“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



New Zhije Tsuglagkhang Needs Sponsors


Dungzin Dampa Rinpoche performing chöd at the new Zhije Tsuglagkhang.

Attention LionLotsawa readers:

This is a rare opportunity to accumulate merit while aiding in the preservation and revitalization of Mahasiddha Padampa Sangye’s precious Zhije (Pacification) lineage—one of the eight original “practice lineages” which were transmitted from India to Tibet, and one of the few lineages to have influenced all extent schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Dungzin Dampa Rinpoche recently established the Zhije Tsuglagkhang (temple) in Nepal as a place where these rare and nearly-extinct teachings can be preserved and practiced. Now Rinpoche is looking for sponsors to cover some of the expenses incurred in the establishment of the temple. Any donations are appreciated.

If you are interested in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a donation in support of this profound Zhije lineage, or if you would like to read more about the efforts to preserve the Zhije lineage, please visit the official website at:

Or on Facebook at:

About Dungzin Dampa Rinpoche

(From the official website, here)

Born in Zurkhang Labrang, he descends from the lineage of Pha Gyagompa, a heart disciple of Pha Dhampa Sangye. Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche bestowed upon him his name, saying; “O, a junior Dampa is born. The boy’s name shall be Dhampa Sonam.”¹ Under the kind advice of Kyabje Dzatul Rinpoche, he enrolled in his monastery after completing his high school education. At the monastery, he accomplished almost all the posts and duties asper monastic rules, completed the 9 volume digital edition of the Dzatul Kabum with the Zhijedpa Au Lama Tsultrim Gyaltsen, and performed other services as an offering, so as to delight his root guru.

Dungzin Dampa Rinpoche received numerous empowerments and transmissions within the Nyingma tradition, from Lamas unmatched in the three realms, such as: H.H the Dalai Lama, Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche, Penor Rinpoche, Taklung Tsetul Rinpoche, Chatral Rinpoche, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, Kyabje Dzatul Rinpoche, and so on. In particular,from Kyabje Trulshik Rinpoche, he received the complete empowerments, transmissions and instructions of the Shijed tradition. He studied under the kind guidance of Minling Rabjampa Gelong Shedrub, Minling Khenpo Choekyi Gocha and especially with the Shijedpa Au Lama Tsulgyen, for many years.Turning his mind exclusively towards the sublime Dharma, he engaged in numerous short and long retreats and practices, in the traditional methods of the Mindrol Ling and Shijed lineages.

Kyabje Chatral Sangye Dorje Rinpoche offered him a prophecy-like advice: “You are the responsible person for this: unless you work on preserving this sacred lineage, it will become extinct from this earth. I am the oldest living practitioner in the Nyingma tradition: there are exceptionally auspicious conditions if I make aspirations for something.” This is what Rinpoche said, while displaying many auspicious activities of dependent arising, and while offering blessings.

With the kind permission and blessings of Trulshik Rinpoche, and again with Au Lama Tsulgyen, he worked for more than 7 years collecting sacred and rare manuscripts; finally, in 2013, he published the first ever compiled edition of the root Dharma series of Zhijed and its branch Chod, satiating the world by distributing Zhijed and Chod texts to Buddhist institutes, libraries and monastery of all traditions, impartially. He offered the first copy of the edition to HH the Dalai Lama, and received blessings and immense appreciation. During that time, His Holiness strongly expressed the need of a monastery for the study, practice and propagation of Zhijed.

Again, in November 2016, he was granted the privilege of a private audience with HH the Dalai Lama, during which His Holiness offered encouraging advice on the importance of the Zhijed and its preservation. He was formally invited to attend the 34th Kālacakra Abhiṣeka in Bodh Gaya, so as to honor his being the lineage holder of the sacred Zhijed lineage.

Bearing in mind the advice, guidance, blessings and aspirations of the precious masters, and the responsibility he was handed over, at present, Dungzin Rinpoche’s only determination and aspiration is to offer oneself for the preservation of the Buddha’s doctrine in general, and the sacred tradition of Zhijed and Chod in particular. He will devote his entire ability and energy to that purpose.


Sarva Mangalam!


“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.

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