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...


Tibet itself, when at the height of its military power in the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. (when even China had to pay tribute to Tibet), succumbed to the spiritual superiority of a creed which contradicted the very concept of worldly power. And what the mighty armies of the Chinese Empire had not been able to accomplish was achieved by the subtle influence of two high-minded women, who became the consorts of the great Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (Srong-btsan Gam-po: 629-50 A.D.) and who not only converted him to Buddhism, but actively propagated the Dharma in the country of their adoption. The one was a princess of the royal house of Nepal, the other the daughter of the Emperor of China, who had been defeated by Songtsen Gampo. The Emperors daughter, however, agreed to become Songtsen Gampo's wife only on condition that she should be allowed to take with her into 'the country of the barbarians' the precious image of Lord Buddha which was believed to have been made during the lifetime of the Enlightened One, and which was regarded as the greatest treasure of the Imperial Family.

Since the Emperor could not refuse his daughters hand to so powerful a monarch as Songtsen Gampo, he had to yield. And thus the image came to Lhasa, where it was housed in a wonderful temple -- the famous Jokhang -- which up to the present day is the greatest sanctuary in Lhasa and, indeed, in the whole of Tibet. Miraculous properties are ascribed to the image of the Precious Lord (Jovo Rimpoché as it is called), and in fact it became a focus of spiritual power, which soon transformed Lhasa into a Buddhist centre -- much to the dismay of the priests of the ancient Bön faith, the original religion of Tibet, in which the terrifying powers of local spirits and deities were mainly invoked.

However, so long as Buddhism remained restricted to Lhasa and to a few temples, the

Bön resistance did not show itself much in the open. It grew in the same proportion in which Buddhism spread, until under King Tisong Detsen[1] it found a skilful leader in the person of his minister Mazhang.

Though the King was an ardent Buddhist, as his Father and his grandfather had been, he was not able to oppose Mazhang, who had not only the support of the Bön clergy but also a strong following among the aristocracy many of whom still clung to the traditions of the old shamanistic cult. But before Mazhang succeeded in his scheme of driving out Buddhism, he was killed by his adversaries, and now Tisong Detsen redoubled his efforts to place Buddhism on a firm basis. For this purpose, he invited Indian scholars to teach and to reorganise the new faith.

hus the famous Buddhist scholar Śāntarakshita from the monastic university of Nalanda -- which in those days played as important a role in the East as Oxford today in the West -- accepted the Kings invitation. But the opposition of the Böns was too strong for him, and he was obliged to return to India after a short time.

But the King did not give up, and when Śāntarakshita told him of the powerful Tāntric Sage Padmasambhava, he immediately sent messengers to invite him to Tibet. Padmasambhava, one of the most colourful and vigorous personalities of Buddhist history, who had studied Tantric Buddhism in the monastic universities of Eastern India, was versed in magic as well as in philosophy and was thus able to fight the Böns (who were said to be masters of magic power) with their own weapons.

Instead of merely repudiating the local deities of the Böns, he had the wisdom and understanding of human nature to incorporate them as protectors of the Dharma in the Buddhist system. In this way, by respecting the national feelings and loyalties of the people and without destroying the ancient traditions of the country; he gave a new impetus to Buddhism and succeeded in building the first big monastery in Tibet (Samyé; spelled bSam-yas) after the model of the university of Otantapuri. The work was started in the year 787 A.D. and completed in 799.

The last of the great religious kings was Ralpachan (also known as Ti-tsuk-de-tsen [khri-btsugs-lde-btsan], 817-36 A.D.) who, encouraged by the success of his predecessor, introduced many reforms in favour of Buddhism. But being too impatient in the furtherance of his aims, the Bön opposition flared up again and Ralpachan was murdered, while his younger brother Langdarma[2] , who had allied himself with the Bön party, was proclaimed king.

The latter immediately began to persecute the Buddhists, destroying their temples and libraries and killing and driving out their monks and influential supporters. It seemed to be the end of Buddhism in Tibet.

But a hermit who lived in the vicinity of Lhasa and who was said to be the incarnation of one of the fierce protecting deities, who had been incorporated into the Buddhist faith by Padmasambhava, made an end of this cruel persecution. He entered Lhasa in the garb of a 'black magician' of the Bön Order, dressed in a black cloak, wearing the black, skull-surmounted hat of that order, and riding on a black horse.

Arriving in the open square before the Kings palace, he dismounted and began to perform a ritual dance in which bow and arrows were used as symbolical weapons for subduing evil spirits. The King stepped on to the balcony of the palace to watch the dance, when suddenly the black magician let fly one of his arrows and killed the King on the spot.

Before the people could realise what had happened, the black magician jumped upon his horse and disappeared in the direction of the Kyi River (on the banks of which Lhasa is situated). By the time the people reached the bank, he had crossed the river. But even on the other side nobody could find or had seen the black rider on the black horse. What had happened? The rider had turned his white-lined cloak inside out, while the black colour with which the horse had been dyed had come off in the river, so that a white rider on a white horse emerged on the other side.

Thus the three years of Langdarmas reign of terror came to a sudden end. But there was not a single Buddhist institution left in Central Tibet from which the revival of the religion could be started. There were not even books from which to leach the Dharma, and the few scattered monks, who had survived or dared to return after Langdarma's death, were helpless in the face of the damage done and without die backing of a stable monarchy or the leadership of an outstanding personality.

The assassination of Ralpachan had been the beginning of the dissolution of the Tibetan empire, and after Langdarma's death there was nobody with sufficient authority to stop the process of decay. Thus Lhasa ceased to be the capital of Tibet, which was divided into a number of independent kingdoms and principalities of feudal lords.

Palkhortsan, the grandson of Langdarma, established a kingdom in Western Tibet, which he subsequently divided between his three sons. The eldest received the province of Mang-yul, the middle son the province of Purang, and the youngest, Detsun-gon by name, received Shang-Shungand the three provinces of Gugé, of which Tsaparang and Tholing became alternately the capitals.



THE sons and grandsons of King Detsun-gon were inspired by the same religious fervour as their illustrious forefathers, the three Dharmarājas of Tibet: Songtsen Gampo. Tisong Detsen, and Ralpachan. So we read in the Tibetan chronicle Pag-sam-jun-zong that King Khoré -- whose religious name was Lha-Lama Yeshé-Ö -- gave his kingdom to his younger brother, Song-ngé, while he himself and his two sons entered the Buddhist Order and became monks.

Yeshé-Ö realised that whatever had been preserved of the Buddhist religion after the fall of the Lhasa dynasty was in danger of degenerating if a new set of religious teachers and adequate translations of the original scriptures were not obtained. So he followed the example of Songtsen Gampo, selected a group of intelligent young men and sent them to Kashmir to study Sanskrit under competent teachers for a period of ten years, so that they would be able to translate and teach the Buddha-dharma on their return to Tibet.

But few Tibetans can endure lower altitudes and a warm climate for long. Out of the thirteen who had been sent to India by Songtsen Gampo for the study of Buddhism, only one had survived the rigours of the climate. The same fate befell the group of young men sent out by Yeshé-Ö- Nineteen died before their mission was fulfilled, and only two returned to their country. One of these was the Lotsava (translator) Rinchen Zangpo, and with him started the revival of Buddhism in Western Tibet.

Like Padmasambhava, Rinchen Zangpo was not only a great scholar but a great personality, who inspired all those who came in touch with him. Wherever he went, he spread the knowledge of the Dharma, built temples and monasteries, stupa and libraries (to which he himself contributed a great number of books), encouraged arts and crafts, and introduced sculpture and fresco-painting of the highest order.

No less than 108 temples and monasteries are claimed to have originated under the guidance of this many-sided genius, who himself is said to have been a gifted artist. Among the temples ascribed to him are those of Tholing and Tsaparang. Their frescoes and statues belong to the finest achievements of Tibetan art.

Yeshé-Ö was succeeded by King Lhade (his younger brothers son) who invited the scholar Subhūtri Śrī Sānti from Kashmir, while two of his sons. Shiva-ö and Changchubö, invited the famous Bengali Pandit Dīpankara Sri Jñana, one of the leading lights of the university of VikramaSīla, to their residence at Tholing. A delegation with rich presents was sent to Vikramasīla, but Atīsa, as Dipankara is called in Tibet, declined the invitation, for his services were equally needed in his own country.

The King, who then resided at Tholing and who, according to one tradition, is identified with Yeshe-ö, thought that his presents had been too small and therefore organised an expedition to the northern border of his country, where gold could be found. But unfortunately he fell into the hands of his enemy, the King of Garlog, whose country lay across the borders and who demanded a huge sum as ransom.

Changchub-ö thereupon collected funds for the release of his father; but when he reached Garlog it was found that the amount was not sufficient. Before returning, in order to procure the missing sum, he met his father. The King, however, exhorted him not to spend all his gold on an old man like him, who at the best had only a few years more to live, but to send it instead to Atīsa and to tell him that he prized his visit more than his life, which he would gladly sacrifice for the cause of the Dharma. Changchub-ö took leave from his father with a heavy heart. He was never to see him again.

Another delegation was sent to India. When they arrived at Vikramasīla and told Atīsa all that had happened, the great teacher was deeply moved and exclaimed: 'Verily, this King was a Bodhisattva! What else can I do but obey the will of so great a saint!'

It was not easy, however, for Atīsa to relinquish his many responsibilities, and it took him eighteen months before he could free himself from his various duties and start for Tibet. Of the gold with which he had been presented, he kept nothing for himself, but distributed it among the professors and pupils of Vikramaśīla and other religious institutions.

In the year 1042, Atīsa reached Tholing and was received by the King, his ministers and the members of the clergy. Among them was also the eighty-five-year-old Lotsava Rinchen Zangpo. Being the Elder in the Sangha, Rinchen Zangpo remained seated when Atīsa entered the congregation; but after Atīsa had delivered his first religious discourse, Rinchen Zangpo was so deeply impressed that he got up and paid his respects to him.

Atīsa spent two years in Western Tibet and then proceeded to Central Tibet, where he succeeded in reorganising the scattered Buddhist groups and in re-establishing the purity and supremacy of the Dharma. He founded the Kadampa Order, which later on developed into the most powerful sect of Lamaism, the Gelugpas. These established the reign of the Dalai Lamas and made Lhasa again the spiritual and temporal capital of Tibet.

However, Tholing and Tsaparang retained for many a century their importance as cultural and political centres of Western Tibet, though Tholing reached the peak of its fame in the year 3075, when the great religious council took place in the Golden Temple of Tholing under King Tseldé. The greatest scholars and the highest spiritual dignitaries from all parts of Tibet took part in this council, which marked the final triumph and consolidation of the Buddhist revival of Tibet and the beginning of a new era.

Slowly the scene of political and cultural activity shifted back to Central Tibet, and the last glance of the vanishing splendour of the kingdom of Gugd is the report of Padre Andrade, a Portuguese priest, who was the first European to penetrate into the Land of the Snows, attracted by the fame of the royal court of Tsaparang.

Padre Andrade reached Tsaparang in the year 1625 and was received with great hospitality by the King, who paid him high honour and, in the true spirit of Buddhist tolerance, allowed him to preach his religion. To him a man who had travelled round half the world for the sake of his Dharma was certainly worth hearing and deserved the greatest respect.

Truth cannot harm truth. Therefore, whatever was true in the religion of the stranger could only enhance and bear out the teachings of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Was it not possible that in the countries of the West many a Bodhisattva (a saint on the way to Buddhahood. or the emanation of an enlightened being) had arisen, of whom the people of the East had not yet heard? So, out of the goodness of his heart, the King of Gugé wrote the following letter to Father Antonio de Andrade in the year 1625:

"We the King of the Kingdoms of Pontente, rejoicing at the arrival in our lands of Padre Antonio Franguim [as the Portuguese were called in India] to teach us a holy law, take him for our Chief Lama and give him full authority to teach the holy law to our people. We shall not allow that anyone molest him in this and we shall issue orders that he be given a site and all the help needed to build a house of prayer.

And the King gave even his own garden to the stranger, a gift which under the conditions of Tibet, where gardens are scarce and a rare luxury, was more than a mere polite gesture.

But, alas, the King in his unsuspecting goodness did not know that the stranger had come not merely to exchange true and beautiful thoughts with those who were striving after similar ideals, but to destroy what others had taught, in order to replace it by what he regarded as the sole truth. The conflict was inevitable and took forms which none of the protagonists of the ensuing dilemma -- who both believed sincerely in the righteousness of their intentions -- had foreseen.

The Kings favours aroused the suspicions of the Lamas, which were confirmed by the uncompromising attitude of the stranger, and soon the discontent spread and the political opponents of the King saw their opportunity.

While Padre Andrade, encouraged by his success in Tsaparang, proceeded to Lhasa in order to extend his activities over the whole of Tibet, a revolt broke out, the King was overthrown, and with him the Gugé dynasty and the glory of Tsaparang came to an end. Around 1650 the kingdom of Gugé disappeared from the map of Tibet and came under the domination of Lhasa.

When, one hundred years later, Padre Desideri, attracted by the enthusiastic account of Padre Andrade, travelled to Tsaparang in the hope of continuing or reviving the formers mission, he found the city abandoned and in ruins -- and so it is to the present day. The roofs of palaces and monasteries have fallen in, but the main temples are still well preserved and their frescoes have retained their glowing colours and their minutely executed line-work. The golden statues stand, as if protected by the magic of their beauty, wrapped in the silence of centuries, dreaming of the times when Buddhas and great saints inhabited the earth, or as if waiting for the advent of the Great Loving One, the Buddha Maitréya, who will bring again the message of peace and goodwill into the strife-torn human world.

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