Künkhyen Longchen Rabjam is revered as one of the greatest masters and scholars in the Nyingma tradition. He was an incarnation of Princess Pemasal, the daughter of King Trisong Detsen. Before she passed away at the age of eight, Guru Rinpoche entrusted her with the mind-mandate transmission of the Khandro Nyingthig, sealing it within her awareness. He also gave her the secret name Pema Ledreltsal. After many incarnations she was reborn as the tertön Pema Ledreltsal (1291-1319?), who revealed the Khandro Nyingthig as ter. He was subsequently reborn as Longchenpa, who would fulfil both Guru Rinpoche and Vimalamitra’s intent, through his activity of holding and propagating the Khandro Nyingthig and the Vima Nyingthig teachings.
Longchen Rabjam was born in 1308, in Tötrong, in the Tra Valley in south Central Tibet. His father was the master Tenpasung, a tantric yogi of the Rok clan, while his mother was Dromza Sonamgyen, who was descended from the family of Dromtönpa Gyalwé Jungne. When he was conceived, his mother dreamt of a great lion, bearing a dazzling sun and moon that radiated a swirling mass of light that was absorbed into her body. At his birth, the female protector Remati appeared as a wrathful black woman, brandishing a sword and baring her fangs. She took the infant in her arms, declared, “I will protect him!”, and handed him back to his mother before disappearing. Remati would appear frequently throughout Longchenpa’s childhood, watching over him.
At that time he was named Dorje Gyaltsen. As a child he was naturally blessed with all the noble qualities of a bodhisattva, such as faith, compassion and wisdom. Even when he was still very young, he would describe things as if recalling previous lifetimes.
At the age of five he began to study under the guidance of his father, and had no difficulty mastering whatever he turned his mind to, such as learning to read and write by merely being shown the letters. When Dorje Gyaltsen was seven, his father bestowed the empowerments, explanations and pith instructions for the Eight Sadhanas cycle entitled The Gathering of Sugatas; and cycles focusing on Hayagriva, Vajrakila, and the peaceful and wrathful forms of Guru Rinpoche. He began to study the Dharma and other subjects such as medicine and astrology in great depth. When he was nine he learned the meaning of the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Twenty Thousand Verses and the Prajnaparamita Sutra in Eight Thousand Verses, by reciting these texts aloud a hundred times each.
At twelve he was ordained as a novice monk at Samye Monastery and was given the name Tsültrim Lodrö. He began studying the Vinaya and by the age of fourteen he had both written a commentary on this subject and could teach it to others. He had already earned a reputation as something of a scholar. At sixteen he studied with the teacher Rinchen Tashi and others and received the empowerments and instructions of the Lamdre cycle, the Six Yogas of Naropa, Vajravarahi, Chakrasamvara, The Kalachakra Tantra and most of the other tantric cycles of the Sarma schools. He received the teaching cycles of the Tsalpa school; Gotsangpa’s teachings on the path; the Zhije of Padampa Sangye; and the Chöd school of Machik.
At nineteen Tsültrim Lodrö went to the famous Sangphu Neuthang (a great centre of learning, established in 1073 by a disciple of Atisha). With many different khenpos and masters he studied the great Buddhist treatises and commentaries concerning Vinaya, Valid Cognition, Logic, Middle Way, Prajnaparamita and many other subjects. He then received empowerments and instructions on the Inner Tantras of Anuyoga, Mahayoga and Atiyoga of the Nyingma lineage.
He travelled and studied with many masters of both Nyingma and Sarma traditions, attending the great shedras and receiving teachings, initiation and instruction in all aspects of Sutra and Tantra. One of his main Lamas and contemporaries at this time was the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje.
Tsültrim Lodrö completed his study and training in the entire range of fields of inquiry. He mastered the empowerments and instructions of the Nyingma and Sarma Vajrayana traditions, as well as many major and minor root texts and explanatory commentaries of Sutra and Tantra. His vast knowledge also included subjects such as Sanskrit, grammar, poetics, composition, and astrology.
Throughout his studies he also applied himself assiduously to meditation training and retreats on the Creation and Completion phases. In particular he attained realisations and received visions related to Manjushri, Sarasvati, Achala, Vajravarahi, and Tara.
His studies and meditative accomplishments revealed his unimpeded wisdom and opened the door to the treasury of his speech, so that he gained a reputation as a great scholar, becoming known by the name Samye Lungmangpa (Master of Scriptures from Samye).
While at Sangphu, the behaviour of some monks caused Longchenpa to become disheartened with monastery life and so, taking only the basic necessities of clothing, he left and journeyed to the high solitudes of Central Tibet, begging along the road. Finding a cave, he spent eight months in complete darkness, remaining in one-pointed meditation.
One morning at dawn, Longchenpa had a meditative vision of the female buddha, Tara. Granting him her blessing, she told him that he was destined to meet Rigdzin Kumaradza, and that he would become this master’s disciple. After the vision ended, he remained absorbed in a state of bliss, clarity, and non-conceptual awareness.
At the age of twenty-seven and in fulfilment of Tara’s prophecy, Longchenpa set out to meet Rigdzin Kumaradza. The latter was living with a group of students in felt tents, in a retreat camp in the Yartö Kyam Valley. As soon they met, Longchenpa knew that Kumaradza was Vimalamitra in person. Vimalamitra had promised to send an emanation each century, to preserve and propagate the Dzogchen teachings. As for Kumaradza, he too was extremely delighted and prophesised that Longchenpa would be the holder of his lineage of the Vima Nyingthig.
Longchenpa had to wait nine months before receiving teachings from Kumaradza. During that period, in order to cut through his own clinging and that of his disciples, Kumaradza had the entire encampment move every month, from one wilderness to another. This caused Longchenpa to experience extreme hardship and deprivation. His supplies became so depleted that by the time it came for the teachings to start, he was unable to contribute to the usual collection of barley flour that sustained the camp and the teachings. Downhearted, he was about to leave when he was summoned before Rigdzin Kumaradza, who told his close disciples, “I would rather he attend than all of the others who intend to listen to my teachings.” In that way Longchenpa was persuaded to remain and he began to receive teachings. During this time, Kumaradza had a dream in which Vimalamitra commanded him to impart the entire pith instructions of Dzogchen to Longchenpa, stating that he would become a custodian and protector of the Dzogchen teachings.
The following year, master and disciple journeyed together to Shampo Glacier. There the teacher bestowed many empowerments and instructions on Longchenpa, especially the Semde (Mind), Longde (Expanse) and Me-ngagde (Instructions) sections of Dzogchen. In particular he imparted all the extraordinary and profound instructions of the four sections of Me-ngagde: Outer, Inner, Secret and Innermost Secret (Nyingthig – the Heart Essence). Longchenpa also received the empowerments, transmissions and instructions for the sadhana cycles of Ekajati, Lekden and Consort, Rahula, Vajrasadhu, and others.
Throughout his time with Rigdzin Kumaradza, Longchenpa had very few provisions. He sustained himself with a meagre amount of barley flour and about twenty-one mercury pills. In the bitter winter, high on the glacial slopes, he had only an old sack that served as his seat, blanket and shelter against the penetrating wind and snow. So exhausted did his body become and so shabby was his clothing, that even the camp watchdogs avoided him. It was in these circumstances that he received all of Kumaradza’s instructions and was empowered as the holder of his Nyingthig lineage.
Then he went to the solitudes of Chimphu and other places, where he remained in retreat for around seven years, having made a firm commitment not to waver from his purpose in body, speech or mind. In addition to the Dzogchen teachings he had received from his Lama, he also practiced various sadhanas related to Red and Black Vajravarahi, the peaceful and wrathful forms of Guru Rinpoche, Vajrasattva and the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities. He was continuously immersed in the pure visions of deities, and journeyed to the pure realm of Khechara, where he taught and discussed the Dharma with dakinis. He also practiced in charnel grounds, where protectors such as Ekajati, Rahula, Vajrasadhu, and Zhanglon Dorje Duddul appeared in actuality and undertook to carry out his enlightened activities. He continually returned to his Lama, Rigdzin Kumaradza, in order to clarify and perfect his understanding and realisation, and many times he offered all he possessed to his master. His accomplishments and experiences are too numerous and profound to cover in detail here, but can be read in his outer, inner and secret life stories.
At the age of thirty-two he conferred the empowerment and instructions of Vima Nyingthig for the first time, to many fortunate disciples at Shuksep in the Nyepu Uplands. All the surroundings were enveloped in miraculous displays of light and mystical sounds.
At this time Longchenpa’s yogi disciple, Öser Kocha, found a copy of the Khandro Nyingthig, discovered as ter by Longchenpa’s previous incarnation, the Tertön Pema Ledreltsal. Öser Kocha offered the text to Longchenpa, who understood that he had been custodian of this teaching before.
Even though Longchenpa was the reincarnation of the tertön, he saw that it would be important for the transmission of both the Terma and Kama lineages that he’d receive transmission of the teachings in a formal way. He therefore went to receive the Khandro Nyingthig transmission from the main disciple of tertön Pema Ledreltsal, Shuk Gyalse Lekpa.
Around the same time, a black woman appeared to Longchenpa and offered him a Khandro Nyingthig text, before vanishing into thin air. Knowing that the vision had been an exhortation by the goddess Sokdrupma, Longchenpa made a commitment to teach the Khandro Nyingthig at Chimphu.
And so, at the age of thirty-three, he taught the Khandro Nyingthig cycle to eight fortunate men and women at Samye Chimphu. During the empowerment, the guardian goddess of the Dzogchen teachings, Ekajati, entered the body of a yogini and gave prophecies and instructions. All those present witnessed a rain of flowers falling, and multicoloured light rays and circles of light filled the entire sky. Everyone sang and danced, filled with the joyful bliss of wisdom.
Longchenpa experienced a vision of Guru Rinpoche and his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal. To the right of the Great Master was Vimalamitra, to his left was Vajravarahi, and all around were countless dakas and dakinis, tantric yogis and yoginis, all dancing and singing. Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal empowered Longchenpa, entrusting him with the transmission of Khandro Nyingthig and bestowing upon him the names Drimé Öser (Immaculate Rays of Light) and Dorje Ziji Tsal (Vajra of Dynamic Brilliance). Guru Rinpoche also gave him permission to write treatises.
At this time, the female protector Yudrönma advised him to move to Orgyen Dzong Öser Trinkyi Kyemö Tsal (Fortress of Uddiyana in the Joyful Garden of Clouds of Light) at Kang-ri Thökar, which eventually became his main residence. It was here that he would spend a great part of his life and where he would compose most of his major works, most notably the Dzödün (Seven Treasures). Having founded Orgyen Dzong he began to teach disciples during the day, focussing primarily on Khandro Nyingthig, while at night he received instruction from dakinis.
Through the Thögal approach of Nyingthig, Longchenpa’s realisation became as vast as the sky. He experienced numerous visions of Samantabhadra, Vimalamitra, Kumaradza, and Orgyen Pema Gyalpo. They empowered and blessed him, uttering prophecies and exhorting him to disseminate the teachings. Henceforth, he continually experienced the ‘Perfection of Awareness’ of Thögal.
Having been entrusted with the Vima Nyingthig teachings during a vision of Vimalamitra, Longchenpa wrote the Yangthig Yishin Norbu (The Innermost Essence: The Wish-Fulfilling Gem, commonly referred to as Lama Yangthig), a collection of thirty-five treatises on Vima Nyingthig.
Longchenpa was then invited to Drikung by Gompa Kün-rik, who served him devotedly, offering him the funds necessary to restore the Uru Zhai temple (built by Nyang Tingdzin Zangpo, a disciple of Guru Rinpoche and Vimalamitra) in Drikung. The master took Kün-rik under his care, dissuading him from his path of warfare and giving him profound spiritual instructions.
When Longchenpa journeyed to Uru Zhai to begin the restoration, an escort of dakinis greeted him along the way, offering him that sacred site. From among the numerous termas concealed within the temple, he brought forth a small amount of gold and many sadhanas of the twelve Tenma goddesses, Vajrasadhu, and other deities. Many marvels manifested during the restoration of the temple. Workers unearthed objects that had been placed under the temple to avert negative forces, which then flew into the sky. However, Longchenpa assumed the stance and gestures of wrathful Guru Rinpoche and subdued the troublesome force, reburying the objects. During the consecration, many of those present witnessed Longchenpa in the form of Samantabhadra, emanating infinite rays of brilliant light, on the tips of which were buddhas and bodhisattvas casting down a rain of flowers.
At this time, Longchenpa received a number of premonitions, foretelling that a time of widespread unrest would break out in Tibet, caused by political infighting between the Sakya and Situ Phagmo Drupa’s central government. Because Longchenpa’s patron and disciple Kün-rik was the leader of Drikung and an enemy of Situ Phagmo Drupa at that time, the latter became suspicious of their alliance and sent forces to kill Longchenpa. Through his miraculous abilities the master managed to escape, but the situation forced him and many of his close disciples to go to the Bumthang region of Bhutan.
In Bhutan he founded a number of hermitages, which became known as his “eight centres”. At one of these, Tharpa Ling, Longchenpa concealed numerous pith instructions as termas, including The Complete Distillation of Samantabhadra’s Intent. He manifested many signs of his unimpeded realisation, such as bringing forth springs of water, leaving hand and footprints in rocks, and subjugating malevolent nonhuman spirits and binding them to his service. Through his teachings he brought many people to spiritual maturity and liberation. In Bhutan he also had a son with his consort Kyipa of Bhutan. His son, Tulku Drakpa Öser, became a lineage holder.
By this time, Situ Phagmo Drupa had realised that Longchenpa was impartial and that he played no part in the civil tensions current in Tibet. Longchenpa returned to Tibet, giving Nyingthig and other teachings to thousands. Situ Phagmo Drupa came to have deep respect for the master’s wisdom, realisation, and activities, and subsequently became a devoted disciple. He gave Longchenpa the name by which he is most commonly known (Longchen Rabjampa – Master of the Supreme Array of the Vast Expanse).
Longchenpa then travelled to Lhasa, where he was received by a procession of many monks. To an enormous gathering he gave extensive teachings on bodhicitta and other topics, and made offerings in holy places, gathering the accumulations on a great scale for the benefit of all beings. He subdued many arrogant scholars, humbling and inspiring them with his knowledge and realisation, causing them to develop great faith.
Journeying to Nyepu Shuksep, he taught the profound approach of Dzogchen and brought more than a thousand fortunate practitioners to spiritual maturity. Near Trok Orgyen he conferred the empowerments, teachings, and instructions of the Nyingthig on more than three thousand people.
Although he was one of the greatest masters, scholars and accomplished meditators in the history of Tibet, he personally maintained a very simple, open, pure and disciplined way of life, free of all the entanglements of retinue and personal wealth. His fame could have easily involved him in the building and running of large institutions, but he avoided such activities and generally did not stay in monasteries. He preferred to remain in solitary hermitages, in caves, under overhanging rocks or in huts made of grass and leaves, spending his time entirely in practice. However, to those who genuinely sought liberation he gave his time and energy untiringly, teaching according to each individual’s capacity. He was unstinting in his efforts to serve the teachings and would never use offerings made in faith for any other purpose than the Dharma. He would never bow down to important dignitaries and sponsors, bestowing neither thanks for their lavish gifts, nor praise for their worldly achievements. However, when poor or lowly people came to see him, he showed great kindness and enjoyed immensely the simple food that they offered, saying many aspiration prayers for them.
In 1363, at the age of fifty-six, he dictated his last testament, Drimé Mepe Ö (Stainless Radiance), which includes the lines,
“Now it is time to depart, like a traveller journeying on the open road.
The joy I feel at death is greater by far than that of any trader
Who has gained an entire ocean of wealth,
Or that of Indra, lord of the gods, who has proclaimed his victory in war,
Or that of the sages who experience the bliss of abiding in absorption.
Now I, Pema Ledreltsal, will not linger,
For I go to assume the throne of the blissful and deathless nature.”
Showing signs of sickness, Longchenpa then journeyed to Samye Chimphu, and upon his arrival he announced, “It is considered better to die here than to be born anywhere else. I have come because I intend to leave my illusory body at this charnel ground!” Nevertheless, he continued to teach the huge crowd of those who had amassed at Samye. He conducted an elaborate offering ceremony, after which he gave final instructions on Trekchö and Thögal to his closest disciples.
In 1363, on the eighteenth of the twelfth month, he adopted the dharmakaya posture and his mind passed into the primordial state of dharmadhatu. Those present felt the earth trembling and heard roaring sounds, and for the twenty-five days of funeral ceremonies, the clear sky was filled with canopies of dazzling rainbow light and a rain of flowers fell. Wild roses and other flowers began to bloom and a beautiful fragrance filled the air. Some people spontaneously experienced stable realisation. After the cremation, his heart, skull, tongue, and eyes were found to be untouched by the fire. Also discovered to be emerging from the bones were countless large and small ringsel of five colours, indicating his attainment of the five wisdoms and kayas.
His contribution to the Buddhism of Tibet and to humanity as a whole cannot be measured. He wrote more than two hundred and fifty treatises on a wide variety of topics that continue to be treasured by all lineages, particularly the Nyingma. However, he is best known for his works on Dzogchen, especially the extensive treatise known as the Dzödün (Seven Treasures). Two pure streams of Dzogchen teachings flowed together in Longchenpa: the Vima Nyingthig, on which he composed his clarifications in Lama Yangthig; and the Khandro Nyingthig, which he clarified in his Khandro Yangthig. These four – the two transmissions and his two commentaries – comprise Longchenpa’s famed collection, Nyingthig Yabzhi (Four branches of Heart Essence).