The Legacy of Guru Padmasambhava in the Dissemination of Buddhism in Sikkim

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Published on: 02 September 2019

Thupten Tenzing

Thupten Tenzing is a senior research officer at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. In collaboration with an institutional researcher, he translated the Life of Guru Padmasambhava which was published by the Namgyal Institute. For many years, he has been in charge of the Museum and has worked and interacted with scholars and bureaucrats from diverse fields.

Buddhism was introduced to Sikkim in the form of termas or hidden teachings. The teachings prophesied that certain Buddhist masters would discover these ‘treasures’ in the very locations where they had been concealed by Guru Padmasambhava. Therefore, Sikkim is also known as the land of terma. To explain how termas reached Sikkim, we must explore the history of Buddhism in the region, which has been divided into three periods: early, middle and later.

Early Period
In the early period, when Avalokiteshvara’s compassionate aspects manifested themselves and blessed the land of Tibet, his prophetic instructions (Phagpa kai lung) foretold that the hidden land of Sikkim would become a centre of pilgrimage for Buddhists. Three centuries later, the Hindu god Indra came to the summit of Mount Gangchen Zodnga (Kanchenjunga) with his retinue and announced the ‘opening’ of this holy land. This was followed by the arrival of Avalokiteshvara’s five emanations, who named the hidden land through their secret prophecies (Gabtsi kyi Lung).

In the eighth century, Guru Padmasambhava, along with Shantarakshita, Vimalamitra, Chogyal Trisong Detsen, Yeshe Tsogyal and 25 disciples, visited Tashiding, where a number of texts and religious treasures—including a wish-fulfilling jewel once offered to King Indrabodhi by the nagini Zedenma—were concealed for the benefit of future travellers. Padmasambhava blessed this spot as a great centre of pilgrimage. In order to remove all obstacles to this holy site, the guru laid down the unmistakable nine cycles of prophecy (Trulme degui lung). Trisong Detsen, Yeshe Tsogyal, Pema Gungtsen and the other disciples laid down seven core prophecies that were essential to enter the hidden land of Sikkim. These were concealed in Zang zang lha dag and later discovered by Rigdzin Godem as the sublime terma or the Northern Treasures.[1]

In the prophetical works ascribed to Guru Padmasambhava, Sikkim is regarded as the most sacred centre of pilgrimage and a place of meditation and dharmic practice. According to the Lama Gongdu terma cycle,[2] when Padmasambhava came to this region in the eighth century, he concealed a great number of major and minor terma texts and religious objects. These were to be discovered by tertons—‘treasure-seekers’ who were predestined to reveal these hidden texts.[3] Terma teachings presented to Vairocana and Yeshe Tsogyal at Dakar Tashiding on the wrathful mind or sadhana (Thugdub dragpo) were hidden here.[4] Similarly, termas on the evils of smoking (Thama kha’i nyemigi) were later discovered by Rigdzin Dudul Dorje in the year of the wood rabbit (1639) at the Khado Sangphug Cave in Southern Sikkim.[5] The guru even left messages in the scriptures, assuring the people of Sikkim that these hidden treasures would bring the region happiness during times of calamity, when the five impurities of desire, anger, delusion, pride and envy were destroying the dharmic way of life.

He then brought the harmful spirits of the land under his control, making them guardians of the terma treasures and the protectors of dharma. The Yabse Lamyig[6] states that these spirits were bound by oath to safeguard the dharma of the region. They allowed only the virtuous to enter the land. The principal guardian deities—Gangchen Zodnga in the north, Pawo Hungri in the central region and Yabdu or Mahakala in the south—not only protected the dharma but also blessed the land with good harvests and timely rain and prevented natural calamities.[7]

The works of Dorje Dechen Lingpa (1876–1928) state:

This hidden land of Sikkim, where formerly even the Buddhas would not have dared to set foot was surrounded by forest and rocky terrain which was difficult to pass through. It was the home for apes, wild animals, cave demons, dreadful Nagas, and evil spirits where not even a single human species lived. It was then visited by Padmasambhava. He blessed these terrifying and dangerous places of deep recess, steep rocky formation, impassable trail, empty caves, a dwelling place of demon and vampire as a centre of meditation and spiritual practice by converting the harmful sprits inhabiting these landscapes into the protectors of Dharma.

Five regions to the east, west, north and south of Sikkim were transformed into ‘Buddha fields’ or pure realms of supreme realisation. Whoever went there on a pilgrimage attained the position of vidyadhara or knowledge bearer (Rigzin gyi gophang).[8] Thus, among these five regions, three valleys and approximately 20 mountains became points of entry to Sikkim as well as sanctuaries blessed by Guru Rinpoche. When misfortune struck Tibet after 500 years, Sikkim became a place of refuge for Buddhists.[9]

On reaching the centre of the hidden land—Dakar Tashiding—from Samye, Guru Rinpoche blessed the entire region, noting that it was inseparable from his own pure land of Zangdok Palri. He designated Sikkim as the second highest of the realms of Akanishtha (literally translating to ‘above all’) and showered it with praises, calling it the ‘land of bounty’ and the ‘heavenly realm of dakinis (a sacred female spirit)’ or Khachopel gyi Demojong. He blessed the four great caves situated in the four cardinal directions—Sharchog Beyphug in the east, Khado Sangphug in the south, Nub Dechenphug in the west and Jang Lhari Nyingphug in the north. He also blessed the caves belonging to the deities of the nine successive vehicles of enlightenment, 109 caves where divine feats could be performed and 109 sacred lakes of the eight mahayoga deities (Dubpa kagye). While giving a sermon on the Lama Gongdu terma cycle in Tashiding, he told his retinue that Sikkim was the embodiment of the land of Sukhavati, the blissful buddha field of the bodhisattva Amitabha. The Dejong Neyik, a guide book to Sikkim’s sacred locations, attests to Guru Rinpoche’s belief that Lama Gongdu was meant for the well-being of the people of the region, and that whosoever meditated and undertook practices based on these texts would attain enlightenment in a short period of time.

Middle Period
The middle period is marked by the arrival of tertons like Rigdzin Godem (1337–1408) and Kathog Yeshe Bumpa in Sikkim. Diffusing the Buddhist dharma, they established hermitages for meditative contemplation across the land. Rigdzin Godem, who discovered the Northern Treasures, came to Sikkim through the northern gate in the year of the water ox (1373). At the age of 37, he began his journey to Sikkim with nine members of his entourage. After passing through Chorten Nyima and five smaller frontier localities, he reached the hidden land of Sikkim.

Rigdzin Godem is believed to be the first Tibetan high lama to visit Sikkim, where he discovered sacred sites and spiritual treasures, including a text called The Prophetic Mirror of Sikkim (Dejong lungten salwe melonig). In the cave of Zodnga Kyungtsang, he discovered many termas, along with a wrathful figure of Guru Rinpoche.

Guru Padmasambhava prophesied the arrival of Rigdzin Godem in a terma discovered by the fourteenth-century terton, Zangpo Dagpa. It revealed that a person with a mole and a vulture’s feather on his forehead would arrive in the year of the water ox. According to the Gange Chugyun,[10] Rigdzin Godem opened the door to this hidden land and, after subduing all the harmful spirits, entrusted them with safeguarding the termas. He then tied a letter to a vulture’s neck and sent it to Tibet to inform them about the existence of this holy place. This is corroborated by the biography of Jangdag Ngag gi Wangpo, written by the fifth Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. From the year of the water ox to the year of the iron monkey (1380), Rigdzin Godem spent almost eight years visiting the holy sites of Sikkim.[11]

Soon afterwards, a number of terma revealers arrived in Sikkim. Among those who arrived were the three supreme incarnate beings (Chogi tulku namsum), the five terton kings (Terton gyalpo nga), the 11 great lingpas (Lingpa chuchig), a 100 great tertons and a 1000 minor tertons.[12] According to Rigzin Godem’s own terma, Zabmo thug kyi demig:

In this holy place, there will appear a number of monasteries and sacred spots. In this celestial realm of Dakinis, there will arrive fifty types of being who have attained freedom from the effects of the four elements, seventy-five Yogis in their illusory form who have gained Mahamudra of supreme attainment, hundred and twenty-one male and female saints having control over their Yogic power and thirty Dakinis of Guru’s emanation. They all will come for the benefit of sentient beings.

The text Lungten Kagyama (The Command Seal of Prophecies) says:

There will appear in this land the powerful Yogis who are blessed, the best of which are like Padmasambhava himself, the middle like his emanation and the last like his emanation of the second degree. They will open the door to this hidden land and work for the welfare of the beings.[13]

In the fourteenth century, Rigdzin Godem built Sikkim’s first lhakhang (Buddhist temple) at Pawo Hungri. Although he was the first Tibetan lama known to have come to Sikkim, his visit did not result in the establishment of a political entity; only a few minor monasteries, such as the ones at Tashiding and Silnon, were established in West Sikkim.[14] Around the same time, it appears that Nyarong Lama Yeshe Bum also came to Sikkim. This was followed by the arrival of his disciple, Kathogpa Sonam Gyaltsen.[15] After passing through the hidden land he reached Paro, where he established a monastic centre at Taktsang. Rigdzin Godem’s second incarnation, Legden Zhab, came to Sikkim in 1568 and discovered the terma text called the Swirling Nectar of Longevity (Tshedub dutsi kyilwe chokhor) in the Lhari Nyingphug Cave. Besides this, he also brought to light the cycle of teaching that relates the peaceful and fearsome aspects of Manjushri and Vajrapani (Jampel zhidag Chagdor gyi chokor).[16] As an indication of his discoveries, a number of auspicious signs appeared in the Lhari Nyingphug Cave and its neighbouring areas. During this period, the royal line of the Minyak king, Gye Bumsa, gradually came to settle in Sikkim. However, as the Vajrayana doctrine had not been fully established, its teachings and practices were not emphasised.[17]

Later Period
As predicted by Guru Rinpoche, the seventeenth century saw the arrival of four Buddhist masters. This event was known as Naljor Chezhi. The earliest to arrive was Kathog Rigzin Chenpo, who entered the land from the western gate through the Singalila Pass. He founded the Kathog Monastery at Yuksam, of which only ruins remains today. Near the ruins is the Kathog Lake, said to have been created by the master for ritual use. Besides a passing reference in the works of Lhatsun Chenpo, written records of Kathog Rigzin Chenpo are unavailable.

He was followed by Ngadag Sempa Chenpo Phuntshog Rigzin, who arrived at Yuksam Norbugang by entering Sikkim through the southern gate in Namchi in the year of the water horse (1642). The same year, he sent an emissary to Gangtok with an invitation for Phuntsog Namgyal, who was predestined to be the first king of Sikkim and wield dual authority over both temporal and spiritual matters. Besides establishing the Tashi Tenka Palace at Yuksam as the royal seat of the Sikkimese monarch, Ngadag Sempa Chenpo Phuntshog Rigzin also founded the Lhakhang Marpo (Red Temple) in 1643. The first mani dungchur (ritual of reciting the mani mantra—‘Om Mani Padme Hum’—100 million times) began at the Lhakhang Marpo in 1646 in accordance with the ritual practice of thugje chenpo khorwa ledol from the terma of Namtse Zhigpo Lingpa. The second recitation took place at Rinchenpung, the third at a place called Betos kyi Karma Dolzom, while the fourth and fifth rounds of recitation were conducted at Tashiding. At present, mani dungchur is observed during the festival of Bumchu, which takes place in the Chogyal Lhakhang at Tashiding during the first month of the Tibetan calendar. Other institutions that were founded by Ngadag Sempa Chenpo Phuntshog Rigzin include the Zilnon Monastery in 1659, the Tashi Gelek Monastery at Tashiding in 1643 and the Jampa Lhakhang and shrine of Pehar (also at Tashiding) in 1651. He passed away in 1657 at Tashiding Monastery, where his body remains enshrined in a stupa.[18]  It was Ngadag Sempa Chenpo who brought the Rigzin Dungdub Sadhana of the Three Cycles of the Northern Terma (Jangter dubkor namsum le Rigzin Dungdub) to Tashiding. Nowadays, on the 10th and 15th days of the fifth month of the Tibetan calendar—which coincides with Padmasambhava’s birthday and the passing away of Ngadag Sempa Chenpo—monks of the Tashiding Monastery read through this text.[19]

The third of the four Buddhist masters to arrive was Lhatsun Chenpo. He is considered to have truly consolidated Buddhism in the region. He reached Yuksam on the first day of the 10th month of the year of the fire dog (1646), entering Sikkim through the northern gate via the Dzongri Pass. That same year, all three Buddhist masters assembled at Yuksam Norbugang and officially formalised the installation of Chogyal Phuntshog Namgyal as the first monarch with both spiritual and temporal authority over the kingdom of Sikkim.

In 1647, Lhatsun Chenpo founded the Dubde Monastery. Later, he established the Pemayangtse, Thagtung Rong and Phagmo Rong monasteries. He also built the Tashi Ober Chorten at Yuksam and the Thongwa Rangdol Chorten at Tashiding. Lhatsun Chenpo is most known for discovering a treasured text, Rigzin Sogdub, in the Lhari Nyingphug Cave in 1647. While meditating, he had a vision where he came face to face with the dakini of pure wisdom (Dagpa Yeshe kyi Khadoma). The dakini was holding a small, purple drum that made a beautiful sound. Another dakini on the left was playing a golden flute that rendered the Buddhist dharma into musical tones. He wrote down the meanings of these sounds, forming three chapters of the text—‘Lama Rigzin gyi leu’, ‘Phagmoi lejang zagme dechen gyi leu’ and ‘Kyezog kyi leu’. That same year he had another vision where ritual texts such as the Nectar of Immortality from the Process of Realizing the Attainment of Long Life and the Four Classes of Wrathful Dharanis were transmitted to him. In Thagthung Rong, he had a vision of the deities of long life, resulting in the Expiatory Rituals of the Assembly of Rigzin Lama. In Tashiding, he came face to face with the ‘Vajrayogini of true symbol’ that led to him writing the Nyangyu dorje nyingpoi yangnying.


[1] ཟབ་པ་གཏེར་གྱི་ཕྱོགས་དང་འབྲས་མོ་ལྗོངས་སུ་གཏེར་འབྱིན་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་དང་བཅས་པས་བསྟན་པ་སྤེལ་ཚུལ་ཉུང་གསལ་དུ་བཀོད་པ་བློ་གསར་རེ་སྐོང་བཞུགས་སོ། །མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། , in Bibliotheca Sikkim Himalayica, Series II (Guru Duechen Number Symposium Volume), ed. Tashi Tobden (Gangtok: Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, 1997), 20.

[2] The terma cycle revealed by Terton Sangye Lingpa (1340–96) in 18 volumes of approximately 700 pages each. Lama Gongdu means embodiment of the master's realisation.

[3]Tashi Tsering, ed., མཁའ་སྤྱོད་འབྲས་མོ་ལྗོངས་སུ་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་མའི་ཕྱག་བཞེས་རགས་རིམ་གྱི་སྲོལ་བཏོད་ཚུལ་རབ་གསལ་དྲན་པའི་མེ་ལོང་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་བཞུགས་སོ། མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། ཧི་མ་ལ་ཡའི་ནང་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་པའི་ཆོས་དང་། རྒྱལ་རབས། རིག་གཞུང་གི་ཞིབ་འཇུག་དེབ་ཕྲེང་གསུམ་པ། རྣམ་རྒྱལ་བོད་ཀྱི་ཤེས་རིག་ཉམས་ཞིབ་ཁང་། སྒང་ཏོག ,  (2011), 30.

[4] མཁའ་སྤྱོད་འབྲས་མོ་གཤོངས་གླིང་ཡངས་པར་སྣང་སོག་གོང་གསུམ་གྱི་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་མཆེད་ཚུལ་དང་ཀུན་གཟིགས་ལྔ་པ་ཆེན་པོ་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་སྡེས་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་བསྟན་ལ་ཕྱག་རྗེས་བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ་ཚུལ་འཐོར་བ་བཏུས་པའི་ངོ་མཚར་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་སྐལ་བཟང་ཐར་གླིང་འདྲེན་པའི་ཤིང་རྟ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་བཞུགས་སོ།། མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། (2006), 62–63.

[5] འབྲས་ལྗོངས་གནས་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་མཐོང་གྲོལ་ལམ་བཟང་། ཡེ་ཤེས་དབང་ཕྱུག  (2016), 192.

[6] Ibid., xii.

[7] During the festival of Pang Lhasol, Nesol, a ritual text to appease Gangchen Zodnga, is read, followed by a performance of a warrior dance representing the mask of Gangchen Zodnga. However, the ritual arrangements made inside the monastic shrine provide offerings to all the guardian deities of Sikkim.

[8] སྦས་ཡུལ་འབྲས་མོ་ལྗོངས་འོག་མིན་རྣམ་དག་པདྨ་དྲྭ་བ་ཅན་གྱི་གནས་ཡིག་ལུང་བསྟན་གསོལ་འདེབས་སྨོན་ལམ་གཏེར་སྲུང་གསོལ་མཆོད་བཅས་བཞུགས སྒང་ཏོག་དབེན་ཅན་དགོན་དུ་བཞུགས་པའི་སྤར་ཐུང་ཤོག་ལྡེབ། ༡༡བ༤

[9]རིག་འཛིན་རྒོད་ཀྱི་ལྡེམ་འཕྲུའི་གཏེར་མ་བྱང་གཏེར་གསང་བ་རྨད་བྱུང་གི་ཆ་ལག་ཏུ་གཏོགས་པ་སྦས་ཡུལ་འབྲས་མོ་ལྗོངས་ཀྱི་ལྡེ་མིག་འཕྲུལ་གྱི་དགུ་སྐོར་དག་གོཿ རྩེ་པོ་ཏ་ལའི་དཔེ་ཁོངས་བཞུགས་པ་དེའི་ཤོག་ལྡེབ་དབུ་མེད་བྲིས་མ། ༡བ༡-༡བ༤ བར་ནས་གསལ།

[10] The collected works of the fifth Dalai Lama.

[11] མཁའ་སྤྱོད་འབྲས་མོ་གཤོངས་གླིང་ཡངས་པར་སྣང་སོག་གོང་གསུམ་གྱི་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་མཆེད་ཚུལ་དང་ཀུན་གཟིགས་ལྔ་པ་ཆེན་པོ་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་སྡེས་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་བསྟན་ལ་ཕྱག་རྗེས་བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ་ཚུལ་འཐོར་བ་བཏུས་པའི་ངོ་མཚར་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་སྐལ་བཟང་ཐར་གླིང་འདྲེན་པའི་ཤིང་རྟ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་བཞུགས་སོ།། མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། (2006), 67.

[12] Tashi Tsering, ed., Collected Guides of the Sacred Hidden Land of Sikkim (Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Technology, 2008), 44.

[13] མཁའ་སྤྱོད་འབྲས་མོ་གཤོངས་གླིང་ཡངས་པར་སྣང་སོག་གོང་གསུམ་གྱི་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་མཆེད་ཚུལ་དང་ཀུན་གཟིགས་ལྔ་པ་ཆེན་པོ་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་སྡེས་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་བསྟན་ལ་ཕྱག་རྗེས་བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ་ཚུལ་འཐོར་བ་བཏུས་པའི་ངོ་མཚར་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་སྐལ་བཟང་ཐར་གླིང་འདྲེན་པའི་ཤིང་རྟ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་བཞུགས་སོ།། མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། (2006), 65.

[14] Anna Balikci, Lamas, Shamans and Ancestors: Village Religion in Sikkim, vol. 17 of Brill’s Tibetan Studies Library (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 88.

[15] One of the four principal disciples of Marpa.

[16]མཁའ་སྤྱོད་འབྲས་མོ་གཤོངས་གླིང་ཡངས་པར་སྣང་སོག་གོང་གསུམ་གྱི་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་མཆེད་ཚུལ་དང་ཀུན་གཟིགས་ལྔ་པ་ཆེན་པོ་བློ་བཟང་རྒྱ་མཚོའི་སྡེས་སྔ་འགྱུར་རྙིང་བསྟན་ལ་ཕྱག་རྗེས་བཀའ་དྲིན་ཆེ་ཚུལ་འཐོར་བ་བཏུས་པའི་ངོ་མཚར་རྟོགས་བརྗོད་སྐལ་བཟང་ཐར་གླིང་འདྲེན་པའི་ཤིང་རྟ་ཞེས་བྱ་བ་བཞུགས་སོ།། མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། (2006), 71.

[17] ཟབ་པ་གཏེར་གྱི་ཕྱོགས་དང་འབྲས་མོ་ལྗོངས་སུ་གཏེར་འབྱིན་བརྒྱུད་འཛིན་དང་བཅས་པས་བསྟན་པ་སྤེལ་ཚུལ་ཉུང་གསལ་དུ་བཀོད་པ་བློ་གསར་རེ་སྐོང་བཞུགས་སོ། །མཁན་པོ་ལྷ་ཚེ་རིང་། in Bibliotheca Sikkim Himalayica, Series II (Guru Duechen Number Symposium Volume), ed. Tashi Tobden (Gangtok: Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, 1997), 18–19.

[18] Ibid., 20–26.

[19]འབྲས་ལྗོངས་གནས་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་མཐོང་གྲོལ་ལམ་བཟང་། ཡེ་ཤེས་དབང་ཕྱུག  (2016), 53.