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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