The Life of Shabkar

 

The following article is from the Winter, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin

translated by Matthieu Ricard foreword by H.H. the Dalai Lama 712 pp., ISBN 1-55939-154-5 $27.95 #LISH

The Life of Shabkar has long been recognized by Tibetans as one of the masterworks of their religious heritage.

Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol devoted himself to many years of meditation in solitary retreat after his inspired youth and early training in the province of Am do under the guidance of several extraordinary Buddhist masters. With determination and courage, he mastered the highest and most esoteric practices of the Tibetan tradition of the Great Perfection. He then wandered far and wide over the Himalayan region expressing his realization.

Shabkar's autobiography vividly reflects the values and visionary imagery of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as the social and cultural life of early nineteenth-century Tibet.

Regarded by many as the greatest yogi after Milarepa to gain enlightenment in one lifetime,..a source of inspiration to Buddhist practitioners and general readers alike. THE DALAI LAMA

Shabkar's life is the world of the Buddhist adept, a world of intense self-discipline, but also of humor, vision and joy....Shabkar's wit and playfulness, his magnificent flights of imagination, his persistence in exposing all hypocrisy-these are the qualities that suffuse his work. MATTHEW KAPSTEIN, The University of Chicago

Translator's Introduction

The autobiography of Lama Shabkar, a work known and loved throughout Tibet, is probably second only to that of Jetsun Milarepa in popularity. It is a simple and moving account of the life of a wandering hermit, from childhood until his ultimate spiritual realization.

Shabkar describes all the steps of his spiritual path, culminating in the teachings of the Great Perfection, Dzogchen. Like Milarepa, of whom he was said to be an incarnation, his teachings, advice, and accounts of spiritual experiences are expressed in the form of songs. In Amdo, his native province, excerpts of Shabkar's life were often read to the dying instead of the Bardo Thodrol, the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The story of Shabkar's life illustrates the complete path of Buddhist practice. To begin with, he demonstrates the exemplary path of a perfect practitioner: having become disillusioned with worldly activities, he seeks a spiritual master, develops confidence in him and follows his instructions. By practicing with complete dedication, in the end he himself becomes an enlightened master capable of contributing immensely to the welfare of other beings. Shabkar's account of his progress along the spiritual path is so straightforward, heartfelt, and unaffected that one is encouraged to believe that similar deep faith and diligence would allow anyone else to achieve the same result.

Shabkar was born in 1781 among the Nyingmapa yogins of the Rekong region in Amdo, the remote northeast province of Greater Tibet. These yogins were renowned for their mastery of the Secret Mantrayana practices and gathered in their thousands to engage in meditations and rituals. They were much admired, and sometimes feared, for their magical powers. The yogins of Rekong were also famous for their hair, often six feet long, which they wore coiled on the top of their heads.

From a very early age, Shabkar showed a strong inclination toward the contemplative life. Even his childhood games were related to the teachings of Lord Buddha. By the age of six or seven, he had already developed a strong desire to practice. Visions, similar to those experienced in advanced Dzogchen practice, came to him naturally.

At fifteen years of age, Shabkar felt a strong desire to pray to the precious master Guru Padmasamb- hava, the source of blessings. He recited one million Vajra Guru mantras and had auspicious dreams, such as of flying through the air, seeing the sun and moon rising simultaneously, finding jewel treasures, and so forth. From then on, he wrote, by the grace of Guru Rinpoche, I became filled with intense devotion to the guru, affection toward my Dharma friends, compassion for sentient beings, and pure perception toward the teachings. I had the good fortune to accomplish without obstacles whatever Dharma practice I undertook.

At the age of sixteen, he completed a one year retreat during which he recited the mantra of Man- jushri ten million times and experienced auspicious dreams and signs. Through the blessing of this practice, he said, I gained a general understanding of the depth and breadth of the teachings. Shabkar then met Jamyang Gyatso, a master whom he venerated greatly and of whom he later had visions and dreams.

Despite his deep affection for his mother and respect for his family, Shabkar managed to resist their repeated requests that he marry. He eventually left home in order to pursue wholeheartedly his spiritual aims. Determined to renounce worldly concerns, Shabkar received full monastic ordination at the age of twenty and entered a meditation retreat. He let his hair grow long again, as was customary for retreatants, who did not waste time in nonessential activities; as a sign of having accomplished certain yogic practices, he wore a white shawl rather than the traditional red shawl, although he continued to wear the patched lower robe characteristic of a fully ordained monk. This rather unconventional attire occasionally attracted sarcastic comments from strangers, to whom Shabkar would reply with humorous songs.

Shabkar left his native land behind and traveled south of Rekong to meet his main teacher, the Dharma King Ngakyi Wangpo. Ngakyi Wangpo was a learned and accomplished Mongolian king, said to be an incarnation of Marpa the Translator, who had renounced the remnants of the vast kingdom of Gushri Khan and become a prominent Nyingmapa master.

As Shabkar says of him, He had crossed the ocean of the knowledge of the scriptures and sciences and realized the natural state, the profound and luminous vajra essence. Because I saw all his actions as pure and did whatever he asked, he came to think of me as a heart-son. Therefore, he gave me all the pith instructions of the Old and New TVanslation schools.

After receiving complete instructions from the Dharma King, Shabkar practiced for five years in the wilderness of Tseshung, where his meditation experiences and realization flourished. He then meditated for three years on a small island, Tsonying, the Heart of the Lake, in the Kokonor, the Blue Lake of Amdo. There he experienced numerous dreams and visions of gurus and deities.

His search for sacred places took him to many other solitary retreats: the glaciers of Machen, the sacred caves of the White Rock Monkey Fortress, the arduous pilgrimage of the Ravines of Tsari, Mount Kailash, and the Lapchi Snow Range. He spent many years in the very caves where Milarepa and other saints had lived and meditated.

Shabkar's given names were Jampa Chodar, The Loving One Who Spreads the Dharma, and Tsogdruk Rangdrol, Self-liberation of the Six Senses. He became renowned as Shabkar Lama, the White Footprint Lama, because he spent years in meditation at Mount Kailash above Milarepa's Cave of Miracles, near the famous White Footprint, one of the four footprints said to have been left by Buddha Shakyamuni when he traveled miraculously to Kailash. It is also said that Shabkar was called White Foot because wherever he would set his feet, the land would become white, meaning that through his teachings the minds of the people would be turned toward the holy Dharma

Wandering as a homeless yogin teaching all beings from bandits to wild animals, Shabkar's pilgrimages brought him as far as Nepal, where, in the Kathmandu Valley, he covered the entire spire of the Bodhnath stupa with the gold his devotees had offered him.

In 1828, at the age of forty-seven, Shabkar returned to Amdo, where he tirelessly helped others through his extraordinary compassion. He spent the last twenty years of his life teaching disciples, promoting peace in the area, and practicing meditation in retreat at various sacred places, primarily at his hermitage in Tashi- khyil.

Oral traditions recount even more stories of this great yogin's life than the present autobiography. For instance, they say that Shabkar fed hundreds of beggars, asking them to gather stones to make stupas 5 in return. When invited to teach, Shabkar would agree to come, provided that the benefactors also fed all the beggars who accompanied him. The horde of beggars would usually arrive first, followed by Shabkar himself on foot, leaning on the famous walking stick he used to call his horse, which itself was the subject of some of his songs.

The reputation of Shabkar, the perfect hermit, spread far and wide, inspiring another great renunciate, Patrul Rinpoche, to travel from Kham to Amdo to meet him. Unfortunately, after Patrul had gone only halfway he heard that Shabkar had passed away, whereupon he prostrated himself a hundred times in the direction of Amdo and sang a supplication for Shabkar's swift rebirth. He then added, Compassion and love are the root of Dharma. I think that there was no one more compassionate than Shabkar in this world. I had nothing special to ask, no teachings to request from hint, no teaching to offer him; I simply wanted to gather some merit by seeing his face.

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