Padmasambhava I: the early sources

PadmasambhavaKnown as Pema Jungné (‘the lotus-born’) or Guru Rinpoche (‘the precious guru’) in Tibet, Padmasambhava is seen as the true founder of Tibetan Buddhism, a second Buddha who established the dharma in the land of the red-faced men. Padmasambhava is said to have been invited to Tibet to help found the first Tibetan monastery, Samyé, and tame the local demonic forces that were obstructing the establishment of the monastery.

In the earliest histories, Padmasambhava’s role is limited to this, and perhaps to introducing the technology of irrigation to the valleys of Central Tibet. In later histories, Padmasambhava’s role is far greater. In particular, his is said to have concealed uncountable books and sacred objects throughout Tibet, for discovery when the time became ripe. The discoverers are the famed tertön and the hidden treasures are the terma.

Despite his importance to Tibetan Buddhism there are few early manuscript sources on Padmasambhava (most of which have been discussed by Jacob Dalton and Kenneth Eastman). One of the rare and important sources is IOL Tib J 321, a 10th century manuscript containing a commentary on a tantra called the Upāyapāśa attributed to Padmasambhava. The commentary survived into the later tradition, but the attribution to Padmasambhava was lost. The authorship of the commentary is suggested in two places. The first is a simple note that states: “This was taught by Padmasambhava without any fabrications of his own.”


The second is a verse that is attached to the end of the commentary, praising “Padmarāja”. An interlinear note confirms that this is Padmasambhava: “Acārya Śāntigarbha examined this and found it free from error; afterwards he praised Padmasambhava.”


Śāntigarbha is an obscure figure in Tibetan history, one of the Indian gurus invited to Tibet along with Padmasambhava, who was involved in the transmission of tantras to Tibet. Although the attribution of this text to Padmasambhava is fairly well-known, Śāntigarbha’s verses of praise to Padmasambhava have never been translated or discussed (as far as I know):

Homage to Padmarāja, beyond the world,
The great marvel, attainer of the supreme accomplishment,
Who brought out of the valleys
The great and secret instructions of the tathāgatas.

/dngos grub mchog brnyes ya mtshan chen po’i/
/’jig rten ma 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/

Two things about these verses interest me very much. The first is the similarity of the first line (the second line in my translation) to the Seven Line Prayer, a much more famous set of verses of praise to Padmasambhava which is still recited today. Śāntigarbha’s verses seem to have been a forerunner and source for the Seven Line Prayer. The second interesting aspect of these verses is the reference to bringing secret instructions out of the valleys. The “valleys” may be a reference to Oḍḍiyāna, Padmasambhava’s homeland, which also happens to be where many tantras are said to have entered the human realm. The association of Padmasambhava with the revelation of tantras (not found in any history) is a surprising link to the later terma tradition, not in the traditional sense in which he is said to have concealed the terma, but as a revealer of treasures himself, a model for the later tertöns.

Finally, just in case I have given the impression that Padmasambhava actually wrote this manuscipt, let me be clear that he didn’t. The scribe has signed the manuscript, and we can see that he was a local to the Dunhuang area, probably a Chinese from Ganzhou, who went by the name Kamchupa Buoko.


1. Dalton, Jacob. 2004. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4: 759-772.
2. Eastman, Kenneth. 1983. “Mahāyoga Texts at Tun-huang”. Bulletin of Institute of Buddhist Cultural Studies (Ryukoku University) 22: 42–60.
3. Germano, David. 2002. “The Seven Descents and the Early History of rNying ma transmissions.” The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism (eds Helmut Eimer and David Germano), Leiden: Brill. 225–263.

11 thoughts on “Padmasambhava I: the early sources

  1. The correct citation for the Dalton article is: Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4 [2004]: 759-772.

  2. IOL Tib J 321, the Thabs zhags or *Upāyapāśa manuscript (note the usual Sanskrit spelling), is one of the most interesting Dunhuang texts. Cathy Cantwell and I are half way through a major four-year research project on it at the University of Oxford, funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are giving a paper on it this fall at the Numata conference in Berkeley, and other publications are already in press, with more to follow later, including a book. One thing IOL Tib J 321 certainly tells us is that much subsequent rNying ma Mahāyoga doctrine and ritual was already in place at Dunhuang.

  3. First of all, to put it shortly, I would like to express my thanks and admiration for the generosity and insight of which this site in an expression!

    As to this particular article, which I find very interesting indeed, I have, however, a question in mind, which doesn’t want to go away, namely the following:

    The wording of the verse of S’ântigarbha is read in your article as… ‘jig rten ma gyur. In the romanised text of this manuscript it says, however …ngam gyur. I have been looking hard at the text available here online, and it actually seems to say …ngam gyur.

    I would be thankful if you could comment on this particular point, and would like to hear how you would understand / translate the expression ngam gyur (if you consider it sensible) in this context.

    This far I have not come across with any other instances of this particular word-combination. However, maybe just because of it, what comes to my mind here is the polarity of the notions of ye and ngam in the perspective (scope) of the old Tibetan world-view – as referred to by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in his “Drung, Deu and Bön” (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives 1995).

    Dan Martin has placed this entry in his lexical work: (DM) ” ngam ni nag phyogs bdud kyi phyogs. From Namdak, Bzo-rig 112. Discussed in Karmay, Arrow 256 ff.”

    As to the other possible points of view, Ives Waldo has put forward the following: (IW) ” 1) color; 2) expression; 3) ? for word ending in {nga}; 4) ‘or’; 5) ravine, canyon ”

    That much for ngam.

    Then we have the …klung nas bkrol mdzad. Of course klung means ‘valley’ – (a ‘deep’ ) (a ‘course’) – which usually contains the idea of a riverbed – such as the river Swat / Suvastu etc.

    However, again, in the work already mentioned, “Drung, Deu and Bön” , we have the word / notion of klung considered from another (‘even deeper’) point of view – in the context of the, so called, klung rta – as representing (among the other 4 animals) the fifth (‘omnipervasive’) element, namely ‘space’. (pp. 69-70)

    Could it be that (in ‘deep-reading’ the text) this point of view could also open up a perspective for (the alternate reading) ngam ?

    Yours, much obliged,
    Ilkka Tanner

  4. Thanks for the kind words, Ilkka. I decided against reading the manuscript literally as ngam ‘gyur and treat it as a scribal error. In fact, the bstan ‘gyur version of this text (Q.4717) has ma and not ngam. For me, the ngam ‘gyur reading is not very convincing. Considering that the nga often looks very like the tsheg in the Dunhuang manuscripts (see the tutorial on punctuation in my Reading Tibetan Manuscripts site) I can see how the error might have crept into our manuscript.

    As for the klung, I do agree that the alternative reading as space (cognate with klong) is a real possibility here. I chose the ‘valley’ reading here because Padmasambhava is chiefly associated in the Dunhuang manuscripts, including this text, with the Mahāyoga tantras, and the reading of ‘space’ seems to anticipate (perhaps inappropriately) the later association of Padmasambhava with Atiyoga. Still, I agree that either reading is possible.

  5. I have to admit that the phrase klung nas bkrol makes so much more sense if read klong nas bkrol. The (loosely unraveled) sense of it would be just that he had all those secrets totally mastered in his innermost being, and that they could be ‘let loose’ all at once. I don’t think it necessarily anticipates anything, or that that would be a good enough reason to avoid it.

  6. Yes, I’m beginning to incline in that direction — I mean towards space rather than the valleys. Its interesting that the text you mentioned has klong brdol in some chapter headings, and klong nas bkrol in others. They seem to mean pretty much the same thing, except that klong nas bkrol is more active…

  7. That’s right. Brdol has a sense of just popping up for no apparent reaso, the timing unpredictable. Bkrol is past of ‘grol, with a sense of actively disentangling something (besides oneself). But yes, the two phrases seem to amount to about the same thing like you say.

  8. A nice find!
    Another bend, another view to take a look at along the way.

    Still reflecting on ngam gyur. It seems there is no necessity for correction here. A friend of mine recognized this (very old) expression readily and pointed out it has very much the same meaning as zil gnon or rngam pa, ie. ‘surmounting’ or ‘overpowering’. ‘Outshining’ even. In Yisun Chang, I think, one can find support for that. In THDL there is a mention of ngam grog chen po as a ‘poetic name for Tibet’.

    Thanks again!

  9. Pingback: Padmasambhava in early Tibetan myth and ritual, Part 2: IOLTibJ321 | kīli kīlaya

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