Guyagharba Tantra

This article is the first of a six part series which brings you Gyurme Dorje’s extensive and remarkable introuduction to the Guhyagarbha Tantra, the flagship tantra of the Nyingma School of the Tibetan Buddhism.



1. The Nyingma School and the Three Inner Classes of Tantra

The all-embracing maôçala of the hundred peaceful and wrathful deities which is revered as the highest expression of the Mahäyoga class of Unsurpassed Yogatantra within the eighth century Indo-Tibetan tantra tradition was first brought to the attention of the western world through popular translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bar do thos grol chen mo), a section of Karma Lingpa’s revelation: Peaceful and Wrathful Deities: A Profound Secret Teaching [entitled] Natural Liberation through [Recognition of] Enlightened Intention (Zab chos zhi khro dgongs pa rang grol). Through the pioneering translations and commentaries of Kazi Dawa Samdup, Evans Wentz and C. G. Jung, the imagery of this classic text has acquired far-reaching recognition on account of its importance for the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of death and the rebirth processes. Little is known, however, of the tantra-text on which this maôçala and its various gter ma revelations, including that of Karma Lingpa, are based.

The Guhyagarbha Tantra which is the primary source describing this maôçala is a highly influential text within the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, otherwise known as the "translation school of the ancients" (snga’ ‘gyur rnying ma). It is this tradition which has maintained the teaching-cycles and texts introduced to Tibet during the royal dynastic period of the eighth and ninth centuries, through to the epoch of the Indian scholar Smötijñänakïrti and prior to that of Lochen Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055). The Nyingmapa are those who have adhered to this "earlier dissemination" (snga’ dar) and cultivated its traditions over succeeding centuries through study, meditation, composition, and the revelation of concealed texts or treasures (gter ma). A comprehensive account of the philosophical perspective and historical transmission of this school can be found in Dudjom Rinpoche’s modern compilation, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. By contrast, the adherents of the later Buddhist lineages such as the Kadampa, Sakyapa and Kagyupa which evolved in Tibet during the "subsequent dissemination" (phyi dar) of the teachings by Atiâa, Drokmi Lotsäwa, Marpa Lotsäwa and their contemporaries are generally known as Sarmapa, "followers of the new schools".

Although the designations "Nyingma" and "Sarma" were undoubtedly applied retrospectively, it is clear that by the eleventh century the two periods of Buddhist expansion in Tibet had become sufficiently distinguishable, enabling Rongzom Paôçita to attribute six superiorities to the ancient translations in his Precious Jewel Commentary (dKon mchog ‘grel). In his view, the ancient translations of the Nyingma tradition are distinguished by the greatness of their royal benefactors, by the sanctity of the early Buddhist shrines, temples, and monasteries in which they were prepared, by the calibre of their translators, and the enlightened attributes of their supervising paôçitas, as well as by the lavish offerings made at the time when they were commissioned. Lastly, the Indic sources on which the ancient translations are based are said to have been propagated and transmitted through pure unadulterated lineages during the period when Buddhism reached its zenith in India, before the devastation caused by the Islamic incursions and Hindu resurgence.

As far as the technique of the ancient translations is concerned, Rongzompa makes the following additional remark:

Concerning the translations themselves: Since the translators of the past were emanations, they established the meanings correctly. For this reason their works are easy to understand and, on plumbing their depths, the blessing is great. But the translators of the later period were unable to render the meaning and made lexical translations following [merely] the arrangement of the Sanskrit texts. Consequently, their forced terminology is hard to understand, and on plumbing the depths the blessing is slight. Therefore, they are dissimilar.

Certain linguistic distinctions between the so-called semantic and lexical translation methodologies will be considered below in the context of the debate surrounding the origins of the Guhyagarbha Tantra. Generally speaking, the simple versification of texts like the Guhyagarbha stands in marked contrast, for example, to that of the Kälacakra Tantra, which is considered by many to epitomise the most complex of the later translations.

Despite Rongzompa’s entrenched position which was designed purposefully to counter the prejudice expressed against the ancient tantras by certain advocates of the new translation system, the Nyingma tradition for the most part remained aloof from the subsequent sectarian rivalries of Tibetan political life— whether in the conflict between Sakya and Drigung or in the civil war between the Karmapa backed Tsangpa administration and the Gelugpa hierarchy. Their philosophy and spirituality have however continued to exert influence on the later traditions until recent times. Important figures such as Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339), Yungton Dorjepel (1284-1365), the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgon Kongtrul (1813-1899) have contributed immensely to the evolution of the Nyingma teachings, notwithstanding their affiliation to other schools. As a study of the chos ‘byung genre of Tibetan Buddhist historiography reveals, Tibet’s great thinkers, scholars and meditators from all traditions could freely teach each other without sectarian inhibitions.

It is in the Nyingma system that the Buddhist teachings are classified according to a hierarchical gradation of nine vehicles or nine sequences of the vehicle (theg pa rim pa dgu), extending from the most exoteric sütras to the most esoteric tantras. S.G. Karmay in his "Origin and Early Development of the Tibetan Religious Traditions of the Great Perfection" has traced the development of this ninefold classification through a comparative study of the writings of Padmasambhava, Kawa Peltsek, Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, Longchen Rabjampa and others. The synthesis outlined in the Anuyoga text sPyi mdo dgongs pa ‘dus pa and elaborated by the Mindroling tradition refers to the first three sequences (àrävakayäna, Pratyekabuddhayäna and Bodhisattvayäna) under the heading "vehicles which control the cause of suffering" (kun ‘byung ‘dran pa’i theg pa), to the middle three (Kriyätantra, Ubhayatantra and Yogatantra) as "vehicles of the outer tantras of austere awareness" (phyi dka’ thub rig pa’i rgyud kyi theg pa), and to the last three (Mahäyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga) as "vehicles of overpowering means" (dbang bsgyur thabs kyi theg pa). According to Lochen Dharmaârï, the enumeration of nine is itself provisional because the structure may be simplified, e.g. into the twofold classification of Hïnayäna and Mahäyäna, or extended, e.g. by adding the mundane Manuêyayäna or Devayäna. Indeed, in the final analysis, there may be as many vehicles as there are thoughts in the mind, while, from the resultant or absolute standpoint, there is said to be no vehicle at all. The following verses from the Laûkävatärasütra (T. 107) are quoted in support of this position:

As long as there are perceptions,
The culmination of the vehicles will never be reached.
When the mind becomes transformed
There is neither vehicle nor mover.

The integrated structure of these nine provisional vehicles is also mentioned in key texts, such as the principle Mental Class (sems sde) tantra of the Great Perfection (rdzogs pa chen po) system, the All-Accomplishing King (Kun byed rgyal po’i rgyud, T. 828):

Existentially there is only one,
But empirically there are nine vehicles.

The distinctions between them are discussed in the many philosophical treatises of the Nyingma school which focus on spiritual and philosophical systems (siddhänta, Tib. grub mtha’), and notably in Longchen Rabjampa’s Treasury of Philosophical Systems (Grub mtha’ mdzod), Lochen Dharmaârï’s Oral Transmission of the Lord of Secrets (gSang bdag zhal lung), and Dudjom Rinpoche’s Fundamentals of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (bsTan pa’i rnam gzhag). All these sources make the most basic distinction between the first three or sütra-based vehicles which advocate a graduated, causal approach to enlightenment (byang chub) or buddhahood (sangs rgyas nyid) and the last six or tantra-based vehicles which maintain the resultant view that buddhahood is primordially or atemporally (ye nas) attained, and realised as such by the removal of the obscurations covering enlightened mind (byang chub sems).

The term "tantra" (rgyud) actually means “continuum”, referring to the threefold continuum of the ground (gzhi’i rgyud), continuum of the path (lam gyi rgyud) and continuum of the result (‘bras bu’i rgyud), which respectively demarcate the unrealised abiding nature of reality (gnas lugs), the means by which it is realised (thabs), and the fruitional buddha-body (sku) and pristine cognition (ye shes) resulting from that realisation. It is this structure of ground, path and result around which the tantra-texts, both Nyingma and Sarma are developed, as we will see below with reference to the Guhyagarbha Tantra. At the same time, the term tantra also refers to the four classes of texts which assume this threefold structure. The four classes are the texts of Kriyätantra, Ubhayatantra (or Caryätantra), Yogatantra and Yoganiruttaratantra, which are differentiated and discussed at length in the above treatises. The last of these subdivisons, according to the Nyingma school, comprises the texts of Mahäyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga, the "vehicles of overpowering means" or three classes of inner tantras (nang rgyud sde gsum), which form the principal subject matter of the Nyingmapa commentarial tradition. It is important that the distinctions between these three are now comprehended because, as we shall see, the Guhyagarbha Tantra has been interpreted from divergent Mahäyoga and Atiyoga perspectives.

When the three classes of inner tantras are contrasted, Mahäyoga is said to emphasise the ground or basis of the realisation of buddhahood, i.e. the abiding nature of reality (gnas lugs), Anuyoga the path or skilful means which bring about realisation and Atiyoga the result itself, the full-fledged presence of buddha-body (sku) and pristine cognition (ye shes). Alternatively, from the standpoint of meditative stability (samädhi), Mahäyoga focuses on the generation stage of meditation (bskyed rim), Anuyoga on the perfection stage (rdzogs rim), and Atiyoga on the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen).

In the words of Menyak Khyungdrak, an eleventh-century holder of the Nyingma lineage:
Though the three aspects of generation and perfection are present in them all, Mahäyoga emphatically teaches the generation stage [of meditation], Anuyoga emphatically teaches the perfection stage [of meditation], and the Great Perfection is effortless with respect to both stages.

Longchen Rabjampa, in his Mind at Rest (Sems nyid ngal gso), adds:

Mahäyoga emphasises [control of] vital energy and the skilful means of the generation stage.
Anuyoga emphasises [control of] seminal energy and the discriminative awareness of the perfection stage.
Atiyoga emphasises the pristine cognition in which everything is without duality.

And according to Kyoton àäk-ye of Gongbu:
Mahäyoga stresses conduct,
Anuyoga stresses meditative stability,
And Atiyoga stresses the view.

As these authors state, Mahäyoga emphasises the ground in its perspective, the generation stage in its meditative technique and ritual activities in its conduct, Anuyoga emphasises the path, the perfection stage of meditative technique and meditative stability, and Atiyoga emphasises the result, the Great Perfection or the view itself. We shall observe however that tantra-texts such as the Guhyagarbha, despite their classification within Mahäyoga, necessarily contain elements of all three, and it is for this reason that divergent exegetical traditions later developed.
The dispositions of those who would aspire to the three inner classes of tantra are also mentioned in the Tantra of the Great Array (bKod pa chen po), which says:

For one who would transcend the [mundane] mind
There is the generation phase.
For one who would possess the essence of mind
There is the perfection phase.
And for those who are supreme and most secret
There is the Great Perfection.

Longchen Rabjampa in his Great Chariot (Shing rta chen mo) elaborates:

The father tantras of Mahäyoga are the natural expression of the skilful means of appearance, intended on behalf of those requiring training who are mostly hostile and possessed by many ideas; the mother tantras of Anuyoga are the discriminative awareness of the perfection stage which is the reality of emptiness, intended for the benefit of those who are mostly desirous and delight in the tranquility of the mind; and the non-dual tantras of Atiyoga are revealed as the natural expression of their non-duality, intended for the benefit of those who are mostly deluded, but who are energetic.

When these three classes are considered distinctly, each is analysed according to its essence, etymology and classification, as in the following account derived from Lochen Dharmaârï’s Oral Transmission of the Lord of Secrets (gSang bdag zhal lung), which represents the opinion of the “distant lineage of the transmitted precepts” (ring brgyud bka’ ma).


The essence of Mahäyoga practice is that liberation is obtained through union with the indivisible superior truth (lhag pa’i gnyis med bden pa) by relying emphatically on the generation stage of meditation in which skilful means is employed (thabs kyi bskyed rim). The Sanskrit term mahäyoga is defined as the "great union" of the mind with non-dual truth. The classification includes the topics of empowerment (dbang bskur) and entrance (‘jug pa), view (lta ba), discipline (tshul khrims), meditation (sgom), conduct (spyod pa) and result (‘bras bu).

At the outset, four empowerments are conferred, enabling Mahäyoga to be practised. The vehicle is then entered through three successive phases of meditative stability, namely: great emptiness (stong pa chen po) which purifies death, great compassion (snying rje chen po) which purifies the intermediate state after death (bar do) and the seals and attainment of the maôçala-clusters (phyag rgya dang tshom bu tshogs sgrub) which purify the three phases of life by establishing the practitioner’s true nature to be the maôçala of deities.

The view maintained by Mahäyoga practitioners holds ultimate truth (don dam bden pa) to be spontaneous awareness (rig pa) without conceptual elaboration, relative truth (kun rdzob bden pa) to be the ideas or mental energy of that awareness which manifest as a maôçala of buddha-body and pristine cognition, and the superior indivisible truth to be the unity of these two— emptiness and pure appearance.

Discipline in the context of Mahäyoga refers to twenty-eight commitments (dam tshig) that are upheld in relation to meditative practice, renunciation and attainment. Meditation here comprises both non-symbolic meditative stability in the nature of ultimate reality and the symbolic meditations of the generation and perfection stages. In the generation stage, the maôçala of meditational deities is gradually visualised through the aforementioned three successive meditative stabilities, in which deity and thought processes are indivisible. In the perfection stage, the visualisation emphasises the control of the energy channels, currents of vital energy and focal points of seminal energy (rtsa rlung thig le), either within the meditator’s own subtle body (rang lus steng sgo) or else when in union with a yogic partner (gzhan lus ‘og sgo).

The conduct observed by practitioners of Mahäyoga implies that the defilements and dissonant mental states of cyclic existence (saæsära), as well as the rites of forceful "liberation" (sgrol) and sexual practices (sbyor) can be engaged without attachment because they are retained as skilful means. Lastly, the result attained by practitioners of Mahäyoga is the actualisation of the five buddha-bodies (sku lnga) in this very lifetime or in the intermediate state after death.


The essence of Anuyoga practice is that by relying on the perfection stage of meditation, emphasising discriminative awareness (shes rab rdzogs rim), liberation is obtained through the unifying realisation of the expanse of reality (dbyings) and pristine cognition (ye shes), without duality. The Sanskrit term anuyoga is defined as "subsequent yoga", i.e., that which links Mahäyoga to Atiyoga or which reveals the path of desire (chags lam) subsequent on the experience of discriminative awareness.

As to the aforementioned six classificatory topics, Anuyoga has thirty-six basic and eight hundred and thirty-one ancillary empowerments which are conferred in relation to to all nine sequences of the vehicle, including the sütras; and it is entered through the spontaneously perfect non-duality of the expanse and pristine cognition.

The view maintained by Anuyoga practitioners is that all phenomena are the primordial maôçala of Samantabhadrï (ye ji bzhin pa’i dkyil ‘khor), the uncreated awareness is the pristine cognition or spontaneously present maôçala of Samantabhadra (rang bzhin lhun grub kyi dkyil ‘khor), and the supreme bliss of their offspring is the fundamental maôçala of enlightened mind, without duality of expanse and pristine cognition (byang chub sems kyi dkyil ‘khor).

Discipline in the context of Anuyoga refers to the nine categories of commitments described in the sixty-sixth chapter of the Sütra which Gathers All Intentions (mDo dgongs pa ‘dus pa, Derge Vol. 7). Meditation here comprises the path of means (thabs lam) which utilises the energy channels, currents of vital energy and focal points of seminal energy either with reference to the meditator’s subtle body or in union with a yogic partner, and the path of liberation (grol lam) which comprises the non-conceptual meditative stability in the nature of reality and symbolic meditative stability in the nature of the meditational deities, who are said, here, to appear instantly "in the manner of a fish leaping from the water."

The conduct observed by practitioners of Anuyoga implies that all things are regarded with an attitude of sameness, and that acts of consecration, blessing and skilful means can be effectively performed. Lastly, the result attained by practitioners of Anuyoga is the actualisation of the twenty-five resultant realities (‘bras bu chos nyer lnga) of the buddha-level within one lifetime.


The essence of Atiyoga practice, also known as the Great Perfection (rdzogs pa chen po), is that liberation occurs in primordial buddhahood (ye nas sangs rgyas pa), without renunciation, acceptance, hope or doubt. The Sanskrit term atiyoga is defined as the "highest union" because it is the culmination of all vehicles, and of both the generation and perfection stages.

As to the aforementioned six-fold classification: the empowerment of the expressive power of awareness (rig pa’i rtsal dbang) is initially conferred, and the vehicle is then entered, without engaging in mundane activities.

The view maintained by Atiyoga practitioners is that all things of cyclic existence (saæsära) and nirväôa are present as primordial buddhahood within the unique point of seminal energy (thig le nyag gcig) , identified with the buddha-body of reality (chos sku).

Discipline in the context of Atiyoga includes the observance of commitments known as nothingness or ineffability (med pa), openness (phyal ba), uniqueness or oneness (gcig pa), and spontaneous presence (lhun grub). Meditation here comprises the three classes of the Great Perfection— Mental, Spatial and Esoteric Instructional (sems klong man ngag gi sde gsum)— the last of which includes the most advanced techniques of Cutting Through Resistance (khregs chod) and All-Surpassing Realisation (thod rgal).

The conduct observed by practitioners of Atiyoga is devoid of acceptance or rejection. Lastly, the result attained by practitioners of Atiyoga is that the goal (buddhahood) is reached at the present moment, on the level of spontaneously perfect Samantabhadra.

Taking all these points into account, the prime distinction between the three inner classes of tantra is therefore that Mahäyoga, the basis, cultivates the realisation of primordial buddhahood in a gradual manner, Anuyoga does so in a spontaneous or perfect manner, and Atiyoga is the Great Perfection underlying both approaches— the goal itself.


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