Nyingma Gyubum

WHY WE DO WHAT WE DO: Nyingma Gyubum (རྙིང་མ་རྒྱུད་འབུམ་) or the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma School is a canonical collection of esoteric tantric texts which are mostly left out of the bipartite Himalayan Buddhist canon of Kagyur and Tengyur. It contains esoteric teachings believed to have been delivered by a Buddha in this world or in a celestial realm. Claimed to be authentic translations created during the Early Propagation of Buddhism into Tibet of the Indic texts, which are now mostly lost, Nyingma Gyubum has a revered canonical status in Bhutan’s religious tradition.

The Compilation

The tantras in Nyingma Gyubum are said to have been left out of Kagyur due to their questionable status as translations of authentic Indian originals. Some Tibetan scholars rejected many of the Nyingma tantras as apocryphal writings composed in Tibet. This most likely led to the compilation of the Nyingma Gyubum as a separate canonical collection. Nevertheless, the question of Indic origin of the Nyingma tantras and the relationship between Nyingma Gyubum and Kagyur is a complex issue. Despite criticism from some scholars, most masters from Nyingma and also other traditions accepted the importance of Nyingma tantras and included them in some of the Kagyur editions. We can also find some tantras shared by both collections. Thus, although Nyingma Gyubum has never fully been incorporated into the standard Kagyur set, it has been passed down as a parallel canon of tantras, which supplemented and sometimes also overlapped with Kagyur.

The compilation of the core texts of Nyingma Gyubum may have begun as early as the 11th century but it was in the 13th century that a proper Nyingma Gyubum was published as funerary rites for Nyangral Nyima Ozer (1124-92). Since then, scholars estimate a couple hundred versions of the Nyingma Gyubum, including the woodblock prints of Derge, have been produced in Himalayas but most of theses versions were lost. Today, only five versions of Nyingma Gyubum are known to exist outside of Bhutan. In Bhutan, there are five versions including two in Gangteng, one in Tshamdrak, one in Drametse, which was originally produced in Tsakaling and one in Dongkarla, which was produced in Khaling. The sixth manuscript of Nyingma Gyubum in Pagar temple was destroyed by fire in 2012.

The Composition

Nyingma Gyubum is made up of esoteric tantric texts belonging to the system of teachings known as the Unsurpassable Vehicle or Inner Tantra in Vajrayana Buddhism. Although the canon is generally purported to consist of transmitted scriptures, which were translated from ancient Indic originals, it also contains later additions of tantras which are rediscovered texts revealed by treasure-discoverers such as Nyangral, Dorji Lingpa, Ratna Lingpa, et al. This has no doubt further complicated the canonical status of Nyingma Gyubum as a received corpus. The texts within the Nyingma Gyubum are organised according to the three tantric doxographical systems of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga, and they enshrine the highest philosophies and practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism as espoused by the Nyingma tradition.

Just like the Kagyur and Tengyur collections, Nyingma Gyubum is a cherished property in Bhutan and produced through much care using the best materials. It is treasured in a temple shrine room and venerated by the devotees. People bow before it and receive blessings from it. It is also read to help people overcome illness and misfortunes and paraded across the valley to bless the land. It is considered highly meritorious to create, commission, buy, own, carry, host, read and worship Nyingma Gyubum as it represents the swiftest and highest path to enlightenment. It is an important part of Bhutan’s rich textual heritage.

Dr Karma Phuntsho is the President of the Loden Foundation, director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’ Cultural Documentation and author The History of Bhutan.

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