Sunday, February 3, 2019

Prayer Flags: The Life and Spiritual Teachings of Jigten Sumgon

Book Review: Prayer Flags: The Life and Spiritual Teachings of Jigten Sumgon – translated by Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen (Snow Lion Publications, 1984, 1986)

This is a great biography and summation of the teachings of the Dharma Lord Jigten Sumgon, a key figure in the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Khenpo Konchog Gyaltsen has written many good books – I would highly recommend his book – The Great Kagyu Masters – as an excellent text related to the Kagyu lineages and his translation and commentary of Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation. I have had the opportunity to do some practice and study in this Drikung Kagyu lineage myself. 

The forward to the book notes that this work represents all three types of Tibetan religious literature: the spiritual biography, the spiritual realization song, and religious discourse. In the introduction Khenpo Konchog Rinpoche gives the Kagyu lineage beginning in India with Tilopa (988-1069) who received teachings directly from the primordial buddha Vajradhara. Tilopa taught Naropa who then taught the Tibetan Marpa the Translator. Marpa’s student was the famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa. Milarepa taught Gampopa (1079-1153) and Gampopa became the progenitor of the Dakpo Kagyu lineages, branches off the main lineage. These first branched to the four elder schools: Barom, Karma, Tselpa, and Phagdru. From the Phagdru branched the eight younger schools: Drikung, Taklung, Drugpa, Trophu, Yelpa, Martsang, and Yasang. Jigten Sumgon (1143-1217) was a student of Phagmo Drupa, the progenitor of the Phagdru school, but is also considered founder of the Drikung school which is considered both an elder and a younger school.

The main study and practice of Drikung tradition includes The Fivefold Profound Path of Mahamudra, and The Six Yogas of Naropa. The Gong Chig is the main philosophical text as are The Essence of Mahayana Teaching and The Stages and the Path of Both Sutra and Tantra Form.

The book begins with The Life of Gampopa. Gampopa was the main student of the famous yogi Milarepa. Milarepa had dreams foretelling of his future protégé. Gampopa was born in Central Tibet. He married and had two children. He was distraught when his wife and children died in an epidemic and resolved to become a monk. He was trained in sutra and tantra and became part of the Kadampa lineage of monks and lay people. He studied the teachings of Atisha. Then he heard about the yogi Milarepa from three beggars and was very intrigued. He asked them what practices Milarepa engaged in and who was his teacher. His teacher was Marpa the Translator whose teacher was the Indian pandita Naropa, they said, and he practiced the Six Yogas of Naropa from the Hevajra Tantra. He then had a prophetic type of dream and sold his house and belongings and went in search of Milarepa. A woman told him that Milarepa stated that his destined student was coming from Central Tibet to meet him. Gampopa became full of pride. Milarepa sensed that Gampopa was full of pride and refused to meet him for a few weeks. When they met Milarepa gave him a skull cup full of nectar that contained alcohol, Gampopa was unsure about this as it was forbidden since he was a monk but drank it. This signified to Milarepa that Gampopa would eventually become the lineage holder. Gampopa practiced and attained signs of success whereby Milarepa taught him new practices. After more signs of success Milarepa sent him back to Central Tibet and told him that he would walk the “dangerous path of psychic power” and would need to be very careful. Before he left Milarepa gave him a ‘special’ teaching which was simply showing him the callouses on his buttocks from sitting in lotus posture for long hours. Then he left for Central Tibet. After Milarepa died a messenger brought Gampopa his robe and staff. He then meditated diligently for six years realizing that all of samsara and nirvana are but dreams and illusions. After this he gave teachings and united the streams of teachings of the Kadampas and the Mahamudra that Milarepa taught. Gampopa manifested many miracles and finally passed away in the year 1153 CE.

Next is the life of Phagmodrupa. He is described here as the main student of Gampopa. He was born in Eastern Tibet. He became a novice monk at age 9 after his parents died. When he was 22 he journeyed to Central Tibet and studied Prajnaparamita, logic, and Madhyamika at monasteries there. After an incident where he took part in stealing a yak he resolved to purify his negativity at the urging of a teacher. At 25 he was fully ordained as a monk. He then studied the vinaya, Kadampa texts, and Chakrasamvara Tantra. He had many other teachings and teachers. He heard about Gampopa and went to see him for teachings. Gampopa instructed him to “sit on that rock and concentrate on your mind without creating a form.’ Doing this he actualized the meaning of Mahamudra. He remained there with two others: Dusum Khyenpa (the first Karmapa) and Gompa Shawaton. These three became known as the Three Men from Kham and manifested miraculous powers. After Gampopa’s death Phagmo Drupa built a large monastery and gained many students. He became the head of all the streams of Kagyu lineages. He stated that Phadampa Sangye, Gampopa, and Sachen Kunga Nyingpo had been his teachers for many lifetimes and that he also received visionary teachings from the great Brahmin Saraha, Asanga, Shantideva, Chandrakirti, other mahasiddhas and from yidams such as Vajrayogini. His schedule for the last 12 years of his life was to meditate in the morning and give profound teachings to mature students’ minds in the afternoon during the waxing moon. During the waning moon he taught the three types of vows: vinaya, bodhisattva, and Vajrayana, and also “opened the way to liberation and a higher form of life,” He died from being poisoned by a deluded man but took it on himself to liberate the assailant. At his death he taught:

“All compounded things are by nature impermanent. Therefore one should make ready the butter and the juniper branch [for the funeral rites]. Do not be attached to wealth; such attachment is the root cause of suffering. Do not follow bad or worldly friends. Practice with bodhicitta, combining loving kindness and compassion. Do not look for faults in others.”

“Do not worry about me. I am like a small flying bird. I will be in the eastern buddha-field of Akshobya under the name Bodhisattva Stainless Discrimination. I will be the source and happiness and peace to all  beings. Therefore, all of you who have faith in me pray to that place.”

His death was attended by miraculous signs which inspired his students.

Now comes the life of Jigten Sumgon, the main student of Phagmodrupa. Phagmodrupa had stated that his main student would be an upasaka that had attained the 10th level of a bodhisattva. His past lives are recounted: as a chakravartin king that attained enlightenment and as great bodhisattvas including of the great Nagarjuna. He was born in Tibet to a great practitioner of the deity Yamantaka. He learned this practice from his father and began reading and writing at age 4.

Jigten Sumgon was said to be predicted in many sutras. In one a being from the northern snow ranges named Ratna Shri was predicted. In another he was an incarnation of the famous early Tibetan king Trisong Detsen. His father died young and he helped to support the family by reciting sutras. He learned many teachings at an early age including all the Kadampa teachings and many Tantric empowerments. His mind was stirred when hearing about Phagmodrupa so he traveled from Kham (eastern Tibet) to central Tibet to meet him. He arrived at Phagmodru monastery at midnight. When the guru met him he stated that now all of his students were now present. The teacher gave him the two-fold bodhisattva vow and the name Bodhisattva Ratna Shri.

Phagmodrupa compared his main students Jigten Sumgon: who would continue the Drikung school, Taklung Thangpa, who would begin the Taklung Kagyu school, and Lingje Repa, who would begin the Drukpa Kagyu school. The signs revealed that Jigten Sumgon would generate vast dharma activity and would be his main successor. He attended Phagmodrupa for two years, getting all of his teachings. Signs appeared at the death/paranirvana of Phagmodrupa that indicated Jigten Sumgon as successor. He gave away his belongings and had a memorial stupa built for his guru. Later he learned the Four Yogas of Mahamudra from Dakpo Gomtsul (nephew of Gampopa). After a patroness promised three years of provisions he went to Echung Cave to retreat for three years. In this retreat he gained a rough understanding of the outer, inner, and secret aspects of interdependent origination. Later he would become known as a master of interdependent origination.

“He then realized that the cause of wandering in samsara is the difficulty prana has in entering the avadhuti [central channel], and so he practiced on prana, saw many buddhas and bodhisattvas face-to-face, and had visions of his mind purifying the six realms.”

He then went on pilgrimage but obstacles and maras would come, especially as he contracted leprosy. Resolved to die alone with the confidence of the bardo teachings he meditated on compassion and Chenrezig and great compassion arose. Then his sickness went away and he attained Buddhahood. Then he resolved to teach those bereft of dharma. After a vision of the Seven Taras he resolved to become a fully ordained monk. He also gave up eating meat. Then he traveled north after a vision of his teacher told him to and performed many miracles and gave many teachings. According to a vision he originated  a type of stupa with many doors. He had many visions and magical experiences with yidams, teachers, and dakinis, and attained ordinary and extraordinary siddhis.

Lord Jigten Sumgon had many students, excelling in different aspects of dharma including philosophy, vinaya, translation, kadampa tradition, yoga, and tantra. He had so many disciples (55, 525) that they were patronized by the King of the Nagas. His main yidam practice was Chakrasamvara of Five Deities. He compiled many teachings on 150 topics and with 40 appendices. These became known as Gong Chik and would be the main philosophical teachings of the Drikung Kagyu tradition.

Other stories of his miracles include a fierce giant naga king coming to him for teachings and a Ceylonese arhat gave a messenger a white lotus to take to Tibet to give to Nagarjuna, who he found was Jigten Sumgon in current incarnation. One time a great scholar came to debate Jigten Sumgon but when he encountered him he recognized him as the Buddha. He became his student and later would write a famous commentary on his teachings. Jigten Sumgon was said to gather an astonishing 180,000 students. The first Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, visited him and recognized him as Buddha. He received teachings from Jigten Sumgon and saw the entire Drikung region as a great mandala of Chakrasamvara.

After considerations, he chose Gurawa Tsultrim Dorje as his dharma successor. When he passed away into paranirvana he displayed many signs including his heart turning to gold after cremation which indicated his enlightenment. He is said to now abide in the Eastern Great All-Pervading Buddha-Field with those devoted to him.

Now we come to some selections of his spiritual teachings. First is a prayer to the Drikung lineage gurus. This is standard for Tibetan Buddhist traditions. This particular prayer includes the places where each lineage master dwells or dwelled where alive. Beginning with the primordial Buddha, Vajradhara to Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa, Gampopa, Phagmodru, and Jigten Sumgon, down to the current Drikung Kyabgon, Chetsang Rinpoche. The Chetsang and Chungtsang incarnations alternately assume the role of lineage head, as the title Drikung Kyabgon. Each of the lineage holders is supplicated for blessings. The movement of so-called ‘blessing energy’ from realized beings to sincere but as yet unrealized beings is a key feature of tantric lineages. This includes especially one’s root guru as one’s supreme teacher to be supplicated. In the manner of the Mahayana, which tantra or Vajrayana is a subcategory, the blessings are also extended to all sentient beings of the six realms of existence.

Next is a short song called The Song on Attaining Enlightenment which recounts Jigten Sumgon’s attaining enlightenment at age 25 at the Echung Cave. He declares that the boundaries between meditation and post-meditation for him have disappeared and that he has complete understanding of the cause and effect of interdependent origination. At the end he declares that “I am {now} a lord of yogins.”

Next is The Song of the Five Profound Paths of Mahamudra, another short song. Here he declares the requirements for realization: genuine compassion for others, a body stabilized as the yidam, a mind of devotion to the guru, attending to the mind without preconception, and aspiration and dedication of merit to others.

The Song at Tsa-Uk Dzong Drom recounts a spontaneous song to inspire his disciples at this particular place. He was apparently worried that he would become a mere lecturer and become worldly or be misunderstood as worldly. Thus, he repeats the phrase: “I, a yogin, remain in solitude.”

Supplication to the Kagyu Gurus for the Mist of Great Blesssings is given as a requested song to end a bad drought. A sort prose introduction from Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (8th or 9th Karmapa I believe) confirms that the “Great Drikungpa” was considered an incarnation of the great Nagarjuna. Here he calls on mist, clouds, lightning, rain, wet ground, and growing grains as well as supplicating the lineage gurus.

The Song of the Six Confidences was sent by Jigten Sumgon in response to Taklung Thangpa’s offerings to give him teachings from their guru Phagmodrupa that he did not get while the guru was alive as Taklung Thangpa began to see Jigten Sumgon’s great dharma activity. The confidences refer to his confidence in the teachings of his guru Phagmdru. They include the unity of view, meditation, and action, the unity of guru, one’s mind, and Buddha, the unity of parents, yidams, and the six types of beings, the unity of sutras, tantras, and their commentaries, the unity of this life, the next, and the bardo, and continuous devotion to the guru.

The next one also comes from the Echung Cave. It is his Supplication to Tara. This has always been a favorite for me so I give it in full:

In the unborn Dharmadhatu

abides the Reverend Mother, the deity Tara.

She bestows happiness on all sentient beings.

I request her to protect me from all fears.

Through not understanding oneself as


one’s mind is overpowered by the kleshas.

Our mothers, sentient beings, wander in samsara.

Please protect them, Deity Mother.

If the meaning of dharma is not born in one’s heart,

one just follows the words {of conventional meaning}.

Some are deceived by dogma.

Please protect them, Perfect Mother.

It is difficult to realize one’s mind.

Some realize, but do not practice.

Their minds wander to worldly activities.

Please protect them, Deity Mother of Recollection.

Non-dual wisdom is the self-born mind.

By the habits of grasping at duality,

some are bound, no matter what they do.

Please protect them, Deity of Non-Dual Wisdom.

Although some abide in the perfect meaning,

they don’t understand the interdependence of cause and effect.

They are ignorant of the meaning of objects and knowledge.

Please protect them, Omniscient Deity Mother.

The nature of space is free from elaboration.

Nothing is different from that.

Still, practitioners and disciples {don’t realize this}.

Please protect them, Perfect Buddha Mother.

The Song that Clarifies Recollection is next. The text was composed by Shila Ratna from the teachings of Jigten Sumgon. Jigten Sumgon gathered his students in a meadow behind the monastery to perform miracles. All but one, Rinchen Drak, were able to comply. He then suddenly died from shame. The undertaker tried to cut his body up for the vultures but the knife would not cut the skin. Then Jigten Sumgon put his walking stick on the heart center of the corpse and sang the song. It is about the illusory nature that is untrustworthy. The eight worldly dharmas (pleasure, pain, infamy, fame, loss, gain, praise, and blame), the temporary affection of friends and relatives, the growth and decline of the four elements of the body, the gathering and consumption of wealth, the joy and suffering of samsara, the bias of disciples, self-cherishing, the instruction of non-effort, the obstacles of maras and error, and the three limitless kalpas – are all revealed as illusory, as lies. After this song encouraging non-attachment Rinchen Drak’s body was cut open and found to be full of relics.

The Fivefold Profound Path of Mahamudra: The Practice of the Essence of Tantric Teaching is the next subject. This is a key Drikung teaching. First, he gives common obstacles to gaining enlightenment from Tantric Buddhist practice. Motivation is very important. If worldly goals, fear of death, and spiritual status are motivations then realization will be weakened. Lack of devotion and confidence can also hinder. Samadhi without understanding how things arise in the mind through interdependent origination will be lesser and not sufficient. Mastering “self-awareness” and connecting to the blessings of lineage are very important.

“The teaching of experience and realization from Vajradhara (Dorje Chang) is unbroken to the present time. The path of the buddhas of the three times, the practice and intentions of the Kagyudpa lamas, the heart of the Tripitaka, and the essence of the four tantras are the fivefold profound path.”

The first suggestion is to give up any concern for this life, go to a solitary place, and sit with back straight in lotus posture. Then cultivate the supreme motivation of bodhicitta. This motivation to benefit others begins in a relative way but must become the core motivation for every action. Next is yidam practice, or deity yoga. “The skandhas, dhatus {elements}, and ahyatanas are the five buddhas, the five goddesses, and the bodhisattvas from beginningless time.” Then one practices guru yoga with the goal of joining one’s body, speech, and mind with that of the guru. The guru is most important and should be seen as the essence of the embodiment of all the buddhas. In tantra devotion to the guru is indispensable. Mahamudra meditation is next and may be difficult to understand for some of us. He quotes from several tantras. From the Hevajra Tantra:

“Not meditating with the mind

Is actually meditating.

If one realizes dharmata {the nature of suchness} –

Non-meditation is meditation”

One should meditate with effortless awareness on the nature of mind, remaining in the state of ‘unborn dharmata.’ In Mahamudra “one must remain in the state of non-duality of tranquility meditation so that the dhyana mind and the active mind are inseparable. Any relative or wisdom merit attained should be dedicated to all sentient beings. As Maitreya said in the Abhisamaya Alamkara:

“This special way –

Sharing merit through non-conceptualization,

Without expectation –

Is the most excellent of deeds”

All experiences, both negative and positive should be realized as non-dual with the non-conceptual mind. Thus, all conflicting emotions can be transformed onto the path to enlightenment. Conflicting thoughts and emotions are not separate from the unborn dharmata. He now quotes from the Chandra Prakasha Sutra:

“Whatever is born from conditions

Is unborn because it has no real birth.

Whatever depends on conditions is shunyata. {emptiness}

Whoever actualizes shunyata has awareness.”

Sickness should also be transformed onto the path. If one sees illness as induced by demons then one should cultivate compassion for these entities and see them as illusory appearances. In describing the three poisons he turns to Tibetan medicine. Blood and bile come from attachment, air and catarrh (mucus) come from aversion, and phlegm comes from ignorance. From an ultimate view standpoint sickness should be accepted and be a cause for cultivating bodhicitta. In the same way as one transforms conflicting emotions and sickness onto the path, one should transform the experience of death onto the path. He gives some imagery related to Powa practice – transferring one’s consciousness as a red syllable HUNG from the navel up the central channel and out of the Brahma aperture at the top of the head into the heart of the guru’s wisdom body.

In such a way, by practicing all five practices, which encompass all techniques, one may become enlightened.

Finally, there is an appendix about Ach’i Chokyi Drolma, an emanation of Vajrayogini, the embodiment of the wisdom and activities of all the buddhas. According to a prophecy in the Chakrasamvara Tantra, the leader of the karma-dakinis will come to the area of the Ti-dro cave in Drikung. Centuries before, Padmasambhava was said to practice in that cave, spending more time there than anywhere in Tibet. A girl was born in the 11th century with auspicious signs and when she grew up she went to Kham and married a yogi. She was Ach’i Chokyi Drolma. They had four sons who practiced the dharma as scholars. She performed some miracles and attracted followers. She brought them to a cave with many hidden treasures and termas and transformed a human corpse into a feast offering. Those who could partake of the feast were granted the ordinary and supreme siddhis. After this she flew to a buddha-field on her blue horse (often how she is depicted) without leaving her body. She was the great-grandmother of the Dharma Lord Jigten Sumgon, although often called grandmother (Ach’i). One of his yogis requested that he teach how to practice this wisdom dakini and dharma protector and so Jigten Sumgon composed a practice text for the practice of Ach’i Chokyi Drolma which is a common practice even today among Drikungpas.

For Vajrayana Buddhists, especially those connected with the Drikung lineage and school, this book is an indispensable aid to dharma practice.

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