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Buddhadharma : Winter 2018
118 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY The word “autobiography” may evoke for Western readers a great tome in which a notable individual recounts their life story in a descriptive yet emotionally revealing manner, providing a personal window onto important events and peo- ple. Autobiography (rangnam) was and is a popular literary genre among Tibetans; premodern examples include those by the Fifth Dalai Lama, Shabkar, and Jamgon Kongtrul, and more recent works (some- times in English) have been written by the likes of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Tibetan autobiographers vary con- siderably in their style and approach, but whether ancient or modern, they are typi- cally more intent on discussing their rela- tion to buddhadharma than on analyzing politics and society or probing their own psyches. The Magical Play of Illusion is a case in point. Trijang Rinpoche does mention the major events affecting his life, includ- ing his struggle for acceptance as a tulku, intra-Geluk strife in the 1940s over the status of a deposed regent of the Dalai Lama, growing Chinese influence in Tibet throughout the 1950s, his perilous escape following the Lhasa uprising of 1959, his adjustment to exile in India, and his trav- els throughout India, China, and Europe. He relates these matters straightforwardly, though, with little added analysis, expres- sion of emotion, or psychological musing. Political, social, or cultural commentary is limited mostly to his denunciation of Chinese atrocities in Tibet and his passing mention of the mix of technological prow- ess and spiritual vacuity he encountered in the West. Expressions of strong emo- tion are similarly rare; he evinces warmth toward his teachers, friends, and disciples, and reports feeling sadness when any of them passes away but does not dwell on his feelings. Nor, apart from recounting some significant dreams, does he describe his interior spiritual life, rich though it undoubtedly was. What Trijang Rinpoche does do is give the reader a detailed sense of his life as a student and teacher of dharma. His chronicle of places he traveled, teachings he gave, empowerments he offered, ritu- als he performed, donations he made, and people he met sometimes makes for dry reading, but it also provides an invalu- able portrait of the persons, places, and practices that mattered most in the Geluk world of the twentieth century. Rather than promote or psychoanalyze himself, or investigate politics and society, he simply highlights his activities on behalf of the dharma—which was clearly at the very core of his sense of identity. Trijang Rinpoche was well educated in Tibetan literature and literary style, so The Magical Play of Illusion is replete with quotations from the poems and proverbs of Indian and Tibetan authors, Trijang’s own ornate verses, often composed spon- taneously, and an array of metaphors and similes—many of which he deploys against himself. Self-deprecation is part of any Buddhist master’s rhetorical arsenal, but Trijang Rinpoche takes it to remark- able heights. He describes himself, for instance, as “a charlatan, hardened to the Dharma, a hypocrite whose deeds did not correspond with his words.” Elsewhere, he observes that the Dalai Lama’s appreci- ation for him is “like seeing a clod of earth as gold,” and, commenting on his rise within the Geluk hierarchy, he remarks, “I am simply looked up to as a master like a nomad who reaches the front row because he is chased by dogs.” Others did not see him this way. He was considered one of the great masters of the twentieth century—the embodiment