Tibetan Civilization CourseWorks Guide: Biography

A basic research guide for students in the course “Introduction to East Asian Civilization: Tibet” (ASCE-1365), with an emphasis on English-language resources.

Biographical Resources : Online

If you are looking for biographical information, the first and easiest place to start is by conducting a "Person Search" in the TBRC website.  Another useful source is an unpublished list of biographical references, compiled by Dan Martin. This includes personal names from several of the texts below. Other online resources include "Who Was Who in Tibet?" compiled by the Pitt Rivers Museum.

TREASURY OF LIVES (Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation)

An illustrated website of biographies of religious figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Each biography is linked with the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC) and Himalayan Art Resources (HAR). Independent scholars, professors, and graduate students, including Dan Martin, Cyrus Stearns, Sarah Jacoby, Ron Garry, and Gyurme Dorje, wrote the biographies and essays now on the site. Gene Smith and Jeff Watt have been invaluable advisors for the site at all stages. The website is a project of the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation. Contributions to this collaborative effort are welcome.

The Treasury website is designed to associate each biography with five categories: tradition, community, historical period, geography, and natural landmark. Traditions are broadly conceived as having either institutional or doctrinal independence. Community includes both monastic institutions and clan structures. Geography includes both “traditional” and contemporary organizations of Tibetan space: one can browse via the Tibetan categories of U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo, within which are further divisions, or by contemporary provinces, prefectures, and counties. The category of  "Natural Landmarks" includes mountains, lakes, and caves with which religious figures are associated. All of these categories – known as “facets” in the terminology of the web – can be combined with each others to optimize browsing, so that user might, for example, browse for 13th century Kagyu lamas who were associated with Kailash, expand it to include Sakya, or narrow it to exclude all but Drigung Kagyu.

The Treasury uses both Extended Wylie and the phonetic system created for the Rubin Museum of Art: no diacritics, no umlauts, no acute accents. The site anticipates multiple phonetic rendering of names, acknowledging the lack of a single authoritative system, particularly useful for those times when the proper Wylie spelling is not known. Searches for Phagmodrupa or Phakmodrupa will both be directed to Pagmodrupa.  The Treasury database is borrowed from the Person records of TBRC, and the goal is to provide a biography of every known Tibetan religious figure, excluding those still living. General Editor: Alexander Gardner.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY, MEMOIRS, OR REPORTS OF LIFE IN TIBET (Columbia University)

A list of nearly one hundred English-language autobiographical writings on life in Tibet, compiled by Professor Gray Tuttle for his 20th Century Tibetan History course. Many entries include summaries, abstracts, reviews, or other notes, contributed by students over the years. If you notice that an auto-biographical work in English is not included in this list, please email gwt2102@columbia.edu.

Biographical Resources: Print

  • Dpal brtsegs Bod yig dpe rnying zhib 'jug khang, ed. Bod kyi lo rgyus rnam thar phyogs bsgrigs bzhugs so. Xining: Mtsho sngon mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2010-  Collection of Tibetan religious and political histories 
  • Wilkinson, Endymion. Chinese History: A Manual, Revised and Enlarged. Cambridge: Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2000, pp. 94-130 (Han people); 707-720 (Non-Han Peoples).
  • Wang Gui. Bod rigs kyi rus ming dpyad pa = Zangzu renming yanjiu. [Beijing]: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1991.  Bilingual concordance of Tibetan personal and family names and Chinese character equivalents organized thus:

1. Personal names listed according to Tibetan alphabet, pp. 81-140; this is indexed by a) Chinese character stroke number, pp. 141-154; b) by Pinyin pronunciation, organized according to English alphabet, pp. 155-160; c) by English phonetic transcription, pp. 161-163;

2. Historical Central Tibetan nobility's family names, pp. 167-190;

3. Local rulers (tusi), myriarchs, chiliarchs, tribal/clan leaders, family names, pp. 191-214 (listing area that each family ruled);

4. Important incarnation lamas' names, pp. 215-219 (listing area associated with each incarnation);
Sections 1-4 are also indexed by a) Chinese character stroke number, pp. 221-227; b) by Pinyin pronunciation, organized according to English alphabet, pp. 228-235;

5. final section lists titles of government and monastic officials as well as academic degrees, pp. 239-254; also indexed by a) Chinese character stroke number, pp. 265-266; b) by Pinyin pronunciation, organized according to English alphabet, pp. 257-259.

  • Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje ; translated and edited by Gyurme Dorje in colaboration with Matthew Kapstein. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism : its fundamentals and history. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991.
  • Jam dbyangs rdo rje, Smyo shul Mkhan po; Richard Barron. A marvelous garland of rare gems:biographies of masters of awareness in the Dzogchen lineage: a spiritual history of the teachings on Natural Great Perfection. Junction City, CA : Padma Pub, 2005.
  • Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles: the Longchen Nyingthig lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.
    Lists many teachers from E. Tibet.
  • Biographical Materials about Bonpo Masters: A collection of rare Bonpo biographical sketches calligraphed from manuscripts from Nepal and Tibet at the Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre, Dolanji. Dolanji, India: Lopon Tenzin Namdak, Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre, 1981.
  • Tsering, Tashi, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Tibetan Women. 10 vols. Dharamsala: Amnye Machen Institute, forthcoming (?).
  • Ya, Hanzhang. The Biographies of the Dalai Lamas. Translated by Wang Wenjiong. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1991.
  • ———. Biographies of the Tibetan Spiritual Leaders: Panchen Erdenis. Translated by Chen Guansheng and Li Peizhu. Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1994.
  • Also on the Dalai and Panchen Lamas: Lungta has two issues, on the biographies of the Panchen and Dalai Lamas; see also: Martin Brauen's edited volume on the Dalai Lamas.
  • Petech, Luciano. Aristocracy and Government in Tibet, 1728-1959. 1973.
    His work on the Lhasa nobility is exceptional in paying attention to non-religious figures.
  • L Carrington Goodrich; Zhaoying Fang. Dictionary of Ming biography, 1368-1644. New York : Columbia University Press, 1976. Includes Karmapa V (see: Helima).
  • Arthur William Hummel. Eminent Chinese of the Ch`ing period (1644-1912). 2 vols. Washington : U.S. G.P.O. 1943-1944, or Taipei, Cheng Wen Pub. House, 1972, 2 vols. in 1.
    Includes biographies of Dalai & Panchen Lamas, as well as many dynastic officials and family members who dealt with Tibet and Tibetans.
  • Cheng, Joseph K. H., Richard C. Howard, ed. and Howard L. Boorman, ed. 1967-1971, 1979. Biographical dictionary of Republican China. 5 vols.
    Over 600 biographies. Includes biographies of Dalai, Panchen and Nor lha Lamas, as well as many militarists who patronized Tibetan Buddhists.
  • Charles O Hucker. A dictionary of official titles in Imperial China. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1985.

Specialized Biographical Databases

MUSIC.  Biographies of famous Tibetan singers and composers can be found in the Oxford Music Online database.

MODERN TIBETAN LITERATURE. Biographies of nearly 300 modern Tibetan writers are provided in this book:  Deṅ rabs Bod kyi rtsom pa poʼi lo rgyus daṅ brtsams chos dkar chag (2012).

RINPOCHES. "A List of Recognized Incarnations or Tulkus." This list, input by Dan Martin, Jerusalem, is based on a text in Bod kyi gal che'i lo rgyus yig cha bdams bsgrigs (Lhasa 1991), pp. 281-369. It is helpful for searching references to the names of particular Tibetan reincarnate lamas or tulkus.