The First Tibetan Buddhist Biographies?

The vast amount of biographical and autobiographical literature produced in Tibet over the centuries is an interesting phenomenon. For a culture so pervaded by the Buddha’s teaching of non-self, there is an awful lot of writing about the lives of individuals. And, interestingly, this is something that was not done to the same extent in India, the primary source of Tibetan Buddhism. Biographical writing in Tibet began in earnest after the ‘later diffusion’ of Buddhism from the eleventh century onwards, in new lineages like the Kadam and Kagyu. So we don’t have much in the Dunhuang collections that could be called ‘religious biography’, but what we do have is intriguing, and I’d like to point out two manuscripts which might help us understand the origins of Tibetan Buddhist biographical writing.

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The first manuscript, Pelliot tibétain 996, was one of the first Tibetan manuscripts from Dunhuang to be published in a full edition and translation, done by Marcelle Lalou in 1936. It is an account of a lineage of Chan teachers, giving very brief accounts of their lives and deaths. In the case of the monk Namkhai Nyingpo, most of the ‘life-story’ is about the auspicious events surrounding his death:

When the teacher Namkai Nyingpo donated a statue to the incarnation at Triga Shingyon, light emanated from it. Later, when he was living in the retreat centre of Yamyog, there were miraculous signs including the passing over of a five-coloured cloud. One day, when he was practising the dharma path, and had just completed his vow to abide in the good qualities of recitation (he was 71, and it was the 29th day of the spring of the year of the dog, and he was at the Zhongpong hermitage), he sat cross-legged and unmoving, and passed away, without any change in his complexion. That night, in the middle of the sky between the mountain range of Zhongpong, which extends below the retreat centre, and  Mount Srinpo, two great streams of light emerged and lit up the whole of the realm, before disappearing into the west.

The text goes on to tell of the homages that were paid to Namkhai Nyingpo by other Chan masters, and the feast offering that was held in his honour, which was also accompanied by miraculous lights. One of the striking things about this passage (and the others like it in the same text) is that it seems to prefigure the ‘rainbow body’ phenomena said to accompany the death of Dzogchen masters (this has been pointed out by Matthew Kapstein in “The Divine Presence of Light”). But that is to look ahead by several centuries. Closer to the time and place of this manuscript, there is a parallel in a Chinese manuscript on cloud divination, which has this passage:

Whenever a five-colour vapour is seen above someone’s house and it remains there steadily during the last days of the month, the first day of the following one […] morning, and if [the vapour above] the house has mostly greenish-blue, this is the vapour of a dead body; if mostly red, it is the vapour of gold and jade; if mostly yellow, this house will go through extensive renovation works; if mostly white, this land has copper and iron; if mostly black, this house will serve as the abode of the divine spirit (shen).

This is from Imre Galambos’s translation of Or.8210/S.3326 (to see the complete text click here). I’m sure Sinologists will be able to come up with many other examples of cloud and light imagery. As for the light disappearing towards the west, this looks like an allusion to Sukhāvati, the western pure land of the buddha Amitabha. In any case, it’s clear that the life (or death) stories in Pelliot tibétain 996 are ‘biographical’ and thus some of the earliest examples of Tibetan religious biography. Though a truly international lineage (with a Central Asian, two Chinese and two Tibetan monks), the lineage, and many of the motifs in it, are Chinese.

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So what of the other biography? Unlike Pelliot tibétain 996, which was published some seven decades ago, Pelliot tibétain 149 was completely unstudied when I selected it for a reading class at SOAS. Intrigued by this brief text (just a single, closely written folio), I worked on it some more with Lewis Doney, who had taken the class, and we published an article about it in 2009 (click here for the PDF of that article). The manuscript is a brief introduction to the hugely popular prayer known as (in one of the shorter forms of the name) the Bhadracaryā-praṇidhāna. It begins with the story of Sudana, the hero of the Gaṇḍhavyūha sutra, going in search of the prayer, and eventually receiving it from Samantabhadra himself.

Next the action shifts to Tibet, where the Tibetan translation of the prayer becomes the daily practice of the abbot of Samye, Ba Palyang. The abbot has a dream, which he can’t explain, of thousands of people gathered in seven golden courtyards. He goes to ask the emperor, Tri Song Detsen, who goes to ask the Indian scholar known as Khenpo Bodhisattva (AKA Śāntarakṣita), who interprets the dream to mean that the abbot should recite the prayer continuously for three days and three nights.

This task proves too much for the abbot, who goes to the emperor and explains that due to his physical frailties, he has not been able to do as he was told. So, he asks for leave to go to somewhere more conducive, the mountain retreat of Chimpu. The emperor not only agrees, but gallantly escorts the abbot for the first day’s riding out of Lhasa. Before they part, the emperor and the abbot each place a hand on the other’s heart and recite the prayer together.

As he approaches Chimpu, the abbot is met by two strangers, who tell him that they have seen strange omens, including rainbows appearing in the sky, and a voice telling them to go and meet Ba Palyang. When the abbot tells them of his own dream, they agree that they should all travel together. As they travel they recite the prayer together. When they reach the part about perceiving the buddha Amitabha and going to the land of Sukhāvati, they ascend into the sky, cast away their bodies, and arrive in the pure land itself.

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So, we can see that this second biographical fragment is somewhat different from the first. It is not a description of a lineage per se, but rather a narrative framework for a sacred text, one that links the Tibetan text to the Indian original through parallel stories (the spiritual searches of Sudana and Ba Palyang) rather than through a person-to-person lineage. And yet there are many of the features that we associate with religious biography, including personal spiritual development in reliance on scriptural transmission, a certain degree of personal fallibility, which is overcome, and an auspicious end to the life-story (even if in this case that end comes unexpectedly swiftly).

But it’s interesting, as well, that these two precursors of the Tibetan biographical tradition, apparently coming from quite different contexts, have so much in common: both lives are told in terms of dreams and/or visions, and end with the apotheosis of the subject in the pure land of Amitabha. We can probably agree that the aim of the authors of both works was to generate faith and awe — but in what? Surely not simply in the individual figures of Ba Palyang and Namkai Nyingpo.

In our first example, the life-story is told in the context of a Buddhist lineage, and in the second, in the context of a Buddhist text and its recitation. In the uncertain period after the fall of the Tibetan empire, these two things, lineages and the texts/practices they transmitted, were the tenuous means by which the Buddha’s teachings would survive or fall in Tibet. I know one can’t draw wide-ranging conclusions from such a small pool of evidence, but I am tempted to say that what we are seeing is a the appearance of religious biographical writing at a pressure point in history, when the Buddhist institutions introduced by the Tibetan emperors were crumbling, and nothing had yet emerged to take their place.

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References

Janet Gyatso, Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Matthew Kapstein (ed.), The Presence of Light: Divine Radiance and Religious Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Marcelle Lalou. “Document tibétain sur l’expansion du dhyāna chinois.”  Journale Asiatique (1939): 505–523.

Sam van Schaik and Lewis Doney.  The Prayer, the Priest and the Tsenpo: An Early Buddhist Narrative from Dunhuang.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 30.1–2 (2007): 175–217.

* There is an online PDF of Helmut Eimer’s “The Development of the Biographical Traditional Concerning Atiśa here.

Tibetan Text

Pelliot tibetain 996, 2v, l.2: mkhan po nam ka’i snyIng pos/ khri ga shIng yong gi sprul pa la/ mchod pa bgyis pa las/ sku gzugs las ‘od byung ngo/ slar yam yog gi dben sar bzhud pa’i tshe/ mtshon sna lnga’i sprin gyis bskyal ba las stsogs pa’i ya mtshan byung ngo/ tshe gcig tu chos lam sgom zhing/ dbyangs pa’i yon tan la gnas pa’i yi dam mthar phyin nas/ lo bdun cu rtsa gcig ste/ khyi’i lo’i dphyid slar ba tshes nyi shu dgu la/ zhong pong gi dgon sar skyil mo grung ma g.yos/ mdangs ma gyur par dus las ‘das so/ de’i nub mo nam gi gung la/ dben sa’i lta ‘og gi zhong pong gi ri rgyud nas/ sring po ri’i bar gi nam ka la ‘od chen po gnyis rgyud chags su byung bas yul phyogs [3r] gsal bar gyur te/ nub phyogs su ‘das par gyur te/

Afterthought

Before anyone else points it out, I should say that in talking about ‘religious biography’ here I have ignored the rich biographical narratives in the Old Tibetan Chronicle and other early Tibetan sources that are not explicitly Buddhist. There are also other Buddhist texts that might be arguable biographical, like IOL Tib J 370, which I wrote about on this site a while ago.

Tibetan Chan V: Dzogchen and Chan

I’ve managed four posts on Tibetan Chan without mentioning the question of whether the Chinese meditation tradition known as Chan influenced the Tibetan meditation tradition known as Dzogchen. Or, to put it in the stronger version, whether Dzogchen is just a disguised form of Chan. Partly, I’ve left the question alone because it doesn’t seem that interesting to me. It seems evident that if you spend a while with Chan and Dzogchen texts from the time when the influence is supposed to have taken place (the 8th/9th centuries) that there is one clear difference between the two: they are in dialogue with two different kinds of scripture. That is to say, Chan is a tradition in dialogue with the sutras, while Dzogchen is in dialogue with the tantras.

Though nobody (with the notable exception of Jeffrey Broughton) has recently gone into print trying to prove that Dzogchen came from Chan, the idea hasn’t gone away. It was repeated to me recently, and insistently, by a very intelligent and very nice Indologist. And now that I’m involved in a research project on Tibetan Chan, I’ve decided to stop avoiding the issue, partly to try to show why “was Dzogchen influenced by Chan” is a bad question, partly to argue that when Chan and Dzogchen did come together, it was a case of them converging at the same point, rather than one influencing the other. That will be in an article which will probably come out next year. For now, I’d like to look at a very short Chan text, and make a very simple point.

The point is this – people who have said that there must be some kind of influence passing from Chan to Dzogchen have come to this belief because the texts look similar. However they justify the argument, it is the similarity in the language used in these two meditation traditions that caught their eye. (And this is surely true of the polemics in the Tibetan tradition itself as well as modern scholars like Guiseppe Tucci.) But, as we all know, apparent similarities can be misleading.

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Let’s look at the text. It is found in the compendium IOL Tib J 709, and is presented as the teaching of a certain ’Gal na yas. So far nobody has identified this figure, but I think I have — the name seems to be a somewhat garbled rendering of Haklenayaśas, the 23rd patriarch of Chan. (The Chinese version of his name, by the way, is Helenayeshe 鶴勒那夜奢, and that initial H would have been pronounced more like G in this period.) The teaching attributed to this Indian master is “the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka”:-

There are many gates to meditation in the Mahāyāna. The ultimate among them is the instantaneous approach to the Madhyamaka. The instantaneous approach has no method. One cultivates the nature of reality in this way: phenomena are mind, and mind is uncreated. In that it is uncreated, it is emptiness. Since it is like the sky, it is not a field of activity for the six sense-faculties. This emptiness is what we call vivid awareness. Yet within that vivid awareness there is no such thing as vivid awareness. Therefore without remaining in the insights gained from studying, cultivate the essential sameness of all phenomena.

The tone of this is certainly similar to many Dzogchen texts. Take for example these lines from the Dzogchen text found in another Dunhuang manuscript, IOL Tib J 647 (for more on which see this post, and the comments):

The mind itself, which is without basis or root,
Is not to be found through effort; it is like the sky.
Enlightenment which is uncreated
Is enlightenment free from cause and effect.

I think you can probably see why there might be a temptation to say, “they’re so similar, one must have come from the other!” After all, they both talk about the mind being like the sky, and about not engaging in conventional methods to realize enlightenment (and I could find another quote to illustrate that Dzogchen texts also talk about the sameness of all phenomena). But hang on a minute — all of this language is also found in Buddhist scripture, in both the sutras and the tantras. Readers of Tibetan might like to check this at the online resources of the Universities of Virginia or Vienna. So what we have here is a case of a shared basis.

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There are also, though somewhat hidden in translation, quite a few differences in the terminology between Tibetan Chan and Dzogchen texts. Looking back to the teaching attributed to Haklenayaśas, we see the key term “vivid awareness” plays a key role. Now the Tibetan term behind this is tshor, and it is translating the Chinese character jue 覺. In Chan, this term means the clear and present awareness that arises in meditation.

This meaning of tshor is specific to literature translated from Chinese, and original Tibetan Chan texts based on that literature. It’s a fairly central concept for Tibetan Chan texts, but elsewhere in Tibetan Buddhist writing, tshor means something completely different, Sanskrit vedanā, which is one of the five aggregates, usually translated as “feeling”. And tshor meaning “vivid awareness” does not, as far as I know, ever appear in Dzogchen texts.

So, to sum up, the similarities that Dzogchen texts share with Chan texts are also shared with the sutras and tantras, while the differences show that the two genres come out of quite different environments. This is not to say that no Tibetan ever held transmissions of both Chan and Dzogchen texts; in fact it is highly likely that several did. There might have been some instances of cross-pollination. I’m not trying to hermetically seal Dzogchen away from Chan, but I hope I’ve shown why arguments based on the fact that they look similar are not going to take us very far.

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See also…

Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan
Tibetan Chan II: The teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan III: More teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan IV: The Great Debate

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Tibetan text

IOL Tib J 709, 42v: $/:/mkhan po ‘gal na yas bs[am] g+tan gI snying po bshad pa’// theg pa chen po’i bsam gtan gI sgo yang mang ste// de’I nang na dam pa nI don dbu ma la cig car ‘jug pa yIn te// cIg car ‘jug pa la nI thabs myed de// chos nyId kyI rang bzhIn la bsgom mo// de la chos nI sems sems nI ma skyes pa ‘o// ma skyes pa nI stong pa ste// dper naM ka dang ‘dra bas// dbang po drug gI spyod yul ma yin bas na// stong pa de nI tshor ba zhes bya ‘o// tshor nas nI tshor ba nyId kyang myed de// de bas na thos pa dang bsam pa’i shes shes [sic] rab la/ ma gnas par chos mnyam pa nyId la sgoms shig ces bshad do//: ://

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References

For statements about Chan influencing Dzogchen, see:

Jeffrey Broughton. 1983. “Early Ch’an Schools in Tibet.” In Robert Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 1-68

Giuseppe Tucci. 1958. Minor Buddhist Texts: Part II. Rome: Is.M.E.O.

On the term tshor in Tibetan Chan texts, see:

Luis Gomez. 1983. “The Direct and the Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahâyâna: Fragments of the Teachings of Mo-ho-yen.” In Robert M. Gimello and Peter N. Gregory (eds.), Studies in Ch’an and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 69-168.

For an argument against Tucci, basically the tenth-century argument of the Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation, see:

Kenneth Tanaka and Raymond Robertson. 1992. “A Ch’an Text from Tun-huang” Implications for Ch’an Influence on Tibetan Buddhism.” In Steven Goodman and Ronald Davidson (eds.), Tibetan Buddhism: Reason and Revelation.  New York: SUNY Press. 57–78.

Two frogs, a thousand years apart


A while ago I wrote about a Tibetan spellbook, a grimoire if you like, dating back to the ninth or tenth century. This compendium of spells is written in a tiny hand on long leaves of paper that have been stitched in the middle, creating a makeshift booklet. Across the front, the owner has written his name in big letters. Clearly this was a compendium of rituals that was owned and used by this person, and from his name, we can tell that he was a Buddhist monk. Probably, he made some kind of a living from performing these rituals for local people. Some might be shocked that a Buddhist monk would stoop to such things  — and that was the subject of a discussion on one Buddhist forum that picked up on this post. But if you’ve read any anthropological or archeological studies of Buddhist communities, you probably wouldn’t be surprised.

I’ve been reading Charles Rambles’ recent book, The Navel of the Demoness, an anthropological study of a Himalayan village in Nepal where local rituals and Buddhism exist side by side. One passage in particular reminded me of that old grimoire from Dunhuang. It was this:

The last, and perhaps most interesting, of the rites performed by Tshognam for Te is the annual rain-making ceremony. Tantric techniques for controlling the weather are nothing unusual in the Tibetan tradition: weather-makers were even employed by the Lhasa government to ensure rain at appropriate times and to keep hail off vulnerable sites. The technique used by the senior lama of Tshognam, however, does not belong to the usual Tibetan repertoire but was assimilated by his grandfather, “Doctor Dandy,” from the “outsiders’ religion” (Tib. phyi pa’i chos) — specifically, from Hinduism: he learned it, it is said, from a mendicant Indian pilgrim. The ritual is performed in the summer, with the intention of ensuring that the pastures are well watered and that the snow-melt that irrigates the buckwheat crop is supplemented with rain. The procedure, briefly, is as follows. Two hollow wax models of frogs are made. Through a hole in the back, the frogs are filled with various ingredients, including the excrement of a black dog and magical formulae written on slips of paper, and the holes are sealed with a wax lid. One of the frogs is stuffed into the mouth of one of the springs to the east of Te, and the other is burned at a three-way crossroads. The principle of this method is apparently to pollute the subterranean serpent-spirits and the sky gods, and induce them to wash away the contagion by producing water from the earth and the heavens.

Now compare this ritual with one from the Dunhuang grimoire:

This is the ritual method for people under the influence of a powerful naga or in conflict with with nagas, who have aches and swellings, or are crippled:

Take one handful of the ground barley flour and make it into the shape of a frog. In a cavity made with a bamboo stick, mix up an ointment of various ingredients and apply it to wherever the ache is. Meditate on your own yidam. From the direction of the west, Hayagrīva-Varuna appears with his entourage. Led by black emanations, he sits on a throne. Holding a water lasso, he tames the nagas and plagues. Then all sicknesses are drawn forth and destroyed by frog emanations. Visualise this and augment it with: “om ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man ti/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha hum”

Lift up the frog, and if a golden liquid emerges from under it, you will definitely recover. If it is merely moist, then you will recover before too long. If there is only meat with gluey flour, you will be purified by the end of your illness. It is not necessary to do the ritual again. If there is only gluey flour, separate it and do the ritual again. Having picked up the frog, place it in front of a spring, and make offerings to it with incense.

These two rituals, separated by at least a thousand years, strike me as intriguingly similar. Of course, the purposes of the two rituals are different. The modern one is for controlling the weather, and the ancient one for curing aches and swellings. But both of those things, the weather and certain personal ailments, have traditionally been considered the domain of the nagas (the Indian subterranean water deities assimilated to the Tibetan klu). And both rituals are for subduing the nagas.

In Ramble’s account, the lama’s grandfather Doctor Dandy is thought to have borrowed the rite from the Hindus. This seems to be supported by an article written in 1893 by L.A. Waddell, who observed frog rituals being performed to bring the rain in Nepal. On the other hand, our Dunhuang grimoire shows that there was a Buddhist precedent for the frog ritual. Yet this precedent itself is clearly borrowed from Indian religion, as it centres on the god Varuna, lord of the water element and closely connected with the nagas in Indian mythology.

In any case, the continuity of ritual practice is quite striking. In some tradition, somewhere, this particular ritual of making a model of a frog, filling it with various ingredients, and placing it at the mouth of the spring (a relatively complex sequence of activities), continued without much change for over a thousand years.

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See also:
A Tibetan Book of Spells

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References

Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer. 2008. Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: OAW. (See p.201–2 for a description of IOL Tib J 401.)

Charles Ramble. 2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford University Press. (The passage above is on p.174.)

L.A. Waddell. 1893. “Frog Worship Amongst the Newars.” Indian Antiquary 22.

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Tibetan Text
IOL Tib J 401, 3r-2v:
[3r] myi la klu gnyan gdon te klu rdzings te na ba dang/ skrangs pa dang/ ‘jas ‘grum dang/ phye bo la cho ga bgyi ba’i thabs nI/ bag phye las phul thag pa gcig byas te/ sbal pa’i gzugs gcig byas te/ steng smyug ma khor stong mtshon sna tshogs kyis kha bsku zhing/ thug btod de/ nad pa gar na ba’i steng du des klan la/ bdag yi dam gi lhar bsgom mo/ nub phyogs kyi ngos nas lha ha ya ‘gri ba/ ba ru na ‘khor dang bcas pa/ sbrul nag pos bskris pa’I khri la bzhugs te// [2v] chu’i zhags pa thogs pas/ klu dang gnyan ‘dul nas/ sprul pa’i sbal pas/ -na- nas thams cad phyung zhing bzhi ba+s par dmyigs pa cher btang nas/ /oM ba du na ‘dza/ ba ga bhan a tra/ sa man tI/ to ba bha ye sva’ ha’/ hri ha huM zhes byas nas/ sbal pa bteg ste/ ‘og nas chu ser byung na mod la ‘tsho/ gzher tsam mchis na/ rIng por myi thogs par ‘tsho// sha dang bag phye pa yod na/ du ‘byar pa bzhin cho ga bskyar dogs pa yin no// sbal pa ni blangs nas/ chu myig gi dngor bzhag nas/ spos dang pog dkar pos mchod do//

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PS: If you look at media sites online, you’ll find a number of stories about “frog wedding” rituals performed in India to bring rain in times of drought. Here’s one from the LA Times, for example.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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/