Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary: A Translation and Study of Jigme Lingpa's Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki’s Grand Secret-Talk

Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary

By Janet Gyatso
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998. Hardback, xxiv + 360 pages.

Tibet could count its gross national product as the number of great mystics it has produced. One of the foremost among these in recent centuries was Jigme Lingpa, who lived from 1730 to 1798. This remarkable man transformed the spiritual and intellectual landscape of central Asia.

Jigme Lingpa belonged to a category of Tibetan lama known as terton, or "treasure revealer." Tibetan literature speaks of treasures of body, speech, and mind. The "treasure" in this case is a sacred scripture.

The terton phenomenon has played an important role in the development of Tibetan Buddhism, at least in the Bon and Nyingma schools. Both the fifth and thirteenth Dalai Lamas were treasure revealers, a result of their affiliation with Nyingma lineages. According to tradition, the Indian tantric master Padma Sambhava buried many of his "speech treasures" in the mind streams of his disciples, to be recollected and transcribed by them in future lives when the times were ripe.

Jigme Lingpa was a treasure revealer in the Nyingma tradition. During his career he brought forth hundreds of scriptures, most notably the Longchen Nyingtig, or Heart Drop of the Great Expanse, which today serves as the main pillar of Nyingma spiritual practice. Jigme Lingpa received most of his treasures in a meditation, dream, or trance state. Usually the medium of the transmission was a dakini, or mystical female.

In Apparitions of the Self, Janet Gyatso has translated the two autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa found in his collected works: Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki's Grand Secret-Talk. These are highly esoteric "secret autobiographies" and, although beautiful in language, are difficult of access for the novice. They describe the visions and mystical revelations Jigme Lingpa experienced during his early life, which inspired him to dedicate himself to meditation, teaching, and writing. Fortunately the translator provides more than two hundred pages of commentary and analysis, thus rendering the texts more comprehensible to readers.

The treasure tradition has produced some of Tibet's most inspired literature. Janet Gyatso has performed a remarkable service by making available to an international audience the story of one of Tibet's great sources of this exotic genre. Her book is academic, and thus is not light reading. However, for those with patience and stamina, it yields a rich perspective on spiritual life that both enlightens and entertains.


September/October 1999