The Impact of Padmasambhava’s Charismatic Teachings on Ladakhi Society and Way of Life

in Article
Published on: 14 August 2019

Nawang Tsering Shakspo

Nawang Tsering Shakspo is the Director of Centre for Research on Ladakh based at Sabu, Leh. Prior to this, he served as the Head of Leh branch of J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages. He has a number of publications to his credit including A History of Buddhism in Ladakh and A Cultural History of Ladakh.

The charismatic teachings and deeds of Guru Padmasambhava have had wide-reaching effects on the followers of Tibetan Buddhism in Ladakh. I would like to start with a quote from Chandra Das’ A Tibetan–English Dictionary:

Pad-ma abun-gna is the Tibetan name of the great master of magic who came into Tibet from India in 860 AD. He was the inventor of much of the Tantric and eclectic mythology of later Buddhism; and he even devised female companions for the Dhyani Bodhisattvas whom he designated, from the analogy of the Shakti in Hinduism, as the yum companion to the yab or Bodhisattava. Throughout Tibet Padma Jung gna may be asserted to be much more popular than Gautama the Buddha; and as Guru Padma, Urgyan Padma, and Lopon Humkara, his votaries are full of belief in his present might and powers of assistance.

It is said that the Buddha himself prophesied the arrival of Padmasambhava. The guru first appeared in the form of a tantric master in the eighth century AD. At the time, King Trisong Detsen, who formally introduced monarchism to Tibet, was desperately looking for a powerful apostle of Buddhism to subdue the religion’s enemies. To accomplish this purpose, the king first invited Shantarakshita, an abbot of Nalanda University, to enforce the Buddha’s teachings in the ‘Land of Snow’. Shantarakshita quickly realised that controlling the enemies of Buddhism was beyond his abilities. Thus, he advised the king that his ambitious goal could only be achieved by inviting the Indian tantric master, Guru Padmasambhava, to Tibet.

Several interpretations regarding the birthplace of Guru Padmasambhava exist. Many scholars believe that the guru was a self-originated personage, i.e., he was not born, but simply ‘appeared’. A popular Ladakhi song states that the birthplace of Padmasambhava was the ancient country of Zahor. According to certain historians, Zahor corresponds to the present-day Indian state of Orissa. It is also said that Zahor was the birthplace of Abbot Shantarakshita, and that he and the guru were not only related but also lived and studied together at Nalanda University. On the other hand, some say that Guru Padmasambhava was born in Tso-Pema or Rewalsar, near the town of Mandi (also referred to as Zahor or Sahor) in Himachal Pradesh. According to local legends, Padmasambhava was born on a lotus petal in Rewalsar’s lake. As a result, Rewalsar has become a centre of pilgrimage for practitioners of the Tibetan form of Vajrayana Buddhism, particularly those belonging to the Nyingmapa and Kagyupa sects. The town has also become a place of residence for many followers of tantric Buddhism. Devotees travel to Rewalsar to visit the auspicious lake as well as a number of temples, holy caves and nunneries.

The third significant interpretation of the birthplace of Guru Padmasambhava refers to a village near the town of Chakdara in the lower Dir district of the Swat valley (in present-day Pakistan). In the past, this area was considered a part of the country of Oddiyana. The Swat valley is close to Taxila, where a large university dedicated to Buddhist learning was constructed. The area is also in close proximity to Kashmir, where, according to historical records, Guru Padmasmbhava lived and studied for five years. Ladakhi historians who specialise in Dard Aryan affairs say that Guru Padmasambhava was a member of the Aryan race. This is based on the assertion that he was born in the Swat valley and possessed the height, crystal-like eyes and fair complexion for which the Dard Aryans are known.

It is said that prior to the penetration of Buddhism into Tibet, there existed a faith with complex religious practices known as Bon. Historian Kacho Sikandar Khan writes that a Bon temple with a statue of Chief Shenrab (the founder of the Bon tradition) was established at Chiktan near Kargil. In Ladakh, along with the prevailing practice of Bon, a local religion, known as Baba Swami, was also prevalent. Gergan Konchok Sonam mentions the existence of the Baba Swami religion in his book The History of Ladakhi Monasteries. Remnants of these religious practices can be seen in many villages of the Indus valley as well as in lower Ladakh on the occasion of Losar (Ladakhi new year). Besides these traditions, various other local socio-religious practices were also widespread, such as the belief that the universe exists in the form of an egg. These beliefs were generally related to the cosmology and mythology of the Bon religion.

In History of Maryul Ladakh, Tashi Rabgias, the renowned historian, sheds light on Guru Padmasambhava’s visit to Ladakh. The guru reached the region via the northern territory of Baltistan, a district of the erstwhile Ladakhi kingdom. Padmasambhava then walked to Skardu, a town near the Swat valley, where he planted his walking stick. From the stick emerged the shoots of apricot trees. With the passage of time, Baltistan, along with lower Ladakh, emerged as producers of the finest quality of apricots, popularly known as ngari-khambu (the fruit of western Tibet). References to Guru Padmasambhava introducing apricots to this area are found predominantly in Ladakhi folk songs. One such example of this is:

The great fruits of our country are apricot and apple.
These are the blessed fruits of Guru Padmasambhava.

From Baltistan, Padmasambhava went on to visit Phokar Zong. There, an impression of the guru’s footprints are found on the ceiling of a cave. Padmasambhava then travelled to Sani, near the Zanskar valley. In an ancient cemetery (known as Dechendal) near Sani, the guru performed a number of mystical feats to subdue hordes of demons, the enemies of Buddhism. On the other side of the mountain is the cave where Guru Nyima Odzer, a manifestation of Padmasambhava, used to meditate. Dechendal and the cave of Guru Nyima Odzer are close to the Kanika stupa at Sani, considered one of the offshoots of the 108 stupas Emperor Ashoka pledged to build in his lifetime.

From Zanskar, Padmasambhava made his way to central Ladakh. On the main road from Leh to Srinagar, 13 kilometres before Nyemo, there is a boulder with a cavity that resembles the shape of a human body. According to a local legend, Padmasambhava was attacked by demons. He clung to the boulder and it gave him protection, leaving an indent of his body on the rock. It is interesting to note that this interpretation has changed since 1962–63, when Sikh lorry drivers began to visit Ladakh. Hearing the Ladakhi people talk about Guru Rinpoche, the Sikhs came to believe that the site was associated with Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism. Thus, a gurudwara known as Pathar Sahib was built in that very area.

Among followers of Tibetan Buddhism, Padmasambhava is known as Ugyen Rinpoche, the precious teacher from Oddiyana. The Ugyen rock, near the village of Sakti, bears another imprint of his body. The guru also left imprints of his sword, his hand and his feet on rocks scattered throughout the area. The Takthok Gompa, also in Sakti village, was constructed on a brick-shaped stone, said to have been cast by Padmasambhava from a nearby mountain. This gompa is the only monastery of the Nyingmapa sect in Ladakh.

In Ladakhi gompas, masked dances are organised to celebrate the charismatic deeds of Guru Padmasambhava. In the festival of the Hemis Gompa, the most impressive dance performed is of the eight manifestations of the guru. In every ‘year of the monkey’, which falls once every 12 years in the Tibetan calendar, thangkas (Tibetan-Buddhist paintings) made of fine Chinese brocade are put on display. The year of the monkey is said to be the birth year of Guru Padmasambhava. To celebrate the guru’s birth, masked dances are also performed at the Chemdey and Takthok monasteries.

In fact, throughout Ladakh, Guru Padmasambhava is prayed to and revered as an omnipresent deity or the second Buddha. His teachings are considered sublime. Community feasts are organised and The Seven Chapters of Prayer or Le’u bDun Ma is chanted by families on a rotation basis on the tenth day of every month. On this occasion, an elderly person from every family in the village assembles at the designated house to read the text. While the text is being read, chang, an alcoholic beverage considered the guru’s drink of choice, is consumed liberally. Le’u bDun Ma is so highly admired that certain ardent devotees of Guru Padmasambhava can chant hundred-page-long prayers from memory without any mistakes.

This prayer is also chanted at tsechus—religious festivals dedicated to Guru Rinpoche. Tsechus are lay gatherings where monks play no role in the proceedings of the ceremony. The benefits of chanting the Le’u bDun Ma include protection from war, disease, famine, difficult journeys, dangerous animals, earthquakes, troublesome demons, robbers, etc. Above all, this prayer shields beings from difficulties in the six realms of existence and rebirth. Offerings to Padmasambhava, known as tsog, are prepared with tsampa (an item of food usually made from barley flour). At the end of the ceremony, the tsog is distributed among the villagers.

Apart from Le’u bDun Ma, readings of the Padma Kathang, one of the biographies of Guru Rinpoche, are also organised at the family level. A senior lay person, well versed in the ceremony and the text, visits the family to lead the prayer. He/she also prepares an area on which seven bowls with items like flowers, incense, a butter lamp, water, etc., are placed. Tsampa and a cup of red tea are placed near the bowls. A statue or a poster of the guru is prominently displayed.

Two groups of four individuals each are chosen to read the text. The ceremony is organised in such a manner that when one group completes a chapter, the other group begins the next chapter immediately, ensuring continuity in the reading of the prayer. The reading begins at dawn and goes on till dusk. It is said that with the commencement of the ceremony, demons or spirits gather to listen to the reading of the holy text. In order to appease them, the women of the family prepare gsur (an offering made by burning food).

Gsur, the food of demons and worldly spirits, is prepared with tsampa, butter and sugar. Subject to the ceremony’s requirements, it can be either white or red in colour. It is a Tibetan-Buddhist belief that when a person dies, his or her spirit remains in an intermediate state between death and rebirth for 49 days. Thus, during this period, the spirit looks for nourishment. The scent of the gsur provides sustenance to spirits and demons. According to the Padma Kathang, in addition to gsur, fat or mutton is also put in the fire as a symbolic way of feeding the demons. An eight century legend states that the inhabitants of the Himalayas used to be barbarians. The killing of animals, under the pretext of satisfying hungry mountain gods and spirits, was widespread. Sacrifices of flesh and blood were also common. In the face of these non-Buddhist activities, Guru Rinpoche introduced the tradition of offering the spirits tea and tsampa dough—both coloured red—instead of flesh and blood.

The chanting of the Vajra Guru mantra (‘Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum’) is a common practice in Ladakh. In certain villages or gompas, special mantra-chanting festivities are organised. Similarly, saying, ‘I swear in the name of the guru’ instead of taking the name of the Buddha is also a common phenomenon.

The sublime teachings of Guru Rinpoche are on their way towards gaining universal acceptance. An organisation in Leh, called Tseshu Tsogspa, organises events where Padmasambhava’s biography is chanted and scholars give talks on the guru’s life and teachings. Finally, a decade ago, a temple known as Zangdok Palri or ‘His Pure Land Paradise’ was constructed. Devotees consider Zangdok Palri the ideal temple to pray to Guru Padmasambhava in order to have one’s wishes granted.