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The Mysterious Mantra Tree at Kum-bum, East Tibet by Peter Morrell

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The Mysterious Mantra Tree at Kum-bum, East Tibet
by Peter Morrell
Extract from Glenn Mullin, 1985, Selected Works of the Third Dalai Lama, The Essence of Refined Gold, Snow Lion, USA, pp.15-17
the piece is presented with the permission of the author

When the Dalai Lama visited Ulan Bator in 1979 he was extremely well received. Tens of thousands of faithful Mongols turned out to greet him and get his blessings, many coming from hundreds of miles away at great personal risk merely to catch a glimpse of His Holiness.

The work of the Third Dalai Lama (Gyalwa Sonam Gyatso) in Western China and Eastern Tibet was no less important. In the Chinese province of Ning-hsia he taught to gatherings of thousands of peoples from Turkestan, China and Mongolia. At each of his discourses he was provided with three different translators in order to make his words available in the languages of these three nations. While there he received an invitation from the Ming Emperor to come to teach in the Chinese court, but as he had already promised to go to Kham he was unable to fulfill the Emperor's wishes.

In Kham and Amdo he was met by tens of thousands of devotees., who had heard tales of the mysterious Lama and his marvellous works. Wherever he went he preached the Buddhist message of love and compassion, admonishing the people to give up the ways of violence and hatred for the path of peace and enlightenment.

Gyal-wa So-nam Gya-tso was particularly interested in visiting the pilgrimage site in Amdo where Lama Tsongkha-pa, the root guru of the First Dalai Lama, had taken birth. Legend stated that after Tsong-kha-pa's birth the blood from his afterbirth fell to the earth, and that from this there had sprung forth a most wondrous tree. The leaves of this tree and also its bark were said to bear impressions of mystic syllables, and the flowers to give off a most transporting fragrance. The Third Dalai Lama had heard of this tree ever since he had been a child, and he was extremely anxious to see it for himself. On the hill above the tree he founded Kum-bum Monastery., "Hermitage of a Hundred Thousand Buddhas." This monastery was destined to become the largest and most important monastic college in Eastern Tibet.

Stories of this sacred tree began to reach the Western world in the early 1800's. The Lazarist priest Abbe M. Huc, who traveled from Peking to Lhasa in the years 1845-6, wrote a detailed account of his own visit to Kum-bum, in it giving special attention to the tree. He was skeptical as to what he would find and submitted the tree to every scrutiny. In his Travels in Tartary, Thibet and China During the Years 1844-5-6 he states:

Yes, this tree does exist, and we had heard of it too often during our journey not to feel somewhat eager to visit it. At the foot of the mountain on which the Lamasery stands, and not far from the principal Buddhist temple, is a great square enclosure, formed by brick walls. Upon entering this we were able to examine at leisure the marvellous tree, some of the branches of which had already manifested themselves above the wall. Our eyes were first directed with eamest curiosity to the leaves, and we were filled with an absolute consternation of astonishment at finding that, in point of fact, there were upon each of the leaves well-formed Thibetan characters, all of a green color, some darker, some lighter than the leaf itself. Our first impression was a suspicion of fraud on the part of the Lamas; but after a minute examination of every detail, we could not discover the least deception. The characters all appeared to us portions of the leaf itself, equally with its veins and nerves. The position was not the same in all; in one leaf they would be at the top of the leaf; in another, in the middle; in a third, at the base, or at the side.,'the younger leaves represented the characters only in a partial state of formation. The bark of the tree and its branches, which resemble that of the plane tree, are also covered with these characters. When you remove a piece of old bark, the young bark under it exhibits the indistinct outlines of characters in a germinating state, and, what is very singular, these new characters are not infrequently different from those which they replace. We examined everything with the closest attention, in order to detect some case of trickery, but we could discern nothing of the sort, and the perspiration absolutely trickled down our faces under the influence of the sensations which this most amazing spectacle created. More profound intellects than ours may, perhaps, be able to supply a satisfactory explanation of the mysteries of this singular tree; but as to us, we altogether give it up. Our readers may smile at our ignorance; but we care not, so that the sincerity and truth of our statement be not suspected . . . . The Lamas informed us that. . nowhere else exists another such tree; that many attempts have been made in various Lamaseries of Tartary and Thibet to propagate it by seedlings and cuttings, but that all these attempts have been fruitless.

The Third Dalai Lama's act of establishing Kum-bum Monastery undoubtedly contributed greatly to the longevity of this sacred plant. Conversely, the presence of the tree certainly contributed to the immediate and lasting success of Kum-bum. The present Dalai Lama was born very near Kum-bum, and when first discovered was placed in it for education until arrangements for his transfer to Lhasa had been made.' We also have a wonderful account of life in Kum-bum in Tibet: Land, History and People' by Thubten Jigme Norbu and Colin Turnbull. Ven. Norbu, who is one of the Dalai Lama's elder brothers, is an incarnate lama of Kum-bum, and in both the above work and also his Tibet is My Country' speaks in considerable detail on the daily schedule of training in this illustrious spiritual center, a true monument to the saintliness of Lama Tsong-kha-pa and the achievements of the Third Dalai Lama. Unfortunately in the present century both Kum-bum and the tree suffered severe damage at the hands of the Chinese invaders.

As related in the biography appended to this volume, after leaving Kum-bum the Third Dalai Lama continued traveling and teaching throughout Eastern Tibet. In the second month of the Earth Mouse Year (1588) he manifested signs of illness. He called his disciples to him, told them that the time of his passing had come and gave them a final discourse on the Dharma. He then composed a letter of advice to his disciples in which he instructed them to practice Dharma to the best of their ability.' "patrons and students of the holy path," he wrote, "life is short, so apply yourselves with diligence. Live in accordance with the commitments of refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, and maintain the vows and precepts of the path. If one does this, then one will accomplish everything good and will arrive at spiritual perfection. I offer my prayers that you do this, and that the radiant sun of the enlightenment teachings clears away the clouds of ignorance and violent barbarism that darken the borderlands of our world, that peace and prosperity may come to all."

Extract from Glenn Mullin, 1985, Selected Works of the Third Dalai Lama, The Essence of Refined Gold, Snow Lion, USA, pp.15-17
the piece is presented with the permission of the author


By Peter Morrell