Authors: Matteo Pistono
Tertön Sogyal’s masters had included the most prominent lamas of his age, exceptional figures like Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul, and he had received the famous Patrul Rinpoche’s oral lineage of Dzogpachenpo, “the Great Perfection,” which is the deepest stream of teachings within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. If you look into Tertön Sogyal’s life story, you can see that he experienced an almost continuous series of visions, predictions, and revelations from Padmasambhava, and his entire life was lived to the full within the sacred vision and pure perception of the Vajrayana teachings.
The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was a precarious period in history, an era of constant unrest, when the Dalai Lama and Tertön Sogyal struggled to preserve the integrity of Tibet, a country menaced on all sides by the great powers of China, Russia, and British India. Summoned by the Dalai Lama, between 1888 and 1904, Tertön Sogyal made five visits to Lhasa, the capital city, from his homeland in eastern Tibet. Working closely with the State Oracle’s monastery at Nechung and drawing on all the depth, power, and intricacy of the Vajrayana’s vast range of skillful methods, he performed rituals to defend Tibet. He discovered terma treasures and received prophecies related to the Dalai Lama or Tibet, which would often give specific directions, for example, about the building of temples and stupas, so as to protect the country from invasion. Two of the most well-known of his terma connected with the welfare of Tibet are “The Wish-fulfilling Jewel” statue, now in the Jokhang Cathedral, and the “Heart Life” stone, which I have seen in the Fourteenth Dalai Lama’s possession. I sometimes think there was an almost conscious reenactment of the events one thousand years before, as the Dalai Lama, who was considered to be an incarnation of King Trisong Detsen, aided by Tertön Sogyal, the incarnation of Dorje Dudjom, once again followed Padmasambhava’s guidance and instructions, this time to safeguard Tibet at a delicate and dangerous moment.
One of Tertön Sogyal’s terma that focused on the deity Vajrakilaya, the wrathful embodiment of enlightened action, came to have particular importance. It was called “The Razor of the Innermost Essence,”
Yang Nying Pudri
. The heir to this cycle of teaching and practices, the prediction said, was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, and it was adopted by both him and his personal chapel, the Namgyal Monastery. The Yang Nying Pudri is associated with removing obstacles, both worldly and spiritual, warding off misfortune and negativity, and, above all, protecting the Dalai Lamas and Tibet. It is one of the main practices of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. In 2000, in fact, he granted the initiation and led an intensive group practice of this treasure teaching at Lerab Ling, blessing the site of the future temple. Another unique terma of Tertön Sogyal, of which the Dalai Lama was the destined holder, is the
, “Eliminating Flaws in Interdependence,” a practice dedicated specifically to creating harmony and peace in the world by eliminating, preventing, protecting against, and transforming harm and conflict.
The more I have learned and understood about Tertön Sogyal, the more I have come to feel his presence and sensed the atmosphere of his life. Twenty years ago, I met the other incarnation of Tertön Sogyal, the great scholar and visionary Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok Rinpoche (1933–2004). With his Buddhist Institute at Larung Gar, Khenpo Jikphun set in motion nothing less than a renaissance of Buddhist teaching and practice in eastern Tibet. It has attracted thousands of students, among them many Chinese men and women, and proved to be the most extraordinary center of education. When he visited Lerab Ling in France, he spoke at length about Tertön Sogyal’s life and mission. “There was a prediction,” he explained, “that Tibet was to suffer twelve invasions, and that the ninth would take place during the lifetime of Tertön Sogyal. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama entrusted him with the task of averting this ninth invasion, and of dispelling the perils that faced Tibet. In fact, Tertön Sogyal went through unthinkable hardships for the sake of the teachings and to help sentient beings in Tibet.” Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok also quoted a number of prophecies that predicted Tertön Sogyal would reappear in his next life in two main incarnations: one was to be an ordained monk with pure vows, and one was to be a yogin, a mantra practitioner. One of the prophecies read:
Nanam Dorje Dudjom will certainly ripen into two fruits: One, a turquoise dragon holding up a jewel for all to see, the other, his voice resounding everywhere like a lion’s roar.
Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok identified us as the two incarnations and declared that his mind and mine were inseparable.
When so little is known in general about Tertön Sogyal, it is timely indeed that Matteo Pistono has written this book about him. Matteo is a student of mine and has for many years received teachings with some of the most senior Tibetan Buddhist lamas in both Tibet and in exile. In this book, he throws light on a whole world and period of history and brings Tertön Sogyal’s story to life, based on his own tireless research, for which I congratulate him, and on the biography written by the great tertön’s disciple, the remarkable Tulku Tsullo, one of the present Dalai Lama’s favorite writers.
These days, I often think about Tertön Sogyal’s legacy, and I like to imagine that he continues still to protect the life of the Dalai Lama and must have foreseen that His Holiness would become a world leader, loved and respected by millions. Tertön Sogyal also predicted that his teachings would not spread so much during his own lifetime, but during the life of his next reincarnation that “they would spread throughout the entire world, their impact, power, and blessing would multiply a hundredfold, and they would remain, without ever declining, for five hundred years.” Certainly they endure in the extraordinary work of Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok Rinpoche in Tibet, who trained an entire generation of Tibetan scholars. In its first 20 years, for example, his center at Larung Gar produced 600 fully trained
, or professors, who returned to their home areas and other parts of Asia to teach. Then there are also my own humble efforts, holding the name at least of Tertön Sogyal, to uphold the teachings of which he was such a sublime example.
But above all, I pray that Tertön Sogyal’s blessing continues to radiate throughout the world, to inspire and strengthen the Dalai Lama and ensure his long life; to make the precious teachings of Buddha flourish and spread; to pacify conflict, suffering, and negativity all over the world; to bring peace and tranquillity to Tibet; and to ensure the welfare and happiness of living beings everywhere.
— Sogyal Rinpoche
My first encounter with Tertön Sogyal was seeing the striking photograph of him at the Rigpa meditation center in London; that evening I also met Sogyal Rinpoche for the first time. I had just arrived in England for a master’s degree program in Buddhist philosophy at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. After seeing the photograph, I started asking questions about Tertön Sogyal’s life; though I spoke with lamas, Western scholars, and Tibetan historians, no one could tell me much about him except that Tertön Sogyal was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s teacher and a Vajrakilaya adept. Despite knowing so little about him, I felt an inexplicable connection to the tertön. I was also drawn to Tertön Sogyal’s teachings by observing Sogyal Rinpoche’s extraordinary embodiment and example of a Dzogchen yogi, and his immense kindness in revealing Tibet’s wisdom tradition through his own teachings.
After receiving my degree in London, I went to Tibet to follow in Tertön Sogyal’s footsteps, to sit where he meditated in hermitages and caves, and to speak to lineage holders, including Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok, who helped me to visit some of the tertön’s holy sites. From the late 1990s to 2008, I traveled to Tibet a dozen times, each trip lasting from one to three months. Riding rickety buses to Golok, Nyarong, and Rebkong; hitchhiking to Lhasa from Kham and Amdo; and walking for weeks to arrive at ancient pilgrimage sites across the Tibetan Plateau, I visited nearly every location where Tertön Sogyal had lived and taught. I carried letters of introduction, and offerings, from Sogyal Rinpoche to lamas in Tibet, which opened to me a world that I would not have otherwise had access to. In 2006 Sogyal Rinpoche encouraged me to write Tertön Sogyal’s biography.
The narrative in
Fearless in Tibet
is my chronicle of the life of Tertön Sogyal based on a number of authoritative sources. My primary source was Tulku Tsultrim Zangpo’s (Tsullo’s) lengthy spiritual biography of Tertön Sogyal that was carved onto woodblocks in the 1940s, about 15 years after Tertön Sogyal’s passing. Entitled
The Marvelous Garland of White Lotuses
, it is the only known biography and is based upon mystical prophecies about Tertön Sogyal by Padmasambhava and other saintly persons. Little in the way of history in a Western sense exists in Tsullo’s traditional hagiography, though when one reads it alongside other historical sources—Tibetan, Chinese, and Western, some of which are in this book’s Reference section—it is clear that Tertön Sogyal’s mystical visions and spiritual revelations occurred during very specific episodes in the tumultuous political times in late 19th- and early 20th-century Tibet. Venerable Tenzin Choephel of Nechung Monastery led me through Tsullo’s 725-page biography over the course of six weeks in Dharamsala and Washington, D.C. I also benefited greatly from Lotsawa Adam Pearcey’s unpublished outline of Tsullo’s biography and the many conversations I had with him about Tertön Sogyal.
Fearless in Tibet
would not have appeared without Venerable Tenzin Choephel’s skillful interpretations and endless patience and Lotsawa Adam’s scholarship.
I have incorporated into the narrative of
Fearless in Tibet
much of the oral record recounted to me by great lamas and elderly hermits—some in their Tibetan homeland and others in exile—who hold the blessing of Tertön Sogyal. Most of the lamas in Tibet to whom I listened have since died. Their fantastic stories of Tertön Sogyal were told over butter tea and tsampa in Nyarong, Kandze, Golok, and Lhasa, and in sacred grottoes, monasteries, and wooden huts. My 15-year journey to listen to accounts of scenes from Tertön Sogyal’s life also took me to meet lamas and scholars in China, India, Nepal, France, England, and America. A few accounts about Tertön Sogyal by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and other masters, I found in the Rigpa archive in Lerab Ling. I am especially indebted to the late Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Khamtrul Rinpoche in Dharamsala, whose writings and stories brought Tertön Sogyal’s mysticism and yogic perseverance and grit to life.
Another thread I wove into the narrative of
Fearless in Tibet
is the sacred landscape connected to Tertön Sogyal. By traveling with devout monks and nuns and tough nomads to the most remote of power places, I learned how the inner pilgrimage creates a shift in our perception, so that the terrain we travel transforms from a wilderness into a sacred topography in which the mountains and rivers, streams and glaciers, the very pebbles that our feet touch, is part of a mandala. This was where Tertön Sogyal’s visionary world unfolded, where protector guardians delivered hidden treasure to him, and where the tertön imbued the environment with profound blessings that are still palpable today despite the political upheaval of the last 60 years.
Tsullo notes in the colophon to his biography that it is nearly impossible to write about Tertön Sogyal’s life because it is beyond any conceptual framework. Tsullo should know—the accomplished scholar-practitioner lived and studied with Tertön Sogyal for more than 15 years. But Tsullo also reminds us that Tertön Sogyal’s life is a story that needs to be told. I carried this paradox with me while writing
Fearless in Tibet.
I know that who Tertön Sogyal is, is ultimately beyond words. The ultimate guru cannot be described, only realized. Inevitably, though, to write Tertön Sogyal’s story, I had to position him against the turbulent sociopolitical backdrop, place him in a linear historical sequence, and show his apparent challenges and frustrations. Despite this, I pray that the reader still comes to know the Tertön Sogyal who is beyond concepts, to see the nonabiding mystic, and to glimpse the yogi who is deathless. For any shortcomings in
Fearless in Tibet
, especially if I have created any reified views of Tertön Sogyal, I take complete responsibility, and I ask forgiveness from the masters and lineage holders, from you the reader, and especially from guardians of Tertön Sogyal’s precious teachings.
On my last research trip in 2008, I went to the sparsely populated nomadic region in Golok, to the remote valley of Nyagar, to visit the site where Tertön Sogyal passed away. A three-story-high conical-shaped stupa had just been erected in the tertön’s memory; I wrote about this in my first book,
In the Shadow of the Buddha
(2011). The stupa had been filled with hundreds of volumes of sacred scriptures draped in brocade; statues of Buddha, Padmasambhava, and Vajrakilaya; mantra-infused medicines; and fragrant juniper powder. I carried with me the last items to place inside—a collection of sacred relics that I had collected from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, Khamtrul Rinpoche, Khenpo Namdrol Rinpoche, and other masters. After the silk-wrapped bundle was set inside the heart-center of the stupa, I closed a stone door, sealing in the blessings so that they might emanate outward for generations to come. Before climbing down the ladder, I placed a wooden sign by the portal, engraved with the name that Sogyal Rinpoche had bestowed upon the site:
The Enlightenment Stupa of Tertön Sogyal, Lerab Lingpa, Victorious in All Directions
In some ways, that was the last step in my decade-long pilgrimage; it was not unlike the way writing this book has concluded a long-held aspiration of mine to tell the life story of Tertön Sogyal. Yet, in following in the footsteps of the master—whether retracing his steps on foot or on the page—we return to the place we were before the journey began, to where the master has been pointing us all along. It is that space of innate wakefulness that is our potential for awakening, where we pray, in the words of Tertön Sogyal’s aspiration nearly a century ago: “May I realize directly, here and now, the face of the ultimate guru, my very own nature of mind.”