Taktsang, “The Tiger’s Lair,” has become something of a symbol of Bhutan in the mind of the international public. This is not simply by chance. The Bhutanese government uses photos of it on almost all of their publications aimed at promoting tourism, and in general as something of a national emblem. No Bhutanese travel or culture book is complete without it.
And no wonder! The site is one of the most spectacular in Asia. Several small temples perch dramatically over a cliff falling to what seems to be eternity.
One comes into a view of the monastery only after several hours of a rather stiff hike up winding mountain trails. This no doubt adds to the drama of the experience. Expectation combines with intense effort, step by step, turn by turn the long seemingly never-ending road, until one almost begins to believe that no such place exists. And then bam! One comes around a ridge of the hill, and the splendor of The Tiger’s Lair shines down, like a jewel set high in lustrous stone.
Padma Sambhava’s biography states that there are three power places with the name Taktsang. One is in Central Tibet, one in Kham (Eastern Tibet), and the third near Paro of Bhutan. Padma Sambhava visited and meditated in all three, as did Princess Yeshe Tsogyal, one of Padma’s many consorts.
Our visit to Taktsang came to pass on an auspicious occasion, the annual day in celebration of one of Buddha’s miracles. We arrived on Lhabab Duchen, or “The Great Occasion of Buddha’s Descent from the Heavens.” This is an annual holiday in most Buddhist countries, and Bhutan is no exception As a result, pilgrimage traffic was stronger than usual. This was wonderful for us, from the point of view of the film we were making.
Like all of Padma Sambhava’s caves in Central Asia, the cave at Taktsang sits high in the mountains and commands an imperial view. We saw this earlier on our film shoot, with Padma’s caves at Chimpuk, Yaimalung, Drak Yerpa, Terdrom and Lo Gekar. Padma Sambhava certainly visited the area once, and perhaps even twice.
Princess Yeshe Tsogyal’s biography mentions only one visit. Padma had sent her to meditate here with Acharya Sawley, her romance partner. People familiar with Yeshe Tsogyal’s biography will know something of Sawley’s story. The union of Yeshe Tsogyal and Sawley was a match made in heaven by Padma Sambhava himself.
Yeshe Tsogyal had begun her young life with a brief marriage to Emperor Trisong Deutsen of Lhasa. She was perhaps fourteen at the time. When the king brought Padma Sambhava to Tibet a year or so later, she became Padma’s escort and consort. They remained a couple for some four years. After that time, Padma told her of a young white slave boy he had met while practicing meditation in Yanglesho (Parping), near Kathmandu in Nepal. That slave boy, Padma said, was a very high reincarnation, and one with whom both he and Yeshe Tsogyal shared strong karmic links from previous lives. Padma instructed her to go to Nepal and buy the young white slave. The boy, Padma pointed out, would become her new sexual consort and meditation partner, and would also become one of his own chief disciples.
This indeed came to pass. Yeshe Tsogyal travelled to Nepal, purchased Sawley his freedom from slavery, and brought him back to Tibet with her as a free man. The two became lifelong partners.
Many years later Padma Sambhava sent them to meditate in the caves at Taktsang near Paro. The caves in which they meditated are still maintained as places of pilgrimage. Both are within a few hundred yards of Padma’s cave there.
However, a year or so into the retreat Yeshe Tsogyal experienced numerous obstacles. She prayed to Padma for his assistance. According to one story, Padma suddenly appeared, riding through the sky on a tigress. He took up residence in the larger cave above that of Yeshe Tsogyal and Acharya Sawley, gave them higher instructions, and personally monitored their progress. Some accounts state that Yeshe Tsogyal attained enlightenment soon thereafter, while living in this cave. Acharya Sawley also attained great realization during that same retreat.
The story, as told in Yeshe Tsogyal’s biography, also includes a romantic adventure for Padma. Shortly after Yeshe Tsogyal arrived in Bhutan the area experienced several natural disasters. The local people, somewhat superstitious by nature, thought that perhaps she was a witch and had caused the misfortunes. They beat her, stoned her, and even pierced her body with knives. However, one of the queens of the Paro king developed faith in her, and became her protector. The queen even gave her one of her own teenage daughters as a personal attendant. The girl served Yeshe Tsogyal and Acharya Sawley from that time until Padma Sambhava’s arrival.
The young princess became Padma’s consort almost from the moment of their first encounter. Yeshe Tsogyal tells of this in her biography. She lived in retreat with Padma for the duration of his residence at Taktsang.
Little more is known about this Paro princess from other accounts. After Padma’s departure back to Tibet, her reputation as a former consort of the Precious Guru brought her overnight fame and admiration, and she became greatly sought after by young aristocratic suitors of the area.
This is one of the two stories about Padma’s sojourn in Taktsang, The Tiger’s Lair.
Another, as are so many of the stories connected with Padma, speaks of demons and healings. Bhutanese people today mainly repeat this account. Here the scene is one of natural disasters and epidemic diseases. Padma Sambhava is invited by the Paro king to come to the rescue. He arrives, riding on a tigress. In this account, the tigress is none other than an emanated form of Yeshe Tsogyal.
On our visit on Lhabab Duchen to Taktsang, we set off early, just as the sun was rising. Our film crew sat below, waiting the lifting of the early morning mists and thus the advent of perfect lighting, a factor that is always important for cinematography. Myself, I continued up the mountain to the Guru Drubkhang, or “Practice Site of Guru Rinpoche.” The door to the actual cave is only opened one day a year, but one is allowed to sit in the small chapel attached to the entrance. I sat there for an hour or so, quietly meditating and reciting the Vajra Guru mantra. A half hour into my practice, groups of tourists started coming through, each with a Bhutanese guide. Each recited the same story. “Padma Sambhava came to tame demons and cure diseases. He appeared in the form of Dorje Drolo, a wrathful emanation riding on a tiger. The tiger was an emanation of his wife, Yeshe Tsogyal.” None of the half dozen or so guides bringing the groups deviated even slightly from this story line.
In fact very few Bhutanese, or Tibetans for that matter, have ever read any of the traditional biographies of either Padma Sambhava or Yeshe Tsogyal. The main reason is that these are written in an old form of Tibetan, and thus are not easily comprehensible by anyone not educated in classical Tibetan literary forms. For this reason they mainly learn stories of demons and miracles, and perhaps a few poetic verses on Dzogchen meditation from a terma or treasure revelations that were publicly disseminated five or more centuries after the appearance of Padma Sambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal in Tibet and Bhutan.
Moreover, the monasticism that overran Central Asia from the fifteenth century onward tended to somewhat immaculate Buddhism of the tantric leanings that were so much a part of the lives of Padma Sambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal. Even the Nyingma School, ostensibly dedicated to preserving Padma’s lineages, became 90 % or more monastic in its educational structure. The image of Padma Sambhava and Yeshe Tsogyal as having crafted a paranormal relationship simply fell off the radar of Central Asian awareness.
For us modernists, however, as filmmakers and story-tellers, all bets were also off the radar.
Photos by Jon Schechner