Buddhist masters have long used the epistolary form to counsel rulers and give spiritual advice to benefactors and disciples. Among the best-known Indian examples of this are Mātṛceṭa’s “Letter to King Kaniṣka” and Nāgārjuna’s “Letter to a Friend.” This tradition was carried on in Tibet, where we find similar texts in the collected works of Tibetan Buddhist authors such as the Pakpa Lodrö Gyeltsen (1235-1280), who sent letters of advice to the Mongol Prince Jibik Temür. A Gathering of Brilliant Moons is a welcome contribution to the study of these types of texts that focuses primarily on sheldam (zhal gdams), short missives by Tibetan Buddhist masters of the rimé (ris med) or ecumenical movement of the 19th century. Centered in the Degé region of eastern Tibet, the leaders of the rimé movement studied under masters of different lineages to preserve their texts and practices, while also rejecting the sectarian polemics common throughout much Tibet’s history. Sheldam are pithy texts of instruction whose very name implies intimacy between the author and recipient; it is as if the advice (dam) they bestow comes right from the mouth (shel) of the teacher.
In their introduction, editors Holly Gayley and Joshua Schapiro offer a brief history of the ecumenical movement and discuss the literary features of the sheldam genre. Particularly noteworthy is their exploration of the issues that arise in translating sheldam, such as rendering in readable but artful Englishthe texts’ characteristic use of poetic and colloquial language. Translators of Buddhist texts will appreciate their discussion of how the translators attempted to make the texts approachable by using everyday language where appropriate, while drawing readers into the foreign world of the authors by leaving uniquely Tibetan terms and expressions untranslated (for instance, kyé ho, an exclamation of surprise).
The thirteen texts translated in this volume capture the unique perspectives of several 19th century rimé luminaries. Each one is accompanied by a short essay by the translator that provides background, explores issues of translation, and offers reflections on the rimé movement.
Part 1 of the work contains sheldam of worldly counsel. John Canti offers translations of texts by Jamgön Kongtrül and Düjom Lingpa, two authors from radically different backgrounds; while the former was a lifelong monk steeped in monastic learning, the latter was a visionary tertönor “treasure revealer” and lay yoginwho fathered eight children. Nevertheless, both works—each consisting of personalized advice for an individual disciple—touch on the essential instruction of reflecting on the nature of the mind, even while engaged in mundane activities. The two texts by Dza Peltrül, translated by Joshua Schapiro, demonstrate the master’s literary skill and wit. One of them, The Explanation of Chudrulü, portrays a cave hermit asking a young man about the goings-on in town, to which the youth replies, “chudrulü,” a Degé dialect expression which might be rendered as “nothin’ much!” Gedun Rabsel and Nicole Willock translate didactic verses on virtue by Shangtön Tenpa Gyatso, a member of the dominant Geluk sect who, the translators suggest, espoused an ecumenical view in his work, despite not being formally allied with themovement. Shardza Tashi Gyeltsen’s open letter against the consumption of meat, translated by Geoffrey Barstow, is a fascinating glimpse of vegetarian culture in 19th century Tibet, where vegetarianism was never widespread. Shardza is also the sole representative of Bön, Tibet’s native religion, in this work. Finally, Jan Ronis presents a translation of a letter from the treasure revealer Jikmé Lingpa to Tsewang Lhamo, the queen of Degé, with a commentary by the queen’s royal chaplain Getsé Mahāpaṇḍita.
Part 2 consists of sheldam that impart meditation advice. Holly Gayley translates three sheldam, composed for students in solitary retreat, by Do Khyentsé, Dza Peltrül, and the Third Dodrupchen. These three texts are stylistically different, with each one more condensed than the last. In his introductory essay to two texts by Bamda Thupten Gelek Gyatso, Michael Sheehy focuses on the intimacy and immediacy of the sheldam genre, highlighting Bamda’s use of natural language and wordplay. Wulstan Fletcher offers a translation of a rather brief text by Jikmé Lingpa on how to transform the experience of illness into a meditation practice. Fletcher notes that Jikmé Lingpa composed the text when he himself fell ill in solitary retreat; the advice he gives is thereby based directly on his own experience. Amy Holmes-Tagchungdarpa translates the pointed meditation instructions of Tokden Śākya Śrī, a cave-dwelling yogin, and Sarah Harding completes this set of sheldam with a translation of a meditation instructor’s manual by Dza Peltrül based on the teachings of Aro Yeshé Jungné.
Part 3 deals with works of esoteric instructions by two of the rimé movement’s most recognizable names: Ju Mipam and Jamgön Kongtrül. Douglas Duckworth translates a text by the former on the quintessential instructions of Dzokchen or Great Perfection of the Nyingma School. Mipam moves adroitly between philosophical elaborations and direct instructions for resting the innate luminosity of the mind. Tina Draszczyk translates a comparatively lengthy prose text by Jamgön Kongtrül on the contentious philosophical issue of shentong or other-emptiness. But, in true rimé form, Jamgön Kongtrül attempts to integrate shentong with its opposite view, rangtongor self-emptiness. Given the complex philosophical issues at hand, Draszczyk’s detailed introductory essay is indispensable. Marc-Henri Deroche brings us the final translation of the book, an excerpt from a larger text by Jamgön Kongtrül on Dzokchen from his famed Treasury of Spiritual Instructions.
As Gayley and Schapiro note in the preface, A Gathering of Brilliant Moons is the fruit of a 2013 workshop on ecumenism and Tibetan translation. That said, it might have been helpful to provide parallel Tibetan text with each translation for readers who are either Tibet specialists or aspiring Buddhist translators. This lack is partially remedied with a glossary of Sanskrit and Tibetan terms referenced in the book. Additionally, the discussion of the rimé movement in the introduction focuses primarily on its intellectual aspects. A more detailed explanation of sectarian politics in Tibet and of the relative autonomy of the Kingdom of Degé from the governments of Lhasa and the Qing Emperors would have rounded out the historical and political context of the movement. However, these are minor issues that do not detract from the work as a whole.
A Gathering of Brilliant Moons is exactly what the title suggests—a gathering of well-executed translations that allow the pithy works of the rimé mastersto brilliantly shine forth. It is an eminently accessible book that would be of interest to scholars and practitioners of Buddhism alike.
Jake Nagasawa is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Date Of Review:
May 23, 2018
Holly Gayley is Assistant Professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her current research explores an emerging ethical reform movement in eastern Tibet, spearheaded by cleric-scholars at Larung Buddhist Academy in Serta. Her first book is Love Letters from Golok: A Tantric Couple in Modern Tibet (Columbia University Press 2016).
Joshua Schapiro is Lecturer in the Theology Department at Fordham University, where he teaches undergraduate courses on Asian religion. His current research explores conceptions of skillful teaching in religion, with a special focus on Tibetan Buddhist advice literature and the life and writings of Dza Patrul Rinpoche.
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