The semilegendary Tantric yogi Padmasambhava (the Lotus Born), popularly known as Guru Rinpoche (precious teacher) lived in the eighth century CE and introduced Buddhism to Tibet. He is credited with introducing Buddhism into Tibet from India in the eighth century during the reign of the Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen.
Padmasambhava statue at Hemis monastery in Ladakh (photo by author)
His name derives from the legend of his miraculous birth in Oddiyana, an area around the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There, it is said, Padmasambhava appeared in the form of an eight-year-old boy sitting in the center of a lotus flower in the middle of a sacred lake. He was adopted by the king of the land and raised as a prince in his court. Later, in order to follow a spiritual path, because the king would not agree to let him go, he arranged for his own exile by apparently causing the death of a minister’s son. As he planned, the king banished him for the crime and Padmasambhava spent many years living in cremation grounds. These were terrifying places of death where yogis went to practice meditation and to overcome fear. During this time, he was initiated into esoteric (involving hidden teachings and initiations) Tantric practices by wisdom Dakinis (female guides to enlightenment) and developed the miraculous spiritual powers for which he became renowned. Padmasambhava’s fame as a powerful yogi spread and he was invited to Tibet by King Trisong Detsen (c. 740–798 C.E.) to defeat the local demons and other obstructing forces so that Buddhism could be established in Tibet. Padmasambhava is associated with the founding of Samye in 775 C.E., the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet, and he is especially revered as a “second Buddha” by the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma. This school recognizes eight major forms of Padmasambhava known as his eight manifestations; they range in appearance from a peaceful gentle monk to the wrathful and terrifying Dorje Drolod.
In the Nyingma religious calendar, the 10th day of each lunar month is dedicated to the commemoration of the major events of Padmasambhava’s life. Padmasambhava’s main consorts were the Indian princess Mandarava and the Tibetan noblewoman Yeshe Tsogyal. They are often portrayed in paintings standing to the left and right of him. As his biographer and chief disciple, Yeshe Tsogyal also helped to conceal his teachings as terma (treasure) to be discovered and revealed in the far future by spiritually advanced ones called tertons (treasure revealers). Padmasambhava traveled throughout the country and many of Tibet’s mountains, lakes, and caves are considered to have been blessed as places of spiritual power by his presence. Eventually he left Tibet to continue his work of subduing demons and spreading the Buddha’s teaching in wild and untamed lands. Padmasambhava is considered to be a fully enlightened Buddha who remains as an active presence in this world working for the benefit of all sentient beings.