Padmasambhava (born from the lotus), Guru Rinpoche (the Perfect Teacher) was one of the greatest teachers of Buddhism.
He was born in India in the VIII century and in adulthood came to Tibet. It is believed that he is the emanation of Buddha Amitabha. Padmasambhava is often called the second Buddha as his life and activity significantly changed the appearance of Buddhism and gave it a new dimension. Padmasambhava brought Buddha’s teachings to Tibet, turned demons to protectors of the Teaching and paved the way for Dharma in Tibet. The hidden termas (his hidden teachings) continue to appear in the world today. The Nyingmapa school which is the oldest school of Buddhism in Tibet considers him as its founder and all Buddhist schools respect and appreciate him.
Little is known about Padmasambhava as a specific historical person, who’s entire biography is a marvelous story. Shortly before Buddha Shakyamuni’s death, Buddha predicted that a few years after his passing away a perfect Teacher will bring great benefit to all living beings will appear on Earth. And a few years after Buddha’s death, inside a lotus flower on Lake Danakosh, in the mystical country of Uddiyana, an 8-year-old boy miraculously materialized. It was at this time that the King of Uddiyana Indrabodha passed by with his retinue. The king was old and had lost all hope of having children, which was the source of his enduring sorrow. Hence, finding inside a lotus flower a marvelous boy, sitting in a meditative posture and surrounded by radiance, Indrabodha rejoiced. He adopted the child and saw in his appearance the mercy of the gods. The boy was given the name Padmakara, meaning born from a lotus. Like the Buddha Shakyamuni, the boy grew up in a royal palace, was brought up as heir to the throne, reached the age of maturity, and got married. Everything went in the usual way, until, by coincidence, he was forced to leave the palace and go into exile. His life changed dramatically and in some ways his story here also reminds of the Buddha’s story. He left people and meditated in secluded places such as cemeteries and caves. During this period, he seemingly begins to realize his belonging to Dharma. Dakinis and Nagas become his teachers and give him secret Teachings. After several years of meditation, the once carefree prince Padmakara grew up, experienced the depths of yoga, and returned to the people. But to the people he seemed strange and they neither accepted nor understood his teachings. He then went to India to obtain knowledge from Indian teachers. Padmasambhava studied almost every teaching that was available, combining within himself the wisdom of heaven and earth. At that time in northern India, King Vihardhara’s daughter, beautiful and gentle Mandarava, refused all the bridegrooms and chose a spiritual path. The very idea of renouncing the spiritual path in favor of worldly life was unbearable for her. With the king’s permission, she retired to the monastery to fully devote herself to spiritual life. When Padmasambhava came to this monastery, she recognized him as her Teacher and became his sacred wife. Learning of this, the king was angry and ordered to burn them both at the stake. But Padmasambhava with his miraculous power turned the bonfire into a lake, and then the king and the people repented and asked Padmasambhava to become their Teacher. In Tibet, King Tisong Detsen unsuccessfully tried to constitute Buddhism. The king invited Shantarakshita, one of the greatest Buddhist scholars of the time, to help. But the scholarly sermons of Shantarakshita were not enough and the Tibetans remained a wild and ignorant people. They preferred to listen to their gods and demons, and demons created obstacles that prevented the spread of Dharma. The king began to build the first Buddhist monastery of Samye in Tibet. The construction was grandiose, but all that the people managed to build during the day, the demons destroyed overnight. In addition, the country was hit by misfortunes – famine, floods, and earthquakes. Padmasambhava by that time was already a famous Teacher and a magician, and Shantarakshita advised the king to invite Padmasambhava to pacify the demons and establish the Teaching.
And so it happened: after arriving in Tibet, Padmasambhava began teaching Buddhism and demonstrating his magical abilities to the Tibetans. He won in the disputes and in the magical contests against the Tibetian Bon priests and sorcerers, surpassing their magical art. He subdued the demons and evil spirits of Tibet, turned them to Buddhism and they became dharmapalas, protectors of the Dharma. Samye’s construction was completed, the first Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetian, and the first Tibetans were initiated as monks. A relative peace reigned in the country and the king became Padmasambhava’s respectful disciple. But even after that, Padmasambhava was met with distrust and resistance both from Tibetan nobles, who were dissatisfied with the spread of Dharma, and from the demons of Tibet. Again and again he demonstrated his magical abilities and superiority of the teachings of Buddhism. In Tibet Padmasambhava met Yeshe Tsogyal – his second spiritual spouse, who later became a great yogini. Like Mandarava, Yeshe Tsogyal was an unusual girl. She was born as a princess of Kharchen region in Tibet and when time came she refused all the bridegrooms as she wanted to devote herself to Dharma. But her parents disagreed and forced her to marry. After having escaped by the price of cruel hardship from her husband, Yeshe was taken to the royal palace and the king presented her as a gift to Padmasambhava. She recognized Padmasambhava as her Teacher and became his second sacred wife, received many teachings from him and achieved realization. It was she who recorded the biography of Padmasambhava, thanks to which we at least have some knowledge of his life and deeds. In Tibet, Padmasambhava performed many miracles, showed the Path to people and demons, and Buddhism received recognition. This period is considered the birth of Buddhism in Tibet.Having completed the Tibetan mission lasting 55 years, Padmasambhava went to the border with Nepal and from there ascended to heaven on the magical horse Mahabala.
When we discussed the story of Padmasambhava with my Teacher, Vova Pyatsky, he made the following comments:
In the history of Buddhism, the personality of Padmasambhava fills a very important part. Buddhism before Padmasambhava looks like a peaceful doctrine based on the Jain-related principles of non-violence, and the knowledge of philosophical truths through meditation and deep reflection.
Padmasambhava presents Buddhism from a different perspective, introducing the principle of wrathful deities. Padmasambhava’s path is magical and its history is full of inexplicable wonders. According to legend, he received his knowledge from the Nagas and Dakinis. With that knowledge, demons could not endure against him.
But what is magic? Who are the demons? The essence of magic is the realization that no aspect of human consciousness is superfluous. The emotions and energies that we consider negative – anger, sadness, resentment, greed – are the demons of our consciousness. Initially they have the same enlightened essence as positive qualities, but the power of the Teaching is necessary to give them a good form. When they acquire a good shape, they become protectors of the Teaching and in such a way poisons are turned into medicines. This art was perfected by Padmasambhava. The essence of the teachings of Padmasambhava is giving refuge to all beings in all worlds – gods, people, demons, and other classes of beings. That is why he is called Guru Rinpoche, the Perfect Teacher.
What qualities allowed Padmasambhava to become a Perfect Teacher? Who is Padmasambhava, a historical person, a magical legendary being that never really existed, or maybe a symbolic hero of legends and fairy tales?
Similarly to the story of Garab Dorje, the story of Padmasambhava and his spouse contains a lot of symbolism not acknowledged by our usual perception. The mystery of his story takes us to a different reality, the reality of subtle and pure vision. The story of Padmasambhava and his spouse could not be taken from the point of view of ordinary thinking, as it talks of celestial beings and the channels of the human body.
Padmasambhava is the central channel of our body; Mandarava is the left, moon channel; Yeshe Tsogyal is the right, solar channel. The energy of the central channel is the energy of darkness and this channel is also called evil because there the person meets all his demons, the obstacles of the mind become obvious and cleared in the central channel. Padmasambhava’s story is about taming the demons of one’s own mind and turning them into protectors of the teachings.
There is no school or line of transmission of Padmasambhava’s Teaching left as the whole tradition of Padmasambhava emerges from terma, which is another mystery. According to the legends, the terma are hidden in caves and sacred places, and the people find these teachings when the time comes for them to appear in our world. This is also impossible from everyday reality point of view but could be seen through pure vision. Such approach creates a conflict, since the reality of pure vision which is a dream of Dharma does not seem to exist from the mundane point of view. Trying to find a definitive acceptable reality, we might reject the pure reality of the dream of Dharama and Padmasambhava’s magical stories, as they are uncertain and their energy is too weak to be real in our material word. However don’t forget that our whole life in this material word is just another dream, a dream of ignorance, so don’t despise the dream of Dharma.
The Pure Land of Padmasambhava is our awakening and it is as real as our everyday reality in which we firmly believe. Here we are faced with the great hesitation that exists in every person – what is real? Is it the reality of everyday life or the reality of Dharma? As we approach the reality of Dharma there is a state of ease and happiness and everything seems simple and understandable. But the reality of everyday life interferes, and our floating castles break up into pieces – euphoria is replaced by despair and depression. If we outlive this Great Doubt within ourselves, then the belief in the existence of any reality in general vanishes and the contradictions between samsara and nirvana disappear.
Dharma does not pretend to be a reality, it is a dream created by the movement of energy in the channels of our body. Ignorance consists in believing in some finite reality. In this ocean of illusion, the greatest grief of living beings is faith in some finite reality. In Buddhism the three marks of existence are Anicca Dukkha Anatta  –meaning everything is impermanent and suffering arises from attachment to the idea of permanence and to the search for constancy; there is no ultimate reality or the ultimate “I” in things. Such thinking leads to the depletion of faith in the ultimate reality. Dharma Dream is able to awaken from a dream of ignorance. Through seeing everyday life as a dream; rather than a firm reality, we come to an awakening. Padmasambhava, the perfect Guru, is also our dream of the Dharma. When again the question arises whether there was a real Padmasambhava, do not wait for an answer – it is time to just remember the Buddha’s smile and the Buddha’s silence…
When reality is exhausted we see that both Padmasambhava and Buddha are directly in front of us. Then the question of suchness arises. When the Buddha was asked who he was, he replied: “Tathagata” (One who has thus come) pointing to the absence of some ultimate reality and to the fact that he is a dream of the Dharma for his disciples. We continuously construct what seems to be real in our minds and as long as faith in reality is not exhausted, living beings will flounder in the ocean of birth and death. Only having exhausted the belief in reality can one get out of the boundaries of construction and non-construction, and the boundaries of birth and death. The nature of the mind surpasses existence and non-existence, and the same can be said of the Buddha, Padmasambhava, and his spouses. Speaking of existence or non-existence as ultimate truths, we fall into the extremes of a thirst for existence and a thirst for nonexistence. If we say that Padmasambhava did not exist there is a thirst for nonexistence. if we say that Padmasambhava existed and his stories are completely truthful we fall into a thirst for existence. What really happened and where is the truth? From these questions appears confusion, the state of question, followed by stillness of the mind, and this is the great Emptiness, Suchness.
Whatever has been told, our mind will continue trying to cling a concrete answer and will strive to create the ultimate reality of “existence or non existence.” But what will it do with this particular reality and what is the point of such clinging? People look for strong concrete solutions, but the energy of truth is weak. It does not move away from the truth itself and is felt as a weak presence in our lives. It is weak, and therefore it does not take the form of objective existence. Padmasambhava and his two spouses are a manifestation of weak energy that do not become an objective reality. What becomes an objective reality is subject to birth and death, and passes from the phase of existence into the phase of non-existence. Padmasambhava shows us unborn mind, which is not born and does not die. He and his wives are present in every being in the form of three channels, so it can not be said that he does not exist. Since Padmasambhava does not move away from his nature he does not enter into existence as an ordinary being, therefore he is said to be born from a lotus (heart). The question of existence or non-existence always remains open and this question is our unborn mind, suchness. The more we try to grasp Padmasambhava and his spouses, and give them concreteness, the more they slip away because the weak power of the mind can not be grasped. The nature of the mind manifests as good signs, good qualities. It is impossible to possess suchness, it can only be studied.
Padmasambhava is the Sambhogakaya of all Buddhas, and the wonders of his life story are the brightness of Sambhogakaya’s manifestation which is the manifestation of pure illusion. Speaking of Padmasambhava on the human level, we come to the complete impasse of attempts at an objective description of his life, activities, and Dharma. This is because his life and behavior are a manifestation of pure illusion, a deity, and not a person. Padmasambhava is the unified form of Sambhogakaya which contains the assembly of all Deities, Teachers and Dakinis.
The realized Teacher is always an embodiment of the three kayas: Buddha Shakyamuni manifests in him as Dharmakaya, Padmasambhava as Sambhogakaya, and his physical appearance as Nirmanakaya. Similarly to Padmasambhava, our Root Guru, Teacher, does not hide that he is a dream and does not pretend to be an absolute objective reality; the unified presence of the three Kayas is transmitted to disciples through the wisdom and compassion of Dharma dream.
Tsogyal, Yeshe. The Lotus-Born: The Lifestory of Padmasambhava Pema Kunsang, E. (trans.); Binder Schmidt, M. & Hein Schmidt, E. (eds.) 1st edition, Boston: Shambhala Books, 1993. Reprint: Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004. ISBN 962-7341-55-X.
– Acharya Buddharakkhita (1996), The Dhammapada, with introduction of Bhikku Bodhi
Translation: Roni Sherman and Dorey Glenn