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A brief introduction to the bCud len tradition

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A brief introduction to the bCud len tradition

The following article is based on some observations and conclusions derived from my doctoral thesis: 'Extracting the Essence': bCud len in the Tibetan literary tradition. My interest in bcud len was sparked in 2004, when Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, perhaps the leading living authority on bcud len, introduced me to the practice of Mandarava bcud len. The aim of this contribution is to provide the reader with a general overview of the diverse forms of the practice of bcud len, the debate on its possible origins and the various typologies of bcud len practices.

Defining bcud len

The Tibetan practice of bcud len represents a highly particular forging of diverse strands of spiritual and medicinal legacies. Bcud len, literally ‘essence extraction’, consists of varied methods whose goal is to extract nutrition or ‘essence’ through alchemical processes, ritual and contemplation. The extraction can occur from sources which may include plants, flowers, barks and roots, water, rock, sperm and blood and human flesh as well as other less tangible substances, such as the ‘essence of space’ and of stars.

Typically, instructional bcud len texts indicate how the practitioner’s meditative experiences and subtle energies can be reinvigorated by this extraction that can either be from actual solid, tangible objects or imagined in the meditator’s mind, working on the inner body’s subtle energies. Mantra recitation and visualizations of particular deities (very often Vajrayoginī and Amitāyus) empower the substances to make them ‘divine’. Bcud len

exercises and techniques can involve preparations of alchemical compounds and medicinal concoctions, recitation of mantra, adherence to specific dietary regimes and a variety of exercises, mental, respiratory and physical. Sometimes the practitioner’s experience is enhanced through sexual practice, both actual and visualized in the mind of the yogin. Unlike many other meditative practices, which focus mostly on mental exercises and

visualizations, in the practice of bcud len the physical body is given great importance and concoctions are prepared according to the practitioner’s physical typology. The medicinal goal of certain texts is to nourish the body’s strength and organs and to increase longevity, while the focus of texts with a more spiritual emphasis is on increasing wisdom and sharpening mental faculties. One can find reference to several bcud len teachings whose purpose is to allow the practitioner to live on negligible amounts of food, thereby purifying the body and its energy flow on his or her path to Buddhahood.

Origins and evolution

Determining the origins of the practice of bcud len is complicated by the relatively sparse documentation and by the difficulties of establishing the authorship of texts spanning several centuries. Reflecting an earlier consensus that Tibetan medicine was almost entirely derived from India it was long thought that bcud len was essentially an adaptation of Rasāyana. Recent research has shown that there were multiple influences on Tibetan medical culture,

which Ronit Tlalim, describes as a mélange, with Arab, Greek and Chinese traces. Geoffrey Samuel (2013) and Gordon White (1984) have examined the reciprocal influences at play between Chinese and Indian medical cultures, a theme being further explored by historians like Yang Ga (2010). It is now generally agreed that an independent medicinal system enriched by these sources evolved on the Tibetan plateau, and bcud len is seen in a similar light.

The earliest recorded mention of bcud len in Tibetan literature of which I am aware dates from the eleventh century. It is found in writings by Ba ri lo tsa ba rin chen grags (1103- 1111) and consists of a sole sentence on transforming food into bcud len by reciting an Avalokiteśvara mantra. The most recent bcud len practice made public is a Mandarava (one of the main disciples and corsorts of Padmasambhava) bcud len revealed in 1984 by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (b.1938) that the master continues to transmit and teach.

It is difficult to ascertain a posteriori the exact dating of particular texts in the bcud len tradition. These texts were often passed down in oral lineages and recorded in writing only later. They were authored by exponents of all four traditions of Tibetan Buddhism as well as practitioners from that of Bon, a testimony to the extent of the practices on the Tibetan plateau.

Bcud len never was an institutionalized practice. There is no evidence that it was undertaken in groups and the wording of the texts implies it was suited for individual meditators. Much was unwritten and therefore it is hard to pinpoint distinct and continuous bcud len lineages of transmission. Many bcud len texts come from gter ma revelations and were written down at later stages, complicating the identification of a text’s inception and its chain of transmission.


Bcud len is both a spiritual and a medical practice, however in the texts I analysed, medicinal benefits were not the main focus. The meditational exercises were at the heart of the teaching with the purported physical benefits usually mentioned at the end.

As the texts show, the teachings include exercises to develop the subtle body, sexual practices involving a consort, yantra yoga, breathing techniques, mantra recitation, visualisations, and the preparation and consumption of concoctions that sometimes contain ingredients unfamiliar or unpalatable to the modern reader such as human flesh, semen or menstrual blood.

Many of the bcud len texts state the specific aim of increasing wisdom and sharpening mental faculties as well as gaining various other dngos grub, ‘attainments’. Implicit in most texts is the purpose of allowing the practitioner to live on negligible amounts of food, thereby purifying the body and energy flow and sharpening mental focus while on the path to Buddhahood. Minimizing the need for food also means that meditators can spend prolonged periods of time in solitary retreat without having to worry about a livelihood. The main subcategories of bcud len typologies, based on the substances employed, are: water, flowers, pills, rocks and prāṇa.

Some of the most common ingredients found in texts are cong zhi (calcite), rtag tu ngu pa (drosera peltata), dbang lag (dactylorhiza hatagirea), ra mnye (Polygonatum cirhifolium). Some recipes include unconventional ingredients such as human flesh, urine, excrement and sexual secretions as well as the bile or brain of different animals. Specific ingredients possess qualities that aid the practitioner’s health and meditation. We find mentions of masters who relied on calcite during retreats; for example, in the section on the life of Kong sprul in a work on Ris med philosophy by Ringu Tulku (2006: 17), we read that in his late teens Kong sprul subsisted for a week on extracted essences, obtaining all his nutrition from stalagmites. In images, Rma Rin chen mchog, one of Guru Padmasambhava’s original twenty-five disciples, is often depicted holding a calcite stone rock. Such occurrences confirm that calcite has long been an integral part of Tibetan yogic practices. Similarly, there are stories of hermits surviving on flowers and herbs, foremost among them the great ascetic Milarepa whose body was said to have assumed a green hue from his nettle-based diet; indeed; it is not uncommon to find him portrayed with a greenish hue in Tibetan paintings. Another lama said to have mastered bcud len and attained longevity is Thagthong Gyalpo, often depicted with a long life pill in his hand.

A central feature of many texts is the practice of kumbhaka (bum pa can) a special method of holding the breath. The Tibetan term bum pa can is a translation of the Sanskrit term and literally means ‘vase-shaped’ holding. The underlying idea is to guide the movement of energies and prāṇa in the subtle body by using the air retained below the navel, muscular contraction and mental concentration and visualization. By directing one’s

awareness and prāṇa into the central channel various meditative experiences can be generated. The regular practice of kumbhaka helps to coordinate breathing and since the workings of the inner body winds affect the overall health and mental states, proficiency in practices working with energies in the subtle body is crucial for the meditator aiming to master his or her mind.


The substances used in bcud len practices offer clues to their origin and arguably have relevance in the study and practice of Tibetan medicine today. There have been difficulties surrounding the identification and labelling of Tibetan materia medica since the Russian doctor Rehmann’s first publication on the subject in 1811. Discussing the historiography of Tibetan medicinal plants, Fernand Meyer recounts how the distance and isolation of places in

the Tibetan world resulted in different labels for the same plant, citing the example of skyu ru ra that has been identified as: Cratageus pinnatifida (Chinese hawthorn), Mallus Baccata (Siberian Crab apple) and Phyllanthus emblica (Indian gooseberry) (Meyer 2007:35-36). The precise identification of the vast array of ingredients found in bcud len recipes, formulated in diverse regions over many centuries, is highly problematic. Tibetan medicine evolved over several centuries in an enormous area comprising several countries and its

materia medica show variation according to local vegetation, traditions, and foreign influences. All these factors affect traditional plant identification and classification. ‘Thus Tibetan materia medica, as Tibetan medicine in general, is not to be considered as standard and static both in time and space, but as a tradition that has been constantly evolving’ Boesi gives examples of the complexities of regional variations in identifying the various plants such as those referred to as P. Sikkimensis (Boesi 2006:78-79). Boesi’s observations reflect

the difficulties that Western translators have experienced since the early nineteenth century in translating Tibetan medical texts. Glover (2010: 255-277) points out uncertainties surrounding Tibetan plant names and medicinal ingredients in general in her analysis of the categories of plants specified in two texts: The Four Tantras (Rgyud bzhi) and the contemporary commentary The Crystal Mirror. She also refers to various other medical texts,

to point out the changes in recognised categories of plants throughout the history of Tibetan medicine. She asserts that ‘there is not absolute concordance between various texts as to the exact number and kind of plant categories nor to which category a plant should be assigned’ (Glover 2010:255).

Probably the most detailed, systematic and scientifically referenced work published thus far in the English language is Tibetan Medicinal Plants, edited by Christa Kletter and Monika Kriechbaum (2001).

Of the ingredients found in the Rgyud bzhi’s bcud len recipes it is particularly worth mentioning a ru ra, ba ru ra and skyu ru ra. These ingredients, found in bcud len recipes spanning several centuries, are of Indic origin and suggest the Indian provenance of several recipes, including many found in gter ma texts rediscovered in Tibet.

The first mention of a ru ra is in a text by Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1147- 1216). This is nearly concomitant with the estimated dates of the emergence of the Rgyud bzhi. Given the scarce and imprecise historical evidence, however, it would be hazardous to claim on this basis that the Rgyud bzhi is the principal source of the bcud len tradition in Tibet.

Mercury is an ingredient which occurs in bcud len texts, starting from the text entitled: Dngul chu’i bcud len gyi man ngag attributed to Dge ’dun grub pa (1391- 1474). This teaching is said to have originated from an unspecified wisdom ḍākinī; not a satisfactory scientific explanation of the pathway by which mercury entered into the bcud len tradition (as exemplified by the texts in this compendium). Barbara Gerke is currently researching mercury processing in Tibetan pharmacology and her study is likely to bring further insights to this field of research.

Substance identification is further complicated in that the texts are addressed to individuals with a background in meditation and are laden with unexplained religious terms and concepts familiar to the yogin with an experiential background in the practice but not easily comprehensible to others. This may cause misunderstandings when particular ingredients are included, perhaps because they are deemed auspicious rather than for their actual medicinal properties. Often terse, the instructions in the texts are meant to be accompanied by the commentary of a qualified lama or practitioner.

In several recipes for example one encounters the ‘five nectars’ and the ‘five fleshes’. In fact, neither of the fivefold sets of substances are definitively identified (for a summary and analysis of academic perspectives on the identification of the ‘nectars’ and ‘meats’ see Wedemeyer, 2007). Frances Garrett has shown how these substances are laden with tantric meaning. Deemed impure by most, they are transformed, empowered and consumed by

tantric practitioners (Garrett 2010). Essentially, substances in bcud len recipes transcend conventional medical paradigms. The potency an ingredient is said to possess is an important factor to consider when analysing bcud len formulas and I would refer the more medically oriented reader to the second chapter of the Rgyud bzhi where section twenty, is entitled ‘The

Potency of Medicine’. Tibetan belief in a substance’s potencies can be understood as the qualities of several substances, such as gems, rocks, soils, herbal medicine and animal products (including horns, bones, flesh, tongue, bile, fat, brain, urine and faeces) that are listed in this section.

Examining bcud len texts, one realises that the substances employed, the mantras and the visualisations all interrelate and affect one another. Certain peculiar ingredients are listed in bcud len preparations and one cannot but wonder whether their efficacy is psychosomatic or due to the substances themselves. The late Dr. Trogawa Rinpoche (1931-2005), founder of the Chagpori Tibetan Medical Institute in Darjeeling stressed that the potency of an elixir is derived from the rituals of consecration as much as from the substances themselves (Baker: 1997: 174).

Practising bcud len often entails the highly complex preparation of pills, medicinal unguents and oils that can contain large numbers of ingredients. But it is not the ingredients alone that give the bcud len practices their potency. As an example, the instructions may specify that certain persons, young girls for example, should gather a specific flower, picking it at a certain place and time and reciting a particular mantra while doing so. Furthermore mantras, invocations and prayers are indicated for the later stages of the preparation, and the ingestion of the pill can be accompanied by intricate recitations, visualisations and breathing exercises that give the practice a power that transcends our common understanding of the ‘medical’.


Baker, I. and R. Shrestha. 1997. The Tibetan Art of Healing. London: Thames & Hudson. Boesi, A. 2006. Plant categories and types in Tibetan material medica. The Tibet Journal special issue, 30(4) and 31(1), 65-90.

Garrett, F. 2010. Tapping the body's nectar: Gastronomy and incorporation in Tibetan literature. History of Religions. 49(3), 300-326.

Gerke, B. 2012. Introduction; Challenges of Translating Tibetan Medical texts and Medical Histories. Ploberger, F. (ed.) In Die Vier Tantras der Tibetischen Medizin (1. und

2. Teil): Eine Übersetzung des Buches 'The Basic Tantra and The Explanatory Tantra from the Secret Quintessential Instructions on the Eight Branches of the Ambrosia Essence Tantra' basierend auf der Men-T see-Khang Publikation (2008), Schiedlberg, Austria: Bacopa, 17-29.

Gerke, B. 2013 'Treating the Aged' and 'Maintaining Health': locating bcud len practices in the four Tibetan medical tantras. JIABS Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 35, 329-362.

Glover, D.M. 2010. Classes in the classics: Historical change in plant classification in two Tibetan medical texts. In ‘Studies of Medical Pluralism in Tibetan History and Society’. PIATS 2006: Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies. Königswinter, 2006. IITBS International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies, 255-277.

Kletter, C. and M. Kriechbaum. 2001. Tibetan Medicinal Plants. Stuttgart: Medpharm Scientific Publishers.

Meyer, F. 2007. Tibetan medicine: gSo-Ba Rig-Pa. Paris: CNRS Editions, (re-edition). Pema Lingpa, Harding, S. (trans.) 2003. The Life and Revelations of Pema Lingpa. Boston: Snow Lion Publications.

Samuel G. 2013. Samuel, G. and J. Johnson (eds) Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body. London: Routledge. Samuel, G. 2013. The subtle body in India and beyond. In Samuel, G. and J. Johnson (eds) Religion and the Subtle Body in Asia and the West: Between Mind and Body. London: Routledge, 38-47.

Yang Ga. 2010. The Sources for the Writing of the Rgyud bzhi, Tibetan Medical Classic. Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, Cambridge MA.