Authors: Matteo Pistono
In the mid-19th century, the life of a horse-riding bandit in the eastern Tibetan region of Kham took a drastic turn that would alter the future of Tibetan Buddhism. After the young man rejected his father’s demands to lead a life that was harming others, he placed his trust in wise hermits and learned monks who nurtured his spiritual development in remote caves and sacred temples. As his mind turned away from worldly pursuits and toward the Buddha’s instructions on how to develop boundless compassion and recognize one’s inherent enlightened potential, he began a series of meditation retreats that would last more than a decade. By perfecting his meditation skills, he realized the most profound Buddhist teachings. And soon a treasure-house of visions and spiritual revelations burst forth from his wisdom mind. He became the tantric yogi par excellence. Eventually, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama asked him to become his guru, and to use his spiritual revelations to defend Tibet. This yogi’s name was Tertön Sogyal.
Tertön Sogyal’s emergence as a powerful spiritual figure came at a time when geopolitical pressures were pressuring Tibet and threatening the life of the Dalai Lama. Outside powers—British India, the Qing dynasty, and Tsarist Russia—were vying for control of the Buddhist country. Tibet’s army in Lhasa, with only muskets and lances, and the decentralized tribes of eastern Tibet, with few rifles, would be no match for foreign militaries. Yet even more dangerous than Tibet’s imperial neighbors was the internal strife that Tertön Sogyal witnessed among Tibetan Buddhists and between civil leaders in Lhasa. Religious sectarianism was rife among some influential monasteries and abbots. Cronyism and the use of funds for personal gain were prevalent. The spiritual corrosion was weakening Tibet, making the country ever more vulnerable to attacks by outside forces.
Padmasambhava had predicted that trouble would arise for Tibet at the end of the 19th century. When the Indian guru established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century, he had made prophecies about the age of degeneration—
—when disturbing mental states such as desire, anger, pride, and jealousy would preoccupy the minds of Tibetans and lead to conflict and wars. This degenerative period would bring an overall deterioration in the quality of all things, from the sharp acumen of people to the nutritional content of food. Among the monks and lay tantric practitioners in Tibet, Padmasambhava predicted erosion in the strength of religious vows and precepts—even to the point of contravening the guidance of spiritual teachers. This degeneration, and the self-cherishing attitudes behind it, was the source of Tibet’s suffering in the 19th century.
But there were antidotes to this degenerative time that could resuscitate spiritual practitioners and maintain Tibet as a realm where Buddhism could flourish. These antidotes would appear in the form of Padmasambhava’s spiritual teachings. He concealed these antidotes as “treasures”—
—in the form of texts describing liturgies, religious practices, and advice, sealing them with the intent that they be revealed when they would be most needed. Padmasambhava presaged future yogis to be
, the revealers of his hidden treasures. One after another, the tertöns appeared throughout Tibet’s history, becoming a garland of precious adornments for the Buddha Dharma, the teachings of Buddhism. And at the turn of the 20th century, after the passing of two great tertöns and spiritual luminaries in Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul, Tertön Sogyal was considered to be the most significant tertön. This was because the treasures he was revealing were specifically tailored by Padmasambhava to protect the Buddhist teachings, to defend Tibet against foreign invasions, and to guard the life of Tibet’s spiritual and political ruler, the Dalai Lama.
Tertön Sogyal’s spiritual revelations have a timeless quality and speak directly to the meditator in solitary retreat or to those engaged in the pursuit of positive social change. His teachings are as relevant and as much needed today as when the tertön first revealed them in the highlands of Tibet. And Tertön Sogyal’s own life of overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles is an inspiring model of how to integrate skillfully the wisdom gleaned from spiritual practice with the compassionate wish to benefit all sentient beings. This is the life of a Tibetan mystic. This is the story of Tertön Sogyal.
Year of the Fire Dragon to the Iron Horse, 1856–1870
Dargye celebrated the birth of his first son by drinking a few jugs of barley wine with his Nyarong cohorts. Flicking a bit of moonshine in the air, Dargye said, “By the power of Chieftain Amgon, may my boy, born in the Fire Dragon year, bring good fortune to this poor Shiwa Village household.”
“Shall we take him to the master Nyala Pema Dündul at the monastery for a blessing and name-giving ceremony?” asked one of his cousins.
“No. I already sent some butter up to that old hermit at Purification Temple. He said the boy should be named Sonam Gyalpo. I don’t want Pema Dündul getting any ideas about having my kid chanting away at his place.”
Dargye had no intention of allowing his son to follow the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. He was counting on the boy to release him from curses that had been set upon him by locals.
“My son Sonam Gyalpo is not gonna be a monk—he’s ridin’ sidekick with me.”
Dargye descended from a financially secure family in Upper Nyarong in Kham; however, he had not lived up to the expectations of his forefathers. Instead, it was rumored around northern Nyarong’s pine-filled valleys that before taking Orgyen Drolma as his bride, Dargye rode with a group of bandits known as the Sureshots, who rambled along the north-south trade route of the Nyachu River which flowed the length of the region. Travel along the narrow canyon was slow and dangerous for caravans, making them easy targets for bandits. In a decade of late-night banditry and mule-train ambushes, the Sureshots had made off with considerable gold and silver. In the wake of their attacks, more than a dozen traders and farmers in Nyarong had been killed.
Dargye tried to convince others that he had not been a bandit with the Sureshots, but rather worked for a Chinese tea trader in the city of Chengdu in western China. His meager resources did not reflect years of high-revenue banditry. However, village gossip can make a poor tea trader into a once-profitable bandit or turn the most holy of monks into a charlatan.
“He will be a crack shot, a shrewd trader, and marry a girl from the county town. Sonam Gyalpo will carry on the spirit of our warrior chief Amgon,” Dargye boasted.
Amgon was a legendary fighter and the most renowned chieftain in Nyarong, a rugged region where multigenerational blood feuds defined village relations and where scars and wounds marked its borders. Amgon’s foes feared him as much as his comrades respected him. Among those he waged brutal battles against was the far-off government in central Tibet. The kingdoms in Derge and Nangchen of eastern Tibet cowered before him, and he even battled Qing military outposts. Finally, in 1863, the Tibetan government felt the Nyarong chieftain had gone too far by attacking and taking hostage the royal court in Derge, including a few incarnate lamas, and controlling the important tea trade routes to central Tibet. In a surprise attack, Tibetan government cavalry set the chieftain’s fortress on fire, burning Amgon, his wife and two sons, and his lieutenants to death.
Sonam Gyalpo’s youth was spent in Amgon’s shadow. Dargye was keen to imbue his son with the chieftain’s fierceness. It pained Sonam Gyalpo’s mother, Drolma, to hear Dargye’s plans for their child because she knew the boy was special. On the night of his conception, Drolma had dreamed of a beautiful celestial woman saying to her, “He shall not be with you for long. Shower him with love while you can.” As the ethereal figure faded, bells and other sacred religious objects dissolved into Drolma. She awoke feeling the family had been blessed, but she feared the prediction meant her boy might die as an infant.
When Sonam Gyalpo began speaking as a toddler, he told his mother of memories of his past lives and referred to Padmasambhava, the Indian guru who established Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century, as his father. Later, when a wandering mendicant with long hair tied atop his head and carrying a trident staff came by their home in search of a meal, a natural devotion rose in Sonam Gyalpo’s heart. He asked his mother why Padmasambhava was begging for food. She just smiled and offered the mendicant tea and porridge.
When the mendicant was relaxing after tea, Sonam Gyalpo went up to him and tugged on his woolen cloak.
“What is a buddha?”
“Buddhas work for the benefit of others. Ordinary people work for the benefit of themselves. And just look at the difference between them,” he said, quoting the 8th-century Buddhist saint Shantideva.
Sonam Gyalpo was only six years old, but he thought deeply about the mendicant’s words. Before he left their home, the wanderer wrote a four-line verse and gave it to Sonam Gyalpo:
Commit not a single unwholesome action,
Cultivate a wealth of virtue,
To tame this mind of ours,
This is the teaching of all the buddhas.
Drolma was surprised that Sonam Gyalpo could read the verse. Dargye had prohibited their boy from learning to read, fearing it would lead him toward a religious life. Unbeknownst to his parents, Sonam Gyalpo had asked a local hermit to teach him the alphabet. The hermit taught Sonam Gyalpo from discarded prayer book pages that villagers had placed high in mountain grottoes for disposal, believing that blessings flowed out of the texts as they disintegrated into the soil. Sonam Gyalpo took advantage of these pages, decaying on the mountainside though they were, to learn to read and write. He also meditated upon verses found in the pages and contemplated them while moving sheep and yaks to pasture.
One day the great meditator and most renowned of all Nyarong lamas, Nyala Pema Dündul, passed Shiwa village. Drolma invited the respected yogi into the family’s sitting room to rest. Butter tea was served, and after Pema Dündul offered a brief blessing, he drank it without speaking. Silence always made Dargye feel uncomfortable. The calm was broken when Sonam Gyalpo bounded into the room chasing a kitten.
“Hey, don’t I know you?” Sonam Gyalpo blurted out.
A glowing grin spread across the master’s face, like a grandfather seeing his grandchild for the first time.
“Don’t you speak like that!” Drolma scolded Sonam Gyalpo. “Offer your respect to the master.”
Sonam Gyalpo bowed to Pema Dündul, and when he stood straight, they looked at each other like dear friends who had not seen each other in decades. Pema Dündul saw not only a child before him but simultaneously observed Sonam Gyalpo’s previous life as Prajapati Gotami, the aunt of Shakyamuni Buddha and the founder of the order of nuns, as well as his lives as past saints in Tibet and India. And Pema Dündul remembered studying together with Sonam Gyalpo in a previous life when they were both disciples of Padmasambhava. He basked in the reunion with a spiritual brother.
Sonam Gyalpo ran out of the room, following Drolma into the kitchen.
“You should know that Padmasambhava has a mission for the boy to fulfill,” the master said to Dargye. “He will be of great benefit to Buddhism and to many beings.”
Dargye just stared at Pema Dündul, who continued, “I suspect it will be difficult for you to make Sonam Gyalpo follow your wishes.”
Dargye did not want to believe what he was hearing. If Sonam Gyalpo was sent to study the Dharma, there would be fewer hands to tend the fields and animals.
“I think it is time you go, old lama. I have to bring the yaks down the mountain.”
“Although you will not let your son go with me now, in the near future I will become his guru, so what are you waiting for?”
Dargye vowed never to tell Drolma what Pema Dündul had said; instead, he tried to forget the conversation as if it were a bad dream.