UNSURPASSED, SECRET DAGGER (PHURBA YANG SANG LAMEY) TREASURE OF RATNA LINGPA: The historical background, lineage, textual sources and its practice in the Karma Kagyu



The Bokar Monastery community, led by Khenpo Donyo Rinpoche are now currently performing the Ratna Lingpa Vajrakīlaya (Dorje Phurpa) Great Torma offering ritual (from 15th to 24th December) during the Winter Solstice (on the new moon on the 23rd December) in the run up to the Kagyu Winter (Guncho) Debate gathering and oral transmission of Je Gampopa’s Collected Works by HE 12th Gyeltsab Rinpoche (from 26th December), see here.

As I have attended several Kīlaya empowerments and drubchen, and written about Vajrakīlaya, in particular the Karmapas’ connection to  Vajrakīlaya (in the Karmapas, Chogyur Lingpa and Vajrakīlaya here), I was intrigued to know more about the history and background of this Ratna Linga practice, the Unsurpassed, Secret Dagger (ཕུར་པ་ཡང་གསང་བླ་མེད Phurba Yang Sang Lamey), its contents and editions, and how it entered into the Karma Kamtsang lineage itself.

However, when I did some initial searches online, there was nothing easily accessible that discussed it in detail for a general, non-scholarly audience. So here, using recently published research (in particular from a 2018 PhD thesis by Mengyan Li), I offer the following about it:

  1. A brief introduction to the meaning of Dorje Phurpa and its Sanskrit equivalent Vajrakīlaya.
  2. Ratna Lingpa and the Phurpa Yang Sangmey cycle of Vajrakīlaya texts he discovered and its lineage.
  3. The Karma Kagyu practice and lineage of the cycle.
  4. Editions of the cycle of texts available online, with very brief outline of its contents.
  5. The practice at Bokar monastery with some recent photos.

I offer it to the Gyalwang 17th Karmapa and the Karma Kagyu teachers and lineage holders, along with all their followers. May all obstacles and harm-doers to the Gyalwang Karmapas’ enlightened activities and to the Buddha Dharma be swiftly dispelled by the unsurpassable, secret dagger!

Music? The sacred sounds of the Vajrakīlaya mantra. For the wrathful energy of the dagger/phurpa/deity, Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin, Go Off by M.I.A. and for inspiration to overcome obstacles, It’s Not Over Yet by King and Country.

Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 16th December 2022. Copyright 2022.

Prior scholarship and research on Vajrakīlaya
Vajrakīlaya (Dorje Phurpa)

In terms of English-language scholarship, there are not that many books or monographs on Vajrakīlaya, however, there is one in-depth, and very valuable piece of scholarship on the topic, in a recent PhD dissertation (2018) (by a fellow alumni) from the University of Hamburg, Mengyan Li, the Origination, Transmission, and Reception of the Phur-pa Cycle[1]

Mengyan’s study is a critical edition and an annotated translation of one of the oldest historical Tibetan sources on Phurpa, the History of the Phurpa (Phur pa lo rgyus) written by Sogdogpa Lodro Gyeltsen ( སོག་བཟློག་པ་བློ་གྲོས་རྒྱལ་མཚན་ sog bzlog pa blo gros rgyal mtshan) (1552-1624)). This text, which is said to be the longest and most comprehensive historical account of the Dorje Phurpa cycle, records its lineage from its transmission by the Buddhas in the celestial realm to the time of the author. It focuses mainly on its transmissions in the Nyingma (rNying-ma) school but also introduces its early transmission in the Sakya (Sa-skya) school.

In terms of other English-language scholarship, there are a small handful of books/monographs (helpfully listed in detail by Mengyan (2018: 8-11), which I have also listed in the Bibliography below, and endnote here [2]. I have not listed the journal articles. Since the publication of this 2018 dissertation, a new book on Vajrakīlaya by HE 8th Garchen Rinpoche was published this year.

The meaning of the term Dorje Phurpa and its Sanskrit equivalent
An example of a Dorje Phurba (Vajra Dagger)

Mengyan introduces her study with a discussion of the three layers of meaning to the Tibetan word Dorje Phurba: as a ritual implement, a wrathful deity and to a cycle of teachings belonging to the Nyingma tradition (2018:5):

“The term Dorje Phurba (rdo rje phur pa), in a broad sense, has three layers of meaning. The basic meaning is a ritual implement used by certain Tantric practitioners or as an attribute of some deities. In this case, the simplified form phur pa is more often used. It can also refer to the wrathful deity of Tantric Buddhism who also bears the name Dorje Zhonu (rDo-rje-gzhon-nu) (vajrakumāra). The third meaning is a cycle of teachings that belongs to the sādhana section (sgrub sde) of the Mahāyoga system according to the rNying-ma Tantric tradition, although we may find the Dorje Phurba doctrine explained in the light of, for example, the Great Perfection/Dzogchen (rdzogs chen).

The three meanings are interrelated. For instance, the Phurpa implement is considered to be the materialized presence of the deity and the deity is the embodiment of the implement. The cycle of Phurpa teachings usually includes instruction on how to use the implement and visualize the deity.”

This is followed by a brief overview of scholarly views on the Sanskrit equivalent for the Tibetan term Dorje Phurpa, which have sometimes asserted that the Tibetans incorrectly used the term vajrakīlaya, instead of vajrakīla, here is a brief excerpt (2018:5-6):

“The root of the terms vajrakīla and vajrakīlaya is the verb kīl, meaning “to bind, fasten, stake, or pin…. Taking these findings into consideration, vajrakīlaya seems to be a more authentic Sanskrit equivalent of the term Dorje Phurpa.” 

The origin of Vajrakīlaya: India or Tibet?
Guru Padmasambhava – the key figure in the Dorje Phurpa transmission In Tibet

It is also not clear whether or not Vajrakīlaya originated in India or in Tibet. Mengyan (2018: 6) examines both options:

“Concerning the origin of the Dorje Phurpa, there are two different opinions. Early scholars, such Georgette Meredith, J. John C. Huntington, R. A. Stein, and Keith Dowman agree that the Dorje Phurpa is indigenous to Tibet, while some recent scholars, such as Martin Boord and Robert Mayer, suggest the Phurpa originated in India. In the following paragraphs I will examine their opinions one by one.”

She concludes that it was probably India:

“The scholars who support the Phurpa’s Indian origin provide much solid literary and archeological evidence, which makes their point of view more convincing.”

Nonetheless, when it comes to the dissemination of the Phurpa tradition in Tibet, it is widely accepted that Padmasambhava is the key figure in its transmission. He is attributed with the redaction and ordering of the Phurpa Tantric scriptures but also the transmission of its practice lineages in Tibet and the appointment of its protective deities at Yanglesho (Yang-le-shod) in Nepal. I have been fortunate to visit this cave (and meditate there) several times during my trips to Nepal.

Origin and transmission of the Vajrakīlaya in Tibet: Kama and Terma traditions
Asura Cave, at Yanglesho, Nepal

In terms of how Padmasambhava himself received the Phurpa teachings and transmitted them, there are two main traditions of transmission in the Nyingma school: the Ka-ma (bKa’-ma) oral transmission and the Ter-ma (gTer-ma) – treasure revelation. The Ratna Lingpa Cycle is a sub-tradition from the Terma tradition.

Mengyan (2018: 23-24) states that:

“The earliest historical account of the history of the Dorje Phurpa cycle tells the story of Padmasambhava and his disciples taking the Phurbai Bum De (Phur bu’i ’bum sde) from Nālandā to the Asura cave in Nepal, during which time he tamed the four Se (bse) goddesses and made them protectresses of the teachings. Then he gave back the Phurbai Bum De and practiced with other masters in the Asura Cave. As a result, they saw the deity Vajrakumāra and obtained miraculous powers.”

The second major historical account is the one studied and translated by Mengyan, the Phurpa History.  Mengyan lists some of the others textual sources, followed by a detailed discussion of the narrative of Padmasambhava obtaining the Dorje Phurpa teachings in terms of:

1) Independent Transmissions in the Kama [oral transmission] Tradition and

2) Transmitted as one of the Eight Sādhanas in the Terma (treasure revelation) Tradition 

This is followed by an analysis of the Early Transmissions of the Dorje Phurpa Cycle in Tibet via Padmasambhava and Vimalamitra.

The Terma/Treasure Tradition of Dorje Phurpa and Ratna Lingpa’s Terma and Lineage of Phurba Yang Sang Lamey
Ratna Lingpa (Ratna-gling-pa) (1403–1478). Source HAR.

Putting aside the brief overview of the historical background to Dorje Phurpa in Tibet, I now turn to Ratna Lingpa’s treasure cycle of Dorje Phurpa, called the Unsurpassed, Secret Dagger.  

In a section called, the Sub-traditions of the Terma transmission in the Nyingma schools, (Chapter Five of her PhD), Mengyan offers a couple of paragraphs only on Ratna Lingpa (Ratna-gling-pa (1403–1478))’s, Phurpa Yang Sang Lamey (Phur-pa-yang-gsang-bla-med) cycle treasure texts:

“Ratna-gling-pa (1403–1478), also known as Zhigpo Lingpa (Zhig-po-gling-pa) and Drodul Lingpa (’Gro-’dul-gling-pa), was born in Drushul (Gru-shul) in Lhodrag (Lho-brag)[3]. Through his vision of Padmasambhava, he was instructed to an inventory of treasures. When he was thirty, he revealed his first treasure related to the Tsa Sum Drub (rTsa-gsum-sgrub) in Khyungchen Drag (Khyung-chen-brag). Subsequently, he discovered twenty-five treasures in total, among which there is one cycle regarding Phurpa Yang Sang Lamey (Phur-pa-yang-gsang-bla-med).” (2018: 111-112)

Yeshe Tsogyel, renowned yogini and consort of Guru RInpoche

For a more detailed biography of the life and legacy of Ratna Lingpa, see the Treasury of Lives bio here. The texts are believed to have been buried by Yeshe Tsogyel herself (more on that in a future article):

“Khenpo Namdrol believes that the Dorje Phurpa treasures Ratna Lingpa revealed were buried by Yeshe Tsogyel (Ye-shes mtsho-rgyal). Eleven texts related to the Phurpa Yang Sang Lamey and two texts related to other topics of Phurpa can be found in the Rinchen Terdzo (Rin chen gter mdzod).  The transmission of the Phurpa cycle, from the discoverer to Jigme Lingpa (’Jig-med-gling-pa), is recorded in the Jig Ling Thob Yig (’Jigs gling thob yig)[4]. (2018:112).

Mengyan (surprisingly) does not list or give any specific references for the textual editions of the Ratna Lingpa cycle (in the footnotes or Bibliography), so I have provided some myself below. However, she helpfully lists the lineage of the cycle from Ratna Lingpa to Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798)[5].

Ratna Lingpa’s Kilaya and the Karma Kagyu lineage and practice
Image of Ogyenpa Rinchen Pel (1229/30–1309). Thangkha painted by the 8th Kenting Tai Situpa Chokyi Jungne. http://www.palpung.org

Moving now to the conclusion of this article, and its contemporary practice in Karma Kagyu at Bokar Monastery, in my 2020 article on The Karmapas, Chogyur Lingpa and the Dorje Phurpa, I traced the lineages from Chogyur Lingpa to the 14th and 15th Karmapas. However, in terms of earlier origins of the text, and in particular, that of the Ratna Lingpa cycle, it is not very clear.

Mengyan provides a section on the entrance of the Phurba practice into the non-Nyingma lineages, such as Karma Kagyu (as well as the other major lineages), mentioning a student of the 2nd Karmapa, Ogyenpa and the 3rd Karmapa:

“Drubthob Ogyenpa (Grub-thob O-rgyan-pa) (1229/30–1309) received the teachings of Mamo and Phurpa when he was young, which he also granted to the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (Rang-byung-rdo-rje) (1284– 1339) when the latter was five years old. The Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje also received the teachings of Phurpa Tsa Thung (Phur-pa-rtsa-thung) and the root Tantric scripture of Phurpa which are transmitted in the Kathog (Kaḥ-thog) tradition. In addition, he acquired the Ka-gye (bKa’-brgyad) sādhanas, including the complete empowerment of Phurpa, from Nyedowa Kunga Dondrub (sNye-mdo-ba Kun-dga’-don-grub) (d. 13–14 century).” (2018:134-137)

2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi often depicted with a phurpa (dagger) in his left hand.

I am no expert on Dorje Phurpa, but I could not help but wonder if the 2nd Karmapa, Karma Pakshi also held the Vajrakīlaya lineage, as he received the entire Nyingma transmissions and teachings from his teacher Pomdragpa, and also studied at the Nyingma, Kathog monastery. So perhaps he passed that on to his student, Ogyenpa. In addition, Karma Pakshi is often depicted with a dagger/phurpa in his hand for the Guru Yoga practice, so it is clearly a ritual instrument he was familiar (or associated) with! 😊

In his new book on the 2nd Karmapa (more on that soon!), Charles Manson (2022) does not give any reference to Dorje Phurpa and the 2nd Karmapa. However, when I asked him about this, he replied that:

 “Karma Pakshi does not mention the deity in his memoirs. In the Phun sum tshogs pa rgya mtsho mtha’ yas there are 11 references to tantras that may relate to Vajrakilaya, but it’s hard to tell – he is referring to over 600 tantras, often by shortened names, and with no elaboration.” 

Mengyan does not mention the 2nd Karmapa either. 

Also, in the Treasury of Lives biography, it mentions how Ratna Lingpa’s lineage was in part continued by one of his students, the Sixth Karmapa, Tongwa Dondan (karma pa 06 mthong ba don ldan, 1416-1453), so that is another possible link.  However, the only other Karmapa mentioned by Mengyan is the 15th Karmapa. I have asked Mengyan for further information (if she has any) via email, and will update this article, if and when she replies.

In addition, as the texts were collated by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, in his Rinchen Terdzo (Treasury of Precious Instructions), it is clear that Jamgon Kongtrul received this Ratna Lingpa cycle of Vajrakīlaya, but I have not done any research on from whom etc.

Editions and contents of the Purbha Yang Sang Lamey cycle

The BDRC cites four editions of Ratna Lingpa’s cycle text, the main one is a 1985 edition by Pema Norbu Rinpoche[6], based on an old blockprint edition, in the U-Mey Script. See also photo below:

Photo of an old Bhutanese edition of the Ratna Lingpa Phurba Yang Sang Lamey cycle of texts (in U-med) script held by the British Library

There are two volumes in the 1985 edition (https://library.bdrc.io/show/bdr:MW21741), with an outline on BDRC.  In brief, the first volume contains 38 individual texts. The second volume contains 40 individual texts. So, in total there are 78 texts in the two volumes.  The texts are a mix of empowerments, supplications and praises, rituals and so on. 

Bokar Monastery – Torma ritual practice in December 2022
Photo of Vajrakilaya practice at Bokar Monastery, Mirik (15th December 2022).

To conclude this article, I leave you with some stunning photos of the current Dorje Phurba torma ritual at Bokar Monastery in Mirik (provided on their FB page here), they wrote that:

“Each year at the monastery we perform a practice on the solstice to avert negativity. We alternate between Guru Dorje Drolö and Ratnalingpa’s Vajra Kilaya. This afternoon, we began the Vajra Kilaya ritual that was a hidden treasure discovered by Vidyadhara Ratna Lingpa. It is a secret practice of the highest yoga tantras. For this ritual, there are various parts, one done according to the transmission from Karma Charm [I think this must mean Karma Chagme] Rinpoche and the eight vidyadharas.”


Boord, Martin J.

1993. The Cult of the Deity Vajrakīla: According to the Texts of the Northern Treasures Tradition of Tibet (Byang-gter Phur-ba). Tring: The Institute of Buddhist Studies.

Boord 2002 Id., A Bolt of Lightning from the Blue: The Vast Commentary on Vajrakīla that Clearly Defines the Essential Points. Berlin: Edition Khordong.

Boord 2010 Id., A Roll of Thunder from the Void. Vajrakīla Texts of the Northern Treasures Tradition, vol. 2. Berlin: Wandel Verlag, 2010.

Boord 2013 Id., Gathering the Elements: An Overview of the Vajrakīla Tradition. Vajrakīla Texts of the Northern Treasures Tradition, vol. 1. Berlin: Wandel Verlag.

Cantwell & Mayer.

2007. The Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra and the Vajra Wrath Tantra: Two Texts from the Ancient Tantra Collection.

2008. Cathy Cantwell & Robert Mayer, Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang. Vienna: Verlag. der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Garchen Rinpoche 8th. 2022. Vajrakilaya. A Complete Guide with Experiential Instructions. Shambhala Publications.

Huntington, John C. 1975. The Phur-pa: Tibetan Ritual Daggers. Artibus Asiae. Supplementum, vol. 33. Ascona: Artibus Asiase Publishers.

Jakob Leschly, “Ratna Lingpa,” Treasury of Lives biography. 

Marcotty, Thomas. 1987. Dagger Blessing: The Tibetan Phurpa Cult: Reflections and Materials. D.K Publishers.

Mayer, Robert. 1996. A Scripture of the Ancient Tantra Collection: The Phur-pa bcu-gnyis. Oxford: Kiscadale Publications.

Manson, Charles. 2022. The Second Karma Pakshi: Tibetan Mahasiddha. Shambhala Publications.

Mengyan, Li. 2018.  Origination, Transmission, and Reception of the Phur-pa Cycle.A Study of the rDo-rje-phur-pa Cycle of Tantric Teachings in Tibet with Special Reference to Sog-bzlog-pa Blo-gros-rgyal-mtshan’s (1552–1624) Phur pa’i lo rgyu. PhD dissertation. University of Hamburg.

Tomlin, Adele. 2020 and 2021:

The Karmapas, Chogyur Lingpa and Vajrakīlaya

MELODIOUS SONG OF THE DEMON-DESTROYING VAJRA (Dujom Dorje Luyang): Jamgon Kongtrul’s Vajrakīlaya Supplication, Text, Lineage, Three Aspirations and Four Kīlas plus full transcript of teaching by 8th Garchen Rinpoche

Nyag’s Vajrakīlaya and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Revelation


[1] Mengyan, Li. 2018. Origination, Transmission, and Reception of the Phur-pa Cycle: A Study of the rDo-rje-phur-pa Cycle of Tantric Teachings in Tibet with Special Reference to Sog-bzlog-pa Blo-gros-rgyal-mtshan’s (1552–1624) Phur pa’i lo rgyu. PhD dissertation. University of Hamburg.

[2] I have excerpted/summarised the monographs listed by Mengyan here:

  • John C. Huntington (1975). The book, The Phur-pa: Tibetan Ritual Daggers, provides a systematic iconographical and stylistic study on the phur pa implements and classifies them into four categories.
  • Thomas Marcotty (1987) The book, Dagger Blessing: The Tibetan Phurpa Cult: Reflections and Materials, is the outcome of Marcotty’s sojourns in the Himalayan region and studies with rDo-rje-phur-pa practitioners who were living in Switzerland and other European countries.
  • Robert Mayer (1996) Mayer’s book, A Scripture of the Ancient Tantra Canon: The Phur-pa bcu-gnyis, is a critical study of a Phurpa scripture, the Twelve Phurpas (Phur pa bcu gnyis), included in the Nyingma Gyu Bum (rNying ma rgyud ’bum).
  • Cathy Cantwell and Robert Mayer (2007, 2008). The first monograph, The Kīlaya Nirvāṇa Tantra and the Vajra Wrath Tantra: Two Texts from the Ancient Tantra Collection, published in 2007, is a study of two Tantric scriptures related to the rDo-rje-phur-pa in the rNying ma rgyud ’bum. The second monograph, Early Tibetan Documents on Phur pa from Dunhuang, is dedicated to Dunhuang Phurpa materials based on a project to decipher, transcribe, and translate the Dunhuang archaeological legacy concerning Phurpa, including both the Phurpa texts and related Phurpa materials.
  • Martin Boord (1993, 2002, 2010, 2013, 2015, 2017). Martin Boord is a prolific scholar specializing in the Norther Treasure tradition of Phur-pa (byang gter phur pa). So far, he has published five monographs on this topic. The first book, The Cult of the Deity Vajrakīla, surveys the cult of Vajrakīla as represented by the literature and living tradition of the Northern Treasures school of Tibetan Buddhism  The second book, A Bolt of Lightning from the Blue, is a translation and study of the Phur ’grel ’bum nag, a commentary on the Vajrakīla teachings. The third book,A Roll of Thunder from the Void, incorporates eight texts related to the Byang-gter-phur-pa. These and the others are listed in the Bibliography below.

[3] “For the life of Ratna-gling-pa, see Ratna rnam thar rgyas pa, Ratna rnam thar ’bring po, Ratna rnam thar nyung ngu Nor bu’i phreng ba (pp. 484.3–491.4),Gu bkra’i chos ’byung (pp. 450.18–456.12),gTer son lo rgyus (pp. 151.10–152.18), bDud ’joms chos ’byung (pp. 464.3–466.14). There is even a collection Ratna gling pa’i rnam thar skor which includes four biographies of Ratna-ling-pa. For some secondary sources see Dorje & Kapstein 2002: 793–795, Neumaier-dargyay 1998 : 144–147.” Mengyan (2018).

[4] See the ’Jigs gling thob yig (A: p. 884.2–3; B: p. 874.2–3), also see Van Schaik 2000: 18.

[5] “From Ratna-gling-pa through dBang-chen-bzang-po, rDo-rje-rgyal-mtshan, Nam-mkha’-grags-pa, Tshe-bdag-rdo-rje, bDud-’joms, Kun-dga’, Jam-dpal, Ngag-dbang-grub-pa, dGe-slong rNam-rgyal, to ’Jigs-med gling-pa.”

[6] BDRC references for the editions are:  Ratna gling pa. Phur pa yang gsang bla med. Pema Norbu Rinpoche, 1984–1985. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), purl.bdrc.io/resource/MW21741.

Ratna gling pa. Phur pa yang gsang bla med. Buddhist Digital Resource Center (BDRC), purl.bdrc.io/resource/MW4PD1463.

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