The Brilliant Scholar and the Scurrilous Letter

Once upon a time in Tibet, back in the 14th century…

…there was a brilliant young scholar called Ngagi Wangpo. He was one of the star students at the great monastic college of Sangpu. Ngagi Wangpo had decided to become a monk at the age of twelve, having lost his mother at eight and then his father at eleven. Studying at Sangpu, he quickly mastered a curriculum which included logic and the philosophical complexities of the Madhyamaka.

But his time at college was marred by the small-mindedness of his fellow students. Sangpu was dominated by students from eastern Tibet: Khampas. True, Sangpu was in Central Tibet, but Kham has always provided a high proportion of Tibet’s greatest scholars, and this was reflected in the student body at Sangpu. As a Central Tibetan, Ngagi Wangpo felt that he was treated as an outsider. So at the age of twenty-seven (in the year 1334) he decided to drop out. As he walked away from the college where he’d spent the last eight years, Ngagi Wangpo met an inquisitive monk who asked him why he was leaving.

When he told the monk how the Khampas at university had made his life a misery, the monk sympathized and encouraged Ngagi Wangpo to write something to publicize the behaviour of the Khampa students. Thinking this an amusing idea, Ngagi Wangpo took a single sheet of paper and filled both sides with a satirical poem. The poem was written as an alphabetical exercise with one line for each of the letters of the Tibetan alphabet. These were the first five lines:

Alike to the demons who roam the land of Kalinga,
Bandits of this snowy land are the Khampa tribe;
Come where they may, they tear the place down.
Desire, hatred and pride are the lands they roam;
Everywhere the clamorous Khampas gather there’s trouble.

ka ling yul du srin po rgyu ba bzhin//
kha ba can du chom rkun khams pa’i rigs//
ga ru gnas kyang grong rdal ‘joms byed pa’i//
nga rgyal chags sdang rgyu ba gzigs lags sam//
ca co’i rang bzhin nyon mongs khams pa’i tshogs//

At the end of the page he signed off with a brief colophon: “This was affixed to Sangpu Neutok by Samyépa Ngagi Wangpo. May it cause happiness to increase!” He then gave the page to the monk, who took it to Sangpu and pinned to the  throne in the main assembly hall. When it was found it caused quite a stir, but Ngagi Wangpo was already far away. (Those familiar with European history may be reminded of Martin Luther nailing his “ninety-five theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg some 200 years later.)

After turning his back on a lifetime of study, Ngagi Wangpo adopted the wandering life, dedicating himself to meditation practice and looking for a guru. His search came to an end when he met a yogin called Kumaradza, who was living on a mountainside with a large group of disciples in flimsy tents. Ngagi Wangpo was accepted as a disciple and joined this motley crew of dedicated meditators, who pitched camp and moved to a new home every few months. Over the years that followed he learned the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) at the feet of Kumaradza. In the end he surpassed his own master, and wrote the definitive works on the Great Perfection. Ngagi Wangpo became one of the most famous Tibetans of all time, better known by his academic title Longchen Rabjampa, or for short, Longchenpa.

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Now, you might think it unlikely that a rather complicated poem like this, not only constrained by an alphabetic conceit but written in nine-syllable verses containing a wealth of literary allusions, could be dashed off in the way the story implies. But let’s not forget who we’re talking about here: one of the greatest poet-philosopher-mystics in history (and not just the history of Tibet). One thing his voluminous writings show is that writing inspired poetry was second nature to Longchenpa. I for one don’t doubt that, spurred on by the frustrations that had just led him to drop out of Sangpu, Longchenpa could have sat down and written these verses in very little time at all.

I think we can also take the poem in the light-hearted manner in which it was intended, and remember that it came from a specific time in Longchenpa’s life. If regional tensions do exist in Tibet, as they do everywhere, there are also ways of transcending them. Since the transcendence of all boundaries is so eloquently expressed in Longchenpa’s other writings, I’ll conclude with a few verses from a poem that he dedicated to his guru Kumaradza:

I am a buddha, pure from the very beginning,
And so are the multitude of living beings in existence.
The terms “knowledge” and “ignorance”
Are both untrue, nothing but dream and illusion;
The nonduality of true and untrue, that’s the state of a buddha.

bdag dang sna tshogs srid pa’i sems can rnams//
ye nas rnam dag sangs rgyas yin pa la//
rig dang ma rig zhes bya’i tha snyad kyis//
srid par ‘khul pa rmi lam sgyu ma tsam//
‘khrul dang ma ‘khrul gnyis med rgyal ba’i sku//

*  *  *

Tibetan texts:

Rkyen la khams ‘dus pa ka kha sum cu, in Gsung thor bu, vol.I, pp.210-211. TBRC ref. W23504. Scanned from a reprint from the Derge blocks. (Quotation from p.210)

Bla ma dam pa kum ma rā dza la rtogs pa phul ba zhes bya ba bzhugs, in Gsung thor bu, vol.II, pp.352–357. (Quotation from p.353).


On the story of Longchenpa’s leaving Sangpu and writing the satirical verses, see:

Dudjom Rinpoche. 1991. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated and edited by G. Dorje and M. Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (vol.1, pp.578-579)

And on the fascinating history of Sangpu, its abbots and colleges, see:

Leonard van der Kuijp. 1987. “The Monastery of Gsang-phu Ne’u-thog and Its Abbatial Succession from ca. 1073 to 1250.” Berliner Indologische Studien 3: 103-127.

Padmasambhava II: the dark Padmasambhava

Recently browsing the excellent Himalayan Art website, I came across this 17th century painting of Padmasambhava, or as the inscription has it, “the honoured Mahāguru of all the Conquerors”, also known as Guru Rinpoche. The composition is unusual: the central figure is surrounded by 356 small Padmasambhavas, their clothes in recurring sequences of different colours that gives the whole painting a striking geometric pattern.

But what is more striking to anyone familiar with the usual depictions of Padmasambhava is the colour of the central figure. His skin is dark brown, apart from the palms of his hands, which are pink. This is not a representation of Padmasambhava I’ve ever seen before, even though in his other manifestations he does appear in other colours — and I’ll come to that in a minute.

There is a four line verse written on the back of the painting, in nice cursive writing, punctuated with the double circles that indicate these verses come from the tradition of rediscovered texts, or terma. I would think then, that this form of Padmasambhava is a special terma tradition. The verses are full of the imagery of Dzogchen, the “great perfection,” and three rainbow circles – tiglé – corresponding to Padmasambhava’s body, speech and mind, are painted on the other side of the main figure.

The verses seem to be referring to Padmsambhava as Padmarāga – meaning “lotus-hued.” According to the dictionaries, this can refer to the ruby, to something bedecked with rubies, or something ruby-coloured.But wait, surely that should be Padmarāja: “Lotus King”?

Anyway, I’d better explain why I’m going on about a 17th century painting on this website, where I generally stand politely behind an invisible line drawn across the boundary of the 10th and 11th centuries. What this painting reminded me of, when I came across it first, was a tantric text discovered in the Turfan basin of Eastern Central Asia, written in Turkic. (In what comes below, I rely on the work of Georg Kara and Peter Zieme, since I don’t read Turkic.)

The manuscript, actually a series of fragments, is part of a group of manuscripts, all tantric sādhanas (meditation instructions) found in Turfan and dating to the 13th and 14th centuries. By this time the Mongols had taken over Eastern Central Asia and the Mongol influence is clear enough here. One of the tantric texts, a Cakrasaṃvara maṇḍala, has a lineage that goes through Indian siddhas like Saraha, Luipa, Tilopa and Naropa, before coming to Tibet with Mal Lotsawa, and then going through the five patriarchs of Sakya, ending with Phagpa.

It was Phagpa, of course, who is said to have been given the rulership of Tibet by Khubilai Khan and to have acted as the Khan’s spiritual preceptor, granting numerous empowerments, including Cakrasaṃvara.

Why is the text in Turkic then? Well the Uighur Turks once ruled Turfan (which is at the northeast of the Takalakan desert) as well as Dunhuang itself. Like almost everybody else, they fell under Mongol rule in the 13th century. As the more established culture, the Uighurs became the teachers of their conquerors, influential in the fields of literature, science, military affairs, and of course, religion. The Mongols, who had no writing system of their own, used Uighur scribes, and many Turkic words (including Buddhist concepts) were adopted into the Mongolian language

*  *  *

The tantric text that concerns us here is a sādhana of Avalokiteśvara. The meditator is instructed in self-visualization as Avalokiteśvara, as one would expect. More surprisingly, the meditator is instructed visualize Padmasambhava (padma sanbaua baxšï) above his head. Now, Padmasambhava is described as having the form of a teacher of yoga (yogačari), wearing bone ornaments and dancing on a lotus throne. Furthermore his skin is described as black (qara) and shiny.

Here is a Padmasambhava who is very much the Indian mahāsiddha – yet quite unfamiliar. The form looks a little like one of the classic “eight manifestions” of Padmasambhava transmitted in the Nyingma tradition, known as Light Rays of the Sun (Nyima Özer), but he is always painted with orange or yellow skin, like the sunbeams of his name. Then there is the form known as Dorjé Drolö, also known as the wrathful guru, who has dark red or brown skin, but also has other wrathful features like three eyes, and always rides a tiger.

So none of these known forms fits our Turkic Padmsambhava. Is this perhaps a form of Padmasambhava once transmitted in the Sakya tradition, whose roots go back to the tantric Buddhism of early Tibet? The colophon tells us that this text was printed by a certain Upasi Böri Buqa in 1336. An earlier version also found in Turfan dates to 1276, which is just a couple of years after the period when Phagpa was resident at the court of Khubilai — he returned to Tibet in 1274.

*  *  *

And so… I’m not going to try to offer any conclusions here, but I hope others might find these rare manifestations of Padmsambhava interesting as well.

*  *  *

1. Kara, Georg and Peter Zieme. 1976. Fragmente tantrischer Werke in uighurischer Übersetzung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

1. Padmasambhava, 1600-1699, Collection of Moke Mokotoff. (c) Himalayan Art
2. British Library manuscript Or.8212/109 (Uighur tantric text — but not the one discussed here, which is in Berlin).

See also
Padmasambhava I: the early sources.