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A yogi having a vision of the five Buddhas
A yogi having a vision of the five Buddhas (Lukhang Murals, Lhasa)

The Samantabhadra Collection of Nyingma Literature

Hosting Institution: University of Virginia
Collection Director: David Germano (UVA)

The Samantabhadra Collection is a collaborative electronic project centered around the reproduction, analysis, interpretation, and translation of Tibetan literature in the Nyingma tradition. The Nyingma (rnying ma) schools of Tibetan Buddhism represent the oldest lineages of Buddhism in Tibet, dating back to the eighth century during the height of the great Tibetan Empire and continuing to thrive in the twenty-first century. The Collection is named after Samantabhadra (Tibetan, kun tu bzang po), the primordial Buddha understood as the ultimate source of these traditions. Our initial focus is on the various editions of the great canonical collection of Tibetan Buddhist scriptures known as The Collected Tantras of the Ancients (rnying ma rgyud 'bum).

A Brief History of Nyingma Literature

Author: David Germano (University of Virginia), March 25, 2002.

While Buddhist figures and movements surely were active on the Tibetan plateau long before, Tibetan religious histories concentrate on events in the latter half of the eighth century as marking a watershed during which Buddhism definitively established itself within Tibetan culture. With the official sponsorship of the emperor Trisong Detsen (khri srong lde btsan), the first major monastery was established at Samye (bsam yas), a broad scale translation project of the Buddhist canon into a newly minted Tibetan literary language was initiated, and a variety of lineages began to take hold. The explosive developments were interrupted in the mid-ninth century as the Empire began to disintegrate, leading to a century-long interim of civil war and decentralization about which we know relatively little. The historical spotlight reemerges in the late eleventh century as new political authorities with much reduced dominion begin to reimport Buddhism primarily from the south (India, Nepal, etc.). These new Buddhist lineages, along with their new translation projects, came into conflict with the older Tibetan lineages on issues of authenticity, legitimacy and control. Thus, from the late tenth into the eleventh century there is a gradual polarization between new Buddhist lineages referring to themselves as "Modernists" or "New Ones" (Sarma, gsar ma) and the older Buddhist lineages still adhering to the imperial legacies and hence known as the "Ancients" or "Old Ones" (Nyingma, rnying ma). In addition, the former came to be known as the "later transmission" (phyi dar) or "later translations" (phyi 'gyur), while the latter came to be known as the "earlier transmission" (snga dar) or "earlier translations" (snga 'gyur).

While the Modernists continued to produce large new bodies of Tibetan literature both in purported "translations" of largely Indian manuscripts and in new indigenous Tibetan compositions, they also attacked the Ancients' lineages as inauthentic either because their lineal transmissions had become corrupt, or because their supposed Imperial period translations were in fact later Tibetan compositions. While the Ancients engaged in little systematic translation after the tenth century, they did, however, continue to produce large volumes of new materials claiming to be Indian Buddhist classics in translation. The circumstances of their new appearance was explained by a cult of historical re-revelation known as the "treasure" (gter ma) movement, which involved the claim that an Indian or Tibetan saint in the Imperial period had concealed translated scriptures for future generations. Contemporary Nyingma figures known as "treasure finders" (gter ston), and often claiming to be reincarnations of Imperial period Buddhist figures, then would find and re-reveal these scriptures as needed in the present. Thus there came into being the notion that Nyingma literature in translation could be divided into two broad areas depending on their Tibetan transmissional history: those transmitted uninterruptedly upon emergence in Tibet and thus known as "transmitted precepts" (bka' ma), and those first concealed in Tibet and only subsequently re-revealed, thus known as "treasures" (gter ma). In addition, original Tibetan compositions in the Nyingma school became increasingly important, and various collected works (gsung 'bum) of individual authors began to emerge over time. It should be noted that despite the rhetoric and polemics, it was clear that Sarma and Nyingma authors were in extensive dialog from the late tenth century onwards, and that Nyingma "treasure" texts are in many ways best understood as the Nyingma appropriation of new Indian materials against the background of their own received traditions. In addition, the Nyingma were often in very close relationship with Bön lineages and authors. Bön also claimed to date back to the Tibetan empire, and even beyond to the shadowy Zhang zhung Empire in what is now Western Tibet, but its historical claims of origins led many Tibetans to view them as non-Buddhist.

Another important facet is that while exoteric Buddhist literature based on canonical Buddha-spoken sūtras was very important during the Imperial period, and much of its key Tibetan translations done during that time period, following the Empire's disintegration, the Nyingma school was dominated by esoteric literature based on the canonical Buddha-spoken tantras. It is true, however, that it appears many key Nyingma authors were learned in the exoteric literature, that there were exceptions such as the eleventh century Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo (rong zom chos kyi bzang po) and the fourteenth century Longchenpa (klong chen pa), and that from the eighteenth century onwards the Nyingma participation in the ecumenical movement (ris med) entailed the development of new specifically Nyingma exoteric literature led by the nineteenth-twentieth century genius Mipham (mi pham). However, historically, Nyingma literary productions have been dominated on the doctrinal and ritual front by esoteric traditions. These traditions were organized into a triad of traditions unique to the Nyingma school: Great Yoga (mahāyoga), Subsequent Yoga (anuyoga) and Transcendent Yoga (atiyoga), the final of which is often referred to as the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen).

As the fourteenth century produced canons of the translated scriptures of both "later" and "earlier" translations that excluded many Nyingma scriptures, the Nyingma produced their own canon of scriptures attributed to Buddhas and Indian saints which came to be titled The Collected Tantras of the Ancients (Nyingma gyubum, rnying ma rgyud 'bum). It now exists in various editions with differing contents and organizations, though a common core set of texts is shared as well as the overall organization into the three Nyingma tantra traditions of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga. This canon also contained a mixture of "treasures" and "transmitted precepts" Subsequently a companion canon began to form under the rubric of the "transmitted precepts" (bka' ma), which attempted to bring together exclusively non-treasure based Nyingma scriptural traditions from Indian and Tibetan sources. This canon has undergone several transformations in the past few decades, as Nyingma editors have used it to republish large amounts of Nyingma literature in danger of being lost in the vicissitudes of the twentieth century. In addition, the major treasure cycles continue to be transmitted outside of these large canons.

Another important aspect of the Nyingma tradition lies in their narrative literature, which includes some of the earliest and most important of Tibetan historical writings, as well as legendary narratives concerning the Imperial period in a Camelot-like mythos bound up with the treasure cult. Some of the most important such narratives are centered around the life and activities of the Indian saint Padmasambhava, who gradually emerged as the major source of treasures as well as one of the major centers of ritual devotional exercises and narrative imagination. Other important narrative cycles instead focused on the great Buddhist deity Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. These narratives portrayed him as the original progenitor of the Tibetan people in the form of a monkey who coupled with an indigenous demoness, as emanating in the form of the Tibetan Emperor Songtsen Gampo (srong btsan sgam po) during the onset of the Empire in the seventh century, and in general intervening in Tibetan history in multiple ways. Indeed these narrative literatures played a crucial role in laying the ideological framework for the emergence of the Avalokiteśvara as the dominant trans-sectarian deity cult in Tibet, as well as its adaptation by the later Central Tibetan government nominally headed by the Dalai Lama line of incarnations (himself seen as an emanation of Avalokiteśvara).

The earliest major authors and translators for the Nyingma tradition are in the latter half of the eighth century, the most important being the Indians Vimalamitra, Padmasambhava and Śrīsiha, along with the Tibetan Vairocana. All four became lightening rods for later treasure attributions, such that huge bodies of literature were associated with them that in many cases seem to date long after the eighth century. The next major figure was the late ninth century Nub Sangye Yeshe (gnubs sangs rgyas ye shes), who inaugurated the Anuyoga tradition in Tibet, and wrote important commentaries on Mahāyoga and Atiyoga. In the eleventh century, Rongzom Chokyi Zangpo was without doubt the greatest Nyingma author, with extensive exoteric and esoteric commentaries. Nyangrel Nyima Özer (nyang ral nyi ma 'od zer) is of towering importance in the twelfth century, and is arguably the most pivotal author in the history of Nyingma literature. He was the pivotal architect of the Nyingma narrative traditions concerning the Emperors, Padmasambhava and Avalokiteśvara, a major treasure finder and formulator of the treasure mythos, one of the defining authors of the "eight proclamation deities" (bka' brgyad) tradition of Mahāyoga, and an important literary figure in Atiyoga traditions. Longchenpa, however, in the fourteenth century, is undoubtedly the greatest intellectual in the history of the Nyingma, and produced the defining systematization of Nyingma thought and practice in a series of powerful studies of Mahāyoga and Atiyoga. A great philosopher and great poet, his works including The Seven Treasuries (mdzod bdun) came to be the most famous of all Nyingma literature across the broad spectrum of Tibetan Buddhist traditions. Many other important authors and treasure finders ensued in the Nyingma tradition, but Jikme Lingpa ('jigs med gling pa) and Mipham deserve special notice in the eighteenth and nineteenth-twentieth centuries respectively deserve special notice. Jikme Lingpa was the greatest treasure finder of the eighteenth century and a skilled poet. He produced the dominating Great Perfection cycle of the last two centuries in The Seminal Heart of the Great Sphere (klong chen snying thig), as well as other important ritual and doctrinal texts/revelations. He also was the principal figure behind the editing of a new edition of The Collected Tantras of the Ancients, which came to be the basis for the first woodblock print edition of this Nyingma canon from the Derge (sde dge) Publishing House. He also authored an important history of the Nyingma tradition on this occasion. Mipham then was the single most important author in the efflorescence of Nyingma exoteric literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Grounding himself theoretically in the writings of Longchenpa and other great Nyingma authors, Mipham produced brilliant exegetical commentaries on the great Indian philosophical systems and texts with a Nyingma orientation.

In the twenty first century there continues to be an active literary production within the Nyingma school, though the materials are largely conservative as one would expect following the challenges and vicissitudes of the late twentieth century's social disruptions and especially the "Cultural Revolution". It remains to be seen how the tradition's vibrant traditions of treasure revelation and original compositions may yet reinvent itself over time.