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 academia.edu 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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