Luminous Lives - Selections
CHAPTER 1: THE LITERARY TRADITION
The practice of Buddhist meditation in Tibet has almost always meant the practice of tantra. Deity yoga, a distinctive technique of the Vajrayāna, has been the defining feature of religious life in Tibet for more than a thousand years. Many diﬀerent tantric traditions developed in Tibet, and a vast indigenous literature grew along with the expansion of the teachings. One important aspect of this literature is the historical and biographical works that are used to authenticate the origins of each tradition and to document the qualities of the masters through whom they have passed. While the historical development of several of these Tibetan traditions has received some attention, that of the Lam ’bras, the “Path with the Result,” has been generally neglected.
The teachings of the Lam ’bras were originally transmitted to the Indian master Virūpa by the tantric goddess Vajra Nairātmyā, the consort of Hevajra. Inspired by her direct transmission, Virūpa is said to have quickly reached the sixth spiritual level (bhūmi) of the path. When Nairātmyā’s succinct instructions were formulated by Virūpa, these teachings became known as the Lam ’bras bu dang bcas pa’i gdams ngag dang man ngag tu bcas pa, (The Oral Instructions, Together with the Esoteric Instructions, of the Path with the Result), which is always simply referred to in the tradition as the Rdo rje tshig rkang (The Vajra Verses). According to most accounts, Virūpa formulated the Rdo rje tshig rkang for his disciple Kahna, who is considered to be the prime example of a recipient suited to the gradual approach. Kahna had recently renounced the life of a wandering Hindu yogin, and Virūpa gave him the Rdo rje tshig rkang as a summation of the entire path to enlightenment in the tradition of Buddhist tantra. Everything from the most basic instructions for someone who has recently entered the Buddhist path—such as Kahna—up through the sublime experiences of buddhahood are found in this brief text, which is therefore often compared by the tradition to a “wish-fulﬁlling gem.”
Virūpa’s Lam ’bras became one of the major systems of tantric practice in Tibet, and according to some authors had also been well known in India. This is mentioned by Mus chen Dkon mchog rgyal mtshan (1388–1469), recording the opinion of his teacher Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po (1382–1456):
This [system] also became famous and authoritative in India. When explaining the condensed style of the perfection stage path of realized masters, Ācārya Śraddhākaravarman ﬁnely stated the way to traverse the path of the four initiations according to the intentions of the Lord of Yogins [Virūpa]. Ācārya Munidatta also quoted several basic phrases (gzhung tshig) of the Rdo rje tshig rkang of this [system] as sources in the commentary on the spiritual songs of the eighty great adepts. And Darpaṇa ficārya also quoted basic phrases of the Rdo rje tshig rkang as sources in the Kriyāsamuccaya.
This information points to at least some possible knowledge of the Lam ’bras by Indian masters other than the known members of the lineage. Mang thos klu sgrub rgya mtsho (1523–96) also agreed with the statements of those who ascribed a partial knowledge of the Lam ’bras to Śraddhākaravarman and Munidatta. ’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug (1524–68) stated that the Lam ’bras was passed in a unique transmission (chig brgyud) in India, to only one individual in each generation. Although it was known in India, it was kept very secret and most great scholars and realized saints never heard about it. According to Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, the authors of the Kriyāsamuccaya and the commentary to *Vīraprabhāsvara’s collection of the spiritual songs of the great tantric adepts may have cited Virūpa as an authentic source, but they had not actually received his esoteric instructions.
In the Sa skya tradition, the Rdo rje tshig rkang and all the instructions encoded within it are said to have been transmitted orally without any written material whatsoever for at least eight generations. The Rdo rje tshig rkang was spoken by Virūpa to Kahna, by him to Ḍamarupa, by him to Avadhūti, and by him to Gayadhara (d. 1103). Gayadhara came to Tibet in 1041, and spoke the verses to the great Tibetan translator ’Brog mi Shākya ye shes (993–1077?). As speciﬁcally pointed out by Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, the fact that there is no Indian language title at the beginning of ’Brog mi’s Tibetan translation of the Rdo rje tshig rkang, and the fact that there is no colophon, are essential indications that he did not write a translation. ’Brog mi memorized the verses in the original Indian dialect and then spoke them in Tibetan to the disciples who later received the Lam ’bras from him. The Rdo rje tshig rkang, now in Tibetan, continued to be memorized and passed down in an oral transmission until the time of Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po (1092–1158). It was Sa chen who ﬁnally wrote them down, when he ﬁrst taught the Lam ’bras, probably in 1141, exactly 100 years after the arrival of the tradition in Tibet.
Nevertheless, it is curious that the ﬁrst verse of the Rdo rje tshig rkang speciﬁcally states that it “will be written” (bri bar bya). Perhaps because of this the Zha ma tradition of the Lam ’bras maintained that the Rdo rje tshig rkang was originally written by Virūpa himself. In 1304 Cha rgan Dbang phyug rgyal mtshan wrote, “[Virūpa] placed the Rdo rje tshig rkang in writing [for Kahna] as a mnemonic tool.” Five hundred years later ’Jam mgon Kong sprul, perhaps the last to comment on this issue, clearly thought the text had been originally written in India:
’Brog mi, Gyi jo, and ’Brom all translated the Rdo rje tshig rkang according to the Indian text (rgya dpe). Cha rgan and Jo nang Kun spangs pa made revisions in which they disrupted the sequences without reference to the Indian text. Gzungs kyi dpal ba stated in his manual that there was also a translation by Paṇḍita Rāhula. Thus there were six versions.
Kong sprul’s statement was certainly based in part on the writings of earlier masters. In the ﬁfteenth century Ngor chen referred to the existence of a translation of the Rdo rje tshig rkang by the famous translator Gyi jo Zla ba’i od zer, who had once invited Gayadhara to Tibet. Ngor chen also referred to the fact that ’Brog mi’s disciple ’Brom De pa ston chung had taught the Rdo rje tshig rkang in great detail without translating it from the Indian language, thus implying that he knew Sanskrit. Ngor chen also mentions Cha rgan’s revision, and the extensive revision and editing done by Jo nang Kun spangs pa (1243–1313) on the basis of the diﬀerent versions of the Rdo rje tshig rkang found in the Zha ma, ’Brom, and Sa skya traditions. However, in none of these cases does Ngor chen refer to the existence of an original Indian text. The work by the Rdzong master Gzungs kyi dpal ba (1306–89) that mentions a translation by the Indian teacher Paṇḍita Rāhula is otherwise unknown, as is the translation.
According to the Zha ma tradition there was also originally a cycle of ﬁve scriptures (Lung skor lnga) said to have been brought from the “Dharma palace of Uḍḍiyana” by Virūpa’s disciple Kahna to serve as supports for the teachings of the Rdo rje tshig rkang. These mysterious texts are said to have been extracts from the ﬁve hundred thousand-line Hevajra tantra preserved in Uḍḍiyana. Following the Zha ma lineage, Cha rgan also repeatedly mentions these works, and says that at ’Brog mi’s request Gayadhara even wrote down brief texts as mnemonic tools (rjed tho’i yig chung) to insure that the Rdo rje tshig rkang and the cycle of ﬁve scriptures would not be forgotten if ’Brog mi later encountered severe diﬃculties. Even the identity of the cycle of ﬁve scriptures was unknown in the Sa skya tradition, and the texts themselves, assuming that they were indeed written texts, long ago vanished with the demise of the Zha ma tradition.
The Lam ’bras is a system of tantric theory and practice based generally on all the anuttarayoga tantras, speciﬁcally on the three scriptures known as the Kye rdor rgyud gsum (The Tantra Trilogy of Hevajra), and especially on the Hevajra tantra itself. The Rdo rje tshig rkang represents an oral revelation of the distilled essence of these tantras. Among the earliest written materials in this tradition are three texts, apparently by Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po and his son Bsod nams rtse mo (1142–82), devoted to validating the relationship of the Rdo rje tshig rkang to these tantric scriptures. The largest of the three works, almost certainly by Sa chen, closely follows the structure of the Rdo rje tshig rkang, applying quotations from the tantric scriptures to each section in turn. According to Sa chen’s son Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan (1147– 1216), this system is referred to as “The Oral Instructions of the Path with the Result” (Lam ’bras bu dang bcas pa’i gdams ngag) because the result itself is utilized as the path (’bras bu lam du byed pa). Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug also stated, “The obtainable result exists during the time of the path, because if this were not so it would be meaningless to meditate.” He then goes on to mention one of the key themes of this lineage, that is, the indivisible nature of the spiritual ground, path, and result. The unrecognized enlightened state present in all living beings as the spiritual ground is veiled by temporary obscurations. When these obscurations are removed through the practice of the path, the naturally present enlightened state is recognized. This is given the name “result” (’bras bu).
The “path” (lam), or technique used to remove the obscurations and enhance realization of the naturally present enlightened state, is basically twofold. The practitioner meditates on the creation stage (utpattikrama, bskyed rim), in which the animate and inanimate worlds are transformed into the deity and the deity’s maṇḍala; and the perfection stage (sampannakrama, rdzogs rim), which is generally composed of the yogas of the vital winds (prāṇāyāma, srog rtsol), the ﬁerce ﬁre (cāṇḍālī, gtum mo), and the seminal drops (bindu, thig le). In the Rdo rje tshig rkang these techniques are implied but not actually presented. The speciﬁc practices are performed in conjunction with the four tantric initiations and were ﬁrst explained in writing by Sa chen in his commentaries to the Rdo rje tshig rkang, and by Grags pa rgyal mtshan in the Pod ser (The Yellow Volume).
The Lam ’bras is thus a tradition fundamentally concerned with the practice of meditation and not with the scholastic exegesis of the tantric scriptures. In the Zhib mo rdo rje of Dmar ston translated below, as well as in the various texts of other tantric traditions, the primary role of meditation is stressed, and the necessity for secrecy emphasized. This custom of secrecy is now being gradually relaxed by leading Tibetan masters. While scholars today may choose to respect or ignore this traditional concern, it is indisputable that it has been of vital importance within the tradition itself. In his catalogue to the Pod ser, Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan stated, “This is not a Dharma understood through texts, and so one should be very diligent in reflection.”
According to the tradition of the Lam ’bras, the actual meaning of the Rdo rje tshig rkang is only revealed through meditation practice. Kahna had already received all the oral instructions and practiced them for some time before Virūpa ﬁnally gave him the Rdo rje tshig rkang as a mnemonic tool. A text of this type is traditionally intended only for people who are already intimately familiar with the meditations of the system. This is very diﬀerent from the scholastic approach to epistemology, abhidharma, or other common topics of the Buddhist tradition. There are many statements to this eﬀect in the literature, such as the ﬁnal advice given by Zhang ston Chos ’bar (1053–1135) to his disciple Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po:
“For eighteen years my brother [Gzi brjid ’bar] made great eﬀorts, but he had to return three times to eliminate conceptual elaborations. He was energetic in regard to the technical terminology, while I was energetic in meditation. In the short term, the master [Se ston] was also pleased with him in regard to the Lam ’bras. Later, our understanding on the basis of the Rdo rje tshig rkang was not equal, and he also took me as his master.
“If doubts in regard to this Dharma are not severed from within by means of experience in meditation it will be impossible to unravel the knots of the technical terminology from without. It is imperative to listen intently and be energetic in meditation….
“In order to eliminate conceptual elaborations, for eighteen years you must be energetic in practice without mentioning even the name of the oral instructions. Then you will be the owner of the Dharma and may even write texts. This profound Dharma had almost died out, but having passed it to you, its owner, my aspiration is fulﬁlled.
“Secret mantra is realized in secret. For experience and realization it is necessary to practice a hidden yoga.”
As Zhang ston’s comments illustrate, a student must receive the personal transmission of speciﬁc keys to a text such as the Rdo rje tshig rkang, which may be seen as a description of the experienced meaning of the tantras. The crucial point made within the tradition itself is that the essential teachings of the Lam ’bras have always been transmitted orally. This is the case even though many texts have been written down over the centuries and a form of the teaching has been given to large groups of people. Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan (1182–1251) reiterated this when he said, “Followers of the Lam ’bras who rely just on the [Pod ser] volume will not understand this.”
Another important point made by Zhang ston in the previous quotation is the traditional insistence on the secrecy of the oral instructions. All tantric traditions stress the need for secrecy. This is considered to be an essential ingredient of correct practice, without which the actual attainment of the result is not possible. It has always been felt within the tradition that a certain spiritual energy is accumulated through keeping the nature of one’s meditation practice private. In the previous quotation, Zhang ston told Sa chen that it was necessary to practice a “hidden yoga” (sbas pa’i rnal ’byor) in order to destroy conceptual elaborations about the teachings before venturing to explain them to others.
This traditional emphasis on tantric secrecy will sometimes be obvious in the Zhib mo rdo rje, translated in part two. ’Brog mi Lo tsā ba’s comments about not explaining the oral instructions to more than one person at a time, and his admonition to Sa chen’s father Dkon mchog rgyal po (1034–1102), are good examples:
[’Brog mi] would not teach the Lam ’bras to as many as two persons, saying, “I don’t explain oral instructions to four ears and there is no mantra for six ears.”
At that time, when the spiritual friend Dkon mchog rgyal po was explaining the Brtag pa gnyis pa to seventeen persons in Sa skya, master [’Brog mi] sent a message scolding him, “Explaining the perilous root tantra to seventeen persons; do you have an indestructible life-force?”
The tantric teachings were also kept secret in India and Tibet because they were traditionally felt to be actually dangerous, and not just in the sense of being misunderstood. In the previous episode ’Brog mi is alluding to the danger of attracting the wrath of the ḍākinīs, protectors of the tantric tradition, by revealing the secrets to many persons. On another occasion ’Brog mi was very displeased when his disciple Gsal ba’i snying po wrote a clear commentary on the Kye rdor rgyud gsum (The Tantra Trilogy of Hevajra), exclaiming that he had essentially “torn out the living hearts of the ḍākinīs” to give to others. A similar example from another tradition is found in the story of the translator Mar pa Do pa and his disciple Cog ro Chos rgyal ba. Mar pa Do pa had a special instruction on the four stage (rim bzhi) Cakrasaṃvara practice, which was later considered especially dangerous. Cog ro only learned about it from Mar pa Do pa’s son, and when he requested the instruction, Mar pa Do pa was furious with his son and shouted, “Is your spinal cord made from diamond (srog pa rtsa rdo rje pha lam las byas pa yin nam)?” Mar pa Do pa did ﬁnally agree to give the teaching, but died immediately afterward. When his son was preparing for the funeral rites, he was stabbed and killed by robbers. These examples have been mentioned here to illustrate the awe, respect, and trepidation with which Tibetans have traditionally viewed tantric teachings. While few seem to share this viewpoint today, an awareness of it will contribute to a deeper understanding of texts such as the Zhib mo rdo rje.
This study of the lives of the early masters of the Lam ’bras in Tibet is a work of historical research and does not attempt to explain the doctrine or practices of this system. In striking contrast to the oral origins of the tradition, in later centuries a dauntingly vast number of historical and practical works were composed. The twentieth-century published collection of the Sa skya tradition of the Lam ’bras ﬁlls thirty large volumes. This collection does not even include many works scattered in other locations, or rare texts that still exist only in manuscipt form. Although there were once many diﬀerent systems of the Lam ’bras in Tibet, only those of the Sa skya and Zha ma lineages survived for an extended period, and the Sa skya tradition alone is intact today. Almost all the texts now available are from the Sa skya tradition. From among the numerous Sa skya works composed during the previous 850 years, the following survey will focus on Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po’s eleven commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang and on the most important collections compiled through the sixteenth century. Virtually all of these texts are concerned with explaining the meaning of the Rdo rje tshig rkang and the meditation techniques of the Lam ’bras, or with discussing the lives of previous teachers.
Sa chen’s Eleven Commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang
Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po received the Lam ’bras from Zhang ston Chos ’bar during a period of four years beginning in 1120. He then spent the next eighteen years in intense meditation, forbidden by Zhang ston from teaching or even mentioning the name of the instructions. In 1138, when he was forty-six years old, Sa chen experienced an extraordinary visitation from the Indian adept Virūpa, who bestowed on him the direct transmission of the Lam ’bras. When the eighteen-year restriction expired in 1141, Sa chen ﬁrst taught the Lam ’bras to A seng Rdo rje brtan pa and, for his beneﬁt, recorded in writing the Rdo rje tshig rkang as well as a brief verse commentary. Over the remaining years of his life he taught the Lam ’bras to his sons, Slob dpon Bsod nams rtse mo and Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan, and numerous other disciples.
From 1141 until his death in 1158 Sa chen is said to have written “about eleven commentaries” explaining the cryptic meaning of the Rdo rje tshig rkang. Two diﬀerent terms are used to describe these texts. The ﬁrst is simply “commentary” (rnam ’grel), whereas the second, which has become more common, means “explication of the treatise” (gzhung bshad). Gung ru ba Shes rab bzang po (1411–75) notes that the term “explication of the treatise” (gzhung bshad) must be understood to mean “a commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang” and mentions that each of Sa chen’s works is somewhat diﬀerent in its style of explanation and method of presenting the meaning.
Although Sa chen’s eleven commentaries (rnam ’grel bcu gcig) are the basic sources for the study of the Rdo rje tshig rkang and the practice of the Lam ’bras, there has been considerable confusion from a very early time about their actual identiﬁcation. As Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan (1424–98) carefully pointed out, Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s statement that his father had written “about eleven” commentaries left room for doubt as to the actual number. Further diﬃculties certainly arose because of the secret nature of the material and the fact that these commentaries only circulated in manuscript form for about eight hundred years, until they were ﬁnally gathered together by ’Jam dbyangs rgyal mtshan (1870–1940) and published at Sde dge in a xylograph edition in the early twentieth century. It also seems that they were never transmitted as a group of eleven, which probably also contributed to problems of identiﬁcation. Almost all the surviving examples also lack original colophons or clear statements of authorship.
In their discussions of Sa chen’s eleven works, Sa skya masters over the centuries have basically expressed three opinions and have usually disagreed about the identity of only one or two of the commentaries. These diﬀerences will be noted below. Only one of the three opinions corresponds exactly to the eleven surviving texts. Against all expectations, these eleven commentaries have apparently been preserved according to the tradition of the Rdzong lineage of the Lam ’bras, which was absorbed into the mainstream Sa skya tradition centuries ago. Only one text devoted solely to solving problems of identiﬁcation concerning the eleven commentaries has survived. This unsigned work, bearing the title Man ngag gsal byed (Clariﬁcation of the Esoteric Instructions), can now be identiﬁed as a composition of Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan, who was one of the most outstanding masters of the Rdzong tradition. Mus srad pa seems to have been working from texts at hand, and his list corresponds exactly to the surviving works. Not only that, three of the actual manuscripts owned by Mus srad pa have survived.
Perhaps due to the scarcity and the similar content of the eleven commentaries, by the seventeenth century at the latest, the reading transmissions (lung) for all but three had been lost. The three for which the lineal transmission has continued to the present day are the A seng ma (The Explication for A seng), the Sras don ma (The Explication for the Beneﬁt of the Sons), and the Gnyags ma (The Explication for Gnyags). However, in the twentieth century the great master Rdzong gsar Mkhyen brtse ’Jam dbyangs chos kyi blo gros (1893–1959) received the transmission of the commentaries in a visionary dream from Sa chen himself. Rdzong gsar Mkhyen brtse then passed the revived transmission to a master by the name of Bla ma Blo dga’, who has in turn imparted the reading transmissions of the eleven commentaries to many disciples in Tibet. This revived transmission of the eleven commentaries has not yet been received by Sa skya teachers living outside Tibet.
(1) The A seng ma (The Explication for A seng)
Also known as the Don bsdus ma (The Condensed Meaning), this short verse text was the ﬁrst of Sa chen’s eleven commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang. Sa chen gave it to the Khams pa master A seng Rdo rje brtan pa in 1141. According to Gung ru ba, some members of the tradition later made the mistake of identifying the A seng ma and the Don bsdus ma as two diﬀerent commentaries. A seng was the nephew of Sa chen’s teacher Sgyu ra A skyabs. According to Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, the A seng ma was actually composed by Sa chen, whereas the remaining ten commentaries were written down by the requestors and then proofread and corrected by Sa chen. Apparently there were both short and long versions of this commentary, although only the short one has survived. According to the Rdzong master Nam mkha’ dpal bzang, this short verse text formed the basis of a longer commentary which explained its meaning. Mus srad pa also mentions the existence of two works: a short text of twenty verses and a commentary on it that was also said to be a ﬁne work. He further notes with some reservation that this longer text was sometimes identiﬁed with another commentary known as the Mang dkar ma (The Explication for Mang dkar). Commentaries to the A seng ma itself were later written by Spru lung pa Kun smon, who was a disciple of Chos rgyal ’Phag pa (1235–80), and by Go rams Bsod nams seng ge (1429–89). The A seng ma was later included in the Pod ser compiled by Sa chen’s son Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan.
In addition to studying the Lam ’bras with Sa chen, A seng Rdo rje brtan pa also received many teachings from Rgwa Lo tsā ba Rnam rgyal rdo rje, especially the transmissions of the Six-branch Yoga of the Kālacakra (Dus ’khor sbyor drug) and special teachings of Mahākāla. A seng later became a teacher of Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po (1110–70), to whom he transmitted the teachings of Rgwa Lo tsā ba, especially the Six-branch Yoga. A seng is frequently mentioned in biographies of the time.
(2) The Sga theng ma (The Explication for Sga theng)
According to ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs (1597–1659), the Sga theng ma was the second commentary composed by Sa chen. If this is correct, it was the ﬁrst of the ten major works, preceded only by the brief A seng ma. The man known as Sga theng was from the region of Ldan ma in Khams, and was partially lame. The earliest mention of the circumstances of the composition of the Sga theng ma is found in the original annotations of the Zhib mo rdo rje translated below in part two:
Rga theng studied under the great master for a long time. When [Sa chen] came to Ru ’tshams he saw Rga theng’s summarizing notes. He thought, “He has received it many times; will it be reliable?” It was nothing but errors. He thought, “Well, after I have died this Dharma will be gone,” and for the beneﬁt of Rga theng he composed the Rga theng ma. So it has been stated.
Much later, ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs also gave a similar account of these circumstances, but mentioned that Sa chen was invited by Sga theng to a Dharma Council at Ru mtshams, and that “several key points were mistaken” in Sga theng’s original composition. This text is a very important work, and perhaps served as the model for the following commentaries. However, there are some serious doubts about the actual identity of the surviving version of the Sga theng ma. This topic will be treated in detail below when discussing the works of Phag mo gru pa.
(3) The Bande ma (The Explication for Bande)
As stated by Mus srad pa, this work was written for the tantric layman Bande Gshin rje, who was from Ngam shod in Dbus. Some authors also identiﬁed him with a master known as Grub thob ’Dar phyar. Jo nang Tāranātha (1575–1635) provides the most information about Grub thob ’Dar phyar Rin chen bzang po, who lived in two diﬀerent caves at Jo nang, where he had a vision of Padmasambhava and received the transmission of the entire Dharma cycle known as the Rta mgrin yang gsang (The Supersecret Hayagīva). He also had visions of the ﬁfteen goddesses of Nairātmyā and of a form of Cakrasaṃvara. The Bande ma is not included among the eleven commentaries listed by other Sa skya masters, and is instead sometimes listed among the commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang written by Sa chen’s disciples. Bande Gshin rje is also known as Bande Gshin rje grags, one of Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s four disciples with “grags” at the end of their names.
(4) The Zla rgyal ma (The Explication for Zla rgyal)
This commentary was written for the master Byang sems Zla ba rgyal mtshan, who is best known for his special tradition of practical meditation instructions (dmar khrid) focusing on the deity Mahākaruṇika. He was also an important teacher of Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po. Zla ba rgyal mtshan gave the vows of a celibate Buddhist layman to Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan at Sa skya in 1149, which establishes his presence there during the early years when Sa chen’s commentaries are known to have been written.
(5) The Ldan bu ma (The Explication for Ldan bu)
According to Mus srad pa, this commentary was written for Jo gdan Ldan bu. He also notes that it contains some Sanskrit terms, and says that when Sa chen taught the oral instructions to a Śrāvaka monk paṇḍita from Sindhu in India, Jo gdan Ldan bu also received them. At that time Sa chen is said to have taught in Sanskrit, which was later translated into Tibetan. The surviving examples of the Ldan bu ma do indeed contain an unusual number of Sanskrit terms. The story of Sa chen’s Ceylonese mendicant disciple, whom Sa skya Paṇḍita also says was from Sindhu in India, and the teachings given to him by Sa chen at Gung thang, is provided by Dmar ston in the Zhib mo rdo rje translated in part two. The Ldan bu ma is only included in the lists of the two Rdzong writers, Mus srad pa and Nam mkha’ dpal bzang, and is not mentioned by other Sa skya authors.
(6) The Yum don ma (The Explication for the Wife)
Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug states that the Yum don ma was written for Ma gcig Btsad tsha, who was the ﬁrst of Sa chen’s two wives and the mother of his eldest son Kun dga’ ’bar. She was also known as Jo lcam Phur mo. After Kun dga’ ’bar died in India at the age of twenty-one, his mother turned to serious Dharma practice, and Sa chen wrote this commentary for her. The Yum don ma is unique in that Cakrasaṃvara is utilized for the creation stage meditations, while the techniques from the Lam ’bras are emphasized for the perfection stage. Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug notes that the original text was said to have been somewhat diﬀerent from the one of his time without being more speciﬁc. It is odd that some early masters thought the Yum don ma had been written for Byang sems Zla ba rgyal mtshan, an opinion rejected by both Mus srad pa and Gung ru ba. Curiously, the edition of the Yum don ma published in Sde dge states in the title that it was written for the beneﬁt of Ma gcig Zhang mo, Sa chen’s mother, while an earlier manuscript copy is not speciﬁc. The honoriﬁc term yum can mean either “wife” or “mother.”
(7) The Klog skya ma (The Explication for Klog skya)
This commentary was written for Klog skya Jo sras Chos grags. According to Mus srad pa, Klog skya was from Gtsang, and Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug further speciﬁes that he was from Sgyer bu. The Klog skya ma contains a large number of detailed annotations perhaps composed by a Grags pa (or Grags dpal) bzang po who is mentioned in a ﬁnal versiﬁed annotation. This may refer to Klog skya himself.
(8) The Zhu byas ma (The Explication for Zhu byas)
This work was composed for the master known as Zhu byas Dngos grub. Mang thos klu sgrub mentions that Zhu byas was from Lho, whereas Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug says that he was the nephew of Zhu ston Rog po in La stod and gives several amusing stories about his miraculous abilities. Zhu byas apparently spent much time in India. Mus srad pa mentions that Zhu byas was the teacher of the Tshal Gung thang master Bla ma Zhang G.yu brag pa (1123–93). He also says that this commentary received the name Zhu byas ma because Sa chen’s sons Bsod nams rtse mo and Grags pa rgyal mtshan were performing an oﬀering ritual one evening in Sa skya when Zhu byas arrived from Bodhgayā. The brothers requested this explanation of the Rdo rje tshig rkang from him orally and wrote it down themselves. A verse at the end of the surviving examples of the Zhu byas ma, written by Bsod nams rtse mo, veriﬁes that he recorded it in writing. This information all seems to conﬂict with the more common statement that Sa chen wrote the commentary for Zhu byas.
(9) The Sras don ma (The Explication for the Beneﬁt of the Sons)
The Sras don ma is the most extensive and important of Sa chen’s eleven commentaries. As the title of the work states, it was written “for the beneﬁt of [my] son[s].” The ﬁfteenth-century authors Mus srad pa and Gung ru ba both record two diﬀerent traditions about this text. The ﬁrst tradition is that the work was written for Gnyan Phul byung ba, whom Gung ru ba refers to as “spiritual son” (thugs sras). This tradition was later followed by Mang thos klu sgrub, who simply says this commentary was written for the “spiritual son” (thugs sras) Gnyan Phul byung ba Gtsug tor rgyal po, whose actual name was Bsod nams rdo rje. The second tradition mentioned by Gung ru ba is that Gnyan Phul byung ba edited together the scrolls (shog dril) that Sa chen had written for the beneﬁt of his sons Bsod nams rtse mo and Grags pa rgyal mtshan. When referring to this second tradition, Mus srad pa quotes a statement he says is found at the end of some manuscripts of the Sras don ma: “This text was composed for the beneﬁt of the sons. It was in fragments, and was edited by Lord Phul byung ba.” These words are actually found at the end of surviving copies of the Sras don ma. This second tradition was later followed by Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, who also notes that most of the miscellaneous material edited by Gnyan Phul byung ba was speciﬁcally concerned with diﬃcult points in the Rdo rje tshig rkang. Finally, ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs, the last to write about the topic, brings together both traditions by stating that the Sras don ma represents instructions by Sa chen given for the beneﬁt of all three sons (sras). In saying this he refers to the scrolls written for Sa chen’s actual sons (sras) Bsod nams rtse mo and Grags pa rgyal mtshan, which were edited together by his spiritual son (thugs sras) Gnyan Phul byung ba.
(10) The ’A ’u ma (The Explication for Lady ’A ’u ma)
Mus srad pa also refers to this commentary as the Jo ’bum ma, and says that it was written for Jo mo ’A ’u ma, “The Howling Lady,” who was from G.ya’ lung. The work became known as the ’A ’u ma because this woman had the experience of being a dog, and howled, “Ah Ooo! Ah Ooo!” (’a ’u ’a ’u). While Gung ru ba also refers to Lady ’A ’u ma’s howling experience, it is only Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug who later reveals the real cause, when he says that she howled when “the puriﬁcation of birth as a dog dawned” (khyi’i gnas sbyong shar). The use of this phrase points to a deep meditative experience in which the vital winds and essential constituents are drawn into speciﬁc locations in the network of subtle channels within the body. In the case of Lady ’A ’u ma, the vital winds and essential constituents had gathered in a certain channel-syllable (rtsa yig) related to rebirth in the animal realm. Experiences such as this are explained in considerable detail in the various commentaries to the Rdo rje tshig rkang. When such an experience occurs, it is said that the causes for future rebirth in the corresponding realm are thereby puriﬁed. Mus srad pa also notes the opinion by some that this commentary is the same as the work known as the Mang chung ma (The Explication for Mang chung).
(11) The Gnyags ma (The Explication for Gnyags)
All sources agree that the Gnyags ma was the last commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang written by Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po, and that it was written for the teacher Gnyags Gzhi ra ba Dbang phyug rgyal mtshan. The Gnyags ma was the only one of Sa chen’s extensive commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang included in the Pod ser later compiled by his son Grags pa rgyal mtshan. When choosing to include the Gnyags ma, Grags pa rgyal mtshan stated, “This was composed very late and is a short treatise with detailed meaning.” To further enhance the text, Grags pa rgyal mtshan then composed very informative and extensive annotations, which are found in the surviving example. Moreover, Grags pa rgyal mtshan referred to the existence of nine places in the Gnyags ma where Sa chen had omitted details of practice and had only written, “This is to be learned from the mouth [of the master].” Grags pa rgyal mtshan thus included in the Pod ser twenty-three texts to clarify the Gnyags ma, some written by his father and some by himself. In later times there were also several works written to further clarify the meaning of the Gnyags ma. There are references to a text by Chos rgyal ’Phag pa’s student Spru lung pa to assist in understanding the Gnyags ma, a clariﬁcation of Sa chen’s work by the fourteenth-century master Bar ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan, and an elucidation of its intention by Paṇ chen Ngag dbang chos grags (1572–1641), only one of which seems to have survived.
In the Zhib mo rdo rje, Dmar ston gives some further important information about the Gnyags ma:
Moreover, last of all, the Gnyag ma, composed in response to the request by the spiritual friend Gnyag, is succinct in words but extensive in meaning and well formulated. Considered suitable [by later masters], it has been used as the teaching manual up until the present.
Dmar ston’s statement indicates that Grags pa rgyal mtshan and Sa skya Paṇḍita had chosen to use the Gnyags ma when explaining the Rdo rje tshig rkang and teaching the Lam ’bras. In the seventeenth century, ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs singled out the Gnyags ma from among the eleven commentaries, and said that the explanation (bshad bka’) of this text was still unbroken in his time. The Gnyags ma is still the text most often used to explain the Rdo rje tshig rkang.
Diﬀerent Opinions about Sa chen’s Eleven Commentaries
The previous discussion of the identiﬁcation of Sa chen’s eleven commentaries has been based on the eleven texts that have survived, and which surprisingly match the list given by the Rdzong master Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan, who was one of the earliest to write about the subject. His contemporary, Gung ru ba Shes rab bzang po, a master of the Ngor and Na lendra traditions, followed the same list with only one exception. Instead of the Bande ma in Mus srad pa’s list, Gung ru ba includes a commentary written for Stod sgom Byang chub shes rab.
About a hundred years after Gung ru ba, in 1566, the Tshar pa master Mang thos klu sgrub recorded a slightly diﬀerent list, which was also given by his contemporary in the Tshar pa tradition, Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug. These two authors both based their lists on an ancient eulogy to Sa chen written by his disciple Zhu byas Dngos grub, for whom Sa chen had written one of his eleven commentaries. This eulogy, which contained old annotations, had come into the hands of Bdag chen Rdo rje ’chang Blo gros rgyal mtshan (1444–95), who had felt it to contain the solution to the questions of identiﬁcation. The eulogy mentions that Sa chen wrote commentaries for eight men and three women, who are identiﬁed in the annotations and by Bdag chen Rdo rje ’chang. This information led these authors to include two commentaries known as the Bzang ri ma (The Explication for Bzang ri), written for the teacher Bzang ri phug pa, and the Mang mkhar ma (The Explication for Mang mkhar), written for Lady Mang mkhar, and to not include the Bande ma and the Ldan bu ma. In this way, their lists include commentaries for eight men and three women, whereas the surviving texts were written for nine men and two women. It is not known whether Klu sgrub and Mkhyen brtse had actually seen all the texts they list, whereas it is clear that Mus srad pa was in possession of the texts he wrote about.
Commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang by Sa chen’s Disciples
While the eleven works of Sa chen are certainly the most signiﬁcant explanations of the Rdo rje tshig rkang, according to Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug the total number of commentaries by both Sa chen and his disciples was about twenty. Disagreement in the lists of Sa chen’s eleven works was often due to diﬀerences in opinion about whether Sa chen or one of his disciples had composed a certain commentary. It is customary in all Tibetan traditions for records of a teacher’s explanations made by a student to be regarded as the work of the teacher. For example, Mus srad pa says that the Dpe mdzod ma (The Library Explication) written down by Sa chen’s disciple Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po was sometimes counted as one of the eleven by Sa chen. As mentioned above, another disagreement was about the Bande ma. This work was included in the list of eleven according to the Rdzong tradition, but was considered by Mang thos klu sgrub to be the work of a disciple. The earliest list of commentaries by Sa chen’s disciples is by Gung ru ba, who says that many explications of the Rdo rje tshig rkang were written by disciples such as Bzang ri phug pa, Zhu brag Mar pa, Zhang se Mar pa, Dbu ma pa chen po of ’U yug, the Mi nyag master Prajñājvala, and Phag mo gru pa. Mang thos klu sgrub does not list Bzang ri phug pa among the students who wrote texts. He places the work for him among Sa chen’s eleven commentaries, but adds Na ro Bandhe and Stod sgom Byang chub shes rab to Gung ru ba’s list. ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs follows Mang thos klu sgrub, and also notes that if the larger of the two commentaries known as the A seng ma were added to the general list there would be a total of twenty-one works. Only one of these commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang by Sa chen’s disciples may have survived.
The Works of Phag mo gru pa
The preceding discussion has focused on the traditional Sa skya accounts of the ﬁrst commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang of Virūpa. But there is mounting evidence of another untold story barely touched upon in Sa skya writings about the Lam ’bras. This concerns the unacknowledged role of Phag mo gru pa Rdo rje rgyal po (1110–70) in the very earliest recording and compilation of the teachings of his master Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po. According to the Sa skya tradition, the ﬁrst collection of texts on the Lam ’bras was the Pod ser (The Yellow Volume) compiled by Grags pa rgyal mtshan, which contains the earliest writings of Sa chen and his sons. This collection will be examined in detail below. However, it is now clear that at least some of the texts contained in the Pod ser were actually authored by Phag mo gru pa, who also wrote down other anonymous works attributed to Sa chen. Grags pa rgyal mtshan later included these texts in the Pod ser. Grags pa rgyal mtshan rewrote or revised some of these works. He may have added annotations to others, and kept some in their original form.
This discovery opens up many extremely interesting lines of research that cannot be fully explored here. Strangely enough, it seems that no lineage holders of the Lam ’bras ever actually compared Phag mo gru pa’s writings to those in the Pod ser. His crucial role in the formation of the early literature has certainly been ignored in the Sa skya tradition.
According to Bka’ brgyud and Sa skya sources, Phag mo gru pa ﬁrst came to Sa skya in about 1138 to receive instructions from Sa chen, and continued to study and meditate there for the next twelve years. If this is correct, he arrived in Sa skya three years before Sa chen ﬁrst taught the Lam ’bras, wrote down the Rdo rje tshig rkang, and composed the ﬁrst of the eleven commentaries for A seng Rdo rje brtan pa in 1141. Sa chen’s son Slob dpon Bsod nams rtse mo was born the next year, 1142, and Grags pa rgyal mtshan ﬁve years later in 1147. During the period of Phag mo gru pa’s stay, from approximately 1138 to 1150, before Sa chen’s sons had been born or while they were still very young, he was one of Sa chen’s closest disciples and a foremost practitioner of the Lam ’bras. This is clear from many accounts. For example, the Sa skya master Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po stated:
That great being endowed with the three names of Bde gshegs Phag mo gru pa, Rje Khams pa Rdor rgyal, and Dpal Mtha’ rtsa ba, requested [the Lam ’bras] from the great Lord Sa skya pa, and lived at Sa skya for twelve years. Having pleased the master by [enduring] inﬁnite hardships, he placed in writing the esoteric instructions he had obtained, thereby composing (mdzad) the great treatise known as the Lam ’bras bshad mdzod ma. Some call it the Dpe mdzod ma, which appears to be a corruption.
Other sources provide further details. ’Brug chen Padma dkar po (1527–92) notes that Phag mo gru pa was Sa chen’s most learned disciple. After Phag mo gru pa’s experience of the spiritual warmths and signs from meditation on the subtle channels and vital winds, Sa chen recognized in him the high realization of the Path of Seeing (mthong lam).
The most detailed and interesting account of Phag mo gru pa’s activities at Sa skya, and his relationship with Sa chen, is found in an unﬁnished work by the ’Khon master Bsod nams dbang po (1559–1621), later edited by his nephew, ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs. This text would seem to record the accounts of Sa skya history passed down in the ’Khon family itself. Bsod nams dbang po mentions that Phag mo gru pa received the entire Lam ’bras from Sa chen, and that Sa chen also dictated an instruction manual for his beneﬁt, which became widely known as the Gzhung bshad phag gru (The Explication of the Treatise for Phag gru). Bsod nams dbang po also relates a fascinating apocryphal episode in which the great yogin Rje btsun Mi la ras pa and his disciple Ras chung Rdo rje grags pa (1083–1161) come to the door of Phag mo gru pa’s cave at Sa skya. When Mi la ras pa rattled his hand-drum at the sealed door, Phag mo gru pa’s previous connections with him were awakened, and he rushed to the door. But then he realized that he could not break the retreat without his teacher’s permission, and remained in the cave. While it is possible that Ras chung pa visited Sa skya during this period, Mi la ras pa had certainly passed away some years earlier.
In 1692 the Sa skya master Sangs rgyas phun tshogs, the twenty-ﬁfth abbot of Ngor monastery, also recorded much of the same information that is found in Bsod nams dbang po’s work, including the aborted meeting with Mi la ras pa, but with a number of important changes and details. Sangs rgyas phun tshogs says Phag mo gru pa arrived in Sa skya at about the time of Sa chen’s famous visionary encounter with Virūpa in 1138, and requested the Lam ’bras. He meditated in a cave there, and when Sa chen’s teachings were ﬁnished Phag mo gru pa composed an explication of the treatise (gzhung gi bshad pa mdzad). According to the chronology in Sangs rgyas phun tshogs’s discussion these events happened some time before the expiration of the eighteenyear restriction placed on Sa chen by his teacher Zhang ston, and the arrival of A seng in 1141. All other sources are unanimous in stating that Sa chen ﬁrst taught the Lam ’bras to A seng, and only then placed the Rdo rje tshig rkang in writing.
Phag mo gru pa’s commentary recording Sa chen’s instructions on the Rdo rje tshig rkang is usually referred to as the Dpe mdzod ma. A very interesting statement by Sa chen’s great-grandson Chos rgyal ’Phag pa is found in the history of the Stag lung branch of the Bka’ brgyud tradition. According to a conversation between Chos rgyal ’Phag pa and Sangs rgyas dbon (1251–96), Phag mo gru pa had written his summarizing notes (zin bris) of the Lam ’bras and oﬀered them to Sa chen for his approval, but Sa chen felt that the work would put words in the mouth of his son (jo sras=Bsod nams rtse mo?). Phag mo gru pa then asked Sa chen to keep the work secret, which he did. Sa chen placed it in the library (dpe mdzod), and the text became known as the Dpe mdzod ma (The Library Explication). The text was also not to be shown to anyone at Sa skya during the lifetime of Slob dpon Jo sras (=Slob dpon Bsod nams rtse mo?). This information supports the view that Phag mo gru pa did not record the commentary until after the birth of Bsod nams rtse mo in 1142. One of the biographies of Phag mo gru pa gives a similar account, with yet another name for the text:
[Phag mo gru pa] met the honorable Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po. Since [Phag mo gru pa] knew many volumes [of scripture, Sa chen] was pleased and agreed to whatever Dharma he requested. He bestowed the Hevajra, the Pañjara, the Sampuṭa, the Lam ’bras, as well as the Lam skor, and countless profound Cakrasaṃvara initiations.
When [Phag mo gru pa] made summarizing notes (zin bris) for the Lam ’bras, and so forth, [Sa chen] exclaimed, “Spiritual friend from Khams, your knowledge is great, but this won’t do—the profound oral instructions are too clear!”
It was hidden in a cave (skye tshang), and thus became known as the Lam ’bras skye tshang ma. Furthermore, he was told not to show it to many [persons]. A ﬁne understanding was also born. And he gained a great reputation for being
learned and venerable.
These stories lead to the conclusion that the Dpe mdzod ma must have been the earliest major commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang, otherwise Sa chen would not have felt that it was too clear. These accounts also show that the text was originally kept very secret.
The Dpe mdzod ma and Phag mo gru pa’s other writings on the Lam ’bras were transmitted for centuries in the Bka’ brgyud and Jo nang traditions. For example, the master Karma Phrin las pa (1456–1539), who taught both Sa skya and Bka’ brgyud instructions, is known to have once explained the Dpe mdzod ma when teaching the Lam ’bras to many Sa skya scholars at the monastery of Na lendra. Only in the last few years have several unpublished manuscripts of Phag mo gru pa’s writings on the Lam ’bras become available. It is of great interest that they match very closely the list given in the sixteenth century by Padma dkar po, who had received them all. Jo nang Tāranātha also received the full transmission of Phag mo gru pa’s Lam ’bras.
There are about twenty texts concerning the Lam ’bras in the surviving Phag mo gru pa collections. With the exception of the Dpe mdzod ma, a short biography of Virūpa that is perhaps by one of Phag mo gru pa’s disciples, and one other brief text, all these works are also found in the Pod ser later compiled by Grags pa rgyal mtshan. But, as noted above, many of the texts have gone through considerable editing and rewriting. In particular, the manuscript copies of the Dpe mdzod ma create a very diﬃcult problem. Unfortunately, there is only limited space here to investigate this topic.
The problem is that the surviving manuscripts of the Dpe mdzod ma in the collected works of Phag mo gru pa are absolutely identical to the surviving copies of the Sga theng ma, which is thought to have been the ﬁrst of Sa chen’s extensive commentaries on the Rdo rje tshig rkang. The only diﬀerences are the titles given to the works, and a third-person colophon in the Dpe mdzod ma that simply says, “The Lam ’bras Dpe mdzod ma composed by glorious Phag mo gru pa.” Obviously, at some point during the last eight hundred years the two texts were confused, and one has been lost. But which has survived: the Dpe mdzod ma or the Sga theng ma? This question is impossible to answer with certainty at the present time, but a few points should be considered.
When Grags pa rgyal mtshan was only three years old, Phag mo gru pa left Sa skya. All sources agree that Phag mo gru pa composed his works on the Lam ’bras at Sa skya, and so it seems certain that his writings were codiﬁed as a group long before Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s compilation of the Pod ser. Phag mo gru pa’s works on the Lam ’bras were passed down in an active lineage in the Bka’ brgyud tradition for centuries, whereas Sa chen’s eleven commentaries were never collected together and transmitted as a group. Taking all of this into consideration it seems that the odds were better for the survival of the Dpe mdzod ma, which is at least known to have been taught over a long period, than for the Sga theng ma, for which there is not a single record of transmission. In any case, the manuscripts of the Sga theng ma and the Dpe mdzod ma probably represent the ﬁrst major commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang, which then became the model for the remaining nine attributed to Sa chen, all of which have the same basic structure. These problems will require further research.
When it comes to the smaller works in Phag mo gru pa’s volume, some more deﬁnite conclusions can be reached. Two of the clearest examples will be discussed brieﬂy. One example is related to a work attributed to Sa chen in the Pod ser, and the other is related to a work by Grags pa rgyal mtshan.
Among the works of Phag mo gru pa is a text entitled Lam ’bras bu dang bcas pa’i zhal gyi gdams pa (Personal Instructions on the Path with the Result). In the Pod ser there is an untitled text attributed to Sa chen that is referred to by Grags pa rgyal mtshan as Byung rgyal du mi gtong ba’i gnad rnam pa bzhi (Four Key Points Not to Be Allowed Natural Expression), in reference to its content. The two texts are very closely related, and yet quite diﬀerent. There is no colophon in the Pod ser text, but Phag mo gru pa’s work has a signiﬁcant ﬁrst-person statement at the end: “The profound personal instructions of the Lord Sa skya pa, written by the monk Rdo rje rgyal po.” Phag mo gru pa’s work contains no annotations, whereas the text in the Pod ser has a large number of detailed annotations. A comparison of the two works shows that the text in the Pod ser is deﬁnitely a reworking of the text in Phag mo gru pa’s writings. The annotations were added later, most likely by Grags pa rgyal mtshan, who is known to have written many other annotations to texts in the Pod ser, such as the Gnyags ma. Moreover, the ﬁnal statement of authorship by Phag mo gru pa has been omitted in the revised text found in the Pod ser.
One further example will suﬃce to show the extent of Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s revisions of Phag mo gru pa’s works when later compiling the Pod ser. In the collected writings of Phag mo gru pa there are two separate texts, both written in prose, entitled Lam ’bras kyi ’phrin las sum bcu (The Thirty Actions of the Path with the Result) and Lam ’bras kyi yan lag lnga sbyong (Excercising the Five Limbs in the Path with the Result). Both of these works lack colophons. In the Pod ser there is a single text, written in verse, entitled Phrin las sum cu rtsa gnyis kyi ’khrul ’khor (The Yogic Exercises of the Thirty-two Actions), which contains a clear ﬁrst-person statement at the end saying that it was composed (sbyar ba) by Grags pa rgyal mtshan. Furthermore, one of the ﬁnal verses of the text states that it was written to clarify confusing points in “the small text[s] of a former venerable lord” (rje btsun gong ma’i dpe’u chung yi ge). A comparison of the three texts leaves no room for doubt that Grags pa rgyal mtshan rewrote Phag mo gru pa’s two small prose works into a single versiﬁed text.
What does this really mean? All the works in both Phag mo gru pa’s volume and the Pod ser certainly originate from the oral instructions of Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po. Many of these teachings were originally written down by Phag mo gru pa in Sa skya, between the years 1141 and 1150. This was before Sa chen’s sons were born, or while they were very young. After leaving Sa skya, and later meeting Lord Sgam po pa, Phag mo gru pa became a great lineage holder of the Bka’ brgyud tradition, and thereafter taught according to that lineage. Thus later Sa skya followers may have found it awkward to acknowledge the importance of his contribution to the preservation of the Lam ’bras while at Sa skya. Grags pa rgyal mtshan deﬁnitely received from his father or elder brother the transmission of all the original materials that he later edited together in the Pod ser. It now seems certain that a number of Sa chen’s most important instructions that were originally written down by his disciple Phag mo gru pa were among the texts later transmitted by Sa chen to his sons.
The Pod ser
When compiling his deﬁnitive volume of early texts concerning the Lam ’bras, Rje btsun Grags pa rgyal mtshan speciﬁcally stated that the oral instructions had been passed down to him in an oral transmission without any texts. In light of what has been discussed above, this should be understood to mean that Grags pa rgyal mtshan ﬁrst received an oral transmission of the Lam ’bras, although there were texts in existence at that time. Moreover, Sa chen’s reported reaction to Phag mo gru pa’s work should be seen in light of the importance of keeping the tradition oral. He may have felt that placing the oral instructions in writing would be harmful to the education of his sons, who might then rely upon texts instead of memory. The written records of Sa chen’s teachings were certainly guarded very closely during his life and for some time thereafter. The fact that the teachings remained essentially oral even during the lifetime of Grags pa rgyal mtshan is clear from the story of his disciple Dpyil ston Rgyal ba bzang po, who received the Lam ’bras eighteen times, but during all of those years never saw a single written text. According to Grags pa rgyal mtshan, the instructions were memorized by every master in the lineage up until his time, as well as by himself and several of his own disciples. It had ﬁnally become necessary to record them in writing only to prevent corruption of the teachings and to beneﬁt others.
The Rdo rje tshig rkang, together with a number of Sa chen’s early texts concerning the Lam ’bras, were kept locked in a leather box (sag sgam or gseg sgam) during Sa chen’s lifetime. These teachings were referred to as the Sag shubs ma or Gseg shubs ma (The Leather Case). As mentioned above, it now seems certain that a number of these works were originally written down by Phag mo gru pa. During the ﬁrst part of Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s life the texts were wrapped in a yellow cloth and were known as the Pod ser ma (The Yellow Volume). Grags pa rgyal mtshan later supplemented the original collection with a number of small texts, such as those meant to clarify the nine points not elaborated on by Sa chen in the Gnyags ma, and he wrote a catalogue to permanently establish the contents of the volume (glegs bam). He also wrote a number of works himself to explain other points, after about half of the original collection was lost. Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug provides some fascinating details about this:
[The texts] were later arranged in a volume by the great venerable lord [Grags pa rgyal mtshan]. To symbolize that this Dharma is diﬃcult to understand, but that if it is understood all needs and wishes are fulﬁlled, he drew a vajra on the face of the front cover-board and a jewel on the back one. To symbolize that those [teachings] are understood from the oral instructions of a master endowed with the transmission, he drew the ﬁgures of the transmission line of the Oral Instructions on the inside of the cover-board. Since it had a yellow cloth on it, it was known as the Pod ser ma.
Mang thos klu sgrub notes that in its earliest form this collection did not contain the text on dependently arisen connections (rten ’brel), the Don bsdus, or the basic text and commentary on the view. The ﬁrst two of these works are Sa chen’s A seng ma, also known as the Don bsdus ma, and a short text on the ﬁve dependently arisen connections according to the Lam ’bras teachings. The last two works are by Grags pa rgyal mtshan. These are the versiﬁed Rin chen snang ba (Illuminating the Jewel) and its autocommentary, which are the deﬁnitive texts on the view of the indivisibility of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa (lta ba ’khor ’das dbyer med) that is the special view of the Lam ’bras. These two texts are the basis for all the works that were later written to explain the “three continuums” (rgyud gsum), which is a fundamental topic of the Lam ’bras. The mention of the two works in Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s catalogue to the collection, and their inclusion in the volume, make it possible to ﬁx a deﬁnite time period for the ﬁnal compilation of the collection and the composition of the catalogue. The versiﬁed Rin chen snang ba was written in 1206, and the autocommentary in 1212. Grags pa rgyal mtshan passed away in 1216. Thus the collection was ﬁnalized, and the catalogue written, between 1212 and 1216.
The Pod ser contains most of the essential writings on the Lam ’bras composed by Sa chen and his sons Bsod nams rtse mo and Grags pa rgyal mtshan. Although there has been some discussion in the tradition about which texts belong in the collection, sixty is the usually accepted number. In his catalogue to the collection Grags pa rgyal mtshan says seven of these works may either be included or kept separate. These seven works have not been included in the single published edition of the Pod ser. Generally speaking, the remaining ﬁfty-three texts are grouped in the following way. The basic text is the Rdo rje tshig rkang, accompanied by a short outline and the Gnyags ma, both by Sa chen. Following this commentary are twenty-three small works, thirteen of which are attributed to Sa chen; the remaining ten were written by Grags pa rgyal mtshan. These texts together constitute a complete explanation of the Rdo rje tshig rkang.
Then there is a group of six texts by Grags pa rgyal mtshan, the most signiﬁcant of which are the versiﬁed Rin chen snang ba, written in 1206, and its autocommentary, written in 1212. These are the only dated texts in the entire collection. Next is a group of four small works referred to as “the four small texts for removal of impediments” (gegs sel yig chung bzhi), three of which are attributed to Sa chen, and one of which was composed by Grags pa rgyal mtshan. Both Phag mo gru pa texts discussed above are in this group. These ten texts also relate to the Rdo rje tshig rkang. All of the works mentioned so far are referred to as explaining the “extensive path” (lam rgyas pa).
Then the “medium path,” or the “path without the basic text,” and the “condensed path” are each presented in small works. Next is a group of nine texts, divided into what are known as the “four great fundamental works” (gzhung shing chen po bzhi) and the “ﬁve Dharmas to produce realization” (rtogs pa bskyed pa’i chos lnga). Two of these are by Grags pa rgyal mtshan; seven are attributed to his father Sa chen. At the end of this group is one small work on guruyoga, probably written by Grags pa rgyal mtshan.
In the published edition of the Pod ser there follows a large group of texts on what is known as the Lam skor phyi ma brgyad, the “Eight Later Cycles of the Path.” These texts are not traditionally included in the Pod ser, and are not mentioned by Grags pa rgyal mtshan in his deﬁnitive catalogue to the collection. They will not be discussed here. Following this group are several more texts that do belong to the collection. First is a group of three works concerned with supporting the esoteric instructions with quotations from scripture (lung sbyor). There has been some uncertainty as to the authorship of these works, with the consensus being that the ﬁrst two were composed by Bsod nams rtse mo and the last by Sa chen.
The Pod ser concludes with two small but important texts by Grags pa rgyal mtshan, which are the only histories of the Sa skya tradition of the Lam ’bras that predate the Zhib mo rdo rje of Dmar ston. Sa chen wrote the ﬁrst works on the practice of the Lam ’bras, but no historical texts. One of Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s works is an account of the tradition in India and the other is an account of the ﬁrst few generations of the tradition in Tibet. It may be assumed that these writings embody the stories of the early masters as told to him by his father Sa chen and his older brother Slob dpon Bsod nams rtse mo. The ﬁrst text, entitled Bla ma brgyud pa rgya gar ba’i lo rgyus (The Indian Story of the Lineal Masters), is essentially an account of the life of the great adept Virūpa that is incorporated into all later Sa skya histories of the Lam ’bras with only minor additions or deletions. This is the fundamental source for any study of Virūpa’s life. Only one page in this work is devoted to the next three Indian masters of the tradition. Appended to this text are some of the famous vajra songs of Virūpa, given both in a transcription of the Prakrit original and with Tibetan translation and annotations. Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s second text, entitled Bla ma brgyud pa bod kyi lo rgyus (The Tibetan Story of the Lineal Masters), is basically a sketch of the life of ’Brog mi Lo tsā ba, the ﬁrst Tibetan master of the Lam ’bras. Only the last two pages of this work provide mention of the generations between ’Brog mi and Grags pa rgyal mtshan.
The Writings of Sa skya Paṇḍita and His Disciples
According to Mang thos klu sgrub, there were also several other volumes (glegs bam) of instructions that did not correspond to Grags pa rgyal mtshan’s catalogue to the Pod ser. For example, Dkar Shākya grags, a major disciple of Grags pa rgyal mtshan, composed a commentary to the Rdo rje tshig rkang that he supplemented with other small works and compiled into a volume on the Lam ’bras (lam ’bras glegs bam). Sa chen’s disciple Zhang ze Dmar pa, who was mentioned above, also compiled a similar volume using the Gnyags ma as the basic text and supplementing it with other brief works. But the primary transmission of the Lam ’bras was given by Grags pa rgyal mtshan to his nephew, Sa skya Paṇḍita Kun dga’ rgyal mtshan. Before and during Sa skya Paṇḍita’s lifetime the instructions were mainly taught on the basis of the Pod ser. Sa skya Paṇḍita himself then wrote a number of small but important texts on speciﬁc topics within the Lam ’bras. Some of these writings were included in his collected works, but others were kept more secret until they were included in the ﬁfteenth-century collection known as the Pusti dmar chung (The Little Red Volume), which will be discussed below. Some of the works on the Lam ’bras by Sa skya Paṇḍita’s nephew Chos rgyal ’Phag pa were also later included in this collection. The reading transmission of all of Sa skya Paṇḍita and Chos rgyal ’Phag pa’s works has been preserved to the present day.
Sa skya Paṇḍita’s disciple Dmar ston Chos kyi rgyal po (c. 1198–c. 1259) recorded his teacher’s explanation of the Rdo rje tshig rkang and his stories of the lives of the Tibetan teachers of the Lam ’bras, as well as a number of other works. Dmar ston’s works, which were never gathered into a separate volume (glegs bam), will be discussed in detail below. Another of Sa skya Paṇḍita’s main disciples, Tshogs sgom Kun dga’ dpal (1210–1307), composed an instruction manual (’khrid yig) for teaching the Lam ’bras, and Tshogs sgom’s disciples Nyan chen Bsod nams brtan pa and Gnyag Snying po rgyal mtshan also composed similar texts. But none seem to have survived.
The Pod nag
The ﬁfteenth patriarch of Sa skya, Bla ma dam pa Bsod nams rgyal mtshan (1312–75), was the most important Sa skya teacher after the period of the Five Supreme Masters (gong ma lnga). Bla ma dam pa composed a monumental collection of esoteric instructions on the Lam ’bras between the years 1342 and 1347. Bla ma dam pa’s work became known as the Pod nag ma (The Black Volume) because of the color of the cloth in which these texts were wrapped. Unlike the Pod ser, which contained works by several authors, the Pod nag was composed entirely by Bla ma dam pa, who carefully utilized the writings of his predecessors.
With the Pod nag, Bla ma dam pa created a cohesive group of texts that cover virtually all the major topics of the Lam ’bras. His Man ngag gter mdzod (Treasury of Esoteric Instructions), written in 1342, is a masterful commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang. In this work Bla ma dam pa largely drew material from Sa chen’s Sras don ma and Gnyags ma, and Dmar ston’s commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang, entitled Gsung sgros ma (The Oral Account). He also incorporated several small works by Grags pa rgyal mtshan and Sa skya Paṇḍita. Bla ma dam pa’s text was the last full-length commentary on the Rdo rje tshig rkang written in Tibet. Together with Sa chen’s Sras don ma and Gnyags ma, and Dmar ston’s commentary, the Man ngag gter mdzod has since remained one of the essential texts for the study of the Rdo rje tshig rkang.
In 1347 Bla ma dam pa also wrote an important instruction manual (’khrid yig) entitled Sbas don kun gsal (A Full Clariﬁcation of the Hidden Meaning) that explains both the “three appearances” (snang gsum) and the “three continuums” (rgyud gsum), which are the preliminary and main subjects of the Lam ’bras teachings. This text was based on the writings in the Pod ser and the earlier manuals by Tshogs sgom, Nyan chen pa, and Gnyag Snying po rgyal mtshan mentioned above, as well as oral teachings. In addition, the Pod nag includes several important writings for daily meditations on Hevajra and a history of the Lam ’bras.
For the present study the most signiﬁcant text in the collection is Bla ma dam pa’s 1344 history, the Ngo mtshar snang ba (Illuminating the Marvels), which was written at the ancient retreat center of Kha’u Skyed lhas near Sa skya. This work marks a major turning point in the historical literature of the Lam ’bras. The text begins with a brief account of Buddhism in India and its transmission into Tibet with royal patronage. A unique feature of the Ngo mtshar snang ba is that Bla ma dam pa chose to ﬁrst describe the tradition in Tibet; only at the end of his work does he discuss the life of Virūpa, the Indian source for the lineage. This text is also the earliest surviving history to include brief information on the transmission and sources of the other systems of the Lam skor dgu, the “Nine Cycles of the Path,” among which the Lam ’bras is foremost. The last biographical summary in the work is of Chos rgyal ’Phag pa, together with a list of his disciples. Bla ma dam pa completely incorporated Dmar ston’s Zhib mo rdo rje into his new work. In addition he added much new information, some of which must have been from oral sources, and some no doubt from written records now unavailable. On several occasions where the Zhib mo rdo rje only alludes to an event or topic, Bla ma dam pa gives detailed information. These points will be discussed below in the annotations to the translation of Dmar ston’s work. More than a hundred years after the death of Bla ma dam pa, a work to clarify his Ngo mtshar snang ba was written by Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan. While ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs had access to Mus srad pa’s text in 1621, it now seems to have been lost. The reading transmission of the Pod nag is still current.
The Pusti dmar chung
Between 1212 and 1216 Grags pa rgyal mtshan ﬁnalized the contents of the Pod ser and at the same time alluded to the existence of other minor esoteric instructions (man ngag phra mo) not included in the collection. From the time of Sa chen and his sons up to the time of Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po (1382–1456) many diﬀerent masters had written brief texts that were not included in collections such as the Pod ser or the Pod nag. These minor texts (yi ge phra mo) were ﬁnally gathered together into a collection that became known as the Pusti dmar chung (The Little Red Volume). According to Gung ru ba, his teacher Ngor chen searched for all the many minor esoteric instructions originally alluded to by Grags pa rgyal mtshan—as well as those by later teachers—collected them and, so that they would not become scattered again, compiled them into a small volume with a catalogue. The catalogue for the volume was written by Ngor chen’s nephew, Rgyal tshab Kun dga’ dbang phyug (1424–78), the fourth abbot of Ngor monastery. As was the case with the Pod ser and the Pod nag, this collection also received its name from the color of the cloth in which the texts were originally wrapped.
The Pusti dmar chung contains a large number of texts, almost all concerned with esoteric aspects of the practice of the Lam ’bras. It begins with sixty texts written by authors before the time of Ngor chen. Included in this group are many important writings by Sa chen and his sons that were not included in the Pod ser, as well as later works by Sa skya Paṇḍita, Chos rgyal ’Phag pa, Dmar ston, and other masters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Following these texts are ten supplementary writings by Ngor chen himself. The published edition contains another text by Ngor chen and one by his disciple Mus chen Dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, but these works are not mentioned in the original catalogue. The reading transmission of this entire collection is still unbroken.
The Glegs bam phra mo
After the time of Bla ma dam pa, several diﬀerent subsects began to appear in the Sa skya tradition. One interesting lineage that later died out was known as the Rdzong tradition, which received its name from the Rdzong chung palace in Sa skya. The palace was the residence of the tradition’s founder, Sngags ’chang Gzungs kyi dpal ba (1306–89), who was a disciple of Bla ma dam pa. The Rdzong tradition was later represented by great masters such as Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan.
As mentioned above, when Grags pa rgyal mtshan compiled the Pod ser he noted the existence of other minor esoteric instructions (man ngag phra mo) not included in the collection. A number of important texts on the Lam ’bras originally composed by the Five Supreme Masters of Sa skya, as well as further works for clarifying some of these according to the Sa skya and the Rdzong traditions, were later gathered into a collection known as the Glegs bam phra mo (The Volume of Minor Esoteric Instructions). Though it did not include the earliest writings from the Pod ser, or Sa chen’s eleven commentaries to the Rdo rje tshig rkang, this collection contained many other crucial works on the Lam ’bras. In 1474 Mus srad pa Rdo rje rgyal mtshan composed a very detailed catalogue to this collection.
Although no account of its compilation has been located, the collection may also have been made by Mus srad pa. Unfortunately, it seems to have been lost. From Mus srad pa’s catalogue it can be seen that many interesting works by authors such as Gnyag Snying po rgyal mtshan and his disciple Bar ston Rdo rje rgyal mtshan were preserved in this collection, and nowhere else. However, all the writings by the Five Supreme Masters of Sa skya contained in the Glegs bam phra mo are also found in the Pusti dmar chung that was compiled at approximately the same time. It is to be hoped that the Glegs bam phra mo may yet be located in Tibet or China.
Unveiling the Slob bshad
By the middle of the ﬁfteenth century, the monastery established by Kun dga’ bzang po in 1429 at Ngor had become a great Sa skya center of tantric study and practice, especially of the Lam ’bras. Ngor chen’s main successor, Mus chen Dkon mchog rgyal mtshan, was so highly regarded that the Sa skya throne-holder Bdag chen Blo gros rgyal mtshan traveled in secret to Ngor in 1464 to receive the vows of complete monastic ordination and extensive Dharma teachings from him. Foremost among the teachings he received was a very special transmission of the Lam ’bras:
To begin with, up through the instructions of the “three appearances” (snang gsum) he received [the teachings] together with a huge assembly of numerous spiritual friends and so forth. After the tantric path began, [Mus chen] bestowed [the teachings] in the tradition of the instructions of the profound Tshogs bshad for six months to a few masters and disciples in common. Over either afternoon tea or evening tea he bestowed in a unique transmission (chig brgyud), to only this lord, [the instructions] that existed as an oral transmission of the uncommon Slob bshad.
The unique transmission referred to in this passage as the Slob bshad, the “Explication for Disciples,” had always existed in the tradition of the Lam ’bras, but had been kept extremely secret. Although Blo gros rgyal mtshan received the uncommon (thun mong ma yin pa) transmission from Mus chen at Ngor, he had already received a transmission even more uncommon that the uncommon (thun mong ma yin pa’i yang thun mong ma yin pa) from his father ’Jam dbyangs nam mkha’ rgyal mtshan (1398–1472) at Sa skya. What is signiﬁcant now is the terminological distinction of Tshogs bshad, “Explication for the Assembly,” and Slob bshad, “Explication for Disciples.” These terms had not been used before the time of Bdag chen Blo gros rgyal mtshan, and many would later object to such a classiﬁcation. For several more generations the Slob bshad instructions remained essentially oral and were completely unknown outside of a very small circle of great teachers and their students. Only a few signiﬁcant texts were composed by Blo gros rgyal mtshan and his disciple Kun spangs Rdo ring pa (1449–1524).
Although the terminology was new, evidence of a special transmission of unwritten key instructions could be found in the writings of several earlier masters, such as Grags pa rgyal mtshan and Sa skya Paṇḍita. For example, in his catalogue to the Pod ser, Grags pa rgyal mtshan said, “I have heard many unwritten esoteric instructions of the oral transmission, and there are many that have been taught and not taught to others.” Sa skya Paṇḍita also stated, “Followers of the Lam ’bras who rely on just the [Pod ser] volume will not understand this.” Both of these statements are often quoted within the tradition to demonstrate the existence of an oral transmission of the Slob bshad from the earliest period of the Lam ’bras in Sa skya. Bdag chen Blo gros rgyal mtshan’s disciple, Kun spangs Rdo ring pa, passed the esoteric instructions of the Slob bshad to the greatest ﬁgure of this tradition, Tshar chen Blo gsal rgya mtsho (1502–66). From 1518 to 1524 Tshar chen received the transmission of the lineage at the isolated retreat site of Kha’u Brag rdzong. The key esoteric instructions were whispered privately by Rdo ring pa to Tshar chen alone, in a small tea room, and other secluded places. And sometimes while they were walking outside alone, or circumambulating a stūpa, Rdo ring pa would squat down and instruct him.
While Tshar chen himself did begin to write some of these special instructions down, most notably in the Nyi ma’i ’od zer (The Sunbeams), his deﬁnitive explication of the Hevajra practice according to the Slob bshad tradition, it was left to his main students—’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug and Mang thos klu sgrub rgya mtsho—to record their teacher’s uncommon explanations of the full Lam ’bras.
In the winter of 1551 Mang thos klu sgrub ﬁrst received the entire transmission of the Lam ’bras from Jo nang Kun dga’ grol mchog (1507–66), who was a disciple of Kun spangs Rdo ring pa. The next year, when he was twenty-eight years old, he traveled to the hermitage of Chos ’khor yang rtse in the ’Dar valley, where he met Tshar chen and again received the Lam ’bras. More than forty years later, in 1594, Mang thos klu sgrub wrote what has continued to haunt all later critics of the instruction manuals in which he recorded Tshar chen’s esoteric transmission of the Slob bshad:
When I oﬀered before [Tshar chen’s] eyes the texts that I had made as summarizing notes, he was delighted and exclaimed, “You are one with ﬁne residual karma from training in secret mantra in previous lifetimes. Otherwise this kind of understanding without great training earlier in this lifetime would never happen.”
Once when I went again to oﬀer some summarizing notes, he was delighted and said, “No one else except you understands exactly my Lam ’bras Slob bshad. The one who has collected the quintessence, the practitioner of the Lam ’bras who is like the fat—that’s you.”
With this statement Mang thos klu sgrub claimed that Tshar chen had approved of his record of the instructions of the Slob bshad. Nevertheless, while Tshar chen himself was beyond criticism in the tradition, Mang thos klu sgrub’s interpretations of his teachings have been the subject of considerable debate ever since. Although it is clear from this passage that Mang thos klu sgrub ﬁrst made summarizing notes of Tshar chen’s instructions of the Slob bshad in 1522, the ﬁrst-person colophons to his ﬁnished works provide unambiguous dates of 1587, 1588, and 1589. Mang thos klu sgrub, apparently, maintained the oral tradition of teaching the Slob bshad while using his summarizing notes, and then ﬁnalized these texts only in the last decade of his life.
In 1555 Tshar chen became abbot of the ancient monastery of Zhwa lu, and ascended the teaching throne of the great Bu ston Rin chengrub. In 1559, after Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug had taken over as Zhwa lu abbot, Tshar chen bestowed the entire transmission of the Lam ’bras Slob bshad. These teachings were given to only eighteen fortunate disciples, led by Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, who also recorded Tshar chen’s explanations in summarizing notes.
Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug passed away in 1568, at the age of fortyfour. Mang thos klu sgrub did not pass away until 1596, at the age of seventy-three, and was certainly the dominant teacher of the Slob bshad tradition for the thirty years following the death of Tshar chen in 1566. The transmission of Mang thos klu sgrub’s interpretation of the teachings was upheld by great disciples such as Paṇ chen Ngag dbang chos grags, and spread widely. The transmission of the lineage based on Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug’s works remained particularly strong at Zhwa lu monastery, where later members of his ’A zha clan, such as Dbang phyug rab brtan (1558–1636) and Bka’ ’gyur ba Bsod nams mchog ldan (1603–59), also occupied the abbot’s throne.
The detailed works of Mang thos klu sgrub form a complete compendium of information for the meditation practices of this tradition, but they later became rather controversial, largely because of some statements he made concerning the identiﬁcation of the cause continuum of the universal ground (kun gzhi rgyu rgyud). On the other hand, the instruction manuals of Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug were left slightly unﬁnished, perhaps because of his early death.
From among Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug’s writings, his complete account of the lives of the Indian and Tibetan teachers of the Lam ’bras is a unique work, drawing on many diﬀerent written sources as well as special oral information. Mkhyen brtse included in his composition basic biographical material culled from earlier Sa skya sources, most notably Bla ma dam pa’s Ngo mtshar snang ba—and thus ultimately Dmar ston’s Zhib mo rdo rje—as well as from the history of the Zha ma tradition by Cha rgan. Mkhyen brtse was the ﬁrst to synthesize material from both these lineages. There are also many details in his work that are not found in earlier extant texts, especially in the lives of ’Brog mi, Se ston, and Zhang ston. These extra touches perhaps represent the private oral information Mkhyen brtse received from Tshar chen. Mkhyen brtse’s work is chronological in structure, and often focuses upon what is speciﬁcally of esoteric signiﬁcance in order to understand the import of the external events. The rich extra detail in the stories of the earlier masters, and the informal and lively style of presentation, makes Mkhyen brtse’s work an indispensable mine of information about the tradition. Even after a more ambitious history was written in 1621 by the Sa skya throne-holder ’Jam mgon A mes zhabs, Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug’s text remained the deﬁnitive work referred to most in the tradition itself.
For about a hundred years after the death of Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug, his incomplete instruction manuals were supplemented by the use of other works by Bla ma dam pa and Mang thos klu sgrub. By the middle of the seventeenth century the use of Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug’s writings seems to have gained prominence over those of Mang thos klu sgrub, perhaps due to their emphasis by the Zhwa lu masters mentioned above. This trend was furthered by the eﬀorts of the Fifth Tā la’i bla ma, Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (1617–82), who wrote a supplement to complete Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug’s work after receiving the complete transmission of the Slob bshad instructions in 1649 from the Zhwa lu abbot Bka’ ’gyur ba Bsod nams mchog ldan.
The main controversy that arose when the Slob bshad ﬁrst became widely known concerned certain special yoga practices. The practice of the Slob bshad in the Tshar pa tradition is largely the same as the traditional practices according to the mainstream Sa skya and Ngor pa, which became known as the Tshogs bshad, but with some crucial differences of both technique and content. The main diﬀerence in technique is that during the teaching of the Slob bshad an experiential instruction (nyams khrid) on certain key points is given, and these points are meditated upon. In contrast, during the Tshogs bshad these same points are merely explained by means of a reading transmission (lung). In regard to content, the instruction manual of Mang thos klu sgrub contains speciﬁc teachings about the intermediate state between lives (bar do), dream yoga, and the illusory body that were not found in earlier writings on the Lam ’bras. The supplement to the work of Mkhyen brtse’i dbang phyug later written by the Fifth Tā la’i bla ma also records similar instructions passed orally to him by his teacher Bka’ ’gyur ba. The validity of these practices was hotly contested by Sa skya followers who were not involved in the practice of the Slob bshad.
Mang thos klu sgrub and his disciples seem to have become the main defenders of the oral tradition of the Slob bshad. And Tshar chen himself had also written of Kun spangs Rdo ring pa’s earlier refutations of those who attacked the oral tradition. Speciﬁcally, it was the practice of the dream yoga that attracted criticism. Opponents of the Slob bshad within the Sa skya tradition charged that such techniques had been taken from the Bka’ brgyud traditions of the “Six Doctrines” (chos drug) of Nāropa or Niguma, and were not part of the ’Lam ’bras. Mang thos klu sgrub disdainfully refuted such objections, and pointedly drew attention to references about dream yoga in the writings of Sa skya Paṇḍita. As for the teachings of illusory body (sgyu lus) presented in his instruction manual, he conﬁdently stated, “I have not seen these instructions of illusory body in the writings of former masters, but whether my former teacher clearly saw them or received the meaning, they are certain.” More than 150 years after the death of Mang thos klu sgrub these issues were still such a problem that Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, the ﬁfth Tā la’i bla ma, felt it was necessary to strongly defend the Slob bshad teachings, and to refute criticism of the special practices of the tradition. But as the years passed the controversies gradually subsided, and the Slob bshad became accepted throughout the Sa skya tradition as the deﬁnitive version of the Lam ’bras. After all, even the greatest masters of the Tshogs bshad, such as Ngor chen Dkon mchog lhun grub (1497–1557), had referred in their writings to the existence of an uncommon oral tradition that they were not recording in their instruction manuals of the Tshogs bshad.
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© Cyrus Stearns, Luminous Lives (Wisdom Publications, 2001)
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