On the Buddhist Trail in Sikkim: Part 7
Guru Rinpoche Caves
During 8 C.E., Guru Rinpoche warned the great Tibetan King Trisong Detsan, that Tibet’s sovereignty would be subjugated in the near future. The King requested Guru Rinpoche to leave Tibet and search for a secure place for the Dharma. After crossing the Himalayas, Guru Rinpoche reached the kingdom of Sikkim and found it to be the perfect place. While he spent time at Tashiding Monastery, he also meditated in the nearby caves. One of the most intriguing things about Tibetan Buddhism, for me anyway, is the way in which the pure tantric teachings are shared – either through direct transmission of the mindstream of the guru, or in hidden objects that are discovered by treasure revealers or tertons.
Guru Rinpoche is one of the most famous tertons and is said to have protected the Dharma by hiding these ‘treasure teachings’ in secretly coded texts (termas) in caves and sacred places entrusting them to his consort Yeshe Tsogyal, and other dakinis, to be unearthed in future times when the Dharma was threatened. Termas are hidden in physical objects such as a text or ritual implement that is buried in the ground, hidden in a rock, or crystal, concealed in a tree or lake, or hidden in the sky. If the encoded teaching or object is a text, it’s often written in a dakini script – a non-human type of code or writing. They are then discovered by tertons (treasure revealers) who are themselves enlightened masters. Often, the terton himself has to practice them for many years before the teaching can be transmitted. The tradition of termas and tertons has ensured the continuation of tantric tradition, particularly the Vajrayana path in the modern world. The Nyingma tradition has had many tertons over the centuries whose discoveries have resulted in terma cycles passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken lineage of Dharma transmissions.
Tashiding is considered to be the center of a sacred geometry in Sikkim and the great mahasiddhi, Guru Rinpoche, spent time meditating in caves in the four directions surrounding the monastery. These magical places served as his abode and consequently are sanctified by his auspicious being. Naturally, I want to visit them in person. I’m always fascinated with caves and ponder the reality of the lamas and nuns who spend up to several years meditating in them. I’ve visited a few caves in the Spiti Valley in Himachel Pradesh and in Ladhak, but by comparison the caves in Sikkim are massive and very mysterious. They are nestled in the heart of the Himalayan Range and are bequeathed with spellbinding beauty and exceptional grandeur. The four sacred caves attributed to Guru Rinpoche are: The Great Secret Cave (Shar-chok Bé Phug) in the East. The Secret Cave of the Dakinis (Lho Khandro Sang Phug) in the South. The Cave of Great Bliss (nub bde chen phug) in the West. And to the North, is the Cave of God’s Precious Heart (byang lha ri snying po).
From Tashiding we head south to find the Secret Cave of the Dakinis. This cave is easily accessible and about five kilometres south of Legship, on the way to Reshi and Nayabazar. In front of the cave, at river’s edge, are the Tatopani hot springs believed to hold medicinal powers, and footprint of Guru Rinpoche inscribed in the rocks. I think what an ideal location this is to live in a cave. There is clear water from the river and hot water for bathing. In front of the cave is a small monastery and a stupa. Outside the cave, above the door is the body of a nun who Guru Rinpoche transformed into rock. It’s said that he liberated her in this way to inspire future generations who would see the rock.
I enter the Secret Cave of the Dakinis through a low tunnel of about 10 m in length that leads to a large cave with imprints in the rock left by Guru Rinpoche. (He had the ability to melt rock with his inner heat.) It’s a mysterious place and I feel like I’m inside the womb. Without the torch I feel the darkness press against me.
I marvel at the strange dakini writing on the walls and ponder the secret code.
There is a path on the left that leads to a hole. If you can pass through it, all your obscurations will be purified. According to the oral tradition, there is an underground passage that leads to The Hidden Cave in the East. We decide it would probably be much easier to drive there.
The Hidden Cave in the East is one of the most sacred caves in Sikkim and Guru Rinpoche was here in 8 C.E.. It lies between the hillocks of Tendong and Maenam, 5 kms away from the town of Ravangla (Rabong). The Hidden Cave can be found along a well-marked path with prayer flags and after walking through the forest one comes across a red metal gate.
Inside is a vast cavern, about a quarter of a mile in length, with a height varying from five feet to two hundred feet. The cave is so huge the light from my petzel headlamp is sucked into the darkness. Sonam has the big torch and has been here many times. He seems to know it intuitively and I cautiously follow him like his shadow, climbing up rock faces,pressing my hands into the rock where Guru Rinpoche left his own hand imprint, squeezing though narrow chasms, deeper and deeper, until 30 minutes later we enter into a huge cavern which is the abode of Guru Rinpoche. S P A C E . and emptiness of the ‘suchness’ form. The size of it is staggering, about 3 stories high, and I feel as if I’m in the center of the earth. It’s easy to walk around in and surprisingly very warm.
I sit down and contemplate the self-arisen images that have manifested in rock, a figure of a winged deity and some wrathful creature emitting an elixir from her heart. Above it resides Guru Rinpoche. It is believed that just being told of his presence will cause all one’s wishes to the fulfilled. In the Eastern side is the abode of Peaceful Deities, where it’s believed that, whoever makes an effort to cleanse their sins, will overcome all illness caused by malignant spirits, the defilement of sins and other obstacles. I meditate in the cave and then follow Sonam back out, arriving into the light covered in mud.
Outisde is a small shrine to Yeshe Tsoygal and Guru Rinpoche. I pay my respects and am always amazed that these beautiful statues remain unharmed and safe in the middle of the forest.
A gang of young Sikkimese boys are also here. They are delighted to see us and especially so when we give them a lift back to Ravangla.
The Cave of Great Bliss can be reached on foot in one day from Khecheopalri Lake and The Cave of God’s Precious Heart is a three-day trek from Tashiding. I must leave them for another time.
Heather Elton is a yogini, writer and photographer living in London.
© Heather Elton