Early guru yoga, indigenous ritual, and Padmasambhava

Numerous guru yoga liturgies are found throughout the many schools of Tibetan Buddhism, far more than one can hope to enumerate.  A few of them are very famous, for example, the guru yoga Tsongkhapa wrote for himself known as the dGa’ ldan lha brgya ma, the ‘Hundred Deities of the Land of Joy’, with its famous prayer the dmigs brtse ma. Jeff Watt tells me that this in turn is said to be modelled on an earlier one developed by the Sa skya pa master g.Yag ston sangs rgyas dpal (1348-1414) in which the great Sa skya Paṇḍita (1182-1251) is identified with the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. bKa’ brgyud pas too have many famous guru yogas. For example, the Karmapa school have the Thun bzhi bla ma’i rnal ‘byor or ‘Four Session Guru Yoga’ written by the  8th Karmapa, Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554) in which he is visualised surrounded by dakinis in several colours, and which includes numerous prayers, offerings, empowerments, and the famous mantra Karma pa mkhyen no. The rNying ma pas too have innumerable guru yogas, many but by no means all devoted to forms of Padmasambhava, and employing Padmasambhava’s famous Seven Line Prayer and his Vajra Guru mantra. Amongst the most famous is ‘Ja’ tshon snying po’s (1585 – 1656) gter ma dKon mchog spyi’i ‘dus, a highly elaborate guru yoga that encompasses the complete practice of all three roots of Lama, Yidam and Khandro, as well as the entire development and completion stages of meditation, and which has its own complex sngon gro, fire pūjas, protector rites, completion stage practices, and so forth. The tradition of writing guru yogas within a lama’s own lifetime still continues unabated, for example, the complex guru yoga the late Dilgo Khyentse wrote for himself, or the simpler one by the 16th Karmapa. Many guru yogas have their own empowerment rites and cannot be practiced without them, although some of the simpler ones can be practiced without empowerments.

Given the ubiquity of guru yoga sādhanas throughout Tibetan Buddhism, and their sometimes great complexity, not to mention the richness of their commentarial literature and the great wealth of their religious art, it can be surprising to recall how little equivalent practice is recorded from Indian sources. I am not aware of any comparable guru yogas of Indian origins for Vimalamitra, Hūṃkāra or Mañjuśrīmitra, for Saraha, for Tilopa, Naropa or Maitrīpa. There are none even for Āryadeva or Jñānapāda, founding masters of India’s immensely well-documented Guhyasamāja lineages.

Of course there is ample evidence that guru lineage, guru devotion, and the guru’s empowerment, were just as important for Indian Tantric Buddhists as for Tibetans. Gurus were undoubtedly understood in India as the embodiment of all enlightened beings and of all enlightened qualities, and they were regularly visualised as such, for example in various preliminaries to other practices. Yet it seems that in India, however widespread, such practices did not generally or very often attain the status of complex, stand-alone sādhanas. The very term guru yoga seems unattested in India as the name for a canonical genre of tantric liturgies. Indian compendia such as the Sādhanamāla, or canonical translations from Sanskrit such as the Tenjur, are not filled with numerous guru yoga liturgies, as we find in Tibetan compendia such as the Rin chen gter mdzod. Rather, they are filled with numerous deity liturgies. It would seem that in India, with the obvious exception of the Śākyamuni Buddha himself and his attendant entourage, complex and complete tantric sādhanas were predominantly addressed to a-historic or trans-historic figures, such as Buddhas from other world systems or pure realms, transcendent cosmic Bodhistattvas, and exotic tantric deities. They were less addressed to human teachers identifiable in current or recent local history.

Nor is this insight limited to modern academic scholarship alone. The present Dalai Lama writes “I think that in India there was no manual exclusively for guru yoga practice, although you will find in many Indian sadhanas a guru yoga at the beginning, for the purpose of accumulating merit. In Tibet, however, there are many guru yoga practices” (Tenzin Gyatso, Union of Bliss and Emptiness, page 16).

Clearly then, the guru yoga that we now know first became ubiquitous in Tibet, not in India. That is not to say that Tibetans were unable to claim scriptural support for the practice: Christian Wedemeyer recently sent me Sakya Pandita’s Lam zab mo Bla ma’i rnal ‘byor, which goes to some length to justify his practice of guru yoga on the basis of scripture. But as far as I am currently aware, guru yoga liturgy as a flourishing independent genre seems to have first developed not in India, but in the early phyi dar in Tibet, where it appeared more or less simultaneously within several closely interlinked religious circles. The earliest I currently know of is a very short one indeed for the Indian siddha Virupa, written by the founder of the Sakya tradition Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092–1158), which Jeff Watt recently sent me. However I am unconvinced this is really a guru yoga proper in the Tibetan sense. It seems more Indian in style, occuring only as the brief preliminary basis for a special upadeśa on invoking the guru’s blessings into liquids, which were then touched to the three places of body, speech and mind. Only two and a half lines of the text refer to meditation on the guru, followed by three and a half lines on using the blessings to empower the liquids.  The early Kagyu were renowned for the emphasis they placed on the guru, and a more convincing guru yoga that Marta Sernesi recently sent me is attributed to Phag mo gru pa rDo rje rgyal po (1110-1170), the famous bKa’ brgyud master and the brother of the great rNying ma lama Kathog Dampa Deshek, who for many years had been Sa chen Kunga snying po’s disciple. This has many of the hallmarks of later guru yogas. And as Dan Martin points out, other only slightly younger 12th-century bKa’ brgyud figures like Zhang G.yu brag pa (1123-93) and Gling ras pa (1128-1188) are also significant in the development of early guru yoga.

The earliest known Padmasambhava guru yoga sādhanas I have looked at are by Nyang Ral Nyi ma’i ‘od zer (1124 to 1192).  Unfortunately, these are now only extant in 17th century re-editions from Mindroling, so we cannot be sure of the originals. Yet in their current form they are truly full-scale and complex, describing both peaceful and wrathful forms, much longer than Phag mo gru’s. It seems unlikely that later redactors would have invented all of this out of nothing. However, Dan Martin tells me that the Bka’ rgya ma texts attributed to Nyang Ral’s contemporary, the ostensibly bKa’ brgyud pa Zhang G.yu brag pa, were actually written slightly earlier than Nyang ral’s, and are equally Padmsambhava-centric. I have not been able to find any such texts so far, and moreover it would seem that much of the Bka’ rgya ma was written after Zhang’s death by his disciples, but if Dan is nevertheless right, then such a scenario could suggest that both drew on an earlier already existent tradition of Padmasambhava devotional ritual.

A generation later, Nyang ral’s successor, Guru Chowang  (1212-1270), developed the Padamsambhava guru yoga still further, into the magnificent complexity we know nowadays.

On close examination however, something unique can be seen in these early rNying ma guru yogas. They do something which the Sa skya and bKa’ brgyud guru yogas do not attempt. Nyang ral and Chowang and, according to Dan, Zhang G.yu brag pa as well, seek to embed the entire rNying ma ritual path within a particular Tibetan historical narrative centred on Padmasambhava.  All its treasures and  treasure discoverers, all its yidams and protectors, are inextricably woven together with the narratives of hagiographies and dharma histories. Central to all of this is the person of Padmasambhava and his place in Tibetan history. If in the Sakya and Kagyu guru yogas one was merely invoking the blessings of an enlightened guru and his lineage,  in the Padmasambhava guru yogas, as in many of the related yidam, ḍākinī and protector practices, one was in addition invoking an archetypal moment in Tibetan national history, a moment in which the worlds of the Buddhas and of the Tibetan peoples and their empire uniquely intersected. The ways in which this works are too numerous to mention in a blog entry, but as just one example, one might mention the gter ma tradition, in which successive generations of treasure discoverers are understood as the reincarnations of Emperor Trisongdetsen and of Padmasambhava’s 25 disciples, and the treasures they find are understood as teachings given them originally by Padmasambhava during his 8th century visit to Tibet. Since most rNying ma ritual is terma, the implication is that the greater part of the rNyingma ritual tradition is seen as the ongoing re-enactment through later Tibetan history of the prototypes first established during Trisongdetsen’s reign.

In future blogs, I want to explore a somewhat heuristic hypothesis I have been developing that seeks to help us find out how, why and when the rNying ma Padmasambhava cult took such a distinctive shape. My hypothesis locates these developments within the dynamic interplay between imported Indian Tantrism and indigenous Tibetan ritual. I will suggest that they first crystallised around the person of Padmasambhava as the result of his special role as the convertor of Tibetan deities into Buddhist protectors. I will further speculate that a set of well-defined indigenous Tibetan ritual preferences for a particular style of integrating narratives (rabs, smrang) within ritual, might have contributed to a background cultural climate that favoured the development of the Padmasambhava cult in Tibet in the particular form that it took.



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7 Responses to Early guru yoga, indigenous ritual, and Padmasambhava

  1. Indrajala says:

    Fascinating post! I’ve always thought it unusual that East Asian esoteric Buddhism never really had anything comparable to guru yoga as practised by the Tibetans. I always figured it was perhaps due to the earlier period of tantra they received, but it seems it was a Tibetan innovation. I look forward to your future posts on the subject.

  2. Yudron says:

    For Nyingmapas with faith, the guru practice that preceded Guru Rinpoche was the Lama Rigdzin practice, one of the Kagye Deities. I haven’t looked in the Kama or the Nyingma Gyudbum for a sadhana.


  3. Dan Hirshberg says:

    Fascinating, Rob – when searching for these early threads of the Padmasambhava narrative, the influence of guru yoga traditions and their practical application indeed seems a likely source – and all the more so if we can trace them to Nyang ral and/or his contemporaries.

    When thinking of ritual and its influence that you are pursuing with this hypothesis, what comes to mind for me is the creative aspect of visualization where a liturgy becomes animated and enlivened beyond the words into a current of experience, inspiring a vision that is far more rich, complex and expansive than what began on the page. This seems to be among the special methodological objectives of visualization, and is, in a word, what makes it “work.” For those like Nyang ral who claimed enlightenment, why not contribute further details gleaned from those visions into a more complete narrative? Would not these be as valid, say, to memories of their past lives amidst Padmasambhava’s personal retinue?

    Will eagerly await further details of this research….

  4. Kunzang Dorje says:

    Hi Rob,

    here are some excerpts from Malcolm Smith´s posts on the topic in the discussion on dharmawheel board (www.dharmawheel.net), which might be of some interest to you and to the readers:

    “Guru Yoga certainly exists in a few Indian sources. For example, a general outline of Guru Yoga as it is universally practiced today is provided in the Hevajrasya hastavyavagrāhakrama-nāma.
    In general, Guru yoga is only an annutarayoga tantra practice.
    The practice of making use of historical or quasi historical figures for Guru yoga is a Tibetan innovation. It seems in India, gurus were generally imagined in the form of one’s devatā.”

    and more:

    “Also there is the Vajrayogini sadhana penned by Naropa which has a very clearly indicated guru yoga section.”


    “I mentioned two traditions, Hevajra and Vajrayogini. For example, there are three gurusadhanas translated by a Vibhuticandra into Tibetan. Another text entitled
    gurumandalasamadana vidhi translated by one of three Dro Lotsawas (‘bro lo ts’a ba) which describes a method of practicing the guru, he is invited in front, one makes offerings to him, praises, etc., exactly the way that guru yogas are done in the Tibetan tradition.”

    All the best


  5. Alvin says:

    I’m not a scholar in any way, either traditionally or academically, but I came across a section of PIATS 2000 and was reminded of this post.

    In page 136, Lobsang Shastri writes that Taranatha received a guru yoga teaching from Buddhaguptanatha, one of the latest Indian siddhas we know of.

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