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Padmasambhava - Tantric Guru of Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 111: Padmasambhava, Tantric Guru of Tibet

Friends, I am going to start with a reminiscence as I very often do. Quite a few years ago I happened to visit the town of Darjeeling which means the place of the thunderbolt or diamond. Darjeeling is quite a small town situated at the eastern end of the Himalayas, in what are generally known as the foothills of the Himalayas which raise to be the height of about 7 to 8,000 feet above sea level. And this little town of Darjeeling situated at the eastern end of the Himalayas is inhabited by all sorts of people, especially by the Nepalese mainly Ghurkas, but also by Sikkhimese, Indians, Bhutanese and so on, in fact by all sorts of tribes speaking not only various languages but various dialects as well. And amongst all these predominantly Nepalese people living in this little town of Darjeeling there happened to be quite a large number of Buddhists. And since there were quite a large number of Buddhists amongst them and since there were also quite a number of temples and monasteries, both large and small in Darjeeling, I was quite interested in visiting this particular place. And in the course of the first visit which I paid there I wanted to see not only as much as I could of the local Buddhist people, but also see whatever temples and monasteries and shrines that happened to be there of any interest.

And in the course of my visit it so happened that almost by accident one day I found myself standing in the morning on a little spur of land somewhat down from the road standing in front of what seemed to be a sort of three storey pagoda-like building.

And as I stood there and as I looked, I couldn't help wondering what sort of building it was. It seemed rather unfamiliar. But I really took to notice that the door was open so forthwith in I went. At first I couldn't see very much. There weren't any windows, it was rather dark. The only light came from the open doorway, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I started to make out the outline of an enormous image. An image perhaps fifteen to twenty feet tall, so big in fact that it seemed to fill practically the entire chamber. And this particular image, this particular figure which I was now seeing more and more clearly was seated cross-legged on an enormous lotus-throne. And the figure was clad not in the yellow or orange robes of the Buddha, but in rather rich, decorated, princely robes of a deep red type. And in the right hand of this great figure, seated there on the lofty lotus throne, there was resting a golden purbha and in his left hand, which rested in his lap, there was a skull cup. Again in the crook of the left arm, resting against the shoulder of the figure, there was a long staff, a staff surmounted by a sort of trident and below the trident I could just discern what seemed to be three human heads in various stages of decomposition. And raising my eyes just a little I saw that on his head, this great figure wore a red lotus-cap surmounted by a dorje, and above the dorje a long white vultures feather. But remarkable though this image was, impressive though this figure was, the most remarkable, the most impressive thing of all was the head. And the face I saw was sort of half Indian, half Tibetan, half as it were Aryan, half as it were Mongolian. And on the face there was a thin black mustache and the brows were slightly knitted together as though almost in anger. And the expression of the face was on the one hand extremely intelligent and penetrating and on the other, powerful and commanding, not to say fierce. And on looking around a little more I saw on either side of this main central figure, two tiny female figures. One in Indian dress and the other in Tibetan dress including a sort of multicoloured rainbow apron.

But who was this figure? Who was this figure that I encountered in the gloom of that room in the pagoda all those years ago? It was of course the figure of Padmasambhava, the great Tantric Guru of India and Tibet. The great spiritual teacher and also the great spiritual symbol [word indistinct], following the Tibetan tradition, we are celebrating this evening. Now from the purely historical point of view it is not easy to speak about Padmasambhava. We don't know the exact date of his birth or the exact date of his death. All that we know, and we know this quite definitely, is that he belongs to the eighth century. We also know that he was born in India and spent the greater part of his life there as well as in adjacent Buddhist countries. He visited Tibet during the reign of King Trisong-detsen who according to the Tibetan annals reigned from the year 755 to the year 797. According to three accounts Padmasambhava spent some 18 months in Tibet. According to others he spent as long as forty years. And it seems as far as we can judge that the former account, that is to say the account of him spending some 18 months in Tibet, is the more likely. Now all our information about Padmasambhava comes from Tibetan sources. In India unfortunately he seems completely Tibetan. Perhaps this is not surprising. After the revival of Orthodox Hinduism, after the destruction of the Buddhist monasteries at the hands of the Muslim invaders the Buddha himself was forgotten for more than 500 years. So it is not surprising that the Great Guru Padmasambhava should be forgotten too. Now there exists in the Tibetan language as part of Tibetan literature quite a number of biographies of Padmasambhava. The oldest of them all appeared in the 13th century and there is a short summary of this very early and important biography in Evans Wentz's, `Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation'. The biography happens to be attributed to Padmasambhava's Tibetan consort Yeshe Tsogyal.

And these biographies are very very interesting indeed. They contain a great deal of very valuable material but they are not very helpful historically speaking. And there are various reasons for this. In the first place when we examine these biographies we find that the biography of Padmasambhava in some sense, in some unaccountable way had been mixed up with the biography of the Buddha . Though he lived some 13 hundred years before. Now it is rather as though the biography of St. Francis had got mixed up with the biography of Christ. But that is the situation that we find.

[indistinct] that in the course of his career Padmasambhava was known by very many different names and titles and epithets. According to what he was doing or initiations he received and so on. In fact in the biographies he is referred to by so many different names, so many different names occur that we are not always quite sure with whom we are actually dealing especially as some of the names which Padmasambhava bore at certain stages in his career were also born by other people at different stages of their career. But we hardly know sometimes with whom we are dealing at all. And in the third place the biographies usually do not fit to what we would regard as historical facts. But into a great deal of what modern Western scholars would regard, even dismiss, as legendary material. Just like in fact the traditional biographies of the Buddha. They are not just concerned with stating historical fact. They also incorporate myth and legend and symbol and parable. And all these things in their own way shed light on the inner meaning, the inner significance of the life. Notice they are from another point of view, throw light on it as it were from another dimension. So this sort of legendary material in the biographies of Padmasambhava consist of various kinds of material, in the first place we can say there are episodes which though as it were represented as having actually occurred historically, are not really historical at all, do not really belong to the external historical biography of Padmasambhava at all. They symbolize rather certain spiritual truths and certain spiritual experiences.

One of the more obvious examples, one of the more obviously symbolical episodes for instance is that of Padmasambhava's initiation by a Dakkhini. In the course of this episode which is recounted as though it actually happened some very strange things indeed occur. For instance Padmasambhava enters a Dakkhini's palace and after a few preliminaries have happened, she transforms him into a syllable, into a mantra, into the mantra Hum. And having transformed him into the mantra the Dakkhini proceeds to swallow him. And then we are told he receives the secret Avalokiteshvara initiation inside her stomach. So obviously here we are not concerned with historical fact. We are concerned with a different level of meaning and significance. Lama Govinda, incidentally, in his book, `The Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism', has explained or given some explanation of this particular incident, this particular episode. Obviously it is not meant to be taken literally. And the biographies of Padmasambhava are full of episodes of this sort, full of material of this sort. And then again of course there are lots episodes where the purpose of it seems to be simply to glorify Padmasambhava and to emphasise his greatness. And certain episodes as has already been pointed out represent Padmasambhava more as a sort of cultural hero than as a spiritual teacher. And then again there are episodes in the biographies which simply incorporate indigenous Tibetan folklore. But all this, the biographies as containing all this sort of material, all these episodes of so many different kinds, certainly constitute a very rich body of material indeed. And it is not very easy therefore to sort out what is really historical and what is not. But some preliminary work has been done by scholars, by western scholars, and has formed a clearer idea about Padmasambhava's career, but there are still quite a number of unanswered questions and we've no [indistinct] definitive biography.

But ...

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