The most definitive source on Padmasambhava's life is the Padma bKa'i Thang, said to be discovered in 1346 CE by Urgyan Lingpa (1323 or 1329-ca.1360 or 1367). It belongs to the gter-ma ("hidden treasures") tradition, that began in the 11th century with Sangs-rgyasbla-ma (ca. 1000-1080). According to Guenther,
"From a historical point of view these "rediscovered" texts are of little relevance: there are too many discrepancies, if not to say, blatant contradictions in one and the same text or the texts ascribed to one and the same author, concerning what we know to be historical facts."
Furthermore, he informs us, the Tibetan hagiographies (Namthar) on Padmasambhava were written centuries after his own lifetime and revolve around certain supernatural accomplishments he allegedly brought about, adding to the factual inaccuracy of these accounts.Tsultrim Allione, Tarthang Tulku and Keith Dowman explain therefore that Namthar are not to be understood as describing actual events, but function as an example of buddhahood and a guide for those on the path to enlightenment.
Owing to the aforementioned problems, we only know a few things about Padmasambhava with certainty. We know that there was once a guru from Orgyen named Padmasambhava, who stayed at the court of the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen (742-74(7) C.E.), somehow aided in the process of constructing and inaugurating the Samye monastery, journeyed across the country and then left Tibet under mysterious circumstances.
Apart from their apparent lack of historicity however, Guenther stresses that Tibetan hagiographical texts such as the ones on Padmasambhava do reveal valuable information about the cultures of their day. He claims that:
"Written in verse form in the language as spoken by the "discoverer" at the time of their discovery, these texts reflect the Zeitgeist that demanded that everything had to be "Indian" and, therefore, as tendentious writings, they increasingly marginalize Padmasambhava's "foreign" (Urgyan, also spelled Orgy an) and even Tibetan connection."
Padmasambhava was born into a Brahmin family of Northwest India.
According to tradition, Padmasambhava was incarnated as an eight-year-old child appearing in a lotus blossom floating in Lake Dhanakosha, in the kingdom of Oḍḍiyāna in Ancient India and in modern times identified with the Swat Valley of South Asia present-day Pakistan. His special nature was recognized by the childless local king of Oḍḍiyāna and was chosen to take over the kingdom, but he left Oḍḍiyāna for northern parts of India.
In Rewalsar, known as Tso Pema in Tibetan, he secretly taught tantric teachings to princess Mandarava, the local king's daughter. The king found out and tried to burn him, but it is believed that when the smoke cleared he just sat there, still alive and in meditation. Greatly astonished by this miracle, the king offered Padmasambhava both his kingdom and Mandarava.
Padmasambhava left with Mandarava, and took to Maratika Cave in Nepal to practice secret tantric consort rituals. They had a vision of buddha Amitayus and achieved what is called the Rainbow Body of the Great Transference[note 3] in the Vajrayana tradition, a very rare type of spiritual realization. [note 4]Dzogchen Practitioners of Padmasambhava's terma still achieve this type of realization today. Both Padmasambhava and Mandarava are still believed to be alive and active in this Rainbow Body form by their followers. She and Padmasambhava's other main consort, Yeshe Tsogyal who was responsible for hiding his numerous terma later in Tibet became fully enlightened. Many thangkas and paintings show Padmasambhava in between them.
Around 760,King Trisong Detsen, the 38th king of the Yarlung dynasty and the first Emperor of Tibet (742–797), invited the Nalanda University abbot Śāntarakṣita (Tibetan Shiwatso) to Tibet. Śāntarakṣita started the building of Samye, the first Buddhist monastery on Tibetan ground. Demonical forces hindered the introduction of the Buddhist dharma, and Padmasambhava was invited to Tibet to subdue the demonic forces. The demons were not annihilated, but were obliged to submit to the dharma.[note 5] This was in accordance with the tantric principle of not eliminating negative forces but redirecting them to fuel the journey toward spiritual awakening.
Berzin gives a more prozaic account of the events:
In 761, [Emperor Tri Songdetsen (Khri Srong sde-btsan)] invited the Indian Buddhist abbot Shantarakshita to Tibet. There was a smallpox epidemic. The Zhang-zhung faction in court blamed Shantarakshita and deported him from the land. On the abbot's advice, the Emperor then invited Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) from Swat (northwestern Pakistan), who drove out the demons who had caused the smallpox. The Emperor then reinvited Shantarakshita. Guru Rinpoche left in 774, without having completed the full transmission of dzogchen. Seeing that the times were not ripe, he buried some texts as buried treasure texts (gter-ma, "terma"). They were exclusively texts on dzogchen.
According to tradition, Padmasambhava received the Emperor's wife, identified with the dakiniYeshe Tsogyal, as a consort.
King Trisong Detsen ordered the translation of all Buddhist Dharma Texts into Tibetan. Padmasambhava, Shantarakṣita, 108 translators, and 25 of Padmasambhava's nearest disciples worked for many years in a gigantic translation-project. The translations from this period formed the base for the large scriptural transmission of Dharma teachings into Tibet. Padmasambhava supervised mainly the translation of Tantra; Shantarakshita concentrated on the Sutra-teachings.
He is regarded as the founder of the Nyingma tradition. The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.[note 6] The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to Padmasambhava.
"Nyingma" literally means "ancient," and is often referred to as "Nga'gyur" "[note 7] or the "early translation school" because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century.[note 8]
Nyingma maintains the earliest tantric teachings. The Nyingmapa incorporates mysticism and local deities shared by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which has shamanic elements. The group particularly believes in hidden terma treasures. Traditionally, Nyingmapa practice was advanced orally among a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the practice of reincarnated spiritual leaders are later adaptations, though Padmasambhava is regarded as the founder of Samye Gompa, the first monastery in the countryIn modern times the Nyingma lineage has been centered in Kham in eastern Tibet.
In Bhutan he is associated with the famous Paro Taktsang or "Tiger's Nest" monastery built on a sheer cliff wall about 500m above the floor of Paro valley. It was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup (stag tshang seng ge bsam grub) cave where he is said to have meditated in the 8th Century. He flew there from Tibet on the back of Yeshe Tsogyal, whom he transformed into a flying tigress for the purpose of the trip. Later he travelled to Bumthang district to subdue a powerful deity offended by a local king. Padmasambhava's body imprint can be found in the wall of a cave at nearby Kurje Lhakhang temple.
Iconography, manifestations and attributes
Padmasambhava. Wall painting at Paro bridge (Bhutan)
On his body he wears a white vajra undergarment. On top of this, in layers, a red robe, a dark blue mantrayana tunic, a red monastic shawl decorated with a golden flower pattern, and a maroon cloak of silk brocade.
On his body he wears a silk cloak, Dharma robes and gown.
He is wearing the dark blue gown of a mantra practitioner, the red and yellow shawl of a monk, the maroon cloak of a king, and the red robe and secret white garments of a bodhisattva.
In his right hand, he holds a five-pronged vajra at his heart.
His left hand rests in the gesture of equanimity,
In his left hand he holds a skull-cup brimming with nectar, containing the vase of longevity that is also filled with the nectar of deathless wisdom and ornamented on top by a wish-fulfilling tree.
The khaṭvāńga is a particular divine attribute of Padmasambhava and intrinsic to his iconographic representation. It is a danda with three severed heads denoting the three kayas (the three bodies of a Buddha, the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya), crowned by a trishula, and dressed with a sash of the Himalayan Rainbow or Five Pure Lights of the Mahabhuta. The iconography is utilized in various Tantric cycles by yogis as symbols to hidden meanings in transmitted practices.
Cradled in his left arm he holds the three-pointed khatvanga (trident) symbolizing the Princess consort (Mandarava). who arouses the wisdom of bliss and emptiness, concealed as the three-pointed khatvanga trident.
Its three points represent the essence, nature and compassionate energy (ngowo, rangshyin and tukjé).
Below these three prongs are three severed heads, dry, fresh and rotten, symbolizing the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya.
Nine iron rings adorning the prongs represent the nine yanas.
Five-coloured strips of silk symbolize the five wisdoms
The khatvanga is also adorned with locks of hair from dead and living mamos and dakinis, as a sign that the Master subjugated them all when he practised austerities in the Eight Great Charnel Grounds.
He is seated with his two feet in the royal posture.
All around him, within a lattice of five-coloured light, appear the eight vidyadharas of India, the twenty-five disciples of Tibet, the deities of the three roots, and an ocean of oath-bound protectors
There are further iconographies and meanings in more advanced and secret stages.
A wrathful manifestation of Padmasambhava
Padmasambhava is said to have taken eight forms or manifestations (Tib. Guru Tsen Gye) representing different aspects of his being, such as wrath or pacification for example. According to Rigpa Shedra the eight principal forms were assumed by Guru Rinpoche at different points in his life. The Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhava belong to the tradition of the Revealed Treasures (Tib.: ter ma).
Guru Orgyen Dorje Chang (Wylie: gu ru U-rgyan rDo-rje ‘chang, Sanskrit: Guru Uddiyana Vajradhara) The vajra-holder (Skt. Vajradhara), shown dark blue in color in the attire of the Sambhogakaya. Depicted in union with consort. (See image + description)
Guru Shakya Senge (Wylie: shAkya seng-ge, Skrt: Guru Śākyasimha) of Bodh Gaya, Lion of the Sakyas, who learns the Tantric practices of the eight Vidyadharas. He is shown as a fully ordained Buddhist monk. (See image)
Guru Pema Gyalpo (Wylie: gu ru pad ma rgyal-po, Skrt: Guru Padmarāja) of Uddiyana, the Lotus Prince, king of the Tripitaka (the Three Collections of Scripture). He is shown looking like a young crowned prince or king. (See image + description)
Guru Pema Jungne (Wylie: pad ma ‘byung-gnas, Skrt: Guru Padmakara) Lotus-arisen, the Saviour who teaches the Dharma to the people. He is shown sitting on a lotus, dressed in the three robes of a monk, under which he wears a blue shirt, pants and heavy Tibetan boots, as protection against the cold. He holds the diamond-scepter of compassionate love in his right hand and the yogi's skull-bowl of clear wisdom in his left. He has a special trident called khatvanga of a wandering Yogi, and wears on his head a Nepalese cloth crown, stylistically designed to remind one of the shape of a lotus flower. Thus he is represented as he must have appeared in Tibet. (See image + description)
Guru Loden Chokse (Wylie: gu ru blo ldan mchog sred; Skrt: Guru Mativat Vararuci) of Kashmir, the Intelligent Youth, the one who gathers the knowledge of all worlds. He is shown in princely clothes, beating a hand-drum and holding a skull-bowl. (See image + description)
Guru Nyima Ozer (Wylie: gu ru nyi-ma ‘od-zer, Skrt: Guru Suryabhasa or Sūryaraśmi), the Sunray Yogi, who illuminates the darkness of the mind through the insight of Dzogchen. He is shown as a naked yogi dressed only in a loin-cloth and holding a Khatvanga which points towards the sun. (See image + description)
Guru Dorje Drolo, (Wylie: gu ru rDo-rje gro-lod, Skrt: Guru Vajra ?) the fierce manifestation of Vajrakilaya (wrathful Vajrasattva) known as "Diamond Guts", the comforter of all, imprinting the elements with Wisdom-Treasure. (See image + description)
Guru Senge Dradog (Wylie: gu ru seng-ge sgra-sgrogs, Skrt: Guru Simhanāda) of Nalanda University, the Lion of Debate, promulgator of the Dharma throughout the six realms of sentient beings. He is shown in a very fierce form, dark blue and imitative of the powerful Bodhisattva Vajrapani, holding a thunderbolt scepter in one hand and a scorpion in the other. (See image)
Padmasambhava's various Sanskrit names are preserved in mantras such as those found in the Yang gsang rig 'dzin youngs rdzogs kyi blama guru mtshan brgyad bye brag du sgrub pa ye shes bdud rtsi'i sbrang char zhe bya ba
His Pureland Paradise is Zangdok Palri (the Copper-Coloured Mountain).
Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri
My father is the intrinsic awareness, Samantabhadra (Sanskrit; Tib. ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ). My mother is the ultimate sphere of reality, Samantabhadri (Sanskrit; Tib. ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་མོ). I belong to the caste of non-duality of the sphere of awareness. My name is the Glorious Lotus-Born. I am from the unborn sphere of all phenomena. I act in the way of the Buddhas of the three times.
Padmasambhava had five major female tantric companions, the so-called 'Five Wisdom Dakinis' (Wylie: Ye-shes mKha-'gro lnga) or 'Five Consorts.' In Padmasambhava's biography, they are described as the five women "who had access to the master's heart", and practiced tantric rites which are considered to have exorcised the previous demons of Tibet and converted them into protectors of the country.' They were:
Mandarava of Zahor, the emanation of Vajravarahi's Body;
Belwong Kalasiddhi of (north-west) India, the emanation of Vajravarahi's Quality, Belmo Sakya Devi of Nepal;
the emanation of Vajravarahi's Mind, Yeshe Tsogyal of Tibet;
the emanation of Vajravarahi's Speech
and Mangala or Tashi Kyedren of "the Himalayas", the emanation of Vajravarahi's Activity.
Princess Sakya Devi from Nepal
On Padmasambhava's consort practice with Princess Sakya Devi from Nepal it is said:
In a state of intense bliss, Padmasambhava and Sakyadevi realized the infinite reality of the Primordial Buddha Mind, the All-Beneficent Lord (Samantabhadra), whose absolute love is the unimpeded dynamo of existence. Experiencing the succession of the four stages of ecstasy, their mutual state of consciousness increased from height to height. And thus, meditating on Supreme Vajrasattva Heruka as the translucent image of compassionate wrathful (energized) activity, they together acquired the mahamudra of Divinity and attained complete Great Enlightenment.
Teachings and practices ascribed to Padmasambhava
The Vajra Guru (Padmasambhava) mantraOm Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum is favoured and held in esteem by sadhakas. Like most Sanskritic mantras in Tibet, the Tibetan pronunciation demonstrates dialectic variation and is generally Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddhi Hung. In the Vajrayana traditions, particularly of the Nyingmapa, it is held to be a powerful mantra engendering communion with the Three Vajras of Padmasambhava's mindstream and by his grace, all enlightened beings. In response to Yeshe Tsogyal's request, the Great Master himself explained the meaning of the mantra although there are larger secret meanings too. The 14th century tertön Karma Lingpa has a famous commentary on the mantra.
The Seven Line Prayer to Padmasambhava
The Seven Line Prayer to Padmasambhava
The Seven Line Prayer to Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) is a famous prayer that is recited by many Tibetans daily and is said to contain the most sacred and important teachings of Dzogchen.
Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso composed a famous commentary to the Seven Line Prayer called White Lotus. It explains the meanings, which are embedded in many levels and intended to catalyze a process of realization. These hidden teachings are described as ripening and deepening, in time, with study and with contemplation. Tulku Thondup says:
Enshrining the most sacred prayer to Guru Padmasambhava, White Lotus elucidates its five layers of meaning as revealed by the eminent scholar Ju Mipham. This commentary now makes this treasure, which has been kept secret among the great masters of Tibet for generations, available as a source of blessings and learning for all.
There is also a shorter commentary, freely available, by Tulku Thondup himself. There are many other teachings and Termas and widely practiced tantric cycles incorporating the text as well as brief ones such as Terma Revelation of Guru Chöwang.
Padmasambhava also hid a number of religious treasures (termas) in lakes, caves, fields and forests of the Himalayan region to be found and interpreted by future tertöns or spiritual treasure-finders. According to Tibetan tradition, the Bardo Thodol (commonly referred to as the Tibetan Book of the Dead) was among these hidden treasures, subsequently discovered by a Tibetan terton, Karma Lingpa.
Tantric cycles related to Padmasambhava are not just practiced by the Nyingma, they even gave rise to a new offshoot of Bon which emerged in the 14th century called the New Bön. Prominent figures of the Sarma (new translation) schools such as the Karmapas and Sakya lineage heads have practiced these cycles and taught them. Some of the greatest tertons revealing teachings related to Padmasambhava have been from the Kagyu or Sakya lineages. The hidden lake temple of the Dalai Lamas behind the Potala called Lukhang is dedicated to Dzogchen teachings and has murals depicting the eight manifestations of Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava established Vajrayana Buddhism and the highest forms of Dzogchen (Mengagde) in Tibet and transformed the entire nation.
Twenty-five main disciples
Twenty-five Main Disciples of Padmasambhava (Tibetan: རྗེ་འབངས་ཉེར་ལྔ, Wylie: rje 'bangs nyer lnga) -also called the disciples of Chimphu- in various lists these include:
^For the importance of this text, see: Tsogyal (1978) xxviii; Bischoff (1978) 28. The only available English translation of this work is Tsogyal (1978). Some scholars have questioned this translation's quality, however: they particularly criticize the manner in which this work, in and of itself embedded in Tibetan culture, was rendered into an inappropriate style of English. For this discussion, see: Jackson (1979).