Spiritual teachers have universally used stories to illustrate their teachings, and the lamas of Tibet are no exception. —H. H. the Dalai Lama
Storytellers preserve history and knowledge and keep culture alive through, as it were, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The Irish “shanachies” stood second only to the king and had to know by heart hundreds of major tales along with countless minor ones. The African “griot” transmitted a living oral flame to the next generation without a single word committed to writing. Navajo singers could recite by heart their tribal creation myths, uninterruptedly, for several days. Tibetan masters committed to memory hundreds of volumes of canonical texts, including all the historical records and tales of Buddhism, while unlettered wandering storytellers recited by rote lengthy Tibetan epics such as “Gesar of Ling” around nomadic campfires.
Tibet—the Roof of the World, Shangri-la, the Forbidden Kingdom—has always been renowned as a repository of arcane and occult wisdom. A great deal of that wisdom has been passed down through oral teachings. Tibetan historians of old regarded the ancient, pre-Buddhist storytellers and singing bards as protectors of the kingdom. In fact, reciting the legends correctly by rote was necessary for upholding the order of the world and of society. In the tantric Buddhist tradition—the nondual Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle—there are innumerable stories of the ecstatic eighty-four siddhas of ancient India, tales which make up one of the most popular genres in Buddhist literature today.
The teaching tales told by Tibetan lamas help explain the world and our place in it. These stories have traditionally been received as spoken instructions from teacher to student—like little gifts of love, ferries to that far shore of genuine inner experience, truth itself.
The following three stories are from my unpublished manuscript, Once Upon A Time in Tibet: Himalayan Folk and Fairy Tales.
After the enlightened cave-yogi and songmaster Milarepa left this world, a scrap of rice paper was found inscribed with his handwriting. His ascetic followers were astounded, for it stated that beneath a nearby boulder was buried all the gold that ascetic Mila had hoarded during his life.
A few eager disciples dug around and under that large rock. In the earth they discovered a ragged cloth bundle. Opening the knotted bundle with shaking hands, they discovered only a lump of dried shit.
There was another scribbled note as well. It said: “If you understand my teaching so little that you actually believed I ever valued or hoarded gold, you are truly heirs to my shit.”
The note was signed “The Laughing Vajra, Milarepa.”
It was just before nightfall in the thick forest of eastern Tibet. A bent-over woodcutter named Lakpa was overwhelmed with his daily work. Staggering under his enormous load of firewood, with miles to go before reaching home, he cried: “Ah, if only death would come, I’d be free!”
How many of us, crushed by life’s burdens, haven’t mindlessly appealed to the higher powers in such a way? And, just as so many prayers are often, surprisingly, answered, suddenly Lakpa encountered Death.
The looming, shadowy figure of Death intended to take him immediately away to the Other World, but the poor woodcutter desisted. “I have an entire family to feed and care for,” Lakpa told him. “Make a deal with me, and you shall have my whole family after twelve years.”
“I shall have them all eventually anyway!” Death retorted, with a laugh from his yawning, cavernous mouth of darkness, deeper than a moonless night. Spreading wide his long, tree-like arms, he demanded: “What can you, a mere mortal, offer me that I don’t have?”
The clever Tibetan was not stymied. “I can offer you a home, Lord Death. What can you call your home now?”
“I am at home everywhere,” the gargantuan ogre-like specter answered. “What house in this dream-like world have I, Death, not visited?”
“Excuse me, Your Enormity,” Lakpa explained, gesturing to the east with his right hand, “but everyone in my village knows that there is an immortal hermit in a cave in the mountainside beyond this valley. That yogi is over one thousand years old; he has been sitting unmoved in silent meditation for so many years that his beard has grown to the ground and taken root. Birds nest in the thick, matted hair piled atop his holy head. You have obviously never been invited to visit him, for he is immortal. Our lama proclaimed that this yogi has totally transcended the illusion of birth and death, and sits above the winds of changing conditions, free forever from the snares of duality.”
“Where is such an immortal abomination!” roared Death, rearing up to his full height, taller than the surrounding trees. “Who is there whom I cannot carry from this world? Who dares to pretend not to be born and, at the mercy of their own delusions, again helplessly blown hither and yon by their karmic winds, like dry leaves in a storm? I shall eat that so-called Immortal for breakfast tomorrow!” Death shouted, in his fury forgetting the bent little woodcutter Lakpa as he stomped off towards that cave. Death’s war cry—“Nothing is permanent in this world, nothing remains forever, not even the trees and the seas!”—echoed and re-echoed like peals of thunder throughout the wooded valley.
Lakpa dropped his heavy bundle and hurried home, having narrowly escaped the clutches of untimely death. At midnight he and his faithful wife bowed repeatedly and prayed to the compassionate Buddha to forgive his willful deceit of the terrifying specter of death. Then they made offerings to the Buddha of Infinite Life, Amitayus, praying thus: “May one and all reach that which is beyond birth and death.”
There was no immortal yogi anywhere to be found in that region, though ancient legends were rife; and Lakpa well knew that one day Death would again stalk him, as he would eventually claim everyone, without exception, in this fleeting, dew-drop-like world. For who can forever escape the clutches of death?
Once there was a proud pandit in Nalanda. Rather than taming and transforming his arrogant nature, as the Mahayana mind training is genuinely intended to do, it seemed that this monk’s extensive Buddhist studies had only served to harden his recalcitrant character.
One day he was out for a walk after lunch when he spied a lithe young milkmaid carrying a clay pot of warm goat’s milk into her house. Greed—so unbecoming in a venerable abbot-professor—took hold of him.
The monk restrained his haste for several minutes. Then he approached the humble home and knocked on the door, as if soliciting alms—which, in his hubris, the monk never deigned to actually do.
The woman of the house welcomed him. “Excuse us, reverend sir,” she exclaimed, “we have just eaten our daily meal and all the bowls are soiled. Just one minute and I will fetch you a bowl of fresh milk.” Then she hurried off while he waited patiently at the threshold.
Soon the lady returned, a bowl of warm milk in hand. As the proud scholar stood and drank it, the family pig came rubbing against his legs.
The young girl came to lead the fat sow away. The supercilious monk turned to her mother and said, with warmth, pointing at the sow: “This is truly a devout, if unlettered, household. See, even she recognizes a saintly sage when she sees one!”
“She recognizes her bowl!” the lady declaimed, laughing. For she was herself none other than the haughty Sow-Crowned dakini, the deity Vajra Varahi. Deflated, the humiliated scholar slipped away.