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    Wednesday, January 20, 2010

    Thantong Gyalpo and "worldly" dharma

    Over at Digital Buddhist Altar there was recently posted a Tibetan earthquake protection amulet with little explanation.

    I recognized the image (sans center yantra) from Trainings in Compassion, translated and edited by Tyler Dewar, a collection of texts on Avalokiteshrva.  The book contains a sadhana of Chenrezig authored by the Tibetan polymath Thantong Gyalpo (1385–1464 or 1361–1485).
    Thongten's skin was said to be the color of "wet liver" and he generally paid little heed to his appearance.  Thangtong Gyalpo began his career in engineering when he was refused ferry passage on the grounds of his eccentric appearance. This experience served as a catalyst and he consequently embarked on a campaign to build bridges and ferry crossings.

    His first endeavor was in 1430 at the Chusul River where, with the assistance of two blacksmiths, he forged iron - said to be "the thickness of an eight year-old boy's arm"- into chain links, with which he attempted to span the river.

    The project was beset with problems, and more funding was required. Drawing upon the traditions of the itinerant religious storytellers of his time, Thangtong Gyalpo formed the first operatic troupe in Tibet. The troupe performed and raised the necessary funds to complete the project. Thangtong Gyalpo and his troupe of seven beautiful sisters then toured Tibet, raising money to construct a reputed 58 iron chain bridges (some sources say 108), numerous ferry crossing stations and countless chortens (stupas) in Tibet, Bhutan and China.  Thongtong Gyalpo was said to be motivated in his work by the desire to enable pilgrims to more easily reach shrines and other holy places.

    What's striking to me is his commitment to the (seemingly) very un-buddhist occupations of engineering and theater.   Repeatedly I have come across advice encouraging practitioners to turn away from worldly pursuits and to focus exclusively on meditation.  Yet here is a yogi putting on operas and building amazing bridges, some of which still exist today.  On the other hand, its also said that if one's view is high enough, one's behavior does not always need to conform to usual standards.                         
    Chorten constructed by Thongtong Gyalpo
    near Paro, Bhutan 

    I wonder where my blogging falls on this continuum?  

    Besides his building and artistic skills, he is said to have stayed in his mother's womb until age 60 and then lived to be 125 (that's 60 years in the womb and 65 outside).  He attained the rainbow body by meditating on Chenrezig.  Pictures of some of his bridges and a biographical sketch can be found here.  His sadhana of Chenrezig can be found here. Because this is the 21st century, the yogi has a Facebook page.

    The famous Dege printing house in Kham has a web site where you can see a wood block impression of Thantong Gyalpo here as well as an impression of the earthquake amulet here.  Be sure to check out the other amazing woodblock prints.  The site is often down, but well worth checking back.


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