Tāranātha and his Indian tantric master Buddhaguptanātha

Buddhaguptanātha (1514-1610), an Indian tantric master, (16th century) was a very important teacher for Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu master and lineage holder, Tāranātha.  His life was  recorded in extensive detail by Tāranātha who wrote his biography around the year 1601. In 1590, Buddhaguptanātha visited Tibet.   In fact,  Tāranātha’s well-known account of ‘The History of Buddhism in India’ is largely based on what this Indian master taught him.  According to various scholarly and primary sources, Tāranātha received over 500 different teachings on the Highest Yoga Tantra from Buddhagupta. In this brief note, I collect together some of the research and translation that has been done on their connection, including a particularly inspiring description of Buddhagupta by Tāranātha.

David Templeman, who has translated and written much about both the life of Buddhagupta and Tāranātha reports in Buddhaguptanatha and the Late Survival of the Siddha Tradition in India:

When Buddhaguptanātha was seventy-six years old, he met the young, nearly sixteen-year-old Tibetan monk Tāranātha, on one of his travels into Tibet. The story goes that Tāranātha had dreams preceding this event, on the second day of the eighth Hor month (1590). Already something of a prodigy, he dreamed while in meditation retreat at Mahabodhi near Narthang, that he was encouraged to eat a piece of human flesh and that he was suffused with bliss as a consequence. He also dreamed that he was able to fly in the sky and had become a vidyadhara. The following day, the south Indian Buddhaguptanatha arrived at Mahabodhi, semi-naked and with his hair bedecked with yellow flowers. Buddhaguptanātha described his journey into Tibet to Tāranātha, and the young acolyte was especially impressed with the account of all Tibet’s local spirits coming to meet the siddha and of the mountains along the way bowing their peaks towards him.

Buddhaguptanātha commenced, at Tāranātha’s request, to teach him all he knew. Thus began the transmission of the vast knowledge that Tāranātha was to use throughout the rest of his life. After forty-six years of peregrination around India, central Asia and south-east Asia, Buddhaguptanatha brought with him to Tibet a huge awareness of the geography and history of the places he had visited in person and those that he had heard about from fellow ascetics. It is precisely these aspects that stand out in Tāranātha’s writings as the cornerstones of the factual validity for which his writings are renowned. Tāranātha is hailed by Tibetan and Indian scholars as the most accurate of all those who recorded the history of Buddhism in India.

According to Tāranātha himself, he did not simply rely on his memory to recall the facts. He wrote notes and comments on all the data that he received orally, and it is presumably from these notes and jottings that he was able to so accurately compile his later works. Works that depended completely on that very sense of detail for much of their validity. He used lists as an aid to memory, most of them apparently based on alphabetical lists and mnemonic devices. As Tāranātha writes:

I wrote notes, I wrote addenda lists to my notes and I ensured that these were not fragmentary or careless. Whatever teachings he gave me I wrote them all down on paper.

Buddhaguptanātha did not stay long in Tibet though, according to Templeman:

After a few months in Tibet, Buddhaguptanatha would not promise to stay any longer, despite Taranatha’s entreaties. There is no clear reason given for the rift between them, but there are clues to be found in Tāranātha’s Secret Biography. In a dream Tāranātha had at Samding, he saw a complex mandala of pandits including Aryadeva, and siddhas including Matangi. Tāranātha felt that he had now ‘joined’ that lineage, at which thought a young maiden appeared from out of the mandala and told him that he still possessed a huge amount of dualistic thought and pride and thereby insulted the yogic tradition. In Tāranātha’s biography of Buddhaguptanatha, it is simply said that Tāranātha was told that he had too much dualistic thought and that no more teachings were to be made available to him. Even Buddhagupta’s students Nirvanasripada and Purnavajrapada, who visited some years later, refused to ‘complete’ Buddhaguptanatha’s teachings. When Tāranātha requested that they do so, they left hurriedly!

The Third Panchen Lama also wrote about Buddhaguptanatha’s sudden leaving and ‘incomplete transmission’ stating that this fault was pointed out because of Tāranātha’s partiality towards the teachings of Dolpopa and that he had expressed some displeasure and disatisfaction with the core teachings of Nāgārjuna and his followers (see TEMPLEMAN 2009, Chapter 5).

Whatever the truth maybe, Tāranātha’s description of his remarkable Indian teacher is inspiring to say the least and worth quoting in full:

The signs and marks of his accomplishment as a yogin were plainly visible to ordinary eyes. Half the day he remained [in a state] whereby he cut off the flow of his breath, and at practically all times he stayed naked. Not only did he not experience any harm from this, but his immediate entourage, within a two meter radius, could feel an intense heat, by means of which he was able to protect others from the cold. By cutting off the flow of his breath through mouth and nostrils, he was able to make appear to his eyes and ears whatever he wanted. Also, his feet did not sink on water. He was standing about two fingers above the ground and his bodily splendor would touch every object and remain there for a long time. He possessed the power of seeing others’ secret designs, in a supernatural way knowing others’ minds. His body was light: he would jump down from (a height of) two or three stories, and like a skin that had been flung down, he landed gently like a feather. He would climb up a steep mountain as if it were flat land. Poison, quicksilver and the like were unable to harm his body. As his mind was abiding in steady loving kindness, dogs and even ferocious carnivores would lick his body and in other ways show their affection. Ravens, little birds and so forth would alight on his lap or onto the tips of his fingers. They didn’t flee when he patted them, but remained where they were, obviously happy. At the time of bestowing an empowerment, he was able to make the wisdom actually descend. In the presence of worthy candidates he would show miraculous occurrences of various kinds, such as radiating light into the maṇḍala. He stood in no need for the food of humans. He lived on foods offered to him by non-human beings. When he was engaged in one-pointed deity yoga, the appearances of the present were really cut off and he was one endowed with the wisdom of at all times viewing everything outer and inner as devoid of any basis and as self-liberated. We with the scope similar to that of mayflies, how could we possibly evaluate the limit of his outstanding qualities of body, speech and mind? (Taken from his biography at Treasury of Lives).

Jonang Tāranātha (1575-1635). 2008. Grub chen buddha gupta’i rnam thar rje btsun nyid kyi zhal lung las gzhan du rang rtog gi dri mas ma sbags pa’i yi ge yang dag pa. In Gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha, vol. 34, pp. 126-158. Beijing: Krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang. TBRC W1PD45495. See also TBRC W22277.

TEMPLEMAN, DAVID (2002) Buddhaguptanatha and the Late Survival of the Siddha Tradition in India, see: https://web.archive.org/web/20090331115333/http://www.ordinarymind.net/may2003/feature2_03.htm

TEMPLEMAN, DAVID (2007) Becoming Indian : a study of the life of the 16-17th century Tibetan Lama, Tāranātha. PhD Monash University, 2009.

DRIME, SHERAB, “Buddhagupta-nātha,” Treasury of Lives, http://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Buddhagupta-natha/6412.

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