Interview with Matthew Akester

Matthew is the translator of Jamgon Kongtrul’s biography of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and the author of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s Guide to Central Tibet (Serindia Publications 2016).

June 2020

Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo’s birthplace: the village of Delgo in the Terlung valley, eastern Derge. Photo by Matthew Akester 2007

KF: What is the importance of the biography?

MA: When Tibetan Buddhism began to be taught outside Tibet in the late 20th century, we learned more about the Rimé (non-sectarian) movement and its influence on the tradition over the past century. The codification of Tibet’s entire Vajrayana heritage into monumental collections of texts by Jamyang Khyentse and Jamgon Kongtrul provided the structure and authority for the transmission of the tradition ever since their time, especially in Kham, where many of the great teachers in exile came from. Kongtrul’s biography of Khyentse, composed soon after his death in 1892, is the main literary source we have to explain the background and the spirit of this endeavor.

When I first read it, I was a little surprised to find that while Khyentse Wangpo was such a highly respected and influential figure, there was no foreign-language study dedicated to his life and teachings, and no published translation of any of his major works. A Chinese-language translation of the biography by Zhang Weiming was published in 2007.

KF: What led you to translate it?

MA: I am basically a historian rather than a Buddhologist. My interest in Khyentse Wangpo began with another book project, also supported by KF, the detailed study of his pilgrims’ guidebook to central Tibet. In the years I spent researching that short book, I made use of the biography in piecing together his travels and experiences in central Tibet in the 1840s, and gained some familiarity with it. When I heard that DJKR was encouraging an English translation, and apparently no one else was poised to do a better job, I gulped, and decided to have a go.

There is an assumption among Buddhist practitioners that the value of this work, and the biographies of spiritual masters generally, is to inspire the reader on the path. I take an interest in its historical value as well, especially as Khyentse and Kongtrul, both historians and archivists themselves, saw the historical record as important. For that reason, I annotated the text quite extensively, to try to bring these things out.

KF: In that case, what recommends this book to the casual reader in search of inspiration?

MA: I would say that the casual reader could skip some of the laborious lists (of previous incarnations, teachings received, donations, etc.) in the  “outer” life, but might enjoy parts of the fifth and sixth chapters, where Kongtrul gives us a moving portrait of the master and his outlook. A lot of 19th-century Tibetan biographical literature tends to be formalistic hagiography, not very readable, but in these passages Kongtrul shows that as well as being a supremely learned yogi and saint, his teacher was also a Khampa man who often spoke directly, even coarsely, and had tempers and impulses not usually associated with sainthood.

Most of all, the “inner” and “secret” lives provide a fascinating account of the mystic and visionary odyssey behind the compilation of the Rimé canon, bringing to life Khyentse’s extraordinary and intimate interactions with the great masters of the past.

KF: How long did the work take?

MA: The biography itself is 118 printed folia in Tibetan. I did the first draft in about 6 months, then over the next 5 years I sought out people who could explain difficult passages or words in the text, and researched the footnotes. Finally, I was honored to have Jigme Khyentse Rinpoche go through most of it and make the last corrections. The first edition was published in India by Shechen Publications in 2012. The new edition has been slightly updated and blessed with a new foreword from DJKR. Many thanks to KF for making it possible.