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A Biographical ...པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས། Padmasambhava

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Despite the many layers of legend that have accreted around Padmasambhava, scholars generally agree that a renowned Indian tantric master by that name did visit and teach in Tibet in the late eighth century. Our earliest evidence for his activities comes from several tenth-century manuscripts found in the so-called "library cave" of Dunhuang. Pelliot tibétain 44 is a small booklet devoted to the tantric deity Vajrakīla. It describes the master's time in India and Nepal prior to his trip to Tibet.

According to this account, he gathered the texts and performed the rites for The Hundred Thousand [Verse] Tantra of Vajrakīla (phur bu'i 'bum sde) at the Asura cave in Yanglesho (yang le shod), Nepal. During this same period, he is also said to have tamed four troublesome Se (bse) goddesses and bestowed upon them new Buddhist names. On gaining accomplishment in the practices of Vajrakīla, the master then performed a series of miracles, including the magical diversion of a stream for irrigation purposes.

Pelliot tibétain 307 is a scroll containing several texts on the seven mothers (ma bdun), a set of seven goddesses native to the Tibetan landscape. The framing narrative for the rites found therein tells how, in accordance with the buddhas' earlier subjugation of Rudra, Padmasambhava and the Tibetan Lang Pelgyi Sengge (rlang dpal gyis seng ge, 8th century) tamed the seven mothers and bestowed on them oaths and new names as protectors of Secret Mantra. Now led by Dorje Kundrakma (rdo rje kun grags ma), formerly named Kongla Demo (rkong la de mo), the Buddhist mothers are finally supplicated for their assistance.

Also possibly significant is the Dunhuang manuscript IOL Tib J 644, which contains a text on the nine vehicles (theg pa dgu). In its discussion of the Kriyā tantras, there appear a number of narrative threads that are found woven into certain later biographical accounts of Padmasambhava's activities. Thus, for example, the ideal Kriyā-tantra practitioner meditates in an Asura cave, attains a vision of his deity, reveals a new stream, and so on. Such details suggest that the biographies of this master were woven from historical fact as well as traditional memes and narrative themes.

In addition to the above-mentioned biographical snippets, the Dunhuang archive also contains a lengthy commentary titled the Lotus Garland Synopsis (padma 'phreng gi don bsdus pa), a commentary on the Mahāyoga tantra known as the Noose of Methods (thabs kyi zhags pa).

Both the commentary and its tantra are preserved in later canonical collections, but only in the Dunhuang version are their connections to Padmasambhava so clearly spelled out; only there do several interlinear notes appear to suggest that the commentary was written by none other than Padmasambhava. Some scholars, it should be observed, have proposed that these notes might be interpreted to mean that the eighth-century master wrote the tantra itself, but a more straightforward interpretation would suggest the commentary.

Another text that many scholars have suggested may have been written by the historical Padmasambhava is the Garland of Views: A Pith Instruction (man ngag lta ba'i 'phreng ba), and still others are also possible, such as his supposed commentary to the Vajravidāraṇā-dhāraṇī (Toh. 2679).

Taken together, these writings provide some sense of the historical master's eighth-century interests. We can at least say that he appears to have been deeply involved in the Buddhist tantras, including those of the Mahāyoga class and in particular, perhaps, those relating to the deity Vajrakīla.

During the later dissemination of Buddhism in Tibet (phyi dar), Tibetan literature exhibits an ever-increasing interest in Padmasambhava. The Testament of Wa/Ba (dba'/sba bzhed), parts of which may date from the tenth or eleventh centuries, is an early history of the imperial period that includes a brief narrative of the eighth-century master's visit to Tibet. Here we see many of the details that would become so well known in later years: The monk Śāntarakṣita suggests to King Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde brtsan, c. 742-800) that he invite Padmasambhava to assist with the founding of Samye (bsam yas), Tibet's first Buddhist monastery.

On his arrival, the master offers a series of prophecies and tames Tibet's local spirits who are resisting the introduction of Buddhism. The Testament of Wa also has the master overseeing several irrigation projects in the area around Samye. Such details have led some scholars to suggest that irrigation, and the spirit taming that would have entailed, may have been an area of particular expertise for the master. In the end, however, these same irrigation activities run him afoul of the king and his ministers, and he is soon forced to leave the country. On his way out, Padmasambhava pauses at the border to make a final prophecy, predicting trouble for Tibet and its Buddhists because of his not having been able to complete his activities.

Many of these themes are picked up and developed in subsequent biographies. Particularly influential was the Copper Palace (zangs gling ma), a treasure revelation discovered by Nyangrel Nyima Ozer (nyang ral nyi ma 'od zer, 1124-1192). This was the first complete hagiographical account of Padmasambhava's life.

Many of its narratives were also incorporated into Nyangrel's history, the Flower Nectar: The Essence of Honey (chos 'byung me tog snying po sbrag rtsi'i bcud) and then further expanded in the famous Pema Chronicles (padma bka' thang), another revealed hagiography discovered by the fourteenth-century treasure revealer Orgyen Lingpa (o rgyan gling pa, b. 1323). By the time of this figure, the legends of Padmasambhava were well established in Tibet, his role within the Nyingma tradition's treasure tradition clearly predominant.

According to these legends, Padmasambhava was born amidst miraculous circumstances and grew up a prince in Oḍḍiyāna, in northwestern India. As a youth, the prince turns to tantric practice, and before long, the local people force his father, the king, to send him into exile.

Padmasambhava then travels around India, receiving teachings and practicing in sacred charnel grounds. Eventually he arrives in Yanglesho, where he gathers the texts of Vajrakīla, ends a drought by defeating some troublesome local spirits, and gains realization. While in Nepal, he receives King Tri Songdetsen's invitation and proceeds to Tibet, where he battles a now much-expanded series of local Tibetan spirits, helps to establish Samye, and leaves while pronouncing many ominous prophecies regarding the future of Buddhism in Tibet.

Of particular note in these later accounts are the master's involvements with the princess Yeshe Tsogyel (ye shes mtsho rgyal), as well as his concealment of various treasures for discovery by later reincarnations of his twenty-five principal disciples (rje 'bangs nyer lnga).

Scores of Padmasambhava biographies have been produced as treasure texts, each adding new material to his rich biographical tradition. And because place is so often central to the revelation of treasure, countless religious sites that the eighth-century master is believed to have visited are scattered across today’s Tibetan Plateau.

In the later treasure traditions, e.g. that of Guru Chowang (gu ru chos dbang, 1212-1270), Padmasambhava is depicted as having eight manifestations (gu ru mtshan brgyad), each of which reflect a different aspect of the master's miraculous activities: Shākya Sengge (shAkya seng ge), Padmasambhava, Nyima Ozer (nyi ma 'od zer), Sengge Dradrok (seng ge sgra sgrog), Dorje Drolo (rdo rje gro lod), Tsokye Dorje (mtsho skyes rdo rje), Pema Gyelpo (padma rgyal po), and Loden Chokse (blo ldan mchog sras). These eight manifestations are frequently depicted in art both individually and as a group, and some, such as Dorje Drolo, have developed into popular deities with liturgical traditions of their own.

Through these means, Padmasambhava has become central to the treasure traditions of the Nyingma School. This is quite unlike the traditions witnessed prior to the fourteenth century, when Vimalamitra and other masters often served as the original teachers of revealed treasure, and, of course, within the treasures of the Bon religion. Whereas early Bon texts tend to depict the master negatively, as an enemy of their traditions, later writings of the New Bon (bon gsar) sometimes claim him as one of their own, adding Bon interpretations of his birth, episodes in Zhangzhung, and so on to their renditions of the master’s biography.

Jacob Dalton is Assistant Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Published June 2014

Updated June 2015

པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས། Padmasambhava




Traditional Tibetan Divisions

Historical Period

8th Century




Name variants: Guru Rinpoche; padmasambhava

Teachers gsal ba'i rgyan bde ba gsal mdzad dpal gyi seng ge


Lang Pelgyi Senggeb.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Pelgyi Sengge

bai ro tsa na Nubchen Sanggye Yesheb.844?

Name variants: Nub Sanggye Yeshe; Sanggye Yeshe g.yu sgra snying po Gyelwa Chokyang8th cent.

Name variants: Ngenlam Gyelwa Choyang Ma Rinchen Chokb.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Matok Rinchen Sokpo Pelgyi Yeshe 8th cent.

Name variants: Sokpo Lhapel

Nyak Jñānakumara.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Nyak Jnyanakumara; Nyak Yeshe Zhonnu Yeshe Tsogyel 8th cent.

Name variants: Khandro Yeshe Tsogyel Tri Songdetsen b.742 - d.796 Odren Pelgyi Wangchuk 8th cent.

Name variants: Pelgyi Wangchuk Khyeuchung Lotsāwa b.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent. Gyelwai Lodrob.early 9th cent. - d.late 9th cent.

Name variants: Gonpo Nanam Yeshe Deb.mid 8th cent. - d.early 9th cent.

Name variants: Nanam Zhang; Nanam Zhang Yeshe De; Yeshe De; Zhang Bande Yeshe De; Zhuchen Lotsāwa Namkhai Nyingpo 8th cent.

Name variants: Nub Namkhai Nyingpo Kharchen Pelgyi Wangchuk8th cent.

Name variants: Pelgyi Wangchuk Yeshe Yangd.862

Name variants: Atsar Yeshe Yang; Ba Yeshe Yang; Yeshe Wangpo Denma Tsemangb.mid 8th cent. - d.early 9th cent. Kawa Peltsekb.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Peltsek Pelgyi Senggeb.8th cent. - d.9th cent.

Name variants: Shubu Pelgyi Sengge; Tridring Kongtsan Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje8th cent.

Name variants: Pelgyi Dorje Langdro Konchok Jungneb.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Konchok Jungne Lasum Gyelwa Jangchubb.early 8th cent. - d.late 8th cent.

Name variants: Gyelwa Jangchub