Comments on “The history of Aro lineage history”


What is the Aro lineage

Anonymous's picture

What is the Aro lineage history? Aro Lingma (1886-1923) had a son named Aro Yeshe (dates unclear) and then Ngakpa Chögyam was recognized as his tulku by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche? When did this happen? Who held the lineage in the interim?

Aro Yeshé and the lineage history


Thanks for the questions! The overall lineage history is here (or you can follow the Gassho link above). The bit about Aro Yeshé is within this page. The dates for Aro Yeshé are 1915-1951.

I don’t know of an Aro lineage holder between Aro Yeshé and Ngak'chang Rinpoche. Typically a dorje gyaltsap (Vajra Regent) would be appointed to hold a tulku lineage until the maturity of the next incarnation, but if that happened, whoever it was disappeared in the Chinese destruction. Many lineages and lineage-holders were lost then.

It is common in Tibetan history for terma lineages to be lost and then re-discovered, often after several centuries. The Ri-mé tertons were particularly adept at this. They revived many extinct lineages by recovering them in vision from the sambhogakaya. They were great scholars and text-collectors; when possible, they collected texts in physical form from obscure libraries. But when they read about a lineage they considered important, and were unable to find nirmanakaya texts, they turned to the sambhogakaya and collected the texts there. (You can read about this in Andreas Doctor’s excellent The Tibetan Treasure Literature.)

I have been working for several months on a detailed history of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s relationships with his lamas. This has required a lot of research, trying to contact everyone who might be an eyewitness to events, and searching through documents that might be relevant. Work on this has been delayed by other commitments – I haven’t had time to do anything much with Approaching Aro for quite a while. I hope that I will be able to publish what I have found soon. There is a great deal of information that has not been publicly discussed before. I hope that the evidence I have collected will clarify some questions about which there has been uncertainty. In the cases of his relationships with Lama Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche and Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, in the 1980s and 1990s, there are numerous credible witnesses and documents.

With regard to the 1970s, and Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche, I have found no evidence apart from Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s own account. Ngak’chang Rinpoche says he was recognized as Aro Yeshé’s tulku by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche in the early 1970s. He says there were no witnesses, so one can believe him or not. Or, you don’t have to have an opinion. Unless it somehow affects your practice, why would anyone care?

Personally, I don’t have an opinion about whether or not Rinpoche is a tulku, and I don’t care. I don’t see why it makes any difference. Some of the greatest lamas (Mipham Rinpoche, for instance) were not tulkus; and most tulkus are not great lamas. I would guess that no Aro apprentice cares about Rinpoche’s tulku-ness. We are obviously not the sort of people who choose lamas on the basis of their social status in the Tibetan hierarchy, which is mostly what tulku-ness is about.

I do believe that Ngak’chang Rinpoche has told the truth about his recognition by Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche. I didn’t have an opinion about that when I started doing the research. Based on what I read on e-Sangha, I thought it was possible that Rinpoche was fudging some of his personal history. However, I have been able to check his accounts of later events with independent witnesses, and found what he said was true. So probably what he says about the 1970s is also true.

I have doubts about the Aro lineage in Tibet (before Rinpoche was born) as objective history. However, again, I don’t see why that makes any difference. The Aro teachings are terrific. I am confident that they come from the dharmakaya via the sambhogakaya, so I don’t care whether they also come via Tibet or England. I am also confident that Rinpoche didn’t deliberately invent the pre-1951 history; it comes from vision, and has visionary truth if not objective truth.

I hope this is helpful!


Thanks, it is indeed

Anonymous's picture

Thanks, it is indeed helpful. I did review the lineage history on the site you mentioned, but it actually wasn't very clear to me. Frankly, it seemed to be intentionally abstruse. I did subsequently find your summary elsewhere on the website in which you make it clear that the Aro lineage in practical terms originated with Ngakpa Chögyam. At the risk of being presumptuous, I think the Aroter lineage might be subject to less misunderstanding if it was more up front about this. It seems to me that you are quite correct that stranger things have happened, particularly with regard to terma traditions.

I also agree that it does not particularly matter who is recognized as a tulku and who isn't.

However, falsely claiming endorsements by leading lamas IS problematic. It thoroughly undermines the credibility of whoever does it, and undermines the credibility of Vajrayana in the modern world generally, which is something that affects all practitioners. The fact that Khyentse Rinpoche's labrang categorically denies not only that Ngakpa Chögyam was recognized as a tulku by Rinpoche but even that the two had any particular relationship is troubling.

That said, I think your critique (and Ngakpa Chögyam's) of Vajrayana Buddhism in the West has a number of valid points. It is a shame that his dubious personal claims undermine it.

'Holding' a lineage

David, I would be interested to see what you have learnt about 'holding a lineage' during your research. This is a phrase that people use on sites like e-sangha when they are debating the merits of one Tibetan Buddhist tradition or another. I actually don't think many people understand what 'holding a lineage' actually means - me being one of them. I think there is a vague concept amongst such folk that Lama X tells Lama Y everything there is to conceptually know about a lineage, dies, and hopes to be reborn in time for Lama Y to pass this conceptual information back.

However looking at what actually happens, then it seems evident there are a number of preconceptions web folk have that are incorrect. It is not about conceptual information; it does not mean that a lineage holder has practiced all the teachings of the lineage in this lifetime, to completion. If it did mean that, rainbow body would be a nonsense because that is only concluded at the death of the physical body, as would powa. There are empowerments in which Lamas of all schools describe the empowerment as being a transmission of the lineage as a whole - but not all the practice explanations are given for every practice at that time - so one can 'receive a whole lineage' but again not practice it.

The real issue in terms of 'holding a lineage' appears to be that the holder has spiritual accomplishment. From the perspective of their own accomplishment, their understanding is sufficient to comprehend and teach on a whole lineage due to their experiential understanding. It has nothing to do with 'information'.

So. . . on this subject I feel I 'know that I don't know' the answer, and would be interested to see what you have found in your research.

Best regards


Lineage and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

The "lineage history" I described on this page is the visionary terma history up to 1951. The account of that on the Aro web site seems clear to me. It's linear and conceptually coherent, which is more than can be said for many Tibetan lineage histories.

There's a second history, of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s relationships with his teachers. That, unfortunately, is not presented in a linear or coherent way on the Aro web site. It is in bits scattered through the “photographs” section of the site, as commentary on pictures of his teachers. I don’t thinks it’s deliberately obscure. Rinpoche is not a particularly linear thinker. I suspect that he thinks about his teachers in visual images, so the presentation of the web site seems natural to him. I, on the other hand, am a ploddingly linear engineer. One of the things I will publish here when I get some time is a ploddingly linear summary of the post-1951 history. That will be quite helpful, I think.

By "Khyentse Rinpoche's labrang" do you mean the Fellowship?

If so, I do not think that what you said about them is correct. I have been corresponding with them. What they have told me is that they cannot confirm that what Ngak’chang Rinpoche says about his relationship with Kyabjé Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche is true. They have not told me that they know that what he has said is false. That is quite a different thing.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche says that the recognition was in a private conversation and there were no witnesses. It is difficult to see how anyone could know that this did not happen. It’s fine to say “I don’t like him, and there is no independent evidence for his claim, so I assume he is lying.” But that is very different from saying “I know that he is lying.”

I did kind of get the impression that someone at the Fellowship does dislike Rinpoche. I could be wrong; they didn’t say that.

Unless there is a statement from them that they have specific evidence that what Rinpoche said is false, then I think we have to assume that they don’t actually know anything one way or the other.


It probably depends

Dear Namgyal,

The short answer is “I don’t know.” I haven’t run across any detailed explanation while researching other things.

That said, I will stick my neck out and make a guess. My guess is that there is no coherent, general explanation to be had. There are two things that increasingly impress me as I read about the history of Tibetan Buddhism. One is that Vajrayana cannot be understood in logical or legalistic terms, and that it is impossible to make any generalizations about it. The other is that what was actually done in Tibet was often very different from what “ought” to have been done based on scriptural theory, and that the difference is usually understandable in terms of secular power.

It’s deeply embedded in our way of thinking that if X is true, then the opposite of X must not be true, and if you are supposed to do Y, then you must not do the opposite of Y. So people say things like "My lama said [or I read in a book] that goddess X is red, and you have to say her mantra 108 times; but you say that she is blue, and you only say her mantra 21 times. My lama [or the author of the book] is very holy and scholarly, so obviously he is right and you are wrong. Either you are stupid and need to be corrected, or else you are evil and need to be suppressed.” But you can’t make any sense of Vajrayana that way. Vajrayana follows visionary logic, not Western logic. Every lineage does things differently, and in theory that should not be a problem.

So I suspect that what it means to be the lineage holder depends on the lineage (and quite likely the holder, and the beholder). There is no law that says what the qualifications, rights and responsibilities of lineage holders are, that applies uniformly.

The other thing is, being a lineage holder gives you some sort of power over people in the lineage. And that means that what it is to be a lineage holder was probably politically contested. Even if there were a coherent theory about what it is to be a lineage holder, based for example on spiritual accomplishment as you suggest, I would guess that in practice there were (and are) sharp disputes about who was accomplished enough to be a lineage holder, and exactly what powers that gives him.

This is speculation, though. “An important topic for further investigation,” as academics say when writing funding proposals.


Pragmatism & Empiry

All lineages were somewhat invented! Some people use the point of legitimacy to invalidate a lineage or validate another one. Well, nobody can prove that Siddharta Gotama really existed. Except for a later text in the Páli Canon linking him to some previous Buddhas, he created something new, at least in part. Don't misunderstand me, David, I love your websites, your texts and this subject. What I don't like is to see some people that don't look at their own asses and think they have the key to dispute this or that lineage as invalid. Man, if the practices work, bring you realization, it can be kaos magick, then lineage doesn't matter. The problem is that (as you pointed somewhere), people are not really clear about what they see as realization and fantasize too much about this, too.

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