visionary figure, “neither a Mongol nor a monk”-has doubtless been the proclivities of the researcher herself. If it cannot be said that the centrality of the undecidable in Jigme Lingpa occasioned the nature of my approach to his work, it is certainly the case that my personal liking for the undecidable determined my initial choice of subject matter. Genetically, it seems, immersed in a perpetual identity crisis (the etiology of which I shall save for my own autobiography), I have long obsessed over questions regarding the self, memory destiny, independence, and subjectivity, questions that are not so very different from those that Jigme Lingpa raises. That the terms in which he explores them and the stories with which he associates them are foreign to the ones I have inherited is hardly a deterrent. On the contrary, I am eager to learn how anyone from any quarter negotiates the tensions between tradition and individuality, inner and outer, self and other. This is not to say that for me to share with Jigme Lingpa the conviction that the self is ultimately a construct means that we hold such a view for the same reasons, nor does it prevent me from scrutinizing his presentation of this view with the kind of critical attitude that only someone from outside his tradition could muster. Nevertheless, I am intensely curious to see how someone who has devoted himself to the doctrine that attachment to self is the cause for bondage can reconcile a metaphysics of emptiness and an ethics of generosity with an individualistic psychology of passionate self-conviction and a personal style of freedom, unconventionality, and originality. This multiple coincidentia oppositorum is the heart of the dynamics of Jigme Lingpa’s secret autobiographies, it is the reason for my own attraction to them, and it means that I am reading them not only as relics of an exotic culture but also as a philosophical literature that I find personally engaging. Such a reading does not compromise a critical distance from the texts, nor does it deny a vast cultural distance; it simply means that I am taking them seriously-and, I hope, encouraging other readers to do the same.
JIGME LINGPA (1730-98) is the premier poet-visionary of the "Old," or Ny-
ingma, tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.' Revered as the source of some of Tibet's
most evocative religious expression, "All-Knowing" Jigme Lingpa is famed for
his mastery of esoteric yogas and for his spectacular meditative experiences,
especially a series of visions indicating his past life as the powerful Tibetan king
Trisong Dersen, a principal actor in that numinous moment of national myth
when Tibet first became a Buddhist land. Preservation of the ancient was indeed
a leitmotif of Jigme Lingpa's life. Among his major feats was to edit and inspire
the first blockprint publication of a collection of rare and often maligned tantric
scriptures from Tibet's early period. He also recognized and restored key ar-
chitectural sites and meditation caves from the same era. Bur primarily, Jigme
Lingpa implicated himself in Tibetan history by retrieving, while in visionary
trance, a set of scriptures said to have been earmarked for him long before,
when he was Trisong Detsen. Delivered into his hand by an epiphany of a
beautiful Tibetan queen, these chimerical scriptures were eventually tran-
scribed by Jigme Lingpa and published in a two-volume collection called Long-
chen Nyingtig, "The Heart Sphere of the Great Expanse."? The collection has
inspired most religious practice in the Nyingma school for the last two centu-
ries. Referring to these texts, a contemporary member of Jig me Lingpa's lineage
commented, "Every word of his liturgies and meditation manuals provides an
introduction to vast profoundity; even if we do not think about their meaning,
the phrases themselves penetrate our minds."
A mystic and a hermit, Jigme Lingpa was also effective in the practical world.
After spending his young adulthood in retreat, he went on to build a meditation
center in the heart of the seat of the ancient Yarlung dynasty and became an
influential Buddhist teacher. The guru of Lhasa aristocracy, Jigme Lingpa also
attracted as his patrons the royalty of the eastern Tibetan kingdom of Derge.
Forging alliances with the hierarchs of many monastic institutions in central
Tibet, Jigme Lingpa revived the traditions of the Nyingma school at a time
when it had just suffered persecution and the destruction of its major centers.
His disciples included some of the most influential lamas from eastern Tibet,
whose successors founded an important nonsectarian movement in the nine-
teenth century. An indication of Jigme Lingpa's legacy in this movement is the
prominence of those who claimed to be his reincarnation, including Jamyang
Khyentse Wangpo (1820':"'92), the movement's principal visionary; Do Khyentse
Yeshe Dorje (c. 1800-59), another famous visionary; and the masters Dza Paltrul
Rinpoche (1808-87), Dzongsar Khyentse Choki Lodro (1896-1959), and the re-
cently deceased Dingo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-91).4
The primary accomplishment to which such influence is owed is the Longchen
Nyingtig teachings that Jigme Lingpa produced from his visions. This collection
of texts belongs to the uniquely Tibetan class of literature termed "Treasure"
(gter-ma). Padmasarnbhava, who introduced tantric Buddhism into the Tibetan
court in the eighth cenrury C.E., is said to have concealed special teachings-the
Treasures-that would be especially beneficial for the Tibetans centuries later,
in times of need. In those times, Treasures would be recovered by future incar-
nations of Padmasarnbhava's disciples.' "Treasure discoverers" professing to be
such reincarnations have been producing Treasure texts in Tibet since the end
of the tenth century. Regarded with scepticism in the more conservative schools
of Tibetan Buddhism, the discoverers tend to be charismatic teachers who at-
tract many disciples, posing sometimes significant competition to other line-
ages. Jigme Lingpa's own cycle of Treasure scriptures achieved wide currency.
eclipsing its many rivals and continuing, through the twentieth century, to be
the most popular Treasure tradition both in Tibet and among Tibetan exiles.
Jigme Lingpa is seen by his followers as a 'charged exemplar, a model of the
visionary power to be attained when the "vast profundity" of his Treasure's
words is fully heeded. To discover a Treasure is believed to entail mastery of
sexual yoga and the ability to communicate with dakinis, members of an elusive
class of female beings who are the mediaries of Treasure revelation. It also
implies an ability to remember past lives, a belief which in Jigme Lingpa's case
enabled him to identify with some very eminent figures: besides King Trisong
Detsen, he also recognized himself to be the reincarnation of the half-brother of
the Buddha Sakyamuni. the outrageous Indian adept Virupa (eighth century),
and the brilliant Tibetan scholars Campopa (twelfth century) and Longchen
Rabjampa (fourteenth century), to name a few. Jigme Lingpa is famed equally
for his power with words, not only in rendering visionary revelations, but also
in explicating the complexities of Nyingma metaphysics and soteriology. All of
his writing is marked by subtle nuance and a fine literary flourish, but these
virtues are nowhere more striking than in his prodigious autobiographical writ-
ings, where the reader is made privy to the inner workings of this exceptional
This study focuses on the most remarkable ofJigme Lingpa's autobiographi-
cal works, his two "secret autobiographies." Entitled Dancing Moon in the Water
and Dakki's Grand Secret-Talk (in Tibetan, Chudai Garken and pakki Sangdam
Chenmo), these two texts, examples of a special subgenre in Tibetan literature,
were at the crux of Jigme Lingpa's entire career. To demonstrate the signifi-
cance of his inner experiences-and indeed, to engender confidence that they
acrually occurred-Jigme Lingpa drew upon a wide range of literary traditions,
religious myths, notions about personal identity, and assumptions about medi-
tative experience. In this he was repeating the tradition of a long line of other
visionaries of his ilk, but Jigme Lingpa conceived his secret autobiographical
persona especially artfully. In this book I will explore the nature of Jigme
Lingpa's self-conception as conveyed in these two texts, as well as in his other
autobiographical writings, and the grounds upon which it was so compelling to
his audience, eventuating in the outstanding impact of his legacy during the last
two hundred years.
Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798) was among the greatest of all Tibetan Buddhist Teachers. Gyatso has translated two highly esoteric accounts he wrote of his own spiritual development and achievement, Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki's Grand Secret-Talks. This book will attract readers from as many disciplines as Gyatso herself so effectively musters.
Religious Studies Review
The Quarterly, Oct. 1998
The "secret autobiography" is a rarely studied Tibetan literary genre in which intimate religious experiences are assessed by the author in a confessional mode. Situating Lingpa's works in the context of Buddhist philosophical principles, Gyatso raises the question: How is autobiography possible if the self is ultimately an illusion?
The Buddhist Review, New York
Quarterly Fall, 1998
In this ambitious book, Janet Gyatso breaks new ground in the field of crosscultural comparisons of autobiography. Challenging the conventional assumption that autobiography is a uniquely Western genre, Gyatso proves not only that Tibet has produced a large number of spiritual autobiographies but also that "Tibetan autobiographies are prior to and uninformed by modernity and/or the West" (p. 102). This book provides an important contribution to Buddhist studies and to autobiographical studies.
The Journa of Religion,
Vol. 79 (3), July 1999
Technical Note on Translation Policies
Introduction: The Secret Autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa
A Word to the Reader
Dancing Moon in the Water
Dakki's Grand Secret-Talk
Notes to the Translation
Chapter 1. Autobiography in Tibet
Chapter 2. The Outer Face: The Life of Jigme Lingpa
Chapter 3. Treasure Discoverer
Chapter 4. Master of Experience
Chapter 5. No-Self Self and Other Dancing Moons
Chapter 6. The Dakini Talks: On Gender, Language, and the Secret Autobiographer
Epilogue. Subjectivity without Essence
Appendix 1. The Autobiographies and Biographies of Jigme Lingpa
Appendix 2. Lists of the Former Lives of Jigme Lingpa
Appendix 3. Table of Episodes in the Secret Autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa
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