Vincent Bridges Jan 4, 2007
The Dharma Comes to Tibet: Padmasambhava and the Temple of the Cosmos
The King’s envoy’s found Guru Padmasambhava in retreat near the great cities of the Ganges plain, and intrigued by the King’s entreaties, he agreed to come to Tibet. “In the earth-male-tiger year, on the fifteenth day of the winter midmoon, under the sign of the Pleiades, he set out on his way,” Yeshe Tsogyal’s biography informs us.
The Guru lingered for three months in Nepal, visiting old meditation retreats and hiding termas for future use in caves and temples, until on the first day of the first summer moon, he had a dream in which all the trees of India and Nepal pointed their crest toward Tibet, and all the flowers opened their blossoms. In that moment, we are told, all the wise men of Asia had a vision: the union of the sun and the moon rising over Tibet, the new Dharma refuge in the darkness of the Kali Yuga.
Guru Padmasambhava and his retinue of students and disciples set out over the high mountain passes for Tibet. Just inside Tibet, at Tengboche Monastery in the shadow of Chomolungma, Mt. Everest, he was met by the head of the Bon-pos and challenged to a magical contest. The first one to reach the summit of Chomolungma would be acclaimed as the greatest of all. Padmasambhava accepted, and then retired to his tent for a good night’s sleep. The Bon-po lama, however, had a magic flying drum with which he planned to fly to the summit during the hours of darkness and so reach the top early in the morning, before Padmasambhava had hardly begun.
His students spotted the Bon-po lama flying on his drum in the moonlight and went to awaken the Guru. He responded that there was no cause for alarm, even though the Bon-po was already half way up the mountain, and that they should sleep while they could. Just before dawn, the Guru arose, positioned himself for meditation on the rising sun and waited, deep in trance. As the Bon-po lama, exhausted by his all night drumming flight, slowly circled toward the peak, the first ray of the rising sun pierced the gloom. Guru Padmasambhava mounted the sunray and flew instantly to the top most peaks seating himself on the Throne of Gold and Garnet. Abashed, the Bon-po lama fled, his magic drum tumbling down the mountain.
While seated on the Throne, Guru Padmasambhava looked out to the northeast toward the snowfields of Khumbu. Looking closer he saw a perfect hidden valley, tucked away deep within the surrounding peaks and snowfields. Having the gift of seeing into time, Padmasambhava called upon the gods of the five directions, the Dhyani Buddhas, to hide the valley from the world, and to provide for it all the needs of life. He declared that the hidden valley, Khembalung, would be a refuge for a time in the future when the barbarians of “Hor” would invade the central Asian plateau. He also predicted the names, in Tibetan, of its discoverers and the times in which its existence would be revealed, and hid as a terma a guidebook to its location.
In the fifteenth century, a lama, Padma Lingba, found such a terma guide to the hidden valley, and produced another prophecy of its use as a place of refuge. In 1976, Edwin Bernbaum, an American climber and Tibetan scholar, followed the directions in Padma Lingba guide and with the help of several local Lamas and his Sherpa guides, actually found and entered the outer valley of Khembalung.
“The next morning, when we went exploring, we found an invisible palace in the beautiful forest of pine and rhododendren that filled the valley,” Bernbaum explains, waxing poetic. “We heard the clear voices of birds singing to one another and saw the golden mist rising like smoke off the treetops. In the woods around us, drops of bluish water gleamed like diamonds on necklaces of hanging moss. Passing through corridors of trees, we came to sunlit clearings hung with tapestries of rich brown shadows and emerald leaves, And as we went deeper into the forest, through gaps in the foliage, we glimpsed and felt the presence of a majestic snow peak that seemed to rule over the valley, like the King of Khembalung.”
Guru Padmasambhava came down from Chomolungma after sealing the place of refuge and proceeded toward central Tibet. Along the way, he was met by a delegation from the King, which he awed by first throwing their offered gold to the four winds, and then scooping up a handful of dirt as his prima materia, Guru Padmasambhava transmuted it into gold. These triumphs made even the Bon-po into converts, and Padmasambhava continued on to Samye, where a mandala shaped monastery was under construction. Using his command of the spirit world, Pamasambhava caused Samye chokor, the Dharmachakra, to be built in the grand pattern of the Indian vihara, or plan of the cosmos.
From the spiny ridge to the east of Samye, where a Bon-po temple once stood and Padmasambhava sat in meditation while Samye was built, the complex of temples and chapels surrounded by a flattened ellipse can be seen in all its grandeur, despite over 1,200 years of use and misuse. At night, the river of the galaxy dominates the night sky, stretching at its summer zenith from northwest to southeast, with its bulging center high overhead. The pattern of Samye chokor matches the path of the galaxy in the sky with its satellite chapels or lings, while the main structures including the central Utse Rigsum, form the cardinal cross of the directions. The Utse Rigsum acts as the central omphallos and world tree, and on the outside walls can still be seen vast cosmological murals and depictions of Samye in its glory.
Along that northwest line, the celestial road of the galaxy from Samye, is the holy city of Lhasa. If we think of this axis as the galactic axis, then Samye lies on the edge of the galaxy, with Lhasa at its center. The palace of the King was there, atop the jagged ridge of Marpo Ri, and the most ancient center of Tibetan civilization the Jokang Temple stood nearby. Eventually, the Marpo Ri would become the Potala Palace, and Lhasa itself would become the absolute center of Tibetan life, political and spiritual.
Standing on the roof of the Jokang temple and looking west, back toward Mt Kalias and beyond to the Sphinx 60 degrees of latitude away in Egypt, we note immediately the alignment of two large hills, Chakpo Ri and Bompo Ri, on the due west line. Even the modern work of the Communist Chinese when they rebuilt this avenue follows the ancient path of the alignment straight to the Jokang. In the Serpent’s Cave, on the northeastern side of Chakpo Ri, is a model of Samye, complete with supposedly self-generated stone statutes of the five Buddhas. This repeating pattern of how the cosmos aligns to create time and the meaning of time forms the center of the center, the point from which the Dharma radiates throughout the land.
When his work was finished, Padmasambhava departed Tibet for the Copper Mountains of the southwest. Before he left, he gave a series of predictions and prophecies to his main followers. These included instructions on how to find the termas he left behind, as well as predictions and pointers to the time of the coming destruction: “When the iron bird flies, and houses run on wheels, the Dharma will come to the land of the Red Man. Know, by these signs, that the age of darkness is ending.” He also left instructions for the opening of the hidden valleys, such as Khembalung, and predicted that they would be needed at a time when the demons had been released by the barbarians, and Tibet had fallen to unbelievers in the Dharma.
Such a moment has perhaps arrived. The Dharma is fading in Tibet, even as it is taking root in strange ways in the west. Many Tibetan refugees have indeed fled to protected valleys, such as Nepal, in the fringes of the Himalayas. But Padsambhava left us no further clues on the opening of the hidden valleys, no exact timing on which to hang a date or a time period. While Padmasambhava clearly saw the need for a place of refuge, a science of timing and transformation didn’t arrive in Tibet for another two hundred and fifty years. The Kalachakra, or Wheel of Time, Tantra, introduced in 1027 C.E., brought it with a message from the hidden kingdom of Shambalah.