The Olapati

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]

Tibetan texts
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 (

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, ola/oli:

  1. 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.
  2. The Tamil noun oli can refer to any sound, to speech or more specifically, to the “loud or audible recitation of a mantra.”
  3. The verbal root oli– or olap– can mean to wash or cleanse in Tamil.
  4. In various South Indian dialects, both oḷa and oḷi have meaning of secrecy and concealment.

Now, pati/patti:

  1. 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”?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

7 thoughts on “The Olapati

  1. G’mornin Early,

    I think you are right that Olapati means (somehow) Rim-pa Bzhi-pa, or ‘Four Stages.’ And like you I am also totally unable to explain how that could be. Perhaps I could ask a neighboring expert in South Indian languages?

    I don’t have Dhongthog 1977 (or do you really mean 1976?), but I’m quite sure there is some source of confusion there. Among the many texts by the Black Man (Nag-po-pa, Nag-po Spyod-pa), there is one called Four Stages (Tohoku no. 1451), and another very distinct one called Spring Drop (not drop of delight), or, in Tibetan Dpyid-kyi Thig-le, and in Sanskrit Vasantatilakâ (lengthmark on that final ‘a’). Of course Vasantatilakâ could at the same time have significant meaning, but the truth is it’s name of one of the more popular verse metres. Or we could interpret it to mean (as Yisun Chang dictionary does) ‘seed’ (as in that of plant or animal or human). In any case, the Vasantatilakâ (with its commentary by Vanaratna) was published in a very nice bilingual Sanskrit & Tibetan edition by the good people in Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies in Sarnath (and of course it’s in the Tanjur; Tohoku no. 1448).

    I’m still puzzled by the word ‘tantra’ in the “Olipati Tantra” (O-li-pad-ti Tan-tra) in the Hackin edited Dunhuang text… That Black Man wrote an Olapati treatise (shâstra) is clear, but which tantra would be intended? That’s troubling for your conclusion… Not necessarily fatal, so no reason to sweat it.

    I enjoyed these last two blogs, and think it’s a great question to ask. And if you don’t like this comment hanging on your blog page, feel free to read it and discard it. Seriously.


  2. Of course I would never discard such a valuable treasure of information as one of your comments. I see I did misinterpret the Olipati and Dpyid kyi thig le as equivalents (based on Dhongthog who lists them with separated with a ste), so I’ve removed that part of the note at the end of the post and amended my translation of Dhongthog’s history too.

    Yes, the fact that the writer of PT 849 calls the Olipati/Olapati a tantra is problematic, but the fact is his list is already problematic. For example, he includes some categories (like “yogini tantra”) as if they were names of tantras. Something was clearly lost in translation.

    Anyway, I think it would be useful at this point to take a close look at the original scroll (via the miracle of microfilm) and report back.

    More later!

  3. Well, here is the exact transcription of the name that appears in PT 849:

    o li pad ti tan tra

    This should probably be reconstructed as Olipatti tantra. For instance, we also have ba dzra svad tva for Vajrasattva. Note the double “t” and see my new note at the end of the main post on possible South Indian elements of the name.

  4. Thank you once again for these last four (plus more) wonderful unfoldments of riches!
    I did some sightseeings in Tamil and Telugu etc. as well, but had no time to join the dga’ ston in the full swing (unless it’s only starting). However, please find hereby some scattered notes attached:

    To begin with, if we think about the ”four folds” of rim pa bzhi or of catus.t.ayavibhan~ga (true diacritics missing here) – and take a look at the few words starting with ol in the Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit dictionary – we can find f. ex. olin with a referece to vâli, vâlin. Looking for vâli we then may find vali, valî (from val, ”to turn”) – meaning “a fold” ~ “a wave” ~ “a wrinkle”. In any case the very sound of ola /oli is ~ ”rounded” (valita).

    If we then look for padi, (mudrâ is written mud tra sometimes) we can find a few words beginning with pâdi, padî – expressing meanings like “a quarter”, “25 %”, “a square”, “a fourth part” (i.e. including the idea of ”4”) – and pâda itself (of course) as a “verse” or “line” – ”the fourth part” of a regular stanza (as in Dhammapada).

    That woud make ~ ”foldfour” (or even ~ ”wavefourths”), though; it seems.

    Now, if (in spite of all obvious problems) the twists and turns of this winding path could be accepted “as normal” – might it be that we have stumbled (accidentally) at a cue? to a tolerable? (~ etymological?) answer? to the mystery of Olapati /Olacatus.t.aya-vibhan~ga???

    The other writings by the author might, perhaps, really give a cue. Dan Martin’s Tibskrit Philology has this to tell, just for example:

    Dge ‘dun chos ‘phel and Râhulaâyana found in a Tibetan monastery
    an Indic manuscript of his songs. Translation of chap. 12 in: Dge ‘dun chos
    ‘phel, Works, vol. 2, pp. 415-421 (with the title: Dpal nag po’i glu, le’u bcu gnyis

    If so, indeed: ”impressed on palm leaves”?!

    [Just along the path: do you consider the ’bzhed pa in the title (as you have it in your note – instead of ‘byed pa – or, even, bzhad pa) just a “scribal” – or another cue?]

    Back to the journal:

    Of course the ola ~ oli may present here quite something else and can truly be the secret! – the key it seems to be; one more example of the ”bird talk” – so to say. Liquid sound! The Dravidian dimension sounds inviting.

    And ola as a secret is confirmed:
    As you mention – from the Dravidian Etymological Dictionary we can quote this:
    Tu. oḷa secret, private; oḷavu, oḷāvu secret thought; oḷaguṭṭu a secret; uḷavu one’s secret.

    But then again:
    In Brown’s Telugu – English dictionary olapata ~ ôlapât.a is said to mean ”a song used while bathing or swimming”. ”A boat song”. The word comes close.

    And to compare with this image we can find, as you mention, in the Dravidian:
    Tu. olapu, olampu, olpe cleanliness, purity; lumbuni to plunge, wash, rinse.
    And what might be more: For their own oral epic tradition the Tulu singers use a term connoting ‘song’, pad?dana (written here as it appears on the original wikipage – of BC Hindu Oral Traditions). And Tulu is considered, by some scholars, as the oldest of Dravidian languages. In any case it is ancient!
    In Tamil, too, there is an echo:
    Ta. pāṭu (pāṭi-) to sing, chant, warble, hum; pāṭal versifying, song; pāṭi singer; tune; pāṭṭu singing, song, music; pā verse, stanza, poem; pāvalar poets.
    We might then remember the vasantatilaka as a metre, too ~ ”Spring Drop”.

    Or, we might think (now remembering Sri Simha’s crucial bath) of Cînapat.t.a /Cînapati (and of Kinnaur ~ Chini Tehsil??).

    And following that line we might – as well, who knows – ask the opinion of the Olipattians themselves! For it seems there is – today! – a village (of some 665 inhabitants) in Uttar Pradesh, Deoria district, with that name.

    And, if we wish, and still have strength, we might find some interesting sounding Dravidian speakers in Central India and North:

    Ollari speakers, of course, for one.
    The Oraons. The rumour goes, they can be met in Bhutan now. Indian Adivasi people – their language related to Brahui. Black in complexion, with curly hair, rich in vast range of songs, dances, tales of ancient origin.

    As Kanha, too, probably was.

    I must stop.
    In any case: All the Best and a Good beginning for the Earth Mouse Year!


  5. Post Scriptum:

    Reconsidering my ”journal notes” I took a closer look and found the following:

    Dan Martin’s Tibskrit – aside from mentioning the name Kân.ha (~ Kahna?) – presents the Vasantatilaka under the name Kr.s.n.âcârya; and (instead of Olacatustaya) an Alicastus.t.aya (~ Âlicatus.t.aya?) under the name Kr.s.n.a.

    The reference to Dpal nag po’i glu is given under the former (dated to the 11th century).

    In Peking Tripitaka online search we can find – among many other titles – these 4 that seem to be – considering the names of the translators – of more direct interest in this context:

    dbyid kyi thig le zhes bya ba / (vasantatilaka-nAma.)
    [A] nag po pa / (kRSNa.), [Tr] chos kyi dbang phyug / (dharmezvara.), [Tr] blo gros bzang grags pa / (sumatikIrti.)

    gsang ba’i de kho na nyid rab tu gsal ba zhes bya ba / (guhyatattvaprakAza-nAma.)
    [A] nag po / (kRSNa.), [Tr] lha btsas / (devasUta.), [Rev] chos kyi dbang phyug / (dharmezvara.), [Tr] gayadhara., [Rev] zrI sumatikIrti.

    rim pa bzhi po / ([AlicatuSTaya.])
    [A] nag po pa / (kRSNa.), [Tr] grags pa shes rab / (kIrtiprajA.), [Tr] zrI sumatikIrti.
    rim pa bzhi’i rnam par ‘byed pa zhes bya ba /

    [A] nag po / (kRSNa.), [Tr] shes rab grags / (prajakIrti.)

    In TS – as if echoing the Olapata ”bathsong” – under Kr.s.n.a we find a title: Khrus kyi cho ga sgrib pa sbyong zhing bar chod bsal ba.

    In PT – among many similar titles – there is (without author or translators): khrus kyi cho ga sgrib pa sbyong zhing bar chod gsal ba / ([nivaraNazodhanAntarayApohasnaAnavidhi.])

    A curious linguistic co-incidence, but hardly more. Still, where no one looks – at times – something may be found.

    As to the somewhat cryptic (and perhaps unnecessary) mention of the crucial bath of Sri Simha (as an association bridge to Cînapati) – if indeed there is any need for it – I would refer to the following:

    rDzogs chen snying thig lo rgyus chen mo (I don’t find the exact page now). There is a short translation by Jim Valby, ”The Great History of Garab Dorje, Manjushrimitra, Shrisingha, Jnanasutra and Vimalamitra” published in Italy by Shang Shung Edizioni, in 2002.

    H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche’s ”The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, pp. 498, 501. The index of locations: Suvarn.advîpa in West India (kha che’i yul gser gling).

    gZi yi phreng ba. A booklet (originally speech to Tibetan youth in 1975 or -6) by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, published by LTWA in 1981, and 1989 by Narthang Publications as ”The Necklace of gZi – A Cultural History of Tibet”. A ”Chi na in Zhangzhung” (Narthang text) is mentioned there as the name of the residence of 2/18 ”Jaruchen” (~ bya ru can?) kings of Zhang zhung. The source is given as mTs(h)o ma pham lo rgyus.

    The Free Encyclopedia article: ”Kinnaur district”.

    A web article: ”Kinnaur Valley may have been the Land of Cina”. Further reference and some nice pictures can be found from there. Under golden heron.

    To my regret I have not been able to study ”The Early Days of the Great Perfection”.

    The Olipatti village, etc. can all be found via the net.


  6. Dear I.T.

    Thank you so very much for your thoughts and speculations. You have offered such a wealth of possibilities that I haven’t had time to fully assimilate it yet, but I will reply with some more useful responses soon.

  7. There is a commentary on the Sakya Vajrayogini delivered by Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo and recorded by Ngawang Damcho Gyatso (rje btsun rdo rje rnal ‘byor ma nA ro mkha’ spyod kyi bskyed rdzogs dmigs khrid mkha’ spyod ‘khrid pa’i sa mkhan mdzes par byed pa’i rgyan). There on page 279 (of my copy) it states (I hope this unicode shows up)
    རྣལ་འབྱོར་གསང་མཐའ་ཐུན་མོང་མ་ཡིན་པའི་མན་ངག་འདི་ལ་རྒྱས་པར་སློབ་དཔོན་ནག་པོ་སྤྱོད་པས་དཔལ་འཁོར་ལོ་སྡོམ་པའི་རྩ་བཤད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུད་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་དོན་གྱི་བཅུད་ཕྱུང་སྟེ་བཀྲལ་བ། མཁའ་འགྲོ་བརྡའི་སྐད་དུ། ཨོ་ལ་པ་ཏི་སྟེ་བོད་སྐད་དུ་རིམ་པར་བཞི་པར་གྲགས་པ་དང་། :
    This quintessential instruction of the uncommon ultimate secret yoga was extensively [explained] by the acarya Krishnacharya; he pulled out the essence of the meaning of all the root and explanatory tantras of Chakrasamvara and explained them in [the work] known in the language of the dakinis as Olapati and in the Tibetan language as The Four Stages (rim pa gzhi pa) …

    I believe that the reference here is to the work Toh 1451 (rim pa bzhi pa) and its autocommentary 1452.

    regards, Kurt

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