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Name Variants: Bima; Bimala; Bimalamitra; Chema; Chemala; Chemala Miktra; Chemala Mutra; Drime Shenyen

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Vimalamitra’s biography began to take shape in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries, during the formative years of a distinctly emerging Nyingma tradition. Despite numerous permutations and amendments, the standard story of liberation (rnam thar) was primarily influenced by The Extensive History of the Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (rdzogs pa chen po snying thig gi lo rgyus chen mo). It was this normative biography that was most recently retold in the Fourth Dodrubchen’s (rdo grub chen thub bstan phrin las dpal bzang po, b.1927) book, The Biography of the Mahāpaṇḍita Vimalamitra.

Vimalamitra was reportedly born in western India in a town called Hastisthala. His father was Sukhacakra and his mother was Ātmaprakāśā. Although the exact name of his monastery is never listed, he is said to have studied in Bodhgayā with his dharma brother, Jñānasūtra (ye shes mdo, d.u.). The two were considered foremost among the five hundred paṇḍitas, learned in the studies of vinaya, sūtra, and abhidharma. While in Bodhgayā, in what appears to be a later addition to his life story, Vimalamitra is reported to have composed several commentaries on the Guhyagarbha Tantra under the tutelage of Buddhaguhya (c. 8th century), one of the most important Indian Mahāyoga exegetes.

Following a common tantric trope of medieval Indian literature, Vimalamitra had a vision encouraging him to leave the sūtra-based teachings of the monastery in order to study the more profound tantric scriptures. In this vision, Vajrasattva appeared to both Vimalamitra and Jñānasūtra to inform them they had been paṇḍitas over the course of their last five hundred lifetimes. Although they had practiced diligently, they were told that if they desired to reach enlightenment in their current life they must make the journey to the Bodhi Tree Temple in China to study with Śrī Siṃha.

Upon hearing this pronouncement, Vimalamitra took heed of Vajrasattva’s advice, hastily returned home to grab his alms bowl and began the journey to China, where he met Śrī Siṃha and subsequently studied the Nyingtik for twenty years. While returning to India following his stay in China, he encountered his dharma brother, Jñānasūtra, to whom he revealed some of his experiences and realizations under the tutelage of Śrī Siṃha, thus persuading Jñānasūtra also to pack his bowl and seek this most profound doctrine in China. Jñānasūtra travelled to the same temple, but in several accounts was able to make the journey in a more expedient fashion thanks to his previous attainment of the fleet-footed siddhi.

The series of events that follow mark a peculiar development that seems intended to elevate Jñānasūtra to a position of lineal authority over Vimalamitra. Although historically Vimalamitra has become the more important of the two figures within the Nyingma tradition, it appears that Jñānasūtra was either one of Vimalamitra’s teachers or perhaps, at some point, central to the early tantric development of Buddhism in Tibet. Thus while looking for Śrī Siṃha, for example, Jñānasūtra gains the favor of the ḍākinīs, who aid him in his search to find the ever-elusive Dzogchen master. When he meets Śrī Siṃha -- for reasons that are unclear in any of the hagiographies -- it is stated that Vimalamitra received a slightly less profound aural lineage. Jñānasūtra, however, obtains the higher teachings and the attendant texts, most notably Śrī Siṃha’s last testament, The Seven Spikes (gzer bu bdun pa), which fell into his hands as Śrī Siṃha achieved the rainbow body.

In another scene, the story returns to Vimalamitra, who is riding upon an elephant and engaging in several miraculous activities comparable to the stories of the mahāsiddhas. Shortly after, a ḍākinī interrupts his prance atop the elephant to inform Vimalamitra that he needs to go to the Bhasing charnel ground to study the Nyingtik. At the cemetery, Vimalamitra is reunited with Jñānasūtra where he performs obeisance and receives the Elaborated Empowerment (spros bcas kyi dbang), the Unelaborated Empowerment (spros med kyi dbang), then the Extremely Unelaborated Empowerment (shin tu spros med kyis dbang). When a white letter “A” appears on the tip of his nose as sign of accomplishment, he is given the Exceedingly Unelaborated Empowerment (rab tu spros med kyi dbang).

Following these four empowerments, Vimalamitra is then given even more profound Nyingtik instructions. After teaching Vimalamitra, Jñānasūtra passes into the rainbow body just as Śrī Siṃha had before him. Consistent with the ongoing narrative repetition, just as Śrī Siṃha’s last will fell from the sky, Jñānasūtra’s The Four Methods of Establishing [Absorption] (bzhag thabs bzhi pa) also descends into the hands of Vimalamitra. With these texts in his possession, Vimalamitra spends the next several decades living with several kings throughout India and Kaśmir, including well-known figures such as Dharmapāla and Indrabhūti.

In time, Vimalamitra copied down the esoteric teachings he had learned, placing one in a golden lake in western Oḍḍiyāna. Another was concealed in a rock formation in a golden park where ḍākinīs met at the outskirts of Kaśmir. And for good measure, a third copy was kept in the burial ground to the north of King Dharmapāla’s temple so that ḍākinīs, gods, nāgas, and the residents could worship the scriptures.

Meanwhile, in Tibet, Nyang Tingdzin Zangpo (myang ting 'dzin bzang po, d.u.) had a vision prophesying that Vimalamitra would successfully spread the esoteric scriptures in the Land of Snow. Upon informing Tri Songdetsen (khri srong lde btsan, 742-796) of his prophesy, several translators were sent to search for the greatest of Indian paṇḍitas. In most of the hagiographies, three translators make the journey, though the number can range between two and five. Typically, the three include Kawa Peltsek (ka ba dpal brtsegs, d.u.), Chokro Lui Gyeltsen (cog ro klu’i rgyal mtshan, d.u.) and Ma Rinchen Chok (ma rin chen mchog, d.u.). Upon arriving at the residence of King Indrabhūti of Kapilavastu, Buddhaguhya took the three translators to meet the five hundred paṇḍitas, the foremost of whom was Vimalamitra. As he arose from his medial position among the five hundred, Vimalamitra uttered “Gha Gha Pa Ri”. These sounds were interpreted in at least three ways, all of which indicated that Vimalamitra had agreed to travel outside of India to spread the dharma under the reign of Tri Songdetsen.

As Vimalamitra departed, it is said a joyous celebration literally turned into a nightmare for the people of India when bad omens overtook the dreams of the faithful. After the people awoke in a panicked state, an impromptu gathering took place on the courtyard of the royal palace. In a conversation with the king and his astrologers, it was decided that the night terrors were the result of the departure of Vimalamitra and the loss of the Nyingtik teachings. In a somewhat scandalous move, the king decided to send fleet-foot messengers across Tibet to post malicious rumors about Vimalamitra. Specifically, the notices nailed to trees and pillars across Tibet claimed he was a black magician in possession of nefarious spells. Although the integrity and efficacy of the king’s plan can be questioned, we are told the desired effect was achieved when the “wicked ministers” of Tibet became fiercely suspicious of their newly arrived Indian guest. Vimalamitra did not help assuage their concerns when he entered Samye and, in the presence of Tri Songdetsen, prostrated to their prized stature of Vairocana and thereby turned it to ash. After being confined to his own personal “chamber,” Vimalamitra returned to the scene of the crime and reanimated the ashen pile, creating a resplendent statue that, perhaps importantly, had stronger Indian features. He then consecrated Samye.

After his miraculous displays, Tri Songdetsen became convinced that Vimalamitra was the right Buddhist master for the transmission job ahead of them. Vimalamitra stayed in Tibet and translated sūtras and tantras during the day. At night, he taught the Nyingtik to Tri Songdetsen, Nyang Tingdzin Zangpo and others. Vimalamitra reportedly concealed four Nyingtik texts in the caves of Samye Chimpu (bsam yas 'chim phu).  After thirteen years in Tibet, he returned to Wutai Shan (ri bo rtse lnga) in China and achieved the rainbow body.

Given the diversity of texts attributed to Vimalamitra by the Tibetan tradition, it is notable that his hagiographies place a heavy emphasis on his Nyingtik teachings while never mentioning the provenance or lineages of his other works. Consequently, scholars have speculated that the biography of Vimalamitra was constructed, at least in part, to establish the validity and Indian provenance of the Nyingtik teachings. This fact, along with the problematic historicity of his life story, the continual changes made to his namtar, and the ever increasing number of works attributed to him, has led scholars to question the authenticity of many “Vimalamitra” texts.

Despite these concerns, the legitimacy of two of Vimalamitra’s works found in the early imperial catalogues of texts, The Extensive Commentary to the Heart Sūtra (shes rab snying po’i rgya cher 'grel pa) and The Commentary to the Seven Hundred Stanza Prajñāpāramitā (shes rab kyi pha rol du phyin pa bdun brgya pa'i 'grel pa), remains near certain. There is also a commentary on the Vinaya titled, The Extensive Commentary of Fifty Chapters on the Pratimokṣa Vows (so sor thar pa'i rgya cher 'grel pa bam po lnga bcu pa) that is listed in the imperial catalogues, though without an authorial citation. Eventually, however, at least by the time of Go Lotsāwa ('gos lo tsA wa, 1392-1481), it became attributed to Vimalamitra. He is also credited with having compiled the widely disputed, The Meaning of the Sudden Approach to Non-Conceptual Meditation (cig car 'jug pa’i rnam par mi rtog pa'i bsgom don), and The Meaning of the Gradual Approach to Meditation (rim gyis 'jug pa'i bsgom don), though neither is cited, nor appears in Tibetan catalogues before the fourteenth century.

Vimalamitra’s tantric teachers are usually considered to be Buddhaguhya (Mahāyoga), Jñānasūtra and Śrī Siṃha (Dzogchen). There are well over a dozen Mahāyoga commentaries bearing his name and he is said to have helped create the authoritative translation for the central text of the Māyājāla cycle, the Guhyagarbha Tantra. Vimalamitra is also believed to have composed a commentary on the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti and he is known for writing treatises on the Ambrosia deity (bdud rtsi lha). While there is not much evidence to say with certainty that he composed these Mahāyoga commentaries, some of them are quoted quite early on by the early-ninth-century Mahāyoga exegete, Nyen Pelyang (gnyan dpal dbyangs, d.u.).

Outside of Mahāyoga, Vimalamitra is purported to have written a commentary pertaining to Anuyoga practice and to have translated the last fifteen of the eighteen Semde (sems sde) Atiyoga tantra texts. He is often listed as central to the Longde (klong sde) transmission, and his collected treasures (Vimalamitra is believed to be among the first to be credited as a treasure concealers), found in the Bima Nyingtik, form the basis of an early development in the Menngakde (man ngag sde) tradition. In the Zanglingma (zangs gling ma) biography of Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra is said to have functioned as a bridge for all the dharma that was translated into Tibetan. This description seems particularly fitting.

Upon passing into the rainbow body, Vimalamitra promised to appear once every century in Tibet as an emanation. The first known emanation was Dangma Lhungyel (ldang ma lhun rgyal, d.u.), who unearthed the hidden teachings of Vimalamitra before giving them to Chetsun Sengge Wangchuk (lce btsun seng ge dbyang phyug, d.u.).

Zhangton Tashi Dorje (zhang ston bkra shi rdo rje, b.1097), believed by some scholars to be the author of The Extensive History of the Heart Essence of the Great Perfection, also discovered the treasures of Vimalamitra after meeting him in a vision. In addition, Kumaradza (rig 'dzin ku mA rA dza, 1266-1343), the teacher of Longchen Rabjam (klong chen rab 'byams, 1308-1364), the great Nyingma master largely responsible for systematizing the treasure teachings of Vimalamitra in the Bima Nyingtik, is said to be an emanation of Vimalamitra. Also of note, the famous nineteenth-century scholar, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo ('jam dbyangs mkhyen brtse'i dbang po, 1802-1893) is believed to have been the combined emanation of Vimalamitra and Tri Songdetsen


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Joel Gruber
March 2012