The life of Padmasambhava – the Tantric adept who is credited with the conversion of Tibet to the Buddhadharma during the 8th century of the common era and who was undoubtedly an historical person – is shrouded in mystery. His life story is often expressed in esoteric symbolic language that is not easily understood, especially by Westerners for whom the historical frame of reference is the only valid one. In this account I will confine myself to an external description that is most easily apprehended by the profane.
The Buddha prophesied that Padmsambhava would be born in the land of Oddiyana (Tib. Orgyen) twelve “years” after the Buddha’s parinirvana and reveal the doctrine of the Mantrayana. Oddiyana became the basis of the myth of Shambhala. This prophesy is accurate if we interpret “years” as centuries. In fact, Padmasambhava visited Tibet in the 8th century, twelve centuries after the Parinirvana circa 400 BCE, corresponding to the best Western scholarship. This is the midpoint of a 2,500 year cycle, also mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, that culminates in the 21st century of the common era, counting from circa 800 CE, when Padmasambhava left Tibet – our own time.
Modern scholarship places Oddiyana in what is now north-west Pakistan, on the border of Afghanistan corresponding to the Swat Valley. In the 8th century this region was the westernmost extent to which Mahayana Buddhism had spread, and was the source of many of the greatest Tantras and Tantric masters. Padmasambhava was the adopted son of the King of Oddiyana and grew up in the vicinity of Dhanakosha Lake. Patrul Rinpoche suggests that this corresponds to Lake Kutra.
The ruler of Oddiyana was the blind King Indrabhuti, whose biological son had died as a child. The king was a disaffected Buddhist, who came to blame religion for a series of misfortunes to which he and his kingdom had been subjected. The king put Padmsambhava in charge of the affairs of state, perhaps due to his infirmity. Like Ashoka, Padmasambhava established a prosperous and happy dharmic kingdom including a legal code based on the Ten Precepts. Padmsambhava quickly acquired a reputation as a genius of extraordinary mental and physical ability, including deep learning in poetry and philosophy. He was also renowned for his physical prowess in the art of archery. Padmasambhava was betrothed to Bhasadhara, a princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Singala. Padmasambhava was not interested in politics, however, and after five years of marriage, following a solitary walk in which he encountered a band of Arhats, Padmasambhava developed the desire to enter the monastic life. King Indrabhuti opposed this, but after Padmasambhava threatened to commit suicide he relented. Padmasambhava left the country amidst great consternation.
Like many itinerant Tantric yogis, Padmsambhava travelled back and forth between Oddiyana and India and spent many years living and meditating in caves and a series of cemeteries, where he saw first-hand the impermanence and suffering of life, acquiring a reputation as an extraordinary Tantric guru who became the subject of many legends. During one of his sojourns in Oddiyana he encountered Garab Dorje, from whom he received the Dzogchen transmission and many other Tantric transmissions that he introduced to Tibet. In Burma he encountered Prince Shri Singha, the Dzogchen master by means of whose oral instruction he achieved supreme enlightenment. He also taught at Nalanda University in Bihar, founded in the fifth century. From Nepal he was summoned to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen at the suggestion of the sage Shantarakshita, the founder of Samye monastery. The entrenched Bon establishment was resisting accepting the Buddhadharma, but Padmasambhava was able to overcome their resistance by the force of his personality, and is credited with the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. He travelled extensively throughout Tibet, where he wrote a number of treatises, translated into Tibetan, which still exist and are discussed at length in The Teachings of Padmasambhava, by Herbert Guenther. According to Dr. Guenther, Padmasambhava’s writings, in which he developed a radically original interpretation of the Buddhadharma, prove that he was one of the greatest spiritual geniuses of human history, anticipating process philosophy by centuries. Some of these writings were so radical and original that they were sealed by the Tibetan government as being unsuitable for publication, and are still not included in the Kangyur. It is these works as well as Padmasambhava’s association with Nalanda University that demonstrate his historicity. Padmasambhava married the king’s queen consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, at the age of 16.
Padmasambhava is represented in Tibetan Buddhist iconography as a moustached foreigner with an intense stare.
After Trisong Detsen proclaimed Buddhism the official religion of Tibet in 771 CE a great wave of resentment against foreigners swept the Tibetan religious aristocracy. Dr. Guenther suggests that Padmasambhava was caught up in this and the rejection of Chinese Chan Buddhism, with which Dzogchen has some similarity, and that this was the reason for Padmasambhava’s rather precipitous departure from the country prior to the completion of Samye in 775 CE, along with many other foreigners. He is reputed to have travelled to Bhutan, after which he is lost to history.
1. The proximity to Iran makes one wonder if the Magi (lit. magicians or astrologers) “from the East” who visited the infant Jesus according to the Gospels might have been Tantric Buddhist initiates rather than Persian or Zoroastrian astrologers! There are Christian traditions that at least one of the magi originated in “India.” Per contra, some scholars have suggested that Oddiyana might refer to Persia.