The Timeless Guru

in Article
Published on: 27 July 2019

Dasho Karma Ura

Dasho Karma Ura, PhD, is an alumni of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi; the Magdalen College, Oxford University; and the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the president of Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies located in Thimphu, Bhutan, and was bestowed the honour of Druk Khorlo (Wheel of Dragon Kingdom) by His Majesty the King for his contributions to literature and fine arts.

Keynote Address by Dasho Karma Ura at the conference on the Life and Legacy of Guru Padmasambhava, India International Centre, Centre for Escalation of Peace, New Delhi, January 29–30, 2019.

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The streams of cultural exchange between the Himalayas and India—in particular, between Tibet and India—that began with the guru of Odiyana, Shantarakshita (725–88 CE) of Zahor and the Tibetan emperor Trisong Detsen (742–800 CE) are being recalled at the India International Centre today. Their profound vision has played out for over 12 centuries. For renewing this profound trans-empire and trans-cultural vision and putting together this conference, I would like to thank the Centre for Escalation of Peace (CEP) and its chairman, Arun Kapoor. Dialogues of this variety are valued differently among nations and their people, because they are independent of the perspective of seeing others and oneself in terms of national security and strategic interests. This conference will delineate a much longer and richer perception of the whole Himalayan region.

The CEP has created meritorious circumstances for all of us to pay homage to Guru Padmasambhava, who was born, according to the historian Kunga Nyingpo (alias Jonang Taranatha, 1575–1634 CE), during the reign of King Devapala of Magadha. The Bhutanese participants are grateful for this occasion and to be able to join luminaries consisting of Rinpoches, geshes, meditators, scholars, film-makers, teachers, journalists, historians, painters as well as other speakers and the distinguished audience, for this two-day conference. I want to respectfully recognize the highly reputed lama and bestselling writer, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, and a fellow Bhutanese lama, Neten Chokling Rinpoche, for illuminating this gathering with their presence. Neten Chokling Rinpoche’s previous incarnations go back to Terton Chokgyur Lingpa (1829–70 CE) and Prince Murub Tsenpo, son of Emperor Trisong Detsen. History seems circular in this respect; it is possible to see and hear a person from the 8th century even today. I also want to respectfully recognize Tsugla Rinpoche Samten Dorji, the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan, Hungtrampa Sey Namkha Dorji, Khenpo Pema and Khenpo Lobsang Tsultrim Bhutia for being present among us.

Guru Padmasambhava is known as duesum sangay, the ‘Buddha of three times’; ku-sum-kun due, the embodiment of the three kayas; rtsa-sum kun due, the embodiment of lama (root deity), yidam (meditation deity) and khandro (dakini); and as kusum yermed, the indivisible three kayas. So, it is exceptionally challenging for me, an ordinary person—a thamelpa—to discuss the guru. If I were not a Bhutanese citizen of the last Vajrayana Kingdom, I would hesitate to give the keynote speech. As it so happens, Bhutan is the only country with Vajrayana as its state religion. This has continued since the guru’s repeated travels to Bhutan brought Vajrayana Buddhism to the country. I must emphasize the guru’s introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan, because Buddhism, in general, had obviously existed centuries earlier, as indicated by Emperor Songtsen Gampo’s temples at Bumthang (Jamba Lhakhang) and Paro (Kyichu Lhakhang). According to Bhutanese terma literature, the guru came to Bhutan at the royal invitation of King Sindharaza of Mon. [1] His first visit is estimated to have been in the mid-8th century, although my own estimation, considering the confirmed dates of the construction of Samye Monastery, points to the guru arriving a little later than that, but much before the construction of Samye. During the guru’s second visit, he delivered instructions on the practice of the eight Heruka Sadhanas to the king and his retinue at Na-thang (now Nabji) in the Tongsa district of Bhutan.[2]

At the end of all major public speeches in parliament and on national days, His Revered Majesty the king of Bhutan invariably expresses his gratitude to Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of the country and, above all, to Guru Rinpoche, to invoke his blessings for the country and its people. In the noble way of His Revered Majesty, may we also seek the blessings of Guru Rinpoche at the beginning of this auspicious event, held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relationship between Bhutan and India—two different countries who have nevertheless found many mutually beneficial causes to work on, found appreciation for each other’s histories and values, and been sensitive to each other’s long-term interests. In fact, the terma-based history of Bhutan begins with the guru negotiating peace between Sindharaza, the king of Mon (Bhutan), and Naoche, an Indian king. This spiritually-charged conflict resolution in the mid-8th century was a symbolic prelude to the lasting peace between the two countries, excluding a few armed conflicts with the British imperial forces.

The northerly journey of Buddhism
The northward journey of Buddhism is largely attributed to Padmasambhava. The guru travelled across North India and the Himalayas in the mid-8th century. These were remarkable times, both politically and artistically. Tantrism flourished in Kathmandu, which had been founded by 723 CE. Kashmir was ruled by Lalitaditya Muktapida (724–61 CE).[3] Kashmiri Shaivism, which drew on Kaula Trika practices, also influenced certain aspects of tantric Buddhism. These practices were later refined by the phenomenologist and aesthetician Abhinavagupta (975–1025 CE). By 750 CE, the Palas ruled eastern India, and the Gurjara-Pratiharas-ruled northern India. At the same time, temples devoted to Lord Jagannath were founded in Puri by Adi Shankaracharya,[4] a great contemporary of the guru. Shankaracharya’s actions had major consequences for both Hinduism and Buddhism in India. The extensive Kamarupa Kingdom, the Tibetan Empire under the Pugyal dynasty, the Kingdom of Nepal under the Licchavi dynasty, the Maru Kingdom in Himachal Pradesh, the Mon Kingdom (the name used for Bhutan in older texts), and many other kingdoms populated the landscape.

In the midst of numerous political dynasties, a Pala king, Gopala I (r. 750–70 CE) established a Buddhist monastery in Otandapuri, and his successor, appropriately named Dharmapala (r. 770–810 CE), established one in Vikramasila. Both Otandapuri and Vikramasila, along with Nalanda, were part of a network of five mahaviharas. Shantarakshita, an abbot of Nalanda, was an advisor to Emperor Trisong Detsen before the guru. Furthermore, tantric practices also existed outside of these Buddhist centres of learning. As Wayman mentioned, tantra pre-existed in substance before the word was used. ‘Guhyasamajatantra was the first Tantra to be called a Tantra, and it first circulated in the Eastern side of India, in a country called Vanga, later Bengal.’[5] Out of the creative churning of Buddhism and tantra in early medieval India, the guru catalysed the transmission of tantric Buddhism to the Himalayas, in general, and Tibet in particular. Beyond Tibet, Indian tantrism had been already introduced to the Tang dynasty in China (618–907 CE), becoming more popular in the 8th century after the arrival of Indian masters Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra.[6]

In its Vajrayana form, Buddhism includes the nine yanas, introduced in the post-imperial and post-guru period. In retrospect, the most important change in the imperial period of Tibet, from 618 CE to 842 CE, was the import of Buddhism, a completely foreign religion, from India, and its establishment as the state religion in 792 CE.[7] But the process was not without its challenges. Debates between Chinese and Buddhist views on enlightenment were held in Samye in 792 CE. Debates between representatives of Bon and Buddhism were also held there.[8] But in the end, not only was a foreign religion implanted but, as Ronald Davidson remarked, ‘Tibet eventually displaced India itself as the perceived source for ideal Buddhist study and practice . . . ’[9]

But what does the conversion of a nation to tantric Buddhism mean? It means, to quote Mathew Kapstein, ‘...the gradual transformation of cosmological frameworks, of rituals, intellectual, and bureaucratic practices, and of the historical and mythical narratives...’[10] It means bringing about a reorientation of the popular consciousness itself.

The emergence of Tibet as the reference point for Buddhism, after a brief fragmentation from 842­–1000 CE, continued with the further import of Buddhist teachings from various other countries,[11] but mostly from India.[12] Thus, the perpetuation of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet and the Himalayas due to its initial diffusion as the state religion while it gradually phased away in India is the first reason to celebrate the guru. As the popular biographer of Kublai Khan, John Man, put it, ‘Tibet was to become the chief inheritor of Indian Buddhism’.[13] Kublai Khan’s relationship with Tibet in the 13th century, through his Sakya Imperial Preceptor Drogon Phagpa Lodro Gyeltshen, had controversial consequences in the 20th century. However, let me summarize this section by stressing that the northward diffusion of Buddhism centred around Tibet has been sustained in Mongolia, parts of China and, most indestructibly, in the entirety of the eastern Himalayas.

There is a lively revival of interest in Buddhism in other places as well, but we can hardly predict if this interest will grow in the future. With the exception of Bhutan, the official patronage of Vajrayana Buddhism is unlikely, although historically, the march of Buddhism has continued with benign state support. However, the teachings of Buddha speak more and more to the hyper-realistic technological world. Modern technological society is pierced with what Baudrillard called ‘hyper-reality’,[14] where what is real and what is false is becoming increasingly difficult to perceive, but seizes moment-to-moment unstable attention. There lies an everyday challenge related to Buddhism’s primary ontological question of what is real, which the speakers, here, will answer with contemporary relevance.

Choekay, the language of diffusion
I would like to emphasize that the northerly diffusion of Buddhism could not have taken place without a monumental number of translations carried out by the guru and other translators. In what later come to be known as early or ancient transmission (ngagyur nyingma during tenpa ngadar)—as opposed to middle diffusion (tenpa bardar) and later diffusion (tenpa chidar)—texts from India and Nepal were translated in the Samye scriptorium or translation centre by 108 Tibetan translators and, supposedly, 108 Indian pandits. Teachings on these texts were diffused by the guru and his 25 closest disciples.[15] Though an overwhelming number of texts were translated from Sanskrit, texts were also translated from the languages of Udiyana, Zahor, Kashmir, Singala and China.[16] 

Padma Kathang, the terma biography of the guru that was revealed by Ugyen Lingpa (1323–60 CE), lists various sutras and tantras translated into Choekay at Samye—a process that took 13 long years.[17] The translation itself was preceded by sending young Tibetans to India to train in philological and linguistic studies. But there also seem to have been a large number of Indians employed in translation at Samye. According to the Padma Kathang, the guru’s translation team in Samye included many Indian-sounding names like Danasila, Jinamitra, Silendrabodhi, Pravarta, Dharmasila, Surendra, Dharmasri and Sakrasri.[18] The act of translation was not only textual; the culture behind the texts was also being translated. Therefore, even today, the translation of key official, scientific, literary and vernacular writings of a society warrants deep official support. The task of translation is often outsourced to third-rate consultants today, resulting in serious practical implications, such as conceptual incoherence.

The stability of Choekay as the literary language of Tibet and the Himalayas is attributed to the lexicography and style followed in the translations at Samye under the guidance of the guru. Matthew Kapstein has noted that the ‘the archaic literary Tibetan known from Dunhuang, the old royal inscriptions, and other early sources, gradually falls out of use...’,[19] but the style of Choekay found in the guru’s translations is understood perfectly even today. This is not always the case with the evolution of languages, where what is written 1200 years ago can only to be read and interpreted by specialists.

In the course of time, the portability of the texts translated into classical Choekay not only led to the dissemination of literacy and the thoughts and practices mentioned in those texts, but to the percolation of Choekay into all the major languages and dialects of the Himalayas as well. We find evidence of the linguistic borrowing from Choekay in many western, central and eastern Bodish languages as well as in non-Bodish languages like Tshangla,[20] a major language of eastern Bhutan and the Pemako region of Arunachal Pradesh. Many nouns referring to spiritual and phenomenological concepts as well as linguistic designations in theology, philosophy and rituals are shared across numerous tongues of the Himalayas, providing a common currency and becoming a shared artefact across the region. If it were not for British colonization, we would be having this conference, today, in Choekay or some dialect of Hindi.

It was not only Choekay, the literary language of the Himalayas, that was affected by this process of translation. The translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit has had a profound influence on other major languages. For example, over a period of a thousand years, from the 2nd to the 12th century, the translation of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit, a phonogram language, into Chinese, a logogram language, resulted in enormous lexical additions to medieval Chinese, and influenced the semantics and syntax of the language. At least 35,000 new words have entered Chinese on this account.[21]

Impact on literature, arts and architecture
Let me now turn briefly to the impact of the guru on literature, arts and architecture. The building of Samye between 775–79 CE—supposedly modelled on Bihar’s Odantapuri—and its consecration by the guru was a major landmark. Its layout depicted the cosmogram of the Indian world system with Mount Meru in the middle. Samye has been renovated several times, including once during the reign of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso,[22] who was Bhutanese through paternal descent. Not much is known about the original design of Samye. However, even the original structure seems to have included Indian architecture on the third floor, Chinese architecture on the second floor and Tibetan architecture on the ground floor, expressing cross-cultural synthesis and, perhaps, political compromise on the part of Emperor Trisong. Samye, which literally means ‘the inconceivable’, was hitherto unimaginable not only due to its creative architecture, but also because it was designed as an imperial scriptorium or library, housing Buddhist texts and Sanskrit originals.

People have built monuments on countless sites attributed to the guru. Public spaces like temples and chortens have distinctive functions and act as counterpoints to conventional human activities. People circumambulate them contemplatively and attempt to break normal discursive thinking, foregoing their daily preoccupations. Not only are they places of prostration and circumambulation, they also attempt to reconfigure our consciousness, however briefly, by integrating body, mind and sound through simultaneous chanting, circumambulating and prostrating. Samye, built by the guru, did the same. Boudhanath, in Kathmandu, is another stupa built by the guru. It illustrates the tenacious power of a Vajrayana space to foster alternative concentration arising from re-empowering mind, body and sound, and thus the awareness of Being,[23] even though a monument like Boudhanath is in the middle of a commercialized space.

The last major region-wide impact of Guru Rinpoche is on the arts, seen in the great literature of the 12th century like the Kathang Denga[24] and the Padma Thangyik by Ugyen Lingpa (1323–60/74 CE). Revealed by Ugyen Lingpa, additional critical works such as Bumdenga, Phalpoche, Langkar Shekpai Do, Konchog Tsekpa, and Tengezingi Do are attributed to the guru himself. Many other types of terma literature, ter chos (cycles of teaching), philosophies, poetry, hagiographies and guides to hidden places have been spawned over the centuries, after the first burst of terma literature during the collapse of the Tibetan Empire. The guru’s inspiration to reveal and compose terma literature has been felt far and wide. In Bhutan, Longchenpa, the great terton Pemalingpa (1450–1521 CE) and Terton Ratna Lingpa (1403–78 CE) produced new terma teaching cycles, while in Sikkim, great Vidyadharas like Lhatsun Namkha Jigme (1597–1653 CE) produced their own cycles of teaching.

Among Padmasambhava’s impact on the arts are dance forms specific to the guru. One such example is the ‘Guru Tshengyed’,[25] first designed as a dance by Guru Choewang (1212–70 CE). The guru’s eight manifestations were first described in Ugyen Lingpa’s Padma Kathang. Dances like the ‘Drametse Ngacham’, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, evolved in Bhutan from pure visions about the guru.

Early paintings and statues of the guru depict him and his consorts in fewer ornaments and simple clothes. The accelerating trend has been to incorporate colourful brocade in the paintings, thus making the images seem like adverts for silk factories. The most misleading aspect of these trends is the draping of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal in medieval Kashmiri-style clothes, complete with corresponding hairstyle and tiara. Paintings of not only Guru Padmasambhava, but of his 25 closest disciples and their emanations; the different manifestations of the guru according to the ‘Sampa Lhundrup’, composed or revealed by Katok Rigzin Tsewang Norbu (1698–1755 CE); and the ‘Soldep Barche Lamsel’, revealed by Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa (1829­–70 CE) have led to diversified images of the guru in various different postures.

But nothing in the arts compares in scope and popularity to the iconography of Guru Pema Jungne, usually depicted with Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal alongside him. Other consorts are not included, perhaps due to the original Tibetan painter’s preference for Indo-Tibetan-centric iconographers and theologians. What we notice in the iconography is that the measurements applied to Buddha are also applied to the guru, but the heavy folds, heavy dresses, hats and ritual objects differ radically to represent tantric Buddhism.

In my humble opinion, representations of the guru, particularly in iconographic, symbolic and abstract paintings, support or facilitate visualisation, which a realistic painting cannot do because of its huge tonal variations and lack of boundaries between patches of colour. The meditative visualisation of the body of the guru is not just for the so-called generation stage; meditative visualization is a mimetic exercise to increase cognitive capacity for the non-linguistic graphing of images in colour. The capacity for generating colour and forms in topographical detail, it seems to me, is underdeveloped in human beings. Beyond perceiving something and recognizing it when we see it, our visualization skills are limited. Rather, we are extraordinarily developed linguistically, but that also seems to make us biased towards discursive thinking. However, let me put aside the discussion of the relationship between imagery outside an iconography and the imagery inside our mind and body through our perception of external imagery. I would like to stress that meditative visualization, in combination with breath-withholding (under technically correct methods) to slow down one’s breathing rate and heartbeat, is often part of meditation. 

Syncretism and regional inclusiveness
We can visualise the guru as syncretistic and inclusivist in several ways. As regards syncretism, let me give you four instances. Firstly, the guru selectively absorbed tantras and dharanas from other traditions in India. This was part of the creative mutual influence between Buddhism and Hinduism from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards. As Wayman pointed out, ‘The Buddhist Tantra is deeply indebted to certain later Upanishads, which were probably composed in the main form about the 1st century BC to the beginning of the Gupta period.’[26] Tantric practices were originally kept secret but became more accessible in the 8th century, the period when the guru diffused tantric Buddhism. 

Secondly, syncretism was part of the long-term effects the guru produced through his introduction of Vajrayana Buddhism in the Himalayas. Vajrayana Buddhism was accessible and open enough to absorb practices and techniques from Bon, animistic rites and other native beliefs. Notwithstanding the narrative of oppositional but friendly debate between Bon and Buddhism in the imperial courts of Trisong, Ralpachen and Langdarma, many Bon and local folk practices thrived alongside Vajrayana Buddhism. Rituals about the path towards enlightenment, longevity and prosperity, crop and livestock health, and fear and anxiety, were incorporated into Buddhism, which provided practical help to the people. The guru certainly seemed to have appreciated the value of some Bon texts. To quote the Padma Kathang, during the translation process in Samye, ‘The Bon doctrine, and the texts on calculations and medicine were translated by Vairotsana into mixed languages, and also the Sutras and Mantras... Vairotsana wrote down the version of the Mantras, and the versions of the Bon texts.’[27] According to the Padma Kathang, even math texts were translated: ‘Indra and Vairotsana wrote down the version of the mathematical texts.’[28] Incidentally, I am pleased to say that a child-monk from Bhutan has been recognized as an emanation of Vairotsana. I have personally witnessed precocious behaviour from the child-monk, not at all expected of a kid that age.

The third example relates to the honouring of local deities known as jigten dregpai lha or jigtenpai lha, protectors of local places and beliefs. Their acceptance and perpetuation, in my view, was not an accident, but the guru’s appreciation of diversity as a key value for contextual solutions. Hundreds of local Tibetan deities—the twelve goddesses of the Buddhist doctrine, Genyen Chingkarwa, Tsi’u Marpo, Nyenchen Tanglha of the Nyenchen Tanglha range, Gangwaszangpo, Yarlha Shampo of Yarlung and Genyen Kulhakhari of Lokha—were all turned into benign deities by the guru. Tshongtshong, Thinley Taktsey, Keybu Lungtsan, Terdag Zora Rakey of Singye Dzong, Mongkhapa of Gomokora and Tsenchen Jagpa Melen of Thimphu are protective earth deities in Bhutan who are directly associated with the guru. Yulha Jo bo ‘bolha and Pholha Masang Chungdue, straddling both Bhutan and Sikkim, are also associated with the guru. Many of the relatively well-known local deities across the Himalayas, though not their ritual and cultural functions, have been documented by Nebesky-Wojkowitz.[29] With regard to these traditional deities, it is the local rites that are distinctive and add true value to their identities and relational importance to their local ecologies. In the case of Bhutan, we have collected more information on the population of local deities and their interaction with, and positive impacts on, micro-ecologies.[30] Such ecologies associated with earth deities and treasure-protectors (terdags and neydags) contribute positively to fungal proliferations and micro-kingdoms of plants and animals. Thus, through the coexistence of human beings, nature and culture in the Himalayas, the pacification of the societies touched by the guru probably enhanced biodiversity.

The diffusion of Buddhism, especially the Nyingma tradition, seems to have allowed pluralistic and polycentric practices to continue. I should add a cautionary note that Buddhist scholarship and practices tend to consider late Buddhism to be the only culture the society has, leading to recent discouragement of other ancient indigenous rituals, performances and narratives. When such uninformed, monolithic views are combined with authoritarian bureaucracy, this leads to the loss of valuable forms of culture.

The fourth and the last example draws on Yoshiro Imaeda’s textual analysis[31] of the widespread funeral rites in the Bar Do Thos Drol by Karma Lingpa (1326–86 CE). The process and stages of dying and the philosophical view of death are major distinguishing features of any tradition, and Vajrayana Buddhism’s understanding of it has much to offer. For Western readers, a glimpse of the relationship between bodily death and consciousness and concepts of subtle mind and energy in Vajrayana, is explored in many books, including Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness with the Dalai Lama by Francisco Varela. But to come back to my argument on the openness of the guru’s legacy to local beliefs, Imaeda shows that the Mitrugpa (Akshobhya) funeral rites of Tibet and Bhutan follow the Ngan song sbyong ba (i.e., sarvadurgati parisodhanatantra) ritual of the Indian master Buddhaguhya, a contemporary of the guru. However, this ritual does not include the practice of ritual performers directly addressing the deceased, nor that of having an animal killed to guide the deceased into the next life. The idea of the deceased being guided by an animal, sacrificed when a person died, was an indigenous or pre-Buddhist practice of Tibet. Animal sacrifice on the occasion of a person’s death had ceased due to Buddhist influence, but the idea of guiding the individual during his or her intermediate existence or bardo survived in the Bar Do Thos Drol. Thus, in the case of the Bar Do Thos Drol, Buddhism was Tibetanized while Tibet was Buddhicized at the same time. Either way, syncretism, seen here manifested in the work of Karma Lingpa, seems to be a feature of the guru’s legacy. 

Regarding inclusiveness, let me mention two examples. Firstly, inclusivity led to the emergence of Buddhist luminaries outside India. Until the advent of the guru, there were no Himalayan counterparts to such classical Indian figures as the ‘six ornaments’, the ‘two extraordinaire’,[32] the 16 arhats or the 84 mahasiddhas. It was the guru’s 25 closest disciples who formed the first glorious set of scholars and practitioners from the Himalayas. Not all 25 disciples were Tibetan. One of his disciples was a Mongol called Sogpo Lhapel, and one of the first five monks ordained by Shantarakshita was Ebag the Uigur.[33] The emanations of the 25 disciples, especially after the 12th century, began to populate and regenerate a particular layer of the spiritual world of the Himalayas. They all absorbed local influences into their works.

The guru himself searched for teachers across the region, such as Prabhahasti of Kashmir and Humkara in Nepal, both Vidyadharas of the Kagye cycle and both products of Nalanda. Some of the guru’s main teachers were Manjushrimitra from Udiyana; Shri Singha Palge Dorji, from Khotan in Central Asia, who studied as a monk in Wutai Shan before meeting Manjushrimitra; Shantigarbha; Buddhaguhya, the author of Nyan Song Drolba; Dhana Sanskrita; Rombuguhya Devachandra; Mahavajra, and so forth.

The second feature of the guru’s inclusivism was the incorporation of individuals of various sexes, backgrounds and occupations. Female disciples and consorts of the guru were from Nepal, Tibet, Mon (Bhutan) and Vanga (Bengal). Among his international consorts, Karchen Yeshe Tsogyal (757–817 CE) and Mandarava of Vanga are popular, but Tashi Khidren, the daughter of King Hamray of Mon, is prominent in the biography of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal. In her biography, it is fascinating to note the guru’s ability to bring together people of different backgrounds in the quest for enlightenment. For example, the guru instructed Yeshe Tsogyal to fetch a young man named Acharya Saleh from Kathmandu as her meditation partner. She then travelled, negotiated and paid a pouch of gold dust to a local king to free Saleh, and brought him all the way from Kathmandu to practice with her in Singye Dzong and Paro Taktshang in Bhutan.[34] If not for the guru, no one would imagine that a young man with a Yemeni-sounding name—Saleh—would trek from the extreme east to the extreme west of Bhutan in the 8th century. After the guru left Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal returned to Bhutan for the last time to hide physical ters in various parts of the country. Thus, the gender difference within his translators, disciples and consorts gave a decidedly cosmopolitan and feminine breadth to his followers.

With respect to including people of all backgrounds, the knowledge transmitted by the guru and Shantarakshita was relevant not just for monks but lay practitioners (known as gomchens or ngagpas) as well, making it possible for farmers and householders of both sexes to be non-celibate practitioners. This can be regarded as a major social innovation. Such non-celibate priests or tantric adepts are identified by external emblems like earrings, topknots and pendants. Two features are important enough to be mentioned here. The first is their long, matted hair, as opposed to the shaven heads of monks. Shaven hair indicates the renouncing of sex, while long hair, which the guru also displays, symbolizes the control and channelling of sex.[35] Secondly, gomchens wear white lower garments along with khamar, a long, white shawl bordered with red, in contrast to the maroon lower garment and shawl of the monks. It is important to note that the white garment of a gomchen symbolizes the wind and channels exercises for generating heat—namely bde drod (inner blissful heat) or gtumo’I bde drod (fierce blissful heat). White shawls bordered with red denote the inseparability of method and wisdom.[36] Once again, one can surmise that the practice of breathing provides a quicker path to certain attainments, i.e., continual heat generation for personal well-being, the nyurlam of Nyingma for tantric adepts, etc.

Peace, security and hidden lands
The concept of personal or individual well-being is extended further to ecologies and communities in the concept of hidden lands. A holistic concept of peace and security must meet both external and internal conditions of peace. When such conditions are met, the concept of peace is consistent with happiness. It is tempting to surmise that external peace, which is the absence of overt conflicts, was relatively and historically low in hidden lands. The Himalayan societies that the guru travelled through were not part of large empires, leaving them free from large-scale organized military conflicts in the first place. They were probably tribal and nomadic societies, for the most part, managed by native leadership. 

But when external conflicts take place, the task of peacemaking takes precedence for every leader, including spiritual ones. Peacemaking and conflict prevention are considered one of the ten virtues in the ‘Demoen’[37] or ‘Sukhavati’ prayers, rendered by all schools of Vajrayana Buddhism, and written by the astonishingly lyrical poet and monk, Karma Chagme (1613–78 CE). It is appropriate for us to remind ourselves, given that this conference is held by the Centre for Escalation of Peace, that the guru also played the role of peacemaker. With respect to Bhutan, peacemaking and mediation out of court have not completely died out as a major form of local leadership. A survey by the National Legal Institute of Bhutan[38] shows that 15,316 out of a total of 36,250 disputes in 2016 were settled out of court. ‘It is better to lose in the village than win in court,’ goes a saying.[39] It would indeed seem to be so in incensing cases such as the ones described in Anita Gets Bail by Arun Shourie, where the judiciary’s adjudication can become, in India or any other country, another kind of samsara. In fact, mediation by local leaders is the main legal tradition, with the shift towards other forms of mediation occurring slowly as the centralized legal adjudication system imposes unaffordable costs and delays.

By definition, the concept of living in a hidden land includes both external and internal peace. In the periods of conflict connected to the disintegration of the Tibetan Empire as well as to Mongol invasions, many places once visited and blessed by the guru came to be valorized as hidden lands. For example, when Tibet faced the rising menace of Mongol invasion, the omniscient Longchenpa (1308–63 CE) came to Bhutan, triggered by a miraculous sign he saw in the sky from the guru. Longchenpa noted in his poem (written in 1355) that ‘the doors to the precious hidden land of the region...will be soon unlocked.’[40]

‘By the time Longchen came to Bumthang, great tertons like Nyangrel Nima Yoser (1124­–92 CE), Guru Choewang (1212–70 CE), Terton Sherab Membar (1267–1326? CE), and Phajo Drukgom Zhigpo (1179–1246 CE) had either visited or lived in the country. Others giants like Thangtong Gyalpo (1385–1464 CE), Ratna Lingpa (1403–78 CE), Pema Lingpa (1450–1526 CE) were to live here after Longchen.’ They considered it (Bhutan) a hidden land where the quest for peace, security, and liberation could be realized, but which also revealed physical and mental treasures.[41] 

Hidden lands as environmental spaces ‘are ascribed a very high or positive ontological value.’[42] The esoteric perception of such hidden lands consisted of various capabilities: to hide ter, duly protected by the guardians of ter; to harbour esoteric beings; and to accelerate the quest for realization for its faithful practitioners.[43] Such places were not only relatively hidden from large-scale overt conflicts, but they had physical ters hidden in them by Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal and other contemporaries of the guru.

Lastly, they were biodiverse, which made living there less demanding and working there less exacting. Many ecologically sensitive spots in the Himalayas are associated with mountain hermitages and the guru’s retreats. These places were pacified by them. This meant that these places had the power to pacify human beings and bring them peace; where they took time off to meditate and breathe, lose their constructed identities and dissolve their anxieties.

Many regions in Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh have their own versions of hidden lands, with communities in search of peace, leisure, tranquillity and longevity.[44] The landscape of Pemako in Arunachal Pradesh is, for example, one of the ultimate hidden lands and a mandala for pilgrimage and inhabitation.[45] Gifts of nature and self-sufficiency supported by the land provide adequate livelihoods and leisure in the hidden lands.

Yet, as Maynard has observed, despite the esoteric narrative, the environmental destruction seen in Pemako has also been observed in other hidden lands pushing for modern infrastructure. The limits that we have to impose on development and infrastructure—which create an ecological footprint bigger than  that of the present generation of people and cause conflict within hidden lands—will emerge as a major challenge in the fragile Himalayas. We have to ask ourselves fundamental questions about whether we consider transfigured hidden lands or so-called developed lands—with airports, roads, hotels and so forth—to be more important, and whether they will lead us towards our intrinsic Buddha-nature. We have observed a gradual conceptual change towards hidden lands even in Bhutan, as the demand for roads to holy sites has led to greater accessibility, making their character as hidden valleys or sites unviable. A recent example in Bhutan includes the rather unthoughtful construction of a motor road to Chumphu in Paro. The ultimate value of the concept of hidden lands is that land can be more than geological and topographical facts in a pure vision. If we consider each patch of the environment to be unlike any other in the universe, then we can see our sacred living landscape as a pure vision, instead of seeing it through the eyes of material reductionism and commercial exploitation. 

Terma literature and tertons
I would like to end this keynote address by touching on terma literature and tertons, given that the terma phenomenon began with the guru. The Nyingma school of Buddhism associated with the guru and his disciples taps into the visions, visionary experiences, subconscious and poetic experiences facilitating liberation. In fact, the Nyingmapas’ journey towards self-discovery through inner experiences, which was less gradualist, more disruptive and less monastic, meant there was less of a boundary between the lay and the monastic, the social and the spiritual, the somatic and the psychic. Most contemporary tertons, especially in Tibet and Kham, have renewed teaching not only in established monasteries but also in far-flung religious encampments and mountain hermitages, in settings that evoke contact with wilderness and pre-modernism. 

Recent works on tertons have shed light on the activities of ter chos production and terma extraction, sometime witnessed by various tertons, especially in contemporary Tibet.[46] In general, whether it is teaching revelation or physical-object revelation, the terma tradition stems from the belief that the guru, Yeshe Tsogyal, Trisong and other contemporaries like Mutri Tsanpo, Namkhai Nyingpo, Vairocana, Nanam Dorji Dudjom and Nub Sangye Yeshe hid sacred objects or spiritual teachings in the minds of the tertons. Further, the guru left prophecies regarding the time of revelation and the people who would reveal them.[47] An incredible amount of terma literature is ultimately credited to Yeshe Tsogyal—the person who originally wrote and hid them. As noted in her biography by her contemporaries—Namkhai Nyingpo and Gyalwa Jangchub—the teachings she received from the guru, as well as what she realized from her own visionary experiences, were due to the incredible and indelible power of memory that she gained at the end of her spiritual education in Singye Dzong in Bhutan. As Sarah Jacoby alludes in her book on Sera Khandro (1892–1940 CE), this mnemonic power must have grown out of the abnormal activity of encoding a large amount of information.[48] Yeshe Tsogyal has since then been the forerunner of all tertons and enlightenment seekers—not just men, but also women like Sera Khandro and Tare Lhamo (1948–2002 CE).[49]

In the contemporary period, the two most important revealers to emerge were Khenpo Jigme Phuntsho (1934–2003 CE) and Khenpo A-Chos. Terrone furthers lists Drub Wang Lungtog Gyeltshen, Orgyen Kusum Lingpa, Tashi Gyeltshen, Dechen Ösel Dorji, Terton Lhagyal, Khangsar Tenpai Wangchuk, Thuden Dorji, Rinzin Nyima, Tara Lhamo (1938–2002 CE), Namtrul Jigme Phuntshog, Terton Lhatsho, and Khandro Tare Lhamo as important tertons in contemporary Tibet.[50] Terrone brings us up-to-date on the sociological and political compulsion behind tertons and ter revelations to renew our faith in response to a particular political environment in contemporary Tibet. In India, Drimed Namkha Rinpoche is a well-known Nyingma lama who has revealed mind treasures. But there are many others whom I have not mentioned due to the time limit. There is a bewildering connection between these tertons and the guru’s closest disciples on the one hand, and the religious revival in Tibet fueled by these charismatic religious leaders who revitalized Vajrayana Buddhism in various ways. Their mystical access to the guru’s teachings makes the guru, and his closest disciples seem close to them and available anytime to their followers outside time.

Concluding Remarks
To conclude, asking which legacy of the guru is of contemporary relevance is to ask what Vajrayana Buddhism can offer today, in the world of globalization and hyper-reality. As the speakers in this conference will demonstrate, Vajrayana Buddhism is also about seeking, to quote Geoffrey Samuel, ‘a state of pure vision and seeing the world in its true nature, that of the Dharmakaya, within which bodhicitta, the altruistic motivation of the Buddhahood … is the central motive force.’ Dharmakaya is alternatively defined as ‘the state of pure cessation of all proliferation of phenomena’.[51] The Dharmakaya, the true nature of the enlightened mind of an awakened being, is known as rang bzhin gyi rig pa (pristine natural awareness) in Vajrayana literature.[52] Padmasambhava remains ‘The Timeless Guru’, as relevant in the future as he has been in the past, wherever human beings realize that they have the potential to raise themselves to pure vision.


dharana: The initial step of deep concentrative meditation, where the object being focused upon is held in the mind, without the consciousness wavering from it. 

geshe: A Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monks and nuns. The degree is emphasized primarily by the Gelug lineage, but is also awarded in the Sakya and Bön traditions.

Kagye: The Eight Great Sadhana Teachings—the term Kagye refers to the eight sets of Mahayoga teachings or transmissions entrusted to Padmasambhava and to the eight vidyadharas of India.

kaya: The Sanskrit word kaya literally means ‘body’ but can also signify dimension, field or basis. This term designates the different manifestations or dimensions of a Buddha.

khandro: A type of sacred female spirit in Vajrayana Buddhism and the term can also be applied to human women with a certain amount of spiritual development.

kun zhi:  In the Dzogchen tradition in Tibetan Buddhism, kun zhi is the ground, or the basis of consciousness. It is an essential component of the Dzogchen tradition for both the Bonpo and the Nyingmapa. Knowledge of this ‘ground’ is called rig pa.

mahasiddha: A siddha is an individual who, through the practice of sadhana, attains the realization of siddhis, psychic and spiritual abilities and powers. Mahasiddhas were practitioners of yoga and tantra, or tantrics. Their historical influence throughout the Indian subcontinent and the Himalayas was vast and they reached mythic proportions as codified in their songs of realization and hagiographies, or namtars, many of which have been preserved in the Tibetan Buddhist canon. The Mahasiddhas are the founders of Vajrayana traditions and lineages such as Dzogchen and Mahamudra.

mahavihara: The Sanskrit and Pali term for a great vihara (Buddhist monastery). It is used to describe a monastic complex of viharas. According to Tibetan sources, five great mahaviharas stood out during the Pala period: Vikramashila, the premier university of the era; Nalanda, past its prime but still illustrious, Somapura, Odantapurā, and Jaggadala.

rig pa: In the Dzogchen tradition, rig pa is the knowledge of the ground—knowing the original wakefulness that is personal experience.

terma: Spiritual treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal in the earth and in the minds of disciples, to be revealed at the appropriate time by ‘treasure revealers’ or tertons.

terton: A revealer of terma hidden by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal for the benefit of future generations.

vidyadhara: Knowledge-holder or awareness-holder. Vidyadharas refers to a group of supernatural beings, in Indian religions, who possess magical powers.

yana: Vehicle that carries one, along the spiritual path, to one’s final destination. Within the Nyingma tradition, the full spectrum of spiritual paths is divided into nine yanas, a system of practice bringing together all the approaches of the Buddha’s teaching into a single comprehensive path to enlightenment.



[1] rdo rje rgyal mtshan, rnam thar dang gnas yig thor bu phyogs bsgrigs blo gsal me long.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Hughes, ‘The Life Stories of Padmasambhava and their Significance for Tibetan Buddhists.’

[4] Khilnani, Incarnations, 76­–88.

[5] Wayman, Yoga of the Guhyasamājatantra, ix.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] The story is, however, more complicated than this simple narrative. Buddhism had already spread in Central Asia, China and Tibet. When the empire collapsed in 842 CE, with the death of Darma Udum-tsen or Langdarma (803–42 CE), Buddhism was also stifled due to the presence of anti-Buddhist movements. For two years, from 845–46 CE, a similar anti-Buddhist sentiment swept through China under the Tang emperor Wuzong (841–46 CE). See Benn, Lori and Robson, Buddhist Monasticism in East Asia; Walter, Buddhism and Empire.

[8] rgyal ba byang chub and nam kha’i snying po, mkha’’gro ye shes mtsho rgyal gyi rnam thar, 147–65.

[9] Davidson, Tibetan Renaissance¸ ix; Buswell and Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 55.

[10] Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism, 65.

[11] Buswell and Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 62.

[12] Evidence that Buddhism did not enter Tibet solely from India is found in the Dunhuang Library Cave, which was closed in the early 11th century. We might recall that Buddhism was already widespread along the Silk Route, and there were Khotanese, Turkish, Tibetan, Indian and Chinese monks travelling and studying in places like Dunhuang. See van Schaik, ‘Oral Teachings and Written Text,’ 185.

[13] Man, Kublai Khan, 172.

[14] Chuang, ‘Tibetan Buddhism, Symbolism, and Communication Implications in the (Post)modern World.’

[15] They transmitted both sutra and tantra, covering do tshenyi thegpa and nangjued de sum.

[16] Hughes, ‘The Life Stories of Padmasambhava and their Significance for Tibetan Buddhists.’

[17] Yeshe Tsogyal, The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, 502–18.

[18] Ibid., 503–09.

[19] Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism, 1–20.

[20] Also called Shachobi kha or Sharchop, this vernacular is the lingua franca of eastern Bhutan. It is not classified under any other Tibeto-Burman language.

[21] Xing, ‘Buddhist Impact on Chinese Language,’ 221–41.

[22] Aris, Hidden Treasures and Secret Lives.

[23] Skora, ‘A Day in the Life of an Aesthetic Tantrika.’

[24] Kathang Denga is composed of ryal po bka’ thang, btsun mo bka’ thang, blon po bka’ thang, lo paN bka’ thang, and lha ’dre bka’ thang.

[25] Guru Tshengyed or the Eight Manifestations of Guru are shA kya seng ge, blo ldan mchod sred, pad ma sam baH ba, pad ma rgyal po, nyi ma ’od zer, tsho skyes rdo rje, seng ge sgra sgrogs, and rdo rje gro lod.

[26] Wayman, Yoga of the Guhyasamājatantra, 52.

[27] Yeshe Tsogyal, The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, 504.

[28] Ibid., 505.

[29] Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons of Tibet.

[30] Karma Ura, Deities, Archers, and Planners in the Era of Decentralization.

[31] Imaeda, ‘The Bar do thos grol, or “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”’.

[32] The six ornaments are known as rgyan drug and the two extraordinaire are known as mchog gnyis. The six ornaments are Nagarjuna (150–250 CE), Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga (480–540 CE), and Dharmakirti (600–60 CE). The two extraordinaire are Nagarjuna and Asanga.

[33] Yeshe Tsogyal, The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, 471.

[34] rgyal ba byang chub and nam kha’i snying po, mkha’’gro ye shes mtsho rgyal gyi rnam thar, 82, 113, 116.

[35] Terrone, ‘Bya rog prog zhu, the Raven Crest.’

[36] Ibid.

[37] In Demoen it is written as ’khon pa bsdum dang zhi ’dul drang por smra/ don dang ldan pa’i gtam brjod ’dod pa chung/ byams dang snying rje sgom zhing chos la spyod/ dge ba de rnams kun la yi rang ngo/

[38] Windischgrätz, ‘Dispute Settlement in a Changing Society.’

[39] Ibid.

[40] Karma Ura, Longchen’s Forests of Poetry and Rivers of Composition in Bhutan, 80. 

[41] Ibid., 17.

[42] Maynard, ‘An Examination of the Relationship between the Religious Heritage and the Natural Environment of the Tibetan Buddhist Hidden Land Called Pemakö.’

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] The process of ter extraction involves identifying and locating ter nay, ter kha and ter go.

[47] Terrone, ‘Bya rog prog zhu, the Raven Crest.’

[48] Jacoby, Love and Liberation.

[49] Terrone, ‘Bya rog prog zhu, the Raven Crest.’

[50] Ibid.

[51] Varela, Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying, 127.

[52] This particular rig pa should be distinguished from basic pristine awareness (gzhi’I rig pa) and effulgent awareness (rtsal gyi rig pa). All three types of rig pa (rang bzhin gyi rig pa, gzhi’I rig pa, rtsal gyi rig pa) are contrasted with kun zhi.



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