Authors: Matteo Pistono
“That is the letter for
,” Sonam Gyalpo said.
Sonam Gyalpo recognized the letters to be of a script known as
, often used to write Sanskrit mantras in Tibet. Dargye wondered how his son was privy to such knowledge. Pema Dündul nodded approvingly, feeling this was an early sign that the boy would develop spiritually to reign supreme throughout the land of Tibet. The lama blessed Sonam Gyalpo, gave him a piece of rock candy, and sent him out the door to retrieve the horses. Then Pema Dündul turned to Dargye to remind him that his son was an incarnate lama and that he should be sent for religious training.
“I’ll think about it,” Dargye lied, and walked out of the room.
As they were riding home, a small herd of musk deer was feeding in a field near their home. Dargye told Sonam Gyalpo to bag one of the larger bucks. The boy bent down on one knee and took aim.
Sonam Gyalpo’s head snapped back.
“Padmasambhava just punched me!” the boy said, dropping his gun and holding his eye.
Dargye shook his head, disgusted.
“Get back on your horse, then.”
When they arrived home, Sonam Gyalpo rushed to his friend’s house to tell them he had met Pema Dündul and to share the sweets. Dargye sulked in the corner of the smoky kitchen, chewing on a piece of jerky as Drolma made cabbage soup. He told Drolma of their son’s matchlock musket target practice and how Sonam Gyalpo hit any target—any target that was not alive. He took a swig of barley beer.
“He claims to see dakinis and Padmasambhava. Foolish kid.”
As Drolma stoked the earthen stove, she hid her pleasure that her son’s spiritual capacity was emerging. She had always sensed a special quality in Sonam Gyalpo, though she never mentioned her intuition to her husband. Trying to calm Dargye, Drolma asked what had happened when they visited Kalzang Temple. She hoped that Dargye would not speak ill of Pema Dündul.
“Typical.” Dargye smirked. “That old lama said that our boy should go to a monastery. We can’t afford that. We need the boy to work the yaks here. Besides, he’ll stop seeing those damn dakinis and be a good shot in no time.” Dargye still chose not to tell his wife that Pema Dündul had recognized their boy as an incarnate lama and had offered to teach him.
That night Sonam Gyalpo was struck with a high fever. Dargye nursed a jug of homebrew as Drolma left the house to consult a mendicant camping near the Nyachu River. She asked him to perform a divination. Entering a deep state of concentration while repeating a mantra, the mendicant thumbed his prayer beads.
“There is nothing to be done immediately, but once the boy has recovered from the fever, he must be sent to study the Dharma.”
The mendicant took out his quill pen and ink and wrote a quotation of the Buddha:
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you,
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
“Take heed of cause and effect, Mother Drolma,” the mendicant said. “Your son is ill because of handling rifles and weapons of violence. Instead, send him to train in the tradition of Padmasambhava.” Drolma returned but was afraid to tell Dargye of the mendicant’s message.
Sonam Gyalpo yearned to return to Pema Dündul. He wept continuously while recuperating, not because of the physical malady, but because he was disheartened by the future his father was arranging for him. It took more than two months for Sonam Gyalpo to regain his strength.
When he had fully recovered, Dargye announced it was time that Sonam Gyalpo toughen up. Dargye knew a shady character in Tromge village with whom his son could apprentice. He wanted Sonam Gyalpo to spend a season running roughshod away from Nyarong on the Tromthar Plateau. Sonam Gyalpo and his mother dared not disobey Dargye’s stubborn directive.
Sonam Gyalpo was comfortable traveling by horseback and sleeping under the stars on the windy plains of Tromthar. Yet, as soon as he met the group, who were nothing more than bandits, Sonam Gyalpo knew that he was on the wrong path. They told Sonam Gyalpo of the loot they would haul in with their mule-train robberies, of yak rustling, of stolen steeds, and of the women they would bed after small-town raids.
How can I rob, rape, and steal from innocent people and still pray for their well-being?
That first night, as he lay near the embers of the campfire, anger toward his father burned inside the boy’s heart. Trapped, Sonam Gyalpo finally fell asleep. Early the next morning, Sonam Gyalpo rode with the nine ruffians to take up positions spying down into a narrow canyon; the passage was used by travelers en route to Derge. The leader of the posse insisted that as a rite of passage, the newest among them take the first shot at the next caravan.
“No one is to shoot until I fire,” Sonam Gyalpo said reluctantly, scared to defy the leader’s orders.
As a caravan wove its way in single file through the canyon, Sonam Gyalpo followed one of the riders with the bead of his rifle sight. Just before he squeezed the trigger,
Sonam Gyalpo’s head whipped back. As he rolled over with blood on his hands, the sound of his rifle crashing into the canyon alerted the caravan, which hightailed it out of sight.
“What the hell are you doing? You’ve squandered our position, you little runt!” yelled the bandits’ leader.
“He just punched me in the face,” Sonam Gyalpo shot back, blood running from his nose. “Padmasambhava came out of the barrel of my gun! He said, ‘Until now you still haven’t awakened your potential for enlightenment! You still behave like this?’ And then he punched me!”
The robbers shuddered to think that Padmasambhava was watching their unrighteous behavior. Frightened that the Great Guru might turn his wrath upon them, the group rode back to town. While passing along a ridge, one of the bandits saw an elderly monk-pilgrim in the distance.
“He must have some roasted barley flour, and I’m starving,” one of the bandits said while kicking his horse to quicken the pace.
“Maybe he’ll have some silver pieces he gathered from Tromge village,” another added.
The bandits surrounded the monk with their horses, and their leader told Sonam Gyalpo to dismount. He threw his leg over the saddle horn and jumped to the ground. They waited for Sonam Gyalpo’s next move, maybe a demand for money, or perhaps just yanking the monk’s satchel. The monk turned a soft gaze toward Sonam Gyalpo and, as a wave of benediction washed over him, Sonam Gyalpo fell to the pilgrim’s dusty boots.
“Oh, lama, bless me with your grace.”
When the monk lifted his staff above the head of Sonam Gyalpo, two of the bandits drew their swords. He turned his meditative gaze toward the bandits and arrested their thoughts and froze their hands. The monk then grazed the top of Sonam Gyalpo’s head with his staff and said:
O sublime and precious bodhichitta,
May it arise in those in whom it has not arisen;
May it never decline where it has arisen
But go on increasing, further and further!
When Sonam Gyalpo stood up, the monk looked at him and said, “May you gain victory over all adverse conditions and obstacles to bring happiness and love to others.”
The monk’s prayer of
—to attain complete awakening for the benefit of others—pierced Sonam Gyalpo’s heart and held back the other bandits from doing anything that might cause harm. Clutching his walking staff, protected by his power of bodhichitta, the old monk passed through the bandits’ enclosure and hobbled into the distance.
The following morning, the group of bandits milled around the general store in Tromge village. A few inspected the gunpowder, yak-hair ropes and harnesses, and Chinese copper cooking pots that hung outside on wood panels, while others tossed their lariats at fence posts. One of the bandits challenged another to a knife-throwing match. The first launched his buck knife blade over handle, hitting a wooden post dead center. The next threw his knife but missed the target. The large blade flew past the post and sliced open the belly of a pregnant mare standing by the hay bales. Sonam Gyalpo ran with others to the injured horse, to find her unborn foal hanging out of her abdomen. Trying to nuzzle and lick her dead foal back to life, the mare strained her neck. As she looked up to the staring eyes of the bandit who threw the knife, the mare’s head fell to the ground and she died.
This is what it means to act selflessly—trying to help another even while dying yourself,
Sonam Gyalpo thought as tears welled in his eyes.
Sonam Gyalpo’s days as a bandit were finished. He galloped away and for the next week meandered south to Shiwa, camping along riverbanks. While sitting under the moonlight, Sogyal prayed for those he had harmed. Intense regret for recent deeds pervaded his heart. He vowed to learn methods to cleanse himself of past negative acts and continually give rise to compassion. He thought deeply about how the mare had tended to her lifeless foal even while dying herself, and arrived at a deep conviction that the only reason to live is to help others. It was as Nyala Pema Dündul had once written: “If you can pay meticulous attention to your actions and their effects, adopting virtue and abandoning non-virtue, that is a sign of finding the swift path that ascends the staircase to liberation.”
Dargye could not believe his eyes when he saw his son riding back to their home. He had been away less than two months. At supper, Sonam Gyalpo told his parents that he wanted to go and live with Nyala Pema Dündul.
“You stupid boy! You don’t know anything. With that lama, you’ll find nothing but grass and turnips!”
Dargye scolded his son and said that the next day he must go to hunt for dinner. Dargye was firm that Sonam Gyalpo must not visit Pema Dündul.
Sonam Gyalpo departed early the next morning and headed up the mountain as ordered by his father. Before he left, Drolma gave him yogurt to take for lunch. She patted him good-bye, hoping her boy would return empty-handed with more tales of dancing dakinis blocking his rifle’s sights. Maybe then her husband would understand that their son was no ordinary Nyarong yak herder.
Sonam Gyalpo knew every niche of the forests above Shiwa village. He had run up and down the mountains since he was a toddler; by the time he was seven years old, he was directing yaks to open pasture with his slingshot and whistles in Luba Drako Valley. In the summertime, Sonam Gyalpo and his friends ran barefoot through the carpet of flowers in the meadows around Puntse Monastery. Yelling, “Stop!” they dropped to their backs and kicked their legs in the air, giggling and counting the poppies and daisies stuck between their wiggling toes. On this autumn day, however, Sonam Gyalpo hiked up the mountain with a gun slung over his hunched shoulder, feeling not the joy of a teenager but the clutch of his father’s will. Storms of emotion raged in his heart and drained him of energy. He did not want to upset his father, but he did not want to kill animals either.
Sonam Gyalpo walked by a pilgrimage site with a long wall of stacked slate with chiseled mantras; orange and green moss covered some of the blessed rock engravings. Mantras are sacred syllables used in Vajrayana to protect the mind of the practitioner from negativity, as well as to invoke a chosen enlightened deity. A hundred years earlier, a hermit advised a herder to devote the rest of his life to the accumulation of virtuous acts by carving mantras on rocks rather than herding and hunting. The herder complained that he would have no food or money if he did not whip his yaks in the fields or shoot a deer or boar now and again. The hermit responded that if the herder followed an authentic spiritual path, he would never need to worry about food in his belly.
“Genuine spiritual practitioners never starve,” the hermit assured him.
The hermit told the herder to bring him his stock. Using a juniper branch to sprinkle blessed water on the animals, the hermit wove a red thread into their shaggy coats so all would know that the life of the yaks and goats had been ransomed—the wooly creatures would live out their days on the mountainside instead of dragging plows through barley fields, being milked continuously, or going to slaughter.
Om Mani Padme Hum,
the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion, on the slate around here and then stack the
rocks for others to see. It will remind everyone of Buddha’s teachings and bless the environment.”
If the herder performed these activities with compassion for his animals and carved while visualizing the Buddha of Compassion above his and the animals’ heads, the herder was promised that not only sustenance would come his way but a peace of mind he had never known. Since that time, other retired herders had come to carve mantra and scriptures on rocks, adding to the half-mile-long stone prayer wall.
Sonam Gyalpo walked along the massive wall. In between two of the rocks piled above his head he saw a small scroll of golden-colored paper partially sticking out. Standing on tiptoes, he took the paper and unrolled it to see dakini script. Sensing the parchment was some sort of blessing, he opened the silver amulet that hung on his chest and placed the parchment inside among other blessed relics.