Jamgön Mipham (Mipam) Gyatso

Mipham Rinpoche, or Jamgön Mipham Gyatso, was an exceptional scholar-practitioner and one of the foremost Tibetan commentators of the early modern period. His contributions to both sutra and tantric exposition were especially important in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.



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Jamgön Mipham Gyatso,1Modern scholars tend to spell the name Mipam. also known as Ju Mipham Rinpoche, was a great Nyingma scholar practitioner and writer of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was born in the Derge region of eastern Tibet into the Ju clan, a family said to be descended from the ancient Tibetan gods. 

In his life story, he is described as a child prodigy who was able to memorize and retain all the texts he read from an early age. Throughout his life, he was said to have been able to remember and deliver commentary on many texts after receiving only the reading transmission.

At the age of fifteen, he undertook eighteen months of intensive retreat on Mañjuśrī, who was his lifetime meditation deity. Later in life, he was often said to be an emanation of that wisdom deity. After his retreat, he confided to some of his students that from then on he had always been able to understand any text he read. From his guru Patrul Rinpoche, he received teachings on Śāntideva’s Bodhicharyavatara. It was said that Patrul Rinpoche confirmed that after only five days of teaching, Mipham Rinpoche had mastered both the words and the meaning of this seminal text.

Mipham Rinpoche received teachings from luminaries of both the Sarma and Nyingma schools. He was a student of the eminent masters Jamgön Kongtrul with whom he studied grammar, and his root guru Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo from whom he received the complete transmission of the orally transmitted or Kama and revealed or Terma lineages.

His collected works fill more than thirty volumes and span an extraordinary range of topics. Although he is famous for his philosophical works, he also wrote treatises on astrology, medicine, poetry, politics, and tantra. He wrote a popular compilation on the epic story of the great warrior king, Gesar of Ling, an emanation of Guru Rinpoche. Mipham Rinpoche also composed devotional works such as a large number of aspiration prayers, sādhanas, and guru yogas. Of the sādhanas perhaps the most popular is the Treasury of Blessings, a sādhana of Buddha Śākyamuni.

It is said that Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo requested him to write commentaries on many of the core texts of Indian Buddhism that reflected the thinking of the Nyingma tradition. Prior to this undertaking, most of the Nyingma monasteries had relied upon commentaries produced by the Sarma schools. In fulfilling his lama’s command, Mipham reinvigorated the intellectual milieu of the main Nyingma shedras, and his texts are studied today as the core texts. In addition, he introduced the training in formal debate into the Nyingma shedras.

His commentaries include those on the Mulamadhyamakakarika or Root Stanzas on The Middle Way by Nagarjuna; the MadhyamakāvatāraIntroduction to the Middle Way by Chandrakirti; the Jñānasārasamuccaya, or Compendium on the Heart of Wisdom by Aryadeva. He also authored commentaries on treatises of logic by Dharmakīrti and Dignāga; commentaries on the Five Treatises of Maitreya; and commentaries on several works of Vasubandhu including the Abhidharmakosha. In addition, he authored The Lion’s Roar: A Commentary on Sugatagarbha.

Mipham and the Two Truths

Mipham’s commentary on the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, the Shertik Norbu Ketaka or Ketaka Jewel was criticized sharply by Geluk scholars, particularly his contemporaries Japa Dongak and Pari Lopzang Rapsel. His presentation of the two truths refuted the previous explanations of Je Tsongkhapa and the Sakya master Gorampa Sonam Senge. Also controversial was his commentary on the Madhyamakalamkara of Śāntarakṣita which similarly privileged the ultimate truth. His emphasis on Buddha Nature as the ground of all and the link between sutra and tantra is fundamental.  Modern biographers note that one of Mipham’s unique perspectives was the integration of tantric and Great Perfection (Dzogchen) view onto sutra interpretation.2Douglas Duckworth, Jamgön Mipam: His Life and Teachings (Boston: Shambala) 2011

Mipham the Practitioner

Although he is most famous as an author and scholar, it appears that Mipham spent much of his life in retreat. The colophons of his works mention that they were written during breaks from his retreats. He also composed a number of short pithy advice texts on the key points of Dzogchen practice. In the 1870s and 80s, he spent about thirteen years in retreat in the “Tiger Den” cave of Rongme Chime Karmo Taktsang near Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s monastery, Dzongsar.

Mipham Rinpoche passed away in 1912 at his hermitage at Ju, north of Dzogchen Monastery.

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