Remembering the Lotus Born

Padmasambhava in the History of Tibet's Golden Age

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Daniel Hirshberg
  • Somerville, MA: 
    Wisdom Publications
    , October
     470 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Daniel A. Hirshberg’s Remembering the Lotus Born invites us into the world of Nyangrel Nyima Öser (1124-92), a seminal—yet hitherto under-studied—figure for classical Tibetan Buddhism. Nyangrel was the architect of several of the foundational features of Tibetan religion, and was responsible for much of how Tibetans have come to imagine their Buddhist culture’s origins. As the first of the “Five Treasure Kings,” Nyangrel is best known for his production of several voluminous revelation scriptures (Tib. gter ma, lit. “treasure”), which have come to undergird the Nyingma denomination’s distinctive suite of doctrines and practices. But, as Hirshberg shows, Nyangrel was also critical in the development of several other dimensions of Tibetan Buddhism, including the role of reincarnation theory in authenticating exegetical lineage, the curation of a distinctive version of Tibetan history, and the authorship of the first major hagiography of Padmasambhava: the tantric ritualist who, thanks to Nyangrel, is thought by Tibetans to be responsible for the final religious conversion of Tibet in the eighth century. Hirshberg succeeds in demonstrating how these aspects of Nyangrel’s deeply creative oeuvre each participated in an overarching orientation towards authenticating new directions for the Nyingma denomination—and for Tibetans altogether—via the retrieval of an imagined past. Remembering the Lotus Born helps us appreciate the astonishing fact that virtually everything Tibetans have come to accept about their religious history was refracted through the work of this one visionary individual in the twelfth century.

Hirshberg provides the first sustained scholarly treatment of Nyangrel Nyima Öser’s life, walking us through a comparison of two biographical sources recording the adept’s life and times. These are, ostensibly, the two earliest major biographies of a Tibetan “treasure revealer” (Tib. gter ston), and they provide a template for later hagiographic treatments of similar Buddhist figures in Tibet. Hirshberg leverages a comparison of these two biographies, not to adjudicate the historical “reality” of Nyangrel and his works—Hirshberg is quite careful to avoid the scholastic debunking route, preferring to interrogate how literary and hagiographic conceits came to be meaningful—but rather, to trace the development of several of the concepts that Nyangrel’s story came to represent. Chief of these is the deployment of reincarnation theory to authorize scriptural production and exegetical lineage. Nyangrel seems to be the first adept in Tibet to recall his pre-incarnations, and to use his self-proclaimed identity as the reincarnation of the eighth-century Tibetan emperor, Trisong Detsen, to justify the production of apocryphal scriptures with alleged ties to the imperial period, and to Padmasambhava’s activities during the conversion of Tibet. Hirshberg also shows how one of Nyangrel’s lineal descendants—Guru Chokyi Wangchuk (1212-1270)—furthered the argument by claiming to be the reincarnation of Nyangrel, despite the fact that Nyangrel declared himself to be the last incarnation in his line. We, thus, see how the propagation of specific doctrinal lineages came to be sanctioned in a system of “catenate” reincarnation—a template that would become absolutely central to the design of Tibetan institutions, including that of the Dalai Lama.

Hirshberg also addresses Nyangrel’s career as the recoverer of imperial-era scriptures. Closely comparing revelation accounts in the two biographies of Nyangrel, Hirshberg sheds light on inconsistencies and lacunae between the two sources, not to invalidate their utility but rather, to give us a glimpse into the construction of tradition. Hirshberg shows how these sources, with their incompatibilities, reflected changing conceptions of the nature of treasure revelation, and how these specific works came to undergird what would eventually become a coherent tradition for understanding the production of apocryphal scriptures. Of value here is Hirshberg’s argument that early “treasure recovery” was idiosyncratic and unsystematic, in contrast to later perspectives, which hold revelation to highly regularized techniques and standards. It was only in the centuries following Nyangrel that modes of revelation and criteria for authenticity became standardized, and Hirshberg diligently warns us throughout this book against uncritical acceptance of the normative rhetoric of tradition, which so often obscures the variegation of its own foundations.

Hirshberg’s careful reading and contextualization of these sources also reveals the diversified labor behind early treasure recovery, observing that “Nyangrel employed his talents as an archeologist, researcher, tradent, author, and tantric adept in his quest to reconstruct the shattered relics of his patrilineal and reincarnate inheritance, not only into cohesive collections of tantric praxis but into new perspectives on Tibet’s collective past” (139). In other words, treasure revelation in the time of Nyangrel was a creative act of selective editing, tradency, curation, and even physical labor, all in the service of a broader set of goals. Based on his close textual analyses, Hirshberg ultimately suggests that the productio of revelation literature at the time of Nyangrel involved the active construction of coherent corpora around core fragments, which may have actually been concealed imperial-aged documents, reminding us that the authorship in Nyangrel’s context was a far more inclusive and diverse affair than we might have imagined it.

Hirshberg finally turns to Nyangrel’s historical and hagiographic writing to fill out the picture of Nyangrel’s contributions to Tibetan conceptions of their sacred history. Hirshberg uses detailed textual analysis to determine that Nyangrel’s history of Buddhism, The Essence of Flowers, was an amalgam of several contributions over several centuries. Hirshberg’s work is a case study in close textual analysis, as he examines orthographic, stylistic, and physical evidence to piece together a recensional history of these texts. The concern here is less with uncovering the “true” Nyangrel but rather, with observing how Nyangrel may have operated in his literary endeavors towards accomplishing specific goals for himself and his community, and how his memory was leveraged to further legitimate his Nyingma denomination.

Hirshberg leaves us with the conclusion that the work of Nyangrel weaved history, memory, visionary experience, and lore into a specific vision of history, and one community’s place within it. While this complex weave, and the methods used to achieve it, were regularized into modes of normative tradition by Nyangrel’s lineal descendants, Hirshberg has done much to give us a glimpse into the messy, creative, and mysterious ways that one exegete can be, at once, an “architect of his identity and the product of his time” (201).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Nicholas Trautz is a doctoral candidate in Sino-Tibetan religions at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
August 9, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Hirshberg is assistant professor in the department of classics, philosophy, & religion at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.