by José Ignacio Cabezón and THL.
PabongkhaPha bong kha, also known as Maru Castle, has a history that spans more than thirteen-hundred years. Traditional accounts tell us that the oldest building on the site, the temple known as PabongkhaPha bong kha (“Boulder House/Man”),8 predates the JokhangJo khang, LhasaLha sa’s central cathedral. If this is true – and carbon-14 dating may prove definitive in deciding this, as it has in helping us to fix the date of the interior portions of the JokhangJo khang itself – it would make the main temple at PabongkhaPha bong kha one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Tibetan world, dating to seventh century.
There are two distinct narratives of the founding of PabongkhaPha bong kha. The first relates the founding of the hermitage to the building of the JokhangJo khang. The second relates it to the figure of TönmiThon mi, the legendary founder of the Tibetan writing system and literary language. In each case, the founding of the monastery is associated with foundational events in the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet. In both narratives, the turtle spirit, who resides within the giant boulder at the site, is seen as something to be controlled or dominated. But in the second account, it is portrayed as something wondrous rather than as a threat. In neither of these narratives is the turtle gendered, as it will be in the later apocalyptic myths of the PabongkhaPha bong kha site (see below).
According to many Tibetan sources, the JokhangJo khang – the central cathedral of LhasaLha sa and the first Buddhist temple built in Tibet – is said to have been constructed to house the statue of the Jowo Mikyö DorjéJo bo mi bskyod rdo rje, brought to Tibet by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s Nepalese queen. But the building of the JokhangJo khang was no easy thing. The site where the temple was supposed to sit was a swamp or lake (tsomtsho), and the water of this lake was the heart’s-blood (nyingdraksnying khrag) of the female demon that lay supine over (or in some accounts that actually was) the landscape of Tibet. The demoness, we are told, had to be subjugated if Buddhism was to thrive in the country.10 And so, the narrative continues, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po ordered that the area be filled with dirt. The dirt was carried on the backs of goats.11 Once the site had been prepared, construction on the JokhangJo khang began. But the portion of the walls that went up by day would be destroyed by demons at night. The Nepalese queen asked her co-wife, the Chinese queen, to perform an astrological prognostication to determine how to deal with this problem. The Chinese queen determined that an earth spirit, a golden turtle named Ser MahaGser ma hā,12 who lived in the northern mountains of the LhasaLha sa Valley, was the cause of the problem.13 She recommended that the king build a fortress at the site: an edifice that, being placed atop the huge turtle-boulder, would subdue the spirit beneath it, thus clearing away the obstacles that were impeding the building of the JokhangJo khang temple.
The interior of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s meditation cave located in the Female Turtle Boulder. The throne is said to have been Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s actual meditation seat.
Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po then built a nine-story fort made of bricks mortared with molten metal on the “back” of the Female Turtle Boulder.14 It was fastened to the boulder in each of the four directions with powerful, magically-blessed chains. He and his two wives then set themselves to meditating in this building for a period of three years. According to an alternate tradition, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po meditated not in the castle but in a cave inside the huge boulder: a cave that has been preserved to this day.15 While living in this cave he had a vision of a goddess, Pel LhamoDpal lha mo,16 who promised to act as the protectress of the site, and of Buddhism in general. According to another account,17 on the third day of their retreat, the king and his two queens had visions of the Three Protectors, who promised to help the king realize his plan to introduce Buddhism into Tibet. They dissolved into a rock, and the figures of the three deities then emerged spontaneously from the rock-face. These self-arisen images of the three deities are to this day found on the main altar of the Temple of the Three Protectors in the southern part of PabongkhaPha bong kha hermitage. Finally, PabongkhaPha bong kha is said to be the place where Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po and his court created Tibet’s first legal code: the set of “sixteen rules of purity for the populace” (michö tsangma chudrukmi chos gtsang ma bcu drug), which was then spread throughout the empire.18
The self-arisen image of the protector deity Pel LhamoDpal lha mo inside Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s meditation cave.
In the alternate narrative of the founding of PabongkhaPha bong kha, the JokhangJo khang has already been built, and the king and his ministers are residing in LhasaLha sa. One morning, while inspecting the LhasaLha sa Valley from atop the roof of the White Palace in LhasaLha sa, they noticed “a large dark shape” (nakril chenpo zhiknag ril chen po zhig) in the middle of the trees on the side of Cakrasaṃvara mountain north of LhasaLha sa. The next day they went to inspect the site, and saw that the dark shape was a giant rock shaped like a turtle. Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po thought to himself, “TönmiThon mi is about to return from India, and I should build him a palace that can serve as the headquarters from which he can spread the new written language. This place [PabongkhaPha bong kha] is a beautiful place, and the turtle is a wondrous thing. I will build TönmiThon mi’s palace here.” The king designed the palace himself. Once the foundation was finished, he had molten metal poured onto it so that the turtle-rock and the nine-story building would be forever fused as one. Once TönmiThon mi arrived, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po set him up in this palace, and TönmiThon mi began to teach the written language – first to the king and his ministers, and then to others, who in turn spread this knowledge throughout Tibet.20 But before beginning to instruct his fellow Tibetans, TönmiThon mi wrote the six-syllable mantra (oṃ maṇi padme huṃ) for the sake of good luck. According to one account, the king saw these letters, was amazed, and had them engraved onto a rock. An alternative account tells us that TönmiThon mi from the outset traced out the letters onto the rock’s surface, and that they then magically emerged in bas-relief in a self-arisen image fashion. This rock has been preserved, and can be seen in the Temple of the Three Protectors at Pabongkha Hermitage (Pabongkha RitröPha bong kha ri khrod) even to this day.21
The stone bearing what oral lore says are the first Tibetan letters written by TönmiThon mi, kept in the Temple of the Three Protectors at PabongkhaPha bong kha.
The Gendered/Sexual Landscape
There is one other aspect of the site – related to the narrative of the turtle – that must be mentioned. Oral tradition has it that there are in fact not one but two turtle spirits on the site, each associated with its own boulder. The boulder that sits lower on the hill – the one on which Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po built his castle – is said to be the Female Turtle. Northeast of the Female Turtle, farther uphill, there is another larger boulder identified as the Male Turtle. A small structure (before 1959, it was a stūpa) has been built atop it. Oral tradition has it that the Male Turtle is attempting to slide down the hill to unite sexually with the Female Turtle, and that if this event occurs, it will usher in an apocalypse – that is, the destruction of the universe by wind, fire, water, and so forth.
There are two factors that are seen as preventing this. First, each of the two turtle boulders is fixed in its respective location by Buddhist monuments. The Female Turtle is fixed in place by the castle/temple built by Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po, which is said to have a mythic axis/pole running through its middle that pierces the heart of the Female Turtle and holds her in place so that she cannot move.22 The Male Turtle is held in place by the previously-mentioned stūpa. Second, the stūpas that have been built between the two turtles are said to act as an additional barrier – a second line of defense, as it were – between the two boulders/spirits. In one account, there are said to be one hundred and eight stūpas, each one of them containing one bead from TsongkhapaTsong kha pa’s rosary.23
The Male Turtle Boulder.
The myth of the turtles both presumes and reinforces aspects of Tibetan gender ideology. First, the relative position of the two turtles is hardly accidental. In the natural world, as in the social world, the male must be located higher. Sexually speaking, as well, the cultural logic requires that the male be in a position to mount the female – yet another reason for situating the Male Turtle on top of (and descending towards) the female. It might seem strange that sexual union, a generative act, should be seen here not only as threatening, but as the very deed that ushers in the end of the world cycle. But we must remember that this was most likely an oral myth created by monks, and that for monks sex is the end of a world – the end of their vows, and therefore of their life/world as celibates. Sex that takes place within the confines of a monastery is, moreover, considered to be a great sin (dikpa chenposdig pa chen po). Sex in a holy place also brings pollution. From several vantage points, therefore, there is an imperative to keep sex from happening within the confines of PabongkhaPha bong kha. Finally, we must not forget that the turtles are in actuality geo-spirits (sadaksa bdag): the powerful indigenous gods who are the original “owners” of LhasaLha sa. The mating of the two spirits might have been seen as potentially leading to the proliferation of these creatures as a species, or to their reassertion of power over the land that was once theirs. To have allowed this to happen is to have risked the destruction of the world of Buddhism, whose existence on Tibetan soil depends metaphysically on the control of Tibet’s native spirits. The stūpas that separate the turtle spirits in the physical space of the monastery are the physical symbols of Buddhism as the force that controls the indigenous spirits of the country in the meta-physical sphere.
Although the various accounts agree that PabongkhaPha bong kha was originally built as a fort and not as a monastery, traditional lore has it that the site was converted into a religious center very early in its history. Initially, it is said to have served as the home to “about a hundred tantrikas.”24 According to some accounts, after Tibetans began to get ordained as Buddhist monks, PabongkhaPha bong kha was converted into a residence for the first seven Tibetan monks (semi dünsad mi mi bdun). This would have taken place during the reign of Trisong DetsenKhri srong lde’u btsan). If this is true,25 it would make PabongkhaPha bong kha one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet.
PabongkhaPha bong kha was destroyed during the reign of King LangdarmaGlang dar ma. There are different accounts of this event. In the more naturalistic version given by Dungkar RinpochéDung dkar rin po che, the temple on the rock was completely destroyed by the king. According to the more super-naturalistic version current among the monks of the monastery, LangdarmaGlang dar ma began to destroy the nine-story temple story-by-story starting from the top. After destroying four stories, the deity Pel LhamoDpal lha mo appeared to him and told him to stop.26 A five-story temple then remained. During the Cultural Revolution the temple lost two more stories. This explains how today it is a three-story building.
We know little about PabongkhaPha bong kha between the time of LangdarmaGlang dar ma and the eleventh century. It was then that the site was re-established as a KadampaBka’ gdams pa monastery by one of the most important masters of that tradition. The great KadampaBka’ gdams pa master Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal (1027/31-1105) is said to have lived in the so-called “Cave of the Tenth Day” (TsechupukTshes bcu phug),27 for a period of time. PabongkhaPha bong kha is the site where Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal transmitted many of the KadampaBka’ gdams pa teachings to Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba (1032-1111), one of his eight great close disciples (kabap buchen gyébka’ babs bu chen brgyad).28 Because Potowa Rinchen SelPo to ba rin chen gsal was quite old at the time, he regretted that he could not bring PabongkhaPha bong kha back to its former glory, so he entrusted this work to his student. It is Geshé DrakkarwaDge bshes brag dkar ba, then, who is credited with the re-establishment of PabongkhaPha bong kha as a monastic institution.29 He stayed in retreat in the Cave of the Tenth Day for quite some time, and during this period gathered many disciples. He then began the process of reconstruction, and rebuilt at least two stories of the temple that had been destroyed during LangdarmaGlang dar ma’s reign. He also taught extensively at PabongkhaPha bong kha until his death at around the age of eighty. During his decades of residence at PabongkhaPha bong kha, upwards of three hundred monks gathered around him. The monastery appears to have remained a KadampaBka’ gdams pa institution for the next two hundreds of years, passing through seven or more abbots, and growing in size to upwards of four hundred monks.30 Many stūpas31 are said to have been built at the site by the successive KadampaBka’ gdams pa masters who held the throne of PabongkhaPha bong kha, and some of these monuments still exist at the site today. A small clay tablet repository (tsakhangtsa khang) to the east of the temple of the Three Protectors is also said to have been built during the KadampaBka’ gdams pa period as an antidote to demonic influences.
Stūpas at PabongkhaPha bong kha that are said to date to the KadampaBka’ gdams pa period.
After the seventh KadampaBka’ gdams pa abbot of PabongkhaPha bong kha, the monastery went into a period of decline. It appears that it may have then become a SakyaSa skya institution around the time of Pakpa’Phags pa (1235-1280), remaining under SakyapaSa skya pa control for a period of about two hundred years. At the time of Pakmo DrupaPhag mo gru pa hegemony, PabongkhaPha bong kha once again went into a period of decline. TsongkhapaTsong kha pa, the founder of the GelukpaDge lugs pa school, apparently remained in retreat at PabongkhaPha bong kha for a short period of time. The site was once again revived – this time as a GelukDge lugs institution – by Penchen Delek NyimaPaṇ chen bde legs nyi ma (sixteenth century). Under Penchen Delek NyimaPaṇ chen bde legs nyi ma’s abbacy, PabongkhaPha bong kha thrived, at least for a short period of time, but, like many institutions in and around LhasaLha sa, it suffered as a result of the internecine warfare that plagued Central Tibet as a whole, and PabongkhaPha bong kha once again went into a period of decline.
It was in year 1619 that PabongkhaPha bong kha came under the aegis of the great GelukpaDge lugs pa master Khöntön Peljor Lhündrup’Khon ston dpal ’byor lhun grub (1561-1637). Khöntön’Khon ston was a lamabla ma renowned for his ecumenical outlook. He was an important figure in the history of SeraSe ra, and one of the teachers of the Fifth Dalai Lama. After the death of Khöntön’Khon ston, the Fifth Dalai Lama had “a three story palace”32 built at PabongkhaPha bong kha. He commissioned an image of his teacher, and endowed the institution generously by providing it with fields, pastures for animals, and many head of yak.33 He also became (at least nominally) the head of PabongkhaPha bong kha, and it seems that he inaugurated a tradition according to which all of the successive Dalai LamaDa lai bla mas visited the institution at least once in their lives.
Desi Sanggyé GyatsoSde srid sangs rgyas rgya mtsho (1653-1705), the regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, lists the following abbots from the time of Khöntön’Khon ston up to his own day:
- Peljor RapgyéDpal ’byor rab rgyas (1604-1669)
- Serapa Jamyang DrakpaSe ra pa ’jam dbyangs grags pa (b. seventeenth century)
- Khen Ngawang TendzinMkhan ngag dbang bstan ’dzin34
- Mé Lazur Lozang DöndrupSmad bla zur blo bzang don grub35
PabongkhaPha bong kha has remained a GelukDge lugs institution up to the present time. Informants tell us that one of the great lamabla mas of SeraSe ra, Lhaptsün RinpochéLha btsun rin po che, established a lama’s residence (labrangbla brang) at PabongkhaPha bong kha at some point in time, but we do not know when precisely this was. This compound now lies in ruins.
The ruins of the Lhaptsün Rinpoché’s estate (Lhaptsün Rinpoché LabrangLha btsun rin po che’i bla brang) at PabongkhaPha bong kha.
Before 1959 PabongkhaPha bong kha was an independent monastery, albeit one that had had strong historical and social ties to SeraSe ra for several hundred years of its history. According to one informant, before 1959 only fully ordained monks were allowed to live at PabongkhaPha bong kha. While this may have been true in theory, it is difficult to imagine that this rule was strictly observed, given that so much of the menial labor in small monasteries like this one (hauling water, cleaning, serving tea, etc.) is traditionally done by novice monks.
As with many of Tibet’s great monasteries, PabongkhaPha bong kha was forcibly closed after the events of 1959. Many of its important images36 were destroyed. It remained closed until the monks of SeraSe ra formally applied for permission to rebuild the site. They began the project of restoring PabongkhaPha bong kha in the mid 1980s. Today PabongkhaPha bong kha is owned and administered by SeraSe ra, and all of the monks of the hermitage are SeraSe ra monks.