June 19, 2010

Guru Padmasambhava’s Bhutan

Source: Where is Guru Rinpoche’s Bhutan?

Part 1 of 2: Condensed from Dasho Karma Ura’s forthcoming booklet


Singye Dzong







PERSPECTIVES 19 June, 2010 - Many Sources on Guru’s Life
21st June marks the birth anniversary of Guru, the son of King Indrabhuti in some accounts, or the lad of lotus blossom in most accounts , born in Udiyana in a place that we cannot identify exactly now.
His emergence out of a lotus flower may escape the understanding of history and science, or even anthropology. But to deny multiple meanings and realities is uni-dimensionally narrow. The awesome life, travels, works and ideas of Guru are subject of numerous terma biographies, revealed by Nyangrel Nima Yoser (1124-1192), Guru Choewang (1212-1270), Ugyen Lingpa (b.1323), and Pemalingpa (1450-1526). There is one written by Jonang Taranatha (1575-1634) from Indian sources. Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899), who came from a Bon family, added a Bon version of Guru’s biography (Ngawang Zangpo 2002). The terma biographies are rich literature written in allusive, metaphorical language. Among them, Ugyen Lingpa’s Padma Kathang is crowning jewel of many colours: lyrical, stirring, vast, shocking, raw, baffling, mysterious, tense and inhumanly brilliant.

Other books yield direct, additional information about Guru’s life. Guru’s relationship with Bhutan (Monyul) is clearer from biographies of other individuals. The Hagiography of Sindharaza and Clear Mirror of Prediction’ by terton Ugyen, who was an emanation of Denma Tsemang, is a key text. A version of this story was documented first by a certain Tibetan terton Molmokhyil (1087-1146), and incorporated into Jamgon Kongtrul’s (1813-1899) Rinchenterdzod in 1880 (Aris 1979: 50-82). The terma biography of Guru by Pemalingpa (1450-1526); the biography of Yeshey Tshogyal, originally written by Gyalwa Jangchub and Namkhai Nyingpo but revealed as terma by Taksam; the fragments of biography and works of Terton Sherab Member (contemporary of Ugyen Lingpa and Longchen’s root lama Rinzin Kumara raza, hence much before Pema Lingpa); the biography of Ratna Lingpa (1403-1478), the author who redacted Nyingma Gyudbum (100,000 tantras of Nyingma) are useful sources.

Vajrayana Vision of Human Potentials
Guru is still active, through his promised appearances in the pure vision of adherents, particularly on his birthdays. As a dharmakaya figure (chos sku), Guru exists in the fourth or primal time that is not past, present or future. Through his real activities in the 8th century and emanations’ deeds, he animated consciousness of accomplished practitioners and nourished a particular kind of civilization in this country known as Monyul in his time. The complex concept of chos sku represents both a potential for human existence (Samuel G. 1993: 19) and a social, economic and cultural pattern that favour the realization of the Vajrayana view of human potentials. There are now other competing views of human existence and potentials which drive the activities of the people and the State. But the Vajrayana view of human potentials was what Guru brought to us in the 8th century, along with an approach to structuring the mind towards non-duality and the cultivation of a different kind of consciousness.

Guru came at a moment in history, the 8th century, when tantric practices dominated Buddhism in India. The word, Vajrayana, itself had appeared in the tantric texts only in the late seventh century, although tantric texts appeared first in the 3rd century (Williams P. 2000: 194-199). Guru’s coming Bhutan and Tibet was of gigantic socio-economic and political consequences, beyond his introduction of sutra and mantra. Tantra-based Buddhism he brought oriented people towards an alternative state of consciousness about a more humane relationship among people and between people and the natural order. This alternative consciousness emerged from shamanic process that led practitioners into visionary states or revelation (see Samuel 1993: 363-377 for an extensive discussion on shamanic process). Samuel contrasted shamanic process with rationalized process. The word shamanic, being associated with pawo and nenjom, is likely to be misunderstood in Bhutan without a couple of examples. Key Buddhist practices can be seen as shamanic. Insight meditation is a shamanic method to enter into a visionary state. Buddha’s overcoming of Mara’s attack was a shamanic control that Guru repeated with his symbolic control over spirits over and over again. A wandering ascetic like Thangtong Gyelpo (1385–1464?) or Drukpa Kunlay (1455-1529) was an enlightened shaman drawing authority and inspiration from beyond the organized, monastic structures.

Against this broader background, Vajrayana variety Guru brought can be seen as particularly more yogic, shamanic, tantric, de-centered and social centric.

As we will come across later, all of Guru’s great heirs, such as Dorji Lingpa, Thangtong Gyelpo, Guru Choewing, Ratna Lingpa, Sherab Member, Pema Lingpa, Drukpa Kunley, Dudjom Rinpoche who operated in Bhutan were part of this visionary tradition. Others like Phajo Drukgom and Zhabdrung Rinpoche were more clerical and institutional. Guru’s introduction of Vajrayana resulted in dominant national characteristics of which a few can be discussed briefly here.

Inner and Outer Healing
The first effect we still enjoy is that our land became broadly pacified and peaceful under the influence of Vajrayana. It is important to appreciate the cause of peace, just as the state of peace itself. Because of the spread of Buddhism by Guru and his disciples and their disciples during both the first and second transmissions (bstan pa snga ‘gyur dang phyi ‘gyur), a particular world view took hold and that influenced polity and culture. The stress on cultivation of peace within people led broadly to peace in communities.

To the North, Guru’s conversion of Tibet to Vajrayana pacified Tibet’s imperial ambitions so that it became a non-threatening empire, as its polity changed (Ngawang Zangpo 2002: 87-88). Tibetan legislation since Trisong’s reign harmonized relatively more with Buddhist moral principles, with certain exceptions (see Kapstein 2000: 57).

Guru brought peace to Bhutan in an overt way by stopping the war between King Sindharaza of Mon Bumthang and King Nauche of India. But external peace cannot be sustained without peace at heart.

For inner development and peace, the peace conference between the two was concluded by giving empowerment of Druba Kagyed or the Eight Great Herukas (sgrub pa bka brgyad), making the two kings become friends. Guru also gave heart-essence (snying gyi thigs pa) teachings of ‘dzogpa chenpo selwai melong’ to a 500 strong entourage of Sindharaza and Kyikha Rathoed in Kurjay, leading them to the fruits of enlightenment on the spot. It was a devotional scene reminiscent of events down the centuries where lamas gave teachings to lay people and nobles in the wide meadows of Kurjay. Thus Dzogchen teachings started early in Bhutan by this account.

Enlightenment Education
The second effect of Guru’s visit to the Himalayas was the spread of enlightenment education through translations of Indian texts into classical Tibetan which are read increasing widely today among scholars. Guru was a colossal engine of translation and transmission of works from Indian civilization to the Himalayas. Two chapters (87 and 88) in Padma Kathang enumerates the translation Guru carried out with 108 Tibetan translators and 21 Indian pandits (KMT edition of mkha’ ‘dro Yeshey Tshogyal gyi rnam mthar 2005: 151. Hence abbreviated to KMT) at Samye under Trisong’s magnificent patronage. Among the sutras, almost all the classic authors studied today like Vasubandhu, Nagarjuna, Santarakshita, Kamalasila, Asvagosha, Chandrakirti, Dinaga, Asanga, Shantideva, Dharmakirti, and Arya Deva were translated at that time in Samye. The list of tantras translated is far longer. Without the availability of these translated texts, Buddhism would not have cascaded down the slopes of Himalayas and spread over the wide plateau of Tibet. Nor would 73 million-words long Kanjur and Tenjur get compiled gradually over the centuries without the high, initial burst of translation (Tharthang Trulku in Introduction to Toussaint 1978). Through the transmission of learning based on these classic texts, the same ideas about cosmology and causation framed the views of most Bhutanese, until Western schooling started in the 1960s. Though people do not believe in world geography according to Abhidharma, a lack of reasoning among a growing section of the Bhutanese in the necessary connection between samsara and karma is surely a profound shift occurring today (see Khewang Tshultrim Lodrey, 2003 for a lucid defense of such classic reasoning). From our cultural point of view, it is even more radical that big private and public organizations do not take account of this ethical reasoning in their operations. Ministries and corporations hedging under corporate social responsibility may fall far short of this fuller ethical reasoning.

Silent Zones
The third result of Guru’s visit is the notion of living in the midst of sacral sites associated with Guru such as Kurjay, Singye Dzong, Gomokora and Taktshang. Guru visited numerous parts of Bhutan for teaching and practice. They are our holy lands. Take Singye Dzong’s direct association with Guru. Nyangrel’s Phurba Yangsang Lamed (p. 2) names five key disciples of Guru, namely, Namkhai Nyingpo, Gyalwa Chogyang, Nanam Dorji Dudjom, Ladrong Konchog Jungney, Shelkar Za, and Yeshey Tshogyal as having received Vajrakila teachings at Singye dzong from Guru. There is a big flat boulder in Singye dzong claimed to have been the place, according to oral tradition, where Guru and his disciples sat in discourse. Yeshey Tshogyal was in Singye Dzong, arriving first with her two companions. One of the companions was her ritual partner, an Indian youth (Acharya) from Nepal who had a Yemenis sounding name called Saleh (KMT: 7). As foretold by Guru, she had fetched him earlier at great price from Nepal. Guru gave thirteen teachings on Vajrakila at Singye Dzong to Yeshey Tshogyal (bdag mkha’ chen bzas/ rdo rje phur pai skor la yang zab snying poi chos skor cu gsum zhus). From Singye Dzong, Yeshey Tshogyal and her fellow practitioners went to live at least seven months in Paro Taktsang to meditate on Guru Amitayus. Guru stayed for three months in Singye dzong, four months in Taktsang and two months in Chumophug and for more than year in other places including Cheldrag in Paro (see Pema Lingpa’s Chos ‘gyung Mun sel sDron me smad chag: 277). Padma Kathang notes that Guru spent, among other places in Monyul, three months in Mon Gom, or Gomokora. In Mo rgyud kuntu bzang mo klong gsel’ bar ba Nyima’ gsang rgyud, Terton Sherab Membar reveals that this female tantra text was recorded by Yeshey Tshogyal during its teaching by Guru at Taktshang. The omnisient Jigme Lingpa (1729–1798), who hardly missed anything printed, also noted that Guru stayed for three months in Singye Dzong and four months in Paro Taktsang (see Jigme Lingpa’s gTam tshog: 608).

These holy places of Guru have triggered that part of us as pilgrims, in search of our own divine nature that is increasingly obscured. Travels in the footsteps of Guru are a way of re-igniting his teachings and practices among us on the pilgrimage process. Yet commodification of these spiritual arenas will hollow them, instead of hallowing them. The outbreak of tourists to fulfill their momentary curiousity about these places, as opposed to pilgrims on the path of spiritual renewal, presents new problems. If the key sacral places become spectacles of tourism, they lose their attributes as isolated mountains sites for contemplation (dba’n pai ri khrod) (See Kumar Satish, 2009 for differences between pilgrims and tourists).

Rocks Archives of Ter
Most of these sacral places are also venues where Guru and his root-disciples deposited texts and other relics as ter. Some of the ters were concealed by Guru but a vast number of teachings by Guru were recorded textually by Yeshey Tshogyal in dakini and other scripts and hidden as ter. Taktshang, Kurjay, and Singyedzong are hallowed not only because Guru practiced and taught in these places. They became charged with ters that were retrieved later by pre-ordained masters to reinvigorate teachings. From Taktshang, Thangtong Gyalpo retrieved 1 scroll of yellow paper (see his biography: 202); Dorji Lingpa (1346-1405) retrieved a zab ter Sethurma(see his biography: 56, see Karmay Samten); and Dudjom Jigrel Yeshey Dorji (1904-1987) revealed Phurpa Pudri Regphung (Samuel G 2008). Sherab Member retrieved a list of ter he was to extract from a cave called Zangphug behind Singye Dzong. Ratna Lingpa also visited Singye Dzong and revealed a text titled ‘glong gsal snying tig’. In his biography (bka’ ‘bum: 70), Ratna Lingpa gives a description of Singye Dzongsum in terms of Pawo Padma dzong on the right, Khando Rinchen dzong on the left, Drakar Singye Dzong at the centre and Nering meadows in the front. Ratna Lingpa reveals zab ter dam chos klong gsal nying tig while he was at Singye Dzong ((bka’ ‘bum), The latest terma text was the corpus of ‘chimed srog thig, revealed by Terton Zilnon Namkha Dorji in 1908 (Dudjom 1999, Vol 14; Cantwell Cathy et al 2009). Other places where Guru’s ters were found repeatedly by successive tertons were concentrated in Bumthang: at Rimochen, Nering Drag, Jamba Lhakhang, and Tselung Lhakhang.

Many extraordinary individuals have been thrown into a visionary state when they were at Taktshang. They included Chogyam Trungpa (1940-1987) and Dilgo Khyentse (1910-1991) both of whom composed at Taktshang in a visionary state. Most recently, on 21 February 2010, His Majesty the King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, had a solitary day of prayer in the cave of Taktshang, during which he had a sublime experience and a powerful impulse to write a supplication text to Guru (HM Khesar 2010).

Ideals of Relationship
The effects that we just discussed are familiar. But the others are far more subtle. Space hardly allows us to go over them, but let us take one example for the fourth effect. Vajrayana notion of ideal of relationship, in which damtshig or lifelong faith in a guru is a key value, has shaped wider relationships, beyond itself. Relationships such as the ones between parents and children, and lords and subjects were often homologized with that of a lama and disciple. As the archetypal lama, Guru was both the personally experienced, transmitter of fast-track Vajrayana enlightenment techniques and the lightning rod for the beneficence of yidams (deities of sadhanas). In most visualization schemes, Guru is envisaged as both a lama and a tantric deity. Take one element of a complex visualization scheme. A mental image of Guru merges into the disciple in incredibly radiant colours, light, details, and vivacity. The disciple holds on the generated images for a long time (for broader discussion, see Harrington A. et al 2006: 96). By transforming the disciple’s consciousness, and arousing Boddhicitta, the meditator becomes mentally the meditated, Guru. (Samuel G. 1993: 250-257). This transforms the afflictive mental states (nyon mongs) into five forms of transcending awareness (yeshey nga), triggering off Buddhahood present in an accomplished meditator. However, the other kinds of binary relationships like ordinary school teacher and student, and employees and employers are qualitatively different because they are not oriented toward enlightenment. Yet the lofty ideal of guru-disciple relationship has inspired the best of human relationships.

Consciousness and Its Pathologies
The most important effect stemming from Guru’s teachings has been on the reduction of all too human pathologies and compulsiveness towards the self. The philosophy of freedom from self-afflictions is a general Buddhist theme, but Vajrayana expanded the path and perspective. In brief, the Vajrayana path to freedom from self-afflictions consists eventually of being just aware of pure awareness that has no content in terms of sensory inputs from memory, external perceptions, concepts, or thought about past or future. But such an achievement does not come easily, unless one learns through hard practice to hold visualized imageries, whether dynamic or still, in a stable and vivid way for a long time with appropriate changes in mental faculty. Imagery training is ultimately intended to promote emotional balance as well as cognitive balance (Harrington A. et al 2006: 100-114, 135-137). But the use of the mind in visualization and meditation is not the only method as it is in the sutra system. In Vajrayana, the mind as well as the subtle body energy system - the basis of mind - is mobilized (Dalai Lama 2005: 165-183). The subtle body energy system, known as rtsa-klung-thigle, involving neural, circulatory, respiratory and libido channels are activated and ‘awakened’ to improve physiological and psychological functions. Some sadhanas Guru’s devised, such as the longevity practice focused on Amitayus, entail nutritional changes called consumption of essences (blends) made from rocks (minerals) and herbs (Terton Zilnon Namkha Dorji, see Dudjom Vol. 14 1999: 449-450).

Vajrayana method of meditation and visualization is seen as an advancement because it can combine generation of skillful means with wisdom and compassion (thabs dang shesrab), corresponding with simultaneous experience of bliss and voidness (bde stong gzung mjugs). Buddhist understanding states that in the shortest possible split second, mental activity can only have one way of apprehending (hear Alexander Berzin on Berzinarchive.com). It also says that in the shortest possible split second, we can either have a visual phenomena or a mental phenomena (concepts, emotions), but not both (Harrington A. et al 2008: 42). The implication is that even if we try to foster single-pointed concentration, our concentration will alternate between compassion at one moment and voidness in the next moment, without being able to subjectively experience it simultaneously. Vajrayana applies this understanding of mental constraint to improvise further techniques. Let me jump over the many stages, simplify and compress the visualization process to bring out the main technical improvement, as I understand it. The generation of the appearance of a deity like Amitayus in the mind of meditator during Amitayus practice is considered symbolic of voidness. Of course, creating clear imageries bathed in radiant colours and light is much more taxing than perceiving them from external objects. But it is now known from scientific experiment that being able to do so activates the same areas in the brain which are usually engaged during visual perception of external objects. The strength of the activation depends on the capacity of the meditator to create more vivid and stable imageries. If the images are dynamic, harder still is the mental exertion to create them. As the meditator merges himself mentally into the meditated deity, and the meditator imagines himself as Guru Amitayus. With the meditator becoming more able, the meta-awareness, the awareness that he is just trying to imagine he is Amitayus while he is not, should decrease and disappear. At a successful stage of meditation and visualisation, it is the Buddha figure performing mental rotations of various multi-coloured mantra letters and holding in view other subsidiary Buddha figures. The implication is that the body image of the meditator has transformed “into the healthy, vital and enlightened being of the central deity” (Samuel G. 2008, 2009). In this context, Amitayus is the exemplar of compassion. Enlightenment is defined by compassion. At the level of subjective reality, this meditation and visualization thus brings compassion and voidness together within every shortest possible split-second. That means that consciousness, which is subjective, is transformed for that moment. More moments of such kind can create notions of continuum.

Finally, the object of meditation, the meditation and the meditator are all made to dissolve first into a seed syllable letter, and in turn the seed syllable letter into dark space. As images come from within voidness at the beginning of a visualization session, they return to voidness at the end. The idea is to see the phenomenal world (consciousness) just as an appearance. The process combines understanding of voidness with the generation of compassion. But it is well said that it can be experienced, not explained because bde stong gzung mjugs is considered ineffable part of Vajrayana.

Exploring the relationship between the observed external objects, the perception of the objects, and the images felt by the observer is perhaps the most crucial part of neuro-science studies. None of the parts in the process can be independent of consciousness, because that is where reality is apprehended. Was enlightenment education started by Guru primarily about restructuring consciousness? Was Guru trying to teach neuro-science to the 8th century Bhutanese in a different module and language? Are the 21st century Bhutanese any better students, 1200 years after Guru’s visit? I will take up these and other questions in my next article.

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