The great Khu tsha zla ‘od

Much has been written about many Tibetan lamas in recent years, but one who has received perhaps less attention than he deserves is the great Khu tsha zla ‘od.

According to Kongtrul (1813-1899), he lived during the second rab byung, which ran from  1087 to 1146, although some sources put his birth date earlier, in 1024. He was certainly one of the most brilliant and prolific treasure revealers of his time, and his influence on Tibetan religion remains impressive to this day. With the help of Ven Tenpa Yungdrung, Jean-Luc Achard, and others, we have been translating one of his most celebrated treasures, the Ka ba nag po or Black Pillar, which lies at the core of the contemporary Bon Phur pa tradition.

Yet Khu tsha zla ‘od did not only reveal Bon treasures: his treasure contributions to Buddhism, medicine and astrology were significant enough for him to find a place in the great collection of Buddhist treasures, the Rin chen gter mdzod, to feature in some Buddhist lineage prayers, and even to become considered a major Buddhist incarnation. Kongtrul for example saw him as the reincarnation of Vairocana, while Jamyang Khyenste Wangpo (1820-1892) saw him as one of the thirteen prophesied reincarnations of the royal figure rGyal sras lha rje, and hence a primary past incarnation of the great treasure revealers Orgyan lingpa (14th century) and Khyentse Wangpo himself, amongst others (this information from Matthew Akester’s outstanding but so far unpublished translation of Khyentse Wangpo’s biography).  Thus it was Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who rediscovered as a yang gter Khu tsha zla ‘od’s otherwise lost treasure, the rTsa gsum rigs bsdus spyi spungs chen mo. It was also Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo who believed that one of his own treasures, the rTsa gsum gtso bsdus spyi ‘dus snying thig, along with Jatson Nyingpo’s famous dKon mchog spyi’i ‘dus, were further iterations of Khu tsha zla ‘od’s rTsa gsum rigs bsdus spyi spungs. Nevertheless, the only arguably Buddhist treasure from Khu tsha zla ‘od that survives uninterruptedly, unmediated by a 19th century yang gter, is a very short bcud len text. In addition however, Khu tsha zla ‘od was a famous doctor, and hence sometimes known as Ku sa sman pa. He was also a philosophical or doctrinal thinker. His commentary on Dzogchen, the mKhas pa mi bzhi’i ‘grel pa, has recently been studied by Matthew Kapstein, who shows him to have been a highly creative early adopter within Tibet of the logical thought of rNgog Blo ldan shes rab (1059–1109) (as Kapstein points out, it is the chronology implied by this feature of his thinking which serves to support the second rab byung dates as given by Kongtrul, rather than the first rab byung birth date of 1024 given in some other sources).

The Ka ba nag po comes in 125 pages, but it is only a small fraction of Khu tsha zla ‘od’s Phur pa revelation:  in addition to this root text, there are also eight other explanatory tantras, as well as commentarial and practice texts, together covering the entire gamut of Phur pa learning and performance.  Contemporary Bon Phur pa practice, including the rituals done at year-end (dgu gtor) in the Bon monatery of Triten Norbutse, are still based on Khu tsha zla ‘od’s all-encompassing Phur pa revelations, achieving a degree of integration between root text, practice text, and interpretation, that might well have delighted the late Steve Jobs. Some 600 photos and several videos of the year-end rituals at Triten Norbutse, specially made for us by Kemi Tsewang, will soon be visible on further pages of this blog.

There is a lot that could and should be said about Khu tsha zla ‘od. One could talk about the interesting stories of his childhood and family background; his prolific treasure recoveries, especially those found at sPa gro in Bhutan; the great fame of his medical practice; his mention in the biography of Guru Chos dbang; what evidence there is for him serving both Buddhist and Bon communities; the evolution of later beliefs linking his treasures with those of the 17th century Buddhist terton Jatson Nyingpo (1585-1656); his innovatory uptake and adaptation of pramāṇa; the way his Phur pa treasures relate to the Buddhist Phur pa tradition; why, when so many other details differ, the gTing ‘dzin gsum or Three Samādhis in his Phur pa treasures are exactly the same as in Buddhist Mahāyoga; and so on.  But in this short blog article, we are going to mention only one particular aspect of his ouevre: the way in which he envisages and presents a great many minor Tibetan deities within his Ka ba nag po root tantra. Our method of analysis depends substantially upon paying fine and close attention to subtle nuances and differences in the sphere of ritual, yet it seems to us that it might yield useful historical conclusions. Once again, we are reminded of the point we have made elsewhere, that ritual texts and liturgies can offer important data to the historian, if one knows what one is looking for.

The Ka ba nag po is remarkable for its presentation of unusually long and detailed lists of minor deities, including, for example, numerous species of female sman. In Buddhist Phur pa rituals, such deities would most likely come with a taming narrative attached, either implicit or explicit. We would understand how Padmasambhava had tamed them in days gone by and appointed them as guardians of the dharma, and how we should in our own time, as the authentic dharma heirs of Padmasambhava, remind them of those vows, and reassign them to their appointed tasks with an offering.  Yet in the Ka ba nag po, the emphasis is subtly but tellingly different.  In Khu tsha zla ‘od’s treasure, such deities do not need taming, since they have been an integral part of the nirvāṇic maṇḍala of the main Phur pa deity since beginningless time. In short, it is made quite explicit that they are nothing less than the emanations of the main Phur pa deity, and have never been anything else, an interpretation which is still upheld by the contemporary commentarial tradition.

Of course, Buddhist Phur pa can and must also adopt such a perspective on occasion: there are many ritual moments when pure vision is emphasised and all phenomena whatsoever are perceived as primordially pure according to their ultimate nature. But this is balanced by a relative viewpoint, in which such worldly spirits and demons do indeed exist on a conventional level as potentially problematic forces in need of careful management.  It is in the interpretation of the relative viewpoint that the Ka ba nag po differs: here the sman (and all other suchlike categories, such as bdud) are clearly described as direct emanations of the central enlightened Phur pa deity even from a relative point of view, and thus in no need of taming at any level.

What might  Khu tsha zla ’od be intending with this?  To approach this question, let us first turn to Sam van Shaik’s recent blog entry, in which he revisits F.W. Thomas’s work on one of the wooden sticks from Miran (IOL Tib N 255). These inscribed sticks have been shown to be older than most of the Dunhuang texts, and so the analyis of IOL Tib N 255 can offer us, among other things, chronologically reliable evidence that the sman were amongst the categories of deity recognised by Tibetans as early as the 9th century. In IOL Tib N 255, the sman are in fact mentioned alongside such terms as yul lha and g.yang, within the context of funerary rites in which Bon and gShen priests worked together in partnership. In other words, this and other such evidence suggest a strong probability that the sman were a component part of a ritual belief system that pre-dated the accelerated uptake of Buddhism subsequent to the visit of Śāntarakṣita and the promotion of Dharma by Khri Srong lde’u btsan.

In now valorising the sman as fully enlightened emanations of the nirvāṇic maṇḍala of the central Phur pa yidam deity, and by refusing to accept that they needed to undergo the humiliation of taming before being worshipped, Khu tsha zla ‘od in the 12th century seems to be making a powerful statement. He is asserting the value and dignity of those deities and beliefs that were present and flourishing in Tibet before the great flood of Indian Buddhism became so dominant a few centuries earlier, and rejecting their complete relegation to the folkloric margins. This strategy in the Ka ba nag po is quite possibly of a piece with his strategy in the mKhas pa mi bzhi’i ‘grel pa, as reported by Kapstein. In that more doctrinal text, Khu tsha zla ‘od inserts as an equal partner the indigenous intellectual category of bla into his discussion of the prestigious Indian philosophical category cluster of kun gzhi’i rnam shes (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna), yid (Sanskrit: manas) and sems (Sanskrit: citta), thereby asserting the equal profundity and value of the indigenous category to the Indian ones.

It seems that Khu tsha zla ‘od’s followers were intended to have the best of both worlds. On the one hand, they could fully enjoy excellently made calques upon Indian-style Mahāyoga, and Buddhist logic-inflected commentaries on Dzogchen, that promised to offer, in ritual and contemplative terms, everything the Buddhist equivalents could offer.  On the other hand, they could enjoy these without the need to repudiate their ancestral culture, deprecate their native gods, or disparage their indigenous intellectual categories. We can only surmise that Khu tsha zla ‘od was adressing an audience for whom such considerations were important­—who knows, perhaps even an audience including some proud and loyal descendents of the once great Bon and gShen priests of old.


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2 Responses to The great Khu tsha zla ‘od

  1. george fitzherbert says:

    Fascinating blog entry rob, many thanks. I was very interested by your comments about sman.
    Gesar’s principle goddess and guide, Manene, as you know, is the the White Sky sman, gNam sman dkar mo, also known as Queen of the Sky sman (dGung sman rgyal mo).
    What you say about such categories not requiring taming or management in the context of Bonpo Phurpa, to me indicates the absorption into Bonpo buddhism of the earlier frames of primordial dualism between the white side and the dark side, which works seamlessly as an expression of buddhist ideas without the necessity of ‘taming’ paradigms. In Gesar, his helpers – which include sman, gnyan, and all kinds of zoomorphic combat spirits such as dgra bla and wer ma) aren’t presented as ‘tamed’ or converted forces, but are just his forces – so they can be seen (and in gesar they are indeed pretty much presented as) , like you say, “direct emanations of the …enlightened..[hero/deity]“.
    So I think the Gesar epic (which i characterise as a warrior epic whose life-blood is the civilisational tension between archaic shamnistic culture and doctrinal mahayana and vajrayana buddhism), does something analogous with such categories as sman, as you describe here, in presenting them as part of a Buddhist ideology, but without the necessity of presenting such forces (ala Padma narratives) as somehow managed or converted – they are on the right side of the dualistic framework to start with! In this regard i’m curious and interested by the bdud having a place in the mandala.
    On another note, i’m also curious to know more about the “the royal figure rGyal sras lha rje”. who is that?
    Anyway, many thanks for the interesting post! george

    • Rob Mayer says:

      George, I am very grateful indeed for your extremely informative comment. It raises many interesting points about how Gesar is located in Tibetan culture and religion, which I am sure few others have even thought about yet.
      rGyal sras lha rje is to my mind a slightly puzzling figure who plays an important role in the preincarnation stories of rNying ma treasure revealers. For example, he plays quite a significant role in the Khyentse biography that Akester has so brilliantly translated (but not yet published), and is often presented as the immediate reincarnation of Khri Srong lde’u btsan.
      Being the reincarnation of Khri Srong lde’u btsan was in the 12th century established by Nyang ral and Chos dbang as a key legitimator of their own treasure revealer authenticity. But oddly enough, as far as I can tell, Nyang ral did not count rGyal sras lha rje as the Emperor’s immediate reincarnation, nor I think did Chos dbang. I am not clear if they even refer to him at all.
      So how did the Ris med masters arrive at the identification?
      You can see the Ris med view on him by following this link:

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