In 2020, I joined an unconventional group of pilgrims for a tour to know more about Bhutan’s most famous Terton (treasure revealer) Pema Lingpa, upon the invitation of Pawo Choyning Dorji. Before this journey, the Terton was just a chapter in a less than memorable history lesson in school, and I thought I would hardly have to study him again. Little did I realize that class was just a doorway to fascinating tales of prophecies, mystical characters, hidden termas, and a reincarnation that would shape my country’s ancient identity.

After meandering through the slippery stone steps in the light morning rain, we finally arrived at the very place Pema Lingpa first became a Terton. Do you know the full story of Mebar Tsho (The Burning Lake)? 

When Pema Lingpa was working as a blacksmith, he is said to have received a letter that told him to go to Naringdra cliff on a full moon’s night with five friends. When Pema Lingpa arrived at the cliff, he is said to have gone into a state of trance and jumped into the lake. While underwater, Pema Lingpa met a one-eyed woman who was Eka Zati, the protector who resides in the depths of the water. Eka Zati gave Pema Lingpa a terma (treasure) that had coded Dakini scripts known as the Khandro Dayiks. 

Praying near Mebartsho, the Burning Lake

This supernatural incident thrust the illiterate blacksmith into the community stage as a Terton which finally led him to the famous discovery which was brought upon by the Governor of the valley accusing him of being a charlatan causing chaos in the community. The Governor challenged Pema Lingpa to retrieve another one from the lake. Pema Lingpa is said to have jumped into the lake with a burning butter lamp claiming, “If I am a true heart son of Guru Rinpochhe, let me come out of the water with a Terma but with the butter lamp still burning. But if I am a charlatan as the Governor claims, let me die in the depths of the water.” Soon Pema Lingpa appeared out of the water with a terma and the butter lamp still burning. Hence the water here has been named Mebar Tsho or the Burning Lake.

offering to the lake

When Pawo gave me a box of milk to offer to the tsho, I asked him what it was for. “It is an offering to Ekazati, the one-eyed woman that gave Pema Lingpa the first treasure in the depths of the lake”, he explained. Offering milk or food is a way of offering something to the protectors, the deities that still reside in such holy spaces. As Pawo finished pouring milk into the dark abyss of the water, he stared on as the liquid changed into disappearing swirls. “With every visit I feel like the color of the water changes somehow,” he said.

I looked on to see what he did next as he reached for a Tupperware box of khabzeys (biscuits). He slowly began throwing handfuls of them in the water…each handful with silent prayers.If you’re familiar with Pawo’s work, you’d know that when he began his project, his research, his study on the legacy of Pema Lingpa, he began with a name that would bring him closer to the essence of this journey: The Turquoise Heart, which to him represented the heart of Pema Lingpa. So it was only fitting that the khabzeys that he was offering to the lake, where Pema Lingpa first became a Terton, was shaped like little turquoise hearts. “My cousin who lives in Chumey made them after I told her we were coming here.” He added.