Shabkar, Tibetan Buddhist Hermit
Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol, or Zabs-dkar Tshogs-drug-ran-grol (1781-1851), is called by his translator the "perfect hermit." So much was he a model hermit that contemporaries considered Shabkar the reincarnation of Milarepa, the ninth-century Tibetan Buddhist hermit and composer of songs or dohas, compositions of instruction, reflection, and inspiration.
Shabkar's songs are part of the autobiography he dictated to a disciple in 1837 at the age of 56 as part one of his life. The second part has not been translated from the Tibetan but more restrictively includes other songs and a less detailed biographical chronology.
Shabkar was was born in Amdo, in northeastern Tibet, and as a child loved to tell jokes and stories, to sing and recite. He was identified as a congenial person getting along easily with others. At thirteen, a lama instructed him briefly. When Shabkar asked the lama how best to keep the dharma, the lama told him to imitate the example of Milarepa the hermit. The following year, he entered a year-long retreat, followed by several years of monastic study.
As a youth, his personality and dharma interests merged, as he recalls:
Sometimes I would sing the spiritual songs of the revered Lord Kalden Gyatso to old people and inspire them to recite the mani [the mantra: "Om mani padme hum"]. Explaining to them the meaning of the Songs as best I could, I turned the minds of these old people toward the Dharma. In one of the songs it says:
"If you aspire to mountain solitudes under peaks wrapped in mist, there are natural caves in steep, rocky cliffs. To stay in such places will bring immediate and ultimate joy."
Whenever I sang praises of mountain retreats, I would make a wish that someday I would have the good fortune to stay in mountain solitude.
So it was that the first steps toward this desired good fortune came. Shabkar was ordained a monk at 20 and on the advice of his local guru journeyed to Mongolia to stay a while with Chogyal Ngayi Wangpo, the so-called "Dharma King," renowned for teaching and practice. The latter quickly perceived the spiritual potential of his new disciple, and soon gave Shabkar this advice: "Wander from one solitary mountain retreat to another, without preference."
Thus did Shabkar become a hermit. He tells us:
I got away from a worldly home,
As though from a pit of live coals,
And inherited the cool pavilion of homelessness . ...
Shabkar's parting from his mother was full of sadness and tears, a characteristic of his relations with people, a humane and emotional man of sentiments not always attributed to hermits. In his writings, for example, he describes his "boundless grief" in departing from disciples or at news of the death of an acquaintance. When he visited his childhood home once, his mother deceased and the house half-ruined, "sadness welled up from the depths of my being." Perhaps this was more characteristic of his extrovert personality together with his congeniality and talent for telling stories and entertaining others. But this may surprise some who do not expect such emotions in a "perfect hermit."
Shabkar himself says that "from the ages of twenty to thirty I mainly practiced to perfect myself, and from the ages of thirty to fifty, I worked mainly for the good of others." This does not mean that he was strictly a hermit for ten years and not so the subsequent twenty. Rather, he was isolated physically for ten years, then traveled and taught for the next twenty, living as a homeless wanderer rather than as a mountain hermit. Hence, the earlier years were quite solitary, and Shabkar shares the insights of this period in advice about solitude.
On the Dharma King's advice, Shabkar journeyed to what the former described as "the pleasant solitude of Tsechung, ... [an] extraordinary site, facing south, sunny in winter and cool in the summer and autumn." The Dharma King went on. "Water, firewood, and all other necessities are available there. There is a pleasant cave called Thayendri, which in Mongolian means the Hermit's Meditation Cave. Go there and raise the victory banner of spiritual practice."
In this cave, Shabkar pursued his practice of prostrations, recitations, and meditation. He mastered control of channels, energies and tummo, the self-generated heat that enabled him to withstand the mountain cold. Here he "continually experienced the union of exceptional bliss and ultimate time."
Eremitic life was Shabkar's model and ideal, and he invokes them often, as in this expression: "I bow down at the feet of the hermits of the past who lived in mountain retreats. Grant your blessings that I and others may remain in mountain solitudes."
One day while wandering in the mountains, he came across a cave in which sat "a hermit who had given up all worldly activities." Shabkar hailed the man and they exchanged a few pleasantries before going on his way. "On seeing this mountain hermit, I was filled with admiration," he remarks.
Shabkar's perennial advice to later disciples was to begin always with the realization of impermanence and death. This is the motive for disengaging from the world, its pleasures, its "clingings and cravings."
If you are weary of attachments then you won't need wealth. Cast away your possessions, and you will be done with kin as well. Give up your homeland, and attachments and aversions will subside of their own accord.
Having achieved this frame of mind, the next advice to the disciple is:
Stay in a hermitage, and your practice will naturally increase. Live alone, and obstacles and adverse circumstances will be few.
Guidelines for the Hermit Life
Shabkar recommends solitude as a preparation for life-long insight and practice, built upon a guru's initial guidance -- but not within a monastery or by pursuing study or even remaining in an informal community. Indeed, Shabkar developed a set of standards for the hermit life, and this is one of his most valuable insights. He uses numbers as a mnemonic device: ten "cardinal treasures of the past saints," seven "riches of the noble ones," four "preferences of the noble ones," and the four "Dharmas of training in virtue." Thus Shabkar offers a convenient and concise list of guidelines to the eremitic life.
The ten treasures were ten actions:
- Leave your mind to the Dharma
- Leave your Dharma to a beggar's life
- Live your beggar's life until death
- Leave your death to a cave
- Cast yourself out from your place among others
- Take your place among the dogs [i.e., the lowest of society]
- Find a place among celestial beings
- Embrace unswerving determination
- Embrace indifference to what others may think of you
- Retain wisdom
The seven noble riches are:
- sense of shame
The four preferences of the noble ones are:
- simple food
- simple clothing
- simple dwelling-place
- simple possessions
And the four dharmas of training in virtue are based on the same theme: not returning anger for anger, insult for insult, slander for slander, blow for blow.
With the combination of virtues and practice, the hermit could make progress. "Don't bother with external knowledge," Shabkar advises. "Turn your attention inward. ... Give up all thoughts of this life and stay by yourself in mountain retreats." Thus he folds the virtues and practice with solitude.
Shabkar developed ten "benefits of living in isolated places," based on the "King of Samadhi" sutra:
- one's activities will be fewer
- one will be far removed from noise and distractions
- one will be free from quarrels
- one will be free from harm
- one will not let obscuring emotions increase
- one will not create causes for discord
- one will always enjoy perfect tranquility
- one will keep one's body, speech, and mind under control
- one will live in a way that is conducive to liberation, and
- one will quickly reach complete freedom.
As Shabkar puts it elsewhere: "Solitary places allow even vulnerable beginners to foster their progress without hindrance." Given the context, Shabkar is referring to a physical place. He saw the town and village as a danger to hermits, inhabited by "gods and demons." Instead he counsels: "Remain in mountain solitudes!" His advice reads like the the advice to a disciple seeking to be a sadhu.
Shabkar adds twelve "ascetic virtues" to recommend to the hermit:
- to wear clothing found in a rubbish heap
- to own only three robes
- to wear cloths and shoes made of cloth
- to eat one's meal at a single setting
- to live only on alms
- not to eat after midday
- to live in secluded places
- to live under trees
- to live in the open air
- to live in cemeteries
- to sleep in a sitting posture
- to stay wherever one happens to be
The cultivation of virtue requires physical solitude.
In the pleasant groves of wild mountain solitudes,
where wise and accomplished beings attain supreme realization,
one is not distracted by worldly affairs.
A lengthy song uses the refrain "If you stay alone" after each phrase. For example,
If you stay alone, there are no adverse conditions.
If you stay alone, your practice of virtue will increase.
If you stay alone, you will develop Bodhicitta ...
"There is no way to fully describe the benefits of solitude," concludes Shabkar. "Meditate like the rishis ... Stay alone and be diligent in your practice."
Shabkar the Wanderer
After his experience at Hermit's Cave, Shabkar left for a succession of solitary and congenial places: Takemo Dzong, Gopo Dzong, Getho and Tigress Fort, Tsonying Island, Mount Machen, and White Rock Monkey Fortress. These sites represent Nepal and Tibet. By this time, Shabkar's reputation had spread widely, and adherents came from near and far to be his disciples.
As a wanderer, however, Shabkar probably counseled more peasants and villagers, pilgrims and travelers, than formal disciples. His eremiticism did not make him inaccessible. He speaks often of his status in the world:
My native land is all lands,
In no particular direction.
My monastery is the solitary mountains,
In no particular place.
My family is all the beings of the six realms.
My name is "Hermit Protected by the Three Jewels."
To Shabkar, everywhere is his dwelling-place:
In the retreat hut that is my own body
I sweep away the dirt ...
My retreat helper is emptiness.
This passage fits his song on the perception of ultimate reality, where the hut is a tent:
All sounds are the resonance of voidness
Thoughts are freed just as they arise.
At death the net of the body is at last torn apart
Taking down the boundaries of one's retreat.
Shabkar stayed where he could and obviously traveled lightly. In one passage he speaks of packing up his "small tent and supplies," of putting them on his back and setting out on the road. When he finds a suitable cave, he spreads out hay as a mat and stays a few days. His food is quickly enumerated: tsampa [barley flour bread], barley, flour, butter, black tea, plus edible plants and wild garlic.
Shabkar was famous as a story-teller, and his jovial and personable ways with strangers. His sense of humor about misfortunes, his frankness in acknowledging grief, and his compassion for animals became hallmarks of the hermit-wanderer.
How often in hermit literature does the mountain hermit encounter thieves? The hermit always ends up having to coax the thief to take more. This kind of story is told in Shabkar's autobiography, too.
His consciousness of animals as sentient beings is revealed by many entertaining anecdotes. For example, Shabkar sings a dialogue of songs with bees and another with ducks. Crows, cuckoos and bees all benefit from his instruction, and he occasionally gives them all of his food. Once while trying to sleep, he was annoyed by an owl hooting and tossed a pebble at it, but immediately reproved himself for being so cruel. Another time, while walking, he came upon a pond of water where insects floated, nearly drowned. Shabkar raced to them with a spoon, meticulously scooping them to safety, then lingering while they dried themselves on a rock while he dug holes to drain the pond.
On one occasion, while descending to a mountain valley in autumn, Shabkar realized that all the animals were doing likewise because of the approach of winter. The dusk cacophony of wolves, bears, wild yaks, and other creatures was so deafening that he imagined himself somewhere in the bardo state! But he was not afraid.
Shabkar was famous for not eating meat and sternly warning others not to do so, let alone to kill or molest an animal. On his long sojourn back to Central Tibet, Shabkar prevented the slaughter of many sheep with his teachings to herders. This is how Shabkar the hermit served to help others, including all sentient beings.
Shabkar leaves two images of himself to posterity: the hermit and the teacher. As a teacher he exhorts others to practice. This teaching is based solidly on experience, showing that a monastic learning is not only unnecessary to enlightenment but can be a hindrance because of the absence of solitude. As a hermit, Shabkar was eminently practical, from mountain solitary to wandering peacemaker among feuding nomads, from inveterate meditator in solitary places to benign teacher and poet.
But it is the hermit image that lingers. Shabkar's songs of the eremitical life glisten with the sun of contentment.
In mountain rock mansions,
In the cool shade of forests,
In small huts of green grass,
Under tents of white cotton,
I, the carefree yogin,
Dwell at will.
- The Life of Shabkar: the Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, translated from Tibetan by Matthieu Ricard and edited by Constance Wilkinson. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994 and Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 2001.
- The Flight of the Garuda: the Dzogchen Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, compiled and translated by Keith Dowman. Rev. ed. Boston: Wisdom, c2003. Includes selections of Shabkar's songs.
- Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, translated by the Padmakara Translation Group. Boston: Shambhala, 2004.