Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North

To cite this version:
Isabelle Charleux. Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North: The Pilgrimage to the Monastery
of the Caves and the Old Schools of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. Central Asiatic Journal,
Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002, 46 (2), pp.168-232. <halshs-00006195>
HAL Id: halshs-00006195
Submitted on 27 Mar 2008

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Isabelle Charleux, « Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North » — Author’s own file, not the published
Please see the published version in Central Asiatic Journal 46 (2002) 2, p. 168-232
Padmasambhava’s Travel to the North:
The Pilgrimage to the Monastery of the Caves and the Old Schools of
Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia1
Isabelle Charleux
CNRS, Groupe Religions, Sociétés, Laïcités
Paris, France

In the late 16th century, the ascendant Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa) school of Tibetan
Buddhism, founded by the reformer Tsong kha pa (1357-1419), took a firm hold in
With the support of various Mongol qans and, from the 17th century
onwards, the patronage of the Manchu dynasty, the Gelugpas gained a
quasi-monopoly over Mongolia and the Tibeto-Mongol monasteries of China proper.
The other schools, such as the Sakyapas (Sa skya pa), the Karmapas (Karma pa), or the
Nyingmapas (rNying ma pa) seem to have vanished, overwhelmed by the progression
of the Gelugpa “orthodoxy”. It is thus commonly known that Mongolia has been, since
the mid-17th century, a Gelugpa stronghold.
Another particularity of the Mongol Buddhist institution was its dependence on
the great Tibetan and Chinese centres of Tibetan Buddhism: the highest academic
degrees could only be obtained in Kumbum (sKu ’bum) and Labrang (Bla brang)
monasteries in Amdo (A mdo), Beijing and Lhasa. Not only members of the religious
elite, but also ordinary devotees had to travel beyond the Mongol sphere in order to
further their religious practice. Rather than developing important pilgrimage sites at
home the Mongols preferred to visit Wutai Shan in China (Shanxi) or the famous
monasteries or sacred sites of Tibet, especially Kumbum and the holy city of Lhasa.3
This was not owing to any lack of interest on the part of Tibeto-Mongol Buddhism in
the creation of sacred places in the territory it “conquered”. On the contrary, the
importance of local pilgrimages is a common feature of the whole Tibetan Buddhist
world. Over the last millennium, an extensive Buddhist pilgrimage network has
developed throughout Tibet and the Himalayan border regions under its cultural
influence. Mongolia thus appears as an exception in the Tibetan Buddhist cultural sphere.

In the summer of 1995, I undertook fieldwork in the western part of Southern
Mongolia during which I visited the most renowned monasteries in Alashan Left
banner, a region inhabited by Western Mongols whose aristocracy descended from
Güsri qan (1582-1654) of the Qoshud.4
As there was no public transportation available
to cross the Yellow River and enter the Ordos league, I followed the Yellow River
northwards, to Dengkou City. Having no permit to remain in Dengkou, I was
approached by a courteous police officer who tried to prevent me from leaving town.
However, he also informed me that a biennial festival was to take place at the nearby
monastery, Aγui-yin süme. Hundreds of people from the town were going to attend
and he himself was going in a bus chartered by the official in charge of the religious
affairs of Dengkou. I managed to join the party and was thus able to witness the
one-day festival, which eventually lead me to question the notion that local
pilgrimages are non-existent in Mongolian Buddhism. I reached the site of the festival,
a small temple in an impressive barren mountain valley, after a rough three-hour bus
Aγui-yin süme, “the Temple/Monastery of the caves”, is not only one of the
thousand monasteries that flourished in Mongolia during the 18th and 19th centuries; it
is also reputed to be “the only” Nyingmapa monastery of this period in Southern
Mongolia. The place therefore presented a double interest since it raised both the
historical question of minority schools in Mongolia and the more ethnographic one of
pilgrimage. Although I am an art historian and not an anthropologist, I could not
ignore the particular circumstances under which I visited Aγui-yin süme. The
buildings of the monastery were completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution:
their reconstruction, although of some interest is not the subject of the present study.
My aim here is to examine the special status of this temple within Mongolian
Buddhism and to question both its supposed peculiarities. Due to the scarcity of
historical sources on this monastery and the limited time I was allowed to spend there,
I can only give a brief description of the legend and history of the monastery and its
caves, which will serve as an introduction to the broader issues of pilgrimages and the
presence of Nyingmapa order in Mongolia.


The Foundation Legend

Aγui-yin süme was sacked in the nineteen-thirties, and a part of its archives were
stolen; the remaining archives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The
most precise source available is an article by Bai Shenghua (1986), a local historian
who collected oral traditions on the monastery, and gathered information from local gazetteers.
According to the foundation legend, Aγui-yin süme was established by a disciple
of Padmasambhava or by Padmasambhava himself, the renowned yogin reputed to
have introduced Tantric Buddhism in Tibet and revered by the Nyingmapas as a
second Buddha. Padmasambhava is said to have left Tibet for China with a retinue, to
have visited Luoyang and the sacred Wutai mountain, and to have stopped on his way
back to U rgyan (Oddiyâna, localised in Swât valley, Pakistan), at the site of Aγui-yin
süme on the 22nd day of the 9th lunar month, 774 AD. There, Padmasambhava met five
young dâkinî sisters (Tib. mkha’ ’gro ma),
each dwelling in a different cave.

He engaged in tantric practice with each one of them in turn during nine months and
twenty-five days. He is also said to have subdued a local demon that terrorised the
people and to have locked him up inside the main cave. Padmasambhava left a print of
his left foot below the Hongyang cave, and one of the dâkinî left a footprint in front of
the Cave of Târâ. Before leaving, Padmasambhava made a statue of himself (2 chi 5
cun -around 70 cm- high) with his own hands. According to his own words, to behold
the image is like beholding Padmasambhava himself and the image will protect one
against evil spells and demons. The image was also intended to dissuade the demon
from reappearing (Bai Shenghua 1986: 123).
Then Padmasambhava took as a disciple the child of a couple living in the caves
named “luoben (*slob dpon, teacher) Zandari”.
On the 10th day of the 7th lunar month,
775, he left the site followed by his disciple, his retinue and a crowd of believers from
the surrounding areas. He took “Zandari” back to India or to Oddiâna to further initiate
him in tantric practice and teachings. Several years later, the disciple returned to
Alashan and founded near the caves the Aγui-yin süme, also known as Loboncimbu
süme (*Slob dpon chen po),
the “Monastery of Padmasambhava”.
Many hermits and
wandering monks followed his example and meditated in these caves, attracting
devotees and donations.

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