A True Ri-Med Master of All Traditions- Jonang Bamda Thubten Gelek Gyatso

Bamda Gelek


Reading and translating Ngawang Lodro Gyatso’s biography of Jonang master, Bamda Gelek Gyatso (thub bstan ‘ba’ mda’ dge legs rgya mtsho), to include in the forthcoming publication of my translation of his major text ‘The Chariot that Transports One to the Four Kayas’,  is an awe-inspiring exercise and lesson in realising how many teachings and how many great masters he served and got teachings from. He literally was a master of all the traditions, not just in name but in knowledge and practise.

Bamda Gelek Gyatso was considered to be a tulku master, teacher and practitioner in all the Tibetan Buddhist lineages such as Kalacakra, the Six Yogas of Naropa (which he studied with the great non-sectarian master, Jamgon Kongtrul the First), Gelugpa philosophy and debate, Dzogchen (he studied with various Dzogchen masters) and more.

There are very few living masters who have the same kind of breadth of knowledge and mastery of all the Tibetan Buddhist traditions as Bamda Gelek.

Here is an excerpt from Jose Cazebon’s condensed biography of Bamda Gelek Gyatso, from Treasury of Lives:

Biographies tell us that throughout his life Bamda Gelek accumulated 1.3 billion mantra repetitions, including 600 million repetitions of the Mañjuśrīarapatsa mantras, and 100 million repetitions of the Kālacakra hakṣa mantra. As a result of these practices, he is said to have had dream visions of deities such as Mañjuśrī and Sarasvatī (both associated with learning and scholarship). Many individuals claim to have witnessed the powers he achieved through tantric practice. For example, his biographer Lodro Drakpa (blo gros grags pa, 1920-1975) reports that he could “clearly remember details of his past life at Labrang Monastery, could read the minds of his present disciples, know what they were up to, and accurately predict what happiness or suffering they would encounter in the future.” Several of the demonstrations of Bamda Gelek’s magical powers have to do with Ju Mipam Gyatso (‘ju mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846-1912). On one occasion, during a funerary ritual that he was performing with Mipam, the water in a ritual vase is said to have miraculously bubbled up and overflowed. On another occasion he supposedly engaged in a competition of magical powers with Mipam. Mipam caused powerful hail to fall, and Bamda Gelek caused the sun to shine and made it melt. Mipam then praised him. “I have met many scholars,” he said, “but in this day and age, to meet a scholar of the highest rank is rare. Dzamtangpa Gelek is such a scholar.”

Toward the end of his life, Bamda Gelek had a vision of Mañjuśrī who told him that, “Even though you have not been of extraordinary benefit to others in your own lifetime, you will be of great benefit in the next one, when you will be reborn in the northern kingdom Shambhala as one of its rikden (rigs ldan) kings.” It is noteworthy that Bamda Gelek should have been perceived (whether by Mañjuśrī or anyone else) as not having lived to his full potential in his own lifetime – noteworthy but not really surprising, for despite his great erudition and reputation as a tantric master, he never held a position of authority until the very end of his life, and then never in any of the institutions of his own Jonang tradition (never at Dzamtang, for example). Was this because of his affinity for the “emptiness of self” (rang stong) view found in the writings of Candrakīrti and the Geluk, in contrast to the Jonang position of “emptiness of other” (gzhan stong)? Did it have to do with his irascible temperament? Whatever the case, it is not surprising to find the claim in his biographies that he did not have the impact that he could have in his own lifetime.

So the lesson is? One can never have enough teachers or teachings when it comes to the Buddha Dharma, but most importantly of all one must do the practises!

May it be of benefit!

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