Mipham Jamyang Gyatso (“Mipham the Great”) was born to an aristocratic family in 1846 in Kham, Eastern Tibet. His name, Mipham Gyatso, means “Unconquerable Ocean.” His father was of the Ju clan; his mother was of the Mukpo clan. The Mukpo clan descends from the Tibetan warrior-king, Gesar of Ling. His great-grandfather was the emanation of the Medicine Buddha. Both sides of his family were wealthy and influential ministers of kings in Mongolia and Tibet.
At the age of twelve, Mipham became a novice monk at Sannga Chöling monastery, where he developed a reputation for being an incredibly gifted student. At the age of fifteen or sixteen, he went on a retreat, meditating on Manjushri for over a year. After that, it is said that he could understand all of the subjects of dharma and the worldly sciences with little study. He was able to understand any topic after only a simple explanatory lung–reading transmission.
When he was seventeen, Mipham went to Golok, in northeastern Tibet. This move began a life of travel for him. At the age of eighteen or nineteen, he went on a pilgrimage to central Tibet and visited all the holy places of Padmasambhava. When he went to the region of Lhotrak Karchur, his ordinary perceptions dissolved and he arose in great purity.
In his travels, Mipham met his two root teachers, Paltrul Rinpoche and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. He spent much of this period receiving teachings and empowerments from these and other masters. Much of it was in the form of reading transmissions. In many cases, he was asked to give the teaching back as a commentary, because as soon as he heard it, he was more knowledgeable about it than the teacher from whom he was receiving it.
One of the seminal events of Mipham’s life was being acknowledged and enthroned as the living embodiment of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. On this occasion, his teacher Khyentse Rinpoche made four declarations, proclaiming who Mipham Rinpoche was and prophesizing what would happen. The first was that Mipham Rinpoche’s realization was exactly the same as that of Buddha Maitreya. The second was that his knowledge and wisdom was the same as that of Manjushri, who knows everything. The third was that his capability in reason, logic, debate, and philosophy was supreme and completely victorious, like that of Dharmakirti. The fourth was that his fame would spread around the world, and that he would be known by all. Then, Khyentse Rinpoche offered Mipham representations of body, speech, and mind, and presented him with a pandita hat.
After that enthronement, Mipham was regarded as the same as Manjushri. His teachers asked him to compose and write down the definitive view of the Nyingma lineage for the benefit of all. The Nyingma lineage had had great meditators and many rituals and ceremonies, but its views had never been clearly articulated in a systematic manner. Therefore, there were few large centers of learning. Students would study with individual teachers, and they would often go to teachers of other schools–especially for studying the sutras.
So Mipham Rinpoche embarked on writing clear and authoritative works on sutra—the hinayana and mahayana—as well as the vajrayana, writing extensively on dzogchen. In particular, he validated and confirmed the continuity of all the stages from hinayana to dzogchen. What he wrote came to him very freely. He didn’t have to sit around for hours, trying to bring it all together. It is said that he would meditate all day and write brilliant books during tea breaks. Since he said in his writings that he was not just specifying the Nyingma view, but in fact, writing the view of Buddhism, they provoked much response. He was a master debater.
Mipham was like Leonardo da Vinci in that he was accomplished in a variety of subjects. He wrote extensively on the sciences, astrology, engineering, and medicine. He wrote books on performing divinations, tying knots, making anti-wrinkle cream, making incense, making shrines, making airplanes and cars, curing sickness through mantra, and overcoming curses. In addition, he was a master archer.
Mipham Rinpoche reinvigorated the study of dharma and of Shambhala in the Nyingma as well as the Kagyü lineage. He wrote commentaries, praises, songs, and poetry about Shambhala and Gesar of Ling. He designed many of the prayer flags that we see in Tibet. He inspired the practice of windhorse—the confidence in Tiger Lion Garuda Dragon. As more and more people and teachers came to appreciate and understand his teachings, his fame grew.
Mipham became one of the most famous lamas in all of Tibet. Despite this growing fame, he never established his own monastery or accumulated large landholdings. He focussed on his practice, teachings, and writing. He attracted numerous disciples from all traditions, many of whom became lineage holders. Although he was never involved in politics, some of his students were politically influential, so he even composed treatises on statesmanship. Everywhere, he was known as an emanation of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. As an old man, Mipham wrote the seed syllable of Manjushri, DHIH, on the tongue of the infant Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (later a teacher of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche).
Mipham spent much of his life on retreat, including a thirteen-year period on which he focussed on the deity Manjushri/Yamantaka. He also mastered the inner yogas and the dzogchen practices of trekcho and thogyel .
There are many stories of signs of Mipham’s realization. Supposedly he turned mountains into dust and overcame violent bandits. Once when there was rumor of a Chinese invasion he said to an attendant, “If I am to be the highest general of the destroyer of barbarians, the Rigden King Wrathful One with Iron Wheel, I should be up to this. We’ll see.” Afterwards, the Chinese army was unable to enter the area where Mipham said this.
One of Mipham’s last works was an extensive explanatory transmission of the Kalachakra Tantra, the secret teaching from Shambhala. Before he passed away, he said to his students that now he was going to Shambhala. He died in 1912.
Mipham’s works have become the foundation of study, not just for the Nyingma lineage, but also for the Kagyü lineage, as well as others. They hold a central position in all Nyingma monasteries and monastic colleges. Along with Longchenpa, he is considered the source of the Nyingma doctrine. He is especially revered in the Ju Valley and in all of Golok. His fame is spreading in the West, as more and more people are becoming aware of his teachings.