One Clue Fewer about Klu sgrub

One Clue Fewer about Klu sgrub.[1]

Not long ago, I read, with Ogyan Tanzin Rinpoche, a 13th century partly autobiographical work by Guru Chowang (Chos dbang), his Great Treasure History (gTer ‘byung chen mo).[2] It is clear from the narrative that nāgas (klu) are deeply involved in the guarding of his treasures. The gter is contained in a casket (sgrom bu) which takes the form of a nine-headed nāga, and various signs and omens of nāgas appear during the discovery processes. Local people are greatly alarmed to see Chowang digging for treasure, fearing his excavations will annoy their territorial deities. 

Scroll forward to the second half of the 19th century. The great treasure revealers Khyentse Wangpo and Chokgyur Lingpa are standing by a lake in East Tibet, surrounded by a crowd observing the action. Everyone in the crowd believes they witness nāgas emerge from the lake, and in their full view, hand the great treasure revealer (gter ston) Chokgyur Lingpa a treasure chest full of gter, as well as so much gold that everyone could scoop some up from the shore (Gardner 2019: 250).

At all points between the 13th century and the 20th century, as we can see from the literature, nāgas (= klu) continue to play a similarly major part in gter ma revelation. Nāgas are not the only gter ma protectors, although they are certainly quite prominent. Other territorial deities, often implied by Tibetan savants as local functional equivalents to India’s yakṣas, can be observed behaving similarly.

Public gter ma revelations (khrom gter) were not so unusual in Tibet. Everyone in the audience tended to believe they could see the nāgas in the waters, or see a gter ston magically opening a supernatural treasure portal (gter sgo) in a rock face. 

Such treasure portal openings were performed in Tibet in a manner with some strikingly granular resemblances to Indian underworld entry (bilasādhana) and treasure excavation (nidhivāda) texts, of which a substantial quantity was translated into Tibetan from the Imperial period onwards, and preserved in their tantric Buddhist canons (Kangyur and Tengyur). Some such texts were attributed to Nāgārjuna. 

Did anything akin to the above ever happen in Buddhist India, so rich in nāga lore and from where the innumerable magical texts originated? At least in the case of great scholars like Nāgārjuna, the verdict of many Buddhologists seems to be a resounding “No!” They seem convinced that nothing like this ever happened to Nāgārjuna, and that when Indian Buddhist texts describe such interactions of humans with nāgas and yakṣas to retrieve relics or scriptures, or the entry of a great Buddhist master like Bhāviveka into a magic cave, they are in a great many or even most cases enjoying literary flights of the imagination, or conducting marketing exercises, but not describing a lived, experienced, traditionally established, ritual and cultural reality. So far, I  have not yet found it altogether easy to share in their conviction. 

The Ineffable Nāgārjuna

Klu sgrub, or Nāgārjuna as he is better known outside of Tibetology, is famous for his matchless ability to undermine our most cherished certainties. Once we subscribe to his interpretation of emptiness (śūnyatā), as most Mahāyānists so enthusiastically do, we can no longer take very much for granted. According to Nāgārjuna, there is no ultimate substratum upon which our apparently real world is based, because no existents whatsoever can have svabhāva. In the course of arriving at this radical conclusion, Nāgārjuna systematically and with relentless reasoning refuted the inherent existence, or svabhāva, of everything most sane and normal people take for granted: not merely commonplace entities like tables or pots, but even fundamental principles, like causation, change, the self, knowledge, language, and even truth (Westerhoff 2022: “Conclusion”). 

Fittingly perhaps, Nāgārjuna’s own persona seems similarly ineffable. Despite being the most influential figure in Buddhist history after the Buddha himself, academic scholars still know very little about him with any certainty. For example, debates have long persisted about when he lived. As Ye Shaoyong puts it, “The chronology of Nāgārjuna has long been an issue of debate. Proposals made by scholars vary roughly between the 1st and 3rd centuries of the Common Era.” Likewise no one is exactly sure which of the many works attributed to him were actually written by Nāgārjuna. As Ye Shaoyong (2019: 341) puts it, “The authentic oeuvre of Nāgārjuna is a hotly debated issue.” Jan Westerhoff concurs: “It is not easy to come up with a precise list of texts Nāgārjuna composed.” (Westerhoff 2022: “Life and Works”).

Nāgārjuna’s personal life story seems, if anything, even less knowable. As we will see below, there appear to be only two details about Nāgārjuna’s biography upon which many academics agree: that he did live in South India, and that he did not dabble in magic or have any truck with nāgas—these latter despite the profuse accounts of his varied occult activities and his famous visit to nāgaloka that are extant in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese alike. The purpose of this blog is to reduce our already meagre certainty by a further 50%. I propose to demonstrate that it is not after all so certain that any ‘historical Nāgārjuna’ was not involved in magic, or with nāga beliefs.

Nāgārjuna’s many life stories

Mahāyānists have long revered Nāgārjuna as the greatest of sages, who successfully restored the Dharma in India from a low ebb. They further believe that he was the first to introduce hitherto unavailable Buddhist teachings of incalculable importance (most famously the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures, but others can be mentioned too), which he received in a nāgapalace. With such a reputation, it is not surprising that Nāgārjuna soon became a metaphor for subsequent tradition building. Perhaps this was particularly true in China. As Stuart Young puts it (2019: 727), “By the end of the Tang dynasty (618–907), Nāgārjuna had become a synecdoche for all things Mahāyāna, and was widely regarded as a founding father of almost every East Asian Buddhist tradition – including most notably Tiantai / Tendai (天) and the so-called Three Treatise school (Sanlun zong / Sanron shū [三論宗]).” One might add, he was equally attributed with recovering the Buddhāvataṃsaka from the nāga palace, cementing his importance to the Huayan  (華嚴) School, and likewise often claimed to have opened the famous iron stūpa in South India to retrieve the Vajraśekhara-sūtra, thus becoming the notional source of most East Asian tantrism. In Tibet, Nāgārjuna was said to be the founder of the Ārya school of Guhyasamāja exegesis (Wedemeyer, 2007:14). And so on.

The situation is further complicated by the proposed existence of several subsequent Nāgārjuna namesakes. Note however that nearly all Asian Buddhist traditions maintain there was only a single Nāgārjuna, many claiming that Nāgārjuna was supernormally long lived. For narratives across much of Asia extol his expertise in alchemy, medicine, and mantra, and how these afforded him great longevity. 

Over time, many varied Nāgārjuna biographical narratives began to proliferate. The challenge facing academic historians has therefore been to extract reliable knowledge about a historic Nāgārjuna from the many contrasting sectarian narratives that evolved over many centuries.

In pursuit of this historical goal, the predictable and reasonable strategy of academic scholars has been to seek out the earliest surviving biographical narratives about Nāgārjuna. As far as we currently know, the earliest of such are in Chinese, and they exist in two clusters. Since I am not a Sinologist, the following section is paraphrased from the publications of Chieko Yamano and Stuart Young, and the great many emails they so generously sent me.

[1] The very earliest extant biographical narratives about Nāgārjuna come down to us in a number of fragmentary accounts bequeathed by the direct Chinese colleagues of the great Kashmiri-educated Kuchean-born translator Kumārajīva (344-413), notably Sengrui (僧叡; c. 352–436), Sengzhao (僧肇; c. 374–414), Lushan Huiyuan (廬山慧遠; c. 334–416), and Tanying (曇; c. 348–418). Ye Shaoyong (2019: 335) estimates 300 CE as a reasonable terminus ante quemfor Nāgārjuna, hence this earliest and broadly concordant tranche of Chinese narratives about Nāgārjuna might have been written within one or two centuries of the man himself. Ye Shaoyang (2019: 337) proposes they “may be derived from an oral tradition from northwest India in the latter half of the 4th century.”

These earliest sources tell us that Nāgārjuna was born as a brahmin, and only later became a Buddhist monk (Ye Shaoyang 2019: 337). Three of them also describe Nāgārjuna’s dealings with nāgas. These three are Prefaces that were included within Sengyou’s (僧祐) Compilation of Notes on the Tripitaka (出三蔵記集) (Yamano 2009a: 186). Firstly, Sengrui in his Preface to the Mahā-prajñā-pāramitopadeśa 大智釈論序;[3] secondly Lushan Huiyuan in his Preface to the Brief Exposition of the Mahā-prajñā-pāramitopadeśa 大智論抄序;[4] and thirdly Tanying in his in his Preface to the Mūlamadhyamaka-kārikā 中論序,[5] These three sources, each of them contemporary with Kumārajīva, all agree that Nāgārjuna was invited down to visit a ‘Nāga Palace’ (龍宮, nāgaloka), where he was given previously inaccessible Buddhist scriptures. Stuart Young (2019: 728) concurs. Regarding other supernormal abilities, Yamano further mentions that Sengzhao (僧肇), in his commentary on the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa-sūtra describes an episode in which Nāgārjuna subdued heretics using his supernatural powers.[6]  In short, as Ye Shaoyang (2019: 337) quotes these early sources, “due to his great contribution to the revival of Buddhism, he was worshipped in India as a buddha” (and yet, as Shaoyang adds, other evidence suggests Nāgārjuna may not have gained wide popularity in India until the end of the 4th century). 

Young (2019: 728) explains further that these above-mentioned Chinese colleagues of Kumārajīva were scholarly monks dedicated to arduous meditational disciplines, which suggests their accounts of Nāgārjuna might have been shaped to conform with their own austere ideals. Yamano independently argues the same point in her PhD thesis. Describing this respectable spin, Young writes (2019: 728): 

“The most robust example is provided in Huiyuan’s preface to his abridged edition of the Da zhidu lun, in which he describes Nāgārjuna as a “high-minded gentleman” who “grieved at the benightedness of the masses” when the Dharma was “decadent and weak,” so took the tonsure and vows of a Buddhist monk. Thereupon, “he dwelt in seclusion in the woods and swamps, lived as a hermit and practiced dhyāna. He stilled his mind and studied the subtle, his thoughts penetrating the supra-normal.” He then “had an awakening” and “turned his steps towards the snowy mountains [of the Himālayas]” where he met a śramaṇa (renouncer) who introduced him to the Mahāyāna teachings. Nāgārjuna next proceeded to the famed dragon (nāga) palace of Buddhist lore, in which “there was no important canon or secret text that he did not master.” “When the roots of his impediments had been pulled up, his name crowned the stages of the [bodhisattva] path … Consequently, the non-Buddhists esteemed his manner and famous gentlemen submitted to his dictates. From that time, the enterprise of the Greater Vehicle flourished again”. 

[2] As Young explains (2019: 727), it was for many years wrongly thought that the earliest Nāgārjuna hagiographies were those found within our second cluster of early sources, the Longshu pusa zhuan (龍樹菩薩傳; T. 2047) and Fu fazang [yinyuan] zhuan (付法藏[因緣]傳; T. 2058). Most scholars of that era (e.g. Robinson 1977: 21-26) also assumed that the Longshu pusa zhuan was a direct transcription of Kumārajīva’s teachings by his disciples, but this is apparently not the case. It is now understood that the texts of this second tranche, which share similar narratives, were compiled several decades later than the first tranche described above (Young 2019). 

Yamano however adds a further perspective in suggesting that many elements in the Longshu pusa zhuan narrative nevertheless might reflect actual information from what the Chinese referred to as the ‘西域 (Western Regions)’. She explains, even though the Longshu pusa zhuan per se was only compiled into a work at a later date, some academic scholars believe there had been an oral tradition relating to Nāgārjuna’s life story, referred to as ‘the Indian Tradition (天竺傳),’ which was a shared source for the Longshu pusa zhuan and the Fu fazang [yinyuan] zhuan, and which dated from Kumārajīva’s time. Yamano herself believes this tradition was to some extent also circulated in written form, and that fragments of it still exist. Thus the contents of the Longshu pusa zhuan might indeed reflect some actual Indian data (Yamano 2009a: 220-1; Yamano 2010). 

Be that as it may, unlike the above first tranche of texts that were compiled slightly earlier, the Longshu pusa zhuan and other texts of this tranche were not written in scholarly academic Chinese, but in a simpler more accessible register of the language, and moreover their contents show little sign of possible redaction to conform with austere monastic ideals.

In these latter sources, just as we see in the Nāgārjuna narratives extant in Sanskrit and Tibetan, much more emphasis is placed on Nāgārjuna’s involvement with magic (Ye Shaoyang 2019: 341). Here he is said to have started out as a brilliant non-Buddhist brahmin youth from South India who was deeply learned in the Vedas and all branches of knowledge. He was also interested and skilled in the magical arts. Notoriously, as a youth, he once brilliantly reverse-engineered the secret medicinal recipe of a magician he had consulted, a complex concoction of seventy different ingredients to be placed on the eyelids to confer invisibility (which, as we shall discuss below, looks like a remarkably accurate description of a specific Indian magical category, añjana). As Roger Corless (1995: 527) translates the passage, the magician tells Nāgārjuna and his friends “..grind this up with water, then smear [the mixture] on your eyelids. Your form will become invisible..” The magician had hoped to exploit his young clients by keeping the mixture secret so that they would have to come back to him for more, but Nāgārjuna was able to ascertain each of the añjana’s seventy different ingredients merely by their smell. He and some friends had planned to abuse the power of invisibility in an audacious attempt to gain sexual favours from a king’s harem (note that in Indian magic, añjana can also be used to confer powers of attraction, although this is not spelled out in the Longshu pusa zhuan). They succeeded for a while, but after some misadventures, Nāgārjuna repented, and converted to Buddhism, dedicating himself to the practice of dharma. At first, his exceptional brilliance made him arrogant, and he tried to establish his own heretical Buddhist sect. However, a great nāga bodhisattva took pity on him, and took him down to his palace, where he shared with Nāgārjuna numerous Buddhist scriptures taught by the Buddha during his time on earth, but hitherto unavailable to humans. It was these texts that allowed Nāgārjuna to achieve an authentic realisation free of pride, upon which the nāga bodhisattva sent him back to South India to begin his teaching career. Thus he became the great Buddhist philosopher known to posterity, who also brought with him key Mahāyāna scriptures from the palace of a nāga king, and this is why he has the element ‘Nāga-’ in his name. 

Reducing our certainties by a further 50%.

What certainties do academic scholars believe they have extracted from these richly flavoured narratives? As mentioned above, one is the association with South India, which is not my primary interest here, and which I have no plans to challenge. The other ‘certainty’ is that all mentions of a great philosopher like Nāgārjuna being involved with nāgas and magic, must be later accretions invented for marketing purposes, that we can safely ignore in any attempt to understand a historical Nāgārjuna. It is this latter ‘certainty’ that I wish to undermine. (NB: in this endeavour, I will necessarily focus on the two magical feats attributed to Nāgārjuna before his Buddhist realisation, the invisibility magic and the visit to nāgaloka, since further miracles often attributed to him later in his career might be better explained in terms of more orthodox Buddhist categories like the ṛddhipāda).

This latter ‘certainty’, that all mentions of Nāgārjuna being involved with nāgas and magic are later accretions we can safely ignore, is quite prominently represented in the secondary literature. For example, Walser’s otherwise excellent monograph (2007) freely acknowledges that pretty much every story related to Nāgārjuna contains the recurring elements of nāgas and magic; yet he feels confident to assume a priori that these narratives are in their entirety apocryphal, invented at a later date to sell the philosopher to royal patrons in China and India. 

Yet Walser (2007: 75) has also falsely assumed, along with several other scholars (e.g. Young 2017: 178), that the seventy-substance invisibility añjana Nāgarjuna is described as replicating in the Longshu pusa zhuan (which in 2007 was still generally attributed to Kumarajīva) should somehow be understood as ‘alchemical’ and can thus be discounted as anachronistic (2007: 77), since alchemy was only first attested in India at a later date. I find that a bit of a stretch. 

  • Firstly, añjana is not classified as alchemy (rasa-rasāyāna) within Indian magic. Añjana is a separate category, including its uses as here described for invisibility.
  • Secondly, as Chieko Yamano points out (2004: 70), “The earliest existent text that narrates Nāgārjuna’s episodes involving immortality or alchemy is Xuanzang’s Da Tang Xiyu Ji (大唐西域記) [7th century]. The earlier biographies of Nāgārjuna do not mention his relationship with rasa-rasāyāna.”  Thus the Longshu pusa zhuan does not specifically mention alchemy (rasa-rasāyāna) either by name or by description; it merely describes añjana, a different category than alchemy (rasa or rasāyāna). 
  • Thirdly, an encyclopaedic (and elite!) education in plants, animal substances, minerals, and motley other ingredients, for medical or magical or other pragmatic purposes, is extremely ancient in India, and the shared foundation of a great many different aspects of India’s sciences and magic. Hence I find it problematic to classify Nāgārjuna’s purported expertise in such learning within a narrow category of ‘alchemy’ that is specifically associated with a later period of Indian history. 

Nevertheless, on the basis of this misunderstanding of Nāgārjuna’s seventy-substance based invisibility magic as specifically ‘alchemical’, and the consequent inclusion of this Longshu pusa zhuan narrative within his chapter on ‘Alchemy’, Walser writes (2007: 75): “Whether one is trying to sell the Nāgārjuna legend to an Indian audience or whether one is trying to export the legend to a Chinese audience, claiming that the saint is an alchemist would have ensured the audience’s attention.” He then makes the observation that no Indian sources describe alchemy (i.e. rasāyana) at such an early date, so that the alchemical reference is anachronistic in an Indian context, although not of course in a Chinese context. From this he concludes that the story of Nāgārjuna’s dabbling in ‘alchemical’ invisibility magic was most likely made up in China by Kumarajīva, to sell Nāgārjuna to an alchemy-crazed Chinese audience. In truth, as mentioned above, invisibility magic need have nothing to do with any later Indian science of alchemy. To reiterate, as Aleksandra Wenta wrote me (24th September 2023), “Invisibility magic need have nothing to do with [later] alchemy. This is an old magic practice, which is found even in the Arthaśāstra, Chapter 14.3.8-13.” So even if the mercury pills or guṭikās typical of much later ‘alchemical’ works do indeed bestow the siddhi of invisibility (which is perhaps what Walser had in mind), this siddhi was already widely attested by other means in much earlier brahmanic literature, notably in this case, through añjana

Walser has undoubtedly produced a great study of Nāgārjuna in Indian context as a Mahāyānist. Yet he tends to skirt around the inescapable fact that magic and nāga cults were likewise extremely prominent parts of the historical and cultural contexts in which any historical Nāgārjuna must have lived, not least within educated brahmanic circles and Buddhist monasteries.

Similarly, I think the very admirable scholar Max Deeg is probably articulating the opinion of many of his Buddhological colleagues when he writes:

“The Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna…certainly had nothing to do with a nāga-cult…the narrative of Nāgārjuna being given Buddhist texts (sūtras) by the nāgas in the netherworld is more likely an etiological post-ex-nomine means of making sense of the name in a hagiographical context than the reason for the ‘individual’ having been given the name in the first place” (Deeg 2021: 53). 

My contention is that these authors, and the many Buddhologists who seem tacitly to agree with them, might be mistaken. If we approach Indian magical beliefs and practices with a greater granularity, with a finer focus on their ritual and social-historical actualities, we might conclude that it is in fact not impossible that any historical Nāgārjuna might have (as he saw it) interacted with nāgas to gain dharma treasures from them, or in his youth practice añjana magic based on complex concoctions of substances to smear on his eyelids. 

Now, I am definitely not proposing to claim with any certainty that Nāgārjuna did engage in such activities; nor am I in any way whatsoever attempting to deny that there might have been several later Nāgārjuna namesakes, which I believe is altogether possible. I am merely bringing to the table further evidence and alternative perspectives that I believe cast significant doubts on any existing certainties that Nāgārjuna the Mahāyānist and madhyamaka philosopher was a cerebral intellectual who somehow managed to stand quite apart from his prevailing cultural contexts, and could not possibly have engaged either with the prevalent nāga beliefs and practices of his time, nor with the widely attested añjana magic.  

I wonder if our academic scholarship might have made a category mistake, a failure correctly to understand the relevant classifications of Indian magic and nāga lore, thus not appreciating the cultural cohesiveness of Nāgārjuna’s purported occult activities. By assuming inapplicable categories a priori, we might well have failed to notice the actual Indian magical categories to which his activities collectively seem to conform in the Longshu pusa zhuan narratives. For us, communications with nāgas to obtain treasures from them, and multi-substance invisibility magic, might seem like quite separate pursuits that were randomly attributed to Nāgārjuna to increase his fame, sharing little in common with each other beyond their supposed irrationality and sensationalism. But the separation of these practices into different silos is not really the way that Indian magic was understood. 

On the contrary, the behaviours attributed to Nāgārjuna point rather consistently to his engagement with specific and salient classifications within Indian magical thinking, the densely interrelated and overlapping fields that at some stage came to be called (i) khanyavāda and/or nidhivāda; (ii) pātālasiddhibilasiddhi, or bilasādhana; (iii) añjana

  • The two terms khanyavāda and nidhivāda were sometimes used interchangeably or synonymously, so it could be argued that they should be seen as aspects of the same extended discipline, rather than as separate disciplines (Balbir 1993: 19-22). Both of these terms refer to treasure discovery, the acquisition of various kinds of precious valuables, whether mundane or religious, from within or from under the earth. Magical practices of this sort long predate Nāgārjuna. As several scholars have already pointed out (Goudriaan 1976: 307; Einoo 2009: 34; Vasudeva 2012), they can be found in Vedic sources, such as the Sāmavidhāna Brāhmaṇa, the Atharvavedapariśiṣṭāṇi, and the Arthaśāstra. The most salient finding of Balbir 1993 is precisely to show that khanyavāda and nidhivāda were deeply dependent on a vast knowledge of plants and similar substances, typically for making the magic eyeliner, añjana (see (iii) below), to render the normally invisible magic treasure portals visible, or to evade the dangerous spirits that guarded the treasures by making oneself invisible (for a translated example, see Mayer 2022: 417-438). As Balbir points out (1993: 18), this kind of knowledge of substances and plants for magical reasons was often the preserve of the learned and powerful, of brahmins and kings. Somdev Vasudeva (2012) and Chieko Yamano (2008b: 353-60) describe the same general pattern, of complex potions concocted out of many ingredients, serving as a shared basis for many different forms of magic, often practiced by elites. In the Longshu pusa zhuan, Nāgārjuna displays an exceptional knowledge of the plants and substances used to make a specific añjana, which he can identify merely by smell.
  • Major subterranean treasures were believed almost inevitably to be guarded by nāgas in particular, but also by other powerful spirits, so that an associated and prominent sister science to khanyavāda and nidhivāda was the knowledge of how to directly interact with nāgas. The great advantages of direct familiarity with nāgas generated a copious parallel set of magical practices that eventually came to be called pātālasiddhibilavādabilasiddhi, or bilasādhana: the magical techniques for gaining entry to the luxurious and splendid underground domains of nāgas and asuras. In these subterranean abodes, many boons could be obtained, be they nāga or asura maidens to entertain the human visitor, or magnificent treasures gifted by the nāga kings who luxuriated in vast and wealthy palaces (Vasudeva 2012: 275). There could in fact be several different reasons for wanting to enter nāgaloka to commune directly with the nāgas living there (Vasudeva 2012: 275-278), but all of them circled around the central, pervasive, and extremely ancient cosmological idea of nāgas as controllers of the climate and its waters, and thus owners and masters of all the wealth and treasures of the natural environment. From this premise, nāgas became widely perceived as the traditional guardians of all kinds of treasures, including the many Buddhist relics discussed in Vogel 1926. More recently, Scheible (2016: 109-112) has analysed at length one of the many Pāli narratives about the human sangha retrieving priceless relics of the Buddha from the nāgas in nāgaloka. Given that nāgas were generally understood as controllers of the entire agricultural economy and dispensers of its vast wealth, it should be noted that the ability to visit them was typically associated with elite persons, the powerful and their educated assistants. Thus Vasudeva (2012: 276-7) describes various famous kings and the Mahāyāna Buddhist sage Bhāviveka as vaunted bilasiddhi adepts.
  • añjana, eye ointment or eyeliner, refers to a major category of magic in which various complex magical potions are concocted out of many plants and other substances to put on one’s eye lids. Depending on the recipes and associated rituals employed, these confer a number of varied magical siddhis, which Goudriaan (1976: 318) conveniently lists. They include (a) the power to see otherwise hidden objects, such as the hidden entrances to the nāga realms, or hidden treasures or nidhis as sought by the nidhivādin or khanyavādin (see (i) above). (b) Notably however, and here exactly as we read in the Longshu pusa zhuanañjana equally had the power of making oneself invisible: for an early example of añjana used to confer invisibility, probably from between 2nd century BCE and 3rd century CE, see the Arthaśāstra Chapter 14.3.8-13; for slightly later examples, see Garuḍa Purāṇa 178, 9, as cited in Goudriaan (1976: 318); Daṇḍin’s 7th century Kāvyādarśa at 2.151; and a host of tantric texts. It seems the use of añjana to confer invisibility is a long-standing stock theme in Indian magic. (c) Moreover, which might possibly also connect with the Longshu pusa zhuan narrative, añjana could also confer the power of attracting the devotion of those who glance upon its wearer, be they a king or his harem (Goudriaan 1976: 318).

Whichever of their slightly varied classificatory terms one might prefer to use, it does seem to be precisely these three interrelated and overlapping aspects of classic and specifically Indian magic with which Nāgārjuna is associated. Even though the Longshu pusa zhuan narrative describes that Nāgārjuna had to learn the invisibility magic from a (possibly disreputable?) practitioner who had not been a part of his regular brahmanic education, it is abundantly clear from this story that Nāgārjuna was already so deeply familiar with the plants and other substances used in Indian magic, that he was able very swiftly to reverse-engineer the secretive magician’s añjana recipes, merely by the power of smell, we are told. Indeed, such a knowledge of plants and substances was the shared common foundation of most of the arts and sciences that became attributed to Nāgārjuna, such as medicine, alchemy, treasure retrieval (nidhivāda), and the associated entry into the subterranean worlds where nāgas dwell (bilasādhana, pātālasiddhi). The invisibility añjana narrative in its entirety rings true of actual Indian magical practice in sufficient ways that I find Walser’s proposal that it pertains instead to Chinese alchemy rather less likely. Moreover, Chieko Yamano believes that such an eye liner to achieve invisibility is quite untypical of Chinese magical beliefs, and if she is correct, this would make an Indian origin for the story all the more likely.

It is true that in the Longshu pusa zhuan narrative Nāgārjuna is freely invited to the nāgaloka by the benevolent nāga king, and does not have to engineer his own entry into that otherwise inaccessible place by means of some kind of bilavāda or bilasiddhi. This non-magical approach is reasonably typical of earlier Buddhist narratives, since outright magical rituals to achieve an uninvited entrance into the luxurious underworlds of nāgas and asuras don’t become commonplace in Buddhist literature until the early tantric period gets underway from the 4th century CE, 100 years after Nāgārjuna’s terminus ante quem, at which point they become ubiquitous, with substantial Buddhist tantric texts dedicated to this topic. Thus in the Pāli Mahāvaṃsa we find the monk Soṇuttara using Buddhist iddhi and Buddhist meditative concentration (rather than brahminic pātālasiddhi or bilavāda or bilasiddhi) to make his way into nāgaloka (Scheible 2016: 109).

Nevertheless, it’s important to take note that within the wider South Asian culture, visits to nāgaloka were not merely a conventional literary conceit, to be deployed for dramatic effect in popular narratives. On the contrary, what we can learn from the Indian magical literature and its many ritual handbooks is that the practice of magically visiting the nāga realms was surely seen as a real accomplishment, something which was actually achievable by suitably trained persons. Certainly such perceived actual direct interactions with nāgas (klu) remain very much a living part the Tibetan Treasure (gter ma) tradition, for, as I described above, in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism, treasure revealers (gter ston) are still widely believed to be receiving treasure caskets (sgrom bu) directly from the hands of nāgas. In other cases, they might obtain treasures from out of subterranean magical treasure portals (gter sgo) often inhabited by supernatural beings, which they alone have the power to access. Both of these kinds of Tibetan treasure discovery can be performed in full public view of an attendant crowd, which underlines that they are understood culturally as real human behaviours, not mere literary conceits; and from my readings of Indian magical texts, I definitely believe a similar cultural understanding must have prevailed in ancient India too. It is interesting that many of the methods for locating and gaining access to magic treasure portals in Tibetan Buddhism remain substantially similar to those described in ancient Indian pātālasiddhi or bilasiddhiinstructions preserved in Tibetan translation, such as those included within a lengthy Kriyātantra translated in the Imperial period, the Āryavidyottamamahātantra D746 (Mayer 2022).

I consider it highly improbable that any of the above magical practices did not yet exist in any form in Nāgārjuna’s time, even if different terminology might have been used in some cases. Several contemporary specialists in Indian magic have pointed me towards so-called vidyādhara traditions of magical praxis which they say are early enough to pre-date Nāgārjuna (I am not yet aware of a recent monograph or article specifically addressing this important topic although there are several older studies). We have already seen how such magical practices are already attested in Vedic sources, but they are equally described in early Jain and Buddhist texts. Pāli texts in general have many references to nāga kings, who inhabit magnificent subterranean palaces full of incomparable valuables, where they are visited for important pragmatic reasons by usually elite humans. We find this prominently in one of the older strata of Pāli texts, the jātakas. In the Mahāpaduma-jātaka a nāga conceals a human prince in his underground domain to protect him from his murderous father. In the Champeyya-jātaka, a nāga king named Champaka entertained in his underwater palace a politically beleaguered human king of Magadha, gave him great treasures, and made treaties with him that eventually restored the human king’s dominion. In the Bhūridatta-jātaka, a nāga gives a wish-fulfilling gem as a gift to a human brahmin who visits him in his underground palace. And so on: one can learn much by reading the entirety of Vogel 1926, Chapter III. 

To borrow the words of Andrea Acri, while it is true that “the 4th-6th century zeitgeist was all about magic—see the Buddhist Kriyātantras and such Śaiva texts as the VīnāśikhaGuhyasūtraGāruḍatantras etc.”, nevertheless, these magical preoccupations from the 4th century onwards came only about one hundred years after Nāgārjuna’s putative time, and the overwhelming interest in magic of this slightly later period did not arise ex nihilo without precedents. So while it might be the case (we are not yet sure) that such formal magical classificatory terms as pātālasiddhibilasiddhi, or bilasādhana perhaps only became prevalent with the efflorescence of magical literature approximately 100 years after Nāgārjuna, it appears extremely probable that actual practices for visiting and receiving boons from nāgas were already established quite a lot earlier. 

I also feel it might be significant that Nāgārjuna is said to have started out as a brahmin, because the Buddhist Vinaya placed restrictions on some aspects of worldly magic in a manner not necessarily imposed upon brahmins. As Chieko Yamano neatly puts it (personal communication, 2 October 2023): “Historically, among the Vedic priests (hotṛadhvaryuudgātṛ and brahman), brahmans who possessed knowledge of the [conspicuously magical] Atharvaveda were the most (economically) successful. They were often employed as royal purohita due to their expertise in mantras and rituals described in the Atharvaveda. Therefore, there is no contradiction in the legend of Nāgārjuna, who is often portrayed as the teacher of the king of south India, being knowledgeable in magical arts.”

For a while, I was tempted by the idea that Nāgārjuna might have been a Pāśupata or proto-Pāśupata, since Sanskrit narrative literature tends quite often (for example Bāṇa’s Kādambarī) to specify nidhivādinskhanyavādins, and rasavādins, as Pāśupatas (Balbir 1993: 22). Moreover, Diwakar Acharya (2013, 2018) has argued for the existence of Pāśupatas by another name well before the 4th century, taking them within the usual range of dates estimated for Nāgārjuna. Conversely, Andrea Acri has pointed out that the narrative descriptions of Pāśupatas might be mere caricature, and should not be relied upon too much. 

Yet we can nevertheless be confident that visiting the nāgas was an elite behaviour, and a technique that many brahmins would take pride in mastering. So even if we can’t know which exact category of brahmins the young Nāgārjuna might have been educated amongst, we can nevertheless be sure that involvement with nāgas and visits to nāgaloka were consonant with an elite education. It is after all an anthropological commonplace that rulers of pre-modern agricultural societies typically needed to show a closeness with and influence over natural powers such as rainfall and fertility, which governed essential food production. Those who were not seen to have good relations with the spirit powers that fed the people might not remain kings for long. Hence visiting nāgas in nāgaloka and receiving gifts from them was something that could be admired in kings, or the brahmins acting for them (Vasudeva 2012: 276). The Pāli narratives allude to this in so often showing nāgas to interact with kings and brahmins, and likewise we can point to the claims of several historical South Indian royal houses to lineal descent from nāga ancestors (DeCaroli 2004: 92), as is also claimed for Nāgārjuna himself in several Jain sources (Walser 2007: 74) . 


Now, let us recall that it is generally agreed by most scholars that the above-mentioned earliest Chinese sources, in both the clusters we have discussed, portray Nāgārjuna as a brahmin before converting to Buddhism, and describe him as visiting the nāgaloka to receive Dharma treasures. It follows, then, that if Nāgārjuna had in fact belonged to some brahmin grouping educated in various magical arts, most of which were underpinned by the thorough knowledge of plants and substances fundamental to much Indian magic and medicine, it might be a bit rash to try to claim with such absolute certainty that he could never have engaged in these practices, despite the unanimity of all Asian traditions to the contrary. Might we be unconscious victims of the same kind of over-rationalising mindset that once attempted to deny the mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton’s deep and life-long immersion in the study of alchemy, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Temple of Solomon, and other occult topics? 

If a super smart brahmin suitably conversant with such contemporary topics as khanyavāda and nidhivādaañjana, and visiting nāgaloka, were to convert to Buddhism, can we really be so absolutely certain that he would never feel the urge to deploy whatever know-how he had on behalf of his new Buddhist faith? And given his new faith’s already well-established involvement in nāga cults, might he not feel confident to describe a visit to a nāga palace, and the gift from a long-lived nāga king who might have been amongst the Buddha’s original audience, of some wondrous teachings of the Buddha that were otherwise lost to humans? 

It is necessary to recall that nāgas were considered quite exceptionally important as protective deities in early Buddhism. More specifically, South India was a major centre for nāga cults, even more so than other regions of India, and archaeologists have recovered a prolific quantity of nāga representations in the region, not least in Buddhist sites. Can we really be absolutely certain that Nāgārjuna the Mahāyānist and Madhyamaka philosopher remained aloof from his cultural background? If so, why? 

Much of the literature on nāgas in Indian Buddhist monasticism has focused on their rain-making and monastery-protecting duties. However, in addition, early Buddhist texts are similarly full of narratives about nāgas serving the dharma by guarding in their subterranean palaces a variety of specifically Buddhist treasures. For example, nāgas played exactly this role in an important Pāli Buddhist text from Nāgārjuna’s contemporaneous and neighbouring Sri Lanka, the Dīpavaṃsa, composed between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE. Kristin Scheible, (2016: 94–116) has thus argued with considerable cogency that the prime function of nāgas in the Pāli Buddhism of Sri Lanka during Nāgārjuna’s time was actually guarding the various types of sacred relics of the Buddha in their nāgaloka. There were powerful connections between the Buddhism of South India and nearby Sri Lanka at that time. As Scheible explains, it was believed these relics had mainly been hidden in nāgaloka during the Buddha’s own time on earth, to be guarded by nāgas until the moment arrived when they would be needed by humans; at which point, a suitably qualified human would have to visit nāgalokato retrieve them. Scheible suggests this relic-guarding function was the main reason for the great prominence of nāgas in Buddhist texts of that period.

In Mahāyāna literature of that period, the role of nāgas is similar, except that otherwise ‘forgotten’ Mahāyāna sacred texts could also count amongst such relics. For example, the Pratyutpanna-buddha-saṃmukhāvasthita-samādhi-sūtra that was translated into Chinese in 179 CE, near or shortly before Nāgārjuna’s time, talks of the Buddha causing his Mahāyāna sermons, including that very sūtra itself, to be hidden with the nāgas, as a precaution that would enable their future recovery by spiritually authorised humans. This was necessary because the Buddha could foresee that many of his sermons or sūtras would otherwise become lost to the careless human race (Ch.13 v.9).

Given the perceived proclivity of the short-lived human sangha to lose their scriptural transmissions, and given that nāgas were believed to have usually been amongst the original audience of a sūtra when the Buddha first preached it, and given that nāgas were believed to have such great longevity that original auditors of the Buddha’s preaching were routinely still alive among them, and given the perceived frequent deep commitment of such nāgas to serve the dharma as its protectors, surely this strategy for scriptural safe-keeping must have looked like a natural and reasonable arrangement. By substituting Padmasambhava for the Buddha, a parallel narrative is still able to persist in rNying ma gter ma, no doubt inspired by these earlier Indian models.

In this context, it might be worth noting that much has been said in secondary literature about Nāgārjuna as a name used by later alchemists in India and his prominence in later Indian alchemical texts; likewise in matters of Indian medicine and longevity. But less has so far been said about his similar role in the related Indian arts of treasure discovery or nidhivāda, and his connection with nidhiśāstra texts such as the Nidhipradīpika (Balbir 1993:25), which, indeed, reproduces the two chapters on treasure discovery from the Kakṣapuṭa or Siddhanāgārjuna-tantra, attributed to the authorial name of Nāgārjuna (Chapters 15 and 16, see Yamano 2013: 66-67). 

We seem to encounter little difficulty in accepting that an actual historical Nāgārjuna probably served as the synecdoche or role model for future doctrinal and textual innovators, some of whom were also his namesake. Jean Filliozat (1979) has previously tried to assert that Nāgārjuna was the editor of one of the foundational texts of Indian medicine, the Suśruta Saṃhitā, although his proposal is not reproduced in such standard sources as the two Brill Encyclopedia of Buddhism articles upon which this blog has largely relied, and was critically reviewed. My own position is altogether different: I make no claim whatsoever to prove that Nāgārjuna did one thing or another. I simply wonder if a current academic certainty, that a historical Nāgārjuna did not have any actual involvement with nāga beliefs or magic, is sufficiently well founded. I don’t think we have enough evidence to support any such certainties.

This is merely a blog, an informal space where scholars can feel free to explore and suggest.


Acharya, Diwakar, 2013. “How to Behave like a Bull? New Insight into the Origin and Religious Practices of Pāśupatas.” In Indo-Iranian Journal 56 (2013) pp. 101–131. 

Acharya, Diwakar, 2018. “Pāśupatas”, in: Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism Online, editors Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Consulted online on 28 December 2021 < 5019_BEH_COM_9000000056>
First published online: 2018 

Balbir, Nalini, 1993. “À la recherche des trésors souterrains.” In Studies in honour of Gerrit Jan Meulenbeld: Journal of the European Āyurvedic Society vol. 3, 1993, pp. 15– 55. 

Corless, Roger, 1995. “The Chinese Life of Nāgārjuna”, in Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald Lopez. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

DeCaroli, Robert, 2004. Haunting the Buddha. Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Deeg, Max, 2021. “Indian Regional nāga Cults and Individual nāga Stories in Chinese buddhist Travelogues.” In Acta Asiatica Varsoviensa,  No. 34, 2021. Pp. 51-78.

Einoo, Shingo, 2009. “From kāmas to siddhis. Tendencies in the Development of Ritual towards Tantrism.” In Genesis and Development of Tantrism, ed. Shingo Einoo. Tokyo: Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo. Pages 17-40. 

Filliozat, Jean, 1979. Yogasataka: Texte Médical, attribué a Nagarjuna. Pondicherry: Institut Francais De Pondichery.

Gardner, Alexander, 2019. The Life of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. Boulder: Snow Lion.

Goudriaan, Teun, 1976. Māyā Divine and Human: A study of magic and its religious foundation in Sanskrit texts, with particular attention to a fragment on Viṣṇu’s Māyā preserved in Bali. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Mayer, Robert, “Indian nidhi, Tibetan gter ma, Guru Chos dbang, and a Kriyātantra on Treasure Doors: Rethinking Treasure (part two)”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 64, Juiller 2022, pp. 368-446. 

Robinson, Richard H., 1977. Early Mādhyamika in India and China. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 

Scheible, Kristin, 2016. Reading the Mahāvaṃsa: The Literary Aims of a Theravāda Buddhist History. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Vasudeva, Somadeva, 2012. “Powers and Identities: Yoga Powers and the Tantric Śaiva Traditions“, in Yoga powers: extraordinary capacities attained through meditation and concentration, ed. Knut A. Jacobsen. Leiden and Boston: Brill. pp. 265-302. 

Vogel, Jean Ph., 1926. Indian Serpent Lore or the Nāgas in Hindu Legend and Art. London: Arthur Probsthain. 

Walser, Joseph, 2005. Nāgārjuna in Context. Mahāyāna Buddhism and Early Indian Culture, New York: Columbia University Press.

Wedemeyer, C.K., 2007. Āryadeva’s Lamp that Integrates the Practice (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa): The Gradual Path of Vajrayāna Buddhism According to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition, New York: The American Institute of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University. 

Westerhoff, Jan Christoph, “Nāgārjuna”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

White, David Gordon, 1996. The Alchemical Body. Siddha traditions in Medieval India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2013, “The Yakṣiṇī-sādhana in the Kakṣapuṭa-tantra: Introduction, Critical Edition, and Translation”.  Journal of the International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies Vol. XVII, 2013 

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2010, 『龍樹菩薩伝』の成立問題,(Two Biographies of Nāgārjuna), in Sengokuyama Journal of Buddhist Studies, Vol. V, 2010. 

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2009b, “Śrīparvata as Nāgārjuna’s Abode: At the Confluence of Legend, History, and Geography,” IBK 57/3, 1246−1252. 

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2009a, “Early Biographies of Nāgārjuna”, in Journal of Rengeji Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2, 2009.

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2008b. Siddha Nāgārjuna: The Legend of Buddhist Saints in the Tantric World (シッダ·ナーガールジュナ ―タントラ世界における聖者伝説の展開―) Dissertation presented to the faculty of International College for Postgraduate Buddhist Studies in candidacy for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in 2008).

Yamano, Chieko (山野千恵子), 2008a. “Nāgārjuna and Sātavāhana,” IBK 56/3, 1157−1163. 

Yamano Chieko (山野千恵子), 2007. “Nāgārjuna to Sātavāhana” (ナーガールジュナとサータヴァーハ ナ), CG 56, 401−431. 

Yamano Chieko (山野千恵子), 2004. “Nāgārjuna to Rasāyana” (ナーガールジュナとラサーヤナ), CG 53, 63−82. 

Ye Shaoyong, 2019. “Nāgārjuna”, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume II: Lives. pp. 335-347.

Young, Stuart H, 2019. “Nāgārjuna in China”, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume II: Lives. pp. 728-734.

[1] In due course, parts of this blog will be refined and expanded into a chapter of a forthcoming book about gter ma  revelation. Other parts of the blog are contextual research towards that chapter. In the meantime, any constructive comments will be greatly welcomed. Chieko Yamano has so patiently and so generously contributed so much to my understanding that this blog could quite certainly not have existed without her. Stuart Young has likewise has offered me an immense amount of extremely valuable advice. Many thanks also to Aleksandra Wenta, Andrea Acri, Jan Westerhoff, and Somdev Vasudeva, for their priceless offerings of advice and references.

[2] We now have a DPhil student at Oxford, Ryan Jacobson, working on the same materials. 

[3] 出三蔵記集 T 55, no. 2145, p. 74.

[4] 出三蔵記集, T 55, no. 2145, p. 75.

[5] 出三蔵記集, T 55, no. 2145, p. 77.

[6] T no.1775『注維摩詰経』巻第二 38:339a.

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Schrödinger’s Treasures

Is treasure actually a thing in India? That entirely depends on who you ask. 

If one were to rely exclusively on Western academic publications, one might easily conclude that treasure is not really a thing in India, and never has been. A search of the website will throw up zero academic titles containing the Indian word for treasure, nidhi, and barely one or two papers containing the term anywhere in the body of their text. In similar vein, there is only one full academic article devoted to the Indian Lord of Treasures, Kubera, and none at all to his famous Nine Treasures.

According to Indians however, nidhi is a very big thing indeed within their culture, and always has been. Various Google searches for the ubiquitous ‘Nine Nidhis’ of Indian thought throw up 1,020,000 results for ‘nava nidhis’, 587,000 results for the more Sikh-friendly ‘nau nidh’, and even 196,000 results for the English search term ‘nine treasures of Kubera’, almost all of the latter from English-language Indian websites. Kubera himself throws up 18,300,000 search results, although many of these are for his namesakes, be they financial advisers, crypto currency dealers, fintech programs, or even video games. 

Numerous popular religious blogs and websites expound the topic of the nine nidhis, be they Sikh or ISKCON, modern New Age or conservative Vedic, be they Vaiṣṇava or Śaiva, focused on Hanuman or Gaṇeśa, North Indian or South Indian. I have no idea how many hits might turn up if one searched in Hindi or Tamil rather than in English. But I doubt there are very many people alive in India today who are not in some way or another familiar with Kubera, the King of the Yakṣas, and his Nine Treasures.

Anecdotal evidence reinforces the paradox. In the course of my own conversations and correspondences, I have found surprisingly few contemporary Western academic Indologists with much inkling of what the ancient and extraordinarily convoluted and multivalent term nidhi refers to.  Things might have been different in the past, since Vogel (1926) did devote some thought to nidhi in the course of his classic study of nāgas, and K. R. Norman (1992) and Nalini Balbir (1993) subsequently wrote articles on important aspects of the subject. Yet even these worthy efforts of the last century hardly reflect the ubiquity of the topic within Indian religious and non religious writing alike. 

The Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, has more than a hundred references to the Nine Nidhis, many attributed to the first of their ten gurus, Nānak (1469 -1539). Little wonder that the topic is so ubiquitous in modern Sikhism. K. R. Norman (1992: 185, note 12) has observed that the nine-fold nidhi was so well known and pervasive a category in India that the word nidhi is even found in inscriptions simply to indicate the numeral ‘9’. Important Purāṇas such as the Garuḍa (Chapter 53), and the Mārkaṇḍeya (Chapter 68), have entire chapters expounding a slightly different enumeration of eight nidhis: no wonder the topic is widely discussed in Hindu circles. There is even a famous myth underpinning the fabulous wealth of the richest and most visited temple in the world, the Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, describing Venkateswara Balaji’s eternal indebtedness to Kubera after he took a loan to pay for his wedding. This extremely well known myth invokes the idea of Kubera as lord of nidhi

In the course of her description of the Indian art of treasure finding (nidhivāda), and its intimate interelation and overlap with mineralogy (khanyavāda) and alchemy (rasavāda), Nalini Balbir has remarked how Indian literary narratives are full of references to nidhi. Her paper is only a first introduction this very broad topic, and was largely derived from those literary and Jain narrative texts that comprise her special areas of academic focus, but even without paying much attention beyond these confines, she cited references to nidhi from at least thirty different and mainly non-religious narrative works, most of which I list below (see Appendix 2). 

K. R. Norman inter alia introduces the nidhis in Indian lexicographical texts, such as Amarasiṃha’s famous Nāmaliṅgānuśāsana lexicon, usually known as the Amarakoṣa or Amarakośa, and Hemacandra’s Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra. Following Vogel, Norman also discussed the occurrences of the term nidhi in Indian Buddhist literature, where it displays a distinctive four-fold enumeration, including in such varied texts as the Divyāvadāna (which parallels the Mūlasarvastivādin vinaya), the Mahāvastu, the Khotanese Book of Zambasta, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, the Maitreyavyākaraṇa, and the Karmaśataka. The Pāli commentaries (Nidānakathā) in particular make much of these four nidhi, identifying them as one of the seven co-natals (saha-jāta) that appear spontaneously whenever a Buddha is born. 

In the context of numerous narratives of nāgas controlling treasures both sacred and mundane, notably in early Buddhism, and their control over local agricultural economies, Vogel (1926: 210-11) also discusses the Four Great Nidhis (chatur-mahānidhi-sthāḥ) of early Indian Buddhist literature, and their connection with famous nāga kings dwelling at specific geographical locations. Vogel mentions the eye-witness reports of the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, whose observations he believes are consistent with the cult of these four great nidhi-owning Buddhist nāgas.

It is with these observations that we finally arrive at my real point, which is a Tibetological one. Even if we, as western academics, are content to remain largely unaware of what the multivalent Indian term nidhi refers to, Tibetan translators and scholars of the early translation period were not like us. They were more like Indians. They understood the term nidhi was important in Indian culture, and they necessarily sought to understand it in the same way that Indians understood it. True, in the course of time Tibetan civilisation came to rather magnificently stretch the range of the word, but nevertheless, the starting point was without doubt a close reading of the Indian meanings of the term nidhi

The term that Tibetans consistently and invariably used to translate the Indian term nidhi, was the Tibetan root gter. We find this rendering demonstrated not only in the Mahāvyutpatti, but also in translations of many Sanskrit tantras such as the Amoghapāśakalparāja (listed in the lHan dkar ma, number 316), in translations of Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, and in translations of seminal Sanskrit lexicons such as the Amarakośa. Wherever the Sanskrit versions of these texts, and many others like them, have nidhi, the Tibetan translations have gter.

Unlike us modern academics however, the translators of the early period of translation (snga dar) could not so easily enjoy the luxury of turning a blind eye to the complex meanings of this conceptually difficult term. For example, a single Kriyātantra that is cited in the lHan dkar ma (number 317) the Vidyottamamahātantra, has at least 60 occurences, some of them embedded within lengthy passages focused specifically on the topic of nidhi. Unlike us, the translators could have had no escape. They simply had to get to grips with the meanings of nidhi, however complex. Based on the surviving textual and linguistic evidence from all known sources, Joanna Bialek has tentatively proposed a hypothesis, that the Tibetan word gter might have been a translational neologism, purposely coined to render the Indian word nidhi

Nalini Balbir has already pointed to the sensitivity of the compilers of the Mahāvyutpatti in including the mineralogical nuances of this complex term, thus showing how they seemed to understand the intimate interrelation in India between the arts of nidhivāda (treasure finding) and khanyavāda (mineralogy) (Balbir 1993: 20). 

But to my current knowledge, it is surely Guru Chos dbang in his gTer ‘byung chen mo who demonstrates the most virtuosic and complete philosophical understanding of the complex Indian concept. He must really have considered the issues with great thorougness, with all the instincts of a natural anthropologist. I am not sure what Chos dbang’s sources were. Certainly he follows time-honoured Indian Buddhist conventions in presenting a basically four-fold outer structure. But much more than that, he undoubtedly understands the full complexity of nidhi as an Indian term that operates simultaneously on so many quite different yet deeply interelated dimensions. My present supposition is that his task was made easier, by the prior existence of an indigenous Tibetan theory of environment, economy, wealth, and value, that already ran closely parallel to the Indian one.

Be that as it may, Chos dbang quite impressively understood all of the following about Indian nidhi:

  • that nidhi entailed a specific understanding of the geographical environment and landscape, and the powerful non-human inhabitants dwelling therein
  • that nidhi is particularly connected with nāga territorial deities
  • that nidhi is likewise connected with yakṣa territorial deities 
  • that nidhi supplies a general explanation of mundane economic wealth, as well as a theory of value
  • that nidhi need not be hidden by any agent, but can be naturally present
  • that nidhi can also be hidden by specific agents, both human and non-human
  • that the discovery of nidhi requires very precise ritual performances
  • that the territorial deity guardians of nidhi are potentially dangerous and must be placated
  • that the territorial deity guardians of nidhi are potentially convertable into Buddhist protectors
  • that the category of nidhi has age-old associations with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha, in the literatures of all three vehicles of Śrāvakayāna, Mahāyāna, and Vajrayāna.
  • that nidhi has a long association with the revelation of previously hidden scriptural texts
  • that nidhi is specified by name as a component part of the classic Indian Mahāyāna narrative of dharmabhāṇakas reincarnating to find scriptures originally entrusted to them by the Buddha
  • that nidhi can also have many important abstract spiritual meanings
  • Chos dbang also manages to include within his classifications of gter, pretty much all the varied categories of nidhi listed in such standard Indian texts as Amarasiṃha’s Amarakośa and Hemacandra’s Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra. These include such things as jewels, foods, military items, clothes, grains and crops, new locations for human settlement, mines, all the various arts and crafts and sciences, ornaments for both humans and animals, offspring, all kinds of wealth, knowledge of calculations and measurements, occult knowledge, the dramatic arts, and so on and so forth (see Appendix 1 below). 

Janet Gyatso (1994) was the first Western academic scholar to look at Guru Chos dbang’s gTer ‘byung chen mo, closely followed by Ronald Davidson, who went on to examine Ratna Gling pa’s work on the same topic. Gyatso’s article is an exceptional peice of scholarship, to which I constantly return for inspiration, and which deservedly remains a classic of Tibetological writing. Yet for her, for Davidson, and for almost all other Western academic scholars of their generation, nidhi was simply not a thing. Even if the term nidhi might have been encountered here or there, it did not exist as a significant category within Indian culture. Like Schrödinger’s cat, nidhi simultaneously existed in India, while not existing in the West. Hence neither Gyatso nor Davidson could recognise that Guru Chos dbang was so thoughtfully producing his own account of nidhi in his gTer ‘byung chen mo. Instead of recognising that he was grappling with the idea of nidhi, Gyatso simply wrote: “We almost begin to suspect that Guru Chos-dbang is going to argue that everything is a kind of Treasure” (Gyatso 1994:276). What Chos dbang was actually doing was something rather more particular and more nuanced: following Indian lexicographical definitions, he was arguing that anything of intrinsic value, be it spiritual or mundane, which was once hidden and later revealed, could count as gter. And gter is the Tibetan translation of nidhi

For a more extensive discussion of these issues, see Mayer 2022.

Appendix 1 Some samples of Indian classifications of nidhi.

Hemacandra’s (1088-1173) list of the Nine Nidhis below is taken from his Triṣaṣṭiśalākāpuruṣacaritra and is based on a canonical Jain text, the Ṭhāṇaṃga-sutta. Note that his famous lexicon or dictionary of synonyms, the Abhidhānacintāmaṇi, also has a further entry for nidhi.

[1] the nidhi Naiṣarpa is the origin of the building of camps, cities, villages, mines, towns approached by land or sea, and isolated towns; [2] the nidhi Pāṇḍuka is the origin of all bulk, weight, and height, and of all numbers, and of grains and seeds; [3] the nidhi Piṅgala is the origin of the whole business of ornaments, for both humans and animals; [4] the nidhi Sarvaratna is the origin of the Cakravartin’s jewels; [5] the nidhi Mahāpadma is the origin of all clothing; [6] the nidhi Kāla is the origin of knowledge of the past, present and future, also of labour such as agriculture, and the arts [7] the nidhi Mahākāla is the origin of coral, silver, gold, pearls, iron, etc. and their mines; [8] the nidhi Māṇava is the origin of soldiers, weapons, armour, the sciences of fighting, and the administration of justice; [9] the nidhi Śaṅkha is the origin of poetry, concerts, dramatic arts, and musical instruments. 

Amarasiṃha’s list of the Nine Nidhis from his Amarakośa are particularly famous, but here only their proper names are given: [1] Padma (Lotus), [2] Mahāpadma (Great Lotus), [3] Śaṅkha (Conch), [4] Makara (Crocodile), [5] Kacchapa (Tortoise), [6] Mukunda (a gemstone?), [7] Kunda (Jasmine), [8] Nīla (Sapphire), and [9] Kharva (Dwarf). There are many different ways of interpreting these names. As one example among hundreds, a Sikh analysis of the famous Amarakośa list is that, from a worldly point of view, they signify in order  (1) offspring, (2) jewels, (3) foods, (4) military prowess, (5) clothes and grains, (6) gold, (7) successful trade in gems, (8) arts, and (9) riches of all kinds; while their spiritual aspects are  (1) faith, (2) devotion, (3) contentment, (4) detachment, (5) acceptance, (6) equipoise, (7) delight, (8) joy, and (9) awakening. 

The above lists give an indicative but not even remotely complete view of some of the multifarious Indian understandings of the Nine nidhi. There are also Purāṇic lists of Eight Nidhis, and many more variations besides. 

Appendix 2: some of the Indian narrative texts describing nidhi cited in Nalini Balbir (1993) 

Harṣacarita of Bāṇa (mid-6th century) in several places.

Kathāsagitsāgara 7.1.37ff sqq. (Ocean III, p.157-158); 43.37sqq. (Ocean II, p.159-160);

Pañcatantra 1.20 (Duṣtabuddhi and Pāpabuddhi), V.3 (siddhi-varti),

Kathāratnākara of Hemavijaya 

Daśakumāracarita  of Daṇḍin

Samarāiccakahā, a novel by Haribhadra (8th century)

Pradyumnasūri (13th century

Upadeśapada in Haribhadra’s version

Āvaśyaka IX.58.5 (cūrṇi 553.10-11; ṭīkā of Haribhadra  [Āvaśyaka-sūtra, a Śvetāmbara canonical scripture?

Upadeśapada [a Jain narrative collection] which gravitates in the orbit of the āvaśyakean literature.

Bṛhatsaṃhitā by Varāhamihira


Udayasundārikathā 21.23

Yaśastilakacampū of Somadevasūri (11th century)


Prabandhakośa 28.7 

Prabhāvakacarita 82.5


Siṃhasūri’s (6th century?), commentary on the Dvādaśāra-nayacakra, an important philosophical work by the Jaïna Malavādin (4th century?):

Kuvalayamālā of Uddyotanasūrī (completed in 779; 104.21sqq)

abridged Sanskrit by Ratnaprabhasūri (13th century; *46.1sqq)

Upamitibhavaprapañca Kathā of Siddharṣi (completed in 805; 865.7sqq)

Puhaicandacariya of Śāntisūri (completed in 1105; 119.23sqq)

Ākhyānakamaṇikośavṛtti of Āmradeva (12th century; 137.6 sqq)

Maṇoramākahā of Vardhamānasūri (12th century; 114.13sqq)

Līlāvatīsāra of Jinaratna (13th century) 6.182sqq and 391sqq) 

Nidhipradīpikā which brings together chapters 20 and 21 of the Kakṣapuṭa or Siddhanāgārjunatantra, attributed to Nāgārjuna the alchemist  

A further Nidhipradīpikā in twenty-eight chapters, taken from the Siddhaśābaratantra

Nidhipradīpa by Śrīkaṇṭhasámbhu 


Rasendracūḍāmaṇi (12th century; 3.29cd) 



Balbir, Nalini, 1993. “À la recherche des trésors souterrains“, in Studies in honour of Gerrit Jan Meulenbeld: Journal of the European Āyurvedic Society vol. 3, 1993, pp. 15– 55. 

Guru Chos dbang, n.d.  gTer ‘byung chen mo, pages 75-193, within Gu ru chos dbang gi rnam dang zhal gdamsRin chen gter mdzod chen po’i rgyab chos Vols 8-9, Ugyen Tempa’i Gyaltsen, Paro, 1979. TBRC Work Number 23802. 

Gyatso, Janet,  1994. “Guru Chos dbang’s gTer ‘byung chen mo: an early survey of the treasure tradition and its strategies in discussing Bon treasure”, PIATS 6, vol. 1, Oslo, Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994, pp. 275-287. 

Mayer, Rob, 2022.  “Indian nidhi, Tibetan gter ma, Guru Chos dbang, and a Kriyātantra on Treasure Doors: Rethinking Treasure (part two)”, in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 64, Juiller 2022, pp. 368-446.

Norman, K. Roy, 1992 “The Nine Treasures of a Cakravartin”, in Collected Papers, vol. 3, Oxford, The Pali Text Society, 1992, pp. 183-193. 

Vogel, Jean Ph. , 1926 Indian Serpent Lore or the Nāgas in Hindu Legend and Art, London, Arthur Probsthain, 1926. 

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Uḍḍiyāna, the North West, and Treasure: another piece in the jigsaw?

Scholars have been fascinated for many years by an intriguing and obviously important yet still little understood series of connections between the tantric traditions of north west India, including the old holy land of Uḍḍiyāna, and the tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Such connections appear particularly salient within the rNying ma traditions, not least because their great founder, Padmasambhava, was said to have come from Uḍḍiyāna. His great contemporary, Vimalamitra, for the rNying ma second in significance only to Padmasambhava himself, is also usually associated with Kashmir. Similarly, dGa’ rab rdo rje, the originator of the rDzogs chen system, is also said to have been born in Uḍḍiyāna, and to have received the rDzogs chen teachings there. In what follows, I am mainly interested in identifying possible rNying ma debts and connections to the tantric traditions associated with the North West and Uḍḍiyāna.

Many Indian traditions have considered Uḍḍiyāna a sacred and magical place imbued with great spiritual power, so that even its purported geographical location has sometimes become movable over the centuries. Following some such Indian and Tibetan precedents, a number of Tibetan lamas nowadays like to locate Uḍḍiyāna in Odisha. However, since Tucci, most academic scholars agree ancient Uḍḍiyāna was centred on the modern-day Swat valley of Pakistan. More recently, Alexis Sanderson (2007) carefully revisited the issue of the location of Uḍḍiyāna, and his findings reconfirm Tucci’s. Sanderson takes note of the various far-flung locations that have been identified with Uḍḍiyāna at different times and by different sources (Eastern India, the far South of India, etc.), but comes to the conclusion, drawn from his careful examination of a variety of old textual citations, that it was located near Kashmir.[1] In what follows, I follow Tucci and Sanderson, as well as a great many traditional Indian and Tibetan scholars, in accepting the modern-day Swat valley of Pakistan as the probable epicentre of a historical Uḍḍiyāna.

No one has yet written a full-length monograph specifically dedicated to the overall significance and impact of the Indian North West and Uḍḍiyāna on Tibetan Buddhism, although such a study would probably be very widely welcomed, and could add a great deal to our understanding. Nevertheless, these regions’ possible religious influences on and interactions with Tibet  are dealt with more peripherally, here and there, in a number of studies focused mainly on other topics. To mention only a few: Brenda Li wrote an Oxford doctoral thesis on the biograhy of the much-travelled 13th century bKa’ brgyud lama, U rgyan pa Rin chen dpal (1230−1309), who made a famous pilgrimage to Uḍḍiyāna (which for him, was certainly in modern day Pakistan).[2]  Jacob Dalton has made a study of the major tantra of the Anuyoga class, the mDo dgongs pa ‘dus pa, which is traditionally linked with the north-west region, and Orna Almogi has produced a very useful list of the numerous rNying ma scriptures whose colophons connect them with the Kashmir region.[3] Ulrich Timme Kragh has studied narratives about female tantric gurus in Uḍḍiyāna.[4] There are numerous somewhat confusing traditional references to important tantric teachers named Indrabhūti, one or more of whom is often identified as a king of Uḍḍiyāna.[5] In a forthcoming article (already available on in pre-publication form), I discuss the close geographical proximity of Uḍḍiyāna to the Tibetan speaking regions, and the cultural understanding of indigenous Tibetan religion already evidenced in the earliest extant documents of the Padmasambhava school.[6]

More significantly for my present purposes, Douglas Duckworth has pointed out interesting parallels between the general doctrinal trajectories of non-dual Śaivism in Kashmir, and Tibetan rDzogs chen. He shows how philosophical ideas very close to Utpaladeva’s Pratyabhijñā were also appearing for the first time in Tibet at around the same time, and how both traditions arose out of similar doctrinal adaptations of Buddhist Yogācāra.[7] Similarly, Jean-Luc Achard has even identified parallels between more specific meditation techniques used by both traditions.[8]

What has not so far been discussed is that there are also interesting similarities between the scriptural revelation practices of the 9th to 11th century non-dual Śaivism of Kashmir, Indian Tantric Buddhism (often specifically in relation to Uḍḍiyāna), and gter stons in nearby Tibet at a similar or very slightly later period. Understanding these parallels might prove fruitful to researching the historical roots of gter ma, and I hope to research them more fully with Ben Williams.

A recent Phd from Ben Williams has been devoted to the topic of revelation in the traditions of Abhinavagupta.[9] The revelations of earlier Śaiva traditions were typically attributed to the fabled interactions at mythical locations of intangible supernatural beings such as ṛṣis and devas. But a defining feature of the non-dual Śaiva traditions that developed in Kashmir became their focus on the projection of scriptural revelation out of the fantastical domains of myth, into the plain view of recordable history and tangible geography. As Williams has described, this process can already be seen in the description of the lineage of Pratyabhijñāśāstra, in an appendix to a work composed by Somānanda (c. 900-950). Although already in evidence earlier and elsewhere, notably in Kaula traditions, the description of revelation by named enlightened siddhas, sometimes at specified places and even at specified times, achieves a kind of crescendo in 10th and 11th century non-dual Śaiva texts from Kashmir, not least with the understanding of revelation taught and modeled by Abhinavagupta (fl. c. 975-1025).[10] According to Williams, in 10th and 11th century Kashmir, the power to transmit tantric teachings that carried the authority of revelation came to be seen as an integral aspect or demonstration of the guru’s spiritual status or realisation. It is interesting that much the same soon began to become apparent among the Tibetan Bon and rNying ma pa, not very far away from Kashmir.

To contextualise, it might help to give some even earlier Śaiva examples (see Williams p. 147). The Krama scriptural source, the Yonigahvaratantra, claims to have been revealed by an actual historical person, the siddha Jñānanetra, alias Śivānanda (circa 850-900), perhaps only one generation after Padmasambhava?).[11] Jñānanetra received his revelation at a tangible geographical location, the Karavīra cremation-ground in Uḍḍiyāna, one of the favourite sites for Krama revelations and rNying ma narratives of Padmasambhava alike. Also within Krama, and even earlier, the named individual Śrīnātha is said to have been the first human to receive the Kramasadbhāva and the Devīpañcaśatikā, once again, in Uḍḍiyāna. Similar narratives apply to Niṣkriyānanda, Matsyendranātha, and Vasugupta. Revelations of this kind, situated within what we might call recordable history and the geographical landscape, rather than veiled behind myth, was a hallmark emphasis of non-dual Śaiva traditions that flourished in Kashmir, and, as Williams describes in his PhD, central to its theology of the historically existent enlightened siddha as source of revelation. In relation to all this, we must mention the colophons to the Vajrabhairavatantra in the Kangyur mentioned by Bulcsu Siklos (p.113-114), supported by considerable commentarial elaborations, describing the important Vajrabhairavatantra being revealed for the first time in the human realm to the 8th century Indian siddha Lalitavajra, at Uḍḍiyāna. In similar vein, Toricelli (2018) has at various points mentioned similar traditions portraying  Tilopa as the first human to receive the transmission of important tantric scriptures, again in Uḍḍiyāna.

If Williams’ analysis proves accurate, developments in Tibet only a few decades later bear interesting comparison: the early 11th century Bon gter ston and contemporary of Abhinavagupta, gShen chen klu dga’ (996-1035), was surely not the first to reveal scriptures in Tibet, since, as is already very well known, there were a significant number of Tibetan-revealed and redacted but strictly anonymous rNying ma scriptures that preceded him. But he was surely among the first to bring the process of scriptural revelation out into the open field of recordable history, at a real geographical place. It is precisely because his revelation was among the first in Tibet not to be anonymous, that he is rightly described as among Tibet’s earliest gter ston.

Equally striking are parallels in the mode of revelation. Although some of gShen chen’s  revelations resembled sa gter,[12] another seemed to bear closer comparison with the Kaula model. gShen chen’s 10th century colophons describe how his Gab pa dgu skor revelation descended on his mind as a result of his realisation or siddhi (dngos grub) (Martin 2001: 50-2). This is reminiscent of contemporaneous Kashmirian revelation, where, as Williams has documented, the reception of new scripture was an integral outcome of realisation, or siddhi. Thus the speech of the realised Śaiva siddha could be construed as the utterance of new scripture. The 10th century commentator Rājānaka Rāma (c. 950-1000) praises as follows the speech of Vasugupta, who revealed the Śivasūtra:[13]

“I praise the speech of the guru ..Vasugupta to whom the flow of nectar in the form of the essence of vibration, the secret doctrine of all esoteric [knowledge], was directly transmitted…”(Williams p. 183)

Compare a praise to Padmasambhava from the 10th century Dunhuang text IOLTib J 321, describing him uttering scriptural tantra as an outcome of achieving siddhi:

“(When) .. pure awareness (is produced) by any noble being whatever, whatever sound is articulated by (his) speech, all without exception is called, “tantra”. In the supreme incomparable place of Akaniṣṭha, the Protector Great Being, turning the vajra wheel, speaks through disseminating the tongue’s sense faculty[14]…. I prostrate to 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.”[15]

A marginal note is added:

“this demonstrates [that it, ie this text] is not created by Padmasambhava idiosyncratically”.[16]

These similarities merit further investigation, not least because of other doctrinal parallels between the two traditions, their sometimes shared veneration of Uḍḍiyāna as a tantric holy site and source of scripture, the linkage of Padmasambhava with both Uḍḍiyāna and the Tibetan gter ma tradition, and the contiguous and overlapping borders between the Tibetan and Kashmiri cultural zones. However, it seems to me that the institution of gter ston as revealer of scripture in Tibet eventually became even more pronounced, developed, and pervasive, than its Śaiva counterpart.

[1] See the section entitled ‘Uḍḍiyāna and Kashmir’, contained in pages 265-269 of his article ‘The Śaiva Exegesis of Kashmir’, in Mélanges tantriques à la mémoire d’Hélène Brunner. Tantric Studies in Memory of Hélène Brunner, Collection Indologie 106, EFEO, Institut français de Pondichéry (IFP), ed. Dominic Goodall and André Padoux, 2007.)

[2] Brenda W.L. Li , 2011. A Critical Study of the Life of the 13th-Century Tibetan Monk U rgyan pa Rin chen dpal Based on his Biographies. DPhil thesis, Oxford.

[3] Jacob Dalton 2016, The Gathering of Intentions: A History of a Tibetan Tantra, Columbia University Press, 2016, and Orna Almogi, 2016, “Tantric Scriptures in the rNying ma rgyud ’bum Believed to Have Been Transmitted to Tibet by Kashmiris: A Preliminary Survey.” In Eli Franco & Isabelle Ratié (eds.), Around Abhinavagupta: Aspects of the Intellectual History of Kashmir from the Ninth to the Eleventh Century. Leipziger Studien zu Kultur und Geschichte Süd- und Zentralasiens 6. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 1–31.

[4] Ulrich Timme Kragh, 2016. “Chronotopic Narratives of Seven Gurus and Eleven Texts: A Medieval Buddhist Community of Female Tāntrikas in the Swat Valley of Pakistan”, in Cracow Indological Studies, Vol. XX, No. 2 (2018), pp. 1–26

[5] See, for example, the several mentions of King Indrabhūti by U rgyan pa Rin chen dpal, as described in Brenda Li’s DPhil thesis.

[6] Robert Mayer, 2020. ‘Geographical and Other Borders in the Symbolism of Padmasambhava’, in About Padmasambhava. Historical Narratives and Later Transformations of Guru Rinpoche, edited by Geoffrey Samuel and Jamyang Oliphant of Rossie, Garuda Verlag, Schongau

[7] Douglas Duckworth, 2017. ‘From Yogācāra to Philosophical Tantra in Kashmir and Tibet’, in Sophia (2018) 57:611–623.

[8] Jean-Luc Achard, 1999. L’essence perlée du secret. Recherches philologiques et historiques sur lorigine de la Grande Perfection dans la tradition rNying ma pa. Turnhout, Brepols. pp. 248-253

[9] Benjamin Luke Williams. PhD dissertation, Harvard University, August 2017. Abhinavaguptas Portrait of a Guru: Revelation and Religious Authority in Kashmir.

[10] Ben Williams, personal communication 3rd December 2018.

[11] For a chronology of Śaiva authors that flourished in Kashmir and beyond, see pages 411 ff in Alexis Sanderson, 2007, “The Śaiva Exegesis of Kashmir.” In langes tantrique à la mémoire d’Hélène Brunner. Edited by Dominic Goodall & André Padoux, pp. 231–442. Pondicherry, India: Institut Français d’Indologie/École Française d’Extreme-Orient.

[12] Three other revelations are more like sa gter, extracted from a gter sgo. Here gShen chen describes the days on which he opened the treasury doors (gter sgo phye ba lags so), and the scribal work of his students in comparing his discoveries with other old texts, and writing them out correctly

[13] These were defined as scriptural by Kṣemarāja (c. 1000-1050), but Sanderson points to earlier sources that already defined the Śivasūtras as scriptural. See Williams p. 187.

[14] Cantwell, C., and R. Mayer, 2012. A Noble Noose of Methods: The Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahāyoga Tantra and Its Commentary. OAW, Vienna. See page 96: / /skyes bu gang gis rig pa de / /ngag gis ci skad brjod pa’i sgra / /thams cad ma lus tan tra zhes / ‘og myin bla myed gnas mchog du / /mgon po bdag nyid chen po yis / /rdo rje ‘khor lo bskor pa na / /ljags kyi dbang po bkram las gsungs/ /

[15] /dngos grub mchog brnyes ya mtshan chen po ‘i/ / ‘jig rten ngam gyur pad ma rgyal po yis/ /de bzhin gshegs pa’i man ngag gsang chen rnams / /klung nas bkrol mdzad de la phyag ‘tshal lo //

[16] pad ma sam ba bhas rang gz[or?] byas pa + + ma yin bar ston

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Historical proof by textual criticism?

Cathy and I are very gratified by the positive reception of our work in critical editing, even though I am certain I do not deserve it, and remain acutely aware of the many failings in my work. We are above all gratified because a lot more hangs on the quality of our editions than mere vanity. For if our latest edition of an early rNying ma tantra stands good, then so too does our proposed historical proof for a greater antiquity than previously demonstrable of the Noble Noose of Methods, the Mahāyoga tantra so closely associated with Padmasambhava. But if our edition proves faulty, then so too will our proof that this tantra predates the Dunhuang text by at least two copyings, and therefore might indeed date back to the late Imperial period. For these reasons, since real history depends on it, we made every effort to apply the same standards of professionalism and rigour that are commonally required in the editing of Western texts, as did such excellent scholars before us as Helmut Eimer, Paul Harrison and Jonathan Silk in their own pioneering editions from the Kanjur. And perhaps that is why, despite my personal ineptitude, van der Kuijp not long ago singled out our work as ‘truly superb’ in the field of Tibetan critical editing,[1] and others like Wedemeyer have concurred.[2] Per Kvaerne has described our edition of the Noble Noose of Methods as a ‘remarkable scholarly achievement’, and ‘a massive and highly important contribution to Tibetan studies’, that ‘cannot receive anything but the highest praise’, [3]  while for the same work Helmut Eimer warmly congratulated us on ‘ein beeindruckendes Werk der Bearbeitung’ (‘an impressive work of editing’).[4]   Péter-Dániel Szántó, in a detailed review that pays particular attention to our stemmatic methods, writes: “The core of the work is a critical edition.., which is a veritable philological tour de force… The authors are, I think, successful in untangling this formidable problem, and manage to establish a plausible archetype of the root-text with an assured hand. However, at the same time they are not reluctant to point out what had remained conjectures or mere hypotheses. This, what one might call editorial honesty, is something that normally should be expected, but, sadly, it is not so often observed in actual practice” (European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 44, Spring-Summer 2014, pp121-125).  Finally, Matthew Kapstein writes: “CANTWELL and MAYER (2012), [an] exemplary study of the tantra entitled Noble Noose of Methods (‘Phags pa thabs kyi zhags pa), ….may now be taken as the model for critical research on Dunhuang tantric materials and their continuity in relation to later Tibetan tantrism. Their painstaking editions of the texts on which their research is based demonstrate clearly that, between the Dunhuang materials and later sources, there was no radical rupture, but rather a history of continuous development” (Kapstein, Matthew, 2014. “Dunhuang Tibetan Buddhist Manuscripts and the Later Tibetan Buddhism: A Brief Review of Recent Research”, Dunhuang Tulufan yanjiu 敦煌吐魯番研究 [Journal of the Dunhuang and Turfan Studies] 14 (2014): 165-180.)

Hopefully, these positive reviews from such great scholars will prove to be good omens that our historical proofs by textual criticism will stand the test of time!

There has also been a review from Giacomella Orofino, in what might well prove to have been the final issue of the financially beleagured JIATS, who also makes positive remarks about our work: she says, for example, that we ‘have undertaken a very complex and important work that has the great merit of being a pioneering study’,  and she describes the monograph as, ‘a dense, important work that offers valuable sources of information on the development of the Rnying ma pa tradition’. But Orofino’s review is at the same time vitiated by a great deal of confusion, including at several key and even elementary points, and especially when attempting the more technical aspects of our dense and lengthy monograph. Even in seeking to praise us, she makes surprisingly inaccurate statements of both fact and interpretation, and her two or three points of criticism are no less muddle-headed.  Regarding the latter, we fully hope and expect that in due course, some truly learned scholar might propose real improvements to our undoubtedly imperfect work, and although this might prove a somewhat chastening experience, it should also be enlightening. However, Orofino’s present criticisms are as difficult to take seriously as her praises, because she is so manifestly confused in both instances.

Yet the beauty of the scholarly life lies not in the exchange of bare assertions and opinions, but in the submission of all protagonists to the gentle light of truth, and in the final analysis, that can only be established through evidence and reasoning. It is in such a spirit that we offer the list of comments numbered below, that correct Orofino’s misunderstandings. And moreover, writing this response gives us a further opportunity succinctly to encapsulate several key points about what is, unavoidably, a highly complex work. Normally, such a response would appear within the JIATS itself, and their editorial board did indeed invite me to make such a response. However, since this wonderful journal is now facing severe financial problems, and might never appear again, or at the very least will take many months or even years to produce its next issue, I decided to present my response here, very much more swiftly, rather than await an uncertain appearence in JIATS.

The book in question is: Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, 2012: A Noble Noose of Methods, The Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahāyoga Tantra and its Commentary, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna. The review of it in question is by Giacomella Orofino, in JIATS Issue 7, August 2013.

[1] pages 454-455: Complimenting our courage in attempting such an arduous and complex task, Orofino portrays us at the outset of her review with an opening quote about the great difficulties of “reconstructing…..the original text of a literary work”,  which implies that we actually attempted to reconstruct the original Thabs zhags Root Tantra text. Alas, not so! We pursue, of course, only the very much more modest task of reconstructing its archetype, that is, the closest ancestor of all extant versions, not the original Tibetan version. And we do not even attempt a critical edition of the Commentary, although, for some unknown reason, Orofino clearly seems to think that we do (page 460).

[2] A major part of the introduction to our book concerns Padmasambhava, and Orofino likewise seems pleased with this work. Yet, unfortunately, she somehow manages to misunderstand, almost to the point of reversing, the main thrust of our argumentation. On page 456, she writes:

‘[Cantwell and Mayer] have concluded that the Padma rGyal po of the .. [Thabs zhags Commentary] cannot be identified with the eighth-century historical figure of Padmasambhava; he might rather correspond to the mythologized tantric master of the later period.’

We nowhere conclude that the Padma rGyal po of the Thabs zhags Commentary cannot be identified with the eighth-century figure of Padmasambhava. Since we are aware from the ethnographic record that gurus of Padmasambhava’s type are often mythologised within their own lifetimes, we cannot accept without further analysis that Padmasambhava too was not mythologised in the 8th century. Hence we seek to complicate the facile assumption of an 8th century historical Padmasambhava and a later mythologised one, by presenting evidence that Padmasambhava is already highly mythologised in such a very early text as the Thabs zhags Commentary, in precisely the same terms as later employed by Nyang ral. Moreover, the Dunhuang version mythologises him yet further in its unique marginal annotations.

[3] In the following sentence, also on page 456, she compounds the confusion by misreading our analysis of Padmasambhava’s putative authorial relations to the Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba and the Commentary on “A Noble Noose of Methods”:

‘This [non-identity of the Padma rGyal po of the Thabs zhags Commentary with an 8th century historical Padmasambhava] can also be confirmed by the fact that it is not possible to observe remarkable similarities between the Commentary on “A Noble Noose of Methods” and the Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba, the famous early work attributed to the historical Padmasambhava.’

We have in fact shown something entirely different, because we question the popular modern presumption, deriving originally from Ken Eastman’s tentative comments which were magnified uncritically by subsequent scholars, that the Thabs zhags Commentary is attributable to Padmasambhava. We are certainly not saying that some later Padmasambhava composed the Thabs zhags Commentary; rather, we are saying that the text itself does not by any means make clear that its references to Padmasambhava should be taken as authorial attributions at all. On the contrary, Padmasambhava seems to be presented not as the merely human author of the Thabs zhags Commentary, but more likely as the transcendent enlightened inspiration for the Root Tantra itself.  In her above statement, Orofino seems to miss this, our key point, implying that we believe the Padma rGyal po who is eulogised at the end of the Thabs zhags Commentary must be its human composer. Moreover, we do not even assert (or deny) that the Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba is by the historical Padmasambhava. We simply observe that if there is any written work which might, according to the criteria of the modern academic historian, possibly be by the historical Padmasambhava, then the Man ngag lta ba’i phreng ba seems to be the best candidate so far. But there is nothing in the Thabs zhags Commentary which might suggest it to be by the same author.

[4] On page 457, Orofino seems to misconstrue the relevant findings of Zimmerman and Skilling about the Bathang Kanjur. These are not, as Orofino says, that the Bathang collection as a whole might even possibly predate the 14th century Tshalpa Kanjur. Their relevant findings are, by contrast, that on close examination, some of Bathang’s individual constituent texts preserve very old readings indeed, even (Zimmerman on the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra) predating Ralpachen’s 9th century reforms. That is why we make the point that Zimmerman and Skilling’s finding is consistent with our stemma, in that the Bathang Thabs zhags also shows readings of great antiquity, predating the Dunhuang text.

[5] On page 458, Orofino writes as though we never intended to make a full-on stemma codicum, even though this is quite clearly exactly what we do intend to do:

“One should notice, though, that rather than constructing a stemma codicum in a strict Lachmanian (sic) sense, the two scholars [Cantwell and Mayer] have outlined a complex diagram of the possible transmissions of the Noble Noose of Methods, displaying the relationship between them. In this diagram the length of the lines of descent has no significance from a historical point of view.”

Since it is said that Lachmann never made a stemma codicum himself (Greetham 1994:323), and since her statement was incomprehensible to us, we asked Orofino for clarification. She confirmed that she meant we had not attempted or intended to make a stemma codicum in the classic tradition of Lachmann’s main modern interpreters and intellectual descendants, such as M. L. West and Paul Maas, and that she should have said, “in the classical Lachmanian sense”, rather than in “a strict Lachmanian sense.” On the contrary, let us assure our readers that: (i) we have in fact made a stemma codicum; (ii) it is in the style of Lachmann’s main modern disciples, Paul Maas, and Martin L. West, our late emeritus colleague at Oxford; (iii) it does have historical significance, allowing us to recover archetypal readings (but yes, the length of diagram lines is of course immaterial); (iv) it is the most salient, prominent outcome of our text critical efforts in this monograph.

[6] On page 458, she writes that

“Unfortunately, one should notice that the severely truncated form of the Bstan ’gyur versions sets limitations to a clear-cut examinatio.

We do indeed say (p.47) that almost 40% of the bsTan ‘gyur root text lemmata are lost.  Moreover, the lemmata are lost for some of the critical readings which demonstrate a number of the indicative errors of the sub-branch descending from “c”.  So we cannot know whether they might in fact have been indicative errors of the whole branch descending from “b”.

Yet Orofino’s statement is misleading if the reader might get the impression that this loss hampers our main overall picture of five separate branches from the archetype.  It does not – that is clear.  The main limitation is in terms of our understanding of the status of “b” – whether it only had a limited number of distinctive readings, or whether it was already riddled with many of “c”‘s errors as well.

[7] On page 459, Orofino confuses our own stemmatic critical text with part of its apparatus. She says:

‘The authors assert that their aim is (25) “.. accepting and even celebrating the ongoing permutations of these texts, but still finding value in stemmatic techniques as a way of recovering both their original archetypes and also significant moment in their history.” Given such premises, one might wonder whether this ambivalent approach might not cause some confusion in establishing the critical text.’

Our resolve to show alongside our own stemmatic edition full data sets of how the textual tradition has ebbed and flowed through long periods of its history, has had no bearing whatosever on the establishment of our own ‘critical text’. It has bearing only on the non-critical unedited text we choose to append as various types of apparatus. These include separate text-envelopes, presenting the many commentarial intrusions into the root text that characterise the transmitted canonical versions from the most popular bKa’ ‘gyur and rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum editions. Our own ‘critical text’ for the root text is based on  stemmatic principles, and is not in itself ambivalent.  Yet, our theoretical standpoint, that it is important to recognise all the historically significant presentations of the text, is indeed built into our presentation of the wider data sets that comprise the monograph as a whole, and we make no apology for this.  There is no confusion beteween this and our stemmatic reconstruction. It is important to recall that the purpose of an edition is to facilitate further scholarship by providing various data sets, and for this reason, we consider it inadequate simply to construct our own edition without also representing the versions that Tibetans have in real history actually relied upon. Yet we do not muddle these historical traditions with our own edition. Instead, what we do is highlight the readings and whole passages of text which differ in the Tshal pa bKa’ ‘gyur and in the Bhutanese rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum versions, including separate clearly marked text envelopes with passages of text given in these widespread and historically important traditional transmissions of the text.  We consider critical editing neither to be about producing monoliths, nor about producing abstract aesthetic artifacts: we consider critical editing to be about presenting a range of useful and comprehensive data sets.

[8] On page 459, Orofino says we claim to have reconstructed the entire archetypal text (contradicting her implication elsewhere that we were reconstructing the original; nor is it clear how we could have achieved any reconstruction at all, if, as she says elsewhere, we had not even attempted a full-on stemma codicum). Be that as it may, we nowhere make any claim to have reconstructed the entire archetypal text. We cannot quantify exactly how much has been reconstructed. We hope it is a good proportion, but certainly cannot claim everything, and were at pains never to claim this.  Out of this basic confusion, Orofino consequently criticises our decision to preserve archaic orthography in the apparatus.  On the contrary, to place uncertain reconstructions of archaic orthography in the main body of what is in the final analysis our own text, would be a misleading affectation—better present them in the apparatus.

She then adds some largely tangential comments about the need to study Old Tibetan.

1. As we say, we draw attention to all readings which might possibly have been in the archetype, including many cases of very minor variants where our five groups descending from the archetype are divided, so that stemmatic logic will not establish with certainty the the precise spelling or particle in the archetype.  We still draw attention to readings which might have been in the archetype by italicising them in the apparatus, so we are not ignoring or belittling the evidence of the possibly earliest readings.

2. These possibly archetypal readings which are in the notes rather than the body of our edition unfortunately do not represent a distinctive form of Old Tibetan which could give us any great breakthrough in research into Old Tibetan. There are in any case not a lot of them, as browsing the apparatus of our edition will make clear (perhaps Orofino, like some non-specialists, tends to overestimate a priori the degree to which the formal chos skad of canonical texts has changed since early times; yet one must be mindful that the modern editions of the Kanjur and Tenjur remain to this day packed with translations made in those early times). One example of our possibly archetypal readings (Ch. 37) is rngul, instead of dngul; it is well-known that the head letter ra is often used instead of da prefix in archaic texts.  But even this kind of example is extremely rare in our text.  A more typical example is pa’i as opposed to pa yi (various instances); or gcig du as opposed to gcig tu (Ch.16) or krō dha instead of kro dha in mantras (Ch.14), or the particle, ste instead of de (Ch.12).  Should we be accused of failing to apply academic research on Old Tibetan by our italicisation of these minor variants in the apparatus, rather than their inclusion in our edition?

3. We give detailed information on the codicological features and orthographical peculiarities of the Dunhuang ms. (a detailed section p.32-34), the only edition of which the copy itself is very old (in the other versions which inherit the earliest readings, it is quite likely that some archaic features were dropped).

[9] On page 460, Orofino opens her discussion of the Commentary text with the words

“As regards the critical edition of the Commentary…”

We made no critical edition of the commentary, and have never called our edition of it critical. We made a simple diplomatic edition based on the Dunhuang ms, the most complete version, straightforwardly collated against the Tenjur version without any choices of individual spellings on our part, and to complete the data set, collated also those commentarial intrusions found in the various root text versions.  In the few places where the Dunhuang text was missing, we continued to present the Tenjur text, and very rarely when it too was corrupted, the Tshal pa Kanjur version (clearly marked off so that it could not be confused with the Dunhuang manuscript transcription). It is important to grasp at the outset that there are no recensional variations between the Dunhuang and Tenjur witnesses of the Commentary (the Tshal pa fragments are of course derivative of the Tenjur version): they only differ in transmissional errors and in the sections of them that survived. Orofino has palpably not understood this fundamental consideration. Our diplomatic edition was thus an informed and well-judged strategy, based on the consideration that there are no recensional differences between these versions, and on the overwhelming importance of making this unique commentary readily available for study in terms of its meanings and doctrines. See also the next point:

[10] On page 460, Orofino continues her discussion about our presentation of the Commentary text by saying that

“Collating witnesses that have a gap of more than seven hundred years between them is…not without controversial aspects from a methodological point of view.”

She means the Tenjur is seven hundred years later than the Dunhuang text. Actually, for what is primarily a diplomatic transcription like this of two versions with no recensional variations between them, it might well be described as quite uncontroversial. Be that as it may, our stemma of its lemmata has shown the Tenjur to have older indicative readings than the Dunhuang witness by at least two generations of copying, a finding that Orofino herself accepts elsewhere. It is therefore not only self-contradictory, but also naive and misleading, for her here to assert so simplistically that the Tenjur text is seven hundred years later than the Dunhuang text (cf recentiores non deteriores, the more recent copyist may have copied an older manuscript).

[11] On page 460, Orofino says about our Commentary edition that

” the great linguistic lack of homogeneity between the two lines of witnesses [Tenjur and Dunhuang]….makes the authors’ choice of reconstructing the overall shape of the text…problematic.”

This statement is factually mistaken. There is no “great lack of linguistic homogeneity” between the Tenjur and Dunhuang texts, and in fact, there are no recensional variations between them, merely transmissional ones. Hence these texts are abundantly suited to be collated together.

[12] Moreover, Orofino’s idea that it is problematic that we decided to reconstruct the overall shape of the text, is absurd.  The Dunhuang text omits a few lines here and there, or gets the order of a passage of text muddled (as in one section) or omits a couple of very short chapters, perhaps by eyeskip.  Yet there is little doubt that these corruptions are due to scribal lapse, not to design: they are transmissional, not recensional.  Where they survive in the Tenjur, we therefore very correctly supply the reader with the missing lines or passages, and correct the order. Of course, all this is transparently marked and suitably signalled with headings in the main text (such as the opening to Chapter 31), not only hidden in the apparatus, so that it is entirely clear where the Dunhuang manuscript lacked the text, and from which source the text is continued.  Not to include the omitted passages at all, for the sake of avoiding an imginary “variance between different methodological procedures”, seems in this case an absurdity. As we have already pointed out above, the Dunhuang and Tenjur texts are the same basic recension, not different ones, varying only in transmissional error; and, as we have also pointed out above, the indicative readings of the Tenjur text’s lemmata are slightly older, not 700 years younger, than the Dunhuang text.

Finally, we should mention that this remarkable text is the most important source so far known to scholarship for an understanding of early rNying ma tantrism. Our task is to present comprehensive and transparent data sets of it useful for scholars. We must in the final analysis consider what textual criticism can do for rNying ma studies, not what rNying ma studies can do for textual criticism. We aim not at abstract aesthetic perfection, but at the most complete, transparent, presentation of functional data.

Orofino herself has never attempted an edition outside of the Kanjur, nor a stemmatic textual reconstruction. One of Orofino’s two published editions is a very brief diplomatic transcription of part of the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti (Orofino 2007). The other is a parallel presentation with minimal apparatus of two different Tibetan translations of the Sekkodeśa (1994), in which she seeks, controversially, to emend the root text to conform with various of its later commentaries. Hence she writes (p. 38): ‘my aim was to present a text [of the Sekkodeśa] conforming with the readings and meanings of the various commentaries, prātikas etc. both in Sanskrit and Tibetan’.

A very major consideration in editing Kanjur texts, especially the more famous ones, is the existence of multiple Tibetan translations of the same text from Sanskrit, as also of Tibetan translations of differing Sanskrit versions. Such recensions are thus inherently open, not closed, and therefore problematic for stemmatic reconstruction, since there is no single archetype from which all versions descend. The variant versions can moreover interact further within Tibet, complicating matters through contamination. Such factors create a proliferation of variants that are recensional (made deliberately) rather than transmissional (arising by accident), and at a very deep and imponderable level.

Yet rNying ma tantric texts are in many cases quite different, and Orofino seems unable to envisage this; in fact, she does not make it entirely clear if she is even considering the crucial distinction that must be made between redactional and transmissional variants. The largely indigenous, Tibetan-produced texts of the NGB have a very much smaller proportion of translations from Sanskrit at all, let alone multiple ones of any kind. The five rNying ma texts we have investigated so far moreover each appear to originate in a single moment of origin within Tibet, whether redactorial, or, in one case, possibly translational. And in the case of these five Mahāyoga texts, we can also see there is a much lower proportion of recensional differences.

This is not a statement we make idly. We are not simply assuming these variations are transmissional rather than recensional. Over the years, we have devoted a great deal of energy to minutely analysing the nature and causes of textual variation as found in rNying ma tantras. In our unpublished work sheets from editing two major NGB texts, which we hope to publish electronically when the technology is developed, we exhaustively analyse every single variant in every single witness of the texts to ascertain as exactly as possible what the probable reason for variation was, be it eyeskip, haplography, dittography, homophony, etc. etc. Some indication of the scope of this work can be seen in our article of 2006, “Two Proposals for Critically Editing the Texts of the rNying ma’i rGyud ‘bum”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, Vol.10, April 2006: 56-70.

Interestingly, Orofino seems to accept our analysis of the earliest reconstructable readings—her main criticism seems in fact to be that we should keep to it more rigidly in the main text of our edition! But she is confused in points of detail and basic principle as set out above, and also more generally by the transmissional environment of the  Thabs zhags and its Commentary, where transmissional errors predominate over recensional ones, where there is no multiple translation from Sanskrit causing an open recension, where a very early witnesses from Dunhuang is available, and where the recension has proven closed.  Hence it is unsurprising that at several points in her review, she palpably seems to misconstrue what we do, and inadvertently projects the more familiar problems of her previous Kanjur editing onto the rather different rNying ma works we have attempted. Above all, she seems to be constantly deceived by an a priori expectation that recensional variation must necessarily prevail at all points: yet it does not. In addition, she seems to have neglected some of the basics of textual criticism, such as the distinction between an archetype and an original, or the principle of recentiores non deteriores.

Maas himself conceded that where there was substantial contamination, stemmatics could not reconstruct the archetype, although of course it still remained an indispensible tool for identifying the separate descents of different groups of texts, and bringing out the evidence for contamination. It is equally clear that stemmatic analysis also runs into limitations where recensions are open, rather than closed; but even here, one can still often use stemmatics to establish hypearchetypes, or even to establish the archetypes for each of the various versions. Many Classicists might agree that most transmissions of Greek and Latin texts from Classical Antiquity are so complex and rich, so full of contamination and so cloaked by long periods of transmissional obscurity, that in all likelihood few if any them is in truth amenable to stemmatic reconstruction of the archetype. This situation applies even more to the great majority of Buddhist Sanskrit texts. Likewise, it seems that most (and possibly all) Kanjur texts so far edited have similar conditions, so that the Maas-style system of stemmatic reconstruction of archetypal readings cannot be unproblematically applied to them either, as Harrison, Eimer, Skilling, Silk and others have pointed out. Thus, these authors have sometimes used stemmatics only for examining variants, and figuring out the stemmatic relations among witnesses, identifying hypearchetypes, and so on, although others might try to stemmatically reconstruct multiple archetypes. Jonathan Silk (1994), for example, uses stemmatics to reconstruct the archetypes of both Tibetan translations of the Heart Sūtra, his Recensions A and B, although he notes complexities in the case of Recension A.

But we submit that at least some of the rNying ma tantra transmission is fundamentally different. After critically editing five rNying ma Mahāyoga tantras, each one in an exhaustive manner designed to reconnoitre and explore this hitherto unknown territory in as much detail as possible, we became struck by how fundamentally the recension of these five Mahāyoga texts differed from the Kanjur findings so far. Firstly, their recensions were closed, rather than open. Secondly, when compared to the Kanjur findings so far, their transmissions were neither rich nor complex. In the case of the Thabs zhags, with its Dunhuang witness, we avoid long periods of obscurity. Even when, as with the Thabs zhags, a wide variety of witnesses were available that spanned huge expanses of time and geography, their transmissions in fact seemed so narrow and so simple by comparison to the Kanjur, and their differences so much transmissional rather than recensional, that we began to suspect wholesale reconstruction of archetypal readings might even be applicable. I am reasonably convinced that Pasquali himself would have agreed, for he was a neo-Lachmannian, not an anti-Lachmannian. He did not reject stemmatic reconstruction per se, but rather pointed out that it could only really work under particular conditions. Since we believe its transmission does enjoy precisely such conditions, the Thabs zhags, extant in so many witnesses from different times and places, became our second test bed for this theory. Our first test bed, using the same methods and for the same reasons, was the edition of the Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra (Cantwell and Mayer 2007), which was received with critical acclaim from Leonard van der Kuijp, amongst others (Van der Kuijp 2010: 448-449).



Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, 2006. “Two Proposals for Critically Editing the Texts of the rNying ma’i rGyud ‘bum”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, Vol.10, April 2006: 56-70

Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, 2007. The Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra and the Vajra Wrath Tantra: two texts from the Ancient Tantra Collection, Vienna, The Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Matthew Kapstein, 2014. “Dunhuang Tibetan Buddhist Manuscripts and the Later Tibetan Buddhism: A Brief Review of Recent Research”, Dunhuang Tulufan yanjiu 敦煌吐魯番研究 [Journal of the Dunhuang and Turfan Studies] 14 (2014): 165-180.

Leonard van der Kuijp, 2010 “Faulty Transmissions: Some Notes on Tibetan Textual Criticism and the Impact of Xylography”, in Chayet, Anne (et al., eds), Edition, éditions. l’écrit au Tibet, évolution et devenir. Indus Verlag, München.

Per Kvaerne, Compte-rendu de “Cathy Cantwell, Robert Mayer: A Noble Noose of Methods, The Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahâyoga Tantra and its Commentary”, Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 28, Octobre 2013, pp. 127-129.

Paul Maas, Textual Criticism (Oxford: Clarendon, 1958), 49; trans. of Textkritik (3rd ed.; Leipzig: Teubner, 1957; 1st ed., 1927).

Giacomella Orofino, 1994. Sekoddeśa. A critical edition of the Tibetan Translations. Rome, IsMEO.

Giacomella Orofino, 2007. “From Archaeological Discovery
to Text Analysis: the Khor chags Monastery Findings
and the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti Fragment”, in Discoveries in Western Tibet and the Western Himalayas, eds Amy Heller and Giacomella Orofino. PIATS 2003: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oxford, 2003. Brill, Leiden.

Jonathan Silk 1994 The Heart Sūtra in Tibetan: A Critical Edition of the Two Recensions Contained in the Kanjur. Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, Universität Wien.

Péter-Dániel Szántó, review of Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer, 2012: A Noble Noose of Methods, The Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahāyoga Tantra and its Commentary, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Vienna. In: European Bulletin of Himalayan Research 44, Spring-Summer 2014,  pp121-125.

Christian K. Wedemeyer, 2010. Review of The Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra and the Vajra Wrath Tantra: two texts from the Ancient Tantra Collection, by Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer. Religious Studies Review, Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2010, Page: 101.



[1] Van der Kuijp 2010: 448, here referring especially to Cantwell and Mayer 2007, which was made using identical technical methods and theoretical approaches as Cantwell and Mayer 2013.

[2] Religious Studies Review Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2010, Page: 101,

[3] Kvaerne 2013: 128, 129

[4] Personal communication, 8/10/2012

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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 for Tsongkhapa 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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Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 4: so who was Śāntigarbha?

This belated blog is, as promised, for Dan Martin, who had questions for me some weeks ago about the way Śāntigarbha is thought about in the later rNying ma tradition.

 So just who was Śāntigarbha? Śāntigarbha, an Indian paṇḍit whom some traditional sources locate in Khri Srong lde’u btsan’s era as a prominent translator of and commentator on Yogatantra, or even as consecrator of Samye Monastery, and others associate closely with Padmasambhava, has acquired some topical historical significance in recent years specifically because he has become rather surprisingly described as relatively insignificant. To be more precise, a recent academic assertion is not so much that he is insignificant in the eyes of Western scholarship (could anything really be insignificant for Western scholarship?), nor necessarily that he was particularly insignificant to the ancient authors of the Dunhuang texts, but rather, that he is comparatively insignificant in the eyes of later rNying ma tradition, and certainly not a person of sufficient stature to venture opinions on the great Padmasambhava. This supposed relative insignificance of Śāntigarbha in the later rNying ma tradition has been juxtaposed with his portayal in a specific Dunhuang text, and the supposed contrast used, via a convoluted and to my mind elusive logic, to support the historical conclusion that for the particular authors of this specific Dunhuang text, Padmasambhava was considered merely an average (albeit respected) kind of guru, and not a uniquely mythologised being.[1]  The precise context is the referencing of Śāntigarbha in a marginal note concerning a praise of Padmasambhava in IOL TibJ 321, the Dunhuang ms of the Phags pa Thabs kyi zhags pa padma ‘phreng gi don bsdus pa’i ‘grel pa, a tantric text on which Cathy & I have just published a 375-page tome, so we feel well-placed to address issues relating to it. In our book, we come to the opposite conclusion: While much of the Padmasambhava devotional literature had of course not yet been written, and while important sections of early proto-rNying ma literature do indeed not make Padmasambhava into a uniquely important figure, we believe this particular Dunhuang text does do precisely this. Like PT44, we believe it is crucial textual evidence for an already uniquely highly mythologised Padmasambhava, a trope found in some proto-rNying ma tantric documents but clearly absent in others. But before we begin, let me point out for those who might already feel bewildered, that these discussions of the interconnected referencing of Śāntigarbha and Padmasambhava in an old manuscript are not as trivial as they might appear. The extreme paucity of genuinely old surviving textual evidence means that our understanding of the development of the historically important Padmasambhava tradition depends quite a lot on our interpretation of just who Śāntigarbha was and what his relationship to Padmasambhava was, in this one particular text.

In this brief blog, I am therefore not primarily interested in discussing a historical Śāntigarbha for modern historical scholars—anyone interested in that is referred to Dan Martin’s monumental TibSkrit, which remains as ever the starting point of choice. Rather, I am interested in the Śāntigarbha envisaged by later rNying ma tradition, because it is his status in the later rNying ma tradition which has been used to construct, by means of a comparison, an historical argument about the early Padmasambhava tradition. Actually, I’m not entirely sure if the argument is logically coherent even if its premises were true, but that is another question—here, I will only examine its premises, to see if they are philologically supported. So, is this recent academic assertion actually true? Was (or is) Śāntigarbha really so insignificant in the later rNying ma tradition, as has recently been claimed? To my mind, the answer is ‘no’: Śāntigarbha should not in any meaningful sense be described as insignificant to the later rNying ma tradition, because I believe the Śāntigarbha of IOL Tib J 321 is intended to be the same Śāntigarbha as the ‘Great Vidyādhara of India’ who occupies such a prominent and privileged niche within the unique octadic formations that structure so much of rNying ma pa thought. I am not so far aware of Tibetan tradition specifying more than one prominent tantrist called Śāntigarbha living simultaneously—on the contrary, some traditional sources do specify that Padmasambhava’s teacher Śāntigarbha and the one who consecrated Samye etc are the same person. Nor has any modern scholar suggested such a distinction. As a result, I think the there is only one Śāntigarbha, and the elusive argument based on his mention in IOL Tib J 321, which we present in note 3 below, simply falls down.

While some seem to see rNying ma tantrism as narrowly Padmasambhava-centric, this  is clearly not the case, and never has been. There are other founding figures too, like Vimalamitra and Śāntarakṣita. Moreover, as Jeff Watt has recently reminded us in a fine series of lectures at Oxford University, later rNying ma Tantrism, in its texts, its rituals, and its iconography, is unlike that of any other Tibetan tradition because it has a symmetrical patterning running through it, consisting of densely interelated sets of eight. Although individual members of these interelated sets can vary a little from text to text, the sets themselves remain reasonably constant as structuring devices, and lend a unique shape to rNying ma tantrism. The sets include Padmasambhava and in many ways can be seen to revolve around him, but notwithstanding the hyperbole of some devotional literature, even they are not entirely or exclusively reducible to him.

Perhaps the most fundamental octad is the set of eight major yi-dams, the famous bKa’-brgyad or Eight Pronouncement Deities: Yamāntaka (‘jam dpal sku), Hayagrīva (padma gsung), Śrīheruka (yang dag thugs) Vajrāmṛta (bdud rtsi yon tan), Vajrakīla (rdo rje phur pa), Mātaraḥ (ma mo rbod gtong), *Lokastotrapūjā (’jig rten mchod bstod) and *Vajramantrabhiru (mod pa drag sngags). Thangkas often show these eight major yi-dam deities sharing a basic iconographic appearence of three heads, six arms, four legs, and two wings, differentiated only by the sets of hand symbols they hold and a few other particularities. Such a uniformity of conception across a whole set of yi-dam deities is not found in the other Tibetan traditions.  Since they are nominally at least the main meditational deities of the rNying ma school, the arrangement of their tantric textual sources also lend a structuring device for organising the sections of scriptures in the rNying ma canon (NGB), as also the treasure texts within Kongtrul’s famous collection the Rin chen gter mdzod.  Despite recent claims to the contrary, all these eight deities are moreover normally understood by the rNying ma tradition as transcendant enlightened forms of Heruka.[2]

Connected with these eight meditational deities are the Eight Great Vidyādharas of India, often known as the Rig ’dzin gyi slob dpon brgyad, and it is here that Śāntigarbha features so prominently. The Eight Great Vidyādharas of India are often described as living in the Eight Great Cemeteries of India, and they are key sources in this world for the lineage transmissions of the Eight Pronouncement Deities (bKa’-brgyad). Lineage is extremely important in Tantric Buddhism, and the Eight Great Vidyādharas play a roughly equivalent role for the rNying ma pa to that played by Tilopa and Naropa for the bKa’ brgyud pa, or Virupa for the Sa skya pa. Thus the Eight Great Vidyādharas of India are at different moments the gurus, teachers, spiritual brethren, and disciples of Padmasambhava, his spiritual contacts several of whom remained in India but whose teachings he brought to Tibet. Each one of the eight is the teacher of one of the Eight Pronouncement Deities, and as such, these eight Vidyādharas are constantly celebrated at the level of ritual, hagiography and art. Although the lists vary a little, Śāntigarbha is normally included, often as Padmasambhava’s guru for *Vajramantrabhīru (mod pa drag sngags). Being an important Guru of Padmasambhava, illustrations of Śāntigarbha are therefore quite widespread, either as an individual, or as seated above Padmasambhava’s head in position of honour as his guru. For example, Śāntigarbha is prominent as part of the central visualisation for the Rig ‘dzin ‘dus pa, the most popular of all Padmasambhava rites that was revealed by ‘Jigs med gling pa (1729-1798), where Śāntigarbha is placed with the seven other Vidyādharas in an arc directly above and around Padmasambhava (the very name of this sādhana of course refers to the Vidyādharas, Śāntigarbha included). Likewise in a famous set of illustrations of another rNying ma set of eight, the Eight Aspects of Guru Rinpoche (gu-ru mtshan brgyad), Śāntigarbha is shown seated above Guru Rinpoche’s head as his revered guru, when Guru Rinpoche takes the wrathful form of Dorje Drollö (rdo rje gro lod). There are initiation cards showing Śāntigarbha, and needless to say, Śāntigarbha is also mentioned in numerous life stories of Guru Rinpoche, as one of his important Indian teachers.

Other rNying ma sets of eight include the Eight Great Vidyādharas of Tibet, close students of Guru Rinpoche who practiced, realised and propagated the Eight Pronouncement Deities in Tibet, as well as further sets shared with other Buddhist traditions, such as the Eight Gaurī Goddesses and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas (nye-sras brgyad). There are various ways in which the different sets of eight are made to inter-relate and correlate, but these need not concern us right now.

Rather, I want to pose the question, if Śāntigarbha has such a central and abiding presence in the underlying mythological architecture of rNying ma ritual life, can we really describe him as insignificant in the eyes of later rNying ma tradition? Was he really a person of insufficient stature to venture opinions on the great Padmasambhava?  I think not, for reasons shown above, and especially because he is universally accepted as one of Padmasambhava’s gurus.

Even more interesting, and very importantly for our understanding of the early rNying ma, is the fact that a special association between Śāntigarbha and Padmasambhava is already indicated in a Dunhuang text, to be precise, in the marginal note attached to IOL TibJ 321 that we have already mentioned. Here we find in the main text of the commentary a verse of praise for Padmasambhava in his Padma rGyal po form, a verse taken up verbatim in later centuries by Nyang ral nyi ma’i ‘od zer into his Zangs gling ma (see blog entry below, Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 2: IOL Tib J 321). In a marginal note at this point, Śāntigarbha is described as praising Padmasambhava, which (pace Dalton) would appear entirely unremarkable to a later rNying ma readership,  who would understand it as being exactly what one would expect from a close spiritual friend or Guru. [For a presentation of Dalton’s argument which we seek to refute, see footnote 3].

But putting traditional perspectives aside, could it actually be that some such tantric connection between Padmasambhava and Śāntigarbha was already being indicated in this early text from Dunhuang? From the cumulative circumstantial evidence that such sources as IOL Tib J 321, Bu ston, the ‘Phang thang ma and mKhas pa lde’u give us on Śāntigarbha, Padmasambhava, and even their respective teachings of Yogatantra and Mahāyogatantra—as we show in our book, the Thabs zhags bridges both tantric genres and mentions both personal names—it is not at all impossible and not even particularly unlikely. Note also that in the Dunhuang text PT44, a similar close tantric relationship is albeit rather briefly indicated between Padmasambhava and someone who might transpire to be Prabhāhasti, another of the Eight Great Vidyādharas of India. We might investigate that in a future posting.

[1] This rather surprising proposal comes from one whom I consider amongst the most intelligent, subtle and thought provoking of the younger generation of rNying ma pa scholars, Jacob Dalton. While I disagree with him on these specific points, and also on several further important points where the interpretation of original sources in Tibetan is concerned, I nevertheless find a great deal of interest and value in several other aspects of his work, and anticipate numerous notable achievements from him over the length of a long future career.  His proposal is discussed in the final footnote.

[2] Jacob Dalton has described the last three herukas of the bKa’-brgyad or Eight Pronouncement Deities as considered by rNying ma tradition to be mundane deities that were tamed by Padmasambhava. From the point of view of tradition, this is not a trivial issue, because it calls into question the very nature of the rNying ma yi dam deity octadic system. If it were true, it would raise some pretty fundamental doctrinal issues for rNying ma exegetes. In fact, this is certainly not what the rNying ma tradition believes: see for example the late Dil mgo mKhyen brtse Rin po che’s well-known gter ma, Rang ‘byung pad ma snying thig, in which all eight herukas are undoubtedly enlightened aspects. Dalton presents his idea as a bare assertion with no citation or supporting evidence, so it is hard to know where he got it from. It is most likely that he arrived at this mistaken conclusion via a simple misunderstanding of the traditional rNying ma Mahāyoga category of the ’Jigs rten pa’i sde gsum, or the ‘Three Deities of the Mundane’, a category that designates the last three of the bKa’-brgyad.  Far from being mundane beings in themselves, these three deities are in fact classified as equally exalted members of the bKa’ brgyad as are the other five, who are known as the ‘Five Wisdom Deities’, or ye shes kyi lha lnga. Despite the distinction, both categories are equally considered to be transcendent aspects of enlightenment, versions of Heruka, albeit the one category conferring wisdom and the other category conferring protection evil forces. So, despite their ostensibly worldly-sounding names, the herukas of the cycles of Ma mo rbod gtong, ’Jigs rten mchod bstod, and Mod pa drag sngags are normatively envisaged as enlightened forms, who protect the Dharma by coercing local spirits. As such, they are not in themselves mundane deities tamed by Padmasambhava. Quite the reverse, they are important forms of Heruka, aspects of enlightenment with which Padmsambhava yogically identified himself, or manifested himself as, in order to tame the mundane deities.  See Dalton, Jacob. 2006. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307”. The Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4: 759-772, Page 768. My thanks to Changling Rinpoche, Lopon Ogyan Tanzin, and Gyurme Dorje for their detailed and learned explanations of these issues.

[3] It is in his discussion of this section of IOL Tib J 321 that Jake Dalton tries to characterise Śāntigarbha as relatively insignificant to later tradition, and uses this in turn as the main support for his mistaken theory that Padmasambhava had comparatively little mythic standing for the annotators of IOL Tib J 321 (see Dalton ibid; and also the same argument repeated unmodified on page 67 of his book The Taming of the Demons, Yale University Press, 2011). He therefore constructs a rather convoluted argument in which the status of  Śāntigarbha has major implications for how we understand the early evidence pertaining to Padmasambhava. Dalton began his discussion by saying that rather little is known about Śāntigarbha (which is not altogether true, since he is well known to Bu ston as a Yogatantra authority, to the ‘Phang thang ma Catalogue, and so on and so forth). However,  Dalton makes the logical jump, found also in his catalogue of Dunhuang texts,  of simply assuming that Padmasambhava is the human author of the commentary: yet this is nowhere said in the text itself, nor is there any colophon that asserts it, and so I refer readers to our discussion of this complex issue in our recent book. Based on this misunderstanding, Dalton then further dragoons the highly ambiguous marginal note of IOL Tib J 321 into meanings that  are not necessarily there: the Dunhuang text simply says slobs dpon shan ting gar bas brtags nas ma nor nas/ sam ba bha la stod pa’o/. Thus it does not make clear exactly what it was that Śāntigarbha mused upon, the cause  for his giving praise, and to actually ascertain this becomes something that needs to take account of the precise situating of the note on the page, among other factors (we discuss these issues at length in our new book, pages 95-96). In fact it could equally well be Padmasambhava as a person,  the fact that this is indeed an authentic tantra revealed by the great Padmasambhava, the divine nature of the root tantra teachings per se, or the words of the commentary that are the cause for praising Padmasambhava, but Dalton simply interpolates into his translation, with no square brackets or any discussion of the ambiguities, the words ‘this work’, meaning the commentary.  He then concludes from that, that Śāntigarbha’s praising of Padmasambhava’s ‘work’ here in IOL Tib J 321 indicates the comparatively lesser mythic significance Padmasambhava must have had for the text’s authors: for had Padmasambhava been considered greatly mythically magnificent then as now, it would not be appropriate for someone so inconsequential as Śāntigarbha to examine and praise his work. Dalton sums up his thinking in the following words: ‘From the perspective of the later Tibetan tradition, it is remarkable that the opinion of a relatively insignificant figure like Śāntigarbha would have any relevance for one with the stature of Padmasambhava’ (Dalton 2006: 768, and again in exactly the same words, Dalton 2011: 67). There are some ambiguities in the logic of this argument. I’m not clear that it would be unthinkable for a modern master to examine a Padmasambhava teaching before praising it: what for example if provenance first needed to be ascertained, to see if it really were by Padmsambhava? In Buddhism, critical faculties are in any case encouraged. But even leaving all such quibbles aside, the fundamental premises of the argument are patently untrue, because from the perspective of the later Tibetan tradition, Śāntigarbha is Padmasambhava’s guru, no less, a fact that Dalton was completely unaware of. Surely this was a hazardous speculation for Dalton to make before actually reading the text of IOL Tib J 321 in full, since a close reading of it shows it does not necessarily portray Padmasambhava as a human historical author of the commentary at all. The matter is ambiguous, but on the contrary, it might well even portray Padmasambhava as the divine utterer of the root tantra, and thus add to the other evidence for this to be among our strongest extant testimony yet for an early cult of a highly mythologised Padmasambhava, perhaps as much so as the well-known PT44, and by some specific measures, even more so. I suspect that Dalton has simply failed to recognise the differences between gNubs chen Sangs rgyas ye shes’s position in bSam gtan mig sgron, where, as Dylan Esler’s recent work has shown, Padmasambhava is no more or less mythologised than any of the other great gurus, and the Dunhuang texts PT44 and IOL Tib J 321, where, as we can all see, Padmasambhava is undoubtedly singled out as a uniquely magnificent being.

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Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 3: ‘miraculous births’ and ‘womb births’

In her seminal work on the Padmsambhava hagiographies, Anne-Marie Blondeau (1980) has famously described how the traditional narratives of Padmasambhava exist in parallel ‘womb birth’ (mngal skyes) and ‘miraculous birth’ (rdzus skyes) versions.[1] Deservedly, her work has been inspirational for later generations of scholars, and she has been cited numerous times. But after a further thirty two years of scholarship, might her pioneering work now at long last deserve some slight further clarification, or a slightly different nuancing? We think so, and here is why.

In brief, Blondeau was the first to to make it widely known to Western scholarship that a ‘womb birth’ account of Padma’s birth existed in parallel to the more widespread and familiar ‘miraculous birth’ accounts. In addition, she mentioned Kong sprul’s association of the ‘womb birth’ accounts with the bKa’ ma rather than the gTer ma, and in particular, with the Phur pa transmission accounts (phur pa’i lo rgyus). Blondeau added that the account given in the Testament of Ba is more commensurable with the traditional bKa’ ma transmission of the ‘womb birth’ version of Padmasambhava’s life. As she further points out, we do not know exactly when the formalizing of the distinction between ‘womb-birth’ and ‘miraculous birth’ Padmasambhava biographies began, but we do know that the categories of ‘womb-birth’ and ‘miraculous birth’ derive from the abhidharma, and we also know that both types of Padmasambhava narratives share a very long parallel history in Tibet.

What needs revising is the occasional interpretation of Blondeau as implying that the ‘womb birth’ accounts are somehow less miraculous and more realistic than the ‘miraculous birth’ accounts, in the sense that while the one describes a natural process, the other describes a miraculous process (in fact, we don’t believe Blondeau really comes to any such simplistic conclusion, but her findings might sometimes be interpreted in this way). Be that as it may, as Cathy has been pointing out for many years now, closer analysis shows that this is not really the case at all: the ‘womb birth’ narrative is not in any way seeking to describing an ordinary event, and the’womb birth’ and ‘miraculous birth’ accounts are in fact both equally supramundane, equally miraculous, above all, both equally derived from the symbolic world of tantric ritual and its visualisations of pure perception.

If one reads the actual sources, it becomes abundantly clear that the ‘womb birth’ narratives found in the Phur pa literature that Blondeau mentions are completely integrated with the ‘miraculous birth’ accounts, occuring together within the very same sources. Both are embedded side by side within the same cycles of tantric deity teachings and practices, in which their presentation by the guru on any specific occasion is designed to generate guru devotion and a pure vision (dag snang) of all phenomena as the tantric maṇḍala. Thus, exactly like the ‘miraculous birth’ accounts, the ‘womb birth’ stories are highly symbolic and connected with tantric imagery, and so do not necessarily represent a more ‘rationalist’ strand of thinking at all. For example, Sog zlog pa’s Phur pa lo rgyus[2] forms part of the cycle of texts for the Rong zom Phur pa tradition. Its focus on a ‘womb birth’ can best be seen as expressing a Mahāyoga visionary perspective equating the physical body with the tantric deity. Hence in this account, Guru Padma is born in a physical body which is none other than the Phur pa deity and his maṇḍala: his waist is a knot like the middle section of a phur bu ritual implement, his lower body triangular in shape, again like the phur bu, while his hair is reddish brown like that of the Phur pa deity, and his eyes and mouth are semi-circular, thus resembling the three semi-circular shapes outlined by a circle around the central triangle, which is the standard graphic depiction of many Phur pa maṇḍalas. Here is Sog zlog pa’s full description:

“Called, Śāntarakṣita, (he) had a complexion of white with (a tinge) of red, the sign of the Lotus family, and his head perfected every wondrous ability. His waist was a knot, his upper body shaped to go inwards, while his lower body was triangular. His mouth and eyes were semi-circles, and his hair was reddish brown. (He was thus) born as one disfigured, (but) endowed with the phurpa’s characteristics.” (śānta rakṣi ta bya ba kha dog dkar la dmar ba’i mdangs dang ldan pas padma’i rigs kyi mtshan dang ldan zhing / sgyu rtsal thams cad rdzogs pa mgo dang sked pa rgya mdud / ro stod bcum gzhogs / ro smad zur gsum/ kha dan mig zla gam / skra kham pa ste / mi sdug pa phur pa’i mtshan nyid can zhig skyes so /, p.12)

In the ‘womb birth’ account given in the reputedly very old Bum pa nag po, a major source for all the Phur pa bKa’ ma transmissions, the accounts of the two types of birth are given together (bDud ’joms bKa’ ma version, Volume Tha: 221-225; Boord 2002: 113-115).[3] First, the ‘womb birth’ is presented, with a slightly different version of the features of the Guru’s body from Sog zlog pa’s, equally replete with potent tantric symbolism, and then there is a variant of the same story of his early years which is given in the following ‘miraculous birth’ story. The two accounts merge for the Guru’s later deeds.

A myes zhabs’ Phur pa lo rgyus, given within his commentary on the Sa skya Phur pa practice,[4] also discusses the two types of birth together. He draws a rather Levi-Straussian symbolic opposition between the two. In this case, the womb birth is said to have taken place in the eastern region of the country of Zahor, while the miraculous birth took place in the western region of the country of Urgyan, so that the residents of the two both held the Guru to be the son of their King. He stresses that there is no contradition, since both types of birth are examples of an inconceivable array of enlightened emanations which accord with the beings to be tamed.[5]

Our conclusion: rather than making a primary analytic or ‘etic’ distinction between the ‘womb birth’ and ‘lotus birth’ accounts, both of which after all are in essence closely related lo rgyus narratives often pertaining to the same tantric rituals, a better primary analytic distinction might be between such ritual narratives on the one hand, and the more historical narratives of a text like the Testament of Ba on the other hand.  The dBa’ bzhed for example refers to itself as a bKa’ mchid (royal discourse), while the sBa bzhed refers to itself as a bKa’ gtsigs (royal edict). Both titles thereby indicate that their proper context is the sphere of state, not the sphere of religious devotion or ritual. By contrast, the traditional lo rgyus accounts of ‘womb birth’ and ‘lotus birth’ alike are part of the transmission of religion. A note of caution, however: it remains a bit unclear how exactly to assess the Padma sections of the Testament of Ba, since we do not yet know who wrote them, when, or why. But that is not for now: more on that in a future blog!



[1] Blondeau, A.M. 1980. “Analysis of the biographies of Padmasambhava according to Tibetan tradition: classification of sources”, in Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, eds. Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, Warminster: Aris and Philips: 45-52.

[2] Sog zlog pa. dPal rdo rje phur pa’i lo rgyus ngo mtshar rgya mtsho’i rba rlabs, version from the bDud ’joms bKa’ ma: Rñiṅ ma Bka’ ma rgyas pa  (see below), vol. nya: 8-116.

[3] bDud ’joms bKa’ ma. Rñiṅ ma Bka’ ma rgyas pa, compiled by Bdud-’Joms ’Jigs-bral-ye-śes-rdo-rje.  Published by Dupjung Lama, Kalimpong, 58 volumes 1982-1987. An electronic version is available from the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, New York (The Expanded Version of the Nyingma Kama Collection Teachings Passed in an Unbroken Lineage, W19229, 0448-0505); and Boord, M.J. 2002 A Bolt of Lightning From The Blue: the vast commentary of Vajrakīla that clearly defines the essential points. Annotated translations, including Phur ’grel ’bum nag as transmitted to Ye-shes mtsho-rgyal.  Berlin: edition khordong.

[4] A myes zhabs. ’Jam-mgon A-myes-zhabs, Ngag-dbang-kun-dga’-bsod-nams: bCom ldan ’das rdo rje gzhon nu’i gdams pa nyams len gyi chu bo chen po sgrub pa’i thabs kyi rnam par bshad pa ’phrin las kyi pad mo rab tu rgyas pa’i nyin byed, published in, ’Khon lugs Phur pa’i rnam bśad, ’Chams yig brjed byaṅ, The Vajrakīla rites as practiced by the ’Khon Lineage of Sa-skya, reproduced from manuscript copies of the ancient Sa-skya xylographic prints by Ngawang Sopa, New Delhi, 1973 (TBRC W30340). [It is also available as vol. 8 of TBRC W29307.]

[5] shar phyogs za hor gyi yul mngal skyes kyis ’dul bar gzigs nas/ grong khyer gzi brjid ldan zhes bya ba na/ yab rgyal po thor cog zhes bya ba la btsun mo gnyis yod pa las / btsun mo nges ma zhes bya ba la sras thod gtsug can zhes bya bar sku ’khrungs par bzhed / brdzus skyes ltar na / nub phyogs urgyan gyi yul brdzus skyes kyis ’dul bar gzigs nas / dhana ko sha’i gling du padma’i sdong po las brdzus te ’khrungs par bzhed / de ltar mngal skyes dang brdzus skyes kyi lo rgyus mi ’dra ba las / shar phyogs za hor ba dang / nub phyogs urgyan ba gnyis mi mthun te / za hor pa na re / slob dpon padma nged kyi rgyal po’i sras yin / mngal skyes yin zhes zer / urgyan pa na re nged kyi rgyal po’i sras yin brdzus skyes yin zhes zer te / sprul pa’i bkod pa yin pas gnyis ka bden pa yin te /… ’dir gang la gang ’dul du sprul pa’i bkod pa bsam gyis mi khyab pa bstan pa yin pas / de’i yon tan gyi rnam par thar pa phyogs re tsam mthong ba la brten nas / lo rgyus ’chad tshul mi ’dra ba rnams ’byung ba yin te / gang ltar yang ’gal ba med do (A myes zhabs: 33-34).


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Did Vairocana have lice?

According to Pasang Wangdu and Hildegaard Diemberger’s translation of the dBa’ bzhed[1]  Pa gor Vairocana, the great translator and Buddhist culture hero of Imperial-period Tibet, might have been absolutely crawling with the repulsive little creatures. There is a passage in the dBa’ bzhed which Wangdu and Diemberger found too obscure to translate, thus leaving some words of the original Tibetan within their English translation, with a footnote tentatively suggesting the elusive meaning could possibly be that Pa gor Vairocana’s beard was infested with lice.

The context  is the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus, a famous appendage at the end of the dBa’ bzhed that narrates a lively debate between various groups of Tibetans about how to conduct the funeral ceremonies of the recently deceased Emperor, the great Khri Srong lde btsan himself. Some, described in the text as Bonpos,  argued for the time honoured bang so funeral, the ritual interment of the deceased Emperor within a vast tumulus filled with grave goods which would become the focal point of ritual in future years, a magnificent and elaborate system of burial that had by then already defined a great part Tibetan ceremonial life for some hundreds of years. But since such a tumulus burial entailed animal sacrifice, others, described in the text as Buddhists, strenuously disagreed: they preferred funerary rites based on such Buddhist systems as the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana and Uṣṇīṣa.

The passage that suggested lice to Wangdu and Diemberger occurs near the beginning of the story. Arriving at the debate in good time, the proponents of Bon had taken up all the rows of seats (gral), leaving no place for the late-coming Buddhist champions, headed by Vairocana. The Buddhists were facing a serious humiliation: in this important debate, they did not even have a suitably dignified seat at the table, so to speak (it seems the hierarchical arrangements of the gral were as significant indicators of status then as now).  It is at this point that Vairocana intervenes. He stood himself behind the opposing minister seated at the head of the row to the right, thus inducing the hapless minister to glance behind him;  and this is what the minister saw [the Tibetan continues as follows]:

bai ro tsa na’i smra ra’i gseb na khro chung nyungs dkar tsam shig shig snang  ba dang/ shin tu skrag nas kog gis langs pa’i shul du bai ro tsa nas bzhugs pas ban de la g.yas gral shor/ [26v7-27r1]

Wangdu and Diemberger attempted the passage as follows:

“[he] saw khro chung nyung dkar crawling around in the beard of Vairocana, and got up with a start. He was immediately replaced with Vairocana, and lost the whole right row.” (p. 96) A footnote is added, suggesting khro chung nyung dkar might indicate lice, as follows (note 381, page 96): “khro chung nyung dkar seem to indicate some peculiar seeds. Nyung dkar is in Tibet a not very common vegetable species from the seeds of which oil is obtained. Khro may stand for khra in which case it would indicate a multicoloured gathering. Perhaps the minister was scared by these seeds looking like parasites. Possibly this expression is a euphemism for nits (in which case khro = sro) and nyung dkar could be a polite form for shig, i.e. louse (in Mustang the polite form for louse is lug).”

As one can see, this is a very highly convoluted argument, based on the opinion that the words khro chung nyung dkar do not exist in the lexicon, and so must be interpreted. It also requires one to accept a number of other quite complex admitted speculations.

Is this memorable rendering, of lice in Vairocana’s beard startling a Bon po minister, accurate? It seems, alas for those who have come to love it, not. As Cathy has been reminding us for some time now, the words khro chung nyungs dkar tsam refer to something altogether less amusing, less repulsive, and more awe-inspiring, something as familiar to specialists in certain kinds of tantrism as the term ‘front-side bus’ might be to computer manufacturers, but equally obscure and misleading to anyone else. Nevertheless it nowadays only takes a quick look at the THDL or Rangjung Yeshe Dictionaries under khro chung to get a clue: khro chung nyung dkar is in one of these dictionaries usefully if tersely signposted as: “small wrathful ones; yungs dkar – nyung dkar – Mustard seeds.”  In fact, the ‘wrathful ones as small as mustard seeds’ of the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus are a well known category notably in Mahāyoga wrathful deity systems, and indicate the emanation of vast hosts of tiny spark-like wrathful forms from the hair pores or the skin to create an awesome display. Deities or great yogis are described as doing this. In rituals, the emanation of such tiny deities is often indicated by the casting of mustard seeds (mustard seeds are commonplace in Tibetan ritual), and hence they are sometimes termed khro chung and identified with nyung dkar,  which conveys both their tiny size (as small as mustard seeds), and their ritual analogue (the throwing of mustard seeds during a ritual). These tiny wrathful forms are attested in Dunhuang texts such as IOLTibJ401, in numerous later medieval traditions such as the great Sakya Phurpa cycles, and in numerous contemporary texts such as Dudjom Rinpoche’s treasures. They have been a continuous well established feature of Mahāyoga from Dunhuang times until the present. Hence in a book we published in 2008, Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang,  we re-translated this passage from the Zas gtad kyi lo rgyus as follows:

“Amongst Vairocana’s whiskers, miniature wrathful [deities] the size of mustard seeds were appearing and amassing and, they so much terrified [his opponent that he] abruptly arose, leaving Vairocana behind, who sat down, so the right row was lost to the Buddhist monks” (p. 50).

Finally, apparent parallels to this ancient story seems to occur in other literature, including the ‘Dra ‘bag chen mo, the most famous traditional biography of Vairocana. Ani Jinba Palmo’s translation (The Great Image, page 219) mentions Vairocana arriving late at an Imperial funeral, and emitting fierce sparks, to the awe of the other attendees (no lice!). I have not yet located the original Tibetan wording.  The late Khetsun Zangpo Rinpoche’s Biographical Dictionary of Tibet also has an account of Vairocana’s life, which became a basis of A. W. Hanson-Barber’s PhD on Vairocana, and there too we find Vairocana arriving rather abruptly at the Emperor’s funeral with his student gYu sgra snying po, emitting an awesome display of sparks—clearly a version of the same story, and although Khetsun Zangpo naturally makes clear references to the ‘Dra ‘bag throughout his text, some variations in detail indicates he might in fact have drawn this section from a different source, or a different version of the ‘Dra ‘bag (A. W. Hanson-Barber, Madison-Wisconsin 1984, Life and Teachings of Vairochana, page 89).

Is this the end of the line for Vairocana’s mythical lice? I’m reasonably confident it is in the minds of Wangdu and Diemberger, who were never much convinced by the lice idea in the first place, and who, as first-class scholars, are entirely likely to be delighted by Vairocana’s belated liberation from an eternity of itching [in fact, Hilde recently emailed us, with the words “Thankyou for getting a more plausible solution to this obscure passage..”]. But I doubt its the end of the story elsewhere: the idea of Vairocana’s lice is simply too funny, too quaint, and too downright memorable, to die quietly.  Once unleashed on the global imagination, I estimate it has many decades, maybe even several centuries, to run. If there’s one thing any English language reader remembers about the dBa’ bzhed, its likely to be Vairocana’s lice.


Finally, for any hard-core nerds who might be mad enough to read our foolish blog, here are some examples of khro chung from the ritual literature:

[1] This first passage is from Dudjom Rinpoche’s gNam lcags spu gri bsnyen yig, found in the section commenting on the Command (bka’ bsgo ba), which is at the beginning of the ritual.


But, in case there are some evil beings who do not obey, and who remain, from the body, speech and mind of yourself, the heruka, innumerable wrathful deities emanate, carrying various kinds of weapons.  They roar out the destructive mantra [oṃ sumbhani etc.] with vajra laughter like thunder, and they stab with their weapons.


They manifest (various wrathful) postures with the thought of shaking up the three worlds, and the obstacles cross over the many worldly realms, and are expelled outside the great iron mountains.


The host of wrathful emanations are reabsorbed back (into yourself as the Great Glorious One), and then meditate that above, below, and in all directions, and from every hair pore of your skin, they again emanate, facing outwards, and pervading everywhere.  With a really fearsome cacophony, they roar forth the destructive sound of hūṃ.

(note:) With the destructive mantra recitation, music and bdellium incense, the vajra master casts mustard seeds (“thun rdzas”, power substances) at the obstacles, which symbolise the miniature wrathful deities.  

[2] The Sa skya Phur chen example is mentioned in our book. The Sa skya Phur chen (15v.4) speaks of the twenty-one thousand (body) hairs of oneself as the deity, filled with miniature Vajrakumāras.  In this example, it is in the main deity visualisation.  It is also included, word-for-word, in the short Sa skya Phur pa practice, the Nges don thig le of the Sa skya Throne-holder, Ngag dbang Kun dga’ blo gros (1729-1783):


All my own skandhas, dhātus, āyatanas, twenty-one thousand hairs, and thirty-five million pores of the skin are entirely* filled with Vajrakumāras like myself, leaving no gaps in between.

*The Kun dga’ blo gros Vol. Ga edition omits, rab tu, entirely.  (Note that the Sa skya Phur chen, f.15v.5, also omits it, but there is of course no need for the text to follow the Sa skya Phur chen exactly, and a copyist’ familiarity with the Sa skya Phur chen might have been responsible for such a scribal omission.)

[1] Pasang Wangdu and Hildegaard Diemberger. dBa’ bzhed. The Royal Narrative Concerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Verlag der Österreischischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Wien, 2000.

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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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The wonderful Orgyan Ling Manuscript Kanjur

Tibetans, especially Nyingmapas, recount numerous legends of ‘Hidden Lands’ (sbas yul). These are places of refuge where the Dharma can be safeguarded in times of political danger and religious persecution, when temples are vandalised and religious books burned. Such ‘Hidden Lands’ are often characterised as obscure valleys in the remote Himalayas to the south of Tibet.

Although remote enough, Himalayan, and to the south, I can see why the Orgyan Ling temple in the Mon Tawang region in modern day Arunachal Pradesh might not have any such legends attached to it. It was not nearly obscure enough, and it ended up being sacked by a hostile army, with its many Nyingmapa treasures destroyed or carried away. Yet despite this rather serious setback, I would like to suggest that albeit in a rather tortuous way and perhaps inadvertently, it did nevertheless achieve one of the prime purposes ascribed to a ‘Hidden Land’. My reasons for proposing this have nothing to do with mystical revelations from Guru Rinpoche nor signs from the dakinis, but derive instead from the prosaic practice of philology. Orgyan Ling temple succeeded in preserving intact for posterity an important and famous Nyingma tantra in a considerably purer and more complete form than anywhere else in Tibet. Not only that, but it also preserved a number of other very rare Nyingma tantras not so far found anywhere else in the Tibetan cultural world.

Orgyan Ling was founded in the late 15th century by Orgyan Zangpo, the younger brother of the famous Bhutanese terton Pema Lingpa (1450-1521). In 1683, Orgyan Ling subsequently became the birthplace of Orgyan Zangpo’s famous descendent, the Sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyamtso (1683-1706).  Thus it was that in 1699, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s regent, the great Desi Sangye Gyatso, greatly extended Orgyan Ling’s buildings and commissioned new volumes for its library.  So despite its remote situation at the very edge of the Tibetan cultural sphere, its galactic network of family and personal connections enabled Orgyan Ling’s library to acquire some very fine books indeed, including a copy of the Ancient Tantra Collection (rNying ma’i rgyud ‘bum), and two Kanjur manuscripts.

The older of the Kanjurs was made in silver and gold, and both Kanjurs contained a quota of sixty Nyingma tantras freely intermingled with their Sarma tantras. This number greatly exceeds the merely twenty-four squeezed into the carefully segregated doxographical ghetto that had been reserved for them by Situ Gewai Lodro (1309-1364) in his Tshalpa Kanjur catalogue. Yet the Thempangma Kanjur traditions don’t have any Nyingma Tantra section at all. Orgyan Ling was evidently such a Nyingma stronghold that even its Kanjurs unashamedly sported unusually large numbers of Nyingma tantras, unsegregated from the Sarma tantras. We can only dream about what its long lost Ancient Tantra Collection might once have contained.

But fame is a two-edged sword which can prove fatal to any Himalayan valley’s chances of successfully qualifying as a ‘Hidden Land’. Not content with merely deposing him in Lhasa, after his death Tsangyang Gyamtso’s Mongolian enemies extended their sectarian vendetta to his birthplace, sacking the monastery of Orgyan Ling around 1714 in the course of a campaign against Bhutan.

Fortunately however, a quantity of the monastery’s surviving valuable books and artifacts were transferred to the Geluk establishment of Ganden Namgyal Lhatse in Tawang, even though the gold and silver Kanjur was partially destroyed, and the Ancient Tantra Collection disappeared.

Among the volumes transferred to Ganden Namgyal Lhatse was the Kanjur manuscript commissioned by the Desi Sangye Gyatso in 1699, beautifully calligraphed by master scribes especially hired from the E region of Central Tibet. Fortunately, this Kanjur still survives, together with its full complement of sixty Nyingma tantras. But it is not its master calligraphy that concerns us (although that is certainly impressive), nor its fine thick paper: rather, it is the presumably lost exemplars from which the master scribe must have made his copy, and the textual traditions they represented.

Over the last few years, Cathy and I have been engaged in making a critical edition of an important Nyingma tantra called the  ‘Phags pa thabs kyi zhags pa padma ‘phreng gi don bsdus pa, which one might translate as A Noble Noose of Methods, the Lotus Garland Synopsis (hereafter abbreviated as Thabs zhags). In addition, we have simultaneously edited its commentary.

The Thabs zhags is a magnificent example of Mahāyoga literature, often juxtaposed with the Guhyagarbha in classic doxographies, and its commentary is one of the few remaining genuinely early word-for-word commentaries on a Mahāyoga tantra. While we don’t adhere to the unrealistically perfectionist dogma that every text in existence must be exhaustively critically edited as a matter of principle, as academic scholars we do share the perception of numerous learned Tibetan lamas of the past and the present, that a certain proportion of texts in the popular editions of the Tibetan canon can end up in rather bad shape, and are ideally in need of critical editing. It is specifically these damaged texts that we seek to restore.

The Thabs zhags and its commentary are among such damaged texts. The commentary survives in three different Tenjur editions, yet in all three instances, around a third of its text has become completely lost: for example, everything between Chapter Six and the end of Chapter 10 has disappeared, and there are other significant losses of text too.

In most of its more popular canonical versions, the root tantra has only slightly less serious problems. These more popular versions derive either from the Tshalpa branches of the Kanjur (which here must includes the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, since it borrowed the relevant woodblocks from the Derge Kanjur), or from the Bhutanese Ancient Tantra Collection manuscripts. Yet they reveal a pattern of confusion: the respective renderings of the final section of the very long Chapter 11, for example, are so radically different in the Tshalpa Kanjur and Bhutanese recensions, that to the untrained eye it seems hard to credit that they are reproducing the same text at all.

To remedy this situation, we assembled twenty one different witnesses from every conceivable source, and began to try to piece together the evidence.

The commentary was reasonably easy to fix. Whilst the transmitted tradition of the Tenjur was irrevocably damaged, ‘new’ evidence in the form of a partially complete 10th century Dunhuang manuscript was discovered in the early 20th century and brought to London by Sir Aurel Stein. This enabled us to restore the text to its complete form, almost certainly for the first time in several centuries, since, by great good fortune, those parts missing in the Tenjur were preserved in the Dunhuang manuscript, while those parts missing in the Dunhuang manuscript were preserved in the Tenjur. It became a simple matter of splicing.

The root text proved more complex, but nevertheless exhaustive collation and stemmatic analysis permitted us a clear result. It became evident that the currently three most popular versions – those of the Tshalpa Kanjurs, of the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and of the Mtshams brag Ancient Tantra Collection from Bhutan – represented two distinct attempts to reconstruct the root text from out of the commentary. At some stage in its long history, the root text must have been lost in the main centres of Nyingma learning, perhaps during one of those periodic persecutions of the Nyingmapas that made them want to retire to the ‘Hidden Lands’ in the first place.  Two different attempts were then made to recover the root text by extracting its verses out of the word-by-word commentary, one attempt witnessed in the Tshalpa Kanjurs and the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and the other attempt witnessed in the Bhutanese Ancient  Tantra Collection manuscripts of Mtshams brag, Sgra med rtse, Sgang steng-A and Sgang steng-B.

Once we had the full commentary available to us together with the evidence from our twenty one witnesses, it became unfortunately evident that neither of these brave attempts at reconstruction had been entirely successful. Both in their different ways and at different junctures mistakenly introduced commentarial passages into the root text, whilst also excluding passages of root text through the mistaken assumption that they were commentary. Nor did they agree in their errors – hence for example their radically different interpretations of Chapter 11.

But this is where the ‘Hidden Land’ principle comes into play. While these famous mainstream texts of the Tshalpa Kanjur, the Derge Ancient Tantra Collection, and the Bhutanese Ancient Tantra Collection were uniformly confused about what was root text and what was commentary, all around that great geographical arc that comprises the southern Himalayan fringe of the Tibetan cultural zone, in sometimes obscure and ignored local monasteries, versions of the text survived that derived not from one or another attempt to reconstruct the root text from the commentary, but directly, from the original root text itself. In the forgotten ruins of an old library in Hemis, along the Nepalese borders, and even in far-off Bathang in the North-East of Tibet, ancient versions of the text, or their direct copies, survived. It was through studying these that we were able to restore the text to its original boundaries, differentiating root text from commentary with clarity and ease. Applying stemmatics to all the witnesses together, we were also able restore many other original readings.

But the last word belongs to the excellent Orgyan Ling manuscript. It can only be consulted in one place, in the library of the Central University for Tibetan Studies in Sarnath, and microfilm is not easily available. Hence we did not get to see it at all until a provisional version of our edition was already complete. To our delight and astonishment, it agreed with our stemmatic reconstruction at every significant juncture. Not only that, but its superior scribe from E had even eliminated spelling errors and many other small problems, just as our laborious edition had attempted to do. We found ourselves face to face with a beautifully calligraphed late 17th century version of the text that was virtually identical in all important respects to the one we had so painstakingly reconstructed over the previous three years. The only differences were that the Orgyan Ling manuscript preserved a few more archaic spellings than we saw fit, and its scribe had fallen for one minor slip of the pen when describing a mudra.

The moral of the story is this: we should not allow ourselves to become excessively swayed by the grand reputations and religious-political support invested in the few mainstream editions of the canons. Don’t forget the ‘Hidden Land’ principle, which tells us that just occasionally the most valuable editions can be located in the least expected places. This was something well understood by the great Tibetan critical editors of the past, men like Situ Panchen, Tsongkhapa or Kathok Rigdzin Tsewang Norbu, who became dissatisfied if they found reason to suspect that the standard canonical fare was deficient, and who left no stone unturned in seeking out rare witnesses in Sanskrit and Tibetan to complete their own critical editions.

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