For Sarah Harding, a translator of Vajrayana texts and longtime Buddhist practitioner, the invitation was irresistible: to spend a year in Bhutan preparing a book on Pema Lingpa (1450-1521), one of Tibetan Buddhism’s five most important tertöns (treasure-revealers), and a national folk hero to the Bhutanese. Harding’s translation, The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa(Snow Lion, 2003; $14.95 paper), is the first to make Pema Lingpa’s terma, or treasures, available in English. The texts—taken from Lama Jewel Ocean (Lama Norbu Gyatso), one of the most important cycles in Pema Lingpa’s twenty-one-volume treasure collection—contain fundamental instructions from Padmasambhava, the eighth-century scholar who brought Buddhism to the Himalayan region and is revered as their highest teacher, Guru Rinpoche.
Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche—one of three emanations of Pema Lingpa, and the organizer of the translation project—arranged for Harding’s stay in Bhutan, with the king’s approval. Translating the treasure texts is a priority for the country’s leaders, both to disseminate the teachings and to set the record straight. A recent scholarly work questioning Pema Lingpa’s authenticity caused a stir in this tiny mountain kingdom, now the only independent country where Tibetan Buddism is the official state religion. The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa includes texts tracing Pema Lingpa’s incarnations and his authentication as a “predetermined emissary” of Padmasambhava.
For Harding, a professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and her daughter and son—then fourteen and eleven—their year in Bhutan (1996-1997) was a singular adventure. When she wasn’t busy translating, Harding tootled around the mountain roads in a tiny Indian Maruti car, visiting cliffs, lakes, and other sacred sites where Pema Lingpa is said to have found treasures, and immersing herself in the Buddhist culture.
To many readers, the most fascinating—and surprising—revelations in theLife and Revelations of Pema Lingpa will be Padmasambhava’s observations on women and spiritual practice. Tricycle’s Joan Duncan Oliver spoke with Sarah Harding about these treasure teachings, and her experience of Buddhism in modern-day Bhutan.
How did these treasure teachings come about? The tradition of hiding treasures, or terma—teachings to be found in later generations by a tertön, or treasure-revealer—is said to have begun with Padmasambhava in the eighth century. Padmasambhava gave teachings that were written down by his spiritual partner, Yeshe Tsogyal, then hidden in various places. Some were earth treasures, sa ter, hidden in physical places – in cliffsides, or in water, perhaps. Others were gong ter—mind treasures—that were hidden in the mind continuum of Padmasambhava’s disciples, to be discovered in their own minds in future incarnations. Pema Lingpa’s terma were earth treasures.
It’s surprising to see from Padmasambhava’s dialogues with the Bhutanese princesses how involved he was with their situation as women. Basically he’s emphasizing independence, although at first he seems to be agreeing with their own low self-esteem and self-assessment that it’s impossible for them to practice. A lot of that thinking—that they’re too stupid to practice, or not lucky enough—is internalized oppression from the culture. These women are princesses in the court, they have every advantage, but that’s not enough to give them confidence in the dharma. Guru Rinpoche seems to agree with them, and to continue their litany, “Yeah, husbands are a problem; they beat you,” and so on. His recommendation is to leave the situation altogether and go off and study dharma. Going for refuge originally meant “Come forth, leave the householder life.” These days, we have a belief that practicing the householder life is the Vajrayana way. But if the householder way is not conducive to practicing dharma, Guru Rinpoche advises leaving. In these texts, he’s giving radical alternative-lifestyle suggestions to women.
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