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Historical background of Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche's life and times

From around 640 to 842 CE, Tibet was in a phase of expansion during which it absorbed the state of  Zhang-zhung, and then substantial Chinese, Nepalese and other territories surrounding it.  It was near the end of this period, that under royal patronage, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery was founded at Sam'ye.

According to legend, local deities and demons opposed to the introduction of Buddhism, destroyed every at night what was being built during the day.  Therefore, the king consulted Santarakshita, the Indian monastic who was going to be the first abbot of the new monastery.  His advice was that the tantric mahasiddha (great adept) Padmasambhava be summoned from India to tame local deities and bind them to the service of Buddha-dharma. 

It is Padmasambhava's journey through the Tibetan landscape during which he subdues and binds a succession of named deities at specific places that is at the core of accounts of his life.  These events, mythical, legendary or historical have consequences for practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism today since they determine the way in which these beings are perceived and treated, in visualization, the making of representations and in other practices.

 That is the most important aspect of his work, and the reason why he is referred to as Guru Rinpoche, being regarded as the "second Buddha."  As a consequence, he is often considered the most important siddha or accomplished yogi, and he is the central figure in the lineages that continue to preserve and transmit the siddha tradition. 

~ from 1995 paper by Prof. Geoffrey Samuel of Newcastle U.,  Australia

Some Tibetan parents cry out, "Guru Rinpoche," if a baby falls down or seems in danger. ~ Don Farber, Tibetan Buddhist Life. 2003.

Pema Kat'hang is the name for the various biographical material concerning the life of the Guru,  whose dates [see above] are also given as ca. 730 - 805.  The material is especially associated with the Nyingmapa tradition.  The one attributed to Yeshe Tsogyal (d. 817) is known in English as The Lotus-Born.  

These are "revealed" or terma texts.  One, the Sanglingma, is from Nyang Ral Nyima Öser (1124 -1192;) another is the Sheldrakma, via Urgyen Lingpa (b. 1323.) 

The 8 Secluded Places of PracticeAppendix to Precious Teacher

Drak Yong Dzong:  

  1. Samye Chimpu
  2. Lhodrak Karchu
  3. Yarlung Sheldrak
  4. Nering Senge Dzong
  5. Drakmar Yamalung
  6. Monka Nering Senge Dzong
  7. Monka Sridzong
  8. Para Taktsang Phuk
  •  See the Guru's travels in the Dowman translation that is the second part of Boudhnath Stupa article.

Forms of the Guru

8 Forms of Guru Rinpoche as Observed in the Calendar

At regular intervals, one day is dedicated to the Guru.  On each of these days, an event in his life is commemorated which corresponds to one of his eight forms. The first 3 in the year, beginning in the western lunar month after the winter solstice follow below.  [details from Snow Lion Practice Calendar].

1. Guru Rinpoche renounces his kingdom, practices yoga and meditation in the  great charnel ground of Sitavana, [Cool Grove] and attains liberation.  Gathering under him the matrikas and dakinis, he is known as Guru Shantarakshita: Guardian [Protector] of Peace.

2. Guru Rinpoche receives rabjung ordination* from Buddha's favourite disciple, Ananda.  He shows unparalleled understanding and mastery of both sutra and mantra, and is known as Guru Shakya Senge [Lion of the Shakyas] and, Guru Loden Choksé.

3. The king of Zahor tries to burn Guru Rinpoche alive.  But he transforms the fire into lake Rewalsar [tso- pema] and establishes the Dharma in the land of Zahor, taking Mandarava as his consort.  He is know as Guru Chimè Pemajugnè [Immortal Lotus-born].

4. When Tirthikas [disputing philosophers] from South India attempt to harm the Buddha Dharma, Guru Rinpoche with his great power vanquishes them along with their gods and guardians.  Raising the Victory Banner of the Dharma, he is known as Guru Sengé Dradok- the Lion's Roar.

5. Birth of Guru Rinpoche, Guru Rinpoche Day: At sunrise Guru Rinpoche is miraculously born amidst dazzling radiance in a lotus bed on Lake Danakosha.  Turning the Wheel of Dharma for the dakinis, he is know as Guru Tsokyé Dorje - Guru, the Lotus-Born Vajra.

6. The Tirthikas from Tamradvipa throw Guru Rinpoche into the Ganges.  Rising from the water, he reverses the flow of the river and performs a Vajra Dance in the sky.  The Tirthikas are inspired with devotion, and begin to follow the Dharma.  Guru Rinpoche is known as Guru Khading Tsal- Guru soaring in the sky like the garuda .

7. Guru Rinpoche takes the form of Vajrakumara at Yang Leshö in Nepal, and subdues the local deities and negative forces.  He performs the sadhana of Palchen Yangdak and atttains the Vidyadhara stage of Mahamudra realization.  He is know as Guru Dorje Tötreng- Vajra Guru, Garland of Skulls.

8. Guru Rinpoche arrives in central Tibet.  He subdues all the hostile negative forces, founds the great monastery of Chö-Khor Pal-gyi Samyé and lights the lamp of the Holy Dharma of the Sutra and Mantra teachings.  Guiding his twenty-five disciples and the king to liberation he is known as Padmasambhava, the Lotus-Born Guru.

*ordination: within the context of Buddhism, this is not an accurate expression.

Urgyen:  Where is it?

Odyana or Urgyen in Tibetan is the name given for the boyhood home of Guru Rinpoche; Wu-chang-na, in Chinese.  The word is often used as a synonym for noble when it appears in prayers.

 L. A. Waddell. Buddhism of Tibet. NY: Dover Publishing (1895) 1972:

p.14 ". . . Udyana or Urgyan corresponds to the country about Ghazni to the north-west of Kashmir."

but in footnote 3, says that ". . . Sir H. Yule, the great geographer, writes (Marco Polo, i, 155) : ‘Udyana lay to the north of Peshawar, on the Swat river, but from the extent assigned to it by Hwen Tsang, the name probably covered a large part of the whole hill region south of the Hindu Kush, from Chitral to the Indus, as indeed it is represented in the Map of Vivien de St. Martin (Pelerins Bouddhistes, ii.)

It was regarded by Fa Hsian as the most northerly Province of India, and in his time the food and clothing of the people were similar to those of Gangetic India."


This kingdom is today generally understood to be around Mandi in Bihar.

Five Consorts, or "Wisdoms," of Guru Rinpoche 

Mandarava of Zahor, considered an emanation of Vajravarahi's Body

Yeshe Tsogyal of Tibet, emanation of Vajravarahi's Speech

Belmo Sakya Devi of Nepal is considered an emanation of Vajravarahi's Mind

Belwang Kalasiddhi also of Nepal, emanation of Vajravarahi's Quality

Mangala (Monmo Tashi Khyeudren or Tashi Chidren) emanation of Vajravarahi's Activity

About the Lesser-known Consorts

Belmo Sakya Dema (or Sakya Devi) was Guru Rinpoche's first Nepali consort. He
met her at Sankhu, in the north-east corner of the Kathmandu Valley. It is an ancient pilgrimage site where people stopped on the way from Tibet to India.  It was also a centre for master bronze workers.  

(The shrine of Sankhu Vajrayogini is now known as the temple of Ugratara where the female deity is depicted wielding a sword and as such is called Khadga Yogini.) 

Belmo's legend tells how a local queen died in childbirth, but when her corpse was taken to the cremation ground the tiny daughter survived.  Suckled by the monkeys, she is raised by them.  When she was found by Padmasambhava, he noticed that her hands and feet were webbed (one of the characteristics of an enlightened being. )  He takes her with him to P'harping at the southern end of the Valley, where he teaches and initiates her 

Many years later, when Tsogyel visited Yanglesho, the Guru's former consort was  still practicing as a yogini.   Some Tibetans think that the Raj-Kumari, the so-called Living Goddess of Kathmandu, is an emanation of Belmo Sakya Dema.

Kalasiddhi was also from Nepal where her parents were weavers.  Her parents, 
Bhadana and Nagini, named their child Khandro, or Dakini.  Her father abandoned her in the charnel ground when her mother died.   There, it is believed that Mandarava, in the form of a tigress, suckled her and kept her alive. 

She grew up and managed to earn her living as a spinner and weaver of cotton.  When Yeshe Tsogyel was on her second visit to Nepal, she came across the 14-year old girl and took her under her wing renaming her, Kalasiddhi.  Dowman explains that here kala means humours as in "bodily essence." 

She accompanied Tsogyel to Tibet's first Buddhist monastery, Samye, and to the Master's retreat centre at Chimphu.  There, she becomes his consort to further the progress of Buddhist tantra in Tibet.  When Guru Pema leaves for the Southwest,  Kalasiddhi is left in Yeshe Tsogyel's care and receives transmission of zap-lam from her. 

Tashi Khyidren was the consort from Bhutan.  She may have been the daughter of the legendary King of the Iron Palace, who invited the Guru to Bhutan to cure his disease.   However, The Life says that Tashi Khyidren was the daughter of King Hamra.  At the age of thirteen, she met Yeshe Tsogyel who was meditating in the cave called Nering Drak but was being tormented by local spirits.  In admiration for the yogini, she brought her milk and honey.  

Finally, Tsogyel succeeded in subduing the spirits and also the hostile locals, and so the king grants her a boon.  Tsogyel then asks him for his daughter, and she changes her name from Khyidren to Chidren. 

Soon after, Khyidren accompanied Tsogyel to Womphu, Taktsang in Tibet, where
she meets Guru Padmasambhava.  He asked Tsogyel for the girl to be his mudra in the practice of Dorje Phurba, which he would perform for the protection of Tibet.   She is the one who is depicted as the tigress upon which the Guru and Tsogyel ride (as Vajrakila and Consort.)  She remained a devoted disciple of Yeshe Tsogyel's, and it is believed that she later was reborn as Machik Labdron's daughter.

~ Keith Dowman 


Twelve Deeds of Guru Rinpoche    a Bhutanese version.

The life of the Guru Rinpoche is retold through-out the year.  On the tenth of every lunar month, one of twelve essential incidents is recounted.  At the larger Nyingma monasteries and temples, dances are performed in the Guru's honour.  Since it is believed that he was born in the 6th month, in Bhutan  that is when the cycle begins.

In the Sixth Month

As Buddha Shakyamuni passed away, he foretold his own rebirth.  As Pema Jungney (Lotus-born) from Udyana he would spread the teachings in a tantric form.   As an eight year-old boy, he appeared in a lotus blossom on the tenth day of the sixth month in the Wood-Monkey Year.

In the Seventh Month

A disbelieving king of the land known as Zangling sealed Guru Rinpoche in a copper vessel bound with iron and threw it into a raging river. Using magical powers, the Guru freed himself and flew away.  The river changed course washing away the king's palace.  Chastened, the king asked to be forgiven and converted to Buddhism.

In the Eighth Month

Heretics tried to kill the Guru via his various sense organs.  They tried poisoned food, but they also contaminated his vision and attacked his body with poisonous vapors.  He transmuted these substances becoming ever more  radiant, and the heretics were persuaded to adopt Buddhism.

In the Ninth Month

While Guru Rinpoche was making offerings at P'harping, the cave of Yanglesho in Nepal, demons of Nepal and Tibet tried to distract him. He contended with them and won, obliging them to take an oath not to harm the followers of the Buddha's teachings.  They became the sworn protectors of Buddhism.

In the Tenth Month

In an earlier life, Guru Rinpoche had been one of the three sons of a herdswoman.  The brothers built the famous stupa at Bodhnath, Nepal.  They had requested auspicious rebirths to further the spread of Buddha-dharma and they were reborn as King Trisong-detsen, the famous abbot Shanta-rakshita, and Guru Rinpoche.

In the Eleventh Month

Guru Rinpoche traveled to Ngayabling in south-west Tibet to overthrow some demons there.  Before leaving, he revealed to King Trisong Deutsen that treasures of great religious significance would be hidden at various places; demons would be made guardians of those sites to protect them for future discovery, and five tertons or treasure-seekers, and eleven lingpas would uncover them when the time was ripe.

In the Twelfth Month

It was in the 12th month of the year that King Indra.bhuti adopted him as his son, Pema Gyalpo, Lotus Prince.  The King also conferred on him the right to rule.

In the First Month

However, Pema Gyalpo realized that political power was not meaningful, and so like Shakyamuni, he left behind his royal estate.   He did retreats and practiced austerities and meditation in the Eight Major Burial Places.

In the Second Month

Guru Rinpoche was ordained by Acharya Prabhahasti as a teacher of both the Mahayana and the Vajrayana in order to benefit other beings.

In the Third Month

Mandarava, daughter of King Tsuglagdzin of Zahor had refused all suitors  in order to devote herself to religion.  When she met Guru Rinpoche, she desired to be with him, so her infuriated father locked her up.  He attempted to burn Guru Rinpoche alive.  

Just as it is said of Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche was able to transmute the fire into water.  The Guru appeared as a lotus blossom in the midst of the lake that resulted.  The King of Zahor became a follower of Guru Rinpoche and his kingdom (usually believed to be in Bengal) became a Buddhist one.

In the Fourth Month

When Guru Rinpoche returned to the kingdom of Ugyen with Mandarava,  his former consort Ochangma was overcome with jealousy.  She, too, tried to burn him alive and with similar result. This time both he and Mandarava appeared on a lotus blossom.  The entire kingdom of Ugyen became Buddhist and his adoptive father, King Indrabhuti became an enthusiastic supporter of the Teachings.

In the Fifth Month

In Tharkye, a land in South India, there were five hundred "heretic teachers" hostile to Buddhism.  Guru Rinpoche appeared there in the form of Senge Dadog and destroyed them with his dorje (diamond thunderbolt scepter).

~ Bhutanese version of The 12 Deeds


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