In Search of the MAHASIDDHAS: A Journey Through the Sacred Himalayas

Traditional thanka of the great Indian Mahāsiddha Nāropa (11th century)

India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. For over 5000 years, this ancient country has produced a rich and diverse stream of wisdom traditions, many of which continue to exist till this day. For decades, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, artists and scientists have turned their attention towards India to study and examine the vast cultural heritage of the country. My own interest in the history and culture of India goes back to the days of my childhood when I voraciously read ancient Indian myths and occult stories through comic books, graphic novels and magazines. As I grew older, my childhood interests metamorphosed into a serious pursuit of the history, culture, and most importantly, the sacred knowledge imparted by the sages and seers of my country.

I studied the history of Indian and European art and culture at the age of 19 at a Delhi-based art institute. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the limited amount of information about subjects pertaining to metaphysics and philosophy at the institute. That prompted me to start my own research into the vast and complex world of Indian religious and philosophical thought. Initially, I was merely interested in a comparative study of the diverse schools (darshana) of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedanta. Later, when I got acquainted with the philosophy of the Tāntric tradition I clearly understood that it resonated with my own sphere of thought and that I must dive deeper in its paradigm.

The Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ is derived from the root “tan”, meaning “to spread”, “expand”. According to one common definition, in the religious sense, a Tantra is simply “a scripture by which knowledge is spread” (tanyate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram).  [1]  The world of the Tantras includes complex meditations, ritual techniques, mystic syllables (mantras) and other techniques with which an adept uses in order to attain spiritual realisation. It is also important to note that Tantra is not a singular tradition and the Saivas (followers of Shiva), Sākta (followers of the mother goddess tradition of India), Bauddha (followers of the Buddhist tradition), Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu) among others all developed their individual Tāntric streams based on the individual schools’ metaphysics and soteriology.

Although the last few decades have seen an incredible amount of quality scholarship on the Tantric traditions of India and the countries in which it subsequently spread, a lot of confusion still continues to exist on the internet and among lay people regarding the subject. The shameful exploits of the New Age movement, which left no stone unturned into making Tantra a sham by promoting erotic massages and ordinary orgasmic pleasure as a means to unlock “spiritual bliss”, can certainly be held responsible for a negative attitude towards this sacred tradition. Nevertheless, the limitless primordial power pervading through the sacred world of the Tantras has enabled the tradition to continue despite the negativity. Today the Tāntric traditions continue to exist almost unchanged and unbridled, especially in the sacred Himalayas.

18th century gilt bronze statue of Indian Mahāsiddha Virupa from Tibet.

As I noted above, the Tāntric traditions are many in number and the following sections of the article shall be concerned with the followers of the Buddhist Tantra, especially Tibetans and other Himalayan people. With a deep urge to explore and examine the practices of existing Tāntric lineages in the mountainous regions of India, my wife Viktoria (Visionis Phosphorescent) and I travelled extensively to many sacred and power spots of the region in search of the mystics and the wandering itinerant sadhus – the Mahāsiddhas. The word Mahāsiddha is Sanskrit (Tibetan: གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཆེན་པོ, THL: druptop chenpo) for ‘Great Adept’. As the Buddhist writer and teacher Keith Dowman notes, the siddhas were:

“…mendicant yogins living with the people on a grass-roots level of society, teaching more by psychic vibration, posture and attitude – mantra, mudra and tantra – than by sermonizing. Some of these siddhas were iconoclasts, dissenters and anti-establishment rebels fulfilling the necessary function of destroying the rigidity of old and intractable customs and habits, so that spontaneity and new vitality could flourish. Obsessive caste rules and regulations in society, and religious ritual as an end in itself, were undermined by the siddhas’ exemplary free-living. The irrelevance of scholastic hairsplitting in an academic language, together with a host of social and religious evils, were exposed in the poets’ wonderful mystical songs written in the vernacular tongues, They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation, and they taught the ideal of living in the world but not of it rather than ascetic self mutilation or monastic renunciation, The siddhas are characterized by a lack of external uniformity and formal discipline.” (http://keithdowman.net/essays/introduction-mahasiddhas-and-tantra.html)

As evident from the aforementioned words, these great adepts lived at the fringes of society and held disdain for religious orthodoxy which created hindrance for actual spiritual growth of an individual. Many lineages that stem from these great adepts continue till this date in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The Dzogchen (Mahāsandhi) tradition which is preserved and practiced among Himalayan Buddhists till date harkens back to the time of yogin saints like Prahevajra, Shri Simha, Jnānasutra, Padmasambhava among many other powerful adepts who transmitted the non-dual gnosis of the Tantras to their fortunate disciples, who in turn preserved a long line of unbroken lineal transmissions which have now spread across the western world.

Traditional thanka of the first human Dzogchen master Prahevajra (Tibetan: Garab Dorje)

Our quest to understand the present state of the Mahāsiddha tradition in the Himalayas led us to the Ngakpa tradition, the origins of which are connected to the 8th century Indian Tantric Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. This great adept was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, the Land of Snows, in the 8th century – a tradition which was named the “Nyingma” (“ancient” in Tibetan) school of Buddhism. During that early period of transmission of the Buddhist Tantras in the Tibet, the community of practitioners (the “sangha”) was divided into two branches: the “red” sangha of monastics with shaven-heads and the saffron robes (Tibetan: rab byung ngur smig gi sde) and the “white sangha” of Ngakpas with white clothes and long, plaited hair (Tibetan: gos dkar lcang lo’I sde).  [2]

Guru Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Guru Rinpoche), the 8th century Indian Tantric saint who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet

 The Tibetan word Ngakpa means “Māntrin”, or a “Tāntrika” in Sanskrit, i.e. a Tāntric practitioner. They are called the ‘white sangha’ (“gendun karpo” in Tibetan) as their Tantric vows (“samaya” in Sanskrit) entitle them to wear white shamtags (skirts), white, red and blue shawls of the yogic lineage and conch-shell spiral ear-rings; have long hair, often kept in a spiral atop the head; all of which represent specific aspects of the teachings. [3]

Unlike the celibate order of monks and nuns, the Ngakpas rely on “internal renunciation rather than on external renunciation” and are allowed to marry and have families.  This Tantric order founded by Guru Padmasambhava, who was himself a non-celibate, long-haired yogin, has continued to exist since the first wave of Tantric teachings that were spread in Tibet till the modern times.

A Ngakpa from Central Tibet, 1926

Traditionally,  Ngakpas are both healers and practitioners of the highest levels of Tantric praxis. On the one hand, a realised Ngakpa guru can perform ceremonies to pacify illness, disease and help in other worldly activities and be a master of the inner levels of Tantra and Dzogchen practices dealing with liberation on the other. However,  many people confuse them as “shamans” or just “lay practitioners” and oftentimes they can be belittled by those who are unaware of their history and importance as the torchbearers of an ancient Indian tradition. As the great Ngakpa lama Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche said, “for the ngakpa the purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and self. Usually in the shamanic tradition no one talks of enlightenment.” [4]

Ngakpas of Rebkong, Tibet participate in a Tantric ceremony

In our search for the existing Ngakpa lineages in the Indian Himalayas, we travelled to the sacred town of Rewalsar (Tso Pema in Tibetan) in Himachal Pradesh. Rewalsar is a small yet highly important town for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs alike. For the Buddhists, this place is considered to be part of the ancient kingdom of Zahor where Guru Padmasambhava practiced Tantra in the caves with the princess Mandarava acting as his consort. According to ancient legends, the king of Zahor and his ministers arrested Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava and burned him alive, but he transformed the pyre into a lake, and was found sitting, cool and fresh, on a lotus blossom in its centre. This lake is considered to be the Rewalsar Lake, ‘Tso Pema’, around which the existing town of Rewalsar was built. [5]

Rewalsar (Tibetan: Tso Pema) in Himachal Pradesh, India

Rewalsar is not only a sacred pilgrimage spot for Himalayan Buddhists, but it is also home to a few important Buddhist monasteries along with a community of lay practitioners and cave-dwelling hermits who have dedicated their entire lives into solitary practice of Tantric meditation.

Sacred Guru Padmasambhava cave located on the hills above Rewalsar

Yogini Ani Bumchung (Centre), one of the seniormost hermit practitioners in her cave in Rewalsar with the author’s wife Viktoria Polikarpova (R) and their yogin friend Senge Drayang (L)

Our search for a genuine Ngakpa guru led us to meet Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche, a long-haired, white-clad married lama (Tāntric guru) who has made Rewalsar his home after living and practicing in Tibet and Bhutan for decades. Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche comes from the high grasslands of Kham in Eastern Tibet and belongs to the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. His spiritual consort, Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo, is a female Ngakpa, or a “Ngakmo” and they have a son named Tenzin Thinley. Both practitioners belong to unbroken lineages of Tāntric Buddhism coming from India into Tibet through Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters of that time.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche at his shrine room in Rewalsar, India

Together, they highlight the very ideals of the ancient Mahāsiddha tradition and live at the fringes of society instead of a monastery and teach ancient meditation practices to those who seek them without expectations of fame or material gain. They are both masters of Dzogchen meditation and maintain a loyal group of students whom they teach philosophy,  metaphysics, rituals and meditation praxis based on the needs and existing level of each individual. For beginners, basic mind training and preliminary practices called “Ngondro” in Tibetan are stressed before they can take the path of the higher Tantric and Dzogchen meditation. Lama Jigme readily teaches the Ngondro of his tradition with painstaking detail to students who are willing to step on the path of Tantric practice. In fact, the Ngondro enables students to get an entire gist of the Buddhist practice, ranging from its basics to the highest paths of non-dual meditation techniques that involve complex visualisations, mantra recitations and rituals.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo engaged in a Tantric ceremony

While most westerners and sometimes even lay Himalayan Buddhist practitioners think of lamas as shaven-headed and monastic, the reality is far from the truth. Lamas are not supposed to be just monks; married, householder Ngakpas are also equally eligible for that title. Ngakpa lamas like Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort embody the ideas of Buddhist Tantric practice that emerged in India and were later transmitted to Tibet.

Our search into the Ngakpa lineages was more than fruitful as we were able to encounter a living Tantric couple who hold within the deep expanse of their mind sacred wisdom which has been taught and preserved from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha to the later awareness holders of the Tantras. It is important to note that enough emphasis is laid upon maintaining secrecy over the inner symbolism of iconography and practice, not because Tantra is a ‘cult’ as many think, but to safeguard the meanings from beings who could potentially harm and misuse the teachings.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo with the author Ankit Sinha and his wife Viktoria Polikarpova after the conclusion of a Tantric ceremony at their shrine room in Rewalsar

Indeed, the Tāntric tradition has been able to survive and sustain despite all the foreign invasions in India and the political upheavals in Tibet mainly because of the same ideals. If the teacher-student tradition would have been forsaken and the secret teachings sold like confectionery, there is no doubt that a vast number of lineages would have died out long ago.  So, one must acknowledge the role many of these masters have played in preserving an authentic tradition and presenting it practitioners of the modern era.

May these teachings continue to benefit beings for countless aeons!

Sarva mangalam bhavatu!

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Bibilography:

[1] N.N. Bhattacharya, “History of the Tantric Religion” (1982), page 20

[2] Kyabje Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, “An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair” (2004). https://enricokosmus.com/2012/06/13/an-historic-description-of-awareness-holders-of-the-great-secret-mantra-who-are-resplendent-in-white-clothes-and-long-hair/

[3] Ngakpa Ga’wang, “An Introduction to the White Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos” (1997) https://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=An_Introduction_to_the_White_Sangha_of_Ngakpas_and_Ngakmos

[4] Jeffe Cox, “The Ngakpa Tradition: An Interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche” (2016) http://padmasambhavagururinpoche.com/the-ngakpa-tradition-an-interview-with-khetsun-sangpo-rinpoche/

[5] Rigpa Translations, “Great Treasure of Blessings – A Book of Prayers to Guru Rinpoche” (2004), page 28

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Ankit Sinha

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