Accidental Encounters With A Badass 8th Century Buddhist Mystic - Atlas Obscura
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Accidental Encounters With A Badass 8th Century Buddhist Mystic

A Bhutanese guide peeks into the main shrine room of the Chagri Monastery, about 10 miles north of Thimphu, Bhutan. Chagri is one of many places where, according to legend, Guru Rinpoche subjugated unruly demons and opponents of the Buddhist teachings. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

Over the course of a dozen years of working and rambling around the Himalaya, I’ve been followed by a certain pair of eyes. They belong to Padmasambhava, the meditating mystic-missionary-magician who brought Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet in the 8th century CE and perhaps best known as Guru Rinpoche.

Like some kind of tantric Tyler Durden, Guru Rinpoche traveled up and down the Himalaya getting into scrapes, setting up shop, leaving durable tales told in hushed tones by the locals wherever he went. From signs of his passing—footprints, buried prophecies, weird landforms—they have built monasteries and markers.

Scholars agree that Guru Rinpoche was a real person, that he came from Uddiyana, a kingdom possibly located around present-day Swat in Pakistan, and that he arrived in Tibet some time around 760. Beyond that, it’s hard to unravel history from legend. His legacy reverberates still—think of the snake-banishing St. Patrick of Ireland, or Britain’s legendary King Arthur, if those heroes were still regarded by the Irish and British as a living presence and personal protector. Travel throughout the region, turn any corner, and, like me, you’ll find some trace of the Guru.

1. Khechopalri Lake, Sikkim, India, November 2003

Guru sighting: Footprint; handprint

Past the reed-walled village homes, around a dirt-smeared old chorten, fifty meters beyond a lone thatched-roof farmhouse, in the middle of the trail, we find the dark boulder. The little monk, who has abandoned the tea shop of the tiny Khechopalri Monastery to serve as my impromptu guide, bends down and rolls aside a small protective stone.

And there it is: the unmistakable imprint of a right foot, anatomically precise, at an odd angle to the ground. Each toe is clearly etched into the boulder; the heel is outlined in white chalk. The farmer, my other guide, points to another knobby boulder a few yards away: a left hand print.

I stand muddy-booted in the misting rain, frowning like a forensic analyst, trying to piece together the sequence of events. Did the Guru take a running start, bank off the first, and then push off the second rock, ratcheting himself upward like some Parkour stuntman? Was this his standard technique for mounting Yeshe Tsogyal, his consort, meditation partner and preferred mode of transport around the Himalaya, whom he transformed into (what else?) a pregnant flying tigress for the purpose? Did he take off to tame recalcitrant demons and hostile pagan bureaucrats in some other far-flung district of neighboring Bhutan or Tibet? Did he know where he was going? Or was he, you know, just winging it, like the rest of us?

The farmer and the monk wave to me and take off back up the trail, back to work. I look around to see if anyone’s watching. I hold up my right foot.

A match. Apparently the Guru was a size 10.5.

2. Reru, Zanskar, India, July 2005

Guru sighting: Terma

It’s a long dusty walk back from Phuktal, the remote monastery in northwest India’s Zanskar Valley, built around a spring that never stops flowing. Phuktal is where monks guard the only extant written records of Zanskar and, some locals say, various terma – certain hidden teachings and prophecies stashed by the Guru for future discovery, like a spiritual Easter Egg hunt unfolding on the scale of millennia. (Many terma were entrusted to Yeshe Tsogyal, who deposited them inside rocks, in tree trunks, at the bottom of lakes, even traced in the sky. Some terma are physical objects such as written texts; others are revealed only in the mind of tertons, reincarnations of the Guru’s original disciples. Some are even places: beyul, “hidden valleys” that only become visible to those prepared to see them.)

So I stop to rest in the quiet village of Reru. There I meet Namgyal, a friendly young Tibetan teacher from Dharamsala, sitting on the steps of his school, strumming his guitar. He likes Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.” He likes the songs written by the Sixth Dalai Lama, a famous romantic lyricist who lived in the 17th century, who partied hard and died young, like any good rocker, in mysterious circumstances.

Namgyal likes Guru Rinpoche, too. “He was drinking much chang,” he says with a grin, referring to the local hooch. Indeed, in most iconography, the Guru holds a skull cup in his left hand – supposedly brimming with sweet nectar, symbolizing the “Ocean of Wisdom” of the dharma teachings. Or is it, as some scholars say, “divine liquor,”a fast-track to enlightenment?

“Go to Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh,” Namgyal says. “There is a lake there called Rewalsar.” Namgyal tells a story you will hear in every remote corner of the Himalaya: Guru Rinpoche was invited by the local king to bind some troublemaking spirits. He obliged, following the tantric practice of not eliminating or suppressing negative forces, but channeling and reorienting their energy toward the purpose of waking everyone up. And who knows? Maybe he drank a little chang while he was there, too. After all, the Guru was perhaps the progenitor of the Tibetan tradition of “crazy wisdom” – outrageous behavior meant to shake ordinary mortals out of their complacent, blinkered sense of what was right, wrong, important.

“You should go,” Namgyal says. “The Guru left footprints there, too.”

3. Urgyen Dzong, Ladakh, India, September 2006

Guru sighting: Caves; landforms

 

Ladakhi students negotiate a narrow ledge to reach Guru Rinpoche’s caves in the remote valley of Urgyen Dzong, near Kargil in Ladakh, India. (Photo:Jonathan Mingle.)

Shit. I am stuck. I am stuck upside down. I am stuck upside down in a cave.

Take a deep breath. “Hey guys, I think I’m stuck.”

“No, acho Jon, you’re fine. Keep going! It’s not far!”

“No, really, I think I’m too big for this cave.”

“No, no, move your arm up above your head. You will fit. You will be fine!”

The author emerging from a tight spot in the caves of Urgyen Dzong. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

I can hear but not see my Ladakhi friends, all high school and college-aged students at a school where I am teaching near Leh, in far northern India. They are earnest and encouraging, perched at the cave’s mouth – but they are wrong. I am not fine. I will not fit. I am stuck. The flat metal taste of panic spreads on my tongue.

After several tries, I manage to rotate my shoulder, compressing my profile enough so I can wriggle backwards and retreat up and out of the tube-shaped fissure. I crawl back into the light and shrug. My friends are clearly disappointed: I am the first of our group of dozens on this carefree picnic excursion to not pass through the dark caves of Urgyen Dzong.

Locals believe this series of caves in western Ladakh—along with the fantastic rock promontories in the twisting narrow gorge that leads to them, shaped into the faces of kings and tutelary deities and ibex and strange creatures—were created by Guru Rinpoche. Ladakhis believe that only the virtuous can pass through these caves out into the light. The sinful get stuck or rebuffed. Their karmic baggage is too bulky.

I’m relieved to be upright, out in the open. But my friend Becky, a teacher at the school and long-time resident of Ladakh, shakes her head and turns me around. “Jon, you have to go through,” she says with a rueful smile. “If you don’t, the students will always say, “Acho (big brother) Jon couldn’t fit, he must be bad!””

She’s right. They will say it half-jokingly, but they will always say it. I feel their eyes on me – following me like surrogates of the Guru’s own unstinting gaze. They are smiling, but wondering, too. The physical passage has become a metaphysical litmus test.

What would the Guru do? He might brush aside such expectations like a layer of fine Ladakh dust. But he was also given to grand gestures, symbolism, showmanship. Damn.

So I head back into the stone maw. Halfway through, I feel the walls closing in, squeezing me. I take a breath. I pop my shoulder, raise my arm above my head, and slide through inch by claustrophobic inch. Soon I am protruding halfway out of the cliff face, birthed into a bright abyss, the valley floor a hundred-foot-drop below.

Two guys are there to catch me by the legs and haul me up onto a juniper ledge in the sun. Everybody cheers.

I have passed into the light.

4. Thimphu, Bhutan, May 2010

Guru sighting: Lost image

 

An intricate rendering of Guru Rinpoche, in his manifestation as Pema Jungne bringing the teachings to Tibet, on a rock face outside of Thimphu, Bhutan. He holds a skull cup of nectar containing the “Ocean of Wisdom” of his teachings - in his left hand. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

“Three aspects of Guru Rinpoche are especially significant!”

The lecture hall full of Bhutanese bureaucrats and aging tourists falls quiet, leans in to hear the old Tibetan master teacher better.

“FACE! Carries us into a state of meditation. GAZE! Penetrates, inspires natural mind. HANDS! Right holds the vajra, symbolizes power of all Buddhas, subjugates obstacles, negativity. Left hand holds cup for healing nectar, purifies illness.”

He passes out photographs of an image, a famous statue of Guru Rinpoche that disappeared in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution. In the photo, the Guru seems more bemused than usual - like he’s been enjoying some chang with the boys, telling some old war stories, connecting with people on whatever level they happen to be on. Vajrayana teachings, I recall, are transmitted not through books, but directly between teacher and student, on secure wavelengths.

That FACE is familiar, though. I think back to all the places I’ve encountered it, without even looking: Pemayangtse, Likir, Hemis, Takthok, Bardan… The wide eyes, unblinking, mischievously, aggressively open, vibrating above a pencil-thin mustache that seems, too, like a provocation.

Those eyes pose a challenge. They call you out. Call you in. They follow you, like those of an old painting on the wall. They say this: I am fully awake. And you? What about you?

5. Takstang, Paro, Bhutan, May, 2010

Guru sighting: Cave; monastery

 

Steps leading to the entrance of Takstang, the “Tiger’s Lair”, the gravity-defying monastery built around a cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated in the Paro Valley of Bhutan, after flying there on the back of a pregnant tigress. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

It’s lunchtime in the Tiger’s Lair. Bhutan’s most famous monastery is closed to visitors. But a monk lets me in anyway, past a group of elderly Korean tourists filing out for the long descent back to their tour bus.

I’ve come mostly for the steep hike, straight up from the valley floor. But it seems like a rare opportunity to have the place all to myself. So I wander and linger.

Takstang, the “tiger’s lair”, is a warren of temples clinging to the face of a 1500-foot, vertical cliff. Its tenure there in the sky seems only slightly less incredible than the way it was founded: by Guru Rinpoche, as Dorjo Trolo – the wrathful flame-spitting form he assumed for smacking down those recalcitrant demons - flying here on the back of his tigress.

He supposedly meditated here for three months (or was it three years?), and then he flew off again to tangle with a stubborn deity named Shelging Karpo in the Bumthang valley to the east, who was vengefully sapping the life force of the local king. After shape-shifting into a bird-like creature, he conquered Shelging Karpo and secured his allegiance. Guru Rinpoche then planted his wooden staff in the ground to close the deal. It became a cypress tree, a gnarled descendant of which still stands.

I duck into the shrine room of the Tiger’s Lair. The spot where the Guru meditated is mostly obscured by a profusion of statues, butter lamps, white scarves. An old image of Guru Rinpoche as one of his eight manifestations - Pema Jungme, his dharma-teaching form, usually depicted sitting on a lotus, clutching a trident, wearing heavy boots as he must have when he visited Tibet - was famous for occasionally speaking out loud to visitors. But it was destroyed in a fire in 1998. Now there is a new, non-speaking replacement, a smaller statue with the familiar brazen face.

I stand there in silence, barely aware of time passing: 10, 20, 30 minutes. Though I know it can’t be – I’m not a mystic, not a Buddhist – the face seems alive. Its gilded features seem to be morphing. The vajra he holds – his primary weapon, symbolizing a thunderbolt – seems loaded like a gun. The air in the room feels charged, the way it does before a thunderstorm. My thoughts tumble.

Finally released from some invisible grip, I turn around. An older monk has been seated on some cushions ever since I entered, rocking gently, thumbing his prayer beads. Now he regards me, under eyebrows slightly raised. He nods with a knowing smile. And I have the electric sense – never had it before, never since – of someone plugging right on in and reading my mind.

The monk slowly extends both hands. He gives me two big thumbs up.

6. Drak Yerpa, Tibet, May, 2011

Guru sighting: Cave; footprints

 

A visitor considers the huge footprint—one of many signs left by Guru Rinpoche— at Drak Yerpa, a holy site and monastery complex an hour’s drive from Lhasa, Tibet. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

The Cultural Revolution wasn’t kind to Drak Yerpa, the monastery complex known as the “spiritual axis” of Lhasa, an hour’s drive outside of the Tibetan capital. Its centerpiece is a steep cliff rising out of a sweeping set of grassy hills, one of was a traditional “sky burial” site, where mourners would leave their loved ones’ remains to be consumed by scavenging birds. Many of the hundreds of cells where monks used to sit in silent retreat were demolished. But some structures have been restored, including the main shrine room.

There I find the Dawa Puk, the Moon Cave, inside a small cleft in the rose-colored rocks - one of the three most important sites where Guru Rinpoche meditated. The dark room contains an altar, and images of the usual wrathful tutelary deities, protector spirits of particular places, schools, teachings. I reach up to the roof, and swab with one finger a bit of soot left deposited by the flames of countless lit butter lamps. I consider the Guru’s footprint etched there in the stone of the cave, rubbed to a shine by centuries of pilgrims, and much bigger than the one I saw eight years ago in Sikkim.

Another cave nearby has an image of the 9th-century monk who assassinated Langdarma, the Buddhism-hating king of Tibet, almost a hundred years after Guru Rinpoche brought the religion here. The assassin’s hat used to be there, but it disappeared during the Cultural Revolution. I ask my guide Chenchup about it, but he shakes his head. He doesn’t know what happened, or doesn’t want to say. (On other subjects, Chenchup is pretty talkative. Of a pyramid-shaped mountain spied the next day on our way toward the Nepal border, he jokes: “It’s name means ‘big penis’!” And when we camp near Everest Base Camp a day later, Chenchup plies me for advice on the girls he hopes to meet some day in New York. His big question: “Do they have a good heart?”)

The next day we stop by Rongbuk Gonpa, at 16,340 feet the highest monastery in the world. Rongbuk is a charming, ramshackle affair, with unsecured boards for steps, rickety railings, beams jutting into the courtyard. In the shrine room at the top of this recently rebuilt monastery sits a new statue of Guru Rinpoche. Like some Himalayan whack-a-mole - from his first arrival in Tibet, when hostile ministers at the court of the king sought to have him murdered by highwaymen on a mountain pass, all the way up to China’s icon-smashing Cultural Revolution - you just can’t keep the Guru down.

7. Padum, Zanskar, India July 2011

Guru sighting: Statue; dream

 

A view of Padum, the main town of the Zanskar region of northwest India. “Padum” is one of the many names used for Guru Rinpoche. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

Over breakfast I tell my old friend Urgain about the dream I had last night: Guru Rinpoche was alive, was speaking to me, not so much in words as through a riot of colors and sound, not unlike the world itself. Urgain – whose name is the Tibetan word for Guru Rinpoche’s birthplace, whose hometown of Padum is another name for Guru Rinpoche himself – listens carefully, gravely. His eyes widen. “This is a very good sign,” he says.

Then he gets up, walks over to a shelf, and pulls down an object wrapped in scarves. He sets it on the table and unveils a foot-high, ornately wrought bronze figure of … Guru Rinpoche. His nephew, a monk in distant Karnataka, had arrived the night before, after an absence of seven years, after traveling for a week by train and bus and jeep the entire north-south length of India. He had brought the figure to Urgain that morning while I slept.

I’ve been meeting the Guru on the road for almost a decade now. Mostly randomly, sometimes seeking him out. Now he has come to me. Like everything about the guy – the myth, the historical figure, the wild psychic forces he represents - it resists understanding.

Urgain and I just look at each other. The little Guru stares straight ahead.

8. Sani, Zanskar, India, July 2012

Cave; statue; prophecy

 

Zanskaris celebrate after the Sani Nasjal festival. Guru Rinpoche’s small meditation cave is halfway up the mountain across the river. It is occasionally still used by hermits and monks in meditation retreat. (Photo: Jonathan Mingle.)

The monastery of Sani, site of continuous worship since the time of Emperor Kanishka in the second century, throws a good party. Every summer, on the last day of the Sani Nasjal festival, eight monks emerge from the inner sanctum into the main courtyard, masked and festooned, as part of the ritual chams dances.

It’s great spectacle. They twirl in sync as the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche: Nyima Odzer, the “light rays of the sun”, Pema Gyalpo, the “conquering prince”, the terrifying Dorje Trolo, who bound demons to uphold the dharma. A legend goes that the valley of Zanskar was once ruled by a one-eyed demoness, until the Guru pinned her to the ground by building temples at her head (Sani), at her heart (Pipiting), and her foot (Tsazar). (The Guru was the Michael Jackson of Himalayan antiquity: there are countless stories of him overwhelming both supernatural and political opposition merely by dropping some sick dance moves on some windswept mountain pass.)

At the end of the festival, revelers spill out onto the bright green fields next to the Stod River. Wandering there among them, I run into a friend named Tanzin. We watch the drunken young men, the families picnicking, the girls strolling arm in arm – a tableau like some mid-summer Midwestern county fair. We gaze up at the mountain rearing above them, toward a small cave – now a hermit’s retreat – where the Guru once meditated.

Guru Rinpoche compared this valley to a “happy cemetery.” This was actually a huge compliment: mystics of his day sought out burial grounds for their contemplative practice, as places well stocked with reminders of impermanence, decay, the folly of holding on. “The trees of the cemetery are the bushes at Sani and the birds there are the vultures thereof. So said Padmasambhava.”

I remind Tanzin that when we first met, he had told me that Guru Rinpoche predicted the plague of locusts that descended on Zanskar in 2006 and 2007, devouring most of the crops. And that in the same ancient scrap of text he had apparently also prescribed a treatment: three cures involving writing on sand, writing on paper, a prayer for wind. “I heard the abbot of Karsha monastery has this terma,” Tanzin said confidently.

Tanzin says the Guru left a small statue of himself, right before he left Zanskar. It was an uncannily accurate image. An 8th-century selfie. I think I’ve seen it. It’s still there in a tiny alley in the Sani monastery, almost forgotten.

Guru Rinpoche even left a caption, too. A note pinned to it that read: “This is like me. So remember.”

And then he took off again.