Pha Dampa Sangye and the Alphabet Goddess

A preliminary study of the sources of the Zhije tradition

Sarah Harding

Dampa Sangye

Dampa Sangye on

Presented by Sarah Harding at the 2016 meeting of the International Association of Tibetan Studies (IATS) in Bergen, Norway:

I did not master all of Indian tantra or positively connect the lovely Mātkā alphabet goddess with Dampa Sangye, except for circumstantial evidence. Even the 25 texts in volume 13 of the Treasury of Precious Instructions (gDam ngag mdzod) that I have been tasked to translate for the Tsadra Foundation remain at the end of this long road. But with much snooping I have tried to examine some of the sources of the Zhije (Zhi byed) tradition, particularly the two “tantras,” and their influence in the actual rituals and practices of the tradition.

First a very brief background of this complex tradition, called Zhije or “Pacification,” that traces back to the South Indian Dampa Sangye. I will call him by his most commonly used name, but you may be more familiar with Pha Dampa Sangye, used by most western scholars. The anecdotal story of the “father” appellation of pha can be found in Machik’s Complete Explanation, where mother Lapdrön’s son decides that he is like a father to him, and thus the balance of Ma-chik and Pha-Dampa, probably lending itself also to the popular and unsupported belief that he was Machik’s consort. Dampa’s Indian names were Kamalaśrī and Kamalaśīla, which Tibetans took to be the same person as Shantarakśita’s famous disciple of the 8th century. And he was also identified with the Chinese Cha’an patriarch Bodhidharma (5th–6th centuries), giving him a lifespan of over 500 years.

Also in the realm of legend is the story of his reanimation of a corpse of a dark-skinned Indian siddha (Dampa Nagchug) who had reanimated and run off in Dampa’s beautiful body after Dampa had entered the corpse of a dead elephant to remove it from a village, leaving him stuck with what was considered an unattractive form, and gaining him the name of Black Dampa or Indian Dampa. His visits to Tibet numbered anywhere from three to seven, with five being the most common. Jamgön Kongtrul’s summary from the Treasury of Knowledge reports the exact starting and ending locations of all five journeys, which is affirming.[1] However, he may have “sojourned” there only three times. Kongtrul also states:

On all those occasions [Dampa Sangye] would intuit the exact character and faculties of each individual and liberate them through a few appropriate instructions. Thus there is no single primary source or systematic tradition that one could ascribe to them all. Nevertheless, [we could say] that he principally based himself in the source texts Ālikāli Great River Tantra, Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, and others. The methods he used, consistent with his own life example, were the three [levels of] vows as the support, ascetic exertion (dka’ thub kyi srang) as the path, and activities for the welfare of others as the fruition. Multitudes of beings possessed of the [right] karma—as numerous as the stars in the sky— were liberated in the state of buddha.

Kongtrul’s understanding here of the great variety of teachings associated with Dampa as skillful pedagogy I find more felicitous than the views of one western scholar who derided it for lacking a cohesive system.[2]

Nevertheless, what remains of a wide-ranging tradition makes it difficult to summarize. The bare minimum is the breakdown of teachings into three main lineages (brgyud) or transmissions (bka’ babs): early, middle, and later, with some other miscellaneous lineages. “The first of these is when Dampa explained to the Kashmiri Jñānaguhya the Cycles of Three Lamps of Pacification.”[3] These can be found in the Tengyur under the name Kamalaśīla. They are described as containing, respectively, the teachings of the vinaya, abhidharma, and sūtra, but also, mysteriously, “the semantic meaning of the fifty-five” sounds,” which is not at all evident in those texts. Also in the Tengyur, incidentally, are Dampa’s collections of dohās from the Indian mahāsiddhas, which had a huge influence in Tibet.[4]

The Middle Transmission is divided into three, known as the Ma, So, and Kam systems, based on the principle recipient’s place names. In summary, he gave rMa Chos kyi Shes rab the teachings of awakening mind, the discourses, scattered teachings, and oral instructions. The second system conferred to So chung dGe ‘dun bar was the instructions of the fifty-four male and female adepts, called “Instructions on the Naked Perception of Awareness.” And the third system given to Kam Ye shes rgyal mtshan is called “the Guide to the Essential Meaning of the Perfection of Wisdom.” Lochen Dharmaśrī, in his commentary, mentions that originally this system would have been the preliminaries to the Kam system practice, suggesting that there was once a more cohesive system in the past. But, he says, “now, the lineages of the guides other than this one have not lasted except as reading transmissions.”[5] This may be true for other doctrines as well. One can easily see that the very preliminary nature of the teachings that remain from this system could hardly touch the perfection of wisdom doctrine.

The Last Transmission is considered the main teaching of Zhije and was transmitted to the Bodhisttava Kunga (Byang chub sems dpa’ Kun dga’), who was acknowledged by Dampa as his primary disciple. Dharmaśri describes:


From the instructions to the four direction yogins in the last transmission, which is the main teaching of Pacification, this is the system of Guru Bodhisattva Kunga. The teaching consists of instructions on the perfection of wisdom that are consistent with Secret Mantra. The root is conferred to the mindstream and the essential meaning is introduced. After you are adorned with methods of numerous, great interdependent connections, all the Buddhist teachings are practiced at one time on one seat. This is the esoteric instruction called the Practice Cycle of the Immaculate Drop. [6]


Within this transmission, there are three guides: “The White Guide concentrates solely on mind training on the path, the Red Guide [concerns] the practice of five or three paths, and the Black Guide produces realization of the types of letters.”[7] It is interesting that only the Red Guide is elaborated in the literature. It contains an unusual instruction of a five-fold spiritual path: mind training, austerities, subsequent cognition, equalizing taste, and non-action. They are equated with the five Mahāyāna paths, but bear so little resemblance to the normative explanations that the correlation may be ex post facto. Indeed, Kongtrul affirms that “This path did not occur previously in India and Tibet, but is the special teaching of Dampa Rinpoche.”[8] I will return to the intriguing Black Guide later.

What peaked my curiosity occurred during the conferral by Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche of the relevant transmissions of the tradition from Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions in Kathmandu, November 2014. Large portions of the empowerment involved the Sanskrit alphabet, with master and recipients repeating it again and again—forwards, backwards, by columns, by rows, every fifth letter, just the vowels, just the consonants, and other seemingly random combinations. The monks at Benchen Gonpa were incredibly adept in getting it all up on the big screens as fast as the Rinpoche could read.

Nothing in the Zhije histories had alerted me to this pervasive use of syllabary. Except—and how did I miss the one obvious hint everywhere alluded to—that the source text of Zhije is something called Ālikāli Inconceivable Secret Great River Tantra, where āli-kāli refers to the vowels and consonants of Sanskrit! The other source mentioned, called Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, has been previously misidentified by me and everyone else. That was easy to do, since there are dozens of texts with similar titles—nine just in the first volume of the Zhije collection from the recently printed 13 Dingri Langkor Volumes. However, based on positive identification of quotations attributed to “Mahāmudrā Symbol” in other Zhije texts, I have located it in the collected works of Bodong Chokle Namgyal, volume 92, and in no other place. The full title is Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs.[9] I will mainly be looking for the influences of those two tantras in the Zhije praxis .

I had little success locating another two of sources of the four named by Gö Lotsawa in the Deb gter ngon po (p. 1134): a general sutra called Total River Play (Chu klung mngon par rol pa’i mdo)[10]; a particular sutra which is Heart of Wisdom; a general tantra called Illuminating the Pitaka (sde snod gsal byed); and the particular tantra called Great River Tantra (chu klung chen po).

Some interesting remarks in Jamgön Kongtrul’s Record of Teachings Received[11] (gSan yig, p. 769) would be worth pursuing:

In the general table of contents of Pacification, [it states that] from the five great dharma series that came from the precious Lamps, in the third one—Stainless, along with the Subtle Drop (dri med phra tig dang bcas pa)—there is a series of six dharmas of experience. Of those, the sixth is about the result of maturation concerning the outer, inner, and secret instructions of ālikāli. The outer [instruction] contains the three [subjects] of divination, astrology, and auspicious connections. Of those, the latter is mainly from the old books: the history of ālikāli. The root of the outer cycle is the vajra diamond substance (pha lam rdzas kyi rdo rje), the root of ālikāli; the auspicious connections of ālikāli (“known as the eighty white auspiciously connected substances”) along with the outer, inner, secret, and suchness; the instructions of the aural lineage of ālikāli; and the cycle of mantras from the five cycles of auspicious connection (“the connection of mantras [for] raining hail”).

Those will prove to be very interesting if ever located. To return to the two tantra sources that I did examine: In discussion of whether the teachings that were passed to Kunga in the last transmission should be considered as sutra or tantra, Gö Lotsawa in the Deb gter ngon po concludes that they are sutra “because it is like the explanation of the doors of the 42-syllable dhāraṇī in the Perfection of Wisdom sutra itself.[12] (But Kongtrul disagrees, holding the middle transmission as sutra and the last as mantra[13]).

In the Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines, we find the 42-syllable a ra pa cha na alphabet, so-called because it is first five syllables of the Kharoṣṭhi script of Ghandāra[14] and possibly the earliest use of dhāraṇī. Each syllable or phoneme is used to indicate a phrase beginning with that syllable that embodies an idea relevant to the perfection of wisdom, and hence the designation of dhāraṇī as a door or entrance:

And again, Subhuti, the dhāraṇī-doors are the great vehicle of the Bodhisattva, the great being. Which are they? The sameness of all letters and syllables, the sameness of all spoken words, the syllable-doors, the syllable-entrances. What then are the syllable-doors, the syllable entrances?

The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning (ādy-anutpannatvād). RA is a door to the insight that all dharmas are without dirt (rajas).[15]

And so forth, through that alphabet. Thus it could be seen as a mnemonic device, to help in memorizing the alphabet itself and those concepts. My favorite example using instead the Sanskrit alphabet in a similar way is in the old Lalitavistara Sutra (Ch. 10), where the bodhisattva Śākyamuni attends his first day of school. Here’s what happened:

Through the bodhisattva’s power, the schoolmaster taught the children:

When he said the letter a, out came the statement: ”Every composite phenomenon is impermanent (anityaḥ sarvasaṁskāraḥ). When he said the letter ā, out came the statement: “Beneficial to self and others” (ātmaparahita). When he said the letter i, out came the statement: “The vast development of the senses (indriyavaipulya).[16]

And so forth. In this way, “32,000 children gave rise to thoughts aimed at unexcelled, perfect and complete awakening.”

We are, of course, all familiar with this technique in English:

A you’re adorable, B you’re so beautiful, C you’re so cute and full of charm.

Or, from the 18th century:

A was an apple-pie; B bit it, C cut it, D dealt it…(and so on).

By the way, the title of that one—which could rival any Sanskrit or Tibetan title—is: “The Tragical Death of A, Apple Pye Who was Cut in Pieces and Eaten by Twenty-Five Gentlemen with whom All Little People Ought to be Very Well Acquainted.” Compare that to the 32,000 children who engendered bodhichitta.

Alphabet practices are found in tantras, such as the early Mahāvairocana Tantra[17] with its placement of the alphabet around the letter a which “itself abides as the inherent nature of the array of various forms. It also reveals by its own nature that all phenomena are unborn..” etc. And the ritual of the mantra of the hundred letters based on the letter aṃ “the hundred-door essence” rather than a. The mnemonic correspondence seems not be a factor here, where each syllable has taken on its own inherent profound meaning and correspondences that don’t indicate a Sanskrit word. Rather, that sound is itself an entryway into an absolute truth. Unfortunately, those inherent syllable meanings vary widely from text to text and page to page.

Later tantras show alphabet and syllable usages as well, such as Chakrasaṃvara with its placement of letters on the practitioner cum deity and the encrypted use of the alphabet in a “mantra puzzle” to discover the secret essence mantras.[18] Now, of course, it is no big surprise to find a lot of mantras in the Secret Mantra vehicle. I don’t intend to try to explain the tremendous power that was invested in sounds and letters. Mostly, however, mantras are words that carry lexical meaning, and my interest here is in the non-lexical syllables.

The two source tantras of Zhije are chock full of sounds, syllables, dhāraṇī, and mantra. The Ālikāli Tantra is presented in 24 chapters in the form of questions and answers between Vajrapāṇi and the Buddha. The 24th chapter and an interlinear note reveal that Dampa Sangye reconstituted three somewhat disparate sections of this “tantra” that were previously divided according to the following story: After the Buddha entrusts the tantra to various protectors he departs for Kushinigar.

Then the assembly went off to the king’s palace and divided the tantra into three parts. The first in eight chapters were written on leaves of a wishfulfilling tree, then encased it in a precious crystal vase. The gods summoned it and it rests inside a gandhola on the peak of Supreme Mountain. The middle section of eight chapters was written on the inner bark of a wishfulfilling tree and encased in a precious silver amulet box. The demigods and yakṣas summoned it and it rests in a copper house of blazing weapons midway up Supreme Mountain. The last section of eight chapters was written on blue water silk and encased in a golden box. The nāgas summoned it and it rests in the storehouse of the nāga at the base of Supreme Mountain. Later these three treasure teachings that were divided were brought together into one and written on the skin of a demoness (srin mo) and put into the skin bag of a white lioness. It rests in the endless knot of the secret treasury in the charnel ground of glorious Uḍḍiyāna.

The tantra may have been composed by Dampa himself, which is especially suggested by the use of the term “treasure teachings” (gter bka’). Yet it is consistent with other tantras in its contents. It answers such questions as “What is the Book” (glegs bam): the codex or volume that is used to confer the empowerments of Zhije, rather than the usual mandala or vase. The Buddha answers in verses such as:

In the teaching of the victorious sugatas of the three times

the sounds of great earth, water, fire, wind, and space,

[as] plants, forests, earth, stone, mountains, cliffs,

and all sentient beings, are saying the sounds of the teaching. (Ch. 4, p. 25)

And answering “What is the essence?”:

All phenomena are Ālikāli.

If the wise do not know that fact

they are obscured as to meaning and enter the path of the womb.

One must know that method and wisdom are not two.

And: “If all phenomena are ālikāli, what is the essence?”

Essence is wisdom in the shape of the letter a.

Intrinsic nature unimpeded appearing in the form of oṃ.

The characteristic is nonduality, the perception door of dhāraṇī.


From the perception door of wisdom a and oṃ

the emanation of unimpeded methods arise as kāli.

The guru of this emanated fifty

turns infinite unimaginable dharma wheels.

Repeating aloud the meaning of text, you retain it.

The drawing is the ālikāli of form.

Then the ālikāli of amazing substance

and the ālikāli of realized meaning

and the ālikāli of illustrative words

and the ālikāli of concordant examples.

These five I have explained as the secret essence. (Ch. 5, p.27)


Then the Buddha goes on to explain each of those. In chapter 6, first the Buddha pronounces the Sanskrit alphabet straight through and then other buddhas intone the various sets of letters from it:

Then tathāgatas in the east say ka ca ṭa ta pa ya śa / i ī ṛi;

tathāgatas in the south say kha cha ṭha tha pha ra ṣa / e ai ṛī;

tathāgatas in the west say ga ja ḍa da ba kṣa / a ā / aṃ aḥ /

tathāgatas in the north say nga ña ṇa na ma va ha / ḷi u ū /

tathāgatas in between say gha jha ḍha dha bha la sa / lī o au /

tathāgatas above say gu ru hya bad at / e vaṃ ma ya /

tathāgatas below say sa ca na si ka ra / maṃ kha la vo / (p. 32)


And in Chapter 7 we find:

The root of all phenomena is one’s own mind.

The nature of mind is power from concepts

Concepts depend on channels and winds.

The entity of channels and winds abides in the form of letters.

Therefore all phenomena are the clear form of letters.

The fifty come from a.

It is explained as the seed of all phenomena. (p.35)

In response to this question of the letters’ essence, the Buddha says, “I am the essence,” but continues with correspondences such as: ka kha ga nga are wind letters, blue, are ten, abiding in the lungs and so forth for each set. Other sets of syllables purify the afflictions, and so on endlessly, back and forth between non-lexical phonemes and regular lexical mantras that bestow power and efficacy. All this is interspersed with explanations of practices that are indeed reflected in the Zhije corpus.

Now the Mahāmudrā Symbol Tantra, the Secret in the Hearts of All Ḍākinīs contains in its 21 chapters similar teachings but in quite a different manner. For one thing, it is spoken not by the Buddha or Vajradhara, but the Bhagavatī, mistress of the realm, surrounded by goddesses and ḍākinīs. She appears but doesn’t, and says “a a a” without saying anything. And the interlocutor is none other than a certain “Kamalaśrī,” (Dampa Sangye) who relates the story in first person. The Sanskrit alphabet makes its first appearance in chapter three “from the vajra Body, Speech, and Mind of the emanated goddess.” This gives rise to the yab-yum in union and the mantras of empowerment, producing a stream of bodhicitta that matures all beings. Many mantras ensue, some familiar from the Ālikāli Tantra, as well as the distinctive five-fold path of Zhije. Three whole chapters (7–9) are given over to the explanation of the suchness of letters (yi ge’i de kho na nyid). And there is also an apparent “mantra puzzle” here, but I just can’t figure it out! It is tenuous to identify the mantras with those in the Ālikāli Tantra since the Tibetan phonetics for the Sanskrit of this text in particular seem quite corrupt. But, alas, this is a problem with most Tibetan phonetic reproductions where Devanāgarī is unavailable. And if the Sanskrit syllables really are doors to the vast absolute truth, this is extremely worrisome if not disastrous for the Tibetan practices based on alphabet and mantra!

The last chapter and the colophon, however, are surprisingly clear, giving an exact date, writing medium, and location. Spoken in a Pig Year, this would be 1107, if Dampa did die in 1117.[19] The tantra was “given to the ḍākinī herself where it remains as the secret treasure of the heart.” The colophon mentions Dampa’s monastery of Dingri Langkor by name, and that it was translated by “the Indian Khenpo Kamalaśrī and Tibetan translator Zhwa ma Ton pa seng ge gyal po,” who was known as Zhama Lotsāwa, Dampa’s regular translator.

Though these two tantras may well be apocryphal, the material in both is generally concordant with Buddhist tantra, yet specific to the Zhije practices. However, the specificity involves the doctrines that appear in the practice and commentarial tradition, particularly the five-fold path mentioned above, and not particularly in the syllable or mantra usage. Why is that? I propose that over time the magic of sound was less compelling to Tibetans than it had been to Indian tantrikas, and may have also generated some anxiety due to the problems of transliteration and pronunciation. The many lineages of Zhije have therefore privileged meditations such as mahāmudrā or tantric visualizations. Indicative of this, when Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo was extracting “the essence” of the Ālikāli Tantra for inclusion in Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions, he chose only three chapters[20] which had minimal mantra and no non-lexical syllabary.

Or, when later commentators present the teachings that were passed to Bodhisattva Kunga, they expound only on the Red Guide, and yet the Black Guide (nag khrid) is where the alphabet teachings are found. Have those been lost? I have so far only found a few scraps regarding this practice, and then in a seemingly negative light. For example, in a question and answer session with Bodhisattva Kunga in one text, a disciple asks about the Black Guide and the stains that will arise from it. The short and remarkable answer is:

What the Black Guide does is illuminate (gsal ‘debs) the letters of forgetfulness tokens (brjed rdo’i yi ge) as imprints on white paper, as it’s called. [When] the instructions of the hearing (“earhole”; snyan khungs) lineage (rgyud for brgyud) have been written down as letter drawings (ris su song) it is a shame (lod). It is like the king degenerating into a commoner. [21]

The possible downfalls of the practice are numerous, including getting hung up on the letters because, of course, “there are no letters for the genuine meaning.” And “Fixating on the excellence of understanding the progression of words (tshig ‘dros), [one] does not look elsewhere, and that is a stain.” And so forth.

However, in the story of the lineage holder rGyal ba ten ne, the Black Guide was divided and granted to him in four separate cycles: the transmission (bka’ babs); the Stainless (dri med); the aural lineage (snyan brgyud); and the dohas of mahāmudrā.[22] If that’s generally the case, then in fact the Black Guide is all over the place and so pervasive that I missed it.

In conclusion, it has been very challenging to find the syllable practice in what’s left of the Zhije tradition, except in the empowerment conferral itself. No wonder it was a surprise as I was mumbling my way through coded phonemes of the empowerment.


After delivering this paper at the IATS conference in Bergen, an attendee very graciously offered some information of the kind I was desperately seeking in my research. It particularly concerned an observed and still current Vedic ritual in which the meanings to be conveyed to disciples are disallowed as script in any form other than alphabetic syllables for the purpose of recollection. I was referred to the work of William Sax at U. of Heidelberg and also of Frits Staal, in books such as his Ritual and Mantras: Words Without Meaning, and Discovering the Vedas Origins, Mantras, Rituals, and Insights. A paragraph from a review of the latter by Annette van der Hoek illustrates how very illuminating this information would have been:

“Part three explains, in quite some linguistic detail, that the syntactic structure of a mantra is, interestingly, often closer to birdsong than it is to natural language. this is demonstrated, for instance, in the use of sheer indefinite repetition – a,a,a,a,a –which is not a part of our everyday sentence construction and in the use of sequences – bha, bhu, bhi, bho – that again natural language wouldn’t feature except for maybe in a child’s play with words.”[23]



[1] “He came to Tibet five times. The first time he journeyed to Tsari via Drintang-la. He set foot in all areas of Do-Kham, predicting the spread of the doctrine there. The second time he came from Kasmir and arrived in Ngari, where he accepted as disciples Zhangzhung Lingkawa and Bönpo Trotsang Druklha. On the third visit he came from Nepal to Tsang and gave instructions to Yarlung Mara Serpo and Kyotön Sönam Lama [Machik’s guru]. On the fourth he arrived at Nyal [near Arunashal Pradesh border] via Sha-uk Tak and purified the obscurations of his mother (yum). In Central Tibet he benefited Ma [Chökyi Sherab], So [-chung Gendun Bar], and Kam [Yeshe Gyaltsen]. On the fifth visit he first went to China, where he stayed for twelve years before returning to Dingri [until his death 1117—20 yrs).”

[2] Ronald M. Davidson, Tibetan Renaissance, p. 248: “The curiosity of Zhiché is not its multiple lineages but the fact that there seems go be no core teaching associated with the term Zhiché…”

[3] Zhi byed sgron ma skor gsum, here listed as sPyod pa’i sgron ma, Lam gyi sgron ma, and Thugs kyi sgron ma. But nine cycles (Zhi byed sgron ma skor dgu’i chos skor) are mentioned and listed in RHPS (488) and in BA (905-6) and even by Kongtrul himself in TOK 1:541. These can all be found in the Tengyur (Toh. 2315-2330), where they are attributed to Kamalaśila.

[4] See Kurtis Schaeffer’s Dreaming the Great Brahmin.

[5] Minling Lochen Dharmaśrī (1654–1717), Distilled Elixir: A Unified Collection of the Guidebooks of the Early, Middle, and Later Pacification. Zhi byed snga phyi bar gsum gyi khrid yig rnams phyogs gcig tu bsebs pa bdud rtsi’i nying khu by in DNZ vol. 13 (pa), p. 348.

[6] Dharmaśrī, Distilled Elixir, DNZ vol. 13 (pa), p. 352.

[7] Ibid. p. 354; and Jamgön Kongtrul, Treasury of Knowledge, Book Eight, Part Four Esoteric Instructions, trans. Sarah Harding, p.270.

[8] Kongtrul, ibid., p. 273.

[9] mKha’ ‘gro ma thams cad kyi thugs kyi gsang ba phyag chen brda’i rgyud in Bo dong Phyogs las rnam rgyal, De nyid ‘dus pa, the Collected Works published as Encyclopedia Tibetica, vol. 92, pp. 111–160.

[10] Possible Chu klung sna tshogs rol pa’i mdo, the Nānānadū sutra or Chu klung ba tsha’i mdo/Mūlanadī brought by Tönmi Sambhoṭa?

[11] Tashi Chöpel (bKra shis chos ’phel). Record of Teachings Received. ’Jam mgon kong sprul yon tan rgya mtshos dam pa’i chos rin po che mdo sngags rig gnas dang bcas pa ji ltar thos shing de dag gang las brgyud pa’i yi ge dgos ’dod kun ’byung nor bu’i bang mdzod. Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang, 2008

[12] Gö Lotsāwa: p 1134: shes rab kyi pha rol tu phyin pa’i mdo nyid nas yi ge bzhi bcu rtsa gnyis kyi gzung kyi sgo bshad pa dang ‘gra ba’i phyir ro/

[13] “The middle transmission is the definitive meaning according mainly to the sutras. The last is for the most part in accordance with the mantra.” (Kongtrul, Treasury of Knowledge, vol. 3, p.542, my translation.)

[14] Richard Solomon, “New Evidence for a Gāndhārī Origin of the Arapacana Syllabary,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 110, No. 2, 1990; Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men, 2003, pp. 291–2, note 549. See also Jayarava, Visible Mantra: Visualizing and Writing Buddhist Mantras, 2011.

[15] Edward Conze’s translation in The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, p. 160.

[16] 84,000 online translation, “The Play in Full” accessed 05/30/16

[17] See Stephen Hodge, (trans.) The Mahā-Vairocana-abhisaṃbodhi Tantra with Buddhaguhya’s Commentary, pp. 216-232. (ch. 10). Said to be revealed around 640 CE.

[18] David Gray, The Cakrasaṃvara Tantra, p. 133.

[19] The Tshig mdzod chen mo (pp. 3218–19) states that “some say” Pha Dampa Sangs rgyas died in the fire fowl year of 1117. But it also gives his departure date to China as 1101 and returned to Dingri in 1113 for the last time. Most accounts agree that he spent 12 years in China. That would only give him four years at Dingri until his supposed death, with no intervening Pig Year, which wouldn’t be until 1119. The dating remains to be clarified.

[20] Chapters 10 on the five paths, 17 on the empowerment and pledges, and 23 on view, meditation, conduct, and results. From his colophon: Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Essence of Precious Segments of the Inconceivable Secret Tantra Section, the Source Text of the Holy Dharma Pacification of Suffering. Dam chos sdug bsngal zhi byed kyi gzhung gsang ba bsam gyis mi khyab pa’i rgyud sde’i dum bu rin po che’i snying po. DNZ, vol. 13, p. 15.

[21] bDud rtsi zhun ma’i gdams pa, DV, ga, p. 97. Nag khrid bgyi ba brjed rdo’i yi ge’i gsal ‘debs / dkar shog la btabs pa la zer ba yin te / snyan khungs [b]rgyud pa’i gdams ngag yi ge’i ris su son bas lod de / rgyal po rmangs su babs pa lta bu yin / rgyal po rmangs (dmangs) su babs pa lta bu yin / Much thanks to Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche for clarifying this passage. Personal interview, 06/04/16.

[22] Zhi byed bdud rtsi’i thigs pa’i gzhung yan lag lnga’i sgo nas rgyas par bshad pa, DV, vol. ga, p. 778.

[23] “‘Meaningless’ mantras and birdsong?: discovering the Vedas” The Newsletter, No. 53, Spring 2010:


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The Karmapa announced this project in 2014 and although it is still in development, this app is already up and running well on the iPad for searching the Jiang Kangyur in Tibetan script. It looks like they will be adding the Tengyur and other sources soon. A website for easy access on any computer is also in development and can be found at


From the description on their website:

Congratulations to His Holiness the 17th Karmapa and all those at the Dharma Treasure Association working on this project!

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Save the Date! June 1-4, 2017

2017 Translation and Transmission Conference

At the University of Colorado, Boulder

The Foundation, in consultation with all the partners, sponsors, conference steering committee members, and speakers from the 2014 Translation & Transmission Conference is proud to announce the second conference in the Translation & Transmission Series, which will take place June 1-4, 2017 in Boulder, Colorado. In light of the universal support and positive feedback we received for the previous conference, we feel that it is important to continue the conversation and community building that the 2014 conference facilitated.

The purpose of this conference series is to provide an international forum for sustained dialogue and the sharing of ideas and experiences, as well as for collective reflection on the larger cultural and societal dimensions of the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the contemporary sphere. This conference is not a showcase for any single project or institution but an opportunity for all to gather in an open and collegial spirit.

In the spring of 2017 the conference will convene in the heart of Boulder, Colorado, at the Glenn Miller Ballroom, University Memorial Center, June 1st through 4th, 2017.

Keynote Speakers:

Day 1: Susan Bassnett (Warwick)

Day 2: Jan Nattier (Washington)

Day 3: José Cabezón (UCSB)


Translators – Day 1

1. Janet Gyatso (Harvard)

2. Anne Klein (Rice University, Dawn Mountain)

3. Wulstan Fletcher (Padmakara, Tsadra)

4. Karl Brunnholzl (Nitartha Institute, Nalandabodhi)

Translating – Day 2

1. Kurtis Schaeffer (University of Virginia)

2. Thupten Jinpa (Institute of Tibetan Classics)

3. Elizabeth Napper (Tibetan Nuns Project)

Translations – Day 3

1. John Canti (84000, Padmakara)

2. Tom Yarnall (AIBS, Columbia, Tibet House US)

3. David Kittelstrom (Wisdom Publications)

4. Sarah Harding (Tsadra, Naropa University)

Workshop presenters are still to be invited but will include more than 32 other translators and specialists in Tibetan language.

The program schedule is still being planned and announcements will be made as soon as possible. Please sign up to receive the conference newsletter if you plan to attend or would like more information about the conference.

Registration will open online in Summer 2016.

If you or your organization wishes to donate to the conference effort or become a sponsor of the conference, please contact

The Conference Steering Committee

John Canti (Padmakara Translation Group & 84000)

Wulstan Fletcher (Padmakara Translation Group & Tsadra Foundation)

Holly Gayley (University of Colorado, Boulder)

Sarah Harding (Naropa University & Tsadra Foundation)

Thupten Jinpa (Institute of Tibetan Classics)

Anne Klein (Rice University & Dawn Mountain)

Marcus Perman (Tsadra Foundation)

Andrew Quintman (Yale University)

Kurtis Schaeffer (University of Virginia)

Tom Yarnall (Columbia University & AIBS)

Hosted by Tsadra Foundation

Co-sponsored by

The American Institute of Buddhist Studies,
Columbia University Center for Buddhist Studies, and Tibet House US

Tibet Himalaya Initiative at CU Boulder


Shambhala Publications

Wulstan Fletcher John Canti
Tsadra Foundation would like to congratulate two of its long-time Fellows on having been selected to receive the 2016 Khyentse Foundation Fellowship Award. Wulstan Fletcher and John Canti, who are also founding members of the Padmakara Translation Group, have been selected for this honor in recognition of their “service to the Buddhadharma.”

Wulstan, John, and the Padmakara Translation Group are well known for their translation work in both English and French. From the essential Words of My Perfect Teacher, to the advanced philosophical Adornment of the Middle Way, they have provided thousands of seekers and students with access to key Tibetan Buddhist teachings. We congratulate them on their many accomplishments!

One of the objectives of Tsadra Foundation has been to bring recognition and appreciation to senior translators and practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, and to the role they are playing in making these extraordinary teachings available to a wider western audience. Wulstan, John, and other members of Padmakara have been supported by Tsadra Foundation for over 15 years in order that they be able to dedicate themselves fully to their practice and translation of the Dharma. The result of such focused dedication is evident in the outstanding quality and accuracy, recognized by all, of the Padmakara Translation Group’s publications. Currently Wulstan is continuing his translation activities supported by Tsadra Foundation while John is now dedicating most of his time to the 84,000 translation project.

We rejoice in the recent increase of support for translators and their work as more organizations recognize the importance of their roles in the transmission of Buddhism in the West. We hope, that other organizations and groups will likewise honor and financially support the work of all of these individuals, be they independent or a part of organized translation groups, from academia or from the Buddhist practice community.

Here is a short list of some of Padmakara’s work accomplished as Tsadra Foundation Fellows:

    1. A Garland of Views: A Guide to View, Meditation, and Result in the Nine Vehicles by Padmasambhava and Jamgon Mipham.
    2. Treasury of Precious Qualities, Book 1, Jigme Lingpa, commentary by Longchen Yeshe Dorje,   Kangyur Rinpoche
    3. Treasury of Precious Qualities, Book 2 Vajrayana and the Great Perfection, Jigme Lingpa, commentary by Longchen Yeshe Dorje, Kangyur Rinpoche 
    4. Counsels from My Heart, Dudjom Rinpoche
    5. Introduction to the Middle Way, Chandrakirti, commentary by Jamgön Mipham
    6. The Adornment of the Middle Way, Shantarakshita, commentary by Jamgön Mipham
    7. Nectar of Manjushri’s Speech: A Detailed Commentary on Shantideva’s “Way of the Bodhisattva,” Kunzang Pelden

For more information on Tsadra Foundation and its Translation and Publication Programs, please visit our website:


You can now view videos of each plenary session, listen to audio from workshops, and enjoy pictures from throughout the 2014 Translation & Transmission Conference on the updated conference website:






Professor Jim Blumenthal, a wonderful example of a kind human being who skillfully blended practice and scholarship of Tibetan Buddhism, passed away last week. Sadly, Jim was to be present at the recent Translation & Transmission Conference, but was unable to make it due to his declining health. There is a memorial website you can contribute to here: MuchLoved

Maitripa College, which he helped to create, also has a page in honor of Jim:

Bodhisattva’s Breakfast Corner: Remembering Jim Blumenthal

Maitripa College will be hosting A Celebration of Life for Jim on October 26th at 1:30 pm at the World Forestry Center in Portland. Open to all.

H-Buddhism Obituary: 

Dear Colleagues,

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you that our friend and colleague James Blumenthal passed away in the early hours of Wednesday, October 8th, 2014, after a courageous battle with cancer over the course of the past year.

Jim was known by his students and his colleagues as a generous, kind, and gentle person. Students at Oregon State University flocked to his courses on the history and philosophy of Buddhism, often forming relationships with him that would last well beyond their academic career at the University. He was a key figure in the development of both Asian Studies and Religious Studies at Oregon State, the latter of which has re-emerged as an academic major program in the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion. He was also a founding faculty member and prized teacher at Maitripa College, a Buddhist College in Portland, Oregon, which is dedicated to transforming higher education through following the model of Indian and Tibetan monastic Universities.

Jim’s academic career in the study of religion began at the University of San Diego, where he received an Honors B.A. in Religious Studies. His graduate training was at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied with Geshe Lhundup Sopa, earning both an M.A. and a Ph.D. while focusing on the work of the Indian teacher Śāntarakṣita. He later published analytical and translation works on Indian Mahāyāna based upon and extending this research, including The Ornament of The Middle Way: A Study of the Madhyamaka Thought of Śāntarakṣita (2004) and Sixty Stanzas of Reasoning (2004). He had recently completed, with Geshe Lhundup Sopa, a translation of the Lamrim Chenmo, Chapter 4, and was pursuing the publication of a translation of Śāntarakṣita’s Madhyamakālaṃkāravṛtti. In addition to his work on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka philosophy, he also published and taught extensively on Engaged Buddhism in Theravāda and Tibetan Buddhist contexts. Jim greatly enjoyed philosophical debate and was able to subtly engage and often disarm his opponents while still finding a way to make sure everyone had a good laugh in the process.

Jim will be especially missed for the quiet, calm, and joyful presence that he brought to our academic community.

Stuart Ray Sarbacker
Oregon State University

See more from OSU here: Buddhist Scholar James Blumenthal Dies at 47

Jim’s Madhyamākalaṃkāra (དབུ་མ་རྒྱན་), or The Ornament of the Middle Way.

Cover from Blumenthal, James_2004_Shantarakshita's Ornament of the Middle Way_Snow Lion Publications

CU Religious Studies

Tsadra Foundation has generously gifted the CU Libraries with an impressive collection of Tibetan texts consisting of religious, historical, biographical and philosophical materials. The gifted texts include the collected works of a number of the great masters of Tibetan Buddhism, whose works are only beginning to be studied in any depth as Tibetan Studies expands as a field…

The donation by the Tsadra Foundation significantly expands both the breadth and depth of these holdings, and the Department of Religious Studies and the CU Libraries would like to express their appreciation to the Tsadra Foundation for this impressive donation of Tibetan texts. For a flourishing Tibetan Studies program at CU Boulder, particularly as the Department of Religious Studies seeks to establish a Ph.D. program, it is essential for the CU Libraries to continue to expand and develop its Tibetan language materials. Substantial gifts like this by the Tsadra Foundation provide crucial resources for advanced language study and research for faculty and graduate students at the university and along Colorado’s Front Range…

Read more here

New Tibetan Books!

Usually we have a steady stream of small amounts of Tibetan texts and academic works on Buddhism and Tibet coming into our library, but recently we welcomed a doubling of the Tibetan texts held in the Boulder research library. I will try to give a sense of what has arrived recently in a few posts here.

On the top of the shelves you can see our recently rebound version of the Narthang Kangyur. Many of the other texts on the shelves are various series from Paltsek Research  དཔལ་བརྩེགས་བོད་ཡིག་དཔེ་རྙིང་ཞིབ་འཇུག་ཁང་།.

Tibetan Library

Tibetan Library 2

Recent Arrivals from དཔལ་བརྩེགས་ :

rngog slob brgyud dang bcas pa'i gsung 'bum-FrontCover

རྔོག་སློབ་བརྒྱུད་དང་བཅས་པའི་གསུང་འབུམ། rngog slob brgyud dang bcas pa’i gsung ‘bum/ 34 volumes. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2011.

Ras chung snyan brgyud skor-FrontCover

རས་ཆུང་སྙན་བརྒྱུད་སྐོར། ras chung snyan brgyud skor/ 19 volumes. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2011.

Jo nang kun mkhyen dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan gyi gsung 'bum-FrontCover

ཇོ་ནང་ཀུན་མཁྱེན་དོལ་པོ་པ་ཤེས་རབ་རྒྱལ་མཚན་གྱི་གསུང་འབུམ། Jo nang kun mkhyen dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan gyi gsung ‘bum/ 13 volumes. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2011.

Lho brag mar pa lo tsA'i gsung 'bum-FrontCover

ལྷོ་བྲག་མར་པ་ལོ་ཙཱའི་གསུང་འབུམ། lho brag mar pa lo tsA’i gsung ‘bum/ 7 volumes. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2011.

rje btsun mi la ras pa'i gsung 'bum-FrontCover

རྗེ་བཙུན་མི་ལ་རས་པའི་གསུང་འབུམ། rje btsun mi la ras pa’i gsung ‘bum/ 5 volumes. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2011.

dus 'khor phyogs bsgrigs chen mo-Set

དུས་འཁོར་ཕྱོགས་བསྒྲིགས་ཆེན་མོ། dus ‘khor phyogs bsgrigs chen mo/ Twenty volumes. Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 2012.

bod kyi lo rgyus rnam thar phyogs bsgrigs-front

བོད་ཀྱི་ལོ་རྒྱུས་རྣམ་ཐར་ཕྱོགས་བསྒྲིགས། bod kyi lo rgyus rnam thar phyogs bsgrigs/ 61-90 – Thirty volumes. The third set of 30 volumes to come out so far since 2010.

Other Recent Arrivals:


རྗེ་ཙོང་ཁ་པ་ཆེན་པོའི་གསུང་འབུམ། rje tsong kha pa chen po’i gsung ‘bum/ 18 volumes. Ser gtsug nang bstan dpe rnying ‘tshol bsdu phyogs sgrig khang. Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2012.

Ta po

ཏ་པོ་ – དུས་རབས་བཅུ་པ་ནས་ཉི་ཤུ་པའི་བར་གྱི་སྔ་མོའི་རྒྱ་གར་དང་བོད་ཀྱི་ལྡེབས་རིས་དང་ཡི་གེ་ནུབ་ཧི་མཱ་ལ་ཡའི་གནའ་བོའི་དགོན་གྲོང་ཞིག ཏ་པོ་དགོན་གྱི་དཔེ་མཛོད་ཁང་ནས་དཔར་བསྐྲུན་ཞུས།
TABO: An Ancient Western Himalayan Repository of age-old Indian and Tibetan Mural Paintings and Scripts dating from the tenth to the twentieth century. རྩོམ་པ་པོ། རཱ་ཧུ་ལ། rtsom pa po/ rA hu la/

jo sras bkra shis tshe ring dang chab ngoms bstan pa nyi ma. 2011. Hi ma la ya’i nang pa sangs rgyas pa’i chos dang rgyal rabs rig gzhung gi zhib ‘jug: deb phreng gsum pa: pod yig nang spel pa’i dpyad rtsom khag. Proceedings of the Golden Jubilee Conference of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology Gangtok, 2008. Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology.

Gorampa and Shakya Chogden
24 Volumes: gser mdog paN chen shAkya mchog ldan gyi gsung ‘bum – Shakya Chogden’s Collected Works, published in 2013 in Beijing by krun go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang.

15 Volumes: kun mkhyen go rams pa bsod nams seng ge’i gsung ‘bum/ rdzong sar khams bye lnga rig tub bstan slob gling nas bsgrigs – Gorampa’s Collected Works, published in 2013 in Beijing by krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang.
14 Volumes: dam chos sdug bsngal zhi byed rtsa ba’i chos sde dang yan lag bdud kyi gcod yul gyi glegs bam- Pacification of Suffering tradition of Padampa Sangye and Cutting Through practices of Machig Labdron, published in 2013 by Dingri Langkor Tsuglag Khang.

We are steadily expanding the holdings of our library here in Boulder, Colorado. Here are some of the more recent works added to our research library:New Arrivals Post May 2014-1

  • Faxian. Mémoire sur les pays bouddhiques. Les Belles Lettres, 2014.
  • Yang Xuangzhi. Mémoire sur les monastères bouddhiques de Louyang. Les Belles Lettres, 2014.
  • Akester, Matthew. 2012. The Life of Jamyang Khyentsé Wangpo by Jamgön Kongtrul. New Delhi: Shechen Publications.
  • Ramble, Charles, Peter Schwieger and Alice Travers. Tibetans who Escaped the Historian’s Net: Studies in the Social History of Tibetan Societies. Kathmandu, Nepal: Vajra Publications, 2013.
  • Chopel, Gendun. 2014. Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. Translated by Thupten Jinpa and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Haynes, Sarah F. and Michelle J. Sorensen. Wading into the Stream of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Leslie Kawamura. Contemporary Issues in Buddhist Studies.
  • Bengelsdorf, Hernán. Diccionario Tibetano-Castellano. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Dungkar, 2011.
  • Cranmer, Marit. Tibetan Literary Arts: Exhibition Catalog. Neilson Library, Smith College.. Shang Shung Publications, 2007.
  • Wimmel, K. William Woodville Rockhill: Scholar-Diplomat of the Tibetan Highlands. Orchid Press, 2006.
  • Lessing and Wayman. Mkhas grub rje’s Fundamentals of the Buddhist Tantras. Mouton, 1968.
  • Lopez Jr., Donald S. and Robert E. Jr. Buswell. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.
  • Adelheid Herrmann-Pfandt. 2008. Die lhan kar ma : ein früher Katalog der ins Tibetische übersetzten buddhistischen Texte. Wien : Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

New Arrivals Post May 2014-2

  • Arslan, Saadet and Peter Schwieger. Tibetan Studies an Anthology. Beiträge zur Zentralasienforschung Vol 23. International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (IITBS), 2010.
  • Dotson, Brandon, Kazushi Iwao and Tsuguhito Takeuchi. Scribes, Texts, and Rituals in Early Tibet and Dunhuang. Contributions to Tibetan Studies Vol 9. WiesBaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2013.
  • Hackett, Paul G.. A Catalogue of the Comparative Kangyur (bka’ ‘gyur dpe bsdur ma). Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies; New York: Columbia University’s Center for Buddhist Studies, 2012.
  • Gray, David B.. The Cakrasamvara Tantra (The Discourse of Śrī Heruka): A Study and Annotated Translation. Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2007.
  • Gray, David B.. The Cakrasamvara Tantra (The Discourse of Śrī Heruka): Editions of the Sanskrit and Tibetan Texts. Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences. New York: American Institute of Buddhist Studies, 2012.
  • Balikci-Denjongpa, Anna and Alex McKay. Buddhist Himalaya: Studies in Religion, History and Culture Volume I-III: Tibetan and the Himalaya;The Sikkim Papers; The Tibetan Papers. Proceedings of the Golden Jubilee Conference of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology Gangtok, 2008. Sikkim: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, 2011.
  • ཏ་པོ། དུས་རབས་བཅུ་པ་ནས་ཉི་ཤུ་པའི་བར་གྱི་སྔ་མོའི་རྒྱ་གར་དང་བོད་ཀྱི་ལྡེབས་རིས་དང་ཡི་གེ། ནུབ་ཧི་མཱ་ལ་ཡའི་གནའ་བོའི་དགོན་གྲོང་ཞིག


  • Les Neuf Forces de l’Homme. Samten Karmay et Philippe Sagant. Recherches sur la Haute Asie 13. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, 1998.
  • Les habitants du Toit du monde. Samten Karmay et Philippe Sagant. Recherches sur la Haute Asie 12. Nanterre: Société d’ethnologie, 1997.
  • Nigouma et Soukhasiddhi: Hagiographies et chants. suivi de Horizons féminins Hadewijch-Lalla-Rabi’a al-Adawiya. Traduction de Joy Vriens (Lama Tsultrim Namdak). With the support of Tsadra Foundation. La Galerie: Éditions Yogi Ling, 2014.
  • Puṣpikā: Tracing Ancient India Through Texts and Traditions. Contributions to Current Research in Indology Volume 1. Edited by Nina Mirnig, Péter-Dániel Szántó, and Michael Williams. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2013.
  • Lambert Schmithausen. 2014. The Genesis of Yogācāra-Vijñānavāda: Responses and Reflections. Kasuga Lectures Series I. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies.
  • Eimer, Helmut. A Catalogue of the Kanjur fragment from Bathang Kept in the Newark Museum. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #75. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2012.
  • Hofer, Theresia. The Inheritance of Change: Transmission and Practice of Tibetan Medicine in Ngamring. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #76. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2012.
  • Weissenborn, Karen. Buchkunst Aus Nālandā: Die Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā-Handscrift in der Royal Asiatic Society/London (Ms. Hodgson 1) und ihre Stellung in der Pāla-Buchmalerei des 11./12. Jahrhunderts. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #77. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2012.
  • Higgins, David. The Philosophical Foundations of Classical rdzogs chen in Tibet: Investigating the Distinction Between Dualistic Mind (seems) and Primordial Knowing (ye shes). Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #78. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2013.
  • Stuart, Daniel Malinowski. Thinking About Cessation: The Pṛṣṭhapālasūtra of the Dīrghāgama in Context. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #79. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2013.
  • Kuijp, Leonard W. J. van der and Arthur P. McKeown. Bcom ldan ral gri (1227-1305) On Indian Buddhist Logic and Epistemology: His Commentary on Dignāga’s Pramāṇasamuccaya. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #80. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2013.
  • Schneider, Johannes. Eine Buddhistische Kritik der Indischen Götter Śaṃkarasvāmins Devātiśayastotra mit Prajñāvarmans Kommentar. Nach dem tibetischen Tanjur herausgegeben und übersetzt. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #81. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2014.
  • Steinkellner, Ernst. The Edition of Śāntarakṣita’s Vādanyāyaṭīkā Collated With the Kundeling Manuscript. Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde #82. Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien, 2014.
  • Ernst Steinkellner. 2013. Dharmakīrtis frühe Logik – Dharmakīrti’s Early Logic: An Annotated German Translation of the Logical Parts in Pramāṇavārttika 1 andVṛtti. Volumes 1 and 2. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies.
  • Robert Kritzer. 2014. Garbhāvakrāntisūtra: The Sutra on Entry into the Womb. Tokyo: The International Institute for Buddhist Studies.


Did Machik Lapdrön Really Teach Chöd? A Survey of the Early Sources
by Sarah Harding

This provocative title is a result of a persistent question in the back of my mind for several years while I was researching and translating the early gcod texts from Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Precious Instructions (gDams ngag rin chen gter mdzod), the next ambitious project of the Tsadra Foundation. As I patiently went through the marvelous teachings in each text, I kept wondering when I would find the actual instructions on gCod (“chöd”), or “Severance,” that I was so familiar with from translating Machik’s Complete Explanation and from my own three-year retreat practice. The following is a short survey of these texts and my findings therein, which suggest that there is no clear attribution of the body-offering practice, and certainly not in the elaborate form that we find today.

gCod is primarily known, now quite famously, as a visualization practice in which one separates one’s consciousness from the physical body, and then turns around to cut up the remaining corpse and prepare it for distribution to gods, demons, and spirits of all kinds. The ritual offering may involve going to specific places where such spirits might be found, such as isolated, frightening, or haunted places. It is immediately obvious that several terrifying psychological experiences are invoked: fear of the unseen spirit world, of wilderness, and of the maiming and dismemberment of one’s body. It is thus widely recognized as a practice of “facing your fears” and overcoming them.

gCod was developed, also famously, by the woman Machik Lapdrön in the late eleventh century, during the time in Tibet when many other lineages were forming. Although technically gcod is known as a subsidiary of the zhi byed or Pacification teachings of Dampa Sangye, clearly Machik is the single mother of this baby. In the records of Machik’s brief encounters with Dampa Sangye, and in the only Indian gcod source text (gzhung) by Āryadeva the Brahmin, there is little about this specific practice. It therefore seems to be solely a result of Machik’s own realizations, and so is famous as an original Buddhist teaching indigenous to Tibet that uniquely spread to India in a reverse trajectory from all other doctrines.

The realization that gave birth to Machik’s gcod is said to have occurred during her recitation of a prājñāpāramitā text, which she regularly performed as part of her job as a household chaplain. Specifically, it was while reading “the chapter on māra.” Many suggestions have been offered as to which section that would be, but in any case none of them throw light on the subject. The fact that it is mentioned at all, however, is very provocative. Māra, of course, is the antithesis of Buddha, and has been personified perhaps in the same way as enlightenment is personified as a buddha. Māra represents obstruction of the spiritual path or spiritual death (from Skt. mṛ-, “to die”) in all its forms. Besides the Buddha’s antagonist, a variety of māras were eventually classified into two sets of four, but there are many more examples in the texts I have translated here. It is tempting to imagine Machik’s inspiration as a profound encounter with the dark side, eventually resulting in the overcoming of that duality through the integration of the prājñāpāramitā teachings.

There is no shortage of reference to māras throughout the texts on gcod and their sources, and no question that the primary goal of these teachings is to deal with them, whether conceived of as demons or adverse circumstances or ego or as ultimate evil and ignorance. Simply put, the term used to describe that process is “chöd.” But it comes in two homonymic interchangeable spellings: gcod, which means “to cut” or “sever” and spyod, which means “behavior” or “action.” I have seen either used in alternate editions of the same text. Spyod and spyod yul instantly conjure up the bodhisattva’s conduct in the prājñāpāramitā literature, as in the recurring phrase:  “In this way one should train in performing the activity of the profound perfection of wisdom.” gCod as severance also has its Buddhist antecedents. The classic definition in gcod source material comes from Āryadeva’s Grand Poem, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom:

Since it severs the root of mind itself,

and severs the five toxic emotions,

extremes of view, meditational formations,

conduct anxiety, and hopes and fears;

since it severs all inflation,

it is called “severance” by semantic explanation.

It is clear that the specific practice of cutting up the body is not alluded to in this definition, as well as all others that I encountered. In fact, it may just be an unfortunate parallel of usage that the process of resolution and integration of problems uses the same term as does the ordinary function of an axe or kitchen knife, or dragon glass, for that matter. We can think of the common term thag gcod pa (“decide, put an end to, determine, handle, deal with, treat”) to get more of a sense of this term, recalling also the interchangeability with spyod pa as “conduct and behavior.” What to do when things get tough? Act with determination.

Similarly, the term yul (“object”) in the longer name for this practice bdud kyi gcod yul (“the devil/evil that is the object to sever”) is used in the most abstract way and is attested in the Abidharma by Kongtrul and others. Consider the first verse in Machik Lapdrön’s source text, the bKa’ tshom chen mo (“Great Bundle”):

The root devilry is one’s own mind.

The devil lays hold through clinging and attachment

in the cognition of whatever objects appear.

Grasping mind as an object is corruption.

Or again, from the same text, referring to a more refined state of practice:

The conceit of a view free of elaboration,

the conceit of a meditation in equipoise,

the conceit of conduct without thoughts,

all conceits on the path of practice,

if engaged in as objects for even a moment,

obstruct the path and are the devil’s work.

The vast majority of the instructions in these early texts are on the practice and theory of prājñāpāramitā, as clearly indicated by their titles. These instructions are often reminiscent of mahāmudrā, and in fact later took on the epithet Severance Mahāmudrā (gcod yul phyag rgya chen po). For instance, from Machik’s Great Bundle:

Everything is self-occurring mind,

so a meditator does not meditate.

Whatever self-arising sensations occur,

rest serene, clear, and radiant.

Even the earliest source text by Āryadeva the Brahmin employs such mahāmudrā signature phrases as “clear light,” (‘od gsal) and “mental non-engagement” (yid la mi byed pa), while the commentary on those passages cites scripture such as Maitreya’s Highest Continuum and other sources usually associated with the third turning. There is constant reiteration of this basic instruction to rest relaxed without doing anything. One of the more famous sayings attributed to Machik, often used as a reference to the gcod practice, is not particularly giving an instruction to sever and offer the body, but is more of a straightforward prājñāpāramitā or mahāmudrā instruction:

Rest the body in the way of a corpse.

Rest in the way of being ownerless.

Rest the mind in the way of the sky.

As a candle unmoved by the wind,

rest in the way of clarity with no thought.

As an ocean unmoved by the wind,

rest in a way serenely limpid.

So where are the references to the practice of casting out the body as food that has made this practice so sensational? A quick survey of the ten early texts (two source texts plus Machik’s eight) making up 134 folia, turns up sixteen references to the catch phrase “separating the mind from the body,” all but one of which merely give mention to the term. This in itself, however, does not constitute the body-offering practice per se. Separating out the consciousness and “blending it with space” (byings rig bsre ba or ‘dre pa) or the much later nomenclature “opening the door to the sky” (nam mkha’ sgo byed) became signature gcod practices. Jamgön Kongtrul asserts that this is the main practice and relegates the body offering to post-meditation (rjes thob) or a branch (yan lag). The number of references to the actual body dismemberment is very rare, and, as I will suggest, limited to the texts of dubious origin. I will briefly survey the texts in the order they are found in the Treasury.

The verse text by Āryadeva the Brahmin, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom, which is the only source text said to be of Indian origin, mentions the body offering only once, in the context of a classic graded path suitable for the three kinds of individuals:

Those with superior meditative experience

rest in the nondual meaning of it all.

The average practitioners focus on that and meditate.

The inferior offer their body aggregate as food.

The Great Bundle is taken as the earliest and most basic text attributed to Machik. As the story goes, she responded to three Indian inquisitors with an explanation of this composition and proved to them that that her teachings were indeed Buddha Word (hence bka’ in the title). It contains only one reference to a body offering:

Awareness carries the corpse of one’s body;

cast it out in an unattached way

in haunted grounds and other frightful places.

The third text classified as a source text by Jamgön Kongtrul is called Heart Essence of Profound Meaning.” That name came to indicate a whole cycle of teachings, but this source text is signed (not here, but in another edition) by Jamyang Gönpo (b. 1208?). In most records of the lineage, his name appears right after that of Machik’s son Gyalwa Döndrup, making him the earliest commentator on Machik’s teachings that I have yet encountered, nearly a century earlier than the third Karmapa (1284-1339), who is often given that credit. In this text, again, there is only one passage indicating the body-offering practice:

Free the mind of self-fixation by relinquishing the body aggregate as food.

Scatter the master of self-fixation by separating body and mind.

Liberate fear on its own ground by inspecting the fearful one.

Tossing away fixation on the body as self, obstacles will arise as glory.

We then come to an interesting text in the Treasury attributed to Machik called Precious Treasure Trove to Enhance the Original Source, A Hair’s Tip of Wisdom: A Source Text of Severance, Esoteric Instructions on the Perfection of Wisdom. It is evident that this is not a text by Machik, but a commentary on what may have been her teachings, which can be reconstructed by extracting the quoted segments. Using a methodology of searching citations in other gcod histories, specifically a huge auto commentary on the aforementioned Heart Essence by Jamyang Gönpo and Jamgön Kongtrul’s Treasury of Knowledge, I have determined that when something called kha thor (“scattered”) is referenced, it is in fact the quoted segments of this text (with one exception that I could not find there). This was an exciting discovery and solved a long standing mystery, and also corroborated my analysis of this text as a commentary, although it doesn’t solve its authorship. That being said, however, there is not a single mention of casting out the body as food. The entire commentary, including the words apparently spoken by Machik, concern the perfection of wisdom.

Then there are two or three or more “bundles” attributed to Machik. Another Bundle (Yang tshom) is in verse form of a dialogue with her son Gyalwa Döndrup. The longer title is Another Bundle of Twenty-Five Instructions as Answers to Questions, although not surprisingly there are actually twenty-eight questions in this version. Tacked on to that and unmentioned in any source or catalogue is a set of eighteen more questions with very cryptic verse answers, called Vajra Play (rDo rje rol pa). Then from an altogether different collection of ancient gcod texts found at Limi monastery in Nepal, there is a text called, again, “Bundle of Precepts” (bKa’ tshom). The colophon titles it “Thirty-five Questions and Answers on the Bundle of Precepts, the Quintessence of the Mother’s Super Secret Heart-Mind.” While this text bears no resemblance to Machik’s Great Bundle of Precepts (bKa’ tshom chen mo), it is strikingly similar to Another Bundle. Of the thirty-five questions (and this time the number is correct!), twenty-six of them appear in Another Bundle. There is some suggestion in the colophon that this bundle may have been gathered by, again, Jamyang Gönpo. What all of this indicates to me is that there were more than one set of notes circulating as records of Machik’s dialogues, and that Jamgön Kongtrul ended up with this particular set for his Treasury, while his contemporary, Kamnyön Dharma Senge, apparently had access to another one, judging from the citations found in his Religious History of Pacification and Severance.

To return to my point, there are but two brief mentions in Another Bundle concerning body offerings. The first is in a list of things to explain the term “unbearable” in response to the question “What is the meaning of “trampling upon the unbearable?” (mi phod brdzi ba), a phrase describing Severance. It says, “casting out the body to demons is unbearable (‘dre la lus skyur mi phod). The second instance is in response to the question “What should one do when sick?” and the answer is: “Chop up your body and offer it as feast.” (lus po gtubs la tshogs su ‘bul. Note the use of gtubs rather than gcod).

One last bundle is called The Essential Bundle (Nying tshom). Although it is attributed to Machik, it appears to be a summary of the other bundles, with a structural outline, scriptural citations, and even quotes from Machik, respectfully referred to as “Lady Mother” (ma jo mo). This assessment is further supported by the fact that it seems never to be cited in texts such as The Treasury of Knowledge, and is not mentioned in Kongtrul’s Record of Teachings Received, nor in Kunga Namgyal’s short list of ten Indian dharmas. In any case, again there are only two references here: (1) if afraid:Immediately hand over the body to those gods and demons without concern” and (2) “Those of inferior scope give over the body to the dangerous obstructers and rest in non-action within the state of mental non-recollection.”

Finally we have another set of three texts that I’ve called “Appendices” (Le lag), attributed to Machik. Here they are neatly divided into The Eight Common Appendices, The Eight Uncommon Appendices, and The Eight Special Appendices. However, in other supporting material when quotations are extracted from the “Appendices,” it is inevitably from the first set only, The Common Appendices. Moreover, in the aforementioned set of gcod texts from Limi monastery, there are just two sets of appendices, called “The Thirteen Appendices” and “The Eight Appendices.” The latter corresponds loosely to the Eight Common Appendices in the Treasury. The Thirteen correspond neither to the Uncommon nor Special Appendices. I therefore only feel comfortable confirming the Common Appendices (of the three sets) as part of original teachings by Machik.

The Eight Common Appendices mention the body offering practice twice: once simply stating, “The body is a corpse, cast it out as food” (lus ni ro yin gzan du bskyur), and then again reiterating the threefold gradation of practice:

[Recite] “unspeakable, unthinkable, inexpressible,”

or else rest in the separation of body and awareness,

or else cast out the body as food

and rest within the state of evenness.

The Eight Uncommon Appendices is a very interesting text, albeit of doubtful origin. The eight sections are less arbitrary and present a progressive analysis of important elements in the practice. They are: (1) the meaning of the name, (2) the vital points, (3) practices applied to faculties, (4) clearing away obstructions, (5) deviations, (6) containing inattention (7) how to practice when sick, and (8) enhancement. The biggest surprise in this text is in the seventh appendix, which concerns various healing ceremonies, the nature of which is not found in any of the other texts, and involves such items as leper brains and widow’s underwear. However there is a basic principle here, that of dealing with the most difficult circumstances by facing them directly and employing a kind of “like heals like” practice. Thus substances normally considered unclean may be used to cure disease resulting from contamination. Or, as in modern homeopathy theory, the text offers a prescription to “pacify the heat of feverish illness in fire and resolve cold illness in water.” In some ways this could be taken as the essence of gcod practice, though it might be more difficult to identify Buddhist elements here. Of the five references to giving away the body, whether one’s own or the patient’s, two of them are in this section. For example: “To treat sriu, take [the affected] to a haunted place and completely give over the flesh and blood to the harm doers. The mind will be blessed in emptiness.”

The last text of all those attributed to Machik Lapdrön is The Eight Special Appendices, and if the attribution is true, then this is where my theory falls apart. But of course I am somewhat skeptical. Stylistically it is very different from the ancient source texts, being comprised of eight sections outlining a progressive practice from beginning to end, much like a practice manual (khrid yig). The eight main headings are (1) the entry: going for refuge and arousing the aspiration, (2) the blessing: separating body and mind, (3) the meditation: without recollecting, mentally doing nothing, (4) the practice: casting out the body as food, (5) the view: not straying into the devils’ sphere of influence, (6) pacifying incidental obstacles of body and mind, (7) the sacred oaths of severance, and (8) the results of practice. The first four of these have further subcategories that contain not only descriptions, but also actual liturgy to be recited in the practice. And as the contents make clear, there is a whole section devoted to casting out the body as food, though not in the specific detail found in later works, such as Kongtrul’s Garden of Delight. In any case, this is the only text in the group where one can recognize the implementation of the practice of gcod as we have come to know it. And after the seemingly shamanic-type healing described in The Uncommon Appendices, it brings it all back into the Buddhist context with statements such as:

Casting out the body as food is the perfection of generosity, giving it away for the sake of sentient beings is morality, giving it away without hatred is patience, giving it away again and again is diligence, giving it away without distraction is meditative stability, and resting afterwards in the abiding nature of emptiness is the perfection of wisdom.

The refuge visualization includes not only Machik herself but also her son Gyalwa Döndrup and grandson or grandnephew Tönyön Samdrup, which would seem to indicate that it is at least second if not third generation after Machik herself. More research needs to be done and hopefully more will come to light as I continue with the translations in the volumes on Severance and Pacification in The Treasury of Precious Instructions.

The question I proposed: “Is there enough material here to warrant attributing the body offering practice to Machik?” has led to much speculation. I would have to say that so far I have not seen much evidence linking Machik with the culinary detail of the spectacular charnel ground practices we call “Chöd.” Yet this is not much different than any investigation of the sources of a full-blown tradition. Did Virupa teach lam ‘bras? Did Niguma teach Six Yogas? The ḍākinī’s warm breath cools down and the trail is lost, leaving us chilling in a nice cool spot. Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements mix and mingle and we drink, hoping for a good brew to warm us.

Did Machik Lapdrön Really Teach Chöd? A Survey of the Early Sources
Presented by Sarah Harding at AAR 2013, Baltimore, MD

Attached here is a listing of early gcod texts from the gdams ngag mdzod – Sarah Harding