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As I move closer to my inevitable demise, two things fascinate me – words and reincarnation.  Let me explain, but first, let me set the scene with not one but two prologues.  The first is to do with my conversion to Buddhism and is best told with an extract from my 2012 book, The Religion Business: Cashing in on God.  Here is the extract, complete with two original footnotes that I have rewritten as asterisked inserts.

Prologue 1: Buddhism, Karma and Reincarnation

Saman Villas resort, Bentota Beach, Sri Lanka – where my conversion to Buddhism took place in 2001.

In 2001, my wife and I went to Sri Lanka on holiday – the country I had lived in as a young boy, when it was called Ceylon. One morning I woke up early in my hotel room and decided to go outside and sit on the Bentota beach so as not to disturb my still-sleeping wife. Before venturing outside, I opened the drawer in the cabinet by the side of my bed looking for some reading material and expecting to find a Gideon Bible, which I would have ignored. But there was no Gideon Bible. Instead, I found a small book called Buddhism in a Nutshell written in 1933 by Narada Maha Thera. Being curious, I took the book and read it cover-to-cover on the beach. I was entranced by its contents and when my wife finally woke up, I informed her that I was a Buddhist, albeit a meat-eating one!* That book mirrored everything I believed in for comporting myself with others – don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t covet, be nice, don’t harm animals, and so on – and with the exception of the philosophical discussion on the karma,** the book’s content made perfect sense to me. But the bit that really hit home about Buddhism was that it was created by a man, a Nepalese or possibly Indian prince, without the assistance of a mythical being. Buddhism in its truest original form is a religion without a god if that is not an oxymoron (depends on your definition of the word ‘religion’).

When I returned from the holiday, I bought the book determined to revisit its contents when I had more time but this did not happen for a few more years – that is, until after I had retired on the last day of 2007.

* At the time, this was my first introduction to Buddhism and the Buddhism in a Nutshell book, although written in 1933, does not elaborate on the many developments and alternative forms of Buddhism that are described in a later chapter of my book. Knowing what I now know about Buddhism, my 2001 pronouncement would have to be slightly modified to say that I was a Theravada Buddhist i.e. one who does not believe that Buddha was a god; just a man named  Siddhartha Gautama who worked out how best to live in harmony both with himself and his neighbours.  Many later forms of Buddhism elevated Gautama and many of his successors to the status of a god.  I do not subscribe to these beliefs hence I describe myself as an atheistic Buddhist.

** Narada Maha Thera, the author of Buddhism in a Nutshell, defines karma to be an amalgamation of our inherited past actions and our present deeds, and something that survives our death.  A simplified view of karma is that it is what Christians call a soul – the essence of our being that survives death and, for Christians, passes into either heaven or hell depending on your thoughts, words and deeds while you were alive (good karma, bad karma) and, for Buddhists, looks for and passes into a new living carrier that can either be human or a lower-order animal i.e. rebirth, more usually called reincarnation.

~~ End of Prologue 1 ~~

The second prologue is to tell the story of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, Padmasambhava, born in the 8th century AD and more commonly known as Guru Rinpoche.  In the summary that follows, I will refer to Padmasambhava by the diminutive form of his name, Padma, the Sanskrit word for lotus.  The literal translation of Padmasambhava is ‘lotus born’.

Prologue 2: Padmasambhava (‘Padma’), also known as Guru Rinpoche

By Baldiri – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2159926

According to legend, Padma suddenly appeared (was incarnated) as an 8-year-old boy floating on a lotus blossom on a lake in what is now the Swat Valley of Pakistan, although some say the lake was in Odisha in east India.  Not much is known of his early years but he was caught indulging in all sorts of tantric activities with Princess Mandarava, the daughter of a local king who promptly decided to punish Padma by burning him alive on a bonfire.  Padma survived the attempted live cremation (he emerged intact and meditating) and from then on was revered by all including the king who offered Padma both his kingdom and the girl.  Padma took the girl and went off to Nepal to practice yet more secret tantric rituals including those devoted to physical consort, even achieving what’s known as the phowa rainbow body (look it up!).

From then on, Padma went on to acquire four more female consorts who, together with Princess Mandarava, became known as the five wisdom dakinis, and with whom he took tantric techniques to new heights.  (A dakini is a female, godlike in form, beautiful and often naked.  ‘Nuff said.) He also manifested himself in eight different leader and teacher forms, known as gurus:

  • mastery of sexual techniques,
  • conformance to a Buddhist lifestyle,
  • ability to behave in a princely/kingly way,
  • exponent of dharma (how to lead a good life),
  • ability to acquire and make wise use of knowledge,
  • practitioner of yogi (spiritual insight through ascetism),
  • fierce conqueror of problems,
  • and warrior.

Tibet dakini danzante, circa 1710
I, Sailko [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

That’s a lot of guru knowledge and when Padma reached Tibet he helped the king, Trisong Detsen, establish Tantric Buddhism as the official religion of the royal court and hence is considered the founder of the Nyingma order (‘Old Order’) of Tibetan Buddhism.  (There are three other newer orders based on alternative translations of Indian Buddhist scripts.)  It was in Tibet that Padma was renamed Guru Rinpoche (the ‘precious one’), presumably because of all his eight manifested guristic talents.

Somewhere along Padma’s colourful life on Earth, he visited Bhutan, Nepal’s eastern neighbour, reputedly in 810 AD at the invitation of King Sindhu Raja of Bumthanging to help him recover from the soul-snatching attack of Shelgin Karpo, a local deity.  Guru Rinpoche, as he was now more commonly known, defeated Karpo and, in gratitude, King Raja invited him to stay on and found a few dzongs, the Bhutanese word for monastery.

During his second visit to Bhutan, in 822 AD, Guru Rinpoche visited a location, Paro Taktsang, high on a mountain overlooking the Paro valley.  There are many legends associated with this visit.  One, the most popular, is that he flew in on the back of a tigress to tame a tiger demon who lived on the mountain.  A variation of this account is that Yeshe Tsogyal, a former wife of a Bhutanese king, offered herself to Guru Rinpoche as yet another consort and she transformed herself into the tigress to fly him to Paro Taktsang where they both entered a cave and worked on their tantric meditations.  When they emerged, the location was deemed holy and renamed Tiger’s Nest and, in 1692, Tenzin Rabgye, a druk desi (secular ruler of Bhutan), built a dzong on the mountainside.  The Tiger’s Nest dzong is a spectacular building seemingly hanging off the mountainside and one of Bhutan’s top ten tourist attractions, although tourists are not allowed to enter the monastery.  There is a viewpoint however and those who manage the 10 km hike from Paro will be suitably rewarded on a clear day.

~~ End of Prologue 2 ~~

Tiger’s Nest dzong (monastery), Paro
Courtesy Kathmandu and Beyond

And this is where my story started.  I recently read about Guru Rinpoche and Tiger’s Nest in a blog written by my nomadic son and his wife, Mark and Kirsty, and posted on their website, Kathmandu and Beyond.  What struck me was the name Rinpoche and this brings me to my second fascination: words.  The words of the English language interest me.  I am intrigued by their origins (the etymology of the word); their meanings and how they change over time e.g. gay, decimate; how they sound when you say them (say discombobulate, procrastination, bucolic – there is a delightful rhythm and cadence to the sounds of these words); their onomatopoeic properties, if any e.g. hiss, bang, mumble; their synonymic cousins which has given rise to the thesaurus; their homophonic cousins e.g. horde, hoard – same sound, completely different meanings, and homographic cousins e.g. fine, good quality or a levy? – same spelling, different meanings; their pronunciation and regional differences e.g. scone, castle; their autological properties (a word is autological if it describes itself e.g. unhyphenated is an unhyphenated word); their oxymoronic relationships with other words e.g. tough love, open secret; their tautological relationships with other words e.g. close proximity, added bonus; the creation of new words e.g. neologisms such as smartphonolic, bromance; the demise of old words such as snollygoster, methinks; and many other aspects of words including anagrams – a word whose letters can be used to spell another word – all of which you can read about in my 2015 book, The Wondrous Wacky World of Words.

The three vowels and five oft-used consonants of the name Rinpoche struck me as a set of letters that could be converted into other meaningful words and which might lead to a hidden anagramic trail of reincarnation.  And I was right!  I have uncovered multiple lines of reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche that includes humans, lower-order animals, a fictional reincarnation (and associated movie), and which has even come full circle with a still-alive Tibetan lama named Sogyal Rinpoche.

All will be revealed in Part 2.