Patrul Rinpoche, Orgyen Jigme Chökyi Wangpo (1808–1887), a wandering practitioner in the ancient tradition of vagabond renunciants, became one of the most revered spiritual teachers in Tibetan history, widely renowned as a scholar and author, while at the same time living a life of utmost simplicity. A strong advocate of the joys of solitude, he always stressed the futility of worldly pursuits and ambitions. The memory of his life’s example is still very much alive today, offering an ever-fresh source of inspiration for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism.
An exemplary upholder of the purest Buddhist ideals of renunciation, wisdom, and compassion, Patrul Rinpoche spent most of his life roaming the mountains and living in caves, forests, and remote hermitages. When he left one place, he left with no particular destination; when he stayed somewhere, he had no fixed plans. In the wilderness, his favored meditation was the practice of cultivating bodhichitta—the wish to relieve all sentient beings from suffering and bring them to the ultimate freedom of enlightenment. In youth Patrul studied with the foremost teachers of the time. With his remarkable memory, he learned most of the oral teachings he heard by heart, thus becoming able to elucidate the most complex aspects of Buddhist philosophy without referring to a single page of text, not even when he taught for months at a time.
Utterly uninterested in ordinary affairs, Patrul naturally abandoned the eight worldly concerns, which consist of everyone’s ordinary hopes and fears—hoping for gain and fearing loss; hoping for pleasure and fearing pain; hoping for praise and fearing blame; hoping for fame and fearing disgrace.
Patrul generally refused to accept the offerings that are often made to a teacher or a respected religious figure according to tradition. Presented with valuable gifts such as gold and silver, he would leave them on the ground, abandoning them as easily as one abandons spit in the dust. In old age, however, he began to accept some offerings that he gave to beggars or used for making statues, building mani walls (amazing walls of sometimes hundred thousands of stones carved with the mani mantra, Om mani padme hum), making butter-lamp offerings, and engaging in other meritorious activities.
At the time of his death in his late seventies, Patrul Rinpoche’s few personal possessions were much the same as they had been when he first set out as a renunciant: two texts—The Way of the Bodhisattva and The Root Verses on the Middle Way—a begging bowl, a red wool pouch holding his yellow monk’s shawl, a prayer wheel, his walking stick, and a little metal pot for boiling tea.
Patrul Rinpoche is remembered today by illustrious contemporary masters as a contemplative and scholar who, through his practice, achieved the highest realization of ultimate reality. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche affirmed that Patrul was unsurpassed in his realization of the view, meditation, and conduct of Dzogchen. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama often praises Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings on bodhichitta, which he himself practices and transmits.
While in retreat at remote places, Patrul wrote profound original treatises, most of which have survived. He spontaneously composed many poems and pieces of spiritual advice; many of these vanished into the hands of the individuals for whom they were written.
His best-known work, composed in a cave above Dzogchen Monastery, is The Words of My Perfect Teacher. Composed in a blend of classical and colorful colloquial Tibetan, it is one of the most widely read teaching instructions on the preliminary practices of the Nyingma school. Revered by all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it has been translated into many languages.
Patrul Rinpoche collected and wrote down in essentialized form the pith instructions of his own masters on Great Perfection (Dzogchen) meditations, as, for instance, in his famous commentary on Three Sentences That Strike the Vital Point by Garab Dorje.
Patrul Rinpoche knew almost by heart the famed Seven Treasuries and other works of the fourteenth-century Tibetan master Gyalwa Longchen Rabjam, also known as Kunkhyen (Omniscient) Longchenpa, whom he considered the ultimate authority on the Buddhist path. Yet Patrul was beyond any need to display his immense knowledge and realization, and he taught in a manner that was immediately accessible to even the most simple-minded listeners, imparting teachings that pointed directly to the very heart of spiritual life. Patrul Rinpoche taught followers of all schools, without partiality. Like his contemporaries Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, and Lama Mipham Rinpoche, he played a major role in the development of the nonsectarian Rime movement that flourished in the nineteenth century, contributing to the revival of Tibetan Buddhism at a time when many rare lineages and practices had been on the verge of extinction.
Patrul Rinpoche’s rugged lifestyle was in sharp contrast to the ecclesiastic pomp and ceremony often found in large monasteries, a striking reminder to everyone high and low of the humility and simplicity at the heart of Lord Buddha’s teachings. Living as an ordinary person and a mendicant, he was nevertheless revered by all, from simple nomads to the greatest masters of his times. His unyielding emphasis on actual contemplative practice, impeccable conduct, and unstinting compassion in action has set a high spiritual standard for Buddhists of all schools and traditions.
The two short written biographies offer a general account of the great master’s life, along with glowing praise for his matchless achievements, and include a few inspiring anecdotes. But we would indeed like to know more about the life of such an extraordinary being. I feel therefore very fortunate to have been able to collect, over more than thirty years, a large number of oral stories that were recounted with great love and enthusiasm by the spiritual heirs of Patrul Rinpoche’s lineage, some of whom actually met Patrul Rinpoche’s direct disciples. In a culture in which oral transmission still plays an important role, Tibetans are known for their ability to retain and retell stories in great detail. When hearing them, one often has the feeling of witnessing the events as they took place. They provide vivid glimpses into the ways of a highly realized being as he interacts with people, conveys the Buddhist teachings both formally and informally, and lives his everyday life, which is both astonishing and humble, often quite humorous, and the perfect illustration of inner freedom.
- A few of his personal possessions are preserved in the home of descendants of Patrul Rinpoche’s sister: a small thangka of Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu (1765–1843), a hand-held prayer wheel, a monk’s shawl (chos gos), a metal pot for boiling tea, and bellows for making a fire. There is also a woodblock print of Milarepa’s biography and his Hundred Thousand Songs, given to Patrul Rinpoche by the Great Printing Press of Derge (Derge Parkhang). Patrul Rinpoche’s begging bowl is now kept at Shechen Monastery in Nepal.
- Collected in editions of six or eight volumes.
- tshig gsum gnad brdegs. Patrul’s commentary is titled mkhas pa shri rgyal po’i khyad chos (Special Teaching of the Wise and Glorious King).
- Dzö Dun (mdzod bdun).