Maṇi Kambum

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Student Generated Content > Text Analyses > Maṇi Kambum

The Maṇi Kambum

by Alison Melnick and Christopher Bell


The Maṇi Kambum (Ma ṇi bka' 'bum) is a collection of various mythico-historical, ritual, and doctrinal texts attributed to the seventh-century Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (Srong btsan sgam po). The collection as a whole is considered a treasure text (gter ma), specific portions of which were consecutively discovered by three treasure revealers (gter ston) from the middle of the twelfth to the middle of the thirteenth century. The content of the Maṇi Kambum surrounds the deity Avalokiteśvara (Spyan ras gzigs). The first third of the Maṇi Kambum provides a number of variant legendary biographies of Songtsen Gampo and Avalokiteśvara, especially regarding the former as an emanation of the latter; because of this, the text has come to be a highly significant cultural icon in Tibet, for reasons that will be explored in greater detail below.

This text and the cult it represents have particular significance for Tibet because Avalokiteśvara is considered more than any other deity to be the country's patron bodhisattva. Beyond this, the Maṇi Kambum further signifies an intersection of several unique or prevalent elements found within Tibetan historical and religious spheres. Given that it is believed to be originally composed by the famous first Buddhist king of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, the Maṇi Kambum is intimately tied to the sacral kingship of the Tibetan dynasty, which continues to be lauded as a golden age of Tibetan Buddhism before the period of fragmentation (bsil bu'i dus). This narrative is intensified within the cult itself, which holds Songtsen Gampo to be an emanation of Avalokiteśvara as illustrated by the mix of the king's mythical biographies detailing this connection (see Kapstein 1997). Furthermore, being a treasure text, the Maṇi Kambum is linked to the uniquely Tibetan treasure text tradition. It is especially unique for being "composed" by Songtsen Gampo rather than Padmasambhava, the famous 8th-century tantrika who would become so inextricably associated with the treasure tradition during the Renaissance period and afterwards. The complex relationship between the Maṇi Kambum, treasure texts, and concepts of authorship are examined in fuller detail below.

Finally, the structure of the Maṇi Kambum is emblematic of the kinds of texts important not only to a particular deity cult but to proper monastic involvement. A third of the collection consists of ritual manuals (sgrub thabs; Skt. sādhana) necessary for engaging the deity for tantric yoga, consecration, or various rites of propitiation (see Gyatso 1997 for an example of an Avalokiteśvara ritual manual, though not one found within the Maṇi Kambum). A second third concerns the re-envisioning of Tibet as a divine field in which Avalokiteśvara acts through various agents, most notably Songtsen Gampo but others as well. The last third of the text consists of doctrine, meditational and philosophical treatises no doubt utilized in monastic settings. In full, the Maṇi Kambum represents a strong holistic view of Tibetan history, scholasticism, and ritual practice. It is the central text for the most popular deity cult in Tibetan history, and its importance through multiple venues are explored further below.


When we discuss issues of authorship relating to the creation and development of treasure texts, we find that the western concept of "authoring" a text does not correlate with this particular Tibetan literary genre. Treasure revelation as a concept and as a textual tradition is somewhat difficult for a western audience to digest. Sørensen describes it as remaining "in the misty borderland between inner motivation and divine revelation versus outer confirmation and acknowledgement" (Sørensen 1994, p. 6). In part, the idea is difficult to understand because from our vantage point, the idea of authorship is central to the creation of a text. Therefore, our understanding of the authorship of terma such as the Maṇi Kambum must be qualified by a brief explanation of the concept of treasure revelation as a Tibetan literary process and genre.

Treasure texts are believed to be texts that were initially created by an enlightened being and then concealed (in the ground, in someone's mind, in a heaven, etc.) so that they could be discovered at a later date by a worthy individual(s). Generally, the person or persons who became treasure revealers were deemed by the enlightened author of the text to be capable of comprehending and successfully translating the pith of the text for the consumption and benefit of the greater society. According to Martin, the terma literary genre was used exclusively by Bön and Nyingma schools (Martin 1997, p. 14).

The Maṇi Kambum is considered to be a treasure text that was revealed by multiple people over the period of a century during Tibet's Renaissance. The text is traditionally believed to have been taught by the Imperial King Songtsen Gampo; at this time the teachings were written down and concealed in multiple places in the Lhasa Jokhang temple (Martin refers to it as the 'phrul snang Temple; Martin 1997, p. 30), including under the feet of a statue of Hayagrīva, and in the right thigh of a statue of the yakṣa Nāga Kubera (Kapstein 1992, pp. 80-81). According to tradition, the text remained in these hidden places only to be later revealed by three treasure revealers. The first discovery is believed to have taken place around the middle of the twelfth century.

Unfortunately, we cannot really answer the question of whether or not the Maṇi Kambum was initially written by Songtsen Gampo. Although authorship is traditionally attributed to the Imperial king, many people were involved in the development of the text. The most obvious actors are the three men who were responsible for the "revelation" of different sections of the Maṇi Kambum during the Tibetan Renaissance. Thus, while information regarding the exact timeline of the process of discovery of parts of the Maṇi Kambum is somewhat inconclusive, Kapstein explains that we can be fairly sure of the involvement of the following treasure revealers: Ngöndrup (Grub thob dngos grub), Nyangrel Nyima Özer (Nyang ral nyi ma 'od zer; 1124/1136-1192/1204), and the much later Śākya Ö (Śā kya 'od; or Śā kya bzang po), who lived during the thirteenth century (Kapstein 1992, pp. 81-82).

These three treasure revealers brought forth over the period of a century the treasure texts that would become the Maṇi Kambum. Kapstein does not provide much information about the revealers, beyond that they were all strong proponents of Avalokiteśvara and were all associated with the Nyingma sect. Ngöndrup was, according Kapstein's report on the account of the Fifth Dalai Lama, the first to discover a part of what would become the Maṇi Kambum. We know that Nyangrel Nyima Özer was considered to be an extremely important treasure revealer as well as an emanation of Trisong Detsen (Khri srong lde btsan; 742-797). He is believed to have been closely associated with Avalokiteśvara and Hayagrīva from an early age, and it is said that his father provided him with a list of treasure texts that he should reveal. Sørensen refers to him as the "gTer-ston king par excellence in Tibet" (Sørensen 1994, p. 7). Furthermore, he was vocal about his perception of the chaotic time in which he lived as a period of general social erosion. This concern suggests that his "discovery" of the terma of King Songtsen Gampo was an attempt to help redevelop a sturdy foundation for society in the image of the Imperial period (Davidson 2005, p. 71). Nyangrel Nyima Özer and the siddha Ngöndrup discovered those treasures hidden at the feet of Hayagrīva. Kapstein could find no detracting evidence of the involvement of Śākya Ö and concludes that, if Śākya Ö was indeed involved, he simply did not discover the treasures hidden in the yakṣa until the mid-thirteenth century (Kapstein 1992, p. 81).

In a discussion of Tibetan historiographical writing, Sørensen explains that "…neither originality nor scriptural or literary novelty highlight this genre of Tibetan literature" (Sørensen 1994, p. 12). Originality was not rewarded in the creation of religious texts at this time because if a text could not be directly connected with either the Buddhism of India or the perceived golden age of the Buddhist Imperium of Tibet (i.e., the days of Songtsen Gampo), the text would not be considered valid. Thus, in the discovery of treasure texts such as the Maṇi Kambum, creating an original literary work was anathema to the ultimate goal of the textual product. It is therefore easily understood why these treasure revealers did not take credit as the creators of original works (note: For a further discussion of the use of the treasure text genre during the Renaissance period, see the History section of this essay). We can conclude that the text would not have been considered legitimate had its authorship been solely attributed to its three discoverers. Rather than a concept of authorship, there is in this textual tradition a concern with tracing the history of a text as far back as possible, ideally to a Buddha. Therefore, claiming original authorship of a work such as the Maṇi Kambum was not a desirable action to take.

There is speculation among western scholars that before the texts were redacted by the above mentioned treasure revealers, the information that formed the foundation of the text was the result of a long history of an evolving popular narrative that had developed within the wider Tibetan community. Sørensen explains that "… we are probably not much amiss if we allow ourselves to assume that the actual function of these treasury-finders not infrequently was that of writing down, compiling and reshaping, as indicated above, already existing Vorlage, be it bka'-ma or gter-ma, into final versions" (Sørensen 1994, p. 6). In other words, while treasure revealers were not necessarily developing these texts out of thin air, the information they included in their redactions probably resulted from an evolving community narrative, and not merely divine revelation bestowed by the spirit of the bodhisattva-king. They drew from popular knowledge and already extant texts (such as the bka' chems ka khol ma) in their development of the initial parts of the text (Sørensen 1994, p. 17-18). Both Aris and Sørensen describe the Maṇi Kambum as having been through may "redactional hands" (Sørensen 1994, p. 16), which implies that said hands have all had some authorial role in the creation of the text as it stands today. Kapstein posits that it is quite possible that most of what we now consider to be part of the Maṇi Kambum had been recorded by 1250. However, he concludes that the format and organization of the text as we know it today is probably the result of a longer process of textual evolution (Kapstein 1992, p. 82). This strongly suggests that, beyond Songtsen Gampo and the three treasure revealers, the evolution of the Maṇi Kambum has been significantly enriched by other influential "authors." It is probable that this evolution continued until the establishment of what was known in the seventeenth century as the Maṇi Kambum. Kapstein explains that most accounts of the discovery of the Maṇi Kambum are uniform, and that this can be ascribed to the wide-spread use of one version of the text's history (Kapstein 1992, p. 82).

Hence, "authorship" as the creation of a coherent text by a specific individual who claims creative responsibility for the work does not fit with the Tibetan literary genre of treasure texts. Sørensen concludes that "[w]e shall never be able to answer exhaustively the most crucial questions as to exactly when, how and, in particular, who was ultimately the author(s) or compiler(s) behind the bulky, predominantly legendary Vita-narratives dedicated to the life and feats of king Srong-btsan sgam-po" (Sørensen 1994, p. 1). He explains instead that the narratives of the life of Songtsen Gampo (including the Maṇi Kambum) are most logically "traced back to an oral and popular narrative tradition, a living narrative possibly also bardic tradition…" that he associates with Tibetan mythology (Sørensen 1994, p. 1).

Any idea of authorship in relation to the Maṇi Kambum is best understood as a fluid and evolutionary process. While we cannot therefore point to one specific "author," we can understand that the collection was developed with the help of the mythologized Imperial King Songtsen Gampo, three Renaissance treasure revealers, and an unknown number of contributors and redactors to the popular Tibetan historical narrative.


The Maṇi Kambum is divided into three major sections or cycles:

  1. The Cycle of Sūtras (mdo skor); MKBP: History of the Supplications to the Lineage of the First Lama; the first part from the Collected Works of the Dharma-protecting King Songtsen Gampo (Chos skyong ba'i rgyal po srong btsan sgam po'i bka' 'bum las stod kyi cha thog mar bla ma rgyud pa'i gsol 'debs lo rgyus). This cycle consists of the mythic biographies of Songtsen Gampo and the cosmic origin stories and adventures of Avalokiteśvara, particularly in relation to the land of Tibet. This section was discovered by Śākya Ö.
  2. The Cycle of Attainment (sgrub skor); MKBP: Dharma-cycle of Avalokiteśvara's Sādhanas, which were composed by the Dharma-protecting King Songtsen Gampo (Chos skyong ba'i rgyal po srong btsan sgam pos mdzad pa'i thugs rje chen po'i sgrub thabs kyi chos skor). This cycle consists of several ritual manuals of a genre called "means of acheivement" (sgrub thabs; Skt. sādhana). Such manuals outline the ritual process necessary for deity yoga, wherein the practitioner identifies fully with their central tutelary deity (yi dam). In this context, that deity is Avalokiteśvara in his various aspects. This section was discovered by the siddha Ngöndrup.
  3. The Cycle of Precepts (zhal gdams kyi skor); MKBP: The Cycle of Precepts; the second part from the Collected Works of the Dharma-protecting King Songtsen Gampo (Chos skyong ba'i rgyal po srong btsan sgam po'i bka' 'bum las smad kyi cha zhal gdams kyi skor). This cycle consists of about 150 short but eclectic texts, most of which concern meditation practice and doctrinal issues, all of which, again, concern Avalokiteśvara. This section was discovered by Nyangrel Nyima Özer.

There is another portion of the collection, which, as is "sometimes referred to as The Cycle of 'The Disclosure of the Hidden' (gab-pa mngon-phyung gi skor)—after the most renowned of the works found therein—which in some redactions of the Maṇi bKa'-'bum is appended to The Cycle of Precepts, and in other forms by itself a fourth cycle, an appendix to the entire collection" (Kapstein 1992, p. 80). In the MKBP, this portion of texts is called The Precepts of the Dharma-protecting King Songtsen Gampo; a Few Small [texts] such as the Clear Realization [of the Sādhana Practice] of the Noble Avalokiteśvara (Chos skyong ba'i rgyal po srong btsan sgam po'i zhal gdams/ 'Phags pa nam mkha'i rgyal po'i mngon rtogs sogs phran 'ga'). This portion of text was also discovered by Śākya Ö.

While the means of the discovery of each of these sections has been discussed above, the means of their concealing are equally important and should be elaborated further. The following description comes from a discussion of the Maṇi bKa'-'bum by the Fifth Dalai Lama, translated by Kapstein. What is also worth noting in this translation is the brief mention of Padmasambhava highlighting the text's authenticity to the second most important Buddhist king of the Tibetan empire, Trisong Detsen (Khri srong lde btsan). Considering Padmasambhava's central importance within the treasure tradition, this is particularly validating:

The dharma protecting King Srong-btsan sgam-po taught the doctrinal cycles [chos-skor] of Mahākāruṇika to disciples endowed with [appropriate propensities owing to their own past] actions and fortunate circumstances [las dang skal-bar ldan-pa], and had the cycles set down in writing. The Great Chronicles [Lo-rgyus chen-mo], which comes from The Cycle of Sūtras, was concealed together with The Cycle of Attainment and The Cycle of Precepts beneath the feet of Hayagrīva, in the northern quarter of the central hall [in the Lhasa Jo-khang, gtsang-khang byang-ma'i rTa-mgrin gyi zhabs 'og-tu sbas]. Some, including The Disclosure of the Hidden and [the remaining portions of] The Cycle of Sūtras, were concealed in the right thigh of the yakṣa Nāga-Kubera, beneath the hem of his gown [gnod-sbyin Nā-ga Ku-be-ra'i dar-sham-'og gi brla-g.yas-par sbas]. The glorious, great one of O-rgyan [Padmasambhava] well revealed them to Lord Khri Srong-lde'u btsan, saying, "Your own ancestor Srong-btsan sgam-po has concealed such treasures in Ra-sa [i.e., Lhasa]." Thereupon, [the King] gained faith and made The Means for the Attainment of the Thousand-fold Mahākāruṇika [Thugs-rje-chen-po stong-rtsa'i sgrub-thabs], The Disclosure of the Hidden [Gab-pa mngon-phyung], The Creation and Consummation of the Thousand Buddhas [Sangs-rgyas stong-rtsa'i bskyed-rdzogs], The Benefits of Beholding [Srong-btsan sgam-po's] Spiritual Bond [that is, the Jo-bo Śākyamuni image of Lhasa, Thugs-dam mthong-ba'i phan-yon], and Srong-btsan's Last Testament [Srong-btsan 'da'-kha'i bka'-chems] into [his own] spiritual bonds. (Kapstein 1992, pp. 80-81)

Lastly, it is significant that these texts were discovered in the central temple of Lhasa, the Jokhang. This temple is not only an ancient religious center at the very heart of the Tibetan capital, but it was constructed in the time of Songtsen Gampo under his auspices. Furthermore, this ties into the great importance that sacred location has within the treasure text tradition.


Like authorship, the concept of audience can be equally fluctuating and layered in the Tibetan context. There is even greater complexity with a text like the Maṇi Kambum, given its nearly millennium-long history. Overall, the audience for the Maṇi Kambum is threefold, consisting of (1) the practitioner of the text, (2) lay and public assemblies, and (3) the deity Avalokiteśvara himself. These three can also overlap at times.

The primary audience of the Maṇi Kambum consists of its devoted practitioners. These are the religious individuals that practice the text, usually in a monastic setting. They perform the various ritual manuals it contains and write such manuals out of inspiration, they study its doctrinal texts and write commentaries, and they propagate its teachings to disciples and lay devotees. These are the agents of the Maṇi Kambum in religious history, as illustrated by its lineages enumerated in The Blue Annals (see below).

Second, there are the lay devotees who engage publically with practices from the Maṇi Kambum, observing or even participating with them. Davidson discusses the growing public interest in the Avalokiteśvara cult in the 11th and 12th centuries specifically in relation to the popularizing efforts of the new Kadampa sect and a few of its influential members. He explains that this "movement eventually spawned such Kadampa mythic and meditative practices as the 'doctrine of the sixteen spheres' (thig le bcu drug gi bstan pa) and made popular a lay-oriented, Avalokiteśvara-focused fasting program (smyung gnas), whose propagation was closely associated with the Kadampa monks" (Davidson 2005, p.252; for an example of such a fasting ritual, see Jackson 1997). This is not surprising since the founder of the Kadampa tradition, Atīśa, actively promoted practices focused on Avalokiteśvara; indeed, "[t]hree systems of instruction (khrid) on the rites and meditations of Avalokiteśvara may be traced back to this Bengali master" (Kapstein 2000, p. 148). Kapstein (2000, p. 150) further explains that the growing popularity of the Avalokiteśvara cult in the 12th century—which was a time of great social distress—did much to solidify the power and authority of spiritual leaders through its propagation at public assemblies (khrom chos) and which was no doubt enforced by lay participatory conventions such as the fasting ritual discussed above.

Third, and lastly, it is significant to list the deity Avalokiteśvara himself as an audience to this text and its practices. In the ritual manuals explicitly, the deity is entreated and requested to have an audience with the practitioner. In all ritual instances, Avalokiteśvara is praised by the practitioner and propitiated like a lord either for more mundane protections or for greater soteriological advancement. His mantra, Oṃ Maṇipadme Hūṃ, which is at the very heart of the Maṇi Kambum, is a calling out to the deity by his devotees at any given instance—it is a plea for his attention, which he is ready to offer, being the bodhisattva of compassion (see Studholme 2002 for a textual exposé on this most famous Tibetan mantra). The entire text, its histories, rites, and discourses, is a meditation on Avalokiteśvara, a focusing of one's attention on a deity who will mutually focus his attention in return.

As distinct as these three types of audiences may seem, they exist simultaneously in most instances. Avalokiteśvara, being the central deity, is the ever present audience during any dialogue involving the text. In public ceremonies, the practitioners reciting and employing the text are as much an audience to the process as they are bound up in it; and in such public activities, there is the overt audience of the lay participants. Overall, the audience of the text may be shifting but it is constantly present. Even when the text is inactive it symbolizes a constant relationship between the practitioners, the laity, and the divine.


The Maṇi Kambum is one of the earliest and most important treasure texts to come out of the Renaissance period. When we consider the Maṇi Kambum in its original historical milieu, it is most beneficial to explore the text as a representation of the early development of treasure texts. In Davidson's discussion of the rise of treasure texts during the Renaissance period, he asks why these texts became important at this time in Tibetan history. There are a few particularly important historical aspects to the development this text. The first is the significance of the text as a (specifically Nyingma influenced) product of the Renaissance. From this follows the issue of the text as treasure, and as an intentional connection to Tibet's early Imperial period. The possible reasons for and results from the formation of such a bond are informative regarding why the first parts of the Maṇi Kambum were "discovered" at this time. We can best understand the development of the Maṇi Kambum during the Renaissance period in terms of the Nyingma response to Sarma translation texts of purportedly Indian origin. The Maṇi Kambum exemplifies the Nyingma treasure text tradition. The history of the origination of the text reveals a great deal about the time when it was initially brought forth.

Kapstein describes the Renaissance as a period of "chaos and uncertainty" and "grave political unrest" (Kapstein 2000, pp. 149, 150). Societal power was greatly decentralized, and the last vestiges of the well-ordered imperial period had faded away. During such a chaotic time, Nyingma and Sarma communities were searching for some stabilizing force, and both looked to Buddhism. Although the kinds of Buddhism the groups embraced were different, they both sought to root the changes of their spiritual communities in legitimating historical ground. There was a huge efflorescence of translation of texts from India on the part of the Sarma community. In this time of chaotic growth and development, the old imperially-based aristocracy (and all things associated with it) no longer held the sway that it once had. Davidson describes it well: "The sonorous gravitas inherited from the ancient emperors had becomes lost in a cacophony of new voices, speaking languages of different gods, borne by individuals like Drokmi, who may have come from outside the noble clans" (Davidson 2005, pp. 210-211). With the emergence during the Renaissance period of a group of Sarma translators importing works and ideas from India, the authority of all things local was at risk. At this time, the Nyingma and Bön communities began unearthing treasure texts from the imperial period. Both groups were significantly threatened by the new translation movement. It is unclear as to whether the issue of new translations, or the nature of Indian Buddhism itself, was more of a catalyst for the rise of treasure texts. The advent of the discovery of these new texts was at least in part a direct response to these unsettling changes.

There is not really an Indian precedent for treasure texts, it is unique to Tibet. Most importantly, the initial wave of treasures focused on the long-lost Tibetan empire. The idea was that the previously concealed treasure texts would come forth from their place of concealment at the time when it was most needed by society (Davidson 2005, p. 215). If this was indeed the concept that the early discoverers of the Maṇi Kambum were following, we can assume that they at least believed that the mid-twelfth century was a period when Tibetans needed to reconnect with the imperial period and everything that it represented (presumably to reinstate order in society), and that it was therefore an opportune time for the emergence of such a text.

The Nyingma simultaneously forged connections with the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara and Tibet's stable imperial past with the use of treasure texts. The Maṇi Kambum concerns most the figures of the Imperial King Songtsen Gampo and the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Songtsen Gampo was at this time designated as an emanation of Avalokiteśvara. During the Renaissance, these texts were not only considered to be relics of imperial ancestors, they were (especially in the case of the Maṇi Kambum) thought to be "an extension of the king's soul or person (rgyal po'i bla)" (Davidson 2005, pp. 220-222). Kapstein explains that, while it is far from clear that Songtsen Gampo himself so much as practiced Buddhism, by superimposing upon the king the identity of Avalokiteśvara, he became the bodhisattva who "…functions as a deus ex machina of sorts, making benign incursions onto the Tibetan landscape at various critical junctures…whenever the need for his assistance becomes known" (Kapstein 2000, p. 149). It is believed that Songtsen Gampo wrote the Maṇi Kambum and entrusted it to later discovery by treasure revealers during the Renaissance period. Thus, the various discoverers of the text formed links of historical association with the imperium. Songtsen Gampo as the author of the Maṇi Kambum lends the text legitimacy on various levels. For the Nyingma leaders of the Renaissance period, Songtsen Gampo represented a time of perceived stability, when Tibet was ruled by an enlightened bodhisattva-king who led his people according to the Dharma. Thus, the emergence of the texts at this time was equal to the reemergence of Songtsen Gampo and, by extension, Avalokiteśvara. In a sense it was as though Songtsen Gampo had appeared from the past to lead his people once more.

Kapstein's explanation is that treasure texts were predicted to emerge during a chaotic period so as to redirect the community to the right spiritual path. He explains that "[t]here can be little doubt that the myth of the religious king did much to support the notion that worldly affairs might best be placed in the hands of essentially spiritual leaders. And it is possible, too, that the Tibetan people came to expect their temporal woes to be set aright as before, by the timely intercession of the great bodhisattva" (Kapstein 2000, p. 150). The text was clearly perceived to fulfill these roles, since it was received as a teaching coming directly from the mouth of one of Tibet's greatest Dharma kings. We can conclude that the text would not have been considered nearly as legitimate had its authorship been attributed to its three discoverers. This idea was also indigenous to Tibet. This reinforced the association of treasure texts with the imperial period.

Thus, we can understand both the later history of the text and its associative ties as a created connection with an earlier Imperial period. Treasure texts provided a direct link with the imperial legacy. It was indigenous to Tibet, yet also claimed pre-historical descendence from Indian Buddhist origins (Davidson 2005, pp. 215-216). Treasure texts aided the Nyingma community in simultaneously claiming authenticity of connection with both ancient Indian Buddhism and the Tibetan Empire in an attempt to reinstate the interdependence of temporal, secular power and Buddhist spiritual leadership. The Nyingmapas of the thirteenth century were "looking back on the age of imperial greatness from the vantage point of the XIIth century chaos and uncertainty…[during which time] the custom of propitiating the cult of Avalokiteśvara at public assemblies (khrom-chos) seem to have begun…" (Kapstein 1992, p. 87).

This was just the beginning of a process of legitimation by association with Avalokiteśvara and an imperial past. Kapstein explains that later Tibetan historians (i.e., of the 18th and 19th centuries) used this history to explain that the cult of Avalokiteśvara was begun by Songtsen Gampo. While it is unclear as to when the cult actually began, Avalokiteśvara did not become central to the Nyingma school until the treasures were recovered in the 11th century (Kapstein 1992, pp. 84-85). It is important to remember that, aside from the prevalence of Avalokiteśvara, it is difficult to locate a central teaching in the Maṇi Kambum, and thus it is easily adopted by multiple groups. There are accounts of the Third Karmapa referring to it as early as the 14th century (Kapstein 1992, p. 83). Also, a great deal of the information that Kapstein provides about the revelation and history of the Maṇi Kambum comes from the writing of the Fifth Dalai Lama, who lived during the 17th century. The "Great Fifth" of the Geluk school was responsible for creating the most powerful governance organization Tibet had seen since the early Imperial period. Just like Songtsen Gampo, the Dalai Lamas are considered to be incarnations of Avalokiteśvara.

History in The Blue Annals

In The Blue Annals the cult of Avalokiteśvara and the lineage of the Maṇi Kambum is given its own sizeable chapter, being the focus of most of Book 14. As with all important textual traditions discussed in The Blue Annals, after a brief historical and laudatory appraisal, there is an immediate enumeration of the lineage of the text, specifically of the The Cycle of Attainment:

Just as the Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī took over China, in the same manner the Bodhisattva Mahāsattva Ārya Avalokiteśvara protected this country of Tibet. By his blessing the sound of the 'Maṇi' resounds in the mouths of men, women and monks, even children. One can obtain blessing by praying to a tutelary deity, therefore for us (Tibetans) the quickest way to obtain blessings is to follow after Avalokiteśvara himself. The sacred images and monasteries (viharas) erected by Sron btsan sgam po, a manifestation of Avalokiteśvara in the form of a king, are the chief places of worship for the Tibetans. The mountain, on which has been built the Palace where the king resides, received also the name of Potala (the Abode of Avalokiteśvara). It is known that many had attained the realization of Yamāntaka and other deities adhering to the precepts of the mantra, enunciated by the king. Though the Commentary by a teacher, who had followed on this Doctrine enunciated by the king, does not exist at present, there still exist parts of the book on propitiating rites. The saint dngos grub discovered the hidden book on the Sādhana of Avalokiteśvara. Rog shes rab 'od obtained (them) at the monastery of spa rnams. He gradually handed them down to his own son, and disciples. Further, the nirmanakaya myang ston obtained (them) from the saint dngos grub. He (myang ston) transmitted (the Doctrine) to the bla ma ras pa mi bkyod rdo rje, the bla ma sakya seng ge bzang po, the doctor (lha rje) dge ba 'bum, the sister (lcam mo) ye shes mchog, byang sems chus gom, mtha' bzhi bya bral, bsod nams seng ge, bkra shis rgyal mtshan, and the bla ma blo gros rgyal mtshan. From the (last) two the bla ma bsod nams bzang po. The latter to rgod phrug grags pa 'byung gnas. (Roerich 1996, pp. 1006-1007)

Other related lineages are further provided, including an Avalokiteśvara fasting ritual, which was preached by the nun Lakśmi (Dpal mo) and passed down a line of disciples (Roerich 1996, p. 1007). Lakśmi was believed to have been blessed by Avalokiteśvara, a common attribute of all who propagate his practices. Furthermore, a number of individuals tied to this textual lineage are, like Songtsen Gampo, believed to be emanations of Avalokiteśvara, enforcing the motif of this deity having constant agency in Tibet through numerous mediums. The following example concerns the recognition of Candradhvaja, who is actually another bodhisattva, as one such emanation:

In the temple of Saṃvara (bde mchog lha khan) in Nepal many dakiṇīs gathered. The temple keeper saw (them) and inquired: "From where did you come? What are you doing here?" The dakiṇīs replied: "We have come from Puṇḍravardhana. Avalokiteśvara Pundravardhana himself is residing here. We have come to make offerings to him." The keeper continued: "Who is he?" The ḍākinīs answered: "He is the Bodhisattva Candradhvaja!" When the on po lo tsa ba was sleeping in the Temple of Ārya Wa ti, Wa ti himself foretold that Candradhvaja was Ārya (Avalokiteśvara) himself, and now many people accepted (him as Avalokiteśvara). Many legends exist, such as for example the following: When Candradhvaja was searching for something which could benefit the purification of sins of living beings, he discovered that by fasting once in the presence of Ārya Avalokiteśvara, one was able to remove a great sin, and obtain (rebirth) in a human form, and that in the end such a person was to go to Sukhāvati. (Roerich 1996, p. 1008)

This might indicate a kind of reappropriation of other bodhisattva traditions beneath a new tradition growing in popularity and thus in power. Such a process of divine acquisition is not uncommon in Asian contexts. Certainly, the subjugation of the indigenous Tibetan deities under the new Buddhist paradigm is one such example. Another, in India, concerns the creation of new myths and ceremonies to incorporate local deities into the greater pan-Indian pantheon, such as when a local goddess is married to one of the great gods of this pantheon, like Śiva. So too it appears that a more localized tradition surrounding temples in Nepal and their associated bodhisattva Candradhvaja has become incorporated into the greater Avalokiteśvara cult through the validating power of emanation. Furthermore, the lines between divine supramundane beings and incarnate teachers are blurred here as Candradhvaja is recorded as the teacher of Drowé Gönpo ('gro ba'i mgon po), Pakmo Drupa (phag mo gru pa; 1110-1170), and the siddha La Gyakpa (la gyag pa) (Roerich 1996, p. 1008). Other, more historical individuals, are also considered emanations of Avalokiteśvara or appear in people's visions as such, like Nagpupa Sönam Wangchuk (snag phu pa bsod nams dbang phyug; b. 14th century), mainly due to their beneficial and at times miraculous deeds that are in accordance with the activities of Avalokiteśvara (Roerich 1996, p. 1017).

Beyond this, the chapter is full of lineage holders who propagate the cult of Avalokiteśvara and have visions of him, such as Supa Dorjé Gyelpo (Sru pa rdo rje rgyal po; b. 12th century; Roerich 1996, p. 1011) and Tsidulwa Tukjé Jangchup (rtsi 'dul ba thugs rje byangs chub; b. 12th/13th century; Roerich 1996, p. 1014). One intriguing case is when Avalokiteśvara appears in the visions of the translator of Bari, Rinchen Drak (ba ri lo tsā ba rin chen grags; 1040-1112), several times and crying due to the very specific suffering of certain individuals, which Rinchen Drak then remedies:

He also saw Ārya Avalokiteśvara in tears and asked: "What was the affliction?" The Bodhisattva replied: "Shin stang chan has captured sixty prisoners who are tormented in a prison pit by snakes and frogs, and are weeping from pain." In the morning he ascertained the fact, and having presented a golden srangs to the king, begged him to set the prisoners free. The king said: "Unless I get one golden srangs for each prisoner, I shall not release them!" He freed the captives after paying the sixty golden srangs. He also called a medical practitioner to treat their wounds inflicted by snakes and torture. He paid him one golden srangs, and thus acquired the great fame of a Bodhisattva. Again he saw Avalokiteśvara in tears, and when he asked: "What was the affliction?" the Bodhisattva replied: "Bandits carried away the gold which belonged to rgyus lo tsa ba, and the latter is full of grief." Following this indication, he proceeded in the morning to the house of rgyus lo and inquired as to what had happened. The lo tsa ba said: "Such is my sad fate!" He gave him two golden chos and pleased him. (Roerich 1996, p. 1021-1022)

In keeping with the structure of The Blue Annals, the remainder of the chapter has other short anecdotes like these and consists mainly of further lineage lists and the small biographies of lineage holders. There is also an enumeration of the doctrinal cycles of Mitrayogin, a great Indian devotee of Avalokiteśvara who came to Tibet, performed miracles, and helped popularize the cult of Avalokiteśvara (Roerich 1996, p. 1035-1039).

The presence of Avalokiteśvara as an active force in Tibetan history, either through textual lineage, emanation, or visions, as illustrated in The Blue Annals, strengthens the common depiction of Avalokiteśvara found in Tibetan cultural history. This is a deity constantly engaged in Tibetan affairs, especially when times are hard. This attribute in many ways mimics those of Śiva and Viṣṇu in Hindu tantric systems, wherein both deities are believed to come down into the world to alleviate suffering; certainly there is strong textual reason to believe that this perception of Avalokiteśvara so prevalent in Tibet was inspired by these two Hindu divinities (see Studholme 2002, pp. 37-59). That Avalokiteśvara grew in popularity during the tumultuous times following the period of fragmentation (Kapstein 2000, p. 148) certainly makes sense in this light; he clearly filled a powerful social and religious need as a personification of benevolence.


What is perhaps most significant about the Maṇi Kambum is the new cosmological vision of Tibet that it offered Tibetans. Kapstein (2000, p. 147) cogently explores this concept along three evolving motifs:

  1. The belief in Avalokiteśvara as the patron deity of Tibet.
  2. The central role of Songtsen Gampo in establishing Buddhism in the previously wild realm of Tibet, and his being an embodiment of Avalokiteśvara.
  3. The agency of Avalokiteśvara in Tibet as being destined.

It is important to note that these elements were already active in Tibetan discourse prior to the 12th century, but they achieved a lasting articulation and employment through the corpus of the Maṇi Kambum.

First, Avalokiteśvara being the patron bodhisattva of Tibet is the key feature of the Maṇi Kambum, indeed the texts of the collection are a constant reaffirmation of this truism. Kapstein quotes a passage from The Great Chronicle of the Maṇi Kambum where the Buddha Śākyamuni himself instructs Avalokiteśvara to go to Tibet in order to not only generate a race of humans there but to maintain and guide them with the Buddhist teachings:

There are none left to be trained by me. Because there are none for me to train I will demonstrate the way of nirvāṇa to inspire those who are slothful to the doctrine and to demonstrate that what is compounded is impermanent. The snow domain to the north [Tibet] is presently a domain of animals, so even the word "human being" does not exist there—it is a vast darkness. And all who die there turn not upwards but, like snowflakes falling on a lake, drop into the world of evil destinies. At some future time, when that doctrine declines, you, O bodhisattva, will train them. First, the incarnation of a bodhisattva will generate human beings who will require training. Then, they will be brought together [as disciples] by material goods [zang-zing]. After that, bring them together through the doctrine! It will be for the welfare of living beings! (Kapstein 2000, p. 149)

Tibet has thus become Avalokiteśvara's own field of Buddhist activity. The reference to an incarnation of a bodhisattva generating a race of humans in Tibet is none other than the Tibetan unifying myth in which Avalokiteśvara, in the form of a monkey, and the goddess Tārā, in the form of a rock demoness, spawned six children who would become the chiefs of the first six tribes of Tibet. With Avalokiteśvara—the father of all Tibetans—acting as Tibet's patron deity, this myth engenders a powerful narrative of cultural unification in the wake of political decentralization.

Second, this narrative is placed within Tibetan history through Songtsen Gampo, an emanation of Avalokiteśvara. This a crucial period in Tibetan history, allowing this myth of emanation to tap into the preexisting Tibetan roots of divine kingship, the expansion and consolidation of the Tibetan empire, and the first recognized propagation of Buddhism in Tibet. As such, the Tibetan Imperium, as begun by Songtsen Gampo, is enveloped by greater cosmological significance. The golden age of the Tibetan empire is recast into a Buddhist cosmic drama unfolding in Tibetan history, wherein the assimilation of Buddhism by an emanation of a bodhisattva becomes less an historical coincidence and more of a fated event constructed through the desires of the Buddha himself.

Finally, it is this perception of Tibet as a land destined for Buddhist importance that is perhaps the most powerful vision propounded in the Maṇi Kambum, engineered through the mythic recreation of the empire. Kapstein articulates this process best, describing it as a validation of Tibet as an adequate, even anticipated, land of Buddhist activity, on par with, if not superior to, India:

The enlightened activity of Avalokiteśvara, his incursion into Tibetan history in the form of King Songtsen Gampo, is no longer an event occurring within the Tibetan historical framework. Rather, Tibet itself is now an aspect of the bodhisattva's all-pervading creative activity. How could the Buddha's teaching have been artificially implanted in such a realm, the very existence of which is evidence of the Buddha's compassionate engagement in the world? That Tibet is here referred to as being "beyond the pale" (mtha'-'khob) is the fortuitous survival of an outmoded turn of phrase, for it is clear that the Maṇi Kambum regards the Land of Snows as no less part of the Buddhist universe than the sacred land of India itself. (Kapstein 2000, pp. 151-152)

The new cosmological importance given here to Tibet is also in dialogue with the constant drive to find legitimation in more Tibet-centered traditions, especially those propounded by the Nyingma school such as the genre of treasure texts. Yet, this scheme is so all-encompassing that even opposing traditions equally utilize it:

While the great variety of the Maṇi Kambum's teachings of doctrine and ritual and the unsystematic way in which these topics are, for the most part, presented, do not permit us to define too strictly a "central doctrine" in this case, the teaching of the Maṇi Kambum represents, by and large, a syncretic approach to the doctrines of the Nyingmapas and those of the Avalokiteśvara traditions of the new translation schools, particularly the Kadampa… Further, through the instructions on the visualization and mantra of Avalokiteśvara transmitted by masters of all the major Tibetan Buddhist schools, as well as by lay tantric adepts and itinerant maṇi-pas—"Oṃmaṇipadmehūṃists"—who preached the bodhisattva's cult far and wide, it was this syncretic teaching that became, for all intents and purposes, Tibet's devotional norm. (Kapstein 2000, p. 155)

The Maṇi Kambum offers a vision of Tibet at the center of the Buddhaverse, maintained by the most popular bodhisattva in Asia. It then makes sense in this scheme that the land of Tibet itself would be rich with Buddhist knowledge and activity, either discovered through treasure texts, practiced in the rituals composed by incarnate lamas, or accessed within the innumerable holy sites that cover the land. The cult of Avalokiteśvara pervades all of Tibet, from lay devotional practices, to monastic scholasticism, to political establishments. As the text embodying Avalokiteśvara, the Maṇi Kambum thus represents a unifying cult active in practically all major religious institutions in Tibet but not controlled or regulated by any single one.


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