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.

Padmasambhava I: the early sources

PadmasambhavaKnown as Pema Jungné (‘the lotus-born’) or Guru Rinpoche (‘the precious guru’) in Tibet, Padmasambhava is seen as the true founder of Tibetan Buddhism, a second Buddha who established the dharma in the land of the red-faced men. Padmasambhava is said to have been invited to Tibet to help found the first Tibetan monastery, Samyé, and tame the local demonic forces that were obstructing the establishment of the monastery.

In the earliest histories, Padmasambhava’s role is limited to this, and perhaps to introducing the technology of irrigation to the valleys of Central Tibet. In later histories, Padmasambhava’s role is far greater. In particular, his is said to have concealed uncountable books and sacred objects throughout Tibet, for discovery when the time became ripe. The discoverers are the famed tertön and the hidden treasures are the terma.

Despite his importance to Tibetan Buddhism there are few early manuscript sources on Padmasambhava (most of which have been discussed by Jacob Dalton and Kenneth Eastman). One of the rare and important sources is IOL Tib J 321, a 10th century manuscript containing a commentary on a tantra called the Upāyapāśa attributed to Padmasambhava. The commentary survived into the later tradition, but the attribution to Padmasambhava was lost. The authorship of the commentary is suggested in two places. The first is a simple note that states: “This was taught by Padmasambhava without any fabrications of his own.”


The second is a verse that is attached to the end of the commentary, praising “Padmarāja”. An interlinear note confirms that this is Padmasambhava: “Acārya Śāntigarbha examined this and found it free from error; afterwards he praised Padmasambhava.”


Śāntigarbha is an obscure figure in Tibetan history, one of the Indian gurus invited to Tibet along with Padmasambhava, who was involved in the transmission of tantras to Tibet. Although the attribution of this text to Padmasambhava is fairly well-known, Śāntigarbha’s verses of praise to Padmasambhava have never been translated or discussed (as far as I know):

Homage to Padmarāja, beyond the world,
The great marvel, attainer of the supreme accomplishment,
Who brought out of the valleys
The great and secret instructions of the tathāgatas.

/dngos grub mchog brnyes ya mtshan chen po’i/
/’jig rten ma gyur pad ma rgyal po yis/
/de bzhin gshegs pa’i man ngag gsang chen rnams/
/klung nas bkrol mdzad de la phyag ‘tshal lo/

Two things about these verses interest me very much. The first is the similarity of the first line (the second line in my translation) to the Seven Line Prayer, a much more famous set of verses of praise to Padmasambhava which is still recited today. Śāntigarbha’s verses seem to have been a forerunner and source for the Seven Line Prayer. The second interesting aspect of these verses is the reference to bringing secret instructions out of the valleys. The “valleys” may be a reference to Oḍḍiyāna, Padmasambhava’s homeland, which also happens to be where many tantras are said to have entered the human realm. The association of Padmasambhava with the revelation of tantras (not found in any history) is a surprising link to the later terma tradition, not in the traditional sense in which he is said to have concealed the terma, but as a revealer of treasures himself, a model for the later tertöns.

Finally, just in case I have given the impression that Padmasambhava actually wrote this manuscipt, let me be clear that he didn’t. The scribe has signed the manuscript, and we can see that he was a local to the Dunhuang area, probably a Chinese from Ganzhou, who went by the name Kamchupa Buoko.


1. Dalton, Jacob. 2004. “The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibétain 307.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 124.4: 759-772.
2. Eastman, Kenneth. 1983. “Mahāyoga Texts at Tun-huang”. Bulletin of Institute of Buddhist Cultural Studies (Ryukoku University) 22: 42–60.
3. Germano, David. 2002. “The Seven Descents and the Early History of rNying ma transmissions.” The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism (eds Helmut Eimer and David Germano), Leiden: Brill. 225–263.