Bhutan has over 2,000 monasteries and many of their walls are covered with precious murals, each containing a magical story waiting to be told. In the 17th century Tango monastery in Thimphu valley is a beautiful mural painting of Padmasambava with a red spot in the corner of his eye. The monastery’s founder, Desi Tenzing Rabgye (1638-1696) commissioned it for the wall of the zimchung (bedroom) where he died.
An international art expert who saw the painting said it would be hard to attach a value to it. One reason for this is its age, as the mural was painted directly on the wall, indicating that it was pre-17th century. Another is the subdued colors that are extracted from natural pigments.
However, what turns this mural from a valuable historical relic into a magical treasure is the oral story handed down from generation to generation of how much the monks grieved the loss of the Desi, who was the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan and a devout devotee of Padmasambava, popularly known as Guru Rinpoche. Even today, monks in Tango monasteries still tell the story of how even Guru Rinpoche felt the loss that so much tears rolled from his eyes to leave the red spot in the corner of his eye as a reminder to this day of the veracity of the story.Before his death, the Desi visited Taksang monastery in Paro in 1692 and as a mark of respect for this great master, a temple was founded in his honor in 1694 and still stands today.
The Desi was also a patron of arts. He categorised the zorig chusum to what is today known as the 13 traditional arts and crafts and he commissioned many paintings of Guru Rinpoche during his reign.
Buddhist art is mostly devotional and has a higher spiritual purpose. Most of the time, the artist is unknown. So it is not surprising, that the artist who was commissioned to do the painting of the Guru painting in Tango monastery is an unknown figure. But, it is clear that the hand that painted this mural would have belonged to one of the best living artists of his time.
Guru’s Lasting Legacy
Today, Bhutan is still predominately a Buddhist state. Two people are responsible for bringing Buddhism into its present form. Guru Rinpoche is one of them and the other is the Tibetan lama, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (1595-1651). Both are subject of many murals.
Guru Rinpoche was born in Uddiyana, present day Pakistan. In Bhutan, he is considered the second Buddha. It is said, the Guru visited Bhutan three times, first in 737, and then in 746 and 749. What many people donâ€™t know is that he also visited Bhutan before going to Tibet, which he did in 761. By 700 BC, during Guruâ€™s time, the Takshila University in present day Pakistan was already a center for learning. By some accounts, it is considered to be one of the earliest universities in the world. It is possible that Guru may have studied in the University and hence learnt logic, which he introduced and adapted to the circumstances during his travels. In Bhutan, he travelled the length and breadth of the country introducing Buddhism. But he never challenged the belief system and cleverly avoided the clash of reason and superstition. Instead he bridged the two.
Before Guru´s time, our shamanistic ancestors worshipped nature and believed that spirit lived in each entity. They worshipped rocks and prayed to trees. Some of their rituals involved blood sacrifice. So a parallel can be drawn between Christ and Guru as both came to enlighten humanity and discourage superstitious beliefs found in shamanistic and animistic cultures. For example, it is said that Guru Rinpoche introduced doma or pan as a substitute for cannibalism that according to popular belief was prevalent before Guru’s arrival in Bhutan. To stop this habit, Guru introduced the pan mixture of the betel leaf, areca nut and lime that produce red juice, which represents blood.
In those days, Bhutanese were superstitious and majority of us still are. Guru Rinpoche understood this and was able to subjugate local spirits and imbuing the local environment with stories, statues and other traces of his battle to introduce Buddhism that are key components of his legacy. One unique feature that sets Guru Rinpoche apart from all other religious figures is his death. While there are stories and many books written about the death of religious figures, there are none on Guru. This is because it is believed he never died and went to Zangdokopalri, the copper colored mountain paradise that is believed to be a perfect world.
In the Christian world, ancient belief systems are considered false and sacrilegious. By destroying these systems we have lost an important part of our humanity, which expressed itself in our ancestor´s relationship to nature. However, even in the Christian world small signs of ancient beliefs still exist today: Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny have nothing to do with Christian theology but they have nonetheless been absorbed by Western culture.In Bhutan, much of the ancient belief system still exists in people’s hearts. Guru may seem like a historical legend but this is mainly because much of the truth behind him is hidden in the mists of myth. But Guru was a real person, even though much wiser and far more visionary than any of us (another slight difference is that while most men struggle to keep one wife happy, he had three and was able to keep all of them content) and the walls in our monasteries depict his life.
Although Guru may have lived in the 8th century, he is still relevant today, as he is the symbol of what our minds and bodies are capable of doing. He is the embodiment of our Buddha nature. His legacy is the unique traditions, customs and vibrant culture, right down to the gut feeling of what it means to be Bhutanese today.
Guru is not omnipotent or omniscient and impossible to reach. He is the symbol of what we hope to become and the inspiration to unlock our full potentials. Individual and humanity at large are capable of greatness that encompasses love, compassion and wisdom. Guru symbolises and embodies this.
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