A Guest of the Lamas
Yet a strange thing happened during my stay at Podang.
Sidkeong tulku, having become maharajah, wished to make his subjects renounce their superstitions in favour of orthodox Buddhism. For this purpose, he had invited an Indian monk, who belonged to the Theravadin philosophic school, to preach in his country. The missionary had to fight against such anti-buddhistic customs as sorcery, the cult of spirits and the habit of drinking fermented drinks. This monk, Kali Kumar by name, was already at work.
The maharajah-lama, as abbot of Podang, had an apartment in the monastery where he stayed on the rare occasions when he officiated at the head of his monks. He came for two days, during my stay in the gompa.
We were taking tea together, late in the afternoon, and talking of Kali Kumars mission and the way in which he might hope to free the hill men from their inveterate superstitions.
‘It is impossible,’ I said, ‘to know exactly what the historical Padmasambhava, who preached in Tibet centuries ago, was like. But it is certain that his followers have made him the hero of legends that encourage drunkenness and absurd, pernicious practices. Under his name, they worship an evil spirit – even as you do,’ I added laughingly, pointing out an image of the great magician standing at the far end of the room with an altar lamp burning at its feet.
‘It is necessary,’ I continued, when, suddenly, I could say no more. A third invisible presence had interrupted me. Yet no one had spoken, there was complete silence in the room, but I keenly felt the influence of some occult force.
‘Nothing you can do will succeed,’ said a soundless voice. ‘The people of this country are mine …I am more powerful than you ….’
I listened in amazement to these silent words, and I had almost decided that they were only the expression of my own doubts regarding the success of the proposed reforms, when the maharajah replied.
He replied to that which I had not said, arguing with the invisible adversary of his plans.
‘Why should I not succeed?’ he went on to say. ‘Possibly it will take some time to change the ideas of the peasants and the lower clergy. The demons which they feed will not easily become resigned to die of hunger, but, nevertheless, I shall get the better of them.’
He was mockingly alluding to the animal sacrifices offered to the evil spirits by the sorcerers.
‘But I have not said -‘ I began and stopped short, for I thought that, in spite of the brave declaration of war the prince had made on the demons, he was not entirely free from superstition and consequently it was better not to tell him what had happened. However, I do not wish to leave the reader with this impression of Sidkeong tulku. He had probably liberated himself from superstition more fully than I supposed.
According to his horoscope, in which Tibetans place complete faith, the year of his death was noted as dangerous for him. To counteract hostile influences, several lamas – among whom was the gomchen of Lachen – offered to celebrate the rites prescribed for the purpose.
He thanked them and refused their ministry, saying that if he must die, he felt capable of passing into another life without their ceremonies.
I think he must have left the reputation of being an impious man. As soon as he was dead, all innovations and religious reforms that he had started were abolished. Preaching was stopped and beer was supplied in the temples again. A lama informed the country clergy that they should return to their former habits.
The invisible adversary triumphed as he had predicted he would.
One evening, when the prince, Daling lama and I were together in the bungalow of Kewzing, the conversation was about mystic ascetics. With a repressed enthusiasm that was most impressive, the gomchen spoke of his master, of his wisdom, of his supernormal powers. Sidkeong tulku was deeply moved by the profound veneration of the lama for his spiritual teacher.
At that time the prince was full of cares on account of his contemplated marriage with a Birman princess.
‘I regret very much that I cannot meet this great naljorpa,’ he said to me in English. ‘For he, certainly, would give me good advice.’
And, addressing the gomchen, he repeated in Tibetan: ‘I am sorry that your master is not here. I really need the advice of some such clairvoyant sage.’
But he did not mention the question he wished to ask, nor the nature of his preoccupations.
The lama, with his usual coldness of manner asked: ‘Is the subject serious?’
‘It is extremely important,’ the prince replied.
‘You can perhaps receive the desired advice,’ said Daling gomchen.
I thought that he meant to send a letter by a messenger and was about to remind him the great distance that would have to be covered, when his aspect struck me.
He had closed his eyes and was rapidly turning pale, his body stiffening. I wished to go to him, thinking he was ill, but the prince, who had observed the sudden change in the lama, held me back, whispering, ‘Don’t move. Gomchens sometimes go into a trance quite suddenly. One must not wake them, for that is very dangerous and might even kill them.’
So I stayed seated watching the lama, who remained motionless. Gradually his features changed, his face wrinkled, taking on an expression I had never seen him wear before. He opened his eyes and the prince made a startled gesture.
The man we were looking at was not the gomchen of Daling, but someone we did not know. He moved his lips with difficulty and said, in a voice different from that of the gomchen, ‘Do not be disturbed. This question will never have to be considered by you.’
Then he slowly dosed his eyes, his features changed again and became those of Daling lama, who slowly recovered his senses.
He eluded our questions and retired in silence, staggering and seeming to be broken with fatigue.
‘There is no sense in his answer,’ the prince concluded.
Whether by chance or for some other reason, it unfortunately proved that there had been a meaning in these words.
The matter troubling the young maharajah was about his fiancee and an affair with a girl who had borne him a son, which he did not wish to break off when he married. But, truly, he needed not to ponder over his course of conduct toward the two women, for he died before the day arranged for the marriage.
As befitted our assumed condition of beggarly pilgrims, we respectfully saluted the lama. Most likely, the desire that the sight of the teapot awakened in us could be read in our faces. The lama muttered: ‘Ningje!’(meaning ‘How sad!’ ‘The poor things!’ ) and, aloud, told us to sit down and bring out our bowls for tea and tsampa.
A trapa poured the remaining tea in our bowls, placed a bag of tsampa near us and went to help his companions, who had begun to saddle the beasts and make ready to start. Then, one of the horses suddenly took fright and ran away. This is a common occurrence, and a man went after the animal with a rope.
The lama was not talkative; he looked at the horse that ran in the direction of a hamlet and said nothing. We continued to eat silently. Then, I noticed an empty wooden pot besmeared with curd and guessed that the lama had got the curd from a farm which I could see at some distance away from the road.
The diet of daily tsampa without any vegetables proved rather trying for the stomach and I availed myself of all opportunities to get milk food. I whispered in Yongden’s ear: ‘When the lama is gone, you shall go to the farm and ask for a little curd.’
Though I had spoken very low and we were not seated very near to the lama, he appeared to have heard my words. He cast a searching glance at me and again uttered Sotto voce:’Ningje!’
Then he turned his head in the direction where the horse had run away. The animal had not gone far, but was apparently in a playful mood and did not permit the trapa to capture it easily. At last it let him throw the rope round its neck and followed him quietly.
The lama remained motionless, gazing fixedly at the man who advanced toward us. Suddenly, the latter stopped, looked around and went to a boulder nearby, where he tied his horse. Then he retraced his steps a little way and leaving the road, walked to the farm. After a while I saw him come back to his horse carrying something. When he reached us the ‘something’ turned out to be a wooden pot full of curd. He did not give it to the lama, but held it in his hand, looking interrogatively at his master as if saying, ‘Was that what you wanted? What am I to do with this curd?’
To his unspoken question the lama answered by an affirmative nod and told the trapa to give me the curd.
The second incident which 1 will relate did not occur in Tibet itself, but on the borderland territory that has been annexed to the Chinese provinces of Szetchuan and Kansu.
At the skirt of the immense primeval forest that extends from Tagan to the Kunka pass, six travellers had joined my small party. The region is known as being haunted by daring Tibetan robbers, and those who must cross it look for opportunities of forming as large and as well armed a company as possible. Five of my new companions were Chinese traders, the sixth was a Bonpo ngagspa, a tall man whose long hair, wrapped in a piece of red material, formed a voluminous turban.
Anxious to glean anything that I could regarding the religion of the country, I invited the man to share our meals in order to find an opportunity of chatting with him. I learned that he was going to join his master, a Bonpo magician, who was performing a great dubthab on a neighbouring hill. The object of this rite was to coerce a malignant demon who habitually harmed one of the small tribes which live in that region. After diplomatic preambles I expressed my desire of paying a visit to the magician, but his disciple declared the thing utterly impossible. His master must not be disturbed during the full lunar month necessary to perform the rite.
I understood that it was useless to argue with him, but I planned to follow him when he paned with us, after crossing the pass. If I succeeded in coming unexpectedly upon the magician, I might perhaps have a glimpse at him and at his magic circle. Consequently, I ordered my servants to keep good watch on the ngagspa so that he could not leave us unnoticed.
Probably they spoke too loudly among themselves about the matter. The ngagspa saw through the trick I intended playing upon his guru and told me that it was no use attempting it.
I replied that I did not harbour any evil intention against his master and only wanted to have a talk with him for the sake of enlightenment. I also commanded my servants to keep a still closer watch on our companion. The ngagspa could not but be aware that he had become a prisoner. But as he also understood that no harm would be done to him and that he was well fed – a thing to which Tibetans are keenly alive – he took his adventure good humouredly.
‘Do not fear that I shall run away,’ he said to me. ‘You may bind me with ropes if it pleases you. I need not go ahead to inform my master of your coming. He already knows all about it. Ngais lung gi teng la len tang tsar’ (I have sent a message on the wind).
Ngagspas are in the habit of boasting of so many and such various miraculous powers that I did not pay any more attention to his words than to those of his colleagues in the black art.
This time, I was wrong.
When we had crossed the pass, we entered a region of pasture land. Robbers were not much to be feared on these wide tablelands. The Chinese traders. who had clung to us day and night while in the forest. recovered their assurance and took leave. I was still intending to follow the ngagspa when a troup numbering half a dozen riders emerged from an undulation of the ground. They rode at full speed towards me, then dismounted, saluted, offered kha-tags (complimentary scarves) and a present of butter. After the polite demonstrations were ended, an elderly man told me that the great Bonpo ngagspa had sent them and begged me to renounce my intention of visiting him, for no one but an initiated disciple ought to approach the place where he had built his secret magic kyilkhor.
Mystic Theories and Spiritual Training
However, it is not to amuse the hermits that these exercises have been invented. Their true aim is to lead the disciple to understand that the worlds and all phenomena which we perceive are but mirages born from our imagination.
They emanate from the mind
And into the mind they sink.
In fact this is the fundamental teaching of Tibetan mystics.
If we now consider the case of a monk who instead of placing himself under the spiritual guidance of a lama who is a regular member of a monastery ventures to solicit the teaching of a contemplative anchorite naljorpa, the training takes another aspect. Methods become strange, sometimes even cruel; we have seen it in a previous chapter.
The trilogy Examination, Meditation, Understanding takes a peculiar importance among the followers of the ‘Short Path’ and the intellectual activity of the disciple is exclusively directed towards these results. Sometimes the means that are used seem extravagant, yet when closely investigated one sees that the object aimed at is quite reasonable. It is also clear that the inventors of these curious methods perfectly understand the mind of their brethren in religion and have devised them accordingly.
Padmasambhava is said to have described the stages of the mystic path in the following way:
1. To read a large number of books on the various religions and philosophies. To listen to many learned doctors professing different doctrines. To experiment oneself with a number of methods.
2. To choose a doctrine among the many one has studied and discard the other ones, as the eagle carries off only one sheep from the flock.
3. To remain in a lowly condition, humble in ones demeanour, not seeking to be conspicuous or important in the eyes of the world, but behind apparent insignificance, to let ones mind soar high above all worldly power and glory.
4. To be indifferent to all. Behaving like the dog or the pig that eat what chance brings them. Not making any choice among the things which one meets. Abstaining from any effort to acquire or avoid anything. Accepting with an equal indifference whatever comes: riches or poverty, praise or contempt, giving up the distinction between virtue and vice, honourable and shameful, good and evil. Being neither afflicted, nor repenting whatever one may have done and, on the other hand, never being elated nor proud on account of what one has accomplished.
5. To consider with perfect equanimity and detachment the conflicting opinions and the various manifestations of the activity of beings. To understand that such is the nature of things, the inevitable mode of action of each entity and to remain always serene. To look at the world as a man standing on the highest mountain of the country looks at the valleys and the lesser summits spread out below him.
6. It is said that the sixth stage cannot be described in words. It corresponds to the realization of the ‘Void’ which, in lamaist terminology, means the Inexpressible Reality.
In spite of these programmes, it is impossible to establish a regular gradation of the multifarious training exercises devised by Tibetan mystic anchorites. In practice, these various exercises are combined. Moreover each lama adopts a peculiar method and it is even rare to see two disciples of the same master following exactly the same path.
We must make up our minds to accept an apparent chaos which is a natural result of the different individual tendencies and aptitudes which the gurus, adepts of the ‘Short Path’, refuse to crush. ‘Liberty’ is the motto on the heights of the Land of Snows, but strangely enough, the disciple starts on that road of utter freedom, by the strictest obedience to his spiritual guide. However, the required submission is confined to the spiritual and psychic exercises and the way of living prescribed by the master. No dogmas are ever imposed. The disciple may believe, deny or doubt anything according to his own feelings. !’
I have heard a lama say that the part of a Master, adept of the ‘Short Path’, is to superintend a ‘clearing’. He must incite the novice to rid himself of the beliefs, ideas, acquired habits and innate tendencies which are pan of his present mind and have been developed in the course of successive lives whose origin is lost in the night of time.
On the other hand, the Master must warn his disciple to be on his guard against accepting new beliefs, ideas and habits as groundless and irrational as those which he shakes off.
The discipline on the ‘Short Path’ is to avoid imagining things. When imagination is prescribed in contemplative meditation, it is to demonstrate by that conscious creation of perceptions or sensations the illusory nature of those perceptions and sensations which we accept as real though they too rest on imagination; the only difference being that, in their case, the creation is unconsciously effected.
The Tibetan reformer Tsong Khapa defines meditation as ‘the means of enabling oneself to reject all imaginative thoughts together with their seed’.
It is this uprooting of the present ‘imaginative thoughts’ and the burning of their ‘seed’, so that no fanciful ideas may arise in the future, that constitutes the ‘clearing’ which I have just mentioned.
Two exercises are especially prescribed by the adepts of the mystic path. The first consists in observing with great attention the workings of the mind without attempting to stop it.
‘Seated in a quiet place, the disciple refrains as much as he can from consciously pointing his thoughts in a definite direction. He marks the spontaneous arising of ideas, memories, desires, etc., and considers how, superseded by new ones, they sink into the dark recesses of the mind.
He watches also the subjective image which, apparently unconnected with any thoughts or sensations, appears while his eyes are closed: men, animals, landscapes, moving crowds, etc.
During that exercise, he avoids making reflections about the spectacle which he beholds, looking passively at the continual, swift, flowing stream of thoughts and mental images that whirl, jostle, fight and pass away.
It is said that the disciple is about to gather the fruit of this practice when he loosens the firm footing he had kept, till then, in his quality of spectator. He too – so he must understand – is an actor on the tumultuous stage. His present introspection, all his acts and thoughts, and the very sum of them all which he calls his self, are but ephemeral bubbles in a whirlpool made of an infinite quantity of bubbles which congregate for a moment, separate, burst, and form again, following a giddy rhythm.
The second exercise is intended to stop the roaming of the mind in order that one may concentrate it on one single object.
Training which tends to develop a perfect concentration of mind is generally deemed necessary for all students without distinction. As to observing the mind’s activity it is only recommended to the most intellectual disciples.
Training the mind to ‘one-pointedness’ is practised in all Buddhist sects.
In southern Buddhist countries – Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma – an apparatus called kasinas, which consists of clay discs variously coloured, or a round surface covered by water, or a fire at which one gazes through a screen in which a round hole is pierced, is used for this purpose. Any of these circles is stared at until it is seen as clearly when the eyes are shut as when they are open and actually looking at it.
The process does not aim at producing an hypnotic state, as some Western scholars have said, but it accustoms one to concentrating the mind. The fact that the subjective image has become as vivid as the objective, indicates – according to those who patronize that method that ‘one-pointedness’ has been reached.
What can be the aim of such strange exercises? The most frequent answer given to my questions will probably seem unsatisfactory by many inquirers, yet it is probably quite correct.
Some lamas have told me that the aim of these practices can hardly be explained, because those who have not felt their effects could not understand the explanations.
One attains by the means of these strange drills psychic states entirely different from those habitual to us. They cause us to pass beyond the fictitious limits which we assign to the self. The result being that we grow to realize that the self is compound, impermanent; and that the self, as self, does not exist.
One of these lamas seized upon a remark 1 had made as an argument in support of his theory. When he spoke of the heart as the seat of thought and mind, I had said that Westerners would rather place thoughts and mind in the brain.
‘You see: immediately replied my interlocutor, ‘that one may feel and recognize the mind in different places. Since these phillings experience the sensation of thinking in their head, and I experience it in my heart, one may believe that it is quite possible to feel it in the foot. But all these are only deceitful sensations, with no shadow of reality. The mind is neither in the heart nor in the head, nor somewhere outside of the body, apart, separated, alien to it. It is to help one realize this fact that these apparently strange practices have been devised.’
Here again we meet with the ‘clearing’ process. All these exercises aim at destroying habitual notions accepted by routine and without personal investigation. The object is to make one understand that other ideas can be put in their place. It is hoped that the disciple will conclude that there cannot be any absolute truth in ideas derived from sensations which can be discarded while others, even contradictory to them, take their place.
All lamas agree regarding the usefulness of most of these strangely artful training practices. Yet, when reading certain treatises about them or listening to oral explanations given by some mystic masters, one not infrequently detects a restrained impatience. The teacher who instructs us seems to say: ‘Yes, all that is necessary, perhaps, even indispensable to the majority of novices, but as it preparatory drill only, the goal is elsewhere. Let us make haste and finish with the preliminary process. ‘
The following sober method keeps closer to this goal; at any rate its working is more easily understood.
The Master orders his disciple to shut himself in tsams and to meditate, taking his Yidam (tutelary deity) as object of his contemplation.
The novice, dwelling in strict seclusion, concentrates his thoughts on the Yidam, imagining him in the shape and form ascribed to him in books and images. Repeating certain mystic formulas and constructing a kyilkhor are parts of the exercise of which the aim is to cause the Yidam to appear to his worshipper. At least, such is the aim that the Master points out to the beginner.
The pupil breaks his contemplation during the time strictly necessary to eat and the very short time allowed for sleep. Often the recluse does not lie down and only dozes in one of those gomti which have been described in a previous chapter.
Months and even years may elapse in that way. Occasionally the master inquires about the progress of his pupil. At last a day comes when the novice informs him that he has reaped the fruit of his exertion: the Yidam has appeared. As a rule, the vision has been nebulous and lasted only a little while. The master declares that it is an encouraging success, but not as yet a definitive result. It is desirable that the recluse should longer enjoy the hallowed company of his protector.
The apprentice naljorpa cannot but agree, and continues his effort. A long time again elapses. Then, the Yidam is ‘fixed’ – if I may use that term. He dwells in the tsams khang and the recluse sees him as always present in the middle of the kyilkhor.
‘This is most excellent,’ answers the master when he is informed of the fact, ‘but you must seek a still greater favour. You must pursue your meditation until you are able to touch with your head the feet of the Yidam, until he blesses you and speaks to you.’
Though the previous stages have taken long to be effected, they may be considered the easiest part of the process. The following are much more arduous to attain and only a small minority of novices meet with success.
These successful disciples see the Yidam taking on life. They distinctly feel the touch of his feet when, prostrated, they lay their head on them. They feel the weight of his hands when he blesses them. They see his eyes moving, his lips parting, he speaks… And lo, he steps out of the kyilkhor and walks in the tsams khang.
It is a perilous moment. When wrathful demi-gods or demons have called up in that way, they must never be allowed to escape from the kyilkhor, whose magic walls hold them prisoners. Set free out of due time, they would revenge themselves on the person who has compelled them to enter this prison-like consecrated circle. However, the Yidam, though his appearance may be dreadful and his power is to be feared, is not dangerous because the recluse has won his favour. Consequently, he may move about as he pleases in the hermitage. Even better, he may cross its threshold and stand in the open. Following his teacher’s advice, the novice must find out if the deity is willing to accompany him when he walks out.
This task is harder than all previous ones. Visible and tangible in the obscure hermitage fragrant with incense, where the psychic influences born from a prolonged concentration of thought are working, will the Yidams form be able to subsist in quite different surroundings under the bright sunlight, exposed to influences which, instead of supporting it, will act as dissolving agents?
A new elimination takes place amongst the disciples. Most Yidam refuse to follow their devotee into the open. They remain obstinately in some dark comer and sometimes grow angry and avenge themselves for the disrespectful experiments to which they have been submitted. Strange accidents occur to some anchorites, but others succeed in their undertaking and wherever they go enjoy the presence of their worshipful protector.
‘You have reached the desired goal,’ says the guru to his exultant disciple. ‘I have nothing more to each you. You have won the favours of a protector mightier than I.’
Certain disciples thank the lama and, proud of their achievement, return to their monastery or establish themselves in a hermitage and spend the remainder of their life playing with their phantom.
On the contrary, others, trembling in mental agony, prostrate themselves at their gurus feet and confess some awful sin. Doubts have arisen in their mind which, in spite of strenuous efforts, they have not been able to overcome. Before the Yidam himself, even when he spoke to them or when they touched him, the thought had arisen in them that they contemplated a mere phantasmagoria which they had themselves created.
The master appears afflicted by his confession. The unbeliever must return to his tsams khang and begin training all over again in Order to conquer his incredulity, so ungrateful to the Yidam who has favoured him.
Once undermined, faith seldom regains a firm footing. If the great respect which Orientals feels for their religious teacher did not restrain them, these incredulous disciples would probably yield to the temptations of giving up the religious life, their long training having ended in materialism. But nearly all of them hold on to it, for if they doubt the reality of their Yidam, they never doubt their Masters wisdom.
After a time the disciple repeats the same confession. It is even more positive than the first time. There is no longer any question of doubt: he is thoroughly convinced that the Yidam is produced by his mind and has no other existence than that which he has lent him.
‘That is exactly what it is necessary for you to realize,’ the master tells him. ‘Gods, demons, the whole universe, are but a mirage which exists in the mind, “springs from it, and sinks into it”.’
Psychic Phenomenon in Tibet – How Tibetans Explain Them
Must we credit these strange accounts of rebellious ‘materializations’, phantoms which have become real beings, or must we reject them all as mere fantastic tales and wild products of imagination? Perhaps the latter course is the wisest. I affirm nothing. I only relate what I have heard from people whom, in other circumstances, I had found trustworthy, but they may have deluded themselves in all sincerity.Nevertheless, allowing for a great deal of exaggeration and sensational addition, I could hardly deny the possibility of visualizing and animating a tulpa. Besides having had few opportunities of seeing thought-forms, my habitual incredulity led me to make experiments for myself and my efforts were attended with some success. In order to avoid being influenced by the forms of the lamaist deities, which I saw daily around me in paintings and images, I chose for my experiment a most insignificant character: a monk, short and fat, of an innocent and jolly type.I shut myself in tsams and proceeded to perform the prescribed concentration of thought and other rites. After a few months the phantom monk was formed. His form grew gradually fixed and life-like looking. He became a kind of guest, living in my apartment. I then broke my seclusion and started for a tour, with my servants and tents.The monk included himself in the party. Though I lived in the open, riding on horseback for miles each day, the illusion persisted. I saw the fat trapa; now and then it was not necessary for me to think of him to make him appear. The phantom performed various actions of the kind that are natural to travellers and that I had not commanded. For instance, he walked, stopped, looked around him. The illusion was mostly visual, but sometimes I felt as if a robe was lightly rubbing against me and once a hand seemed to touch my shoulder.The features which I had imagined, when building my phantom, gradually underwent a change. The fat, chubby-cheeked fellow grew leaner, his face assumed a vaguely mocking, sly, malignant look. He become more troublesome and bold. In brief, he escaped my control.Once, a herdsman who brought me a present of butter saw the tulpa in my tent and took it for a live lama.I ought to have let the phenomenon follow its course, but the presence of that unwanted companion began to prove trying to my nerves; it turned into a ‘day-nightmare’. Moreover, I was beginning to plan my journey to Lhasa and needed a quiet brain devoid of other preoccupations, so I decided to dissolve the phantom. I succeeded, but only after six months of hard struggle. My mind-creature was tenacious of life.
There is nothing strange in the fact that I may have created my own hallucination. The interesting point is that in these cases of materialization, others see the thought-forms that have been created.
Tibetans disagree in their explanations of such phenomena; some think a material form is really brought into being, others consider the apparition as a mere case of suggestion, the creators thought impressing others and causing them to see what he himself sees.
In spite of the clever efforts made by the Tibetans to find rational explanations for all prodigies, a number remain unexplained, perhaps because they are pure inventions, or perhaps for other reasons.