In the last post I looked at the connections between the ‘new’ schools of Tibetan Buddhism (nowadays the Kagyü, Sakya and Gelug) the Dunhuang manuscripts. I tried to show that there is a shared heritage in the sutras translated in the early period, and the sutric contemplations on topics like impermanence and karma.
Could there by any traces among the Dunhuang manuscripts of the ‘new’ tantric lineages that flooded into Tibet from the late 10th century onward? The library cave at Dunhuang was closed up at the beginning of the 11th century, so it seems unlikely, but just possible that we might be able to catch a trace of the ‘new’ lineages. What’s more, I think I have found one.
This trace is connected to the new lineages of Sakya, which derive a number of Indic siddha traditions. One of those siddhas was the famous Virūpa, the source for the transmission of the ‘path and fruit’ or Lamdré practices. Another was Virūpa’s disciple Kāṇha (also known by an number of other names, but we’ll stick to the shortest one), who is the source of another set of esoteric practices. Kāṇha was a Hindu yogin from South India, who often got into arguments with Buddhists, and was converted to Buddhism by Virūpa.
As with most of the great siddhas, there is a funny story about Kāṇha. He is said to have converted a king by taking advantage of the king’s attachment to his many queens. First Kāṇha spent some time with the queens. Then when the queens explained what had happened to the king, the king declared: “He must be killed!” Kāṇha waited for the king’s troops outside the queen’s palace. When the soldiers arrived, Kāṇha back inside. As soon as the troops followed him inside, Kāṇha appeared outside. When both the inside and outside of the palace were completely filled by the troops, Kāṇha sent forth magical emanations outnumbering the king’s troops. The king realized that Kāṇha was a siddha and bowed at his feet.
Stories aside, we don’t really have firm dates for Kāṇha. We know the lineage between Kāṇha and the great Tibetan translator Drogmi contained three people, and Drogmi was born just before the year 1000. So Kāṇha was probably teaching some time in the mid-10th century, if the traditional lineages are correct. This is just where a bit of contemporary evidence, like a Dunhuang manuscript for example, would come in handy.
Kāṇha’s most famous teaching is known by the (apparently) Sanskrit name Olapati. As a text, the Olapati the is quite mysterious. Nobody really knows what the name means (though if you’re interested, see the guesses at the end of this post). And while the Sakyapas practiced an oral instruction on the Olapati known as The Complete Path of Inner Heat they didn’t preserve the Olapati itself in their collections. But the Olapati does seem to have survived. According to two modern scholars of the Lamdré, Cyrus Strearns and Ronald Davidson, the Olapati is to be identified with a canonical text called The Four Stages attributed to a certain Kṛṣṇa (another name for Kāṇha).
Now the Dunhuang scroll Pelliot tibétain 849 contains a list of tantras. As I mentioned in a previous post, the list includes the Guhyagarbha tantra. It also includes an Olipati tantra (the spelling is slightly different, but that is true for almost all of the Sanskrit titles listed in this scroll). When I first saw this Sakya text in the list of tantras I was very surprised. None of the previous studies of this scroll had connected this title with Kāṇha’s text. Could they be one and the same?
The possibility seems less remote when we remember that Pelliot tibétain 849 dates to the end of the 10th century, and contains the notes taken down by a local from a passing Indian tantric master. This Indian master, Devaputra by name, had travelled via Tibet to China on a pilgrimage to Wutaishan, and was on his way back to India when he stopped at Dunhuang. A local called Dro Könchogpal worked with the Indian master on (among other things) a bilingual list of important tantras.
Is this Olipati tantra in our Dunhuang scroll really Kāṇha’s teaching? I think probably it is. The name is unusual enough, and may come from Kāṇha’s South Indian background. The fact that it is called a tantra in the scroll is not really problematic. The local Tibetan who wrote the scroll was not very accurate, and may have assumed he was writing down the names of tantras, when other instructional texts were being listed as well. Or Kāṇha’s teaching may have taken on the status of a tantra in some circles. So here is a siddha’s teaching that came to Central Tibet in the mid-11th century, but was known in distant Dunhuang (if only by name) half a century earlier. And that seems to confirm the traditional Sakya accounts of both Kāṇha’s dates and teachings.
To conclude on the theme of the previous post, when we see the (to later eyes, thoroughly Nyingma) Guhyagarbha tantra together with the (very Sakya) Olapati in the same list, it is a welcome reminder that sectarian divisions and rarely as fundamental as they might seem. History might seem an arcane pursuit sometimes, but it can be a useful way cutting through such divisions.
1. Davidson, Ronald. 2005. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press [on the Olapati: pp.200-201]
2. Hackin, Josef. 1924. Formulaire sanscrit-tibétain du Xe siécle. Librairie orientaliste Paul Geunthner, Paris. [On Pelliot tibétain 849]
3. Kapstein, Matthew. 2006 “New Light on an Old Friend: PT 849 Reconsidered”. In Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis: Studies in its Formative Period 900-1400. Leiden: Brill
4. Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives. Boston: Wisdom Publications. [on the Yellow Book: pp.32-35]
1. Dhongthog Rinpoche, T.G. 1976. A History of the Sakya School of Tibetan Buddhism. New Delhi: Paljor Publications.
2. Nag po spyod pa (Kṛṣṇācaryā, alias Kāṇha). Gtum mo lam rdzogs [The Complete Path of Inner Heat]. In Sa skya Lam ‘bras Literature Series vol.11 pp.445-457.
3. Nag po pa (Kṛṣṇa, alias Kṛṣṇācaryā, alias Kāṇha). Rim pa bzhi po [The Four Stages]. Q.2168.
Statue of Kāṇha, from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin. From the 2007 exhibition Klöster öffnen ihre Schatzkammern.
And a note…
…on the name Olapati:
- Matthew Kapstein (2006: p.20) wrote on the name Olipati, from Pelliot tibétain 849: “Oli (perhaps < Skt. āvalī) occurs in the formation of certain technical terms of haṭhayoga, e.g., vajrolimudrā, referring to the yogic practice of sexual congress. A possible interpretation might therefore be *(Vajr)olipaddhatitantra.”
- Ronald Davidson (2005: 200-201) links the name Olapati to the canonical Tibetan text The Four Stages (Rim pa bzhi pa, Q.2168). He points out that ola survives in the (reconstructed?) Sankrit title to the autocommentary on the The Four Stages, which is Olacatustustaya-vibhaṅga (Tibetan Rim pa bzhi’i rnam par ‘bzhed pa, T.1460). Here ola is equivalent to rim pa, “stage”, while instead of pati we have the standard Sanskrit catuḥ for “four” (bzhi pa).
And another note (added on February 13th)…
The South Indian languages provide plenty of possibilities for all the elements under consideration here, ola, oli and pati. Though I am not any kind of expert in these languages, the possibility is too interesting to ignore, so I am going to speculate, based on Burrow and Emeneau’s A Dravidian Etymological Dictionary and the Cologne Online Tamil Lexicon (http://webapps.uni-koeln.de/tamil).
Since there is no equivalent for the Tibetan bzhi po “the four” in ola/oli/pati, I wonder if the Tibetan name is not a direct translation of Olapati, but rather a descriptive name for the text? In that case, we can look a little more widely for meaning of the name Olapati:
- First of all, in many South Indian dialects ōla (or ōlai or ōle) means a page or a book, by extension from the ola palm leaves that are used to make books.
- The Tamil noun oli can refer to any sound, to speech or more specifically, to the “loud or audible recitation of a mantra.”
- The verbal root oli– or olap– can mean to wash or cleanse in Tamil.
- In various South Indian dialects, both oḷa and oḷi have meaning of secrecy and concealment.
- We have the Tamil and Malayam verb pati, “to be imprinted, indented.” Considering that writing on Indian palm leaves is a form of imprinting or indentation, could ōla-pati mean “impressed on palm leaves”?
- We have the Tamil verb paṭi, meaning “to practise, habituate oneself to,” which would combine well with some of the meanings of ola/oli attested above, as well as Kapstein’s interpretation of oli.
- There is a Tamil noun paṭi, meaning “a step, stair, rung of a ladder, stirrup, grade, rank…” This would be a clear equivalent to the Tibetan rim pa, “stage” and could be combined with some of the meanins of ola/oli above.
- And finally, several dictionaries give patti as an equivalent for Sanskrit bhakti, meaning devotion, religious observance and so on. This could be combined with the meaning of oḷa/oīi above to mean “secret” or “hidden” religious observance. Bhakti is particularly associated with deity cults like that of Śīva, which ties in nicely with Kāṇha’s status as a former Śaiva yogin.
In any case, since I have not taken the morphology of these terms into account, I can hardly suggest a best reading here, but if anyone with a knowledge of South Indian languages reads this, I’d be most grateful for any thoughts.