Fearless in Tibet: Life of the Mystic Tertön Sogyal

Nineteenth-century Tibetan mystic Tertön Sogyal was a visionary, whose mastery of meditation led him to be a revered teacher to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. Known for his deep spiritual insights and service to the nation of Tibet, Tertön Sogyal’s ability to harness the power of the mind was born of both his profound understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and his unique experiences, all the while striving for peace against tremendous odds. His life is an example of courage and diligence appreciated by spiritual practitioners of all traditions; and his practical instructions on meditation and opening one’s heart—amid conflict, uncertainty, and change—are as relevant today as they were during his lifetime.

Fearless in Tibet, the first comprehensive work in English on Tertön Sogyal, captures the essence of his teachings and his inner world of visions and spiritual realizations. It also brings to life the challenges he faced during his early yogic training and his efforts to promote harmony between Tibet and China.

Combining riveting storytelling and Tertön Sogyal’s profound instructions, Matteo Pistono takes you on a journey through the mystical past that reveals practical inner guidance for today’s challenges. You will see the power of transforming negativity into opportunity, letting go of attachments, becoming present, and embracing impermanence. This intricate tapestry of intrigue and spirituality will infuse your path with timeless wisdom and inspiration.

(Hay House, May 2014)

Sogyal Rinpoche's foreword to 'Fearless in Tibet'

Sogyal Rinpoche
It was just over fifty years ago that the world suddenly became aware of Tibet and its culture, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama and a hundred thousand Tibetan people fled into exile, escaping the destruction in our homeland. Since that time, people in the wider world have discovered our extraordinary living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, which has prevailed for over a thousand years in Tibet and the Himalayan regions and has often been called one of the last ancient wisdom cultures on earth. With its remarkable knowledge of the mind and its profound disciplines of study and practice, the Buddhist tradition of Tibet produced countless outstanding masters and spiritually realized practitioners. One of these was Tertön Sogyal or Lerab Lingpa, an exceptional figure who lived over a century ago during the lifetime of the 13th Dalai Lama.

As I write these words, I can see the sun gleaming on the copper roof of the temple here at Lerab Ling, the retreat center in France that I founded in the name of Tertön Sogyal. Thinking about him now, I realize that he was someone whose life embraced many different facets and dimensions. To begin with, you could say that he was a spiritual leader, deeply concerned with the future well-being of the world and its inhabitants, as well as the spiritual progress of humanity. From the perspective of the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, he stood out as a great master, a mystic, visionary and prophet, and a tertön or treasure-revealer with more than twenty large volumes of revelations to his name. From the viewpoint of the historian, he was teacher, friend and ally of the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933) and a defender of the realm, who through his revelations, prophecies and spiritual presence played a crucial part in striving to ensure the survival of Tibet as a sanctuary for the study and practice of Vajrayana Buddhism.

To understand what drove Tertön Sogyal and inspired him, we ought to step back for a moment into the eighth century, a time when the Buddhist teachings were established in Tibet by the extraordinary master Guru Padmasambhava, affectionately called ‘Guru Rinpoche’, meaning ‘Precious Master’, by the Tibetan people. Along with the great Indian abbot Shantarakshita and the King of Tibet Trisong Detsen, he presided over the construction of the first temple at Samyé, the ordination of the first seven Tibetan monks and the translation of the Buddhist teachings into Tibetan. To his closest twenty-five disciples, who included his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, and King Trisong Detsen, he transmitted the innermost secret mantra teachings of Vajrayana, and then, blessing the whole land of Tibet and the Himalayas, he concealed countless spiritual treasures or terma, destined to be discovered by successive incarnations of his chief disciples at precisely the most potent time in the future for them to be of maximum benefit. These treasures can take the form of statues, sacred objects and texts, or teachings revealed from within the minds of the treasure revealers. Once deciphered, they bring to light entire cycles of spiritual practice and teaching. One of these close disciples of Guru Rinpoche was Nanam Dorje Dudjom, a trusted minister of the king, and an accomplished practitioner who had been one of the original delegation sent to invite Padamsambhava to Tibet. Tertön Sogyal, or to give him his name as a tertön, Lerab Lingpa, was the incarnation of Nanam Dorje Dudjom.

I believe I must have first heard about Tertön Sogyal from my own beloved master Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, who raised me as his son, gave me the name ‘Sogyal’ and recognized me as an incarnation of Lerab Lingpa. This was because Jamyang Khyentse was one of the ‘heart sons’, the closest disciples, of Tertön Sogyal. He used to say that, before he had even seen the great tertön, the very first time he heard his name, he was overcome by an uncanny sense of yearning, a spontaneous surge of devotion. He met him a number of times, the first occasion being in 1920, and was struck by Tertön Sogyal’s incredible qualities of learning and realization. Tertön Sogyal authorized Jamyang Khyentse to be the holder of all his treasure teachings, and he would appear to him in vivid dreams and visions.

After Jamyang Khyentse passed away in exile in Sikkim in 1959, and I continued to study with other great masters of the tradition, I learned more about Tertön Sogyal. I also heard stories about him as I grew up amongst my family, the Lakartshang, who had been one the most generous benefactors of Buddhism in Tibet, sponsoring the monasteries and masters of all traditions. As time went by, I became increasingly aware of, and inspired by, Tertön Sogyal’s revelations, so much so that they became the cornerstone of my life, my practice and my teachings.

Tertön Sogyal’s masters had included the most prominent lamas of his age, exceptional figures like Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and Jamgön Kongtrul, and he had received the famous Patrul Rinpoche’s oral lineage of Dzogpachenpo, ‘the Great Perfection’ which is the deepest stream of teachings within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. If you look into Tertön Sogyal’s life story, you can see that he experienced an almost continuous series of visions, predictions and revelations from Padmasambhava, and his entire life was lived to the full within the sacred vision and pure perception of the Vajrayana teachings.

The end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was a precarious period in history, an era of constant unrest when the Dalai Lama and Tertön Sogyal struggled to preserve the integrity of Tibet, a country menaced on all sides by the great powers of China, Russia and British India. Summoned by the Dalai Lama, between 1888 and 1904, Tertön Sogyal made five visits to Lhasa, the capital city, from his homeland in eastern Tibet. Working closely with the state oracle’s monastery at Nechung and drawing on all the depth, power and intricacy of the Vajrayana’s vast range of skilful methods, he performed rituals to defend Tibet, discovered terma treasures and received prophecies related to the Dalai Lama or Tibet, which would often give specific directions, for example about the building of temples and stupas, so as to protect the country from invasion. Two of the most well known of his terma connected with the welfare of Tibet are ‘The Wish-fulfilling Jewel’ statue, now in the Jokhang Cathedral, and the ‘Heart Life’ stone, which I have seen in the 14th Dalai Lama’s possession. I sometimes think there was an almost conscious re-enactment of the events one thousand years before, as the Dalai Lama, who was considered to be an incarnation of King Trisong Detsen, aided by Tertön Sogyal, the incarnation of Dorje Dudjom, once again followed Padmasambhava’s guidance and instructions, this time to safeguard Tibet at a delicate and dangerous moment.

One of Tertön Sogyal’s terma that focused on the deity Vajrakilaya, the wrathful embodiment of enlightened action, came to have particular importance. It was called ‘The Razor of the Innermost Essence’, Yang Nying Pudri. The heir to this cycle of teaching and practices, the prediction said, was the 13th Dalai Lama, and it was adopted by both him and his personal chapel, the Namgyal Monastery. The Yang Nying Pudri is associated with removing obstacles, both worldly and spiritual, warding off misfortune and negativity and, above all, protecting the Dalai Lamas and Tibet. It is one of the main practices of the 14th Dalai Lama. In 2000, in fact, he granted the initiation and led an intensive group practice of this treasure teaching at Lerab Ling, blessing the site of the future temple. Another unique terma of Tertön Sogyal, of which the Dalai Lama was the destined holder, is the Tendrel Nyesel, ‘Eliminating Flaws in Interdependence’, a practice dedicated specifically to creating harmony and peace in the world by eliminating, preventing, protecting against and transforming harm and conflict.

The more I have learned and understood about Tertön Sogyal, the more I have come to feel his presence and sensed the atmosphere of his life. Twenty years ago, I met the other incarnation of Tertön Sogyal, the great scholar and visionary Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok Rinpoche (1933-2004). With his Buddhist Institute at Larung Gar, Khenpo Jikphun set in motion nothing less than a renaissance of Buddhist teaching and practice in eastern Tibet. It has attracted thousands of students, among them many Chinese men and women, and proved to be the most extraordinary center of education. When he visited Lerab Ling in France, he spoke at length about Tertön Sogyal’s life and mission. “There was a prediction,” he explained, “that Tibet was to suffer twelve invasions, and that the ninth would take place during the lifetime of Tertön Sogyal. The 13th Dalai Lama entrusted him with the task of averting this ninth invasion, and of dispelling the perils that faced Tibet. In fact, Tertön Sogyal went through unthinkable hardships for the sake of the teachings and to help sentient beings in Tibet.” Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok also quoted a number of prophecies that Tertön Sogyal would reappear in his next life in two main incarnations: one was to be an ordained monk with pure vows, and one was to be a yogin, a mantra practitioner. One of the prophecies read:

Nanam Dorje Dudjom will certainly ripen into two fruits:
One, a turquoise dragon holding up a jewel for all to see,
The other, his voice resounding everywhere like a lion’s roar.

Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok identified us as the two incarnations, and declared that his mind and mine were inseparable.

When so little is known in general about Tertön Sogyal, it is timely indeed that Matteo Pistono has written this book about him. Matteo is a student of mine, and has for many years received teachings with some of the most senior Tibetan Buddhist lamas in both Tibet and in exile. In this book, he throws light on a whole world and period of history, and brings Tertön Sogyal’s story to life, based on his own tireless research, for which I congratulate him, and on the biography written by the great tertön’s disciple, the remarkable Tulku Tsullo, one of the present Dalai Lama’s favourite writers.

These days, I often think about Tertön Sogyal’s legacy, and I like to imagine that he continues still to protect the life of the Dalai Lama, and must have foreseen that His Holiness would become a world leader, loved and respected by millions. Tertön Sogyal also predicted that his teachings would not spread so much during his own lifetime, but during the life of his next reincarnation “they would spread throughout the entire world, their impact, power and blessing would multiply a hundredfold, and they would remain, without ever declining, for five hundred years.” Certainly they endure in the extraordinary work of Khenpo Jigmey Phuntsok Rinpoche in Tibet, who trained an entire generation of Tibetan scholars. In its first twenty years, for example his center at Larung Gar produced 600 fully trained khenpos, professors, who returned to their home areas and other parts of Asia to teach. Then there are also my own humble efforts, holding the name at least of Tertön Sogyal, to uphold the teachings of which he was such a sublime example.

But above all, I pray that Tertön Sogyal’s blessing continues to radiate throughout the world, to inspire and strengthen the Dalai Lama and ensure his long life, to make the precious teachings of Buddha flourish and spread, to pacify conflict, suffering and negativity all over the world, to bring peace and tranquillity to Tibet, and to ensure the welfare and happiness of living beings everywhere.

Sogyal Rinpoche

About Pistono's earlier book, In the Shadow of the Buddha, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, "This story of Matteo Pistono’s quest to visit places in Tibet associated with Tertön Sogyal, the adept who was a companion of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, is revealing not only of the Tertön’s life but also of circumstances in contemporary Tibet."