Monday, May 07, 2007

A Few More Early Incidents of Drongjug

Semodo is a sizeable island in Lake Namtso, the 'Heaven Lake' of Vikram Seth fame. It is one of Tibet's largest lakes located several hours drive north of Lhasa at the edge of the Northern Plateau (Changtang), fantastically beautiful and not entirely uninhabitable. Back in the 12th century it was an especially popular place for hermit yogis, who could house themselves well enough in the natural caves, although getting food and fresh water could sometimes be a problem. Once, when Ölkhaba was in a strict meditation retreat with his teacher Gampopa at Semodo, he injected his own consciousness into the body of a dead goose, which flew around the island three times.

There are some other occurrences of Drongjug in the history of the Second Spreading period that begins toward the end of the 10th century. The next is based on the
Dharma History by Butön Rinchen Drub, written in 1322, and the somewhat earlier history by Khepa Deu. It goes like this: A Newar named Padmaruci was sent by a Tibetan king to invite two Indian pundits named Trala Ringwa and Smriti to come to Tibet. Unfortunately Padmaruci, who was supposed to serve as their translator, had died of cholera* while waiting for them in the Nepal Valley. Neither of them could speak a single word of Tibetan, so Tibetans had no way of learning just how learned they really were. Smriti — his name means 'memory' as well as 'traditionally transmitted knowledge' — had to work for years as a shepherd in Tanag until he finally picked up the language. Then he wrote and translated a number of Buddhist works and a well-known grammar. His Tibetan got good enough he could do 'solo translations' (rang-'gyur), without any Tibetan assistance. He even founded a school specializing in the study of Abhidharma, which means teachings on cosmology, psychology and other associated Buddhist sciences.

*Of course it's rather beside the point here what Padmaruci died from exactly. Butön says he died of
pho-log, but Khepa Deu says pho-lang. Pho-lang looks like pho-long, meaning stomach (pho) and caecum (long). Pho-log is better known as a disease term, but precisely what it might be in modern medical terms is a mystery. It is definitely a type of stomach disorder accompanied by sharp stabbing pains and spasms. That might mean cholera. Or it might mean something else. It could just as well be some serious form of dysentery.

Apparently Trala Ringwa (Phra-la-ring-ba, sometimes re-Sanskritized as Sūkṣmadīrgha, although this seems no better than a guess), whose name means 'fine and long' or perhaps more likely 'thin and tall,' didn't fare as well as his traveling companion. In Öbermiller's translation (p. 215) we read the following, and I quote precisely,

"The Paṇḍit Sūkṣmadīrgha became the curator of Roṅ-pa Chö-s'aṅ and Roṅ-pa came to the knowledge of numerous kanonical texts."

That's right, kanonical. Puzzled by what it might mean to become the curator of a person (perhaps Öbermiller was purposefully using a long-obsolete meaning of the English word that once meant 'caretaker for a young person,' but nowadays it always seems to mean someone who takes care of a collection of things that are meant to be displayed), looking at the original Tibetan text of Butön's
Dharma History becomes unavoidable. But what do we find when we do look there?

Paṇḍi-ta Phra-la-ring-bas Rong-pa Chos-bzangs-la grong-'jug byas-pas / Rong-pas chos mang-po tol-shes-su byung-ba yin-no //

Did Öbermiller understand Drongjug to mean 'curator' based on a literal reading 'entering the house'? It looks as if he did. Anyway, what this passage says is more like this:

"The Pundit Trala Ringwa performed Drongjug on Rongpa Chözang, so Rongpa knew many Buddhist teachings naturally, without even trying."

Not much is recorded in the histories about Trala Ringwa. More is known about Smriti (longer name: Smṛtijñānakīrti) because of his literary legacy, especially his grammar, and because he is often considered to be the very last translator of Old Tantras or, according to others, the very first translator of New Tantras. Smriti has a significant and perhaps even pivotal historical role that therefore makes him of more interest to historians. There is much known about Rongzompa (another name for Rongpa Chözang). He is often called a Paṇḍita (which, when used of Tibetans, always denotes knowledge of Sanskrit), and they even say he uttered Sanskrit words as a child. He was a very important figure for the history of the Nyingma school (as the followers of Old Tantras might have been called by his time) and his many compositions, which surely display a good level of Sanskrit learning, may still be read today. But in general there is very little information on this particular incident of Grongjug, so we should just leave it behind to look at a different story.

Tenné was a member of the exceptionally esoteric one-to-one transmission of the Zhijé teachings that descended from Padampa Sanggyé (died 1105) through his immediate disciple Künga and Künga's disciple Patsab. Our source says that Tenné demonstrated his ability to perform Drongjug to a group of people in the 'Dharma Enclosure' (Chos-ra) of Ngog José (Rngog Jo-sras). Tenné lived a long life, from 1127 to 1217, so it isn't sure when this event occurred, and the
Blue Annals is lamentably laconic here. I quote the Roerich translation precisely (Blue Annals, p. 936):

"He (Ten-ne) acquired (the power) of the transference of the vital principle (groṅ-'jug, parakāyapraveśa), and made an exhibition of the transference of the vital principle at the religious college (chos-ra) of rṄog Jo-sras."

This name José (no, this is not Spanish, so please don't pronounce it like it is) is not a proper name. It means the son, most likely the eldest son, of a revered spiritual teacher. Here Ngog, without any doubt, refers to the hereditary lineage of tantra teachers who descended from one of the four main disciples of the translator Marpa, namely Ngog Chöku Dorjé (d. 1102). But it isn't sure which member of his later Ngog lineage is the one intended here.

If we look to what is very likely the original source behind this statement in the
Blue Annals, we can add a few more details. The source is the Zhijé Collection (vol. 4, p. 415), in the context of the biography of Tenné that forms a part of the Zhijé History by Rog Zhigpo — a direct disciple of Tenné — composed around the first decades of the 13th century. As we learn there, Tenné usually concealed the results of his advanced practices from other people, but one day he took control of the air (meaning the internal bodily prana) and ascended cross-legged into the sky. A local shepherd saw this and ran away in fright. The text immediately continues,

"In Yamda,* while he was studying the tantras of the Marpa school with Ngog José, he demonstrated Drongjug to three brother tantrics who praised him."

Ya[r]-mda'-ru Rngog Jo-sras-la Mar Rgyud mnyan-ba'i dus-su / mched sngags-pa gsum-la grong-'jug-gi ltad-mo bstand-pas sngags-pa dang....
*The text reads Ya-mda', but Yar-mda' ought to be the correct reading. This means the region of the lower (in this case meaning the northern) part of the Yarlung Valley. There are other unusual spellings here, although I haven't 'corrected' them.

It is interesting that this demonstration took place at a religious center belonging to the Ngog family. Probably this was their main center at Treuzhing, the birthplace of Ngog Chöku Dorjé, a place where many generations of Kagyü students, regardless of their differing lineages, went for more specialized studies in Buddhist tantras. (And not only Kagyüpas, Tsongkhapa studied with one of them.) Perhaps further investigation would find that the Ngog family, which carried on teaching lineages directly from Marpa, had a special interest in the practice of Drongjug. True, it is generally believed, despite bits of counter-evidence here and there, that Drongjug practice disappeared from the Kagyü school after Marpa, although a 14th-century treasure revealer by the name of Dungtso Repa may have revived it. It is also interesting that a follower of Padampa's Zhijé lineage is seen here demonstrating it to members of the Ngog lineage. Just one small example of the inter-lineage exchanges taking place in the 12th century, one among many. There is a fantastic and amusing story about how Padampa himself practiced Drongjug, but we'll save that for another posting another day.


E. Öbermiller, tr.,
The History of Buddhisn in India and Tibet by Bu-ston, Sri Satguru Publications (Delhi 1986), reprint of Heidelberg 1932 edition.

Zhijé History — Rog Zhig-po Rin-chen-shes-rab (1171-1245 CE), untitled history of the early Zhijé School, contained in:
The Tradition of Pha Dampa Sangyas: A Treasured Collection of His Teachings Transmitted by Thugs-sras Kun-dga', "reproduced from a unique collection of manuscripts preserved with 'Khrul-zhig Rinpoche of Tsa-rong Monastery in Ding-ri, edited with an English introduction to the tradition by Barbara Nimri Aziz," Kunsang Tobgey (Thimphu 1979), vol. 4, pp. 324-432.

Added note (July 12, 2008):

I'd like to add that in the conference of the International Association of Buddhist Studies held this year in Atlanta, Georgia, Daniel Berounsky, Professor in Prague, gave a paper entitled "Entering Dead Bodies and the Miraculous Power of the Kings: Notes on Karma Pakshi's Reincarnation in Tibet."

This article tells of several quite early accounts of Drongjug, but the most remarkable thing about it is that it locates an incident of it precisely at the point in Tibetan history when recognized reincarnations of famous teachers (apparently) originated, that is, 1283 CE when the Second Karmapa incarnated as the Third. Many thanks to Prof. Berounsky for making the unpublished draft of his paper available to me, and for permitting me to mention it here.


  1. “Semodo is a sizeable island in Lake Namtso, the 'Heaven Lake' of Vikram Seth fame.” You mean the lake he refers to in the title of one of his books? This was Heavenly Lake, in the Tian Shan Mountains, east of Urumqi, in Xinjiang Province, China.

  2. You're perfectly right. I have an old Abacus press copy of "From Heaven Lake" sitting on my shelves. Even though he does pass through Nagchu (and therefore at least not far from Namtso), the 'Heaven Lake' of the title that he comes from is clearly the one in Urumchi. My mistake. I should read Seth's book. I think I started it and couldn't finish. I used to like to read travel books. This one received the Thomas Cook Travel Book award as soon as it was published, so he must have done something right. But after awhile, reading about traveler's concerns is not all that interesting (or all too familiar?). Thanks for writing.


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