Saturday, 22 August 2015

Padmaism or Padmology

According to the Tibetan lunar calendrical system, today (i.e. 26.6.2015) is supposed to be the birthday of Padmasambhava. Leaving aside the issue of the dateability of this figure, I wish to, on this occasion, reflect a little on the phenomenon of Padmasambhava, which Helmut Hoffmann (The Religions of Tibet, translated by Edward Fitzgerald. London: George Allen & Unwin, London 1961; cf. Seyfort Ruegg 2008: 170–171, n. 232) once called “Padmaism.” 

Except for some Tibetan Buddhists, for whom he is an iconic representation of heterodoxy and heteropraxy, Padmasambhava is, for many Tibetan Buddhists, the Second Buddha. (There are, by the way, many other Second Buddhas.) And to the utter disbelief, disdain, and disgust of those who are opposed to Padmasambhava phenomenon, Padmasambhava is accorded by their devotees with a status higher than that of the historical Buddha himself! While it might sound outrageous for any Buddhist to place anyone above the historical Buddha, the idea that one’s guru, though equal to the Buddha in terms of the qualities of elimination and realization, is higher than the Buddha in terms of the beneficial spiritual value that one can derive from one’s benevolent and competent teacher, is not unknown in Tibetan Buddhism. For Rong-zom-pa, one of my Tibetan mentors, one’s guru may be seen a semblance of the Three Jewels; as the embodiment of the Three Jewels; as the Fourth Jewel; or even one higher than the Three Jewels. Needless to say one is most grateful to one who benefits one the most. Occasionally, I tend to personally see my guru as my foster Buddha (Zieh-Buddha) not because I have less respect or appreciation for the historical Buddha but because I have been less fortunate in being a direct spiritual son of his. Although the word Lamaism is misleading for a number of reasons, it does seem to accentuate an important aspect of Indian and Tibetan Mahāyāna (and especially Mantrayāna) Buddhism. Many Tibetan Buddhists saw and still see Padmasambhava as a guru par excellence, and is often seen by some as superseding the historical Buddha himself. A possible factor for this elevation seems to be the primary association of Padmasambhava with Mantric form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which is, all in all, accorded with a status higher than that of the Sūtric or non-Mantric form of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Padmasambhava’s domain of salvific activities, for example, is said to be larger than that of Śākyamuni’s. See, for example, Mi-pham’s line: mi mjed ’jig rten so drug la sogs par ||.

How much of the accounts of Padmasambhava is historically verifiable  or plausible and how much of it is legendary or fictitious? In this regard, I contend that we should clearly distinguish two issues, namely, the historicity of the person or figure Padmasambhava (i.e. Padmasambhava as a historical person or figure) and the historicity of the idea of Padmasambhava. Importantly, my position is that any attempt to trace the historical kernels behind the person or figure Padmasambhava, or any figure for that matter, enshrouded in mysteries and legends, should presuppose a nuanced understanding of the history of the idea of Padmasambhava. While we may never fully succeed in unraveling the historical facticity of the person or figure Padmasambhava, we are most likely to be able to explain when, why, and how the idea of Padmasambhava originated, developed, and proliferated and this might help us to understand the spiritual and intellectual world of a civilization impregnated with Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhists—be they be covertly or overtly anti-Padmasambhava or pro-Padmasambhava—would presumably cognize and recognize that not every account of Padmasambhava is purely historical or purely ahistorical. Perhaps one could state that Padmasambhava is somewhat like the historical Buddha himself. One could reasonably propose that both were historical figures but in both cases legends came to enshroud their historical kernels. Just as the development of the various conceptions of the Buddha (i.e. Buddhology) can tell us a great deal about the history of Buddhism and the spiritual and intellectual world of those who associated themselves with the Buddha, so would the conceptions of Padmasambhava, so to speak, Padmology, tell us a great deal about the history of Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual and intellectual world of those who directly or indirectly associated themselves with mKhan-slob-chos-gsum (i.e. Śāntarakṣita, Padmasambhava, and Khri Srong-lde-btsan). I hope it is fairly correct to state that the initially historical figure Padmasambhava (limited to a certain time and place) gradually became an ahistorical (i.e. atemporal and aspatial) Buddhaic icon and idol. Padmasambhava has clearly come to take the role of an iconized and idolized embodiment of all buddhas, bodhisattvas, mahāsiddhas, vidyādharas, and paṇḍitas. He came to be viewed as the All-in-One Buddha.

In my view, just as it seems utterly futile for a student of the history of ideas to try and prove or disprove the existence of the creator God, it seems to make no sense in trying to verify or falsify, vilify or glorify, the doctrinal claims made by the Buddhist sources. But it does not mean that one should not try and understand the history of the idea of the Creator God and mutatis mutandis also the history of the idea of the Buddha or of Padmasambhava. Should such an idea be reproachable from a Mahāyāna doctrinal point of view? In my view, not really unless a Mahāyānist would boldly claim that all buddha and bodhisattva figures occurring in the Mahāyāna scriptures are historical figures (e.g. Amitābha or Avalokiteśvara), that is, in the same way, Tsong-kha-pa, for example, is. While one can defensibly claim that the idea of Avalokiteśvara is historical, one can hardly and defensibly claim that Avalokiteśvara was a historical figure born in a certain time and place. I am sure some of the most respected Tibetan Buddhist masters would agree in explaining that Avalokiteśvara is nothing but an embodiment, a representation (and hence a crystallization) of the compassion of buddhas and bodhisattvas! The very thought of Avalokiteśvara should invoke or provoke one’s compassion. The very sound of oṃ ma ṇi padme hūṃ should recall one of compassion. How can such a noble idea be reproachable? I would contend that such an understanding or interpretation of Avalokiteśvara or Padmasambhava is not a New-Age interpretation based on no historical-philological grounds but one that seems to make, historically and philologically, the most plausible sense. Also traditional scholars such as Mi-pham seem to view Padmasambhava in the same light, for which, see his Tshig bdun rnam bshad padma dkar po. We know that for centuries long, Tibetan scholars have debated regarding the mode of Padmasambhava’s birth. Was he lotus-born (i.e. born miraculously) or was he was born ordinarily from his mother’s womb? On the one hand, it is true that mystification, glorification, and amplification of the accounts of the Buddha and Padmasambhava have greatly undermined their reliability and credibility. While mystifications, glorifications, and amplifications certainly have their instrumental values, they seem to have little epistemic or historical value. Precisely because I have great respect and admiration for them, I must also say that one of the greatest weaknesses of the anonymous Buddhists in India and Tibet who were presumably behind the mass production of Buddhist scriptures might have been that they had little sense of (or interest in) history and they, in a way, did some disservice to the Buddha and Padmasambhava by mystifying, glorifying, and amplifying them and thereby veiling or obscuring them. The bottom line of Tibetan expression bstod mi shes pas smad pa rings a familiar tone in my ear. That is, one might dishonor someone by not knowing how to honor him or her. Similarly, like many Buddhologists, I do not believe that all those works ascribed to Nagārjuna were composed by the one and the same person.  A problematic question that keeps me bugging is: Assuming that there were more than one Nagārjuna, Vasubandhu, Āryadeva, Candrakīrti, and so on, did Nagārjuna II, Vasubandhu II, Āryadeva II, Candrakīrti II, and so on, pose themselves as Nagārjuna I, Vasubandhu I, Āryadeva I, Candrakīrti I, and so on? I hope that they did not and that they simply happened to bear those names just as we would have several persons with the name Hans Mayer. If they did, however, indeed make an attempt to pass themselves on as their earlier namesakes, one would doubt their sincerity or honesty. In short, the point I am trying to make is, strictly speaking, we have difficulties even with those figures which we consider historical, let alone with semi-historical and ahistorical figures!

But despite all the difficulties, the textual sources dealing with historical, semi-historical, and ahistorical figures ought to be studied carefully. Most of the scriptures or literatures that have been transmitted to us were perhaps never meant as historical sources, at least not in the sense that we might understand “historical sources” today. But it does not mean that these are completely useless. Even seemingly ahistorical and non-historical sources and ideas have their own histories and they might even offer valuable clues for the historical events and entities.  

Returning to the Padmaism or Padmology, from a Mahāyānic perspective, Padmasambhava has assumed the roles of both figures such as Mañjuśri and the historical Buddha. All conceivable deities have eventually been, so to speak, “Padmaized” or “O-rgyanized” (e.g. O-rgyan-sman-lha and O-rgyan-lor-lha). Those Buddhists who cannot come to terms with mundane and supramundane deities found in Sūtric and Mantric Mahāyāna would and should find Padmaism strange. But those who feel at home with mundane and supramundane deities found in Sūtric and Mantric Mahāyāna should be, at least in principle, able to tolerate Padmaism.

PS. There are other names and forms of Padmasambhava in the Tibetan tradition but the name and monkish form of Padmasambhava is not particularly common in Tibetan tradition. How come then that in secondary sources the monkish form Padmasambhava seems to be the most standard name? I was told that Drung-pa Rin-po-che once gave an explanation. Tibetan clerics who were indisposed to Padmasambhava’s other non-monkish forms may have exercised some influence in this trend.


  1. Hi D, I wonder where you would want to locate the origins of Padmology, and how this discipline parts company with Padmaism, exactly. I mean, if Tibetan intellectuals of the past discussed how long Guru Rinpoche stayed in Tibet, contrasting the testimonies of different literary sources, then aren't they Padmologists? And ditto if they discuss whether he was lotus or womb-born?

    Also, I like to think of the most important historical figures as "magnets" for stories. That means that the greater the person is regarded by the culture, the greater likelihood that stories originally belonging to (perhaps) less wellknown persons will be drawn into their biography. If Guru Rinpoche was the greatest of such cultural "magnets," it means he had a very special magnetism, doesn't it? So we may be liable to fall under that magnetic influence and become Padmaists ourselves, you think?

    Good to see you writing again!

    Yours, D

  2. Here is a link to a talk on Guru Rinpoche principle by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for more perspectives on this topic:

  3. Here is a link to a talk on Guru Rinpoche principle by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche for more perspectives on this topic: