Pullahari: The Jewel of the Kongtrul Rinpoche

Features Issue 69 Jul, 2010
Text by Noah Gordon

Within a leisurely hour's walk north from the Boudhanath  Stupa lies a remarkable gem-like building of Tibetan Buddhist architecture and cultural preservation.  The Monastery of Pullahari, which is the seat in Nepal of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, is beautifully located with Kopan Monastery to its right and Shivapuri Mountain as its backdrop.

What few realize, however, is that this Gompa is home to the Rigpe Dorje Institute, a centre for Buddhist study and meditation, built on the specific instructions of the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and dedicated to the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmarpa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, his Root Teacher. 

In early 1992, just before he passed away, the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche established a non-profit organization in Nepal, Ananda Sangh, with the two-branched aim to preserve and propagate Buddhism, and to conduct and support social projects which benefit the poor and needy within the Monastery's neighboring communities and other locations throughout Nepal.  Although the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche passed away at an early age, his General Secretary, Lama Tenzin Dorje, ensures that the spiritual life of the monks and the commitment to the needy continues uninterrupted according to the pervading wishes of His Eminence.

This has been especially due to the reincarnation and maturation of His Eminence the Fourth Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, a lively and devoted 12-year old, who spends much of his time in residence at Pullahari.

Construction of the Institute only began at the end of 1999.  During his lifetime, the Third Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche had worked on the architectural plans in detail, together with his disciple Lama Tenzin Yongdu, an American architect who is also his monk.  Originally designed for construction in Sarnath, India, the Third Jamgon Rinpoche decided to relocate the Rigpe Dorje Institute building to Pullahari Monastery in February 1992.  Thereafter, Lama Tenzin Yongdu modified the design to suit the terrain at Pullahari and worked closely with Lama Tenzin Dorje throughout the building project.  The Institute includes several large shrine rooms, classrooms, a spacious auditorium, library, modern kitchen and dining facilities as well as an exceedingly spacious front court and surrounding gardens.

To the visitor's first impression, the Institute building seems like a remarkable jewel that has somehow landed exquisitely at its location.  One is not sure whether it is the majestic columns or the remarkably crafted upper stories that stand out most.  But, as one walks across the front court, a large
perfect circle of carefully set red sandstone, the front entrance in all its grandeur is revealed.

Here, as in nearly all Tibetan Buddhist gompas, one can see several painted scenes of the Buddhist pantheon.  But here, the visitor's eyes may seem to be brightly opened in surprise as one realizes that the quality and richness of the wall and ceiling paintings are beyond comparison.

Khenpo Chökey Gyaltsen, a senior resident teacher at Pullahari, was the guiding force behind each of the images' accomplishment.  "Each of these images holds great meaning, and though they are beautiful to look at, their special meanings are what make them profoundly important to present at the main entrance to the shrine hall of the Institute.  In addition, great meaning is presented in the smallest of details, as well as the choice of colours and painting style."  At a recent opportunity, Khenpo Chökey graciously explained a little bit about the meaning of some of these images.

Buddha Shakyamuni
Most impressive, is the ceiling mural directly above the front entrance.  This is a larger-than-life image of the Buddha inset with a remarkable 6-ring mandala of the Sixteen Arhats, each displaying a different mudra, or spiritual expression, with their hands.  Radiating out from the Buddha, is a multi-coloured circular halo.

The image overall is called the Sangha Gathering Chakra, and shows Buddha Shakyamuni just as he accomplished enlightenment.  It is taught that at that moment, just 2,500 years ago, the great king of the evil Maras challenged the Buddha.  "Who is the witness that you have truly practiced for countless eons for the benefit of others? " he demanded.  The Buddha, completely at ease, simply touched the ground and said, "The Earth is my witness."  And with that, Mara and his armies who were so set on breaking the Buddha's profound concentration were thoroughly defeated.

The chakra itself is a mandala of six perfect rings, each holding special attributes.  In the centre is Buddha Shakyamuni who is accompanied in the second ring by his two senior disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyana.  In the third ring are the 16 Principle Arhats.  In the fourth ring are images of the Four Heavenly Kings along with two attendants, Upasika, the Dharmata, and the Benefactor of the 16 Arhats.  It was this Benefactor, Khenpo says, who later became well known as the Great Laughing Buddha for his kindness in inviting the Arhats to China.  After that, in the fifth ring, we see six houses that represent the six classes of the Desire God Realms.

One might also take special note of the yellow pattern in the sixth ring.  This is from a Terma, or hidden treasure, discovered by the Terton Mingyur Dorje who lived in the 19th century.  It is understood that anyone who reads, hears, or simply sees this scripture will receive its blessing. Likewise, anyone who connects with the blessing of this Terma will find that it brings peace and a conducive atmosphere for the benefit of all.  Wherever you display the mandala, that area will enjoy peace and a sense of well-being.

Finally, the decorative halo surrounding the Buddha represents the magnificent radiation of his vast kindness, compassion and wisdom.  An interesting sidelight, Khenpo mentioned, was that at first, no one was able to paint an image of the Buddha.  "His presence was so majestic," Khenpo says, "that artists were blinded by its intensity.  Only when the Buddha stood beside a pool of water was an artist able to create an image from the reflection he saw.
The Wheel of Life
Directly to the left of the main entrance to the Institute is The Wheel of Life, considered one of the most remarkable symbols of Buddhist imagery, representing each of the stages and possible karmic outcomes of samsaric existence. The Buddha taught that samsara is suffering, and that the only way to break out of the cycle of suffering was to somehow cut through the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination or Causality, the wheel of ignorant actions, one after another, that lead us into more and more suffering.  Otherwise, as we tragically continue, our lives repeat the same mistakes until finally, we discover how to live sane lives without hurting ourselves or others.

There is so much information in each section of the image that it might easily take a book to adequately describe the mandala’s full meaning.  As a brief overview, Khenpo suggests one might begin at the centre where we find three animals biting each other’s tail.  These are the conflicting emotions known as the Three Poisons: desire, portrayed as a red rooster; anger, shown as a green snake; and ignorance or indifference, represented as a black pig.  The teachings say that due to ignorance, desire develops; due to desire, anger develops, and out of anger, ignorance arises once more; each in their turn, over and over again.

The second inner circle reveals the results of choosing either the path of liberation or the path of continuing samsara.  On the left side, we see a rainbow that leads those who are wise to study and practice to the goal of liberation from samsaric suffering.  On the opposing side is the darker image showing the henchmen of Yama pulling beings who are tied by the rope of their karma down into the various samsaric realms of suffering.

From this most basic of choices, the wheel of samsara turns.  We see that there are six major sections: three above, that represent the three Higher Realms of the Gods, Demigods and Humanity; and three below, that represent the Lower Realms of the Animals, Pretas or Hungry Ghosts and the Denizens of Hell.  In each realm, beings suffer according to the choices, actions and thoughts they maintained in earlier lifetimes.  The Higher Realms are where beings who mostly practiced good deeds migrate to after death in this life. However, it is to the Lower Realms that beings are reborn who have committed such negative actions as killing, thievery, lying, greed and anger with no concern for the welfare of others, let alone the consequences of their own deeds.

The outer rim of the wheel portrays the Buddha’s explanation of how this endless cycle of suffering continues.  Referred to as the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination or Causation, these images graphically explain how just starting with ignorance, Humankind unwittingly goes step by step, from birth to death, through a series of choices that lead to a life of endless suffering.

The names of these links are revealing.  Starting with Ignorance at the top, we find a blind person about to step from a path into an endless abyss.  Continuing clockwise, this is followed by the Formation of Karmic Tendencies, illustrated by a potter, suggesting that it is by our own inappropriate choices that we create our own difficult circumstances.  Third on the wheel is dualistic Consciousness, where we see a monkey distractedly playing in a tree.  Fourth is Name and Form, where we see a sailor in a boat, demonstrating conditioned mind that attempts to apply a name onto every form.  In the fifth image, The Senses, we see a freshly made house, built so that one may perceive the surrounding world.  Sixth is Contact, the connection between objects and senses, where we see a couple embracing each other, demonstrating the consequences of sensual perception.

Continuing in a clockwise fashion, at the 7 o’clock position, we see the image representing Feeling or sensation.  A man is shown having been struck in the eye by an arrow, illustrating the possible result of emotional contact.  In the eighth image, Craving, we see a woman offering drink to a man, which presents the idea that as we are stimulated by our feelings and emotions, we tend to want more and more of what we desire.  After that, in the ninth image, called Grasping, we see a man trying to pick fruit from a tree in his possibly mistaken assumption that the fruit he craves will be sweet and nourishing.  The 10th image, called Existence, shows a couple making love, thus illustrating the beginnings of life as they arise through the previous links of mistaken or misunderstood contact, feeling and craving.

All of this results in Birth or becoming, the 11th image, showing a woman in childbirth.  This portrays how new life is determined by the choices made in earlier situations.  Finally, in the last image, Old Age and Death, we see someone laid out in a cemetery.  Though this life has ended, one embarks on a new journey of uncertainty as he or she takes rebirth in a realm according to the quality—either positive or negative—of previous deeds, actions and thoughts.

Overall, the wheel itself is fiercely held by the claws and fangs of Yama, the Lord of Death, indicating the precarious and impermanent nature of this life.

In the upper right corner, Buddha is seen pointing to the moon, a symbol of enlightenment, as a way of saying anyone can attain liberation.

Buddha taught that although it is possible to break the samsaric cycle of existence at any point of the Twelve Links, it is easiest if one were to break the first link, that of Ignorance.  Then, aware of the consequences of one’s actions, someone is able to make choices that are of benefit for oneself, and others.

On both sides of the main entrance to the Institute, one can see larger-than-life representations of four major protectors in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  We first saw representations of these Heavenly Kings in the mandala within the Sangha Gathering Chakra with Buddha Shakyamuni that we spoke of earlier.  Here, their importance
assures ample space.

Each King has his own attributes and special meaning. On the wall to the right of the Institute entrance, we see King Dhrtarastra (Tbt: Yulkorsung), the white-faced King of the East, who plays a lute while he blocks all obstacles and demons arising from the easterly direction.  Beside him, is the yellow-facedKing Vaisravana (Tbt: Namthöese), who is renowned throughout Tibetan culture for being the God of Wealth.  Here, he is seen holding a mongoose, the symbol of increasing wealth and a parasol which is a traditional representation of protection, with which he guards those of good faith from difficulties or threats that arise from the northerly direction.

On the left side of the main entrance, is the blue-faced King Virudhaua (Tbt: Phagkepo), who triumphantly holds a sword, and protects all beings from obstacles arising from the South.  Beside him, is the red-faced King Virupaksa (Tbt: Chemizang), who holds a snake in his right hand, which represents the control of anger, and a stupa in his left, which represents the majestic mind of the Buddha.  Doing so, he protects the faithful from all adversity that may arise from the West.

Below each of these Heavenly Kings are elaborate paintings of each king’s royal attendants, some being human and others from the animal or demon realms.  Each is carefully illustrated with ornate clothing and other attributes—a remarkable feast for the eye as well as the heart; especially when one considers that each embellishment has a particular meaning.

Of exceedingly great interest, directly to the right of the main entrance, is the mural of Mount Meru, cosmological centre of the Buddhist universe.  Directly at the summit of this majestic mountain is the heavenly realm of the god Indra, also known as the Heaven of the Thirty-three, due to the fact that 32 other gods and goddesses also reside there.

Above this palace are two formations of clouds that together with the space between symbolize the Three Realms of Existence.  The first set of four cloudbanks refers to the Desire Realm.  The 17 layer set of clouds above that refers to the 17 Stages of the Form Realm.  In-between the two sets of clouds are where beings of the Four Stages of the Formless Realm reside.  Being without any distinguishable characteristics, it is completely invisible.

Below and surrounding Mount Meru are the four main continents and eight lesser sub-continents.  It is on Jambudvipa, one of the yellow hammer-shaped main continents in front that our own world system resides.  At the base of the mountain are four ascending levels inhabited by various groups of nagas, garudas, demons and treasure-guarding yakshas.  At the centre of each face of the top-most level, facing the four directions, are the realms of the Four Heavenly Guardian Kings previously mentioned.

In summation, it must be clearly stated that the few words used here in an attempt to describe these masterpieces are woefully inadequate to the task.  Even the fine photographs you see on these pages only provide a paltry taste of the remarkable attention to detail and meaning that is openly presented at the front of the Rigpe Dorje Institute.  Only by seeing for oneself can the visitor truly begin to appreciate what numerous craftspeople, painters and lamas spent countless days to create.

For further information about Pullahari and the annual programmes of the Rigpe Dorje Institute, please visit their web site at www.jamgonkongtrul.org. If you wish to visit Pullahari, please call their main office at 4800896 to arrange a convenient time.