During winter of 2011, I lived at the Tibetan Nyingma Institute in Berkeley. During this time, we celebrated the life of Longchenpa, former abbot of Samye, who spent most of his life living in a cave in Manang Valley, Nepal. The celebration was centered around the date of his death, over six hundred years after he left his human body. To honor this Nyingma saint, we chanted the Vajra Guru Mantra uninterruptedly for 50 hours – Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum.
This tradition has been carried out for years, but the significance of Longchenpa must be traced back to the beginning of Tibetan Buddhism. To the surprise of many, Tibetan Buddhism did not emerge until the 8th century CE. At that time, there was a king by the name of Trisong Detsen, a lover of arts, language, and unity. King Trisong Detsen invited a Buddhist master named Shantrakshita from India to help him spread Buddhism in the Land of Snows. The king’s goal was to build a monastery, known to this day as Samye. But the king did not know about the nagas looming in the dark.
Every day, builders would construct walls, and every night invisible, mystical serpents would crawl from crevices – from caves, lakes, rivers, tree stumps, and the underworld – to destroy whatever was erected. This happened day after day until finally the king lost his nerve. He went to Shantarakshita, beseeching him to find a solution.
There was a tantric master in the land of Oddiyan, Shantarakshita said. He was the only one capable of controlling the nagas. His name was Padmasambhava.
Naturally, the king sent a delegation to fetch the tantric master from Oddiyan, present-day Pakistan, or, for Led Zeppelin fans, the Kush Valley. On the way there, however, the delegation was surprised to cross paths with the tantric master. Why was he there? the men asked, and not in Oddiyan, where Shantarakshita said he would be?
Of the cultivated powers attained from meditation, one of the lesser ones is clairvoyance, Padmasambhava replied. While meditating, he had seen a bright light and a diamond. He saw the delegation was coming and had gone to meet them.
But how had he traveled so far so fast? they wondered.
One of the greater powers was flying, the tantric master replied.
After reaching the Land of Snows and controlling the nagas, Samye was built and Buddhism was promulgated in Tibet. From the very beginning, Nyingma – the Ancient Ones – grew. And before Padmasambhava died, the tantric master hid treasures in the mountains – in caves and celestial realms – for future Nyingmapa to discover. These terma were by nature hidden. They were to be found and revealed at later dates by tertons, the finders of the texts. But they were only to be found when the time was right for the teachings to enter the world. Thus, the question was a matter of time and circumstance. When was the world ready to know?
Some six hundred years later, Longchenpa was born. He was considered to be one of the reincarnations of Manjusri, one of the greatest bodhisattvas of compassion. Over the years, Longchenpa studied under masters of every lineage, cultivating unmatched knowledge in Buddhist thought. During this time, he traveled extensively, but he also spent the majority of his time in a cave, where he produced the Seven Treasures, a magnum opus that encapsulates the breadth of Buddhist teachings since the time of Padmasambhava. This book and many others, including Lonchen Nyingthig, a revered book in the Nyingma tradition, held the secrets of the mountains. But, due to their worth and the lack of printing opportunities, they were never distributed and rarely copied.
The survival of these books, and countless others, was threatened in 1950 when the People’s Liberation Army marched 40,000 soldiers into Tibet. This was a haunting moment for all mankind. Confronted by a trifling Tibetan army of 8,000 untrained men, the Battle of Chamdo lasted one week before Tibet surrendered. The Land of Snow was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. The Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans were forced to flee – up to 100,000 over the following years. One of these men was Tarthang Tulku, one of the last trained lamas in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition.
Tarthang Tulku Rinpoche left Tibet in 1959 and lived in India for a decade before arriving to Berkeley with close to nothing, save for the promises of a few well-intentioned men and women. After three years he established the Tibetan Nyingma Meditation Center. Once established, his new goal was to track down, copy, and redistribute the sacred texts of his lineage, and of Buddhism in general. These texts, he knew, had been smuggled out of the country during the invasion. Tattered and on the brink of distinction, they were waiting to be found. Like the terma once hid in the mountains, their time had come.
Today, the Tibetan Aid Project sends hundreds of thousands of texts to India every year to be distributed during the World Peace Ceremony in Bodh Gaya. The mission is to maintain the faith of Buddhism, and to provide books for the surviving refugees forced from their native land. During the first year, 500 monks and nuns attended, and 500 books were donated. In 2007, 15,000 people were in attendance, and 500,000 books were handed out for free. No longer were the words of the Buddha, and the teachings of Buddhist masters, to be threatened by time or invasive nations.
Now, fast forward to winter 2011. The men and women behind this project are some of those present for the Longchenpa Ceremony. Oddly, on this sacred day, one of my own books has gone missing. I search for it up and down, trying to find where it could be. But nowhere can it be found. After some time, I give up and descend into the meditation room where the celebration is being held. Two groups are formed for the 50 hours of chanting. One group begins the mantra, chanting for hours in the shadow of these great saints. Incenses burn and a bell is tapped to keep time. Hours pass before the second group enters to take up the chant, relieving the first group for a spell.
This pattern continues for 50 hours, except for during the night. Small groups are formed to carry the chant through the darker, more difficult hours. I volunteer to be in one of these groups, chanting for the duration between 2 and 4am. Our leader, a man who has been with the Nyingma school for decades, taps the bell. We chant together – four of us together – slowly, deeply – all of us entering into our own celestial realms. The pace changes occasionally, from an upbeat rhythm to a drowned-out recitation. The prayer wheel in the corner spins, the walls begin to undulate, and the bodhisattvas come to life. And then I hear the bell begin to falter. The leader is slipping into a trance, known to some as “sleep.” I turn to him and suddenly his head jerks back. He looks at me wide eyed. Oh shit, he’s thinking. Did the chant stop?
I cannot explain this moment, though I’ll try my best. Here we are, thirteen centuries after the teachings of Buddhism reached Tibet. We are in the altar room at this Nyingma School that has sprouted up in Berkeley because of the vision of some peculiar lama and Beat-inspired hippies. And we are honoring the life of a saint who can hardly be fathomed. Without explanation, I burst into laughter and fall off my chair.
No joke. I am literally in hysterics, rolling on the ground in the last hours of this sacred ceremony, unable to stop myself from laughing. Tears of joy are pouring forth from my eyes, and I'm staring up at the altar. The three others somehow keep the chant going, smiling themselves. The leader looks down at me and nods, as he begins to tap the bell... ding... ding... ding. Moments later, another group enters the room.
The next day, when the ceremony has finished, I find the missing book in my room. A page in Crystal Mirror is marked, and a quote by Longchempa is highlighted. "Since everything is but an apparition, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter."
I open the window. Berkeley rolls down into San Francisco Bay. The Golden Gate Bridge stretches towards a setting sun. The day is ending. Life comes and goes, and comes and goes again. There are ups and downs, and the endless cycle of happiness and sorrow. I wonder to myself, smiling somewhere within, how long will the madness go on before I laugh like that again?
To learn more about the Tibetan Nyingma Institute: http://www.nyingmainstitute.com/