Authors: Matteo Pistono
Year of the Iron Tiger to the Wood Monkey, 810–864
The Great Guru Padmasambhava had prophesied Sonam Gyalpo’s birth and spiritual training. The ancient scripture
Mirror of Astonishing Manifestations
states that the 8th-century tantric master Dorje Dudjom of the Nanam clan would be reborn as Sogyal—a contraction of Sonam Gyalpo—the treasure revealer.
An emanation of the tantric adept Dorje Dudjom
Will come in upper Nyarong region of Kham [eastern Tibet],
On the right side of a great river in front of a triple-peaked snow mountain,
The treasure revealer Sogyal, he of fearless conduct,
Will be born in the Dragon Year and
Will abide on the greatly secret, unsurpassed path [of the Vajrayana].
Dorje Dudjom played a critical role in establishing Buddhism in Tibet. He was a minister for King Trisong Detsen at a time when Tibet’s military power was at its apex. Trisong Detsen had forged alliances with many Tibetan tribal leaders, expanding both territorial and martial influence. With the world’s fiercest horsemen, Tibet’s cavalry overran China’s capital of Xian, conquered Arab armies in northern Persia, defeated Turks in East Turkestan, and left behind victory pillars as far south as Bodhgaya in the current-day Indian state of Bihar.
During this time, King Trisong Detsen attempted to bring Buddhism to the Tibetans. Even though Tibet’s tribal confederacy vowed political allegiance to the king, headstrong chieftains, strong-willed nomads, tenacious traders, and indigenous shamans resisted any new religion. Previous kings had built Buddhist temples but were unable to successfully establish the study and practice of the Dharma. This failure was largely due to resistance from Tibetans themselves, whose spiritual loyalty rested with the spirits and animistic gods of the mountains, valleys, and lakes.
When Trisong Detsen endeavored to create a monastic order and build the first Buddhist monastery, shamans commanded malevolent spirits to destroy at night any construction accomplished during the day. They used incantations and curses to cause droughts, floods, famine, and disease. The king beseeched the venerable Bengali abbot Shantarakshita, who was in Tibet on imperial patronage, “Do I not have enough merit to accomplish this task? Are your blessings not strong enough?”
The abbot replied, “It is not that the king doesn’t have sufficient merit or that my blessings are not strong enough. Our way is peaceful, and the vicious Tibetan gods and demons can’t be subdued peacefully. They must be subdued wrathfully.”
Shantarakshita advised Trisong Detsen to search for a tantric master known as Guru Padmasambhava to come to the ruler’s aid. Padmasambhava’s life was one of miracles and yogic feats. He was born in Oddiyana, in the Swat Valley on the present-day Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and at a young age he began esoteric apprenticeships with the most renowned spiritual adepts of his day. Enduring great hardships, he traveled the breadth of the Indian subcontinent to meet tantric masters and study under their tutelage. Padmasambhava also received empowerments and teachings in visions. When asked about his genealogy, Padmasambhava responded:
Nanam Dorje Dudjom was a close disciple of
Padmasambhava and a previous incarnation of Tertön Sogyal.
My father is the pure awareness of rigpa, Samantabhadra,
My mother, the space of all things, Samantabhadri,
My line, the indivisibility of awareness and space,
My name, the glorious Lotus Born,
My homeland, the unborn basic space of phenomena,
My sustenance, consuming dualistic thoughts,
My destiny, to accomplish the actions of the buddhas of the past, present, and future.
Tantra of the Perfect Embodiment of the Unexcelled Nature
, Shakyamuni Buddha himself stated, “Eight years after I pass into nirvana, I will reappear in the country of Oddiyana bearing the name Padmasambhava. I will become lord of the teachings of Secret Mantra.”
King Trisong Detsen dispatched seven envoys with offerings of gold and silk across the Himalayas to invite Padmasambhava to Tibet. Dorje Dudjom—Sonam Gyalpo’s previous incarnation—led that group. Padmasambhava knew of the mission through his clairvoyance and met them on the border between Nepal and Tibet. As soon as they entered Tibet, elemental forces and spirits rose up to contest Padmasambhava’s bringing the Buddhist doctrine to Tibet. Undaunted, the Indian guru took up the battle.
Padmasambhava and Shakyamuni Buddha both represent the immutable state of awakening, buddhahood, but the methods they taught differed. The historical Buddha is known for his teachings on disciplined behavior, abiding peacefully in meditation, and philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality. The Buddha’s gradual approach articulated in the sutras cultivates renunciation and compassion as antidotes to the negative states of mind such as anger and aggression.
Guru Padmasambhava was more of a tough-love teacher who offered the powerful methods of Secret Mantra Vajrayana—
—to dispel obstacles on the path to awakening. The Great Guru’s life and teachings demonstrate how tantric yogis’ paths can transform all experiences of thoughts, words, and actions into the path to enlightenment. This is not accomplished by rejecting seemingly negative situations or suppressing unpleasant emotions; rather, through the wisdom of tantra, any and all situations in life can be transformed into spiritual insights. The path of Vajrayana does not reject anything, but instead, through purification of the yogi’s mind and karma, it transforms the perception of reality and uses experience as fuel for spiritual progress. All experiences, “good” and “bad,” are brought onto the spiritual path, as symbolized by the legend of the peacock, which consumes poison and transforms it into the magnificent display of its feathers, to become the most majestic of birds in the forest.
Padmasambhava subdued the myriad spirits and other animistic forces opposed to him. Tantric Buddhists do not seek to destroy maliciousness or evil absolutely, but rather to transform and redirect the energy; fierce spirits are subdued to become protectors of the Dharma, or at least assign them to worldly duties to support spiritual practitioners. In the Great Guru’s supernatural duels with the spirits, Padmasambhava captured their life-force and gave them a choice: “Be destroyed or vow to support Buddhist practitioners now and in the future.” The choice was clear for the weaker spirits. The multitude of spirits and ghosts in the earth, sky, and water pledged allegiance to Padmasambhava, laying the foundation for the dissemination of the Dharma in Tibet and throughout the Himalayas.
Dorje Dudjom served Padmasambhava throughout his time in Tibet, becoming one of his closest disciples. Acting true to his name, Indestructible Subduer of Demons, Dorje Dudjom gained spiritual mastery through tantric rites of the wrathful deity Vajrakilaya. It is said that he was able to slice solid stone with his
dagger as if rock were warm butter; he could fly with the speed of the wind; and near Samye Monastery he passed through a mountain unhindered. Dorje Dudjom was part of a small group of Padmasambhava’s most intimate disciples, including King Trisong Detsen and Padmasambhava’s consort, Lady Yeshe Tsogyal. Demonstrating their spiritual accomplishments to the general populace in order to increase their faith in Buddhist teachings, Padmasambhava and his disciples walked in the rays of the sun, brought corpses back to life, and passed through rock walls.
During Padmasambhava’s time in Tibet, he hid innumerable caches of treasures, or
throughout the land. Terma treasures are ritual objects such as statues or golden scrolls upon which mystical syllables were inscribed by dakinis. The scrolls were made of tree bark, cotton, or parchment. Together with Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, Padmasambhava prepared and buried these earth treasures in caves, mountainsides, and lakes, as well as in temple pillars and inside small stone caskets. Padmasambhava also concealed mind treasures—texts, prophecies, and lists of locations of the termas—in the mind-streams of his 25 closest disciples. Padmasambhava identified future incarnations of these 25 disciples as his own representatives, charged with discovering his earth and mind treasures. They would be known as
, the treasure revealers.
Termas serve as portals to the profound Dharma because it is through the continual revelation of such treasures, and the Dharma teachings associated with them, that the vitality and life-force of Padmasambhava’s teachings are sustained. Padmasambhava had instructions for every situation. Moreover, he used this method of concealment because he recognized that not all of his instructions would be beneficial in the 8th century in Tibet. Padmasambhava determined the time and place for the revelation of every future treasure, as well as the pre-assigned tertön. The Great Guru bound specific spirits to serve as treasure guardians whose duty was to protect the terma until the future treasure revealer arrived for its discovery.
Tibetans are indebted to Padmasambhava for the country’s spiritual and political foundation, and for its protection. Padmasambhava departed the land after 56 years among the Tibetans. As the king and other disciples of Padmasambhava accompanied the guru to the border of Nepal, they pleaded with him to stay in Tibet. Padmasambhava declined, invoking what Shakyamuni Buddha had told his disciples before passing into nirvana: “It is the nature of all things that take form to dissolve again. Strive with your whole being to attain perfection.” Padmasambhava then gave his testament to the Tibetan people of future generations:
Do not forget that life flickers by and then you die.
What meets must part, so do not fight and cause strife.
What is gathered must be abandoned, so do not crave intemperately for wealth.
Attachment is bondage, so do not harbor unbridled clinging.
What is born must die, so think of your next life.
Padmasambhava then mounted a beam of sunlight and uttered these last instructions to the king, Dorje Dudjom, and others:
Have you understood this, king and subjects?
If you do not feel sincere faith,
The wisdom of certainty will not dawn.
If the wisdom of certainty does not arise,
You will not realize the master’s instruction.
Without realization of the instruction of the master, you will not perceive your mind as the buddha.
Practice the master’s instruction
With faith, devotion, and reverence.
Padmasambhava then vanished into space. As light rays of immeasurable loving-kindness cascaded from the sky, the gathering felt blessed and had a deep confidence they could fulfill Padmasambhava’s instructions. The envoys of Padmasambhava who were tasked to carry on the Great Guru’s instructions were the incarnations of his principal disciples. Some 11 centuries later, it was time for the boy Sonam Gyalpo to revive memories from his previous life and fulfill his mission given to him when he was Dorje Dudjom.
Year of the Iron Sheep, 1871
When Sonam Gyalpo was strong enough to hold a musket steady, his father taught him how to pack the gunpowder, aim, and reload. Sonam Gyalpo quickly gained a marksman’s skill, hitting any target his father set up in the spruce and juniper forests. Yet when Dargye spotted deer or mountain sheep for Sonam Gyalpo to shoot, he would miss the mark.
“Whenever I aim at the pheasant, Father, I only see dakinis in the sights,” Sonam Gyalpo said. “They are waving scarves. Sometimes all I see down the barrel of the gun are mantras standing on end.”
Dargye spat, shaking his head incredulously.
The dakinis were assisting Sonam Gyalpo, urging him toward his spiritual path.
One day, as they rode past Deer Horn Junction, they could see the temple where the master Nyala Pema Dündul lived.
“Father, let’s go see the precious lama.”
“There’s no time. We gotta get back before sundown.”
“Come on, just a quick visit for a blessing. He is our buddha!”
Dargye and Sonam Gyalpo left the horses to graze and walked to the temple that was perched on the side of the mountain. They entered Pema Dündul’s room, where he sat in a wooden meditation box no bigger than four feet square. When he was not camping under the stars, he sat in such meditation boxes in an upright posture throughout the day and night.
Pema Dündul invited Sonam Gyalpo to approach. The aging lama pulled a small piece of golden parchment from his prayer book. Dargye spied the leaf-like paper.
“Do you know what this means?” Pema Dündul said, pointing to a foreign script written on the parchment.