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Phagpa Lokes'vara of the Potala

Pagpawati Jowo's Rescue Story
Excerpt from Chapter 6 of G. Childs' The Rising Mist
by Geoff  H. Childs

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A Different Kind of Sacred Endeavor

It was early afternoon. The sun had ducked behind a thick layer of clouds clinging to the cliffs above as I made my way to the residence of the elderly lama, Rigzen Dorje. He inhabited a small home within a grove a tall juniper trees on the gentle slope descending from the hill upon which the gomba sat. His humble residence consisted of a small living area dominated by a hearth in the center of the floor and an attached chapel, the interior walls of which were covered by paintings of the deities whom he venerated. I assumed he was home on that cold, cheerless day, for smoke could be seen filtering through his ceiling. These days Rigzen Dorje spends most of his time at home, making only an occasional foray to the village to visit one of his sons or to perform a religious ceremony upon request.

I stood outside of the entranceway and called his name, awaiting the invitation to enter. In a voice creaky with age he addressed his granddaughter, a twelve year old nun who takes care of him, "Who is out there?" In past years he had immediately recognized my voice, but now he was nearly deaf. Such is the plight of the elderly. "It's the gyemi, the foreigner," she replied. "Ehey, come on in," he shouted through the open doorway.

I picked my way through the entranceway, cluttered with stray chunks of wood and some ragged felt boots, and then allowed my eyes to adjust to the light for a moment before sitting at the customary spot by the hearth reserved for visitors. "Sit down, sit down. Hey girl, pour him some tea," commanded Rigzen Dorje, who was just finishing his meal of cornmeal and potatoes. A few stringy morsels of partially consumed yak meat remained on his metal plate. The old man still enjoyed flesh with his meal despite the fact that, at age eighty, his ability to chew had long been impeded by the absence of teeth. Tibetans consider meat to be an integral part of any meal. Giving it up is tantamount to denying one's cultural identity. Even the Dalai Lama abandoned his resolve to become a vegetarian.

As I sat down Rigzen Dorje grasped my outstretched hand and pulled me to his side. We touched foreheads in greeting, and then with a surprisingly powerful stroke he delivered a strong slap on my back. We had become very close over time. He was the last person whom I visited before leaving the village after my previous stint of fieldwork in 1997. Tears were in both of our eyes when he declared in a voice congested with emotion, "Perhaps we will not meet again. I wish you health and happiness." Walking slowly from his home I glanced back to see him standing where we had bade farewell, his hands held together in front of his chest in a gesture of prayer, a soft wind blowing through his long wispy hair. This memory is ingrained within my mind. Imagine my joy when I arrived the following year to find that, albeit deaf and chronically ill, he was not only alive, but his eyes still shone with a youthful and somewhat mischievous glint.

The young nun sat on the female's side of the hearth, fully occupied in the task of preparing tea. Rigzen Dorje's wife had died about three years ago. After having a partner for over half a century, he now found himself alone. As an elderly man, he needed someone to care for him. During my first visit to Sama the duty had fallen upon the eldest daughter of his son. The girl's mother had died while she was an infant, so the family made her a nun. This was not to be her calling in life, however, for prior to my second trip to the valley I encountered the girl in Kathmandu. Instead of the characteristic red robes and shaven head of the nun, she wore the clothing of a laywoman and sported shoulder length hair. In her arms was a swaddled infant - her own child. Tibetans consider it a social disgrace for a nun to become a lay person, for in doing so she revokes her sacred vows of chastity. I assumed this to be the reason why she now lived in Kathmandu, far from the reproving stares of her fellow villagers.

The young nun, another granddaughter of Rigzen Dorje who replaced her cousin as caretaker, finished churning the butter, tea, and salt mixture within the wooden cylinder, and poured the steaming liquid into a metal kettle. Rigzen Dorje removed the silver lid from his wooden bowl and held it toward the girl. It is customary for the head of household to sample the tea before serving the guest to make sure that the salt content is sufficient. My elderly companion took a deep and noisy slurp from the cup. A look of disgust immediately crossed his face. He turned to the girl and scolded, "Aach! There is too much salt in this tea! This tastes horrible, how can we drink it?" The young nun apologized meekly and set about rectifying her error. I felt sorry for this girl whose childhood flitted away in the dim recesses of her grandfather's home, caring for a man who became more cantankerous with the inevitable onslaught of infirmity. Also, I felt a twinge of empathy for my once formidable companion. It must be difficult for Rigzen Dorje to face old age, for in the past he was a force to be reckoned with. Not only had his religious services been in high demand, but he had been a powerful politician whose domineering demeanor had often swayed others to his cause. Now, not only could he barely hear the words of others, but many fellow villagers chose to ignore his advice and the wisdom he had accumulated over the course of the years. One of the most difficult aspects of witnessing a village council in action was to observe how the elderly men, former leaders in the community, strain to hear opposing arguments and attempt to elevate their enfeebled voices above the din of debate. Once a man's life-force diminishes beyond the point of no return, his advice is no longer solicited, and his opinions are no longer treated with respect. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for why Rigzen Dorje enjoyed my company so much - I was there to listen. 

My mind began to drift back a few years to the time when he related with pride the crowning achievement of his long life. In 1959 Rigzen Dorje and some companions embarked upon an epic adventure that is still recalled as one of the most remarkable events in local history. In the prime of life, at a time when he his robust body was matched by the dynamic personality of a true leader, he had set off on a mission to rescue an ancient statue called Jowo Rinpoche of Pagpawati (The Precious Jowo of Sublime Wati), one of Tibet's most sacred images, from certain destruction at the hands of marauding Chinese forces.

The venerated statue had a long history in the myths and legends of Tibet. In the fourteenth century the scholar Sonam Gyaltsen wrote the following narrative about how this particular statue came into existence: "Songtsen Gampo (a Tibetan emperor who died around 650 C.E.) then thought to himself, 'At the present time in the southern land of Nepal, there is a hidden manifestation which will miraculously benefit sentient beings in the future.' With these thoughts he prayed to his protector deity, and from the breast of the self-formed image there arose a ray of light that extended to Nepal. Looking in the direction of the light, he perceived in a great forest on the borders of India and Nepal the self-created images known as the 'Four Divine Brothers' arising from a sandlewood tree that also radiated light in all directions. The king then sent the monk Akaramatishila to fetch them. When the monk reached Mangyul (southern Tibet), he beheld many people dying from pestilence. He proceeded from Mangyul to the city known as Kathmandu, where he saw many dying from leprosy. Next he traveled from Kathmandu to the border between India and Nepal, where a malevolent demon was causing many deaths among the inhabitants.
At this latter location, a herdsman was tending many buffalo in a forest. One of these beasts, endowed with karma and good fortune, entered the forest during the day and circumambulated the sandlewood tree that stood there, whereupon milk flowed from her udders. That evening, the buffalo's owner said to the herdsman, 'You have been milking my beast!' The herdsman denied the accusation, saying, 'I have done no such thing. During the day the buffalo were wandering in the forest.' The next day, the herdsman, accompanied by the owner, proceeded into the forest to investigate. There they beheld the buffalo circumambulating the sandlewood tree that radiated light in all directions, the milk flowing from her udders, and the two were amazed.

Knowing that the sandlewood image of the king's protective deity would arise from this tree, the monk split it open with an axe, whereupon voices resounded from each of the four pieces thus created. The voice from the uppermost piece declared, 'Hue me carefully and place me in Mangyul', and from this piece arose the image known as the Sublime Wati. . . . Through the blessing of this image Mangyul was freed from the threefold fears of untimely death described above."

The Jowo Rinpoche statue resided in a temple called Pagpawati not far from Nubri in Kyirong District, southern Tibet. For centuries this was one of the most highly venerated images in all of Tibet, and was referred to simply as Lord Jowo. During the last century it was occasionally moved around during frequent border conflicts with Nepal's Gorkha army, yet it was always returned safely to its home. In 1959, however, a new threat in the form of an avowed anti-religious regime from China had descended upon Tibet. The Dalai Lama had fled to India where he remains in exile, and the whole-scale destruction of the land's religious infrastructure had commenced. Tibetans living in areas situated on the Nepalese side of the border, such as Nubri, were fully aware of what was happening due to the continual stream of refugees flooding their villages. Rigzen Dorje was determined to prevent any harm coming to the venerated statue at Pagpawati. Here is his story:.

"In the past I served some of the great masters of Tibet. There is not one among the lamas of Tibet, whether high or low, who does not like me. Although I am myself a lama, I am not really very devout. However, there was one event in my life that was especially significant, and for which I gained some fame. Have you heard of the Jowo Rinpoche statue from Pagpawati Monestery?
"Well, it was the Year of the Pig [1959], and I was about forty years old at the time. Many people say that this was a time of evil, but here on our side of the border things were not so bad. In Tibet, however, it was definitely an era of evil, for the Chinese had come and were creating all sorts of troubles. We kept hearing reports from people coming across the border that the situation in Tibet was getting worse and worse, and that war had broken out between the Kampas (people from Eastern Tibet) and the Chinese. We even heard that His Holiness the Dalai Lama had fled from his home in Lhasa. Everybody was worried.

"At that time I had a dream while sleeping at the gomba one night. It was a strange dream in which Lord Jowo spoke to me and said that if brought to safety he will be around for many years to come, but if left at Pagpawati he would not last more than another year or two. I knew then that the statue of Jowo Rinpoche was under threat. So in the morning I asked Lama Gyamtso's father and another man to come to my home. I told them, 'I want to bring Jowo Rinpoche back here to Nubri for safe-keeping. I will pay all the expenses for such an expedition.' They replied, 'If you do this, please let the two of us come along. We want to go with you, regardless of when you leave.'
"We agreed to wait a bit and make plans. Soon thereafter an old friend of mine died. While performing the death rites up at the monastery, my wife came and asked me to return to the house. A message had arrived from a Kampa lama. He instructed me to come up valley and meet him at Manarim, a place about an hour's walk from the village. So I went with a relative to greet this lama who told me, 'Go wherever you are instructed to go, there is no danger.' He then handed me a letter.

"The letter was from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This is not the idle talk of an old man. Really, it is the truth. The letter said that Jowo Rinpoche should be brought to Nubri, and that this task should be done during the third month of the year. Oh yes, if His Holiness commands me to go get Jowo Rinpoche, then that is precisely what must be done. If he commands me to stay put, then that is precisely what must be done. I had a sacred duty to follow his instructions.

"When I came back to the village my uncles, the lamas of Sama, were performing some rituals. They advised me not to undertake this expedition. They told me to stay in the village and recite prayers, and that I should not bring Jowo Rinpoche here. They suspected that this grand plan was only a means for me to gain merit for myself. Their practical objection was that, if Jowo were to be brought to Sama, then a bunch of Kampas would come as well. People were afraid of the Kampas, for they were known to cause trouble. My uncles said that if they stayed here, then all sorts of disputes would break out because the Kampas are arrogant. They also told me that I had no friends to go with. Regardless, I was determined to go. On the one hand, Tibet is the land of religion, so this was to be a holy endeavor. On the other hand, I had permission from the Dalai Lama himself for this undertaking. He had sent a letter instructing me to save Jowo Rinpoche. Those who fabricate any objections are not real people. Not only would they help the Chinese, but they would be mocking us as well! I urged people not to make trouble during this time, and assured everybody that I would pay all expenses. I was determined to go no matter what!

"I knew that I could not manage this task alone. So I sought people to help from each village in the valley. I carried some money and white scarves to give to potential helpers. I told the people in neighboring villages of my plans, and asked each village to supply some men to help. I assured them that bringing Jowo here would benefit all, not just myself. I knew that we could count on the Kampas soldiers to help us, and that if many were around then the Chinese could not stop us. But I also wanted people from Nubri along as well. In some of the villages men willingly agreed to come along, whereas in other villages debates arose with some agreeing to the idea, and some objecting. Decisions are sometimes difficult to make in this way, so I did not blame people when they were reluctant to help. It would not be right to command people to undertake this expedition.

"Eventually I assembled enough men. Back in Sama we burnt some juniper outside of the gomba and then left on the second day of the third month. We traveled via the Tsum valley, and en route crossed several streams and some high passes. After a few days we reached Pagpawati. The last time I had been there, the caretaker of the temple had been a one-legged man. Since then he had died, so it was his son who showed us into the temple where Jowo Rinpoche was housed. We were allowed to take the statue which sat in a carved wooden box that was open in the front. Rumor had it that Chinese soldiers were not far away, so we had to hurry. But we had some Kampas with us for protection, so I was not worried.

"When we were about to leave I met a lama. In the past he had acted as my sponsor when I stayed at Pagpawati. He asked me to stay for awhile and lit a fire to boil some tea. He then told us all, 'If you take the statue from here, go without having any second thoughts. If you accomplish this mission without failing, it is very auspicious. Anyone who has doubts will only create diversions.' I replied, 'We have decided to fulfill this mission. Even if it takes several months, we are willing to face the hardships.'

"We then went to the town of Dzongka. The men who helped carry everything did not turn back. They said they would remain with us even if it took months. I could hear them discussing among themselves, saying, 'If we turn back now before crossing the border, who knows what the future will bring? If that were to be the wrong decision, then we would have to live in shame for the rest of our lives.' Upon hearing this, I knew the men would be reliable for the rest of the journey. 

"After a few days we crossed the pass back into Nepal without a problem. Although the statue was safe, we still had to figure out what to do with it. I suggested that we take it to a place below Bi called Durdzong [Cemetery Fort]. Everybody liked the idea, so I sent the monks ahead to make preparations. When we arrived, we worked day and night to build a reliquary chamber for the statue. After all, this is a very sacred object and could not just be housed anywhere. The task was completed on the tenth day of the third month. 

"The statue remained there until the fifteenth day of the third month. Then we took Jowo Rinpoche on a tour through all the villages of Nubri. I sent messengers to each village informing the people that Jowo was on the way. My intent was to make sure that even those who had been stubborn about the expedition in the first place would not be embarrassed. When I had originally asked them to help, they had not agreed to the plan. My fear was that now they would be reluctant to come and greet the statue. It would be very unfortunate if they did not receive such blessings in order to save face. Having thought in this way, I sent messengers in advance to encourage all to come and greet this marvelous statue. And by bringing the statue through all the villages, then the old, blind, and infirm people would not have to be borne on peoples' backs in order to receive the blessing. We told them to just sit by their doors, that we would bring the statue to them. In that way we went from village to village in a grand procession. It was quite a sight!

"By starting this procession before the sun set on the third month, we were able to reach Sama on the ninth day of the fifth month. You see, I had set a deadline since the tenth day of the month is a special day on which we always worship Guru Rinpoche, the saint who helped establish Buddhism in Tibet long, long ago. We wanted to perform a large offering ceremony on this day. When we arrived I took off all my clothes and had a good wash. I then offered some nice silk clothing to Jowo Rinpoche, and a throne in the gomba for the statue to reside while here in Sama. Then I invited to my house for tea those who had helped bear the statue. Meanwhile my uncles were preparing butter lamps in front of Jowo. Guess what happened? There was an earthquake! Many people began to panic, thinking that something bad is bound to happen now that we have brought Jowo Rinpoche to our village. They claimed that the earthquake was an inauspicious sign. But they did not understand that this was indeed a good omen. Since we lamas expressed our faith and admiration for Jowo Rinpoche, we brought the statue all the way here. The journey was complete, so the earthquake must be interpreted as an extremely positive sign. Why is this so, you may wonder? When the reincarnation of a great lama is born there is an earthquake. If a great lama passes away, there is an earthquake. In both of these contexts an earthquake is considered to be an auspicious omen. I told the people that, similar to these examples, there is nothing to worry about regarding the services we rendered to Jowo Rinpoche. Harm will not come to the people here. The earthquake was a good sign.

"After we performed our ceremonies on the tenth day of the month, we knew it was time to take the statue down to Kathmandu. We had heard that His Holiness had reached India safely, so we wanted to get the statue to him. Thirty Kampa soldiers were chosen to take the statue down. I wondered whether I should continue this wonderful pilgrimage with Jowo, or whether I should now remain in the village and tend to household affairs once again. It was a difficult decision to make, but in the end I decided to stay here in Sama. Before Jowo Rinpoche was taken away I wanted to have some souvenir to remind me of his presence. So I quickly made a new box to hold the statue, and placed the old box from Pagpawati in my own chapel. It is still there. At one time it was blessed with the presence of Jowo Rinpoche, so I treasure that box like no other object in my possession.

"The next morning the Kampa soldiers came to carry the statue down valley. My family and I had all washed that morning and put on our finest clothing. My wife cut all the strings holding jewels around her neck and gave the precious stones to Jowo as an offering. I had a beautiful turquoise earring that changed color with the changing light - that I also gave as an offering to Jowo. When the soldiers left my daughter and some other people went all the way to the next village with them. I, however, only went a short distance along the trail. It is our belief that to go too far with a departing friend signals the end of the relationship, that we would never see each other again. I certainly wanted to see Jowo in the future.

"I still remember so clearly the day that the statue was taken away from our village. I was sad to see the statue leave, but pleased to know that it was no longer in danger. When some months later news reached us that Pagpawati had been destroyed, I was content to know that we had done the right thing. Otherwise, as Jowo had told me in the dream, the statue would no longer be with us. Today it sits in the monastery of His Holiness in Dharamsala. I have seen it there. Who knows, one day it may return to its home in Pagpawati."

At this point a tear trickled down the cheek of my elderly companion. The rescue operation of a sacred statue nearly forty years ago had been the crowning event of a distinguished career as a lama and as a village leader. He then turned to me once again and said, "By virtue of this deed I have received much merit. But I do not need fame, for to me it is enough that everybody in the village, from young to old, have benefited from my actions." His sentiments expressed the selfless ideal that is supposed to motivate all those who follow the example of the Buddha, whose sacred image had passed through this village during the confused and disorderly time when a systematic attempt was made to eradicate organized religion from Tibet.

Geoff H. Childs
Postdoctoral Fellow
Demography Program
Research School of the Social Sciences
The Australian National University
Canberra, ACT, 0200 Australia
Phone: (61) (2) 6249 2206
Fax:     (61) (2) 6249 3031


Phagpa Lokes'vara of the Potala | Articles