A concise account of the lineage and legacy of Bhutan’s greatest spiritual master
The lineage of Pema Lingpa dates back to the 9th century, to the time when Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche, first brought Vajrayana Buddhism from India to the lands of Tibet and Bhutan. Guru Rinpoche’s vast activities there were of mythic proportion, and were the basis for the wheel of secret mantra to be turned. Though able to subdue pervasive negative forces–both cultural and mystical–in order for the doctrine to take hold, Guru Rinpoche could foresee obstacles that would hinder the Dharma in coming generations, when the teachings would become confused and separated from their essential instructions. To mitigate this, he blessed the region with termas (hidden treasure-teachings) to be revealed in the future for the benefit of sentient beings. The most profound and subtle of these were the teachings on Atiyoga, or dzogchen.
During his time in Tibet, Guru Rinpoche prophesied who the tertons (treasure-revealers) would be, as well as the appropriate time and circumstances for the terma to be discovered. These esoteric teachings were secreted in the varied landscape of the Himalaya among the mountains, cliffs, trees, rivers, lakes and caves, as well as in the very mind streams of disciples who, as reborn spiritual masters, would be led to discover the terma through dreams, visions, and spontaneous realization. There have been many hundreds of tertons up to this present day who have revealed thousands of these concealed teachings of Guru Rinpoche. Among them were the five great Terton Kings, of whom Orgyen Pema Lingpa was the forth.
In Tibet, the legacy of Pema Lingpa began with the death of Lacham Pemasel, the daughter of King Trison Detsuen, who died unexpectedly in her eighth year. Upon noticing the king’s great sorrow over his only daughter’s death, Guru Rinpoche drew princess Pemasel’s consciousness back into her body. When she had regained awareness, Guru Rinpoche transmitted to her the secret doctrine of the Khandro Nyingtig, or Heartdrop of the Dakini, and empowered her to reveal those teachings in a future life. He also blessed her from his heart and gave her the prophesy that in a future life she would be reborn as the Terton King Pema Lingpa, and she would reveal his hidden teachings related to the cycles of the three heart practices of The Lama Jewel Ocean, The Union of Samantabhadra’s Intentions, and The Great Compassionate One: The Lamp that Illuminates Darkness.
Princess Pemasel revealed the Khandro Nyingtig teachings and taught on them extensively in her next incarnation as Pema Lendreltsel, who later took rebirth as the great master Longchen Rabjampa (Longchenpa). Pema Lingpa was the direct and sole incarnation of the omniscient Longchenpa.
Longchenpa was called the “all knowing lord of the doctrine” because his understanding and explication of the dharma was so exquisitely vast and profound. Like Pema Lingpa, he could read and write easily by the age of five. Before the age of twenty he had completely mastered all the Buddhist sciences of grammar and logic and his understanding of the teachings was beyond compare. During a retreat at Rimochen in Chimpu, in his thirty-second year, the dakini Vajravarahi appeared before him and told the master that in his present life he would serve a great number of beings explicitly through the teachings of dzogchen, and that in his next life he would emanate in Bumthang as the one called Pema Lingpa in order to serve an even greater number of beings.
Born amidst auspicious signs in 1450, in Bhutan’s Bumthang Valley, Pema Lingpa was a descendent of tantric practitioners of the Nyingma Lineage. As a child he had a commanding demeanor and chose his course early. Learning was effortless, whether reading and writing or ironwork and carpentry. His formal religious training was not extensive, but from his early adult years onward his dreams and visions became the source from which he received instructions to extract 108 great treasures–texts and relics–throughout Bhutan and parts of Tibet and India. However, due to the karmic disposition of beings at that time, Pema Lingpa revealed only 32 of the prophesized treasures. The revealed treasures of Pema Lingpa contain the essence of all 108 treasures, which are summarized in the cycles of the three heart practices transmitted to Princess Pemasel by Guru Rinpoche (Lama Jewel Ocean, Samantabhadra’s Intentions, and the Great Compassionate One).
One of Pema Lingpa’s most renowned revelations happened in Bhutan at Mebartso (Burning Lake), where, with a large crowd gathered, Pema Lingpa leaped into the deep water with a burning butter lamp in his hand, later emerging with a terma in one hand and the still burning butter lamp in the other. His profuse and enlightened activities magnetized a following of ordinary folk as well as many significant political and spiritual figures of his time. He was highly regarded by all four of the principal schools of Vajrayana Buddhism. Pema Lingpa spent his life revealing the precious treasures of Guru Rinpoche; meditating in isolated locations; giving empowerments and teachings; building and restoring monasteries; and generating a tradition that endures to the present day.
Today Pema Lingpa’s lineage is carried on through three lines of Body, Speech, and Mind emanations: the Gangteng, Sungtrul, and Tukse Rinpoches, all of whom currently reside in Bhutan. Gangteng Tulku Rinpoche, the founder of Yeshe Khorlo and Abbott of Gangteng Monastery, is the ninth Body incarnation of Pema Lingpa.
Credit: The primary source of information for this brief history is The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa, translated by Sarah Harding and published by Snow Lion. This book is highly recommended for a complete introduction to Pema Lingpa and his teachings.