The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat is a hagiographical telling of the story of Ra Lotsawa Dorjé Drak, also known as Ralo, one of the most notorious Buddhist saints of Tibet. Though his exact year of birth is unknown, the translator notes that it has been traced back to 1016 by other scholars. Ra Lotsawa’s story begins in the southern region of Latö, developing as he travels back and forth between various areas of Tibet, Nepal, and India to seek greater knowledge and spread his teachings. On his first journey to Nepal he seeks out the teachings of Guru Bharo, who initiates him in the practices of the Vajrabhairava tradition. Thereafter, he begins to travel around Tibet, and makes the occasional pilgrimage to India and Nepal. In the process of his travels, he seemingly naturally gathers followers from simply opening his mouth to speak, impressing them with miracles like turning the sky and earth upside down, tying a river into a knot, and controlling the weather, and amassing riches from donors from near and far. Ralo also gains a fair share of rivals, and remains infamous for “liberating” (ritually killing) his enemies with his magical powers. He notably sends Darma Dodé, Hevajra master and the son of Milarepa’s teacher, to the buddha realm of Mañjuśri for reincarnation. Ralo travels to Nepal four times, and makes two pilgrimages to India, each time seeking to hone his religious knowledge. His travels also take him around the Ü and Tsang areas of Tibet, from his home near border of Nepal in south Tibet, to the northern plateaus of Jantang, as far west as Purang and as far east as Dokpo, ending with his final rest in Kyishö valley, northeast of Lhasa. Written by Ralo’s grandnephew Ra Yeshé Sengé in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, the hagiography takes care to portray Ralo in a flattering light, belying his reputation as an infamous “Tibetan Buddhist antihero.” (ix) Ralo is credited with popularizing and propagating the practice of transmitting Buddhist teachings through travelling instruction in eleventh century Tibet. Though stories about Ralo and his quest for spiritual dominance have circulated, The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat is believed to be the most complete written account of his life, marking it as an important resource for scholars of Tibetan studies.
Ra Lotsawa was born in the early eleventh century in Langyul of Nyelam county, near the border of Nepal. Before his birth, his mother envisioned that he was to be the emanation of the boddhisatva Mañjuśrī. At six months old, the goddess Pendan Lhamo carried him into the sky and prophesized his future as a prolific teacher whose disciples would hail from the four corners of Tibet. Upon his miraculous return, his parents gave him name Ngotsat Jungné (source of Wonderment), while the people of area referred to him as Chimé Dorjé Tok (Deathless Indestructible Lightning Bolt). His father, the seventh generation descendent of a line of lay tantric priests, was a master in the Yangdak Heruka and Vajrakīla traditions and Ralo’s first instructor. At the age of 10, Ralo became a master in these practices; however, he soon began to experience severe mental and physical disturbances, and ultimately determined that he had no connection with the deity. One night Ralo dreamed of four ḍākinī, who urged him to seek tutelage from a guru named Dīpaṃkara Śrī in Nepal, staking the fate of the greater good on his success. Though reluctant, his parents eventually allowed him to journey alone to Nepal.
Ralo followed the Kathmandu valley to a monastery Yeran Nyima Deng, where he meets the Guru Bharo. Despite recognizing his “karmically destined guest,” Bharo refuses to accept Ralo’s offers of silk, gold, and clothing as an initiation fee. Only when Ralo offers his “body, speech, and mind” is he finally accepted as disciple. At this time, he offends a powerful Hindu yogin by the name of Purṇa the Black by turning down his offers of tutelage and insulting his practice. After being obtaining the repelling rite of the goddess Uṣṇī from Bharo, Ralo was able to defend against the yogin’s magical attacks. However, his further request to learn the esoteric dharma of the Glorious Vajrabhairava were rejected, and Bharo disappears. Ralo embarks on a half-year-long journey in search of the Guru, experiencing trials and tribulations, traveling across mountains, villages, and forests until he collapses from exhaustion in the middle of the desert. All seems lost, until a ḍākinī once again appears to guide him through the last leg of his journey. Guru Bharo at last appears, noting that Ralo has undergone the spiritual and mental preparation necessary to become his disciple. Ralo departs on a pilgrimage through all the sacred sites in Nepal, offering prayers and creating dharma connections. On the fifteenth day of his pilgrimage, Ralo beheld the face of the Venerable Manjusri, which endowed him with strength of spirit, and inspiration to teach, debate and compose. On the twenty-fifth day, he bore witness to the face of his patron saint, Vajabhairava himself, which developed his magical abilities to their greatest extent. With these blessings in tow, Guru Bharo deemed him ready to return to Tibet, encouraging him to “light the fire” of the lantern of Dharma—indeed, that seemed to be the general trajectory of the rest of Lama Ralo’s life. (30)
Ra Yeshé Sengé documents three additional trips to Nepal, and two pilgrimages to India. Ralo’s travels in Tibet spanned from Purang in the west, to Dakpo in the east, from the northern plateau to his homeland of Läto in the South. Throughout his journey, Lama Ralo more or less indiscriminately instructs those he comes across in the dharma of the Vajraibharava tradition. With his divine powers, he healed leprosy in Nyang, and relieved the famine of Tsang, converting thousands of disciples and amassing donors. On his second visit to India, the Lama Ralo, at age 61, comes under the tutelage of Paṇchen Meñja Lingpa. He spends the next five and an half years translating the dharma teachings on the sutra and tantras from the Indian root texts to Tibetan, earning him the title “Lotsawa.” However, the Lama’s journey was not without opposition. Through the years of travel, Ralo encouters numerous rivals and fellow spiritual practitioners, either creating dharma connections or coming into conflict with them. Though skilled in the art of debate, Ralo’s second trip to Nepal had equipped him with hostile magic that enabled him to violently destroy any he— or the deities—deemed appropriate, as he did with at least thirteen masters of the esoteric practices.
Though portrayed quite favorable by his grandnephew, the ambivalent nature of Ra Lotsawa as a violent Buddhist saint is evident throughout The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat. His stubbornness, pride and tendencies towards violence are noted at an early age; “if he disliked something, he would spout abusive words even to great chieftains, beating them with sticks.” (8) His dismissal of other powers as inferior is a recurring theme within his hagiography, exemplified by his insulting attitude towards powers such as the Lord of Death, The Black Serpentine Demon, the All-Pervading Rāhula and the great deity Pehar. (80) As Ralo grows in power, so does his ego, claiming that “a sorcerer’s power is great bliss; supreme insight is emptiness; I abide within the dimension of indivisible bliss and emptiness—if anyone is to be called an expert in sorcery, it should definitely be me.” (40) His pride is not unjustified, as he is capable of wielding karmic powers capable of determining the fate of his enemies. Though Ralo’s tendencies towards violence against spiritual rivals suggests an unfavorable depiction of his character, Ra Yeshé Sengé is careful to portray these acts of violence as religiously justified or even necessary. Though hot-tempered, Ralo is depicted as slow to retaliation, at least at first. Though he was insulted by Khön Shakya Lodrö and attacked by Langlap Jangchup Dorjé, he does nothing until Avalokitesvara himself appeared in a vision and urged him to violent action. In addition, Ralo’s violence is not framed as “killing,” but put in terms of “spiritual liberation.” Those who accuse him of “murder” are left begging for forgiveness for their error. (195) Rarely is Ralo portrayed as the instigator, more often taking the role of mediator and savior. Thus, his demolition of the three hundred villages of Drikyim is justified by his defense of his family and betrothed. By portraying his violence as religiously-ordained, Ra Yeshé Sengé preserves, even strengthens Ralo’s identity as a devout Buddhist.
Reinforcing his alternate identity as a devout Buddhist is also his displays of Buddhist values, which are also evident from his childhood. As a child, he had no desire for food, and could determine meaning of dreams, and recall past lives. Wherever he rested he went into meditative tranquility, and in his dreams he visited buddha realms and envisioned divine prophecies. Material good feature prominently in this hagiography, as a constant reminder of the value of Ralo’s teachings to laypeople. However, he is imagined to use these goods to fund humanistic traditions such as building temples, instructing disciples, curing illnesses and providing for the poor, all of which is documented meticulously. In teaching dharma indiscriminately, Ralo is also committing to the ultimate sacrifice. Though he breaks his oath with guru to not share the dharma, he is does so for the benefit of the greater good. (301)
At the end of his life, Ra Lotsawa Dorjé Drak had become a powerful saint, renowned for twenty-three unprecedented accomplishments and his spiritual power. His mere presence was said to be accompanied by rainbows, a rain of flower blossoms, and sound the singing. Despite the pleading of various deities and his presiding twenty-five hundred disciples, Ralo chose to pass at 180 years of age. Though he would reappear after his funeral to reassert his identity as Vajrhaibarava himself, his words at the announcement of his death seem particularly apt: “Now that you see there no one greater than me, what more is there to say?” (306)
Ye-śes-seṅ-ge, and Bryan J. Cuevas (Trans). The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa. Penguin Books, 2015.