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 34 - The Two Siddhas of Tsé-Chöling

It was as a Gomchen and as a teacher in meditation that Ajo Rimpoché had gained his prominence and had finally become recognised as the spiritual head of the monastery, whose abbot had died many years before and whose small Tulku (who at our time was about nine years old) now looked upon him for guidance until the time of his maturity, when again he would take over the full responsibilities as abbot of Tsé-Chöling. Ajo Rimpoché was one of the repas or 'Cotton-Clad' followers of Milarepa, who did not wear the usual dark red robe of a monk, but a white shawl (zen) with broad red stripes; and like Milarepa he had not cut his hair, but wore it coiled up on his head. In his ears, he wore the white, spiral-shaped conch-rings of the wandering ascetics (rnal-ḥbyorpa) or Yogi-Siddhas of old.

Also the young Tulku was the reincarnation of one of the ancient Siddhas, namely of Saraha, who had been one of the great mystic poets of his time (seventh century A.D.). But in contrast to Ajo Rimpoché, he wore the usual monastic robes; and his personal tutor, a scholarly and extremely kindhearted man who looked after the little boy with the tenderness of a mother, was a fully ordained Gelong (bhikshu). Also the Umdzé, the leader of the choir, who assisted Ajo Rimpoché during our initiation, was a Gelong, while the majority of the inmates of the monastery were married people, who wore the usual red monastic robe, but lived with their families in separate little houses, scattered around the Gompa. They assembled in the main Lhakhang for religious services, which on festival days were presided over by the small Tulku of Saraha, who in spite of his tender age performed his high office with great dignity and composure.

It was strange to see how in this little boy childlike innocence and age-old wisdom seemed to be combined, and how the child in him could suddenly change into the behaviour of a wise old man, or again revert to the naturalness of a lively little boy. His tutor told us that he rapidly regained his former knowledge, reciting whole books by heart, and the Umdzé gave us a detailed account of how he found his way back to his former monastery.

He was born in a village just below Dungkar Gompa and as soon as he was able to speak he began to talk about a monastery on a hill, where he had lived as a monk. When he persisted in this talk, people took it for granted that he meant Dungkar Gompa, which could be seen from his village, but he resolutely rejected this suggestion. By chance the Umdzé of Tsé-Chöling heard about this boy, who was then between three and four years of age, and since the Tulku of Tsé-Chöling had not yet been discovered, the Umdzé, accompanied by some senior monks, went to the village where the little boy lived and, without revealing the purpose of their visit, they managed to meet him and to get into talk with him while he was playing about the house. Tibetans love children, and there was nothing exceptional in the friendly interest that some travelling monks might take in a little boy. The Umdzé carried with him a bag with ritual articles, as most Lamas do, when on a journey; and among these articles there were also some that had been used by the former abbot of Tsé-Chöling. Under some pretext or other the Umdzé opened the bag and allowed the boy to examine its contents, taking out one thing after another. When seeing the interest with which the boy contemplated each object, he asked him if he would like to have some of them, and what he would choose. Without hesitation the boy picked out a slightly damaged bell, though there was another undamaged one of the same type.

`Why do you want that old thing,' asked the Umdzé, 'when there is a much better one? Won't you have the nice new one?'

'No', said the boy, 'I would rather have my old bell'.

'How do you know this is your bell?' asked the Umdzé with some surprise.

'Because one day it fell down and got chipped at the rim', and saying this the boy turned the bell upside-down and showed the Umdzé that a tiny piece of metal was missing in the inner rim. The incident which the boy had mentioned was later on confirmed by the former abbot's old servant, who was still alive. He also confirmed the boys observation that in the rosary which the boy had recognised as his own, a turquoise which had formed the end of the 108 beads was missing. Every single object that had belonged to the former abbot was immediately recognised by the boy, who firmly rejected all other things, though many of them were identical in shape.

The most remarkable thing, however, happened when the little boy, who was now accepted as the Tulku of the former abbot, was brought back to Tsé-Chöling. When entering the Labrang (as the abbots residence is called) he said: `This is not the place I used to live in. I remember it was on top of a hill'. He was correct, the Labrang in which the old abbot had lived and passed away had been higher up on a spur above the present monastery, but a fire had destroyed the building which, like most houses in this part of Tibet, was a structure of half stone half wood, surmounted by a wide roof of wooden shingles, weighed down with stones, similar to the chalets of the Austrian or Swiss Alps with which the surrounding landscape had much similarity.

Like at Dungkar Gompa, we were given a beautiful Lhakhang for the duration of our stay at Tsé-Chöling, but in accordance with the more liberal attitude of the Kargyütpa Order, which embraced both married and celibate lamas and trapas, Li Gotami was not required to leave the precincts of the monastery at night, and thus both of us stayed together in the spacious shrine-room, in which a life-size statue of Padmasambhava was enthroned as the central figure, flanked by the numerous volumes of his and his Followers' esoteric teachings. They are known as Termas (gTerma means 'treasure'), because like treasures they had been hidden underground or in caves during times of danger and persecution or -- as tradition says -- until the time was ripe for their understanding and rediscovery by later adepts of the ancient mystic lore. The Bardo Thödol (Bar-do Thos-grol), which has become famous as one of the great works of religious world-literature under the title The Tibetan Book of the Dead, is one of the Termas.

That Ajo Rimpoché had accommodated us in one of the chief sanctuaries of Tsé-Chöling was more than merely a sign of hospitality and trust: it meant that he had accepted us not only as honoured guests hut as members of his spiritual community. We were touched at the thought that while the Guru himself lived in a bare room of his modest little cottage, we were housed in a spacious pillared and richly decorated Lhakhang, fit for a king rather than for two humble Chelas.

One side of the Lhakhang was formed by a single long window, stretching from one wall to the other, made of small glass panes, like a glassed-in veranda, so that one had a free view over the spacious courtyard and the buildings of the monastery which rose in tiers on the gentle slope of the mountainside between tall fir trees, chortens, and prayer-Hags. We could see the Labrang, where the little Tulku lived in a lovely shrine-room covered with precious thankas, and we could also see his tutor's little bungalow, that looked like a dolls house with its elegantly fashioned woodwork and bright colours.

In the evening the tutor and the little Tulku would walk around the chortens and temple buildings, reciting their prayers, rosaries in hand: the tutor walking gravely ahead and the little boy cheerfully trailing behind. Sometimes he would he more interested in the birds or in a little puppy that crossed his way and had to be picked up and caressed -- and then the tutor would suddenly turn back and gently remind him of his prayers, though one could see that he could quite understand a little boys attraction for birds and puppies and his urge to play. He certainly was an understanding man, and we never saw him being harsh, though we knew that the education of a Tulku was generally much more strict than that of other novices.

Saraha Tulku was in every respect an extraordinary boy, and even if we had not known that he was a Tulku, we would have easily picked him out from a crowd of ordinary boys by his exceptionally intelligent face, his bright eyes, and his gentle and yet natural behaviour when he sat on his raised seat during a ceremony in the temple he was entirely the 'Rimpoché'; and when he received us in his private Lhakhang, he did this with a charming mixture of dignity and hidden curiosity. When Li Gotami made a portrait of him in his lovely shrine-room against a row of beautiful thankas and surrounded by ritual objects, as befitting his ecclesiastical tank, he showed keen interest in the progress of her work and lost all his initial shyness enjoying the newness of the situation and chit-chatting freely whenever there was a pause in the work. At the same time, he proved to be an excellent model, sitting motionlessly in the same posture as long as the work required, without the slightest sign of impatience or tiredness.

One day, after a heavy snowfall, while we were admiring the view from our Lhakhang window, we suddenly saw some naked figures emerging from the Labrang, joyfully jumping about in the fresh snow and finally rolling in it as if in a white feather bed, while we were fairly shivering in our big but unheated 'royal abode'. The naked figures were no others but our little Tulku and two other boys of his age, who greatly enjoyed themselves in the snow. After having rolled in the snow they would quickly retire into the Labrang -- probably to warm themselves -- and then they would emerge anew to repeat the same performance over and over again until they had had their fill.

We were glad to see that with all learning and discipline, bodily training and youthful play were not neglected in the boys'education, and that there was no prudery in spite of the religious nature of their upbringing. We suppose that these snow-sports had something to do with preparing the boys -- and especially the Tulku -- for the training in Tummo, during which they must prove their capacity to resist cold by producing their own psychic heat through the mastery of body and mind in yogic exercises. However, since we did not know whether we would cause embarrassment on mentioning that we had observed the boys in their playful enjoyment, we refrained from questioning the tutor or discussing the matter with any of the other inmates of the monastery.

We also found plenty of work to do besides our devotional practices, as there were books to study, notes to be taken, woodcuts to be printed and some outstanding frescoes to be copied or traced in outline. I was specially interested and delighted to find that the main upper Lhakhang (opposite our own), which was dedicated to Vajradhara (Dorjé-Chang), the Ādibuddha of the Kargyütpas (corresponding to Küntu-Zangpo, Skt. Sāmantabhadra, of the Nyingmapas), was decorated with excellent frescoes of the Eighty-Four Siddhas. This gave me another opportunity of collecting further tracings and notes, a valuable addition to my former work on this important iconographical and historical subject.

Also outside the monastery there was plenty to do in the way of sketching and photographing. We certainly had not a dull moment, and in between, we had ample opportunities of discussing religious questions with Ajo Rimpoché, the Umdzé, the little Tulku's learned tutor (Gergen) and some of the Trapas. Outstanding among the latter was the Konyer (sgo-nyer), who was in charge of the main Lhakhangs, performing the daily offerings of water, light, and incense, and keeping everything clean and shining. He did this conscientiously as a sacred duty, and with such devotion that he had developed a permanent swelling on his forehead from knocking it on the ground during his daily prostrations before the many images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, saints and Gurus, and the terrifying embodiments of the mighty protectors or tutelary deities of the faithful, the Yidams, the Masters of super-human mysteries, like Mahākāla or Vajrabhairava (Tib.: Dorjé-hjigs-byed), Kālacakra, Hevajra, Yeshé-Gombo, Demchog (bDe-mchog, Skt.: Mahāsukha) and others. The latter is one of the special Yidams of the Kargyütpas (though in equally high esteem with the Gelugpas and other sects, being the main symbol of one of the most profound meditational systems -- to which, I myself, devoted a year of intense study), and it was for this reason that a special Lhakhang, adjoining that of Padmasambhava, in which we lived, had been dedicated to Demchog and the great Maṇḍala of his deities.

At Dungkar Gompa, we even found a complete plastic model of this Maṇḍala with all its intricate details and all the 164 deities minutely executed. Unfortunately the model, which was placed in a corner of the main temple hall, was encased in a framework of wood and glass, which made it difficult to study the details and impossible to take a satisfactory photograph.

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