Monthly Archives: May 2023

The Proto-Historical Origins of the Northern Treasures according to Se ston Padma dbang chen (15th c.)

Jean-Luc Achard

In the first part of his Garland of Jewels (Rin chen ‘phreng ba), Se ston Padma dbang chen briefly describes the origins of the Northern Treasures tradition, dating it back to the imperial period. We shall briefly recall here the well-known narrative that structures these origins. Se ston explains that in “earlier times” (sngon gyi dus na),2 there came an emanation of Mañjughoṣa (‘Jam pa’i dbyangs) who manifested as a king protecting Dharma under the name of Khri srong lde’u btsan (r. 755–797). At the age of thirteen, the young prince took hold of the royal seat and started to govern the country.3 Soon, his heart started to turn toward virtues and he became interested in Buddhist teachings. At the time, he was eighteen. He financed the building of temples (gtsug lag khang) that would lay the basis for the spread of Buddhism in the Tibetan kingdom, styled as a “region of darkness” (mun pa’i gling). To ensure this diffusion he decided to invite important masters from India, starting with the abbot Śāntarakṣita who was born in Zahor and whom Tibetans nicknamed “Abbot Bodhisattva”. The Abbot performed the ritual for subjugating the soil (sa ‘dul) and workers started to build the first Buddhist temple in bSam yas. However, as the now famous story goes, what was built by humans during the day was destroyed during the night by ill-intentioned demons.

Since the abbot failed to succeed in the building of the temple, the king was rather displeased. To counter the situation, Śāntarakṣita advised him to invite the ācārya Padmasambhava from India. Presented as having been miraculously born from a lotus on a lake, this master was described as not covered by the impurities of the womb. He had furthermore obtained the immortal Diamond Body (‘chi ba med pa rdo rje’i sku) and was said to be able to perform the activities of a thousand Buddhas.4 In India itself, he was already renown as an Emanation Body (sprul pa’i sku) capable of binding the Eight Classes of Gods and Demons (sde brgyad) into servitude.5 In reality, he was the concrete manifestation of Buddha Amitābha, living in the cave of Yari Gong (g.Ya’ ri gong) in India. Thus, three envoys were dispatched with gold in order to invite him.6 They met him in India and owing to the latter’s aspiration prayers formulated in a previous rebirth, Padmasambhava accepted the invitation to go to Tibet.7 The anachronistic date of their departure for Tibet is said to have been the 15th of the middle winter month of an Earth-Male-Horse year.8

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  1. Thanks to Marianne Ginalski and to Jay Valentine for their suggestions and corrections. []
  2. I.e., during the 8th century. []
  3. At that time, the kingdom of Tibet was not limited to Central Tibet but embraced large parts of Central Asia, Northern China, most of the Himalayan regions, and so forth. However, this state of affairs was not to last long. []
  4. With such a Body, Padmasambhava is said to have obtained power over his lifetime (tshe la dbang ba). []
  5. On these eight classes, see Samten Karmay, “Une note sur l’origine du concept des huit catégories d’esprit”, passim. []
  6. These three envoys were sBa mi khri zher (of Yar klung), Śākya pra ba (of the ‘Chims clan), and Shud pu dPal gyi seng ge. []
  7. His aspiration prayers associated with a previous rebirth are an explicit reference to the legend surrounding the Bya rung kha shor (Bodnath) Stūpa on which see sNgags ‘chang Śākya bzang po, mChod rten chen po bya rung kha shor gyi lo rgyus thos pas grol ba, pp. 302-339. See the excellent translation of this work by Adam Pearcey, “Liberation Upon Hearing —The History of the Great Jarung Kashor Stūpa”, passim. []
  8. P. 4: sa pho rtsa dgu zla ‘bring po’i tshe bco lnga. The date is anachronistic because the addition of the element (‘byung ba) only happened after the introduction of the Kālacakra calendar in Tibet in the mid-11th century. []

A Short Note on the Classification of Treasures according to Se ston Padma dbang chen (15th c.)

by Jean-Luc Achard


Se ston Padma dbang chen is the author of an interesting work dedicated to the Northern Treasures (byang gter), entitled The Garland of Jewels, a General Presentation of the Cycles of Teachings belonging to the Northern Treasures (Byang gter chos skor rnams kyi spyi bcings rin chen ‘phreng ba).1 In this text, his purpose is to explain the specific nature of this tradition according to eight main topics, namely: 1. where the Treasures were hidden; 2. for whom they were intended; 3. the prophecies regarding the individuals that will reveal them; 4. the time when they should be revealed; 5. the defects resulting from not excavating them; 6. the qualities resulting from discovering them; 7. how they should be taught; and 8. what are their contents.

Among these topics, he first discusses the literary category of gter mas or Treasures. He thus explains that, in general, in the system of hidden Treasures, there exist several categories of Ter (gTer) such as:

  • great Treasures (gter chen),2
  • minor Treasures (gter phran),
  • arch-minor Treasures (gter yang phran),
  • Treasures of the Heart (thugs gter), as well as
  • Treasures connected to a profound Oral Transmission (snyan brgyud zab mo’i gter).3

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  1. For the approximative period in which Se ston Padma dbang chen lived (the early 1400’s), I rely on D. Martin, Tibetan Histories, no. 168 (which follows E. Smith). The text itself was written during a me mo yos year (p. 107) which possibly corresponds to 1447 CE. []
  2. It would seem that these great Treasures are identical with the rgyal po’i bla gter mentioned in Gu ru Chos dbang’s gTer chos bka’ rtsi them byang (quoted in Byang gter chos skor rnams kyi spyi bcings rin chen ’phreng ba, p. 6). Later in the text (p. 7), the author quotes his own prophetic work in which he explains that great Treasures (gter chen) are revealed by Emanations Bodies (sprul pa’i sku), while minor Treasures are excavated by “fortunate ones with the proper karmic connection” (las ‘phro can). []
  3. Ib., p. 5. []