Rnying ma Tantras
Rnying ma Tantras 391 initiated at Narthang (Snar thang) by a Bka’ gdams pa follower of the new tantras, Jamyang (’Byams dbyangs), who was at the time serving in China at the court of the Yuan Emperor Renzong (仁宗) or Buyantu Khan (r. 1311–1320), and who sent funds back to Narthang together with requests urging that such a canon be made (Harrison, 1996, 74–76; see also Gzhon nu dpal, 1984–1985, 410–412).
However, some slightly later Kanjurs, following the 14th- century Tshal pa redaction, did begin to accept a small segregated old tantras section, while a regional late 17th-century Kanjur from Tawang, connected with the fifth and sixth Dalai Lamas, includes many more old tantras amongst the main body of its collection (Samten, 1994).
There is little evidence for a closed canon of Vajrayāna texts in the great Indian centers of learning to which Tibetans had traditionally turned, such as the monastic universities of Nālandā or Vikramaśīla, or, for that matter, even of a closed Indian canon for Mahāyāna scriptures.
On the contrary, the Indian siddhas’ vision was more often one of unlimited tantric scriptures existing in the buddha fields, which could be progressively revealed to human siddhas on earth over the course of time.
for at that time, from the late 8th century to the 10th century, Indian Tantrism was still in its most productive phase, so that for the first two hundred years and more of tantric Buddhism in Tibet, numerous new tantric Buddhist scriptures were still being revealed in India, some of which, like the Hevajratantra and the Kālacakratantra, were to become highly influential in many parts of Asia.
In China, by contrast, a systematic control of the Buddhist canon modelled on secular precedents had first been attempted as early as the 6th century, and in subsequent centuries, the regulation of the Buddhist canon increasingly became a significant aspect of Chinese governance, supported by a growing bibliographical literature that sought to identify undesirable texts by virtue of their non- Indic origins or their excessively transgressive tantric content (Lancaster, 1989, 187; Tokuno, 1990).
A major difference between the old and new tantra traditions is thus that while the former remained conservatively attached to the original Indian model of an open, somewhat distributed, and only informally regulated tantric scriptural literature,
the latter promoted the reforming, modernizing agenda of a single monolithic and highly regulated set of tantras to be included in a single canon alongside the sūtras and other non-tantric Buddhist scriptures which,
while different from the Chinese model in its internal arrangement of texts, its rejection in most cases of multiple translations, and its inclusion of esoteric tantras, nevertheless resembled the Chinese canon in its basic rationale of regulation,
While for these reasons excluded from the prestigious new Kanjur (the so-called Old Narthang), many old tantras continued to be preserved within their original collections, simply known as tantra collections (rgyud ’bum) or, after a while, old tantra collections (rnying ma’i rgyud ’bum).
Some texts are preserved in more specialized collections, such as the Vairo Rgyud ’bum and the Rgyud bcu bdun, which have only atiyoga texts, or the Rnying ma Bka’ ma, which was compiled slightly later and has a few tantric scriptures accompanied by many more commentaries.
It is not known when the first large collections of old tantras appeared, but it was probably quite early:
A collection in 30 volumes containing 335 texts (or 375 by another count) is also mentioned in the biography of the Rnying ma master Nam mkha’ dpal (1171[?]–1237[?]), who is said to have compiled it on the occasion of the death of his father, the great codifier of the old tantras, Nyang ral nyi ma ’i ’od zer (1124–1192), although this collection seems to have also included a number of new tantras (Nyang ral, vol. I, 1977, 55–59).
Over succeeding centuries, many further collections of old tantras were made, which varied in both size and contents.
A notable development was the old tantra collection in 42 volumes organized by Ratna Gling pa in the 15th century, based on the Zur family collection mentioned above, which is said to be the basis of modern recensions and transmissions (Mayer, 1996, 225).
The surviving old tantra collections still vary in size and contents, between 929 texts in 46 volumes, in the probably 17th-century Bhutanese manuscript recension, and 448 texts in 26 volumes in the late 18th-century Sde dge xylograph.
Excluding the unknown number of scriptures preserved only 392 Rnying ma Tantras within gter ma collections, the total number of different texts within the extant old tantra collections per se has recently been estimated by the University of Virginia’s online Tibetan and Himalayan Library as 1,133, of which 478 are classified as rdzogs chen, 45 as anuyoga, 568 as mahāyoga, and 42 as supplementary texts (kha skong).
No other categories of texts are included within the old tantra collections other than these three most esoteric types of tantras, all of which are believed to record the utterances of or dialogues between enlightened buddhas.
The modern study of the old tantra collections is not so advanced as that of the Kanjur, and their study is additionally hampered by the destruction since the 1950s by the Chinese of about 95% of old tantra collection witnesses (personal communication, E.G. Smith).
Collectively, they fall within six different doxographical redactions (see below, where they are listed within their groupings).
Although notionally based upon the new tantras, the important Bka’ brgyud traditions in particular have made copious use of the old tantras, to the extent that in some cases, they practice as much or even more old tantra than new tantra.
The ’Khon clan hierarchs, hereditary heads of the Sa skya school which notionally upholds a new tantra orthodoxy, retain the [[old tantra] cycle]] of Rdo rje Phur pa as their main meditational deity (yi dam), and the great Dge lugs monastery of Se ra, one of Tibet’s major institutions and notionally based on the new tantras, also took the old tantra cycle of Rta mgrin yang gsang (Hayagrīva) as its main meditational deity (Dreyfus, 2003, 348n48).
Several Dalai Lamas, notably the fifth, thirteenth, and fourteenth, have been active promoters of the old tantras, not least because the visionary old tantra usage of Tibetan national narratives has rendered them a key element in attempts at national reunification, throughout Tibetan history (Kapstein, 2000, 141–162).
So while some might assume Tibet to have a notionally closed canon, the actual historical reality is more complex: the case was rather that of a dual system in which notionally closed and open tantric canons co-existed in parallel.
If some advocates of the closed canon rejected the open canon as apocryphal, and if some advocates of the open canon likewise deprecated the closed canon as including texts inferior to their own (Ogyan Tanzin, 2013), and as having lost its revelatory vitality, it seems more probable that over the longer course of Tibetan history, an overall majority of lamas have de facto accepted in parallel the simultaneous validity of both open and closed canons.
Tibetan historiography associates the old tantras with the great state-sponsored introduction of Buddhism that began in the late 7th century, when Emperor Khri Srong lde btsan invited many famous Buddhist teachers to Tibet, including some masters of Tantra.
Yet the evidence from this period is by no means unambiguous.
More exoteric tantric systems were indeed translated, and some of these were actively promoted, for example, the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhitantra as a part of state ritual, and the Sarvadurgatipariśodhanatantra as a mortuary text to replace the traditional funerary rite.
However, the more esoteric forms of tantric Buddhism (Vajrayāna) that made prominent use of charnel ground imagery, which were still relatively new and controversial even in India at that time, seem to have been controlled (Ishikawa, 1990,
4). The two surviving official catalogues of texts translated (’Phang thang ma and Ldan dkar ma/Lhan dkar ma) show little sign of the vast repertoire of highly esoteric mahāyogatantras, anuyogatantras, and atiyogatantras, which the later Rnying ma tradition takes as its most prestigious and important scriptures,
and upon which it is founded (although we cannot say whether some such texts might have appeared in the third catalogue that is no longer extant, the Mchims phu ma; Hermann- Pfandt, 2002, 129–149; Halkias, 2004, 46–105).
One of them, the Sgra sbyor bam po gnyis pa of 814 ce, specified that such tantras should be kept secret by order of the state because of their unsuitability for the spiritually immature, and then observed that the existing translations of such tantras had already caused damage through their concealed meanings not being understood, so that further translation should stop (Ishikawa, 1990, 4).
was invited to Tibet by the emperor, but created alarm through his inordinate and frightening displays of miraculous powers, and so was sent back to India after only a short time (Wangdu & Diemberger, 2000, 52–60).
It is unfortunate that a serious dearth of sources renders the early history of the old tantras frustratingly obscure.
After the collapse of the Tibetan Empire in the mid-9th century, disorder prevailed across most of the region for nearly a 150 years, in a period known as the “Time of Fragments” (bsil ba’i dus), when the historical record became largely erased.
It is therefore very hard to ascertain if kāpālika-style Vajrayāna was entirely banned during the empire, or if it was merely restricted to small elite circles who had already obtained it, or if it was at first restricted, and later allowed more widely. Scholars are still struggling to understand the early history of the old tantras.
That Vajrayāna did become successful quite early on is established by a partial glimpse into the latter part of the “Time of Fragments,” offered by an ancient sealed document store which remained undisturbed in Dunhuang, a cave temple site at the Chinese side of the Silk Routes, until its recovery in the 20th century.
The numerous largely 10th-century tantric manuscripts amongst its holdings reveal a snapshot from shortly before the phyi dar, of what one might call a flourishing proto-Rnying ma, already showing many of the texts, named personages, doctrines, and tantric doxographical categories, associated with the later Rnying ma school.
For example, the greater part of the Dunhuang materials on the popular phur pa rituals reappeared within later Rnying ma texts (Cantwell & Mayer, 2008), and the longest of them (IOL Tib J 331.III) became quite prominent, through its incorporation complete and verbatim into the definitive 12th- century codification of Rnying ma mahāyoga, Nyang ral nyi ma’i ’od zer’s Bka’ brgyad bde gshegs ’dus pa (see below).
Another influential survivor from Dunhuang is the ’Phags pa Thabs kyi zhags pa padma ’phreng gi don bsdus pa (henceforth Thabs zhags), which together with its commentary, comprises IOL Tib J 321 in the British Library (Cantwell & Mayer, 2012).
The Thabs zhags has remained canonical for the Rnying ma, who consider it one of their 18 tantras of mahāyoga, a core grouping of highly prestigious texts, several of which are referred to amongst the Dunhuang finds (Almogi, 2014).
The Thabs zhags and others among the 18 tantras of mahāyoga share several historical indicators with the Sarvabuddhasamāyog aḍākinījālaśaṃvara, a version of which is also mentioned at Dunhuang, and which itself also became one of the 18 tantras of mahāyoga.
A. Sanderson has established this text to be historically intermediate between the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha and the Guhyasamāja on the one hand, and the full- on yoginī or yoganiruttaratantras on the other hand.
Thus Sanderson locates its production in India from the late 8th through 9th centuries (Sanderson, 2009, 145ff), in other words, broadly contemporaneous with Emperor Khri Srong lde btsan and his successors.
It maintains two parallel pantheons: a maṇḍala (circle) of fifty peaceful deities which was an adaptation of the 37 deity maṇḍala of the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṃgraha basic to yogatantra, but here, the male and female figures are paired as consorts, and a number of further female deities are added to complete the set.
Then there is a parallel more esoteric maṇḍala of terrifying charnel-ground deities, whose central form is the ferocious Śrī Heruka still familiar to modern Rnying ma, with 9 heads and 18 arms, surrounded by the still popular ten wrathful deities (Khro bo bcu), each accompanied by two zoocephalic female emanations.
IOL Tib J 321 has a marginal note connecting the revelation of the Thabs zhags root scripture with Padmasambhava, the highly mythologised founder of Tibetan tantric Buddhism, here already presented as a uniquely great enlightened being.
The concluding verse of the commentary is a praise of Padmasambhava as the “Lotus King” (padma rgyal po), which verse was later incorporated into the mainstream Padmasambhava hagiographical tradition (Cantwell & Mayer, 2012, 93).
The doctrinal ethos of the Thabs zhags is not at all dissimilar to that of later Rnying ma authors, such as Rong zom pa (11th cent.; exact dates unknown) and Klong chen pa (1308–1362), who cite it several times.
More than half of all the chapters of the Thabs zhags commentary (chs. 18–40) are dedicated specifically to the encoding of mainstream abstract Buddhist doctrines within a wide range of quotidian pragmatic rituals, so that the rehearsal of those doctrines was rendered inseparable from and integral to the performance of such rituals (Cantwell & Mayer, 2012, 78–82).
The Thabs zhags version of mahāyoga bears a close resemblance to the doctrine of the sameness of all dharmas (mnyam pa’i chos) of the Rgyud gsang ba’i snying po or *Guhyagarbhatantra, which is nowadays considered the most prestigious of all tantras by the Rnying ma school.
This famous doctrine, which involves realising all phenomena of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa alike as primordially pure, is seen by some modern scholars (Karmay, 1988, 11) as one of the historical roots of the Rdzogs chen (“Great Perfection”) mysticism of the Rnying ma pa.
Recent modern research into Dunhuang documents has now shown that despite all the traditional uncertainties about their origins, the old tantra traditions extant today do reflect at least some genuinely old traditions, including several that were already well developed by the time the Dunhuang caves were sealed in the 11th century;
PT44 describes Padmasambhava redacting the full textual corpus of the Kīla (“Stake”) deity that he had procured from the Indian monastic university of Nālandā into a new arrangement for transmission to his Tibetan and Nepalese disciples, now redacted to incorporate Himalayan protector deities that he himself had newly tamed (Cantwell & Mayer, 2008, 41–68).
References to such winged Herukas seem to be extremely infrequent in Indian sources, unless in rare hybridized forms with Garuḍa; yet the classic old tantra form of Heruka is both independently winged and quite ubiquitous.
This seems significant because birds, wings, and avian symbolism in general, are fundamental to indigenous Tibetan religion, so that the highly accentuated presence of wings on the old tantric Herukas might have originated as a means of adaptive indigenization.
It seems likely that most old tantras were produced in Tibet through the 9th and 10th centuries, by Tibetan masters quite possibly emulating their Indian siddha counterparts, who during that period produced many new tantras in India.
In the political chaos of postimperial Tibet, what were to become Tibet’s old tantras were compiled in Tibetan, while in India, in the political chaos between the first and second Pala empires, what were to become Tibet’s new tantras were compiled in Sanskrit.
While the Indian yoganiruttaratantras or yoginītantras freely incorporated numerous verses directly from Śaiva scriptures (Sanderson, 2001, 41ff), less evidence of such direct verbatim reproduction of Śaiva wording has so far been discovered in the numerous old tantras that were redacted in Tibet.
By contrast, they show occasional evidence of the absorption of indigenous Tibetan ritual categories, such as the protective deities that hover around the body (’go ba’i lha lnga; Mayer, 1996, 132) and a type of fierce female deity known as gze ma (Cantwell & Mayer, 2007, 27–28, 196–203).
While many yoganiruttaratantras or yoginītantras became increasingly concerned to invert the peculiarly Indian ritual notions of purity and pollution, thus becoming increasingly violent, sexual, and linguistically crude, the old tantras tended to be less directly concerned with such inversions.
No comparable genre to atiyoga was ever developed in India, and there are no new tantra equivalents; and several scholars have discussed their affinity with Chinese Chan Buddhism (van Schaik, 2004, 2012).
While the Indian yoganiruttaratantras or yoginītantras introduced new inner yogas involving subtle physical veins and wheels (nāḍī, cakra), these do not seem to have been prominent in the earliest old tantras, since there is little sign of them at Dunhuang, although the Rnying ma tradition did subsequently absorb the methods.
While the yoganiruttaratantras or yoginītantras were often intertextual amongst themselves (as well as with Śaiva texts), they showed little sign of iconographical organization into a single grand unified system; but the most widely practiced genre of old tantra, known as mahāyoga,
did at some stage become organized into a symmetrical set of eight identical fierce Heruka deities, each with three heads, six arms, four legs, and two wings, differentiated mainly by their hand implements.
Doctrinal features of mahāyoga were also standardized, for example, in the use across numerous of its sādhanas of the same sequence of three meditations (trisamādhi; ting ’dzin gsum) through which the deity is visualized.
An electronic version made from the paper publication is available from the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (TBRC, at http://www.tbrc.org), under the title, rnying ma rgyud ’bum, mtshams brag dgon pa’i bris ma (W21521).
It is also available online, linked to its detailed catalogue by THL, at http://www.thlib.org/ encyclopedias/literary/canons/ngb/catalog.php#cat=tb.
More recent color images are available from the British Library Endangered Archives Research Project (EAP) 310/4/1/1– 4/1/47, a digitization project by Karma Phuntsho, at http://eap.bl.uk/database/overview_project.a4d?projID= EAP310;r=20825.
(2) Sgang steng-a:
Digital images were made by Karma Phuntsho as part of the British Library Endangered Archives Research Project EAP039, 2005, and preserved in the British Library, in the National Library and Archive of Bhutan, and at Gangtey Monastery, but their widespread distribution remains forbidden by the monastery.
Digital images of Sgang steng- b were made under an AHRC funded project at Oxford University in 2004 by Karma Phuntsho, Cathy Cantwell, and Rob Mayer, but their distribution remains forbidden by the monastery.
A title catalogue of Sgang steng- b is availablein Achard et al., 2006.
A full set of color digital images were made by Karma Phuntsho in January, 2012, jointly by CSMC, University of Hamburg in cooperation with the Bhutanese NGO Preservation of Bhutan’s Written Heritage, just prior to the destruction of the monastery by fire in February, 2012 (Almogi, forthcoming), but have not been made available for distribution.
It is also available online, linked to its detailed catalogue by THL, at http://www.thlib.org/ encyclopedias/literary/canons/ngb/catalog.php#cat=tk. A detailed print catalogue was published in Roman Wylie transcription with Japanese discussion (Kaneko, 1980).
(8) Rig ’dzin Tshe dbang nor bu: the Rig ’dzin Tshe dbang nor bu edition of the rNying ma’i rgyud ’bum. 29 volumes are held at the British Library, with the pressmark, Or.15217. Volume Ka is held at the Bodleian Library Oxford at the shelfmark, MS. Tib.a.24(R).
Microfilm is available from the British Library, and the Bodleian Library for volume Ka. Title folios to volume Ga and volume A are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, accession nos.: IM 318–1920 and IM 317–1920.
A detailed electronic inventory was made by Cathy Cantwell, Michael Fischer, and Rob Mayer, originally on ngb.csac.anthropology.ac.uk, but currently in process of transfer to the University of Vienna’s Resources for Kanjur and Tenjur Studies https://www.istb.univie. ac.at/kanjur/xml3/xml/index.php.
(c) Tibetan-Nepalese borderlands recension in 37 volumes, with two extant manuscript witnesses (but many of its texts descend from the same exemplars or near ancestors as texts from the South-Central Tibetan Tradition, so that for text-critical purposes, one can sometimes more fruitfully regard it as a subbranch of the South- Central Tibetan tradition; see Cantwell & Mayer, 2007, 70–78; Almogi, forthcoming):
Monochrome microfilm was made by the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project in 1993, and can now be digitised to order: NGMPP Reel Nos. L 426/4–L 448/1.
(10) Kathmandu: manuscript edition of the Rnying ma’i rgyud ’bum from the Khumbu region, held by the National Archives, Kathmandu. Microfilm is available through the Nepal Research Centre of the Nepalese- German Manuscript Cataloguing Project. The short title is Rnying ma rgyud ’bum, ms. no.22, running no. 17, reel AT12/3–AT13/1.
The original woodblocks survive and are still in use. Hence numerous prints are available around the world.
Details will eventually become available at TBRC Resource ID W2PD17382 Secondary Literature Achard, J-L., C. Cantwell, M. Kowalewski & R. Mayer, “The sGang steng-b rNying ma’i rGyud ’bum manuscript from Bhutan,” RET 11, 2006, 1–141.
Almogi, O., “The Eighteen Mahāyoga Tantric Cycles: A Real Canon or the Mere Notion of One?,” RET 30, 2014, 47–110. Cantwell, C., & R. Mayer, A Noble Noose of Methods, the Lotus Garland Synopsis: A Mahāyoga Tantra and Its Commentary, Vienna, 2012.
Dreyfus, G., The Sound of Two Hands Clapping: The Education of a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, Los Angeles, 2003. Gray, D., “On the Very Idea of a Tantric Canon: Myth, Politics, and the Formation of the Bka’ ’gyur,” JIATS, 2010.
Herrmann-Pfandt, A., “The Lhan kar ma as a Source for the History of Tantric Buddhism,” in: H. Eimer & D. Germano, eds., The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Leiden 2000, Leiden, 2002, 129–149.
The Great Perfection: A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism, Leiden, 1988. Lancaster, L.R., “The Rock Cut Canon in China: Findings at Fang-Shan,” in: T. Skorupski, ed., The Buddhist Heritage, BBSC 1, Tring, 1989.
Nyang-ral Nyi-ma-’od-zer, Mnga’-bdag, Bka brgyad Bdegśegs dus pai chos skor: A Reproduction of a Manuscript Collection of Texts from the Revelations of Mṅa- bdagÑaṅ-ral Ñi-ma-od-zer, vol. I, Dalhousie, 1977. Ogyan Tanzin, P., “The Six Greatnesses of the Early Translations according to Rong-zom Mahāpaṇḍita,” in:
Samten, J., “Notes on the bKa’ ’gyur of O- rgyan-gling, The Family Temple of the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683–1706),” in: P. Kvaerne, ed., Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992 Vol. I, Oslo, 1994, 393–402.
Sanderson, A., “The Śaiva Age: The Rise and Dominance of Śaivism during the Early Medieval Period,” in: S. Einoo, ed., Genesis and Development of Tantrism, Tokyo, 2009, 41–349. Sanderson, A., “History through Textual Criticism in the Study of Śaivism, the Pañcarātra and the Buddhist Yoginītantras,” in: F. Grimal, ed., Les Sources et le temps: Sources and Time, PDI 91,
Tokuno, K., “The Evaluation of Indigenous Scriptures in Chinese Buddhist Bibliographical Catalogues,” in: R. Buswell, ed., Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, Honolulu, 1990. Wangdu, P., & H. Diemberger, dBa’ bzhed: The Royal Narrative concerning the Bringing of the Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet, Vienna, 2000.