Tangtong Gyalpo is one of the most influential Tibetan figures who ever existed in the combined field of art, technology and religion. According to the record, he had dark skin, long white hair and beard, and he had a very charismatic, calm personality. He is also known as the “Iron Bridge Man” in Tibet and Himalayan region for building fifty-eight iron suspension bridges, sixty wooden bridges, one-hundred-eighteen ferries, one-hundred-and-eleven stupa monuments, and numberless temples and monasteries. Some temples and monasteries are still very famous and preserved today. It is commonly believed that he has lived an exceptional long life, 125 years across the 14th and 15th centuries, due to his perfectly-executed meditation methods that have been taught for more than 600 years in the region of Tibetan Buddhism. Because of his more than significant accomplishment and contribution to his beloved country, almost all Tibetan citizens are familiar with the story of the Tangtong Gyalpo, “the King of the Empty Plain”; however, the rest of the world has almost no clue of who he is and the work he has done. Therefore, this short paper serves to summarize the extraordinary personal and professional life of Tangtong Gyalpo and his Dharma legacy.
Lifespan and Dharma legacy
According to the Prophecy of the “Great Teach of Uddiyāna,” Tangtong was born in Yeru Jangpa, in Central Tibet. He is believed to be the mental emanation of the Teacher of Uddiyana. Up until now, Tangtong’s true age still remains both mysterious and controversial since he himself never told anyone that how old he was. It is commonly believed that that Tangtong was born in an “Iron female Ox Year” (1361) and died in the “Wood Female Snake Year.” (1485) Apparently, his unique and extraordinary lifespan had turned him into a well-known character in the stories of longevity in Tibetan lore. It is commonly believed that he had achieved total control of his own lifespan; such skill is also believed to have passed down to his disciples who also lived long and fruitful lives.
Before the name Iron Bridge Man was well-known by Tibetan citizens, Tangtong Gyalpo was the King Drakpa Öser, the great adept, the son of King Drakyong Sangpo and Queen Gyagar Lhamo. According to the record, The Bright Lamp, he was born to be mighty and influential. Tangtong Gyalpo was born feet first with staring eyes. He knew how to dress himself when he was one month old, and he mastered meditation before turning one year old. He once stayed in a cave without food, water, and clothing for eight days in order to teach Dharma to animals. His often peculiar behavior, although very influential to Tibetan citizens and helpful to the sentient beings, had earned him the reputation of being “crazy.” His famous quotes and thoughts were referred as “crazy wisdom” by his disciples and followers. He was originally supposed to live an isolated life to study the practice of Dharma, however, as the only son at the time, he had to obey the wish of his parents to marry his wife, the daughter of King Kuntu Ö, and took over the kingdom from his father for a certain period of time before becoming a monk going on a retreat in great solitude. Due to his teaching of Dharma to his citizens and animals, his entire kingdom attained wealth and reached prosperity in no time. Eventually, he became a monk and named himself Tsondru Sangpo, or Crazy Tsodru, and travelled between Tibet, Nepal, and India. During his journey, he continuously studied and discovered Dharma wisdom while using his magical abilities to help locals with their problems. Tangtong Gyalpo is said to be the most traveled person in Tibetan history – he went to Mount Wutai, and many parts of the Indian subcontinent such as Sriparvata of south India, and Kāmata in the eastern India.
After being gone for 18 years, he returned to Rinchen Ding, his hometown, and claimed that “there is no Dharma that I don’t know and need to study.” The great adept’s magical abilities and superior status was acknowledge by his followers and disciples after he was given the Six Dharmas of Niguma by Jangsem Jinpa Sangpo. Even the most influential Yoginis Niguma had showed himself in the cloud and firmly acknowledged the great adept as the “King of the Empty Plain.”
The great adept created a “Kūtāgāra Stūpa,” the “Condensed Verses on the Perfection of Wisdom” (pg. 152) all by himself after the death of his mother. He then went on to practice meditation on the mountain behind Rinchen Ding to commemorate his mother. Afterward, the great adept started traveling again to collect limitless Dharma from many resources in Tibet, Nepal, and India. One of the most significant incidents for Tangtong Gyalpo happened when he was performing secret rituals at the foot of Gyedé Plain in Tsang. The great adept interacted with five dākinīs of primordial awareness – white, yellow, red, blue, and green – who are associated with the five spiritual families. The five awareness dākinīs sang his praise and each gave a name of suitable meaning to the great adept. Afterward, the name of Tangtong Gyalpo was known everywhere in the realms above, upon, and below earth. He then traveled to many places and left wonder and wisdom to the locals. He also learned many significant oral instructions that would benefit sentient beings.
Bridge building career
During his traveling to Lhasa, The Naturally Arisen Eleven-faced Avalokiteśvara had instructed him to build a “precious iron bridge” on the Kyichu River for the prosperity and happiness of the doctrine and sentient beings. He was also instructed to “open the gate to the sacred place” – Tsari Tsagong. Therefore, he traveled to Tengtsar in the Kongpo, where he learned from locals how to do iron work. To preserve peace and happiness, the King of the Empty Plain also helped the locals to tame the cannibals of Lo. He then firmly established the code of ten virtues, which prevents its practitioners from doing these wrong actions: “killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, slander harsh words, idle speech, covetousness, malice, and wrong view.”
At the age of seventy years old, the great adept finally brought loads of iron back to Lhasa and started building the bridge. He finally finished the bridge built on the foundation of the rock of Drip. He also built many other bridges across the Tachok Khabab River such as the Dzom iron bridge and Bakdrong iron bridge. Another significant historical incident Tangtong Gyalpo had participated in was resisting the Mongol’s immanent invasion of Tibet. To achieve peace between Tibet and Mongols, the great adept once sat still on top of his Dharma throne of Ngamring Bumtang for eight months where demons and gods come visit him during days and nights. He then sent Sangyé Sangmo, “a mantra-born dākiniī blessed by the Great Teacher of Uddiyāna” (pg. 356) to restore a stupa made by Guru Padmasambhava as a geomantic focal point to defeat the armies of Mongols. As a result, the nun followed the guidance of an emanated nomad and his hunting dog to the far north of Tibet for seven months. They hevntually found the location of stupa and fixed it. As a result, Mongols did not come to Tibet.
When the great adapt reached one-hundred-eleven-years-old, he appointed his nephew Jampa Nyendrak as his heir. He eventually passed away without any physical illness. He was memorialized by almost every Tibetan and his contribution to his country will never be forgotten.