Fearless in Tibet

Subtitle: The Life of Mystic Terton Sogyal
Author: Matteo Pistono
Foreword By: Sogyal Rinpoche
Softcover ~ 384 pages

My first encounter with Tertön Sogyal was seeing a striking photograph of him at the Rigpa meditation center in London; that evening I also met Sogyal Rinpoche for the first time. I had just arrived in England for a master's degree program in Buddhist philosophy at the University of London. After seeing the photograph, I started asking questions about Tertön Sogyal's life; but though I spoke with lamas, Western scholars, and Tibetans historians, no one could tell me much about him except that Tertön Sogyal was the Thirteenth Dalai Lama's teacher and a Vajrakilaya adept. Despite knowing so little about him, I felt an inexplicable connection to Tertön Sogyal. I was also drawn to Tertön Sogyal's teachings by observing Sogyal Rinpoche's extraordinary embodiment and example of a Dzogchen yogi, and his immense kindness in revealing Tibet's wisdom tradition through his own teachings.
After receiving my degree in London, I went to Tibet to follow in Tertön Sogyal's footsteps, to sit where he meditated in hermitages and caves, and to speak to lineage holders, including Khenpo Jikme Phuntsok, who helped me to visit some of the tertön's holy sites. From the late 1990s to 2008, I traveled to Tibet a dozen times, each trip lasting from one to three months. Riding rickety buses to Golok, Nyarong, and Rebkong, hitchhiking to Lhasa from Kham and Amdo, and walking for weeks to arrive at ancient pilgrimage sites across the Tibetan Plateau, I visited nearly every location where Tertön Sogyal lived and taught. I carried letters of introduction, and offerings, from Sogyal Rinpoche to lamas in Tibet, which opened to me a world that I would not have otherwise had access to. In 2006 Sogyal Rinpoche encouraged me to write Tertön Sogyal's biography.
I have incorporated into the narrative of Fearless in Tibet much of the oral record recounted to me by great lamas and elderly hermits--some in their Tibetan homeland and others in exile--who hold the blessing of Tertön Sogyal. Most of the lamas in Tibet to whom I listened have since died. Their fantastic stories Tertön Sogyal were told over butter tea and tsampa in Nyarong, Kandze, Golok, and Lhasa, and in sacred grottoes, monasteries, and wooden huts. The 15-year journey to listen to accounts of scenes from Tertön Sogyal's life also took me to meet lamas and scholars in China, India, Nepal, France, England, and America. A few accounts about Tertön Sogyal by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and other masters I found in the Rigpa archive in Lerab Ling. I am especially indebted to the late Nyoshul Khenpo Rinpoche and Khamtrul Rinpoche in Dharamsala, whose writings and stories brought Tertön Sogyal's mysticism and yogic perseverance and grit to life.
Another thread I wove into the narrative of Fearless in Tibet is the sacred landscape connected to Tertön Sogyal. By traveling with devout monks and nuns and tough nomads to the most remote of power places, I learned how the inner pilgrimage creates a shift in our perception, so that the terrain we travel transforms from a wilderness into a sacred topography in which the mountains and rivers, streams and glaciers, the very pebbles that our feet touch, is part of a mandala. This was where Tertön Sogyal's visionary world unfolded, where protector guardians delivered hidden treasure to him, and where the tertön imbued the environment with profound blessing that is still palpable today despite the political upheaval of the last 60 years.
Fifteen years in the making, Matteo Pistono has written a lyrical biography of Tertön Sogyal (1856-1926), the most powerful tantric master of his era. Pistono's gracefully written stories are evocative and magically playful. But his rendition of Tertön Sogya's journey is also critical to understanding the fate of Tibet. As a dakini named Tsephei warned the master in 1915, "If China and Tibet fight in the future, everyone will lose, but in the end Tibet will succumb." This is now the living tragedy of our Tibet. ~ Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer and historian