Monday, March 30, 2015

Finding Phadampa in Bhutan

I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go to Bhutan without first factoring it into their annual budget. It’s pricey to go under a tourist visa, and difficult to get any other kind. I would have gone there 30 years ago if it weren’t for the expense. Now that my trip there is over (maybe now you understand why I’ve been silent here in recent weeks), I still think Bhutan is very much a Pure Land with no blemish getting in the way. That there was one disturbing incident didn’t change my thinking one whit, although it did take the GNH (Gross National Happiness) for that one day down a notch.

One night years ago as an undergraduate I had a dream I was flying in slow motion over Thimphu in a glass aeroplane, gazing down on the city in rapt awe. The first thing in the morning I went to a bookstore and bought a small picture book, one I could scarcely afford at the time, a book about Bhutan by Blanche Olschak that meanwhile got mislaid along the way. Maybe my brother has it.

In Bhutan I was fortunate enough to be able to meet several learned Khenpos (མཁན་པོ་), and to each of them I asked about Phadampa in Bhutan. The only thing they told me was that there is a holy practice cave (སྒྲུབ་ཕུག་) where he meditated together with Machik Labdrön (མ་གཅིག་ལབ་སྒྲོན་). Evenings, confined to some fairly remote resorts, I mostly spent reading a great new book about Bhutanese history by Karma Phuntsho. Believe me, there isn’t much nightlife, and not every room came equipped with a TV (but in case there was one, the BBS news report at 9 p.m. was the highlight of the evening).

Almost every Bhutan traveler (and every Bhutanese, needless to say) ascends the hill to reach the practice cave[s] of Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. Temples were built around the caves, balanced on top of vertigo-inducing cliffs. It requires a whole day, whether you take the ponies part way up or not. The path is quite steep, but I’m here to tell you it is the downhill that kills your legs for days afterward.  

Eventually, after much heavy breathing at nearly 3,000 feet, you reach a small building said to mark the birthplace of Gendun Rinchen, author of the history we’ll mention again, and one of the most prominent Bhutanese scholars of the 20th century.

A little further up, at the top-point of the path (not far from the dip that at long last takes you over to the temples pictured in our frontispiece) is another sign inviting you to climb even higher to reach a side temple where Machik Labdron and Phadampa did their sâdhana practices. I’d been told by several people that this temple, built in front of the practice cave, was situated there, and had determined to go to it.

Roughly translated: “This is the pilgrims' way to the Machik Cave that may be reached in 10 minutes’ time. In the middle of it is a footprint of Machik and her temple. On the right it is the practice cave of Phadampa, while on the left it is the Skygoer’s Secret Cave.”

Unfortunately no photographs are ever permitted inside Bhutanese temples (but if there were no exceptions to this rule, then how can we explain the photographs we do find in some books?). That means I can’t show you the footprint of Machik Labdrön in the upper cave. I also can’t show you her central image in the temple below with a large Phadampa (holding kangling trumpet, and for this reason clearly in his Cutting form) on her left side. Here as elsewhere, you donate your 10 Ngultrum note, bump your head on or touch the base of the holy object, and then receive from the temple custodian a palmful of holy water to sip and wipe over the top of your head. I won’t belittle the faith that goes into these gestures, let alone the resulting blessings, just to say that there is nothing specific to Phadampa involved in it. It could be any saint or holy object, and the identical same things would happen. Also, I imagine Phadampa wouldn’t like it, not that he necessarily ought to have any say in the matter. 

I also felt moved to be in a place popularly connected with Phadampa and I warned our driver (who had climbed up with us, but wasn’t quite as out of breath as I was) that I wanted to try and prostrate. The area was quite small, my body is very long, so there was some reason for concern. In fact, going down for the second time I somehow bumped into a small table behind me holding a mandal set. Not quite the huge disaster it could have been, the world-representing offering called a mandal (not a mandala, mind you) was slightly shaken and half askew. On our way back down the mountainside the driver told me half seriously it would likely have consequences for world peace. My response was that the world had been on the edge of a great war for a whole year now, with none of the credit for it due to me (my usual method of avoiding taking responsibility, I suppose). The whole world should be praying for the peace of the whole world like never before. I’m deadly serious about that.

The temple built in front of a cave associated with Machik Labdrön and Phadampa. It is possible to glimpse it above the waterfall when you look back from the main temples of Taktshang. If you decide to go there, beware! There are no proper railings along the cliff face (only some flimsy wooden railings), and I would advise not looking down before you get past the cliffs.

In Karma Phuntso’s history (pp. 189-190), he gives brief accounts of the prominent Indian Buddhists said to have came to Bhutan in the past. The first is Phadampa and the second is Vanaratna. Vanaratna is associated with several sites in both Paro and Punakha areas. K.P.’s discussion of the two figures is inconclusive, he says their visits “are not found in any contemporary or early sources.” In the case of Phadampa, I can verify this. One searches in vain for Paro and Taktshang in the earliest available sources on Phadampa and the initial members of his lineages. There is a possibility that Phadampa intends Bhutan (which didn't technically exist in his time) when he mentions Mon, but this is far from certain since Mon could be applied to a number of peoples and their territories along the full east-to-west extent of the lands south of the high Himalayan plateau.* Phadampa mentions Mon when he talks about bears who crave honey so much they neglect their cubs.
(*See Karma Phuntso’s discussion at his pp. 2-3, and for the ethnic term as used by Phadampa, look here)

I even tried looking into Gendun Rinchen’s history of Bhutan, thinking since he was born in a place so close to the site of Padampa’s meditation cave, he would at least mention it. I did find a brief discussion of Zhijé at folio 30, but nothing there about a visit to Bhutan.*
(*I take this back, see below.)

That may sound like bad news for Phadampa lovers hoping to find his traces in Bhutan. But there is some very good news to tell as well. Phadampa has been quite a popular figure in Bhutan, and one sign of this is that a few extremely valuable collections connected with his earliest Zhijé teachings have been preserved there. Some of these have been made available recently by the British Library's Endangered Archives project, under which Karma Phuntsho himself supervised the filming work in Bhutanese monasteries in recent years. See this article about the project in the Bhutan Observer, and for photos, look here. You can check out the results for yourself (I hope) here. If you are a Tibetologist, you are bound to make some exciting discoveries by just looking around.

The most remarkable of all these treasures, to my mind, is the one with this title page:

I never had the least idea that a collection related to the Rma lineage — one of the three major lineages of the Middle Transmission of Zhijé — even existed. It appears to me that this collection (if not this particular manuscript of it) is just as old as the collection that comes from the early part of the “Later” transmission from Kunga. 

Yet another manuscript collection found there, although basically a further version of the Zhijé Collection (not quite identical in title content) tells me that there was a Later Zhijé transmission that descended through the famous Nyangral Nyima Özer (ཉང་རལ་ཉི་མ་འོད་ཟེར་). This is completely new news to me, and quite significant for understanding how the Zhijé and Nyingma schools crossed paths.

Before bidding adieu for today, I thought I would tell you one small story about a strange and dreadful thing that happened on the road in Bhutan. We were sailing down from the heights of the pass named Dochula, rounding one of the many many curves, when I saw something that filled me with horror. I shouted to everyone else in the car, “Look at that man!  His face is covered with blood!”

He was running wildly around a parked truck, so our vehicle slowed down a little. When we got along side him, he was flailing his arms and throwing a large rock at a group of 3 or 4  people between him and an ambulance.  I saw a rock (or was it a large clod of dirt?) whiz past the window on the left-hand side of our van. Seeing an ambulance was already there, and seeing that one man had a cellphone pressed against his ear, we just continued on our way. I commented to the driver that we would probably see something about it on the evening news.

I wasn’t wrong. In the evening BBS news at 9 they said he was an employee of the Dochula resort who had fallen over the very high retaining wall. When the ambulance arrived, he resisted the ambulance people and eventually escaped the ambulance and broke some of its windows. This report on the incident ended by saying that the person in question had “no history of mental disturbance.” In the airport two days later I saw a story about the incident in the Kuensel (the online version is here). Lesson? Not quite everything in the world’s happiest country (or 13th-happiest country) is absolutely perfect. Given the truth of this, I still wonder what kind of karmic causes may underlie the fact that we happened to be there to see the only negative newsworthy event in the world’s only Vajrayâna country during all the time we were there.



Michael Aris, Bhutan: The Early History of a Himalayan Kingdom, Vikas Publishing (Ghaziabad 1980).  See p. 198, where he speaks of miscellaneous or isolated figures that include Phadampa and Vanaratna:  “Even though there is no doubt about the visit of the latter, neither left any discernible effect apart from the places that are still associated with them.”

Blanche C. Olschak, Bhutan: Land of Hidden Treasures, photography by Ursula & Augusto Gansser, George Allen & Unwin Ltd (London 1971).

Karma Phuntsho, The History of Bhutan, Random House India (Noida 2013), in 663 pages. This is the first ever continuous narrative covering the entire span of Bhutan's history, although the most recent decades are covered in a brief survey only, ending with a lucid discussion on GNH and its critics.

Gendun Rinchen (དགེ་འདུན་རིན་ཆེན་), Dpal ldan 'brug pa'i gdul zhing lho phyogs nags mo'i ljongs kyi chos 'byung blo gsar rna ba'i rgyan (དཔལ་ལྡན་འབྲུག་པའི་གདུལ་ཞིང་ལྷོ་ཕྱོགས་ནགས་མོའི་ལྗོངས་ཀྱི་ཆོས་འབྱུང་བློ་གསར་རྣ་བའི་རྒྱན་), An Ornament for the Ears of New Intellects:  Origins of the Dharma in the Southern Forest Land, Field of Conversion for the Glorious Drukpa, a beautiful 192-folio woodblock print on traditional Bhutanese paper distributed by the Bhutan National Library, Thimphu.  I believe the woodblocks for this 1972 history were made in 1976.

On Taktshang, there is a fairly extensive entry in the Rangjung Yeshe Wiki (look here). Nothing is said there about Phadampa's visit beyond just saying that he visited. There is also an discussion by Sonam Kinga that you may find interesting (look here).

Lindsay Brown & Bradley Mayhew, Lonely Planet Bhutan (March 2014), p. 88:  “After visiting the Tiger's Nest and reascending to the previous viewpoint, it is possible to take a signed side trail uphill for 15 minutes to the Machig-phu Lhakhang, where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for children. Head to the cave behind the chapel and select the image of the Tibetan saint Machig Labdron on the right (for a baby girl), or the penis print on the cave wall to the left (for a boy). The main statues inside the chapel are of Machig and her husband Padampa Sangye.”  

I have to say I think they got the right and left sides switched around, I never saw anything like a penis print, not that I was looking for one, and Padampa was never the husband of Machig  (their supposed relationship has been way overrated). It may be that prospective parents do go there for the promise of children, I haven't the slightest idea about that.

§ § §


Wait just one minute.  I did find (with the help of a footnote in Aris’s book, p. 323) the passage in Gendun Rinchen's history book that tells of Phadampa’s — and Machik’s — visits to Taktsang or Tiger's Nest, at fol. 83 verso:

དེ་ལས་རབ་བྱུང་གཉིས་པའི་སྐོར་འདི་ནང་རྒྱ་གར་གྲུབ་ཆེན་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱང་ལྗོངས་འདིའི་ཡུལ་གྲུ་མཐའ་དག་ཞབས་ཀྱིས་བཅགས་ཏེ་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད་ནས། སྤ་གྲོ་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བཞུགས་གདན་ཕབ་སྟེ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་ཤུལ་རྡོ་ལ་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་ཡ་མཚན་ཅན་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་ཕ་དམ་པ་ཞེས་མིང་ཐོགས། ཡང་སྤ་གྲོ་སྐྱེར་ཆུའི་བྱང་ངོས་རི་འདབས་སུ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་མཛད་པས་དམ་ཁང་ཞེས་མིང་ཆགས་ཀྱང་། དེང་སང་སྒྲ་འཕྱུག་སྟེ་དག་ཀོ་དགོན་པ་ཟེར། དེ་བཞིན་མ་གཅིག་ལབ་ཀྱི་སྒྲོན་མ་ཡང་སྟག་ཚང་དུ་བྱོན་ནས་ཞབས་རྗེས་དང་སྒྲུབ་ཆུ་བཏོན་པར་མཛད་པས། དེར་ད་ལྟའང་མ་གཅིག་ཕུག་ཅེས་ཡོངས་སུ་གྲགས། དེ་བཞིན་སྟག་ཚང་ཡང་རྩེ་བྲག་ཏུ་བྱོན་དུས་མཁའ་འགྲོ་མ་འབུམ་འདུས་ཏེ་ཚོགས་ཀྱི་འདུ་བར་སྤྱོད་པས། དེར་འབུམ་བྲག་ཅེས་ཐོགས་ཤིང་ནང་དུ་མཁའ་འགྲོ་འབུམ་གྱི་ཞབས་རྗེས་ཀྱང་ཡོད་པར་བཤད། གཞན་ཡང་ཧད་ཕྱོགས་འབྱུང་གནས་བྲག་ཏུའང་མ་གཅིག་སྒྲབ་གནས་མཛད་དེ་བཞུགས་པར་གྲགས།
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