Guru Tshengye: The Eight Characters of the Precious Teacher

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: The life of Guru Rinpoche is told in over two dozen books, the most famous of which are the kathang biographies. According to these books, he is said to have lived a life full of miracles which spanned over many centuries. In Bhutan, his long and colourful life and works are often remembered through the eight chapters of his mission in India and the Himalayas. During these chapters, he assumed different identities and used eight different names (མཚན་བརྒྱད་).
He was known as Tshokye Dorji (མཚོ་སྐྱེས་རྡོ་རྗེ་) when he was born on the lotus flower in Dhanakośa lake and subsequently adopted by the childless King Indrabodhi of Oddiyāna. As a prince living a luxurious life in the palace, Tshokye Dorji longed for the spiritual life of a renunciate. When he could not persuade his father to allow him renounce the princely life, he resorted to outrageous antics and killed a minister’s son. For this, he was banished from the country and he roamed in northern India as an ascetic adopting different spiritual practices. In order to build his religious credibility, he took full ordination of a monk and came to be known as Śākyasenge (ཤཱཀྱ་སེངྒེ་).
He continued his religious education at the feet of many teachers and mastered many sciences including medicine, linguistics, alchemy, arts and crafts and earned the name learned Loden Chogsi (བློ་ལྡན་མཆོག་སྲེད་). His training specially focused on the Buddhist science of training the mind using esoteric tantric techniques, which he learnt from many different masters. The name Padmasambhava (པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས་) is mainly associated with his mastery of these esoteric teachings, which he later transmitted to Tibet and Bhutan as the principal corpus of his legacy.
When he spent time in the charnel grounds practicing some of the esoteric teachings and developing power for performing miracles, he was known as Nyima Ozer (ཉི་མ་འོད་ཟེར་) for miraculously holding the sun from setting. When Bodh Gaya, the holiest Buddhist shrine was taken over by non-Buddhist rivals, he appeared miraculously in a wrathful form to defeat the non-Buddhist opponents in both intellectual and miracle contests. For his role as a defender of the faith, he was given the name Senge Dradro (སེང་གེ་སྒྲ་སྒྲོག་), the lion’s roar.
As he traversed the Indian sub-continent to subjugate evil and spread the Buddha’s message of peace, he visited the kingdom of Zahor, where he started a spiritual relationship with princess Mandarava. Outraged by his liaison with the princess, the king had him arrested and burnt alive but he miraculously transformed the fire into a tranquil lake and reappeared on a blossoming lotus. The king is said to have repented his ignorance and rash action and offered service to Padmasambhava. The Guru became known as Padma Gyalpo (པདྨ་རྒྱལ་པོ་), the Lotus King.
According to popular accounts, Guru Rinpoche, in the final chapter of his life, was invited by the kings of Tibet and Bhutan to subdue the hostile spirits and natural forces of the Himalayan landscape who hindered the diffusion of the Buddha’s teachings. Using his power of the enlightened mind and magic, he is said to have tamed almost all malevolent spirits of the Himalayas and bound them under an oath to follow a non-violent path and serve the Buddhist doctrine. The greatest of his acts of subjugation of local Himalayan deities was carried out by taking up the form of wrathful exuberance, Dorji Drolo (རྡོ་རྗེ་གྲོ་ལོད་), the last of the eight characters.
Although there are many other chapters in his life and epithets he used, the eight characters and chapters of Guru Rinpoche’s life came to be the most popular way of telling his story. Today, Guru Rinpoche’s benevolent life and works are illustrated through these eight characters in both fine art and sacred dances. They remind the devotees of the noble qualities of his enlightened state and his divine mission in the human world.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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