Seventeen tantras

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In Tibetan Buddhism, specifically in the literature and practice of Dzogchen, the seventeen tantras of the esoteric instruction cycle (Tibetan: མན་ངག་སྡེའི་རྒྱུད་བཅུ་བདུནWylie: man ngag sde'i rgyud bcu bdun) are a collection of tantras belonging to the textual division known as the "esoteric instruction cycle" (also known variously as: Nyingtik, Upadesha or Menngagde).

History and tradition[edit]

The seventeen tantras, though not traditionally classified as a treasure (Wylie: gter ma), nonetheless share in the treasure tradition. They are associated with sacred literature first transmitted in the human realm by the quasi-historical Garab Dorje (Fl. 55 CE) and passed according to tradition along with other tantras through various lineages of transmission by way of important Dzogchen figures such as Mañjuśrīmitra, Shri Singha, Padmasambhava, Jnanasutra and Vimalamitra.

Kunsang (2006) holds that Shri Singha brought the Secret Mantra teachings from beneath the Vajra Throne (Wylie: rdo rje gdan)[1] of Bodhgaya to the 'Tree of Enlightenment in China' (Wylie: rgya nag po'i byang chub shing),[2] where he concealed them in a pillar of the 'Auspicious Ten Thousand Gates Temple' (Wylie: bkra shis khri sgo[3]).[4] Shri Singha conferred the Eighteen Dzogchen Tantras (Tibetan: rdzogs chen rgyud bco brgyad)[5] upon Padmasambhava.[6] The eighteen are The Penetrating Sound Tantra (Tibetan: sgra thal ‘gyur),[7] to which was appended the Seventeen Tantras of Innermost Luminosity (Tibetan: yang gsang 'od gsal gyi rgyud bcu bdun).[8] It should be mentioned here that the Dharma Fellowship (2009) drawing on the work of Lalou (1890–1967) holds the 'Five Peaked Mountain' of "the Land of Cina" (where Cina isn't China but a term for the textile cashmere) the Five Peaked Mountain which Kunsang and others have attributed to Mount Wutai in China is instead a mountain near the Kinnaur Valley associated with the historical Suvarnadwipa (Sanskrit) nation also known as 'Zhang-zhung' in the Zhang-zhung language and the Tibetan language.[9]

The Seventeen Tantras are amongst the texts known as the 'Supreme Secret Cycle' the Fourth Cycle[10] and the most sacred tantras in the Nyingma Dzogchen tradition and the Dharma Fellowship (2009) provide a different historical location than Mount Wutai China for the location of concealment which is identified as near the Kinnaur Valley within the Kinnaur District:

It is explained that Sri Simha divided the Pith Instruction into four sub-sections, and these are known as the Exoteric Cycle, the Esoteric Cycle, the Secret Cycle, and the Supreme Secret Cycle. Before his own death he deposited copies of the first three cycles in a rock cut crypt beneath the Bodhivriksha Temple of Sugnam (Sokyam) in the land of Cina. The texts of the Supreme Secret Cycle, however, he hid separately within the pillar of the "Gate of a Myriad Blessings".[11]

It is with Vimalamitra (fl. 8th century) that this collection of 'Seventeen Tantras, which are but a portion of Garab's revelation may have first been given their specific enumeration and nomenclature as it was Vimalamitra's disciple, Nyangban Tingzin Zangpo, who concealed the Seventeen Tantra subsequent to Vimalamitra's journey to China, particularly Mount Wutai, for later discovery by Neten Dangma Lhungyal in the Eleventh Century that they enter history in their current evocation, as Gyatso (1998: pp. 153–154) relates thus:

"By the eleventh century, both Bonpos and Buddhists were presenting texts they claimed to have unearthed from the place where those texts had been hidden in the past. Among the earliest Buddhist materials so characterized were the esoteric Nyingtig, or "Heart Sphere", teachings, including the seventeen Atiyoga tantras, which were associated with Vimalamitra, an Indian Great Perfection master invited to Tibet, according to some accounts, by Trisong Detsen in the eighth century. Vimalamitra's Tibetan student, Nyangban Tingzin Zangpo, was said to have concealed these teachings after the master went to China. The discoverer was Neten Dangma Lhungyal (eleventh century), who proceeded to transmit these teachings to Chetsun Senge Wangchuk, one of the first accomplished Tibetan Buddhist yogins, and to others. The Nyingtig materials were at the heart of the Great Perfection Buddhism and had considerable influence upon Jigme Lingpa, who labelled his own Treasure with the same term."[12]

The Vima Nyingtik itself consists of 'tantras' (rgyud), 'agamas' (lung), and 'upadeshas' (man ngag), and the tantras in this context are the Seventeen Tantras.[13]

Enumeration of the Seventeen Tantras[edit]

Though they are most often referred to as the Seventeen Tantras, other designations are as Eighteen Tantras when the 'Ngagsung Tromay Tantra' (Wylie: sngags srung khro ma’i rgyud[14]) (otherwise known as the 'Ekajaṭĭ Khros Ma'i rGyud' and to do with the protective rites of Ekajati) is appended to the seventeen by Shri Singha;[15] and Nineteen Tantras with Padmakara's annexure of the 'Longsel Barwey Tantra' (Wylie: klong gsal bar ba'i rgyud[16]) (Tantra of the Blazing Space of Luminosity).[17] Samantabhadri is associated with the Longsel Barwey and its full name is 'Samantabhadri's Tantra of the Blazing Sun of the Brilliant Expanse' (Wylie: kun tu bzang mo klong gsal 'bar ma nyi ma'i rgyud).[18]

According to the seventeen-fold classification they are as follows:

  1. 'Self-existing Perfection' (Tibetan: རྫོགས་པ་རང་བྱུངWylie: rdzogs pa rang byung) Skt: svayaṃbhū-saṃdhi
  2. 'Reverberation of Sound' (Tibetan: སྒྲ་ཐལ་འགྱུརWylie: sgra thal 'gyur) Skt: śabda-prasaṅga
  3. 'Self-arising Wisdom-awareness' (Tibetan: རིག་པ་རང་ཤརWylie: rig pa rang shar) Skt: svottha-vidyā
  4. 'Self-liberated Wisdom-awareness (Tibetan: རིག་པ་རང་གྲོལWylie: rig pa rang grol) Skt: svamukti-vidyā
  5. 'The Mirror of the Heart of Vajrasattva' (Tibetan: རྡོ་རྗེ་སེམས་དཔའ་སྙིང་གི་མེ་ལོངWylie: rdo rje sems dpa' snying gi me long) Skt: vajrasattva-citta-ādarśa
  6. 'The Mirror of the Mind of Samantabhadra' (Tibetan: ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་ཐུགས་ཀྱི་མེ་ལོངWylie: kun tu bzang po thugs kyi me long) Skt: samantabhadra-citta-ādarśa
  7. 'Necklace of Precious Pearls' (Tibetan: མུ་ཏིག་རིན་པོ་ཆེའི་ཕྲེང་བWylie: mu tig rin po che'i phreng ba) Skt: ratna-muktā-mālā
  8. 'Lion's Perfect Expressive Power' (Tibetan: སེང་གེ་རྩལ་རྫོགསWylie: seng ge rtsal rdzogs) Skt: siṃha-parākrama-pūrṇa
  9. 'Shining Relics of Enlightened Body' (Tibetan: སྐུ་གདུང་འབར་བWylie: sku gdung 'bar ba) Skt: kāya-śarīra-jvala
  10. 'Union of the Sun and Moon' (Tibetan: ཉི་ཟླ་ཁ་སྦྱོརWylie: nyi zla kha sbyor) Skt: mahā-sūrya-candra-cumba
  11. 'Blazing Lamp' (Tibetan: སྒྲོན་མ་འབར་བWylie: sgron ma 'bar ba) Skt: āloka-jvala
  12. 'Direct Introduction' (Tibetan: ངོ་སྤྲོད་སྤྲས་པWylie: ngo sprod spras pa) Skt: darśanopadeśa (?)
  13. 'Great Auspicious Beauty' (Tibetan: བཀྲ་ཤིས་མཛེས་ལྡནWylie: bkra shis mdzes ldan) Skt: svasti-suvarṇa (?)
  14. 'Sixfold Expanse of Samantabhadra' (Tibetan: ཀུན་ཏུ་བཟང་པོ་ཀློང་དྲུགWylie: kun tu bzang po klong drug) Skt: samantabhadra-āvarta-ṣaṣṭa
  15. 'Without Letters' (Tibetan: ཡི་གེ་མེད་པWylie: yi ge med pa) Skt: anakṣara
  16. 'Inlaid with Jewels' (Tibetan: ནོར་བུ་ཕྲ་བཀོདWylie: nor bu phra bkod) Skt: maṇi-khacita
  17. 'Piled Gems' (Tibetan: རིན་པོ་ཆེ་སྤུང་བWylie: rin po che spung ba) Skt: ratna-kūṭa

Text sources, versions and variations[edit]

These Seventeen Tantras are to be found in the Canon of the Ancient School, the 'Nyingma Gyubum' (Tibetan: རྙིང་མ་རྒྱུད་འབུམWylie: rnying ma rgyud 'bum), volumes 9 and 10, folio numbers 143-159 of the edition edited by 'Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche' commonly known as Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (Thimpu, Bhutan, 1973), reproduced from the manuscript preserved at 'Tingkye Gonpa Jang' (Tibetan: གཏིང་སྐྱེས་དགོན་པ་བྱངWylie: gting skyes dgon pa byang) Monastery in Tibet.[19]

English translations[edit]

The sgron ma 'bar ba has been translated into English as The Tantra of the Blazing Lamps, by Christopher Hatchell in his Naked Seeing: The Great Perfection, the Wheel of Time, and Visionary Buddhism in Renaissance Tibet, Oxford University Press, USA (May 7, 2014).

Two chapters of the rig pa rang shar are translated by Herbert Gunther in his Wholeness Lost and Wholeness Regained, SUNY, 1994.

The Unwritten Tantra of Vajrasattva (yi ge med pa) is translated by Christopher Wilkinson in Secret Sky, CreateSpace, 2015. This would, however, appear to be a separate text from the one the appears in the 17 Tantras that shares a very similar name.

The Seventeen Tantras are quoted extensively throughout Longchenpa's (1308 - 1364?) 'The Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding' (Tibetan: གནས་ལུགས་རིན་པོ་ཆེའི་མཛོདWylie: gnas lugs rin po che'i mdzod) rendered in English by Barron and Padma Translation Committee (1998).[20] This work is one of Longchenpa's Seven Treasuries and the Tibetan text in poor reproduction of the pecha has been graciously made available online by Dowman and Smith.[21] The Seventeen Tantras are far more extensively discussed in Longchen's Siddhāntakosha or Precious Treasury of Philosophical Systems, also translated by Richard Barron. This is easily the most in-depth treatment of the topic available in English.

Traditionial and external scholarship[edit]

'Tegchö Dzö' (Wylie: theg mchog mdzod) "Treasury of the Sublime Vehicle'" is one of the Seven Treasuries, a collection of seven works, some with auto-commentaries, by the Tibetan Buddhist philosopher and exegete Longchenpa. The Tegchö Dzö is a commentary on the Seventeen Tantras.

Cuevas (2003: p. 62) comments on the traditional perspective of the Nyingma tradition in the attribution of the Seventeen Tantras to the revelation of Garap Dorje and says:

"The seventeen interrelated Dzokchen Nyingthik scriptures are accepted by tradition as divine revelation received by the ... mystic Garap Dorje. The Seventeen Tantras nevertheless betrays [sic] signs of being compiled over a long period of time by multiple hands. The precise identity of these unknown redactors is a riddle that I hope may soon be solved. Whatever the case, we must accept that the collection in the form it is known to us today consists of several layers of history reflecting diverse influences."[22]


  1. ^ Kunsang, Erik Pema (translator)(2006). Wellsprings of the Great Perfection. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Source: [1] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010) p.445
  2. ^ Kunsang, Erik Pema (translator)(2006). Wellsprings of the Great Perfection. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Source: [2] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010) p.444
  3. ^ Kunsang, Erik Pema (translator)(2006). Wellsprings of the Great Perfection. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications. Source: [3] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010) p.427
  4. ^ Vimalamitra's Great History of the Heart Essence, translated in Erik Pema Kunsang (translator) : Wellsprings of the Great Perfection. Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2006. pp. 136-137
  5. ^ Source: [4] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  6. ^ Erik Pema Kunsang (translator) : Wellsprings of the Great Perfection. Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 2006. p. 158
  7. ^ Dra Talgyur Root Tantra Source: [5] (December 13, 2007)
  8. ^ Source: [6] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  9. ^ Dharma Fellowship (2009). Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen. Source: [7] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  10. ^ Variations of the name of the fourth section include the Secret Heart Essence (gsang ba snying thig), the Most Secret Unexcelled Nyingtig (yang gsang bla na med pa snying tig), the Innermost Unexcelled Cycle of Nyingtig (yang gsang bla na med pa'i snying thig skor), the Most Secret and Unexcelled Great Perfection (yang gsang bla na med pa rdzogs pa chen po), the Most Secret Heart Essence (yang gsang snying thig), and the Most Secret Unsurpassable Cycle (yang gsang bla na med pa'i sde).
  11. ^ Dharma Fellowship (2009). Biographies: Sri Simha, the Lion of Dzogchen. Source: [8] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  12. ^ Gyatso, Janet (1998). Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary; a Translation and Study of Jigme Lingpa's 'Dancing Moon in the Water' and 'Ḍākki's Grand Secret-Talk'. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01110-9 (cloth: alk. paper). Source: [9] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010), pp.153-154
  13. ^ Rigpa Shedra (August, 2009). 'Vima Nyingtik'. Source: [10] (accessed: Saturday October 17, 2009)
  14. ^ Aro Encyclopaedia (2010). 'Ngak Srungma Ekajati'. Source: [11] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  15. ^ Thondup, Tulku & Harold Talbott (Editor)(1996). Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet. Boston, Massachusetts, USA: Shambhala, South Asia Editions. ISBN 1-57062-113-6 (alk. paper); ISBN 1-56957-134-1, p.362
  16. ^ Aro Encyclopaedia (2010). 'Ngak Srungma Ekajati'. Source: [12] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  17. ^ Source: [13] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  18. ^ Source: [14] (accessed: Sunday April 11, 2010)
  19. ^ Guarisco, Elio (trans.); McLeod, Ingrid (trans., editor); Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, Kon-Sprul Blo-Gros-Mtha-Yas (compiler) (2005). The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Four: Systems of Buddhist Tantra. Ithaca, New York, USA: Snow Lion Publications. ISBN 1-55939-210-X, p.520
  20. ^ Barron, Richard (trans), Longchen Rabjam (author): Precious Treasury of the Way of Abiding. Padma Publishing (1998) ISBN 1-881847-09-8
  21. ^ Source: (accessed: Sunday October 11, 2009)
  22. ^ Cuevas, Bryan J. (2003). The Hidden History of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-515413-9.Source: [15] (accessed: Wednesday October 28, 2009), p.62