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The Life of Padmasambhava

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A Biography of the Great Master Padmasambhava by Taranatha

Translated from the Tibetan and edited by

by Cristiana De Falco

In the country of Oddiyana[1], on the North-west border On the stamens of a lotus flower, You who obtained the siddhis , supreme wonder, Known as ‘the Lotus Born’ Surrounded by a court of Dakinis , Since I follow your path Please empower me! GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM!

May the power of Guru Padmasambhava Continue to manifest in the world, To help human beings in this troubled age And to spread the teachings! May he be present every time anyone Reads the words of his biography!

The text contained in this book is a biography of Padmasambhava, one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism and the main originator of its introduction and diffusion in Tibet. There are many biographies in Tibetan of this great yogi, some of which have been translated into Western languages.

As I will explain in more detail in the Introduction, there are biographies of Padmasambhava in both of the main traditions of Tibetan sacred literature related to the Nyingma school: terma and kama[5]. Most of the biographies that are known nowadays, especially the terma ones, in spite of their beauty,

expressive perfection and great value as far as the deepening of the studies of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is concerned, do not provide data that could be of much relevance to a contemporary Western historian. For instance, most of these texts introduce Padmasambhava as a being who was not born of a woman, but

who suddenly appeared - in a miraculous way - in the shape of an eight-year-old boy sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a lake, an account which could stimulate in a modern Westerner the wish to get to know more about the language of this culture that is not restricted by rationalism. Or these texts

could help one to make contact - through their symbolic language - with those planes of reality which are at present neglected in the Western world, but which are still alive and meaningful to Tibetans as well as to other peoples who have not been conditioned by the process of technological development, and

which were and are the foundation of all knowledge in ‘traditional’ cultures. But this aspect of the matter does not fulfil the need of the modern historian for data relating to time and space.

Taranatha (1575-?), the author of the biography contained in this book, is one of the major Tibetan historians of his age.

His testimony is still considered reliable by Tibetans, and the source of his writings is in the kama tradition. In this work he deals with the history of Padmasambhava as a modern historian would, wishing to satisfy a need for objectivity, using the most reliable sources available to him and making accurate references to them

in his text, so as to dispel any doubts regarding the authenticity of his account. At this point, I would like to stress that my purpose here is not to belittle the value of the terma tradition to which so many fundamental teachings of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism belong. To raise doubts about this tradition

or about the historicity of Padmasambhava, who was himself the author of many terma texts, would be like doubting the existence of a Tantric tradition in Tibet altogether. Rather, my purpose is to point out that there are different versions of Padmasambhava’s life story, and that this one says something new,

in that - relying on sources that are so different from those of the terma biographies and having different aims it shows a more historical and human side of this great being. This is a very important contribution, since the whole transmission of the Tantric teachings is based on one very important thing: the

human figure of the guru, or ‘spiritual teacher’. The literal meaning of the word Tantra[6] is ‘continuity’, which also expresses the fact that the only possibility of acceding to the Tantric teachings is by receiving them from a qualified guru, who himself received them from another master, so that there is an unbroken continuity in the transmission from teacher to disciple. Since it was Padmasambhava who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, he is the most

important guru in its lineages. Therefore, any reliable testimony regarding his life is extremely valuable for those who study and practice these teachings in the Western world. Also in this biography - as well as in Tibetan culture in general there are elements that a rationally educated Westerner might

hurriedly dismiss as popular superstition, such as the existence of deities and demons and the many accounts of miraculous deeds. Discussing them may lead to speculations about the differences between Eastern and Western mentalities, or between religious and rational approaches to reality. Such themes deserve to be discussed by specialists, so it is not

my intention to deal with them here. Instead I shall simply try to analyse the contents of the biography from the viewpoint of Tibetan culture and mentality and, in doing so, try to highlight its particular characteristics and point out the reasons why the knowledge that it intimates can still be

valid and useful for the modern world. I am profoundly grateful to Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, who is a very important spiritual teacher in the lineage of Dzogchen, my own root-guru and also a scholar whose knowledge is deep, vast and truthful, for having suggested to me to translate this text and also for

the help and inspiration he gave me during my work. This work was originally my thesis in Tibetan Literature at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples, which I discussed in 1985 and later elaborated. I am also grateful to Adriano Clemente, Robin Cooke, Enrico Dell’Angelo, Alison Duguid, Cheh Goh, Elio Guarisco, Nina Robinson, Prof. Ramon Prats and Dr. Nida Chenagtsang for their collaboration at different stages of this work.

Biographies of Padmasambhava

The tibetan word namtar, which is usually translated as ‘biography’, literally means ‘complete liberation’, because Tibetan biographies are essentially the life-stories of spiritual masters or enlightened beings. Thus the account itself can be an aid on the path that leads to complete liberation and an example

of spiritual perfection. Regarding the Tibetan concept of biography and historiography, it is worthwhile to quote here some excerpts from the ‘Translator’s

Introduction’ to Düdjom Rinpoche’s history of the Nyingma School:

(...) The Tibetan historian acts very much as a compiler or anthologist of material that has been handed down by his or her tradition. It would be wrong, however, to see in Tibetan religious historiography merely an uncritical repetition of old stories, for its canons are most certainly not those of modern

Western historiography, and any attempt to judge the former in terms of the latter will always lead to the conclusion that Tibetan historiography is defective in the same way as its pre-renaissance counterpart in the West. (...) However, another observation forces itself upon us: many of these stories,

which certainly do treat of historical figures, their studies, meditations, and actions on behalf of the Buddhist religion, function as allegorical accounts of the specific spiritual tradition in which they are written. (...) Viewed with sufficient sensitivity to the tradition it becomes clear that the

spiritual paths taught abstractly in doctrinal texts are here mapped concretely through the lives of individuals. These accounts thus tell us as much of Tibetan religious beliefs, values and insights as any other available sources. History, as understood in the contemporary West, is here clearly subservient

to a spiritual end, but this should not prevent our appreciating these biographies as sources of inspiration and practical guidance for those who pursue the spiritual path outlined in them, and equally as a record of their world. (...) The text should therefore be explored with receptivity to the many

levels on which it is written, abandoning rigid preconceptions of what history should or should not be. It is difficult to know how many biographies of Padmasambhava actually exist. Some Tibetan sources speak about a very high number, such as ten thousand

nine hundred. Pawo Tsuglag, a Tibetan historian who lived in the 16th century, claims to have personally seen fifty of them.[8] Some have already been translated and published into Western languages. The most famous ones are: The Word of Padma,[9] The Necklace of Jewels,

[10] The Golden Necklace,[11] The Wishfulfilling Tree,[12] but there are also some brief ones.[13] They all have similarities but they also differ in some points, such as whether or not Padmasambhava was born in a miraculous way, the account of his stay in India, the length of his stay in Tibet and whether or

not he succeeded in completely freeing Tibet from all negative influences, or whether he only consecrated the ground where the monastic complex of Samye would be built, or if he actually consecrated the whole of it after it was finished. But Tibetans have a very interesting point of view about this: they think that since Padmasambhava was an enlightened being, beyond birth and death, he had the power of manifesting himself at will. Such beings may show

themselves where there are disciples who are ready to receive their teachings, remaining hidden or invisible to others. So the different accounts found in the biographies may all be true, because to some people he may have manifested in one way, to other people in another, according to their capacity. For

some disciples he may have seemed to have stayed in Tibet only for a short time and for others for a very long time, because he may have reappeared to them at a later date. Some people, because of their karmic obstacles, may have found that he did not succeed in completely eliminating all negative influences,

while others may have found that he did indeed do so.[14] Regarding the activity of enlightened beings, Düdjom Rinpoche says: So it is that great accomplished masters may make themselves disappear from the view of ordinary disciples and then, after a long time has passed, they may make themselves

reappear, and then remain present for a long time. They may be invisible in some places and visible in others simultaneously. In one place they may demonstrate transference (of consciousness at death), and in another, the act of taking birth. In these and other ways their manifestations are infinite.[15] Padmasambhava - like Vimalamitra, another great master who gave teachings in Tibet - is said to have realised the Great Transference,[16] i.e. the

total re-integration of his physical body into the subtle dimension of light, in this way going beyond the necessity of dying and taking rebirth. Therefore he is thought to be still present - not in a material body but in a body of light - so that practitioners who have developed enough capacity to perceive this dimension can see him. Anyway he can still manifest - not necessarily in a visible form - to those who invoke him with devotion

and recite the Seven Line Prayer[17] that he himself gave to the Tibetans. He promised - upon leaving Tibet - to be present in the human world particularly on every tenth day of the waxing moon, and especially on the tenth day of the fifth month, the Tibetan month of the Monkey.[18] For this reason, Tibetans make offerings and pray to him particularly on these days.

Historical Background

It is difficult to outline the historical background of Padmasambhava’s life, partly for the reasons given in the previous paragraph and partly because he

travelled through so many countries, some of which it is even difficult to identify today. It is commonly accepted that he was born in Oddiyana or Uddiyana,[19] a country on the north-western border of India. Most Western scholars identify Oddiyana with the Swat valley, in Pakistan. But there is no

real evidence of the exact location of the borders of Oddiyana. It could well have been the name of a kingdom much larger than the Swat valley, or indeed it could have referred to the Buddhist countries to the north-west of the Indian peninsula, such as Kashmir, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There does not seem

to be much archeological evidence of this, but one must consider that the Muslim invasion that came afterwards swept away Buddhism from most of the countries where it had flourished in the previous centuries. Anyway, it seems that Oddiyana had its own language - as we know from some Tantric texts that

often report words and spellings in both Tibetan and the language of Oddiyana. This is also called ‘the language of the Dakinis’,[20] because Oddiyana was the place where many Tantric teachings were first communicated to the Mahasiddhas, who then spread them in India, and it was also the place of origin of

the Dzogchen teachings. These teachings are often said to have originally been transmitted by non-human beings, such as Dakinis. It seems that the Oddiyana language showed some similarity to Sanskrit, as in the expression ‘Santi Maha’ that corresponds to the SanskritMaha Santi’ and to the Tibetan Dzogpa Chenpo.[21] It also seems that Oddiyana had its own writing, since often in the texts the words in Oddiyana language are written in characters which are different from Tibetan or Sanskrit. Padmasambhava is said to have stayed in India and Nepal after

leaving Oddiyana. At that time, as one learns from the biographies of the Mahasiddhas,[22] Buddhism was most widespread in India, especially in its Tantric form, although its existence was already threatened by Hindus and Muslims. Padmasambhava with his magical powers helped Buddhists to overcome the problems

that were arising from these two adversaries. At that time Tibet was the only non-Buddhist country in an area where Buddhism had developed and flourished. The most common versions of the account of the spreading of Buddhism in Tibet relate that it made its first appearance during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo (627-649), who married two Buddhist princesses: one Chinese and one Nepalese.[23] But it seems that there had been previous contacts with Buddhism, as one learns from a very well known legend that says that during the reign of King Lhatotori, who supposedly lived in the 3rd century A. D., a Buddhist

book, a golden stupa[24] and a wish fulfilling jewel fell from heaven, and a voice, also from heaven, was heard, predicting that after five generations someone would come who would understand their meaning. This seems to be a reference to King Songtsen Gampo, who ruled exactly five generations after

Lhathothori.[25] During Songtsen Gampo’s reign Tibet was very powerful and its military power was feared even by the Chinese. Tibet had also annexed the neighbouring kingdom of Shang Shung. So it was quite inevitable that Tibet, opening and developing its communication with the surrounding Buddhist

countries, came into contact with Buddhism and developed some interest in it. But it was not until Trisong Detsen’s reign, which seems to have lasted from 755 to 797,[26] that Buddhism became the official religion of Tibet. King Trisong Detsen was sincerely interested in the Buddhist teachings, and invited

the Indian Buddhist monk Shantaraksita[27] to teach its basic doctrines. But it seems that most of the Tibetan aristocracy - as one learns from the chronicles of that period - was fiercely hostile to the introduction of Buddhism. So Shantarakshita himself advised the king to invite Padmasambhava, who

at that time was renowned as the most powerful yogi in the world, to overcome all obstacles and help Buddhism to spread and become established in Tibet. Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen

Padmasambhava introduced his Tibetan disciples to many teachings belonging to the Tantric tradition - especially to Mahayoga Tantra - and to the Upadesha series of Dzogchen, in particular the series of teachings called Heart Essence of the Dakinis.[28] Therefore it is useful to give here a brief outline of

the three Buddhist paths to realization, Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, mainly focusing on the latter two.[29] These three paths have different methods, thus the practitioner works in different ways with his/her own mind. The reason for this is that individuals have different capacities, so the best method for each person is the one that corresponds to his/her capacity. No doctrine is in absolute better than any other. But it is a very common belief that the

Tantric doctrine is higher than Sutra, and that Dzogchen is even higher. This means only that the latter two paths are more direct, and that if one has the capacity to understand them, then the way to realization is shorter. But, if one has no capacity, there is no point in practising them. To practise

‘higher’ doctrines involves already having a good mastery of the ‘lower paths’. This means that to practise Dzogchen one has to have already the capacity to understand and apply Sutra and Tantra.


The sutras are the teachings that were given orally by Buddha Shakyamuni and were later written down by his disciples. The principle of the Sutra doctrine is renunciation, which means controlling oneself to avoid circumstances that may generate negative emotions. There are rules to observe for monks and nuns

and also for lay people. The Sutra teachings are based on the doctrine of the ‘two truths’: relative and absolute. Relative truth is what the mind of an ordinary person normally

perceives as ‘reality’. This ‘reality’ is actually an illusion, which constantly continues because of the interdependent connection of all phenomena. Recognising that everything is nothing but mere illusion is the first indispensable step towards spiritual realisation. Absolute truth is free from mental concepts and beyond duality of subject and object: it is pure emptiness, which is the essence of all phenomena. In emptiness there is no distinction between relative and absolute truth, everything is free from conceptualisation, but on the conventional level such a definition is necessary because it gives the practitioner a guideline to the right action in any circumstance.


Tantra means ‘continuity’ referring - as previously mentioned - to the continuity in the transmission of the teachings from master to disciple, without interruption. The Tantric path is also known as the ‘path of transformation’, as opposed to the ‘path of renunciation’ of the Sutra teachings. In Tantra

one does not cut off negative emotions but rather transforms them into wisdom. Ordinary vision is considered to be ‘impure vision’, whereas ‘pure vision’ is the perception of oneself as a deity and of the external word as the dimension of a deity, which is called mandala.[30] This is a further development of the doctrine of voidness that is found in the sutras. Voidness is actually the starting point in the Tantric teachings. In this context voidness is not

‘nothing’, it is rather the real nature of all things - beyond all concepts - which has its movement, its energy. This energy manifests as form and sound. So a Tantric practitioner works with this level, by visualising his body not as an ‘impure’ material body of flesh and bones, but rather as the ‘pure

luminous, transparent body of a deity, and by reciting mantras, which are sounds connected with the pure dimension. In this way he/she tries to integrate him/herself with this pure dimension, which is by no means just fantasy or mental construction. It may happen that, through their practice, Tantric yogis develop powers, siddhis, which enable them to perform

miracles’, actions that are inconceivable on the ordinary level. Tibetan literature is full of examples of this. Siddhis are possible because Tantric practitioners work with the subtle energies that are at the root of material manifestations, but they are only a side effect of practice and by no means

its goal. Real Tantric practitioners never use them for selfish reasons or to demonstrate their powers but only to benefit sentient beings. Siddhis can also be of great help in overcoming obstacles on the path, such as illnesses, etc.


Dzogchen, or Great Perfection, is also called the ‘path of selfliberation’. It differs from Tantrism in that there is neither a concept of transforming something into something else, nor of pure and impure vision. If one is in the state of Dzogchen one is beyond concepts and everything has just ‘one

flavour’. The symbol frequently used to represent this state is the capacity of the mirror which can reflect anything. Whether the thing reflected is beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant, it does not change the nature of the mirror, its clarity and capacity to reflect. This mirror-like nature is the real nature of all sentient beings. But if one does not find oneself in this nature - that is beyond duality, like a mirror and its reflection - then the

perception of reality in terms of subject and object arises and continuously creates what is called ‘karmic vision’, which keeps beings constantly in samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. The goal of Dzogchen teachings is to discover this potentiality in oneself and develop it, progressively integrating it with the whole of existence. The only way to cut karmic vision is by discovering one’s own real nature and trying to find oneself in it.

This is what one learns in Dzogchen. In Dzogchen as well as in Tantrism the figure of the Guru is very important, since these are not teachings that can be understood by the intellect alone; one has to experience them on all levels of existence. This is possible only with the help of somebody who has already gone through this experience successfully, and has perfectly realised its meaning. Such

a teacher is able to transmit his state to those students who are capable of understanding it and to provide instruction that enable them to overcome all different kinds of hardship that they may meet on the path. This transmission takes place through the Guruyoga practice. Guruyoga means ‘union with the

guru’, and is a way to find oneself in the same state as the master. There are many different methods of Guruyoga, which need not be detailed here. In Dzogchen it is the most important practice, because it helps to develop one’s understanding of the teachings beyond the limitations of words and physical

presence, just being in the same state as one’s teacher. Since a Dzogchen teacher always finds him/herself in the state of Dzogchen, by practising Guruyoga the disciple develops an understanding of it.