Boars, exploding frogs, and Burning lamps

The annual ‘Phala Choepa Festival’, literally ‘Offering to the Boar-god’ or simply the ‘Festival of the Boar’, will take place at Tamshing Monastery near Jakar between 5 and 7 October this year, and for the first time in two years will be open to the public. Founded in 1501 by the great yogi Pema Lingpa, the monastery has hosted the festival since its consecration, and the title of the event is derived from the principal dance performed at the event, the Phag Cham (Dance of the Boar), where dancers perform wearing boar masks. The origins of the dance can be traced back to the consecration of the monastery, when Pema Lingpa had a vision that the Yidam Dorji Phamo performed a dance wearing a boar’s mask. Pema Lingpa subsequently made a replica of the mask and initiated a dance tradition according to what he had seen in the vision. The festival draws to a close with a blessing ceremony that involves the participants being hit on the back with a sack containing sacred relics. Known as Ugay Wang, this ritual is believed to remove negative karma.

So, who was Pema Lingpa, and why is his lineage and chorographical work so important and worthy of commemoration? Well, he was a terton, a revealer of terma or secret treasures that were concealed by Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tshogyal as a means to protect and rejuvenate the Dharma at appropriate times in the future. Although there have been hundreds of major and minor treasure revealers, pre-eminent among these were the five great Terton Kings. Pema Lingpa was fourth in this category. 

Tamshing-Monastery
Tamshing Monastery

Now, the causes and conditions that led to Pema Lingpa becoming a terton began with Lacham Pemasel, the daughter of Trison Detsen, an 8th century king of Tibet. At the age of eight, Lacham Pemasel unexpectedly passed away, and as a means to alleviate the king’s sadness, Guru Rinpoche exerted his mind power to restore the princess’ consciousness. At the same time, he transmitted the secret doctrine of the Khandro Nyingtig, or Heartdrop of the Dakini to her, which she was empowered to reveal when reborn as the terton Pema Lingpa.

Statue of Terton Pema Lingpa in Gangtey Monastery

The mind stream of Lacham Pemasel was subsequently born into the blood line of the Nyo clan in the Tang Valley in Bumthang in 1450.  Entering the world among auspicious signs, the future terton apprenticed as a blacksmith, becoming skilled in the craft and deftly producing various items, such as knives, swords and chains. In particular, he became known for crafting iron pans, many of which still remain buried in the Bumthang region.

Now, despite showing strong inclinations toward the Buddha Dharma, the young Pema Lingpa continued to work as a blacksmith, and it wasn’t until he experienced a prophetic dream at the age of 25 that his true destiny as a terton began to unfold. It was two years later, however, that he made his first treasure discovery.

Having fallen asleep below a monastery, he was awakened by a voice calling to him.Standing nearby was a shabbily dressed monk who gave him a small scroll. He carefully unrolled the document and discovered that it was a decree commanding him to gather five friends and to go to a cliff named Naring Drak on the night of a full moon. There, the document claimed, he would find his ‘destined wealth’.

As prescribed in the scroll, Pema Lingpa, along with his friends, went to the cliff on the night of a full moon. It is then told that he had no sooner arrived at the designated location when he was gripped by a strong emotion and, without uttering a word, stripped naked and dived into the small lake below the cliff. Beneath the water was a large cave that contained an altar, a statue, and a stack of chests. Taking hold of a chest containing a text, he was immediately swept through the water and up onto the cliff. When he finally regained his senses, he found himself among his friends, still holding the sacred text.

Unable to decipher the symbols on the manuscript, he consulted a key that was handed to him by the shabbily dressed monk and discovered that it was a teaching named Crystallization of the Tantra of Luminous Space. Following this discovery, he went on to reveal further 31 treasures.

Although revered by many as a great yogi, Pema Lingpa also had his detractors; among them was a local ruler who accused the terton of being a fraud.

Mebar Tsho

To refute these allegations and more explicitly to prove the authenticity of the spiritual treasures he had revealed, Pema Lingpa invited the ruler and others to witness him extract a treasure from a river gully. While holding a burning butter lamp, he made a proclamation to those present: “If I am a son of Guru Rinpoche, let me bring back the treasure with this lamp still burning. If I am an imposter, then let these waters consume me”. He dived in, and sometime later resurfaced, clasping a box made of skulls under his arm while holding a small Buddha statue and the butter lamp in his hands. Incredibly, the lamp was still burning. All those present were dutifully impressed and all doubts regarding his authenticity were eradicated. This was one of the most celebrated and well known of Pema Lingpa’s discoveries, and it resulted in the small river gully being named Mebartso, “Burning Lake”. To the rational mind, a burning butter lamp emerging from water may appear to be a trick. However, Pema Lingpa was no ordinary person. He was a being who had realized the empty nature of self and phenomena and, as a result, had certain control over the elements. Like a potter who converts rough clay into beautiful pots, he could transform mundane substances and experiences into something beneficial and positive.

Some people may question the rationale of performing miracles. It could even be argued that they are counter to the path of wisdom and reason bequeathed us by the Buddha. However, we should understand that when miracles are performed by awakened beings their purpose is not to trick others to gain fame and fortune, but to generate faith and to challenge our narrow and limited way of perceiving phenomenon.

Normally, we are like the frog in the famous parable of the frog in the well. Having spent his entire life in the well, the frog’s understanding of the world was defined and moulded by the confines of his limited environment. As a result, he was unable to accept that there was anything larger than his little pool of water. Then, one day he was taken to the ocean, and he saw the expanse of water with his own eyes. Yet, as it did not conform to his notion of the world, he could not accept it. As a result, the tale says, his head exploded.

Like the frog, our belief structures are similarly based on our limited experiences at a particular time and place. This causes us to perceive the universe in a distorted way and prevents us from processing any information that contradicts our narrow view.

To prove this point, take an aeroplane as an example. Two or three hundred years ago, no-one would have believed that a metal bird carrying hundreds of people could ever exist. In fact, had such a craft flown overhead, people would have considered it the work of a spirit. Yet, nowadays everyone accepts the reality of aeroplanes.

Phag Cham

From these examples, we can understand that the common view of our world is itself a kind of deception created from our narrow experiences. So called miracles, such as a burning lamp emerging from water, challenge such beliefs. They shock the viewer, causing him or her to question the validity of their views. Through practice, the deception disintegrates further and wisdom replaces confusion, resulting in an awakening to the truth. As this is the aim of the Dharma, Pema Lingpa’s objectives fully accord with the path of the Buddha.

With regard to Tamshing Monastery, it became the principal seat of Pema Lingpa, and from there he would regularly visit other parts of Bumthang to extract sacred treasures and to offer teachings. He also visited Tibet to give initiations. It was some months after one such visit in 1520 that negative omens began to appear throughout the region, which his two sons recognized as signs of their father’s imminent death.

On the third day of the first month of the iron-snake year (1521), aged 72, Pema Lingpa passed away at Tamshing Monastery. Left undisturbed for nine days, it is said that his body showed no signs of decay. Finally, a cremation ceremony was conducted and his bodily remains were interred in a stupa at Tamshing, where they remained for some years. Currently, they are located at Yungdrung Choling Palace in Trongsa.

Although the great terton passed away over 500 years ago, his legacy still flourishes in Bhutan. The teachings that he discovered continue to be taught and practiced by his lineage holders, and Tamshing still functions as a centre of practice, learning, and the site of sacred festivals, such as the annual Phala Choepa Festival. The monastery is also home to a number of frescoes painted by the Pema Lingpa himself and a metal-chain cape crafted by his hands, which devotees drape over their shoulders and, while circumambulating the temple three times, recite mantras and prayers as an auspicious and merit-making activity. As a Bhutan born terton king, the great yogi holds a special and unique place in the nation’s history.

Shenphen Zangpo

Shenphen Zangpo was born in Swansea, UK, but spent more than 28 years practicing and studying Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan. Currently, he works with the youth and substance abusers in Bhutan, teaching meditation and organizing drug outreach programs.