Jamgön Kongtrul. (1813- 1899)

Jamgön Kongtrul was a well-known leader of the nonsectarian movement in Tibetan Buddhism in the 19th century. He was born in Kham in late December of 1813. His father was a lama of the Bön religion. With such a family background, he was influenced a lot by Bön religion when he was young. In 1827, his father and other relatives of his were arrested by the Derge authorities and put into prison. During this time, he met the governor of Chöde Fortress, Khangsar tsang [household], through his friend. According to Gene Smith, “the Khang sar tshang seem to have been followers of the Nyingmapa.” (Smith, 247) From this time, at the age of 16, Kongtrul began his Buddhist training. According to Richard Barron, who is the translator of the autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul's biography, Kongtrul entered a Nyingma monastery at the age of 16, was taught by teh “Öntrul incarnation of the Nyingma institution, Jamgön Gyurmé Thutop Namgyal” and “received full monastic ordination from Zhenchen Öntrul.” (Barron, xx) Barron says a year after receiving ordination, Kongtrul was forced to move to Palpung monastery and took his ordination in that administration again, from the Ninth Situ Rinpoché, Pema Nyinjé Wangpo, who was a ruling incarnation of the Palpung monastery. According to Gene Smith, around this time period, Kongtrul observed a lot of pettiness and sectarianism, and he was distressed by them. Meanwhile, in 1840, Kongtrul met Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo, who fostered in him “a profound respect for all the spiritual traditions available in Tibet, including the Bön tradition.” (Barron, xx)

In 1846, Kongtrul went on a tour to eastern Kham, when “the times were troubled by religious conflicts.” (Smith, 248) Smith also stresses the fact that Kongtrul tried his best to calm the situation when a war broke out between the Gelukpa monastery of ’Ba’ Chöde and the affiliate of Pelpung, Pungri gön nang. In 1857, Kongtrul was sent to Lhasa to protect the little incarnation of Situ, the incarnation of Pelpung. He “was received at Lhasa by the infant Dalai Lama and the Rwasgreng regent.” (Smith, 248) Gene Smith says that Kongtrul and his associate Jamyang Khyentse wangpo (1820-1892) had a great amount of influence in the nonsectarian movement.

Barron personally accolades Kongtrul for being an open-minded and syncretic monk. Barron gives Kongtrul credit for having brought back a lot of “teachings that might have died out into the mainstream.” (Barron, xxi)

Gene Smith, Among Tibetan Texts: History and Literature of the Himalayan Plateau. (Somerville, 2001)
Richard Barron, The Autobiography of Jamgön Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors. (Ithaca, 2003)