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Teacher: Tsang Nyon Heruka Biography

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Tsangnyon Heruka:

Tsangnyon Heruka (gtsang smyon heruka), 1452-1507, was born in 1452 in a village called Kharkha (mkhar kha) in Upper Nyang (myang stod), northeast of Gyantse (rgyal rtse) in Tsang (gtsang). His family belonged to the Nyang (myang/nyang) clan. Tsangnyon's mother, Sanggye Dren (sangs rgyas 'dren), and his father, Sanggye Pelden (sangs rgyas dpal ldan), had five children, three sons and two daughters; Tsangnyon was the next youngest.

According to his biographies, Tsangnyon's birth and childhood were marked by extraordinary events. When he was around seven it is said that a strong disgust toward cyclic existence and an unbearable compassion for the beings who suffer therein arose. Overwhelmed with these feelings, Tsangnyon decided that he should become a monk. The great preceptor Kunga Sanggye (kun dga' sangs rgyas) bestowed the novice monk's vows on him and he received the ordination name Sanggye Gyeltsen (sangs rgyas rgyal mtshan).

As a young monk, he became famous for his great emphasis on discipline. He studied many sutras and soon became well-known for his capacity to recite texts by heart. During this period it is said that he had several dreams and visions urging him to leave his home, and when he was around eighteen, he managed to do so.

During a trip to the holy mountain of Tsari, he met the famous physician Awo Choje Nyamnyi Dorje (a bo chos rje mnyam nyid rdo rje, 1439-1475) who introduced him to the master who was to become his primary teacher, Shara Rabjampa Sanggye Sengge (sha ra rab 'byams pa sangs rgyas seng ge, 1427-1470), popularly known as Sharawa. Sharawa, a former Gelug dge bshes who had initially followed the Kagyu tradition, was considered to be an emanation of the Indian siddha Saraha. When meeting Tsangnyon it is said that Sharawa experienced prophetic dreams that indicated Tsangnyon's importance as a future accomplished master. Sharawa gave Tsangnyon a new name, Chokyi Drakpa (chos kyi grags pa).

Tsangnyon received many Kagyu teachings and empowerments from Sharawa. Especially important was the different Aural Transmissions (snyan brgyud) of the Kagyu tradition that had been transmitted by three of Milarepa's foremost disciples: Rechungpa (ras chung pa, 1085-1161), Ngendzong Tonpa (ngan rdzong ston pa, b. late eleventh century), and Gampopa (sgam po pa, 1079-1153). After nine months with his teacher he completed his studies and meditation training. When it was time to leave, Sharawa said:

Hey you! Tsangpa, Chokyi Drakpa!
Do not look to this life! Leave behind the eight worldly concerns!
Raise the Victory Banner of Accomplishment in the holy places of the Kagyu:
Tsari and Tsagong (tsa ri tsa gong), Lapchi and Chuwar (la phyi chu bar),
and Kailasa (Tese/Tise)!
Devote your life to practice!

Tsangnyon replied that he would go and practice at those places right away and his lama replied, "Go on pilgrimage now, but then return to your home-land and study such things as Hevajra Tantra. This will be needed in the future."

Following Sharawa's advice, Tsangnyon first practiced meditation at Tsari and then he studied the tantras in the famous Pelkhor Chode (dpal 'khor chos sde) Monastery in Gyantse. There he studied under Yu Lungpa Yonten Gyatso (g.yu lung pa yon tan rgya mtsho, d.u.), Lopon Rinchen Kunga Nyima (slop dpon rin chen kun dga' nyi ma, d.u.), and others. After about three years of study he became expert in performing the complicated tantric rituals. He also became learned in many tantras, and their Indian and Tibetan commentaries, Hevajra Tantra in particular.

Tsangnyon's actual debut as a mad yogin occurred at a time when especially prominent and important guests happened to be visiting his monastery. On this occasion, he behaved in such an insulting and crazy manner that the master of studies (slob dpon) of the monastery had to rebuke him.

After this incident, the twenty-one-year-old Tsangnyon left his monastery and became a wandering yogin with no fixed abode. Abandoning not only his monastery but also his vows as a monk, he began to follow another kind of discipline, called ?disciplined conduct' (brtul zhugs; vrata) in the biographies.

Tsangnyon became known for behaving and dressing in a way that set him apart from most Buddhist masters of Tibet. Instead of becoming a fully ordained monk, which would have been the natural way to proceed, he began to model his life-style and way of practice on the siddhas of India. Unlike many other Tibetan masters, he emulated the siddhas in a quite literal way, he kept his hair long, dressed in the full heruka garments (heru ka'i chas), carried a tantric staff (khaṭvaṅga), and a skullcup (kapala). This radical and rather unusual move away from the monastery upset some of his contemporaries while impressing and inspiring devotion in others.

A few years after Tsangnyon left his monastery it is said that he, after having thought extensively about how to benefit the Buddhist doctrine and living beings, went into a gathering of people, behaving very provocatively and strangely. Instead of clothes he wore pieces of human corpses that he found on a charnel ground, he sometimes laughed and sometimes cried. The people who witnessed him started to call him the Madman of Tsang (Tsangnyon) and it is under this sobriquet that he became known.

The biographies about Tsangnyon include several episodes where monk scholars (dge bshes) questioned his behavior and way of dressing. They said that his way of practicing did not correspond with the Buddhist teachings. Tsangnyon surprised his antagonists by giving precise and accurate explanations, and he often quoted appropriate texts at length. He claimed that his unconventional and at times seemingly crazy way of practicing Buddhism were in fact rooted in and justified by authoritative Buddhist scripture, specifically the higher yoga tantras (anuttara?yoga?tantras).

When he was in his mid-twenties, Tsangnyon received some instructions from the Second Drukchen Kunga Peljor ('brug chen 02 kun dga' dpel 'byor, 1428-1476), and about a year later he visited Tangtong Gyelpo (thang stong rgyal po, 1361-1485) at the latter's main seat, Pelchen Riwoche (dpal chen ri bo che), in Northern Lato (la stod byang).

For the remaining thirty-plus years of his life, Tsangnyon never settled anywhere permanently. He wandered among different holy places, and though he might stay in one place for years to meditate, he always continued his travels. Tsangnyon's favorite places to meditate were three regions connected with the tantric deity Cakrasaṃvara: Tsari in southeastern Tibet; Lapchi in southern Tibet close to the Nepalese border; and Kailasa in southwestern Tibet. In these places he stayed many times, often for several years, to meditate. Tsangnyon also went to other holy places, and he often walked in the footsteps of his great role model: Milarepa. Milarepa had meditated in Lapchi and Kailasa but also in many other remote areas such as Chuwar and the so-called Six Forts in the Kyirong (skyid grong) area. Tsangnyon often stayed in these places to meditate, and later in life he also composed and printed books in them. Furthermore, he went to Lhasa several times and visited Kathmandu Valley three times. He also visited Lo (Mustang), in present day Nepal close to the Tibetan border, three times.

Tsangnyon gradually became famous and gained supporters and disciples. Many of the leaders of the areas he visited became his benefactors and devotees. The network of people who supported him eventually enabled him to accomplish several of the works for which he became famous.

In his late twenties, he had a visionary encounter with the tantric deity, Hevajra, who encouraged him to write texts. After that, he wrote a ritual text about Hevajra. It was also in his late twenties that he began to attract disciples and sing songs of realization (mgur). He sang his first song shortly after another vision of Hevajra. While staying in the Lapchi area, he expressed his realization in "this major song of the essential meaning of the great vehicle":

How wonderful!
The Victorious One, Hevajra, is one's own mind,
primordially pure.
It is neither empty nor non-empty,
but abides in a state without elaborations.

Previously, when on the path of meditation,
I did not recognize this self-originated wisdom,
which is free from elaboration.
Because of confusion I took confusion for meditation.
Now I am a meditator beyond conceptual mind.

When one wants to meditate,
meditation is obscured by meditation.
But when one understands non-meditation,
everything arises as meditation.
Ordinary persons are fettered by wisdom itself,
but for a yogin the five poisons arise as ornaments.

The nature of Dharma
has no origination and no cessation.
Since it is not known by the learned,
I asked the dumb.
They did not know it either,
so I asked the corpses at the charnel grounds.
Their explanations are the nature of the Dharma.

This is the meditation experience of a madman
in the Snow Mountains of Lapchi.

E vam.
Arranged in letters, how wondrous!
E vam.

Tsangnyon continued to compose texts and sing songs of realization from time to time, and in 1488, when he was in his late thirties, during a three-year stay in Lapchi, his most important literary works?the biography and song collection of Milarepa?were completed. These works became widely disseminated and were also accepted as authoritative by the different Tibetan Buddhist traditions. The importance of this enterprise can hardly be overestimated. Tsangnyon's versions of the Life and the Songs of Milarepa are among the most widely read Tibetan works of literature, and both have been translated into numerous languages.

Tsangnyon followed closely in the footsteps of Milarepa, he meditated in the same caves, practiced his aural transmissions, and promoted his life-style. Despite denying Milarepa's position as an emanation in his version of the life story, Tsangnyon paradoxically became so intimately connected with Milarepa that he became regarded to be Milarepa's reincarnation. Tsangnyon was generally evasive about his previous lives, but he sometimes made allusions that indicate that he considered himself as Milarepa incarnate.

Tsangnyon was a pioneer in using the relatively new wood-block printing technique, which enabled him to make many copies of his works and to distribute them all over Tibet. Thus, besides being one of Tibet's greatest authors, he was a key figure in the history of printing in the country.

Having completed his works on Milarepa, Tsangnyon continued to wander, alternatively meditating, composing texts, instructing disciples, and singing songs of realization. As his fame steadily increased, he became an important political figure in Tibet and elsewhere. It is paradoxical perhaps that a man who lived the life of a mendicant yogin, and who emulated and propagated the lifestyle of Milarepa, had so many important connections among the powerful Tibetan leaders. According to his biographies, Tsangnyon sometimes used his influence to reconcile opposing factions in disputes and wars, and it was not uncommon for the parties on both sides of a dispute to be his disciples, who therefore respected and listened to him.

Tsangnyon is also said to have performed many miracles, healing the sick and removing epidemics that afflicted certain areas. Moreover it is mentioned that he subdued ghosts, the walking dead (ro lang), and various kinds of evil spirits. These activities made him famous as a siddha (grub thob) and he was greatly respected and renowned for his powers.

Tsangnyon practiced and disseminated the core teachings of the Kagyu tradition. He was known for his expertise and accomplishment in the Six Dharmas of Naropa (naro chos drug), the Four Letter Mahamudra (phyag chen yi ge bzhi pa) and the esoteric Aural Transmissions (snyan brgyud) that had been transmitted by Milarepa's closest disciples.

Tsangnyon's largest literary work was a compilation of these Aural Transmissions that included both his own works and works attributed to other masters of the tradition.

In 1504, the king of Kathmandu, Ratnamalla, invited Tsangnyon to Nepal. Ratnamalla had repeatedly requested him to restore the famous Svayambhū Stūpa. Despite his disciples' attempt to persuade him to postpone this difficult endeavor, he was encouraged by a vision, and decided that the time was ripe to perform this task. The renovation was completed in less than three months, with many people inspired to participate. Having successfully accomplished the renovation of the famous stūpa, he returned to Tibet. It is said that even those who previously had entertained doubts about Tsangnyon were won over and were filled with faith when they heard of his accomplishment in Nepal.

The Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (karma pa 07 chos grags rgya mtsho, 1454-1506), who was the most powerful religious dignitary at the time, wrote him a letter of praise, and the most powerful worldly leader of Tibet at the time, Donyo Dorje (don yod rdo rje, 1462-1512), invited him to visit and treated him with great respect. The acknowledgement he received from these and other religious and secular leaders was a sure sign that he had reached the highest possible esteem.

Around 1505, just two years before his death, he also compiled a biography and song collection of Marpa (1012?-1097), the teacher of Milarepa. This work also became popular and widely distributed.

Having successfully renovated the Svayambhu Stupa, and also having written down and printed the biography and song collection of Milarepa, as well as an extensive collection of the Aural Transmissions of the Kagyu tradition, it is said that he felt that his mission in life was completed. He showed some signs of illness and decided that he should pass away in the Rechung Puk (ras chung phug) south of Tsetang (rtse thang). After a few weeks, in 1507, at age fifty-five (fifty-six according to Tibetan reckoning), he passed away, and his death is said to have been accompanied by miracles. Hearing of his death, it is said that people all over Tibet and Nepal lit butter lamps and made other offerings. Many statues of him were made, and his songs and life story were written down and printed. A large number of his disciples followed his example and practiced meditation in the remote mountain areas that he himself had frequently visited. His disciples also carried on his literary activities and composed many texts, mainly biographies, song collections, and instructions connected with his transmission lineage.

Three of his main disciples wrote biographies outlining the life of Tsangnyon: Gotsangrepa (rgod tshang ras pa, 1482-1559), Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyel (lha btsun rin chen rnam rgyal, 1473-1557), and Ngodrub Pembar (dngos grub dpal 'bar 1456-1527). Tsangnyon's female companion, Kuntu Zangmo (kun tu bzang mo) was another important figure in his transmission lineage. She supported the printing of Tsangnyon's songs, biographies, and other texts associated with him. Gotsangrepa eventually settled down at Rechung Puk where Tsangnyon's lineage was upheld until the site was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The main seat of Lhatsun Rinchen Namgyel became Drakar Taso (brag dkar rta so), another central place in the transmission lineage of Tsangnyon.

Name Variants: Chogyel Lhunpo; Chokyi Drakpa; Chokyi Sengge; Mikyo Dorje; Rupai Gyenchen; Sanggye Gyelchen; Traktung Gyelpo; Tsangnyon Heruka Mikyo Dorje; Tsangnyon Heruka Rupai Gyenchen; Tsangnyon Heruka Sanggye Gyelchen


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Thu'u bkwan blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma. 1989. Khyab bdag rdo rje sems dpa'i ngo bo dpal ldan bla ma dam pa ye shes bstan pa'i sgron me dpal bzang po'i rnam par thar pa mdo tsam brjod pa dge ldan bstan pa'i mdzes rgyan. Kan su. (a short rnam thar of Tsangnyon is located at pp. 38-45).

Tsangnyon Heruka. 2010. The Life of Milarepa. Trans. by Andrew Quintman. New York: Penguin Books.

Stefan Larsson, December 2011

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. December 2011]