Tsewang Lhamo (d. 1812) was the queen of the eastern Tibetan kingdom of Degé for over fifteen years at the turn of the nineteenth century. She was born in the late 1760s into an aristocratic family in Degé and married the Degé crown prince Sawang Sangpo in 1786.1 The young couple had one son and one daughter who survived infancy (they also lost two children). In 1788, when the royals were in their early twenties, Tsewang Lhamo and Sawang Sangpo traveled to Central Tibet to present themselves to the Dalai Lama’s government and to the ruling family of Sakya. Along the way, the youthful couple visited Jikmé Lingpa. Thus began a long and pivotal relationship between the lama and Tsewang Lhamo, largely conducted through letters such as the one translated here.
Tsewang Lhamo became a stalwart patron of Jikmé Lingpa and through her bold acts of generosity transformed Degé into the heartland of the Longchen Nyingthik tradition. Through this patronage Tsewang Lhamo rivaled the Dharma kings of prior generations and made a signal contribution toward the propagation of Jikmé Lingpa’s treasures, which have been the mainstream of the Nyingma ever since. The present work is a letter of advice from Jikmé Lingpa to Tsewang Lhamo and was composed for her shortly after their meeting in Central Tibet. Although it is one of his many minor masterpieces, it is virtually unknown in Tibetan and scholarly circles; this is the first published translation and discussion of it.
The year before Tsewang Lhamo and her husband’s meeting with Jikmé Lingpa, the couple sent an advance party to request that he travel to Degé to serve as the royal chaplain. At the time he was the most brilliant Nyingma lama in Tibet and was renowned in Kham, though he had never traveled to the region. Jikmé Lingpa declined the invitation to visit but did agree to provide religious services to Degé. Instead of gracing the king with his bodily presence, he composed a long epistle to the king comprising seventy-one verses and entrusted the king’s advance party to deliver it.
The royal couple’s visit with Jikmé Lingpa is well known to students of Tibetan culture through Janet Gyatso’s studies of Jikmé Lingpa’s autobiographies. One of her works is a translation of a passage from his outer autobiography detailing the first few days of their visit. Following convention, Jikmé Lingpa’s description of his royal patrons is initially quite ambivalent about the king and queen. He thinks they are sincere enough but acknowledges that the logistics of their visit is a disruption to his favored activities of meditation and composition, and that they made onerous demands on the local peasants.
However, as the chronicle of their visit progresses, the language changes. There is an especially rich episode from the pilgrimage made by Jikmé Lingpa and the king to Samyé. Upon an elaborate offering ceremony in front of the central Padmasambhava statue at Samyé, Jikmé Lingpa offers a benediction in which he likens the Degé king to Trisong Detsen (reign 756–800), who invited Padmasambhava to Tibet, and likens himself to Padmasambhava.
This Letter to the Queen was composed within days of their departure. It comprises sixteen verses and includes an autocommentary that offers prose elaborations of each of the verses. In this work Jikmé Lingpa calls Tsewang Lhamo an emanation of Ngangtsul Jangchup Gyalmo, wife of Mutik Tsenpo, himself the son of Trisong Detsen. The authorship statement at the conclusion of A Letter to the Queen reads, “The Dzokchen practitioner Rangjung Dorjé (a.k.a. Jikmé Lingpa) completed these instructions for Ngangtsul Jangchup Gyalmo, the excellent queen of Degé.” In 1790 Tsewang Lhamo was widowed when the king died after years of illness. She thereupon became the head of state and ruled Degé until her son ascended the throne toward the end of the first decade of the nineteenth century. Her reign was momentous.
After Sawang Sangpo’s death, Tsewang Lhamo emerged as the foremost benefactor of the Nyingma tradition of her generation. Though priest and patroness never met again, she continued her patronage of Jikmé Lingpa and his community throughout her reign. Jikmé Lingpa stayed in regular contact with her and her son, and he sent his chief disciple — the first Dodrupchen lama Jikmé Trinlé Öser (1745–1821) — to Degé for many long stays to help with Nyingma projects.
Tsewang Lhamo had broad editorial control over the renowned Degé printing house and saw to it that all of Jikmé Lingpa’s writings were published there. While he was alive, she printed his major work, the Treasury of Precious Qualities, and after his death Dodrupchen oversaw the publication of the collected works of Jikmé Lingpa in nine volumes. Under orders from Jikmé Lingpa, Tsewang Lhamo also sponsored the publication of the Degé edition of the Collected Tantras of the Ancients, the only xylograph edition of the canon of Nyingma scriptures. Additionally, she supported the founding of new Nyingma monasteries in Degé and built a large statue of Padmasambhava at the state temple, adorning it with precious stones and metals extracted from her heirloom jewelry.
Root Text and Autocommentary
The ornamental title of the work is The Treasury of Advice for Excellent Beings, which indicates that it is intended to be a depository of Dharma instructions for the spiritually advanced, such as Tsewang Lhamo. The work spans all three vehicles — Hīnayāna, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna — and the Great Perfection. Much of the work’s sixteen verses are devoted to the architecture of the path and to delineating the three vehicles. Verses 2 through 7 address topics in the Hīnayāna (which Jikmé Lingpa refers to as the “code of individual liberation”), such as the precious human rebirth, renunciation, and upholding a layperson’s vows. Verses 8 and 9 introduce Mahāyāna topics, such as the mind of enlightenment, and allude to skillful means. The remaining verses are devoted to the Vajrayāna and the Great Perfection, with topics including the higher initiations, practice with a sexual consort, the two stages of tantric practice, and the nature of mind.
A Letter to the Queen: The Treasury of Advice for Excellent Beings
Homage to Tārā!
1. Hearing the name of he who appeared out of the stamen of a lotus soon after Buddha passed away in Kuśinagarī enhances the value of the ears of all who hear it — concretely, not figuratively. May he grant his blessings!
The precious master Padmasambhava came to this world by magically appearing in a lotus soon after the Buddha passed away in Kuśinagarī. The ear of one who has heard the name of the precious master is different from one who has not, the value of the former being equal to beryl. This is not a poetic flourish or falsehood.
2. Although mired in the ocean of saṃsāra, you rejected a life lacking leisure. Having reached the jeweled island of leisure and fortune, you enjoy the seven qualities of the higher realms. How wonderful!
Despite living in saṃsāra, you have acquired a physical form replete with all eighteen leisures and endowments as described in the Abhidharma commentaries, including being devoid of the eight leisureless states and in possession of the seven qualities of the higher states, such as the long-life gods.
3. At present the lasso of the five degenerations fetters the Victor’s teachings, fount of jewels. Nevertheless, while residing in the royal palace, it is still possible to generate the attitude of renunciation, the genuine seed of the code of individual liberation.
These days the Victor’s teachings are widespread but fledgling. Consequently this age is fettered by the five degenerations, such as the degeneration of views. Nevertheless, even though you live in the royal palace, it is still possible to generate the spirit of renunciation toward saṃsāra. In fact, the essence of the code of individual liberation is the generation of, or presence of, renunciation in the mindstream.
4. The sources are likened to an artist and the sufferings likened to the images created by him or her. Seeing clearly the incontrovertibility of cause and effect, one cultivates the paths and attains the cessations. This is the teaching of the Buddha.
Regarding the four noble truths: the sources are the mental afflictions and the sufferings are their results. Practicing the paths — abandoning sin and accomplishing virtue due to conviction in the aforementioned system of causality — is the method leading to the cessation of further rebirths. This is the Vinaya’s true tenet.
5. As we are now in the early stages of the period of the vestigial signs of the Dharma, ordained renunciants weaken, flout, break, and irrevocably nullify their vows. Nevertheless, it is still possible to uphold the eight occasional vows and maintain at least one permanent vow while living as a householder.
The present time is fast approaching the period of the vestigial signs of the Dharma, and hence even ordained renunciants violate the training. They commit the triad of weakening, flouting, and breaking individual vows and commit the major transgressions in which all of one’s vows are irrevocably nullified. Nevertheless, these days householders are able to (1) undertake the occasional vows, including the practice of fasting, as explained in the Abhidharma’s treatment of the eight vows on the full moon, new moon, and eighth lunar day, and (2) permanently maintain a single vow, thereby abandoning one of the nonvirtues, such as killing or lying.
6. For this reason, during auspicious times such as the full moon, do not wander about doing meaningless things. Rather, adhere to the paths leading to the higher states and liberation — namely, the eight occasional vows: the four root vows and abstention from intoxicants, wearing garlands, high beds, and meals after noon.
Do not be idle on auspicious days such as the full and new moons. Observe the eight occasional vows, the infallible cause for obtaining rebirth in the higher realms.
7. Having upheld the aforementioned ethical codes, king Bimbisāra of yore attained arhatship while living in his palace. Success is not foreordained, but by all means exert yourself in following his example.
Apropos of householders, reflect on the fact that when the Buddha was alive, king Bimbisāra undertook the aforementioned ethical codes and thereby achieved arhatship while leading the life of a layman.
8. More important still is the sun-like Mahāyāna, which is conveyed by the horse-drawn chariot of the mind of enlightenment. The Mahāyāna canon’s locus of training is not the body but the mind. Therefore govern your great land by means of the sunlight of the two types of the mind of enlightenment, aspirational and engaged.
More important still is the Mahāyāna, whose practice is predicated on the mind of enlightenment. Furthermore, the Mahāyāna vows do not concern the regulation of observable behavior such as that of body and speech, as occurs in the Śrāvaka Vehicle. Rather, they are predicated on the good heart, which is mental. Therefore govern your vast land solely by means of the aspirational and engaged minds of enlightenment.
9. The śrāvaka’s elephant cannot bear the same burdens as the horse-drawn chariots of altruism and great compassion. Bodhisattva Drowé Palmo conjured illusions when she danced and by means of them carried out loving actions for sentient beings. In similar ways should you show benevolence for your subjects.
Altruistic actions motivated by the mind of enlightenment as such are not prescribed by the śrāvaka canon. By means of an analogy to elephants and horses, one can illustrate the relative sizes of the spiritual burdens of their respective adherents. The Hundred Birth Stories of Buddha narrates the episode of the bodhisattva’s birth as the female dancer Drowé Palmo, who benefitted beings through dancing. Neither are you hindered by a lowly female birth; like Drowé Palmo, you should affectionately protect your subjects.
10. The Inquiry of Ugra the Householder Sūtra discourses on the sixty faults entailed in the setback of birth as a woman. But actually these faults do not inhere within women’s essential goodness. Rather, women embody a crucial connection to enlightenment because they possess the channels of the five Buddha lineages.
The Inquiry of Ugra the Householder Sūtra discourses about the sixty-plus faults of women. Contrary to this, the secret mantra texts proclaim that women embody a crucial connection to enlightenment because of being endowed with channels of the five Buddha lineages. Therefore the aforementioned faults are not found within women’s intrinsically good nature. Women’s inferior bodies are not an impediment to the practice of the Mahāyāna Dharma.
11. Regarding the ḍākinīs from the pure lands, the Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra’s eulogistic discourse on the seven royal treasures states that the ideal queen is devoid of the five opposing forces and possesses the eight positive qualities. How amazing!
Ḍākinīs from the pure lands sometimes appear in the world as the precious queen of a cakravartin. The Sūtra of Definitive Emergence’s explanation of the seven attributes of kingship affirms that the precious queen is free of the five faults common to women and is endowed with eight positive qualities. Indeed, these traits are innate within you.
12. The ḍākinī embodies a method faster than ordinary methods. The mantra piṭaka extols her as the true nature of all illusions, the queen of bewildering illusions, the excellent treasury of the wisdom of bliss-emptiness. All this redounds to you alone.
13. The so-called innate joy, from among the sixteen joys, is a dependently arisen phenomenon that issues forth from the third initiation’s queen of illusion, who embodies the knowledge mantras of Prajñāpāramitā. You are that mistress of wisdom.
14. You are by nature the supreme queen of wisdom, but this primordially produced trait must be activated by conditions — namely, the ambrosial rain of the ripening initiations and liberating instructions. Now that you have been instructed, apply yourself to the two stages.
The explanation of the preceding three verses is as follows: The Vajrayāna canon is distinguished by a skillful means that is superior to ordinary skillful means — namely, the queen of wisdom. When one does not rely upon her dexterity with illusions, the third initiation is not bestowed. Because you alone are the very embodiment of her, now that you have been instructed in the nexus of practices that brings into being the abandonments and realizations — namely, the ripening instructions and the liberating guidance — apply yourself to the two stages, the paths of generation and completion.
15. The Mother of All Buddhas is called “the expanse of reality,” and its nature is the faculty of mindfulness. Nirvāṇa arises from this mindfulness alone, and uncontrived mindfulness is the Great Completion.
The modus operandi of the Great Completion is to be introduced to the nature of mind and subsequently cultivate mindfulness.
16. If you acquaint yourself with the truth of that and attain mental isolation— even while living in the royal palace — you will become intimate with the one taste of all phenomena within the primordial field. I pray that the auspicious connections for such arise. May there be virtue for you!
If you habituate yourself to mindfulness, then even amid the tumult of the royal palace you will be able to sequester your mind, and through knowing how to take distracting thoughts onto the path, seeing the mode of abiding will be effortless. I pray and make benedictions that you will behold the original face of the primordial Buddha.
The Dzokchen practitioner Rangjung Dorjé (a.k.a. Jikmé Lingpa) completed these instructions for Ngangtsul Jangchup Gyalmo, the excellent queen of Degé, kingdom of the Earth Protectors (sakyong).
Translated and presented by Jann Ronis.
Image of Green Tara as Prajnaparamita from Alchi Monastery in Ladakh, India, about the 11th century.