By pure chance, I ran into one of my relatives, a nephew, in the Songtsam Hotel dining room in Lhasa where I was staying in May of 2019. Champa is a very likable and charming fellow and when we he picked me up in his gleaming new BMW the next day, we soon decided we would go the Phapungkha Temple the following day.
For some reason, I have always been particularly intrigued by the name Phapungkha in a way I never understood. I soon discovered why.
Phapungkha, our destination, turned out to be a spectacularly beautiful temple perched on a gigantic three- story boulder, a short 45-minute drive from Songtsam Hotel. I noticed there were many Tibetan parents and grandparents buying hand stitched cotton tubes stuffed with Tsampa - roasted ground barley flour- that Tibetans eat as a staple in their grain- based diet. These tubes were being sold to pilgrims who had come to the temple to pray and make offerings to Thon Mi Sambhota. This was a surprise bonus for me!
Thon Mi was a revered genius who, according to legend, braved the horse caravan journey from Tibet to India seventeen times, in order to study Sanskrit and create the Tibetan script and grammar that made it possible to share the written word of the Buddha. He is credited and honored for developing the written Tibetan language that made it possible to translate the precious 108 volumes of Kangyur (direct teachings of Buddha) and 225 volumes of the Tengyur (commentaries and explanation of Kangyur) that make up the Buddhist Canon. Wow! I could not have wished for better luck in finding a meaningful pilgrimage. Thon Mi’s extraordinary dedication and hard work were responsible for transforming Tibet into the Buddhist culture it became and changed Tibet forever. Thanks to Thon Mi, Tibet became a sanctuary where Buddha Dharma and Buddhist wisdom has been preserved and thrived through-out the centuries.
I noticed there were many parents and grandparents making offerings at the Phapungkha Temple. I was enamored to discover they were making offerings to Thon Mi Sambhota and inviting his blessing for their sons, daughters and grandchildren for the upcoming All China National University Entrance Exams. This is an anxiety-charged week in a nation of 1.4 billion people. Everyone knows this exam will “make or break” the careers of the multitudes in China.
After this exciting discovery, our next step was to search for Thon Mi’s statue among the many statues of deities in the temple. We lucked out again by getting the help of the monk in charge who kindly led us to the image of the great sage. My nephew and I were finally in front of Thon Mi’s enshrined image. We lit butter lamps and prayed to Thon Mi with folded hands. I was moved by his life size presence. His large eyes depicted great intelligence, and learned as he was, Thon Mi seemed a physically powerful man. I know he had to be physically fit to cross those high passes across the Himalayas so many times!
I was mesmerized by Phapunkha temple. I also wondered about the great translator’s work habits. Did he move about different spaces in and around the cave? Did he build a retreat house or study space on the rock? I left full of questions but profoundly grateful to have had the chance to visit a remarkable man who changed Tibetan culture forever.