Austin Barney
A Review of Blazing Splendor


Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996) was an influential teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the Nyingma and Kagyu Buddhist traditions. This book provides a rare and unprecedented view into the complex lives and relationships of some of Tibet’s greatest Buddhist teachers and practitioners in pre-communist Tibet. It also provides an important framework for a history of the Kham region, including religious history, especially for the Nangchen area. Recorded as oral history by two of Tulku Urgyen’s western students, the narrative falls neither into the category of hagiography nor that of historiography—rather, it is an intriguing patchwork of threads and styles.

This book provides a rare and unprecedented view into the complex lives and relationships of some of Tibet’s greatest Buddhist teachers and practitioners in pre-communist Tibet. It also provides an important framework for a history of the Kham region, including religious history, especially for the Nangchen area. When Tibetan Buddhist teacher Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s students requested that he give an oral history of his life, he used the opportunity to discuss a far wider range of subject matter, using his life story as a loose framework. In expounding this oral and regional history from pre-communist Tibet, including commentary on his own life, he seems to have been motivated by a wish to inform the reader about what he felt were the most important things he had seen, done and heard during his lifetime. The narrative extends as far back in history as the first Yarlung King of Tibet, and as far forward as 1996, the year in which he passed away.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996) was a charismatic and influential teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the 20th century. A tulku (reincarnate lama) in the Nyingma and Kagyu Buddhist traditions, Tulku Urgyen lived his life in Tibet until 1958, during the Chinese communist invasion, at which time he escaped across the Himalayas to Nepal, where he lived and taught for most of the remainder of his life. In addition to being a recognized tulku, he was born into high class status—both his mother and father were from wealthy, historically powerful families, his father’s lineage being the famous Tsangsar family of Nangchen. His oral family history is revealing of the ways in which Buddhism was entwined within a single family lineage over generations in pre-communist Tibet. Also of great interest is his extensive history of the three great masters of the Rime movement, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and Chokgyur Lingpa, the latter of which was Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s great-grandfather. While Tulku Urgyen was born after their time, he received oral stories of them from his elders, especially his grandmother, who was Chokgyur Lingpa’s daughter.

Being based on oral history, this book is subject to the same problems that all writings in that genre are, mainly issues of information verification. Much of the information presented in this book can be verified, such as names, places and so forth, but it is likely that many of the individual stories cannot. Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche did not put pen to paper in the writing of this book—he related the stories orally, in Tibetan, to his students Eric Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt, who recorded, translated and compiled the work. It is unclear to what extent the latter two authors have changed the sequencing of the stories, or edited them. It is also unclear whether they prompted Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche with questions, and what those questions might have been. In terms of content, Tulku Urgyen’s narrative does not explicitly discuss politics or social issues a great deal, although much is implicit in his narrative. He focuses mainly on prominent and influential religious figures, but they were, after all, the ones who occupied his sphere of experience, and he is therefore uniquely suited to tell us about them. Tulku Urgyen does not speak much about himself directly, but we get a glimpse of the man through his reminiscences of other people and events.

What is amazing about Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s style of oral history is that he can recollect the sources of stories he received from other people. In other words, he can differentiate those that his grandmother told him from, say, those that a particular lama told him, and so on. And he also can differentiate primary and secondary stories, i.e. ones his grandmother told based on her experience, and those she was told by others, and by whom. This is facilitated by a unique quality of Tibetan verb forms which allows the speaker to differentiate between lived experience and second hand information, with various shades of semantic subtlety. Tulku Urgyen’s stories are clearly reflective of a tradition of oral history that has been going on for centuries in Tibet, as in other parts of the world, and which is becoming rarer in modern times.

It is worthwhile to note that Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, being both a tulku and of noble family background, had an unprecedented access to certain kinds of information and experience in pre-communist Tibet. He was undoubtedly the sole living holder of much if not all of this oral history when he told it to his students in the 1990s. Furthermore, during his life he had had access to documents and works of art which have been destroyed or are in the custody of the Chinese government. For example, he makes reference to a document he had read in Tsurpu Monastery’s archives which was part of a correspondence that had taken place between the third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje and the Mongol emperor during the Yuan dynasty.

Within the field of Tibetan studies, this book will be of interest to scholars of Tibetan history, Buddhist studies, and Kham regional studies. It will also be of interest to anthropologists in the field of Oral History, as well as scholars of Chinese history. For Tibet historians, some topics of interest covered include the history of the Nangchen region, the early Kagyu and Nyingma lineages in Kham, the Tsangsar family, the Rime movement and its founders, the lives of the 15th and 16th Karmapas, Tertons and Terma, the life of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and the late 20th century Tibetan diaspora in India, particularly among the inner circle of high lamas. Many of these categories will apply for Buddhist studies as well, in addition to the numerous anecdotal stories about great lamas of the 19th and 20th centuries. Dimension is given to life in old Tibet, life in monasteries, hermitages, and so forth—and a sense of the political and cultural landscape. For scholars interested in Kham regional studies, many of Tulku Urgyen’s stories address the unique traditions and history of Kham, and he discusses various different regions, their histories and cultural peculiarities. He also discusses relations between various Khampa groups and central Tibetans, and how they conducted their interchanges. Anthropologists studying Oral History will find the book interesting for reasons mentioned above, particularly the complex way in which Tulku Urgyen differentiates his oral sources, as well as primary and secondary oral sources. Scholars of Chinese history will find periodic references to Sino-Tibetan relations over the centuries, and particularly Sino-Kham relations. The book also offers a valuable perspective on life in Tibet before the Chinese communist takeover in 1951, and the period leading up to Tulku Urgyen’s escape into exile in 1958.

While encompassing vast amounts of information and spanning centuries of time, the narrative is by no means intended to be a comprehensive history of Tibet or Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the relatively narrow and in-depth focus of the book is what makes it so interesting. Certainly lineage history was part of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s intention in telling this oral history, but it only accounts for a portion of the narrative. The book falls neither into the category of hagiography nor that of historiography—it is a patchwork of different narrative threads and styles. These elements often take the form of anecdotes, observations and memories, and often offer the reader a valuable secular perspective on people and events in pre-communist Tibet. As was mentioned one cannot tell to what extent the translation, transcription and editing done by Erik Pema Kunsang and Marcia Binder Schmidt might have affected the book’s content or style. Nevertheless, this does not negate the value of the narrative as it is.

Oral history such as this is often overlooked in the political struggle over Tibet’s history, although in it we find the seeds of Tibetan culture, the roots and substance of Tibetan cultural identity. The content of the narrative can be seen as shaped by two forces: what Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche feels will benefit the reader to know about his life, and the aforementioned editing process carried out by his two students. Through Tulku Urgyen we hear traces of his elders’ voices, from which he received so much collective cultural knowledge. He had experienced, as most of us have never experienced, the tangible, living quality of pre-communist Tibet, consisting of real people and actual events. This is the crucial understanding which we must develop in order to gain insight into the current state of affairs in Tibet.

Book reviewed:
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, trans.& ed Kunsang, Erik Pema and Schmidt, Marcia Binder. Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe, 2005.