Nangzher Lopo (snang bzher lod po) was born in the eighth century somewhere near Darok Tso, a large freshwater lake located in the western Changtang (byang thang), the vast northern highlands of Tibet. His father was named Gurib Bumme (gu rib 'bum me) and his mother was Mangorza Dronne (mang 'or za sgron ne).
On his father's side, Nangzher Lopo belonged to the Gurib (gu rib; also: gu rub), a clan native to Zhangzhung (zhang zhung). Zhangzhung was a kingdom that flourished in western Tibet until being annexed by the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po) in the seventh century. The Gurib clan, which continues to this day, was derived from the Mu (dmu), one of the greatest and most ancient genealogical groupings in Tibet.
Nangzher Lopo mastered many Bon traditions and ritual practices as a younger man. At age forty-seven, he met the sage Tsepung Dawa Gyeltsen (tshe spungs zla ba rgyal mtshan, d.u.), who imparted tantric and higher teachings to him. The tantric practices he was taught were mainly centered on Gekho (ge khod) and Meri (me ri), Bon tutelary deities of Zhangzhung.
The chief teacher of Nangzher Lopo was Tapihritsa (ta pi hri tsa), the last master of an exclusively orally transmitted mind training lineage known as the Zhangzhung Nyengyu (zhang zhung snyan rgyud), an important school of Bon Dzogchen.
According to his hagiography, by virtue of being an accomplished Bon practitioner, Nangzher Lopo developed an overblown sense of himself. In order to pierce his pride, Tapihritsa first appeared to him in the guise of a young goatherd. The two of them commenced to debate religious doctrines. At first, Nangzher Lopo was irritated by the boy, who he viewed as an imposter. However, no matter how hard he tried to beat the boy through argumentation, he could not. After sometime, he began to hold Tapihritsa in wonder and the master's miraculous feats convinced Nangzher Lopo of his greatness. Through a series of visionary encounters, Nangzher Lopo became the chief disciple of Tapihritsa. At the end of his life Tapihritsa is supposed to have acquired a rainbow body ('ja' lus) and to have disappeared into space. In turn, Nangzher Lopo was the prime transmitter of the Zhangzhung Nyengyu in the critical period when Zhangzhung religious traditions were being outlawed in the Tibetan empire. He is considered by the tradition to have been the first individual to commit the Zhangzhung Nyengyu teachings to writing.
One of the most celebrated stories about Nangzher Lopo concerns his stay on Tso Linggi Do (mtsho gling gi do), an island in Darok Tso. The saddle-shaped Tso Linggi Do is situated one mile offshore across a deep strait. The island had once been a major cultural center, but by the time Nangzher Lopo reached it the settlement had been abandoned, and it was known as a place inhabited by many spirits.
Legend has it that Nangzher Lopo practiced on the island of Tso Linggi Do along with an unnamed disciple. At first they had sufficient supplies and food, and at each meal they took a little food and stuck it to the rocks as an offering. During the following winter, however, the lake did not freeze over, preventing them from replenishing their supplies. Their provisions exhausted, the two men survived by consuming the food left on the rocks. Again, at each meal Nangzher Lopo left a little food on the rocks. For a second year, the lake did not freeze and the master and disciple were reduced to consuming food traces scrapped from the rocks. Altogether for three years they subsisted in this fashion.
At the end of the three years both were forced to leave the island; accord to legend they did so by miraculous means. First, believing that he would die without food, Nangzher Lopo's disciple thought that should he die first his master could at least subsist on his corpse. Testing Nangzher Lopo's willingness to do so, he went to the master and told him that he had discovered a human corpse. Nangzher Lopo asked his disciple if he had touched it and he replied affirmatively. The master directed him to make a circuit around the island in order to purify the stain. Upon doing so, he discovered the corpse of a wild ass. The disciple told Nangzher Lopo about it, who replied that they are prohibited from eating it because it would sully their practice. After a few days the disciple found the corpse of a woman who had died in childbirth and reported it to his master, who reminded him that they could not eat it as it is among the ‘forbidden' meats. Thus, despite the great hardships they suffered, Nangzher Lopo made certain that they retained the full discipline of their practice.
The disciple was sure that they would both die, because his master would not allow them to eat carrion or human flesh. However, Nangzher Lopo had other plans, and ordered his disciple to gather up his belongings. When he was ready, he directed his disciple to close his eyes and to hold onto him. After they had walked on a surface for a long time the disciple remembered that he had forgotten to pack his fire-making kit. Opening his eyes he looked back to see a beautiful woman rolling up a strip of white woolen material. He then looked forward to see a similar women rolling out a strip of white woolen material along their path. Upon seeing this, the women disappeared together with the woolen fabric on which they had been walking, and both men fell into the lake. Fortunately they were close enough to the shore to land safely.
The story ends with the two ascetics meeting some local herders who did not believe that one of them was really Nangzher Lopo, expecting that he had died on the island, and the saint and his disciple were much changed from the three years of deprivation. Proving his identity with familiar stories, Nangzher Lopo and his disciple were given soup made from ashes to break the long fast and afterwards the milk of a white goat and a white dri (a female yak). After a few days they could eat regular food and the two recovered their strength.
Nangzher Lopo is recorded as living for five hundred seventy-three years, a number that reflects his legendary power and holiness.
Dmu rgyal rnal 'byor nyi ma, AKA gshen nyi ma rgyal mtshan (14th cent.). 2000. Le'u bzhi ba of Ma rgyud sgrub skor, nos. 45–94. Delhi:, Rma rtsa rin chen rgyal mtshan.
Spa ston bstan rgyal bzang po (14th cent.). N.d.. Rdzogs pa chen po zhang zhung snyan rgyud kyi brgyud pa'i bla ma'i rnam thar and Bon ma nub pa'i gtan tshigs. Dolanji: Sman ri dgon.
John Vincent Bellezza
- Historical Period