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Teacher: Danzan Ravjaa

Danzan Ravjaa | Danzan Ravjaa Temple | Mongolia Main Page

The Fifth Noyon Hutuktu, Danzanravjaa (1803-1857 [TBRC P2KT11]).

Danzan Ravjaa was born on a cold winter morning, a little before noon on the twenty-fifth day of the middle winter month, in the water pig year of 1803, in the Tüsheet Khan principality, within the banner of Prince Mergen, southwest of a place called Dolaan Khar (present day Dornod aimag, Hovsgol sum). The best single source for his life is his own autobiography, his namtar (rnam thar), which was printed in Cyrillic once in 1993 and again in 2003. According to popular accounts based on local lore, his mother died soon after giving birth leaving him under the sole care of his father, a wizard nicknamed 'Dulduit,' meaning “staff” or “wand.” The Mongolian scholar Damdinsüren, however, noted that evidence from Ravjaa's own writings indicates that it was actually his mother who was solely left to care for the young tulku.

In 1808, when Ravjaa was five, a disaster caused by severe snowfall (zuud) wiped out most of the livestock in the area. The only possession left to him and his father was a consecrated brown horse (setertei khüüreen), which they rode from place to place like "a drift of swine." Shortly afterwards, a wolf ate the horse and Ravjaa's father took a gun to hunt the wolf. But Ravjaa, showing proof of compassion even at this tender age, prayed so that the wolf would not be killed.

Ravjaa appeared to have inherited some of his father's healing talents, for at the age of six in 1809, he reportedly healed a young girl of madness. A relative of the girl attributed this miracle to the presence of Ravjaa and gave him a gift of a black horse, which Ravjaa and his father then rode to receive the Sa?vara Tantra initiation from a lama of the Onon River called Yeshe Donyi Lhundrub (ye shes rdo snyi lhun grub, d.u.).

As a child, Ravjaa spent most of his time riding around on the black horse, composing songs by scribbling them across a board smeared with horse fat and dung ash. His precocious verses and healing talents did not go unnoticed and many people suspected the boy to be the reincarnation of the Fourth Gobi Noyon Hutuktu. However, the recognition of a subsequent Noyon Hutuktu had been prohibited by the Qing Dynasty, which ruled Mongolia at the time. To protect the boy's identity from the Emperor's spies, Ravjaa's guardians claimed he was the reincarnation of the Gobi Noyon's disciple, a certain master of spells (mantradhara), called Ngawang Tsorji. However rumor soon began to spread that the outlaw Gobi Noyon had returned to live among his people.

Recognition and Enthronement

Ravjaa's official recognition as the fifth incarnation of the Gobi Noyon Hutuktu occurred in 1812 when he and his father went to Urga (ur ga), the capital, to seek an audience with the Fourth Jebtsundampa, Lobsang Tubten Wangchuk (blo bzang thub bstan dbang phyug, 1775-1813). They traveled in the company of a certain 'Shangzodva' (Lama Treasurer) who travelled from the Qing summer capital of Jehol.

Ravjaa and his father offered 250 measures of silver to the Jebtsundampa, who in return presented them with an offering of a mandala, a statue of Pelden Lhamo, a White Tara, and multi-colored satin cloth. The Jebtsundampa then called Ravjaa to the Middle Palace and initiated him into the Cakrasa?vara Tantra, exclaiming, "Aya! Because you have practiced well the secret mantra in Jehol, the place of the Noyon Hutuktu, you have reincarnated as his mind-aspect." He then bestowed on him the title of 'Undefeated Chin Zorig' along with gifts of five sitting cushions, a silver pot and the right to use special ceremonial silk scarves. He was also given two ceremonial cushions from the Tüsheet Khan.

His lengthy biography provides us with further details concerning the events that led to his recognition. When the Qing forbade the search for the reincarnation of the Gobi Noyons, the Shangzodva from Jehol had secretly met the Seventh Panchen Lama, Lobzang Tenpai Nyima (slob bzang bstan pa'i nyi ma, 1781-1853) to ask him what to do. The Panchen Lama predicted the arrival of the reincarnation saying, "In the Tiger Year your lama will be in the east and you will meet in the Ox Year [eleven years later]." He also told the Shangzodva to name the child Lobsang Danzan Ravjaa. This anecdote is significant, because it claims that the Seventh Panchen Lama, acting against the decree of the Qing, had a hand in recognizing the outlaw incarnation. Furthermore the Shangzodva of Jehol who oversaw the lay secular affairs of monastic estates, seems to have actually been a disciple of the outlawed Gobi Noyon and the principle architect in the discovery of his reincarnation.

The Formative Years

As a young boy, Ravjaa visited various monasteries in the region of Dolonuur, where he received a typical Geluk education. In the Dog Year, 1814, Ravjaa obtained the initiation of Yamantaka from his own father. Together they traveled to Dolonuur in Inner Mongolia, where he received initiation of the horse-faced Hayagriva. At the monastery of Jargalantyn Am, Ravjaa studied under the great Kalacakra master, Düinkher Gegeen, from whom he received the initiation of the charnel ground practice of chod.

He was also trained in various aspects of Geluk philosophy; during these studies he was apparently guided by visions of white Mañjusri and Nagarjuna. At the monastery of Badgarchoilin (pad dkar chos gling) in Dolonuur, Ravjaa studied standard Geluk curriculum of the Stages of the Path (lam rim chen mo). He was also greatly impressed by the spiritual songs of the First Rongwo Drubchen, Shar Kelden Gyatso (rong bo grub chen 01 shar skal ldan rgya mtsho, 1607-1677), an outstanding adept from Amdo, whose songs marked him with a profound realization of impermanence.

In 1817, when he was fourteen years old, Ravjaa took the vows of a novice monk. Just a few years later at the age of sixteen, Ravjaa reported being distracted from his studies by a transformational sexual encounter that opened the psychic channels of his subtle body. "Since I had the secret instructions," he said, probably referring to the secret initiation of the Cakrasa?vara Tantra, "I could free myself from the three poisons. This was the good sign of meeting with the lineage of the secret mantra." Throughout the rest of his life, Ravjaa was often in the company of consorts (Dadishuur and Baljudmaa were two of his primary companions, the former being considered his spiritual equal who remained with him until his death).

At the age of twenty-one, with the blessings of the Fourth Changkya, Yeshe Tenpai Gyeltsen (lcang skya 04 ye shes bstan pa'i rgyal bstan, 1787-1846), Ravjaa returned to the Gobi to build his own monastery at a place called Khamar. The complex would come be known as Khamariin Khiid. There he established a seminary to train young monks according to the Geluk curriculum. One anecdote from this time recounts how during a chanting ceremony in the temple, a wild local spirit appeared to drive the students mad. Ravjaa visualized himself as the horse-faced deity Hayagriva and subdued the local spirit, taking a vow [to protect Buddhism]. Exactly at that time, Ravjaa said that a neighing horse was heard three times leaving miraculous hoof prints in the rocks where it danced to subjugate the mountain spirit.

Upon Ravjaa's subsequent return to Dolonuur in 1824, he was introduced to Nyingma teachings by the Fourth Changkya, who told Ravjaa that he had inherited certain obstacles from the 'waters of his mother's womb.' The obstacles could be eliminated by obtaining certain scriptures. Among these was the famous Nyingma scripture called the Commandments of Padmasambhava (pad+ma bka' thang). The Changkya Hutuktu presented Ravjaa with a copy of the Commandments of Padmasambhava and instructed him to complete 100,000 prostrations in order to dispel the obstacles to his life. While Ravjaa was busy with his penance, word came from the Changkya Hutuktu, who in a dream envisioned an adept who practiced chod rituals, and commanded Ravjaa to seek him out this chod practitioner (gcod pa, or zodchi in Mongolian). The proper name of this zodchi master is never fully revealed in the biography, but he seems to have played significant role in transmitting Nyingma traditions to Ravjaa in Dolonuur. The Fourth Changkya Hutuktu appears to have held this zodchi master in high esteem and also received teachings from him. He tells Ravjaa that this particular zodchi master was a reincarnation of the legendary Indian saint Naropa and that he has reincarnated over twenty times. In the course of the following year, Ravjaa received Dzogchen teachings, among many others, from the Changkya Hutuktu and the zodchi master.

Thus, from the ages of twenty-one and twenty-three years old Ravjaa studied the Vajra treasures of Jigme Lingpa ('jigs med gling pa, 1730-1785) as well as Dzogchen teachings at Dolonuur under the auspices of the Changkya Hutuktu and the zodchi lama. Ravjaa then accompanied the Changkya Hutuktu on a pilgrimage to Wutai Shan where he began to feel sick and was told to return home. Upon his return, Ravjaa built a statue of Padmasambhava with the face of his own root guru, the Changkya Hutuktu. He entered into retreat for several months to practice fierce rites associated with the Vajra treasures.

Apocalyptic Visions

In 1825, Ravjaa invited the zodchi master to the Gobi, where together they initiated the worship of a local mountain deity. Together with two consorts, Ravjaa then choreographed a ?akini dance, which they performed in Dolonuur before a very amused Changkya Hutuktu. That winter, near the town of Khokh Khoshuu (Hohot), Ravjaa performed fierce rites to murder what is described in his biography as a "living demon." During this period, Ravjaa became preoccupied with visions of a Buddhist apocalypse, which was likely informed by his knowledge of the Commandments of Padmasambhava; it prophesied the onset of the end times and persecution of Buddhism at the hands of the mleccha infidels. He also evoked the Kalacakra Tantra, which predicts the arrival of an enlightened army from the hidden kingdom of Sambhala defeating the enemy and ushering in a golden age. In 1827, Ravjaa made the cryptic remark, "Londol Lama (klong rdol bla ma ngag dbang blo bzang, 1719-1794) is now presiding as the King of Sambhala, so I built a Kalacakra temple and composed my own aspiration prayer [to be reborn in the Promised Land]." In 1829, Ravjaa commented that events were transpiring according to Padmasambhava's Commandments, and year later in 1830, he said:

In the future when the Panchen Lama reigns as the King of Sambhala, when many enlightened Buddhas, commanders and officials are waging battle against the mlecchas, I received a prophecy that I will [reincarnate] as the commander Sanggye Dorje Gyelpo and take under my command the soldiers and officers of the outer, inner, and secret [places].

The Wandering Years

While the Changkya Hutuktu and the zodchi master played a pivotal role in inducting the young Ravjaa into the Nyingma teachings, it was in the neighboring region of Alashan that his visions began to mature. Baruun Khiid (Helanshan Nan Si, Guangzong Si), where according to alternate histories, the Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (ta la'i bla ma 06 tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho, 1683-1706) and his regent Sanggye Gyatso (sangs rgyas rgya mtsho, 1653-1705) had quietly taken up residence without official permission from the Manchu Emperor (in factual accounts, Desi Sanggye Gyatso was assassinated by Lhazang Khan's forces, and the Sixth Dalai Lama died shortly after he was exiled from central Tibet). During the time of Baruun Khiid's Third Lamatan, Tendzin Jungne Dargye (bstan dzin 'byung gnas dar rgyas, 1793-1856), Ravjaa went to Alashan to hire actors for his opera, the Moon Cuckoo, and to send wood back to the Gobi to build a theatre.

At the height of his career, Ravjaa travelled across the Gobi with his troupe of over 300 actors, dancers, and musicians performing before lord and commoner alike. His outward goal was to entertain and gain a living, but also, it seems, skillfully expressed Mongol political aspirations, which were fettered under Qing colonial rule. With incredible skill Ravjaa embellished performances with other symbolic vignettes, such as the assassination of Langdarma (glang dar ma, r. 841-842) by Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje (lha lung dpal gyi rdo rje, circa 8th-9th century). He also acted out episodes from the life of Chinggis Khan and Queen Manduhai. He would insert his own visionary chod teachings in the opera during a scene depicting the healing ceremony for the dying queen. In Alashan, Ravjaa also developed close ties with the local prince who invited him to subdue a demon in 1831.

During his stay in Alashan, a monk by the name of Alashan Ngawang Tendar Lharampa (a lag sha ngag dbang bstan dar lha rams pa, 1759-1831/1840) decided to test Ravjaa's knowledge of demons and Buddhist philosophy. He entered Ravjaa's tent to see him sitting before the Great Stages of the Path (lam rim chen mo) text while sipping alcohol out of a human skull cup and caressing the hands of a sixteen year-old girl. Shocked by this unholy combination of holy scripture, alcohol and sexual foreplay, the monk confronted Ravjaa:

"Why have you come?"
"To slay a devil."
"Where is the devil?"
''In the face of the divisive ignorant mind that sees two instead of one."
"How will you subdue this devil?"
"I will subdue it with the wisdom of selflessness."
"Where will you subdue it?"
"In empty space."

Later when Tendar's students asked him about his impression of Ravjaa, he said, "If he is honest he is at least a bodhisattva, if lying he is a Mara. As for me, I will approach him with deference. You may do as you wish."

Ravjaa displayed both non-sectarian brilliance in his writings and also diabolical excess in his conduct, which often shocked his more conservative monastic peers. His detractors started referring to him as 'fierce' (Mong. dogshiin) and a 'drunkard' (Mong. sohtu), but his eccentric behavior, much like that of the deposed Sixth Dalai Lama, brought him closer to the hearts of common people, who considered his wild demeanor and flaunting of rigid orthodoxy to be the expression of enlightened teachings. Through his exploits and love poetry, ordinary nomads seemed to vicariously live out fantasies that they could not afford to actualize in a rigid and conservative society. While some people were taken aback by Ravjaa's excessive manners, he often used these occasions to teach people about the ultimate truth of the Buddhist teachings. In his beer drinking song called Arhi Uuhiig Horigloson Shüleg, he taunts his readers, saying that if they can eat dog flesh together with human excrement and transform it mentally into divine nectar, only then will they become worthy of the epithet 'drunkard.'

Ravjaa's non-sectarianism is further evident in the liturgical traditions he founded across the Gobi. At Hardal Beise Hoshuun, for example, he created rituals for prosperity combining both nyingma and sarma traditions. When he was invited to the Hoshuun of Baruun Huuchid Wang in 1833, he again combined these rituals. Some years later, he again combined the Nyingma rituals of Hayagriva and the Vajrakila with rituals for the Geluk protector Begtse.

When not engaged in his opera performances, Ravjaa was frequently called upon to perform healing ceremonies for sick lamas and officials. His reputation as a powerful wizard with both healing and destructive powers was appreciated by the likes of the Changkya Hutuktu, the Tüsheet Khan and the Prince of Alashan; he was also feared and even despised by some in the entourage of the Fifth Jebtsundampa, Lobzang Tsultrim Jigme Tenpai Gyeltsen (khal kha rje btsun dam pa 05 blo bzang tshul khrims 'jigs med bstan pa'i rgyal mtshan). In 1839, when the Fifth Jebtsundampa fell ill, Ravjaa travelled to Urga to perform a healing ceremony for him; things apparently did go over very smoothly. The autobiography does not go into much detail, but according to another account, Ravjaa arrived at the court reeking of alcohol and was reprimanded by the Jebtsundampa's attendants. According to his namtar he nevertheless organized a big healing ritual on the banks of the Tuul River.

It is on this occasion, according to one account that Ravjaa met Ngawang Khedrub (ngag dbang mkhas grub, 1779-1838), a close disciple of the Second Reting, Lobzang Yeshe Tenpai Rabgye (rwa sgreng 02 blo bzang ye shes bstan pa rab rgyas, 1759-1815), and a highly learned Geluk scholar. Ngawang Khedrub's Lightning Wheel that Annihilates the Ignorant (Tenegüüdiig talhlan teeremdegch ayangyn hürd) harshly criticized the unconventional behavior of certain tantric yogins. During their encounter, Ravjaa is said to have left Ngawang Khedrub speechless by reciting a spell that turned a cup of water into vodka. In the face of such critics, Ravjaa is said to have composed his own tantric apology entitled The Wish Fulfilling Jewel on the Head of the Great Serpent (Avarga mogoin zulai dahi chandmani erdene), in which he defends the practices of sexual union, drinking alcohol and ritually murdering evil beings in the context of the highest tantric teachings.

From Urga, Ravjaa departed for Erdene Zuu (e rte ni jo bo), one of Mongolia's first monasteries. Though Erdene Zuu had been nominally converted to Geluk, it still retained connections to its founding Sakya order. It was here at Erdene Zuu that the early Sakya masters had introduced rites associated with Pehar, the 'king-demon' tamed by Padmasambhava. Ravjaa spent several months there observing their special tradition of masked dances. At Erdene Zuu, Ravjaa also met with Tüsheet Khan and several other minor banner princes who were relieved at the news of the Fifth Jebtsundampa's recovery. In the following year, however, when Ravjaa tried to meet the Jebtsundampa for the sake of handling "some urgent task," he was prevented from making the trip. The namtar does not provide further details, but according to the Mongolian historian D. Tsagaan, there was a conspiracy to kill Ravjaa, which forced him to change his itinerary and return along the Kherlen River to elude his assassins. The Fifth Jebtsundampa died under mysterious circumstances the following year.

While Ravjaa felt unwanted in Urga, he was always welcomed at Erdene Zuu. He was also a regular in Dolonuur, where he often performed healing ceremonies for his teacher, the Changkya Hutuktu. He was also a frequent guest at Alashan, where he returned in 1841 on a New Year invitation by the local prince to participate in the ceremonial procession of the future Buddha Maitreya at Baruun Khiid.

The Padmasambhava Caves

In the nearby mountains surrounding Alashan, Ravjaa soon discovered a whole network of ancient pilgrimage caves connected to Padmasambhava. While Ravjaa was returning from the Alashan Prince's New Year party, his wagon stopped at a strange place where he began to recite the Vajra Dagger mantra. Nearby, he found some old abandoned caves. Leaving behind a few of his students, he went into a retreat to meditate on the boar-faced female deity Vajravarahi. But a message suddenly arrived from the Changkya Hutuktu that he should immediately go back to the Gobi. The namtar provides no further detail, but we are again left with the impression that the Changkya Hutuktu was warning him of an enemy plot. In 1843, Ravjaa returned to the mountains near Alashan to clean out some old caves at a place called Uhai Jargalant, where he discovered an old image of Padmasambhava. Continuing his exploration he arrives at "a place in the direction of the west" where he discovered another 'self-arisen' (rang byung) image of Padmasambhava. He reported this to the Panchen Lama, who confirmed that "in that rocky cave, Padmasambhava dwells in that stone image. He is indeed alive and self-manifested." The Panchen Lama then composed a rite for the consecration of the image.

The Final Years

In the monkey year, 1845, the Changkya Hutuktu passed away and Ravjaa buried his ashes at the temple of Galab Khiid in the Gobi. Without his chief mentor and protector, Ravjaa now became, more than ever, vulnerable to his enemies. From this point his namtar, becomes fragmentary. One gets the impression that Ravjaa was always moving, never staying in one place for too long. In 1852, some commanders of the Tüsheet Khan principality request him to perform rituals to avert warfare between soldiers of the north and south. Later a similar request comes from the commanders of the Tsetsen Khan banners asking him to calm wild omens and enemies.

In the third month of the Ox Year, 1853, Ravjaa returned home where he 'opened' a path to Sambhala. In the same year he was invited to Janjin Beise in the Tsetsen Khan principality to perform fierce rites to repel enemies. In 1855, he went to stay with his teacher, Drakri Damtsik Dorje (brag ri dam tshig rdo rje grags pa dpal, 1781-1855), on the Onon River. He then conducted a ceremony to raise the 'life force' of the Tusheet Khan, advising him to replace the gold finial crown on the monastery of Erdene Zuu. In the following year in 1856, when Ravjaa was in his fifty-third year, he set out toward a place called Serchiin Maidar in the South Gobi, where he wrote, " I started feeling worse and worse and I gave my will and final commandments to Dadishuur."

Ravjaa passed away shortly after recording his final wishes. Oral tradition in the Gobi maintains that Ravjaa was seduced and poisoned by a female assassin on the Qing payroll. Realizing that he had been poisoned by his own lover, Ravjaa sat down to compose a long, somewhat cynical last poem called Law of the Universe Lady (Ërtonts Avgain Jam Khemeeh Orshiv). And so, the controversial career of the Fifth Gobi Noyon Hutuktu drew to an end amid accusations of foul play and poisoning. The Qing decided to exert more control over the next Gobi Noyon, Lobsang Dampay Gyaltsen (blo bzang dam pa rgyal mtshan, 1855-1875), keeping him in Beijing for the better part of his life, and sending him back to the Gobi with an entourage of Manchu attendants. The Sixth Gobi Noyon Hutuktu, who is sometimes remembered as the 'pseudo' Noyon by the Mongols, and his Manchu entourage seem to have acted to dismantle Danzan Ravjaa's legacy, by effectively shutting down the Moon Cuckoo opera.

The young Sixth Gobi Noyon, however, was himself soon found dead amid mysterious circumstances. It was now the turn of the Mongols to choose the Seventh incarnation of the Gobi Noyon Hutuktu, Ngawang Lobzang Dampa Gyaltsen (ngag dbang blo bzang 'dam pa rgyal mtshan, 1875-1931). Under his stewardship, the Moon Cuckoo opera was rehabilitated and continued to be performed until the communist purges of the 1930's, when over 700 monasteries in the Mongolian People's Republic, including Ravjaa's were destroyed. The Seventh Gobi Noyon was arrested and subsequently executed. The eighth incarnation, Sonam Gyatso (bsod rnams rgya mtsho, 1933-1945), was recognized by an attendant of the Seventh Noyon Hutuktu who had fled to Inner Mongolia. Like many of his predecessors, he died young. The Ninth Gobi Noyon Hutuktu was discovered in Dornogovi in a nomadic family. He was enthroned in Khamariin Khiid on April 28th, 2013. He is currently studying in India.

Hamid Sardar, Published November 2016

[Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website. Edited and formatted for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. May 2017].


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