Pema Thangyig – The Biography of Guru Rinpoche

WHAT WE DO WHY WE DO: Pema Thangyig or Pema Kathang is one of the most cherished literary treasures in traditional Bhutan. It refers to the biographies and testaments of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, which are said to have been hidden by Padmasambhava himself or by his contemporaries, and later revealed by the tertons or treasure discoverers.

The life story of Padmasambhava is recorded in over two dozen biographies and chronicles, the most well known of which are known as the Kathang. There are many versions of the Kathang including the earliest Kathang Zanglingma of Nyangral Nyima Ozer, Kathang Sertreng Tharlam Selje of Sangye Lingpa, Kathang Sertreng of Ratna Lingpa, Drolod Kathang of Nuden Dorje, Kathang De-nga of Ogyen Lingpa, Kathang Drima Mepai Gyen of Nuden Dorje, Kathang Yidkyi Munsel of Sogdogpa and Kathang Duepa of Ogyen Lingpa. There is a Bhutanese one called Kathang Munsel Dronme extracted by Pema Lingpa. The most well known one, however, is Pema Kathang of Ogyen Lingpa, also known as Kathang Sheldrakma, and is told in 108 chapters.

The Kathang literature as hagiographies of Padmasambhava tell the story of his emanation from the heart of Buddha Amitābha in Sukhāvāti, his miraculous birth on an immaculate lotus in Dhanakośa lake, his princely youth in the court of King Indrabodhi of Oddiyāna, his mendicant life as a monk and maverick ascetic, his spiritual achievements as a scholar and master of Buddhist systems and a powerful tantric meditator and miracle man in India. The Kathang hagiographies elaborate his mission to Tibet and the Himalayas to tame the wild landscape and to propagate the Buddha’s teachings. He finally leaves for the land of cannibals, where he is believed to live today.

The Kathang biographies are particularly important for Bhutan because Guru Rinpoche is not only the ‘precious teacher’ who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan in the 8th century but he is also considered as the quintessential divinity. From the first prayers toddlers mumble to the grand state festivals, from fleeting dreams of hermits to formidable public monuments, Guru Rinpoche forms the focus of Bhutanese spirituality and religious culture. Bhutanese pray to him for health, wealth, long life, safety, happy rebirth, success in business, war, exams and virtually in all affairs of life. Above all, he is considered to be the unsurpassed guide to enlightenment for the people of hidden lands such as Bhutan. The Bhutanese world is imbued with Guru Rinpoche’s presence and blessings and Bhutan is said to be the field of Guru Rinpoche’s pacifying activities. He is the epitome of Bhutan’s religious ideals and can be rightly considered the spiritual father or patron saint of Bhutan.

It is, therefore, essential for Bhutanese to possess and to read the Kathang literature, not only to remember the life and works of the precious teacher, but also to live with the awareness of inner values such as non-violence, compassion, wisdom and enlightenment, which Guru Rinpoche represents.

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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