The Way of the White Clouds

by Anāgarika Lāma Govinda | 123,888 words

The Way of the White Clouds as an eye-witness account and the description of a pilgrimage in Tibet during the last decenniums of its independence and unbroken cultural tradition, is the attempt to do justice to the above-mentioned task, as far as this is possible within the frame of personal experiences and impressions. This work is licensed under...

Chapter 32 - New Beginnings: 'Ajo Rimpoché'

Once my journey to the highlands of Western Tibet (Chang-Thang) and Ladakh, from which I had brought back a complete set of tracings of the Eighty-Four Siddhas as well as of various Tibetan temple frescoes, my interest in the mystic path of the Siddhas, their teachings, their partly historical, partly legendary biographies and their iconography had steadily grown -- and with it my determination to visit the temples of Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo in the deserted capital of the ancient Kingdom of Gugé, where I hoped to find the remnants of Tibet's earliest and most accomplished tradition of religious art.

Six years had passed since the vision in the ancient rock monastery on the way to the Chang-Thang had opened my eyes to the importance of creative visualisation in the process of meditation, and therewith the role of religious art which, far beyond all aesthetic values, contained the key to the secrets of Maṇḍalas, the unfoldment of spiritual vision, the meaning of Sādhanā (meditative practice), and the parallelism between the inner world of man and the universe around him.

I had utilised these six years by studying the religious life and literature of Tibet, collecting all possible information about Rinchen Zangpo's work and his role in the restoration and stabilisation of Buddhism in Western Tibet after the fail of Langdarma. But in the midst of my preparations for a new journey to Western Tibet the Second World War broke out and shattered all my hopes for a speedy realisation of my plans.

Tsaparang seemed to have receded into an unreachable distance. But in the meantime, I had found an ally for my plan in Li Gotami, who joined my work and my life after many years of friendship, inspired by our common faith in Buddhism and her particular interest in Tibetan art. We had first met at Rabindranath Tagore's International University, Santiniketan, Bengal, where I was a lecturer in the postgraduate department, and where she studied Indian Art for twelve years (first under Nandalal Bose, and later under Abanindranath Tagore) as well as the techniques of Tibetan fresco and thanka painting under Tibetan artists, while I introduced her to the intricacies of Tibetan iconography and religious thought, which finally led her to join with me the Kargyütpa Order as my wife (gSang-yum) and companion in the Dharma (dharma-sāhinī ). Tomo Géshé Rimpoché seemed to have foreseen this, because he had given her his blessings during his last visit to Sarnath and prophesied -- when she asked him whether she would be successful in her art -- that she would achieve great success if she would devote herself to the Buddha-Dharma.

Our religious marriage was performed by Ajo Rimpoché, who presided over the Monastery of Tsé-Chöling in the Chumbi Valley. A Lama friend of mine of many years standing

had introduced us to this venerable patriarch, who at that time was eighty-four years old and known as a great master of meditation (gom-chen)[1] . The reverence which he commanded in Southern Tibet, as well as in Sikkim and Bhutan, was reflected in the magnificent two-storeyed temple which he built with the willing help and contributions of his numerous devotees. Though he had lavished a fortune worthy of a king on the buildings, statues, frescoes, collections of religious books, and precious thankas, he himself had no personal possessions and lived in a tiny wooden cottage below the temple buildings in utmost simplicity like the Hermit Abbot of Lachen and many of the Siddhas before him, he was a married man, and his wife was a real 'Damema' (bdagmed-ma), which means 'the Selfless One', as Marpa's wife was called, a mother to all who came within the charmed circle of her and her Guru-husbands life. Ajo Rimpoché was one of the successive reincarnations of the Siddha Dombi-Heruka of the eighth century A.D., who had renounced a throne in order to lead a life of meditation in the solitude of the forest, where finally after many years he attained realisation and became a Siddha. And as at that time, he had returned to his people as a spiritual guide and a living example of his realisation, he became a teacher of men in many subsequent reincarnations, ever mindful of his vow not to abandon the world as long as living beings were in need of his help. To receive his blessings and initiation into one of his particular Sādhanās was an experience that gave a new impetus to our spiritual life. There could not have been a more perfect continuation of the inspiration and guidance I had received from Tomo Géshé Rimpoché. In fact, it seemed to me as if all subsequent initiations into various meditative practices and teachings of the Vajrayāna (the 'Diamond Vehicle'), which we received in the course of the next two years of our pilgrimage in Southern, Central, and Western Tibet, were part of a complete system of interrelated meditational experiences, which crystallised into a perfect Maṇḍala, a magic circle, containing all the major aspects of Tibet's religious life.

Strangely enough, it was during my first stay at Yi-Gah Chö-Ling that a Sikkimese friend had presented me with a thanka, containing the main symbols of this Maṇḍala: Buddha Śākyamuni in the centre; above him Amitābha, the embodiment of Infinite Light; below him padmasambhava, the revealer of the Bardo Thödol and of the mystic teachings of the 'Direct Path', The two upper corners of the thanka were occupied by Man̄juśrī, the embodiment of Transcendental Wisdom, and Tārā (Tib.: 'Dölma'), 'the Saviouress' (the active counterpart to the Transcendental Knowledge of Man̄juśrī)—while Avalokiteśvara, the embodiment of Compassion, and Vajrapāṅi, the powerful Protector of the Dharma and the Master of its Mystic Teachings, Riled the corresponding lower cornets.

Just as the Buddha Śākyamuni, as the ādi-guru (or first teacher) of our era, occupies the central position in this thanka, so the first Guru always occupies a central position in the Chelas heart. But this does not preclude him from sitting at the feet of other teachers who might benefit him in the absence of his Tsawai Lama (lit, 'Root Lama'), because there is no competition between real Gurus, just as there is no competition between different aspects of reality or truth. Each teacher can only reveal what he himself has experienced, or realised, of what he himself has become the embodiment. No single teacher can exhaust all aspects of truth or of ultimate reality; and even if this were possible each teacher has his own individual approach towards this ultimate aim, and it depends not only on the accomplishments of the Guru, but equally on the character and capabilities of the pupil, which particular methods are helpful to him. As the ultimate aim of all methods is the same, there can be no contradiction or disharmony between them, though it would be foolish to jump from the one to the other without having attained a certain measure in any of them.

A real Gurus initiation is beyond the divisions of sects and creeds: it is the awakening to our own inner reality which, once glimpsed, determines our further course of development and our actions in life without the enforcements of outer rules. Initiation, therefore, is the greatest gift a Guru can bestow, a gift that is regarded infinitely more precious than any formal ordination on entering the state of monkhood (or any other organised religious society), which can be performed at any time, without demanding any spiritual qualification, neither of those who perform it, nor of those who receive it -- provided the candidate is willing to obey the prescribed rules and is not barred by mental, moral, or physical deficiencies.

A Guru can give only as much as he has realised himself, and in order to transmit his own experience, he must be able to renew or to re-create it each time he performs the Wangkur (dbang-bskur) rite. This requires an extensive preparation -- not just an intellectual one, like that of a school or university teacher, who prepares himself by assembling all relevant data his subject and by mapping out a logical way of presenting those data the most convincing way -- the preparation of a religious teacher consists of putting himself in touch with the deepest sources of spiritual power through intense meditation, during which he becomes the embodiment of the force or quality which he wants to transmit. Such a preparation may take days or weeks, according to the nature of the forces involved and the more or less intricate character of their creative symbols which have to be awakened in the consciousness of the recipient who on his part is required to prepare himself by purifying his mind and directing his attention to the teachings, ideas, or aims of the sought for initiation.

Without this double preparedness of Guru and Chela, the rite of initiation would be a mere farce, and no really great teacher will ever lend himself to such a thing. As long as the tradition of Tibet was unbroken, and its guardians and promoters lived in the security of their age-old traditions, upheld by institutions and by a society in which the values they represented were understood and respected, the temptation to lower the standard or the conditions under which initiations were to be granted was hardly present. But after the terrible holocaust and the religious persecution which followed the Chinese invasion of Tibet, all bonds with the past were broken, and those who fled were thrown into an unfamiliar world, where all that had been sacred and infallible truth to them was neither known nor recognised. And thus, partly from a desire to spread the Dharma and partly from the wish to justify their position as religious leaders or ecclesiastical dignitaries, many of them felt justified to perform such rites even for those who had no knowledge of their meaning, in the hope that at least some spiritual benefit might come to the recipients of these rites as long as it awakened or strengthened their faith. In this way, a rite that originally was meant to confer initiation into a profound spiritual experience became devoid of its essential meaning, and all that was left was a gesture of blessing, which might lead those who are not conversant with the traditional background to the conclusion that this is all there is to it.

The 'transference of the power of Amitāyus, the Buddha of Infinite Life', for instance, is used as a communal rite (known as 'Tśe-wang') in similar way as the communion in the Catholic Church, or as a certain type of paritta-ceremony in Theravāda Buddhism, in which the 'life-giving' water is sanctified and charged with the forces of mantric invocations, recited by a group of monks or lay-devotees, and given to those who are ailing or in danger of death.

The tsé-wang of Amitāyus (tse-dpag-med), however, can be turned into a proper rite of initiation (wang-kur) -- what it was originally meant to be -- if the initiator prepares the Chela for the conscious participation and understanding of the details and symbols of the ritual[2]. I, as a result, the initiate in the course of time is enabled to invoke the life-giving forces of Amitāyus for himself and others, by practising the Sādhanā of Amitāyus and by transforming his mantric formula into the visual and spiritual unfoldment of all those properties of which Amitāyus is the embodiment, until the devotee realises these qualities within himself and has become a true vessel of them. Only when he has achieved this can he transmit the spiritual forces engendered by this realisation.

Ajo Rimpoché was one of those rare masters who were fully conscious of these facts. He spared no pains in preparing himself and every smallest detail for the initiation he bestowed upon us. The initiation altar itself was a work of art, built up with meticulous care, according to the rules of religious tradition, in which beauty is the natural and spontaneous outcome of its indwelling spirit -- and not of an intended aesthetic effect. The self-conscious element of an art that is divorced from life or meaning is unknown in Tibet. The altar represented a perfect Maṇḍala of significant symbols, and Ajo Rimpoché explained their meaning and function, so that we could fully understand their significance and the part they played in the ritual. But, what we appreciated most was the way in which he instructed us in the details and technique of the particular type of meditation and creative visualisation into which we were initiated and which we were to practise daily with the mantras bestowed upon us. It is only from the standpoint of creative visualisation (Dhyāna), guided and sustained by the living power of the inner sound (mantra) and crystallising into the universal order of a Maṇḍala, that we can understand the significance of religious art in Tibet and especially the meaning of thankas and frescoes.

Footnotes and references:


When he was 105 years old he had the distinction of being the first Lama to receive the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on Tibetan soil during the letter's journey to Bhutan, which at that time was only accessible through the Chumbi Valley of Southern Tibet.


Any 'wang' given without religious instructions and guidance (as to Sādhanā) is not initiation and cannot establish a guru-chela relationship.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: