Padmasambhava (Skt.), or Padmakara (Skt. Padmākara; Tib. པདྨཱ་ཀ་ར་, པདྨ་འབྱུང་གནས་, Pemajungné; Wyl. pad+ma 'byung gnas, in Sanskrit transliteration པདྨ་སམྦྷ་ཝ་) means ‘Lotus-born’, which refers to Guru Rinpoche's birth from a lotus in the land of Oddiyana. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Master’, is the founder of Tibetan Buddhism and the Buddha of our time. Whereas Buddha is known primarily for having taught the teachings of the sutra vehicle, Padmasambhava came into this world, and to Tibet in particular, in order to teach the tantras. While Buddha Shakyamuni exemplifies the buddha principle, the most important element in the sutrayana path, Padmasambhava personifies the guru principle, the heart of Vajrayana Buddhism, and he is therefore known as the ‘second Buddha’ (Tib. སངས་རྒྱས་གཉིས་པ་, sangyé nyipa).
In the north-western part of the land of Oddiyana, on an island in the lake of Dhanakosha, the blessings of all the buddhas took shape in the form of a multi-coloured lotus flower. Moved by compassion at the suffering of sentient beings, the Buddha Amitabha sent out from his heart a golden vajra, marked with the syllable HRIH, which descended onto the lotus blossom. It transformed into an exquisitely beautiful eight year old child, endowed with all the major and minor marks of perfection, and holding a vajra and a lotus. At that moment all the buddhas of the ten directions, together with hundreds of thousands of dakinis from different celestial realms, invoked the blessings and the incarnation of all the buddhas for the benefit of beings and the flourishing of the secret mantra teachings. Their invocation is known as ‘The Seven Verses of the Vajra’, or ‘The Seven Line Prayer’.
It is said that his birth took place in either an Earth Monkey or a Wood Monkey year, on the tenth day of the waxing moon in the monkey month. As Guru Rinpoche was born within the lotus flower upon the waters of the lake, the dakinis called out to him from their hearts, and their call spontaneously became the Vajra Guru mantra. So this mantra is his heart mantra, his life-core, his heart essence, and to recite it is to invoke his very being. It happened that at that time, the King of Oddiyana, Indrabhuti, as a result of his immense generosity to the poor and needy of his country, had finally emptied his treasury. In addition, he had no heir to succeed him as ruler, and his sight had failed him. So he had set out on a voyage on the lake of Dhanakosha to find a wishfulfilling jewel. As he returned with the jewel, he encountered the amazing child, and questioned him about his parents, his family line, his name and country, his sustenance and what he was doing there. The boy sang his reply in an enchanting voice:
My father is the pure awareness of rigpa, Samantabhadra,
My mother, the space of all things, Samantabhadri,
My line, the indivisibility of awareness and space,
My name, the glorious Lotus-born,
My homeland, the unborn dharmadhatu,
My sustenance, consuming dualistic thoughts,
My destiny, to accomplish the actions of the buddhas of past, present and future.
Guru Padmasambhava, from a set of thangkas depicting his eight manifestations
Indrabhuti took him back to the kingdom and installed him as the crown prince. At different points in his life, Guru Rinpoche is known by different names. Now he was known as Pemajungné, Padmakara or Padmasambhava, ‘The Lotus-born’, as well as Tsokyé Dorjé, ‘Lake Born Vajra’.
At ‘the Vajra seat’ in Bodhgaya, he displayed miracles, acknowledging he was a self-manifested buddha, and then he went to the land of Zahor. Although Padmasambhava was a fully enlightened buddha, he appeared as a nirmanakaya manifestation to tame and teach beings in this age, and so for their benefit he acted as if receiving teachings, accomplishing the practice and passing through the various stages of spiritual realization, one by one. Some accounts tell how in Vajrasana, he was ordained by the Buddha’s closest disciple, Ananda. Others say he took ordination from Prabhahasti in Zahor, and was given the name Shakya Sengé, ‘Lion of the Shakyas’. He received the teachings on Yoga Tantra from him eighteen times, and experienced pure visions of the deities. Then he received empowerment from the wisdom dakini Kungamo, also known as Khandroma Lékyi Wangmo, who transformed him into a syllable HUNG, swallowed him, and passed him through her body and out through her secret lotus, granting him outer, inner and secret empowerments, and purifying the three obscurations. From the eight vidyadharas at Deché Tsekpa, he received the teachings on the eight great sadhanas of Kagyé, from Buddhaguhya the teachings on ‘The Secret Essence Tantra’, and from Shri Singha the teachings of Dzogpachenpo. Padmasambhava would master a teaching the first time he encountered it, and experienced visions of deities without needing to practise. Attaining the first vidyadhara level, the stage of ‘the vidyadhara level of maturation’ or ‘vidyadhara with karmic residue’, Guru Rinpoche was known as Loden Choksé, ‘Wise Seeker of the Sublime’.
Returning to Zahor, Padmasambhava took the royal princess Mandarava as his consort, and they then went to the Maratika cave, where for three months they practised the sadhana of longevity. The Buddha of Limitless Life, Amitayus appeared, empowered them with longevity, and blessed them as inseparable from him. They both accomplished the second vidyadhara level, ‘vidyadhara with mastery over life’.
Tso Pema as it is today
The king of Zahor and his ministers arrested Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava and burned him alive, but he transformed the pyre into a lake, and was found sitting, cool and fresh, on a lotus blossom in its centre. This lake is considered to be the Rewalsar Lake, ‘Tso Pema’, in the present-day Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Overcome with remorse, and in homage, the king offered Padmasambhava his entire kingdom, beginning with his garments and his five royal robes. In paintings and statues, Guru Rinpoche is portrayed wearing the clothing of the king of Zahor. For example, the hat offered by the king is called The Lotus which Liberates on Sight, or The Petalled Hat of the Five Families; its inner and outer layers symbolize the unity of generation and completion phases, its three points the three kayas, its five colours the five kayas working for the benefit of beings, the sun and moon skilful means and wisdom, its blue border unlimited samaya, the vajra top unshakeable concentration and the vulture’s feather the realization of the highest view and the culmination of the practice. Guru Rinpoche taught the king and subjects of Zahor, and many attained realization.
With Mandarava, he then returned to Oddiyana, but was recognized, and burned on a sandalwood pyre. After some time, they were found seated on a lotus in a lake of sesame oil, wearing a garland of skulls, as a symbol of their liberating all beings from samsara through compassion. Padmasambhava was now known as Pema Thötreng Tsal, ‘The Powerful Lotus-born, with a Garland of Skulls’. For thirteen years Padmasambhava and Mandarava remained to teach in Oddiyana, as a result of which the king, queen and many others attained realization and the rainbow body. Then Padmasambhava was known as Padma Raja—Pema Gyalpo—, ‘The Lotus-born King’.
Manifesting himself as the monk Indrasena, it is said that Padmasambhava inspired the great king, Ashoka (3rd century BC), to have faith in the Buddhadharma. After defeating various anti-Buddhist rulers, Guru Rinpoche was poisoned, but remained unharmed, and he was thrown in the Ganges, but made the river flow upstream and danced in the air, therefore earning the name of Khyeu Khanding Tsal, ‘Mighty Youth, Soaring in the Sky like a Garuda’.
He manifested as a number of great siddhas, such as Saroruha, Saraha, Dombi Heruka, Virupa and Krishnacharya. In charnel grounds like Kuladzokpa, ‘Perfected in Body’, he taught the secret mantra to dakinis, and made outer and inner spirits into protectors of the Dharma. He was then known as Nyima Özer, ‘Rays of the Sun’.
Padmasambhava challenged and defeated five hundred upholders of wrong views in debate at Bodhgaya. He reversed their magic with the aid of a wrathful mantra given him by the lion-faced dakini Marajita. He was known as Senge Dradok, ‘The Lion’s Roar’.
Then at Yangleshö, present day Pharping in Nepal, he practised the sadhana of Yangdak Heruka with the consort Shakyadevi, daughter of a king of Nepal. Powerful spirits caused a three year drought, with famine and disease, and Padmasambhava asked his teachers in India for a teaching to counter them. Two men returned, laden with the tantras and commentaries of Vajrakilaya, and the moment they arrived, the obstacles were pacified. Guru Rinpoche and Shakyadevi both attained the third vidyadhara level, ‘vidyadhara of the great seal, or mahamudra’. Guru Rinpoche recognized that Yangdak is like a merchant engaging in trade—the achievement can be great, but so can the obstacles, whereas Vajrakilaya is like an armed escort; he is needed to guard against obstacles and overcome them. He then composed sadhanas of Yangdak and Vajrakilaya combined, and bound the guardians of Vajrakilaya to protect the teachings.
As for the Dzogchen teachings, it is said that Padmasambhava met Garab Dorje in a pure vision, and he also received the Nyingtik teachings from Manjushrimitra. As Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche explains in his ‘History of the Natural Dzogpachenpo’ A Marvellous Garland of Rare Gems, Guru Rinpoche travelled to the Parushakavana charnel ground where Shri Singha granted him the teachings of the Three Classes of Mind, Space and Pith Instructions. After granting him the Outer, Inner and Secret cycles, Shri Singha conferred on Padmasambhava the teachings of the Innermost Unsurpassed Cycle of Pith Instructions, the Khandro Nyingtik, along with all the tantras and instructions. He stayed for twenty-five years, receiving and contemplating on this teaching. Subsequently, he went to the Sosadvipa charnel ground and practised for three years, obtaining an enlightened body that was “like the reflection of the moon in water, not subject to birth or death”. He attained ‘the rainbow body of great transference’, in which form he later went to Tibet. In this subtle light body, great masters such as Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra can remain, without dissolving into the dharmakaya, for as long as there is service to perform for sentient beings.
Guru Padmasambhava visited lands and kingdoms all over Asia, including Mongolia, China and Shangshung, where he manifested as Tavihricha to teach the hearing lineage of Dzogchen in the Bön tradition, which led many to enlightenment and the rainbow body. “In this way,” Jamgön Kongtrul writes, “Padmasambhava’s activity for leading people to the path of liberation through appearing in various places and in various forms, and speaking various languages, is indeed beyond all measure.”
According to Sam van Schaik, from the 12th century on a greater role was assigned to Padmasambhava in the introduction of tantric Buddhism into Tibet:
According to earlier histories, Padmasambhava had given some tantric teachings to Tibetans before being forced to leave due to the suspicions of the Tibetan court. But from the twelfth century an alternative story, itself a terma discovery, gave Padmasambhava a much greater role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, and in particular credited him with travelling all over the country to convert the local spirits to Buddhism.
According to this enlarged story, King Trisong Detsen, the 38th king of the Yarlung dynasty and the first Emperor of Tibet (742–797), invited the Nalanda University abbot Śāntarakṣita (Tibetan Shiwatso) to Tibet. Śāntarakṣita started the building of Samye. Demonical forces hindered the introduction of the Buddhist dharma, and Padmasambhava was invited to Tibet to subdue the demonic forces. The demons were not annihilated, but were obliged to submit to the dharma. This was in accordance with the tantric principle of not eliminating negative forces but redirecting them to fuel the journey toward spiritual awakening. According to tradition, Padmasambhava received the Emperor's wife, identified with the dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, as a consort.
Padmasambhava introduced the people of Tibet to the practice of Tantric Buddhism.
He is regarded as the founder of the Nyingma tradition. The Nyingma tradition is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The Nyingma tradition actually comprises several distinct lineages that all trace their origins to Padmasambhava.
"Nyingma" literally means "ancient," and is often referred to as "Nga'gyur" or the "early translation school" because it is founded on the first translations of Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Tibetan, in the eighth century.
Nyingma maintains the earliest tantric teachings. The Nyingmapa incorporates mysticism and local deities shared by the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, which has shamanic elements. The group particularly believes in hidden terma treasures. Traditionally, Nyingmapa practice was advanced orally among a loose network of lay practitioners. Monasteries with celibate monks and nuns, along with the practice of reincarnated spiritual leaders are later adaptations, though Padmasambhava is regarded as the founder of Samye Gompa, the first monastery in the country. In modern times the Nyingma lineage has been centered in Kham in eastern Tibet.
In Bhutan he is associated with the famous Paro Taktsang or "Tiger's Nest" monastery built on a sheer cliff wall about 500m above the floor of Paro valley. It was built around the Taktsang Senge Samdup (stag tshang seng ge bsam grub) cave where he is said to have meditated in the 8th Century. He flew there from Tibet on the back of Yeshe Tsogyal, whom he transformed into a flying tigress for the purpose of the trip. Later he travelled to Bumthang district to subdue a powerful deity offended by a local king. Padmasambhava's body imprint can be found in the wall of a cave at nearby Kurje Lhakhang temple.