Mipam Gyatso b.1846 - d.1912
Name Variants: Jamgon Mipam Gyatso; Ju Mipam Gyatso; Mipam Namgyel Gyatso
Ju Mipam Gyatso ('ju mi pham rgya mtsho) was born in 1846 in the Derge (sde dge) region. His father, Gonpo Dargye (mgon po dar rgyas), was a descendent of the Ju ('ju) clan, which is said to have a divine ancestry. Ju gets its name from “holding” (ju), which is interpreted to mean “holding on to the rope of the luminous deities who descend from the sky.” His mother, named Singchung (sring chung), was also of high status; she was a daughter of a minister in the kingdom of Dege, where Mipam was born.
His studies began when he was about six years old and he memorized Ngari Paṇchen Pema Wangyel's (mnga' ris pan chen pad+ma dbang rgyal, 1487-1542) Ascertaining the Three Vows (sdom gsum rnam nges), an important Nyingma text outlining the Buddhist path. When he was only ten, Mipam was said to be “unobstructed in reading and writing,” and began to compose a few short texts. Some traditional Tibetan scholars claim that among his earliest compositions, at the age of seven no less, was his famed Beacon of Certainty (nges shes sgron me) a masterwork of philosophical poetry. This would be an amazing feat and is a testament to the high regard in which Mipam's scholarship and intellect is held.
He became a novice monk when he was twelve, following the local tradition of his homeland. He entered the monastery of Jumohor Sangngak Choling ('ju mo hor gsang sngags chos gling), which is a branch of the Nyingma monastery of Zhechen (zhe chen) and connected with the lineage of Mindroling (smin grol gling). There he came to be known as “the little scholar-monk.” Early in his life, when he was about fifteen or sixteen, he did a retreat on Mañjuśrī in a hermitage at Junyung ('ju nyung) for a year and a half. This was likely Nakchung Ritro (nags chung ri khrod) hermitage. Mipam had a lifelong special connection with Mañjuśrī; it was said that through successfully accomplishing this practice in his youth, he knew the Buddhist scriptures, as well as the arts, without studying. Many of his compositions begin with an invocation to Mañjuśrī, and meditations on various forms of Mañjuśrī, including Yamāntaka, who embodies wisdom's vigorous activity, were a central part of Mipam's meditation practice for his entire life.
When Mipam was about seventeen, his homeland of Dege was thrown into turmoil, invaded by the forces of Nyakye Amgon Gonpo Namgyel (nyag skyed a mgon mgon po rnam rgyal, 1799-1865), who was then conquering most of Kham. During the fighting, Mipam went to Golok around 1859, accompanied by his uncle. From there he went on a pilgrimage to Lhasa in 1861.
On the trip he stayed at a Geluk monastery of Ganden (dga' ldan) near Lhasa for about a month. Although his stay was not long, his time at this monastery was significant. Here he was exposed to the Geluk tradition of scholarship, which is famous in Tibet for setting the standard of monastic education. He quickly gained fluency in dominant features of the Geluk tradition's interpretation of Buddhist thought, as well as the procedures of debate. Mipam would later bring formal debate into the Nyingma tradition.
His facility for quickly ascertaining the meaning of a text is legendary. For example, it is said that when he received teachings from Bumsar Geshe Ngawang Jungne ('bum gsar dge bshes ngag dbang 'byung gnas, d.u.) on Candrakīrti's Introduction to the Middle Way, he told his teacher that he need not bother with a detailed commentary. He asked him only for the reading transmission of this scripture. Introduction to the Middle Way is a text on the profound view of the Madhyamaka, and like most other Sanskrit verses composed in India more than a thousand years ago, it is exceptionally difficult to understand without commentary. Nevertheless, after hearing the teacher read the text just once, Mipam explained it all from the beginning. The teacher then responded, “Although I have the title of 'Geshe,' I don't have even a fraction of the intellect of this one!” He also received Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyeltsen's (sa skya pan di ta kun dga' rgyal mtshan, 1182-1251) Treasury of Reason from the Sakya scholar, Jamyang Loter Wangpo ('jam dbyangs blo gter dbang po, 1847-1914) and the “Five Treatises of Maitreya” from Solpon Pema (gsol dpon pad+ma, d.u.).
At the beginning of his studies, Mipam is said to have found the texts of the Sarma, or new translations -- such as the scriptures belonging to the Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk traditions -- easy to understand, but that the texts of the old translations -- his own Nyingma school -- were difficult for him. He later attributed this to the fact that he never doubted the profundity of these texts, but that his own faculties were not ready for proper comprehension. Mipam is commonly credited with a nonsectarian outlook, but it is significant that Mipam is reported to have said that he came to discover all the profound points to be found only within the Nyingma tradition. While Mipam showed respect for the different sects in Tibet, he certainly did not gloss over differences, and one can find a strong sense of sectarian identity -- Nyingma -- in his works.
In his early career, Mipam studied the Bodhicaryāvatāra with Dza Patrul Orgyen Jigme Chokyi Wangpo (rdza dpal sprul o rgyan 'jigs med chos kyi dbang po, 1808-1887). The teaching only took five days, but apparently this was enough for Mipam to fully comprehend the words and meaning of this classic. He later composed an important commentary on the ninth chapter -- the Wisdom Chapter -- of this Indian classic. Patrul was later asked, “Who is more learned, you or Mipam?” To which he replied that they were about even in sutra, but that Mipam was much better in tantra.
Throughout his life, Mipam is said to have read the entire collection of the translated words of the Buddha, in one hundred and eight volumes, seven times. Mipam's knowledge did not always come without effort. He is reported to have struggled with the Vinaya Sutra, a central text outlining the essentials of Buddhist ethics. Only after he read the entire thirteen volumes of the Vinaya section of the Buddhist canon did he express satisfaction with his understanding.
Mipam studied the wide range of Buddhist scriptures with a number of prominent teachers of his day, such as Dzogchen Khenpo Pema Vajra (mkhan po pad+ma badz+ra, c.1807-1884). He considered the Sakya master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse dbang po, 1820-1892), to be his main teacher. He received instructions on the fundamentals of the Buddhist path, and what are known as the common arts such as grammar, from the famous scholar-practitioner, Jamgon Kongtrul Yonten Gyatso ('jam mgon kong sprul yon tan rgya mtsho, 1813-1899). Mipam, along with Kongtrul and Jamyang Khyentse, came to be known as “the three Jamgon of Kham”, jamgon being an epithet for a consummate scholar who embodies wisdom.
Mipam is said to have served Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo in three ways: with material offerings, with service, and with practice. According to Jikme Puntsok ('jigs med phun tshogs, 1933-2004), an avid follower of Mipam, Mipam gave his teacher all his belongings seven times. This was his material offering. As for service, he humbly served his teacher like an ordinary attendant, serving food and cleaning up. His offering of practice, the supreme offering a student can give a teacher, was also exceptional given that he spent most of his life in meditation retreat.
On one occasion, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo had Mipam sit on a high throne in front of several volumes of Buddhist scriptures. He presented him with extensive offerings and said, “I entrust these scriptures to you. From now on, uphold these teachings through exposition, debate, and composition. You are to illuminate the Buddha's teachings in this world for a long time!” His teacher thus empowered him and gave him the name Mipam Jamyang Namgyel Gyatso (mi pham 'jam dbyangs rnam rgyal rgya mtsho). Later, he is reported to have said that there was no one on earth more learned than Mipam.
Mipam's scholarship dealt with a wide range of topics -- logic, poetics, Madhyamaka, medicine, astrology, and tantra, among several others. Following Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s request, Mipam wrote commentaries on classic Buddhist texts based on his own Nyingma tradition. He stated that he was motivated by the feeling that most of the Nyingma followers were merely imitating the scholars of other traditions. He felt that the teachings of his Nyingma tradition were on the verge of becoming “like a painted butter lamp”—an artifact without much power. Further, he worried that that few people even wonder about the philosophy of the Nyingma, much less ask about it. For these reasons, he composed texts in order to elucidate the Nyingma view.
By emphasizing a uniquely Nyingma interpretation to fundamental Buddhist doctrines and Indian classics, Mipam's works sparked criticism from other schools, particularly from scholars in the Geluk school. On several critical points of interpretation, Mipam markedly diverged from the prevailing interpretation given within the Geluk tradition. In particular, his commentary on the Wisdom Chapter from the Bodhicaryāvatāra drew sharp criticism that spawned a polemical exchange with a number of prominent Geluk scholars. Mipam took up correspondence with Pari Lopzang Rapsel (dpa' ris blo bzang rab gsal, 1840-1910,), one of his most perceptive critics from U-Tsang, and they soon became friends, exchanging gifts along with polemical arguments. The rich exchange between these two exceptional scholars came to be known as “the meeting of the Sarma tiger and Nyingma lion.”
A significant moment in Mipam's life came when he was in a debate with the Geluk lama Japa Dongak ('ja pa mdo sngags, d.u.), with Patrul Rinpoche was acting as moderator. Mipam and his opponent debated about the famously difficult Wisdom Chapter of Bodhicaryāvatāra. When the debate between the two appeared to be even, someone asked Patrul Rinpoche who was winning. Since Mipam was his student, he said, “A son is not praised by his father, but by his enemy; a daughter is not praised by her mother, but by the community!” He then suggested that they turn to a topic concerning Dzogchen, the highest Nyingma view and practice, upon which Mipam's opponent had written a commentary. It is during the section on this topic that Mipam won the debate, as declared by the moderator, observers, and acknowledged by the participants.
It is significant that Mipam won the debate on Dzogchen, as it testifies to his skill in engaging the Dzogchen view within a rational, dialectical exchange. Mipam was adamant that Dzogchen is not naive anti-intellectualism, as its detractors have claimed, but involves a subtly profound view that, at least in Mipam's presentation, both incorporates reason and transcends it. Indeed, central to Mipam's writing is the prominent place of reasoned inquiry as a means to arrive at the view of Dzogchen, and the interplay of reason and the transcendence of reason.
In addition to his extensive activity in composing commentaries, Mipam spent much of his life in retreat. According to colophons of his works, most were composed during breaks from his practice, suggesting that while not writing he was in retreat. He spent thirteen years in meditation retreat in a cave named Rongme Chime Karmo Taktsang (rong me 'chi med dkar mo stag tshang) near the Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo's monastery, Dzongsar (rdzong sar), most likely during the 1870s and 1880s. As recorded in his biography, when Mipam came out of a retreat, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo asked him how his practice had gone. Mipam responded that when he studied, he tried to see if he could reach the completion of analysis, and when he practiced the generation stage of visualizing the deity, he did so with great diligence to see if he could perfect that practice, too. His teacher replied, “This is difficult. Longchenpa said to rest naturally without doing anything. By doing so, I never saw any natural face of mind with a white complexion and rosy cheeks, but if I were to die right now, I would not have the slightest fear. Ha!” He laughed and Mipam took this to be a practical instruction from his teacher.
His main students included the Fifth Zhechen Rabjam, Pema Tekchok Tenpai Gyeltsen (rab 'byams 05 pad+ma theg mchog bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan, 1869-1909); Katok Situ Chokyi Gyatso (kaH thog si tu chos kyi rgya mtsho, 1880-c.1923); Terton Sogyel Lerab Lingpa (gter ston bsod rgyal las rab gling pa, 1856-1926); the Third Dodrubchen, Jigme Tenpai Nyima (rdo grub chen 03 'jigs med bstan pa'i nyi ma, 1865-1926); the Fifth Dzogchen Drubwang, Tubten Chokyi Dorje (rdzogs chen grub dbang 05 thub bstan chos kyi rdo rje, 187201935); the First Adzom Drukpa, Drodul Pawo Dorje (a 'dzom 'brug pa 'gro 'dul dpa' bo rdo rje, 1842-1924) and many others. He is also said to have met and blessed Dilgo Khyentse Tashi Peljor (dil mgo mkhyen brtse bkra shis dpal 'byor, 1910-1991) as a young boy.
Among prominent Tibetan Buddhist leaders, Mipam is a unique figure in that he was not regarded as an incarnate lama, or tulku (sprul sku), at least not while he was alive. Also, unlike many other important figures of his day, he did not actively promote the new traditions of treasure (gter ma). While the revelations of such texts gained widespread popularity in Tibet, particularly in the Nyingma tradition, he neither discovered treasure texts publicly nor wrote extensive commentaries on them. Rather, he focused his work on elucidating the teachings that were directly transmitted to Tibet from India. Mipam is also reported to have said that he would not take birth again in impure realms, a fairly uncommon refusal to participate in the Tibetan institution of identifying reincarnations of prominent teachers.
Nevertheless, following his death, a disciple claimed that Mipam admitted that he was, in fact, an emanation of a bodhisattva. And despite his declaration that he would not take rebirth, several children were identified as his reincarnation. Jamyang Sherab Gyeltsen ('jam dbyangs shes rab rgyal mtshan, b. 1930), a grandnephew of Mipam Gyatso, was recognized as his reincarnation, and was given the title Zhechen Mipam (zhe chen mi pham). A prince of Derge, Tsewang Dudul (tshe dbang bdud 'dul, 1915/16-42), was also recognized as a reincarnation of Mipam. His reincarnation, identified by a Tengye Rinpoche in 1959, is known as the Third Ju Mipam. He is the father of one of the current claimants to the title of Seventeenth Karmapa, Taye Dorje (mtha' yas rdo rje, b. 1983). The third child, given the title Khyungpo Mipam (khyung po mi 'pham), was recognized by Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse chos kyi blo gros, 1893-1959). In 1995 a son of the Eleventh Zurmang Trungpa, Chokyi Gyatso (zur mang drung pa 11 chos kyi rgya mtsho, 1939-1987), Osel Rangdrol Mukpo, was identified as yet another incarnation of Mipam Gyatso by the Third Penor, Lekshe Chokyi Drayang (pad nor 03 legs bshad chos kyi sgra dbyangs, 1932-2009).
Mipam Gyatso passed away in 1912 at his hermitage at Ju, to the north of Dzogchen Monastery.
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Duckworth, Douglas. 2011. Jamgon Mipam: His Life and Teachings. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Duckworth, Douglas. 2008. Mipam on Buddha-Nature. Albany: SUNY Press.
Dudjom Rinpoche. 1991. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, vol. 1. Translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
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Jikmé Phunstok. 2008. Miracle Stories of Mipham Rinpoche. Translated by Ann Helm, Nalanda Translation Committee.
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Pettit, John. 1999. Mipham's Beacon of Certainty. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1999.
Phuntsho, Karma. 2005 Mipham's Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness. London: RoutledgeCurzon.
Phuntsho, Karma. 2007. “'Ju Mi pham rNam rgyal rGya mtsho – His Position in the Tibetan Religious Hierarchy and a Synoptic Survey of His Contributions,” in The Pandita and the Siddha: Studies in Honour of E. Gene Smith. Edited by Ramon N. Prats. Dharamshala: Amnye Machen Institute.
Sa manta bhadra dharma kirti. 1987. Gangs ri'i khrod kyi smra ba'i seng ge gcig po 'jam dgon mi pham rgya mtsho'i rnam thar snying po bsdus pa dang gsung rab kyi dkar chag snga 'gyur bstan pa'i mdzes rgyan. In Collected Works, vol. 8 (hung), 621-732. Kathmandu: Zhechen Monastery.
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