Defining Mahāyoga

Aside

Some years ago I was chatting to someone at a conference about the work I had been doing on Mahāyoga texts in the Dunhuang collections. “But what,” he asked, “is Mahāyoga anyway?” Though the later Nyingma tradition has perfectly good answers to this question, I couldn’t give him a satisfactory answer about what it meant in early (pre-11th century) Tibet. It would be good to know, because references to Mahāyoga often crop up in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Moreover, if the Testament of Ba is to be believed, when the Tibetan emperor Tri Song Detsen set up a massive Buddhist translation project in Tibet in the 9th century, he specifically banned Mahāyoga texts from being translated.

In fact it turns out that the Tibetans, during their first exposure to tantric Buddhism, had also asked themselves what Mahāyoga stands for. I found the answer in a tatty manuscript containing a text called A Summary of the View of Mahāyoga According to Scripture. So I translated that text and wrote an article all about Mahāyoga in early Tibet, which was published in 2008. I’ve finally scanned the article, and it’s now on the Author page of this site, or you can just click here.

Early Dzogchen IV: the role of Atiyoga

Working with the earliest surviving Tibetan documents, it’s impossible not to be aware of differences between the way things are presented in traditional Buddhist histories and what we see in the manuscripts. Having done my doctoral research on Dzogchen,  I’ve always been interested in the divergence between the traditional image of early Dzogchen and the picture that emerges from the manuscript sources.

My first attempt to deal with this divergence was an article called “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” back in 2004 (which you can download here). In the first half of that article I tried to follow the way the contexts and usage of the word Dzogchen itself developed over time. This approach showed Dzogchen first appearing as the culmination of the meditative practice of deity yoga (the visualization of a deity and recitation of his or her mantra) around the 8th century. And then in the 9th and 10th centuries, Dzogchen became a way of contextualizing deity yoga in terms of nonconceptuality, nonduality and the spontaneous presence of the enlightened state.

One of the objections to this view of the gradual evolution of Dzogchen is the ‘nine vehicle’ system of the Nyingma school. This Tibetan way of organizing the Buddha’s teachings builds on a ‘three vehicle’ system from India, which comprised the vehicles of the śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas and bodhisattvas. To this are added three vehicles of ‘outer’ yoga, and three vehicles of ‘inner’ yoga, making nine. The top three vehicles are Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. Dzogchen is located at the very top of this system, within the ninth vehicle of Atiyoga. If Dzogchen was always a separate vehicle, then the idea of its primary role ever having been as a mode of practising deity yoga seems far-fetched.

So, in that same article, I tried to trace the the evolution of the term Atiyoga as well. The earliest instance of the term that I found was in an 8th century tantra called Sarvabuddhasamāyoga, one of the earliest of the yoginī tantras. In one part of the tantra, the stages of ritual practice are laid out, starting with Yoga, and then proceeding to Anuyoga and Atiyoga:

Through Anuyoga the bliss of all yogas is practised,
And through Atiyoga the true nature is fully experienced.

In this tantra there seems to be an association of Anuyoga with yogic bliss, and Atiyoga with a realization of the nature of reality via that bliss. This ties in with the three stages of deity yoga described in a work attributed to Padmasambhava: development (kye), perfection (dzog) and great perfection (dzogchen).

In another tantra, the Krṣṇayamāri, we have four stages of yogic practice: Yoga, Anuyoga, Atiyoga and Mahāyoga.  Here Atiyoga is the penultimate stage, below Mahāyoga. In any case, in these Indic sources there is no sense that Atiyoga is anything like a vehicle. Instead it is a stage or aspect of yogic practice.

*  *  *

Even in Tibetan sources, we don’t see Atiyoga identifed as a separate vehicle before the 10th century. Instead it is characterized as a ‘mode’ (tshul) or a ‘view’ (lta ba) to be applied within deity yogaHere’s an example: in the 9th century treatise, The Questions and Answers on Vajrasattva we have the following explanation about the right way to practise deity yoga:

In the ultimate deity yoga no subject or object is perceived. Because there are no difficulties or effort, this is the highest deity yoga.

A note written underneath the second line says that this is “an explanation of the view of Atiyoga.” That is to say: Atiyoga is still at this point a way of practising deity yoga. (The manuscript, by the way, is IOL Tib J 470.)

IOL Tib J 470

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So when did Atiyoga become a vehicle? Moving on to the 10th century, there are a couple of texts from Dunhuang which do set out early versions of the nine vehicle system. Yet even here, though we see the beginnings of the standard distinctions between Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga, these three are not yet called ‘vehicles’. The texts carry on presenting Anuyoga and Atiyoga as modes of Mahāyoga practice, without any specific content of their own.

As far as I know, the first sign of Atiyoga becoming a vehicle is in the work of the great scholar of Tibet’s “dark age”, Nub Sangyé Yeshé. But even in his work, this seems to be a tentative first step. In Nub’s Armour Against Darkness (written in the late 9th century) he treats the yogas of Mahā, Anu and Ati as systems (lugs) representing modes (tshul) of practice, and not  as vehicles. In fact they are specifically characterized as the lower, middle and higher divisions of a single vehicle.

It is in the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, which Nub wrote at the beginning of the 10th century, that he sometimes refers to Atiyoga as a vehicle. But he does so rather haphazardly. In his final summary of the differences between Mahāyoga and Atiyoga, he doesn’t call them vehicles (though he doesn’t call them modes either). In general the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation stands midway between the understanding of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga as modes of esoteric yoga, and the understanding of them as independent vehicles.

*  *  *

So far as I have been able to tell, there is no reliable source before the 11th century for the classic presentation of the nine vehicles as vehicles. Though such a source may yet come to light, I suspect that Atiyoga was not widely and consistently treated as a vehicle with its own specific practices before that time. By then a context existed in which some people (in the newly emerging Nyingma tradition at least) accepted this definition of Atiyoga. And this same context allowed Dzogchen to be understood as more than a way of  doing deity yoga practice. It’s interesting to note, though, that even in the 13th century (and later) the idea of Atiyoga as a vehicle was controversial in other Buddhist schools. Sakya Pandita wrote in his Distinguishing the Three Vows that:

If one understands this tradition properly,
Then the view of Atiyoga too
Is wisdom and not a vehicle.

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See also:

Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Small Hidden Grain
Early Dzogchen II: An approach to tantric practice
Early Dzogchen III: The origin of Dzogchen

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References:

This post draws heavily on an article published in 2004: “The Early Days of the Great Perfection” in Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 27.1 (2004): 165–206. (You can download a PDF from the link at the beginning of this post, or the “Author” page of this site.)

I have also drawn on an article from 2008: “A Definition of Mahāyoga: Sources from the Dunhuang Manuscripts.” Tantric Studies 1 (2008): 45-88. (Not yet scanned, unfortunately.)

And on those two doxographical texts, have a look at Jacob Dalton’s “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra in the 8th-12th Centuries” in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 115–182.

Nub Sangyé Yeshé’s Armour Against Darkness can be found in the Rnying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa (v.93, pp.7-680). Its full title is: Sangs rgyas thams cad kyi dgongs pa ‘dus pa’i mdo’i dka’ ‘grel mun pa’i go cha lde’u mig gsal byed rnal ‘byor nyi ma.

And his Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation is also in the Rnying ma bka’ ma shin tu rgyas pa (v.104, pp.575-1080): Sgom gyi gnad gsal bar phye ba bsam gtan mig sgron.

*  *  *

Finally, a bit of Tibetan and Sanskrit:

Here’s the passage from the Sarvabuddhasamāyoga tantra (P.8, 184-4-7): rjes su sbyor bas mchod byed cing/ rnal ‘byor kun gyi bde ba dag/ bdag nyid kun tu myang byed na/ shin tu sbyor bas ‘grub par ‘gyur/

The Sanskrit text of this verse is found in the ninth chapter of Āryadeva’s Caryāmelāpakapradīpa, which was kindly pointed out to me by Harunaga Isaacson: pūjyate ‘nuyogena sarvayogasukhāni tu/ samāsvādayamānas tu atiyogena siddhyati//

Here is the Sanskrit passage from the Kṛṣṇayamāri tantra (17.8, p.123):bhāvayed yogam anuyogaṃ dvitīyakam/ atiyogam tṛtīyam tu mahāyogam caturthakam//

The Tibetan is in P.103, 16-4-1ff: dang por sgom pa rnal ‘byor te/ gnyis pa rjes kyi rnal ‘byor yin/ gsum pa shin tu rnal ‘byor te/ bzhi pa rnal ‘byor chen po’o/ 

The Brilliant Scholar and the Scurrilous Letter

Once upon a time in Tibet, back in the 14th century…

…there was a brilliant young scholar called Ngagi Wangpo. He was one of the star students at the great monastic college of Sangpu. Ngagi Wangpo had decided to become a monk at the age of twelve, having lost his mother at eight and then his father at eleven. Studying at Sangpu, he quickly mastered a curriculum which included logic and the philosophical complexities of the Madhyamaka.

But his time at college was marred by the small-mindedness of his fellow students. Sangpu was dominated by students from eastern Tibet: Khampas. True, Sangpu was in Central Tibet, but Kham has always provided a high proportion of Tibet’s greatest scholars, and this was reflected in the student body at Sangpu. As a Central Tibetan, Ngagi Wangpo felt that he was treated as an outsider. So at the age of twenty-seven (in the year 1334) he decided to drop out. As he walked away from the college where he’d spent the last eight years, Ngagi Wangpo met an inquisitive monk who asked him why he was leaving.

When he told the monk how the Khampas at university had made his life a misery, the monk sympathized and encouraged Ngagi Wangpo to write something to publicize the behaviour of the Khampa students. Thinking this an amusing idea, Ngagi Wangpo took a single sheet of paper and filled both sides with a satirical poem. The poem was written as an alphabetical exercise with one line for each of the letters of the Tibetan alphabet. These were the first five lines:

Alike to the demons who roam the land of Kalinga,
Bandits of this snowy land are the Khampa tribe;
Come where they may, they tear the place down.
Desire, hatred and pride are the lands they roam;
Everywhere the clamorous Khampas gather there’s trouble.

ka ling yul du srin po rgyu ba bzhin//
kha ba can du chom rkun khams pa’i rigs//
ga ru gnas kyang grong rdal ‘joms byed pa’i//
nga rgyal chags sdang rgyu ba gzigs lags sam//
ca co’i rang bzhin nyon mongs khams pa’i tshogs//

At the end of the page he signed off with a brief colophon: “This was affixed to Sangpu Neutok by Samyépa Ngagi Wangpo. May it cause happiness to increase!” He then gave the page to the monk, who took it to Sangpu and pinned to the  throne in the main assembly hall. When it was found it caused quite a stir, but Ngagi Wangpo was already far away. (Those familiar with European history may be reminded of Martin Luther nailing his “ninety-five theses” to the door of the church at Wittenberg some 200 years later.)

After turning his back on a lifetime of study, Ngagi Wangpo adopted the wandering life, dedicating himself to meditation practice and looking for a guru. His search came to an end when he met a yogin called Kumaradza, who was living on a mountainside with a large group of disciples in flimsy tents. Ngagi Wangpo was accepted as a disciple and joined this motley crew of dedicated meditators, who pitched camp and moved to a new home every few months. Over the years that followed he learned the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) at the feet of Kumaradza. In the end he surpassed his own master, and wrote the definitive works on the Great Perfection. Ngagi Wangpo became one of the most famous Tibetans of all time, better known by his academic title Longchen Rabjampa, or for short, Longchenpa.

*  *  *

Now, you might think it unlikely that a rather complicated poem like this, not only constrained by an alphabetic conceit but written in nine-syllable verses containing a wealth of literary allusions, could be dashed off in the way the story implies. But let’s not forget who we’re talking about here: one of the greatest poet-philosopher-mystics in history (and not just the history of Tibet). One thing his voluminous writings show is that writing inspired poetry was second nature to Longchenpa. I for one don’t doubt that, spurred on by the frustrations that had just led him to drop out of Sangpu, Longchenpa could have sat down and written these verses in very little time at all.

I think we can also take the poem in the light-hearted manner in which it was intended, and remember that it came from a specific time in Longchenpa’s life. If regional tensions do exist in Tibet, as they do everywhere, there are also ways of transcending them. Since the transcendence of all boundaries is so eloquently expressed in Longchenpa’s other writings, I’ll conclude with a few verses from a poem that he dedicated to his guru Kumaradza:

I am a buddha, pure from the very beginning,
And so are the multitude of living beings in existence.
The terms “knowledge” and “ignorance”
Are both untrue, nothing but dream and illusion;
The nonduality of true and untrue, that’s the state of a buddha.

bdag dang sna tshogs srid pa’i sems can rnams//
ye nas rnam dag sangs rgyas yin pa la//
rig dang ma rig zhes bya’i tha snyad kyis//
srid par ‘khul pa rmi lam sgyu ma tsam//
‘khrul dang ma ‘khrul gnyis med rgyal ba’i sku//

*  *  *

Tibetan texts:

Rkyen la khams ‘dus pa ka kha sum cu, in Gsung thor bu, vol.I, pp.210-211. TBRC ref. W23504. Scanned from a reprint from the Derge blocks. (Quotation from p.210)

Bla ma dam pa kum ma rā dza la rtogs pa phul ba zhes bya ba bzhugs, in Gsung thor bu, vol.II, pp.352–357. (Quotation from p.353).

References:

On the story of Longchenpa’s leaving Sangpu and writing the satirical verses, see:

Dudjom Rinpoche. 1991. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Translated and edited by G. Dorje and M. Kapstein. Boston: Wisdom Publications. (vol.1, pp.578-579)

And on the fascinating history of Sangpu, its abbots and colleges, see:

Leonard van der Kuijp. 1987. “The Monastery of Gsang-phu Ne’u-thog and Its Abbatial Succession from ca. 1073 to 1250.” Berliner Indologische Studien 3: 103-127.

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.

*  *  *

References
1. Kara, Georg and Peter Zieme. 1976. Fragmente tantrischer Werke in uighurischer Übersetzung. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.

Images
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.