“Say some invocations and aspiration prayers”. We are driving to an unknown destination, though I am not so surprised when I realise where we are going. Khenpo La had warned me we were going to a special place tomorrow. On the way we pick up Namgye and her eighty year old mother.
We are in the Paro Valley in Bhutan. I am so blessed to be back in this Pure Land of Vajrayana Buddhism in the eastern Himalayas. Even more blessed to be staying with my “Uncle”, spiritual friend and Lama, Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi. I have known him since I was 15, when my father was working in Timphu and Khenpo La was his neighbour. Khenpo La is now the director of the National Museum of Bhutan, so we drive from Ta Dzong, down past Paro town and up the valley towards Taktsang. The car is resounding with aspiration prayers to Guru Rinpoche and Tara, each passenger murmuring their favourite.
Taktsang is indeed a special place. It is the most holy and revered temple in all of Bhutan, perched dramatically on the edge of a cliff with a 900 meters drop beneath. The Indian yogi Padmasambhava, affectionately known as Guru Rinpoche in the Himalayas, flew to this cave on the back of a tiger, in his manifestation as Dorje Drollo, “Wild Wrathful Vajra”, one of his eight main manifestations. He took this form to subdue local deities and liberate them into the expanse of natural awareness. He must have chosen Tak Tsang for it’s seclusion and the scariness of such a position right on the edge of an 900 metro sheer cliff drop. For normal people this kind of place would be scary and dangerous, but for a yogi as Padmasambhava, it’s a perfect place of practice to look into the face of fear and merge into the empty space in front of him. When you look up at Taktsang, you can actually see the contours of the face of Dorje Drollo in the rock face above it.
Dorje Drollo is often seen as a manifestation of crazy wisdom, but as Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche has pointed out, this wisdom is rather wild than crazy, as the translation of the name rightly says. It’s wisdom that breaks conventional ideas about what’s wise. Is it wise to seclude yourself on the edge of a sheer cliff in the wilderness? To Guru Rinpoche it is indeed.
In the centuries that followed his retreat, many enlightened yogis came and meditated here such as Palgyi Senge, Padampa Sangye, Machig Labdrön, Milarepa, Phajo Drukgom Shigpo and Thangtong Gyalpo. In the 17th century Tenzin Rabgye built a temple at the site and today it’s a whole complex of beautiful temples. Its dramatic and picturesque location makes it the most recognizable and beautiful temple in all of the majestic Himalayas. It is also a popular pilgrimage and tourist destination, so you are not quite as alone these days as some of the first times I went there.
I have been lucky to visit quite a few times on my trips to Bhutan, also before it tragically burned down in the spring of 1998, fulfilling a prophecy about the times we live in. It has since been restored to it’s glory due to the master craftsmen of Bhutan, and today you have no clue that these buildings are actually new.
We trek up the hill, and Namgye’s 80 year old mother is as mobile as any of us, I think of how she has trekked up and down the mountains all her life. As you approach, until you stand and look across the gorge at the temple, it is one of the most impressive and magic sights you can behold on this planet, so powerful and full of mystery.
We trek across and visit the temples. Pay our respect and prayers at the entrance to the cave with the statue of Dorje Drollo. In the temples are some of the most exquisite and beautiful images of Guru Rinpoche I have ever seen. We do our prostrations and say our prayers that we may attain his insight into the nature of reality and that all sentient beings may be liberated into his realisation. We sit and rest in the Lotus Gurus presence.
In the gorge next to the waterfall there is a small hut where Yeshe Tsogyal accomplished Vajra Kilaya. The tiger that Guru Rinpoche flew on is said to actually be Yeshe Tsogyal who transformed herself into this manifestation. To think of all the yogis who have meditated and had visions here is simply awe inspiring. In modern times we can name Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Dudjom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche to name just a few. All of the great Nyingma masters of our time have been here.
I have always looked up at the temples above the main temple and wished to visit these mysterious abodes. Today my wish will come true since we have started early and Khenpo La has put off the whole day to trek to the temple at the very top of the mountain above Taktsang.
The first temple we visit is the Machigphug Cave. This is the spot where Machig Labdrön met her Guru Padampa Sangye and they practiced together. Bhutan is a country where explicit tantric images are seen everywhere and revered as auspicious. In this cave on the rock we can see imprints of Padampa Sangyes lingam and Machig Labdröns yoni. They are worn smooth as pilgrims have rubbed them for blessings. We do the same.
Khenpo La’s student Namgye is a specialist chö practioner in the Throma Nagmo tradition of the Dudjom Tersar. She has done long retreats focusing on this practice. So for her there is a special connection to Machig Labdrön and this place. Most pilgrims don’t venture further than the main temples of Taktsang so we have this sacred spot for ourselves. Khenpo La asks us to sit down. Without any words or instruction he places his hands on his knees and looks out into the space in front of him. We all do the same. I have a feeling that something very special is happening, but I have no words to describe it. Khenpo La is the Bhutanese heart student of Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche and has studied with all the main Nyingma lamas of our time. We sit like this for a while, it seems longer, but is probably not more than 5 minutes. We dedicate the merit and get up.
We continue our trek up the mountain behind Taktsang. At a chorten (Bhutanese square stupa) containing a water driven prayer wheel, we sit and unpack our lunch of rice, emma datsi (chillis in cheese, the Bhutanese national dish) and vegetables from the traditional weaved baskets. I cant think of a more exquisite meal in the whole world.
Our final destination is Urgyen Tsemo Zangdok Palri. This temple is perched on a flat plateau on top of the cliff above Taktsang. The view of the Paro Valley is breathtaking. Zangdok Palri is Padmasambhava’s “Copper Coloured Mountain” Pure Land. If there is such a place in our world this must be it. The temple is built around a huge Guru Rinpoche statue on the ground floor, with Chenrezig on the second floor and Amitabha on the third. There are walkways all around the statues so we circumbulate them. This temple was built by the previous King of Bhutan’s mother, affectionately known as the Queen Mother. She was a passionate devotee of Padmasambhava and would dance and weep in his honour.
We stand outside and overlook the valley as the shafts of sunlight pierce the clouds. The day is coming to an end so we must make our way all the way down before the night engulfs this beyul, a hidden valley of Padmasambhava.
The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava. Share this Post
Bhutan Handbook by Gyurme Dorje.
Mindbogglers Tiger Nest Temple, Bhutan Puzzle for meaningful fun.
Recommended reading:Featured image by Peter West Carey. Photos by Adam Dreisler.
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