Rinchen Zangpo

Short summary of the life Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo

Rinchen Zangpo (rin chen bzang po, 958-1055) was a prolific translator during the early part of the Later Spread (phyi dar) of Buddhism in Tibet. Born in the region of Ngari (mnga’ ris) in west Tibet, he was ordained as a monk at the age of thirteen. He undertook several trips to Kashmir to study Buddhism and Indian languages, at times enjoying the patronage of Lha Lama Yeshé Ö (lha bla ma ye shes ’od), the king of Ngari. When Atiśa came to Tibet, Rinchen Zangpo (who was eighty-five at the time) met and studied with him. During his life, Rinchen Zangpo was also instrumental in the construction of religious buildings and monuments in west Tibet, some of which survive to this day.

Analysis of Rinchen Zangpo in the Blue Annals

Gö Lotsawa gives Rinchen Zangpo a preeminent position in the Blue Annals, providing a short biography of the Great Translator at the beginning of his chapter on the later spread of the Dharma in Tibet (Roerich, 68-9). Rinchen Zangpo’s biography is only preceded in this chapter by a brief sketch of how a vinaya lineage was kept alive in Amdo (a mdo) during the period between the persecution of the Doctrine by Lang Darma (glang dar ma) and the beginning of the new translations. After that scene setting transition between the earlier and later spread, Rinchen Zangpo appears as the first true figure of the later spread. Indeed, Gö Lotsawa seems to use the ordination of Rinchen Zangpo as a turning point in the reemergence of Buddhism in Tibet: “Thus the year of the lo tsā ba’s ordination is the seventieth year from the year Iron-Hen (lcags bya — 901 A.D.) of the suppression of the Doctrine. From the above it seems clear that the Doctrine had first reappeared in mnga’ ris, and later in Central Tibet (dbus and gtsang)” (Roerich, 68). This may not be particular to Gö Lotsawa, it would be interesting to see how other Tibetan historians date the beginning of the Later Spread. Is Rinchen Zangpo a common benchmark for this turning point? I would presume that it is. Indeed, at least one modern scholar uses Rinchen Zangpo to mark the emergence of the Sarma (gsar ma) traditions (Germano, “Architecture and Absence in the Secret Tantric History of the Great Perfection,” JIABS 17, no. 2: 204). In the Blue Annals, Gö Lotsawa also gives us an outline of the translator’s life, his ordination, his study in Kashmir, his numerous translations (sutras and tantras), construction projects, and finally his death with accompanying miraculous signs.

Gö Lotsawa largely credits Rinchen Zangpo with the increase of tantra in Tibet. In the Fragment on the Later Spread of the Teachings he writes: “The ‘later’ spread of the Tantras in Tibet was greater than the ‘early’ spread (of the Tantras), and this was chiefly due to this translator (lo tsā ba)” (Roerich, 68). In the Fragment on the New Secret Mantra Traditions, he notes that a certain “Lord Smṛti” may have preceded Rinchen Zangpo in some of his translations of “New Tantra,” but he does not seem to give as much credence to this figure (Roerich, 204). The other figure noted in that section for his pioneering work in the translation of tantra is Drokmi (’brog mi). Later in the same fragment of the Blue Annals, in sections which give the history of specific tantras in Tibet, Rinchen Zangpo’s name often appears, such as in the context of the Guhyasamāja (Roerich, 359, 372-3) and the Cakrasamvara (Roerich, 380, 383). His work in the translation and teaching of these tantras was pioneering. According to Gö Lotsawa: “The widely propagated teaching and manuals of meditation (sgrub yig) according to the initiation and Tantra of Śrī¬Saṃvara, originated first in the Spiritual Lineage of the disciples of the Great Translator (rin chen bzang po)” (Roerich, 380).

The impact of Rinchen Zangpo was amplified by his instruction of others who could carry out further work. Shortly after Rinchen Zangpo’s biography, Gö Lotsawa discusses the sutra translation activities of other figures and then contrasts that with the work of Rinchen Zangpo and his disciples: “Numerous learned translators, disciples of the Great Translator (lo chen), translated numerous texts from the Vinaya piṭaka (‘dul ba’i sde snod), the Prajñāpāramitā, and many Tantric works.” In the biographical sketch itself, Gö Lotsawa notes: “He had many learned disciples, such as gur shing brtson ‘grus rgyal mtshan and others, as well as more than ten translators who were able to correct translations (zhus chen pher ba’i lo tsā ba)” (Roerich, 68-9). One gets the impression that Rinchen Zangpo had established a translation workshop of sorts. This also seems likely given the sheer number of works translated under his name, which raises the question about the manner in which translations were made in the renaissance period. How many of the translations by Rinchen Zangpo might actually have been a collective effort of several people working together under the direction of the Great Translator? What was the division of labor and the processes involved, such as translating versus correcting/editing as mentioned above? How does translation relate to teaching and study?

The importance of Rinchen Zangpo is again seen in the way that Gö Lotsawa uses dates in the translator’s life to establish relative chronology and context when discussing other figures. This is a commonly used device in the Blue Annals. Figures used for this purpose included widely-recognized personalities such as Atiśa and the Karmapas. Rinchen Zangpo appears in the Blue Annals for this purpose in a section discussing the dates of Zur Chungwa (zur chung ba) (Roerich, 123) and again when relating the departure of Drokmi and Taklo Zhönnu Tsöndrü (stag lo gzhon nu brtson ’grus) (Roerich, 205).

Rinchen Zangpo and the Renaissance period

Rinchen Zangpo emerges as the first true figure of the renaissance. While the dharma was kept alive and brought back to Ü (dbus) and Tsang (gtsang) by Lumé, this was more a process of continuing the previous spread of the Dharma. The features associated with the renaissance, particularly the emergence of the Sarma (gsar ma) traditions, such as renewed interest in India, new translations made by individual translators, the emphasis on tantra (particularly the new yogini tantras), local patronage, and so forth—are first embodied in life of Rinchen Zangpo.

It seems somewhat ironic that in Rinchen Zangpo you have the basic elements of institutional formation, a charismatic and energetic figure with a following of disciples, religious scriptures in translation (some representing new practices), physical buildings and monuments, and the support of powerful patrons and yet there did not arise a long-lived institution or school surrounding his figure. Maybe his works were taken up by and provided influence to various schools and later institutions in other ways. It might be fruitful to try to trace the ways in which specific buildings or translations have been used by various different schools and sects at different times. In other words, who has claimed Rinchen Zangpo as their own and for what purposes?