Where do you go if you want to know more about some significant figure in Tibetan history? Well, that depends on who you are, how much time you have, how much you want to know, and what language tools you have to work with. (I can hear some of you people saying, ‘Don't be silly, you Schmoogle it, of course.’ Yes, okay, but which site?) If your Tibetan language reading skills require a lot of work, I’d imagine you would find this website, The Treasury of Lives, the most useful and interesting. It may be worth your while to spend some time there exploring the territory and getting used to the local customs. Its collection of individual biographies (and so forth) of Tibetans seems to be growing larger from week to week.
If you are a Tibetan reader or a non-Tibetan reader of Tibetan, you are bound to be addicted by now to The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC). I don’t think I have to tell you more about this outstanding and astounding site. If you do need to get familiar, go there and discover it for yourself right now. You can search for names of persons using the type of script or transcription you prefer. TBRC, and much of the data in it, has (and have) been around for a long time in one form or another. But in our days there is no way any Tibetologist worth even a pinch of salt can possibly live without it. If you come across a name of a person you want to identify in a text or art inscription, TBRC is the first place to turn.
In truth not even remotely as exciting as TBRC, but I believe still useful in its own way, is a collective index of personal names that I mostly typed myself.* I just call it by the abbreviated title “Bio Refs.” It’s about 350 pages in length. It doesn't amount to much more than long lists of names from several different sources (for details, see the link coming up in a minute). The bad news is that you need to own (or find library access to) the works it indexes, and you need to be comfortable with transliterated (or if you prefer Romanized, and I don’t mean Italicized) Tibetan. The good news is that it’s searchable and, if things work out as nicely as I hope, Schmoogle-able.
You will arrive at “Bio Refs” at Tibetological website by pressing HERE.
*The listing of proper names in the famous history book we know as the Blue Annals is basically nothing more than the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP) file, although I have made it conform in large part with the Wylie transliteration system and fixed mispellings as I became aware of them. You may find the original ACIP version here. It's another matter altogether if this kind of index might seem a little old fashioned to you, especially when a searchable Tibetan-language etext of the entire Blue Annals already exists (go and look for it at the THL site).
§ § §
Our frontispiece this time is a detail from Rubin Museum of Art, no. 65275, a biographical painting illustrating the life of the Great Fifth Dalai Lama. Go HERE to find out much much more about it.
§ § §
Of Tibetan biographical literature there would appear to be an inexhaustible supply. And recently quite a few biographies have been getting published in English translation. Following my own eccentric lights, as I tend to, I would say that the following are the two most absolutely fascinating of these traditional biographies to appear in English in the last few years:
Cyrus Stearns's translation of Lochen Gyurmé Dechen's, King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron-Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo, Snow Lion (Ithaca 2007), in 682 pages plus front matter, with figures, photos, etc. On the famous Tibetan iron-link suspension bridge builder (and saint) Tangtong Gyalpo, look here and here and here.
Elio Guarisco’s translation of Kathog Situ Chökyi Gyatso’s, Togden Shakya Shri: The Life and Liberation of a Tibetan Yogin, Shang Shung Publications (Merigar 2009), in 327 pages, with a few color plates. On the lay yogi Togden Shâkya Shrî, whose lineages in early 20th century spread out to span the length of the Himalayas, look here and here and here and here.
This is a biographical painting of the life of the wondrous Machig Labdrön widely accepted to be the founder of the Cutting (Gcod) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. What you see here is only a ‘thumbnail.’ To view the complete painting with all its fascinating details, you must go to this page at “HimalayanArt” (it's from the collection of the Rubin Museum of Art, catalog no. 349).
Postscript: Oh, another biographical dictionary that isn’t included in Bio Refs is this: Khetsun Sangpo’s (1920-2009) Biographical Dictionary of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, published by the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in 12 volumes beginning in 1973. Its content was covered in another context, which is the only reason you don’t find it in Bio Refs, where it would have fit in very well indeed. And I should note, despite the English-language title, the biographies are all in Tibetan written in Tibetan script. I don’t know why anyone (least of all an Australian) would think it was in Nepali.*
(*But note that now, in 2015, this little problem has been fixed.)