|Padmasambhava. Source: buddhism-edinburgh.blogspot.com|
So lately I have been attending a meditation course in a centre which is of the Nyingmapa tradition (there are four schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingmapa is the first and oldest of those schools) – a form of Vajrayana Buddhism said to have been introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava and which includes teachings on Tantra and Dzogchen. Padmasambhava is a giant within this tradition. Adherents are encouraged to meditate on his image and to chant his mantra. To say he is revered is an understatement. Although his name is not new to me I have never really felt him coming into my life until now – so … who is he?
Who is Padmasambhava?
Padmasambhava is described as the “father of Tibetan Buddhism” (Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying at 43) for “Buddhism in its Tantric form was principally introduced by Padmasambhava” (Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State at 14), but he is regarded as being far more than just a historical figure. Essentially, he can be described as a principle deity of Vajrayana Buddhism who dwells in a “glorious pure realm, the palace of lotus light on the copper-coloured mountain” – many Vajrayana Buddhists pray to Padmasambhava to be reborn in this realm (Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying at 240-241). A Buddhist deity can be described as “a manifestation of enlightened wisdom” (Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death and Rebirth at 68). Sogyal Rinpoche underscores Padmasambhava’s role as a primary Buddhist deity when he writes:
“All the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and enlightened beings are present at all moments to help us … Those who know Padmasambhava know the living truth of the promise he made over a thousand years ago: ‘I am never far from those with faith, or even those without it, though they do not see me. My children will always, always be protected by my compassion’ [Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying at 147].”
In point of fact Padmasambhava is not regarded as the first to introduce Buddhism to Tibet. Noble Ross Reat, a professor of religion from the University of Queensland, who is far more learned than I, gives a scholarly description of the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet:
“Traditionally, Buddhism was introduced into Tibet under King Srong bTsan sGam-po [Song Tsan Gampo}, who ascended the throne in 627 and died approximately 650 … [he had] two Buddhist wives … one a princess from China and the other a princess from Nepal … These wives were probably responsible for the formal introduction of Buddhism to Tibet … the wives of the king have been divinised as manifestations of the Buddhist Goddess Tara. In Tibet they are venerated as the White Dolma (Chinese) and the Green Dolma (Nepalese). Dolma [sGrol-ma] is the Tibetan equivalent for the Sanskrit Tara, ‘Saviouress’, the consort of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion …
… It is clear, however, that Buddhism was only marginally established in Tibet by the time of Srong bTsan sGam-po’s death … His successors to the throne over the next century do not appear to have been particularly enthusiastic about Buddhism …
Khri Srong lDe bTsan [Trisong Detsen] (742-98), the fifth successor … is remembered as the great restorer of Buddhism in Tibet … it appears that Buddhism was firmly established in Tibet only during this reign. Khri Srong lDe bTsan’s patronage of Buddhism centred around his establishment of the first abiding Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Sam-ye …
With the cooperation of Khri Srong lDe bTsan, Santarakshita [a great Buddhist scholar/Abbot] appears to have masterminded foundational victories of Indian Buddhism over … Chinese Buddhism … Santarakshita summoned his disciple Kamalasila from India to argue in a great debate between Chinese and Indian Buddhism. This debate was held in about 792 … this debate is regarded as the watershed after which Buddhism in Tibet developed almost exclusively along Indian rather than Chinese lines. The classical, scholarly Buddhism advocated by Kamasila, however, was not to gain ascendancy in Tibet until over half a millennium had passed … Instead, it was the mysterious, flamboyant, somewhat renegade form of Buddhism known as Tantra which initially appealed to the Tibetan mentality …
Santarakshita realised that the conservative Buddhism he and Kamasala represented would not in the end appeal sufficiently to Tibetans, who were devoted to the magical rituals of their own Bon priests [Bon is the indigenous polytheistic religion of Tibet]. To overcome this predilection among the Tibetans, it is said that Santarakshita summoned the Tantric master Padma-sambhava … [which] resulted in the foundation of the Nyingmapa … the first sect [out of the four major sects which exist today] of Tibetan Buddhism …
Padma-sambhava … [focused on] the common ground that existed between Tantric Buddhism and Bon in order to gain acceptance for Buddhism in this new environment. Similarly, Bon shamans were appropriating what they could of the magic and metaphysics of Tantric Buddhism … [Tibetan] Buddhism and Bon grew more and more similar due to apparently uninhibited borrowing on both sides [‘when Padmasambhava introduced Vajrayana into Tibet he did not do away with the ritual practices used by the ancient Bon tradition, but knew just how to use them, incorporating them into the Buddhist Tantric practices’: Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State at 25].
Eventually, the term Nyingmapa or ‘Ancient Ones’ came to designate the form of Buddhism that developed in close association with Bon …
The Nyingmapa claim as their founder Padma-sambhava, the great Tantric magician … universally acknowledged [by all Tibetan Buddhists as] ‘Guru Rinpoche’ or ‘Precious Teacher’… [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 223-231]”
Early life of Padmasambhava
Padmasambhava (meaning “lotus born”) is said to have come from Oddiyana, a beautiful, green and fertile kingdom surrounded by high, rugged mountains; probably situated in what is now the Swat Valley in NW Pakistan. It is said to be the original homeland of the Vajrayana and Dzogchen teachings that are associated with Tibetan Buddhism (Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State at 47). In Padmasambhava’s lifetime (8th century CE) Buddhism in this region was in a somewhat precarious position – nearby Gandhara, arguably one of the greatest Buddhist kingdoms of all time, was in decline (Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter, Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan at 73), while more ominously, Sindh, in what is now southern Pakistan, had recently been conquered and converted by an Islamic general. Within a few hundred years it would be the same for the Swat Valley and ultimately Buddhism would more or less disappear from the Indian subcontinent:
“The conquest of India by ... Muslims, which began in earnest in the tenth century, is often blamed for the destruction of Buddhism in India. In Muslim eyes … Buddhists [were] idolaters and polytheists … Moreover, the distinctively dressed monks, all concentrated in large monasteries, were an easily identifiable target … Muslims persecuted Buddhists, massacred monks, and destroyed Buddhist monasteries, universities and libraries ... Muslims never succeeded in dominating all of India, however, and Buddhism probably survived for some time before being absorbed completely into Hinduism [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 76].”
However, the form of Buddhism native to this region was not annihilated, instead it relocated to Tibet:
“In the five hundred years from 700 to about 1200 CE, Tibet was able to import virtually all significant Sanskrit Buddhist literature in existence and render it into [Tibetan] … Tibetan translations are practically as good as the Sanskrit originals themselves [Reat, Buddhism: A History at 225].”
Returning to Padmasambhava – he was said to have been installed as a prince of Oddiyana in his early life and went on to marry a dakini (dakini is a Sanskrit word denoting a female deity or spirit: Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death and Rebirth at 67) and rule this kingdom, until, like the Gautama Buddha, he perceived that as a king he would be unable to truly benefit all sentient beings and so he sought to forgo his role as a ruler. He achieved this ends by an unusual means – he is said to have caused the death of the son of a minister in Oddiyana and was thereby banished. This seemingly most unBuddhist of actions was said to be a magical act of mercy, for it enabled the dead child to be reborn in a heavenly realm, instead of a lower realm, where he was on the verge of descending to, being already on the point of death at the time of Padmasambhava’s intervention.
After banishment he is said to have roamed over many places, including Bodhgaya in NE India – an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, where the Gautama Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment, and a significant Buddhist centre of learning in Padmasambhava’s time (Robert Fisher, Buddhist Art and Architecture at 62). In Bodhgaya Padmasambhava established himself as a Buddhist ascendant and mastered many teachings – he had a number of teachers but one of the most significant of these was a wisdom dakini who manifested in the form of a Buddhist nun (in fact Padmasambhava is said to have been instructed and blessed by a number of dakinis throughout his lifetime – he is also said to have given instruction to dakinis). He then moved to Zahor, in northern India, near Kashmir, where he took the Princess Mandarava as his Tantric consort (in the context of Vajrayana Buddhism this is a position of high esteem). Following this, the king of Zahor arrested Padmasambhava and the princess, however, following a miracle performed by Padmasambhava (transforming a burning pyre into a lake*), had a change of heart and instead became Padmasambhava’s student, as did many others in Zahor.
Padmasambhava then returned with Princess Mandarava to Oddiyana, where, following a further miracle (similar to that performed in Zahor), he and Mandarava taught Buddhism for a number of years.
|Padmasambhava statue from Samye, Tibet. |
Later life and passing of Padmasambhava
Padmasambhava subsequently moved onto Nepal, where he took on another Tantric consort – Shakyadevi, a daughter of the king of Nepal. He stayed here for a long period and was the beneficiary of highly advanced Buddhist teachings; after which time he visited many other lands, including Mongolia, China and, of course, Tibet, where he remained for a very long period and became the pre-eminent transmitter of Buddhism – as to which, see above. His consort in Tibet was Yeshe Tsogyal, the principal consort of Padmasambhava and a highly realised master in her own right (Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State at 64) who was considered to be responsible for transmitting many of his advanced teachings in the form of “terma” (hidden teachings that were gradually revealed to future Nyingmapa masters). In all, Padmasambhava was said to have had five principal Tantric consorts – all of whom were/are held in high esteem by Vajrayana Buddhists.
The exact circumstances of his death are unclear, but it said that upon his death he manifested in the pure land of Zangdokpalri – the copper coloured mountain of glory – equivalent to a supreme heavenly realm where he still dwells and will dwell until the end of the universe.
Thus is my attempt to make sense of Padmasambhava’s life. I have deliberately omitted many of the magical and miraculous events associated with his Earthly life because they confound me and will probably seem just as strange to you. I acknowledge that many, if not most, of the details of his life would be classed as mythical to contemporary scholars. His life is interesting, not least because he appears to violate some of the traditional precepts of Buddhism (esp. re death and sex), which are fundamental to most other schools of Buddhism – there is a lesson in that I am sure. While some would recoil and cast him as one who espoused a twisted and distorted version of Buddhism (see, for example, John Keay, India: A History at 194), I think there is a deeper lesson learnt from his life, for ethics are not always so straightforward; the skilfulness of actions are determined by their subjective setting, not by inflexible rules that must be blindly applied in all contexts. Euthanasia is a case in point – surely it is kinder to kill with compassion than to insist on drawing out a life of gruesome suffering? Surely sex as a sacred act which recognises and symbolises the non-dual nature of the universe is a thing of beauty and not of vice (for dualistic me-versus-you thinking is what the world needs less of)? And surely the world, the deities and the fundamental truths of the universe are infinitely more complex than what I know, or can just read in a book. I am keeping an open mind about it all, a “beginner’s mind” if you will – because the truth is I am uncertain about almost everything …
* I strongly suspect the burning pyre symbolises anger and other harmful thoughts while the lake represents the coolness and clarity of the Buddha's teachings. Thich Nhat Hanh notes that in "the Lotus Sutra it is said that the Bodhisattva of Compassion can transform the fires that are about to burn us into a cool, clear lotus lake" (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching at 79). It is possible that Padmasambhava was familiar with this Sutra, which was already hundreds of years old by his lifetime, and deliberately referenced it.
- Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State, Snow Lion
- Robert Fisher, Buddhist Art and Architecture, Thames and Hudson
- Berenice Geoffroy-Schneiter, Gandhara: The Memory of Afghanistan, Assouline
- John Keay, India: A History, Harper Collins Publishers
- Lama Lodo, Bardo Teachings: The Way of Death and Rebirth, Snow Lion
- Reat, Buddhism: A History, Jain Publishing Company
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Harper Collins Publishers
Padmasambhava’s Earthly appearance
These beautiful looking people can perhaps give us an insight as to what Padmasambhava looked like. Note that the Swat Valley in NW Pakistan (where Padmasambhava was probably born) is home to a number of ethnic groups, with one of the most common ethnic groups these days being Pashtuns - who are associated with pushing Buddhism out of the region, thus Padmasambhava probably did not look like a Pashtun. However the Dardic people have been in the Swat Valley for thousands of years (eg, see archeolog-home.com; prehist.org and valleyswat.net) so it is possible/probable that Padmasambhava belonged to this ethnic group. Interestingly, the famous "looks like me" statue of Padmasambhava from Samye (above) suggests that Padmasambhava may have had pale irises. Likewise, many Dardic men today have pale brown, hazel, green or even blue eyes (though dark irises are also very common).
|Pashayi Dardic man in Dari-I-Nur, Afghanistan; borders NW Pakistan. Source: flickr.com|
|Kalash Dardic man; Chitral district, NW Pakistan.Source: theapricity.com|
|Balti man - the Balti are partly Dardic, with interbreeding with Tibetans; NE Pakistan|