Our Padma Sambhava film shoot had been on the road for almost seven weeks. We had already travelled through Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and Mustang, filming in more than a dozen locations along the way. As part of the adventure we had interviewed many lamas and pilgrims, driven long hours on hard roads, and made many high altitude treks to remote meditation caves and temples associated with Guru Rinpoche, “the Precious Guru.”
Bhutan was next on our itinerary, and Padma Sambhava is said to have made at least two visits here.
Bhutan as we know it today is a modern country with borders fixed by a treaty with the British during the first decade of the twentieth century, when a Bhutanese baron of the Wangchuk clan, backed by British armaments and military intelligence, overthrew the traditional Shabdrung (“Lama King”) government. The Shabdrung incarnates had ruled Bhutan for almost three centuries, but from the time of this coup d’état it has been ruled by Baron Wangchuk and his offspring.
Bumtang is a Tibetan name, meaning “Valley Shaped like a Vase.” The Jampai Lhakhang Temple, or “Maitreya Temple,” stands at the center of this very beautiful valley. Padma Sambhava had visited and re-consecrated this temple a hundred and fifty years after its founding. We were there to film the Pema Lingpa lama dances at Jampai Lhakhang. Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) is traditionally presented as one of the great Terton or “Treasure Revealors” of Padma Sambhava’s secret teachings. As such, the lama dances that he discovered from his visions of Padma Sambhava were of great interest to us as prime material demonstrating the living legacy of Padma and his enlightenment message.
It wasn’t the plan, but we had to rush to the opening of the event, which begins with the midnight “naked dances.” Our flight from Nepal to Bhutan was delayed by a day, and as a result we had to step off the plane and into jeeps taking us on a twelve hour drive to Bumtang. We arrived in Bumtang a half hour before the naked dances were scheduled to begin. In the Nyingma tradition, physical nakedness is a strong symbol of the beyond conceptuality consciousness. This is often represented in Nyingma paintings by the image of Buddha Samantabhadra and his consort sitting naked in sexual union. These dances are something like a preface to the actual lama dances, which begin the following day.
In fact the Padma Sambhava story in Bumtang is more deeply connected with another temple in the area, known as the Kurjey Lhakhang. The name means “Full Body Imprint Temple.” It is said that Padma meditated in a cave here for some time, and left an imprint of his complete body in a boulder near the mouth of the cave. He also struck the land with his walking stick, giving rise to a spring that flowed forth with healing waters. Pilgrims today usually take a jug of this water home with them, to share with family and friends.
The Tibetans and the Bhutanese have slightly differing accounts of Padma’s visit to Bumtang. According to the Tibetans, he was sent by King Trisong Deutsan of Lhasa to perform taming rituals as well as to bless and consecrate the temples and meditation caves in the area.
The Bhutanese tell a different story. They have Padma coming at the invitation of the Bumtang king in order to tame a demon and cure an illness. While Padma was there, the Bumtang king offered him his daughter as his consort.
While Padma was in Bumtang meditating in the cave over which the Kurjey Lhakhang is built, Padma noticed that a local mountain spirit was creating diseases for numerous people in the vicinity. Even the king was afflicted. Padma determined to tame the spirit and bind him to a vow to protect Dharma and enlightenment. The spirit sensed this, and hid in a cave deep inside the mountain. In this way he was able to avoid Padma’s tantric mantras and spells.
Padma therefore sent the princess with a golden bucket to fetch water, sending her purposely by the path that led in front of the cave. As the princess walked past the cave, sunlight bounced from the golden bucket. The mountain spirit was entranced, and intensely wished to witness the splendor more closely. He transformed himself into a snow lion, the most fearsome of beasts, and came outside the cave to better view the vision of beauty.
Padma transformed himself into a Garuda bird and seized the snow lion by the neck, holding him firmly in his beak, and shook him ferociously. Eventually the snow lion submitted, and pledged himself to the protection of Dharma, goodness and enlightenment.
Since that time the demon, in the form of a snow lion, has served as the local Dharmapala. He is depicted on an outer wall of the Kurjey Lhakhang. In the statue, a garuda bird towers over his head, to represent Padma’s victory.
The story ends happily. The king and all subjects were cured of their afflictions, and peace and prosperity were restored to the land. Padma left shortly thereafter, to places with other demons to tame and illnesses to heal. But the legends of his many miraculous deeds in the Bumtang area continue to inspire and uplift all those who admire his legacy.