Offering a modern translation of "The Legends of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas," a 12th-century Tibetan text, translator Keith Dowman shares stories of the spiritual adventurers, rebellious saints, and enlightened tantric masters of ancient India known as "siddhas." He shows how the mahasiddhas arose from the grassroots of society and represented an entire spectrum of human experience. Counted among the greatest of the siddhas are a washerman, a cowboy, a thief, a conman, a gambler, and a whore, all extraordinary men and women who attained the goal of their meditations, as well as enlightenment and magical powers, by disregarding convention and penetrating to the core of life.
Recounting the magical and "crazy" deeds of the mahasiddhas, such as walking through walls, flying, talking with birds, and turning people to stone, Dowman reveals the human qualities of the tantric masters and the vital elements of the siddhas' philosophy of nonduality and emptiness. Richly illustrated with paintings of the tantric saints by artist Robert Beer, these stories of the mahasiddhas show us a way through human suffering into a spontaneous and free state of oneness with the divine.
KEITH DOWMAN is a longtime initiate of Dzogchen and a teacher of radical Dzogchen around the world. He is the author of several Dzogchen translations, most recently Natural Perfection and Dzogchen. He lives in Kathmandu. ROBERT BEER began studying and practicing Tibetan thangka painting in 1970 while living in India and Nepal and still continues this research from his home in Oxford. He is the author and illustrator of The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs and the Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols.
Nothing can illuminate the nature of Tantric Buddhism better than the lives of the masters who founded it. In the vast corpus of Tibetan literature is a text called "The Legends of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas." This unique collection of stories is believed to have been transmitted orally by an Indian scholar, Abhaya Datta Sri, to a Tibetan translator, Mondub Sherab, in the twelfth century, just before Buddhism in India disappeared. These legends portray the ethos of the Indian tantric tradition, the nature of the yogas and meditations of the tantric masters, and the mythological net that protects their secrets from uninitiated eyes.
However, in the transmission of the universal, practical elements of Tantric Buddhism from East to West, obscure and archaic Indian cultural content becomes an obstacle to understanding. Thus, while adapting the legends of the mahasiddhas from the literal Tibetan translation, our approach has been to stress in each legend the human qualities that transcend apparent cultural differences and to emphasize the principles of tantric practice. This involved the omission of duplication and irrelevancies, the elaboration of descriptive obscurities, and in a few legends even modification of the storyline. The number of legends has been reduced from eighty-four to fifty-four, but the meaning of the verse of instruction that enshrines the secret teaching of guru to disciple at the heart of each of these remaining stories has been rendered as closely as possible to the original Tibetan. In this way we hope to have eliminated the abstruse content of the legends, providing an accessible context for an understanding of the vital elements of the siddhas' philosophy of nonduality and emptiness.
THE SIDDHA TRADITION
It was the end of an era. The great achievements of the Gupta period had already become history in eighth century India, and there was a lull before the final blooming of Hindu civilization. Society had become obsessed with inflexible rules and regulations. Just as form and procedure ruled society, stifling spirit and feeling, so ritual dominated religion. The pundits of the great academies devoted themselves to scholastic hairsplitting in a dead language, and sadhus sold their blessings in the marketplace. On India's western border the Turkish hordes were massing. The terrible threat of their invasion, with burning, pillaging, and massacre, was a sword of Damocles held over the Indian subcontinent.
In this environment a new form of Buddhism arose that was to regenerate a suffocating society. This third and final development of the Buddha Sakyamuni's teaching was called Tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana. Tantra grew to dominate the religious life of India. It spread to Central Asia, China, and Japan, and it came to permeate every aspect of life in Tibet. Until recently Western scholars have taken an orthodox Brahmin view of heterodox Tantra, or they have perceived it from the earlier hinayana or mahayana Buddhist perspectives. But in the last twenty years Tibetan lamas in exile from their homeland have demonstrated a pure, living tantric tradition to the West, and this has forced a reappraisal of Tantra.
The exemplars of the new Buddhism, the high priests of Tantra, were called siddhas. In the beginning, in eighth century India, they represented a pure and purifying spirituality arising from the grass roots of society. Alienated from the dead forms of the social and religious establishment, equating society with life's confusion, renunciation was a prerequisite to spiritual attainment. The ethos of their pure mysticism made them antiestablishment, unorthodox, and antischolastic. They stressed the simple and free life rather than institutional discipline. Militating against empty ritual, charlatanism, specious philosophizing, the caste system, and Brahminical ritual purity, they were iconoclastic rebels. They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation. Many siddhas were musicians and poets who sang their realization in wonderful mystical songs in vernacular languages, using metaphors of home and family, farming and crafts, love and sex.
The siddhas were never to compromise their radical attitudes to orthodoxy, and they maintained their ideal of existential freedom at all cost. But as Tantra became more widely accepted its proponents became identified less and less with the itinerant yogin belonging to a secret outcaste cult. From the ninth to the twelfth centuries eastern India was dominated by an empire ruled by a Buddhist dynasty who patronized tantric Buddhism. Under the Pal a kings the tantric revolution became accepted by the establishment. Although institutionalism and Tantra remained inimical, the Pala kings established monastic academies, like Vikramasila and Oddantapuri, where tantric literature was studied and a vast body of commentary on the basic tantric texts written down.
In this later evolution of Tantric Buddhism the profound tolerance and breadth of vision of the siddhas was shown by their thorough permeation of society. The eighty-four mahasiddhas came from every walk of life and represented an entire spectrum of human experience. They were Brahmin priests and scholars, monks and nuns, kings and ministers, merchants and shopkeepers, hunters and servants. Counted amongst the greatest of the siddhas is a washer-man, a cowboy, a thief, a con man, a gambler, and a whore. Several siddhas suffered from serious diseases. The realization that embraced all men and women in the tantric fold-whatever their social status and mode of life-was an awareness of the Buddha nature in all sentient beings. The karma that bound them to tantric yoga was their meeting with a master, their initiation into a lineage of tantric instruction, and their practice of tantric meditation.
Although the Pala empire centered on Bengal became the powerhouse of Tantra, there were other areas of India that were of vital importance to the siddha tradition. Oddiyana in the northwest (the Swat Valley, now in Pakistan) originated several important tantric lineages. In the south of India, which may have been the area where the first tantric cults were established, Kanchi (Concheeveram in Tamil Nadu) was a major center of Tantric Buddhism. Also, the holy mountain of Sri Parbat (in Andhra Pradesh), mentioned several times in these legends, was established as a major tantric power place during the siddha period, a status it has retained until today. However, forty-seven of the eighty-four mahasiddhas were associated with eastern India, compared to nine with the south and only two with the northwest.
In the middle of the twelfth century the Buddhist Pala empire was defeated by the short-lived Hindu Sena dynasty. In 1199, during the invading Turks' final push against eastern India, a general mistook the academy of Vikramasila for a fort, massacred the monks, burnt the invaluable library, and destroyed the academy. In the rabid Muslim aftermath, in the absence of any patronage, deprived of both secular and temporal support, Buddhists throughout northern India died for their beliefs, accepted Islam rather than the sword, or fled into exile in the Himalayas. The tantric tradition in Nepal and Tibet benefited greatly from the influx of refugees from India. Thereafter, in its homeland, Buddhism went underground, finally to be absorbed by the more resilient Hindu tantric lineages. Elements of Buddhist Tantra can still be seen in the tradition of the Nath Yogins, in the tradition of the great medieval mystic poet Kabir, and even in the modern Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
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