The Mahasiddhas of Buddhism have led very different and controversial lives in times both ancient and modern. They often exhibit what has come to...
The Mahasiddhas of ancient India and Tibet have fascinated many throughout the ages with their unusual lifestyles and seemingly absolute freedom. The very things of this world that are usually renounced by ascetics, the things that are the fetters binding the spirit to matter and nature like meat, alcohol and sex, are employed as the very means to Enlightenment and not renounced in the Higher Tantras. Usually, they are the anti-thesis of the disciplined ascetic path. Thus, the stories of those who embodied and cultivated the “siddhi of perfection” with their realisations, psychic abilities and spiritual powers are truly fascinating and intriguing.
These Mahasiddhas led very different and controversial lives, whether they lived in a totally different lifetime from ours or even if they are still living today. One merely has to skim over their biographies to recognise this. Oft times, they exhibit what has come to be commonly known as “crazy wisdom”, which is wisdom so unconventional that it borders on the edge of madness.
As we delve further into their documented lives, we will see that they had their fair share of hardships, often because their behaviour was so bizarre. Yet in hindsight, they had the strength and tenacity to come out the other end all the stronger for it, often imparting deep lessons in applied Buddhism to the people around them in the process.
So, does the result justify the means?
Mahasiddhas and Their Appeal
One of the best embodiments of crazy wisdom is the Mahasiddha Virupa who was born into a royal family of East India. He had a vision of Nairatmya, the female consort of the Tantric Buddha Hevajra, after he began feeling despondent about the progress of his spiritual practice.
Following this incident, beautiful women would be seen entering his room in Nalanda Monastery whenever he performed the Tantric ritual of tsog. In reality they were dakinis or female celestial beings coming to partake of his offerings but his fellow monks did not believe him and thought he was consorting with women.
Thus, Virupa was evicted from the monastery and his behaviour became increasingly eccentric and controversial. Taking on the name of Virupa, meaning the ugly one, and roamed the countryside performing miracles to subdue people’s minds. The most famous of his miracles was when he stopped the midday sun in the sky for almost three days, because he couldn’t pay for drinks at a tavern. In the end, the entire kingdom embraced Buddhism and entered the Buddhist path.
Mahasiddha Saraha with dakini
Mahasiddha Saraha, a young Brahmin scholar of the 2nd Century, studied for a time at the great Nalanda and Vikramashila monastic universities before being expelled for the consumption of alcohol. However, his reputation remained untarnished as he exhibited various supernatural powers in his defence.
He also defiled his caste status by living openly with a low caste woman who was an arrow-maker, also said to be a dakini. After this meeting, his meditative practices changed and with her counsel, he eventually attained the highest siddhis and the supreme realisation of Mahamudra.
Today, Mahasiddha Saraha is considered one of the greatest poets and scholars of the Buddhist Tantric tradition.
Guru Rinpoche with consort Yeshe Tsogyal
Padmasambhava the Lotus Born, also known as Guru Rinpoche, was the exalted master of the 8th Century who tamed Tibet and paved the way for Shantarakshita to spread the Dharma in the Land of Snows. He took on five principle consorts. One of them was the royal princess Mandarava, with whom he practiced secret tantric consort rituals and the sadhana of longevity in Maratika Cave, Nepal. The Buddha of Infinite Life, Amitayus, appeared to them a vision and they achieved what is called the pöwa rainbow body.
Another of his consorts, Yeshe Tsogyal, became his ardent disciple and, together with Mandarava, hid his termas after his passing for later discovery. Termas are hidden teachings intended to be discovered later during troubled times as a source of renewed wisdom and blessings. Little is known though of Padmasambhava’s other consorts, Belwong Kalasiddhi of northwest India, Belmo Sakya Devi of Nepal and Tashi Kyedren (Mangala) of Bhutan.
Mahasiddha Ghantapa with consort
Mahasiddha Ghantapa was a highly realised and celibate yogin during the time of 9th Century king, Devapala in eastern India. He refused to honour the king, so Devapala sought to humiliate him by sending a courtesan’s daughter to seduce him and bring about his downfall. Over a period of time, Ghantapa took the girl, who first came in the guise of a servant, as his consort and their union produced a son. Upon learning of this, King Devapala confronted him with delight.
Enraged, the Mahasiddha Ghantapa threw his son and the bottle of alcohol he was carrying to the ground. They transformed into a vajra and bell and a flood began to arise at the point of impact. Holding the vajra and bell, Ghantapa then flew into the sky with his consort, and they transformed into the aspect of Heruka Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi.
Humbled, the king developed great faith in Ghantapa and requested for his forgiveness. In response, Mahasiddha Ghantapa gave this profound message:
“Do not cultivate virtue and renounce vice. Rather, learn to accept all things as they arise. Penetrate the essence of each experience until you have achieved the one taste.”
Mahasiddha Naropa was an 11th Century Kashmiri prince who tolerated many years of married life before coming to an agreement with his wife to separate and continue their spiritual paths separately. He renounced his throne to become a monk at the prestigious Nalanda Monastery of India.
An accomplished scholar, a chance meeting with an old woman made him realise his lack of realisations. Following her advice, Naropa left Nalanda and became a wandering yogin in search of his teacher, a wild-eyed, half-mad ascetic called Tilopa in whom Naropa had developed great faith upon hearing his name.
Tilopa lived in a series of remote cremation grounds in the company of women of questionable virtue. Upon finally finding his teacher, Naropa had to endure tremendous hardship known as the 12 major and 12 minor trials of Naropa before receiving the full set of teachings including an initiation into the Tantric practice of Vajravarahi.
The most well-known of these trials is the tale of how Naropa had to beg for helping after helping of curry to satisfy his Guru’s hunger and ended up stealing the whole pot. He is best remembered for his faith and devotion to his Guru that enabled him to attain Enlightenment in one lifetime.
Closer to Home
In more recent times, some attained practitioners have taken the same route of consort practice. They may have done so from clairvoyance, a desire to benefit others through their attainments, or upon the advice of another attained being, as in the case of the 1st Serkong Dorje Chang.
H.E. the 1st Serkong Dorje Chang
The 1st Serkong Dorje Chang was a prominent Tibetan Buddhist lama of Gaden Jangtse Monastery at the turn of the century. When he was studying in Gyume Tantric College, he would see ladies or dakinis swimming in his monk bowl during pujas. He reported this and other incredible signs to H.H. the 13th Dalai Lama, who advised him to give his robes back and take on a consort. This was very unusual as monks of the Gelugpa tradition are discouraged from engaging in consort practice and Serkong Dorje Chang is the only Gelugpa lama that the Dalai Lama has advised to give his robes back.
Serkong Dorje Chang complied with the Dalai Lama’s advice. Shortly after, a mysterious lady was seen entering his meditational cave. Their union produced a son who was later recognised as H.E. Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche. Shortly after, the lady disappeared without a trace. Serkong Tsenshab Rinpoche went on to become the personal debate partner of H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama and was renowned for being very knowledgeable and wise. Now a layperson, Serkong Dorje Chang continued to give teachings in Gaden Jangtse Monastery all the while carrying his son.
H.H. the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa
His Holiness the 15th Karmapa Khakyab Dorje was born amidst auspicious signs. He had one of the 32 marks of an enlightened being (a circle of hair between his eyebrows) and spoke the mantra of Chenrezig at birth.
He studied under numerous great masters and eventually received the entire transmission of the Kagyu teachings from Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye. He taught widely and gave empowerments throughout Tibet and preserved many rare texts by having them reprinted.
Karmapa Khakyab Dorje is the first Karmapa to have married and fathered three sons. Two of his offspring were recognised as reincarnated masters, namely the 2nd Jamgon Kongtrul Palden Khyentse Öser and the 12th Shamarpa Jamyang Rinpoche.
H.H the 10th Panchen Lama with his consort, Li Jie and daughter
His Holiness the 10th Panchen Lama Lobsang Trinley Lhündrub Chökyi Gyaltsen was recognised and enthroned amidst conflict between the government in Lhasa and the Panchen Lama’s office. The second-highest ranking reincarnated lama after the Dalai Lama in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, the 10th Panchen Lama was a great patron of Tibetan language, arts, culture, history, religion, scripture, ancient texts, traditions and a scholar of Buddhism himself.
He played a part in the revival of Tibetan Buddhism in China under Deng Xiaoping’s rule and eventually became an influential member of the Chinese political machine, serving as Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress.
In 1978, he gave back his vows and traveled around China seeking a suitable consort. In 1979, he married Li Jie, a soldier and medical student at Fourth Military Medical University in Xi’an, who bore him a daughter, Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, in 1983. Popularly known as the “Princess of Tibet, Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo is the only offspring in over 600 years of history of either the Panchen Lama or Dalai Lama reincarnation lineages. She is involved in numerous global charities and organisations including the All-China Youth Federation, Tibet Red Cross, Snowland Great Rivers Environmental Protection Association, and several orphanages and eye camps in the Tibetan ethnic regions.
Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his consort, Diana Mukpo
Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is the 11th in the line of Trungpa tulkus who are teachers of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism. He was a great scholar, teacher, poet, and artist who founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and established the Shambhala Training method which is based on the legendary enlightened kingdom, Shambhala. He also founded Vajradhatu which was later renamed Shambhala International.
A mahasiddha for modern times, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche coined the phrase “crazy wisdom” and his nontraditional behaviours and teaching methods were the subject of controversy during his time. Known for smoking, consumption of drugs and alcohol, and sexual relations with a large number of female students, it is said that his adoption of Western behaviour during the 1960s hippie period was largely responsible for his popularity and lasting influence in the West.
His first son, Osel, was born to a nun named Konchok Paldron and later became the heir and lineage holder of the Shambhala tradition, the Sakyong Jamgön Mipham Rinpoche. His second son, Tagtrug Mukpo, born to his wife Diana Mukpo was recognised by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa as one of several incarnations of Surmang Tenga Rinpoche, a tulku in the Kagyu lineage. His third son, Gesar Mukpo, was recognised as the 11th reincarnation of Shechen Kongtrul Rinpoche and has gone on to become a director, writer and ambassador for the Tibetan tradition in the West.
The 3rd Ju Mipham Rinpoche and his consort, Dechen Wangmo
Jamgon Ju Mipham Rinpoche is the third incarnation in the line of Mipham Rinpoches. One of the great scholars and masters of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, he was born in Tibet in 1949 and recognised by Tengye Rinpoche of Lab as the reincarnation of his predecessor.
He has fathered two sons with his consort, Dechen Wangmo, both of whom are recognised tulkus and great lamas in their own right. His elder son is Trinley Thaye Dorje, who has been enthroned as His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa and his younger son is the 14th Sonam Tsemo Rinpoche, a notable Sakya/Gelug tulku.
H.H. the 6th Dalai Lama
His Holiness the 6th Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso manifested as a mahasiddha who was fond of the parks in Lhasa. Ordained in his teens by His Holiness the 5th Panchen Lama, the 6th Dalai Lama rejected the life of a monk and often wandered the streets of Lhasa on foot, dressed in lay clothes. He spent time consuming alcohol and frequenting brothels near the Potala Palace. He enjoyed the company of women and men, and wrote many love songs and poems.
The people of Lhasa were unhappy with the behaviour of their spiritual leader but, unable to express their displeasure, took it upon themselves to punish the women he associated with instead. One story tells of how a mob descended upon the 6th Dalai Lama’s consort after he left a brothel and tore her apart. When they cut open her womb, they discovered an image of Avalokita (1000-armed Chenrezig) inside. Horrified, they then realised that the 6th Dalai Lama’s actions were not ordinary and they were remorseful and regretful for what they had done.
The 6th Dalai Lama was kidnapped and deposed by Lhazang Khan, the ruler of the Khoshut tribe of Oirat Mongols, and is believed to have died on his way to the Imperial Palace in Beijing. Prior to his passing, he composed a poem predicting where he would take rebirth.
Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche and his consort, Sakyong Wangmo Khandro Tseyang Ripa Mukpo
The Sakyong, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche Jampel Trinley Dradul was born Osel Rangdrol Mukpo in 1962. He is the head of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and Shambhala International founded by his father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. An incarnation of Mipham the Great, the renowned Nyingma scholar and meditation master, he is believed to have descended from the Tibetan warrior-king Gesar of Ling.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has written several books, including the national bestseller ‘Turning the Mind into an Ally’, the award-winning ‘Ruling Your World’ and ‘Running with the Mind of Meditation’. He is also an avid poet, athlete and artist. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has written a number of books, including the national bestseller, Turning the Mind into an Ally, Ruling Your World, Running with the Mind of Meditation, and The Shambhala Principle. He is also an avid poet, artist and athlete. His Konchok Foundation supports Weyen monastery, the Gesar orphanage, the Mipham Institute in Golok and Khamput Monastery in Kham while the Sakyong Foundation supports organisations and projects whose activities exemplify the vision of Shambhala.
Like his father, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche was married in 2006 to Khandro Tseyang Ripa Mukpo, the daughter of Terton Namkha Drimed Rabjam Rinpoche. In 2008, she was empowered as the Sakyong Wangmo by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche. Their union has produced three daughters – Drukmo Yeshe Sarasvati Ziji Mukpo (Lady Dragon Wisdom), Jetsun Yudra Lhamo Yangchen Ziji Mukpo and Dzedrön Ökar Yangchen Ziji Mukpo.
H.H. Kyabje Trijang Chocktrul Rinpoche with consort Kunsang Dechen-la and son Dung Saey Ratna Gegyal
His Holiness Kyabje Trijang Chocktrul was officially recognised as the incarnation of His Holiness Yongdzin Trijang Dorje Chang by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama on April 23, 1985. His reincarnation status was also confirmed by many other high personages including His Eminence Kyabje Lati Rinpoche, His Holiness the 98th Gaden Tripa Jampel Shenpen and Dorje Shugden via both the Panglung and Duldzin oracles.
At the turn of the 21st Century, he uncovered a complex plot of murder and blame within his own ladrang and after careful consideration, decided to return his monk vows and move to Vermont, USA where he established the Trijang Buddhist Institute. He has since taken on a consort, Kunsang Dechen-la who is the daughter of His Eminence Drigung Kyabgon Rinpoche and Gangchen Drolma. Their special union has produced a precious son, Dung Saey Ratna Gegyal.
As the Spiritual Director of Trijang Buddhist Institute, Kyabje Trijang Chocktrul Rinpoche will guide the Institute’s activities and programs for the public, for ordained monks and nuns, and for future lay teachers whose Dharma training is anticipated in coming years.
H.H. the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa and his consort, Rinchen Yangzom
His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje was enthroned in accordance with the 900-year-old tradition in 1994 by His Holiness the 14th Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, the second most senior Karma Kagyu lama.
He travels extensively giving empowerments to young people; meeting international leaders in the fields of spirituality, peace, conflict resolution, and education; and creating videos and articles to promote peace and prosperity in our world.
He recently married Rinchen Yangzom, who was born in Bhutan and educated in India and Europe. The Karmapa says of his decision to take a consort:
I have a strong feeling, deep within my heart, that my decision to marry will have a positive impact not only for me, but also for the lineage. Following the wishes of my parents, and having had time to reflect, I deeply feel that I am being true to both myself and the lineage. Something beautiful, something beneficial will emerge, for all of us.
Marriage in the simple and mundane sense seems a very contrary action to be taken by monks or lineage holders. Yet, for extraordinary beings there is a mission statement which may not seem apparent to the normal lay person with their preconceived expectations and perceptions. At a time when most families are reluctant to hand over their sons, if and when recognised as tulkus, these marriages and the resultant issues may seem like a very important landmark. One merely has to look to the Nyingma master, the 3rd Ju Mipham Rinpoche whose sons are the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Trinley Thaye Dorje and the Gelugpa and Sakya tulku, the 14th Sonam Tsemo Rinpoche as an example.
The children born of attained beings such as the 1st Serkong Dorje Chang, the 15th Karmapa, the 10th Panchen Lama, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the 3rd Ju Mipham Rinpoche have gone on to be recognised as tulkus and have done much to spread the Dharma in modern times, thus impacting the world and lineage positively.
Others, like Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo, although not recognised as tulkus, have gone on to do much good to ease suffering in this world. Then, there are those pass on their special lineage from father to son as in the case of Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche whose father, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, handed the reins of the Shambala Buddhist lineage over to him. Likewise, the 6the Panglung Kuten passed down the oracular tradition of Dorje Shugden to his son, the 7th Panglung Kuten Thubten Phelgye Jigme Namgyal.
Thus, the key measuring stick by which we can gauge the qualifications and attainments of any monk, lineage holder or tulku rests upon the results of their work and actions. We should never judge attained beings by the methods they employ, but rather how they have benefited all sentient beings. As with the Mahasiddhas of ancient times, modern tulkus may not conform to our expectations but instead drive us into confusion with their seemingly controversial actions and behaviours, of which marriage is one. Thus, as ordinary beings with little or no attainments, our perceptions of good and bad are just that, perceptions and labels to be debunked; another teaching into non-duality.
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