The Inconceivable Lotus Land of Padma Samye Ling

This article is based on an interview with the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoches at Padma Samye Ling on April 4, 2009, conducted by Pema Dragpa and edited by Andrew Cook with Amanda Lewis.

The layout of Samye Monastery from a mural in PSL Gompa.

Question: Would you please speak about your vision of Padma Samye Ling retreat center as a mandala of the Buddhadharma?

Khenpos: When we bought the land for Padma Samye Ling, we envisioned creating a very special monument that would stand as a symbol of all the Buddha's teachings, in addition to supporting the practice of these teachings. It would be a place where students could study, contemplate, and meditate on the Buddhadharma. Our inspiration for Padma Samye Ling has always been the famous Samye Monastery, which was established shortly after Buddhism arrived in Tibet. Buddhism is still quite young in America, and the Dharma is a bit new to the West in general. Therefore, we thought that if we built a monastery with the name "Samye," it would help restrengthen the teachings and encourage peace, love, and compassion. This is what the Buddhist teachings actually represent not only to this country, but to the whole world. So we chose to name this land and our monastery "Palden Padma Samye Ling," the "Glorious Inconceivable Lotus Land."

Samye Monastery was built by King Trisong Deutsen, Guru Padmasambhava, and Abbot Shantarakshita in the eighth century, as a place where Buddhist practitioners could go to learn, meditate, and practice. They also needed a central location where they could translate the Dharma from Sanskrit and begin to organize all the teachings. Its architecture was based upon astrology, Buddhist cosmology, the outer level of the Sutras, the inner level of the Tantras, and also as an object of veneration, such as a stupa. This is how it was organized and constructed. In terms of astrology, Samye was built on the geological formation of a tortoise, which has four limbs, a head, tail, and heart center, and the monastery was structured in relation to these different locations. On the cosmological level, Samye was built according to the orientation of Mt. Sumeru, the four principal continents, and eight subcontinents.

From the perspective of the Inner Tantras, or Tantra, Samye Monastery was built as a mandala with its various components, including gatekeepers, door keepers, and so forth. The three floors of Samye symbolized the nine yanas of the Buddha's teachings: the ground floor symbolized the three causal yanas; the second floor symbolized the three Outer Tantras; and the third floor symbolized the three Inner Tantras. On the level of realization, these represented the three kayas: nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya, respectively. Finally, Samye’s physical structure corresponded with the three doors of an individual—body, speech, and mind. The completed mandala of Samye was surrounded by a circular wall, symbolizing the iron rings in Buddhist cosmology, as well as the true nature of reality in the form of spheres. One thousand and eight small stupas were placed on top of the circular wall. Inside it was a ring of interlocked vajras. Of course, these symbols have many layers of meaning as well.

When Samye Monastery was completed, everyone was excited and filled with joy that it was finished so easily, without many obstacles or hindrances. King Trisong Deutsen did not experience any shortage of supplies during the building of Samye. The king himself remarked that it did not seem as though Samye had been born through labor, but more like it was self-born and spontaneously present. For example, after being told in a dream that statues were waiting for him, King Trisong Deutsen discovered twelve to thirteen self-born statues of Buddha Shakyamuni and bodhisattvas buried underground on Hepori Mountain, near Lhasa. These became the principal statues in Samye’s main shrineroom. They still exist today.

In one of his teachings, the great master Longchenpa explained the great importance of Samye Monastery. He said you can measure whether Tibetan Buddhism will stay or be lost and gone forever by observing the condition of Samye Monastery. In this way, Samye is really the measure: if Samye is gone, Tibetan Buddhism will disappear. Since Kunkyen Longchenpa said this, it really must be true. During the recent tragedies that occurred in Tibet, the top part of Samye was completely destroyed, yet somehow the second and first floors were not damaged much at all. Maybe this forecasts that Tibetan Buddhism will remain…although its head was broken, its body is still intact. The importance of Samye to Tibetan Buddhism cannot really be overstated. Since its establishment in the eighth century, Samye has been the central point from where Tibetan Buddhism began to spread through Central Asia and beyond. It was also the place where many meditation practices were taught, translated, edited, maintained, and preserved, thus upholding and propagating the glorious Dharma.

For these reasons and others, we thought to continue the beautiful legacy of Samye on the other side of the world by creating a monastery with the same name, in one of the great and powerful civilized countries on the earth at this time. We have always hoped that Palden Padma Samye Ling will benefit this country, world, and everywhere else on many levels, through the wisdom light of the Buddha’s teachings. This has all been made possible with the ongoing kindness and support of so many devoted sangha members, particularly the late Bill Hinman, who have all put their love, compassion, and dedication into this mandala and this monument, continually preserving and glorifying it. We cannot really compare Padma Samye Ling to the glorious Samye built by King Trisong Deutsen on the other side of the world. However, Padma Samye Ling was built with similar intentions, thoughts, dedications, and aspirations.

The inspiration of Samye has helped us design Padma Samye Ling, even down to simple symbolic details. For example, the buildings at Padma Samye Ling have special names connected with Samye: "Bodhichitta Inn" for the dormitory, "Tsangmang Kheuru Ling" for the Sangha House, "Jampal Ling" for our house, and "Arya Palö Ling" for the cabin. These are small things, of course, but at least we named them with good intention. In one way, it is like children playing in their sand castle on the beach! [laughter] All sentient beings play games with illusory mind, and this is one example of ours. The same is true for the khora path around the temple. It is shaped like an octagon, a bit like the shell of a tortoise, which is the foundation Samye was built upon. Then there is "Tara Road," "Trisong Deutsen Road," and hopefully eight great stupas that are on the way as well. King Trisong Deutsen built one thousand and eight stupas; we definitely can’t do that, but at least we are hoping to put up eight stupas, or altogether—who knows?—maybe one hundred and eight small stupas will come! [laughter] We would like to build a big stupa in the field as well. That will be good! Once we install these stupas, as well as a few other things, it will really complete our vision of the beautiful mandala. But this vision is not just our own—it has been and is shared by everyone, those alive and those gone.

Our true wish is that Padma Samye Ling will ignite the power of the blessings [of Dharma] to this country, this region, and this world, lasting continually, lasting forever. Or at least for a very long time, just like Samye Monastery. We hope it will always carry the authentic teachings of the Buddha and be a place of practice and meditation, translating and editing, a place that always upholds and cultivates the qualities of love, kindness, compassion, and peaceful activities, like the spinning of the Dharma wheel. This is truly our wish and our goal. As we continue with this vision and mandala, we dedicate the merit to everyone, to those who are alive as well as those who have passed. In a way, this serves to honor the memory of those who are gone and even those who are still here, as well as everyone who is connected with us, forever. We are working for all these reasons. Right now we are the caretakers, but those who continue this vision will be carried forward by our aspirations, wishes, and intentions. This is our brief explanation of Padma Samye Ling.

Question: Would you talk more about the geographical formations of Padma Samye Ling and their significance?

Khenpos: Both the physical structure of Padma Samye Ling and the formations of the land it is on are very special, especially in terms of the Vajrayana teachings and Tibetan astrology. Each of these systems includes a great deal of information, explanations, and commentaries on the auspicious qualities and symbols that should be present on a retreat land such as this. If there are mountains, for example, the tantras and astrology definitely offer a lot of explanations. We can say that the area of Padma Samye Ling is really quite good, and the four directions—in fact, all directions—around the land are quite good as well. On the external and inner levels, this area possesses many auspicious symbols and qualifications explained in the teachings.

The view from the front of the PSL Gompa.

If there are mountains in the eastern direction, for instance, they should be kind of open; mountains in the south should be like heaps; mountain formations in the west should be like the expansive wings of a bird; and mountains in the north should be like a curtain. These are general explanations. To be more specific, the east should have some kind of white or grey color, or different stripes of white light. The teachings always say the tiger is in the east, so these are like the stripes of a tiger. Dragons or elephants are in the south: in the ancient tradition, these are said to be up and down formations, like rolling hills. It always good to have some kind of red in the west, where the peacock is resting. Next, a turtle or tortoise is standing in the north. As you know, the tortoise is kind of round and just stays very firm and still. So, in the east the tiger is enjoying, in the south the elephant or dragon is enjoying, in the west the peacock is enjoying, and in the north the tortoise is resting! These are some of the symbols described in Tibetan astrology as well as the Vajrayana teachings.

The Vajrayana teachings also explain that the earth formations [around monasteries or retreat land] should be like an eight-petaled blooming lotus—there are lots of mountains surrounding you, and you are in the center of a lotus. And it is good if the sky looks kind of like a many-spoked umbrella that covers the mountains. So there is an umbrella above and a lotus underneath. The Vajrayana also describes different kinds of land that are particularly related with the qualities of (1) peace, (2) increasing or prosperity, (3) magnetizing, and (4) subjugating or wrathful activity. The land of Padma Samye Ling definitely has the first two or three quite nicely.

For example, smooth, rolling hills are related with peace and tranquility, since they are calming as well as pacifying. Lush greenery, fruit, and the like are related with prosperity and increasing. Next, the land formations and area around us have a lot of reddish colors and semi-circular formations—these are known to be magnetizing features. If you look at the gonpa from where we do fire puja in the meadow, you will see that the area looks quite like a semi-circle. In terms of wrathful qualities, the word “wrathful” has many meanings, but these land formations are often shaped like triangles. The mountains surrounding Padma Samye Ling kind of point this way and that, which we can interpret as triangles, too! [laughter]

The Vajrayana teachings also say that it is good to sit in the lap of a mountain formation shaped like a person in meditation posture. This encourages good, peaceful energy. Below the gonpa is a hill, and another hill rises up from behind it. In this way, it is almost like the temple is sitting in a meditator’s lap! There are so many trees and so much lush vegetation around here, and the meadow itself is shaped like a butterfly. Then, facing out from the gonpa we see all these small mountains; I mean, they’re not exactly small—definitely, they’re big—but when you look at them, they really seem like a heap of jewels. So we think this area is very much connected with Ratnasambhava. Maybe this is why our monastery was completed so nicely and we didn’t struggle too much. Of course, still we struggle a little bit, but the center is mostly finished. In any case, the jewel formation of the mountains is rather nice, like a beautiful mandala. We could also interpret these formations as the sleeping elephant carrying precious jewels on its back. [laughter] Again, the teachings always state that it is good to face water. And even though we can’t exactly see it from the temple, there is a beautiful reservoir just down the road, in front of us and to the south.

Question: What is your long-term vision for the ongoing development and activities of Padma Samye Ling?

Khenpos: Although our long-term vision has already started, we would definitely like to have ongoing, intensive drubdra meditation retreats, as well as shedra academic programs. We are currently doing these things in a kind of short-range way [once a year], but we would really like to do them a little bit more according to the lineage tradition of shedra and drubdra. Additionally, we would like to offer more things at the worldly, conventional level, such as diplomas or certificates, as well as acknowledgement of practices people have achieved and fulfilled. This is something we definitely want to do.

Along with this, we would really like to [continue and expand upon] what has been happening through the kindness of many sangha members in terms of book publishing. In the last few years, we have been able to publish a lot of beautiful books here. For instance, we want to continue translating and editing these shedra books as much as we can, and keep the publishing of shedra as an ongoing activity. After the structure of the mandala is complete, we would like to keep this light abiding forever. Really, that is our prayer. And then, obviously we must constantly upkeep and maintain this physical mandala through service. Working to glorify and maintain the mandala is truly a great support to its principal purposes of shedra and drubdra, both of which are assisted by editing and translating. These last two are needed not just for here—they go beyond Padma Samye Ling to the whole world. Therefore, we very much hope to continue these activities according to the necessities and support of modern capabilities and technologies, which will help us reach the rest of the world. This is our vision and prayer.

It is true that among all our centers, Padma Samye Ling is definitely our principal place…in a way, it is like the mother center! From this base, we are really trying to support the other centers, including their members’ education, practice, and meditation. Each one of these centers has definitely been a big support and inspiration in helping upkeep the vision of the mandala we have established up here. Again, this is not just the vision of a few people or the two of us—generally, it is the vision of all the members of Padmasambhava Buddhist Center and all the people who are connected with it, including friends of PBC.

Question: Are there specific teachings or lineages that you are trying to highlight at Padma Samye Ling and the PBC Centers?

Khenpos: Of course, we are trying to uphold all the nine yana teachings very strongly. In Nyingma terminology, we could simply refer to these as the kama and terma lineages. We are particularly interested in supporting and helping those teachings and lineages of the Nyingma school that are a little bit weak or endangered. Accordingly, we are trying to ignite and restrengthen such teachings as much as we can. But really we are trying to uphold all the Nyingma teachings to the best of our capabilities. They are the legacy of Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava, Abbot Shantarakshita, Vimalamitra, and all the great masters and tertöns. So, preserving and upholding the teachings is definitely a big part of our vision and hope. And this is something we are already doing, in addition to honoring and commemorating these great masters. For example, this year we have given teachings on Zurchungpa Sherab Drak and Rongzompa Chokyi Zangpo, and this summer we will be giving teachings on Zhigpo Dutsi. Although these masters are praised in all of the histories by the great lineages masters, currently their teachings are not so activated or widely practiced. Studying and applying these precious teachings is just our small way of igniting and glorifying their legacies according to our best capabilities.

Question: It's obvious that you put a lot of time and effort into creating and maintaining PSL in a very particular way. Would you talk more about this?

Khenpos: We wish and pray that PSL becomes a place that really preserves the authentic lineage teachings of both shedra and drubdra, as well as the academic aspects of Buddhism. Within this context, Padma Samye Ling is very, very important. On the symbolic level, we feel that PSL is built on one of the acupuncture points of the earth. Therefore, we are very happy that we have been able to construct this beautiful monument of Buddhism here, which shines as a symbol of peace, love, and compassion in this part of the world.

As you know, Padma Samye Ling houses many sacred objects and representations of enlightenment, in addition to being a sacred monument itself. In the nirmanakaya level of the temple, the main shrineroom has mural paintings of so many great Buddhist masters from India and Tibet. Within Tibetan Buddhism in particular, we have all the principal masters portrayed on these walls. Of course, Nyingma practitioners are represented more than others, but really everyone is there. The second floor, or sambhogakaya level, has many Tibetan Buddhist books and pechas, as well as Dharma texts from Japan, Sri Lanka, China, India, and other countries. We have large collections of Buddhist teachings in Tibetan, Sanskrit, Pali, Chinese, and other languages. Again, we naturally have more Nyingma texts than anything else, but all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism are represented. Finally, the third floor, or dharmakaya level, has so many beautiful relics and holy images; the enlightenment stupa we recently consecrated and placed there is filled with sacred objects from many great masters of the past, including their personal objects, medicine, and physical remains.

Yet before we even started building the temple we put so many relics underground, carrying the blessings of the ancient great masters. We also included earth from the holy sites of India, such as Bodhgaya, Varanasi, Vulture Peak Mountain, Nalanda, and Shravasti; and Five-Peaked Mountain (Wutai Shan) in China, as well as Mt. Kailash, Alaska, Mt. Shasta, and El Yunque Mountain in Puerto Rico. We put in as much earth as we could get from lands that are considered holy by many native peoples. Relics and crystals were also placed inside the Dharma wheel and deer in front of the temple. And the three serto on top of the gonpa have crystals from Mt. Kailash that someone gave us, and objects from Jowo Zegyal Mountain in Tibet. All this we did to the best of our capabilities, according to the various kinds of representations mentioned in the teachings. Therefore, Padma Samye Ling is one of the very special monuments on Earth. Maybe we could say this is one of the treasures of the USA! [laughter]

It is very special and significant to be able to honor and maintain this mandala as a unique symbol and representation of love, compassion, and wisdom. Whoever can help support and maintain Padma Samye Ling will receive benefits similar to those experienced by the ancient ones who encouraged the flourishing of Samye Monastery in Tibet. This was clearly taught in the Life and Liberation of Guru Padmasambhava. But it was not only Guru Rinpoche who said this; Buddha Shakyamuni himself and all the great masters of the past spoke of how important it is to serve the temple, stupas, and similar [objects of veneration]. It is said that even unintentionally filling a crack in a stupa will bring powerful benefits. For this reason, if we help and encourage a place of authentic Dharma through service or other means, we will certainly receive tremendous positive results. The teachings actually say that as long as the dust of a monument to the Dharma remains, that much benefit will result. This is very special.

Question: What are some of the benefits of taking time to do retreat and participate in the Dharma activities at Padma Samye Ling?

Khenpos: These days everybody is so busy. Life itself is busy, and there are many things going on. But for this very reason it is nice to come to this beautiful sanctuary and Buddhist hermitage. There are so many nice qualities. Fresh air, fresh, water, fresh and beautiful unpolluted earth—you can’t put a price tag on these things. They are just natural beauties. Additionally, there are so many supports for practitioners here, encouraging meditation and spiritual development. Sangha members always say this. Padma Samye Ling is just one of the very beautiful places and holy sanctuaries that helps bring more growth of the inner beauties of joy, peace, and happiness. We truly welcome people to come here for a short time, a long time, or just a quick visit.

Many people have a lot of appreciation and good words for the land of Padma Samye Ling. But no matter how good the land, place, and environment are, the main emphasis is on the Dharma. Here we have truly authentic lineage practices and teachings. For those who are really thinking of practicing the Dharma in an environment that is a bit more calm and peaceful, and supporting the cultivation of their inner strength, this is one of the best places. We definitely think that is true. So that’s it! We have good land, good Dharma. This is what we are.