Padmasambhava: Sage of The Himalayas

in Article
Published on: 22 July 2019

Neten Chockling Rinpoche

Neten Chockling Rinpoche is fourth in the line of the great Treasure Revealer Terton Chogyur Lingpa (1829–70). The present Neten Chockling was born in Bhutan in 1973. After having been recognised by the sixteenth Karmapa as the reincarnation of the third Neten Chokling, he was brought to India by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and studied under his guidance. As a director he has to his credit Brilliant Moon: Glimpses of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and is currently directing his third film on Padmasambhava. He is also the author of Padmasambhava: The Great Indian Pandit.

Namaste and my respects to everyone. It is very special that we are gathered here today and talking, at this conference, about the life of Padmasambhava. The life of Padmasambhava is actually very vast. It is difficult to talk about it in a very short period of time, but we have to try. I thought that it is necessary, so there are a few things from the Guru’s life that I will try to talk about. I wrote a few things down so that I do not say unnecessary things in such a limited period of time.

I will start by reciting one of the well-known prayers to Padmasambhava:

          The great Indian pundit whose kindness for Tibet is great,
          The one born from Lotus whose body is beyond birth and death,
          Subduing the rakshasa of the southwest,
          The precious one of the Uddiyana, to you we pray.

So, this prayer explains the whole life of Padmasambhava in brief, but there are many different life stories about Guru Rinpoche. We say that there are over a thousand life stories of Padmasambhava.

Some of the stories were told by the Guru himself, and some of the stories were actually written by his followers. Life stories, like those of Padmasambhava, have to be told in two different ways. One is our ordinary way of storytelling, within our capacity of understanding with our normal, limited human minds. The other way is to go beyond our intellect, which is limited, to understand and tell these stories with an open mind.

According to the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha prophesied Padmasambhava’s appearance 12 years after his passing away. This means that Padmasambhava was already alive for a thousand years in India before he came to Tibet. Things like this are beyond the grasp of our normal intellect, so we have to understand his life with an open mind. Actually, this is not just about Padmasambhava—to understand any spirituality, we have to go beyond our limited minds.

In the 8th century, Trisong Detsen was the ruler of Tibet. He became the king at the young age of 15. Ever since he became the ruler, Trisong Detsen had been fighting wars with the neighbouring tribes (for seven years). When he was 17 years old, he came across the Buddhist scriptures, Witness with a Hundred Prostrations and The Basket’s Display. These two sutras had come into the hands of his ancestor, King Lha Thothori Nyantsen. Through his past karma, Trisong Detsen began to develop an interest in Buddha dharma. He sent his envoy to India to invite Shantarakshita, who was the abbot of the university at Nalanda. The abbot came to Tibet, and he taught the king the sutras, mainly. They had Buddhist temples during Songtsen Gampo’s time—around the 7th century—but the dharma had not taken root in Tibet.

Trisong Detsen realised that for the dharma to flourish in his land, there must be a sangha, a community of practitioners. With this thought in mind, Trisong Detsen wanted to make Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery. He wanted this monastery to be a place where the three jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha—were made the objects of devotion. He started building the Samye Monastery, but the local spirits were not supportive of the king’s wishes. They tried their best to make sure that the monastery was not built. Whatever was built in the daytime, the spirits would destroy in the night. The spirits created diseases and imbalances in the weather and brought suffering to the people, who then started blaming the dharma for their suffering. This led to the people not wanting to be involved, any more, in activities connected to the dharma.

The king felt helpless and hopeless. But Shantarakshita told the king that he should not worry. Just by hearing that, the king was reassured. And then the king asked, ‘What can we do?’  Shantarakshita said, ‘There is this pundit called Padmasambhava, he was born miraculously from the lotus, he is right now in Bodh Gaya, and you must invite him.’

As I said before, Guru Rinpoche has many different versions of his life story, and in some of the stories, he was born miraculously—he just appeared in this world—and in some stories, he is one of the sons of a king. There are many different versions, but, as I said before, we have to understand that he is an enlightened being, his life and legacy is beyond our normal intellect and mind. So for all the Himalayan people, Padmasambhava is known as the ‘one born of a lotus’.

It is said that Padmasambhava appeared in different parts of India at the same time but under different names. All these different manifestations carried out different activities in different places. One day, Padmasambhava visited Bodh Gaya to offer praise to the Buddha. He miraculously manifested many wonderful offerings to the Buddha’s Vajra Seat, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment.

Someone witnessed this and asked Padmasambhava, ‘Who is your teacher?’ In India, a student has to have a lineage, he has to have a teacher, and his teacher has a teacher, and so on—that is his lineage. Padmasambhava told this man that he had no teacher. The man was shocked. He told Padmasambhava, ‘Without an authentic teacher from an authentic lineage, you must be a demon.’ Then Padmasambhava realised that in order to convince and help sentient beings, it was very important to come down to the ordinary level, as well as to have a teacher from a lineage. He then went to different parts of India to study with different teachers—and he had many teachers, both male and female. But the eight Vidyadharas of India were his main teachers. He studied medicine, art, carpentry—basically, he studied many different things.

The seven envoys sent by the Tibetan king Trisong Detsen to Padmasambhava met him in Bodh Gaya. On meeting the seven Tibetans, Padmasambhava knew that it was very important for him to go to Tibet and accepted the invitation. While Padmasambhava was in Nepal, on the way to Tibet, the spirits of Tibet and Nepal started getting nervous and irritated on hearing that Padmasambhava was coming. These spirits caused many obstacles for him on his way to Tibet. He not only subdued them along the way, but also taught them the teachings of Buddha, and made them protectors of the dharma and guardians of its practitioners.

When they first met, the Tibetan king thought that Padmasambhava would pay him homage by prostrating before him. Padmasambhava did not mind prostrating before anyone, but in order to tame the Tibetan king’s ego, to set up an auspicious beginning and to show the king the value and importance of the dharma, he intentionally did not prostrate before the king. Instead, Padmasambhava showed him the subjugating mudra with his fingers, and it burnt the clothes of the Tibetan king. The king and his retinue, seeing the powers of Padmasambhava, prostrated before him instead.

Pandit Shantarakshita, Guru Padmasambhava and the dharma king Trisong Detsen—we call them Khen Lop Choe Sum. The coming together of these three people, especially Padmasambhava, brought about a revolution in Tibet. Some intellectuals jokingly say that the decline of Tibet started after the arrival of Padmasambhava. These people are right from their point of view, since Tibet was a big empire when Padmasambhava first arrived. Slowly, the Tibetans became less and less interested in worldly matters, especially fighting battles to expand their territory. Basically, the Tibetans had no interest in anything that could harm sentient beings. The entire land had adopted the Buddha’s teachings. Padmasambhava brought the teachings of the Buddha and taught them to the people, starting from the king. It was a common sight to see people flying in the sky; going through walls; leaving footprints, handprints and body prints on various rocks and cliffs.

Therefore, the entire land was filled with special beings, and those were the first mahasiddhas. From then till now, there has been a continuous stream of mahasiddhas. All over the Himalayas, you will see signs of these special beings, who had followed the footsteps of Padmasambhava. Even today, there are some hidden mahasiddhas. I myself am fortunate to have met some mahasiddhas in the 21st century, and witnessed their compassion and qualities of the Bodhisattva in them. We have also witnessed some miracles from those masters.

Padmasambhava established all of the Buddha’s teachings, the sutra and the tantra. He categorised the entire teachings of the Buddha into nine yanas. These are the Shravaka yana, the Pratyeka Buddha yana, the Bodhisattva yana, Kriya tantra, Charya tantra, Yoga tantra, Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga.

Padmasambhava invited to Tibet more than 100 pundits from India, including Vimalamitra. He also trained many Tibetans as translators, teaching them Sanskrit so that they could communicate with these Indian pundits. The Indian pundits and Tibetan lotsawas translated not only the teachings of the Buddha, but also the commentaries on them, which were written by the Indian pundits and the mahasiddhas.

The Samye Monastery was successfully completed, and it became the treasure house for the precious teachings of the Buddha. Within the complex of the Samye Monastery, there were different temples and structures. Some areas were used for translation, some were used for meditation, some were used for expounding on the dharma, and some parts were where the monks lived, and there was also a place for the lay male and female practitioners. There were laboratories as well as places where Buddhist texts were translated, copied and stored.

When the Bengali pundit Atisha, who was the abbot of Vikramashila, came to Tibet in the 11th century, he was impressed by the collection of Buddhist texts at the Samye Monastery. He thought that he had seen and studied all the Buddhist texts that ever existed, but there were some texts there that he saw for the first time.

The coming of Buddha dharma was like a sunrise in Tibet. All the teachings of Padmasambhava and the mahapundits have been passed down from teacher to student, an unbroken lineage up until now. We can trace back any of the teachings that we have received straight back to Padmasambhava as well as his own teacher. We do not accept any teachings or practice without them having an authentic lineage.

Padmasambhava’s time in Tibet was the perfect period for the ushering in of the dharma from India because very soon, around the 12th century, the university at Nalanda was going to be destroyed, leading to the ultimate decline of Buddha dharma. Because of Padmasambhava, the entire Himalayan region opened to the teachings of the Buddha, especially Vajrayana. Padmasambhava’s speciality is the terma or the treasure tradition. The treasure tradition is an effective and intelligent way of preserving and propagating teachings, and bringing benefit at the right time. As we all know, time and situations are constantly changing, this is the nature of samsara. There have been great changes from the time of the Buddha until now. Padmasambhava designed the terma system so that teachings could be revealed at the right time. In the Himalayas, from the time of Padmasambhava until now, there have been many changes, but because of the terma system, the teachings have survived and stayed authentic. Padmasambhava’s treasures are not just the teachings. He also created hidden lands called beyuls for the world in its times of need. These hidden lands are where the people can find refuge from war and environmental disasters. Also, Padmasambhava made many prophecies regarding the future. 

He set up and designed everything for the future of sentient beings, but at the same time, whether it works or not will depend on the extent to which we will be able to follow his instructions. It is like getting instructions from a good doctor—it is important to follow the doctor’s full instructions to get good results. The Buddha said, ‘I will show you the path to liberation, but liberation depends upon you.’ Since Padmasambhava came to Tibet until now, sometimes we have followed his instructions well, and sometimes we have not been able to follow his instructions well. Most of us are clearly aware of the results of not following his instructions; and we also know, very clearly, the benefits of following his instructions. For many of us around the world who know and follow in the footsteps of Padmasambhava, he is a father figure. He is someone you can rely on 100 per cent. He is someone who is always there for you. Those things do not stream from blind faith. This faith and confidence in Padmasambhava come from the experience of following his instructions. Padmasambhava himself said, ‘For those who have faith in me, I sleep at your doorsteps.’ This is his promise.

Padmasambhava is not just a spiritual guide, he is also someone who is there for us in our mundane everyday life. There is a prayer by him to dispel all sorts of obstacles in our life. For example, one line in the prayer requests Padmasambhava to help travellers have a safe journey. Even for small matters such as travelling, there is a prayer to him. Similarly, for every problem, he is there for you. This is why he composed this prayer. This is just one example of a prayer, there are many others.

After finishing all his activities in Tibet, Padmasambhava wanted to go to Chamara, the land of the rakshasas. The Tibetans requested Padmasambhava to stay back and guide them, but he told them that he had done everything for them and now it was time for him to go to Chamara to subdue the king, who was going to harm sentient beings—specially the people of our world. As of now, he is still in Chamara, subduing and taming the rakshasas. When he was leaving Tibet, he consoled the Tibetans by saying, ‘There is no need to feel sad. Even though I am not physically in this world, I am always there for you because I am beyond birth and death. If you want to follow me, then practice the dharma.’

Almost everyone in Tibet became a serious practitioner—take the example of a single monastery, Kathok. Within this monastery, there are more than 100,000 practitioners who have achieved the rainbow body. This took place many years after Padmasambhava had left Tibet. Also, in Tharpaling in Bhutan, under the guidance of the great master, Longchenpa, there have been many practitioners who have attained rainbow bodies. So, these are just two examples of monasteries, but there are thousands of them—and not only that, there are hidden practitioners who achieve enlightenment without anyone’s notice.

Achieving the rainbow body is one sign of spiritual accomplishment—the body dissolves into a dharmadhatu, into true nature.  It is like the story of when Padmasambhava went to the land of Odiyana in India. He taught the people there, starting from the king of Odiyana to the lower subjects, and they all became his students. The entire land then became empty because everyone was enlightened and had achieved the rainbow body. Padmasambhava went to many different places to help beings. We are aware of some of the lands that he visited, but there are also places that he visited that we do not know of. What we know for sure is that he visited all the Himalayan regions. It is very clear that he visited those places because their culture, their festivals and their holy places are all connected to Padmasambhava. From the cultural to the spiritual, Padmasambhava is associated with all aspects.

Today, around the world, there are millions who follow in Padmasambhava’s footsteps. He benefits us in many different ways. We will never forget the kindness of the Indian mahapundit called Padmasambhava. It is very auspicious that all of us have gathered here today, and are talking about the life and legacy of Padmasambhava in his own land. And I would like to say thank you to all the organisers for this event, because even though Padmasambhava is very well known in the Himalayan regions and all over the world—all our cultures and spirituality, everything is connected with Guru Padmasambhava—in India, his own birthplace, people only know of his life stories and not his teachings. Knowing the teachings of Padmasambhava is very important, especially for the future sentient beings. So, I think it is very auspicious that all of us have gathered here today and are talking about this. Thank you.