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Rab gnas: shift in religious and soteriological significance in Tibetan tradition.


Our study on the topic of Rab gnas naturally prods us to look into the historical and teleological background to Buddhist consecration in general and its application within the Tibetan tradition.

From a Buddhist perspective, Rab gnas or consecration is a complex assortment and interplay of rituals intended to bring about a mystical transformation of an object d'art into a powerful source of blessings.

Are such transformations objective? Or are they subjective? Do consecration rituals based on devotional faith alone bring about an actual psycho-physical transformation on the object; or is it a mere cultic expression built upon falsely conjured ideas? Are semiotic representations innate in consecrated objects waiting only to be unraveled by someone truly devout; or is it an exquisite liturgical yarn spun by the well-versed liturgists? Do images and stupas serve as a physical base for a Buddha that is ritualistically called upon to return? Or are these merely an assimilation of the pre-Buddhist post-funerary practice, where gathering and worshipping of ashes and bodily remains, and even mummifying the whole or part of the body, whereby members reconcile with the loss of a beloved one, who has left once and forever? Is it meant to be a psychological tool to emulate "presence" of an "absence" itself, as studied by modern scholars.

More than providing a comprehensive solution or a finite answer, our study on the topic only elicits more such questions.

Yet, in all Buddhist communities, consecration forms an important part of their religious life, for it is one of the few practices that bring one to a greater proximity with the Buddha and his semiotic representations that strongly govern their religious and spiritual life. For many, it is the consecration practice that differentiates a sutra gracing a family altar and the one sitting way below the height of our waistline in an antique store waiting for a prospective taker.

Etymology and its Applied Meaning

Pratistha, the Sanskrit original for Tibetan word Rab gnas, is composed of two root components--pra, an emphatic adverbial or adjectival prefix meaning 'well', and tisthad, meaning 'to stand, remain or abide', thus together pratistha means 'to stand, remain or abide' or 'consecration or dedication (of a monument or of an idol or of a temple)' (Sir Monier Williams, 671). Supratistha, a widely used synonym of pratistha hardly makes any difference despite the double emphatic prefixes su and pra, as both are commonly rendered as Rab gnas or Rab tu gnas pa in Tibetan. Acharya Krishna defines pratistha as prakasananadi-pratistha, which translates to mchog tu gnas pas rab gnas zhes bya'o, meaning 'Partishta is thus called, because it exists in an excellent way', both in terms of time and manner of transformation (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul, NYA f.280b). However, ridden off its Tantric baggage and the later Anglican etymological connotations surrounding its English equivalent "consecration", the term Rab gnas or pratistha originally, literally and simply means to "abide well" or "abide for long".

As concerning the textual classification, Rab gnas, as a genre, is mostly categorized in the section of Vidhi (cho ga) or liturgy. Yet it equally qualifies for Rgyud (Tantra) or Rgyud 'grel (Tantric commentary) given its contents, including the opening expression of homage mostly extended to Buddha Vajradhara or other Tantric deities. Later commentators, however, have sometimes blurred the issue of classification by paying homage to "Buddhas and Bodhisattvas", which according to early conventions of textual classification based on early Tibetan translation norms places the texts within the Mdo sde (Sutrapitaka, Collections of Sutras).

Of Sutra and Tantra

In the most relevant of Mahayana Sutras on the study of Buddha's Mahaparinirvana and the cult of images and stupas such as Lalitavistara, Vimalakirti-nirdesa, Lankavatara, Saddhadharmapundarika, Samdhinirmocana, and Mahaparinirvana-nama-mahayana-sutra, the expression Rab tu gnas pa, and rarely Rab gnas, applies to a whole range of Sanskrit words tistha, pratistha, supratistha, samsthita, vastita, susthita, all equally meaning 'to sustain, abide, or remain', and none implying consecration as we understand from the Tantric or even the Theravada perspective. Such allusions are also made by Tibetan masters including the First Dalai Lama Gedun Drub (1391-1474/5), who mentions that Paramita literatures make no mentioning of consecration in spite of the emphases laid on the creation and worshipping of images for sake of merits (Gedun Drub,

Dpal gsang ba 'dus pa'i rab gnas kyi cho ga mdor bsdus, f.2). In a much similar tone, the First Panchen Lama Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen (1570-1662) hints on the absence of anything having to do with consecration in 'Dul ba lung, despite all its exhortations in making and worshipping of images (Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, Rab gnas dge legs rgya mtsho'i char 'bebs, f.2).

Unlike the Theravada Buddhism, for Tibetan Buddhist tradition, given its incorporation of the entire gamut of Indian Buddhist Tantric rituals and practices, the rituals of consecration, which employ Tantric means of accomplishment (Sadhana) and formulaic spell (mantra), easily fall into the system of Tantra. For Tibetan Buddhism, a strictly Mahayana affiliate, consecration rituals followed today were mostly drawn from Tantra, supplied with many dispensable components from the Sutra as well. No early Tibetan masters prescribe consecration according to non-Sutra in all its exclusivity, as is followed in the Theravada tradition. Presence of two unique characteristics of Tantra help determine consecration as a strictly Tantric ritual in Tibetan Buddhism. Firstly, the inseparable experience of bliss and emptiness (bde stong dbyer med) through the mergence of wisdom and skillful means (thabs shes zung 'brel). And secondly, the Deity Yoga (lha'i rnal 'byor), a form of Yogic meditation where one's body is visualized in the aspects of the Form Buddha (Dalai Lama 1985, 27) and generates Buddhalike attitudes, in particular the 'divine pride' (lha'i nga rgyal).

In keeping with Tantrayana classifications, Tibetan masters have devised consecrations of four types--Action (kriya), Performance (carya), Yoga (yoga) and Highest Yoga (anuttara-yoga), a division mostly made from the point of view of their field of emphasis, whether to external, internal or yogic practices, and the levels of deities invoked as the central figure during consecration.

Rab gnas in the Early Days

Two important yet overlooked events from the life of the Buddha might shed some light on the role and significance of imagery and symbolic representation in filling the absence of the Buddha, and gaining a better understanding of the subsequent spread of consecration rituals.

The first concerns the legendary creation of the earliest Buddha image by King Udayana, as recounted in the Chinese version of Anguttara-nikaya (3rd cent. CE), which also finds a parallel Theravada narrative in the Kosalabima-vanana (c. 13th cent. CE) that ascribes the creation of the first Buddha image to King Pasenadi of Koshala. According to the former, followed by Tibetan Buddhists, when Buddha departed for the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods (Trayatrimsa-devabhumi) to impart teachings to his biological mother Mahamaya as a token of gratitude, King Udayana expresses panic over Buddha's imminent absence. To ease King Udayana's vehement obsession to the Buddha, the latter commissions the creation of his own image.

The second event concerns the episode surrounding the Buddha's preparation for Mahaparinirvana and the post-funerary distribution of relics. Buddha consents to the building of reliquary stupa for his followers to worship ensuring that "whoever lays wreaths or puts sweet perfumes and colors there with a devout heart, will reap benefit and happiness for a long time" (Maurice Walshe, 264). Though the Buddha initially advised that his remains be enshrined in a Stupa that is rightful for a fully enlightened being, an Arhat, a disciple of the Buddha or a Universal Monarch (Maurice Walshe, 264), he finally makes his preference for a funeral and the posthumous installation of stupa rightfully deserved for a Universal Monarch.

References of Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BCE) making obeisance to the Stupa of the eonic Buddha Kanakamuni have been found in early Indian and Sri Lankan historical writings (Strong, p.14). It however compels us to think whether these references to early stupa allude to any forms of consecration or to an Indic religious tradition that predates and serves as a model for the cult of the stupa and images, and of consecration in particular. The extensive liturgies on consecration rites found in the Mahayana Tantric literature and the widespread of consecration practices followed in the Theravada tradition reminds us of the prominent role consecration have played from a relatively early period.

In Tibet, consecrations were held to have been conducted as early as 7th century during the time of King Songtsen Gampo (1617-1650). For example, early historians and hagiographers mention of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas appearing from amidst the sky, whereby both Trulnang and Ramoche temples were said to have been consecrated, both miraculously and simultaneously, in circa 645. (Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, 183-185). The same century witnessed the coming of the statues of Akshobhaya and Maitreya, consecrated by Buddha Shakyamuni and Buddha Kashyapa, and later a statue of Jowo Shakymuni, consecrated by Buddha Shakyamuni, both brought as bridal gifts by princesses Bhrikuti Devi and Wencheng Gongzhu respectively (Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, 145).

Historical accounts on the consecration of Samye, probably in circa 775-779, provides a detailed picture, mostly of the pre- and post-consecration phases and nothing on the nature of consecration per se or the rites then performed. Post-consecration festivities observed for 12 long years receives more detailed description as to what song each influential member of the cleric and royalty sung at the gatherings (Ba Selnang, 57, Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, 242-247). Even the Fifth Dalai Lama, a great scholar and ritualist himself, hardly looks into the form of rituals practiced in those early days.

The consecration of Samye by Guru Padmasambhava (Terton Ogyen Lingpa, KHA, 195) or by Acharya Shantarakshita (Ba Selnang, 58), or else together (Troru Tsenam, 23) and the lighting of Samye during the consecration of a stupa at Byams pa gling, whereupon the stupa acquired the name Choten Woebar finds mentioning in several texts (e.g. Terton Ogyen Lingpa, KHA, 223). In both the above cases, more descriptions relates to post-consecration festivities than the consecration itself (Terton Ogyen Lingpa, KHA, 227).

Buddhist consecration was first known to Tibet through the translation of Tantric scriptures and liturgical works of Indian masters, all made possible through the collaboration of at least one Indian Pandita and one Tibetan translator, the earliest including Vajrapani and Maben Choebar (Dpal 'khor lo sdom pa'i rab gnas); Krishna Pandita and Goe Khugpa Lhatse (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul); Kanakavarman and Patsab Nyima Drakpa (Rab gnas kyi cho ga mdor bsdus pa); Kashmir Pandita Jnana-vajra, Dro Sherab Drakpa (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud) and a few others.

The ritual exegeses and manuals studied in Tibetan Buddhism can all be traced to either these early Tantric scriptures or the later liturgical works by Indian masters, most prominent and earliest being Sadhuputra, Abhayakara a.k.a. Abhayadatta, Bhanucandra, [Su]Candraprabha, Krishna, Mahasiddha Sagara, Shantigarbha [a contemporary of Goe Khugpa Lhatse] and Prajnavalita.

On "Absence and "Presence"

From a general perspective, fundamental questions concerning the effectiveness of representations and the unsure outcome of consecration ritual in Buddhism rest on the notion of "absence" and "presence" in relation to its founder the Buddha Shakyamuni, and their ontological veracity. Much has been discussed on the issue of whether images of Buddha are characterized by the "absence" of the historical and the eonic Buddhas or the "presence" of a force either of indexical, numinous or corporeal nature. Discussion so far is not on whether Buddhist images, like images of any religious traditions, bear an indexical reference to the life and deeds of a referred being. It rather rests on question of whether indexical or referential value alone is what a devout Buddhist looks for when worshipping an image of the Buddha. Texts and daily experiences have taught us how all Buddhists despite their geographical remoteness expect something beyond mere references to exist within their object of worship, especially those created in the supposed conventional form and appearance of the Buddha and later consecrated by a qualified priest. Conversely, the question of whether something exists beyond the indexical sphere largely rests on how Buddhists understand and interpret this highly popular ritual of consecration.

The question on the absence or presence of the Buddha, in general, sheds light on a broader fundamental difference in the philosophical viewpoints of the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions, and also poses questions to the Tibetan liturgists in particular. From the Theravada perspective, an enlightened being does not remain in this world once he enters Parinirvana, while Mahayana believes in multifarious forms of Buddha, not to mention Tibetans and their predilection for Sprul skus, who aside from those that merely prove a psycho-physical connection to their predecessor are all said to have their origin in enlightened Buddhas. A single Sambhogakaya Buddha in the Pure Land is held to manifest infinite Buddhas perpetually to assist beings in the alleviation of suffering. The hermeneutical differences thus suggest different ways of treating the issue of absence and presence based on the fundamental difference in viewpoint concerning a Buddha's post-Nirvanic state.

All early Indian Buddhist scholars unequivocally agree that Shakyamuni left this world in 5th cen. BCE, thereby heralding the period of absence of the Buddha. This period of absence of the Buddha coincides with the beginning of the period of presence of the Buddha in a different form. According to the Theravada tradition, this presence is seen in a statue or a stupa in the form of blessings transferred from a relic of the Buddha, or image, or a source that can be traced back to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, all by means of consecration. For Mahayana tradition, however, the presence is marked by the transformation of a statue, a stupa or even a tree into an enlightened Buddha (Gdugs la sogs pa rab tu gnas pa dang rnying pa 'byin pa'i cho ga, 260b) through meditation, and hence considered no lesser than the real Buddha.

Among modern Buddhist scholars, Richard Gombrich holds that Theravada Buddhists, especially in Sri Lanka, know "cognitively" that Buddha is not present in images yet "affectively" presume it to be existent therein (Gombrich, 1971). Any devout Tantric practitioner may read this as reflecting Gombrich's preconceived notion of Buddha's absence in Stupas or the limitation of our ordinary cognitive senses in detecting changes taking place on an unnatural, non-corporeal and non-substantial level. However, there are references to a consecrated images as being mere reflections of the Buddha's Emanated Body, yet to be looked upon as the Emanated Buddha himself in this aeon of degeneration (Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po, KU, 187v). Nonetheless, this do not lay Tantrayana, particular the Tibetan way of consecration, immune from the Theravada critiques.

There are yet other scholars, such as Kinnard, who believe the Buddha image as more than mere idols, for its potential in drawing the gaze of a believer into a new and unforeseen ontological dimension (Kinnard, 1999:34-42), though the state and nature of said ontological dimension remains as evasive. Similar views are found in Tibetan Buddhist community, where a "great majority of Tibetan monastics and lay people do not consider themselves capable of apprehending the exact nature of that which is embodied in a receptacle after consecration, they do possess some intuition that there is something sacred present there." (Cabezon and Geshe Thubten Tendar, 138) Donald Swearer observes that though modern Buddhologists such as "Eckel, Trainor and Kinnard do not definitively clarify the meaning of the claim that the Buddha is present in relics, images and other material signs, none interprets presence in a literal, physical sense" (Swearer, 2004: 113).

For Tibetan Buddhists, the issue of presence and absence does not rest with the question of the presence of indexical or referential value in an object, but rather rests on the question of whether or not deities in a non-revelatory and non-physical form exist in the representational object. This further rests on the issue of whether the Wisdom Being (ye shes pa, jnanasattva), earlier caused to merge with the Commitment Being (dam tshig pa, samayasattva), is escorted back to their place through a farewell ritual (gshegs su gsol ba) at the end of the consecration.

What Constitutes Consecration

Consecration in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism does not stand as a single distinctive ritual entity, but a complex matrix of many independent rituals of both dispensable and indispensable nature.

Consecration exists in various forms and renditions, with different enumerations and classifications, ranging from 20 or more distinct rituals (Taranatha, Rab gnas kyi cho ga 'gro phan rgyas byed, 616) to the five essential rites (Bentor 1996, 291-2). In this brief study of consecration in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I have outlined five mandatory rites, slightly different from the enumeration of the earlier scholars, yet partly drawn from their close and sincere study on the subject. The five mandatory rites are entirely unrelated to the Theravada consecration, which mainly composed of four distinct salient features: Recollection of the life and deeds of the Buddha, Reenactment of the events surrounding Buddha's enlightenment, teachings and demise; Transmitting of blessings through a chain of statues beginning with the one consecrated by Buddha himself, and Opening the eyes of the statues.

The five mandatory rites in Mahayana consecration are: Sadhana involving visualization of the Commitment Being and invocation of the Wisdom Being; mergence of the visualized image and the invoked image; [Visualization of the receptacle as Commitment Being;] mergence of visualized image and the invoked image/Entry of a visualized being into the receptacle; and sealing the mergence and/or escorting the visualized being back to its original place in heaven.

The others are ancillary components that may either fall into two categories--the essentials and the electives, with their length depending on the elaborateness of the ritual ceremony.

The components, according to their sequence of occurrence during consecration, are:

Preliminary Stages (Sngon 'gro'i rim pa)

SETTING A FAVORABLE DATE (TSHES DANG SGYU SKAR BRTAG PA): This involves conducting an astrology calculation to set a suitable date for consecration.

INITIATORY RETREAT (BSNYEN PA): A pre-requisite for Rab gnas is that it can be undertaken without any formal supplication from either a student or patron. This include the practice of reciting mantras of the principal deity for certain number of times, the least being 108, or until one sees either internal or external mystical signs.

SITE PURIFICATION (GNAS YONGS SU SBYONG PA/SA CHOG): An extensive site-cleansing ritual involving appeasing the Earth goddesses and other local guardians, which when conducted on an elaborate scale, is marked by Sa gar (site-seeking ritual dance).

CREATION OF MANDALA (DKYIL 'KHOR CHO GA): Creating Mandala in the form of sand, strings, and paintings, or through mental visualization. It also involves subsequent blessing of the Mandala. Duration of the ritual depends on the rendition of the liturgy and types of deity or deities associated with the Mandala.

Offering of Ritual cake/ransom (Gtor ma): An offering entreating malignant spirits to leave the ritual site peacefully by partaking a ritual cake, or face the dire consequence of having their heads split into a hundred tit bits.

HOMA-RITES (SBYIN SREG): A fire ritual ranging anywhere from burning a handful of white mustard on pyre set upon three stones to observing an elaborate fire ritual marked by its four variant factors--peacefulness, increase, power and force. The fire ritual and the ritual cake offerings do not follow a strict order of occurrence.

PRELIMINARY OFFERINGS (MCHOD PA): An extension of this practice can as much include the elaborate ways of making offerings as outlined in the Prayer of the Exalted Samantabhadra (Arya-bhadracarya-pranidhana-raja) together with other ritual ingredients prescribed for the involved deity or deities.

GRAND FEAST (TSHOGS 'KHOR): Mostly observed in elaborate consecrations, grand ritual feasts are meant to appease the Dakas and Dakinis, and seek their assistance in the accumulation of merit and purification of negative Karma.

BLESSING OF VASE (BUM PA SGRUB PA): Unless when condensed rituals are preferred, this involves blessing vases filled with cleansing herbs and ingredients, and setting it overnight for ablution at the next dawn. This stage involves visualization of four or ten wrathful deities for the sake of purifying the water in the vase through a detailed thread ritual, incantation of vase mantra, the 100-syllable Vajradhara Mantra and visualization. Rituals such as Ushnisha-vijaya vase ritual can be relatively extensive.

PURIFICATION OF MIND (DAG SBYANG): Meditation on emptiness, to prepare oneself for the self-visualization, which is built one the basis of one's insight into the empty nature pervading all phenomena.

SELF-VISUALIZATION (BDAG BSKYED): Self-visualization, an essential feature of Tantra, seeks to simulate the physical, verbal and mental states of the Buddha. Each self-visualization begins a powerful cultivation of Bodhicitta or a state of mind aspiring for enlightenment to serve others, and understanding of Sunyata, the lack of an inherent ontological form of existence in phenomena. This is follwed by an intricate interplay of syllables, sounds and deities that help construct the field of visualization and make it complete. It involves assigning major roles to the five Buddhas of the major lineages and the accompanying deities.

PURIFYING THE BASES OF VISUALIZATION (RTEN SBYANG BA): This phase generally follows the preliminaries such as setting ritual objects, cleansing the site, visualizing oneself as a deity and blessing the vase. It involves an extended phase of meditation aimed at purifying one's body, speech and mind and preparing a proper base for the creation of the Commitment Being.

ABLUTION (KHRUS GSOL): This ritual includes bathing the objects in scented water and later massaging it with pure massage oils and lotions, either directly or on their reflection on a mirror (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, 148r). The ablution practice is held to wash away all stains of non-virtues and negativities such as moral transgressions, anger, laziness, mental distraction and wrong understanding through real and contrived water of discipline (sila), patience (ksanti), effort (virya), meditative stabilization (samadhi) and wisdom (prajna) respectively.

Actual Stages (Dngos gzhi'i rim pa)

INVOKING THE COMMITMENT BEING (RTEN DAM TSHIG PAR DGUG PA): Unlike the visualizations at earlier stages, this stage involve extensive creation of both the contrived abode and the deities, which are both mentally created through the power of one's spiritual commitments (Samaya), and hence called the Commitment Being. This Commitment Being later serves as a receptacle for the Wisdom Being, which is visualized as coming from above.

INVOKING THE WISDOM BEING (YE SHES DGUG PA): Having created a splendid and extensive Mandala filled with all its magnificent features and inhabited by the deities of a particular Tantric tradition followed for the consecration, one visualizes a replica of the same descending from amidst the limitless space. The Wisdom Being eventually joins with the Commitment Being and become one and inseparable in nature and entity, like water poured into water. Through the mergence of the Wisdom Being, the Commitment Being is alleged to be infused with divine energy, thereby enhancing its power and efficacy in the later stages of the consecration.

TANTRIC INITIATION (DBANG): This phase involves carrying out various forms of Vase Initiation such as water, crown, Vajra, bell, name, and secret initiations, associated with the five principal Buddhas--Akshobhaya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amogasiddhi and Vairocana. This stage constitutes a chain of initiations conducted to restore the supramundane status and power of the Buddhas, spiritual consorts, Bodhisattvas, goddesses, wrathful deities and others celestial beings visualized inside the Mandala.

Ritual masters have considered the creation of the Commitment Body, the creation and mergence of the Wisdom Being and the initiation to constitute the actual consecration. In other words, the transformation of representational objects for consecration or infusion of power in them takes places during these three stages. (Taranatha, Rab gnas kyi cho ga 'gro phan rgyas byed, 640)

ACTUAL OFFERINGS (MCHOD PA): After a series of initiations, the monks conducting the consecration, arranges another set of offerings including the dress and other exquisite accessories. This involves reflecting on the physical and mental attributes of the deities and offering the dresses according to the color of the deities and their seed syllables. In its extensive version, a special homa-rite is conducted at this point. In many rituals, this part mostly follows the Spyan dbye (eye-opening ritual).

OPENING OF THE EYES (SPYAN DBYE): This stage involves either removing of blindfold or beeswax that earlier covered the eyes of the statue, or sometimes a head-shroud that cover the entire face itself. In other cases, this event is marked by applying of collyrium on the eyelashes (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul, 282r). The lifting of the blindfold, in Tibetan rituals, is considered a sign of opening the five unique eyes of the Buddha (spyan lnga).

In many traditions, the lifting of the blindfold or head shroud, like the final jigsaw piece, enables one to grasp a complete picture of consecrated image for the first time. From this point onwards, "the image becomes the person and the story of Shakyamuni Buddha" (Swearer, 2004: 109) with sheer absence paving way to an absolute presence. Tantric scriptures further add other ancillary forms of openings, such as the opening of the auditory, olfactory and gustatory sense-organs. (Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po, 186r); and in other cases the opening of the eyes is followed by offering of toothbrush, haircomb, and so forth, much in the manner of enacting the partaking of food, rinsing your mouth, combing hair and so on.

OFFERING OF SPECIAL FOODS (MNGA' 'BUL): This stage includes offering of special offerings, the most prominent being the offering of a rice gruel in Theravada tradition, which however is not seen in the Mahayana rituals. At this point, the position of the consecrated objects may change or remain intact depending on the types of rituals conducted.

SUPPLICATION (GSOL BTAB): Here the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are called upon to dwell in the images in perpetuum, if the consecration ritual were not followed by a farewell ritual (gshegs su gsol ba). Praying that "the august gathering of Buddhas and deities assume the forms of the representational bases of the enlightened body speech and mind" and "after having abided firmly in these bases, to continue to remain as benefactor, protector, and support...." In elaborate or extensive consecration ceremonies, this may include a day-long ceremony for longevity (brtan bzhugs).

LONG-LIFE CEREMONY (BRTAN BZHUGS): This includes chanting of prayers and supplicating the Buddha to remain for as long as "the representational base is not destroyed by either, earth or fire or water or wind".

Concluding Stages (Rjes kyi rim pa)

REQUEST FOR FORGIVENESS (BZOD GSOL): Expression of apology for any shortcomings on the part of the priest encountered during the course of the ritual. Given that most Tibetan consecration rituals are devoted to Vajrasattva, as may be reflected from the expression of homage in the beginning of the liturgical writings, this ritual of confession employs meditational-incantations of Vajrasattva (Rdo rje sems pa'i sgom bzlas) or in the least recitation of the 100-syllable Vajrasattva (yig brgya).

OFFERINGS TO THE DIRECTIONAL DEITIES (PHYOGS SKYONG MCHOD PA): Appeasement to the directional guardians; and offering of Gtor mas as offerings unlike the earlier part that involves mild exorcism. A follow-up to the earlier ritual, this an excessively blow-up version of a farewell banquet and also serves as the moment that marks the signing of a covenant with the Dharma Protectors in ensuring constant protection to consecrated representational bases.

FAREWELL RITUAL (GSHEGS SU GSOL BA): Dissolution of the visualized deities; and praying for swift return to protect the receptacle until the Samsara's end.

INSTRUCTIONS TO THE PATRON (YON BDAG BSGO BA, YON 'BUL): Like handing a instructional or how-to manuals regarding worshipping of the image, this portion sets things clear on who enjoys the rights to offerings made for the consecration, such as the master of the ritual rather than the sculptor or the monks attending the ceremony. (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, 150r; Ngaggi Wangchug, 246r)

GENERATING AUSPICIOUSNESS (BKRA SHIS): Praying to the representation of the Buddha, his teachings and his spiritual community for auspiciousness in the form of wealth and happiness of the twelve major events highlighting the greatness of Buddha's life. This is sometimes conducted immediately before the opening of the eyes (Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po, 185r), after the ablution (Dpal 'khor lo sdom pa'i rab gnas, 156v), or to create a conducive atmosphere for the visualization of Dam tshig sems dpa' and Ye shes sems dpa' (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul, 281r). Tibetan priest mostly recite the same prayer, beginning with the line Phun sum tshogs pa mnga' ba gser gyi ri bo 'dra..., drawn from Tantras (Dpal 'khor lo sdom pa'i rab gnas, 156r).

SUBSEQUENT DISSOLUTION (RJES BSDU): Once the celestial gods, heavenly deities, and Dharma protectors are seen off and the prayer of auspiciousness draws to an end, the monks prepare for the dissolution of the Mandalas, which serve as the foundational basis for a series of extensive visualizations, initiations and incantations. The rites for dissolution of Mandalas are as extensive as the rituals conducted during the initial phases of Mandala construction, which includes ritual for ground-breaking ceremony, seeking approval of local deities, laying of foundation, and so forth.

HOMA-RITES (SBYIN SREG): The sequence of consecration rituals finally concludes with homa-rite, a fire ritual that entails a series of visualization and supplication of blessings through burning sacred ingredients. From within the four types of homa-rites--of pacifying (zhi ba), enriching (rgyas pa), magnetizing (dbang) and subjugating (drag po)--consecration rituals at this point engage the homa-rites of enriching alone.

Ritual Determinatives

Various views are expressed regarding the point or climax of the actual consecration. While some express the chanting of Dza-hum bam-ho, marking the mergence of the Commitment Being and the Wisdom Being, others consider initiation, a means of empowering the base, as determining the point of actual consecration. Yet for some the mergence together with the initiation forms the actual stages of consecration, and the all other rituals are merely deemed complementary (Taranatha, Rab gnas kyi cho ga 'gro phan rgyas byed, 640). Some consider reciting of the Mantra of Essence of Dependent-arising, beginning with the lines Ye dharma hetu prabhava ..., and others look at the chanting of the line Om-supratistavajraye-svaha immediately following the Long-life prayers as the ritual determinative. Similarly, for the Theravada tradition, the eye-opening ritual may be crucial, but it is just one of the supplemental phases to the actual consecration. While for some a consecration is deemed complete after the invoked images of deities are well placed within the structure, for other completion is marked by a farewell ritual that escorts deities back to their heavenly abode (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i cho ga, TA149a).

Shifts and Changes in Tibetan Buddhism

Soteriological value: historical versus ahistorical

Theravada consecration ceremony is, to a great extent, a ritual for blessing the statues of the Buddha through mimetic reenactment of events from the life of the Buddha (Swearer, 2004:79) such as the Sujata's offering of sweetened milk-dish after his six-year penance, the night on the eve of enlightenment, the actual enlightenment, and the place of enlightenment through offering of a milk-dish, covering the eyes of the statues with beeswax, subsequently clearing the beeswax, and constructing the space of enlightenment (bodhimanda) respectively. The Theravada tradition also employs the ritual of transferring blessings from a statue or water that serves as a carrier of blessings of the Buddha himself. Such reenactments of the historical events of the Buddha Shakyamuni hardly find emphasis in Tibetan Mahayana rites, where most lines capture the mystical and ahistorical events surrounding the Buddhas. Moreover, Buddhas visualized in the Mahayana consecration are mostly the five principal Buddhas, who are associated with Tantrayana.

Fundamental rules versus exceptions

Regardless of the Buddhist refuge-taking precepts discouraging discrimination of the images on the basis of their make, shape and so forth, a great degree of uninhibited tendency to "discriminate for a greater spiritual purpose" is ubiquitously found all over Tibet. It is disrespectful for Buddhists that people dealing in statues and religious artifacts have a few images gracing a heavily designed altar, while dozens of similar images lie in the basement or storehouses with other merchandise. Such acts either accrue to the violation of the basic refuge-taking precept, which determines your admission or exclusion from the Buddhist community, or to the sincere abidance to the Tantric dictum that worshipping an unconsecrated image incurs 'violation of Tantric commitments, loss of Mantric power, and failure to relish the fruits of fire rituals' (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, 146v, also Buton Rinchen Drub, Dus 'khor rab gnas, 4). Buton writes how an unconsecrated image is 'like a corpse, unworthy of our worship that can lead to untoward happenings'. Not consecrating a finished image is held to produce similar negative effects (Buton Rinchen Drub, loc cit., 3).

Unwritten versus written rules

In refutation to the critiques against Je Tsongkhapa's consecration of Jowo Shakyamuni, which involved changing the form of the Emanated Buddha (sprul sku, nirmanakaya) into a Buddha of Perfect Resources (longs sku, sambhogakaya) by offering the 13 lay attires and ornaments and fixing the nails on the statue to secure these ornaments, Lobsang Thinlay Namgyal, one of Tsongkhapa's disciples, lists all the charges levied against his master by leading Tibetan Lamas such as the Seventh Karmapa Chodrak Gyamtso and Terton Pema Lingpa. They include "a cubit and finger-span plummeting of both the Sun and the Moon towards earth; striking of lightning, thunderbolt, meteorites and static shocks; appearance of the ominous shooting star; eclipses of the Sun and Moon; stirring of the world by earthquakes and typhoons; sporadic eruption of venomous scorpions from the ground; tilting of the horizon; and sporadic spread of internal strife" (Lobsang Trinlay Namgyel, 344). Such matters of uncertainty, even amongst renowned practitioners, stem from the realm of unwritten rules.

Spiritual degeneration versus extension into temporality

Consecration in Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism takes one further from today's study of anthropomorphization, as not only enlightened beings are deified in forms of humans, but also as stupas, temples, canopies, trees, wells or lakes (Gdugs la sogs rab gnas, 260), which according to the Buddhist presentation of enlightened bodies qualify as Bzo'i sprul sku, the emanation in form of arts.

This custom has extended to the consecration of one's house, earlier performed under the pretext of having Rab gnas of the shrine or image within. This practice today has become futher diluted. This has not only extended to the practice of consecrating commercial buildings and shops, but also to monastic and personal properties including vehicles, computers etc. Despite harsh criticism, such practices are presented as an extension of the receptacles of Buddha's body, which in the Sutras have not been confined to stupas and statues alone but but to pillars, trees, wells, springs, ponds, stations, and archways as well.

Rab gnas has thus come a long way to becoming an essential ritual that transforms not only representations, but also irreverent and sometimes profane substances into sacred objects of worship. For many Tibetan ritualists, the question whether a vehicle qualifies for consecration opens an entirely new scope for discussion. Such incidents may reflect the overextension of Byin 'bebs, one of the many ritual components of consecration.

Forced mapping of Tantra

Furthermore, a few Tibetan masters have developed a new scheme equating the creation and dissolution of the field of visualizations in the consecration ritual to the generation (skye rim) and completion stages of (rdzogs rim) the Tantra. It is clear that the stages of the consecration, given its ambiguity surrounding its order and composition, share no correspondence with Tantric phasal division of generation and completion stages, since the two stages of visualization and dissolution are not divided on the basis of the subtle winds entering, abiding and dissolving within the central psychic channel and the resultant experience of bliss through gaining an insightful wisdom seeing ultimate nature of all phenomena. This naturally arises from the view that in Tantra all things are correlated.

Sizes and renditions

Consecration as a ritual hardly withstands any finite definition given the ambiguity surrounding the question on what constitutes consecration. While on the one hand, creating a legible impression of the Mantra of the Essence of Dependent-arising (Pratityasamutpada-hrdayamantra) (1) on a representational object of worship suffices, while on the other a consecration may continue for three days or more, exclusive of the preparatory rites, and still render it incomplete or sullied for technical reasons.

While on the one hand, Tibetan rituals boast to have produced abridged rituals such as Horseback Consecration (Rab gnas rta thog ma), a ritual compact enough to be conducted from a horseback, most recommend at least two days, excluding the seven or more days required for blessing the stuffing (Ngawang Lobsang Choeden, f.112), where the evening of the first night marks the blessing of the precious vase and the next dawn the conferment of Tantric initiation, much in the sense of enacting the conferring of Abhishekh and ablution on Buddha Shakyamuni by Devi Tilottamma.

While, for some, one-day consecration is an observance of all rites conducted in the more elaborate three-day rituals, for others, it is a ritual that involves omitting the preliminaries and abridging both the actual and the concluding rite (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul, f.282r). However, today an instant ritual includes a brief consecration prayer from one of the Tantric scriptures (2), the mantra of dependent-arising and a prayers of auspiciousness (3), leaving all the intricate and complex rituals to those preferring an extensive ritual.

Ordained v/s well trained

While texts mention that anyone "trained in the ten ritual practices and possessing the characteristics of a spiritual master" can preside over a consecration ritual (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, TA, 146b, Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po, KU, 182b), other Tantric literature strictly calls for ordained to oversee the rituals, even forbidding non-ordained from conducting consecration in the presence of ordained members of the Sangha (Dus 'khor rtsa rgyud). This issue, alluding to consecration of early temples by non-ordained members, has been raised by Tibetan masters including the First Panchen Lama (Lobsang Choekyi Gyaltsen, f.2). The same concern may also apply to non-ordained, who preside over grand consecrations, creating controversy over the hierarchical status between Sprul skus and ordained monks, the latter regarded as unparelled in the Buddhist Sangha.

Times and timings

The Tanric literature warns of 'consecration not being auspicious all the time' (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, 146b) and thereby suggests auspicious dates such as "the sixth lunar month . and so forth". However, Tibetan ritualists following Vibhutichandra's Bde mchog dkyil 'khor maintain that any day is good (Bu ston, Dus 'khor rab gnas, 3). However, Bu ston mentions that only those wielding power to counter adverse forces or perceive things with an eye of wisdom seeing ultimate reality should dare to override the rule concerning times and timings. (Bu ston, Dus 'khor rab gnas, 3)

As for the number of consecrations that can be conducted on a particular religious object, books on Tibetan history mentions Guru Padmasambhava, "wearing robes ornamented with many precious stones", performing seven times the wondrous consecration ceremony of the shrine of Samye and its surrounding buildings and revealing himself as a manifestation-being (Sakyapa Sonam Gyaltsen, 242-247). Yet another text mentions Acharya Shantarakshita consecrating Samye eight times (Ba Selnang, 57). Though early Indian texts mentions re-consecration only after a reparation or renovation of an image or temple (Gdugs la sogs pa rab tu gnas pa dang rnying pa 'byon pa'i cho ga, 260r-261v), Tibetan masters have recommended re-consecration for the sake re-sacralizing the image (Jamyang Zhadpa, 'Khrul spong nyin mor byed pa'i snying po, 112).

The need for conducting one consecration each for every single image in a temple (Rab gnas kyi cho ga'i tshul, 280r) as against collective consecration poses yet another issue of contention in Tibetan Buddhism.


Not much is disputed about the presence of historical or indexical value in a consecrated or even an unconsecrated image, as both equally serve as reference to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni or an event in his life. This image may also serve as an object for undertaking the practices of meditative recollection (Rjes dran). However, the question on the degree of soteriological value in an object rests on whether or not an invoked Wisdom Being dwells in a consecrated object.

Though all Indian masters including Sadhuputra, Abhayakara, Bhanucandra, Sucandraprabha, Krishna, Mahasiddha Sagara, Prajnavalita, and the later ones agree on the invocation of the Wisdom Being and extending offerings (Buton Rinchen Drub, Dus 'khor, 12), they however fall under different categories from the point of view of whether a Wisdom Being invoked during the initial visualization is caused to merge with the Commitment Being or the receptacle itself. They fall under two groups from the point of what enters, whether numinous, physical or other. Tibetan masters also fall under two groups. Tibetan ritualists such as Taranatha, Drogon Choegyal Phagpa, Sakyapa Ngawang Lodoe Nyingpo and others follow Sadhuputra and Shraddhakara in accordance with Tantric texts (Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po) and see the deities off to their place, while masters including the First Dalai Lama follow Bhanucandra, Sucandraprabha, Advayavajra, Vagishvara, and Krishna in striking the mergence of the Wisdom Being into the representational base with supplication to remain in the base ad infinitum, or at least for as long as the base remains.

In general, shift in consecration practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition sheds light on a broader fundamental difference in the philosophical viewpoints of the Theravada and the Mahayana traditions, and within their respective sub-schools. It may reflect an unwelcomed extension of religion into temporality, dilution of scriptural proposition, alteration of liturgical manuals, use of religious rituals as commodity etc. within the Buddhist tradition. In brief, the shift uncovers the undisclosed tension between a need for unity versus diversity.


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Sonam Tsering Ngulphu


(1) Ye dharma hetu prabhava / hetum tesam tathagatah hyavadat/ tesam ca yo nirodha / evam vadimahasramanah /

(2) Ji ltar sangs rgyas thams cad ni ... de nyid du ni bzhugs par rigs (Rab tu gnas pa mdor bsdus pa'i rgyud, f.147r-v); Ji ltar sangs rgyas thams cad kyis ... de nyid du ni bzhugs par rigs /(Rab tu gnas pa'i cho ga rab gnas kyi rgyal po, KU, f.184r-v); Ji ltar sangs rgyas thams cad kyi ... me tog la sogs 'di bzhes shig / (Rab gnas kyi cho ga, PU f.244v); or Rdzogs sangs rgyas kun dga' ldan dang ... me tog la sogs 'di rnams bzhes / (Rab gnas kyi cho ga mdor bsdus, f.270v).

(3) Phun sum tshogs pa mnga' ba gser gyi ri bo 'dra / 'jig rten gsum gyi mgon po dri ma gsum spangs pa / sangs rgyas pad ma rgyas pa 'dab dra'i spyan mnga' ba / de ni 'jig rten dge ba'i bkra shis dang po'o / de yis nye bar bstan pa'i mchog rab mi g.yo ba / 'jig rten gsum na grags shing lha dang mis mchod pa / chos kyi dam pa skye sgu rnams la gzhi byed pa / de ni 'jig rten dge ba'i bkra shis gnyis pa'o / dge 'dun dam pa chos ldan thos pa'i bkra shis phyug / mi dang lha dang lha ma yin gyi mchod pa'i gnas / tshogs kyi mchog rab ngo tsha shes dang dpal gyi gzhi/ de ni 'jig rten dge ba'i bkra shis gsum pa'o /
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Title Annotation:Philosophy and Practice
Author:Ngulphu, Sonam Tsering
Publication:The Tibet Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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