Patrul the Scholar

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While Patrul was at the Shechen Philosophical College, or shedra, to continue his education with Shechen Öntrul Thuthop Namgyal. Among his fellow students were two illustrious young tulkus, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye.

Now, Khyentse Wangpo’s provisions were always more than suficient for his needs, since his aristocratic father came from a wealthy and powerful family. Jamgön Kongtrul always had plenty, since his family was fairly well off and lived nearby. Patrul, however, for some unknown reason, frequently ran out of food. It was his habit to polish off the leftover scraps on the plates of his fellow scholars. After he was done eating, Patrul enjoyed a nice nap. Whenever he did this, Khyentse and Kongtrul used to give him a hard time, telling Patrul he ought to be studying, not snoring!

“What’s the matter with you? You just wolf down our food and go to sleep!” they’d complain. “What’s that got to do with studying?” “If I can recite what our teacher said, isn’t that good enough?” asked Patrul. “Of course! But to do that, you need to study, don’t you?” Patrul shook his head. “I’ve got nothing to worry about. All I have to do is repeat what I’ve heard in class.”

And so it went. Kongtrul and Khyentse diligently studied every day after classes, while Patrul diligently gobbled up their leftovers and took his daily nap. Once, after teachings were done, the three students returned to their monastic cells as usual. Patrul was eating tsampa, a traditional snack made by mixing roasted barley our with tea and butter. When he finished, he covered his head with his shawl, leaned back, and was just about to doze off when his friends suddenly interrupted him. Jamgön Kongtrul nudged Patrul, saying, “Wake up, friend. We need you to explain a few things to us!” Removing the shawl from his head, Patrul replied, “What would you like me to explain?” “Won’t you tell us what we were taught today?” said Jamgön Kongtrul. “We can’t remember.” He and Khyentse exchanged mischievous glances; they were sure they’d find Patrul at a loss. Patrul replied enthusiastically, “Sure!”

To the amazement of both of his fellow students, Patrul proceeded to repeat virtually word for word the entirety of the text and commentary that had been spoken aloud just that morning by Shechen Öntrul. Like a replica made from a mold, it was exact. Kongtrul and Khyentse had to acknowledge that Patrul—like the famed Rongzom Mahapandita, [1]—had the ability to commit the teachings to memory merely by hearing them once.

Patrul spent some years in the wilderness of Rudam above Dzogchen Monastery. He was staying at the Shinje Cave, also known as the Yamantaka Cave, when he composed his famous work The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Kunzang Lamai Shelung), a guide to the preliminary practices of the Longchen Nyingthig cycle. When he stayed at the cave known as Long-Life Cave,[2] high on a steep slope opposite Yamantaka Cave, it is said that his realization of the Great Perfection became as vast as the sky.


  1. When Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (rong zom chos kyi bzang po, 1012–1088), known as Rongzom Mahapandita, was asked about the extent of his study of Buddhist scriptures, he answered, “I can’t say I studied extensively, since most of the texts I read only once. But I also can’t say that I didn’t study, since after reading them just once, I knew them almost by heart.”
  2. he Tibetan name of Long-Life Cave is Tsering Phuk (tshe rin phug).