Vincent Bridges Jan 4, 2007
The Wheel of Time and the Temple of the Cosmos: Padmasambhava, Shambalah and the Kalachakra Tantra
The Lotus Born One and the Lake of the Cosmic Lotus
Sometime after 760 C. E., the King of Tibet, Tsrong-tsong Gompo’s son Tri-Tsrong De-tsen, summoned the semi-mythical Guru Padmasambhava toTibet to combat the magical resistance of the older shamanistic Bon-pos. Buddhism had been brought to Tibet by his mother, Princess Bhrikuti of Nepal, and the King was determined to make it stick. However, the power of the Bon-pos had so far proved irresistible and the new faith made little headway. Santaraksita, the King’s Buddhist advisor, suggested bringing in the help of a real magician, the legendary Lotus-Born One, and so the call went out.
Tradition relates that even in Tri-Tsrong De-tsen’s era, Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Guru Padmasambhava, the Lotus-Born One, was renowned as an incarnation of the Buddha and as an immortal Dharmabeing, one who had attained his imperishable Diamond Body. Born from asacred lotus in the hidden sacred lake of Oddiyana forty years after the Buddha’s paranirvana, Padmasambhava rapidly absorbed all theesoteric influences available and, after a few miracles, left the dust of Oddiyana behind him. Like all mystics, he traveled his own path of enlightenment. And that path eventually brought him to the land of the cosmic blue-light lotus.
Once, a long time ago, according to the ancient Newarri chronicles of Nepal, the valley was a vast lake called the Nag Hrad, or “Tank of Serpents.” The nagas were dragon-serpents who guarded a treasure deep in the lake. A Buddha from a past age tossed a lotus seed into its placid waters, and from this grew an amazing thousand-petalled lotus that shone with the blue light of transcendental wisdom.
Aeons went by. And then, one day, the Bodhisattva Manjusri, a central Asian version of Apollo, who, having heard tales of the lotus and its light, arrived at the lotus lake to contemplate its splendor. He stopped at the edge, and being thwarted by the nagas, found that he could not approach the lotus. However, after consulting with Vajra Yogini, a manifestation of Dolma/Tara the mother goddess, he decided on a radical plan. He would drain the lake, bind the nagas and thereby share the lotus light with everyone.
Seizing the great Sword of Discriminating Wisdom, Manjusri sliced the mountainous rim of the valley in a single stroke, creating a gorge through which the waters of the lake, and its nagas, poured. As the water rushed out, the nagas were caught in a bottomless pit, where, along with their treasure, they remain to this day. The lotus settled to a small mound in the center of the emerging valley, eventually to become the stupa of Swayambunath.
Now, the curious point here is that geology agrees with and supportsthe myth. Roughly 15,000 years ago, an earthquake did in fact drain the vast lake that was Nepal valley, slicing open the rim as neatly as if it had been done with a sword. The lake formed as much as a million years earlier when the Himalayas lurched upward. Therefore for many thousands of years, there was indeed a large, deep lake of placid bluewater surrounded by high, white-topped mountains just as the traditions say. All we are missing is the giant lotus, radiating blue light.
The Newarri chronicles continue in a similar vein, telling tales of gods in human form and of kings with the power of gods and the irinteraction. In this magical era, a single king could rule for a thousand years and temples were endowed with images of the gods who sweated, bled and spoke as they communicated their desires. This sense of a magical reality within a mythological landscape remains strong even today in Nepal.
Buddhism arrived in the valley very early, so early in fact that it became woven into the fabric of its mythological past. During the reign of the semi-legendary Kiratis — whose founder Yalambar fought and died in the epic struggle depicted in the Mahabharata — the Buddha and his disciple Ananda visited the valley. They founded a school in Patan, where the Buddha elevated a family of blacksmiths to goldsmith status and gave them his own clan name, Sakya.
A few centuries later, the great Indian Emperor Ashoka, a convert to Buddhism, made a pilgrimage to the Buddha’s birthplace at Lumbini, in the terai or plain to the south, and then continued on to Katmandu valley. He built and enlarged stupas at Patan and Swayambunath, and his daughter married the local prince, Devapala. This link to the original Indian traditions ensured that Buddhism would survive in Nepal long after it had died out in India.
At the turn of the 4th century CE, the last Kirati king, Gastee, was overwhelmed by an invasion of Rajaput princes from the areas of Biharand Uttar Pradesh in India. The Licchavi princes spread a veneer of Hinduism over the local Buddhism, creating a unique mixture of practical shamanism and sophisticated philosophy. This Nepalese Buddhism owed as much to Rajaput tantra as it did to the teachings of Siddhartha.
Later branches of the Licchavis, the Thakuris, were instrumental in bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Princess Bhrikuti brought some of the Buddha’s relics with her when she married the king of Tibet,Tsrong-tsong Gompo, and eventually converted him. For her devotion, she was identified with Tara, the Tibetan mother goddess.
After this high point, the Thakuri dynasties settled into a kind of semi-mythological Dark Age. An example is the story of King Gunakamadeva. It seems that the god Indra, whose interest in the valley went back to the primordial blue lotus era, assumed human form to observe the Indrajatra festival in his honor. A group of tantric magicians spotted him and bound him with spells until he granted them a boon. Indra’s boon was the wood from a celestial tree, used by the king to construct a large seven-tiered pagoda called the Kasthamandap, or the “Wooden House of Refuge.” From this came Katmandu as time chipped away at the extra syllables.
In these legends, we can see echoes of a primal theme. The Blue Light Lotus is the ancient primal center, dislodged by a catastrophe caused by the Tibetan Sun-God Manjusri. This center is then represented, in the same spot, by a stupa, an arrangement of the elemental shapes in toan “omphallos” like locator stone/tree. This same stupa/pagoda design, seen in the architecture of the original Kasthamandap, can be found throughout Buddhist Asia, from China to Burma. In the original hidden valley of Nepal, the place of refuge was clearly a magically constructed model of the World Tree.
However, long before the Kasthamandap was built, Nepal was a place of sacred pilgrimage. The caves in the south rim of the valley had an ancient history of use by traveling saints and yogis as meditation sites, going back according to legend to the time before the lake was drained. Indra himself was thought to have spent a few aeons contemplating the blue light from a cave high on the south wall of the valley. At some point after the lotus disappeared, a demon, one of the Asuras, occupied the cave. He was still in residence, according to the local tradition, until the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava, who converted him to Buddhism and then occupied his cave for the attainment of his Diamond Imperishable Body.
Exactly when this occurred is obscure. The dating in the Newarrichronicles suggest that Padmasambhava’s retreat occurred during the reign of the last Kirati King, Gastee, in the late third century C.E., but Tibetan sources, such as Yeshe Tsogyal’s biography of Padmasambhava, point to an even earlier date, apparently in the era immediately before Ashoka in the second century B. C. E. Indications in some of Padmasambhava’s teachings, given to Yeshe and others in Tibet, suggest that he was influenced by Rajaput Tantrism, and therefore Buddhist scholars have surmised that he learned his Tantric Buddhism in Nepal between the fifth and seventh centuries C.E. This is much closer in time to his historical appearance in the eighth century in Tibet, and therefore relieves the scholars of the burden of an individual almost a thousand years old when he first appears in the historical record.
Whatever the date when Padmasambhava settled in the Asura Cave, there can be little doubt that something spectacular occurred there as a result of his practices. On the floor of the cave can still be seen the melted rock handprint that was left as a symbol of the attainment of the Diamond Body. The entire hillside – from the riverside Templeto Kali and Durga in the tiny village of Pharping, up the ancient steps past the Vajra-Yogini shrine, and further up the mountain, past the Ganesh shrine where a miraculous image of Tara, the Tibetan mother goddess, is slowly growing outward from the rock, and on past the cross roads village and the Tibetan monastery – is imbued with a sense of light and transformation that is as palpable as the smell of incense and yak-butter lamps.
In front of the cave is a large flat space where one can sit and meditate on the entire range of the White Himalayas, with the peak of Chomolungma, the Mother of the Gods, Mt. Everest, directly opposite to the north. Just to the east of Chomolungma is the White Mountain, Macherma Ri, and just beyond it can be seen the peak of Kangtega. Somewhere in between these two mountains is a real place of refuge blessed by Guru Padmasambhava – the hidden valley of Khembalung.