by Uden Sherpa
The Legend of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar
Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar are the only two places in the whole of Tibet that were visited by Lord Buddha, accompanied by five hundred Arhats. During the turning of the Three Wheels of the Dharma, Buddha Shakyamuni extensively explained the merits of building images. So Indra (the king of gods) offered precious articles of the gods, Ananda (the king of Serpents or Nagas) offered precious articles of the Nagas and Bimbisara (the king of Magadh) offered gold and silver, etc. to the Buddha and requested him to have three images of the Buddha made, as a means of generating merit for the sentient beings in the future.
On the instructions of the Buddha, the master craftsman Viswakarma made three images of the Buddha that were blessed by Buddha Shakyamuni. A fifteen-foot image was taken to realm of the gods, a ten-foot image was taken to the realm of the Nagas and a two-foot image of the Buddha was kept at Magadh, in order for the devotees to make offerings and pay homage.
One day, Mahakala miraculously took the image of the Buddha from Magadh to his palace at Lake Lanka, located at the foot of Mount Kailash, and made offerings. Then he thought a special place was needed to keep such a sacred statue and attempted to carry Mount Kailash on his back to the realm of the Nagas in Lake Lanka.
Buddha Shakyamuni and the 500 Arhats flew from Bodhgaya to Mount Kailash and landed on the rock known as Kyil Khor Teng, or ‘Ganachakra Basin of Arhats’, on the western face of Mount Kailash. Buddha left his footprint on four corners of Mount Kailash and prevented Mahakala from carrying Mount Kailash to the realm of the Nagas. These four footprints of the Buddha are known as the ‘Four Nails Holding Mount Kailash’, because they prevented Mahakala from carrying the mountain away. Then Buddha sat on the rock in front of Mount Kailash and gave teachings to the Nagas residing in Lake Manasarovar and Lake Lanka. Today, Buddhist pilgrims call this rock the ‘Throne of the Buddha’.
Mount Kailash is the only holy place in the world that is regarded as equally sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains and Bonpos. To the Theravadan Buddhists, it is the abode of Sthavira Angaja, with an assembly of 1,300 Arhats; and to the Vajrayana practitioners it is the mandala or palace of Chakrasamvara. The sacred nature of Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar is mentioned in the Sutras.
To the Hindus it is the abode of Lord Shiva. Mount Kailash is sacred to the followers of Jainism because their first saint or Tirthankar, Bhagwan Rishabdevji, attained Moksha (liberation) after meditating here. To the Bonpos it is the sacred place where Miwo Shenrab, the founder of the Bonpo faith, landed from heaven. For the Bonpos, Mount Kailash is the ‘life mountain’ and Lake Manasarovar is the ‘life lake’ of earth.
The four great rivers of the Indian sub-continent: Karnali (which feeds into the Ganges), Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra all originate from Mount Kailash. The average altitude of the region is 4,700 meters above sea level. The altitude of Mount Kailash is 6,714 meters above sea level. To the west of Mount Kailash is the Karakorum range, to the north is the Kunlun range, to the east is Magyal Pomra range and to the south is the Himalayan range.
The distance between Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash is approximately 26km and the distance between Lake Manasarovar and Lake Lanka is about 5km. Lake Manasarovar has a radius of 84km and generally a complete circumambulation of the lake can be finished in four days.
The Drikung and Drukpa Practitioners at Mount Kailash
In the eighth century, Guru Padmasambhava meditated at Mount Kailash and the cave where he meditated was known as Sangag Chophug. In the eleventh century, Marpa, the founder of the Kagyud school of Tibetan Buddhism, sent his famous disciple Milarepa to meditate at Mount Kailash. Later, Milarepa’s disciple, Gampopa, instructed Phagmo Drupa to send practitioners to meditate at Tsari, Lachi and Mount Kailash, but the coincidence of cause and effect did not work out appropriately for the latter to carry out the instructions of Gampopa. Nevertheless, Phagmo Drupa explained the importance of meditating and sending meditators to these three places to his disciples Drikung Kyobpa Jigten Gonpo and Lingchen Repa Pema Dorje.
Drikung Kyobpa Jigten Gonpo sent three batches of disciples to meditate at Mount Kailash. Lingchen Repa instructed his disciple Tsangpa Gyare, the first Gyalwang Drukpa, to meditate at Mount Kailash. The latter not only meditated at Tsari and Lachi, but also visited almost all the sacred places around Mount Kailash and spread the Drukpa lineage teachings. He gathered so many disciples that the saying, "Half the population is Drukpa, half the Drukpas are begging mendicants and half the begging mendicants are realized yogis" became a popular folk saying in Tibet. Thus, the Drikung and Drukpa lineages started the practice of sending practitioners to meditate at Mount Kailash and most of the caves and meditation houses around the mountain belong to the Drikung and Drukpa lineages.
Circling Mount Kailash
Tsangpa Gyare’s disciple Gotsangpa Gonpo Dorje also went to meditate at Mount Kailash. Until then there was no proper route and pilgrims walked about as they chose. Gotsangpa charted the route for circumambulation of the Mountain and the Lakes and started the tradition of circumambulation. The total distance, covered in a complete circumambulation of Mount Kailash according to the route charted by Gotsangpa, is 52km and takes about 13 to 15 hours. Tibetan pilgrims generally start early in the morning and complete one circumambulation by nightfall. Most Tibetan pilgrims do three to thirteen circumambulations of Mount Kailash. There are some who do 108 circumambulations of Mount Kailash.
Chag Tshel Gang
Starting the circumambulation of the Mountain from Darchen, one reaches Lhalung-do. While proceeding to circumambulate Mount Kailash, Gotsangpa stopped on the banks of Lake Manasarovar, near Lhalung-do, to drink tea. He went to look for stones with which to make a fire. But in his pure vision he saw all the rocks as images of Buddha and mantras. So instead, he prostrated and prayed. This place came to be known as Chag Tshel Gang, meaning the ‘Point of Prostration’.
Moving further down there is a footprint of the Buddha. A little further is the footprint of Guru Padmasambhava. Below a white, rocky trail known as Sengchen Do-zam is the footprint of Tsangpa Gyare.
At Ser Shong, a short distance from Chag Tshel Gang, is Dar Nyon, the huge prayer flag that is changed every year amidst rituals and ceremony in the fourth Tibetan month. On the thirteenth day of the month the old flag is removed and a new pole measuring 108 feet is readied. On the fourteenth the flag is raised partially and on the fifteenth, which is the day of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and paranirvana, the flag is raised to its full height and ritual offerings are made. The monks of Choku Gompa conduct the ceremony during the raising of the flag.
On the rock below the Buddha’s footprint on the western face of Mount Kailash is Rechen Phug, where Milarepa stayed while he competed with Naro Bonchung in the exhibition of miracles. There are many meditation caves and huts belonging to the Drukpa lineage in the rocks and hills around Rechen Phug.
Nyenri or Choku Gompa
Below this is Nyenpo Ri-dzong or Nyenri Gompa. A yogi named Nyenpo Drubchen and Tsangpa Gyare built it. It is also known as Choku Gompa (Choku means Dharmakaya in Tibetan), because it houses the image of Dharmakaya Buddha Amitabha. It is said that Avalokiteshvara manifested himself as five images Garsha Phagpa, Tang Phagpa, Tadum Namlha Karpo, Khyunglung Amitabha and Tisi Dharmakaya Amitabha in Lake Woma in Garsha (Manali of present day India). An emanation of Avalokiteshvara brought the Dharmakaya Amitabha image to Ngari and offered it to the king of Ngari. Later Lhatsen, the protecting deity of Mount Kailash, took this image to Nyenri monastery. This monastery is managed by the Drukpa lineage in Bhutan. Besides the Amitabha image, the monastery is in possession of the conch of Naropa, Naropa’s cauldron, a gilded copper image of Buddha brought from Ralung and statues of Tsangpa Gyare, Guru Padmasambhava and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
When Gotsangpa came to open the route to Mount Kailash, he reached Drong Lung. He saw the peaks behind as the palace of 1,000 Buddhas and wanted to check if the circumambulation path covered the peaks. He went northward and suddenly a Drong Dri (a female wild yak) appeared in front of him. Thus the place came to be called Drong Lung. Gotsangpa realised that the Drong Dri was the emanation of the Lion-Faced Dakini and had been sent by his guru to show him the path. The Dri went eastward and he followed her and the Dri disappeared below the present day cave. He looked around and saw footprints of the Dri on the rock and prints of her horn on a rock in the cave to indicate that she had disappeared into the rock of the cave. He understood that it was a message for him to meditate in this cave. Hence the cave came to be called Dri Thim Dri-ra Phug, meaning, ‘the cave where the Drong disappeared and left the print of her horn’.
After meditating at this cave for a long time, Gotsangpa thought it was time for him to leave, since the climate was cold and food was scarce. So he touched the rock of the cave with his head and prayed that whatever creature (whether human, animal or insect) came to his cave would be reborn in the higher realm. He left the impression of his hat on the rock. On the stone in front of the cave he left his footprint. Practitioners continued to meditate at this cave till 1965. A monastery was built at the cave, but was completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. However, the monastery was rebuilt in 1986. Dri-ra Phug monastery is managed by Dra Dingpo Che Dhondup Thongmon Gompa of the Drukpa lineage. Dri-ra Phug is the main holy place of Sengye Dongma or the Lion-Faced Dakini.
A little further up from Dri-ra Phug is Jarog Dron-khang. During his meditation the Land Spirit of Lhalung Phu rendered great service to Gotsangpa and as an expression of gratitude Gotsangpa made an offering of Torma. A raven carried away the Torma and he followed the raven and saw it sit on a rock. When he went closer, the raven merged into the rock, leaving its imprint on the rock. He realized that the raven was an emanation of Mahakala.
Drolma La or Tara Pass
After the raven disappeared Gotsangpa didn’t know where to go and wondered which way he should follow. Suddenly 21 wolves appeared. He realised that they were emanations of the 21 Taras that had come to show him the road and followed them. Reaching the top of the pass, the 21 wolves merged into one and that too merged into a rock on the pass. Since then, the pass came to be called Drolma La or Tara Pass. Impressions of a wolf and a self-born image of Avalokitesvara can be seen on the rock near the pass. There is also a footprint of Milarepa on the pass. Before reaching the Palace of Tara, there is a footprint of Yonge Rigdzin, a yogi of Khampagar of the Drukpa lineage.
A footprint of Thrinley Shinta, the seventh Gyalwang Drukpa, is also clearly visible on the right side of the road, below the lake known as the ‘Bathing Pool of Dakinis’ behind Drolma La.
Vajra Varahi Cave
On the river bank, near the ridge opposite the yellow and blue coloured rock known as the palace of the yellow and black Jambhala, is the meditation cave of Gotsangpa and the shrine of Mahakala. A little further down is the Vajra Varahi cave. Dordrak Lama Chonyi Sangpo of the Nyingma School built this cave. He didn’t have disciples who could look after it; Druk Sangag Choeling Monastery then managed it. Later it was offered to Taktsang Repa of Ladakh and some of the reincarnations of Taktsang Repa visited the monastery housing the cave. Lang-na Tulku was given charge of the monastery. In 1941, when the Hasaks invaded Ngari, the monastery was destroyed and Lang-na Tulku passed away. The Tibetan Government of the time decided to rebuild it. Spiti Lama Yeshi Palden financed the reconstruction and the management of the monastery was handed over to Purang Shephel Ling Monastery of the Gelugpa tradition. However, the lineage of the monastery remained Drukpa.
Whilst Milarepa and Naro Bonchung were meeting at Drong Lung, in southern Mount Kailash, it rained and Milarepa said to Naro Bonchung, "We should make a shelter from the rain. Do you want to build the wall or the roof?" Naro Bonchung said he would build the wall and cut the rocks through miraculous power. Then, through his powers of miracle, Milarepa cut a huge rock and made the roof with one slab. He went below and said that the roof was too low and raised it a bit, leaving the impression of his head and hands. Then, he said it was a bit high and pressed it down with his feet, leaving his footprints, which are still visible today. Hence this place is called Dzu-thrul Phug, or the Miracle Cave. Later a monastery was built around the cave and named Dzu-thrul Gompa. Practitioners continued to meditate here till 1960. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1985. This monastery is managed by the Drukpa lineage of Bhutan.
Circling Lake Manasarovar
There are eight monasteries around Lake Manasarovar: Sewa Lung in the east; Nye-go in the southeast; Thrue-go in the south; Go-tsug in the southwest; Thrue-go Jiwu in the west; Ja-kyib in the northwest, Bon Ri in the northeast; and Lang-na in the north. Sewa Lung Gompa belongs to the Drikung lineage, Nye-go Gompa to the Sakya lineage, and Bon-Ri to the Bon tradition. The rest of the monasteries were built by the Drukpa lineage.
A Drukpa yogi called Gyiwa built Thrue-go Gompa. Initially it was a small temple that could house only a couple of people. Later, a descendant of Ra Lotsawa built a four-pillar guesthouse with shrines around. During the time of Kalsang Gyatso (the seventh Dalai Lama), the resident Drukpa mendicant had a dispute with a monk of Purang Shephel Ling, named Rabjam Tsulthrim, over the land of Thrue-go. Pholha Theji Sonam Tobgyal mediated and gave the ownership right of Thrue-go to Shephel Ling and the ownership of Dzu-thrul Phug to the Drukpas.
Go Tsug Gompa
Go-Tsug Gompa was the place where Atisha stayed for seven days when he visited the Lake. Later, when Gotsangpa came to open the route to Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar, he meditated for three months at the cave in the antechamber of the present monastery. Since the spread of the Drukpa lineage in the Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar region started from here, it acquired the name Go-Tsug, meaning the ‘Starting Point’. However, the present monastery was built by Jinpa Norbu, a monk of Purang Shephel Ling, during the time of Tsulthrim Gyatso (the eighth Dalai Lama) and turned into a monastery of the Gelugpa School.
Thrue-go Jiwu Gompa
Thrue-go Jiwu Gompa is located on a heart-shaped rock. Guru Padmasambhava spent seven days at this cave on his way to subdue the demons in the south western region in 876 AD and left his footprint there. It was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and rebuilt in 1983. This monastery is managed by Dra Dingpo Che Dhondup Thongmon Gompa, a monastery of the Drukpa lineage.
Ja-kyib Gompa was the cave where the five hundred Arhats who came with the Buddha stayed. Drikung Chen-nga Sherab Jungne spent a long time here with the meditators. It remained under the Drikung lineage until later, Tsang Nyon Heruka came here and set up a meditation center that flourished. It was then managed by the Drukpa lineage of Bhutan. However, most of the caves in this area submerged into the lake during the Hasak invasion in 1941 and now only about four caves remain. The monastery built by Drukpa followers of Bhutan was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and has not been rebuilt since.
Lang-na Gompa is located on a hillock resembling the trunk of an elephant. Hence it got the name Lang-na, meaning ‘Elephant’s trunk’. It was built by Nyemowa Samten Phuntsok, belonging to the Middle Drukpa lineage, after spending many years in retreat in Mount Kailash. Later his reincarnation Kunga Lodo Nyingpo built the monastery modelled on Drikung Yangri Gar Gompa. Lang-na Gompa was partially rebuilt in 1986, following its destruction during the Cultural Revolution.