The stories in this book are based on both oral and written sources. In the 1970s, I began to write down the stories of Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887) that I'd heard from my teachers, and also began reading some of Patrul Rinpoche's spiritual advice in Tibetan and translating them into English.
The primary written sources for Patrul Rinpoche's life are two short traditional biographies (namthar) written by his own disciples. The first, Dewdrop of Amrita, written by Dodrup Tenpai Nyima, the 3rd Dodrupchen Rinpoche, describes the main events of Patrul Rinpoche's life as well as the places where he studied, taught, and practiced. It also contains a few anecdotes and offers a lively portrait of Patrul Rinpoche's unique qualities of being. The second biography, Elixir of Faith, written by Gegong Khenpo Kunzang Palden (better known as Khenpo Kunpel), is an elaboration of the prayer written by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo to commemorate the main events of Patrul's life. This later biography incorporates most of Dodrup Tenpai Nyima's work, supplemented with information from other sources, especially the diaries of Sönam Tsering, the humble and devoted attendant from Amdo who served Patrul Rinpoche during most of the last part of the great sage's life.
Despite the lack of a detailed written hagiography, a rich oral tradition recounting Patrul Rinpoche's life and teachings remains very much alive. Recent contemporary teachers have continued this tradition, such as Kyabje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (who met Patrul's direct students, such as Lama Mipham, Khenpo Kunpel, Khenpo Shenga of Dzogchen, Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu's tulku Trama Tulku Kunzang Dechen, among others), Khenpo Pema Wangyal of Gemang, also a student of Khenpo Kunpel and Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, just to cite a few. Other anecdotes come down to us from Patrul's heart-disciple Nyoshul Lungtok to his own student Khenpo Ngakchung (Khenpo Ngawang Palzang), and on to later disciples, very few of whom are still alive. Through the family line of the great tertön Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa, whose three children were all direct disciples of Patrul, we have first-person accounts of events they themselves witnessed.
A wider local oral tradition provides other anecdotes, as stories of Patrul are widely venerated and continue to be extremely popular throughout Kham, Golok, and other regions of Tibet.
Please see the section “About the Contributors” for brief biographies of the sources listed on the title page.
As the contemporary master Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche told us, although one cannot confirm each and every detail in each and every story, all of these precious stories will certainly be lost unless preserved. Today, when I hear these stories retold by the younger generation in Kham or elsewhere, many of the accounts have already been diminished, losing both detail and substance. Therefore, the main intention here is not to offer exhaustive translations from the written biographies, but rather to use biographical material as a framework upon which to preserve the oral tradition.
I tried my best to arrange the stories in chronological order. For this I used the details available in the story: first, the approximate age of Patrul Rinpoche, whenever it could be guessed; second, the locations given in the stories. Some of these locations are quite far away from the Dzachukha region (where Patrul Rinpoche was born, spend a great part of his life, and passed away), and in many cases it is roughly known, according to written sources (biographies of Patrul and of other masters), at which time of his life he visited them. Knowing the areas, we also tried to figure out the routes that Patrul Rinpoche might have followed when going from one place to the other. In addition, the other teachers and students who are mentioned in the stories were a guide to the chronological order, since the dates of most of them are known and some chronological details are also found in the available biographies of these teachers.
This collection also includes some of the gems of spiritual advice found in Patrul Rinpoche's own writings (designed in text boxes to distinguish them from the other stories). Most of these selections are either pieces of advice given to students or spontaneous expressions of realization called vajra songs, drawn from Patrul Rinpoche's collected works. These colorful, often lyrically beautiful compositions display Patrul's unique teaching style, combining uncompromising toughness with ironic humor, profound simplicity with deep understanding rooted in personal practice, and extraordinary compassion for all beings.
In the 1980s I shared some a preliminary manuscript of my translations with several friends, and a few of the stories later found their way into print. More recently, I included several stories that I heard from Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche in slightly different versions in On the Path to Enlightenment: Heart Advice from the Great Tibetan Masters (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2013). The majority of the stories I collected appear here for the first time.
To add to the picture of Patrul's life and times, the book provides a series of short biographies of masters and disciples of Patrul Rinpoche as well as several important earlier figures who played an influential role in Patrul Rinpoche's life. Photographs, a lineage chart and a Patrul family tree, and a map of eastern Tibet are also included to enhance this portrait of the Enlightened Vagabond and make it the most complete history of Patrul Rinpoche to date.
- Sönam Tsering was constantly at Patrul Rinpoche’s side after Patrul became seventy-one years old. See Khenpo Kunpel’s biography in the Biographical Notes.
- One of the most illustrious disciples of Khenpo Ngakchung, Chatral Sangye Dorje (bya bral sangs rgyas rdo rje, 1913–2015), passed away at the age of 102. When Matthieu visited Tibet in 1985, he was able to meet Tulku Urgyen Chemchog, a close disciple of Khenpo Ngakchung; in 2004, another disciple of Khenpo Ngakchung was still teaching in a mountain retreat at Nyarong, in Kham.
- The full title of a collection of songs and words of advice, put together retrospectively by Khenpo Shenga Tenga, who arranged Patrul Rinpoche’s collected works, can be translated roughly as “Authentic Pith Instructions, Spontaneous Vajra Songs, Melodies Free from Elaborations.” It is a collection of written pieces of advice and instructions given or sent to students, poems, and songs of realization (vajra songs). This genre is widely found in Tibetan literature. The selections translated are not all literally songs, and Patrul Rinpoche was not known (unlike Milarepa and Shabkar, for instance) for actually singing such “songs.”