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Biographies: Kunkhyen Jigme Lingpa

Janet Gyatso, who has written a book about him called Apparitions of the Self 1 describes Jigme Lingpa as "the premier poet-visionary of the 'Old', or Nyingma, tradition of Tibetan Buddhism." Jigme Lingpa was a mystic and a yogi-hermit, famous for his mastery of esoteric doctrines and his visionary meditative experiences.

Known as the "omniscient" (kunkhyen) saint Jigme Lingpa (1730-1798), he was believed to be a reincarnation of the eighth century Tibetan King Tri-song De-tsan, who had been a disciple of Guru Padmasambhava. Near the end of his life, this King turned the throne over to his son and entered a period of isolated retreat, which he maintained up until his death some years later. During that retreat he dedicated himself to spiritual practice. He died at the age of fifty-five and took rebirth in the eleventh century as Sang-gye Lama, who became a great treasure-text revealer.

Jigme Lingpa was born in Yo-ru Chong-gye, near Palri Monastery. From childhood on, he clearly possessed a continuous memory of his previous incarnations, such as that of Tri-song De-tsan, Sang-gye Lama and so on. In his immediate previous lifetime he had been Rigdzin Choje Lingpa, a great yogi-saint. In part due to these memories, he possessed an overwhelming attraction for the religious life.

At the age of six he entered Palri Monastery, where he received novice ordination under the name Khyentse Ozer. As yet unrecognized and from a simple background, six years old Jigme Lingpa lived the life of a poor novice, doing such things as working in the kitchen or cleaning the grounds to support his residence there. No one paid him much attention and the boy learnt mainly by overhearing the classes of the other students. In this way he received teachings from many Lamas, and thus became knowledgeable in scriptural recitation, logic, mathematics, astrology, literature, poetics, history, rudimentary science and medicine, and spirituality.

It was evident that the child was something of a prodigy. He quickly learned to master a subject just by glancing at the texts. In this way he acquired some renown as a scholar.

When he was thirteen he met Rigdzin Thukchok Dorje, who taught him the profound meditation practice of "Mahamudra, Liberation through Gnostic Vision" (phyag-rgya chen-po ye-shes mthong-grol). These teachings had a formative influence on Jigme Lingpa's spiritual thought, and would result in his sudden awakening while in retreat some fifteen years later. Jigme Lingpa accepted Thukchok Dorje as his sole, supreme root Lama.

MajusrimitraAt the age of 28, he put aside scholastic learning. As Dudjom Rinpoche says, "His own writings demonstrate that his mind was bent on the attainment of the essential, and that he eschewed efforts to master the literary conventions." 2 Having escaped the trap of intellectual scholarship, he entered into a three year meditation retreat. While in that retreat, due to the intensity of his devotion, he received several visions of Manjusrimitra and Guru Padmasambhava. As a result he quite suddenly attained realization, and the delusory aspect of appearances collapsed for him.

While in a visionary trance, Jigme Lingpa retrieved a set of instructions concerned with the most esoteric path of spiritual development, known as "the Heart Point of the Great Expanse", or Longchen Nying-t'ig, from the great stupa of Boudhanath, in Nepal. This collection of instruction has inspired most of the spiritual practice of the Nyingma school ever since.

A "secret prophecy", found in the ancient text called Lama Gong-du, announces:

"In the south of Tibet an incarnation named O-zer
will liberate sentient beings by teaching
the Heart Point (Nying-t'ig) of the doctrine.
He will guide whomsoever has a connection with him,
to the pure land of the Insight-holders (Vidyadharas)."

It is assumed that this prophecy refers to Jigme Lingpa.

When Jigme Lingpa's retreat was concluded, he went on pilgrimage to Samye Chimpu, the site of the first monastery established in Tibet, which had been consecrated by the Master Padmasambhava. With great austerity he proceeded to practice meditation for another three years, while at Samye Chimpu, in the cave of Sangchen Me-tok. During that time he beheld in vision the pure resurrected form of the sainted master Longchenpa Rabjampa (1308-1363) and conversed with the latter on at least three separate occasions. While still in retreat, fifteen disciples were attracted to him spontaneously, and Jigme Lingpa imparted to them the empowerment and teachings of the Longchen Nying-t'ig for the first time. He imposed a vow of secrecy upon them, however, not to reveal the practice for seven years.

After coming out of retreat many disciples began to gather around him. In Donkar Valley in southern Tibet he built a monastic hermitage named Tsering Jong. He did not want to have a big monastery, but wished instead to promote a place that would truly support meditation practice. He spent the remainder of his life at Tsering Jong attending to the stream of patrons and disciples who came to receive his profound nectar-like guidance. Those who knew him intimately report that throughout the time he lived at Tsering Jong his life was rich in miracles, but never wanting to draw attention to himself, he did his best to keep this miraculous display as hidden as possible.

Kunkhyen Jigme LingpaIt was exactly seven years after his retreat when a yogi in meditation learned about the existence of a special teaching called the Nying-t'ig or 'Heart Doctrine' of the Buddha. Through clairvoyant means this yogi came to know that Jigme Lingpa held this special teaching. So he went to where Jigme Lingpa was residing and begged him to reveal it. This was the signal for Jigme Lingpa that it was now time to make his revelation of the Longchen Nying-t'ig public. Since then the "Heart Point" teachings have spread far and wide, to all parts of Tibet, the Himalayas and beyond.

Over his lifetime Jigme Lingpa produced nine volumes of texts and treatises. These volumes contain the basic root treatises of the Heart Point of the Great Expanse, the Longchen Nying-t'ig. The Yon-ten Rinpoche'i Dzod and its two-volume commentary forms his most famous work. He also composed a ritual text called the Vajrakilaya according to Tantric Tradition (phur-ba rgyud-lugs), a work on exorcism and magic.

Three primary practices pertaining to the Longchen Nying-t'ig are as follows:

  1. The Sadhana of the Assemblage of all the Insight-holders (Rig-'dzin 'Dus-pa). In the Longchen Nyingthig there are Exoteric, Esoteric, Secret and Most Secret Sadhanas. The Rig-'dzin 'Dus-pa is classed as an esoteric sadhana of the Heart Point.
  2. The Sadhana of the Queen of Great Bliss (Yum-ka De-chen Gyal-mo). The Queen of Great Bliss or Dechen Gyalmo is the esoteric root sadhana of the Divine Mother, Yeshe Tsogyal, who lived as a yogini in the eighth century.
  3. The Chod-practice known as "Far-peeling Laughter of the Goddess" (gCod-yul mKha'-'dro'i gang rgyangs bshugs). There are many different Chod practices in Tibetan Buddhism and they are all excellent. The Far-peeling Laughter of the Goddess is, however, exceptional. Not only was it delivered into the hands of Jigme Lingpa from Yeshe Tsogyal herself, but as Yangtang Tulku said: “Every word of this sadhana is filled with profound meaning; even if one does not especially think about the meaning, the phrases are such that they penetrate to the core of the soul, and there awaken insight.”

The above are three formative spiritual practices (sadhanas) used by the Dharma Fellowship. In that regard, Jigme Lingpa is a saint with a very special close connection for all fellowship members.

Jigme Lingpa consistently applied whatever wealth came his way to promote the Buddha Dharma, especially in the sense of restoring or reviving the great wisdom of the past. For example, he recognized and restored key architectural sites and meditation caves from Tibet's first Buddhist period. The preservation of the wisdom of this earlier period became a key preoccupation of his. He also presented a wheel of fine gold to the great temple of Samye Monastery and paid to have a silver statue of the Future-Buddha, Maitreya, erected in one of the Samye chapels.

He became the Guru of aristocratic Lhasa society and attracted patronage from the royal family of Derge in far eastern Tibet. Through these connections he was able to revive the Nyingma school and its practices at a time when it was languishing, as the result of considerable persecution from other schools and the destruction of many of its major centres.

When the Gurkha army of the south marched into Tibet and came up against Samye, with the design of striking at Lhasa, the heart of the country of Tibet, Jigme Lingpa raised up a spiritual barrier to avert the conquest. This resulted in the army not being able to go any further. Thus he succeeded by miraculous means in putting an end to the war and saved Tibet from foreign conquest. Consequently the Tibetan government granted him many honours and veneration.

Janet Gyatso wrote:

"Jigme Lingpa is seen by his followers as a charged exemplar, a model of the visionary power to be attained when the 'vast profundity' of his Treasure's words are fully heeded. To discover a Treasure is believed to entail mastery of sexual yoga and the ability to communicate with dakinis, members of an elusive class of female realized beings who are the mediaries of Treasure revelation. It also implies an ability to remember past lives, a belief which in Jigme Lingpa's case enabled him to identify with some very eminent figures… Jigme Lingpa is famed equally for his power with words, not only in rendering visionary revelations, but also in explicating the complexities of Nyingma metaphysics and soteriology. All of his writing is marked by subtle nuance and a fine literary flourish." 1

Among the list of his innumerable disciples, there were his principal lineage-holders Jigme Thinley Ozer (1745-1821) and Jigme Gyalwa'i Nyu-ku. Other disciples included the Sakya Tri-chen Nga-wang Palden Chokyong, the two Tulkus of Dri-gung, Rigdzin Chenpo of Dorje-Drak Monastery, and the royal family of Derge in eastern Tibet.

In his seventieth year in 1798 at his hermitage-monastery of Tse-ring Jong, he imparted his final words: "I am always in the state of Ultimate Reality (dharmata)," he said. "Therefore, for me there is no coming or going. The play of birth and death is entirely relative. There is just Great Enlightenment, the primordial state of Liberation." Still sitting upright in meditation, he let the body's activity cease, and dissolved into the condition of absolute peace.

Dudjom Rinpoche bestows the following praise on this unequalled yogi-saint: "Jigme Lingpa's own enlightened activity, which embraced all quarters from the frontiers of India in the south, to China and Mongolia in the east, with the light of the doctrine, has been unrivalled during this late age." 2

Motivated by compassion for all the sentient beings seeking Enlightenment the world over, Jigme Lingpa reincarnated and again spread the Dharma in the 19th century, as the supreme master Jamgon Khyentse Wangpo. In our own century, he lived and taught amongst us, and we were most fortunate to know him as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.


1 Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self, the Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1998.

2 Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications 1991.

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