The First Shangpa Rinpoche
|Fig 2. Serphuk Cave where Shangpa Rinpoche embarked on a 12-year-retreat|
He then went in search of the right place for his long retreat and eventually began his long retreat at Serphuk cave in Dolpo near Tichu Rong. He spent 12 years in retreat in that cave and completed several advanced practices, including the completion of Konchog Chidu's Four Foundations twelve times in order to firmly establish the basis of practice.
During his retreat, he went through much hardship with minimal help from others as no one knew him at that time. The nearest village located at the foothills of the mountain was half a day’s walk from the cave. During winter, the whole mountain was covered with snow and the cave was completely inaccessible. The terrain was also very dangerous to travel in snowy conditions.
Initially, food was the main problem. Just to get enough food for one meal a day was difficult. Shangpa Rinpoche had to depend very much on whatever food he had brought along with him, and so he decided to do Nyungne Fasting during which he had only one meal every two days. Even so, he finally ran out of food and ended up just boiling hot water for drinking during meal times. He did not put too much effort in acquiring food and other necessities as he centered his efforts on practising diligently; valuing the fact that life is impermanent.
His way of practice emulated that of the great Kagyu masters, as described in the Kagyudpa text Easing the Mind of Worthy Disciples below:
"The Kagyupas point out the great highway by which the Buddhas have become enlightened. Their disciples cast to the wind the dust of the eight worldly dharmas, became children of mountains, wore clothes of mist, and reduced their food, clothes, and conversations to bare necessity. In great isolated retreats, they were completely cut off from the bustle of body, meaningless speech, and discursive mind. They sat on a single seat like an oak stake driven in the ground. They kept in their hearts the amrita of oral instructions taught by the gurus, and were free, not obstructed by the wall of samsaric existence so difficult to cross."
After a long time, he became so weak that he could not even muster up the strength to do simple work and effective practice. Deciding that he had to find food in order to practice well, he set out for the village. He could not get any alms because the people in that village had left to attend a funeral ceremony. He felt very disappointed and thought that he should not wait for the villagers to get back as it would be dark by then. He retraced his steps back towards the cave, when suddenly he saw some turnips left in the sun to dry. There he was faces with the dilemma: If he took them, it would be like stealing. Yet, if he didn’t take the turnips, he might die of hunger without completing his practice. After contemplation, he took ten pieces of the turnips and quickly returned to the cave. He rationed one piece a day and for ten days, he managed to survive and was able to practice well.
This attitude in the face of scarcity of food also mirrored what Mipham Rinpoche expressed in his commentary to Lord Nagarjuna's Stanzas for a Novice Monk:
"If one eats with the wish to become robust or handsome, non-virtue ensues; if one eats because one considers that, by not eating, one's body shall dissipate and consequently not be able to engage in spiritual practices, virtue ensues; and if neither of the two previous types of thought are present, what will be ensued is unpredictable. Thinking over these three possibilities before every meal is the excellent contemplation."
Continuously, he mindfully reflected on his motivation. He brought this motivation into his day-to-day practice, driving his conduct with discipline and perseverance. He was infused with the good qualities of acquiring only minimal daily necessities for the support of his practice and daily life, as taught by the Kagyu Serteng (also known as the Golden Garland of Kagyud) lineage masters.
Yet, the supply of food eventually dwindled and the root problem remained unresolved. He was faced with a new dilemma: was he to go back to the village to get food or to stay in the cave? Going to the village was a great effort. The struggle to get food as well as the journey could very well distract him from his motivation. He decided not to go and mentally prepared to accept whatever was to ensue. After several days, a dog arrived at the cave and was very friendly towards him. Shangpa Rinpoche was overjoyed and quickly wrote a letter stating that there was a hermit in a cave needing food and requiesting the reader of the letter to bring some alms to the cave. He tied the letter around the neck of the dog and bade it farewell.
The next day, some villagers came to the cave with tsampa, the Tibetan staple food made of barley flour, and other food. They noticed he was gaunt and weak, yet he greeted them very pleasantly and thanked them for the offerings. In return, he gave them blessings and also advised them to practice the Dharma diligently. These villagers became his first disciples and took time and care to send food to him. With the food he could practice without any obstacles for a long time.
At one time, there was heavy snowfall for many days and the cave was inaccessible. It took months for the snow to melt and people thought that the hermit must have surely died from starvation. In homage to him, they began to lit lamps in their own homes and dedicated merits to him.
|Fig 3. One of the places at Tichu Rong where the first Shangpa Rinpoche stepped on rock, and later his footprint appeared on the rock spontaneously.|
However, he was not dead. When the food supply ran out, he still managed to practice for one week by drinking boiled water. One fine morning, after finishing water torma offering and his regular morning session, he went out as usual to throw out the water. He heard some crows making a loud noises and ventured further to find out what happened. To his surprise, he discovered a dead deer lying on the ground. At first, he was happy and quickly got out his knife to cut the meat into pieces. Checking in his motivation in time, he realised he was very cruel and lacking compassion towards another sentient beings. He left the deer untouched and recited mantras and prayers before returning to the cave. At the end of his first session of practice, he went out again to see what had become of the dead deer. By that time, the deer was almost half eaten by crows. Shangpa Rinpoche collected whatever leftover meat there was. He ate a little bit each day and that sustained him for a month.
It was no ordinary hardship during the twelve years that he surmounted.
After his long retreat, he wanted to meet his master Gomchen Trinle Chophel again, but unfortunately the latter had already entered into nirvana. Later on, he was to meet another Yogi named Sertha Rinpoche and received many Nyingma practices from him. He spent a period of time meditating at Dolpo, in a cave called Trekyam Phuk. It was also in this very cave that his master Gomchen Trinle Chophel had meditated before. During this time of practice, he began to realise the ultimate essence of Dzogchen (Great Perfection) and Chagchen (Mahamudra). He had finally recognized the nature of mind completely.
He mentioned to his close disciple that when realisation takes place, the grasping of the dualistic conceptual mind becomes totally dismantled. He described that the dualistic conceptual mind melts into the state of total freedom like the way ice completely melts into water.