Guhyasamājatantra:Nyo tradition


The Guhyasamājatantra known in Tibetan as gsang ‘dus rtsa rgyud is one of the most important and influential later Indian Buddhist tantra. It was translated by śraddhākaravarman[1] and Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo (958-1055) at around 1002. It has 18 chapters.

The Guhyasamājatantra  is the principal scripture of the yogottaratantra or rnal ’byor bla na med pa’i rgyud in the Sar ma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Which means it is classified as belonging to the highest of the four classes of tantras. Tantaras of this class are further subdivided as yoga tantra (pha rgyud), yogini tantra (ma rgyud), and non-dual tantras (gnyis med kyi rgyud).

Guhyasamājatantra  happens to be one of the main tantras of Lotsawa Yonten Drag (973-1113). Yonten Dragpa is the grandfather of Lhanangpa and progenitor of Nyo tradition in Tibet. He used to be popular in founding the four tantras of Nyo tradition. However, it looks like the tradition declined in later  periods and it is not clear if any of his tantras actually remain in its original form.


According to the Buddhist narrative literature the origin of Buddhist tantra is traced from primordial Buddha through different modes of transmission. For example, Buddha manifested as Vajradhara and taught Guhyasamāja system to king Indrabuthi, the king of Ugyen. However, Buddhist tantras in Tibet began with the arrival of Padmasambhava and Śāntaraksita in the 8th century. The tantras that arrived in Tibet with these two figures are known as Old Tantras (sngags rnying ma). However, later around 10th – 11th centuries new waves of translations arrived in Tibet, which came to be known as New Tantras (sngags sar ma). Therefore, Buddhist literatures in Tibet are categorized as old (rnying ma) and new (gsar ma) tradition. Guhyasamājatantra belongs to the new tantra. It is if not the highest, it is considered one of the highest tantras in both sarma and rnying ma classifications. It is classified as the yoga tantra (pha rgyud) within the classification of the anuttarayoga tantra (rnal ’byor bla med rgyud). Yoga tantra mostly deals with the system of subtle bodies like chakras, channels, winds, and so on, in order to gain access to the subtlest level of mental activity, so called clear light mind. In the system developed by Je Tshongkha Pa (1357-1419) to classify yoga and yogini tantra, it is said that yoga tantra has most details about the illusory body as the cause that will transform into the physical bodies of a Buddha. On the other hand, yogini tantra puts emphasizes on practices on attaining clear light mind.[2]

The Guhyasamājatantra, which is also known as Tathāgataguhyaka is one of the  earliest and most important Buddhist tantras to be written between 3rd to 8th centuries. It was translated into Chinese in the 10th  century and into Tibetan in 11th century.

Like any other tantras, Guhyasamāja has also different traditions and transmissions. The oldest surviving lineage is perhaps the Jñānapada (770-820 CE) tradition (ye shes zhabs lugs). Jñānapada or Buddhajñāna is remembered as the first and foremost founder of the two most important exegetical schools of Guhyasamājatantra. The other important transmission is from Ārya tradition (gsang ’dus ’phags lugs) which is based on commentaries of Nāgārjuna (150-250 CE), Āryadeva (3rd century CE), and Candrakīrti (600-650 CE) .

Guhyasamāja Deity

Guhyasamāja is a male deity with three faces and six arms. According to the Ārya tradition, the central figure of the Guhysamāja is blue Aksobhyavajra sitting on a lotus seat with crossed legs in a semi-peaceful appearance. He is depicted with three faces and six arms. His central face is blue, right red, and left white in colors respectively. In each of his six hands, he holds the symbols of five Buddha families. His first two hands holds vajra and bell, the symbol of Buddha Aksobhyavajra. The other four  hands holds the symbols of the other four Buddha families: wheel of Vairocana, lotus of Amitābha in his two right hands, and gem of Ratnasambhava, and sword of Amoghasiddhi in his two left hands. The mandala of Guhyasamāya in Ārya tradition consist of thirty-two deities in all.

On the other hand, in the Jñānapada tradition, the central figure is yellow Mañjuvajra, a form of Manjuśrī rather than Aksobhya. Mañjuvajra is also depicted with three faces with change in the position of colors of the faces opposite to Ārya tradition; red in the left and white in the right. The three faces are supposed to represent the three main channels of the subtle body, the three stages of purification of the mind or the illusory body, light, and their union.[4] The central figures in both the traditions are depicted in union with their female counterparts. He holds a sword and a book, and a bow and arrow in his two other hand representing skillful means. The mandala of Guhyasamāya in Jñānapada tradition consist of only nineteen deities in all. The nineteen deities in this tradition are thirteen deities taught in chapter one and the six vajra goddesses.

The Guhyasamāya mandala is said to have initially consisted of 13 deities, namely the five buddhas, the four goddesses, and four wrathful deities. However, it is later developed into two major mandalas with 19 deities in Jñānapada tradition and 32 deities in Ārya tradition. 

Nyö Lotsawa Yonten Dragpa (973-1113)  and his Tantras

Nyö Lotsawa Yonten Dragpa(973-1113) is the 13th generation of gnyos clan who is considered one of the greatest and significant figure of the clan. He is an elder contemporary of Mar-pa and a lesser known figure among the latter translators of Tibetan Buddhism. It was said that Yonten Dragpa went with group of young Tibetans to India where Marpa was the youngest at the age of 16 and Yonten Dragpa the oldest in his 50s. They went to India in around 1028 in search of teachers and religious instructions. While in India, Yonten Dragpa became student of Balin ācārya (Balyācārya) –arguably identical with Krsnapāda Junior or Nag po zhabs chung. It is from him Yonten Dragpa received the cycle of Guhyasamāja tantra according to the popular system of Jñānapāda.[8] Besides he also received Krsna Yamāri, Cakrasamvara, Hevajra, Mahāmāyā and Mañjuśrīnāmasamgīti from the same teacher. 

He is supposed to have allegedly sojourned a total of 20 years in India and returned to Tibet joining Marpa in Nepal. In Tibet he allegedly wrote a commentary on Guhyasamāja based upon lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo’s translation of the Guhyasamājatantra. Although Yonten Dragpa’s main teaching was on Gunyasamāja, it looks like there is not any translations of the tantra on his name. However, Sørensen mentions that he has executed partial translations of Yamāntaka and Hevajra tantras. In addition, Dasho Lam Sanga’s smyos rabs mentions that he even rendered parts of Kālacakra tantra commentary Vimalaprabhā into Tibetan. However, Sørensen clarifies in his footnote about it stating that “it is generally maintained that it was the prolific translator Gyi-jo Zla-ba ’odzer –assisted by Gayādhara –who made the first Tibetan rendition, possibly in 1027, of the Kālacakra tantra commentary Vimalaprabhā.” Sørensen therefore, thinks that it might be mistaken to gnyos ’od who received transmission from Gyi jo, who is not identical with gnyos lo tsā ba. Anyways, none of his works seems to have found their way into Buddhist canon. To check on his commentary on Gunyasamāja, while looking in AIBS databases, there are commentaries written by Tibetan translators between 13th to 18th century for both the 17 chapters, gSang rgyud and and the 18th rgyud phi ma but Yonten Dragpa is not one of them that is mentioned in the author or translator’s list.

Nevertheless, looking at the historical records, there are four main cycles of tantras transmitted through gnyos lo tsā ba, which came to be known as gnyos kyi rgyud bzhi. The four tantras are; the Guhyasamāja tantra according to the system of Jañāpāda, the Krsna Yamāri cycle commonly known as gnyos lugs lha dgu ma,  the cycle of the Protector Traksad Mahākāla known as the Traksad gnyos lugs and Samvara tantra based upon the system of Lūyipā known as gnyos lugs Lūyipa. Sørensen notes that three of these in all four cycles constituted what may be defined as the set of gnyos esoterica that is also called the Patriarch or Father Tantra Triology (Pha rgyud skor gsum).[9]

The transmission of these cycles of tantras were passed down mainly through father to son in the clan. Yonten Dragpa passed down to his son Tsangtsha Dorji Lama (1008-1086), Dorji Lama to his son Pelgi Sengye (1054-1120), then to Dragpa Pel (1106-1183), and it’s Dragpa Pel’s son Lhanang Pa who decisively disseminated the cycle followed by his nephew Lhapa Rinchen Gyalpo. However, this needs further studies to authenticate whether the transmission that Rinchen Gyalpo received from Lhanangpa are the gnyos kyi rgyud bzhi or the tradition of Drikhung kagyue, as Lhanangpa was by then a popular student of Drikhung Jigten Gonpo. If Lhapa Kagyue still remains in Bhutan and was a transmissions of Yonten Dragpa’s gnyos kyi rgyud bzhi, I wonder if it can be another Sar ma tradition apart from the four Sar ma traditions that exist today.


Although it is disheartening for not being able to get hands on the actual works of the Lotsawa Yonten Dragpa (at this point in my study) whose line of transmission has got to Lhanangpa, who is the fourth generation of Nyo family lineage holder considering from Yonten Dragpa, the progenitor of gnyos kyi rgyud bzhi, it is at least worth enough to start looking out with some historical pointers that we could identify at this point. From the historical evidences, we could at least find the tradition of the Guhyasamāja that Yonten Dragpa practiced and transmitted. Besides, we not only known that Lhanangpa has received the transmissions of the Four Tantras of Nyo tradition, he has also given the transmission of the same to his close companion Gar Dampa Chodingpa. Subsequently, the line of transmission of Trakshad Mahakāla of Nyo in Jonang school through Jonang Kunga Drolchog, who is considered the reincarnation of Lhanangpa should be noted too.  Therefore,although historians of Bhutanese history simply assumes lha pa bka’ brgyud that flourished in gchal kha and Western parts of Bhutan to be a sub-sect of Drikhung Kagyue, it is very much possible that it can be  a convergent tradition of  Drikhung Kagyue tradition that he received from his root teacher Jigten Gonpo and the Nyo tradition that he received from his father. Perhaps, the abbreviation Lhapa, which is popularly ascribed to the name of Lhanangpa as the progenitor of lha pa bka’ brgyud might go back to Dragpa Pel or Yonten Dragpa too. This is because Sørenson in his The Rulers of the Celestial Plains finds that the term Lhapa is ascribed to the people of Lhasa, Lha-sa-pa. We should note that Lhanangpa’s father Nyo Dragpa Pel was the lord of Lhasa region, the person in the authority to be identified as the Lhapa.


Bhattacharya, Benoytosh. 1976. Guhyasamāja Tantra or Tathāgataguhyakā. India: Sadhana Press

Baza, Jyana. ‘Bri gung chos pa ‘Jig rten mgon po’i slob ‘phrin las rang mnyam bchu gsum las dpal gNyos Rgyal ba Lha nang pa’i rnam thar.

Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press

Grub, rin chen. n/a. bde bar gshegs pa’I gsal byed chos kyi ’byung gnas rab rin po che’i mdzod. n/a

…. 1934. A Catalogue-Index of the Tibetan Buddhist Canons (Bkah-hgyur and Bstan-hgyur). Japan: Tôhoku Imperial University.

Fremantle, Francesca. 1971. A Critical Study of the Guhyasamāja Tantra. London

Grol chog, kun dga’. 2005. Kun dga’ grol mchog gi phyi nang gsang gsum gyi rnam thar. Pe cin: mi rigs dpe skrun khang

Kuijp, W.J. Leonard. “The Bird-faced Monk and the Beginnings of the New Tantric Tradition,        part one.” In Tibetan Genealogies: Studies in Memoriam of Guge Tshering Gyalpo (1961-2015),  edited by Guntram Hazod and Shen Weirong, 403-450. Beijing: Zhongguo zangxue chubanshe, 2018.

Kuijp, W.J. Leonard. “The Bird-faced Monk and the Beginnings of the New Tantric Tradition, part two.” Journal of Tibetology, 17 (2019), 86-127

Matsunaga, Yuki. 1978. The Guhyasamāja Tantra. Japan: Toho Shuppan, INC.

Sørensen, Per K. and Hazod, Guntram. 2007. Rulers on the Celestial Plain: Ecclesiastic and Secular Hegemony in Medieval Tibet. Austria: Austrian Academy of Sciences press

Sanga, Lam. ‘Brug gi smyos rabs yang gsal me long (Clear Mirror of the Nyoe Lineage of Bhutan), Thimphu: KMT, 2000.

Tāranātha, Jonang Jetsun. 1976. Rim lnga’i ‘grel chen rdo rje ’chang chen po’i dgong pa zhes bya ba. Thimphu: Kunsang Topgey

Tsongkhapa. 2013. A Lamp to Illuminate the Five Stages: Teachings on Guhyasamāja Tantra. Boston: Wisdom Publications

Wayman, Alex. 1977. Yoga of the Guhyasamajatantra: The Acrane Lore of Forty Verses a         Buddhist Tantra Commentary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Wedemeyer, K Christian. 2007. The Gradual Path of Vajrayanāna Buddhism According to the Esoteric Community Noble Tradition. New York: Columbia University

Wayman, Alex. 1977. Yoga of The Guhyasamajatantra: The Acrane Lore of Forty Verses, A Buddhist Tantra Commentary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass

Zangpo, Rinchen. Nd. Lo chen rin chen bzang pos mdzad pa’i rgyud sde spyi’i rnam par bzhag pa ’thad ldan lung gi rgyan gyis spras pa bzhugs so.

Study Buddhism Archive. “Introduction to the Guhyasamaja System of Anuttarayoga Tantra/EN – RU” YouTube video, 2:10:39. February 04, 2013.

[1] Śraddhākaravarman was a Kashmiri paṇḍita who was a student of Ratnakaraśānti (late 10th century – early 11th century) and teacher of Rinchen Zangpo.

[2] Study Buddhism Archive. “Introduction to the Guhyasamaja System of Anuttarayoga Tantra/EN – RU” (Dr. Berzin’s teaching in Russia)

[3] Fremantle 1983,14

[4] Cummings 2003, 432  

[5] Brills encyclopedia

[6] Fremantle 1983, 15

[7] Fremantle 1983, 17

[8] Sørensen 2007, 382

[9] Sørensen 2007, 358

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