Who is Padmasambhava?
In Tibetan, Guru Padmasambhava is generally referred to as Guru Rinpoche, which means “precious master.” Guru Rinpoche is a totally enlightened being, a fully awakened one, a buddha. He did not become enlightened gradually, or start practicing the teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni and eventually achieve enlightenment. Guru Rinpoche incarnated as a fully enlightened being. Through his form, primordial wisdom manifests in the world to benefit all sentient beings.
Buddha Shakyamuni Foretells the Coming of Padmasambhava
Buddha Shakyamuni actually predicted Guru Padmasambhava’s appearance. Nineteen different sutras and tantras contain clear predictions of his arrival and activities. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni announced his own mahaparinirvana to the students who were with him at the time. Many of them, particularly Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, were quite upset upon hearing this, so the Buddha turned to Ananda and told him not to worry.
“Eight years after my mahaparinirvana, a remarkable being with the name Padmasambhava will appear in the center of a lotus and reveal the highest teaching concerning the ultimate state of the true nature, bringing great benefit to all sentient beings.” Buddha Shakyamuni said that Padmasambhava would be even more enlightened than himself. Of course, Buddha Shakyamuni was fully enlightened and there is no higher realization, but by the Buddha’s manner of expression, we can begin to understand the importance of Guru Padmasambhava. Some accounts hold that Guru Rinpoche is a direct reincarnation of Buddha Shakyamuni. Buddha Shakyamuni also said Padmasambhava would be an emanation of Buddha Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara, and referred to him as the “embodiment of all the buddhas of the three times.” Many prophecies indicate that Guru Rinpoche would be a fully enlightened buddha, appearing in this world to help sentient beings.
Revealing the “Secret Teachings” of the Vajrayana
For the most part, Buddha Shakyamuni presented “Hinayana” and Sutra Mahayana teachings, while Guru Padmasambhava taught the Vajrayana. Both revealed the complete and perfect path to awakening so that individuals of all capacities would benefit. The absolute level of the Buddha’s teaching is beyond conception. If it didn’t go beyond the conceptual level, there would be no need to change our normal way of understanding things. To help us realize the primordial nature, Buddha Shakyamuni repeatedly taught that we must transcend clinging to our ordinary dualistic conceptions, narrow attitudes, closemindedness, traditional rules, beliefs, and limitations.
The ultimate meaning of the highest teaching is not easily understood by sentient beings. This is why Buddha Shakyamuni remained silent for forty-nine days after his enlightenment. He thought, “I have realized the most profound and subtle Dharma, the clear light free of all complexity. However, this is much too deep for normal people to understand. Therefore, I will remain silent.” He knew how hard it would be to communicate the truth of his insight. Although he eventually taught tirelessly for forty-five years, his first thought reflected the extraordinary nature of the state into which he had awakened all of his relative, mundane ideas and conceptions.
Sutra is a Sanskrit word that means “condensed” or “summarized.” Scriptures bearing this title indicate that these teachings were directly communicated in this world in order to provide a clear understanding of the two truths—both the relative and absolute aspects of reality. The sutras provide instructions that a practitioner can apply to realize buddhahood.
Most of Buddha Shakyamuni’s teachings address ordinary beings and offer a direct way to understand the nature of our experience. They present a non-esoteric view that appeals to common logic, with tenets that can be verified by close observation of the elements that constitute our everyday world. With this knowledge, you can move toward enlightenment. This is the basic intention of Sutra Mahayana.
The Vajrayana is also known as Tantra. Tantric teachings are based on the Sutra Mahayana, but offer a more subtle understanding of our experience and additional methods to realize enlightenment. Vajrayana practice encourages us to take a deeper look at our perceptions, recognize our primordial nature, and maintain our mind in its natural state. In this way, the sutras are more general teachings that clarify the nature of conditioned mind and its perceptions, while the tantras reveal the secret, subtle structure of our body, mind, and all phenomena. Therefore, the Vajrayana teachings were given for more advanced practitioners. Although the sutras and tantras both share the same foundation, the Vajrayana goes further towards understanding transcendental reality as it is without being distorted by our habitual, conditioned mind. Practicing the sutras and tantras in union can bring enlightenment within this very life, even within a very short period of time. Accelerating our path to enlightenment is a principle distinction between the practices of the sutras and tantras.
The Buddha only gave Vajrayana teachings privately to select groups of disciples. Because the essence and even the form of these higher teachings are beyond common conception, they are known as “secret teachings.” After the Buddha entered mahaparinirvana, these secret teachings were preserved by many wisdom dakinis. When Guru Rinpoche appeared as the reincarnation of Buddha Shakyamuni, he revealed the Vajrayana teachings in their entirety; this is why Guru Rinpoche is known as the Buddha of the Vajrayana.