Buddhaguptanatha and the Late Survival of the Siddha Tradition in India: D Templeman
David Templeman is a well respected historian who has translated many spiritual biographies. He has presented papers at a number of international Tibetan Studies’ conferences and has published a number of works. David’s current interest is in focussing on early relationships between Tibet and its neighbors and early Feng-shui concepts in Tibet. He is also translating a book about an Indian Buddhist siddha (yogi) who lived in Tibet in the 16th-17th century.
by David Templeman
The late survival of the siddha tradition in India might come as a surprise to some. It is commonly believed that Buddhism was totally eradicated by the end of the 12th century and that nothing of its religious traditions survived in the Indian sub-continent. However, there is an increasing body of evidence to show that this was not the case. In certain areas, Buddhism survived, in fact, at least into the 17th century. This article focuses on the life of one such ‘survivor,’ Buddhaguptanatha, a siddha-yogi who wandered widely and eventually taught Taranatha, Tibet’s greatest historian.
In terms of his wanderings Buddhaguptanatha was remarkable. He travelled on foot to Iran, Balkh in the north of Afghanistan, Kashgar in Central Asia, Multan, Kabul, Khorasan, Badakshan, Qusht and the lands of the Mughals. He travelled by boat to south-east Asia, particularly Indonesia, parts of Burma and possibly Thailand. It is even believed that he reached Madagascar off the coast of east Africa.
In terms of late Indian siddhas such as Buddhaguptanatha, there is very little extant literature or surviving knowledge. The text that I am basing this article on is by the Tibetan historian Taranatha (1575-?), who wrote one of the few existing biographies of such people. Buddhaguptanatha earned more renown as a siddha than anyone else in his era, precisely because of his relationship with Taranatha. He transmitted the dense details about Buddhist history and recent tantric developments that enrich so much of Taranatha’s texts.
Buddhaguptanatha demands our attention for several reasons. His observations are vital in the work of reconstructing the late Buddhist geography of India and its neighbor. It is equally valuable for the data it gives on the types of Buddhist practice that flourished in parts of the Indian world to the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
The genre into which this work fits is known as hagiography. Hagiography is a kind of spiritual biography that celebrates the inner journey of the guru. Throughout his other written texts, which dealt with India, yogic practices, other siddhas’ lives, Taranatha always says, ‘My guru told me… my guru said this… my guru’s view is at variance with the previous teacher.’ Taranatha is often at odds with Buton Rinpoche, the 14th century scholar of Tibet who is referred to by the title kun khyen (kun-mkhyen) or ‘omniscient.’ Taranatha frequently dismisses Buton’s views with the phrase, ‘my teacher said differently and I believe him.’ Clearly Buddhaguptanatha is a seminal figure in the reconstruction of late Indian Buddhism and his influence on the course of Tibetan understanding of it is unique.
He could equally well have been noted as a geographer. Taranatha’s work could have been categorised as one of the wonderful Tibetan works that springs up very late as ‘geographical curiosities’ or ‘curiosities of the outer world.’ By this stage – the early 17th century – Tibetans were beginning to return to India for the first time since the great cultural transmigration of 8th to 9th and then 12th to 13th centuries. When the Tibetans did start returning to India, they were absolutely astounded by what they saw, and recorded their impressions in a kind of ‘literature of wonder and amazement.’
Unlike other writers who travelled to British India, such as Jigme Lingpa who actually describes quite accurately the secular world and its wonders – such as a barrel organ or a twenty-five gun sailing vessel moored in Calcutta – Buddhaguptanatha is impressed at only the Buddhist things in India. He records them with amazement and gives us very Buddhistic descriptions of what he saw. In his description of Mt Potalaka, for example, Buddhaguptanatha describes in which part of India it is located and which river you might go up to get there. He then drops all pretense to facts and becomes poetically vague:
And when I was there it was amazing, as if I were in a dream. I saw streams flowing from the top of Mt Potalaka and I saw Manjushri seated amidst clouds on the very peak…
Therefore, while we might discover much about Buddhist India in the 16th and 17th centuries from such texts as these, we must not expect too much accuracy and detail.
In order to understand who Buddhaguptanatha was, we should first look at his name. While the Buddha part tells us something about his spiritual affiliation, it is the nath part that we should discuss first. He belonged to what is known as the ‘Nath’ or ‘Gorakhnathi’ tradition of Shiva worship. Gorakhnathis are a Hindu Sannyasin sect. In 1911 there were 45,000 of them in the census of India. There are probably more than that now. It is one of the Hindu yogic sects that have found increasing favor in India.
Naths tend to wear white clothing and are identified by what is called the kanphata, the split ear, with an ivory ring thrust into the lobe. Naths have a tremendous tradition of pilgrimage and of scholarship. They practise a type of Hatha Yoga which, in its externals, is similar to the Tibetan yogic tradition. The Nath understanding of the physical and psychological structure of the body is much the same as that found in Buddhist tantric practices, with its focus on the ‘moon channel,’ ‘ sun channel,’ bindu drops, et cetera. Buddhaguptanatha then, started his life as a Gorakhnath yogi. As we can see from this description, his teacher was one of the ‘cultural types’ one may still find in India:
His guru, Tirthanatha, had hair which grew to thirty feet in length and his beard grew to ten feet in length due to his inherent powers. Beings who met him lived in absolute amazement. The king Ramraj had doubts about the genuineness of Tirthanatha, but after he had thoroughly inspected the situation he came to believe that this was indeed a true yogi. He ornamented each one of Tirthanatha’s hairs with a pearl, and the acharya, that is my (Taranatha's) teacher, said that when each of the pearls was then taken out of his hair and they were heaped up into a huge pile, anyone who passed by was free to remove one of those pearls. Then the guru wandered off to a place where he would be happier by being less bothered by people.
For the first thirty years of Buddhaguptanatha’s life, he was apprenticed to this guru, Tirthanatha. Then in his thirtieth year, while he was meditating at the Nath pilgrimage site of Rathor in Rajasthan, he had a strange vision, a vision of the Buddhist goddess Vajrayogini. This key incident is recorded very briefly in Taranatha’s biography of his master. It is almost like it is a ‘non-conversion.’ One might expect that someone who is converting from being a Nath to a Buddhist would make it some kind of focal point, but it is really not presented that way in Taranatha’s writings:
At that time, when he was in Rathor in the land of Maru, after one of the king’s men had presented him with gifts, he erected a small, grass kuti hut and he set himself in one-pointed meditation. While he was in a dream the form of Vajrayogini repeatedly appeared before him and levels of super-knowledge arose in him.
Then a few lines later:
At other times, again and again, Vajrayogini came to him in dreams in the guise of a barmaid and she overcame all his impediments, time and time again.
From then on Buddhaguptanatha seems to abandon his allegiance to Nath practice, and becomes a Buddhist. He goes to shared pilgrimage spots revered by both Buddhists and Hindus and rarely goes to exclusively Nathi pilgrimage spots. He does not castigate his previous belief system and he does not set out to dismantle it in any way. He really seems to see it as a natural stepping stone into Buddhism.
Why would the process of ‘conversion’ be so gentle, so apparently smooth? It could have been because there existed a lineage within the Nath sect called the ‘Natheshvari,’ which combined Buddhist and Hindu teachings. These Natheshvaris held Buddhist lineages of instruction within their own Hindu teaching milieu and yet they remained Nath siddhas.
All of Buddhaguptanatha’s three main gurus, Tirthanatha, Brahmanatha and Krishnanatha belonged to this dissident group known as the Natheshvari. These three masters taught within a recognised Buddhist tradition, a fact which might make us redefine some of our presuppositions about religious ‘exclusivity’ in India.
In a sense, Buddhist and Nath yogis might have felt they were sharing, to a great extent, a common path. Perhaps it is even true to say that the community of yogis in the 17th century was more grounded in a sense of cooperation than on more specious distinctions, such as those between Buddhism and Hinduism or, even more abstrusely, into Anuttara (highest yoga) practitioner or lower-level practitioner.
Certainly, right until the end of his life, Buddhaguptanatha continued to travel to the recognised pilgrimage places that were sacred to the Kanphata sect of Nath yogins. Even when he was a mature-age siddha and had practised all the major Buddhist tantras, he continued to visit pilgrimage sites of two quite clearly distinct types:
Those that were specifically Buddhist, such as Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Rajagriha, et cetera.
Those of dual-occupancy where the sacred spots themselves were sacred within both the Buddhist tradition and the Kanphata tradition.
It is of interest that many of these ‘dual-occupancy’ sites tend to crop up again and again in the lives of other mahasiddhas and great yogis, such as Tilopa.
We could suggest from the biography, that Buddhaguptanatha spent a lot more time visiting pithas or pilgrimage places, which were simply meeting places for yogis, than he did going to exclusively ‘sacred’ places of worship. Most of what he appears to do in such places is to talk and chat with other yogis; so much so that he seems to have been somewhat disinterested in philosophic discussions. Indeed, the only time Buddhaguptanatha seems to have shown any sense of exclusivity and really resented mixing with other people was when he had to mix with other Buddhists! When his travels took him to Indonesia, he makes it clear that he intensely disliked the fact that there were Hinayanists, or Theravadins, there. The text says:
He went northwards and came to the land of Javadvipa, which is known in Tibetan as the ‘land of Bali.’ In that land there were many shravakas belonging to the Sendhapa order of monks. In the midst of a lake there was a small island…
In that place, the acharya, Padmavajra gave his blessings. Outside was a rocky cavern, inside of which there was a square-shaped temple. In the middle of this sat a self-created stone image of the two-armed form of Hevajra. In another cave were kept many sacred tantric volumes, five hundred thousand verse tantras… If one looked at them carefully they were not in such a state of disorder as he had heard they were said to be…
Clearly the monks held a sense of disrespect for the tantric teachings here and the Sendhapas – once sacristans at Bodhgaya itself – had long been antagonistic, even to the Mahayana. Buddhaguptanatha then, set out to put these texts in order. In Java, there was a tantric heritage that had been relegated to caves while the monastic order ruled the rest of the island. I believe that this led Buddhaguptanatha to feel some residual resentment towards the Sendhapas. He felt very uncomfortable staying with them in their monasteries and obeying the many rules by which monks were bound. As a siddha, he possibly felt more at ease with the life of the wanderer – sharing friendship and a sense of direct practical experience with yogis of any and all traditions – rather than with the more measured and controlled life of a monk.
Taranatha gives us a wonderful description of Dumasthira (the ‘smoky place’), which was the capital city of Urgyan. Urgyan has taken on an almost mythical quality over the centuries since yogi-siddhas first ‘colonised’ it in the 4th and 5th centuries. It is the site par excellence in siddha biographies. Here, we have a wanderer visiting it in about 1580 and still discovering its magical qualities! Buddhaguptanatha locates Urgyan in Ghazni, in modern Afghanistan, which is in contrast with the traditional location of Urgyan in the Swat area. Here, Taranatha gives a detailed description of the country and Dumasthira, the focal location of the magic dakini women:
Dumasthira… is surrounded by mountains, valleys and dense forests and it sits in the midst of all of them. Going from east to west directly, it measures about two days’ journey and from south to north is about four days. Dumasthira is the only city in Urgyan. It’s the size of a small Indian city.
There are four ways that lead out of the central area and the outer lands of Urgyan are also very extensive. It is in Muslim control, and even today, in the central part, there is not the slightest vestige of the order of Buddhist monks any longer. There are, however, groups of fully renunciate yogis, upasakas (lay people) and tirthikas [[[Wikipedia:Jainas|Jainas]]], as well as the Muslims there.
It appears that most of the women of this town are of the dakini family and that they are fully accomplished in their spiritual practice. They are powerful in their exercise of mantras and they know how to both help and hinder with them. They are skilled in adopting various physical forms and they have the ability to work with the mystic gaze.
They displayed various magical abilities involving birds and my master, Buddhaguptanatha, saw these miracles with his very own eyes and he told me of them. He said that previously when he was in Upper Hor [[[Wikipedia:Muslim|Muslim]] territories]… he was fully protected by the mantras that he had received from those dakinis in Urgyan, as well as by his own physical powers. Urgyan is surrounded to the east, the south and the west by three large lakes. When he… crossed over the pass he came into the Hor Mleccha land of Balkh [northern central area of modern Afghanistan].
We also have a lovely description of another of Buddhaguptanatha’s wandering adventures:
He wandered elsewhere… as he was doing so a certain prostitute who was washing herself inside an empty house splashed water on his head and said the words, ‘Vijnanajnanam Avarjitavivarjitam,’ which means, ‘seek after the elements of consciousness and forsake ignorance, now and in the future.’ Thereafter, he gained great confidence in this instruction which he had been vouchsafed. And he said to me (Taranatha) that this woman might not have been a prostitute but a jnana dakini, a wisdom-holding goddess.
As mentioned above, there are suggestions that Buddhaguptanatha reached Madagascar. In the language of the people around that area it was called ‘Samloranzo.’ I suggest this is in fact San Lorenzo, or Sao Lorenco, which is the name Pedro Alvarez Cabral, commander of the Portugese fleet, gave to Madagascar in 1500. Taranatha records his teacher as saying that:
In that place of Samloranzo, the tantric teachings have spread very widely. He heard there the empowerments for Samvara, Hevajra and the full range of teachings on Hevajra Tantra from a teacher called Sumati.
Then Taranatha goes on to talk about what Buddhaguptanatha learned, and describes the monks of that area. He says many of the teachings emanating from the renowned Padmasambhava are to be discovered there in Samloranzo, but his description of them is somewhat perplexing:
Although there are many monks there, they don’t seem to obey the basic Vinaya rules of Buddhism in a full or complete manner. They dress in black and they drink alcohol among other things. He stayed there for about a year. At that time his guru Sumati passed away and then he had to go elsewhere.
Could his description of them and their practices be one of the earliest records of Catholic missionary activity in Madagascar in the early 17th century? He could well be referring to Jesuits he saw there, but he describes them as some sort of bizarre semi-Buddhist sect. Possibly the alcohol is a reference to the inclusion of wine at the Mass.
When Buddhaguptanatha was seventy-six years old, he met the young, nearly sixteen-year-old Tibetan monk Taranatha, on one of his travels into Tibet. The story goes that Taranatha had dreams preceding this event, on the second day of the eighth Hor month (1590). Already something of a prodigy, he dreamed while in meditation retreat at Mahabodhi near Narthang, that he was encouraged to eat a piece of human flesh and that he was suffused with bliss as a consequence. He also dreamed that he was able to fly in the sky and had become a vidyadhara. The following day, the south Indian Buddhaguptanatha arrived at Mahabodhi, semi-naked and with his hair bedecked with yellow flowers. Buddhaguptanatha described his journey into Tibet to Taranatha, and the young acolyte was especially impressed with the account of all Tibet’s local spirits coming to meet the siddha and of the mountains along the way bowing their peaks towards him.
Buddhaguptanatha commenced, at Taranatha’s request, to teach him all he knew. Thus began the transmission of the vast knowledge that Taranatha was to use throughout the rest of his life. After forty-six years of peregrination around India, central Asia and south-east Asia, Buddhaguptanatha brought with him to Tibet a huge awareness of the geography and history of the places he had visited in person and those that he had heard about from fellow ascetics. It is precisely these aspects that stand out in Taranatha’s writings as the cornerstones of the factual validity for which his writings are renowned. Taranatha is hailed by Tibetan and Indian scholars as the most accurate of all those who recorded the history of Buddhism in India.
According to Taranatha himself, he did not simply rely on his memory to recall the facts. He wrote notes and comments on all the data that he received orally, and it is presumably from these notes and jottings that he was able to so accurately compile his later works. Works that depended completely on that very sense of detail for much of their validity. He used lists as an aid to memory, most of them apparently based on alphabetical lists and mnemonic devices. As Taranatha writes:
I wrote notes, I wrote addenda lists to my notes and I ensured that these were not fragmentary or careless. Whatever teachings he gave me I wrote them all down on paper.
On one memorable occasion, just before a Tara initiation, Taranatha dreamed about just how important these teachings were to him. He saw his skin peeled and stitched together to act as paper, his life’s blood becoming ink, his ribs becoming quills and his entrails and bones being used as bindings and thongs for the volumes.
After a few months in Tibet, Buddhaguptanatha would not promise to stay any longer, despite Taranatha’s entreaties. There is no clear reason given for the rift between them, but there are clues to be found in Taranatha’s Secret Biography. In a dream Taranatha had at Samding, he saw a complex mandala of pandits including Aryadeva, and siddhas including Matangi. Taranatha felt that he had now ‘joined’ that lineage, at which thought a young maiden appeared from out of the mandala and told him that he still possessed a huge amount of dualistic thought and pride and thereby insulted the yogic tradition. In Taranatha’s biography of Buddhaguptanatha, it is simply said that Taranatha was told that he had too much dualistic thought and that no more teachings were to be made available to him. Even Buddhagupta’s students Nirvanasripada and Purnavajrapada, who visited some years later, refused to ‘complete’ Buddhaguptanatha’s teachings. When Taranatha requested that they do so, they left hurriedly!
Another reason for Buddhaguptanatha’s eventual departure could have been simply his difficulty in remaining too close to a monastic situation, the confining nature of which he had experienced previously in Indonesia. For Buddhaguptanatha, monasticism and yogic practice did not sit well together.
Taranatha records something of his master’s character with great affection. He says that he was in complete control of his psychic winds and could sit naked in the cold Tibetan highlands, warming disciples within two metres of himself. His lightness of body meant that travel through the mountains was extremely easy for him and also enabled him to fall from considerable heights without injury, as he would descend rather like a sloughed-off snakeskin. His loving attitude towards all creatures changed the normally savage Tibetan mastiff dogs into lap dogs, which would come and lick his body. So gentle was he, that crows and nestlings would come to him and sit on his lap and fingers, and even though he were to stroke them, they would not flee. Spirits provided him with food and he was never seen to partake of mortal food with his Tibetan students.
It is tempting to imagine that such siddhas survived even later in India and continually added to Tibetan understandings of Buddhism with their knowledge of ‘lost’ and ‘hidden’ teachings, which had somehow miraculously survived in India. However, Buddhaguptanatha’s remarkable life should serve to remind us that Buddhism is capable of survival in any environment and under any circumstances. Its ability to survive in any situation is one of its glories and its late survival in India is testimony to this ability.