Tāranātha’s life of the Buddha, The Sun of Faith (Dad pa’i nyin byed), represents a major contribution to the seventeenth-century Tibetan literary imagination of Buddha Śākyamuni’s life. It includes a complete narrative account of the Buddha’s final life on Earth, beginning with his residence in Tuṣita Heaven and concluding with his death, the distribution of his relics, and brief accounts of the first two monastic councils. The complete title is The Sun of Faith That Shines in One Hundred Directions: A Brief Account of the Acts of the Blessed Lord and Glorious Victor Śākyamuni, Lion of the Śākyas, King of the Śākyas, that is Delightful and Meaningful to Behold (Bcom ldan ’das dpal rgyal ba shākya thub pa shākya seng ge’i rgyal po gang de’i mdzad pa mdo tsam brjod pa mthong bas don ldan rab tu dga’ ba dang bcas pas dad pa’i nyin byed phyogs brgyar ’char ba). The work appears to have been well-known in Tibet, with multiple versions in circulation, and citations in later literature.
It is likely that Tāranātha developed his Buddha narrative for a number of years prior to composing The Sun of Faith. He gave teachings on the life of the Buddha to his patron, Depa Phuntsok Namgyal (Sde pa Phun tshogs rnam rgyal, 1550-1620) in 1617. Tāranātha began writing The Sun of Faith in the summer of 1621, a bird year. By the winter of that year it was complete. The text is, in his words, “a biography of the completely perfect Buddha compiled from the [texts of the] First Turning of the Wheel, primarily the Vinaya, and written in just the right length.”
Although Tāranātha describes the work as a “brief account,” it is one of the most extensive autonomous treatments of the Buddha’s final life authored in Tibet at the time. It has been occasionally referred to by the abbreviated title The Hundred Acts (Mdzad brgya), although that seems not to have been the primary title by which it was known. Reference to the Buddha’s “hundred acts” seems to acknowledge the narrative’s extensive treatment of the Buddha’s teaching career, which is indeed a distinctive feature of Tāranātha’s work.
Tibetan authors have traditionally structured accounts of the Buddha’s life story within a framework of twelve acts. While there is some variation among them, the general approach uses the following scheme: (1) descent from Tuṣita Heaven; (2) life in the womb; (3) birth; (4) education; (5) marriage; (6) renunciation; (7) austerities; (8) travel to Bodhgaya; (9) subduing Mārā; (10) enlightenment; (11) teaching; (12) death. Early examples of this structure include the extended account included in the History of Buddhism by Bu ston Rin chen grub (1290-1364), who may have been a target for Tāranātha’s criticism, as discussed below. Tāranātha foregoes this 12-act structure altogether and instead narrates the arc of the Buddha’s life over the course of 125 chapters.
The Sun of Faith is comprised of several distinct sections. The introduction (128-136) consists of several brief but important orientations to the work as a whole. It begins with verses of supplication (128-129), followed by a brief prose explanation of the author’s intentions (129-130). A verse summary of the Buddha narrative comes next (130-131), followed by a numbered list of chapter titles for the entire work, forming a table of contents to the text as a whole (131-136). Together the verses and the list form a useful mnemonic aid for readers venturing into the main text. The chapters themselves are, somewhat unusually, signaled with chapter number and title (or perhaps more accurately, topic) at the beginning rather than at the end of each (For example: “don lnga pa mu tig can bden pa la bkod pa ni/”).
The hundred and twenty-five chapters that constitute the main narrative (136-471) cover several distinct periods of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha’s birth and his activities through the enlightenment, or acts one through ten in the twelve-act system, constitute chapters 1-25 (131-183). His teaching career takes up the bulk of work, spanning chapters 26-117 (183-444), or approximately 80% of the narrative portion of the work. The Buddha’s death and cremation, and the distribution of his relics constitute chapters 118-120 (444-453). The final chapters 121-125 conclude the narrative with a discussion of the so-called first and second Buddhist councils (453-471). Tāranātha ends the narrative portion text with a brief resumé of seven stories (gtam rgyud) of the spread of Buddhism during and after the Buddha’s life (472-473). Concluding verses bring the story proper to a close (473-474), at which point Tāranātha lingers in a colophon to offer thoughts on the process of crafting a Buddha narrative.
This project draws upon a number of literary sources by Tāranātha Kunga Nyingpo (1575–1634) preserved in his collected works. Primary among them are:
Tāranātha’s extended narrative of the Buddha’s life story: The Sun of Faith That Shines in One Hundred Directions: A Brief Account of the Acts of the Blessed Lord and Glorious Victor Śākyamuni, Lion of the Śākyas, King of the Śākyas, that is Delightful and Meaningful to Behold (Bcom ldan ’das thub pa’i dbang po’i mdzad pa mdo tsam brjod pa mthong bas don ldan rab tu dga’ ba dang bcas pas dad pa’i nyin byed phyogs brgyar ’char ba)
Tāranātha’s guide for painting the life of the Buddha: A Painting Manual to the Hundred Acts of the Teacher Śākyamuni Written by Jetsun Kun[dga’] Nying[po] (Ston pa shākya’i dbang po’i mdzad pa brgya pa’i bris yig rje btsun kun snying gis mdzad pa)
These works are supplemented by other relevant sources such as:
- Tāranātha’s guide for determining the proportions of the Buddha: Rgyal ba’i sku gzugs kyi cha tshad bstan pa bde skyid ’byung gnas
- Tāranātha’s verses of praise to the Buddha: Bcom ldan ’das thub pa’i dbang po la bstod pa
- Tāranātha’s autobiography: Rgyal khams pa tā ra nā thas bdag nyis kyi rnam thar nges par brjod pa’i deb gter shin tu zhib mo ma bcos lhug pa’i rtogs brjod
- A Descriptive Guide to Phuntsokling Monastery: Dga’ ldan phun tshogs gling gi gnas bshad
Tāranātha’s literary and visual narratives worked in harmony to foreground the Buddha’s life story at Puntsokling. Tāranātha’s Sun of Faith and the narrative related murals were impressive achievements. Yet they were not the only buddha-related materials he produced at Puntsokling. Rather, the figure of Śākyamuni Buddha was a persistent and repeated theme in Tāranātha’s writing and in his monastery’s religious artwork. Tāranātha wrote no less that ten works of varied length on the Buddha. A thorough analysis of these works in relationship to each other will no doubt reveal both complexity and depth in his portrayal of the founding figure. Even a quick survey shows that he utilized multiple genres of writing to evoke the Buddha. One early work is Tāranātha’s Praise of the Bhagavan Lord of Sages, which he composed in 1600 at the age of 25 in the Rasa Trulnang Tsuklakhang (Ra sa ’phrul snang gi gtsug lag khang). He wrote a manual on iconometry of the Buddha, the Calculations for Proportions of the Victor’s Body, the Source of Well Being, which he taught at hermitage of Nakgyal (Nags rgyal gyi dben gnas), as well as Instructions for Combining Recollection of the Buddha and Guruyoga, which was written at the request of one Zangdenpa Gelong Kunga Delek (Bzang ldan pa Dge slong Kun dga’ bde legs). Related to this is the Brief Explanation of the Sūtra Recollecting the Three Jewels. Finally, he dedicated Chapter Three of his massive, twenty-five chapter anthology of sādhanas, the Sgrub thabs rin chen ’byung gnas, to various iconic representations of Śākyamuni Buddha. More pertinently here, he included in Chapter Sixteen a sādhana to the Seven “Hero Buddhas” (Sangs rgyas dpa’ bo bdun), who are none other than the Seven Tathāgatas who inhabit the inner sanctum at Phuntsokling.