Authors: Matteo Pistono
Dakini script on parchment.
Sonam Gyalpo continued trekking through the mountains until he arrived at the small Chakpur Temple. He bowed three times at the entrance and proceeded into the temple, which smelled of wood soaked with the smoke of juniper incense. A half dozen tattered felt robes lay motionless, still warm from the monks who were taking a mid-morning break from their prayers. Slanting beams of sun and the glow of oil lamps illuminated the altar. Sonam Gyalpo gazed at the shrine with statues of Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri, and Vajrapani, representing the enlightened qualities of compassion, wisdom, and power. He wanted to present an offering, but he found only buckshot in his leather satchel. He then remembered the parchment he had taken earlier in the day from the wall of prayer stones. The dakini script carried profound blessings, he knew, but he decided to offer it to the buddhas rather than keep it for himself. Reverently touching the paper to his head, he prayed for the opportunity to study with Nyala Pema Dündul and placed the paper on the shrine.
He grabbed the musket leaning against the outside temple wall as he left, wanting to walk to the master but knowing that his father demanded he hunt. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he wandered alone. When he came to the edge of a cliff, he decided to rest and quickly fell asleep. As soon as he had dozed off, a voice like an ominous echo called for him by name. He felt as though he were falling into a hole with dark clouds enveloping and constricting his arms and legs. Whirling flames vaporized the clouds, and stepping out of the inferno was the most terrifying figure Sonam Gyalpo had ever seen—the wrathful One-Eyed Protectress of Mantras
the guardian of the innermost Dzogchen teachings. As she had once said to Nyala Pema Dündul:
I have promised to constantly survey and accompany
The yogis of the Great Perfection [Dzogchen] who have manifested
The Natural State of the Primordial Nature.
I am the one who protects the practitioner’s entourage from defects.
And I protect against obstacles that cause discord.
The One-Eyed Protectress captured Sonam Gyalpo with the gaze of her single eye. Her single breast hung low, and a lone, menacing fang dripped scarlet blood. Threatening and naked, she stood on a carpet of mold-ridden, half-decayed corpses. Sonam Gyalpo turned his eyes away from the ferocity. Iron mountains shot up all around, imprisoning him.
“My mandate is not to be taken lightly,” she proclaimed. “Every treasure teaching has its time, place, and revealer.” Sonam Gyalpo had not realized that the parchment scroll he had taken from the stone prayer wall, and then left in the temple, was in fact a map to a treasure teaching hidden in the 8th century by Padmasambhava—and that it was intended for him.
The One-Eyed Protectress grew larger with intimidating wrath, her turquoise-colored disheveled hair blowing in all directions.
“How dare you reject the treasure map I offered to you? I shall devour your heart right now!”
Her fang grew to the size of the universe itself. As the One-Eyed Protectress thrust herself upon Sonam Gyalpo, she sank her fang directly into his heart, nailing him to the mountainside.
Sonam Gyalpo awoke drenched in sweat, looking around for someone, anyone, to help. Each heartbeat caused excruciating pain throughout his body. Stumbling to his feet, he noticed boulders had fallen around him. There, atop one of the boulders, was the same golden scroll that he had discovered earlier and left in the temple. It had once again been delivered to its rightful owner. He clutched the parchment as his own, never wanting to be separated from its blessing. He summoned all of his strength to return to his home, collapsing at the door, unconscious.
Sonam Gyalpo was unable to eat. A constant fever reduced him to skin and bones. Herbal remedies were administered from village healers, and yogis tried to remove the cause of the boy’s sickness by performing fire rituals. Nothing worked. Drolma feared this was the end. A village lama suggested that, just as a wounded deer seeks solitude in which to heal, it would be beneficial for Sonam Gyalpo to move to Chopu Hermitage to recuperate. Drolma took her son there, and a monk nursed him. As his condition improved, one morning Sonam Gyalpo had a vision of Padmasambhava teaching him. Thereafter, his condition improved quickly.
When Sonam Gyalpo returned home after a month, Drolma pleaded with Dargye that their son must be allowed to receive spiritual training. She told her husband about the divination she had performed the first time Sonam Gyalpo had fallen ill. The mendicant’s divination consisted of the same words that Pema Dündul had told Dargye.
“Our boy is meant to practice the Dharma. We owe it to him, and to the many people he will benefit through being a lama,” she pleaded.
Dargye knew he could no longer keep his son bound to a yak herder’s future.
Year of the Water Monkey to the Wood Monkey, 1872–1884
Sonam Gyalpo scurried up the steep path to Kalzang Temple. He felt released from the shackles of his father’s will. His mother followed with the horses, leather saddlebags filled with butter, dried cheese, roasted barley flour, and turnips. These offerings would accompany Drolma’s request of Nyala Pema Dündul to direct her son’s spiritual path.
Watching her teenage son bound ahead of her, Drolma recalled her dream on the night she conceived Sonam Gyalpo. Now she understood.
“May you be cared for now and in all your lives by our buddha from Nyarong, the accomplished master Pema Dündul,” she sang.
They zigzagged their way up the mossy mountain trail to the temple below the massive shiny granite arête, Lhangdrak Peak, towering over the entire valley. Pema Dündul frequented many hermitages and caves during his lifelong wanderings, but it was this peak where he chose to spend nearly a decade in retreat in the Cave of Blazing Expanse of Great Bliss on the mountain’s southeast side. He sustained himself during those years on the water that dripped in his shallow cave and the herbs that grew by the entrance. Pema Dündul’s austerities mirrored those of the 11th-century Tibetan saint Milarepa. The last years of retreat in his cave, Pema Dündul perfected an alchemical practice whereby he ate only wild rhubarb flowers and berries and eventually subsisted by sucking on pebbles to extract the life essence of the substances through yogic exercises, concentration, and mantra, earning him the nickname “The Rock Eater.”
One day in the Iron Monkey year (1860), soon after he had completed nine years of retreat, Pema Dündul was meditating under the cobalt sky near his home village of Khangtseg, which lies below Lhangdrak Peak. Pema Dündul rested his gaze in the space in front of the soaring peak, and soon the sky began to fill with shooting rainbows, one after another. Coils of light sprang in all directions, and a shower of five-colored effervescent spheres of light descended like a spring rain. Scintillating lights continued to arc and swirl as a crash of cymbals and trumpets filled all of Nyarong with hymns of invocation, and a mist of sandalwood fell from the heavens. In a sudden flash, the vision coalesced into a ball of light and dissolved into a grassy knoll below the peak. In the silent wake, Pema Dündul saw thousands of buddhas, enlightened deities, and past saints of India and Tibet dissolve one after another into the hillside.
Pema Dündul wasted no time in securing sponsorship to construct Kalzang Sangye Chöling Temple: Dharma Sanctuary of One Thousand Buddhas of This Fortunate Age on that very spot. He directed the sacred architecture and performed the requisite rituals that accompany temple building. Before digging in the earth, he painted sand mandalas of celestial paradises on the ground, buried in the soil vases filled with medicine and wealth as offerings to the land spirits, and asked for permission from the ruling mountain spirit to build the temple. In exchange for a long-term lease for the entire area from the local spirits, Pema Dündul offered rice wine and burnt food to the spirits, who cannot ingest but can only smell. All rituals were accompanied by a vast array of visualized offerings. For the more unruly animistic forces, he commanded them to support future yogis, and if they dared not heed his directive, they risked being affixed to the monastery’s doorjamb for a few painful lifetimes. The few spirits who refused Pema Dündul’s presence were rounded up in the space of his meditation and buried nine body lengths underground, sealed in a vault with disassembled muskets, dulled knifes, and broken antlers.
A statue of Nyala Pema Dündul at Kalzang Temple.
Kalzang Temple, nestled below Lhangdrak Peak, was founded by
Nyala Pema Dündul in 1860 and later became the seat of Tertön Sogyal.
Sonam Gyalpo and Drolma tied their horses at the stable next to Kalzang Temple. Their humble arrival did not hint at the illustrious spiritual horizon toward which Sonam Gyalpo was striding. Had Pema Dündul announced to the Nyarong public that Sonam Gyalpo was an important reincarnation, the boy would have been ceremonially escorted with incense kilns billowing smoke and long horns blowing to announce his arrival. He would have been placed on a high throne in the temple as villagers and monks prostrated before the boy and offered “the cloth of the gods” silk scarves with folded hands to request him to lead them toward enlightenment. But on this occasion there was no such welcome. Mother and son walked across a courtyard where village children played and stray dogs slept in the morning sunlight. Sonam Gyalpo knew he had arrived at his refuge, in the embrace of a buddha, in the care of Nyala Pema Dündul.
“It has taken only a short time in this life for you to sever the ties to worldly concerns,” Pema Dündul said to his spiritual son, who would now be known simply as Sogyal—meaning “King of Merit.”
“You shall rekindle the fire of your enlightened potential, and if the auspicious conditions ripen, a treasure-house of teachings buried deep in your mind will burst open like a shattered beehive.”
Pema Dündul decided that Sogyal should first study with his heart-son, Lama Sonam Thaye. Theirs was a lineage not of ordained monks living in large monasteries but of lay tantric yogis, untethered by convention, who wandered from hermitage to cave, occasionally stopping in the towns across Tibet. Some lay tantric practitioners lived in the mountains and rambled among the remote sacred sites in Tibet, while others married and raised families, and lived in the village. While monasteries and the vows of an ordained life, such as celibacy and avoiding intoxicants, provide a protective container from the allure of worldly life’s distractions, yogis like Pema Dündul and Sonam Thaye were not bound to imposed hierarchy, nor did they try to avoid provocative situations. Theirs was a river-like yoga, sustaining nonconceptual awareness, whether in meditation, during household duties, or while conducting village ceremonies. The yogi’s awareness, like a mirror, allows whatever object that may present itself to appear perfectly just as it is, without attachment or aversion arising. Sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and emotions can appear without the yogis becoming particularly flustered or flattered; rather, they rest in the awareness of whatever arises.
Pema Dündul was on the move most of his life except when he was in retreat. His itinerant lifestyle reflected the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence, setting up temporary encampments and then moving on before any routine could be established, habits formed, or attachment to places arose. He and his students were a hard-nosed lot, living close to the earth, cloaked in clouds, sustained by the elixir of meditation. Pema Dündul’s demeanor was a manifestation of his beatific realizations; worldly pleasures held no lure. Wherever he went, white-robed, long-haired hermits and meditators gathered around him like bees following the bloom of mountain flowers. Yogis sat in the meadows, outside cliffside caves, or in large nomad tents and listened to Pema Dündul’s teachings on the methods to unveil their buddha nature. Pema Dündul often sang spontaneous songs of realization and recited poems. His words were like a chisel at his students’ solidified self-centeredness.