Guhyagarbha Tantra (with Commentary)

by Gyurme Dorje | 1987 | 6,373 words

The English translation of the Guhyagarbha Tantra, including Longchenpa's commentary from the 14th century. The whole work is presented as a critical investigation into the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, of which the Guhyagarbhatantra is it's principle text. It contains twenty-two chapters teaching the essence and practice of Mahayoga, which s...

9. The bka'-ma lineage

The succession known in Tibet as the “distant lineage of transmitted precepts” (ring-brgyud bka'-ma) encorporates all those texts and instructions of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga which were Introduced from India and gradually passed down in an oral and literary tradition. It is contrasted with the “close lineage of treasures” (nye-brgyud gter-ma), which comprises those cycles discovered anew in each successive generation. This “distant lineage” is identified preeminently by its synthesis of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga, named mdo-sgyu-semg-gsum after the titles of the principal text of each—the Magical Net (sgyu), the Sūtra Which Gathers All Intentions (mdo) and the All Accomplishing King (sems) which represents the Mental Class (sems-sde) of Atiyoga. This common heritage of all the rNying-ma-pa lineages in Tibet fell first to gNyags Jñānakumāra, secondly to gNubs Sangs-rgyas Ye-shes and finally to the Zur family.

gNyags Jñānakumāra:

gNyags Jñānakumāra was fully ordained by Śāntarakṣita and he became a celebrated adept of Vajrāmṛta and Vajrakīla. He followed the most learned and accomplished masters of India, and acquired great learning in grammar, logic, dialectics, and in the outer and inner mantra-texts. He translated many sūtras and tantras, becoming the confluence of of the “four great rivers of the distant lineage” which derived from the teachings of Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra, Vairocana and gYu-sgra sNying-po.[1]

gNyags mastered the mdo-sgyu-sems-gsum, and above all, through his interpretations and expositions, he transmitted the Magical Net to numerous students. The foremost were known as the “eight glorious adepts of Vajrakīla”, namely, his four earlier disciples—the Sogdian dPal-gyi Ye-shes, 'O-bran dPal-gyi gZhon-nu, gNyan-chen dPal-dbyangs, and Thag-bzang dPal-gyi rDo-rje—and his four later disciples—Lam-mchog dPal-gyi rDo-rje, Dar-rje dPal-gyi Grags-pa, Gra dPal-gyi sNying-po, and Lha-lung dPal-gyi rDo-rje.[2]

gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas Ye-shes:

gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas Ye-shes, a native of Grags, was empowered and accomplished in the maṇḍala of Mañjuśrī. He studied many outer and inner tantras including the Guhyagarbha and their esoteric instructions under Padmasambhava, Śrī Siṃha, Vimalamitra, Vasudhara and Kamalaśīla, as well as the Tibetan translator gNyags Jñānakumāra, Sog-po dPal-gyi Ye-shes and Zhang rGyal-ba'i Yon-tan in particular.[3] His compositions Include:

- The Armour against Darkness, which is a vast commentary on the Sūtra Which Gathers All Intentions (mdo'i 'grel-chen mun-pa'i go-cha):

- The Disputant’s Sword Which Cuts Through Difficulties (dka' gcod smra-ba'i mtshon-cha):

- The Commentary on the Realisation of the Eighty-Chapter Magical Net (sgyu-'phrul brgyad-cu-pa'i mngon-rtogs 'grel); and

- The Lamp for the Eve of Contemplation—which is an esoteric instruction of the Great Perfection (rdzogs-chen-gyi man-ngag bsam-gtan mig-sgron).

gNubs-chen's most authentic student was Khu-lung Yon-tan rGya-mtsho,[4] who received all his empowerments, tantras, and esoteric instructions, and passed the lineage on through:

Ye-shes rGya-mtsho and Padma dBang-rgyal (his sons);
Lha-rje Hûm-chung (the former's son);
Nyang Shes-rab mChog;
Nyang Ye-shes 'Byung-gnas of Chos-lung;
Lha-rje Zur-po-che.

This lineal descent is known as the tradition of Rong, or else the tradition of Nyang, after their clan name. Before considering the importance of the Zur family which maintained this “distant lineage” down to the seventeenth century it is appropriate to examine the role of Rong-zom Paṇḍita, who was a contemporary of a Zur-po-che, and that of kLong-chen Rab-'byama-pa in relation to the Guhyagarbhatattvayiniścavamahātantra.

Rong-zom Paṇḍita, Chos-kyi bZang-po:

Chos-kyi bZang-po of Rong, the celebrated eleventh century mahāpaṇḍita of the rNying-ma school, was a native of sNar-lung-rong, Ru-lag, in lower gTsang.

He received the lineage of the instructions of Padmasambhava, which had been transmitted successively from the latter through:

sNa-nam rDo-rje bDud-'joms;
mKhar-chen dPal-gyi dBang-phyug;
sGra rDo-rje gZhon-nu;
Zhang-zhang Yon-tan Grags;
Rong-ban Yon-tan; and
Rong-ban Tshul-khrims Rin-po-che (i.e. his father).

In his youth, while studying the ancient translations under one mDo-ston Seng-ge, he once dreamed that he was eating a porridge he had prepared of the Guhyagarbha. with a vegetable broth made of the Buddhasamāvoga.

He told this to his master, who said,

“How wonderful! It is a sign that you have completely internalised those doctrines. You should compose a commentary on each.”

Among his compositions therefore was the first major Tibetan commentary on the Guhyagarbha (gsang-snying 'grel-pa)—the Precious Jewel Commentary (dkon-cog 'grel, NMKMG. Vol. 25), so called because of its Introductory words which say:

The nature of the Three Precious Jewels
Is enlightened mind.

This commentary and kLong-chen-pa's phyogs-bcu mun-sel (NMKMG. Vol. 26) are regarded as the two major expositions of the tantra according to the Atiyoga standpoint, in contrast to those of the “distant lineage” which emphasise the Mahāyoga position.

bDud-'joms Rin-po-che says of these:[5]

The commentary by the great, all-knowing kLong-chen-pa, entitled Dispelling the Darkness of the Ten Directions (phyogs-bcu mun-sel) clearly elucidates (the Guhyagarbha). commenting on it according to the tradition of the “king of vehicles” (i.e. Atiyoga). On the other hand, this commentary by the all-knowing Rong-zom-pa appears like a great chest that is sealed tight, vastly commenting on the expanse of reality. Knowing that these two are the main Tibetan commentaries on the Guhyagarbha provides the Intellect with the potential for great power.

Rong-zom-pa's role as the first major Tibetan commentator was criticised by scholars from the four Tibetan provinces,[6] including the noted opponent of the rNying-ma tantras 'Gos Khug-pa Lhas-btsas, but he is reported to have subdued these critics in debate. One could argue that Rong-zom-pa merely revived the commentarial tradition established in Tibet by sKa-ba dPal-brtsegs, gNyan dPal-dbyangs, and gNubs-chen Sangs-rgyas Ye-shes prior to the later dissemination of the teaching. Yet, despite the novelty of indigenous composition in the eleventh century, his critics in fact found that he adhered to the scriptural authorities, could bear logical examination, and that he contradicted neither syllogistic proof nor the teachings of their gurus.

Concerning this controversy, bDud-'joms Rin-po-che adds:[7]

This reasoned argument appears to be a learned axiom, when scrutinised fairly. In general, a doctrine is no more important merely because it originated in India. A distinction of good and bad treatises on the basis of country is not known in learned circles. If the author was one who abided on the level of accomplishment, the treatises composed by him should be valid. So, it is proven that whether they originated in India or Tibet makes no difference. Sometimes, too, Tibetan treatises are better than Indian treatises. One should regard as reliable those composed by accomplished Tibetans, whose pristine cognition was manifest, rather than those written by ordinary Indian scholars, who based themselves on learning in grammar and logic.

kLong-chen Rab-'byams-pa:

The celebrated rNying-ma-pa master kLong-chen Rab-'byams-pa (1308-1363), a native of Ngan-lam, studied the mdo-sgyu-sems-gsum and the Collected Tantras of the rNying-ma-pa under four teachers, including Dan 'Phags-pa, gZhon-nu Don-grub, and Myos-mthing-ma-ba Sangs-rgyas Grags-pa. His life story is presented in some detail by bDud-'joms 'Jigs-bral Ye-shes rDo-rje in NSTB,[8] Among his many compositions which firmly established the terminology of the Great Perfection system,[9] there is an interpretation of the Guhyagarbhatantra from the Atiyoga perspective. entitled the Trilogy Which Dispels Darkness (mun-sel skor-gsum). This work comprises the bsdus-don ma-rig mun-pa sel-ba (NGKMG. Vol. 27). which in 14 folia provides an analysis of the chapter-divisions of the Guhyagarbha, the spyi-don yid-mka' mun-pa sel-ba (NGKMG. Vol. 27). which in 89 folia analyses the scope and structure of the Buddhist and non-Buddhist teachings, and the gzhung-don phyogs-bcu'i mun-pa sel-ba, which in 313 folia (pp. 629) provides both general introductory explanations of each section of the Guhyagarbha and a detailed interlinear commentary of its “verses of indestructible reality” (rdo-rje'i tshig). The translation of the Guhyagarbha contained in the present study is based on and accompanied by this Interlinear commentary.

Footnotes and references:


These so-called "four great rivers of the distant lineage” comprise: the river of conventional textual exegesis, along with the commentaries and lecture notes; the river of Instruction of the aural lineage, along with the essential writings and the guidance which lays bare the teaching (dmar-khrid); the river of blessing and empowerment, along with the means for conferral and the introductions; and the river of practical techniques, rites of enlightened activity and attainment, along with the wrathful mantras of the protectors of the teaching. See NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 5, p. 282. On the translators Vairocana and gYu-sgra sNying-po. see S.G. Karmay, "The Origin and Early Development of the Tibetan Religious Traditions of the Great Perfection", Pt. 1, which is a summary of the Biography Vairocana (rje-btsun thams-cad mkhyen-pa bai-ro-tsa-na'i rnam-thar 'dra-'bag chen-mo); also NSTB, Book 2, Pt. ft, pp. 187-190.


On these figures, see NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 5, PP. 289-290. Among them, gNyan-chen dPal-dbyangs was a prolific commentator, his works including treatises on the Guhyagarbhatantra. viz. the thugs-kyi sgron-ma (P. 5918), the lta-ba yang-dag sgron-ma (P. 5919), the thabs-shes sgron-ma (P. 5921), and the lta-ba rin-po-che sgron-ma (P. 5923).


On Śrī Siṃha see NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 2, pp. 130-137, Pt. ft, pp. 187-190. On Vasudhara, op. cit.. Book 2, Pt. 5, PP. 290 ff., and on Zhang rGyal-ba'i Yon-tan, op. cit.. Book 2, Pt. 5, p. 291. Kamalaśīla's role in the bSam-yas debate is recorded in sBa-gsal-snang, sba-bzhed; R.A. Stein, Une Chronioue Anclenne de bSam-yas; G. Tucci, Minor Buddhist Texts. Pt. II; and J. Broughton, "Early Ch'an in Tibet.". See also S.G. Karmay, op. cit., pp. 153-190 on the relationship between the Tibetan cig-car-pa tradition and the Hva-shang.


On this figure, see NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 2, pp. 300-304.


NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 5, P- 459


The four provinces of stod mnga'-ris skor-gsum, dbus-gtsang, a-mdo, khams.


NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 7. p. 770.


NSTB. Book 2. Pt. 4. pp. 238-277.


Accordins: to NSTB, Book 2, Pt. 4, p. 235. kLong-chen Rab-'byams-pa's teacher Kumārādza also played a major part in the establishing of rdzogs-chen terminology. In addition to the Trilogy Which Dispels Darkness. which occupies most of the present study, the most celebrated treatises by kLong-chen-pa, are the Seven Treasuries (mdzod-bdun). the Trilogy of Rest (gnal-gso skor-gsum). the Trilogy of Natural Liberation (rang-grol skor-gsum). and the Three Cycles of Further Innermost Spirituality (yang-tig skor-gsum). See the bibliography for details.

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