The ancient kingdom of Mustang in northwest Nepal, like so many other mountain kingdoms of the Himalayan region from Bhutan to Ladakh, became part of the Tibetan empire established by King Songtsen Gampo in the first half of the seventh century. As a result, most people in these regions still speak various dialects of Tibetan, and use the Tibetan script in their temples and monasteries. Some, like Bhutan, even use the classical seventh century Tibetan script on public road signs. Mustang later became part of Ladakh, and then became an independent nation. In modern times it became part of Gurkha-ruled Nepal.Our film project on the Padma Sambhava legacy had begun in Mongolia with sites in the Gobi associated with Padma and his treasure traditions. It then moved to Kathmandu and the nearby Padma Sambhava caves at Yangley Sho, or Parping, where Padma is said to have achieved enlightenment. The third wing of the trip was set in Mustang.
Padma Sambhava’s time in Mustang is not given much space in the literature of Central Tibet. Nonetheless, for the people of Mustang his presence looms large.
One popular story with Mustang people is that Padma Sambhava’s first visit to Central Tibet had been unsuccessful. King Trisung Deutsan had brought him to Samye, a small kingdom near Lhasa, when efforts were underway to build Tibet’s first monastic college.
Tibetan records state that King Songtsen Gampo had had built 108 temples at spiritually strategic places around his empire in order to tame or “pin down” the spirits of the earth. However, he had not built one in Mustang, and the earth spirits there were still unruly. After Padma performed taming rituals at Samye he experienced numerous inauspicious dreams. He interpreted them to indicate that he had to visit Mustang before his work at Samye would succeed. He therefore travelled to Lo Monthang, performed rituals to bind the Mustang land spirits to Dharma, and then returned to Samye and successfully completed the building efforts there. Indeed, we were scheduled to visit Samye a week after filming in Mustang.
Some Tibetan histories tell the story differently. In this version, Padma’s arrival in Central Tibet created a schism in the aristocratic families. This was partially to do with a young Tibetan beauty, Princess Yeshe Tsogyal. Several petty kings had been vying for Yeshe’s hand in marriage, and therefore, to avoid a civil war, King Trisong Deutsan himself married her, making her his fifth and youngest wife. However, shortly after Padma’s arrival Yeshe became Padma’s consort and lover. This infuriated the aristocrats who had been pursuing her. Although Yeshe Tsogyal went on to become Padma’s greatest disciple, and is said to have attained enlightenment in one lifetime, the petty kings and other aristocratic families of Central Tibet were determined to banish Padma. Padma retreated to Mustang until the emotional storm blew over.
After Samye Monastery had been successfully completed Padma Sambhava spent several decades in Central Tibet training many hundreds of disciples. He also travelled widely throughout King Trisong Deutsan’s empire, teaching and performing rituals to bring peaceful energies to the land. This event is celebrated architecturally at Lo Gekar, Mustang’s oldest monastery, where Padma’s binding rite was performed.On our visit there the tantric monk who cares for the place pointed out the various sites where Padma had accomplished this mystical deed.
Padma preferred meditation caves to luxurious palaces, and often stayed in the caves that had been used by meditators for many centuries. Tibetans believe that his presence in these caves has imbued them with a special energy, transforming them from mere meditation hermitages into living seats of enlightenment. Like cloth wrapped around sandalwood will carry the scent of sandal long after the wood has been removed, the dozens of caves in which Padma meditated during these years took on the very fragrance of enlightenment.
Mustang is filled with hundreds of meditation caves. Perhaps the most famous of these is that known as Rangjung Drakpuk, which translates literally as “Self-Arisen Rock Cave.” Nobody is quite certain how long Padma meditated here, but the importance of his presence in transforming its energies is clearly stated. As with so many of Padma’s meditation hermitages, his hand and footprints can be seen in abundance, pressed deeply into the solid boulders and cliff faces in and around the cave.
The cave itself lies deep in a canyon several hours walk from the villages on the road above. We walked down from the village of Samar, or “Red Earth,” located several kilometers north. The path down is very steep indeed, and passes through several gorges. After arriving at the river, we climbed back up to the cave.
As with so many of Padma’s caves in the Himalayas, a small temple had been built around it. The seventy-five year old monk who cares for the temple had been notified of our intention to visit and sleep there, and he arrived a few hours after we did, graciously providing us with mattresses. We meditated in the cave while our Sherpas prepared a dal bhat meal for everyone, our minds reeling from the walk and the altitude. That night the wind whistled through the hundreds of prayer flags that had been hung in front of the cave, while we slipped gently in and out of magical dreams.
The next day we continued walking south, climbing back up the canyon wall on a path that seemed to go on forever, and offered wonderful vistas of the old route from Tibet to Pokara.
Eventually the climb led us to Sangmoche, a village that by legend had been named by Padma Sambhava himself. According to the story, when Padma arrived in the area he met a local maiden by the name of Sangmo. He renamed the village Sangmoche in honor of her overwhelming beauty. The village has been known by that name since.
(Text by Glenn Mullin, photos by Jonathan Schechner).