Hagiography. What a fascinating word; at one time I thought the “hag” implied the study of witches! The word, which of course literally means “writings on [the lives of] saints”, has also taken on a pejorative meaning, in the sense that since saints are supposedly exceptionally good people, even considered “perfectly-formed at birth” as Alexander Gardner puts it, admiringly servile biographies which flatter exceptionally bad people or even mediocrities must also be hagiographies, because they make those people look like saints.
In the first category we have books like Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend (1275) or the monumental multi-editor Acta Sanctorum, begun at the end of the 16th century and comprising some sixty-eight volumes. Of course, these texts abound in exaggerated claims of virtue, miracles and the like, but they are, in the end, what one would expect from the times at which they were written. For them, sainthood is more important than actual humanity. In the second we might mention the kinds of books which idolize and elevate pop singers, movie stars, minor politicians, talentless celebrities (famous for being famous) or reality-show hosts, either inflating their mediocre achievements, over-praising their commonplace virtues or suggesting that they may have something profoundly important to say about life. In our own times, one suspects, sadly, that John Lennon and Elvis Presley are probably better-known than St Augustine or the Dalai Lama, and even regarded as moral teachers by some.
Both Atiśa and Kongtrul are well-known to practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.
All, however, is not lost. There are still good (that is, balanced) hagiographies around, and not all of them are Christian or even western. There is a lengthy tradition of writing about Buddhist and Hindu saints and teachers, and even in western literature attempts have been made to render some of it into English, such as the recent translation (Shambhala, 2019) of the Nepalese poet Chittadhar Hṛdaya’s Sugata saurabha, an epic of the Buddha’s life and teachings written in 1947. There are even some original works in English, such as Sir Edwin Arnold’s Light of Asia (1879), a poetic life of the Buddha, which was very popular in its time and helped to dispel much of the negativity which often surrounded non-Christian belief-systems. The fact that it’s still in print is a testimonial to its effectiveness.
Nonetheless, apart from lives of important non-western figures such as Muhammad and Buddha, the hagiographical literature available in English about lesser-known lights of belief-systems other than Christianity is rather scarce. That’s why books like Alexander Gardner’s Life of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great and James Apple’s Atiśa Dīpamkara are important additions, and deserve wider reading outside specialist or academic circles, in which both these names are presumably well-known. These books are hagiography at its best, “warts and all” (to paraphrase Oliver Cromwell), books which present both men as flesh-and-blood human beings existing in an actual world, but also clearly explain their importance to Buddhist teachings and why they have come to be so venerated. Apple, whose book is one of Shambhala’s excellent Lives of the Masters series, includes a generous selection of Atiśa’s writings as well as copious notes, a table of Tibetan transliterations and an ample bibliography. Gardner provides much the same, but as Kongtrul is a more recent figure, he can concentrate on the life and actual personality, although his text contains many quotations from Kongtrul’s writings and from the master’s mouth.
These two prominent figures in Buddhist teachings featured in these books lived many centuries apart, Atiśa from 982 to 1054 and Jamgon Kongtrul from 1813 to 1899. In spite of this immense distance in time, they have one very important characteristic in common. Atiśa, who travelled to various parts of Asia from India, his birthplace, ended up in Tibet, where he spent the last twelve years of his life. Jamgon Kongtrul did not travel as extensively, being based mostly in his native land of Central Tibet, but what he shared with Atiśa was his lack of dogmatism. Both men were widely read and latitudinarian in outlook, making themselves acquainted with many branches of Buddhism. Roger Jackson calls Atiśa a “brilliant synthesiser who was heir to most of the great ideas and practices of later Indian Mahayana Buddhism” and who has “always been dear to the hearts of Tibetans”, while Jamgon Kongtrul was a man, according to Ringu Tulku, “dedicated to his own lineage”, but one who also “preserved and propagated all other lineages with the same degree of respect and care.” He is therefore celebrated today as a non-sectarian (rimay) master, whose magnum opus is the massive ten-volume Treasury of Knowledge, which an encyclopaedic masterpiece encompassing all the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Both Atiśa and Kongtrul are well-known to practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, not just for what they wrote and taught but also for who they were; in both cases the authors have managed to sort out the exaggerations found in contemporary and later accounts without dismissing them as nonsense, managing to preserve the actual beliefs of their subjects, even if they don’t exactly correspond to those of modern readers. Both men’s lives followed a similar course as they encountered various teachers, in many cases being passed along from one to another and coming into contact with differing ways of thinking. Sometimes they heard of a distinguished master and went to see him, all the time expanding their spiritual horizons. Once they attained a higher level, people then began to seek them out, and some became followers or disciples. Atiśa travelled widely, journeying from India (he came from a minor royal family) as far as Sumatra, where he spent twelve years, and then around various regions of Tibet. Jamgon Kongtrul moved from one place to another in Central Tibet, collecting and transmitting the various kinds of Buddhism he found on his journeys. His purpose as a rimay master, as he appears to have seen it, was to do what he could to reconcile the sectarianism which, at the time, permeated Buddhism in Central Tibet, and of course The Treasury of Knowledge was his main contribution.
The principal thrust of Atiśa’s teachings and writings was thought and practice of Buddhism rather than the writing of commentaries. Furthermore, while most of his contemporaries “followed various forms of Yogăchărya thought and worked with the philosophical traditions of epistemology based on the texts of the 7th-century Buddhist thinker Dharmakhīrti,” Atiśa “followed a lineage based on Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti that was transmitted through his teachers … whom he studied under in his youth.” From this lineage he learned to communicate essential practices and lead his students, through meditation, to “the nondual realization of full Buddhahood”, in which our awareness becomes centreless, transcending the dichotomy of “I / Other”. The details of all this, including a translation of Atiśa’s seminal work, the poem “Lamp for the Path to Awakening” can be found in the useful and extensive selections from Atiśa’s writings which Apple appends to the book. He points out that the written sources which remain pertain only to the Tibetan stage of Atiśa’s life and are therefore Tibetan translations; anything from his Indian days, which would have been written in Sanskrit or Old Bengali, no longer survive.
In contrast to Atiśa, Jamgon Kongtrul was more engaged with the world, or at least that part of it within which he travelled and taught. He spent a great deal of his time collecting “treasures” from the various traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, and, like Atiśa, did not have a particular adherence to any traditional lineage. Unlike Atiśa, he engaged in government service and politics, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily; the nineteenth century was a time of turmoil amongst the various Tibetan kingdoms, and as Jamgon moved between them he found himself being consulted by rulers and an involvement in a four-year conflict known as the Nyarong War (1862-66), fought between the two Tibetan regions of Middle and Lower Nyarong. He also found himself exiled for eleven years (1874-86), but “travelled, taught and performed rituals without ceasing.”
This and other tumultuous events did not stop him from carrying out the life’s work for which he would become famous, namely ecumenicalism. However, as Gardner explains, ecumenicalism is not simply a synthesis of various religious beliefs and traditions which, as it were, serves up what he calls a “buffet” of religious truths. “Each practice,” he states, “preserves its own sectarian identity” and Kongtrul’s ecumenicalism is thus an “attitude” rather than a theory or philosophy. As a rimay teacher he liked to explore the different traditions without condemning them, but his work nonetheless remained within prevailing doctrinal boundaries.
Both these books are vivid presentations of the life and times of significant Buddhist figures whose names may not be familiar to many western readers. They show that in spite of the distances in time between the two men, they were not stereotypical Buddhist monks sitting around contemplating their navels or withdrawing to remote spots to meditate (Jamgon Kongtrul did, it’s true, go on a number of retreats), but flesh-and-blood people going about their business in a world which often must have seemed inhospitable or even frightening. “Those who seek liberation,” Atiśa wrote, “Should preserve the realm of reality.”
Gardner’s book on Jamgon Kongtrul, although perhaps written with a more specialized readership in mind than Apple’s, keeps the reader’s attention by opening up the man himself as well as the details of his teachings, which removes the “otherworldly” aspects of a hagiography and reveals Jamgon as an extraordinary human being. Atiśa, further back in time and sometimes obscured by centuries of commentary, also comes to life in Apple’s book, and the selections from his works round out the picture. Both books provide a deeper understanding of unfamiliar Buddhist figures in an accessible format.