Botrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima
Botrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima (bod sprul mdo sngags bstan pa'i nyi ma) was born in Dakpo (dwags po) in 1898 (alternate dates given are 1900 and 1902). He was the oldest of four children and had two brothers and a sister. As a boy he studied with his father, who was a tantric practitioner, at Benchok hermitage (ban cog ri khrod). From his father, he learned to read, and he also received empowerments, reading transmissions, and instructions.
When he was fifteen his father passed away, but not before telling him that he should go to Kham to study further. With no provisions to provide for him, such as food or a horse and so forth, his father gave him a skull cup and told him that if he did not lose it, he would not go without food and clothing. His mother, however, refused him permission to go. She told him that he would have to stay because she had a dream that she thought might be a bad sign: some riders (skya mi) had carried off a crystal stūpa that she had in her hand.
Around the year 1916 he again asked his mother for permission to leave home, this time to go to nearby Lhasa on a pilgrimage. Instead of going to Lhasa, however, he secretly ran off to Kham with some pilgrims who were returning to the region. At one point on the way he stayed at an old woman’s house. She told him not to stay long, but to go on quickly. She then gave him a big sack of dried meat to offer for teachings.
He arrived at the Śrī Siṃha monastic college (shrI sing+ha bshad drwa) at Dzogchen Monastery, Rudam Orgyen Samten Choling (rdzogs chen ru dam o rgyan bsam gtan chos gling), where he studied with Khenpo Tubten Nyendrak (mkhan chen thub bstan snyan grags, 1883-1959) and Toru Khenpo Genam (rto ru mkhan po dge rnam, d.u.) beginning with the Bodhicaryāvatāra. It is said that in his time there he did not even take tea breaks; he just drank cold water mixed with roasted barley flour for both food and drink. Due to the fact that he was very young, and far away from his homeland, he could not provide provisions for his studies, and suffered from the difficulty, including enduring ridicule from other monks for his poverty. He soon proved himself to have a sharp intellect, earning the respect of his fellow students.
He took full ordination from Abu Lhagong (a bu lha dgongs, d.u.) and received the name Tubten Shedrub Tosam Gyatso. He is remembered for strictly observing the foundations of Vinaya discipline, such as not eating after noon. The Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang, Tubten Chokyi Dorje (rdzogs chen grub dbang 05 thub bstan chos kyi rdo rje, 1872-1935), recognized him as an incarnation of a deceased lama and henceforth, everyone called him “Botrul,” meaning the Incarnation from Central Tibet. He received many empowerments, reading transmissions, and instructions from the Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang -- foremost of which he received the Heart Essence in Four Parts (snying thig ya bzhi) of Longchen Rabjam Drime Ozer (klong chen rab 'byams pa dri med 'od zer, 1308-1364).
Botrul expressed great confidence in Ju Mipam Gyatso's ('ju mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846-1912) tradition of Buddhist philosophy within the Nyingma tradition, and sought a teacher who could train him properly. The Dzogchen Drubwang told him that it would be good to go to Dzato (rdza stod), where Khenpo Kunzang Pelden, popularly known as Khenpo Kunpel (mkhan po kun bzang dpal ldan, 1860/2-1943) was staying. Khenpo Kunpel, who taught at Gegong (dge gong) Monastery, was a direct disciple of both Dza Patrul Orgyen Chokyi Wangpo (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan chos kyi dbang po, 1808-1887) and Mipam.
Botrul arrived carrying a sack. It seems that when Dza Patrul was about to die, Khenpo Kunpel requested him to come back soon. He asked Patrul how he would be able to find his reincarnation, but Patrul replied that he would not take rebirth, and that Khenpo Kunpel should not look for his reincarnation. Nevertheless, he said, “It is certain that a monk carrying a sack will arrive whom you will think is me -- claim him.” Thus, when Botrul arrived carrying a sack, Khenpo Kunpel identified him as a reincarnation of Dza Patrul.
Khenpo Kunpel taught Botrul the texts of Longchenpa, Patrul, Mipam, and Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo (rong zom chos kyi bzang po, 1042-1136). Shortly before his death, Khenpo Kunpel charged Botrul with the supervision of teaching at Gegong monastery.
According to tradition, while serving at Gegong monastery, Botrul chanced upon a strange bird perched on the roof of a house and speaking in ḍākinī language. The bird told Botrul that a teacher from a previous life was in Kham, and that he should go there and “eliminate superimpositions regarding the instructions.” Wondering which teacher was intended, he learned that Jadrel Choying Rangdrol (bya bral chos dbyings rang grol, 1872-1952) was teaching the Dzogchen there. Botrul thus went to meet him in Serta (gser rta).
Botrul and Choying Rangdrol compared experiences, and discussed the Buddhist traditions in general and Dzogchen in particular. Through these conversations Botrul was able to “eliminate superimpositions regarding the quintessential instructions,” and Choying Rangdrol praised Botrul’s knowledge of Mipam’s tradition. Botrul stayed in Serta for a few months teaching to the religious community. He taught texts such as Mipam’s The Essential Nature of Luminous Clarity and The Lion’s Roar: An Exposition of Buddha-Nature. Also, it was at this time that he wrote his Notes on the Essential Points of Mipam’s Exposition of Buddha-Nature. He then returned to Gegong monastery. On the way back, it is said that he wept at the top of the mountain when Choying Rangdrol’s house passed out of sight.
Back at Gegong monastery Botrul resumed giving empowerments, reading transmissions, and instructions on the Kālacakra and the Heart Essence in Four Parts, among others. He came a few times to the hermitage at Padma, at the request of Khenpo Pema Tsewang Lhundrub, popularly known as Khenpo Petse (mkhan po pad+ma tshe dbang lhun grub, 1931-2002). He also visited Katok (kaḥ thog) monastery, and, at the request of Zhechen Kongtrul Pema Drime (zhe chen kong sprul padma dri med, 1901-1960), taught for some time at Zhechen (zhe chen) monastery.
Botrul visited monasteries of other traditions, such as the nearby Geluk Sershul Monastery, Boro Gon (ser shul bo rod dgon), and discussed philosophy with renowned scholars such as Litang Lekden (li thang legs ldan, d.u.). In debate he is said to have left his opponents “with nothing to say.”
After nearly thirty years in Kham, Botrul was eager to return to his homeland. The Sixth Dzogchen Drubwang, Jikdrel Jangchub Dorje (rdzogs chen drub dbang 06 'jigs bral byang chub rdo rje, 1935-1959) told him that his mother was ill, and that he should visit her before she passed away. Botrul’s eyes were quite bad, and he had wanted to go back to U-Tsang to seek medical attention. He had asked Khenpo Tubten Nyendrak several times for a divination about his trip, but they had not turned out well. He asked again for a divination, and received a positive outcome.
Around 1957 he left for U-Tsang with many monks and attendants. When he got to Drigung Monastery ('bri gung), Khenpo Ayang Tubten (a yang thub bstan, d.u.), a student of the famed Dzogchen Khenpo Zhenga (mkhan po gzhan dga', 1871-1927), was teaching at the monastic college there. This teacher, along with the head monastic office at Drigung, requested Botrul to stay there and teach. Although he declined, saying that he needed to go on to see his mother, that night it snowed heavily, making the road between Drigung and Dakpo treacherous. Botrul took the snowfall to be a sign that the powerful Drigung protector deity, Achi (a phyi), intended him to stay.
Botrul taught at Drigung for a little over a year, at the Nyima Changra (nyi ma lcang ra) monastic college. While there, he had a vision of Achi and composed a ritual text for propitiating her. In 1958 he finally got on his horse and went to Dakpo to see his mother, but he found that she had already passed away. He performed the ritual offerings of the Peaceful and Wrathful (zhi khro) and gave teachings and empowerments there in his birthplace. He then returned to continue teaching at Drigung.
During the chaos of 1959, following the uprising against Chinese Communist rule in Tibet and the flight of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tendzin Gyatso (tA la'i bla ma 14 bstan 'dzin rgya mtsho, b. 1935) to India, many of his students at Drigung, such as Khenpo Dazer (zla ba'i 'od zer, 1922-1990), who had accompanied him to U-Tsang from Kham, also fled to India. Botrul instead went northwest, toward Nakchu (nag chu), and stayed near Begu (be gu) monastery.
He died that year, in the morning of the full-moon day of the ninth lunar month. The cause of his death are not reported, but it is said that he passed away sitting in meditative posture, as if he had no sickness. When he died, some local people reported seeing white lights and rainbow lights in the sky, and many other miraculous signs such as the red form of a bird flying toward the west.
Botrul had many students in the course of his life who were among the most influential figures in the Nyingma tradition of the twentieth century. His students include Khenpo Chokhyab, Choying Khyabdel (chos dbyings khyab brdal, 1920-1997), Khenpo Dazer (zla ba'i 'od zer, 1922-1990), Khenpo Petse, Pema Tsewang Lhundrub (mkhan po pad tshe padma tshe dbang lhun grub, 1931-2002), Khenpo Jikme Puntsok ('jigs med phun tshogs, 1933-2004), and Tarthang Tulku Kunga Gelek (dar thang sprul sku kun dga' dge legs, b.1935), among several others. Khenpo Chokhyab, who was a prominent teacher in Tibet after the Cultural Revolution, studied with him for over ten years and remained in eastern Tibet. Khenpo Dazer, after fleeing for India in 1959, came to teach at the Ngaggyur Nyingma Institute in India, which is currently the largest Nyingma monastic college in exile. He later returned to teach at the Śrī Siṃha monastic college at Dzogchen Monastery in Tibet. Khenpo Petse, apparently the first to compose a biography of Botrul, also taught at the Śrī Singha monastic college, as well as in India and Nepal. Khenpo Jikme Puntsok founded Larung Gar (bla rung sgar) in Serta (gser rta), a thriving Buddhist community in Kham that is currently the largest monastic college in the world. Tarthang Tulku settled in the United States and has been instrumental in publishing a number of Buddhist texts in Tibetan and English, including a Tibetan edition of the root text and autocommentary of Botrul’s magnum opus, Distinguishing the Views and Philosophies.
Botrul. 2011. Distinguishing the Views and Philosophies: Illuminating Emptiness in a Twentieth-Century Tibetan Buddhist Classic. Translated, Annotated, and Introduced by Douglas S. Duckworth. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Thub bstan tshul khrim rnam dag. 2004. Rje kun gzigs bod sprul bstan pa’i nyi ma’i rnam thar bsdus pa dad pa’i gsos sman. In Gsung 'bum / mdo sngags bstan pa'i nyi ma, vol. 1, pp. 1-46. Sichuan: Nationalities Press. TBRC W29059.
Douglas Duckworth January 2013