Tibetan autobiography

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Tibetan autobiography, or, rangnam (Tibetan: ་་རང་རྣམ, ་Wylie: rang-rnam), is a form of autobiography native to Tibetan Buddhism.

Wylie transliteration Method for transliterating Tibetan script

The Wylie transliteration system is a method for transliterating Tibetan script using only the letters available on a typical English language typewriter. It bears the name of American tibetologist Turrell V. Wylie, who described the scheme in an article, A Standard System of Tibetan Transcription, published in 1959. It has subsequently become a standard transliteration scheme in Tibetan studies, especially in the United States.

Autobiography biography written by the subject

An autobiography is a self-written account of the life of oneself. The word "autobiography" was first used deprecatingly by William Taylor in 1797 in the English periodical The Monthly Review, when he suggested the word as a hybrid, but condemned it as "pedantic". However, its next recorded use was in its present sense, by Robert Southey in 1809. Despite only being named early in the nineteenth century, first-person autobiographical writing originates in antiquity. Roy Pascal differentiates autobiography from the periodic self-reflective mode of journal or diary writing by noting that "[autobiography] is a review of a life from a particular moment in time, while the diary, however reflective it may be, moves through a series of moments in time". Autobiography thus takes stock of the autobiographer's life from the moment of composition. While biographers generally rely on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints, autobiography may be based entirely on the writer's memory. The memoir form is closely associated with autobiography but it tends, as Pascal claims, to focus less on the self and more on others during the autobiographer's review of his or her life.

Tibetan Buddhism is the form of Buddhism named after Tibet where it is the dominant religion. It is also found in the regions surrounding the Himalayas, much of Chinese Central Asia, the Southern Siberian regions such as Tuva, as well as Mongolia.



Although autobiography is traditionally considered to be a Western genre, the Tibetan autobiography arose separately from the Western form, with examples of the genre dating back to as early as the eleventh century, [1] with a significant increase in production in the sixteenth century and a boom in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unlike many other branches of Tibetan literature which originated in Indic or Chinese culture, there are no analogous genres in either canon. However, according to Janet Gyatso, "there remains a possible influence from Persian Islamic literature, in which didactic religious autobiographies are also known from the tenth century onwards, but such a connection remains to be demonstrated" [2] (Gyatso 1992, 467).

Genre is any form or type of communication in any mode with socially-agreed-upon conventions developed over time. Genre is most popularly known as a category of literature, music, or other forms of art or entertainment, whether written or spoken, audio or visual, based on some set of stylistic criteria, yet genres can be aesthetic, rhetorical, communicative, or functional. Genres form by conventions that change over time as cultures invent new genres and discontinue the use of old ones. Often, works fit into multiple genres by way of borrowing and recombining these conventions. Stand-alone texts, works, or pieces of communication may have individual styles, but genres are amalgams of these texts based on agreed-upon or socially inferred conventions. Some genres may have rigid, strictly adhered-to guidelines, while others may show great flexibility.

Indian literature refers to the literature produced on the Indian subcontinent until 1947 and in the Republic of India thereafter. The Republic of India has 22 officially recognized languages.

The history of Chinese literature extends thousands of years, from the earliest recorded dynastic court archives to the mature vernacular fiction novels that arose during the Ming dynasty to entertain the masses of literate Chinese. The introduction of widespread woodblock printing during the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the invention of movable type printing by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Song dynasty (960–1279) rapidly spread written knowledge throughout China. In more modern times, the author Lu Xun (1881–1936) is considered the founder of baihua literature in China.


Throughout the canon of Tibetan autobiography, authors present a wide span of attitudes towards themselves and their accounts of their lives, ranging from extraordinarily self-deprecating to excessively self-praising. Tertöns tend towards humility and self-deprecation, typically stemming from uncertainty in their realizations in treasure revelation. On the opposite side of the spectrum, many authors, such as Kalu Rinpoche detail numerous acts of compassion and great meditative abilities in their autobiographies, while others add hagiographical elements to their autobiographies to elevate perceptions of them. While this variety in tone typically stems from the autobiographer himself, disciples do frequently impact tone (See Authorship ) and add honorific titles in praise of their instructors. [2]

Tertön is a term within Tibetan Buddhism. It means a person who is a discoverer of ancient hidden texts or terma. Many tertöns are considered to be incarnations of the twenty five main disciples of Padmasambhava. A vast system of transmission lineages developed. Nyingma scriptures were updated by terma discoveries, and terma teachings have guided many Buddhist and Bon practitioners.

Kalu Rinpoche Tibetan lama

Kalu Rinpoche was a Buddhist lama, meditation master, scholar and teacher. He was one of the first Tibetan masters to teach in the West.

Hagiography biography of a Christian saint

A hagiography is a biography of a saint or an ecclesiastical leader. The term hagiography may be used to refer to the biography of a saint or highly developed spiritual being in any of the world's spiritual traditions.


Secret autobiography

Tibetan: གསན་བའི་རང་རྣམ་, Wylie: gsan-ba'i rang rnam

Similarly to secret biography within Namtar, secret autobiography focuses on inner religious experiences, such as visions, realizations, and spiritual thoughts.

Inner autobiography

Tibetan: ནང་གི་རང་རྣམ་, Wylie: nang gi rang rnam

The inner autobiography contains details on meditative cycles and initiations. [3]

Outer autobiography

Tibetan: ཕྱའི་རང་རྣམ་, Wylie: phyi'i rang rnam

Much like in the outer biography within Namtar, the outer autobiography reflects upon the writer's "publicly observable deeds—such as childhood events, education, travels...although...the outer account can reflect on inner thoughts and feelings as well" (use the footnoted gyatso or do i need to use Harvard style bracketing?).

Religious context

The majority of Tibetan autobiographers were Buddhist practitioners who wrote about their personal experiences for their instructional value to their disciples, as well as any other readers. However, although most autobiographers were members of the clergy, members of all classes and religiosity have written autobiography. [2] Because of the emphasis of this genre as a means of teaching, the author’s discussion of self does not conflict with Buddhist doctrine. Instructional and directive elements within Tibetan literature are also found in other genres, such as in mGur poetry, where, in some cases, Buddhist teachings and popular themes were combined as a means of better propagating the Dharma. [4] Reflection through both outer and inner autobiography also provides a means for authors to legitimize their other writings and demonstrate spiritual progress.
Tibetan autobiographers frequently include accounts of past lives, which in addition to glorifying and legitimating the author's actions, models Buddhist Jataka tales. [2]


While autobiography is traditionally considered to be an account of someone's life written by the subject of the work, authorship in Tibetan autobiography frequently blends material written by the subject with that of other authors. Especially given the role of many Tibetan autobiographers as instructors and teachers, disciples often influence autobiographical content. Many autobiographers dictate their autobiographies to their students, who, in turn, tend to add their own elements to the work. While more blatantly EXTERNAL components, such as chapters regarding the death of the autobiographer, as in the autobiographies of Milarepa [5] and Orgyan Chokyi, [6] are regularly added by disciples, less obvious additions blur the distinction between autobiographer and disciple even further.

Disciples often add honorific titles in praise of the autobiographer attesting to the merit of their teacher, which would superficially seem to be an obvious external contribution; however, Tibetan autobiographers exhibit a wide array of egotism, ranging from the expected Buddhist diffidence to grandiose self-admiration (see Tone. Components that would be expected to come directly from the autobiographer, such as accounts of dreams and visions in the secret autobiography, may, in some cases, actually be recorded by disciples that learned of them orally. [2]

Terma Literature

Stemming from the Nyingma school of Buddhism, Terma (Tibetan : གཏེར་མ་, Wylie : gter ma; "hidden treasure") [7] literature consists of systematically hidden "treasures", "blessed words and objects said to originate in the enlightened intent of buddhas and bodhisattvas". [8] (Doctor, 17) intended to be discovered by a predestined tertön, a treasure revealer, at a designated time in the future when the information will be most pertinent to the Tibetan people. [8]


A namtar (Tibetan : རྣམ་ཐར་, Wylie : rNam-thar), sometimes spelled namthar is a spiritual biography or hagiography in Tibetan Buddhism.

Namtar is a contraction of nampar tharpa (Tibetan : རྣམ་པར་ཐར་པ་, Wylie : rnam-par thar-pa), which literally means 'complete liberation', [3] [9] which, similarly to the cases of the vast majority of Tibetan autobiographers, refers to the genre's focus on individuals who have achieved total enlightenment.

As in Tibetan autobiography, Namtar is divided into three subcategories, all of which are present in every work of Namtar: [3]

Notable autobiographers

Jigme Lingpa

Jigme Lingpa was a noteworthy tertön - a revealer of terma texts - from the Nyingma sect of Buddhism who lived in the 18th century (from wiki page). In addition to his autobiography, his body of work includes his "Heart Sphere" writings, nine-volume "Collected Works", and various works on Tibetan history. [1]


A statue of Jetsun Milarepa from the Milarepa Gompa, Helambu valley, Hyolmo, Nepal. Milarepa statue.jpg
A statue of Jetsun Milarepa from the Milarepa Gompa, Helambu valley, Hyolmo, Nepal.

The autobiography of Milarepa documents the autobiographer's life and his transformation from representing the epitome of an immortal life to enlightenment through devout tantric Buddhist practices. After significant abuse throughout his childhood from greedy relatives, Milarepa commits mass slaughter against those who wronged him, as well as other acts of black magic; his ability to find salvation in the dharma despite his severe wrongdoing shows how, through adherence to Buddhism, anyone can reach enlightenment. [5]

Orgyan Chokyi

Born in 1675, Orgyan Chokyi is the earliest known female Tibetan autobiographer, one of only three or four total out of around 150 known Tibetan autobiographers [6] . Her work primarily focuses on suffering and impermanence of life, as well as gender roles within both Tibetan and Buddhist culture. An important concept that Orgyan Chokyi deals with in the gendering of suffering, claiming an intrinsic connection between the female body and Samsara and suffering. [6] [10]

See also

Related Research Articles


  1. 1 2 Gyatso, Janet. "From the Autobiography of a Visionary." Religions of Tibet in Practice. Ed. Donald S. Lopez. Princeton, New Jersey.: Princeton UP, 1997.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Gyatso, Janet B. "Autobiography in Tibetan Religious Literature: Reflections on Its Modes of Self-Presentation." Tibetan Studies - Proceedings of the 5th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Vol. 2. Narita: Naritasan Shinshoji, 1989. 465-78. Print. Language, History and Culture.
  3. 1 2 3 Willis, J.D. (2009) 'On the Nature of rNam-thar: Early dGe-lugs-pa Siddha Biographies' in: Aziz, B.A. & Kapstein, M. (eds.) Soundings in Tibetan Civilization (Kathmandu): 304-319.
  4. Jackson, Roger R. "Chapter 22: "Poetry" in Tibet: Glu, MGur, SNyan Ngag and "Songs of Experience"" Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996.
  5. 1 2 Heruka, Tsangnyon. "Chapter 12." The Life of Milarepa. London: Penguin, 2010. 178-202.
  6. 1 2 3 Schaeffer, Kurtis R. "The Autobiography of a Medieval Hermitess: Orgyan Chokyi (1675-1729)." Women in Tibet. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. 83-109. Print.
  7. "Tibetan-English-Dictionary of Buddhist Teaching & Practice". Diamond Way Buddhism Worldwide. Rangjung Yeshe Translations & Publications. 1996. Archived from the original on 2010-03-28. Retrieved 2011-02-05. gter ma: Terma. 'Treasure.'
  8. 1 2 Doctor, Andreas. Tibetan Treasure Literature: Revelation, Tradition, and Accomplishment in Visionary Buddhism. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2005. Print.
  9. Dowman, K. (1973) The Legends of the Great Stupa and the Life Story of the Lotus Born Guru (Berkeley).
  10. Gyatso 1992: 470 and Havnenik 1997: 357, and Gyatso 1998 Note: Was a reference within Schaeffer 2005