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PADMASAMBHAVA , an Indian Tantric adept of the eighth century who became a foremost Tibetan cultural hero, is the subject of greatly elaborated legends and serves as the eponymous source of much of the enormous corpus of revelatory textual "treasures" (gter ma ). He remains, however, so obscure to historical research that it has even been proposed that he was an entirely mythical construction who in fact never lived. Though this extreme conclusion seems, in the light of the slim evidence that does exist, to be without merit, it does underscore that here, as with a great many founders of religious traditions, the religious view of the past cannot be readily reconciled with the demands of critical history.

The Legend

According to traditional Tibetan accounts, the emperor Khri Srong lde btsan (Trhi Songdetsen, r. 755c. 797), sometime after his adoption of Buddhism in 762, resolved to create the first monastic complex, Bsam yas (Samye), at which Tibetan aspirants could be ordained into the Buddhist sagha. To achieve this, he invited the renowned Indian monk and philosopher Śāntarakşita to preside over the construction of Bsam yas, but whatever men built by day, the gods and demons of Tibet tore down by night. Śāntarakşita then determined that such obstacles could be overcome only by great occult power, which he, as a monk who observed the Vinaya, could not deploy. He suggested therefore that the monarch extend an invitation to the great Indian master of esoteric Buddhism, Padmasambhava, who had been miraculously born in the land of Oiyāna and now practiced Tantric rites in Nepal. It is said that when Khri Srong lde btsan's emissaries arrived at the frontier, Padmasambhava was already waiting for them and refused the gold that they offered, declaring that everything had been transformed into gold in his vision. When the progress of his journey was obstructed by Tibet's fierce local divinities, he waged miraculous competitions with them, converting them to become protectors of the Buddhist faith. In the most developed versions of the tale, these battles assume the character of an epic account of the taming of the land, converting it from a savage realm to a sphere of civilization.

On arriving in Central Tibet, Padmasambhava's charisma overwhelmed the ruler himself, so that he, together with the leading members of his court, became devoted disciples. A lady of the court, Ye shes mtsho rgyal (Yeshe Tsogyel), was taken as Padmasambhava's consort and in the developed legends she herself is divinized, becoming the spiritual mother of the Tibetan people. For his part, Padmasambhava worked wonders so as to turn deserts into rich, irrigated fields. By marking the outer wall of Bsam yas with his ritual dance he quelled the spirits that had obstructed the monastery's construction. The temple was built and consecrated, and soon became an outstanding center of Buddhist learning.

Padmasambhava, however, by gaining the favor of the king, became an object of jealousy among some factions of the aristocracy and these now plotted against him. The local divinities, too, although bound by oath to him, in some cases grew restive. With circumstances no longer propitious for his continued sojourn in Tibet, he departed, traveling to the southern island of Camara, where he will dwell as an immortal until the end of the present aeon. Prior to his departure from Tibet, however, accompanied by Ye shes mtsho rgyal, he traveled over every inch of the Tibetan plateau, everywhere concealing treasures specially intended for particular needs in the future. These treasuresimages, ritual objects, and above all texts (for instance, the celebrated Tibetan Book of the Dead )would be discovered by his own Tibetan disciples, perpetually reincarnating as "treasure-discoverers." Their continuing activity is a sign of the "Precious Guru" (guru rinpoche ) Padmasambhava's special love for the Tibetan people, a love that may also be activated when the devotee summons him through prayer from his fortress on the isle of Camara.

The legend in history

The late-first-millennium Tibetan manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang contain only two mentions of Padmasambhava that have been noted so far. One of these is a mere annotation in a colophon, but the other provides a brief hagiography, in which certain of the elements that will inform the developed legend are already present. Here Padmasambhava is portrayed as a Tantric adept residing in Nepal who vanquishes demonic obstacles through his mastery of the occult rites of Vajrakīla (the "adamant spike"), one of the Tantric divinities with which he is indeed most closely associated in later tradition. His Tibetan disciples, instructed by him in accord with the progression of Tantric systems, realize a variety of miraculous abilities.

Considering this probably tenth-century account in the light of a second group of early traditionsthose contained in the several redactions of the Dba' (or Sba ) bzhed, dating to the early second millenniumwe may conclude that these sources testify to the recollection of an eighth-century Tantric adept, a specialist in the Vajrakīla cycle of Tantric rites, who developed a following in Nepal and southern Tibet. He may have also met with the king, acted as an exorcist in connection with the construction of Bsam yas, and, because the control of rivers and irrigation figures prominently throughout the legends, it is not impossible that among the wonders he worked were elements of hydraulic engineering.

Given this, it becomes possible to imagine that the several lineages of lay Tantric practitioners that during the late tenth and early eleventh centuries traced their antecedents back to Padmasambhava, and that were devoted to the cult of Vajrakīla, would have laid great stress upon the royal meeting, whatever the real facts of the matter may have been, as this no doubt strengthened their sense of legitimacy and authority. Once these early Tibetan Tantric lineages started to come under attack by proponents of the newer lines of Tantrism being introduced from India from the late tenth century onwards, the tendency would have been to insist increasingly upon recollections of Padmasambhava's imperial connection, thereby reinforcing the ancient tradition against the upstart claims of the new teachings. Padmasambhava, perhaps a marginal dharma -master of the eighth century, in this way reemerged two centuries later as an emblem of Tibet's imperial greatness, the hero to a wide network of Tantric cults that had taken root and flourished during this time.

The tales of Padmasambhava's compassionate intercession in the Tibetan world were elaborated in epic narratives that were discovered as revealed treasures (gter ma ). In the early development of this literature the treasure-finder Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer (Nyangrel Nyima Özer, 11241192) and his successor Guru Chos dbang (Guru Chöwang, 12121270) emerge as central figures in the formation of his cult. With the revelation by O rgyan gling pa (Orgyen Lingpa, fourteenth century) of the epic verse account of his life, the Padma bka' thang shel brag ma, as well as five supplementary works (Bka' thang sde lnga ), all concerned with the conversion of the Tibetan empire to Buddhism, the legend of Padmasambhava arrives at its definitive form.

Influence on Doctrine, Ritual, and Art

Throughout the second millennium Padmasambhava played an unusually significant role in the ongoing development of Tibetan Buddhism. Though it is impossible to securely assign any extant writings to his authorship, even after excluding the innumerable "treasures" as apocryphal works, a few texts do at least reflect beliefs regarding his teachings as formulated among the first generations of Tibetans owing allegiance to him. The most prestigious of these is the Man ngag lta ba'i phreng ba (Esoteric instruction: A garland of views), a survey of the nine vehicles of the Rnying ma (Nyingma) pa from the standpoint of the exegetical tradition of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, the fundamental Tantra of the Rnying ma pa esoteric system. This work has spawned a substantial commentarial literature and has much influenced the formulation of Rnying ma pa doctrine in general.

Besides being regarded as the source of the majority of treasure-texts, and hence of the ritual and contemplative systems they propound, Padmasambhava himself is frequently invoked as a principle figure in the liturgy, whether as the guru who is the object of devotion or as the central figure in the esoteric maala with whom the adept identifies. As such, Padmasambhava has inspired a tremendous body of liturgical poetry, iconic representation, and even sacred dance. To list the major Tibetan religious figures who have been among the leading contributors in this respect, as treasure-discoverers or authors, would require a virtual Who's Who of Tibetan religion. With the career of the fifth Dalai Lama (16171682), a fervent devotee of the Precious Guru, the cult of Padmasambhava was, in effect, given the sanction of the highest authority. Nevertheless, some sectarian factions regarded the entire revelatory corpus of treasures to be spurious and so sought its suppression. It is safe to say, however, that most Tibetan Buddhists, whether Rnying ma pa or not, count themselves among Padmasambhava's faithful adherents.

See Also

Buddhism, article on Buddhism in Tibet; Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism.


Bischoff, F. A. "Padmasambhava est-il un personnage historique?" In Proceedings of the Csoma de Kőrös symposium, edited by Louis Ligeti, pp. 2733. Budapest, 1978. Skeptical assessment of the historical evidence.

Bischoff, F. A., and Charles Hartman. "Padmasambhava's Invention of the Phur-bu: Ms. Pelliot tibétain 44." In Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou, edited by Ariane Macdonald, pp. 1128. Paris, 1971. The first study of the Dunhuang account.

Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. 2 vols. Translated by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein. Boston. 1991. Compendium of Rnying ma pa tradition, with much inter alia on the legends and teachings attributed to Padmasambhava.

Guenther, Herbert V. The Teachings of Padmasambhava. Leiden, 1996. An interesting compilation of texts attributed to Padmasambhava, though Guenther's historical speculations are implausible.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford, 2000. Includes comments on the Dunhuang and Sba bzhed traditions.

Karmay, Samten Gyaltsen. The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden, 1988. Includes a translation of the Esoteric Instruction: A Garland of Views.

Klaus, Christa. Der aus dem Lotos Entstandene: Ein Beitrag zur Ikonographie und Ikonologie des Padmasambhava nach dem Rin chen gter mdzod. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1982. Iconographical study of an important liturgical corpus.

Kunsang, Eric Pema, trans. Dakini Teachings: Padma Sambhava's Oral Instructions to Lady Tsogyal. Boston, 1990. Selections from a twelfth-century compilation.

Kunsang, Eric Pema, trans. The Lotus-Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava. Boston, 1993. The influential version of the life by Nyang ral Nyi ma 'od zer.

Ngawang Zangpo, trans. Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times. Ithaca, N.Y., 2002. Includes Tāranātha's influential "Indian" version of the life.

Thingo, Tsering T., and Gerd W. Essen. Padmasambhava: Leben und Wundertaten des grossen tantrischen Meisters im Spiegel der tibetischen Bildkunst. Cologne, Germany, 1991. An attractive collection of icons of Padmasambhava's varied forms.

Toussaint, Gustave-Charles, trans. Le Dict de Padma: Padma thang yig, Ms. de Lithang. Paris, 1933. Translated from the French by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays as The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, 2 vols. Emeryville, Calif., 1978. Though the French translation of O rgyan gling pa's epic sometimes goes astray, Toussaint had a richer poetic sense than any Western translator of Tibetan before or since.

Wangdu, Pasang, and Hildegard Diemberger. dBa' bzhed: The Royal Narrative concerning the Bringing of the Buddha's Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna, 2000. An early and important account of the adoption of Buddhism under Khri Srong lde btsan.

Matthew T. Kapstein (2005)