Ladakh -
Land of Stupas, Prayer Wheels,  Mani Stones & Prayer Flags
 
 
 
 
The Namgyal Stupa, rNam-rgyal-mchod-rten, the “Stupa of Victory,” represents Lord Buddha prolonging his life after having been
requested by his disciples to give teachings. - Situated in Leh with a panorama of the Zanskar Mountain Range.
 
 
 
Building stupas and monasteries helps avert conflict, disease, and famine. Such activities promote world peace and further Buddhist values and practice.  -- Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
 
 
 
Earliest traces of communal life in Ladakh are rock engravings that are masterly workmanship among people who wished to illustrate cultural and spiritual experiences and share them with others more than 3000 years ago. The stone artwork depicts how men of the native Bon and the first five centuries of Buddhist traditions felt in a world of dangers. The territory where early petroglyphs have been found extends throughout what was once the entire Zhang Zhung Kingdom. The scratched or engraved images are a window into the early period of civilization in West, Central, and East Tibet. John Vincent Bellezza wrote that they “document the arrival of the domestic horse, warfare, and religious concerns. Later, with the advent of the Zhang Zhung Iron Age culture in Tibet, the range of subjects became broader and started to include familiar images such as the stupa, horned eagle, and flaming jewels, albeit in forms that have long since become outdated.” [1] Without defining all stupas shown here, it is certainly important knowing what those following an older tradition say: “In Bon, the way of the virtuous adherer is to follow the practice of the ten virtues and the ten perfections, and to build and worship stupas.”2
 
 
 
 
 
Newer etchings of what can be interpreted as three stupas are scratched over the older images of antelopes that are considered symbols of innocence and generosity. In the Bon tradition, the graduated tiers of the images resembling stupas refer to the five elements that compose the universe, which is symbolized by an archaic spherical top and not by Buddhist representations of the sun and moon. Because of the slender midsections, the newer depictions that are less eroded point to a pre-Buddhist form of a stupa or an alternative Bon shrine, an entirely different kind of religious monument.3
 
 
 
 
 
Five Devavatara Stupas, Lha-bab-mChod-rten, engraved on rocks remind of Lord Buddha’s return from Tushita.
 
 
 
 
 
The Tashigomang Stupa, bKra-shis-sgo-mang-mchod-rten (meaning the “Stupa with Many Auspicious Doors”) represents Lord Buddha’s teachings that he presented in the Deer Park. It is situated at Changspa near Leh. David Snellgrove and Tadeusz Skorpuski wrote about the Stupa at Changspa and stated: “Its history is quite uncertain.”4
 
 
 
 


                   Stupas and rock reliefs were also erected below the fortress of Shey, just as below all monasteries. Shey is the
pronunciation of shal, which means “crystal.”
 


 
 
The monks from Urgyen Monastery at Shergol preside over the meditation caves of Phukta, which are tucked between earth and sky
in the rocks and can only be reached over a footpath - lined with stupas - that winds through a narrow gap up the steep terrain.
 
 
 
 
Stupas below Urgyen Monastery.
 
 
The Tibetan-English Dictionary of Rangjung Yeshe offers a detailed list of words containing the term stupa; a few may contribute to a better understanding of the significance of these reliquaries:
 
“mchod rten – stupa, shrine, reliquary symbolic of Buddha mind, funerary monument. A dome-shaped monument housing relics of the Buddha or an accomplished master. The shape of the stupa embodies an elaborate symbolism. Support for worship.
mchod rten bskor ba’i yon gyi mdo – Sutra on the Benefits of Circumambulating Stupas.
mchod rten shing – Bodhi Tree; papal tree, name of byang chub shing, Indian fig tree.”5
 
 
 
An elderly monk concentrates on his own mind by setting his prayer wheel in motion and by keeping it spinning with his hand.
 
 
 
Prayer wheels, chos-‘khor in Tibetan, are spiritual implements to distribute the great blessings that a mind focused on Bodhicitta generates and perceives, and therefore turning the larger ones installed at sacred sites or the smaller one creates a powerful continuum of virtuous acts that unite body with mind. Monastics and laypersons can be seen in all Himalayan countries setting the sacred mantras and special prayers, which are printed on scrolls and rolled up inside the prayer wheel, in motion by spinning it, whether large or small, and in that manner sending prayers out into the universe. Prayer wheels are also called “mani wheels” because they usually contain the mantra of Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, the Lord of Compassion. The more mantras inside, the better.
 
Kalachakranet wrote about the origin of the prayer wheel: “Arya Chenrezig predicted to Master Ludrup Nyingpo, ‘In the palace of the land of Naga is the Naga King Bodhisattva, who is the owner of a profound wheel of Dharma. By hearing, seeing, touching, or thinking of this wheel, one can swiftly attain liberation from the suffering of the three lower rebirths. If you go and fetch this wheel, the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous.’
“Consequently, Master Ludrup visited the land of the Naga and said to Naga King Bodhisattva, ‘Oh, Naga King Bodhisattva, please pay attention to me. I have come here because Arya Chenrezig prophesied that the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous if I beg from you your profound wheel of Dharma, which can liberate beings from all types of sufferings of lower rebirths just by hearing, seeing, touching, or thinking of it. Kindly give it to me.’
“Naga King Bodhisattva replied, ‘This wheel of Dharma, which has the quality of quickly liberating all transmigrators from the great suffering of the three lower rebirths merely by hearing, seeing, touching, or thinking of it, was kindly given to us in the past by the Buddha Mar Mezed, and has given nagas much happiness, through it many have been led to the grounds and paths of Buddhahood.  This Dharma Wheel is the wheel of the mantra
 
 
the essence mantra that Arya Chenrezig received from the Buddhas upon request and which represents the essence of all the qualities of body, speech, mind, and actions of the Buddhas. I shall give this wheel to you. You must place it on or in earth, water, fire, or wind and use it for the sake of Dharma and living beings.’
“The wheel was passed on to Master Nagarjuna together with its instructions for use. Master Nagarjuna brought it to India and later passed it on to the Lion-Faced Dakini. From her the lineage passed through Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa, to Dakpo Lha Je, then to Khampa Yu Se, and so on.”6
 
 
Lama Zopa spoke about how he discovered the preciousness of the chos-‘khor. He noticed a text that Lawudo Lama Yeshe had written by hand and that had grown damp in the cave where it was stored. Lama Zopa wrote: “(…) the texts were damp, and I used to dry them in the sun. If you don’t dry them, the texts grow fungus and are then destroyed by worms. The worms reincarnate among the texts and make some interesting holes in them.
“One day when I was laying the texts out in the sun, I saw one old text with the title ‘Mani Kabum.’ It contains all the history of the evolution of the world, including how Dharma came into this world and how the sentient beings of Tibet, the Snow Land, became the particular objects to be subdued by the Compassion Buddha Avalokiteshvara. Amitabha and the Compassion Buddha are the same in essence and are very strongly linked. And for more than twenty years, the Compassion Buddha and Amitabha have guided not only Tibet and China, but also Western countries, especially by spreading Dharma.
“In ‘Mani Kabum’ I saw a short explanation of the lineage of the prayer wheel practice and a few lines on how to visualize and meditate when you do the practice. In Tibet, and generally wherever there are the Mahayana teachings of Vajrayana, the practice of the prayer wheel has spread. Nagarjuna gave the practice to Lion-faced Dakini, who gave it to Padmasambhava, who then brought it to Tibet. After reading this, I developed faith that the practice was not nonsense but had valid references and was valuable and meaningful. From this text, I got some idea of how powerful the prayer wheel practice is in purifying the mind and in accumulating extensive merits.
“In 1987, when I was at Chenrezig Institute in Australia, I noticed that the place had become incredibly peaceful. It felt so serene that you wanted to be there, to live there. Chenrezig Institute had not been like that before, and I wondered why it had changed. At that time, Geshe Lama Konchog was there. Geshe-la has done a lot of Dharma practice. After he escaped from Tibet, he spent many years in retreat in Milarepa’s caves in the Himalayas. He did 2000 Nyung-nays, the intensive two-day retreat on the Compassion Buddha that involves taking the eight Mahayana Precepts and doing many prostrations and mantras. Geshe Lama Konchog has trained his mind well in the path, so I thought that the serenity of Chenrezig Institute might be due to his Bodhicitta. However one day, near the end of my stay there, I remembered the prayer wheel – it wasn’t there before.
“When I was in Brazil a student gave me a book written by Tarthang Tulku’s senior disciples about his experiences when he was in charge of building stupas and prayer wheels in Tarthang Tulku’s centres. In one section he mentioned that after a prayer wheel was built, the area was completely transformed, becoming so peaceful, pleasant, and conducive to the mind. This confirmed my belief, based on my own reasoning, that Chenrezig Institute had become so peaceful because of its new prayer wheel. Learning about somebody else experiencing a similar effect from building a prayer wheel helped to stabilize my faith.”7
 
 
 
 
 
Mani stones engraved with the six-syllable mantra on the Great Mani Wall alongside the path that leads to Hemis Gompa.
 
 
 
 
 
Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche explained, “In Tibet the tradition was to build stupas and to put mani stones close to the side of the road for others to see.”8  Having mantras carved on stones by trained craftsmen and piling them up so that mani walls are created is another way of sharing positive thoughts with the world. As in prayer wheels, the mantra is usually that of Chenrezig, the reason such blessed objects are called “mani stones.” It is said that viewing the written form of a mantra has the same effect as reciting it in prayer.9
 
 
If you check your mind over and over again,
whatever you do becomes the purified path.
Of all the hundreds of vital instructions, this is the very quintessence;
fuse everything into this single point, and recite the six-syllable mantra. -- Patrul Rinpoche10
 
 
 
 
 
Prayer flags extending into the sky along the path to Urgyen Monastery.
 
 
 
 
Large prayer flags, called da-chen, are fastened to a pole in front of a temple gate or on a roof, in this case on two sides of a balcony on the path to Wanla Monastery.
 
 
The tradition of hanging prayer flags on mountain passes, the rooftops of monasteries and houses, or spanning them from one treetop to the next so that the wind carries the special wishes, mantras, and auspicious symbols on them into the wide world dates back thousands of years. They are printed by means of inked, hand-carven wooden blocks on a cloth dyed in the primary colours that symbolize the five elements, which are space, air, fire, water, and earth, each associated with one of the five Buddha families; prayer flags are strung on a cord in that order. The higher they flow, the better.
 
Prayer flags are called rlung-rta in Tibetan, meaning “wind horse,” which is a mythical being adopted by Tibetan Buddhists from earlier times. The rlung-rta embodies the all-pervasive nature of “wind” (rlung in Tibetan) and the speed of the “horse” (rta in Tibetan). A prayer flag need not necessarily depict that image, since there are many different kinds. A note from the Rangjung Yeshe Tibetan-English Dictionary: rlun- rtar-‘gro means “going like the wind.” The horse carrying the upright conch shell that blazes light - symbolizing the blazing splendour of the wish-fulfilling jewel - on its back reaches its goal very fast and is therefore depicted in the centre of many prayer flags. Four animals known as “four dignities” are displayed on the four corners of most prayer flags.
 
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught the four dignities precisely and introduced Shambhala Training so that “the warrior who is plugged in to a source of energy that never runs down, the energy of wind horse,” experiences the meritorious field of wang-thang, “a field of power,” which he translated as “authentic presence.” He taught the path so that “the journey becomes like a flower unfolding – it is a natural process of expansion. (…) The four dignities are: meek, perky, outrageous, and inscrutable.”
Trungpa Rinpoche elaborated the dignities in great detail and wrote: “All human beings experience the four dignities in some form. Meekness is basically experiencing a humble and gentle state of being, while perkiness is connected with uplifted and youthful energy. Outrageousness is being daring and entering into situations without hope and fear, and inscrutability is the experience of fulfilment and uncontrived, spontaneous achievement.
“The analogy for meekness is a tiger in its prime, who moves slowly but heedfully through the jungle. In this case, the tiger is not searching for prey. He is not stalking (…), hoping to pounce on other animals. Rather, the image of the tiger expresses a combination of self-satisfaction and modesty.
“The principle of perky is symbolized by a snow lion that enjoys the freshness of the highland mountains. The snow lion is vibrant, energetic, and also youthful. (…) It refers to unconditional cheerfulness, which comes from ongoing discipline. Just as the snow lion enjoys the refreshing air, the warrior of perky is constantly disciplined and continuously enjoys discipline. For him, discipline is not a demand but a pleasure.
“Outrageousness is symbolized by the garuda, a legendary Tibetan bird who is traditionally referred to as the king of birds. The garuda hatches full-grown from its egg and soars into outer space, expanding and stretching its wings, beyond any limits. Likewise, having overcome hope and fear, the warrior of outrageous develops a sense of great freedom. So the state of mind of outrageousness is very vast. Your mind fathoms the whole of space. (…) And like the garuda king, the warrior of outrageous finds nothing to obstruct his vast mind.
“Inscrutability is represented by the dragon. The dragon is energetic, powerful, and unwavering. But these qualities of the dragon do not stand alone without the meekness of the tiger, the perkiness of the lion, and the outrageousness of the garuda.”11 
 
 
 
May virtue increase!
All photos taken in Ladakh by Gaby Hollmann in 1984, compiled in 2007.
 
 


[1]   John Vincent Bellezza, Metal and Stone Vestiges, in the site: asianart.com, Jan. 2006.
2  P. Kvaerne, Religious Beliefs and Practices, in the site: BonReligion.at, Feb. 2006, p. 23.  
3  See John Vincent Bellezza Images of Lost Civilization, especially, Metal and Stone Vestiges, in the site: asianart.com, 2006.
4  David L. Snellgrove & Tadeusz Skorupski, The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, Prajna Press, Boulder, 1977, p. 142.
5  Nitharta search results, in the site: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Tibetan-English Dictionary, online, 2006.
6  Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, in the site: Kalachakranet.org, Feb. 2006.
7  Lama Zopa, Rinpoche, Advice on the Benefits of Prayer Wheels, in the site: Dharma-haven.org, Feb. 2006.
8  Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche, in: Shenphen Osel, issue 13, Dec. 2001, p. 100.
9  See Kalachakranet.org, Feb. 2006.
10  Patrul Rinpoche, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, with commentary by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, translated from Tibetan by the Padmakara Translation Group, Shambhala Publications, Boston & London, 1992, pp. 160 & 207.
11  Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala - The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Shambhala Publications, Boulder & London, 1984, pp. 158-172.