From the Introduction -
THE COMMENTARY translated in these pages is unusual and rare. Even within the Nyingma school, it appears to be little known outside the direct teaching lineage of its author, Mipham Rinpoche. We received the transmission and explanation of it in the course of teachings given by Tulku Pema Wangyal Rinpoche, who received it from his father, Kangyur Rinpoche, who in turn received it from Kathok Situ Chokyi Gyatso, one of Mipham's closest disciples. But if the commentary is a rarity, its subject matter, the seven-line invocation of Guru Padmasambhava, is one of the best-known prayers in the Tibetan Buddhist world. It is treasured and recited wherever the Precious Master, Guru Rinpoche, is revered-especially in the Nyingma school, which traces its origins to the dawn of Buddhism in Tibet. It is the primary supplication of the Guru, regarded, as the embodiment of all refuges, the personification of all enlightened beings, and the exemplar of all subsequent masters and teachers of the tradition. In the Nyingma school, no practice session, no meditation, no sadhana begins without three recitations of the Seven-Line Prayer, and as we can see from the colophon of the present commentary, it is not unusual for practitioners to devote months and even years of their lives to the accumulation of vast numbers of recitations of this prayer.
For many Westerners, even those who are attracted to Tibetan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche must seem a strange and enigmatic figure. As the tantric Buddhist master from Oddiyana (a region perhaps located in what is now Pakistan), who according to the records visited Tibet in the eighth century, there is little prima facie reason for doubting his historicity. And yet the traditional literature concerning him, which includes several full-length biographies, is filled with marvels and miracles of the kind that we would normally associate with legend and myth.' Let us briefly review the main points of Guru Rinpoche's life and his relationship with Tibet and its people.
According to the annals of Tibetan history, when King Trisongdetsen wished to establish the Buddhist teachings in his country, his first move was to invite to Tibet the great monk and scholar Shantarakshita, the renowned abbot of Nalanda, the vast monastic university that, at that time, was the glory of Buddhist India. Arriving in Tibet, Shantarakshita endeavored to instruct the king and people. He began the construction of the temple at Samye, ordained the first monks, and inaugurated the translation of Buddhist scriptures. His efforts, however, were less than successful. He met with powerful opposition from the Tibetan nobility and royal ministers, whose hearts and vested interests lay with the beliefs and practices of their native religion, the cult of the gods and spirits of Tibet. Intense as their hostility was, however, Shantarakshita sensed that the greatest opposition to his work came not from human agency at all but from the gods themselves. For the latter were disturbed by the presence of the foreign acharya, whose teachings threatened to abolish the blood sacrifices that sustained them and to disrupt the links they enjoyed with the land and its people; and they demonstrated their fury by an unprecedented series of natural disasters. Shantarakshita concluded that the only solution was to deal with the gods directly and to fight magic with magic. Frankly admitting that exploits of this kind were beyond his capacity, he advised the king to seek the protection of Guru Padmasambhava, a master of the Buddhist tantras and a yogi of unobstructed power.
The great Guru duly arrived and, in answer to the pleas of the king, transformed Tibet into a Buddhist land. As Shantarakshita had predicted, his first task was to subdue the gods, the strong and arrogant spirits that until then had reigned supreme. Tradition tells of many occasions in different parts of the country when Guru Rinpoche confronted and defeated them, not by destroying or driving them out, but by overwhelming them with his majesty, so that they became meek and submissive to his word. Many, it is said, took refuge in him. They entered the Dharma and became Buddhist. Others, less amenable, were subjugated by his yogic power and bound under oath to protect the Doctrine. Having thus pacified the spirit world, Guru Rinpoche was free to disseminate the Buddhist teachings, especially the Vajrayana, unhindered. And in so doing, it is said that he hallowed the land so completely that not a place remained untouched by his sacred feet, no clod of earth was not saturated with his blessing.
This was not the first time that an attempt had been made to effect the conversion of Tibet by occult means. Tibetan literature records that King Songtsen Gampo, several generations before, had constructed a whole network of temples located in places of geomantic significance, the purpose of which was to pin down the unruly country, envisioned as an enormous female figure- the "supine ogress"-stretched out on her back. The texts tell us that, for a time, this method was successful and the Buddhist
teachings began to spread and take root. Being widely scattered throughout the land, however, these "border-taming" temples were hard to maintain. And as they fell into disrepair following the death of Songtsen Gampo, Buddhist practice too began to diminish, overtaken by the encroaching shadows of the old ways.
As a safeguard against a similar decline, which was liable to occur after his own departure and the later collapse of the royal dynasty, it is said that Guru Rinpoche provided for the future of the country by concealing treasures of teachings to be revealed to future generations by the incarnations of his closest disciples. This treasure, or terma, tradition, which was and remains an important feature of the teachings and practice of the Nyingma school, is one of the most amazing legacies of Guru Rinpoche's visit to Tibet. It has acted as a protection for the lineages of transmission, on which the practice of the tantras depends and has been a recurrent means whereby the teachings have been revitalized and refreshed.
By his conversion of the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the country and by the power of his blessing, Guru Rinpoche thus created in Tibet and throughout the Himalayan region a protected land where the study and practice of the sutras and tantras could thrive uninterrupted for a thousand years. Here the teachings of the Buddha were to be kept vigorously alive for centuries after they had been annihilated in the land of their birth. At various stages in the history of Tibet, the tradition was enlarged and enriched by the appearance of other great masters who founded new schools and lineages. In so doing, they were able to build upon the foundations of an already existing tradition that had survived intact despite persecution and the lapse of time. And they and their teachings were able to flourish thanks to the protected environment created and sustained by the blessing of Guru Rinpoche. So closely was Guru Rinpoche associated with the destiny of Tibet that when, owing to sectarian intolerance, greatly aggravated during the disastrous interregnum between the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and the accession of the Fourteenth, the special rituals devised by Guru Rinpoche for the protection of the country were neglected, this was seen by many Tibetans as the certain harbinger of the catastrophe that effectively followed.
Reading further in the traditional accounts of the life of Guru Rinpoche, we find that however great his exploits were in Tibet and its neighboring territories, they were far from exhausting the activities of the great Guru. According to the traditional accounts and as prophesied in the tantras, Guru Rinpoche's first appearance in this world, in the form of a beautiful child sitting on a magnificent lotus in the lake of Dhanakosha, occurred not long after the mahaparinirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni. He was adopted and grew up in the household of the local king, Indrabhuti, and, on attaining manhood, received monastic vows from Ananda himself. At a later stage, through the practice of the Vajrayana and specifically the teachings of the Great Perfection, he achieved a level of accomplishment known as the "rainbow body of great transference" whereby his human body was transformed into light and never died. And by the time he encountered Trisongdetsen and Shantarakshita in Tibet, he was, by earthly reckoning, well over a thousand years old.
Neither were his activities confined to this world. He is said to have visited countless different world-systems in order to instruct the beings there. In his long career, he assumed many different shapes and forms according to need, including eight great manifestations and countless minor ones. Finally, after completing his work in Tibet, he left for the country of the demon rakshasas in the land of Chamara, the subcontinent that, according to ancient Indian cosmology, lies to the southwest of Jambudvipa (our world, itself the great continent situated to the south of Mount Meru, the axis of the universe). Even then, the story is far from over. Ever mindful of Tibet and his faithful disciples scattered about the world, Guru Rinpoche visits them regularly, especially on the tenth and twenty-fifth days of the lunar month, returning from Chamara astride the beams of the rising and the setting sun.
This brief account of the life and deeds of Guru Rinpoche is meant to spell out, without concessions to modern sensibilities, all that is generally believed about him within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Moreover, for his many devoted followers, Nyingmapas or otherwise, Guru Rinpoche is not simply a historical figure, a hero remembered from the past. He is a present reality. He is invoked constantly. His direct intervention in the affairs of everyday life is expected without hesitation and as a matter of course, and in teachings given by lamas and even in the conversation of ordinary people, the events of his life, the wonders he performed, and his appearances to saints and yogis are spoken of as if they were recent occurrences-as indeed some of them are.
An encounter with a living tradition of this kind can be perplexing for Westerners. It is disturbing to interact with people who take as literal, historical truth descriptions of events that seem to us to be plainly mythological. The implicit faith that Tibetan Buddhists have in Guru Rinpoche is a challenge to our way of thinking, and there are various strategies we may adopt in the attempt to accommodate such a potentially uncomfortable state of affairs. We might tell ourselves, for example, that the details of his life-his lotus-birth, his immortality and supernormal powers-are not religious dogmas. They are not articles of faith requiring a blind and unquestioning assent. They can consequently be left aside while we concentrate on the more important aspects of the Dharma. We could take the view that the accounts of the Guru's life are symbolic, that his lotus-birth is really just a poetic way of expressing the doctrine of the nirmanakaya, that his riding on beams of light is actually a reference to the visions of the thogal practice, and so on. It is by using such reductive arguments that we explain away events and actions deemed a priori to be fantastic and factually impossible, and reformulate them in terms that are intellectually more palatable.
Up to a point, this procedure is understandable. There is, however, a risk involved in reducing religious ideas to a level at which we interpret them only in terms of our present understanding of the world. For people who take an interest in the Dharma as a means of spiritual evolution, to dilute and bowdlerize the teachings in this way is not a wise course. All that happens is that we find ourselves untouched and unchanged, confirmed in the materialistic ideas that it is precisely the role of the Dharma to transform. One makes oneself immune to the power that such images clearly exert on those who accept them in a spirit of openness and faith. For it cannot be denied that all the great yogis of the past and all the great masters of today have achieved their levels of realization by practicing within a view of the world in which they never found it necessary to question the life and exploits of Guru Rinpoche as we have just described them. This fact should give us pause and perhaps make us less ready to dismiss the stories of Guru Rinpoche's life as mere folklore. The problem with the reductionist approach is that, in attempting to arrive at a more sophisticated interpretation of the traditional accounts, it tends to result not in a deeper insight into the meaning of the Dharma, but in an attitude that is no more than materialism in practice.
This, however, is not the only approach available to us. We may need to tread a narrow line between naive credulity on the one hand and a proud and arid skepticism on the other, both of which effectively close the door to a deeper understanding. It may be difficult to believe, for example, that Guru Rinpoche was a thousand years old when he arrived in Tibet, or that he is still alive on an island somewhere to the southwest of Mount Meru. But one thing seems certain: we will never succeed in understanding anything if we begin with the decision that it is impossible. When confronted by the mysterious, it maybe more profitable (it is certainly more interesting) to maintain an attitude of open inquiry, rather than foreclosing on the issue in the name of a so-called modern way of looking at things.
A direct experience of the Tibetan tradition is no doubt helpful in overcoming our reluctance to countenance the possibility of events inexplicable in terms of a narrowly mechanistic view of the universe. In the world of Tibetan Buddhism, moments do occur when the boundaries of ordinary existence seem to be breached and the miraculous comes flooding in. Even now, there are well-documented cases of lamas who have withdrawn treasure teachings from rocks or lakes, or who have visited "hidden lands' Even in recent years, there have been cases of yogis who at their deaths have manifested the rainbow body before many witnesses, dissolving their bodies into light and leaving behind only their hair and nails. And many Westerners, even if they have not been party to such prodigies, have felt for themselves the extraordinary effect upon their perceptions that is said to be exerted by the presence of a great master. To spend time in the vicinity of Kangyur Rinpoche, for example, was to enter a dimension in which literally any wonder seemed possible.