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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