Defining Mahāyoga


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

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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

*  *  *


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).


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.

*  *  *

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.

Early Dzogchen I: The Cuckoo and the Hidden Grain

Cuckoo 1

The tradition of Dzogchen has been hugely significant in Tibet, and looks set to be equally important in the global assimilation of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet the early history of Dzogchen (rdzogs chen: “the great perfection”) remains unclear and the subject of controversy. No Indic texts have been found to confirm the tradition’s origins, and most of the early Indic figures in Dzogchen’s lineages remain elusive to modern historians.

The Indic origin of the early Dzogchen texts was disputed by Podrang Zhiwa Ö, a Western Tibetan monk and ruler of the 11th century, and a proponent of the “new transmissions”. From that time on, the question of Dzogchen’s authenticity has been raised, usually by critics of the Nyingma tradition, the home of this and many other transmissions from the early period. (Though we should not let these polemics obscure the fact that Dzogchen has been practised within all of the main schools of Tibetan Buddhism.)

So, the discovery in the 1980s of two Dzogchen texts among the Dunhuang manuscripts seemed to be of some importance and was celebrated by supporters of the historical authenticity of Dzogchen. The texts were noticed, at around the same time, by Namkhai Norbu and Samten Karmay. Namkhai Norbu wrote:

Today, however, the historical authenticity of the Dzogchen texts can be proved, thanks to certain texts rediscovered among the Tun Huang manuscripts, which are considered original and authentic by all scholars.

Now I would never want to impugn Norbu Rinpoche’s understanding of Dzogchen, but I wonder if he overestimated the significance of the Dunhuang manuscripts here. In truth, they probably have little to offer those who would defend Dzogchen against its critics. Before I explain what I mean by this, let’s look at the two Dzogchen texts from Dunhuang. Both have been translated and transcribed in Karmay’s The Great Perfection, and are even more easily accessible in Karen Liljenberg’s online translations.

(1) “The Small Hidden Grain” and commentary (IOL Tib J 594)

Sbas pa’i rgum chung

This is a short verse text which argues that the ultimate state, repeatedly called “space” or “sky” (nam mkha’) is beyond conceptualization and cannot be reached through structured practice. The brief commentary divides the text into sections. The commentary also identifies the category of the text as Atiyoga and the author as Buddhagupta. Most of the root text also appears elsewhere in the writings of a Tibetan author, Nyen Palyang (on whom, more in a later post).

(2) “The Cuckoo of Awareness” and commentary (IOL Tib J 647)

Rig pa’i khu byug

The root text here is a mere six lines (indeed an alternative title is “The Six Vajra Lines”). Again, the emphasis is on non-conceptualization and the uselessness of any practice based on striving toward a goal. The commentary expands on the basic lines without departing from these themes. In addition the commentary is concerned to reinterpret certain tantric concepts, like ‘great bliss’, and the samaya vows, in terms of nonconceptuality and spontaneous presence. The six lines of the root text appear in other Dzogchen texts, including the Kunjé Gyalpo.

Now, what do these manuscripts tell us about the authenticity of the Dzogchen tradition? Well, very little. The Dunhuang cave was closed in the early 11th century, and therefore any Dunhuang manuscript may have been written no earlier than that. It was once thought that the Tibetan manuscripts at least must come from the period of the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang, that is, between the 780s and the 840s. In recent years this has been shown to be a mistake, as a significant number of Tibetan manuscripts have been dated to the late 10th century. Recent investigations into identifying handwriting styles in the Dunhuang manuscripts (see here) strongly suggest that these two Dzogchen manuscripts should be dated no early than the 10th century.

So what do we mean by “authenticity” anyway? According to Podrang Zhiwa Ö and those polemicists who followed him, it is primarily based on an Indic source, or the lack of it. Yet there is nothing in these manuscripts to confirm an Indic source, not even the Sanskrit versions of the titles found in later Dzogchen texts. The naming of Buddhagupta as an author is interesting, and quite credible, but would hardly be likely to impress a critic who thought that these texts were fabricated by the Tibetans anyway. And then there is the date: with nothing to link them to the Tibetan imperial period, these manuscripts prove nothing about the presence, or otherwise, of Dzogchen texts during the time of the early Tibetan kings.

Perhaps the question of authenticity is not a terribly interesting one anyway.* I would argue that these two Dzogchen texts from Dunhuang are valuable in other ways–at least to those of us interested in the early development of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite their internal rhetoric of non-action, these two Dzogchen manuscripts do not exist in a space-like vacuum, but in the extrordinarily rich context of the rest of the Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang. By placing these manuscripts with the other tantric material in the Dunhuang collections (sādhanas, tantras, commentaries, notes from teachings, and so on) we can begin to form a picture of the way Dzogchen was practised in this early period.

To be continued…

1. Dalton, Jacob, Tom Davis and Sam van Schaik. 2007. “Beyond Anonymity: Palaeographic Analyses of the Dunhuang Manuscripts” (with Tom Davis and Jacob Dalton) in Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies 3.
2. Karmay, Samten. 1980. “An Open Letter by Pho-brang Zhi-ba-‘od” in The Tibet Journal 5.3: 1-28.
3. Karmay, Samten. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill.
4. Norbu, Namkhai. 1989. Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State. London: Arkana.

* Despite his enthusiasm for these manuscripts expressed in Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, Namkhai Norbu suggests he has his own reservations about this concept of “authenticity” in stating that Dzogchen is verified by the state of awareness itself, and not by historical accounts.

In search of the Guhyagarbha tantra

Vajrasattva (Cave 14)The Guhyagarbha tantra is a vital part of Tibet’s Nyingma (“ancient”) lineages. And yet, ever since the 11th century, when certain partisans of the new translations questioned the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra, its status became a disputed issue in Tibet.

The most detailed and sustained attack on the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra was written by the 11th century translator Gö Khugpa Lhetse, based on his failure to find any lineage for the tantra in India and the fact that, according to his judgement, it didn’t resemble genuine Indian tantras. Gö Khugpa’s criticism was rather rash: features which he found suspect in the Guhyagarbha are in fact also found in tantras of the new translation period that he accepted. Nevertheless, enough doubt remained that the tantra was excluded from the scriptural canon (bka’ ‘gyur) compiled in the 14th century.

According to some Nyingma apologists, Gö Khugpa attacked the tantra because he had been refused certain transmissions by Zurpoché Shakya Jungne, one of the most influential Nyingma figures of that period. The story has some credibility, as Gö Khugpa is portrayed as a competitive and rather bad-tempered character in some non-Nyingma histories, including the Subtle Vajra, the early Sakya history translated by Cyrus Stearns in his book Luminous Lives. There we see Gö Khugpa falling out with his teacher Drogmi and trying to outdo him by travelling to Nepal to meet the great master Maitripa (in fact he meets Drogmi’s own teacher Gayadhara, who fools him into thinking he is Maitripa).

In any case, if Sakya scholars have not tended to join in these attacks on the Guhyagarbha tantra’s authenticity, it may be because Śākyaśrībhadra, the Kashmiri guru who taught Sakya Paṇḍita, verified a Sanskrit manuscript of the tantra which had been found at Samyé (this is mentioned in a 12th or 13th century Sakya biography of Śākyaśrībhadra). The manuscript was passed from hand to hand until it reached Gö Lotsawa Zhönu Pal, author of the Blue Annals, who wrote:

When the Great Kashmiri Pandita [Śākyaśrī] arrived at Samyé, he discovered the Sanskrit text of the Guhyagarbha. Later it came into the hands of Tatön Ziji, who presented it to it Shagang Lotsawa. The latter sent the manuscript to Chomden [Rigpai] Ralgri, who accepted it and composed The Flower to Ornament the Accomplishment of the Guhyagarbha. He showed the text at an assembly of tantrikas at Mamoné, and highly praised it. After that Tarpa Lotsawa made a translation of the Subsequent Guhyagarbha Tantra which had not been found before. Most of the pages of the manuscript were damaged. The remaining pages of the Sanskrit manuscript are in my hands.

So the authenticity of the Guhyagarbha tantra seems to be rather a non-issue, despite all the polemical activity devoted to the question over the centuries in Tibet. Still, some may be interested in the Guhyagarbha-related material that is to be found in the Dunhuang collections. While these manuscripts are alost certainly no earlier than the 10th century, they do provide some insights into the role of the Guhyagarbha in early Tibet:

  • Some of the sādhanas (manuals for meditation practice) quote the Guhyagarbha, though this is a little inconclusive, since (i) it is difficult to find exact parallel passages in the tantra itself and (ii) the Guhyagarbha is not mentioned by name. See for example IOL Tib J 332, which was originally noticed by Ken Eastman in his article listed below.
  • One manuscript (IOL Tib J 540) is a list of the mantras and the names of each of the 42 deities from the Guhyagarbha‘s peaceful maṇḍala.
  • One scroll, which I mentioned in the previous post (Pelliot tibétain 849), contains a list of tantras in Tibetan and Sanskrit. It includes the Guhyagarbha–listed as rgyud gsang ba’I snyIng po in Tibetan and ‘Gu yya kar rba tan tra in Sanskrit (the Sanskrit tranliterations on this scroll are wildly erratic). The scroll is, as I mentioned previously, probably notes from the teachings of an Indian guru who passed through Dunhuang on his way to China. However, it is dated to the very end of the 10th century, so this tells us little about the existence of the tantra in Tibet prior to this time.

Thus something of the Guhyagarbha tantra is there in the manuscripts, but it has a lesser presence than one might expect given its importance in the later Nyingma tradition. What is perhaps most striking is how many more references and quotations from a different tantra, the Guhyasamāja, are found among the manuscripts. The Guhyasamāja tantra itself appears in an almost complete manuscript (IOL Tib J 438), and is quoted more often and by name in various treatises and sādhanas. This raises the question of whether the Guhyasamāja tantra was actually more influential in pre-11th century Tibet than the Guhyagarbha tantra.

Perhaps the attacks on the Guhyagarbha and similar tantras were after all, as the Nyingma apologists suggest, politically motivated. In the struggles between the holders of the old lineages (i.e. the incipient Nyingmapas, the Zur family in particular) and the translators of the newly arrived tantric lineages, the Guhyagarbha was an easy target, as it was not featured in any of the new lineages, unlike the Guhyasamāja. Equally the Nyingmapas seem to have focussed more and more on the Guhyagarbha from the 11th century onward–perhaps exactly because it was not shared with the new schools.

1. Dorje, Gyurme. (no date). The Guhyagarbha Tantra: Introduction. Online at the Wisdom Books Reading Room
2. Eastman, Kenneth. 1983. “Mahāyoga Texts at Tun-huang”. Bulletin of the Institute of Cultural Studies, Ryukoku University 22: 42-60.
3. van der Kuijp, Leonard. 1994. “On the Lives of Śākyaśrībhadra (?-?1225)”. Journal of the American Oriental Society 114/4: 599–616. Available on JSTOR.
4. Martin, Dan. 1987. “Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist
Intellectual History”. Christopher I. Beckwith (ed.) Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History. Bloomington: The Tibet Society. 175-220. Available for free download here.
5. Roerich, G.N. (trans.) 1949. The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. (See pp.104-5.) Also available here.
6. Stearns, Cyrus. 2001. Luminous Lives. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
7. Wangchuk, Dorji. 2002. “An Eleventh-Century Defence of the Authenticity of the Guhyagarbha Tantra“. In Eimer and Germano (eds), The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism. Leiden: Brill.

A 9th century wall painting of Vajrasattva from Dunhuang Cave 14. © The Huntington Archive.

The nine vehicles of the Nyingma: new sources

Deux Magots café

It is amazing how many Dunhuang manuscripts of great value for understanding how Tibetan Buddhism developed were overlooked in the century since their discovery. I have already discussed previously overlooked sources on Avalokiteśvara and Padmasambhava. Let’s look here at some “new” sources for the way the Buddha’s teachings are divided up by the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism

The Nyingma school recognises 9 categories of teachings, known as 9 ‘vehicles’ (theg pa, or yāna in Sanskrit). The classical Nyingma formulation, represented in sources like Longchenpa’s Treasury of Philosophical Tenets is:

  1. Śrāvaka
  2. Pratyekabuddha
  3. Bodhisattva
  4. Kriyā
  5. Ubhaya
  6. Yoga
  7. Mahāyoga
  8. Anuyoga
  9. Atiyoga

This system was rejected by the new schools that arose after the 10th century. Some writers of the new schools also cast doubt on the genuine antiquity of the 9 vehicles, and it does seem there was probably no real Indian ancestor. All of these classes of teachings may did exist in India, but bringing them together in this way, and particularly calling them all ‘vehicles’ seems to have happened in Tibet.

Now the 9 vehicles appear throughout the terma (‘treasure’) literature, but modern scholarship tends to take the sceptical position that these texts should be treated as products of the time of their appearance, rather than of when they were said to have been concealed in the late 8th century. Transmitted literature found in the Kangyur and Tengyur and other canonical collections is more admissible as evidence, even though the attribution of authorship is often questionable.

So among the transmitted literature we do have some works referring to the 9 vehicles, or something like them. From the 8th century there is The Garland of Views, which is generally accepted to have been written by Padmasambhava, or at least somebody from the same period (see the Tibetan text and translation in Samten Karmay’s The Great Perfection). There is another text supposedly from the same period, Explaining the Stages of the View, attributed to the early translator Kawa Paltseg, which does contain the 9 vehicles in exactly the same way as they are presented in the later Nyingma school, but for several reasons this looks like a later text falsely attributed to Kawa Paltseg. Then from the late 9th century we have Nub Sangye Yeshe’s Armour Against Darkness, his commentary on the great Anuyoga scripture Gongpa Düpai Do (the 9 vehicles are not explicitly presented in the root text).

If these texts really do date from the 8th to 10th centuries, we ought to see some versions of the 9 vehicles in the Dunhuang manuscripts. Until the last few years however, all we have had is one scroll: Pelliot tibétain 849. This scroll has been known about since the 1920s, when a book-length study of it was published in France by Josef Hackin. The scroll contains a whole series of notes, probaby taken from the teachings of an Indian guru passing through Dunhuang. Among these notes is something similar to the 9 vehicle system of the Nyingma, but still with significant differences.

IOL Tib J 644Then a few years ago, when Jake Dalton and I were working on a catalogue of the tantric manuscripts in the Tibetan Dunhuang collections, we came across two more versions of the 9 vehicle system. Amazingly, both were more much more interesting and comprehensive treatments of the subject than the one found in Pelliot tibétain 849.

The first of these manuscript is Pelliot tibétain 656, entitled The Seven Great Transmission Types (Spyi’i lung chen po bdun). It’s a short text, short enough that Jake and I translated it in one sitting at the Deux Magots café in Paris (from a microfilm printout, not the manuscript!). The 7 types are equivalent to the 9 vehicles minus the Pratyekabuddha and Upāya yoga categories; thus:

  1. Śrāvaka
  2. Sautrāntika (here this means a non-tantric Mahāyanist)
  3. Kriyā
  4. Yoga
  5. Mahāyoga
  6. Anuyoga
  7. Atiyoga

In a very clear and methodical treatment, each of these is discussed in terms of its (i) view, (ii) meditation, (iii) practices and (iv) vows. This is an elegant and sophisticated little treatise. In essence there is little difference between the way these classes of teachings are described here and the description of their equivalents in classical Nyingma sources.

The second “new” manuscript is IOL Tib J 644. Here the 9 vehicles appear in their entirety, exactly as they do in the later tradition. Again, the treatment is very systematic, distinguishing the 9 categories in terms of (i) their deity system, (ii) the relationship between deity and practitioner and (iii) the marks of accomplishment. Jake provided a translation of the complete text in his recent article “A Crisis of Doxography”. The only difference between this manuscript and the later tradition, and I suppose it is not such a small difference, is that the word ‘vehicle’ is never used in the manuscript to refer to these classes. This is significant in that some scholars of the new schools strongly rejected the idea of calling these tantric classes ‘vehicles’. Sakya Paṇḍita, for one, argued that Atiyoga should be treated as a manifestation of wisdom, but not as a vehicle in itself. The general tendency to refer to the 9 categories as vehicles seems to postdate our manuscripts, that is to say, it was not common until after the 10th century.

1. Dalton, Jacob. 2005. “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra in the 8th-12th Centuries”. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1: 115–182.
2. Hackin, Josef. 1924. Formulaire sanscrit-tibétain du Xe siécle. Paris: Librairie orientaliste Paul Geunthner.
3. Kapstein, Matthew. “New Light on an Old Friend: PT 849 Reconsidered”. Tibetan Buddhist Literature and Praxis. Leiden: Brill. 9–30.
3. Karmay, S. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill.

Tibetan texts
1. Klong chen pa. Grub mtha’ mdzod [Treasury of Philosophical Tenets]. In the Mdzod bdun (click here for bibliographical references to the various editions).
2. Bka’ ba dpal brtsegs(?). Lta ba’i rim pa bshad pa [Explaining the Stages of the View]. Q.5843.
3. Gnubs Sangs rgyas ye shes. Sangs rgyas thams cad kyi dgongs pa ’dus pa mdo’i dka’ ’grel mun pa’i go cha [Armour Against Darkness]. Rnying ma bka’ ma rgyas pa, vols.50-51.
4. Padmasambhava(?). Man ngag gi rgyal po lta ba’i ‘phreng ba [The Garland of Views]. Q.4726.