Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 2: IOLTibJ321

Let me begin this reassessment of the early sources on Padmasambhava with IOL TibJ321. One of the most remarkable finds from Dunhuang, this manuscript in 85 folios[1] contains a complete Nyingma Mahāyoga tantra embedded within its commentary, with many marginal notes. The tantra is famous, still a mainstay of the Nyingma canon and found also in several Kanjurs, called The Noble Lassoo of Methods, a Garland of Lotuses (‘phags pa thabs kyi zhags pa padma ‘phreng gi don bsdus pa). Cathy and I have been editing and studying the tantra and its commentary for some time, and our work is nearing completion.

Current palaeographical knowledge locates the Dunhuang manuscript to the latter half of the tenth century. However the text itself must be older than its Dunhuang witness:  our critical edition can demonstrate that an ancestor of the versions from the local Kanjurs of Bathang, Hemis, and Tawang, and from the South Central Tibetan rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum editions, was older than the Dunhuang manuscript by more than one copying at the least.

The Dunhuang manuscript mentions Padmasambhava four times: once in the marginal notes at the beginning, twice in the marginal notes near the end, and once within the main text of the commentary itself, also near the end. The references are somewhat enigmatic, and we will be publishing on them at greater length elsewhere, so here I will only review our findings in brief.

Ken Eastman in the 1980’s was the first to look at these references, and had tentatively suggested they might be presenting Padmasambhava as the human author of the commentary. Jake Dalton and Sam van Schaik follow him in taking much the same line, albeit quite assertively and no longer tentatively.[2] However, despite the difficulty of the materials and the rather complicated way in which the root text, commentary and marginal notes cross-reference, neither Ken Eastman, Jake Dalton or Sam van Schaik had time to study the text in much depth or for very long, and none have written more than a few pages on it.

After a much more detailed study by Cathy, it now appears quite uncertain that Padmasambhava is being represented as the author of the commentary, and it is important that the scholarly community takes note of this fact. Rather, there is a distinct emphasis on portraying him as a sublime realised being with exceptional access to the Tathāgata’s secret teachings, and quite possibly even as the source of the root tantra itself.

The references it makes to Padmasambhava are not entirely clear and unambiguous, since they assume the reader already has such information, but what is clear and unambiguous is that these are references to an exceptional, mythologised being, and not to an ordinary human teacher. At its end, the main text of the commentary lavishly praises Padmasambhava as padma rgyal po, the ‘Lotus King’, in verses which the accompanying notes explain are being addressed by Śāntigarbha to Padmasambhava. It is fascinating that these verses comprise a precise form of laudatory words picked up two centuries later by Nyang ral Nyi ma’i ‘od zer and the wider hagiographical tradition in their own praises of Padmasambhava, and Nyang ral again specifically links these words to the Lotus King, a form which remains canonical as one of the famous Eight Aspects of Guru Rinpoche.

Figure 1: Padma rGyal po, as depicted in the Ritual Dance of the Guru’s Eight Aspects (gu ru mtshan brgyad ’chams), Jangsa Monastery, Kalimpong, 2009. Photo by Cathy Cantwell.

The praises from IOLTibJ321 and from Nyang ral’s Zangs gling ma

As you can see in the diagram, the verses say that Sam bha ba is “he who has attained the supreme siddhi, of great wonder, Padma rGyal po [The Lotus King] (who) is not worldly; (he who) unravels from the expanse the tathāgata’s great secret pith instructions“. Note the use of the Tibetan word ma ‘gyur here in the Dunhuang manuscript. It is not a very natural Tibetan usage, and like many phrases in these old manuscripts, it’s not entirely clear what it means. Where ‘gyur ba occurs in Tibetan literature, it is often as a translation of the Sanskrit bhūta. Literally, both ‘gyur ba and bhūta mean ‘become’, but most often, the idiomatic meaning of the Sanskrit is simply ‘who is’. Tibetans tended to translate bhūta literally rather than idiomatically, thus giving ‘gyur ba (to become) simply to render ‘who is’.[3] So there is some albeit rather tenuous suggestion here that the verse of praise might have somewhere in its background or prehistory, something translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit.

The marginal notes attached to this praise are slightly ambiguous, explaining that after examination, Śāntigarbha finds either Padmasambhava himself, or his teachings, flawless, and is praising him.[4] Right at the start of the text, the notes already told us that while the Buddha has condensed (the meanings) of the root text (‘bu tas bsdus), it was Sambhava who produced or made (them) (sam ba bhas byas)—a similar meaning to Śāntigarbha’s praise of him here for unravelling the secret great pith instructions of the tathāgata from the expanse.

Finally, a page above this praise which ends the commentarial text, right at the end of the root tantra itself, a marginal note refers to Padmasambhava.  This annotation seems possibly to suggest that what has gone before, namely the speech of the tantra, which has emerged naturally out of sameness, was demonstrated by Padmasambhava without any personal fabrication or rang gzo.  There follows an explanation of how, given this natural emergence, when a noble being speaks with pure awareness, the resulting utterance is Tantra.[5]

Thus, Padmasambhava seems to be closely involved with the Buddha’s original teaching of the tantra, in terms that go some distance to making him sound like a treasure revealer of some kind, and so one might speculate if the name ‘Padma’ in the texts’s title might conceivably be referring to Padmasambhava.  This, however, is unlikely: the first chapter of the commentary, which discusses the title, gives no hint of the word, “padma”, having any such implication.

I should add, these findings in IOL Tib J321 have not been remarked upon by previous scholars, but we feel they might add significantly to our knowledge of 10th century representations of Padmasambhava. We will deal with them at very much greater length in our forthcoming book.

Finally, a note on the citation from Nyang ral Nyi ma’i ‘od zer: Lewis Doney of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, has worked on critically editing Nyang ral’s Guru Padma hagiography.  He argues convincingly that the earliest and historically most influential recension is that represented by two manuscripts in the National Archives in Kathmandu and two manuscripts from Bhutan, which he classifies as ZL3.  The version of ZL3 used here is Lewis Doney’s identification in the Kathmandu National Archives.  We have emended rtog in line 2 to rtogs, found in all the other witnesses of ZL3.  The Rin chen gter mdzod chen mo version (Paro: Ngodrup and Sherab Drimay, Kyichu Monastery, 1976, Volume Ka: 25), which has in modern times become the most widely used version, incorporates later material.  It gives a variant second line for this verse (rtogs ba bla med mchog tu gyur pa yis/).

[1] The folios are numbered up to 84, but there is one unnumbered folio so there are 85 folios in total.

[2] Eastman himself expresses some caution, finally concluding, “It appears… that we have one of the few surviving works of Padmasambhava” (1983: 50, my emphasis).  Jacob Dalton (2004: 763 note 17), states rather more positively that, “in the interlinear notes to the Dunhuang versions of the Thabs kyi zhags pa pad mo’i ‘phreng ba commentary (ITJ321), the commentary is attributed to Padmasambhava”.  An article from Sam van Schaik (2008: 47) also states that, “the Dunhuang Ms IOL Tib J 321 contains a colophon which states that Padmasambhava was the author of the commentary”.  However, van Schaik reassesses the evidence in his blog (dated June 2007 but presumably written after the article, ‘Padmasambhava I: the early sources’ at ), where he no longer refers to a colophon and writes, “Finally, just in case I have given the impression that Padmasambhava actually wrote this manuscipt, let me be clear that he didn’t”.  However, it seems that he simply means that the manuscript is no autograph copy, since he continues to speak of , “the attribution of this text to Padmasambhava”, and interprets one of the annotations in this way.

[3] For a lucid discussion of this, see Prof Tillemans’ excellent lecture 84000 Lecture Series Video #1: Sanskrit compounds and methodological issues in translation, at

[4] slobs dpon shan ting gar bas brtags nas ma nor nas/  sam ba bha la stod pa ‘o/ (f.84r.5)

[5] mnyam las ‘phros te/ [marginal note: pad ma sam ba bhas rang gzor byas pa ma yin bar ston]  /byung ba’I don/ /skyes bu gang gis rig pa de //ngag gis ci skad brjod pa’i sgra / /thams cad ma lus tan tra zhes


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7 Responses to Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 2: IOLTibJ321

  1. PDSz says:

    Completely out of my depth here, so just two short, pedantic remarks:

    – while I agree with what you say about ‘gyur[ ba], I’m not sure if the same could be done with the deprivative, after all, what we have here is ma ‘gyur[ ba]. I’ve never seen this expression in Canonical Tibetan, and I’m still puzzled as to what it could mean.

    – rang gzo: the same is often said of Vajrapāṇi, when commentators analyze the word `evaṃ’ (in this meaning: thus [and not otherwise, i.e. Vajrapāṇi has conveyed exactly what he heard, did not add anything of his own, still less make up the whole thing]). So from an `Indian’ angle this seems to be saying that Padmasambhava is a kind of saṅgītikāra. The second remark here is more unusual though, namely that whatever a person who has realized […] says is a tantra.

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Many thanks for pointing this out, and it goes without saying that I am no Sanskritist, so your learned observations are always most welcome! So you would suggest it is unlikely to be a direct translation from Sanskrit.
      But until someone can suggest something better, and unless its all simply a scribal error, maybe the hypothesis should still remain that a translation from bhūta is behind it somewhere, even if not directly. Compilation of texts like these is typically a process of incrementally rephrasing existing passages of text – see for example how this verse is slightly changed between the Dunhuang version and the Nyang ral version. Since ‘gyur was often used to render bhūta, maybe this instance could represent a rephrasing of what was once a direct translation from Sanskrit using ‘gyur in that sense, perhaps content in some way to retain an Indic-translational flavour. If true, that would still leave lots of unknowns: was it a rephrasing of a verse originally directed to someone else? Or to Padma? How often and how much might it have been rephrased by the time it took this form?

      To digress somewhat, the situation is complicated by the early Tibetan use of what one might call a ‘pidgin Sanskrit’, with terms like nopika/nophyika for sādhanopāyikā and Vajrakīlaya for Vajrakīla. These ‘pidgin’ terms could become established for all posterity as normative. For example, all Tibetans from Dunhuang until today have used Vajrakīlaya rather than Vajrakīla, as we find even with that extreme Indophile and Sanskritist, and famous Vajrakīlaya authority, the Sakya Paṇḍita. The form Vajrakīlaya became so ubiquitously normative (as opposed to Vajrakīla, which but seldom occurs) that Cathy and I often continue to use it, and advisedly so, especially since by far the greatest development of this tradition was in any case in Tibetan rather than Sanskrit.

      re rang bzo: Yes, and that Indian background is no doubt a major reason why rang bzo is mentioned innumerable times throughout Tibetan religious literature as a negative in exactly this sense. Yes, I think your comparison is probably appropriate, it fits with the mention of Padma in the notes at the beginning of the text as mediating the tantra between the Buddha and us. Just as Vajrapāṇi does in so many other tantric texts.

  2. PDSz says:

    Actually, what I meant to say is that *alokabhūta/*alokībhūta would sound a bit strange in Sanskrit, on the other hand *ālokabhūta (*snang bar ‘gyur) is very widely attested. Could this have been a misreading?

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Could be, this would bring it much closer to Nyang ral’s meaning, and is a highly attractive idea. I wonder, what is more likely, a mistranslation from a possibly misread Sanskrit original, or just another example of the ubiquitous rephrasing of existing fragments of Tantric text in making a new composition, as just discussed? If you ever have any further ideas on this, I would be grateful to hear them.

  3. Nathan Fong says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this important and fascinating work you are doing. I will share with others who are interested in this work in the academic and non-academic world if you don’t mind. For me it even makes it more interesting as to who and what were subjugated in Samye around 755 BCE.

  4. What is your opinion of the book entitled The Teachings of Padmasambhava ( by academic, Sanskritist and Tibetologist Dr. Herbert Guenther in the context of Padmasambhava studies?

    • Rob Mayer says:

      Hi Tseten, I don’t know that particular book, but in general, people beleive that H. V. Guenther was an exceptionaly brilliant man, but over time, became inreasingly difficult to understand.

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