March 26, 2013


Here is one of many trivia in this blog. Biographies of Nyang-ral report that Chag-lo (perhaps was asked to) set fire to Nyang-ral’s funeral pyre but he could not set it ablaze; and (apparently, after he abandoned trying,) it got ablaze by itself. We might wonder why this incident has been found worth mentioning, except that it has been seen as a small miracle. His biographers took for granted that their readers would know the significance/message. To say the least, there was no love lost between Chag-lo and the rNying-ma teachings for which Nyang-ral stood for. Besides, Chag-lo would not have endorsed the phenomena of gter ma and gter ston, which Nyang-ral presented and embodied. I wonder if Chag-lo was excited to attend the funeral in the first place let alone to be given the honour to set the pyre alight. It was perhaps a protocolary mistake for Chag-lo to be invited and Chag-lo to attend the funeral. Perhaps it was meant as a gesture of reconciliation on both sides, or on the part of Nyang-ral’s family and followers, and was intended to send a signal that they had no bitter feelings towards Chag-lo, who criticised rNying-ma teachings. In worldly terms, too, we would not wish persons who despise us to attend our funerals. In Buddhist Tantric terms, one would say that Chag-lo and Nyang-ral had no good relation bound by Tantric pledge (dam tshig: samaya) given Chag-lo’s depreciatory attitude towards those teachings, teachers, and traditions for which Nyang-ral stood for. At any rate, it is as if the message of the episode were that Chag-lo’s attendance in Nyang-ral’s funeral was uncalled for and the refusal of the pyre to let ablaze by him was a clear signal that he had no role to play in Nyang-ral’s life or death.


  1. Hi Dorji, I see the anecdote simply as another expression of triumphalism, the superiority of one system over another. Like ‘Gos khug pa lha btsas ("the incest child born in a shed"), another critic who out of spite for not having received instructions from Zur po che would have criticized them, Chag lo is portrayed as being unable to deliver (yogic fire), because he didn't accept the very instructions that could have given him that power, or something along those lines.
    For me the genre biography really bloomed after the periods and the people that they describe. I see it often more as storytelling than as "deciding" what incidents are worth mentioning. I would say more, but I have to go back to my practice of resisting prostrations :->

  2. Dear HA,

    I also think that most biographies or hagiographies might have been written later than the pertinent persons. It is also true that the content of the biographies or hagiographies could be “coloured” with the personal predilections and religious agendas. The question regarding what is worth mentioning and what not would be accordingly very subjective. But nonetheless even ahistorical works might provide us with clues to certain “ideas” of people who produced those works and hence can be interesting objects of study. It is perhaps reasonable to make sincere efforts to try and understand and explain, to the extent possible, what and why the authors of those texts are trying to tell us, that is, regardless of whether these texts tell us conform our own personal predilections. We all know that there is hardly any doctrine in Tibet that has not been labelled as “faulty.” We should thus try to understand and explain, why ’Gos-lo and Chag-lo, for examples, thought—i.e. after having first determined that they indeed did think so—that some scriptures and doctrines were bogus. Similarly, what I attempted above was to understand and explain why Nyang-ral’s biographers made it a point to mention that anecdote. It may be right but the explanation that the anecdote simply expresses a form of triumphalism is a bit too simplistic for me. But precisely that is the beauty of a free mind that can agree or disagree. Thank you for sharing with us your explanation.


  3. I agree that hagiographies are a very tricky material. They may contain clues, but the most important thing to know is who wrote them and when they were written, if that information is available or can be deduced at all. To compare, from a very early time, actually right from when Buddhism was introduced in China, there have been problems with scriptural authority and all sorts of creative solutions have been developed to ascribe certain scriptures to certain people, or to have them modified and certified by people with authority (e.g. the case of empress Wu Zetian (624-705) . The situation can't have been different in Tibet, since the same foreign pandits and monks working on the silk route were very aware of their role and importance in this regard. This is simply to point out that "literary creativity" was very developed from early on and had all sorts of solutions, by the time that the hagiography genre bloomed. I see them as having been written by the spinmasters of those days.

    If one follows Ron Davidson (Tibetan Renaissance), then quite a lot of "authentic" scriptures were in fact "faulty". Then accusations made in that field must have been a bit "pot and kettle" like. If one side started making that sort of accusations, then it wouldn't be difficult to find fault with one of the scriptures of the other side, or with their transmission pedigree or yogic powers for that matter. Anything goes.

    What stands out as a fact is that there was a strong competition, with an intensive "media" warfare. But when did that really start? As you seem to suggest the writings ascribed to 'Gos-lo and Chag-lo weren't perhaps not theirs. Just an idea, and just an example, but could it be that before the sectarianism really took off, people like Chag-lo and Nyang-ral didn't have the hostility that their respective descendants developed, and that Chag-lo simply was at Nyang-ral's funeral. Their friendship or association being an embarrassment to the spinmasters of both sides. When one side came out with Chag-lo's attacks, the other struck back with his inability to produce fire for the funeral pyre. It needs a spinmaster to catch one :-) All this is pure speculation, but I do think they were capable of it. If one sees the liberties gtsang smyon allows himself... A brilliant writer though!

  4. Little afterthought. Novels and rnam thar are both fictions. But the former claim to be pure fiction with the disclaimer that all characters appearing and events happening in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, or real events is purely coincidental. The latter pretend not to be fictions and claim that all characters appearing and events happening in the rnam thar are real and genuin. Often adding that those doubting this will be chopped up by Mahakala or eaten alive by the Dakini! :-)

  5. All internet blog comments are fictions, written by fictitious selves. I prostrate repeatedly to the not-prostration practitioner. Keep up the good work.