The Dalai Lama once remarked that future historians will probably refer to the twentieth century as a century of war and bloodshed. Two world wars, together with violent dictatorships and Communist mass murders, witnessed the deaths of tens of millions of innocent people. But as Charles Dickens once said of war and violent upheaval, “It was the best of times and the worst of times.”
The worst in Mongolia were the Communist destructions and killings throughout the 1920s and 1930s. These crimes against humanity are not well known to the outside world. During that time all but a half dozen of the country’s 1,250 monasteries and temples were destroyed, and all were closed. Tens of thousands of monks, intellectuals and civic leaders were killed or sent to gulags in Siberia. Art, literature and traditional culture, and the Mongols who represented these fields, were the main objects of the “cultural purges.”
The best of times would refer to the individual stories of heroism and self-sacrifice. One of these occurred in the East Gobi, at a temple complex half way between Ulaanbaatar and the Chinese border, on the old camel route that connected Ulaanbaatar with various oasis cities. Here, one brave monk, known as Tutob Lama, saw the coming of the Communist cultural destructions. He collected together 150 storage boxes, and secretly had them brought into Hamrin Hrid Monastery. He then filled these one by one with the spiritual and artistic treasures of the monastery, carried them into the desert, and buried them in the sands of the Gobi.
In this way he managed to squirrel away some 65 boxes of precious relics. Then one day the Communists attacked, razed the temple complex to the ground, and killed or imprisoned whatever monks they could capture. Tutob Lama managed to escape and continued working until his death to preserve the sacred books, statues, paintings and other objects that he had buried, each year unearthing the boxes, checking for water or insect damage, and then re-sealing and burying them again. Later he was joined by his grandson, Altangerel, who continued the work until the fall of Communism in 1990. Since then Altangerel has not only preserved the treasures, but has spearheaded the drive to rebuild some of what the Communists destroyed.
Hamrin Hrid Monastery was established in the mid 1800s by the Mongolian mystic Danzan Rabjaa (1803-1856). The monastery lies on the old caravan route that connected Central Mongolia to Inner Mongolia, China, the Manchu territories and Korea.
One of the great cultural treasures saved from Hamrin Hrid provides testimony to Danzan Rabjaa’s spiritual leanings. This is the statue known as “The Padma Sambhava of 10,000 Knives.” According to the story, two Manchu Mongol traders were robbed and killed while passing through Danzan Rabjaa’s territory. Danzan Rabjaa sent out a message to all of the households that patronized his monastery, asking each to donate a household knife and 10,000 were donated. He then had these melted and cast into a statue of Padma Sambhava.
According to Altangerel, Danzan Rabjaa also had the statue made because the Gobi nomads largely survive as herders, and therefore have meat as a major element of their diet. The Padma Sambhava statue was conceived as a power image that would help in transforming the energy of eating meat into enlightenment energy.
We chose the Danzan Rabjaa monastery in the Gobi as the launching point for our journey for a number of reasons. First, the East Gobi is thousands of miles from Central Tibet, where Padma Sambhava achieved the fame that ensured his immortality in the annals of Central Asia’s spiritual history. Second, Danzan Rabjaa lived a thousand years after Padma Sambhava. Third, Padma Sambhava lineages and visions held by Danzan Rabjaa have become a major force in the Mongolian effort to rebuild Buddhism from the 70 years of Communist destructions and oppression. In short, Padma Sambhava’s influence continues to be felt thousands of miles and years after his appearance in the Himalaya.
Our visit to the Gobi was timed to coincide with the opening of the Main Assembly Hall. Several thousand Mongols gathered from all parts of the country for the occasion. Some came down from the Mongol territories of east Russia, and others from Inner Mongolia of China. The opening was marked by untying five silk kataks (auspicious offering scarves) tied together to make a long ribbon/rope. Each of the five people invited to untie the knots was allowed to keep his katak. I had the honor of being one of the five. As a result, Triptych Journey Inc. now has this precious object in its treasury of artifacts collected from the expedition.
The main image in the new temple depicts Buddha Shakyamuni seated with his left hand in the meditation mudra (hand gesture) and the right in the earth touching mudra. To Buddha’s right (the viewer’s left) sits a slightly smaller new bronze statue celebrating the life and deeds of Padma Sambhava.
The walls behind the Buddhas have reposes that are intended to hold 1,000 smaller images of Buddha Shakyamuni. Individuals at the opening ceremony were offered the opportunity to make a donation to the new temple, and in return were given a Buddha image to be placed in the temple.
Our group made three separate donations, and were given three buddhas for placement in the reposes. In the photo below, our film director Marc Wennberg uses his geomantic genius to oversee the precise placement of one of our three buddhas. His many years of energy divination have honed his skills to a fine art. Our three images will sit in the Tsog-chen for many centuries to come, generating great merit for all who have participated in or helped with our Triptych Journey.
The temple opening day began with a large procession that walked from the temple complex to “Shambhala in the Gobi.” At Shambhala,Danzan Rabjaa created a mandala of 108 Kalachakra stupas, with numerous sites inside for particular energy transformations, such as purification of negative karma, healing of diseases, and so forth. The pilgrim visits each of the power points in turn, and then arrives at the actual portal, an ova or “sacred mound,” where he or she sits in meditation and then sings one of Danzan Rabjaa’s most famous songs, “The Five Perfect Qualities of a Lover.” Like Rumi, Danzan Rabjaa often used the metaphor of the romantic encounter to represent the experience of enlightenment. The five perfect qualities refer to the manner in which the primordial light of perfection or enlightenment shines through each of the five senses, and shines most brilliantly in the sensual experience of one’s lover.
Shambhala is the mysterious hidden land of the Kalachakra Tantra taught by the Buddha. Danzan Rabjaa identified a power site a kilometer or so from Hamrin Hrid Monastery as one of the 97 portals to Shambhala and Mongols come from all over Central Asia to celebrate their devotions here. According to legend, Buddha taught the Kalachakra Tantra to a king and ninety-six of his ministers, who came to India from the Gobi.
On the last day of our visit to the Gobi we conducted an interview with Altangerel, the grandson of Tutob Lama. He has been the principal force behind the rebuilding the Hamrin Hrid / Shambhala temple and stupa complex, and in overseeing the training of a new generation of young monks to carry on the task. He also created a Danzan Rabjaa Museum (location of the interview) for housing items that he feels are too delicate for a monastery or temple, and require museum quality conditions for their preservation.
Altangerel told us how, at the age of eight, he had joined his grandfather “to help safeguard the traditions of his ancestors.” He spoke of the half century of Communist control, when the art and temple treasures had to be kept secret; and of how, after independence from Communism, they had to be safeguarded from antique hunters, thieves and buyers. And he spoke about his hopes and dreams for the future. He then allowed us to take a photo with him in front of a painting of his heroic grandfather.
Much more could be said about our four magical days in the Gobi, and our time there with Altangerel, Danzan Rabjaa and Padma Sambhava. And other members of Triptych Journey will have their own reports on this blog.
Our hearts full and our minds radiant with moments of inspiration and transcendence, we piled back into our Hyundai minivan and continued on our drive through the Gobi.
Memories, dreams and reflections! And hopefully some wonderful video and photo images, poetry and prose, to contribute to our journey in search of Padma Sambhava.
(For a film clip of the Passage to Shambhala, see the film by Ronen Schechner).