Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Luminous Lives - Introduction

The Story of the Early Masters of the Lam ’bras in Tibet


A story bypasses rhetoric and pierces the heart.             
Terry Tempest Williams

The teachings of Śākyamuni Buddha were first introduced in Tibet during a period of dynastic rule that lasted from the beginning of the seventh century to the middle of the ninth century.

From the middle of the ninth century until the late tenth century there was degeneration and chaos following the disintegration of the centralized dynastic power structure. At the end of this period of stagnation there was a cultural renaissance inspired by the revival of Buddhism through a huge influx of new teachings from India and Nepal. In this way the Tibetan culture began to again absorb Buddhist knowledge in the late tenth century, a process that continued through the middle of the thirteenth century, and to a much lesser degree even into the seventeenth century.

The renaissance of Buddhism in Tibet is said to have begun in the west with the translation work of Lo chen Rin chen bzang po (958–1055). A massive amount of Buddhist knowledge began to flow into Tibet from this time. Specifically, many tantric scriptures were now translated into Tibetan for the first time, and the doctrines and practices of these systems spread rapidly. For example, during the eleventh century hundreds of translations were made of the tantric scriptures, commentaries, and ritual texts connected with the cycles of the Hevajra tantra, the Kālacakra tantra, the Vajrabhairava tantra, the Guhyasamāja tantra, the Cakrasaṃvara tantra, and so forth. A dazzling array of tantric meditation practices flooded Tibet during these years, although many faded away with the passage of time.

In the sixteenth century the Rnying ma master Prajñāraśmi (1517–84), also known as ’Phreng bo gter ston Shes rab ’od zer, referred to eight early Indian and Tibetan teachers, and eight surviving systems of esoteric instruction:

Ba gor Bai ro, the consummate translator; the layman ’Brom ston, the heir of the Victors; Khyung po rnal ’byor pa, the great realized scholar; the great master ’Brog mi, who spoke two languages; the venerable lord Mar pa, the lord of yogins; Dam pa Rgya gar, who dwelled on the spiritual level of attainment; the translator Gyi jo; and the realized scholar O rgyan pa were the eight great pillars supporting the practice lineages in the northern regions.

Here in the glacial mountain ranges those eight great pillars [supported] the practice lineages that came from glorious Vajradhara and are the legacy of former adepts. Those who wish liberation should also follow those paths.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the lineages from several of these teachers had almost died out, and they were revived only through the extraordinary efforts of ’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang po (1820–92) and ’Jam mgon Kong sprul (1813–99). These eight groups of practices are usually referred to now as the “eight great chariots” (shing rta chen po brgyad).

Only the first of the eight great systems of meditation was introduced into Tibet before the eleventh century. After that time these earlier teachings from the dynastic period came to be known as the Rnying ma tradition, the “Old Ones,” in contrast to the various lineages introduced in the eleventh century that were then known as the Gsar ma, the “New Ones.” The teachings and lineages of the Rnying ma tradition are numerous and complicated. In particular, the Rdzogs chen, the “Great Perfection,” was first brought to Tibet, translated, and spread in the eighth century by the Tibetan Ba gor Bai ro tsa na. This “consummate translator” had received the profound instructions in India from the master Śīrīsiṃha. Bai ro tsa na was responsible for translating and spreading two distinct traditions of the Great Perfection that were known as the Sems sde, “Mind Series,” and the Klong sde, “Space Series.” A third tradition of the Great Perfection, known as the Man ngag sde, “Series of Esoteric Instructions,” was brought to Tibet by the master Vimalamitra. It is essentially this lineage, blended with teachings from the master Padmasambhava, that became known as the Snying thig, “Heartdrop,” and has been practiced to the present day, especially on the basis of the writings of Klong chen Rab ’byams pa (1308–63) and ’Jigs med gling pa (1730–98).

Only the last of the eight lineages mentioned above by Prajñāraśmi came into Tibet after the eleventh century. The teachings of the Rdo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub, “Propitiation and Attainment of the Three Adamantine States,” often known as the O rgyan bsnyen sgrub, “Propitiation and Attainment from Uḍḍiyana,” was brought back to Tibet by the “realized scholar” O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal (1230–1309). This Tibetan master had received the transmission of special meditation practices related to the Six-branch Yoga of the Kālacakra system from the tantric goddess Vajrayoginī during a trip to Uḍḍiyana. Although the practice of these teachings flourished for at least two hundred years, the transmission lineages were extremely scarce by the end of the nineteenth century. All that seems to remain now is the reading transmission of several fundamental texts.

The remaining six practice lineages were all introduced in Tibet during the eleventh century, a fact that underscores the crucial importance of this period in Tibetan history. The layman ’Brom ston Rgyal ba’i ’byung gnas (1004–63), referred to above as “the heir of the Victors,” was probably the most important disciple and spiritual heir of the Indian master Atiśa (982–1055), who came to Tibet in 1042 and was instrumental in the Buddhist renaissance. The lineages passed down through Atiśa in Tibet came to be known as the Bka’ gdams pa, the tradition of “Precepts and Instructions.” This tradition survived for some time as an independent entity, but later fell into decline. Some of its special transmissions, such as the teachings of the Blo sbyong, “Mind Training,” were absorbed into the other independent traditions. Many more were inherited by the great Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (1357–1419), and came to be emphasized in the Dge ldan pa or Dge lugs pa tradition established by his followers.

Khyung po rnal ’byor (b. 990?), “the great realized scholar,” traveled three times to India and Nepal, where he is said to have studied with 150 teachers. He founded a number of monasteries in Tibet, especially in the Shangs Valley, and so his tradition came to be known as the Shangs pa bka’ brgyud, the “Shangs Tradition of Transmitted Precepts.” At the heart of this tradition are the practices of the Chos drug, the “Six Doctrines,” and the Mahāmudrā or Phyag chen, the “Great Seal,” that Khyung po rnal ’byor received from the Indian women teachers Niguma and Sukhasiddhi. Emphasized by masters such as the great adept Thang stong rgyal po (1361–1485), and the Jo nang masters Kun dga’ grol mchog (1507–66) and Tāranātha (1575–1635), these teachings spread throughout the other Tibetan traditions. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Shangs pa transmissions had become very scarce, but were revitalized through the efforts of ’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang po and ’Jam mgon Kong sprul.

The master ’Brog mi Lo tsā ba Shākya ye shes (993–1077?), who “spoke two languages,” traveled to Nepal and India in search of Buddhist instructions, and studied with prominent teachers for thirteen years. After his return to Tibet he received the transmission of the Lam ’bras, the “Path with the Result,” and a number of other important tantric teachings from the Indian master Gayadhara (d. 1103). ’Brog mi translated a large number of tantric scriptures and commentaries, the most significant of which are the Hevajra tantra and its two explanatory tantras, as well as the Rdo rje tshig rkang (The Vajra Verses) of the Indian adept Virūpa, which is the basic text of the Lam ’bras. A number of different lineages existed for many centuries, but all eventually died out or were absorbed into the Sa skya lineage, which is now the only tradition of the Lam ’bras. Through the efforts of masters such as Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po (1092–1158), Ngor chen Kun dga’ bzang po (1382–1456), and Tshar chen Blo gsal rgya mtsho (1502–66), this tradition spread very widely in Tibet.

The venerable lord Mar pa Chos kyi blo gros (1000–1081), the “lord of yogins,” was another great translator who spent years in India and Nepal, where he received many tantric transmissions, especially from the masters Nāropa and Maitrīpa. The teachings of the Chos drug, the “Six Doctrines,” and the Mahāmudrā or Phyag chen, the “Great Seal,” that Mar pa obtained from these and other teachers became the fundamental practices of the lineage known as the Mar pa bka’ brgyud, the tradition of the “Transmitted Precepts of Mar pa.” Inspired by the example of Mar pa’s famous disciple, Rje btsun Mi la ras pa (1028–1111), this practice lineage was initially spread by masters such as Sgam po pa (1079–1153), was disseminated later through the activities of the Karma pa heirarchs, and has remained strong to the present day.

The Indian master known as Dam pa Rgya gar, the “Holy Indian,” or as Pha dam pa Sangs rgyas (d. 1105), who “dwelled on the spiritual level of attainment,” traveled to Tibet a number of times, and established the tradition known as Zhi byed, “Pacification.” His famous woman disciple Ma gcig Lab sgron (1055–1153) formulated the related tradition known as Gcod, “Severance.” The Zhi byed tradition was extremely rare by the middle of the nineteenth century, when ’Jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse’i dbang po and ’Jam mgon Kong sprul sought out the surviving teachings.6 Although the transmission of a few texts has survived, there does not seem to be any practice of this tradition today. On the other hand, the lineage of Gcod spread widely in the Rnying ma, Bka’ brgyud, and Dge lugs traditions, and there are still many practitioners.

The “translator” Gyi jo Zla ba’i od zer is generally thought to have been the first to translate the Kālacakra tantra and its major commentary into Tibetan. The special teachings of the perfection stage of the Kālacakra, usually known as the Rdo rje rnal ’byor, the “Vajrayoga,” or in full form, as the Rdo rje rnal ’byor yan lag drug pa, the “Six-branch Vajrayoga,” were transmitted in many Tibetan lineages and were incredibly influential. The Kālacakra and the Six-branch Yoga became the specialty of the Jo nang tradition, as exemplified by the teachings of Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1292–1361), and the Zhwa lu tradition, as spread in particular by Bu ston Rin chen grub (1290–1364). The Jo nang tradition later suffered from governmental suppression, but the lineage of their teachings of the Six-branch Yoga has survived into modern times through the efforts of Rig ’dzin Tshe dbang nor bu (1698–1755), Si tu Paṇ chen (1700–1774), ’Jam mgon Kong sprul, and others. The Zhwa lu lineage has been passed down to the present in the Dge lugs tradition, as well as in others schools.

During the eleventh century, when most of these great systems of meditation arrived in Tibet, there was no strong concept of “sects” or “schools.” During this period, and for at least another two centuries, numerous currents of Buddhist teachings (bka’ babs) flowed through the land, and these groups of practices were sought out indiscriminately by masters and students. This sort of eclectic approach seems to have been much more commonplace from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries than in later times. A good example is found in the Zhib mo rdo rje (The Incisive Vajra), the early thirteenth-century text translated in part two of this book. The master Zur po che Shākya ’byung gnas (1002–1062) was one of the great teachers of the Rnying ma tradition, and is particularly important for the Sems sde rdzogs chen, the “Mind Series of the Great Perfection.” The story of Zur po che’s study of newly translated tantric instructions with ’Brog mi Lo tsā ba is described in detail in the Zhib mo rdo rje.

On the other hand, from the beginning of the renaissance there was also a certain tension between the followers of the old Buddhist traditions of Tibet and those who practiced the newly translated materials introduced during the eleventh century. After all, the new influx of teachings had begun because of a widespread impression that the old practices had become hopelessly corrupt during the previous period of cultural stagnation. There is also evidence of this tension in the Zhib mo rdo rje, where the yogin Zhang ston Chos ’bar (1053–1135), who taught the Rdzogs chen during the day and practiced the Lam ’bras in secret at night, initially rejected his future disciple Sa chen Kun dga’ snying po with the words, “Are you not mistaken? I don’t even know the Dharma you want. You so-called practitioners of the new secret mantra are very opinionated. I teach the Rdzogs chen.”

In contrast to the voluminous exegetical literature surrounding the tantric scriptures themselves, the major systems of esoteric practice entered Tibet primarily by means of secret oral transmissions (snyan brgyud). Although these systems were essentially oral in nature, in most cases there were also at least a few written texts from India, the most fundamental of which were often referred to by the term rdo rje tshig rkang, “vajra verses.” Only two of the eight great systems arrived in Tibet without any written records. The Rdo rje tshig rkang of the Rdo rje gsum gyi bsnyen sgrub was placed in writing by O rgyan pa Rin chen dpal only after his return to Tibet. The tradition of the Lam ’bras was unique among the systems that had been passed down through a series of Indian teachers in that there seem to have been no written texts whatsoever in India. The Rdo rje tshig rkang of Virūpa, the fundamental text of the Lam ’bras, is said to have been memorized and passed down orally in Tibet for a hundred years before finally being written.


How to cite this document:
© Cyrus Stearns, Luminous Lives (Wisdom Publications, 2001)

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