Padmasambhava was an 8th-century master of Buddhist tantra who is credited with bringing Vajrayana to Tibet and Bhutan. He is revered today as one of the great patriarchs of Tibetan Buddhism and the founder of the Nyinmapa school as well as the builder of Tibet’s first monastery.
In Tibetan iconography, he is the embodiment of the dharmakaya. He is sometimes called “Guru Rinpoche,” or precious guru.
Padmasambhava may have been from Uddiyana, which was situated in what is now the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. He was brought to Tibet during the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen, (742 to 797). He is associated with the building of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Samye Gompa.
The historical narrative of Padmasambhava’s life begins with another Buddhist master named Shantarakshita. Shantarakshita came from Nepal at the invitation of Emperor Trisong Detsen, who was interested in Buddhism.
Unfortunately, Tibetans worried that Shantarakshita practiced black magic and he was kept in detention for a few months. Further, no one spoke his language. Months passed before a translator was found.
Eventually, Shantarakshita gained the Emperor’s trust and was allowed to teach. Some time after that, the Emperor announced plans to build a grand monastery. But a series of natural disasters — flooded temples, castles struck by lightning — stirred Tibetans’ fears that their local gods were angry about the plans for the temple. The Emperor sent Shantarakshita back to Nepal.
Some time passed and the disasters were forgotten. The Emperor asked Shantarakshita to return. But this time Shantarakshita brought another guru with him — Padmasambhava, who was a master of rituals to tame demons.
Early accounts say Padmasambhava divined which demons were causing the problems, and one by one he called them forth by name. He threatened each demon, and Shantarakshita — through a translator — taught them about karma. When he was finished, Padmasambhava informed the Emperor that building of his monastery could begin.
However, Padmasambhava was still viewed with suspicion by many at Trisong Detsen’s court. Rumors circulated that he would use magic to seize power and depose the Emperor. Eventually, the Emperor was worried enough that he suggested Padmasambhava might leave Tibet.
Padmasambhava was angry but agreed to leave. The Emperor was still worried, so he sent archers after Padmasambhava to put an end to him. Legends say Padmasambhava used magic to freeze his assassins and so escaped.
In Tibetan Mythology
As time passed, Padmasambhava’s legend grew. The full account of Padmasambhava’s iconic and mythological role in Tibetan Buddhism would fill volumes, and there are stories and legends about him beyond counting. Here is a very abridged version of Padmasambhava’s mythic story.
Padmasambhava — whose name means “born of the lotus” — was born at the age of eight from a flowering lotus in Dhanakosha lake in Uddiyana. He was adopted by the king of Uddiyana. In adulthood, he was driven from Uddiyana by evil spirits.
Eventually, he came to Bodh Gaya, the place where the historical Buddharealized enlightenment and was ordained a monk. He studied at the great Buddhist university at Nalanda in India, and he was mentored by many significant teachers and spiritual guides.
He went to the Cima Valley and became the disciple of a great yogi named Sri Simha, and received tantric empowerments and teachings. Then he went to the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, where he lived in a cave with the first of his consorts, Mandarava (also called Sukhavati). While there, the couple received texts on Vajrakilaya, an important tantric practice. Through Vajrakilaya, Padmasambhava and Mandarava realized great enlightenment.
Padmasambhava became a renowned teacher. On many occasions, he performed miracles that brought demons under control. This ability eventually took him to Tibet to cleanse the site of the Emperor’s monastery from demons. The demons — the gods of indigenous Tibetan religion — were converted to Buddhism and became dharmapalas, or protectors of the dharma.
Once the demons were pacified, the building of Tibet’s first monastery could be completed. The first monks of this monastery, Samye, were the first monks of Nyingmapa Buddhism.
Padmasambhava returned to Nepal, but seven years later he came back to Tibet. Emperor Trisong Detsen was so overjoyed to see him that he offered Padmasambhava all the wealth of Tibet. The tantric master refused these gifts. But he did accept a lady from the Emperor’s harem, the princess Yeshe Tsogyal, as his second consort, provided the princess accepted the relationship of her free will.
Together with Yeshe Tsogyal, Padmasambhava hid a number of mystic texts (terma) in Tibet and elsewhere. Terma are found when disciples are ready to understand them. One terma is the Bardo Thodol, known in English as the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Yeshe Tsogyal became Padmasambhava’s dharma heir, and she transmitted the Dzogchen teachings to her disciples. Padmasambhava had three other consorts and the five women are called the Five Wisdom Dakinis.
The year after Tri-song Detsan died, Padmasambhava left Tibet for the last time. He dwells in spirit in a pure Buddha-field, Akanishta.
In Tibetan art, Padmasambhava is depicted in eight aspects:
- Pema Gyalpo (Padmaraja) of Uddiyana, the Lotus Prince. He is depicted as a young prince.
- Lo-den Chokse (Sthiramati) of Kashmir, the Intelligent Youth, beats a drum and holds a skull bowl.
- Sakya-seng-ge (Bhikshu Sakyasimha) of Bodh Gaya, Lion of the Sakyas, is portrayed as an ordained monk.
- Nyima O-zer (Suryabhasa) of Cina, the Sunray Yogi, wears only a loincloth and holds a trident pointing to the sun.
- Seng-ge Dra-dok (Vadisimha) of Nalanda University, the Lion of Debate. He is usually dark blue and holds a dorje in one hand and a scorpion in the other.
- Pema Jung-ne (Padmasambhava) of Zahor, the Lotus-born, wears monks’ robes and holds a skull bowl.
- Pemakara of Tibet, Lotus-creator, sits on a lotus, wearing Tibetan monk’s robes and Tibetan boots. He holds a vajra in his right hand and a skull bowl in his left. He has a trident staff and a Nepalese cloth crown.
- Dorje Dro-lo of Bhutan is a wrathful manifestation known as “Diamond Guts.”
- O’Brien, Barbara. “Padmasambhava the Precious Guru of Tibetan Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/padmasambhava-450201.