THE LOTUS-BORN: The Life Story of Padmasambhava
Composed by Yeshe Tsogyal
Revealed by Nyang Ral Nyima Oser and Clarification of the Life of Padmasambhava
by Tsele Natsok Rangdrol
Translated from the Tibetan by Erik Pema Kunsang
Edited by Marcia Binder Schmidt
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1993.
321 pp., $30.00 (hardback). $16.00 (paperback).
“IN THE WESTERN direction of India, in the country of glorious Uddiyana, in the city called Glowing Jewels, there was a palace of lapis lazuli decorated with many kinds of precious substances.” Like a fairy tale, The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava begins with a throne of shining gems, 108 queens, and a king who needs a son. After suitable adventures, the king finds a beautiful eight-year-old boy on an island in the ocean, sitting on a lotus. He tells the king:
My father is the wisdom of
My mother is the Ever-Excellent
Lady, the space of all things
. . . . I sustain myself by
consuming the concepts of
My purpose is the act of killing
The child is, of course, the beloved Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, an emanation of Buddha Shakyamuni; the story is the account of his visit to Tibet and the manner in which he brings teachings to the Land of Snows.
This version ofPadmasambhava’s life, credited to his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, and concealed by her at Sanglingma (Copper Temple) in the ninth century, was revealed by Nyang Ral Nyima Oser in the twelfth century. This graceful translation by Erik Pema Kunsang combines the qualities of folk legend, poetry, oral transmission, history, priceless scriptures, and advice for unborn generations (as well as an invaluable sixtyseven-page glossary).
Although it is commonly said that Guru Rinpoche brought the dharma to Tibet, it was already there in some form when King Trisong Deutsen invited him to “kindle the torch of Dharma! In the dense darkness of Tibet.” Before assuming this role, Padmasambhava received teachings and demonstrated his mastery of practice, although he was a manifestation of a buddha, to show the necessity of following a master.
The Lotus-Born has many of the repetitive and surreal qualities of myth or folktale, sometimes with a note of (perhaps unintentional) humor. When the master Vairochana is exiled from the king’s realm to an outlying district, the people are suspicious of him:
“A sophist from Tibet has come,” they said, and threw him into a lice pit. After that he was cast into a frog pit but he remained unharmed. They took him out and proclaimed him a holy personage.
Each time Guru Rinpoche or one of the other translators and teachers proposes an action, King Trisong Deutsen agrees, then bows to his ministers’ pressure and allows the teacher to be overriden or expelled. This makes more sense if we think of it as mirroring the inner process by which we repeatedly surrender to our ordinary mind. After one such incident, the king weeps with deep remorse and embarrassment. Guru Rinpoche reminds him:
Your Majesty, as you are just a sentient being you will give rise to conceptual thinking, but that itself is not breaking the sacred commitment. . . . Doubt is the enemy of Dharma, so practice free from doubt.
Much of the poetry is extremely powerful. Guru Rinpoche predicts that bad times will come to Tibet, threatening the dharma:
People will wear the evil clothing of coats of dog skin and pointed helmets. . . . And preach evil Dharma, the emptiness of nihilism.
The scenes in the bardos are suitably hair-raising (“In the Hell of Loud Crying one howls after being put inside a burning iron box”). The king dies.
After overseeing the first few years of the new reign, Padmasambhava resolves to leave Tibet, first hiding many teachings for future generations. He admonishes his followers: “The Tibetans and I do not agree!/ I am leaving; I am going to India!” He then gives last words and specific teachings to the Tibetan people, sometimes in a stern manner.
He then exhorts them to accept Avalokiteshvara as the deity of Tibet (with a beautiful instruction on the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum) and leaves to vanquish the rakshasas, the cannibals of Chamara–or, perhaps, the unruly emotions of samsara, depending on how one reads it. In the end, he “mounted a beam of sunlight and in the flicker of a moment flew away into the sky. . . . He turned his face to look back and sent forth a light ray of immeasurable loving-kindness. . . “
It is said that Padmasambhava is the buddha for the dark age, the one who works most powerfully with ourkali yuga, negativity. How appropriate that this lovely new version of his life be presented now, for our guidance and encouragement.
Rebecca Radner is a San Francisco poet, reviewer, and teacher.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.