Potala Palace from Pilgrim’s End, atop Jokhang Temple
A Tibetan Creation Myth
On a bus into the mountains above Lhasa to visit the Buddhist Sera Monastery, I asked Tendzin if he was taught any creation myths as a child.
Tendzin said when he was a boy living on a farm in the mountains—37 years ago—he was taught that in the beginning was the Void, without cause, without end. A gentle wind animated this Void, and over the years the wind grew thick and dark with matter, until it became so dense that the tension split it into five lightning bolts. First and fastest of these bolts was made of space, which immediately filled the universe. The second was air, which followed immediately after. These two elements form the eternal unchanging omnipresence of the most refined level of the universe. It is their state of equilibrium—the two as one, forever unchanged, and the one as two. This is why everything in the universe is simultaneously empty (space) and full (air).
When space (female) and air (male) filled all of the universe and could not spread any farther, their two lightning bolts rippled back through the universe until interrupted by water vapor, the most refined level of water, and then clouds, and finally rain. What light reaches Earth after all of these interruptions is all we will never know of the actual light in the universe.
The Land of Cloud includes the elements water and fire. This is where life is created out of the eternal and ever-changing—water—and the mortal and unchanging—fire (in that it either is or is not). Water and fire cannot co-exist: Add fire to water and it turns into a cloud and disappears; adding water to a fire will put it out. Yet a combination of the two is essential for life.
Water—the third fastest element—is capable of changing states but its choices are never changing and dependent solely on its environment—vapor to liquid to solid or liquid to vapor. Water in its most refined state seeks the highest reaches of the universe.
Fire is also solely reliant upon outside circumstances, but it cannot change states. It is brought into being by exterior forces, it burns until it runs out of fuel or is extinguished by outside forces, and then it ends. What it fed on has been transformed—from wood, say, to ash—but the fire itself can only be fire until it is extinguished. Fire naturally rises as well, but it is the fourth fastest element because it can never lose its connection to the Earth—the fifth and slowest element—on which it feeds.
Our world is the lowest level of the universe, the Land of Inbetween. Whereas the other two Lands are composed of two balancing elements, the Earth is built of only one—matter. That is why any consciousness born into this world will always be seeking balance in the non-material, in the “spiritual.”
This search for what is eternal and unchanging in the Land of Inbetween is hampered by the fact that anything born into this world—a mountain, a tree, a badger, a woman—is the opposite of immortal. One day it will end and shortly afterward there will be no one who remembers anything about it at all. Even the lifetime of Mount Everest is almost nothing inside the history of the universe. Everything in this world was brought to be by conditions, and has been subject to chance and circumstance from the beginning, without evidence of reason or mercy. And everything in this world or attached to this world is unlike everything else in the universe in that it is mortal.
When the universe cooled enough to form rain, it fell toward the center of the universe as it was now heavier than the ether. As this rain fell it gathered matter, eventually thickening into a kind of mud. This black, mineral-rich water collected at the center of the universe, and began the now-eternal cycle of evaporation and rain.
When the water changed into vapor, all matter it had carried with it as rain was left behind. When the vapor fell again, it continued to attach to any matter it encountered on its way. Over millennia, a drop at a time, land began to appear, first as islands, then countries, and finally continents.
The wind that began everything continued to blow. It blew over the landscape until all of the world’s soft dirt gathered at the back of the world, forming Maru—the Center of the Universe—which is known in the West as Mount Everest. Maru eventually grew so high that the Clouds were frightened and sent a giant lightning bolt that chopped off the top of the mountain. It was about to fall on Lhasa when the wind that began everything caught it and hurled it past the clouds into space itself, where it became the moon.
In those first moments of the universe, a single beam of light made it through the vapor and clouds and landed on the ocean. This beam scorched the surface of the water and a massive wave lifted this burning water into the sky, where it became the sun.
The wind that began everything continued to pick up the lighter pieces of matter—sand and salt—and carried them to the ends of the land until they were dropped into the oceans. The sand did not dissolve in the water and so was transported back to land in the waves, where it became beaches. But any salt that reached the water became invisible and inseparable from water until evaporation.
Once salt was added to the ocean, the conditions necessary for saltwater fish were present. Anything but wasteful, nature also developed fish that can only live in fresh water.
Q: How did we come to know of the Land of Light if we can never see it?
The spirits that came from the Land of Light told our ancestors about it. And the shamans talk to the spirits from the Land of Light and sometimes a spirit will take over a shaman. While in a shaman’s body, a spirit can heal, it can prophesy, it can bring a message from a deceased ancestor, it can advise on public matters, but the shaman will have no recollection of what happened after the spirit has left.
After the islands and mountains were created, came weather, and ocean winds carried fresh water inland that moistened the fields in spring. In the summer the sun warmed the earth, and each autumn the frost brought an end to everything, and in winter snow covered the soil and froze the land so it could restore itself. Then in spring when the rains came again, all the conditions for life would be present, and the planet would bring forth without effort the variety of plant life we see around us.
At first, all life was born like the sun was and the rain is, without effort or suffering, brought about more than born. Time has proven Mother Earth to be an artist as well as a cook and nurse. From her body have arisen all of the grains, all of the fruits, the medicines, and decorative flowers. She has even brought forth certain plants that give our shamans a way to communicate with those from the Land of Light.
Once the Earth was covered with greenery, the conditions necessary to bring animals into being were present. First there appeared the smallest vegetarians—insects, birds, mice, rabbits, beavers, deer. Then the carnivores—dogs and tigers and bears. Then the larger vegetarians, the yaks and cows and horses.
Once there was nourishment and animals for industry, the conditions necessary to bring humans into being were present.
As the wind that began everything continued to blow across the mud, shapes were formed and then lifted upright, and the wind animated them and they began to move and speak. But they soon turned the earth into a wasteland filled with garbage. They had no ambition, they were ungrateful and thoughtless. They were filled with jealousy and greed, with cruelty and selfishness. Soon the gods grew tired of them and decided to start over.
And a voice was heard that was like lightning in that it destroyed those who heard it. The voice declared that every one of the first race of mankind would die because they were the result of mindless wind and mud and there was nothing divine about them. Not only would each of these first humans be completely forgotten as if they’d never existed, but their entire race and everything they created would completely disappear as well. And from their clay a second race of humans would be shaped by the hands of spirits, directed by the Gods of the Land of Light.
When the Earth had returned to its natural state, spirits from the Land of Light slipped through the flashes of moonlight that sparkled on the tips of waves and rode the waves to shore. The spirits covered their light bodies—the only “bodies” they had—with clay, so they could have hands and everything they required to shape human bodies and animate them.
The spirits knew that there were 2704 mango trees on Earth, and that each of those trees produced a single mango a day. One of those mangos would feed a man or woman for one day. So the spirits created 2704 humans and the earth was in balance and coexistence. There was no hunger, no want, no struggle.
The spirits taught this second race of humans everything they knew about the three Lands, and of the first race of humankind, and where the spirits were from and why they had come here, and whose children they were. And then the spirits returned to the sea and tried to wash off the clay, but they found they could not. They swam out under the full moon and tried to slip back through the flashes of light on the tips of the waves, but they could not. Eventually they realized that they would never be allowed to return to the Land of Light and returned to shore.
When they returned to the humans, they found a smoking landscape of warring tribes. They realized the humans were hopeless and decided there was no reason to try for a third time, and each of them found a place far away from the humans—a remote mountain peak, the bottom of a river, the back of a cave—and went to sleep. As they slept, their light left them and became the stars. The only thing left of them was their hollow ceramic bodies. Every day you will see children carrying baskets of these jars down from the mountains. Since they are small, street kids are hired to slip into the caves and come out with anything they can find. It is dangerous work, but no one misses a street kid.
Every temple and most shines in people’s houses have at least one of these ceramic containers. They are known as “zul.” The word has multiple meanings—like “sol” in Spanish or “soul” in English—but it refers to the empty space inside a living thing that can only be filled by light.
Q: Did the spirits teach anything other than history? How about philosophy or religion or anything like that?
The spirits taught the Laws of Inbetween. The first Law of Inbetween is the Law of Indeterminacy. It says that everything in this world is a reflection of light or the shadow of a cloud whose real existence is elsewhere. We will never be able to learn more about the Land of Light from its reflections or the Land of Clouds through its shadows than we could learn about the sun from its reflection in the waves or the nature of a tree from its shadow on a stream.
The second Law of Inbetween is the Law of Duality. It says that in its most unrefined nature, the Land of Inbetween is a shifting balance of light and shadow. A shadow is the absence of light: When a candle is lit, it is the death of the shadow. Shadows grow stronger as the candle weakens. One can see this Law in the alternation of night and day, which cannot co-exist. The night world ceases to exist with the advent of the morning sun. The night world reappears at the setting of the sun. This explains the dialectic nature of the relative point of view.
The third Law of Inbetween is the Law of Non-Duality: It says that there is a moon in the lake because there is one in the sky. Its corollary is also true: If there is no sun in the sky there will be no sun in the lake. And if there is no moon in the lake one can say without looking that there is no moon in the sky; and if there is, then there will be. This law is unchanging and explains the absolute singularity of the world above and the one below.
The fourth Law of Inbetween is the Law of Co-Existence. It says that from a more distant viewpoint, it is clear that the sun’s light does not disappear at night. Even on earth we can see the sun reflected on mountain peaks and on the tallest clouds for a few moments after it has set from our perspective. But with a simple mind experiment we can develop bi-sight, where we can see at the same time the relative world, reliant upon the senses (I cannot see a sun so the sun has ceased to exist) and the absolute, not reliant upon the senses (I know that sunlight does not cease to exist even when it is obstructed by an object—whether a planet or a cloud). And once we have developed our understanding even more, we can even understand how moonlight is also proof of the sun. Uncovering reality on this level teaches us how one thing (moonlight) can turn into its opposite once we learn only a little more than we know now.
The fifth and final Law of Inbetween is the Law of the One in the Many. It says that although there is one sun, its reflection appears everywhere, almost indiscriminately. But if we try to find the Sun in its reflections—as the first Law says—we will fail. But this does not mean that the Sun does not exist. Invisible light—the source of all light on Earth—surrounds us, the way salt dissolved in water is invisible, and water vapor until it becomes clouds.
Q. Did you say that the human race almost killed themselves while the spirits were trying to return to the Land of Light?
We were hand-created by the spirits but that is the only thing divine about us.
Shortly after the spirits left us to return to the Land of Light, a single mango tree brought forth two fruits and—although the man who owned the tree was not hungry—he ate the second fruit as well. But the next day no fruits appeared on his tree and in his hunger he stole a weaker man’s fruit. This man then stole a weaker man’s fruit, and on and on it went until the weakest one went without food, and in a struggle for the mango was struck dead. This brought great fear and uncertainty to everyone, and they prepared to guard their tree against their neighbors.
Even though the next day there was now one more mango than needed to feed everyone and no one needed it, people fought over it. And from that day on every mango became anyone’s who could take it, and for the first time in history people went hungry.
Realizing their only strength was in their numbers, the weaker ones began to bond together. Once they were a sufficient force, the stronger humans saw these bands as a tool that they could use to conquer more land.
And so the strongest ones created a mango market and became merchants instead of warriors. They bought mangos from the ones who risked their lives to gather them from other communities, and sold them at a considerable mark-up to the weak. Soon other merchants grew in the shadows of the mango shops, and a servant population built houses nearby, and the first city-states were formed. In each of these the merchant would select a warrior-king and a priest. Those citizens who were not moved by patriotic speeches could often be won over by a sentimental hymn.
Then the merchants ordered the warrior-kings to raise and train armies primarily to keep the riff raff under control, and to use them as a shield to keep the merchants from any potential danger. Once the army was trained, the kings and merchants began to use it to expand their boundaries and were surprised by how many peasants were willing to die for something of no benefit to them at all. And since the merchants supplied the army at prices they themselves set and paid for them from the storehouses, the merchants made money, whether the expeditions were successful or not.
Each morning the soldiers would look over their parapets at soldiers staring back at them from other parapets, and must have seen the same faces that they saw every morning in their own mirrors. But they were taught in school to hate the outsiders, and on Sundays they were taught they were the chosen ones, and that God was on their side. And the warrior kings stirred up the people with claims that others were plotting their destruction, while his generals arranged some provocation to invade them first.
As part of a uniformed and depersonalized army, human beings proved they would do things they’d never do on their own. No one had ever thought to steal a weaker neighbor’s mango in all of history, but in a single day neighbors began killing neighbors for mangos they didn’t even need. Soon only a few of them remembered that there was enough for everyone, or that they were all created on the same day from the same clay by hands directed by the gods.
When the spirits returned, this is the smoking landscape they found. They decided they did not need to destroy this race of humans because they would do it themselves, and there was no reason to try to start over for a second time. Knowing they would never be able to leave the Land of Inbetween and return to the Land of Light, they fled to the uninhabitable places on the earth—the arctic tundra, the bottom of the ocean, in chasms—and despaired. And as they fell asleep, their light leaked out and became the stars.
Q. Does anyone still arrive here from the Land of Light or the Land of Clouds?
If anyone from the Land of Cloud visited Earth, they would be constantly changing, so it would be hard to know if one has been here or not. The spirits believed they were probably with us all the time but no one will ever see them.
But even today there are spirits from the Land of Light who—drawn by the moonlight—slip into this world. I have already talked about how they come to us through the shamans. They no longer make a physical body out of clay because they know they will be trapped here if they do. Instead, they find an exposed heel of a passing living thing—a dog or child or someone like me—and slip into them and see through their eyes for a while. Most of the spirits stay here for only a short period of time, and are often gone by the next ebbtide.
How do I know this to be true? Because when there is a full moon I often walk the beach and many times I have been taken over by a god. I can feel it is slip through my heel and climb up my spine and fill my head and spill out like sunlight in all directions. It’s not like seeing with my eyes; it’s like sensing, knowing, or seeing in a larger sense. Then I lose consciousness. I always wake up on the beach as the tide is going out, right before dawn. Sometimes for a little while I can still see everything the way a spirit does, the way it is really is.
Q. So when that goes away, does that leave a hole inside of you too, from having been filled by light and then having it taken away? Do you have a zul now too?
I think you’re right. That is why I go back to the beach, to fill that hole in the shape of a star inside of me.
Q: What does the world look like though a spirit’s eyes?
I can see quite clearly that everything we see is a shadow of something whose reality is elsewhere. A spirit sees the same movie we do, but they also see the set, and they can see that those they are watching are actors reading lines written for them in a script, and they can see the cameras and the lights and the make-up, and they can see the director, and the producer, and the author. They can see all of that, and they can also see outside the walls of the theater, and they can see the cities and the highways and the real moon and the real sun and the real clouds and the wind that began all things still moving through it all. The set and the script may be based on this outside reality, but it’s a shadow of the real thing—like a film, it’s an image of something that happened long ago, exposed upon film, and then a beam of light is shot through it to project it as a two-dimensional image on the wall that separates us from this larger world. But unless you turn around and see the beam of light, and follow it back to the projectionist, and see the tins of film lined up for all of eternity, and you see how your hopes and prayers were for nothing as long as you were watching something already determined, and you see how all of your search for Truth in the images on the screen was doomed to failure. But you also see a door with an EXIT sign above it and you realize it’s as easy as that. You just walk out of the theater and you’re in the real world.
This is what the spirits meant when they said that everything in this world is made up of shadows and light. That is what they meant when they said that everything in our world has its real existence elsewhere. They were saying it is like a projected film.
So when I see like a spirit, nothing is different, really, but I see everything from a different perspective, a bigger perspective. I see us all as actors on a set, and the words I’m saying are coming from a script, and it all has no more reality than some flickering light projected on the wall that is separating me from reality.
Is that the biggest lesson I’ve learned? Well, I’m aware of how little time I have left. But I also see how soon I will be forgotten as if I never was, no matter what I do, so I have a problem getting excited about doing anything at all. Why bother, right?
The best advice? Well, I don’t know if it’s advice, but for me the greatest revelation was knowing that everyone, including my loved ones and my enemies, everyone I meet, everyone I interact with—like you—will very soon be forgotten as if they never existed. That brings out a softness, a generosity in me.
And another thing I’ve learned. I’m disappointed to learn how petty and lazy I am. I’m ashamed that I am more upset that someday I will die and all memories of me will be forgotten, than that there is a reality that I am missing. I’m disappointed that I know how important what little time I have left is, and yet I’m still waiting for a starting gun. I’m afraid I have more in common with the first humans made out of mud and wind than even the ones formed by the spirits out of clay.
On the drive back to Lhasa—the bus driver—a Hindi whose name is something that sounds like “Hans” with a long “a”—tells us the most popular creation story in the Vedas.
In the beginning of time, monkeys and ogres battled themselves to a stand-still. Monkeys are generally disciples of compassion but in this case they were forced into a war with the ogres who were about to use a Naga (Snake) to churn all of creation into an elixir that would make the ogres immortal. But the monkeys knew that this churning would also destroy the entire universe, so 52 monkeys grabbed the Naga by the tail, and 52 ogres grabbed it by the neck and each side pulled with all of their might, but the two sides were equally balanced. It was in this way that the foundation of the universe was laid, on the back of a Naga, balanced between the servants of creation and the lords of destruction. To the eternals—like the monkeys and ogres—this tug-of-war will last no more than a second, but for us it will be all of eternity.
On our evening walk Xi tells me a Buddhist story of how the first humans came to be. She is excited that her story also features an ogre.
One day Buddha was meditating and an ogre asked to marry him. “I cannot marry you,” Buddha replied. “I am monk. I have taken vows of celibacy, a vow of poverty, of no possessions. I cannot have a wife or children.” “If you do not marry me I will kill many living beings,” the ogre threatened. How could Buddha refuse? They married and had five children. These became the fathers of the five families in Buddhism: the Buddha family—who are about spaciousness; the Vajra family—who are about clarity and vision; the Ratna family are generous; the Padma family are all about passion; and the Karma family are the workaholics.
“And which family are you?” I asked.
“Oh,” Xi said, exasperated. “As if anyone who knew me for more than two minutes would have to ask!” We walked in silence for half-a-dozen steps. Then she looked up at me and smiled, “So, does that answer your question?”
Article Written by Randy Roark
Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.