The Mahavairochana Mandala

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Thursday, July 12, 2007

For one year, I have been thinking of Tabo Monastery, ever since Guge Kingdom in western Tibet. The monastery in the Guge Kingdom had surviving murals, but many of the millenium-old statues were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

The comparison is useful: the mandala temple at Toling, where I lived for a few days was almost completely destroyed by the Red Guard, with remnants of hands or a face adorning the now-empty plinths. Inside the Tabo Monastery, the main mandala chamber, also a millenium old, the statues, made of plaster, wooden life poles and straw were painted in bright mineral paints.

A monk, who led us around the various rooms of the temple, told me about the statue eyes: "The Dalai Lama came and saw that the deities' eyes were mostly closed. He asked us to open them." The eyes are now newly-painted over the 1000-year old statues. The Dalai Lama had visited the site several times over the past few years and supposedly considers this one of the most sacred Tibetan temples.

I can see why. Along with the kumbum at Gyantse, the Jokhang, and what remained of the Guge Kingdom temples, Tabo Monastery was a glimpse into the past, showing the sacred evolution of Buddhism as it spread from India into Tibet.

One thousand years ago, Buddhism was waning in parts of India as seen in the cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora yet just beginning in Tibet, as Padmasambhava was subduing demons from east to west. Guru Rinpoche, as he's know, came from the land of Uddayana, present-day Afghanistan. At this time, Kashmir, the home of the Tabo artisans, was a major center for Buddhist art and culture. Times have changed as Islam has replaced Buddhism.

Back then Rinchen Zangpo, the Great Translator, Atisha, and others also came to Tibet, heading through Spiti Valley; constructing Tabo Monastery out of local brown earth, gypsum, and Himalayan deodar wood; and bringing with them the best artisans from Kashmir to paint deities in saturated mineral paints: cobalt blue, cadmium, skin tones, and pure gold, all woven together into art that brings spirituality to life. Tabo monastery on the outside is one of the most subdued and understated structures dominated by the color brown and hiding a jewel in Buddhist art.

Inside the color brown, the deities of the Mahavairochana Mandala represent the pinnacle and definitive meaning of tantric Buddhism, the Vajrayana, brought to life in the corridors of Nalanda by Nagarjuna and others. Each deity has its own meaning, with five main deities representing the primary directions and colors of the mandala, bringing transformative powers to the temple:

Akshobya is water, white, winter, dawn, and transforms agression.

Ratnasambhava is yellow, autumn, earth, and transforms pride and arrogance.

Amitabha is red, spring, fire, sunset, and transforms passion.

Amoghasiddhi is green, summer, air, and transforms jealousy and envy.

Vairochana is blue, the blue of space, and transforms the ignorance of our inner truth.

For this particular mandala, Vairochana is found in the center, with all other deities surrounding it. Vairochana, also called Vajrasattva, in this case has four faces, each with a different aspect.

The remarkable aspect of the temple, aside from the art and its meaning, is that it still remains a functioning temple, over one thousand years later.

In other nooks and crannies of the temple, which had only one other visitor that day, were paintings of taras and buddhas in various mudras, a large statue of Amitabha, colored red, and another statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha (no photography, sorry, but I did take photos of the postcards the monastery sold to help local disadvantaged children, to give you some idea of the interior).

To end the day at Tabo Monastery, we lit offering candles in a small room.

After a tour of the temple and a walk up to old monk caves on the hillside, we ate dinner under a parachute tent and a blanket of stars. Ordering took a while, as many things we tried to order they didn't have or would "take two hours to cook" or "might be coming in thirty minutes from the next town." Nate wanted to order the "Banana and Apple Craps," but we were full of rotis, pizza, and more. I bought some bread, yak cheese and goodies from the next door German Bakery for our long trip the next day.

We awoke at dawn to catch the only bus heading north, beginning our long trip to Leh, over 500 kilometers of slow road ahead. Because of landslides and bad weather, though, the bus never arrived. Instead we ate a good Full Power Shak Shuka breakfast (when Israel meets India in the form of poached eggs, tomatoes, onions, and more), then joined two other travelers and took a jeep to Kaza, where jeeps to Keylong would be abundant, we were told. Before that we turned down a good offer of a ride to Keylong (we didn't know the going rates). Finally, in Kaza, we found the same driver and graciously accepted his offer to the crossroad town of Gramphoo.

The road to Gramphoo traveled through desolate Spiti Valley, around glacial boulders, over landslides (our no-show bus was stuck between two of them), and up and over pases. The grey skies above covered some tall mountains, while revealing others. We stopped for food along the way at a small roadside stand, where trucks were waiting for the landslides to be cleared.

Gramphoo was just a bend in the road, yet we found a ride quickly--a truck with an empty bed. Gary, one of the two joining us in Tabo, continued with us all the way to Keyong. He and I shared the bumpy truck bed. I focused on looking at the mountains as the sun set while we drove over large rocks. Finally, we reached Keylong, at night, two hours later.
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