Pema Lingpa, New Colors in the Shrine Room

January 5th 2009

The shrine room got even more color yesterday. Up till now I’d been wondering if they’d ever add a few hanging banners, or chöpen, to the decor. There is now, from ceiling to floor, a chöpen hanging on the outward facing side of each of the columns in the room. They are made from four rows of four-inch wide chevrons pointing downward in alternating colors of blue, white, yellow, red and green with matching tassels at the end of every chevron. At the back end of the space, hanging from the ceiling halfway to the floor near the doors to the shrine room, is a pair of long circular canopies in the same motif.

It’s all about color here, which is sort of funny because the shrine room is filled by monastics who wear the some colors every day out of tradition since the eighth century. That was when Tibet chose red as the main color for robes because it was warmer than the other possibilities presented in the monastic code from India. After the destruction of the monastic tradition by King Langdarma, full ordination was brought back to Tibet via a Chinese tradition which wears blue. And so you’ll see some monastics have a blue ribbing on the right shoulder of their formal shirts to represent the connection with the Chinese monastic lineage.

Today’s abhishekas continued into the section of the yidam sadhanas combining the eight logos. Kristine McCutcheon says that this section may have more complex abhishekas than the guru section. For example, the guru tormas are all sculpted on a set format, but the tormas for the yidams are all different. I was skeptical about the increased complexity when she told me this because a few of the empowerments in the guru section were very long. But today we had one empowerment last more than an hour; long enough to have most of us start asking each other, ‘Where are we?’

An empowerment lasting more than an hour is ‘long’ because His Eminence is reading at a fast pace with little explanation. The only people coming to the throne for the empowerments are the Sakyong and the other four principle recipients. The members of the Ripa family on the dais, the lamas and khenpos in the front rows, and the representatives of His Holiness the Dalai Lama sitting at the wall near the lamas, all get the abhisheka items brought to them from one of the main recipients, but His Eminence doesn’t stop for that. He reads onwards. The rest of us receive everything at the end of the day when a line of rinpoches, lamas and khenpos walk through the crowd in a train brining the abhisheka items to every single one of us in a process that takes ten or fifteen minutes.

So, an abhisheka lasting more than an hour in this environment is a real attention grabber. That’s after a month when you’re really settled into things. By point of contrast I would say that reading through the longest, most complex English abhisheka text I know at a fast clip with no gaps would take no more than twenty minutes.

The last abhisheka of the day, The Extremely Secret Mirror of the Mind, came from a terma revealed by Pema Lingpa. Jigme Rinpoche, as many Ripa Sangha members will know, is a rebirth of a manifestation of Pema Lingpa, Gyeling Yonten Lhundrub Gyatso Rinpoche.

Pema Lingpa was born in Bhutan in 1450 and is the last of the five King Tertons. He found a great many termas in Bhutan showing how Padmasambhava had blessed that land alongside Tibet. He had an extraordinary childhood and would gather children to build stupas, and teach them the dharma. Sometimes he left impressions of his hands and feet in solid rock. He would listen to no one (a trait common to young reincarnate lamas notes Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche in his autobiography) and earned the nickname, ‘Lord of what he wants.’ He recognized the alphabet without any training.

When he was 26 Pema Lingpa had already become a monk as per the will of his grandfather. At that age he actually saw Padmasambhava who gave him a list of 108 termas. Tertons usually receive such a list cataloging the termas they can find should the right conditions prevail. When Pema Lingpa was 27 he revealed his first terma from Lake Mebar witnessed by several people. He did this by entering the lake holding a lit candle in his hand and returned from under the water with the candle still lit and with a treasure chest under his arm. From this he revealed the first of his termas, Cycles of the Great Expanse of Great Perfection.

The story of how this first terma was initially presented is instructive because it shows how extraordinary tertons really are. The prophecy that went with the terma said it had to be explained in detail to a layperson, but Pema Lingpa didn’t know what to do because he’d never heard the melodies or seen the dances that go with the text, nor did he know how to explain it in detail. One night while worrying about this he dreamed of Padmasambhava’s consort, Yeshe Tsogyal who told him not to worry and showed him the dances of the dakinis that went with the text. He practiced these and showed them to his disciples. Every night during the twenty-one days of the initiations Padmasambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal would come to him in his dreams and explain both how perform the next part of the initiation and give him the next part of the exposition.

The list of the written termas revealed by Pema Lingpa is quite voluminous. He found jewels and many other items from the royal court at the time of King Trisong Detsen. He also revealed a temple that had been obscured from view that can still be visited in Bhutan. I can’t help thinking a temple is a very large thing to reveal, but the Dzogchen are bigger.

By the time of his passing, Pema Lingpa had only found about half of the termas on his list of 108. His son Dawa asked if he might try to find them, and Pema Lingpa replied that if Dawa kept his spiritual commitments and prayed to him one pointedly he might find some of the hidden teachings. This happened which I find quite amazing and interesting. The terma lineages and instructions from Pema Lingpa continue quite strongly to the present day.

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