Padmasambhava II: the dark Padmasambhava

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

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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).

See also
Padmasambhava I: the early sources.

16 thoughts on “Padmasambhava II: the dark Padmasambhava

  1. Hmm, he seems to be not so much ‘dark’ as green. Could it be that this thanka is the Amoghasiddhi one from a set depicting Padma in the colors of the Lords of the Five Families? The inscription could be stretched to something like “The noble Great Teacher who is all Conqerors. Anything in the verse on the back suggesting a connection with the rigs lnga?

  2. Blinde, well, I see what you mean — he looks greener on my laptop than my desk monitor. As far as I can see, there is nothing on the thanka linking this figure to Amoghasiddhi, but still, interesting…

    David, I thought about this too. There are lots of figures in the Dunhuang cave wall paintings with strange dark-brown or green skin due to oxidization, but I don’t think that’s happened here; if you look at the other figures on the thanka, most other colours are represented, including bright and dark reds. So I think this dark brown (green?) is probably original.

  3. Hi S, What’s up? I translated that verse some time last year. It sounds kind of like this:

    kyemé kadag yingkyi dögar-lé //
    gagmé tulku chukyé bubsu trung //
    nemé gyalkham yongla kadrinchen //
    pemaragé dag sog dronam kyong //

    In Wylie transcription, like this:

    skye med ka dag dbyings kyi zlos gar las //
    ‘gag med sprul sku chu skyes sbubs su ‘khrungs //
    gnas med rgyal khams yongs la bka’ drin can //
    padma ra gas bdag sogs ‘gro rnams skyongs //

    It’s in Indian Kavya-inspired Tibetan poetic style. Which
    means it’s hard to hack out a translation without a lot of footnotes on possible or likely allusions etc. And it’s loaded with Buddhologically technical terminology too. I mean it starts out with ‘unproduced’ ‘pure from the word go [letter KA]’ (primordially pure if you prefer) and ‘realm’ (ying). And then the word Dögar, which means ‘drama’ in the Indian natyashastra (dance treatise) sense of the word (no difference between dance and drama in other words, so maybe ‘dance-drama’ is the way to put it).

    Each of the first three lines starts with a two-syllable word ending in mé (the negation), which is a pleasing repetition of sounds much appreciated by Tibetan poetry lovers, a lot like alliteration is in old English poetry.

    So here’s my go at translating it:

    [Your] emanation body unimpededly [emanated] out of the drama of the
    Realm, unproduced and pure from the word go,
    took birth in the calyx of the ‘water born’ [lotus].
    With [your] kindness for [or in] all countries, with no place[ment],
    protect us, myself and all other animate beings, Pemaraga.

    And Pemaraga (pad+ma ra ga) is an allusion to Pema Jungné (Padmasambhava), of course,but it literally means in Sanskrit (Padmaraaga) ‘ruby’ although Tibetans are sometimes at pains to explain which jewel they mean by it. In poetic contexts, it tends to mean (for Tibetans) the ruby-red Lotus (a lotus that is the color of ruby). I think that is how it has to be understood here, as meaning the being who was born from one.

    I wrote something about Guru Rinpoche as an ‘International Buddha’ a few decades ago. So for me the remarkable thing is that this painting with zillions of Guru Rinpoches on the front side of the canvas is reflected in the words inscribed on the back.


  4. Hi Dan,

    Nice translation and appreciation of those verses. Somebody (you?) should look into the appearance of kāvya-style verses in the terma tradition. I mean that this very literary style is always discussed in the context of the more scholastic traditions, but it’s there in the work of Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa. Anyway, thanks for explaining that padmaråga is not an error for padmaråja. In fact, it must be a kind of pun.

    I very much like the idea of Padmasambhava as the “international Buddha.” Padmasambhava’s visit to Turfan in the 13th century was a local trip compared to his worldwide presence today. If I may retranslate the third line a bit more loosely: “With your kindness not for any one place but for every country…”

  5. Hi, Sam.

    In case you weren’t already aware, there’s a similar dark-colored Padmasambhava thangka on display in the museum of the LTWA in McLeod Ganj. It struck me as odd when I saw it; thanks for the information.

    dan m.

  6. Hi Dan M.,

    The museum of the LTWA is in Gangchen Kyishong, way down the mountainside from McLeod G., actually closer to Dharamsala. But anyway, nice to make the acquaintance of the other Dan. Are you the journalist who usually works in Beijing?

    Yours, Dan

  7. Dear Dan and Dan,

    Thanks for the directions to this other dark Padmasambhava. I wish I could see this thangka – perhaps by flying over there on a tiger.


  8. Hi S and D.

    Sam, i can’t seem to find your email address on this site, but if you want to send it to me i will give you the names and emails of some folks at the library. They may be willing to send you a photo?

    I sort of wish I were a journalist in Beijing, but I’m a grad student at U of Chicago. sorry to disappoint. :p

  9. Why can’t padmasambhava be a dark skin guy in reality? Some white people really have problems believing that such an important figure was a dark skinned indian? Wy does the darkness of his skin have to be always explained as symbolic or imaginary? Some people sound racist without even realizing it. There are plenty dark skinned people in India. Why not Padmasambhava simply?

  10. Why not, of course? Unfortunately we will never know, I suspect, what Padmasambhava ‘really’ looked like. The Tibetan tradition, in any case, suggests that it’s a false question. With eight completely different-looking manifestations, Guru Rinpoche is not to be tied down to any particular appearance, and that includes the colour of his skin. What we are looking at here are the ways Padmasambhava was represented. If the dark Padmasambhava pictured here seems suprising, it should not, I hope, be because anybody thinks he was ‘white’ but because this is an unfamiliar representation. Tibetan Buddhists, and many light-skinned followers of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, venerate past masters from India who are often depicted with dark skin: Virupa, Telopa, and many others. Nobody, I think, suggests that the colour of their skin is merely symbolic. Now I really recommend that you read Tibeto-Logic’s excellent discussion of the perception of foreigners (dark-skinned and otherwise) in Tibet – here.

  11. Obvioulsy padmasambava was black, possibly of south india origin, black like virupa. All the lighter white skin monks in the background didnt accidently turn brown or black or olive, so how can you dare say he isnt black and turbed olive. Your inability to accept the great siddha racial background show some have some insecurities n false sense of entitlement of white skin beeing pure, a white wash agenda of insecurities since caucasian colonization all over the earth…..if padmasambhava is watchin his lineage n paintings n people arguing wether he was black or darkin or not he must really be amused about how petty n childish n immature humanity is. Accept it for wat it is , it is wat it looks like it is, hes painted brown bcz he was dark skin indian black tantric siddha n buddhist. Stop whitewashing everything, space is black n out of it births countless galaxies n worlds n all colors……

  12. I a little confused about who this comment is addressed to. I haven’t said in the original post or comments that Padmasambhava “isn’t black”. The only comment suggesting that the pigments in the painting changed is from David Chapman, to whom I responded “I don’t think that’s happened here.” As for the original post, the main point was that I had found a textual source much earlier than than painting which also represents Padsambhava as having dark skin.

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