Recently browsing the excellent Himalayan Art website, I came across this 17th century painting of Padmasambhava, or as the inscription has it, “the honoured Mahāguru of all the Conquerors”, also known as Guru Rinpoche. The composition is unusual: the central figure is surrounded by 356 small Padmasambhavas, their clothes in recurring sequences of different colours that gives the whole painting a striking geometric pattern.
But what is more striking to anyone familiar with the usual depictions of Padmasambhava is the colour of the central figure. His skin is dark brown, apart from the palms of his hands, which are pink. This is not a representation of Padmasambhava I’ve ever seen before, even though in his other manifestations he does appear in other colours — and I’ll come to that in a minute.
There is a four line verse written on the back of the painting, in nice cursive writing, punctuated with the double circles that indicate these verses come from the tradition of rediscovered texts, or terma. I would think then, that this form of Padmasambhava is a special terma tradition. The verses are full of the imagery of Dzogchen, the “great perfection,” and three rainbow circles – tiglé – corresponding to Padmasambhava’s body, speech and mind, are painted on the other side of the main figure.
The verses seem to be referring to Padmsambhava as Padmarāga – meaning “lotus-hued.” According to the dictionaries, this can refer to the ruby, to something bedecked with rubies, or something ruby-coloured.But wait, surely that should be Padmarāja: “Lotus King”?
Anyway, I’d better explain why I’m going on about a 17th century painting on this website, where I generally stand politely behind an invisible line drawn across the boundary of the 10th and 11th centuries. What this painting reminded me of, when I came across it first, was a tantric text discovered in the Turfan basin of Eastern Central Asia, written in Turkic. (In what comes below, I rely on the work of Georg Kara and Peter Zieme, since I don’t read Turkic.)
The manuscript, actually a series of fragments, is part of a group of manuscripts, all tantric sādhanas (meditation instructions) found in Turfan and dating to the 13th and 14th centuries. By this time the Mongols had taken over Eastern Central Asia and the Mongol influence is clear enough here. One of the tantric texts, a Cakrasaṃvara maṇḍala, has a lineage that goes through Indian siddhas like Saraha, Luipa, Tilopa and Naropa, before coming to Tibet with Mal Lotsawa, and then going through the five patriarchs of Sakya, ending with Phagpa.
It was Phagpa, of course, who is said to have been given the rulership of Tibet by Khubilai Khan and to have acted as the Khan’s spiritual preceptor, granting numerous empowerments, including Cakrasaṃvara.
Why is the text in Turkic then? Well the Uighur Turks once ruled Turfan (which is at the northeast of the Takalakan desert) as well as Dunhuang itself. Like almost everybody else, they fell under Mongol rule in the 13th century. As the more established culture, the Uighurs became the teachers of their conquerors, influential in the fields of literature, science, military affairs, and of course, religion. The Mongols, who had no writing system of their own, used Uighur scribes, and many Turkic words (including Buddhist concepts) were adopted into the Mongolian language
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The tantric text that concerns us here is a sādhana of Avalokiteśvara. The meditator is instructed in self-visualization as Avalokiteśvara, as one would expect. More surprisingly, the meditator is instructed visualize Padmasambhava (padma sanbaua baxšï) above his head. Now, Padmasambhava is described as having the form of a teacher of yoga (yogačari), wearing bone ornaments and dancing on a lotus throne. Furthermore his skin is described as black (qara) and shiny.
Here is a Padmasambhava who is very much the Indian mahāsiddha – yet quite unfamiliar. The form looks a little like one of the classic “eight manifestions” of Padmasambhava transmitted in the Nyingma tradition, known as Light Rays of the Sun (Nyima Özer), but he is always painted with orange or yellow skin, like the sunbeams of his name. Then there is the form known as Dorjé Drolö, also known as the wrathful guru, who has dark red or brown skin, but also has other wrathful features like three eyes, and always rides a tiger.
So none of these known forms fits our Turkic Padmsambhava. Is this perhaps a form of Padmasambhava once transmitted in the Sakya tradition, whose roots go back to the tantric Buddhism of early Tibet? The colophon tells us that this text was printed by a certain Upasi Böri Buqa in 1336. An earlier version also found in Turfan dates to 1276, which is just a couple of years after the period when Phagpa was resident at the court of Khubilai — he returned to Tibet in 1274.
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And so… I’m not going to try to offer any conclusions here, but I hope others might find these rare manifestations of Padmsambhava interesting as well.
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1. Kara, Georg and Peter Zieme. 1976. Fragmente tantrischer Werke in uighurischer Übersetzung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
1. Padmasambhava, 1600-1699, Collection of Moke Mokotoff. (c) Himalayan Art
2. British Library manuscript Or.8212/109 (Uighur tantric text — but not the one discussed here, which is in Berlin).
Padmasambhava I: the early sources.