“Lying Lamas” — Reconciling Hagiography and Historicity


Shri Singha: Was he Indian or Chinese? Or does it even matter? Source: HAR

Some readers will recall that as a doctoral student, my research explores hagiographic representations and interpretations of non-monastic tantric specialists (and their sometimes transgressive and antinomian behaviors) across Indo-Tibetan Buddhist time and space. To date, one can loosely identify two major themes within much (but certainly not all) of the extent scholarship on tantric Buddhist hagiography: questions about historicity, and questions about semiotic representation. As I have argued elsewhere on this blog, semiotic studies that question have immense value, but only when recognized to be half of any given literary event (the moment when words on a page are articulated and abstracted into “meaning” in a human being’s mind). The other half of the equation—which has received considerably less focus, and to which I hope to draw greater attention—is the reader.

Being that many (most?) readers of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography are also Vajrayana practitioners, an apparent conundrum arises when any given hagiographical narrative, whether articulated in a sacred text or by ones beloved Lama, seems to be contradicted by historical, scholarly analysis. However, the primary objective of this post is to demonstrate that this opposition dissolves upon closer inspection, particularly when contemplated in conjunction with important Buddhist concepts like thab, (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, Skt. upaya, “skillful means”),  tendrel (Tib. རྟེན་འབྲེལ་, Wyl. rten ‘brel, Skt. pratityasamutpada, “dependent arising”), and the Union of Two Truths.

China, Śri Singha, and Keyboard Warriors

Being fundamental to my methodological approach to the academic study of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, the ideas articulated in this post have been marinating in my mind for some time now. However, the impetus for finally putting them to pixelated-paper was an equally pixelated event that occurred recently on a popular social media website. A dear friend and Nyingmapa Vajra-brother of mine posted an image of himself sitting below a breathtaking, life-size mural of the mahasiddha Shri Singha—one of the “founding fathers” of the Nyingmapa Dzogchen lineage. Citing recent scholarship on the topic (also see: Powers 2012: 397-8), this friend stated in the caption to the image that Shri Singha was likely an Indian mahasiddha from the Indo-Himalayan region presently known as Kinnaur.


Life-size mural of Shri Singha in the Zangdok Palri Mandala in Tso Pema, India. Source: Ankit Sinha

This seemingly innocuous post became a battleground of belligerence when a commenter became enflamed by the fact that the association of Shri Singha with India appeared to contradict the traditional narrative that the mahasiddha came from China, as stated by that commenter’s Lama and many other well known Tibetan masters. According to the commenter, their Lama “is Dzogchen” (direct quote, my emphasis), and therefore no mortal scholar could ever present any evidence that could possibly falsify or warrant reevaluation of the traditional narrative that Shri Singha was Chinese. And because the commenter’s Lama “is Dzogchen,” the commenter deemed it impossible that their Lama could ever be wrong about the details of a Dzogchen lineage master’s life story—especially regarding a lineage master as important as Shri Singha. Despite my friend’s attempt to share relevant (academic and religious) sources on the topic, offense was taken and the commenter ultimately blocked my friend’s social media account.

However, this digital falling-out between two devoted members of the Buddhist sangha is quite tragic because, as we will see, offense need not be taken. What may at first appear to be irreconcilable, mutually exclusive contradictions between hagiography (traditional narratives) and historicity (the verifiability or falsifiability of a given historical event or claim using scholarly methodology) are actually two equally valid epistemic systems when assessed by their respective value systems. Furthermore, for those of us—like my friend mentioned above—who are both scholars and practitioners, I will argue that it is possible for us to subscribe to both narratives, simultaneously.

So then, what are the value systems that underlie these two approaches to biographical narrative?

Historicity and Falsification

(NOTE: Much of this section repeats some of the points made preciously in the two-part series on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory [ here and here ], re: academic knowledge production, upaya, and the Union of Two Truths.)

As I have pointed out in the articles linked above, academic knowledge production is based upon a two-point, or “one axis” spectrum of truth (supported <—> unsupported). The classical model of the scientific method (which is here, admittedly, totally over-simplified, but which suffices for our current discussion) goes something like this: 1. Develop hypothesis. 2. Develop experiments that empirically test this hypothesis. 3. Analyze results. 4. If results support hypothesis, continue with more experimentation with same hypothesis; if results do not support the hypothesis, adapt the hypothesis and continue with more experimentation.

It is crucial to this system that the hypothesis be falsifiable—that is, it must be something that can be supported by evidence or otherwise disproven (falsified) with evidence. In a caricaturized debate between atheists and theists, atheists might say to theists, “You cannot prove god exists.” Meanwhile, theists might say to atheists, “Yes, but you cannot prove god doesn’t exist.” This illustrates this issue of falsifiability. For something to be a valid academic argument, it must be able to be tested and either supported or falsified by evidence. Falsification is an apt term for scholarly endeavors because the scientific method cannot ever definitively prove anything to be true—it can only ever definitively prove something to be untrue. For instance, in my terribly simplified model of scholarly inquiry outlined above, if one’s hypothesis is supported by empirical evidence, there are always more experiments that can be done to potentially falsify the hypothesis. However, if the empirical evidence does not support the hypothesis, then it can be definitively stated that the hypothesis is not true, and therefore needs to be revised to account for the conflicting evidence.

(For further discussion on academic knowledge production, with appropriate caveats given to emergent disciplines and experimental methodologies that challenge the regime of falsification, see my two posts on Prajnaparamitaic translation theory linked above, or click here and here).

Therefore, the value of academic scholarship is measured by its “truthfulness” (I use this word “truth” very loosely). Here I intend “truthfulness” to signify the degree to which something is verifiable or falsifiable using empirical analysis. This might seem readily obvious to some readers, but it is imperative that this distinction be made, because hagiographical narratives and teachings in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism utilize a different value system.

Hagiography and Upaya

Truthfulness is a slippery slope in Mahayana Buddhist epistemology because the latter works on a four-point, or “two axis” system of truth, articulating between “true” and “false” on the X axis, and between “relative (or conventional)” and “ultimate” on the Y axis (this is, of course, viewing ultimate truth from the perspective of relative truth, because distinguishing between relative and ultimate is a dualistic binary which is necessarily relativistic). Therefore, a dualistic conceptual distinction between this and that (like all words, for instance) can be “true” on the relative level, while simultaneously dissolving into the non-dual ground on the ultimate level. However, to further complicate the matter, Mahayana philosophy values both relative and ultimate truth as being in a state of unified equilibrium. This question of “truthfulness” becomes quite complex in Mahayana and Vajrayana contexts. Thus, it is not the only value system upon which the validity of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are emically judged. So then what is the value system governing these Buddhists teachings? In short: upaya (Tib. ཐབས་, Wyl. thabs, “skillful means”).

In order to help myself understand upaya, I have developed my own modern rendition of a well-known sutric parable. Imagine there is a mother and a daughter inside a house, and the mother realized that the house is on fire. The daughter, however is so engrossed in playing with her toys that when the mother says, “Honey, the house is on fire! We must


Wall painting of Shri Singha inside Dudjom Orgyen Choling in Boudhanath, Nepal.

go!” the child does nothing, continuing to play with her toys. The child has never seen a house burn down, she has never encountered the pain of heat and burns, and she has very little grasp of mortality, so she has no frame of reference with which to understand her mother’s urgency. The Mother frantically continues appealing to the daughter, begging her to get up and leave the house, but the daughter simply continues playing. Then, the Mother gets a skillful idea. She says, “Oh what’s that? I think I hear the ice cream truck outside!” The daughter certainly has a frame of reference with which to understand the urgency required to catch the ice-cream truck, lest it passes by leaving her empty-handed and ice-creamless. Thus, the Mother and daughter quickly run out of the (still burning) house. Once outside, the daughter realizes there is no ice cream truck, but now, from her new vantage point, she can see that the house is being consumed by flames, she can see it collapse, and she is now in a position to better understand that which she could not have understood before.

The skillful “lie” told by the mother is upaya. Recognizing that her daughter lacked the perspective to understand the urgency of the scenario, the Mother had to use skillful means to first elicit a non-conceptual transformation in her daughter (getting her to physically get up and leave the house) that would subsequently allow the daughter to realize a much broader perspective post-transformation. In other words, it is only after this transformation that the daughter is able to see the much larger picture—a much larger and graver picture than she was able to grasp while still in the house. With the privilege of a new perspective, the daughter could then appreciate the insignificance of dualistic categories like “lies” and “truth” in the face of the much larger implications at stake (like being burned alive).

In this example, the Mother is the Lama, the daughter is the Lama’s disciple, and the skillful “lie” about the ice cream truck represents the Buddhist teachings. To be clear, I am not here to say that all Buddhist teachings are lies, per se. Rather, I am arguing that whether they are lies or not is totally irrelevant to the value system upon which the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist teachings are based. These teachings are intended to skillfully catalyze non-conceptual transformations in students that ameliorates the student’s suffering and bring the student ever closer to enlightenment, and therefore liberation (ie. escaping the “burning house” of suffering).

Therefore, the value of hagiographical narratives is not based on their truthfulness, as is the case in much of academia. Rather, their value is wholly contingent upon their ability to skillfully transform the student’s perceptions in order to minimize suffering, maximize compassion, and ultimately bring the student to liberation (so that they can then skillfully help other beings come to the same state of realization, of course). In this way, I do not feel it is necessary to be offended when other scholars challenge the veracity or historicity of various teachings or hagiographical narratives. Even if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” that does not mean everything she says must be inherently true in the relative, dualistic, academic sense. Rather, if your Lama “is Dzogchen,” then you can rest assured the value of her teachings—being totally divorced from relative conceptualities about “true” and “false,” “right” and “wrong,” “facts” and “lies”—has everything to do with whether or not they will skillfully bring you closer to enlightenment.

So, personally speaking, as a scholar-practitioner doing academic research into Indo-Tibetan Buddhist hagiography, I am perfectly happy to accept that even though, for instance, my beloved Dudjom Rinpoche writes in The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism (1991: 497)) that Shri Singha was born in China, this may actually not be the case according to the epistemic systems that produce Western scholarship. Furthermore, the fact that Dudjom Rinpoche might be “wrong” (by academic standards) about Shri Singha’s birthplace in no way challenges my perception of Dudjom Rinpoche as being a modern Buddha, more kind than the Buddha Shakyamuni himself. Nor does it mean that practitioners must abandon traditional narratives in favor of “academic” ones, precisely because, as this article attempts to article, traditional and academic approaches to historiography stem from different epistemic systems and are based upon different goals. To reiterate, all words and all conceptual knowledge, including all Dharma knowledge and concepts, are ultimately dualistic compartmentalizations that completely dissolve in the dharmadatu of ultimate truth. Therefore, I am fully content to accept that both narratives can exist in equilibrium without having to be reconciled, one over the other. For this reason, if it were not so tragic to see schisms in the sangha, I would laugh at the irony of Dzogchen students bickering over whose Lama is more correct about a mahasiddha’s birthplace.

About the Translation Below

The translation that I have prepared to accompany this essay is an excerpt from hagiography of the 11/12th C. Lord of Siddhas, Padampa Sangye. This excerpt states Padampa Sangye was none other than the great 8th C. Buddhist master Kamalasila. If this were the case, then by the time Dampa Rinpoche displayed his passing into parinirvana (death) in the early 12th century, he would have been over four hundred years old.

Empirically speaking, I have never seen a human being live to be four hundred years old, nor have I seen credible documentation of a human living such a long time. Therefore, barring some massive discovery of credible evidence, from an academic standpoint, it seems unlikely that Dampa Rinpoche lived to be four hundred years old. However, as a practitioner, this is all totally and completely beside the point.

While I am willing to accept on the relative level that Dampa Rinpoche probably did not live that long,, as a practitioner I am also perfectly content to follow my Lama’s words when he says that Dampa Rinpoche was Kamalasila. This is precisely because I have confident faith in my Lama’s upaya. Both narratives can co-exist when we recognize them to be based on totally different value systems, which are, in turn, based on two totally different intentions.


Vairotsana Lotsawa and Acarya Padampa Sangye. Source: HAR

Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comment section below!


An Excerpt from the Namthar of Padampa Sangye, entitled:
“The Sun Blazing with One Thousand Rays of Siddhis”

[pg. 35] Biographies further state that when Khenpo Bodhisattva’s body approached death, he prophesied that, “In the future, a time will come when corrupted philosophies will spread here in Tibet. At that time, you must invite my student, Pandita Kamalashila.”

When the Chinese Hashang disseminated perverse doctrines that obstructed virtuous practices of body, speech, and so forth, Kamalashila was invited from India as an antidote. He [then] wrote the trilogy on the Stages of Meditation, and disputed the false tenets by means of debate, annihilating them and causing the Buddha’s teachings to spread and flourish. Having done so, according to the beliefs of some disciples, he then demonstrated the process of passing away into Nirvana.

[pg. 36] In fact, he [actually] traveled back to India. When he later returned to Tibet, his name became Dampa. Regarding the presence [of this information] in quotes or teachings, nowhere can this be seen or heard in the authority of Dampa’s own words; however, in general, one finds that in the texts of the Zhije tradition, it is said that in India, Dampa Rinpoche was known as both Kamalashri and Kamalashila.

Additionally, when Lama Dorje Denpa [Buddha Shakyamuni] was facilitating a feast-gathering, he had a vision of the 84 mahasiddhas, and offered a verse of praise for each. In one of those verses he says:

Skilled in grammar, logic, scripture, philosophy, and oral instructions,

Awareness-Holder who has discovered the boon of immortality,

I pay homage to the Guru

Known as Kamalashila

If one considers the words of that verse, it is quite obvious and clear. According to the words of the Karmapas, it also appears that in India, Dampa was known as Kamalashila. Agreeing with all of this, the great scholar Patyashri further states that having returned to India, [Dampa Rinpoche] received, from male and female mahasiddha gurus, from various yidam deities, and from wisdom dakinis, the blessed transmissions and oral instructions on countless extraordinary Sutric and Tantric teachings—some that had been heard before and some that had never been heard.

[pg. 37] Having practiced at [various] holy sites, it is said that he benefited all the beings in the noble land of India by means of enlightened activity which tamed beings according to their needs, including generating countless magical emanations and so forth.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.

Tibetan Source

chos kyi seng ge & ganga pa gnyis kyis brtsams. “grub pa’i dbang phyug chen po rje btsun dam pa sangs rgyas kyi rnam par thar pa dngos grub ‘od stong ‘bar ba’i nyi ma.” Buddhist Digital Resource Center. Web.  ( https://www.tbrc.org/#!rid=W1KG14796 )

Sources and Bibliography

“Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen.” Dharma Fellowship. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 June 2017.

DiValerio, David M. The Holy Madmen of Tibet. New York: Oxford UP, 2015.

Gyatso, Janet, and Jigs ‘Med Gling Pa. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary: A Translation and Study of Jigme Lingpa’s Dancing Moon in the Water and Dakki’s Grand Secret Talk. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Holmes-Tagchungdarpa, Amy. The Social Life of Tibetan Biography: Textuality, Community, and Authority in the Lineage of Tokden Shakya Shri. Lanham: Lexington, 2014.

Jiigs Bral Ye Shes Rdo Rje, Bdud ‘joms, Gyurme Dorje, and Matthew Kapstein. The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism: Its Fundamentals and History. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2002. Print.

Powers, John, and David Templeman. Historical Dictionary of Tibet. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

Quintman, Andrew. The Yogin & the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Media Sources



“Meditations on Pacification” Pt. 1—A Discourse Between Fools; and Padampa Sangye’s song to Milarepa, “The Vajra Song that is a Heart-Condensation of the Saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering”


“Meditations on Pacification: A Discourse Between Fools” is a collaborative writing project initiated between Lama Repa Dorje Odzer (Justin von Bujdoss) and the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Writing for both academic and religious audiences, we hope to facilitate a digital discourse on the role(s) of Vajrayana’s so-called “transgressive practices” in addressing the suffering and alienation of 21st century society. Taking conversations between the Indian Lord of Siddhas, Padampa Sangye, and the Tibetan Lord of Yogins, Milarepa, as inspiration, “A Discourse Between Fools” is a novel attempt at literary tulzhug chöpa.

About the Guest Author: Repa Dorje Odzer

17409654_10156011645482576_1936339545_nRepa Dorje Odzer (Justin von Bujdoss) was empowered as a Repa by His Eminence Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He served as the founder and resident-lama of New York Tsurphu Goshir Dharma Center until it’s closing in December 2016. He has spent the past 20 years practicing in India and the US under a variety of teachers, including the late Ani Dechen Zangmo, the late Pathing Rinpoche, the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche, Lama Tsering Wangdu Rinpoche and Goshir Gyaltsab Rinpoche. At present he serves as the first Staff Chaplain for the New York City Department of Correction.

What is Disciplined Conduct/Tulzhug Chöpa?

Disciplined conduct or tulzhug chöpa  (Tib. བརྟུལ་ཞུགས་སྤྱོད་པ་, Wyl. brtul zhugs spyod pa, Skt. vratacarya), also variously translated as “practice of the observance,” or even “[yogic] conduct,” is the tantric conduct or lifestyle of Buddhist yogins and yoginis. While there has never been a single monolithic definition, in earlier Indian contexts, vratacarya most often referred to “post-meditation” prescriptions for how yogins should dress and behave, particularly as found in various Heruka-related tantras like chapter 26 of the Chakrasamvaratantra and chapter 1.5 of the Hevajratantra (Sugiki 2015, Szanto 2015). These post-initiatory practices had common themes, like: adopting the appearance of  Heruka (growing long matted hair, wearing charnel-ground ornaments, carrying skull-cup and tantric staff), dwelling in frightening places, and engaging in behaviors generally seen as transgressive or antinomian by mainstream society (DiValerio 2015). This aesthetic later became the dominant Tibetan artistic representations of Indian Siddhas: topknot of matted hair, loin-cloth or tiger-skin skirt, often wearing ornaments of bone or precious metal, frequently carrying mortuary (Skt. kapalika) implements (For more on “siddha aesthetics,” see Himalayan Art Resources’ page on “Siddha Appearance” here).

Later, in the Tibetan context, tulzhug chöpa gained further polyvalence, especially in the Nyingma, Kagyü, and Chöd lineages. At the far end of the spectrum, some Tibetan yogins and yoginis chose to emulated a highly-antinomian form of tulzhug chöpa that closely resembled its Indian counterpart (described above)—such examples include Tsangnyön Heruka and the Madman of Ü wearing flayed human skins as capes; Thangtong Gyalpo developing an unkempt, Heruka-like appearance and behaving in unpredictable way; and Padampa Sangye himself, who wandered around virtually naked, advocating the abandonment of hopes, fears, food, and clothing. However, it seems that this style of tulzhug chöpa was practiced rarely at most, as the literary record is brimming with descriptions of the horror, shock, and often anger with which commoners responded to the novel sights of these “madmen” (Tib. སྨྱོན་པ་,Wyl. smyon pa) as they came to be called (DiValerio 2015). However, in other cases, as found in mainstream monastic communities and amongst house-holding lay practitioners, tulzhug chöpa comes to connote a sort of spiritual fearlessness (Tib. འཇིགས་མེད་, Wyl. ‘jigs med)—particularly fearlessness in terms of upholding the conduct and view of the tantric Bodhisattva. (For more secondary source scholarship on tulzhug chöpa, see the bibliography at the end of this post).

The seemingly extreme juxtaposition of these two examples (tulzhug chöpa as naked, cemetery-dwelling, transgressive antinomianism; and tulzhug chöpa as the fearlessly equipoise dance of the Bodhisattva) belies the fact that they are actually just outward manifestations of the same profoundly simple—yet exceedingly profound—inner practice. Put simply (and colloquially), tulzhug chöpa is utterly fearless, “no holds barred” non-dual pure-view.

In the translation of Padampa Sangye’s Vajra-song below, tulzhug chöpa (translated as “disciplined conduct”) appears at the very beginning, hinting at its primacy in the Saddharma of Pacification. Constituting the remainder of the Vajra-song is a series of remarkably pithy and potent slogans that read as a step-by-step prescription for practicing tulzhug chöpa in everyday life. However, this humble, “mind-training”-esque appearance further conceals the fact that encoded within its short verses are distillations of some of the most penetrating of Vajrayana’s esoteric teachings—including Dzogchen, Mahamudra, and Chöd. In this way, Dampa Rinpoche’s Vajra-song truly is a “heart-condensation,” outlining an entire tantric way of life in a single poetic expression.

(**NOTE: When working with highly reduced and simplified definitions like these, it is easy to essentialize and reify wonderfully complex concepts into mere caricatures of themselves. The fearless equipoise of tulzhug chöpa should not be mistaken for nihilistic numbness or social disenfranchisement. For more on the intersections between tantric lifestyles and socio-political agency, click here.)

Repa Dorje Odzer on Daily Disciplined Conduct

Vajra songs, as a genre, are dear to my heart. I think this is because these songs are direct, often free-form and from the heart. They allow a glimpse into what’s been alive for the person who sings them. These songs allow us, if we so desire, to peer into the heart essence of what is important to such great teachers as Padampa Sangye. They are precious instructions frozen in time that still remain fresh and dynamic to this day.

In this particular song Padamapa Sangye reminds us that the mandala of disciplined conduct (as we find it within the Shije, or the Pacification of Suffering tradition that he is credited with founding) is accessible by resting in open awareness, accepting everything, and rejecting nothing. Whatever is experienced in the moment—regardless of how banal and meaningless, repulsive or seductively compelling—is that which we should rest in. Our awareness, or direct experience of mind, is always present, always bright, wide-open and free, even when we feel that we are not.

All too often we bypass the experiences around us that we don’t like. It’s easy to use our spirituality as a set of blinders that hide the crap, hide how ordinary and low we can feel, or even disempower the joyous possibility of every crappy moment in this samsaric life by telling us that Vajra-songs like these are only for advanced practitioners. These dynamics are very common and arise easily within our mindstreams. These thoughts should also be regarded as the object of our practice; we should not turn away from them, or rush to transform them, but release them into our raw awareness. There is no doubt that this can be uncomfortable. Yet over time it can be surprising how the application of resting in the experience of awareness—fresh, expansive and beyond concept—really does allow our clinging and attachments, and our fears and anxieties to burn away like morning dew, or fog, as the sun rises.

Disciplined Conduct and Buddhist Chaplaincy

As a chaplain for the Department of Corrections, my role is to offer open, non-judgemental service to others. This setting offers a wonderfully juicy locale for exploring how and why I feel compelled to react certain ways to certain stimuli. Whether it be spending time with someone who is actively dying and filled with fear or an ecstatic bliss, or a family member feeling left behind or destroyed by the impeding death of a loved-one, or a person recovering from the trauma of having recently been attacked—there are plenty of places to practice the Heart-Condensation of the Pacification of Suffering. There are also an equal number of places to get stuck and fall into the habit of reaction, or the habit of turning away all together. Perhaps most violent of all is trying to spiritualize the painful impossibility of the moment rather than accepting that this moment is impossible. This is the experience of the harmful demons to which Dampa Sangye refers: the demons around us are the very ways that we are provoked and triggered, scared or magnetized, compelled to shrink away or urged to puff our selves up in defense.

In this song Padamapa Sangye asks us: Can we allow ourselves the confidence to confront the present moment? Can we self-regulate and refresh our experience when we get lost, or tired or dull? Will we allow our thoughts to be the treasury of bliss? What about our feelings, can they be a treasury of bliss? And our death and the death of those we are working to benefit, can that experience be a treasury of bliss? Can we experience auspicious freedom amongst the most vexing feelings of bad luck?

For me, the beauty of this Vajra-song is that it is as if Padampa Sangye is pointing his finger directly at us saying, “You! Your experience in the moment is the ground, the path and the fruit of enlightenment! Use it now! There is nothing to fear. This is all you need.” It then becomes incumbent upon us to make this real, to seal it with our experience in every moment of the day and night. Otherwise, if we file this song away, and put it in a dusty place with other books we only use as reference material, we are essentially wasting the preciousness of what it is that we are able to experience right now.

Don’t worry. The Lord of Death is on her way. So is the Treasury of Bliss. Are you ready?

How might you use the Heart-Condensation of Pacification in your daily life? Share your commentary or critiques in the comment section below.

The Vajra Song that is a Heart-Condensation of the
Saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering

An Oral Instruction Offered by
the Siddha Padampa Sangye to the Lord of Yogis Milarepa

This is the saddharma1 of the Pacification of Suffering—

When subduing harmful demons, male and female, it is constructing the yantra2 of disciplined conduct;
When the body becomes ill, it is binding space and awareness as one;
When subtle conceptualizations arise, it is abrading the afflictions by releasing them;

When sleeping alone in private, it is residing in raw awareness;
When in the midst of a crowd, it is directly confronting whatever arises;

When dull, it is awakening with PHAT;
When distracted, it is cutting the root;
When excited, it is relaxing in the expanse;
When chasing after conceptual objects, it is facing the truth of suchness.

This is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering—

When bad omens arise, receive them as auspicious;
Whatever thoughts arise are treasury of bliss.
When illness arises, this brings benefit;
Whatever arises are a treasury of bliss.
When dying occurs, take it onto the path;
The Lord of Death is a treasury of bliss.

This is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering—

It is the intention of the three times’ victors;
It is the secret speech of Vajradhara3;
It is the vital essence of the four classes of dakinis4;
It is the instruction of the four classes of tantra5;
It is the critical instruction of the aural lineage;
It is the key to the instructed techniques.

That is the saddharma of the Pacification of Suffering.

Jetsün Milarepa was utterly delighted by these words.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.


  1. (Tib. དམ་ཆོས་, Wyl. dam chos) Lit. “sacred doctrine”; saddharma is the Sanskrit equivalent of དམ་ཆོས་.
  2. (Tib. འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་, Wyl. ‘phrul ‘khor) Lit. “magic circle”; yantra is the Sanskrit translation of འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་, and refers to various magic charms and techniques for protection, good fortune, etc. In most lineages, འཕྲུལ་འཁོར་ is also the name of the completion phase (Tib. རྫོགས་རིམ་, Wyl. rdzogs rim) yogic techniques that focus on the subtle body. Throughout Nepal, one particularly popular yantra charm that is said to protect from earthquakes features an image of the mad yogi (Tib. སྨྱོན་པ་, Wyl. smyon pa) Thangtong Gyalpo (Tib. ཐང་སྟོང་རྒྱལ་པོ་, Wyl. thang stong rgyal po) and is inscribed with various mantras.
  3. (Tib. རྡོ་རྗེ་འཆང་, Wyl. rdo rje ‘chang) Skt. “Vajradhara,” Lit. “Vajra Holder”; Vajradhara is the primordial Buddha of the “New School” (Tib. གསར་མ་, Wyl. gsar ma) traditions of Tibetan Vajrayana. He is blue in color and peaceful in demeanor, he wears silk ornaments and holds a vajra and bell in his two hands, which are crossed in front of his chest. He is often considered to represent the ineffable expanse of complete enlightenment—the embodied apogee of the Tantric vehicle.
  4. (Tib. མཁའ་འགྲོ་སྡེ་བཞི་, Wyl. mkha ‘gro sde bzhi) The “four classes of dakinis” refer to the four families of dakinis that surround the central dakini in classic dakini or yogini mandalas. If the center dakini is of the Buddha family, then the four classes are: Vajradakini, Ratnadakini, Padmadakini, and Karmadakini—which correspond to the enlightened activities of pacifying, increasing, magnetizing, and subjugating, respectively. For more on yoginis, dakinis, and their mandalas in Indian and Tibetan Vajrayana, see Elizabeth English (2013) and Simmer-Brown (2001), respectively.
  5. (Tib. རྒྱུད་སྡེ་བཞི་, Wyl. rgyud sde bzhi) “The four classes of tantra” is a doxographical classification system used by the “New School” traditions of Tibetan Vajrayana. The four classes are kriya, charya, yoga, and niruttarayoga tantra. Scholars like Jacob Dalton have pointed out that the use of the term “anuttarayoga tantra,” which has become so familiar to scholars and practitioners of Vajrayana, is a mistake that should be abandoned. Rather, Dalton argues for the use of “yoganiruttara” or “niruttarayoga,” which are better supported by Sanskrit primary sources (Dalton, Jacob. “A Crisis of Doxography.” JIABS. 2005:152). Following Dalton’s revelation, I will exclusively use the term “niruttarayoga tantra.”


གྲུབ་ཐོབ་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱིས་རྣལ་འབྱོར་གྱི་དབང་ཕྱུག་མི་ལ་རས་པ་ལ་གདམས་པའི་དམ་ཆོས་སྡུག་བསྔལ་ཞི་བྱེད་སྙིང་པོར་དྲིལ་པའི་རྡོ་རྗེའི་མགུར་བཞུགས་སོ།།. Sangye, Lama, Ed. Vol. ༼ཅ༽. Dingri Langkor Tsuglag Khang, New Delhi: 2013. Pecha pp. 321-324.

Dalton, Jacob. “A Crisis of Doxography: How Tibetans Organized Tantra During the 8th-12th Centuries.” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 28.1 (2005): 152.

Davidson, Ronald M. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia UP, 2002.

DiValerio, David M. The Holy Madmen of Tibet. New York: Oxford UP, 2015.

DiValerio, David M. Trans. “Introduction.” The Life of the Madman of Ü. New York: Oxford UP, 2016. 1-54.


Larsson, Stefan. Crazy for Wisdom: The Making of a Mad Yogin in Fifteenth-Century Tibet. Leiden: Brill, 2012.

Larsson, Stefan. “Crazy Yogins During The Early Renaissance Period.” Web. 24 Mar. 2017.

Quintman, Andrew. The Yogin and the Madman: Reading the Biographical Corpus of Tibet’s Great Saint Milarepa. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Stearns, Cyrus. Trans. “Introduction.” King of the Empty Plain: The Tibetan Iron-Bridge Builder Tangtong Gyalpo. New York: Snow Lion, 2007. 1-80.

Sugiki, Tsunehiko. “Śamvara.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 360-66.

Szanto, Peter-Daniel. “Hevajra.” Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Leiden: Brill, 2015. 334-40.

Wedemeyer, Christian K. Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, & Transgression in the Indian Traditions. New York: Columbia UP, 2014.

Media Sources




“Lies” — Specters of a Buddhist Translation Theory; and Jigme Lingpa’s “A Moon Dancing on Water.”


Lies, Two Truths, and an Empty Translation Theory

I frequently chuckle to myself when I consider my fascination with translation. Why? Well, I guess it comes down to the “Two Truths.” On the one hand, I am directly aware of the ultimately empty nature of ‘signs’—linguistic or otherwise—and their conceptually abstracted ‘signifieds.’ On the other hand, many a Buddha have been reared on the nectar of dharmic discourse. To deny the relative benefit of linguistic communication is an extreme, not to mention a rejection of a powerful upaya (“skillful means,” a Buddhist pedagogical concept, more on this later).

To put it crudely (and, delightfully un-academically), I’ve found that much of the logic practiced-and-performed in Western Academia is on a two-point continuum. Owing much of its intellectual lineage (but certainly not all of it) to the pre- and post-Enlightenment notions of the “scientific method(s),” many disciplines in the Academy still operate on a very “black and white” binary of falsification. In this binary, only one extreme can be certain: the negative. A hypothesis can be definitively disproven, but—as many a Texas School Boardee has reminded us—science cannot definitely prove anything. Other emergent academic disciplines have chosen (artfully, in my opinion) to direct their attention at some of the liminal spaces between binaries. This has resulted in exciting new methodologies that often prefer to navigate polar tensions rather than incessantly seeking to reconcile or rectify them. However, I would argue that even these emergent methodologies are still based upon a two-point binary of logic or truth—or what Buddhists call “relative truth.”

However, the Great Vehicle presents what, from a relativistic perspective, could be called a four-point system of logic (or “truth”)—classically known as the “Two Truths.” The concept of “Two Truths” is fundamentally dependent upon the Buddhist notion of emptiness. So while the “Ultimate” or “Absolute Truth” teaches us that all things are empty of an inherent, eternal, essential identity—because all things are impermanent, the “Relative Truth” reminds us that from the unborn ground of emptiness, all myriad forms of sensory perceptions and conceptual formations spontaneously arise. In this way, words can be ultimately empty—or, what I playfully call “lies“—but have relative consequences.

But at the heart of Buddhist translation, there will always be a paradox. What is a Buddhist translator to do? Thankfully, the Buddhist hagiographical tradition gives us many exciting stories of venerated translators, or lotsawa (Tib. ལོ་ཙཱ་བ་, Skt. locchava). This gives fledgling translators, like myself, confidence because not only are we guided along a well trodden path, but we are also afforded the privilege of feeling supported and valued by our tradition. In the Academy, the former is also very true. However, regarding the latter, many academic discourses on translation theory, especially recents ones concerning the invisibility of the translator and the impossibility of translation, have revealed a perceived academic prejudice that allegedly regards translation as being not quite scholarship in- and of-itself. “After all, isn’t translation just re-writing something that’s already been written?”

Lion/Lyin’ Lotsawa and Translation and/as “Lies”

Because of the fundamental paradox at the heart of my relationship with words, I try to maintain a playful relationship with translation practice. Thankfully, there is a similar degree of humor reflected in the Vajrayanic translation tradition, especially in regards to the colophone—a small note at the end of a text mentioning its author and the circumstances of its genesis. Great masters often signed their work with self-deprecating or otherwise silly titles like “the madman,” “the beggar,” “the old grandpa,” “the bald,” etc. I cannot help but partake of the fun!

The name given to me by my Guru is Senge Drayang (Tib. སེང་གེ་སྒྲ་དབྱངས་, Wyl. seng ge sgra dbyangs). “Senge” means “lion” and Drayang means “melodious roar.” The Tibetan word dra (Tib. སྒྲ་, Wyl. sgra), here meaning “roar,” also means “word.” It is is the same dra that is found in the Tibetan word for “translation,” dragyur (Tib. སྒྲ་སྒྱུར་ , Wyl. sgra sgyur). This blog’s name (“The Lion Lotsawa”) is a play on my Tibetan name, Senge. But in the spirit of playful colophones, I often sign my work as “Lyin Lotsawa,” referring to the ultimate, empty, and nondual nature of all phenomena: even my own translation work.

To better articulate my point about translation and/as “lies,” I offer a translation of a song from Jigme Lingpa (Tib.་འཇིགས་མེད་གླིང་པ་, Wyl. ‘jigs med gling pa). Two hundred years after his mortal passing, Kunkhyen (“Omniscient”) Jigme Lingpa remains one of the most renowned Tibetan masters of Vajrayana, particularly to those of the Nyingma school like myself. He is best known for his revelation of Dzogchen teachings and practices collectively known as the Longchen Nyingthik (Tib. ཀློང་ཆེན་སྙིང་ཐིག་, Wyl. klong chen snying thig), or the “Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse.”

Jigme Lingpa’s “A Moon Dancing on Water”


Prostrations to the glorious primordial protector.

Unborn, unhindered, unelaborate by nature,

Inapprehensible, self-liberated, unfabricated luminosity—

To utterly pure, ordinary rigpa,

I prostratewith a conviction that does not descend into the three times.


Although Kuntuzangpo does not depend on even a speck of virtue,

By the merit of knowing his own unsullied nature,

He actualized enlightenment, while sentient beings in the three realms

Wander in samsara without even a grain of nonvirtue.


Therefore, I am aware that differentiating between samsara and nirvana,

Due to the magical display of awareness and ignorance, is a mistake.

Yet, I am also saddened that the deceptive sorcerer of habitual tendency

Continues to beguile [sentient beings].


Aside from the ground expanse, with its six distinguishing characteristics,

I realize that everything is a lie—a grand one.

However, for the sake of guiding faithful disciples,

Here I will illuminate my experience and realization:

A moon dancing on water.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.

Textual Source


Photo Sources



Padampa Sangye, Milarepa, and ཐག་ཆོད་

Mila and Dampa

It’s Winter Break, and I’ve had an insatiable appetite for hagiography. Having (re)read the “Lives” of Padampa Sangye, Marpa, Milarepa, Tsangnyon Heruka, and many others, I felt it appropriate to write about them.

Included herein is a translation of a song sung by Milarepa in praise of Padampa Sangye, taken from the latter’s biography. This song has great significance to me as a practitioner in the lineages of both Milarepa and Dampa Rinpoche, but it is also simply brilliant poetry. In particular, I would like to highlight the skillful and polyvalent use of the word/phrase “ཐག་ཆོད་.”

The Backstory

While the great yogin, Milarepa, is staying at the famous “Belly Cave,” Nyanang Dröphug (Tib.གཉའ་ནང་གྲོད་ཕུག་), he has a vision of Lion-Faced Dakini (Tib.མཁའ་འགྲོ་སེང་གེའི་གདོང་པ་ཅན་ or སེང་གེ་དོང་མ་). She exhorts him to go meet Dampa Rinpoche and so he sets off.

Around the same time, Lion-Faced Dakini also appears to Padampa Sangye and urges him to meet with Milarepa.

Right before the two meet, Milarepa decides to test Dampa’s clairvoyance. He transforms himself into a heap of flowers and waits. At first, Padampa Sangye pretends to be unaware of the trick and walks right past the flowers. Just as Milarepa is filled with doubt, Dampa turns around and kicks the the heap of flowers. He commands Milarepa to sing a song and gleefully exclaims how, upon the song’s completion, he and a retinue of flesh eating dakinis will feast upon Milarepa’s corpse in a tantric feast.

Milarepa, apparently impressed, sings a song in praise of Padampa Sangye. I have chosen to translate the title as “The Six Severings of Delight.”

Meditations on Thag Chod ཐག་ཆོད་

Throughout the song, “severing” (Tib. ཐག་ཆོད, Wyl. thag chod) has the dual meaning of both “cutting” and “deciding” (in a similar way that “sharp” can mean “intelligent” in English). It can also mean “having decided upon something with strong conviction,” or even “confidence.”

In the narrative from which this excerpt is taken, just prior to Milarepa singing this song, the Indian Siddha Padampa Sangye gleefully describes how he and a gathering of flesh eating dakinis are about to feast upon Milarepa’s body in a ganachakra puja (Tib. ཚོགས་འཁོར་བྱས, Wyl. tshogs ‘khor byas). This imagery is congruent with the “body offering” practice (Tib. ལུས་སྦྱིན་, Wyl. lus sbyin) performed in the “school of cutting” (Tib. གཅོད་ཡུལ, Wyl. gcod yul) that has become so closely associated with Padampa Sangye and his dakini-disciple, Machik Labdron.

Therefore, the repeated use of the verb “thag chod” (lit. “thoroughly cutting,” or “resolving”/“deciding”) has polyvalent significance. Paradoxically, “sever” could mean that the hero has abandoned the view, meditation, conduct, empowerment, pledge, and result, or it could mean that s/he has confidence in them. In this way, the verbalization of nondualism with “thag chod” fractally mirrors the oxymoronical motif of the song.

Lord Milarepa’s “The Six Severings of Delight”:


In isolated places where dakinis naturally gather,

What bliss, pondering the dharma in solitude!

Prostrations to the Hero that severs the self by the root.


Soaring deathlessly in unborn mind,

Dualistic perceptions of birth and death are liberated in their own place.

Severing the view, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.


Soaring unwaverlingly, meditating without meditation,

Dualistic perceptions of meditation and non-meditating are liberated in their own place.

Severing meditation, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.


Soaring unimpededly with spontaneous conduct,

Dualistic perceptions of “sacrilege” are liberated in their own place.

Severing conduct, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.


Soaring in the nonattainment of initiationlessness,

Dualistic perceptions of the deity’s body are liberated in their own place.

Severing the empowerment, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.


Soaring undefiledly, without regard for samaya ,

Dualistic ideas about “keeping vows” are liberated in their own place.

Severing the pledge, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.


Soaring fearlessly, without hoping for results,

Dualistic perceptions of hope and fear are liberated in their own place.

Severing the fruit, how delightful!

Of such delight, Dampa is a treasury.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.


གྲུབ་པའི་དབང་ཕྱུག་ཆེན་པོ་རྗེ་བཙུན་དམ་པ་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་རྣམ་པར་ཐར་པ་དངོས་གྲུབ་འོད་ སྟོང་འབར་བའི་ཉི་མ།. Sangye, Lama, Ed. Vol. ༼ཅ༽. Dingri Langkor Tsuglag Khang, New Delhi: 2013. Pecha pp. 100-101.

Third Karmapa’s Chöd Supplication


This week, I offer a translation of a chöd (Tib. གཅོད་) supplication written by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (Tib. རང་འབྱུང་རྡོ་རྗེ་). Karmapa Rangjung Dorje was a master of chöd and was heavily influenced by Nyingmapa teachings on Dzogchen. He was also said to be a contemporary and acquaintance of Longchenpa via a shared Guru.

Karmapa Khyenno!

(Another post, elaborating on this blog’s employment of the word “lies,” coming soon!)

Rangjung Dorje’s Chod Lineage Supplication

།ཕ་རྒྱུད་ཐབས་ཀྱི་བརྒྱུད་པ་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས། །མ་རྒྱུད་ཤེས་རབ་ཀྱི་བརྒྱུད་པ་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས།

To the Father tantras, the lineage of Method, I supplicate. To the Mother tantras, the lineage of Wisdom, I supplicate.

།སྐལ་ལྡན་ཉམས་ཀྱི་བརྒྱུད་པ་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས། །གྲུབ་ཐོབ་གཅོད་ཀྱི་བརྒྱུད་པ་ལ་གསོལ་བ་འདེབས།

To the lineage of the fortunate ones, the experience lineage, I supplicate. To the lineage of siddhas, the chöd lineage, I supplicate.


To the lineage of haughty dharma protectors, I supplicate.


For delusion and worldly pursuits,
Bless me with disgust.

།འབྱུང་བཞིས་བསྡུས་པའི་སྒྱུ་ལུས་ལ༑ །གཅེས་འཛིན་བྲལ་བར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས།

For the illusory body, which is composed of the four elements,
Bless me with freedom from self-clinging.

།འགལ་རྐྱེན་ནད་གནོད་བར་ཆད་ལ། །རོ་སྙོམས་ནུས་པར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས།

For obstacles, like disease, harm, and adversity,
Bless me with the capacity to experience one taste.

།སྣང་སྲིད་སེམས་ཀྱི་ཆོ་འཕྲུལ་ལ། །རང་ངོ་ཤེས་པར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས།

For the realm of appearances and potentialities—the magical display of the mind,
Bless me with knowledge of its single nature.

།རང་རིག་སྐུ་གསུམ་ལྷུན་གྲུབ་ལ། །རང་དབང་ཐོབ་པར་བྱིན་གྱིས་རློབས།

For my own innate awareness—spontaneously manifesting as the three kayas,
Bless me with self-mastery.

།སྤྱིར་བདག་དང་འགྲོ་དྲུག་སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས། །རྒྱུ་གཉིས་འཛིན་དྲི་མ་ཀུན་སྤངས་ནས།

In general, may I—and all beings of the six realms—adopt the two causes and renounce defilement.

།བླ་མེད་ཀྱི་བྱང་ཆུབ་མྱུར་ཐོབ་ཤོག། །

Having done so, may [we all] swiftly attain unsurpassed enlightenment!

ཕཏ༑ ཕཏ། ཕཏ།

ཅེས་པའང་རྗེ་རང་བྱུང་རྡོ་རྗེས་སོ།། །།

(Colophon: “… and so Lord Rangjung Dorje spoke.”)

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.

First post and སྣང་གྲགས་རིག་གསུམ་


On Translation Theory and Pure Vision

As a Buddhist, constructing a theory of translation is precarious task. Paradoxically, words are both the Dharma itself, and conceptual signifiers that are fundamentally incapable of dualistically encapsulating the Dharma. How to come to terms with this? Don’t take myself, or words, so seriously. (Plus, as a tantrika, I guess I sort of love [or hate?] paradoxes). More on this later (See: “Lies”).

So, to set things off with pure intention and pure view, I offer a translation of Terdak Lingpa’s (Tib.གཏེར་བདག་གླིང་པ་) famous last words.

Terdak Lingpa established the famous Mindroling Monastery in 1676 and was a speech emanation of Vairotsana Lotsawa.

Read more at http://mindrolling.org/.


Nang Drag Rig Sum

སྣང་གྲགས་རིག་གསུམ་ལྷ་སྔགས་ཆོས་སྐུའི་ངང། །

Sights, sounds, and awareness are deity, mantra, and the continuity of Dharmakaya,

སྐུ་དང་ཡེ་ཤེས་རོལ་པར་འབྱམས་ཀླས་པ ། ། (པས་) (པར་)

Unfolding infinitely as the play of form and wisdom.

ཟབ་གསང་རྣལ་འབྱོར་ཆེན་པོའི་ཉམས་ལེན་པ ། ། (ལ་)

(In) the practice of the profound and secret Mahayoga,

དབྱེར་མེད་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་ཐིག་ལེར་རོ་གཅིག་ཤོག། །

May (all) be unified as one taste at mind’s apogee.

Translated from Classical Tibetan by the lyin’ lotsawa, Senge Drayang (Westin Harris). Responsibility for mistakes is his alone. May all beings benefit.