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Padmasambhava 8th cent.

Name Variants: Guru Rinpoche; padmasambhava

Information on Padmasambhava the historical figure, as opposed to the deified hero of Tibetan legend, is extremely rare. Because he is mentioned in some of the earliest Tibetan historical material, and there are two texts that appear to have been authored by him, there is little doubt that he did indeed exist. But how much of his story is legend and how much is history is almost impossible to say.

He may or may not have come from a kingdom in northern India known as Oḍḍiyāna. He was a specialist in the new Mahāyoga tantric practices, which, known for their violent language and imagery, were sought after as a means to subjugate demons and other negative forces. He is said to have spent time in the Kathmandu valley practicing Vajrakīlaya at the Yanglesho (yang le shod), Muratika, and Asura caves, although there is textual evidence that suggests even this episode in his life is a product of later embellishment.

In the late eighth century he was invited to Tibet by King Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde btsan, r. 755-797) to assist in the founding of Samye Monastery (bsam yas), under the direction of the Indian paṇḍit Śāntarakṣita. At the time indigenous spirits opposed to the importation of Buddhism were preventing the construction of the monastery. Śāntarakṣita brought Padmasambhava in to subjugate the spirits, thereby allowing the monastery to be built, and thus Buddhism to be established in Tibet. Some scholars have suggested that Padmasambhava was also an expert in irrigation, a technology that would require dealing with subterranean deities.

Two texts in the Tibetan canon claim Padmasambhava as their author. The first is the Garland of Views (man ngag lta ba'i phreng ba), a commentary on the thirteenth chapter of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which carries the colophon "Composed by the great teacher Padmasambhava." The second work, which is given a Sanskrit title of Āryapāyapāśapadmamālā-piṇḍārtha-vṛtti (T: 'phags pa thabs kyi zhags pa padmo 'phreng gi don bsdus pa'i 'grel pa), is a commentary on another Mahāyoga tantra, the Upāyapāśa-padmamālā-nāma. In the text the Indian paṇḍit Śāntigarbha, who was active in the Tibetan court at the time Padmasambhava was there, added the note: "Śāntigarbha examined this work and having found it to be without errors, he praised Padmasambhava."

The subjugation of local spirits and imbuing the local environment with Buddhism served as the kernel for the subsequent development of Padmasambhava's legend. Starting around the early twelfth century, biographies were written in which Padmasambhava went to specific places to repeat his triumph at Samye: he would conquer a hostile spirit and convert it to a protector of Buddhism, and he would literally insert a sacred Buddhist object or text into the rock or soil. Centuries later this object would be recovered by a terton, or "treasure revealer", who would then tell the tale of how Padmasambhava originally concealed the object. Thus with each new treasure came a new chapter in the ever-expanding biography of Padmasambhava, to the extent that in Tibet today there is hardly a valley or mountain that he is not said to have visited.

The link to Padmasambhava provided the treasure tradition with the conduit between the revealed scripture and the golden age of Imperial sponsorship of Buddhism. Or, in the case of the Bon tradition, Padmasambhava became the link to the Bon that existed prior to Buddhism's arrival in Tibet -- many Bon treasure revealers have also claimed Padmasambhava as the originator of their treasures. Buddhist revealers themselves are generally claimed to be reincarnations of Padmasambhava's twenty-five disciples, known collectively as the Jebang Nyernga (je 'bangs nyer lnga).




Bischoff, F. A. 1978. "Padmasambhava est-il un personnage historique?" In Proceedings of the Csoma de Koros Symposium, pp. 27-33. Louis Ligeti, ed. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado.

Bischoff, F. A., and Charles Hartman. 1971. "Padmasambhava's Invention of the Phur-bu: Ms. Pelliot Tibetain 44." In Etudes tibetaines dediees a la memoire de Marcelle Lalou, pp. 11-27. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve.

Blondeau, A.M. 1980. “Analysis of the biographies of Padmasambhava according to Tibetan tradition: classification of sources.” In Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson, pp. 45-52. Michael Aris and Aung San Suu Kyi, eds. Warminster: Aris and Philips.

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, vol. 124, no. 4, pp. 759-772.

Dalton, Jacob. 2004. "Padmasambhava." In The Encyclopedia of Buddhism, vol. 2, pp. 623-624. New York: Macmillon.

Dalton, Jacob. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp. 66-73.

Karmay, Samten. 1988. The Great Perfection. Leiden: Brill, pp. 137-138.

A list of Tibetan biographies of Padmasambhava on TBRC is here.


Alexander Gardner
February 2012


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