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Padmasambhava - Tantric Guru of Tibet

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by Sangharakshita

... this evening I am going to try to do just three things. In the first place I am going to give a brief account of some of the main facts of Padmasambhava's career or what, in the present state of our knowledge, appear to be the facts. And then I am going to go back to what is historically speaking the central episode in his career, that is to say his visit to Tibet and I am going to deal with that in some detail. I am going to deal with this particular episode, with his visit to Tibet in some detail for two reasons. First of all it is very well attested historically and also it contains certain legendary elements which are of special interest, of special significance to us today. They are not only of general interest but even have some meaning for, some bearing on, our own movement here and now. And thirdly and lastly I am going to give a short account of Padmasambhava's teachings in the Tibetan spiritual tradition of which he is regarded as having been the founder.

But first of all [word indistinct] the main facts of Padmasambhava's career. But before we start dealing with historical facts I am going to give just one legend. And it's the legend, perhaps two legends of Padmasambhava's birth. I'm going to recount this legend because it illustrates the sort of symbolism, the sort of mythological material if you like, that in the course of centuries clustered about the events of his life. The legend of the birth also is of special interest to students of comparative mythology, comparative religion. And this particular legend, with which these biographies commence, begins not on the Earth at all, begins as it were in a higher world, in a sense in the highest of all worlds, a purely spiritual world, a purely transcendental world, the world of the Buddha Amitabha, who is in principle the chief Buddha of the Ningmapa tradition which was established by Padmasambhava.

`Amitabha' means `Infinite Light', so Amitabha is the Buddha of Infinite Light! And according to the accounts on this occasion he was seated in meditation, in profound meditation. In fact Amitabha is usually represented in the posture of meditation with his eyes half closed and his two hands together in his lap. And the legend goes on to say how as the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite and Eternal Light sat there in meditation there came forth from his tongue a ray of pure red light and this ray of pure red light fell down to the Earth. It fell into the centre of a certain lake in Northwest India. And at the spot, by the very heart, where it penetrated into the water of the lake there arose a small island. And this island was completely covered with golden grass. And in the midst of the golden grass we are told there flowed three springs of water. Pure water of the colour of turquoise, and from the centre of the island there sprang forth an enormous lotus blossom. And as the lotus blossom sprang forth we are told, the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light emitted from his heart a golden dorje, a golden dorje with five points. And this dorje fell from the heart of Amitabha into the centre of that lotus blossom. And later, the legends continue, as people came they found a small boy seated in the lotus. A boy of about eight years of age, who looked, the legend tells us, just like an infant Buddha. In his right hand a little tiny lotus blossom, in his left hand a tiny vase of the kind that are used for tantric initiations, and in the crook of his left arm a tiny trident, and this was Padmasambhava, The Lotus Born. The name Padmasambhava means `The Lotus Born', the one born from the lotus. So this is the legend. It has of course it's own significance, it's own spiritual value, but I am not going into that now.

Now we are going to go into the facts, or rather into facts of another order. As we have already seen, Padmasambhava was born in the 8th century, at the beginning of the 8th century, and he was born in North Western India in the kingdom of Uddiyana, and Uddiyana was, we know, at that time a very great and a very famous centre of tantric practice in general, tantric ritual, tantric meditation, especially esoteric meditation. And Padmasambhava as a boy it seems was adopted by the king of Uddiyana who's name was Indrabhuti. Now Indrabhuti himself was a great Buddhist scholar and yogi some of who's writings on the tantra survive in Tibetan translation even today. So Padmasambhava was given as a young man the education, the upbringing, suitably, of a young prince of those days and in due course he was married to a daughter of a neighbouring king. But despite this, we are told, just like the Buddha so many centuries earlier, just like so many other great masters, teachers, yogis, he was not satisfied with the household life, was not satisfied with high status, position, with wealth, with domestic felicity and so on. He left home and he became a monk, and in the course a number of years he studied all the different forms of Buddhism then known in Northern India , he practiced meditation, especially tantric meditation, and he studied very widely indeed. It seems that he visited practically all the Buddhist kingdoms of Northwestern India and even of Central Asia. And it is highly probable according to some scholars that here, in Central Asia, he came into contact with Nestorian Christians and with Manicheans. Central Asia, we know, at that time was a veritable melting pot of religions and cultures of every kind. He also visited Eastern India, that is to say Bengal and Assam, and it is highly likely that he also visited Java and Sumatra which in those days were very great centres of Buddhism, of Mahayana Buddhism and Sarvastivada Buddhism, indeed.

And above all Padmasambhava spent a great deal of time meditating in cremation grounds. Now this may strike you as rather odd but in India even today yogis are very often fond of meditating in cremation grounds. Especially tantric yogis, and Padmasambhava also for many years followed this practice. I myself have visited in India quite a number of cremation grounds and I always found a very strange sort of atmosphere there, because after all so many dead bodies are burned there, are reduced to ashes, and the burning ground is regarded as a sort of door if you like, a sort of opening from this world into the next. And I also [word indistinct] that if you visit the burning ground, especially if you visit it at night, you find a very very strange, a very peculiar sort of vibration there, you can almost see, let's say, the feeling, you can almost see the air, the atmosphere quivering with the vibration. That's the only way one can describe it. And there's a very peculiar, a very intense sort of atmosphere and yogis in general believe that the atmosphere of the cremation ground is especially favourable to meditation, particularly tantric meditation.

I remember - I mentioned Darjeeling a little while ago - it just now occurs to me that when I was staying in Kalimpong I heard from my friends that there was a yogi, a Bengali tantric yogi, at that time living in a burning ground just outside Darjeeling and some of my friends actually went and visited him and he lived all the time in the cremation ground for a period of some weeks. And he meditated on a very strange sort of asana. Its a sort of asana, a sort of seat that Hindu tantric yogis think very highly of. The seat was nothing other than the mummified body of an 8 year old girl.

The girl apparently had died, the body had been mummified and this was used as a seat by the tantric yogi. This was a fairly common practice amongst the Hindu tantric yogis.

Now whether Padmasambhava himself did this or not we don't know, but he certainly engaged in a number of very highly esoteric, occult meditation practices during this period when he frequented the burning grounds of Northern India. So in the course of these years we are told, he had a large number of spiritual experiences of various kinds. He mastered the occult arts and sciences and eventually became enlightened, attained full spiritual realization.

And after many years he paid a visit to the kingdom in which he was born, that is to say, he returned to Uddiyana and we are told, according to the biography, that when he went back to Uddiyana he at once got into trouble with the king. We are not sure whether it was the same king who had adopted him or his family successor of the same name, that is to say, Indrabhuti. But whether or not it was the old king or his son, Padmasambhava got into very serious trouble with him. And the reason was this; that while he was in Bengal he had become acquainted with a female yogi, that is to say a yogini, or even Dakini, called Mandarava. And she became a very faithful and devoted disciple. Not only that but she became his constant companion as well. And they used to meditate together in the cremation ground. But you know what people are like. Some people thought Padmasambhava, who apparently was still young and handsome, and the yogini Mandarava, meditating together, staying together in the cremation ground, they thought quite wrongly that they were just living together as man and wife. And this is apparently what King Indrabhuti thought, and as good people very often do become on such occasions, he became very very indignant indeed that Padmasambhava who was supposed to be a monk and a yogi was traveling around with this woman Mandarava, who seemed to be his wife. So what did he do? He ordered that they should both be burned at the stake. But according to the biography they escaped and there are many legends gathered around this remarkable episode.

But having had enough of Uddiyana apparently Padmasambhava then went to Bodhgaya where the Buddha of course, so many centuries earlier, had gained enlightenment. And there he engaged in a great debate with various Brahminical teachers and he succeeded in defeating them ...

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