A Step Away from Paradise: A Tibetan Lama's Extraordinary Journey to a Land of Immortality (6 page)

Within Tibetan tradition, we can distinguish between two types of hidden lands. One is known as the kingdom of Shambhala and, like all kingdoms, it has a history, including a known succession of kings and even a literature. Though the Kalachakra Tantra—one of the basic esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism—came to Tibet via India, it is said to have originated in this hidden kingdom. Others, among them the Russian painter and writer Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena Ivanovna, are said to have had communication with the Hidden Masters of Shambhala. The Masters are believed to be controlling the spiritual evolution of the planet from this kingdom, whose location has never been definitely pinned down. By most accounts it is hidden behind a ring of snow peaks somewhere north of western Tibet. It is believed the kingdom of Shambhala will have a definite role in the future of humanity.

When chaos, destruction and the forces of darkness threaten to overtake the planet, the king of Shambhala will lead a mighty force to eradicate the foe and found a reign of peace and spiritual enlightenment. Though many of Tulshuk
Lingpa
’s followers referred to the land he was taking them to as Shambhala (and even Heaven, Paradise or Shangri-La), strictly speaking it was not Shambhala or any of these other places that he was speaking of. In the eighth century Padmasambhava foresaw times of tremendous darkness when greed would rule the planet and the teachings of wisdom and compassion would be in danger of becoming lost, when wars spread and poisons cover the earth, water and sky—times very much like our own. He saw the time when Tibet would be overrun by outsiders, and death and destruction would be their lot. It was with tremendous compassion and foresight for the people of Tibet that he created and then hid deep in the labyrinthine folds of the high Himalayas valleys of refuge, places of peace beyond the reach of the troubles that plague the rest of the earth. In contrast to the Kingdom of Shambhala, these are natural places, uninhabited valleys of tremendous beauty, cracks in the fabric beyond the spider web of the calculating Red Chinese or the industrialists’ military might. They are beyond the range of spewing chimneys and holocausts of every description. It is even said that the time for the opening of these valleys comes when there is nowhere else to run. Some of these valleys have been ‘opened’, though others remain closed, having never been found. Such is Beyul Demoshong, the hidden valley in Sikkim.

Concepts about these hidden valleys vary, even amongst learned lamas. Some say that a person who is not spiritually advanced—someone without the karma to find or enter one—could climb into the high mountains, stumble upon one of these valleys and not even realize it. One could walk through a landscape that would be transformed into a place of miracle and wonder by a person of spiritual understanding, and notice nothing. William Blake once said, ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’

Tibetan lamas have been speaking of and attempting to enter Beyul Demoshong, the Hidden Land in Sikkim, since at least the eleventh century. They are quite specific. When they speak of the Hidden Land, they aren’t speaking metaphorically, symbolically or of an exalted state of consciousness.

When I asked Géshipa, one of Tulshuk Lingpa’s closest disciples in Sikkim, if the Hidden Land might actually not be found ‘out there’ but reside in the human heart, he responded with an incredulous look that spoke volumes about the gap in world views.

‘What do you think?’ he said. ‘If the Chinese army marched in here and shot me in the heart, they’d be killing the Hidden Land?’

Let us be clear: the story of Tulshuk Lingpa and his expedition to the Hidden Land is not fiction or metaphor. Tulshuk Lingpa was no Oxford don maintaining his respectability while telling stories of an imagined land. He proclaimed a crack, and then actually set forth to step through it. If you think he must have been mad, then it was clearly no accident that the name Tulshuk Lingpa, Crazy Treasure-Revealer, was bestowed upon him at a tender age along with the prophecy that he would travel far and do great things.

 

The second time I went to see Kunsang, the Tamang Tulku answered my knock and invited me in. Then he went down the lane to get Wangchuk from the shop to translate. They came back together. The Tamang Tulku went to the kitchen to make tea, and Wangchuk sat next to me and translated.

It was obvious that Kunsang had been thinking of what to say.

‘Of course you are interested in my father’s journey to the Hidden Land,’ he said. ‘But to gain a deep understanding of that, to understand his nature—why
he
was the one to lead the way, why he so easily gathered followers—you must know who he was. To know that we have to go right back to the beginning.’

Kunsang was sitting cross-legged on his bed. A fierce gale blew a thick rain-filled fog against the window behind him. The windowpanes rattled. He took a blanket, placed it over his knees and warmed to his subject.

‘My father was born in Tibet,’ he said. ‘It was the year of the Fire Dragon, 1916. If you want photographs or records, of course you won’t find them. The world in which he passed his childhood no longer exists.’

What he said was true. The distance between the Tibet of that day and the present is unbridgeable, a gap greater in this age of easy transportation than between any two points on the globe. In those days it probably would have taken weeks of arduous travel to go from Golok, his native place, to the closest place with regular communication with the outside world. Now you can probably get from New York to Golok within days but the Golok you would find would have nothing to do with the Golok of Tulshuk Lingpa’s time.

The Chinese invasion of the 1950s destroyed all that. Even the people are gone. Of those who would have known him, many, being Khampas—renowned for their fierce resistance to the Chinese—wouldn’t have survived the invasion; others survived by fleeing south over the Himalayas where they were scattered throughout India and beyond.

‘What can we know of Tibet in the 1920s,’ Kunsang said, ‘but the stories our elders have told us? What I know of my father’s early life, I heard directly from him and from his father Kyechok Lingpa. As his name indicates, my grandfather was also a
lingpa
—a treasure revealer. He was also based at the Domang Gompa, the monastery in Golok where my father was first tested and recognized by Dorje Dechen Lingpa.’

The Tamang Tulku brought tea, opened a tin of biscuits and sat cross-legged on the floor, his face eager to hear the story.

‘Knowing my father,’ Kunsang continued, ‘I can only imagine that when he was a child it would have been difficult for anyone to set him on a narrow path of learning. He was sometimes found in the temple reciting esoteric mantras from memory when he was supposed to be in class. His teachers, though at first they didn’t understand how this was possible, began to realize what Dorje Dechen Lingpa knew from the beginning: that Tulshuk Lingpa had an extraordinary destiny before him.

‘My grandfather Kyechok Lingpa had two wives. His first wife’s name was Kilo; we do not know his second wife’s name. She never made it out of Tibet and it is likely she died at the hands of the Chinese.’

Lingpas
often have two wives. The second wife is called a
khandro
in Tibetan—or
dakini
in Sanskrit—which translates to Sky Walker. She is something between a lover and an angel.
Khandros
are intermediaries between
lingpas
and the hidden realms they have special commerce with.

Tulshuk Lingpa was his father’s first wife’s only child. He had a half-sister and three half-brothers, his father’s children by his second wife. One of these brothers was killed while being robbed by highwaymen in the high and lonely wilds of the Tibetan Plateau. Like many men from Kham, Tulshuk Lingpa’s two other brothers were fierce fighters. They fought in the guerrilla army when the Chinese invaded in 1951. They were probably put in a Chinese jail from which they never emerged, a fate all too common amongst the Khampa fighters. In a futile attempt to oust the Chinese when they invaded Tibet, the American CIA started training the fierce Khampas in guerrilla warfare. Tulshuk Lingpa’s half-sister Tashi Lhamo married a Tibetan man who was trained by the CIA. They escaped to Nepal and received asylum in France. Now they live and have homes in Paris, New York and Kathmandu.

Sometime in Tulshuk Lingpa’s teens he left home. We know he went to Lhasa. Already, he was recognized as something extraordinary and had sponsors. Since most lamas don’t work for their keep, they need sponsors to keep them. Tulshuk Lingpa had sponsors in Lhasa who were high officers with the Dalai Lama.

When Tulshuk Lingpa was about eighteen, he went to a monastery in central Tibet that was adjacent to a nunnery. Phuntsok Choeden, then a young girl, was not a nun but she lived in the nearby town, Chongay. She heard that a high lama had come to the monastery to give two or three months of Buddhist teachings. Tulshuk Lingpa was a handsome and charismatic young man with an air of magic about him. She begged her parents to let her go to the monastery to receive the teachings of this exotic
lingpa
from Golok. Her parents agreed, and she stayed there for about three months, by the end of which she was both in love with Tulshuk Lingpa and fired about the teachings she had received. She approached Tulshuk Lingpa as he was about to leave and told him she wanted to become a nun.

‘It’s not necessary for you to become a nun,’ he said with a glint in his eye to the beautiful young woman who was to become Kunsang’s mother. ‘Come with me. Let’s go together!’

This was not without its controversy, beyond the kind which might connect itself to any young couple deciding to run off together. To understand why, you have to know that Tibetan Buddhism is divided into four branches. The oldest branch, closest to its Bonpo roots, is known as the Nyingma. Tulshuk Lingpa was a Nyingma. Then there are the Kagyus, Sakyas and the Geluks. The Dalai Lama is a Geluk. The young woman in question, Phuntsok Choeden, was a Geluk. Her brothers were high-ranking lamas at the Namgyal Monastery, the Dalai Lama’s own monastery.

‘Did this create problems?’ I asked. To understand what it might mean for a Geluk to be involved with a Nyingma, just imagine what it would be for a Catholic from a strict family to run off with a protestant—say a Baptist.

‘It wouldn’t have mattered in the least to my father,’ Kunsang said. ‘Such conventionalities didn’t touch him. But it would have caused a tremendous ruckus in their families. While his family was a long and arduous journey away, my mother’s was right there. How could she explain to them that she wanted to run away with this crazy Nyingma lama? No way! Eloping was the only answer. They left together telling neither of their families, travelling by foot over the high passes into India. Years later in India when they met some lamas from the Dalai Lama’s monastery in Lhasa and asked about my mother’s brothers living there and if they were still OK, the lamas exclaimed, “You’re their sister? They thought you died years ago.”’

The young couple walked south over the high Himalayan passes into the hot plains of British India. This would have been in the late 1930s. They moved east to west visiting the principal Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Bodh Gaya, where Buddha stopped his search for a teacher and a teaching in order to sit under a tree and examine his
own
mind until he reached the awareness of enlightenment. They went to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first teachings in a deer park. Then they went to the place in the western Himalayas that at the time was probably the most important place specifically for Tibetan Buddhists in India, a sacred lake called Rewalsar and known to Tibetans as Tso Pema, in what is now the state of Himachal Pradesh but was then part of the Punjab.

 

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