sangs rgyas sbas pa'i mgon (16th/17th centuries) in Tibetan.
A Summary of the Life of Buddhagupta-nātha
based on his biography by Jonang Tāranātha (1575-1635), entitled: “The Sacred Biography of Mahāsiddha Buddhagupta: A Straightforward Account Directly from the Majestic Lord’s Own Lips, Unpolluted by Even a Whiff of Things Made-Up," (grub chen buddha gupta’i rnam thar rje btsun nyid kyi zhal lung las gzhan du rang rtog gi dri mas ma sbags pa’i yi ge yang dag pa; ‘Dzam thang, 17, 279-320 and sTog, 17, 531-575. ).
This is not a full translation of Buddhagupta’s biography, but rather a brief summary of it. Buddhagupta’s life is of special interest because it shows clearly that the transmission and practice of Buddhism in India continued, even if somewhat underground, as late as the 16/17th century, long after its alleged destruction in the 12th century by Muslim invaders. There is also proof of the great monastic universities such as Nalanda having continued to produce great scholars after this time. The Bengali Paṇdit Vanaratna (1384-1468) was enrolled as a student there. However, whether Nalanda functioned still or again at that time, remains an open question. Vanaratna visited Tibet in 1426, 1433 and 1453 and spread the Kālacakra lineage and instructions of Vibhūti-candra there, the Sadaṅga-yoga according to Anupamarakṣita, and many other teachings. Such famous Tibetan masters as Gö Lotsawa Shönu Pal (1392-1481) and Thrimkang Lotsawa Sönam Gyatso (1424-1482) were his close students.
Buddhagupta however was not an ordained monastic practitioner, and not the product of a monastic university, but a yogin who had studied under a number of similar such masters. His life has been treated as early as the late 19th century and early in the 20th century by such scholars as L.A. Waddell (1894) and G. Tucci (1931). However, they mostly ignored the rather more supernatural occurences in Buddhagupta’s life, and concentrated mainly on the geographical and topological import of the biography. In 1993 Champa Thupten Zongtse published an abbreviated version of this already rather short text. In 1997 David Templeman announced his forthcoming annotated translation of the Life of Buddhagupta, but this has not materialized so far. Another full translation, also not ready for publication yet, is in the process of being prepared by Hubert Decleer.
Somewhat lamentable in these early treatments is the opinion that Buddhagupta and his teachers as well as students were rather more practitioners of Saivism than Buddhism. Such ideas were the order of the day in Waddell’s and Tucci’s time, but are less easily forgivable when repeated by present-day scholars. The idea that the crème of Buddhist masters in Tibet, from Tāranātha to Kongtrul, failed to detect this, whereas Waddell and Tucci knew all along, is of course ridiculous.
Apart from such historical considerations, Buddhagupta’s visit to Tibet and his meeting with the young Jonang Tāranātha, in about 1594, is important because he brought transmissions of tantras and teaching cycles to Tibet which were unknown there until that time. The time of frequent and lively exchange with the Indian subcontinent was long past and Tibetans seemed to be quite content with what they got. There was little interest in new teachings or developments. Even though Buddhagupta didn’t stay long, only around three month, he tremendously inspired the young Tāranātha, who faithfully “noted down his every word”, as he himself mentions in the biography.
The Summary of “The Life”
Buddhagupta was the youngest of eight sons of a rich merchant in the great city of Indra-liṅga, near Rasmi-śwara on the shores of the ocean. While still young, he attended upon the master Thirti-nātha who presided over a large number of yogins. This lifestyle inspired him greatly and, after having obtained his fathers permission, he joined the yogins ranks. He was given the name Buddhagupta. For several years he also served the Gurus Deva-nāra and Dipa-nātha and studied grammar and the other minor branches of learning, such as the Amara-koṣa, under them.
His main Guru Thirti-nātha practised the extraction of essences (rasa-yāna, bcud len) and was a most impressive figure. The king Rāma-rāja doubted the Guru and came to test him. He was thoroughly impressed by the masters abilities, whose hair had grown to twenty armlengths, and offered a fine pearl to each hair of the Guru. The Guru accepted them, but later just left them there when he left for Magadha with his entourage. He established himself in Varaṇasi. He continued with his practice of essence extraction and eventually took on the appearance of a sixteen year old.
From this Guru, Buddhagupta received his first empowerments and trained himself in the practices of various deities. He went north, to the mountains, and practised in seclusion for nine years, training himself mainly in the meditations of the subtle inner channels and energies. He gained stability in these, and also continued his studies under the masters Brahma-nātha and Kṛiṣṇa-nātha, both reknowned realized Gurus. At that time, the various schools of yogins were subdivided into twelve sub-schools or “panthi”. The first of these was the Nātha-panthi, a further sub-school of which were the Nāṭeśwari yogins. This school has not ceased to be buddhist to the present day (says Tāranātha). The Gurus Thirti-nātha, Brahma-nātha and Kṛiṣṇa-nātha were all followers of that school.
In Malawa Buddhagupta trained himself in essence extraction, and although he was well advanced in years, he looked like someone in his early thirties. In Maru he received some offerings and built himself a hut in which he practised one-pointedly. He beheld several visions of Vajrayoginī and gained some degree of clairvoyance. Whenever he experienced both physical and mental discomfort, Vajrayoginī appeard and dispelled the obstacles. For several years he continued his meditations and then proceeded to travel to various sacred spots in order to practise there. He experienced all sorts of difficulties, but was able to master them all, on the basis of his achievements and realisations.
As a result of his long years of meditations, the knots and impurities in his subtle channels became untied and purified, and his body became very light. He achieved the accomplishment of fast-walking and was able to cover large distances in very short times. Thus he travelled far and wide and visited many sacred sites on the entire subcontinent. He travelled to Uḍḍyāna in the north-west and beheld many miracles. While there, he visited the capital Dhuma-sthira and many sacred sites in the surroundig regions, such as the place where there is a reflection in the shape of a horse, known to be an emanation of the Master Ashva-ratna (Paramaśva), the place were Master Lawapa threw back a rain of stones sent by the ḍākinīs, and the temple that houses the personal Heruka statue of Master Padma-vajra. He visited most of the places associated with the former Māha-siddhas of great fame.
Buddhagupta describes the women of Uḍḍyāna as being of the various types of ḍākinīs, all posessing different types of magical abilities. A girl that he met upon the road threw a handful of sand into a rivers water. The flow of the water was cut off and she crossed safely. Thereafter the water resumed its flow. Another woman transformed herself into a bat and flew off into the sky, later to land safely in a far-off field. However, Tāranātha muses whether or not such occurences might not be beyond the scope of vision of rather more ordinary beings. While in Dhuma-sthira, Buddhagupta experienced the occurrence of signs of success in his practice and for three days and nights everything shone forth as the maṇḍala of Vajrayoginī.
Stage by stage Buddhagupta continued onwards, via Kashmir, Ladakh, Nubra and Kashgar, eventually going again into the presence of his Guru Thirti-nātha. He related all his experiences to him, thus pleasing him greatly. He then went south and established himself in retreat for about sixteen years “in an empty Śiva-temple”, keeping mantra repetition, subtle energies and mind inseparable, and concentrating mostly on perfection-process meditation. Then he moved to Maru where he visited the Hevajra temple built by Padma-vajra, with the sacred image known to make vow-breakers vomit blood upon seeing its face. He then moved furhter south where he briefly meets Thirti-nātha again before moving on to visit most of the sacred places of the central south of the Indian subcontinent.
Buddhagupta them embarks upon a lengthy sea-voyage, visiting many of the small islands off the Indian coast, and meeting the Master Sumati, from whom he received the empowerments for Cakrasaṃvara and Hevajra. He continues to mention how he also received transmissions from Sumati’s daughter Mati-swami who was a yoginī who had achieved magical powers, and how many teachings and practice cycles are still available on these islands which are not to be found on the subcontinent proper any more. He then continued onwards to the islands of Shankha-dvipa, Gaja-nasa and Palata. From there he continued on to Singhala where he stayed for five years.
He describes Singhala (Shri Lanka) as an extremely rich island, the fact of which gave rise to the saying “Rivers abounding in pearls, the earth filled with treasure, forests replete with elephants, and houses with Padmini women – such is the fine land of Singhala.” He tells Tāranātha how he explored the entire island on foot. In a cave on the upper slopes of a region named Kantala, he met a yogin by name of Yashakara-shānti, a direct disciple of Ācharya Shāntipa. This master was over seven hundred years old and accepted only a single disciple. Buddhagupta had the fortune of being called into the masters presence and making a dharma connection with him. Ordinary people who visit the cave would perceive it as empty.
From Singhala Buddhagupta proceeded via the islands of Umā-liṅga and Amuka to Jami-giri where he spent one year. There is on that island the throne of Nagarjuna, from the time of his visit there, and numerous large stone images of the Supramundane Victor (the Buddha). In a temple formerly erected by Nagarjuna himself, he immersed himself one-pointedly in meditative absorption and experienced a vision of Nagarjuna together with a large retinue arriving from Sukhāvati. Onwards he travelled to the island where is located Mt. Poṭalaka, the king of mountains. There, he visited the crystal cave of Maṇibhadra-kumara, the sacred site of Bhṛikuṭi, the Golden Gate cave of the Asura, the Khadira-vana, or acacia forest, which is the sacred abode of Ārya Tārā, and many self-arisen temples. He circumambulated the mountain once and bathed below the waterfall coming down from the seat of Mañjuśri. He also performed one circumambulation high up on the mountain, the summit of which is an unimaginable crystal rock, so he told Tāranātha.
From this island (Poṭalaka) he embarked again and went over a great distance north, till he reached Java-dvīpa, Barley Island. On that island there are numerous saṇgha communities belonging to the Sendhava Shrāvaka (i.e. Theravadin) class. He did not stay among them. Also there, in the center of a small lake, was a tiny island by name of Vana-dvīpa, Forest Island, on which is located a sacred spot blessed by Master Saruroha-Vajra; on the outside appearing like a rocky mountain, and as a square shaped temple within. At its center there is a naturally formed stone image of a two-armed Hevajra. In one (other) cave there are numerous volumes of Secret Mantra, and it is further stated that it contains copies of five hundred thousand tantras. It is known as an extremely turbulent (place) and hence impossible to inspect.
He eventually returned to Singhala and from there went on to visit the islands of Kongkana, Malyara and Shada-dharba. There he met King Hari-prabha, who was an accomplished Vajrayana practitioner, and received a great number of teachings from him. This Hari-prabha was the uncle of the yoginī Dīnakara. From her he heard about the fame of Shānti-gupta Mahāsiddha. He set out to meet him, for the first time at Jagat-nātha, and attended upon him for three month as his ritual assistant. Having requested empowerment from Shānti-gupta, he was sent on a tour to gather the necessary materials. He went first to the land of Triliṅga, where he gathered about thirty ṭolas of silver worth of provisions. From there he continued to Trimala where he assembled many other materials. Then he proceeded to Karnaṭaka where the Guru was staying now and received empowerment in the most excellent way. At that time he also requested many different empowerments and teachings from Master Gambhira-liṅga, a main student of Shānti-gupta.
Moving to the east, Buddhagupta went on to Bhangala. There, in the region of Purṇa-bharda, he visited the famous temple of the Khasarpaṇi. On he travelled again to Tripura and Devi-koṭa and spent some time at the vihāra built by Kṛiṣṇa-chārya Mahāsiddha. He visited the various parts of the land of Rakhong, where he met several students of Shānti-gupta and received teachings from them. Then he proceeded to visit the island of Dhana-śri and the stupa of Śri-dhanya-kataka. From there he went to the islands of Sadha-dvīpa, the major and minor Suvarna-dvīpa, Surna-dvīpa; Candra-dvīpa, Sarma-dvīpa and on to Ganga-sagara, where the bone-ornaments of Master Kṛiṣṇa-chārya were kept. There, he trained himself mostly in the practice of inner heat and Māhamudrā. He continued to see the yoginī Dīnakara again, the main holder of Shānti-gupta’s teachings, and requested many transmissions from her. He acted as the attendant of this great yoginī and her entourage of about fifty female and male yogins, and received many instructions from her. Travelling with her, they eventually reached the land of Bhangdwa where they were re-united with Shānti-gupta Mahāsiddha himself.
For thirteen months Buddhagupta remaind with him and heard countless instructions. At this time his name, until then Buddhagupta, was changed to Buddhagupta-nātha. He also studied under the masters Sudhi-garbha, the one known as Kanhapa, Veta-tikṣana, Vira-bandhu, Ghaghapa, all of whom were close students of Shānti-gupta and experts in their fields. Eventually Shānti-gupta sent him to meditate in Magadha and he built himself a hut in calling distance of the Mahā-bodhi. After this Buddhagupta-nātha went on a pilgrimage of the eight major sacred sites in the life of the Buddha. At each of these places the rewards of his contemplative practice became vaster and vaster and he obtained the definite signs of the knots in his subtle channels being completely undone. Travelling to present his realisations to Shānti-gupta, he was then fully accepted into the ranks of yogins in Shānti-gupta’s entourage.
At this point Tāranātha writes: “Since his last meeting with Guru Tirthi-nātha up to this point, forty-six years had passed, so he told me. Even though he had practiced meditation over an extremely long period, his “making the rounds of the sacred sites” appeared to have caused some slackening or wavering. More in particular, up to the period of his (first) meeting with Shānti-gupta Mahāsiddha, there had only been some minor connections with other Gurus. Apart from a few ordinary fine qualities, he had not reached any unchangeable certainty regarding the nature of reality. So, generally speaking, until he finally received the Hevajra at Dramila-dvīpa, it was as if he had not obtained any buddhist oral instructions that were substantial and meaningful (at all), whether of tantras or related commentaries, so he told me. At the time of his return from Uḍḍyāna, (he had been thinking): “Now I am a great yogin”; and with this thought a great pride had arisen. Moreover, as he tended to despise others (out of vanity), no great urge for meditation arose over the next twelve years. While at the island of Jami-giri, some of his mental objects, such as the need for faith, were at low ebb; and hence the siddhi feats were much delayed. These things, for us and other zigzagging practitioners, are worth considering as an instruction for exerting oneself on the path. All the more so since this holy one (Buddhagupta-nātha) should be viewed as indistinguishable from that Powerful Lord among Siddhas, the one whose clothes consisted of a single blanket (Lwa ba, hence: Lawapa alias Kambhalapa).”
After a further period of many months, in which thousands of yogins and yoginīs had gathered for celebrations, teachings and empowerments, the master (Shānti-gupta Mahāsiddha) advised Buddhagupta-nātha to travel to the countries up north and east, where he would meet worthy disciples, and to teach them whatever dharma would be suitable for them. Travelling via Prayaga, he met Shubha-rakshita, a most unassuming master and a student of Shānti-gupta. He explained how he obtained the signs (of success) for some ordinary (feats), such that while holding his breath a little, his body would diminish in size to the point that he could enter a tiny drinking cup; next, by once exhaling his breath, he could turn into eight different bodies. But foremost among the newly gained qualities was his ability to perceive all phenomena in their essential sameness, so he told Tāranātha.
In the country of Bhameshwara he stayed in a charnel ground where he gave empowerments and teachings to some Charyāpa yogins. He travelled on to Bhangala, Tripura and Rakhang (Burma), finally residing for about one year in Kamarupa (Assam). Next he travelled on to Tibet, where he visited Lhasa and Samye. Continuing slowly towards Tsang, he eventually met with the young Tāranātha, who stayed at the Mahābodhi hermitage at the time. Tāranātha, fluent in the colloquial languages of India (as a result of his previous rebirth as the Indian prince Rama-gopala) asked him about all the tantras he had studied and received in-depths answers. He also requested many transmissions of teaching heretofore unknown in Tibet.
Tāranātha writes: “Among the items requested that previously had never made their appearance in the Land of Snows, there was the empowerment in the Tārāyoginī, the oral instructions on its Generation and Completion Processes, together with the blessings and a commentary on her Tantras; the Guhyasamajā in the Jñāna-pāda style; Akṣobhya as the Sixteen Deities; the empowerment for the Mahāmudrā of mind; the Blessings of the Drop of (the Goddess of) Spring (i.e. the Vasanta-tilaka); the Great Questions on the Six instruction Lineages, the Dohas of Jalandhāra and (the accompanying) oral instructions; the oral instructions on the Mahāmudrā of mind and its scriptural commentary; the oral instructions on the Four Syllables; the blessings for the Self-Blessing and the scriptural commentary; the Heart Essence of the Four Mudras; the Oral Instructions of Kusali and its Six Branches on the Perfection Process for Hevajra; the Rain of Wisdom; the Single Lamp; the Single Recollection; the Oral Instruction on the Mahāmāya; Entering the Kong clan (?) of Vārāhī according to the technique of Jalandhāra; the oral instruction on Vārāhī the Hunter; the Multi-colored Vārāhī; the Three Yoginis, White, Red and Blue; the Goose-Vajra Nairatmyā; Vajravārāhī the Joyful Chatter; the Perfection Process of Acala, composed by Atiśa; the Set of Four, by the supremely Resplendent Ḍombipa; and the two sets of means of realization on the Great Black One, Mahākāla; all of these I obtained in the most excellent fashion. Exerting myself without observing any difference between day and night, systematically taking notes, on the initiation and the blessings (procedures) and on the commentaries, including on the lifestyle to assume and quoting from numerous scriptures and directly from his spoken word, in my spare time I wrote these out, establishing a definite version. Anything he said, I wrote down.”
Eventually Buddhagupta-nātha had to return to India, and this is where Tāranātha’s biography of him ends for all intents and purposes. Tāranātha adds how he later heard from travelers how Buddhagupta-nātha also visited many sacred sites in the Kathmandu valley, before returning to India. There, he was then re-united with his own Guru Shānti-gupta, staying with him for some time. Buddhagupta-nātha then continued to travel, together with his own students, all over Magadha (present-day Bihar and Uttar-Kandh) and Bhangala (present-day Bengal and Bangladesh). They then moved on to the land of Tripura (present-day Assam and northern Burma) where they stayed for many years.
Tāranātha describes the siddha thus: “The signs and marks of his accomplishment as a yogin were plainly visible to ordinary eyes. Half the day he remained (in a state) whereby he cut off the flow of his breath, and at practically all times he stayed naked (throughout his stay in Tibet!). Not only did he not experience any harm from this, but his immediate entourage, within a two meter radius, could feel an intense heat, by means of which he was able to protect others from the cold. By cutting off the flow of his breath through mouth and nostrils, he was able to make appear to his eyes and ears whatever he wanted. Also, his feet did not sink on water. He was standing about two fingers above the ground and his bodily splendor would touch every object and remain there for a long time. He possessed the power of seeing others’ secret designs, in a supernatural way knowing others’ minds. His body was light: he would jump down from (a height of) two or three storeys, and like a skin that had been flung down, he landed gently like a feather. He would climb up a steep mountain as if it were flat land. Poison, quicksilver and the like were unable to harm his body. As his mind was abiding in steady loving kindness, dogs and even ferocious carnivores would lick his body and in other ways show their affection. Ravens, little birds and so forth would alight on his lap or onto the tips of his fingers. They didn’t flee when he patted them, but remained where they were, obviously happy. At the time of bestowing an empowerment, he was able to make the wisdom actually descend. In the presence of worthy candidates he would show miraculous occurrences of various kinds, such as radiating light into the maṇḍala. He stood in no need for the food of (ordinary) humans. He lived on (intangible) foods offered to him by non-human beings. When he was engaged in one-pointed deity yoga, the appearances of the present were really cut off and he was one endowed with the wisdom of at all times viewing everything outer and inner as devoid of any basis and as self-liberated. We with the scope similar to that of mayflies, how could we possibly evaluate the limit of his outstanding qualities of body, speech and mind?“
The last sentence of Tāranātha’s in Buddhagupta-nātha’s biography proper, composed in about 1601, reads: “After that, and up to the present day, he took up his residence in the vicinity of Devi-koṭa, so I heard. There are many reports about the wonders occurring on the occasion of (his visits to) each of these countries; but as an overlengthy sacred biography might become a hindrance for one’s understanding, I prefer not to write about them here.”
This summary also appears on the Jonang Foundation website, see link.
- Buddhagupta-natha on the JF website