Authors: Matteo Pistono
A tinge of sadness at the loss of the ring crossed Tertön Sogyal’s mind, and then he heard the guardian tease him, saying, “Ha, ha! You think your ring is more precious than these treasures from Padmasambhava we just gave you?”
Tertön Sogyal wrapped the life-force stone and treasure casket in silk cloth and handed them to his companion.
“Nobody else besides me and Ahga should touch this stone before it arrives in the hands of His Holiness. Put this in a box and mark it with my seal.”
Tertön Sogyal knew his efforts were protecting the Dalai Lama. The group rejoiced with songs that echoed throughout the grotto as Tertön Sogyal took some of the lustral water from the White Lake and sprinkled it on his and the others’ heads, and he removed his phurba dagger from his belt and cleansed it. The group returned to camp and began weeks of thanksgiving feast offerings. From the treasure casket, Tertön Sogyal took out a manual that enumerated the rituals he needed to do to capture and activate the life-force stone, which in part read:
“This life-force stone is something that you can’t do without. The origin of the life-force stone is an ordinary rock, four finger-widths high and three wide. On one side you can see two overlaid triangles, making a star, and within that the dakini mantra of the mother, Vajravarahi. On the other side you will make out the syllable
and, if you look closely, see the image of the father, Hayagriva.”
The significance of the life-force stone with Hayagriva and Vajravarahi, including their mantras, related directly to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Hayagriva was not only the principal deity that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama meditated upon, it is a wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara, of whom the Dalai Lama is a manifestation. The dakini Vajravarahi is considered to be a form of Tara, another deity that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama relied upon. With the blessings of Guru Padmasambhava, the principal deity Hayagriva, and the dakini Vajravarahi, this particular stone would enhance the vitality and dispel obstacles to the Dalai Lama’s life—if it could arrive in his hands.
Tertön Sogyal began the intensive practice of capturing the life-force of the deities Hayagriva and Vajravarahi so as to empower himself and enact the power in the stone. The stone itself was already consecrated and displayed spontaneously appearing images of the deities indicating its natural magnetism that attracted the blessing of the mother and father. With stable meditative concentration that did not waver for even a moment, and by summoning the deities by chanting their heart essence mantras, Tertön Sogyal soon met Vajravarahi and Hayagriva face-to-face, and they bestowed spiritual attainments upon him. Tertön Sogyal prayed that he would himself be able to fiercely liberate from their violent ways those beings who cannot be hoisted out of ignorance by the rope of compassion.
Year of the Water Ox to the Wood Tiger, 1913–1914
After revealing the life-force stone, Tertön Sogyal traveled from Golok to Xining, the largest city in the region, on the frontier with China. He was following a prophecy delivered by a raven-faced Dharma protector who indicated that if he could make an auspicious connection with a Muslim warlord’s daughter, he would reveal a wrathful practice needed to ward off future invasions by the Chinese. Following the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911, and with the Nationalist government in its infancy, Muslim warlords ran China’s borderlands. International political allegiances were repositioning, with Outer Mongolia and Tibet recognizing each other’s independence. China’s northwestern frontier with Tibet—where Tibet, Mongolia, central Asia, and China meet—was the realm of the Ma warlord clan, who had been in power for generations and had now reasserted themselves, forging bonds with Mongolians and Tibetans. In 1912, the Northern Warlords Alliance appointed Ma Qi as the military commander of Xining.
Tertön Sogyal wrote a message to Ma Qi and sent it by attaching the letter to a raven’s neck for delivery. The letter indicated Tertön Sogyal’s intention to meet and practice treasure rituals with his daughter. After a few days, the raven returned with a curt message from the warlord, saying, “You, a vagabond, ask me to trust you with my daughter! I highly doubt I would trust you with my dog. Still, I am an honest man and have read your request. Should you prove yourself worthy, I will allow my daughter to meet you. But you must prove yourself before my eyes.”
Tertön Sogyal snarled at the warlord’s message but took it as a challenge. “It is clear that the general does not know who he is dealing with.” Tertön Sogyal began the long journey with Atrin to Xining in the Water Ox year (1913). They would travel east through the fertile grasslands of Dzoge, follow the Machu River northeast to the sun-blasted badlands near Rebkong, and then head north toward Xining. Halfway into the journey, intense fighting broke out between warring Tibetan tribes near Rebkong. Tertön Sogyal was advised not to proceed to Xining by the yogis he had met in Lhasa on his first trip to the capital in 1888, when they were conducting ritual protection for the Tibetan government. The yogis introduced Tertön Sogyal and Atrin to Alak Gurong, who invited them to stay in the Jentsa area and provided all provisions and lodging.
Alak Gurong was a charismatic polymath who used to boast that he had electricity while the powerful Muslim warlords in Xining were still using candles. After traveling throughout China and touring factories, Gurong was proficient in handling photography and electrical equipment, and set up printing houses and invented a type of Morse code for the Tibetan language for his personal use. He was also a deeply devout man who had spent seven years in his youth studying with the great master Ju Mipham Rinpoche, built a stupa in memory of his teacher at Wutai Shan, and was appointed titular head of the Nyingma school by the president of China in 1916, during which time he performed Vajrakilaya rituals in Peking.
Alak Gurong and the yogis in the area requested Tertön Sogyal to teach the
Secret Essence Tantra
and bestow empowerments, including his Vajrakilaya termas. The lay tantric community took Tertön Sogyal in as one of their gurus; prayers were written to invoke his blessing, and his image was painted in
scrolls in the traditional Rebkong style, with elaborate use of gold and consistent use of rainbow spheres for nimbuses and aureoles. While there were prayer halls and small temples in the area, most of the tantric practitioners in the region were married, lived at home with their families, and gathered in the temples only on specific ceremonial days for rituals. The yogis spent the time before dawn in meditation, then worked the fields or moved their sheep and yaks before noon. Before sundown, a deep drum and chant could be heard from within each adobe-walled household as the inhabitants made offerings to the lineage gurus and the Dharma protectors. Tertön Sogyal stayed most of the time in retreat in hermitages or in the southeast-facing caves that overlooked the wide Machu River which flowed east. Devotees and yogis sought his meditation instructions and visited him daily.
One chilly morning, Tertön Sogyal told his host he needed to go to Nyenbo Dzari Lake to conduct a ritual. Alak Gurong and a few of his attendants and monks saddled the horses and they left straightaway. Arriving at the high mountain lake known for its medicinal qualities, the group made camp while Tertön Sogyal began a ceremonial offering of beer and juniper smoke to the tellurian spirits and treasure guardians. He instructed everyone to leave him alone and told them to walk to the center of the frozen lake and to break open a large hole. When they returned, he told them to stay at the campsite; he then walked to the center of the lake. No sooner had Tertön Sogyal arrived at the hole than he dove headfirst into the frigid water. The group ran to save Tertön Sogyal from certain hypothermia. But they could see nothing when they looked into the cold water. They did not know what to do. Worried and anxious, some began to cry. Minutes seemed like hours.
“What have we done?”
“Our refuge has died.”
As if a lion were roaring, Tertön Sogyal emerged from the lake with a rush of wind. He held in his right hand a Buddha statue and in his left hand a bejeweled treasure casket and a smaller stone casket. The group stood in stunned silence that transformed into devotion. As they prostrated upon the ice to Tertön Sogyal, whom they saw as Padmasambhava, the tertön walked away, saying nothing. At the campsite, Tertön Sogyal celebrated the occasion with offerings and prayers of thanksgiving, and he had Alak Gurong return to the hole in the ice and drop golden coins bound in a silk scarf to the bottom of the lake for the terma guardian.
Back at Gurong’s residence of Mandigar at Drakga a few hours east of Achung Namdzong, the group was overjoyed and wanted to mark the occasion of seeing Tertön Sogyal reveal a treasure. Alak Gurong suggested taking a photograph of the tertön to celebrate. He attempted to explain to Tertön Sogyal what a photograph was and proudly showed off his tripod and gear. Tertön Sogyal wondered what he was hiding under the black cloak but kept quiet. As Gurong adjusted the tripod and readied the camera, Atrin laid out Tertön Sogyal’s ritual instruments on a ceremonial table, including a hand drum, a five-pronged dorje scepter, a bell, and a
cup containing spiritual medicine. To the right side, Tertön Sogyal placed the recently discovered jeweled treasure casket. Alak Gurong requested that Tertön Sogyal sit in meditation posture and hold his prayer beads. As if to show how little time Tertön Sogyal ever spent in one place, there was no brocade, scroll painting, or other wall hangings behind him. A thick dark maroon cloak was wrapped around the tertön’s upper body with long sleeves falling over his hands and knees, his posture at ease. The shadows that fell on Tertön Sogyal’s high cheekbones under his yogic crown of hair accentuated his eyes and high forehead. Tertön Sogyal looked directly into the camera, his gaze at once piercing and vast. This was the face of determination, of resoluteness, of fearlessness. With a flash, the photo was taken; Gurong immediately went to his darkroom to develop the negative and returned to show Tertön Sogyal the photograph. Tertön Sogyal looked on without a change in his expression.
Tertön Sogyal photo taken circa 1913.
Tertön Sogyal and Atrin returned to their retreat cabin for a few months, and when the fighting to the north abated, they decided to continue to travel to Xining. Tertön Sogyal told Alak Gurong of his intent to meet the daughter of the Hui Muslim warlord Ma Qi. Alak Gurong was a close friend of Ma Qi’s closest advisor, Li Dan, a scholar and Buddhist aristocrat from Hunan who spoke and translated Tibetan. Alak Gurong wrote a letter of introduction to Li Dan and asked him to assist Tertön Sogyal in meeting the warlord’s daughter. Tertön Sogyal was sent off with fresh horses and an escort.
Tertön Sogyal and Atrin followed the caravan route north, passing traders carrying wool, hides, deer horns, musk, medicinal herbs, and precious stones to the great market and temple city of Xining. It was unlike any city they had ever visited. Turbaned traders and light-skinned foreigners fresh off the Tsaidam Basin of the Silk Road tended to their Bactrian camels, caravan horses, and pack mules on the outskirts of the city. Tibetan, Monguor, and Mongolian Buddhist monks; Han Taoist sages; and Salar and Hui imams walked with their acolytes through the shops to acquire provisions for their religious communities far and near. Bearded Uighur, Turkish, and Kazakh traders bartered their wares; spice and vegetable sellers hollered from the street side; and paupers mixed with ragged refugees from Xian, who sat along the road begging for food escaping China’s civil war. Tertön Sogyal and Atrin were led to the walled compound of Ma Qi in the center of Xining. The three-story-high sprawling complex with its curved, Ming-style pagoda roof and glazed tiles looked like a jeweled fortress.
The Ma family was famous in the region, and in Peking, as skilled military strategists. For generations they had commanded the tough Muslim horsemen whom even the Golok tribes were cautious to battle. When Tertön Sogyal arrived in Xining, it was Ma Qi who was the patriarch of the family, renowned warlord, and soon-to-be appointed Governor General of Gansu. On the advice of his most trusted confidant, Li Dan, the warlord maintained close relations with the Tibetans and Mongolians. Ma Qi had even taken an interest in reading Li Dan’s translation of Tsongkhapa’s
Praise of Dependent Origination
and Mipham Rinpoche’s
Treatise on Advice to Rulers: Specifically the King of Derge.
Like many of the Hui Muslims in the area, Ma Qi was not beyond consulting Tibetan divinations or making offerings to local spirits. Of all the Ma family warlords, Ma Qi was the most open and curious about others’ religions and cultures, albeit often for use in governing or ruling others.
Ma Qi remembered Tertön Sogyal’s message delivered by the raven and read Alak Gurong’s letter of introduction. The six-foot-tall burly warlord, with his Fu Manchu moustache, high-collared silken gown, and black skullcap, welcomed Tertön Sogyal. He was impressed by the tertön’s willingness to travel the great distance to meet his daughter and was surprised when Tertön Sogyal told him that he knew her name was Shinya and that she was an Earth Rat. Tertön Sogyal reiterated his purpose for coming to see Ma Qi—that his daughter was prophesied to assist him in revealing treasures. Ma Qi invited him to stay, and Li Dan took a great interest in the tertön.