ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 1): ANCIENT MOTHER OF BUDDHISM: India and the Tibetan river that flows through it (by 17th Karmapa)

“They live happily enough, being simple in their manners, and frugal. They never drink wine except at sacrifice …The simplicity of their laws and their contracts is proved by the fact that they seldom go to law … Truth and virtue they hold alike in esteem… They always eat alone and eat whenever inclined to do so, not at set times….They have high regard for beauty….they marry many wives and buy them from their parents….the wives prostitute themselves unless they are prepared to be chased…..The greater part of the soil is under irrigation, and consequently bear two crops in the course of the year”.
—Megasthenes, excerpt from his 4th Century record of India, Indica
“In the whole country the people do not kill any living creature nor drink intoxicating liquor nor eat onions or garlic,…in that country they do not keep pigs and fowls and they do not sell live cattle in the markets, there are no butcher’s shops and no dealers in intoxicating drink.”
—-Faxian, 4th Century record of Buddhist India

“If you read this Record of mine, you may, without moving one step, travel in all the five countries of India…. My real hope and wish is to represent the Vulture’s Peak in the Small Rooms [peak of Mount Song] of my friends, and to build a second Rajgrha City in the Divine Land of China.” [1]

—Yijing,  excerpt from a Record of the Buddhist Religion

“If we want to know the origin of the Secret Mantra Vajrayana, then we need to know the history of Secret Mantra. In order to know that, we need to know the history of how Buddhism developed in general and the origin of Buddhism. Since Buddhism originated in India, then we need to know the history and civilisation of India.”

—17th Karmapa, on Origins of Secret Mantra


Here is a post about the first day of the 17th Karmapa’s fortnight of online teachings on the Origin of Secret Mantra – Mar-Ngog Lineage [for video see above]. I will be writing some posts on the topics covered, including edited transcripts of the Karmapa’s teachings, as well as images and external sources and research connected to them.

On the first day, Karmapa considered the ancient historical accounts of Indian civilization and culture, pre- and post Buddha, from 3000 BC -1300 AD, not only in terms of Indian religious and literary texts but also a few 4th and 7th Century texts written by three great Chinese Buddhist masters and a Greek Emperor, Magasthenes.  [Interestingly, these accounts leave out the role and lives of women in India and are focused on men.  Women are seen as wives or mothers.] This was then followed by an overview of the four major time periods related to Buddhism in India. 

The 17th Karmapa concluded the teachings by explaining how the origin of the word ‘India’ [Hindustan] and of the word Hinduism, came from the Sanskrit word, Sindu or Indu and the Indus River that flows through the Indus Valley. The river, known in Tibetan as Senge Tsangpo (Lion River) starts in the high peaks of Mount Kailash, Tibet, is the source not only of life and well-being in that region but the source of the name of India. I have included some images and maps of this remarkable river to enjoy. In Day Two, Karmapa continued to teach about the Indus Valley and in more detail about the first of the two of the four time periods. More on that in the next post.

As Karmapa says in this teaching, it is rare to find Tibetans (or anyone else) who knows about the origin and history of India, never mind of Secret Mantra. One such rare example, is the great Tibetan Buddhist master and translator, Jetsun Tāranātha (1575-1634),  who wrote extensively about the origin of Tantras and the History of Buddhism in India. However, these teachings by 17th Karmapa are unique and remarkable, in that it is the first time a lineage head of one of the four major lineages of Tibetan Buddhism has spoken in such depth, not only about Indian history but also its connection to the origin of Secret Mantra Vajrayana.  

May the teachings of  Vajrayana and Buddha Dharma flow like the Indus river to the Arabian Sea and may all beings attain the fully awakened state of awakening!

Written, compiled and edited by Adele Tomlin, 25th August 2021.

Two Vajrayana Lineages in Kagyu – Practice and Study 

First, the Karmapa  cited his reasons for teaching this topic and naming it the Marpa-Ngog lineage:

“From the time of Marpa Translator onwards, the Kagyu lineage has had a practice lineage (drubgyu) of practicing Vajrayana and also one of studying and teaching (shegyu) the tantras. In this way, there are two lineages.

In the present day, the Karma Kamtsang has the lineage of practice of Vajrayana passed down from Marpa and Milarepa. However, the lineage of study (passed down via Ngog and others) has weakened and there is little of it remaining. For example, we study the Profound Inner Meaning, Sublime Continuum and the two texts on the Hevajra mantra. Other than that, we do not have so many teachings on tantras.”

The Karmapa then gave three main reasons why he called it the ‘Mar-Ngog Lineage’ of Summer teachings:

  • To understand that previously, there was such a vast tradition 

“The lineage that was passed down to us from Marpa the translator had both the lineage of practice and study but now it is no longer entirely complete. So all of us followers have not held up what is required to maintain the lineage and this is a great oversight on our part. So all of our female, male, teachers, students and so on, need to come together to revive the teachings. We need a vaster motivation and we need to work together to put in practice and revive the teachings and uphold them. Initiating a new movement to do this is important. For this reason, calling it the Mar-Ngog Summer teachings is to remind us all of that great and vast tradition of study and teachings.”

  • To inspire people

“The second reason is to inspire us (sem shug). In the past, the masters did great study of the tantras and it spread to other traditions. There is a lot of history about it. If we hold that in our minds and hearts we get a different feeling for it, and that inspires us.”

  • To revive the teachings

“Another reason is in the past, it is not helpful just to say in the past we had an incredible study lineage tradition. In this era, if we can revive the teachings and maintain them it would be helpful to do so.

Of course, it can be an impressive name and make an impact, but then you forget about the meaning. That is the reason for giving it this name. However, if we are always boasting about the names and forefathers of the lineage, yet individually continue to be lazy and indifferent, then gradually, just like a fruit rots, there is a danger we will become totally rotten from within. For that reason, we need to individually identify that and face up to the actual situation and disregard any difficulties and rouse as much courage and strength to revive the teachings that are in decline. Now is the time to do that.”

The Karmapa then spoke a little about the importance of not worrying too much about difficulties now and in the future, and that we should have courage and face the situation as it is. Too much worry is a sign of a lack of confidence in ourselves [for full text of this see footnote].[2]

The timelessness and relevance of Buddha Dharma

Karmapa then went on to explain the vastness and timelessness of the Buddha’s teachings in terms of geographical place, culture, language and era. How even today, despite differences in habits of culture and view, the Buddha Dharma still holds meaning for people and thus it is the inner meaning of Dharma that holds relevance and importance.

“For example, when the Buddha was present, the way people think then and now is different. But the Dharma was appropriate 2500 years ago and even to this day is appropriate to a great degree. However, the Buddhism we see and Dharma we practice every day, and what we teach now, we can clearly think about the aspects of the teachings. Even when we think about the limits of the forms of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, of Chenrezig and so on, even in the terminology, there are limits to it.

How did that happen? As I said before, Buddhism is inconceivably profound and vast, yet it has to be something we can see and understand. Actual Buddha Dharma is beyond speech, language or conception. Yet, Buddhism in general, what we can encounter now, has been passed down through a long history of civilization and knowledge.That is why it takes the particular form we see right now. It’s not like there was single Buddhist teaching that happened in one day. It was passed down over thousands of years. It now takes the form and shape that we encounter today. The reason why it takes that particular form now is because that particular form will be beneficial for sentient beings, appropriate and accessible and that is the reason it takes that particular form. It doesn’t take that form without any reason, does it?

The teachings of Buddhist scriptures needs to accord with how we see things now, and what we consider valuable, and that is easy to understand and accept. When it appears in such a form, then it could be considered a skillful method.  If we think the present form of Buddhism is the actual meaning of Buddhism, then we need to understand the historical environment and background that shaped it into its present form. The form of the teachings, or the aspects of the form that shaped that, what is the origin of that? It is India. That historical source came from India. Thus it is very important for us to know ancient Indian history. The reason for that is because ancient Indian society, philosophy and ways of thinking were the basis for many of the different teachings in the Buddhist texts. Similarly, many different areas of knowledge and ways of thinking about ancient India produced and sustained the different methods of Buddhism.

The reason for that is because the Buddha is someone who taught the Dharma in a way that accommodated the country, time and culture at that time, and so he taught in a way that he thought was appropriate for their cultural habits and expectations at that time. Thus we must  understand that was the situation that Buddha taught within.

For example, if we think about the different types of statues and how they appeared in different times and places. For example, if we look at the Ghandara statues, they look like people from Rome. If we look at the the Chinese statues they look like Chinese people. If you look at Thais statues, they have a form that is appropriate for their particular culture. The Tibetan statues also are very strongly influenced by the appearances of Tibetan people. If you were to give a Tibetan, a Tibetan statue or a Thai statue, and asked them which they like, and to choose one, most of the Tibetans would choose the Tibetan Buddha statue. When they choose the Tibetan one and not the Thai statue, it is not about having faith in Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but about what you are used to seeing and what you feel closest to you. If it feels closer to you, then its’ easier to feel faith and devotion. If you see something you are not very used to, and see a Thai statue and say ‘I go for refuge’, you might feel some discomfort. That is because you are not used to the style of it and so feel awkward and uncomfortable.”

Gandhara statue. Vision of a buddha’s paradise, Mohammed Nari, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, 4th century C.E., Lahore Museum, G-155, Image courtesy of Asia Society, see:

“If we want to know the origin of the Secret Mantra Vajrayana, then we need to know the history of Secret Mantra. In order to know that, we need to know the history of how Buddhism developed in general and the origin of Buddhism. Since Buddhism came from India, then we need to know the history of India. If we know that, then it will be easier to understand the roots and development of secret mantra in general. Once we know those well, it will help us not to be too distracted by external forms and rituals, and to develop a new feeling of what Vajrayana and Buddhism are. Once we have that it is then easier, to understand the intentions and heart of Buddha. So we first need some background on ancient Indian society and culture. This is very important.

For someone like me, I have never really studied history and never had such an education. Also, India has such a rich history and culture; it is very difficult for someone like me to know it. So, to teach it is also difficult. Among all us Tibetans, there are very few experts who know about the civilisation and history of ancient India. Even rarer are those with expert knowledge of the history and origin of secret mantra. So I will try my very best to explain this, but if I make any errors then please forgive me and be patient.”

Ancient Traditions and History of India

The Karmapa then explained how India was able to maintain and preserve so many different cultural and religious traditions and how to understand Indian thought, we need to understand Indian history:

Fortresses of India

“India is in the Southern part of the Indian sub-continent. Asia is a huge continent, and it is a part of Asia. Research on India has gone to an extremely profound level and thus the study of Indian history is very important in the study of human knowledge. In particular, the study of Sanskrit and the study of western languages, they are often from the same lineage, they are from the same language family. If we think about the way teachings spread in India, we have to think about how the Indian religions and philosophies spread through many different countries and the influence of India has spread into other Asian countries, including Tibet. It has spread from East to West, throughout the entire world.

In particular, India is the origin of the three great religions and six great philosophies of India. Thus, we can know that many of the developments of human thought and knowledge have come from India. I will talk about these in the coming days, but won’t explain them today.

Slide from 17th Karmapa’s teaching on the Origins of Secret Mantra (2021)

“In India, there are lots of fortresses, such as the hill forts of Rajasthan. Here are some images (see above).  These were built around the 8th or 9th Century, but what they show is that India had connections and relations with other countries. If you had forts, it made it easier to go from one place to another place. This also helps to keep outsiders out of a place. This shows that India has been able to protect traditions that are not present in other countries. So in India, they have an ancient culture and history and have maintained, uphold and spread them for thousands of years until the present.  The reason they were able to do that, as I showed with this example, is partly because they had large forts that can protect their country. They built them in order to prevent invaders and as there were not so many foreigners, they developed their own habits and cultures and maintained that.”

Handwritten texts and memorizing scripts

“Another example, generally, most Indian people do not speak Sanskrit. Yet, educated Brahmins still continue to read and write in Sanskrit. This tradition is exactly the same as it was before. A second example is, these days, there has been a huge improvement in printing technology, yet still the Brahmins write the texts by hand.

Another example, is a well-known Greek King called Alexander the Great [see more below]. Before he invaded India, in 300-400 BC there was a custom of memorizing the texts of the Vedas, and they still maintain this tradition as it was before. Many texts were burned in the intervening centuries, yet the Brahmins can still recite the texts from memory, which is amazing.”

Head bust of Alexander the Great.


Rubbing fire-sticks together

“Another example of preserving ancient Indian traditions is when  doing fire pujas we need to light a fire and do it with whatever we can. The Brahmins start the fires by rubbing sticks together and because of that the fire starts. So they maintain the tradition of lighting fires in that way. This comes from many thousands of years ago but it is preserved in India. So they have to practice this and know how to rub the sticks together to make fire. There are many customs like that preserving Indian ancient traditions and customs.

Where does these traditions and customs come from? That is beneficial to know. This is not really present in any other country. That is why researchers from all over the world take particular interest in India and its history and civilization.”

Indian ancient history – a literary heritage, fact or fiction?

“One thing we need to know, frankly speaking, is India is a country without any history, or to explain it clearly, it’s not that they have no history, there are no recorded dates. The reason for that is, when contemporary scholars examined it, because the Aryan peoples {will speak about them later), the people who were educated were the Brahmins, and they would teach the people and advise people what to think. They would put a limit on how to think. They would advise people that human life is suffering by nature. In order to lead human life you have to commit many negative actions that causes suffering.  So they thought we need to remove ourselves from that and didn’t think they needed to record the dates of human history. They didn’t have any interest in doing that.

In terms of the history of India before 400 BC, there’s nothing much there, there are no manuscripts or foundation for research. For that reason, if a scholar wants to research Indian history before 400 BC, they can only look at the available texts, and they can guess and estimate what happened and how people lived and so on. So, it’s mainly estimation and guessing.  The remaining texts are not historical manuscripts, they are literary ones. It is difficult to take the history out of the literature. They are written with a living feeling and like everything is real. When we read them, it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is fiction,  as it is written as if it is all real and true. It is like going into pitch black darkness and stumble around looking for something.”

“Not only that, there was no research done on Indian history. It was only in the 18th century that research on Indian history began. The main reason it began then  was the time when the British took control of India. The British viceroy in India took interest in Indian culture and encouraged people to research and study Indian history. Thus, scholars from Europe, such as England, Germany, France and so on began to study Indian history. This was begun by European academics. Now, there are scholars studying Indian history and culture globally. However, we can say that the duration of time is quite short, it is about 200 years in terms of research.

Greek Empire – Alexander the Great and Megasthenes’ Indika

Marriage of Ram and Sita from Ramayana. This Photograph is of Shiv Mandir, Be-lived to be of Gupta Period. Village Padarshinga, Ta : Lathi, District Amreli, Gujarat, India.

The 17th Karmapa then discussed the available ancient Indian texts and the earliest eyewitness account by a foreigner, that of Megasthenes’ Indika:

If we want to study the history of India, what texts can we do that with? To know about events in India pre-400 BC, there is no choice but to use the texts from ancient India. They are primarily religious texts or literary works heavily influenced by religion. To a certain extent, they do describe at that time what society was like, but there are also many myths and stories from the Vedas, so it’s difficult to say they are actual historical documents.

What are these religious texts? They are mainly the Vedas. In terms of literary texts, there are mainly the Mahābhārata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Rāmāyaṇa.  Those are the two main sources.

The Aryans arrived in India from another country to the Punjab area. If we want to understand that period, from 1500 – 500 BC then we have to look at the Vedas and those literary texts.”

Megasthenes (Μεγασθένης, c. 350BCE– c. 290 BCE)  he was the first person from the western world to leave a written description of India.

“Now, when foreigners learn about India, it is at the time of Alexander the Great [Alexander III of Macedon (Greek: Αλέξανδρος, Aléxandros; 20/21 July 356 BC – 10/11 June 323 BC), the king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon][3]  who fought wars in many different countries. He moved to the East to wage war in India. That’s the first time foreigners learned about the region known as India.

When he passed away, he had a General who later became the Hellenistic king Seleucus I  [also spelled Seleukos Nikator (“Conqueror”), (born c. 358 BCE, Europus, Macedonia—died August/September 281, near Lysimachia, Thrace) ] Then he took the capital and became the Emperor himself. He sent an ambassador, Megasthenes (Μεγασθένης, c. 350BCE– c. 290 BCE) to India, to the region of Magadha.  This is near present day Bodh Gaya.  He described India in his book Indica, which is now lost, but has been partially reconstructed from literary fragments found in later authors. It has four volumes which spread widely but it is no longer extant.. So, he visited India and wrote down his experiences and sights in India. Everyone couldn’t believe what he was writing about and that there was this other country like that. The reason for that is because at that time India was highly developed. It describes India in the 4th Century BC, so it is a priceless and valuable text for those researching history. However, before that, we cannot say with certainty who the people were and what events occurred and when, as we have to look at the Vedas and the literary texts.”

Here is a short video on Megasthenes and his account of India, said to be the first eye-witness account by someone from outside India.


Three great Chinese texts on Ancient India by three Chinese Buddhist masters/translators

Karmapa then described how three major travelogues by Chinese Buddhist masters who visited India are very important sources on India from the 4th to 8th centuries:

  1. Faxian and A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms

“Later around the end of the 4th Century BC, the Chinese Buddhist monk,  Faxian (法显, 337 CE – c. 422 CE)  (Dharma Light). Faxian crossed many different valleys and areas to travel to India. When he returned to China, he wrote everything he saw about India[4] and wrote A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguo Ji 佛國記).

Statue of Faxian and ” Record of Buddhist Kingdoms ” a version printed in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE).

Here is a lovely, short video about his travels to India.

2. Xuanzang and Great Tang Records on the Western Region

Xuanzang (玄奘;  602 – 664)

“In the 7th Century there was the well-known, Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang (玄奘;  602 – 664), some of you may know there is a TV series about him. Tang Xuanzang held the Tripitaka in China, and crossed the deserts to get to India, travelling to all the Indian regions, and wrote and researched about Indian politics and customs. In the end, he wrote the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions[5], which is an extremely important text. [For more on the connection between these Chinese writers and the Karmapas, see Tomlin (2021) here.]

Xuanzang’s route of travel from China to India
Xuanzang statue


3. Yijing and Record of  Buddhist Practices Sent via the Southern Sea

Chinese Buddhist Master and Pilgrim to India, Yijing (义净 635–713 CE)

“At the end of the 7th Century, there was another Chinese Buddhist master, Yijing (义净 635–713 CE), [formerly romanized as I-ching or I-tsing][6], which translates as ‘pure meaning’. He travelled by sea, via west Bengal to come to India. When he returned to China he wrote a Record of  Buddhist Practices Sent via the Southern Sea[7].

These three texts are still contained in the Chinese Buddhist canon. These texts by the three Chinese Buddhist scholars are very important and had a great influence on research. In particular, the most highly regarded and helpful text is Xuanzang’s Great Tang Records. These days, we have been able to identify all the main Buddhist sites, and this is because of this text. If there were no such book, it would be very difficult to identify them.”

Trip made by Yi Jing from China to India via Sea


Four Major Periods of Indian History

The Karmapa then went on to categorise four main periods of Indian history, via its connection to Buddhism: 

“Up to the 13th Century, there are not many historical records. From 13th Century onwards, the Muslim invaders came to India and it came under the power of the Muslim Kings. I will talk about this later. Then, they recorded the dates of their reigns, events and people, and took more interest in recording history. However, if we need to speak about ancient India, there is the Greek Magastenese, and the Chinese Buddhist masters and  the rock edicts and cave carvings at the time of the Indian Buddhist Emperor, Ashoka.

What is the earliest period we can speak about? India had a stone age when people used tools made out of stone. It’s been a few ten thousands of years that humans have been living in India. The reason for that is they are finding the bones and archeaological evidence that has been unearthed at that time. So that would be the earliest time.  However, if you think about Indian civilization, to describe it you need writing. The beginning of that is probably from around 3000 BC up until 1300 AD,  that is the duration of Indian historical sources. From the 13th Century onwards, there were the Gurdip emperors who were Muslim and invaded India, then India became Muslim. That dynasty lasted about 3-400 years. Then after that there were the Mughals, who also invaded India, and they were Muslims and they destroyed most of Indian culture and civilisation. Indian culture did thrive after that, but if we compare it to before, they are incomparable, so scholars say. if we divide it into four major periods, it is easier to understand. These are:

  1. Indus Valley or Harabha or Indus River civilization – 3400 – 1600 BC
  2. Vedic Period – 1600 BC to 600 BC
  3. Buddhist Teachings Period – 600 CE  – 1300 CE
  4. Disappearance of Buddhism – 1300 CE onwards
First and Second Periods
The Dancing Girl, a prehistoric bronze sculpture made in approximately 2500 BCE in the Indus Valley Civilisation city of Mohenjo-daro.

“To give a brief overview, the first period probably began around 3300 BC, the greatest spread of that civilisation was around 2600 BC to 1900 BC. The Indus Valley people who developed and maintained it were mainly the the Dravidian people, who are an ethnic group.

The second period is the Vedic Period.  That began around 1600 BC, the main people were instituted it were the Aryan people. They were new arrivals in  India and when they settled it was in the region of Punjab. They had a lot of faith in trees, nature and so on and offered praises and worship to nature. The basis for studying that civilisation, the main text among the Vedas is the Rig Veda. They arrived in the Ganges valley and stayed there and established many powerful kingdoms in that region. During that time,  the caste system was developed and the Brahmin power was established. The educated Brahmins compiled the four Vedas. Before that was the Rig Veda. Other great literary works were written at that time, such as the Upanishads and. Also, the great literary epic works were written then. So the Vedic period provided a lot for Indian culture. Later, the Aryan people began to gain control over all of India. On the basis of the four Vedas and other literary works, they developed the six non-Buddhist philosophies, but also many other views and philosophies. Jain religion also arose during that Vedic period.”

Third Period – King Ashoka and the flourishing of Buddhism
Ashoka Pillar

“The third period started around the end of 6th Century when Shakyamuni Buddha was born. His date of birth is not certain but generally we say, end of 6th Century and that was when the teachings began. The Kings of that time supported Buddhism greatly and thus is spread widely. The Brahminic influence then decreased because of that.

After that, in the central regions, there was the Emperor Ashoka, who was the first one to unite India. Not only that, he established Buddhism as the national religion. At that time, there was a Buddhist council. These councils began during that time. I may speak about this later if there is time.”

Ashoka pillar

Similarly, in South India, there was a powerful kingdom called the Andhra and at the same time, in the North, there was the Gupta dynasty[8] and in the West, the Bactrians people who came from the North-West and arrived in India.  Among their people there was someone called Kanishka and he came and converted to Buddhism. So, because there were many Kings in India who respected Buddhism and outside, thus it spread and became a world religion.

Later, in North India, there was a King who supported the Hindu religions and the Brahmins, his name was Vikramāditya. Due to his support of them, Brahminism again began to spread and gain power and influence. So Buddhism and Brahminism became like enemies and opponents of each other. So there were always debates and conflicts between them. The new Brahminism arose in a slightly different form.

Later, there was a King called Harshavardhana (c. 590–647 CE) (in Tibetan he is called Tsultim Nyima) who supported Buddhism greatly. So Buddhism again grwe stronger. This is around the 7th and 8th Century, although it was not as strong as Buddhism had previously been.”

Standing Buddha in red sandstone, Mathura, Gupta period circa 5th century CE. Mathura Museum.
Fourth period – Muslim Invaders and disappearance of Buddhism in India

 “There was an Arab caliphate that invaded India several times from Arab regions. Later, after they had invaded many times, there were some Turkic people who lived in Afghanistan who invaded India. In the end, in the 13th Century they took control of India, and in the region of Delhi there began the Delhi Sultanate. This is the first Muslim dynasty in India and because of that Buddhism suffered a great loss and destruction but it did remain in a few areas. It was very weak[9].

Then at the very end, when Buddhism was completely destroyed without a trace was in the 16th Century, when the Mongols, whose religion was Islam, invaded India and established the Mughal dynasty there. After establishing it, they were even stricter than the previous dynasties and converted all of India to Islam. Buddhism was erased from India without a trace. 

In this Summer teaching, I am dividing the history into these four periods, there is no single standard way of dividing the history of India. The reason for that is the country was generally not united. For example, if we look at map of India for the present day, there are only a few time periods when it was a united country. Other than that it is generally fragmented.  It was united during King Ashoka, then later during the Mughal Dynasty, and then under British colonial rule.  Most of the time is was not united. So the Kings sometimes got on well, sometimes they fought and so on. So it is complex and chaotic to categorise it in terms of dynasties.  So, I am dividing the time periods primarily in terms of Buddhist history and the connection to the teachings.”

Indus River  and the naming of ‘India’

Indus River (Tibetan: Senge Khabab) that flows from Mount Kailash in Tibet that flows down into Northern India, Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.

Karmapa then concluded the first day’s teachings with an overview of how India got its name from the Indus River that runs through the north-western part of ‘India’:

“These days we talk about India as Hindustan. Tibetans call it Gyakar. This is an explanation for this, but I don’t know if it’s credible or not. When we say Gyakar, I cannot explain it clearly. However, the reason people call it Hindustan is because the Aryan people arrived in the Indian sub-continent they arrived from the North-West and settled on the banks of the Sindu or Indus river. We Tibetans call it Sengge Khabab or Tsangpo. It  comes from Mount Kailash in Tibet and flows down into the Arabian Sea. We call India Hindustan because of this river. It is not a gentle river, it has a lot of current and rapids. Many people were afraid of it. This river was known to the ancient Indians in Sanskrit as Sindhu. The meaning of Sindhu as a “large body of water, sea, or ocean”.

It started off describing that Valley and then the name was used to describe the whole of India. How did it change to that, because when people read it, they pronounced it Hindu. The ancient Chinese probably called India, Sindu. However, the old Indians didn’t say that they were Hindu, they said we come from Bharats, or the Southern area of Jambudvipa. In ancient times, Jambudvipa was understood to mean the Indian sub-continent. The ancient Indians didn’t say that, their close neighbours the Persians, called them that. Then, later ancient Romans, followed the Persians and called them that as well. It’s only then that the name India or Hindu became well-known.”

Lion River (Senge Tsangpo) one of the four major rivers/flows which originates near Mount Kailash in Tibet

The source of the Indus river is in Tibet; the river begins at the confluence of the Sengge Tsangpo (seng ge gtsang po; Chinese: 獅泉河 meaning “Lion Fountain”) is the name of the Indus river in Tibetan.  It flows through the Ngari Prefecture in Tibet Autonomous Region, China. The capital city of Ngari, Shiquanhe, is also called Sênggêzangbo after the river. The source of Sengge Tsangpo is within Gêgyai County, Ngari Prefecture, not far from the Mount Kailash.The river drains an area of 27,450 km2, and covers a length of 430 km. Main tributaries include Gar Tsangpo. and Gar Tsangpo rivers that drain the Nganglong Kangri and Gangdise Shan (Gang Rinpoche, Mt. Kailash) mountain ranges.

Sengge Tsangpo is considered one of the ‘four main flows/descents’ of India that flow from Tibet (kha  ‘babs chu bo bzhi), the others are called elephant, peacock, horse.

The Indus then flows northwest through Ladakh, India, and Baltistan into Gilgit, just south of the Karakoram range. The Shyok, Shigar and Gilgit rivers carry glacial waters into the main river. It gradually bends to the south and descends into the Punjab plains at Kalabagh, Pakistan. The Indus passes gigantic gorges 4,500–5,200 metres (15,000–17,000 feet) deep near the Nanga Parbat massif. It flows swiftly across Hazara and is dammed at the Tarbela Reservoir. The Kabul River joins it near Attock. The remainder of its route to the sea is in the plains of the Punjab and Sindh, where the flow of the river becomes slow and highly braided. It is joined by the Panjnad at Mithankot. Beyond this confluence, the river, at one time, was named the Satnad River (sat = “seven”, nadī = “river”), as the river now carried the waters of the Kabul River, the Indus River and the five Punjab rivers. Passing by Jamshoro, it ends in a large delta to the South of Thatta in the Sindh province of Pakistan.

Written, transcribed and edited by Adele Tomlin, 25th August 2021. 



Dahlaquist, Allan (1996). Megasthenes and Indian Religion: A Study in Motives and Types. Motilal Banarsidass.

Faxian (1886). A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms; being an account by the Chinese monk Fa-Hien of his travels in India and Ceylon, A.D. 399-414, in search of the Buddhist books of discipline. James Legge (trans.). The Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Irfan Habib; Vivekanand Jha (2004). Mauryan India. A People’s History of India. Aligarh Historians Society / Tulika Books.

H. C. Raychaudhuri (1988) [1967]. “India in the Age of the Nandas”. In K. A. Nilakanta Sastri (ed.). Age of the Nandas and Mauryas (Second ed.). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Renault, Mary (1979). The Nature of Alexander. Pantheon Books.

Rongxi, Li (1996).  The Great Tang Dynasty Record of the Western Regions (Berkeley: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research).

Sen, Tansen (2006), “The Travel Records of Chinese Pilgrims Faxian, Xuanzang, and Yijing” (PDF), Education About Asia, 11 (3): 24–33.

Takakusu (1982). A Record of the Buddhist Religion as Practiced in India and the Malay Archipelago (AD 671–695) (reprint, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.)

Tomlin, Adele (2021)

Tomlin, Adele (2021)

Worthington, Ian (2003). Alexander the Great. Routledge.

Wriggins, Sally Hovey (2004). The Silk Road Journey with Xuanzang (revised edition, Boulder: Westview Press).

Wickramasinghe, Chandima S. M. (2021). “The Indian Invasion of Alexander and the Emergence of Hybrid Cultures“. Indian Historical Review.


[1] See: Takakusu, A Record of the Buddhist Religion, 215, from Sen (2006: 33).  The Vulture Peak (or G. rdhrak†. ta), name of a mountain in present-day Bihar state of India that looked like a vulture, was a location where the Buddha expounded some of his major teachings, such as the Heart Sutra. Rajagrha (present-day Rajgir in Bihar) was also frequented by the Buddha and is very near Vulture’s Peak.

[2] “For me to teach about this, in terms of the eight worldly Dharmas, there is nothing I can point and say this is good about myself. However, I have never lost my resolve and continue and had the intention that I could and should do something to benefit the teachings and beings and so I have hope and aspirations, continue to do this.

There have been many internal and external difficulties, and even if they are dragging me backwards and I am still trying to move forward. It is not clear what the path in front of us is and have doubts about will happen in the future. We could say it is not clear, we have doubt about the future. Still, even if that happens, if I move forward even if I can’t see it one day I will see some light and illumination ahead of me and waiting for me.

Many worry about what will happen in the future and it will not be good and worry about it. But I think worrying about the future is a sign you do not have confidence in yourself. You face up to the current situation. You need to believe in yourself and move forward. You can think whatever the result is for the teachings and beings in the future, I will and do as much as I can for the teachings and beings now.”

When we speak about the actual topic, that is difficult. I am always looking for work or jobs that will make things difficult and complicated it is. I have to keep going and move forward. If we think about the origin of teachings of secret mantra it’s more difficult and complex than I originally thought. Still, we have publicized it widely, if I were to excuse myself and say I cannot teach the origins of secret mantra, that would not be alright,  and so now I have to plough on ahead.”

[3] “The Indian campaign of Alexander the Great began in 327 BC. After conquering the Achaemenid Empire of Persia, the Macedonian king Alexander, launched a campaign into the Indian subcontinent in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, part of which formed the easternmost territories of the Achaemenid Empire following the Achaemenid conquest of the Indus Valley (late 6th century BC).

After gaining control of the former Achaemenid satrapy of Gandhara, including the city of Taxila, Alexander advanced into Punjab, where he engaged in battle against the regional king Porus, whom Alexander defeated in the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 BC, but he was so impressed by the demeanor with which the king carried himself that he allowed Porus to continue governing his own kingdom as a satrap. Although victorious, the Battle of the Hydaspes was possibly also the most costly battle fought by the Macedonians.

Alexander’s march east put him in confrontation with the Nanda Empire of Magadha. According to the Greek sources, the Nanda army was supposedly five times larger than the Macedonian army. His army, exhausted, homesick, and anxious by the prospects of having to further face large Indian armies throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain, mutinied at the Hyphasis (modern Beas River) and refused to march further east. Alexander, after a meeting with his officer, Coenus, and after hearing about the lament of his soldiers, eventually relented, being convinced that it was better to return. This caused Alexander to turn south, advancing through southern Punjab and Sindh, along the way conquering more tribes along the lower Indus River, before finally turning westward.

Alexander died in Babylon on 10 or 11 June 323 BC. In c. 322 BC, one year after Alexander’s death, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha founded the Maurya Empire in India.”

[4] Faxian (337 CE – c. 422 CE) was a Chinese Buddhist monk and translator who traveled by foot from China to India, visiting sacred Buddhist sites in Central, South and Southeast Asia between 399 and 412 to acquire Buddhist texts. He described his journey in his travelogue, A Record of Buddhist Kingdoms (Foguo Ji 佛國記). Other transliterations of his name include Fa-Hien and Fa-hsien. For more on Faxian and his role in the history of Buddhism, particularly the Vinaya, see Tomlin (2021).

[5] “The Great Tang Records on the Western Regions is a narrative of Xuanzang’s nineteen-year journey from Chang’an in central China to the Western Regions of Chinese historiography. The Buddhist scholar traveled through the Silk Road regions of what is today Xinjiang in northwest China, as well as neighboring areas in Central Asia and south China. Beyond these Chinese locations, Xuanzang also travelled around the perimeter of India, as far south as Kanchipuram. Xuanzang’s travels demarcate not only an important place in cross-cultural studies of China and India, but also cross-cultural studies throughout the globe. The text is set-up as both an account of Xuanzang’s religious pilgrimage as well as his report of the surrounding towns and provinces of Tang China.

The book was compiled in 646, describing travels undertaken between 626 and 645. Bianji, a disciple of Xuanzang, spent more than one year editing the book through Xuanzang’s dictation. This text in turn provided the inspiration for the novel Journey to the West, around nine centuries after Xuanzang’s death, by the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) writer and poet Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500–c. 1582).

For more on a recent unearthing of a translation of a Mahayana text by Xuanzang, see here:

[6] “Yijing (635–713 CE), formerly romanized as I-ching or I-tsing, was a Tang-era Chinese Buddhist monk famed as a traveller and translator. His account of his travels is an important source for the history of the medieval kingdoms along the sea route between China and India, especially Srivijaya in Indonesia. A student of the Buddhist university at Nālandā (now in Bihar, India), he was also responsible for the translation of many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit and Pali into Chinese.   In 695, he completed all translation works and finally returned to China at Luoyang, and received a grand welcome back by Empress Wu Zetian. His total journey took 25 years. He brought back some 400 Buddhist texts translated into Chinese. Account of Buddhism sent from the South Seas and Buddhist Monk’s Pilgrimage of the Tang Dynasty are two of Yijing’s best travel diaries, describing his adventurous journey to Srivijaya and India, reporting on the society of India, the lifestyles of various local peoples, and more.”

By recording the practice of monastic rules of Indian monasteries, Yijing wanted to rectify what he calls the “errors” in the applications of the “original [Buddhist] principles” in China. He describes forty practices at Indian monasteries ranging from “cleansing after meals” to the “regulations for ordination” and compares them to the procedures in China. Often he underscores the consequences of not following the original intent of the monastic rules. On other occasions, he recommends a compromise due to cultural differences between India and China. “As to the mode of eating,” for example, he writes that in India people “use only the right hand, but if one has had an illness or has some other reasons, one is permitted to keep a spoon for use. We never hear of chop-sticks in the five parts of India; they are not mentioned in the Vinaya of the Four Schools, and it is only China that has them.” He suggests that since in the monastic rules “chop-sticks were never allowed nor were they prohibited” they could be used in China, “for if we obstinately reject their use, people may laugh or complain.” See Sen (2006: 31-2).

[7] This text is also known as Nanhai Jigui Neifa Zhuan and by other translations, is a Buddhist travelogue by the Tang Chinese monk Yijing detailing his twenty five-year stay in India and Srivijaya between the years 671 and 695 CE.

[8] The Gupta Empire was an ancient Indian empire which existed from the mid-to-late 3rd century CE to 543 CE. At its zenith, from approximately 319 to 467 CE, it covered much of the Indian subcontinent. This period is considered as the Golden Age of India by historians. The empire eventually died out because of many factors such as substantial loss of territory and imperial authority caused by their own erstwhile feudatories, as well as the invasion by the Huna peoples (Kidarites and Alchon Huns) from Central Asia.

[9] The Turkish rule in India was founded by Mohammed Ghori. His first invasion was directed against Multan in 1175 AD . In 1192 he eventually defeated Prithviraj Chauhan, the ruler of vast territories from Ajmer to Delhi. He then went back to Ghazni, leaving Qutub-ud-din Aibak in charge.

2 thoughts on “ORIGINS OF SECRET MANTRA (DAY 1): ANCIENT MOTHER OF BUDDHISM: India and the Tibetan river that flows through it (by 17th Karmapa)

  1. Laud the professional and precise articles with detailed maps from Dakini Publications. Keep up the good work!

    These are the translations I wish to save for my knowledge and appreciate if your good publications would be able to send all the coming season teachings that H. H. 17th Karmapa have online to my email.

    Thank you in advance.

    Yours truely, Shireen Tan

    On Wed, 25 Aug 2021 at 20:47, Dakini Translations and Publications མཁའ་འགྲོ་མའི་ལོ་ཙཱ་བའི་འགྱུར་དང་འགྲེམས་སྤེལ། wrote:

    > Dakini Translations posted: ” “If you read this Record of mine, you may, > without moving one step, travel in all the five countries of India…. My > real hope and wish is to represent the Vulture’s Peak in the Small Rooms > [peak of Mount Song] of my friends, and to build a second Ra¯” >

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