(From a teaching by Bardor Tulku Rinpoche given in Arizona in January 2010. Translated by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso, transcribed by Liz Summers, edited by Basia Coulter. Copyright 2010 Bardor Tulku Rinpoche and Peter O’Hearn. All rights reserved.)
As you know, what we now call Tibetan Buddhism, was initiated in the 8th century by the Abbot Shantarakshita; the Master Guru Rinpoche (or Padmashambava); and the dharma King Trisong Detsen. Guru Rinpoche empowered twenty-five people who constituted the first gathering or first assembly of his disciples. Among those twenty-five disciples was my predecessor Nupchen Sangye Yeshe later reborn as the dharma lord Sonam Zangpo, who was in turn reborn in the 19th century as Terchen Barway Dorje.
The collective writings of Terchen Barway Dorje consist of nine volumes of treasure (terma); three volumes of oral and composed teachings (kama); and two volumes of visionary teachings (daknang). If these fourteen volumes of dharma comprising the essence of the treasure, oral, and visionary lineages simply existed in written form and had no effect on anyone, then there would not really be anything very remarkable about them at all. But that is not the case. To understand their significance, we need to go back a little bit and look at the history of the Barom Kagyu in particular and of the various other lineages in general during the 19th century.
After the parinirvana of the dharma lord Sonam Zangpo, the secret teachings of the Barom Kagyu seemed to have disappeared. The Barom Kagyu itself continued to exist, but by the 19th century it had become greatly diminished. In the 19th century an extraordinary being appeared who, as predicted by the Buddha, would revive all of the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism in general and especially preserve those lineages that were in danger of dying out. That person was the first Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (Jamgon Lodro Thaye). The Buddha’s prediction regarding Jamgon Lodro Thaye can be found in the sutras in which he said, “I predict the coming of one who will be called Boundless Intelligence [which is the name Lodro Thaye] who will revive the teachings.” Jamgon Lodro Thaye, like Terchen Barway Dorje, was a rebirth of one of the twenty-five disciples [of Guru Rinpoche]. He was the rebirth of the great translator Vairochana who, having been trained as a translator, was sent by King Trisong Detsen to India to study with various Indian masters including some of the teachers of Guru Rinpoche. Vairochana remained in India for many years receiving teachings until his masters assured him that he had reached the same state of realization as theirs. With that assurance he returned to Tibet and for several years caused the vast dissemination of the teachings that he had received while in India. Eventually, because of the jealously of others, he was banished from Tibet to a southern area called Gyalmo’i Tsawarong and lived there for several years spreading the dharma until eventually he was allowed to return to Tibet. If you want to know more about the life of Vairochana, his biography has been translated into English and it is available as a book under the title the Vajra Garland and the Lotus Garden.
So Vairochana was reborn in the 19th century as Jamgon Kongtrul the Great (or Jamgon Lodro Thaye). His purpose in taking that rebirth was to protect and disseminate the Kagyu teachings and indeed the teachings of all lineages. By the time of Jamgon Kongtrul’s birth it was evident that there were going to occur cataclysm events that would cause the extinction of the teachings unless something was done that had never been done before. What Jamgon Lodro Thaye did that had never been done before was to assiduously receive and collect the teachings of all lineages. He compiled vast collections of literature of all of those teachings: the empowerment texts, the texts necessary for transmission and all of the guidance, instruction, and commentary texts. He made sure he received all of those teachings himself. He composed whatever texts were needed to supplement them and he collected all of them into what we now call The Five Great Treasuries. The significance of this is that if The Five Great Treasuries did not exist, then during the 20th century most of the teachings of the major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism would have been severely threatened by the events subsequent to the communist invasion and the Cultural Revolution. The Five Great Treasuries are: The Treasury of Precious Revelations, which includes within it many of the treasures (or terma) discovered up to the time of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, that is before the 19th century; The Treasury of Precious Instructions, which contains the fundamental teachings of the oral lineages of the eight original practice lineages of Tibetan Buddhism; The Treasury of Kagyu Tantra, which includes within it the complete teachings and empowerments that come from Marpa the Translator; The Treasury of Vast Exposition, which consists of Jamgon Lodro Thaye’s collected writings; and finally The Treasury of All-Pervasive Knowledge, nowadays usually called The Treasury of Knowledge, which was a treatise composed by Jamgon Lodro Thaye at the request of the dakini Yeshe Tsogyal to serve as a fundamental guidebook to the view, meditation, and conduct of all forms of Tibetan Buddhism.
While Jamgon Kongtrul was composing these works, he also traveled all over Central, Eastern, and Western Tibet in order to receive every existing lineage. He mostly walked from place to place carrying whatever he had with him in a backpack. In some cases, when he visited the only person who held a minor lineage, he actually had to teach the person to read first, so that the person could give him the empowerment. While doing all this, Jamgon Lodro Thaye became aware that among the various Kagyu traditions, the Barom Kagyu was threatened with practical extinction. He, therefore, repeatedly exhorted people like Kagyu Tashi, and especially Terchen Barway Dorje who was known to be the rebirth of the dharma lord Sonam Zangpo, to do whatever could be done to preserve the Barom Kagyu.
Because of such repeated exhortation, which he had received not only from Jamgon Lodro Thaye but also from Kagyu Tashi, Terchen Barway Dorje remained in retreat for more that three years in the practice cave of dharma lord Sonam Zangpo, which is called Kyodrak Utse. While he was in that retreat, he received the previously dormant teachings of the Barom Kagyu from the dakini Yogini of Space—the wisdom body of the dakini Atroma, the consort of the dharma lord Sonam Zangpo. He recorded those teachings in their completeness in the two volumes of visionary teachings.
Since the time of Terchen Barway Dorje, these teachings have been practiced, and through their practice in many Barom Kagyu retreat facilities many practitioners have been able to pass out of this existence without leaving their bodies behind; others have achieved the rainbow body; others have come close to the achievement of the rainbow body; many—as hidden yogis—have lived their lives secretly in the mountains like those described by Jetsun Milarepa, living as children of the mountains, wearing the mountain mists as cloths, living a life of which Jetsun Milarepa himself said, “My vow is to meditate until death and to die alone in my cave of practice, so no one will mourn me.” In that way the teachings of the Barom Kagyu, which were revived through the visionary dispensation of Terchen Barway Dorje, have become very important.