How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

188 Padmasambhava

(The One Born From A Lotus, the Precious tantric Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava)

One of my favourite genres of Tibetan Buddhist literature is so-called ‘words or songs of advice’ texts, known as gtam or zhal gdams in Tibetan. These sorts of texts are great for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be both pithy and poetic, which makes them a pleasure to read. They often have quite a colloquial flavour, which makes them interesting in terms of style and register. And they are also uniquely practical. While their ethical orientation means that they are focused on ideals and best case-scenarios, the fact that they are intended to be useful as guides means that they are forced to point out faults realistically, to take stock of where their target audience may actually be in their lives or religious practice. After all, the only thing worse than unsolicited advice is advice that has no bearing on the realities of one’s life.

I previously translated and shared a ‘words of advice’ text aimed at ngakpa or non-celibate, tantric vow-holder yogi-householders on this blog. You can read that text by famous 20th century ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and some stray thoughts on it here. Today I was taking a read of the much older text of advice for ngakpa on which Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche based his later commentary: the ‘final words’ or parting testament (zhal chems) of the legendary ON (‘Original Ngakpa’) Padmasambhava (‘The Lotus Born one’) a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Guru’, as found in a biography of this Great Tantric Master who secured the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which was revealed by the tantric visionary saint Nyangral Nyima Ozer in the 12th century. Dilgo Khyentse’s words of advice for ngakpa in the early twentieth century are directly inspired by the testament of the eighth century Padmasambhava as reported in Nyangral Nyima Ozer’s twelfth century revelation, which is known as the Kathang Zanglingma, or the ‘Edicts’ or ‘Chronicals of the Copper Island [Pure Land] ‘. While Nyangral Nyima Ozer’s revealed biography – the earliest of its kind –  is replete with all sorts of breath-taking miraculous occurrences, Padmasambhava’s advice to ngakpa in Tibet is nonetheless quite down-to-earth and matter-of-fact. Much like Dilgo Khyentse in his much later advice, Padmasambhava emphasizes maintaining one’s personal and communal tantric ritual/meditative practice in a rigorous and orthodox way, one aligned with fundamental Buddhist truths, as disparaging remarks about practicing rites like ‘chanting [non-Buddhist] bon pos‘ whose approach to ritual is said to lack a deeper appreciation of the true nature of phenomena. Padmasambhava’s advice like Dilgo Khyentse’s is also quite male-centric, being pitched primarily at tantric yogis rather than yoginis. Master Padma does provide a section of advice a little earlier for monks and nuns (btsun pa phomo), and then for Tibetan women in general (bud med) a little further on, but does not single out female practitioners of tantra in a stand-alone section (see here and here for some further thoughts on the roles and status of tantric yoginis).  Altogether, Padmasambhava’s counsel to Tibetan tantrikas is brief, and comes as part of a longer list of similarly pithy, solicited advice for other classes of people and religious practitioners (he offers advice to dge bshes, spiritual guides or religious scholars prior to the section for ngakpa, and turns his attention in the proceeding section to furnishing advice for sgom chen, meditative-anchorites or hermit-contemplatives, and provides advice as well for kings, ministers, yogis, priests and patrons, commoners and so on).

We can compare Padmasambhava’s advice to ngakpa in Nyima Ozer’s revealed hagiography to a slightly later, equally prominent Tibetan treasure text biography of Padmasambhava which was revealed in the fourteenth century by another treasure revealer by the name of Orgyen Lingpa, known as the Pema Kathang or ‘Edicts of the Lotus [Master]’. Anthropologist Fernanda Pirie, who runs the Tibetan Law/Legal Ideology in Tibet project affiliated with the University of Oxford rightly points out the importance of the Pema Kathang on her project website for the study of the evolution of Tibetan concepts of law. Notwithstanding the fact that the Pema Kathang purports to be a revealed biography of an Indian ngakpa from the eighth century, scholars have mined the fourteen century text for information about both the development of Padmasambhava’s mythos in Tibetan and for countless small details about life and society in Orgyen Lingpa’s post-imperial milieu. The Pema Kathang outlines an ideal socio-juridical arrangement of Tibetan society, comprised of three distinct, if sometimes overlapping domains: a sphere of Dharmic or ethical policies/governance/ politics (chos srid),  of tantric governance or policies (sngags srid) and a realm of ministerial politics (blon srid). As the text has it:

ཆོས་སྲིད་སྔགས་སྲིད་བློན་སྲིད་སྲིད་དུ་བཅད༔ གཅིག་མགོ་གཅིག་ཐོན་མི་དགེ་བསྐྱར་ལ་ཐོན༔

“Set policies according to the ‘Dharmic’ regulations, tantric, or ministerial ones,

Express them once to each person, repeat them for the non-virtuous.” (chos srid sngags srid blon srid srid du bcad/ gcig mgo gcig thon mi dge bskyar la thon)

This is interesting. These days, the term chos srid is typically used to refer to the hybrid, integrated religious-secular system of governance promoted and developed by the Dalai Lamas and for which Tibet became famous, but here it is used to describe a domain of Buddhist-inflected ethical governance distinct from both specifically tantric activities or orientations and ostensibly more typical ‘ministerial’ sorts of secular political machinations. The Tibetan term chos can mean ‘Dharma’, ‘teaching’, ‘religion’, ‘ethos’, or ‘phenomenon’ depending on context. It appears in various places throughout the Pema Kathang, at times implying the sense of a set of broadly Buddhist-inflected social regulations or laws, at other times referring to the Dharma as the specific teachings on the nature of reality transmitted by Shakyamuni Buddha (For a discussion of how imperial-era legal codes that likely had little to do with Buddhism came to be understood by post-imperialist Tibetan authors as ‘Buddhist law’, see this recent article by Pirie in the Journal of Law and Religion)  You can see one example of this slightly ambiguous usage in the excerpt below, where it is explained that the community of shaved-headed monastic vow-holders (i.e. Buddhist monks and nuns) and the community of long-haired, non-celibate tantric householder ngakpa and ngakma have been set up in Tibet as distinct upholders of the teachings, equally worthy of consideration, veneration, and patronage.

I’ve translated dam pa’i chos in the excerpt below as ‘Holy Dharma’ in line with more conventional Buddhist-centric readings of the word chos, yet given the context here, the term might be better understood as ‘law’ or ‘code of conduct’ (early Tibetan legal codes describe a Dharma or law of humans (mi chos) and a law of gods (lha chos) – historian of early Tibet Sam van Schaik describes here how early Tibetan texts use the word lha chos and how this term slowly evolved to refer to the specific ethical, ritual system of Buddhism, in contradistinction to the foil of Bon)

 ལེགས་པར་བྱེད་པ་དམ་པའི་ཆོས་ཡིན་པས༔ རབ་བྱུང་སྡེ་འཛུགས་སྔགས་པའི་སྡེ་འཛུགས་ཤིང་༔ ཆོས་ལུགས་གཉིས་པོ་གང་མོས་ཅི་དགའ་གྱིས༔

“Holy Dharma means conducting oneself properly

As such, the community of monastic renouncers and the community of ngakpas or non-celibate, tantric yogi vow-holders [has been] establish[ed]

Let people choose whichever of these two religious orientations they prefer.”

(legs par byed pa dam pa’i chos yin pas/ rab byung sde ‘dzugs sngags pa’i sde ‘dzugs shing/ chos lugs gnyis po gang mos ci dga’ gyis)

The Pema Kathang goes on to lay out some basic distinctions of the two religious communities, focusing on fairly mundane and quotidian aspects of practice and comportment. Significantly, many of these details, especially about food, describe particularly Tibetan realities, such as the prominence of barley as a Tibetan mode of sustenance. Despite being a foreign national then, the Pema Kathang represents Padmasambhava as speaking to his Tibetan disciples on their own terms, as offering advice tailored to their particular cultural, geographic context (for more details on ngakpas’ dress and forms of practice, see my translation of Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s essay on the Ngakpa community here):

རབ་བྱུང་མཁན་པོས་སྡོམ་ཕོག་ཁྲིམས་བཅས་བཞིན༔ སྡེ་སོད་གསུམ་ནས་ཇི་ལྟར་བཤད་བཞིན་གྱིས༔ དགེ་འདུན་སྐོམ་དུ་དཀར་དང་ཇ་གསོལ་ཅིག༔ ཟས་སུ་འབྲུ་དང་བུར་སྦྲང་མར་ཐུད་གསོལ༔ གོས་སུ་མཐང་ཤམ་ངུར་སྨྲིག་ཆས་མཛོད་ཅིག༔ གནས་སུ་གཙུག་ལག་ཁང་སྡེའི་ནང་དུ་བཞུགས༔ ཆང་ནག་ཤ་དང་ལྷད་ཟས་མ་སྟེན་ཅིག༔

 “Monastic renouncers and scholars should conduct themselves in accordance with the rules of the vows that have been conferred on them,

And in line with the explanations given in the Tripitaka, the three classes of [shastric] scripture.

The [monastic] sangha should quench their thirst with milk and tea.

They should eat grains, molasses, honey, and cream cheese as their food,

They should wear lower skirts of saffron as their clothes.

They should live in monastic communities for their place of residence.

They should not resort to alcohol, meat or adulterated foods.

( rab byung mkhan pos sdom phog khrims bcas bzhin/ sde snod gsum nas ji ltar bshad bzhin gyis/ dge ‘dun skom du dkar dang ja gsol cig/ zas su ‘bru dang bur sbrang mar thud gsol/ gos su mthang sham ngur smrig chas mdzod cig/ gnas su gtsug lag khang sde’i nang du bzhugs/ chang nag sha dang lhad zas ma sten cig)

སྔགས་པ་བླ་མས་དམ་ཚིག་བསྒྲགས་པ་དང་༔ རྒྱུད་ནས་ཇི་ལྟར་བཤད་པ་བཞིན་དུ་གྱིས༔ སྐོམ་དུ་ཆང་གསོལ་དགེ་འདུན་དཀོར་མ་འབགས༔ ཟས་སུ་ཅི་དགར་ལོངས་སོད་དུག་མ་ཟ༔ གོས་སུ་དཀར་དམར་ནག་པོ་སྔགས་ཆས་གྱིས༔ གནས་སུ་སྒྲུབ་ཁང་གཟུང་ལ་ཡོན་ཏན་སྤེལ༔ བསན་པ་བསྲུང་ཕྱིར་སྒྲུབ་པ་དང་དུ་ལོང་༔

Ngakpa and [tantric] gurus act according to the binding tantric samaya vows they proclaim

and [the code of conduct] explained in the tantric texts,

They should quench their thirst with chang [i.e. beer/alcohol] and should not get involved with or misappropriate the alms or property of the monastic sangha.

They should indulge in whatever they like for food, but should not eat anything poisonous.

They should wear white, red, or black tantric garments for their clothing.

They should station themselves in places of meditation/retreat-houses as their residence to proliferate positive spiritual qualities or virtues.

In order to protect the received/heard [teachings] they willingly volunteer their time to sadhana practice, to spiritual accomplishment.”

(sngags pa bla mas dam tshig bsgrags pa dang/ rgyud nas ji ltar bshad pa bzhin du gyis/ skom du chang gsol dge ‘dun dkor ma ‘bags/ zas su ci dgar longs spyod dug ma za/ gos su dkar dmar nag po sngags chas gyis/ gnas su sgrub khang gzung la yon tan spel/ bsan pa bsrung phyir sgrub pa dang du long)


(A depiction of sassy, ninth-century phantom scorpion-summoning Tibetan ngakpa Sangye Yeshe of the Great Nub clan)

It is something of a truism and frequently mentioned by ngakpa/ma and scholars that the monastic sangha and the tantric yogi/ini religious vow-holder community were established by mutual decree by tantric yogi Padmasambhava, King Trisong Deutsen, and Abbot Shantarakshita in eighth century Tibet, an agreement which itself mirrors the threefold scheme mentioned above of the distinct but overlapping domains of tantric yogic, imperial/temporal, and monastic-oriented religious power. How exactly such domains interacted and overlapped or challenged one another – and continue to do so into the present – is a much larger historical, ethnographic question. Scholar Holly Gayley has coined the term ‘yogic triumphantalism’ to describe situations in which tantric yogic power and gnosis trumps secular political clout or monastic virtue, scholasticism and self-importance. Perhaps some of the most famous examples of such triumphantalism appear in the life-stories of Drukpa Kunley, the ‘crazy’ wandering sexual yogin whose biographies have become widely known in translation, and who regularly flouted all manner of prevailing powers and mores through appeals to his superior yogic attainment and insight. One also thinks here of how the wild yogi Padmasambhava awed and terrified the Tibetan emperor by scooping up dirt and transforming it into gold, when the monarch tried to ply the Precious Guru with gold, assuming falsely that he was seeking after worldly reward or status. Yet another evocative example comes from accounts of the life of one of Padmasambhava’s most important Tibetan ngakpa disciples, Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, who incidentally, is described as soliciting the advice for ngakpa from Padmasambhava in the Kathang Zanglingma. As contemporary ngakpa-scholar John Myrdhin Reynolds notes in his book ‘The Golden Letters’:

“When in the ninth century, King Langdarma and his hostile ministers set about to suppress the Indian Buddhist teachings and to close the Buddhist monasteries such as Samye, he summoned the Tantric master Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and his disciples into his presence, although all of them were not Buddhist monks but rather Tantrikas (sngags-pa). The arrogant king challenged Nubchen, inquiring, “And what power do you have?”

“Just observe the power I can manifest merely from the reciting of mantras!” Nubchen replied and raised his right hand in the threatening gesture of tarjini-mudra.

Instantly, in the sky above the Tantric sorcerer, the king saw nine giant scorpions appear, each the size of a wild yak. The king was terrified at this vision. So he promptly promised not to harm the white-robbed Buddhist Tantrikas and to refrain from disrobing and exiling them as he had done with the maroon-robbed Buddhist monks. Then Nubchen pointed again into the sky with a threatening gesture, and lightning flashed from heaven, shattering into pieces a nearby boulder.

Doubly terrified, the king vowed, “I will not in any way harm you or your white-robbed followers!” and he ordered that his prisoners be released. because of the mighty magical powers of this Tantrika Nubchen, the anti-Buddhist king could not destroy the esoteric teachings of the Mahayoga Tantras nor their white-robbed practitioners, the Ngakpas (sngags-pa, one who uses mantras). Subsequently, this Tantric Order of Nyingmapa Buddhists has flourished among the Tibetans until this day…” (1996, 251)

Still, despite these accounts of displays of miraculous ability, Padmasambhava’s advice to Tibetan ngakpa before his departure, remain grounded in realities that even the humblest or most fledgling ngakpa or ngakma can relate to or take to heart (incidentally, there are many different published versions and handwritten manuscripts of the Kathang Zanglingma uploaded to TBRC’s archive. Some of these are very inconsistent, and riddled with typos. I have included screenshots from the Shechen rin chen gter mdzod edition below, since these appear to be the most well-edited). Here then, without further ado nor further undoubtedly superfluous commentary, are Padmasambhava’s parting words of advice to Tibetan ngakpa as found in the 28th section of the Kathang Zanglingma:


kathang 1kathang 2

“Then Tibetan ngakpa like Sangye Yeshe of the Nub clan asked the Guru: “If you don’t remain in Tibet and depart to India how should Tibetan ngakpa of later generations practice, what should they keep in mind? To which the Master replied: “Take heed, ngakpa yogis of Tibet, Tibetan followers of the tantric path! Seek out a root-guru [who is a] siddha, one who has achieved spiritual accomplishments! Open the door of the [tantric] teachings of the Secret Mantra through the various levels of empowerment! Protect your tantric samaya vows purely as the very life-force of the Secret Mantra! Respect and invest in the tantric initiator [i.e. the rdo rje slob dpon or ‘Vajra-Master’] as you would the limbs and head of your own body! Hold the yi dam, your patron, tutelary/initiatic deity within you as you would the heart in your own breast! Cleave to the oath-bound dakini as you would the shadow of your own body! Cherish the profound esoteric, pith instructions as you would your own eyeballs! Accumulate the profound condensed mantra [of the yi dam] with every breath [that stirs] in your breast!   

Cultivate the Creation and Completion stages [of tantric Buddhist meditation] as you would your own body and life-force! Practice the threefold [scheme of realized] View or Meditation, Conduct, and Result as instructed! Abandon the ten non-virtues and adopt the ten virtues! [Be willing to exchange/] sacrifice your very life for the sake of the Dharma! As your primary practices, engage carefully in the [b]snyen bsgrub ‘approach and accomplishment’ practices [of the yi dam]! Hold tantric feast-gatherings, offer sacrificial torma cakes and do protector propitiation-amendment rites on the new and full moon, on the eighth lunar day of Medicine Buddha, on the twenty-fifth day [i.e. Dakini day] and the twenty-ninth day of the lunar month [i.e. spirit-protector day]! Do not engage in low-caste behaviour nor act presumptuously, rely well on the tantric Master! Do not engage in [heretical], bonpo style chanting and ritual activities, do your chanting practices in accordance with the meditative cultivation [of the View of the Emptiness and Interdependent Arising of phenomena]! Pursue the four modes of tantric ritual activity [associated with] the ‘approach and accomplishment’ yi dam practices as outlined in the scriptures! Abandon doubts or second thoughts about the purity of the Secret Mantra! Do not [inappropriately] spread the Secret Mantra or sell it to get wealthy!

If you can accomplish [all this] yourselves, then you will achieve any siddhi you can think of, whatever spiritual accomplishments you wish.

I, Padmasambhava, am moving on now. So, ngakpa who reside in Tibet right now and ngakpa to come, take heed, bear this in your hearts and minds!”


1 thought on “How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

  1. Pingback: A Banquet of Nectar: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Advice for the Rebgong Tantric Community | A Perfumed Skull

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