The nine vehicles of the Nyingma: new sources

Deux Magots café

It is amazing how many Dunhuang manuscripts of great value for understanding how Tibetan Buddhism developed were overlooked in the century since their discovery. I have already discussed previously overlooked sources on Avalokiteśvara and Padmasambhava. Let’s look here at some “new” sources for the way the Buddha’s teachings are divided up by the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism

The Nyingma school recognises 9 categories of teachings, known as 9 ‘vehicles’ (theg pa, or yāna in Sanskrit). The classical Nyingma formulation, represented in sources like Longchenpa’s Treasury of Philosophical Tenets is:

  1. Śrāvaka
  2. Pratyekabuddha
  3. Bodhisattva
  4. Kriyā
  5. Ubhaya
  6. Yoga
  7. Mahāyoga
  8. Anuyoga
  9. Atiyoga

This system was rejected by the new schools that arose after the 10th century. Some writers of the new schools also cast doubt on the genuine antiquity of the 9 vehicles, and it does seem there was probably no real Indian ancestor. All of these classes of teachings may did exist in India, but bringing them together in this way, and particularly calling them all ‘vehicles’ seems to have happened in Tibet.

Now the 9 vehicles appear throughout the terma (‘treasure’) literature, but modern scholarship tends to take the sceptical position that these texts should be treated as products of the time of their appearance, rather than of when they were said to have been concealed in the late 8th century. Transmitted literature found in the Kangyur and Tengyur and other canonical collections is more admissible as evidence, even though the attribution of authorship is often questionable.

So among the transmitted literature we do have some works referring to the 9 vehicles, or something like them. From the 8th century there is The Garland of Views, which is generally accepted to have been written by Padmasambhava, or at least somebody from the same period (see the Tibetan text and translation in Samten Karmay’s The Great Perfection). There is another text supposedly from the same period, Explaining the Stages of the View, attributed to the early translator Kawa Paltseg, which does contain the 9 vehicles in exactly the same way as they are presented in the later Nyingma school, but for several reasons this looks like a later text falsely attributed to Kawa Paltseg. Then from the late 9th century we have Nub Sangye Yeshe’s Armour Against Darkness, his commentary on the great Anuyoga scripture Gongpa Düpai Do (the 9 vehicles are not explicitly presented in the root text).

If these texts really do date from the 8th to 10th centuries, we ought to see some versions of the 9 vehicles in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Until the last few years however, all we have had is one scroll: Pelliot tibétain 849. This scroll has been known about since the 1920s, when a book-length study of it was published in France by Josef Hackin. The scroll contains a whole series of notes, probaby taken from the teachings of an Indian guru passing through Dunhuang. Among these notes is something similar to the 9 vehicle system of the Nyingma, but still with significant differences.

IOL Tib J 644Then a few years ago, when Jake Dalton and I were working on a catalogue of the tantric manuscripts in the Tibetan Dunhuang collections, we came across two more versions of the 9 vehicle system. Amazingly, both were more much more interesting and comprehensive treatments of the subject than the one found in Pelliot tibétain 849.

The first of these manuscript is Pelliot tibétain 656, entitled The Seven Great Transmission Types (Spyi’i lung chen po bdun). It’s a short text, short enough that Jake and I translated it in one sitting at the Deux Magots café in Paris (from a microfilm printout, not the manuscript!). The 7 types are equivalent to the 9 vehicles minus the Pratyekabuddha and Upāya yoga categories; thus:

  1. Śrāvaka
  2. Sautrāntika (here this means a non-tantric Mahāyanist)
  3. Kriyā
  4. Yoga
  5. Mahāyoga
  6. Anuyoga
  7. Atiyoga

In a very clear and methodical treatment, each of these is discussed in terms of its (i) view, (ii) meditation, (iii) practices and (iv) vows. This is an elegant and sophisticated little treatise. In essence there is little difference between the way these classes of teachings are described here and the description of their equivalents in classical Nyingma sources.

The second “new” manuscript is IOL Tib J 644. Here the 9 vehicles appear in their entirety, exactly as they do in the later tradition. Again, the treatment is very systematic, distinguishing the 9 categories in terms of (i) their deity system, (ii) the relationship between deity and practitioner and (iii) the marks of accomplishment. Jake provided a translation of the complete text in his recent article “A Crisis of Doxography”. The only difference between this manuscript and the later tradition, and I suppose it is not such a small difference, is that the word ‘vehicle’ is never used in the manuscript to refer to these classes. This is significant in that some scholars of the new schools strongly rejected the idea of calling these tantric classes ‘vehicles’. Sakya Paṇḍita, for one, argued that Atiyoga should be treated as a manifestation of wisdom, but not as a vehicle in itself. The general tendency to refer to the 9 categories as vehicles seems to postdate our manuscripts, that is to say, it was not common until after the 10th century.

1. Dalton, Jacob. 2005. “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra in the 8th-12th Centuries”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1: 115–182.
2. Hackin, Josef. 1924. Formulaire sanscrit-tibétain du Xe siécle. Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geunthner.
3. Kapstein, Matthew. “New Light on an Old Friend: PT 849 Reconsidered”. Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis. Leiden: Brill. 9–30.
3. Karmay, S. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill.

Tibetan texts
1. Klong chen pa. Grub mtha’ mdzod [Treasury of Philosophical Tenets]. In the Mdzod bdun (click here for bibliographical references to the various editions).
2. Bka’ ba dpal brtsegs(?). Lta ba’i rim pa bshad pa [Explaining the Stages of the View]. Q.5843.
3. Gnubs Sangs rgyas ye shes. Sangs rgyas thams cad kyi dgongs pa ’dus pa mdo’i dka’ ’grel mun pa’i go cha [Armour Against Darkness]. Rnying ma bka’ ma rgyas pa, vols.50-51.
4. Padmasambhava(?). Man ngag gi rgyal po lta ba’i ‘phreng ba [The Garland of Views]. Q.4726.

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