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Buddhist Worldly Protector: Lha Chenpo History

Lha Chenpo Religious Context

Lha Chen: History, Narrative & Myth

by Cameron Bailey, December 28th, 2015

The deity known variously as Lha chen (Skt. Mahadeva), Wangchuk Chenpo (Maheshvara), Legden (Shiva), or Rudra is perhaps the most cosmologically significant protector deity in the entire Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Lelung Zhepe Dorje, in his eighteenth century compilation of protector deity mythology identified him as the "progenitor of all dharma protectors" along with his consort Uma Devi. Rudra-Maheshvara eclipses Mara in tantric Buddhism as the primary adversarial being and Satanic-figure.

In fact, the myth of Rudra's subjugation provides what Robert Mayer has called the "charter myth" explaining and justifying the origins of Vajrayana Buddhism. This subjugation myth also provides a literary and doctrinal template for the subjugation of other (lesser) hostile deities, as well as justifying the historical reality of the Buddhist incorporation of certain significant elements of Shaiva tantra, in particular the worship of wrathful Heruka-form deities. Versions of the Rudra subjugation myth appear in some, comparatively early, Yoga Tantras, and are thus canonical for all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. However, the later, more elaborate and gruesomely detailed versions of the myth appear almost exclusively in Nyingma scriptures, and historically there has been a cult devoted to Lha chen and a pervasive tradition of ritually reenacting Rudra's subjugation in the Nyingma school that is without parallel in the Sarma schools.

The most elaborate version of the Rudra subjugation myth appears in the Nyingma "Compendium of Intentions" Sutra (which is technically classified as the main Anuyoga Tantra of the Nyingma canon). The story begins with a man named Tharpa Nakpo ("Black Liberator") who many eons ago lived in Abhirati, the Buddha-field of Akshobhya. Tharpa Nakpo, along with his servant, become the students of a guru who teaches the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) doctrine that whatever arises is the enlightened mind. While his servant correctly understands the teachings and becomes enlightened, Tharpa Nakpo badly misinterprets the Great Perfection, taking the teachings to mean that he can perform whatever actions he wants. As an aside, it is interesting to note the parallels between this myth and the classical Hindu myth in which Indra, the king of the gods, and Virochana, the king of the demons, both receive teachings from a sage about the nature of the transcendent Self. While Indra understands the teachings correctly, Virochana misinterprets them, thinking that the Self is nothing more than the physical body.

In any case, Tharpa Nakpo and his servant get into an argument about who is correct in their interpretation of the Great Perfection and when they ask their guru to clarify, the guru states that Tharpa Nakpo is wrong. He becomes enraged and banishes both his servant and guru. He then goes to live in the charnel grounds, killing men and eating their corpses and engaging in orgies with prostitutes. When he dies, he is subsequently reborn in the lowest hell for incalculable eons, followed by thousands upon thousands of rebirths in other hells, and then as different types of particularly wretched life-forms, such as vomit-eating spirits.

At last, he is finally reborn as Rudra, the son of a rakshasi prostitute who dies in childbirth. According to another version of the myth Rudra was conceived after his mother had sex with three different types of demons and their seed combined within her to produce a hybrid offspring. Horrified, the community buries her along with her mutant son at the base of a poisonous tree named "Sexual Transgression," which is surrounded by pigs, snakes, and birds representing the poisons of ignorance, hatred, and desire. Rudra survives by eating his mothers corpse over the course of many days until he becomes strong enough to crawl out of his grave. He has become a hideous monster with three heads, wings, scaly flesh, claws, smeared with all kinds of repulsive substances and “[w]hoever saw him, their eyes would roll back in terror and they would faint.”

Rudra finds he is endowed with practically limitless evil magical power and proceeds to conquer and gain control over every being in the world, starting with the charnel ground spirits, and gradually moving up until he overthrows the gods themselves, stealing their wives for himself. He sets up a kind of palace made of piled corpses and bones on the Isle of Lanka, and due to his malevolence the entire world begins to resemble an hell-realm. Seeing this woeful state of affairs, the buddhas decide that Rudra must be subjugated. They initially send Shakyamuni Buddha who tries to convert Rudra to the Buddhadharma peacefully, but Rudra laughs in his face and drives him off. The buddhas then send a series of wrathful buddhas to attempt to subjugate him by force. Eventually, Vajrapani takes on a form identical to Rudra and impregnates his main consort through deception. From this union, a being called Vajra-Demon is born who goes on to defeat Rudra in combat, painfully subjugates him by eating him, then resurrects him as dharma protector.

In other versions of the subjugation, Rudra is eaten by Heruka, shat out, and re-eaten by Ucchushma before he finally submits. In a version where Hayagriva is the subjugating deity, Hayagriva shrinks his body, flies up Rudra's anus and expands his body again so that Rudra bursts and Hayagriva is left wearing his empty skin.

Later treasure text revelations by various Nyingma authors give even more radically different accounts of Lha chen's subjugation. The Lha chen revelations of Migyur Dorje (1645- 1667) and Terdak Lingpa (1646-1714), specifically the origin myth of Lha chen found in both cycles, made twenty-four years apart, in east Tibet and central Tibet respectively, are interesting to compare considering the apparent continuity and striking differences. The origin myth in Migyur Dorje's Namcho cycle, said to have been received in a vision from Lha chen himself in 1656, is a strange, at times comical, retelling of the "Compendium of Intentions" myth of Tharpa Nakpo's fall from grace, his mutation into a worldly god of terrifying power, and his subsequent subjugation. In Migyur Dorje's version, an unnamed lapsed monk suffers a series of unfortunate rebirths based less on his own malice, and more on his own bad luck:

"Innumerable incalculable eons ago, was born a man. That man became a monk. One time a dog scratched the face of a woman and that monk considered striking punishing the dog, but thought that would be inappropriate. With the angry lips (angry visage) of a dog, [he wished?] to kill the dog. From that wish, his mind fell. That monk jumped into the water. After that he was born as a madman who also jumped into the water. He was born like that 500 times and did that bad behaviour. After that, he was born as a madman. With a single stroke he conquered the madness. A lama called “Dog Lama” bestowed empowerment upon him. He was born as a dog 500 times. After that, he was born as a man. He requested empowerment from a lama whose actions were like the actions of a noxious spirit. He was born as a noxious spirit 500 times. Again, he was born as a man and requested empowerment from “Lama of the Obstructor Spirits.” He was born 500 times as an obstructor spirit. Then he was born as a man again and requested empowerment and made prayers. He was born as a rich man. one hundred horses of that rich man were stolen by a bandit. Seven horse thieves carried them away. He was attacked by enemies who stole all his possessions. Then he became a beggar. He was begging in the region of the enemies and they separated him from whatever [he had] and then set him loose. He begged in the areas of thieves and they beat him. He went begging in the area of the bandits and they buried him in a pit. Then he prayed. In the birth after that he arose as a toxic god-demon who obstructed vows. After that he was born as a pernicious god-demon who was the lord of the charnel grounds. He was killed by the previous protector (Mahakala?). He was reborn as Wangchuk Chenpo.

Wangchuk Chenpo is then subdued by Vajrapani, recalling Yoga tantra versions of the myth. After his subjugation and conversion, Wangchuk Chenpo becomes a buddha named Theljang Nawang, who, upon Avalokiteshvara's prompting, recreates his previous worldly form:

Avalokiteshvara said to Vajrapani: “It is unsuitable if there is no appearance of a bad Maheshvara.” Then buddha Theljang Nawang, having heard that, from the vajra in his right hand, filled [the space] within a vajra fence with light, which became Maheshvara.

There is then a brief reference to Padmasambhava subduing, presumably, this emanated Maheshvara, but Mi 'gyur rdo rje does not elaborate on this part of the story any further. Terdak Lingpa's TCKD cycle, however, contains a history of Lha chen that seems to pick up right where Mi 'gyur rdo rje leaves off, telling the story of Padmasambhava's subjugation of Lha chen while in India, without any mention of Lha chen's previous lives or his cosmic battle with wrathful Buddhist deities. In this story, 500 non-Buddhist teachers, angry at having been defeated in debate by Padmasmbhava, recite mantras in order to summon Lha chen and send him to attack the Buddhist master. But when Lha chen attacks, Padmasambhava easily subdues him (quite peacefully) with a display of power. Lha chen immediately surrenders, is bound under oath, and then sent to slaughter the 500 non-Buddhists in a massive conflagration.

Cameron Bailey, December 28th, 2015


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Dalton, Jacob. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven, CT: Yale University.

Davidson, Ronald. 1991. “Reflections on the Mahes´vara Subjugation Myth: Indic Materials, Sa-skya-pa Apologetics, and the Birth of the Heruka." In Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 14.2: 197-235.

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