Padmasambhava (“Lotus-Born”), also known as Guru Rinpoche, was an 8th-century Buddhist master from the Indian subcontinent.
Although there was a historical Padmasambhava, little is known of him apart from helping the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet at Samye, at the behest of Trisong Detsen, and shortly thereafter leaving Tibet due to court intrigues.
A number of legends have grown around Padmasambhava’s life and deeds, and he is widely venerated as a “second Buddha” by adherents of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, the Himalayan states of India, and elsewhere.
In Tibetan Buddhism, he is a character of a genre of literature called terma, an emanation of Amitābha that is said to appear to tertöns in visionary encounters and a focus of guru yoga practice, particularly in the Rimé schools. The Nyingma school considers Padmasambhava to be a founder of their tradition.
One of the earliest sources for Padmasambhava as a historical figure is the Testament of Ba (dating to the 9th or 10th centuries), which records the founding of Samye Monastery under the reign of King Trisong Detsen (r. 755–797/804).
Other texts from Dunhuang show that Padmasambhava’s tantric teachings were being taught in Tibet during the 10th century. New evidence suggests that Padmasambhava already figured in religious myth and ritual, and was probably even seen as the enlightened source of tantric scriptures, as many as two hundred years before Nyangrel Nyima Özer (1136-1204).
According to tradition, Padmasambhava was incarnated as an eight-year-old child appearing in a lotus blossom floating in Lake Dhanakosha, in the kingdom of Oddiyana.
While some scholars locate this kingdom in the Swat Valley area of modern-day Pakistan, a case on literary, archaeological, and iconographical grounds can be made for placing it in the present-day state of Odisha in India.
Padmasambhava’s special nature was recognized by the childless local king of Oḍḍiyāna and was chosen to take over the kingdom, but he left Oddiyana for northern parts of India.
Tantra in India and Nepal
In Rewalsar, known as Tso Pema in Tibetan, he secretly taught tantric teachings to princess Mandarava, the local king’s daughter.
The king found out and tried to burn him, but it is believed that when the smoke cleared he just sat there, still alive and in meditation. Greatly astonished by this miracle, the king offered Padmasambhava both his kingdom and Mandarava.
Padmasambhava left with Mandarava and took to Maratika Cave in Nepal to practice secret tantric consort rituals. They had a vision of buddha Amitāyus and achieved what is called the “phowa rainbow body,” a very rare type of spiritual realization.
Both Padmasambhava and one of his consorts, Mandarava, are still believed to be alive and active in this rainbow body form by their followers. She and Padmasambhava’s other main consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, who reputedly hid his numerous termas in Tibet for later discovery, reached Buddhahood.
Many thangkas and paintings show Padmasambhava in between them, with Mandarava on his right and Yeshe Tsogyal on his left.
According to Sam van Schaik, from the 12th century on a greater role was assigned to Padmasambhava in the introduction of tantric Buddhism into Tibet:
According to earlier histories, Padmasambhava had given some tantric teachings to Tibetans before being forced to leave due to the suspicions of the Tibetan court. But from the twelfth century an alternative story, itself a terma discovery, gave Padmasambhava a much greater role in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, and in particular, credited him with traveling all over the country to convert the local spirits to Buddhism.
According to this enlarged story, King Trisong Detsen, the 38th king of the Yarlung dynasty and the first Emperor of Tibet (742–797), invited the Nalanda University abbot Śāntarakṣita to Tibet. Śāntarakṣita started the building of Samye.
Demonical forces hindered the introduction of the Buddhist dharma, and Padmasambhava was invited to Tibet to subdue the demonic forces. The demons were not annihilated but were obliged to submit to the dharma.
This was in accordance with the tantric principle of not eliminating negative forces but redirecting them to fuel the journey toward spiritual awakening. According to tradition, Padmasambhava received the Emperor’s wife, identified with the Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, as a consort.
Padmasambhava is said to have taken eight forms or manifestations representing different aspects of his being, such as wrath or pacification for example.
According to Rigpa Shedra, the eight principal forms were assumed by Guru Rinpoche at different points in his life. The Eight Manifestations of Padmasambhava belong to the tradition of the Revealed Treasures.
- Guru Orgyen Dorje Chang The vajra-holder, shown dark blue in color in the attire of the Sambhogakaya. Depicted in union with consort.
- Guru Shakya Senge of Bodh Gaya, Lion of the Sakyas, who learns the Tantric practices of the eight Vidyadharas. He is shown as a fully ordained Buddhist monk.
- Guru Pema Gyalpo of Uddiyana, the Lotus Prince, king of the Tripitaka (the Three Collections of Scripture). He is shown looking like a young crowned prince or king.
- Guru Pema Jungne Lotus-arisen, the Saviour who teaches the Dharma to the people. He is shown sitting on a lotus, dressed in the three robes of a monk, under which he wears a blue shirt, pants and heavy Tibetan boots, as protection against the cold. He holds the diamond-scepter of compassionate love in his right hand and the yogi’s skull-bowl of clear wisdom in his left. He has a special trident called khatvanga of a wandering Yogi, and wears on his head a Nepalese cloth crown, stylistically designed to remind one of the shape of a lotus flower. Thus he is represented as he must have appeared in Tibet, on wikimedia commons
- Guru Loden Chokse of Kashmir, the Intelligent Youth, the one who gathers the knowledge of all worlds. He is shown in princely clothes, beating a hand-drum and holding a skull-bowl.
- Guru Nyima Ozer, the Sunray Yogi, who illuminates the darkness of the mind through the insight of Dzogchen. He is shown as a naked yogi dressed only in a loin-cloth and holding a Khatvanga which points towards the sun.
- Guru Dorje Drolo the fierce manifestation of Vajrakilaya (wrathful Vajrasattva) known as “Diamond Guts“, the comforter of all, imprinting the elements with Wisdom-Treasure.
- Guru Senge Dradog of Nalanda University, the Lion of Debate, promulgator of the Dharma throughout the six realms of sentient beings. He is shown in a very fierce form, dark blue and imitative of the powerful Bodhisattva Vajrapani, holding a thunderbolt scepter in one hand and a scorpion in the other.