Tibetan and Himalayan Library - THL

THL Title Text
Pabongkha Hermitage
by José Ignacio Cabezón
1991
Section 2 of 5

Location and Layout

Various kinds of rhetoric have been used to portray PabongkhaPha bong kha as a sacred site – metaphysical, historical, archival, and so forth. In the more metaphysical accounts, PabongkhaPha bong kha is depicted as a site that is sacred by its very nature – that is, sacred by virtue of the fact that from among the twenty-eight sites in the world associated with the deity Cakrasaṃvara (DemchokBde mchog), PabongkhaPha bong kha is one of the Four Principal Sites (Nyewé Né ZhiNye ba’i gnas bzhi): “the one called Debikoṭi (Debi KotiDe bi ko ṭī).”4 In these accounts, then, PabongkhaPha bong kha is depicted as sacred at a deep or ontological level because it is a part of the body of a deity, Cakrasaṃvara.

But other discourses on the sacredness of the site exist alongside the metaphysical one. As is typical of many Tibetan religious institutions, various auspicious self-arisen images (rangjönrang byon)5 and rock formations are believed to exist on the mountains behind PabongkhaPha bong kha. The parasol has already been mentioned in other contexts; there is also a famous rock formation that resembles a conch. These various magical properties of the landscape are considered signs of the “purity of the site” (sajangsa sbyang). [Click here to read a discussion of the metaphysics of sacred space at a site like SeraSe ra.]

The “white conch shell” rock formation, one of the signs of holiness visible in the mountains above PabongkhaPha bong kha.

PabongkhaPha bong kha is located on a rise above the fields in the LhasaLha sa suburb of NyangdrenNyang bran. Just east of the monastery is a cemetery (durtrödur khrod) that is in use even to this day. The cemetery is identified as one of the cemeteries in the maṇḍala of Cakrasaṃvara. Informants report that before 1959 only fully ordained monks could be brought here for “sky burial.” Today no such restriction exists, and the bodies of lay people are also disposed of here. Inside the main temple at PabongkhaPha bong kha there is a small stone statue of a Buddha6 said to have magically emerged self-arisen image out of a stone as Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po was gestating in his mother’s womb. By the time the king was born, the statue, which was slowly emerging from the stone over the nine months he was in his mother’s womb, took its final and present form. The image faces the cemetery, and – like the Maitreya statue at Keutsang Hermitage (Keutsang RitröKe’u tshang ri khrod) that gazes down upon the eastern cemetery of LhasaLha sa – this statue too is said to effectuate the “transition of consciousness” (powa’pho ba) to the pure land for any deceased person whose remains are brought to this cemetery.

The first temple that one sees as one arrives at PabongkhaPha bong kha is the Temple of the Three Protectors (Riksum Gönpo LhakhangRigs gsum mgon po lha khang). The temple that presently exists at this site is recent. Before 1959, it seems that only a small shrine to the Three Protectors (Riksum GönpoRigs gsum mgon po) existed at this spot.7 The present temple was built sometime in the late 1980s. In 2004 it was being renovated, and new murals depicting the Eighty Deeds of Tsongkhapa (Tsongkha GyepchuTsong kha brgyad bcu) were being painted on its walls by a group of artists from TsangGtsang province. The temple contains several important icons:

The self-arisen image of the Buddha housed in the PabongkhaPha bong kha temple. It emerged from a rock slowly as Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po was gestating in his mother’s womb.

  • In the center portion of the main altar one finds the stone self-arisen images of the Three Protectors – Avalokiteśvara , Mañjuśrī , and Vajrapāṇi .
  • On the western portion of the main altar – the left side as one is facing it – there is a miraculous statue of Thousand-Armed Avalokiteśvara , which is said to grow slightly in size every time the yearly fasting ritual of the deity is performed in this temple.
  • Along the eastern wall of the temple, one finds the famous stone containing the six-syllable mantra (oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ) that was carved into (or that emerged miraculously from) the rock onto which TönmiThon mi (seventh century), the legendary founder of the Tibetan written language, wrote these letters as the first exemplar of Tibetan writing.

Proceeding northwest from the Temple of the Three Protectors, one arrives at what is arguably the most important structure in the monastery: the temple called The Boulder House (Pabongkha/ngPha bong kha [ng]). Known originally as Maru Castle (Kukhar MaruSku mkhar ma ru), it sits atop the largest boulder on the site, the so-called “Female Turtle” (RübelmoRus sbal mo) Boulder (see below). The castle – reportedly the first structure built on this site – is said to date from the time of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po. It is not clear, however, whether the present temple is (or contains) a remnant of that original building, or whether the castle was completely destroyed and later rebuilt as the temple that exists there today.

The PabongkhaPha bong kha Temple, purportedly the oldest temple at the hermitage, sits atop the Female Turtle Boulder . At the bottom of the boulder (in the center) one can see the small door that leads into Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s meditation cave (druppuksgrub phug).

One enters this temple building from the north side. The first floor is little more than a vestibule containing stairs that lead to the second story. Ascending the flight of stairs, one arrives at the three chapels that together comprise the second floor:

  • A small chapel that houses statues of some of the more important figures in the history of the monastery
  • The large assembly hall (dukhang’du khang) has room for about one-hundred monks. This is the main meeting hall used by the monks of the monastery today. In a small case on the eastern side of this room, facing the windows overlooking the cemetery, one finds the self-arisen image of the Buddha that emerged from a stone during Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s gestation.
  • Behind the main assembly hall is a small protector deity chapel (gönkhangmgon khang).

The third floor contains the private rooms of the lama.

Beneath the main temple, in the interior of this boulder is a cave chapel, the place where Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po remained in retreat in order to pacify the negative forces that were hindering the building of the JokhangJo khang. There is a mortar throne in the middle of the room that is said to be Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s actual meditation seat. The altar along the northern wall of this cave contains a self-arisen image rock image of the deity Pel LhamoDpal lha mo, who appeared in a vision to the king while he was in retreat here.

TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s meditation hut lies just north of the PabongkhaPha bong kha main temple. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa is said to have stayed here when he once took the one-day Mahāyāna Precepts (Tekchen Sojongtheg chen gso sbyong). Beside TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s hut is a small chapel containing a self-arisen image stone image of the Medicine Buddha (MenlaSman bla).

North of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s meditation hut are a series of stūpas that are said to date to the time that the site was a KadampaBka’ gdams pa monastery. And north of these is the buildingTemple of the Five Visions, which contains two chapels:

In the foreground, the (white) meditation hut of TsongkhapaTsong kha pa. Behind it are the stūpas that are said to date to the time that PabongkhaPha bong kha was a KadampaBka’ gdams pa institution. Behind the stūpas is the Temple of the Five Visions of the Lord (Tsongkhapa).

Northeast of the Temple of the Five Visions of the Lord (Tsongkhapa) is the Male Turtle (RübelpoRus sbal pho) Boulder (see below) with a small structure atop it. Before 1959, there was a stūpa where this small structure now stands.

Finally, to the east of the Male Turtle Boulder are the ruins of what used to be the headquarters of the estate of Lhaptsün Rinpoché (Lhaptsün Rinpoché LabrangLha btsun rin po che’i bla brang).

In addition to the buildings just mentioned there are many other buildings, like the kitchen, as well as minor structures and shrines, and of course various large buildings that contain monastic living quarters.


[4] Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 15b-16a; the author of this text, 57b, gives the Tibetan translation of this as LhamokharLha mo khar.
[5] For an account of other features of the surrounding landscape and various kinds self-arisen images found at or near the site, many of which are said to date to the time that Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po and his two queens lived at the PabongkhaPha bong kha, see Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 22af and 29bf. This section of the text also contains a description of the special qualities of the plants and wildlife in the area.
[6] This statue has been variously identified by different sources and informants as Avalokiteśvara, Śākyamuni in his kingly or jowojo bo form, Amitāyus and Amitābha. Pabongkhé KarchakPha bong kha’i dkar chag, 28a, states that the image is of Amitābha. The same text (26b-27a) also cites The Compendium on the Maṇi [Mantra] (Mani KabumMa ṇi bka’ ’bum) concerning the tradition that an image emerged from a stone as Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po was gestating in his mother’s womb. A believer would see this as proof of the authenticity of the image housed at PabongkhaPha bong kha. A skeptic would see in this an attempt to read events of classical Tibetan mythography into the artistic landscape of PabongkhaPha bong kha.
[7] The cult of the Three Protectors at PabongkhaPha bong kha goes back at least to the seventeenth century. For example, in a vision that he had when he was forty-three years old, the Fifth Dalai Lama (Dalai Lama Kutreng NgapaDa lai bla ma sku phreng lnga pa) is told by Avalokiteśvara that “In Central Tibet, people must recite the six-syllable mantra (ngaksngags) 100,000,000 times and in PabongkhaPha bong kha the ritual method of realization (druptapsgrub thabs) of the three divinities, namely Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and Vajrapāṇi must be established”; Samten Gyeltsen Karmay, The Secret Visions of the Fifth Dalai Lama: The Gold Manuscript in the Fournier Collection (London: Serindia Publications, 1988), 44.
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Pabongkha Hermitage , by José Ignacio Cabezón

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Location and Layout
  3. History
    1. Founding Narratives
    2. Later History
  4. Glossary
  5. Notes
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