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This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.

Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.

How did the Heruka get his wings? And why did the Guru have a feather in his
cap? Avian symbolism in rNying ma iconography.1
Robert Mayer, SOAS, February 16th, 2016.
[Slide 1. Raktayamri] Within Tantric or Vajrayna Buddhism, probably the most
important and prestigious objects of meditation and worship are a class of wrathful
male deities known as Heruka in Sanskrit, or khrag 'thung (literally, 'Blood Drinker')
in Tibetan. These are the great meditational deities that are represented in the famous
tantric scriptures, which are often known eponymously after the deity whose worship
they describe: Cakrasamvara, Hevajra, Klacakra, Yamri, and so on. The
iconography of such deities shares a lot with the cognate ferocious deities of Indian
aivism: often multi-armed and multi-legged, they dwell within a frightening
cemetery, ferocious, surrounded by flames, embracing a consort, kitted out kplika
style with only a tiger-skin apron, bone ornaments, and face-paints of cremation ash
and grease. In their hands they usually hold a blood-filled skull cup and often a
khavnga trident, along with sundry other weapons particular to each deity.
[Slide 2. Vajrakilaya] Yet in the influential and popular 'Ancient' or rNying ma school
of Tibetan Buddhism, we find something additional and different: while resembling
the classic Indian heruka deities in most respects, they display a prominent avian
symbolism as well.2 Most notably, the rNying ma herukas frequently have huge
wings attached to each shoulder. In addition, a divine bird called khyung, partly
indigenous but also identifiable with the Indian garua, can sometimes circle
overhead. Despite its widespread occurrence in Tibetan rNying ma, this kind of avian
iconography seems to have been vanishingly rare in Indian depictions of the Buddhist
herukas. It seems to be so rare in surviving evidence from south of the Himalayas, but
so widespread in Tibet, that we are compelled to inquire if its prevalence there might
signal a predominantly Himalayan and Tibetan inspiration. In this paper, I will begin
a preliminary investigation of the evidence surrounding this little understood avian
symbolism, and explore intriguing clues from the 10th century Dunhuang texts and
elsewhere, that might help us understand how, when, why, and from whom, the
Tibetan herukas acquired their wings.
rNying ma herukas have wings
A unique feature of the rNying ma pantheon is the organisation of its heruka deities
into rationalised sets, and this offers us an easy way to approach the wide prevalence
of its distinctive avian symbolism.
[Slide 3 bka' brgyad] First are the 'Eight Pronouncement Deities', or Bka' brgyad,
which initially come to our attention in the revelations of the 12th century codifier of
1 My

thanks to Claudine Bautze-Picron, Gudrun Bhnemann, Cathy Cantwell, Brandon Dotson,

Sanjukta Gupta, Toni Huber, Janice Leoshko, Dan Martin, Charles Ramble, Anne de Sales, Geoffrey
Samuel, Alexis Sanderson, Pter-Dniel Sznt, Jay Valentine, Jeff Watt, Michael Willis, and.....for
their generosity in answering various queries, and offering comments and advice.
2 It has been known for some time that canonical rNying ma tantras from the NGB collection contain a
sprinkling of non-Indic materials: during my PhD research in the 1990's, I discovered that the 'go ba'i
lha lnga, for example, appear within the Phur pa bcu gnyis, as do some other indigenous categories
(Mayer 1994:...). I have been interested in this phenomenon ever since I first encountered it in the
1990's, but am only now beginning to consider how it might have developed. This paper is a start.

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.2
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
the rNying ma, Nyang ral nyi ma'i 'od zer (1124-1192). Attributed to Padmsambhava,
the legendary founder of the rNying ma tradition, this eightfold set of herukas became
the structuring device around which much of the rNying ma scriptural canon was
organised, and a recurrent theme throughout rNying ma literature. Iconographically
speaking, the Eight Pronouncement Deities are a set of eight almost identical herukas
whose main differences are in the implements they carry. Each has three heads, six
arms, four legs, and of course two wings, and they are represented with the thick
limbs and stocky bodies said to be typical of earlier Indian heruka iconography. There
are innumerable textual and visual depictions of these eight. [Here are a two
examples, from a set of eight thangkas.]
[Slide 4 Zhi khro] Secondly, there are the 'Hundred Peaceful and Wrathful Deities'
(zhi khro), derived from the famous Guhyagarbha tantra, but perhaps best known in
the West though its adoption in the bar do literature of death rituals, made famous by
W Y Evans Wentz in his mis-named 'Tibetan Book of the Dead'. Here again, in
numerous illustrations, one will find that the wrathful heruka deities have wings: yet
as I will point out later, possibly not because of what is written in the Guhyagarbha
tantra itself.
Indian herukas don't usually have wings
Yet few if any Indian herukas seem to have had wings (of course, there are a number
of winged deities in Indian iconography, such as those from 1st century BCE to 1st
century CE Chandraketugarh in Bengal (Bautze 1995: 33, 35), or the various forms of
Garua, but these are not herukas of the tantric period). I consulted a dozen leading
Indological specialists in tantric art and literature, but none were aware of winged
herukas in extant Sanskrit sources.3 I also consulted Jeff Watt, director of the
Himalayan Art Resources, after which he opened a Winged Deity page on the
Himalayan Art Resources website. [Slide 5 Demchog and Tamdrin Garuda] Yet out
of the scores of known Indic heruka deities preserved in Tibetan sources, the solitary
candidate Watt can find for a winged heruka of Indian origins is bDe mchog rdo rje
mkha lding (Vajragaruasamvara, HAR Item number 40418), a form of Samvara
combined with Garua, surrounded by a retinue of a further fifty deities in garua
form, from Tranthas sGrub thabs rin byung brgya rtsa (deity 228), and
transmitted in some dGe lugs and Jo nang pa traditions. It is said this tradition was
transmitted by Rwa lo ts ba rDo rje grags, which might indicate Indian rather than
Tibetan origins.4 However, in this case, the wings only appear because heruka is here
combined with garua: thus the wings derive from garua, and are not inherent to
heruka, as in so many rNying ma pa examples. Similarly there is a Hayagrva with
Garua Wings claimed to be of the Atia tradition (HAR Item Number 40354, rTa
mgrin khyung gshog can jo bo'i lugs), but it is not yet clear if this is really of Indian
Avian symbolism in non-Buddhist Tibetan culture

Alexis Sanderson was able to point me to a minor aiva female deity who has wings:
Mantramarik Pratyagir from the Jayadrathaymalatantra, aka 3, paala 10. Teun Goudriaan and
Sanjukta Gupta (1981: 115) mention a winged aiva Bhairava, kabhairava, which is particularly
worshipped in Nepal, but Sanjukta Gupta now tells me that she long ago concluded this form is of
Himalayan rather than Indian origins (personal communication, 16th November 2015).
According to the notes attached to TBRC Resource ID T711

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.3
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
To test our hypothesis that the inspiration for the rNying ma herukas' wings might be
as much Himalayan or Tibetan as Indian, we need to identify pertinent avian
symbolism prevalent at the time within those regions. In this respect, one can easily
become a little overwhelmed by the sheer variety and volume of data that might
support the hypothesis. Broadly similar avian symbolism seems to have occured
widely within elite and popular levels of Tibetan and Himalayan religion alike.
Beyond Tibet and the Himalayas, cognate avian symbolism also seems to have
existed across many Iranian, Central, and Inner Asian cultural contexts, as well as in
China, again occuring at both elite and popular levels. For the purposes of this paper,
it is not necessary to speculate on the historical diffusion patterns or interelatedness or
otherwise of these numerous instances of avian symbolism: all we need to know is
that when Buddhism came to the high Himalayas and Tibet, it in all likelihood
encountered a widespread avian religious symbolism. Nevertheless, much of the
evidence still remains obscure, for Dunhuang and other early Tibetan texts have
numerous avian references that still require further analysis. Moreover, some early
avian symbolism might have Indian cognates, complicating the question of its origins,
even though we can nevertheless see that it often played a far more prominent role in
Tibetan ritual than in Indian. A case in point are the innumerable origin myths based
on eggs, which can be found in many different contexts, ranging from ritual manuals
to family lineage histories, and which were once the most widespread type of origin
myth in Tibet. Although, as Kapstein points out, they might in some respects
resemble the Indian idea of hiranyagarbha (Kapstein 2006: 33) in Tibet their function
is broader and their pervasion wider .
[Slide 6 Khyung] Likewise we can mention the sacred horned bird, the khyung, which
became conflated and identified with the Indian garua, but likewise with a far
broader pervasion and ritual function. The word khyung can equally be used to
signify an eagle, or some other large and powerful bird. The khyung was one of the
most central symbols of pre-Buddhist Tibetan religion, and was seen as an important
ancestor figure, especially for the leading Khyung clan who took its name. It featured
prominently on royal insignia, notably on the crowns of the legendary early monarchs
of Zhang zhung, who were called generically the bya ru can kings, meaning the kings
with khyung feathered crowns (Vitali 2008). Religiously, the khyung can also be on
different occasions a protective deity, a mountain deity, a war deity, or a symbol of
spiritual progress. It had innumerable functions within ritual, including that of guide
for the dead (Bellezza 2012).5 This term bya ru, literally 'bird or khyung horns', occurs

Bellezza elaborates: "The Bon religion (and Tibetan Buddhism to a lesser degree) has also preserved
a native form of the horned eagle. This khyung is a genealogical deity and uranic protective spirit. The
most celebrated ancestral khyung is said to have appeared in Zhang Zhung as the divine progenitor of
the Khyungpo tribe. Early human representatives of the Khyungpo are credited with founding the first
temples (gsas-mkhar) of Zhang Zhung. It is generally believed by Bonpo that the Khyungpo migrated
east into Kham (where its various branches are now very common), but when this might have taken
place is not clear. The best known defender khyungs are in the form of divine mountains (lha-ri) and
warrior spirits (dgra-lha). This type of khyung is thought to have been the ally of ancient adepts and
kings. To this day, Tibetan spirit-mediums are said to have khyungs that watch over and aid them
during trance ceremonies. The ubiquitous reach of the khyung as an ancestral totem and spirit comrade
deeply influenced the material culture of ancient Tibet. The horns of the khyung are recorded as being
the paramount symbol of sovereignty for the kings of Zhang Zhung. Ancient Bon priests are reputed to
have worn robes and hats of khyung feathers and to have had magical instruments and armaments made
from the body parts of these great birds. The khyung also lent its name to numerous toponyms in the
Tibetan world. Perhaps the most famous of these is Khyunglung Ngulkhar, Zhang Zhungs capital. So
vital was the khyung that one Bon tradition claims it gave its old name (zhung [-zhag]) to Zhang

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.4
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
several times in Dunhuang texts, to indicate bird feathers placed ritually on the head
(Bellezza 2013: 69 note 90; 230; Huber 2013: 278-9).6 In contemporary East Bhutan,
we find the gShen priests of the Srid pa'i lha Bon tradition, which Huber
(forthcoming) argues was very likely the ancestral religion of the Shar Dung
populations in southern lHo-brag, prior to their mid-14th century dispersal
southwards. These particular Bon priests continue to place bird feathers in the same
way, using the same terminology of bya ru (Huber 2013: 279). As we shall see later
on, after a decade of intensive research, Huber has concluded that this tradition
represents a ritual system that is very ancient, and once existed across a much wider
area (Huber 2013: 279).
[Slide 8 Mokotoff ms bird pics] Within ancient texts, we again find associations of the
Tibetan royalty with bird-like ancestors (e.g. Old Tibetan Chronicles lines 37-51; see
Hill 2006) , while Brandon Dotson tells me birds and their wings also feature
prominently in the Dunhuang divinatory texts as well (personal communication,
November 4th, 2015). Any search through Dunhuang non-Buddhist materials will
throw up numerous bird references, many of them still little understood. Turning to
the more recently discovered early non-Buddhist manuscripts such as the Mokotoff
manuscript (Bellezza 2013: 15-114), notably in relation to ancient funerary rites, we
find many ritual descriptions of birds, as well as numerous beautiful illustrations of
birds, what appear to be bird wing wands for ritual use, feathered headgears, and other
ritual items with avian symbolism.
[Slide 9 Bon phur pa thangka] The avian theme continues into the later canonical Bon
scriptures, such as the Ka ba nag po, root text for the huge Bon Phur pa tradition,
which was revealed by a 12th century native of lHo brag, Khu tsha zla 'od. Its entire
and important Chapter Six is dedicated specifically to hawk deities, and a great deal
of further avian symbolism is contained within other chapters too. A thangka was
specially commisioned by Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung to represent precisely the
mandala exactly as described in the Ka ba nag po, and we can confirm that it does so,
because we have studied the text carefully. It shows no less than fifty pairs of wings,
depicted upon various types of deities. [Slide 10 Khon Phur pa] By comparison, the
Phur Chen of Sa skya pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan (1312-1375), the principal ritual
text of the 'Khon lugs Phur pa of the Sa skya school, which claims to be the oldest
Buddhist Phur pa tradition, and which we have studied equally carefully, does not

Zhung. Finally, in this brief survey, mention must be made of the khyungs archaic funerary function as
a pyschopomp."
Huber writes: "For example, PT 1136, 28 has dbul [>dbu la] bya ru khyung ru ni btsugs for a horse as
the subject; cf. also PT 1134, 118: glad la ru btags sna bya ru ong ong; PT 1194, 45: cha yang gsas
kyi glad la bya ru khyung ru 'ong ong, all cited from versions at OTDO. This meaning does crop up in
the context of g.Yung-drung Bon, for example bya ru used as a head-piece of a priest in the Rgyal rabs
bon gyi 'byung gnas; see Martin 1991: 125, Martin 2001: 195, and Vitali 2008: 388-392. See
Zhangzhung: 164, bya ru = bya khyung gi rwa." (Huber 2013: 279, note 54)
According to Dan Martin's PhD thesis (Tibeto-Logic blog, June 16 2010, 'Birdhorns'), in other contexts,
the term bya ru can refers to horn like protuberances on the head or headgear that are not literally
feathers; yet Huber's contemporary fieldwork reports the term used literally to mean feathers. Thus he
writes: "Dan Martin and Roberto Vitali have both investigated the g.Yung-drung Bon context and
concluded that there it refers to a type of finial ornament or symbol atop a mchod-rten shrine, and/or a
crown ornament for rulers....Be that as it may, the term bya ru in the context of Srid- pai lha Bon
always only refers to birds feathers planted (btsugs, the invariable verb here) directly upon the top
of the head.." (Huber 2013: 279). Similarly Bellezza's philological analysis of old texts likewise
understands the term literally to refer to feathers placed on the head or headgear (Bellezza 2008: 506-7;
2013: 69 note 90; 230).

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.5
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
mention wings at all in the main descriptions of the iconography;7 nevertheless,
despite the lack of textual support, the several officially commisioned thangkas do
show a more modest sixteen pairs of wings (see for example HAR item number
73510). rNying ma gter ma traditions can record slightly more than sixteen pairs, but
I do not recall one that has as many as fifty pairs.
[Slide 11 Huber feathered headgear front and back] Toni Huber (personal
communications, November 2015) offers a geographical perspective to avian
symbolism. He reports that birds, bird identities, bird metaphors, bird mimicry and
bird body parts are absolutely central to the cult of what he refers to as the 'shamanic'
Srid-pa'i lha Bon priests of modern Eastern Bhutan, whom he has worked on for
many years (the term 'shamanic' is of course highly contested, but in this article, for
reasons of convenience, I shall without further analysis follow Huber's well
considered usage, which is shared with other noted anthropologists of the Himalayas
such as Michael Oppitz). What he adds, and I think this is significant to our
discussion, is that wherever one finds 'shamanic' ritual specialists all along the eastern
Himalayas and along the far eastern Marches of the Tibetan Plateau, the same avianthemed cultural patterns are found. More interesting still, these share a range of
cognate features with Siberian 'shamanic' ritual specialists across north Asia. The
pattern in all cases is that the shaman/priest is a "bird" who can fly to the upper world,
and is thus always marked in one way or another with bird attributes of various kinds,
including feathered headgear and magic wands made of a bird wing or of bird
feathers. He emphasises that these parallels constitute a distinctive set of far-reaching
continuities which occur all along the eastern Himalayas, the eastern Tibetan Plateau
Marches and up into Siberia; and that this set has a wide collection of parallel
reference points, not merely individual isolates. Huber believes the oldest sources
illustrating this cultural pattern are the 10th century or earlier Tibetan Dunhuang
materials, for example, PT 1289 (v3, 12) where the great Bon guru gShen rab holds
'wing feathers' in his right hand. In his forthcoming book, Source of Life. Bon
Religion in East Bhutan and the Mon-yul Corridor, Huber will demonstrate in detail
the continuity of specific content between the ancient dGa'-thang Bum pa Bon
manuscripts, 15th century Tibetan g.Yung drung Bon texts, and present-day
manuscripts used in the Srid-pa'i lha Bon cult of Eastern Bhutan. He writes, "There is
some serious demonstrable time depth here, and I am convinced we are looking at
very long-standing patterns" (personal communications, November 2015). In other
words, Huber's analysis adds powerful evidence from contemporary ethnography, to
the conclusions already arrived at by half a century of philology, suggesting that avian
symbolism was fundamental to the religious traditions encountered by Buddhism
when it first arrived in Tibet and much of the Himalayas. This seems to have been
equally the case for elite and popular traditions.
A problem particular to Bon canonical materials is that while they might preserve
particular symbolisms of non-Buddhist origins, their meanings and contexts have
often changed over time, as non-Buddhist religions continued to interact with
Buddhist views and practices. Hence original meanings and contexts are now often
quite obscure.

The visualisation of the root mandala in folio 15 mentions no wings; likewise the section on
praising and enjoining in folios 35b-36a, which precisely describes the deity form, describes no
wings. Nevertheless, the thangkas claiming to be made exactly in conformity with the text of the
Sa skya Phur chen, do show sixteen pairs of wings.

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.6
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
Bird's Wing Wands
To negotiate this vast and little known terrain, I am therefore going to choose just one
item from pre-Buddhist beliefnot entirely at random, because it is one which has
left us some vestiges of textual evidence. I have no certain way of proving it was in
any way a relevant antecedent for the herukas wings, nor do I envisage a monocausal
hypothesis that just one item inspired the wings of the rNying ma heruka. In
introducing it here, my main aspiration is to stimulate wider discussion of the so far
inadequately explored but truly fascinating and important field of Bon impact on
Buddhist tantrism. To move the discipline forward at this juncture calls for the taking
of some intellectual risk, and in that spirit, I propose this hypothesis.
[Slide 12 Bird Wing Wands, Huber's fig 9 p.281, & Mokotoff ms] This item is the
bird's wing wand. Huber points out that shamanic ritual specialists right across the
Eastern Himalayas, across the Eastern Tibetan marches, and even up into Siberia,
often carry ritual wands made either from a complete bird's wing, or from bird's
feathers. The reason for this is that most such ritual specialists have bird beings to act
as their magical auxiliaries, so that the wands are used to represent these auxiliary
beings and their powers. Huber has documented the continuing use of a bird feather
wand in local Tibeto-Burman-speaking highland communities throughout the
extended eastern Himalayas (Huber 2013: 282-283). Huber's upcoming magnum
opus Source of Life. Bon Religion in East Bhutan and the Mon-yul Corridor is set to
argue that this and related ritual symbolism reveals a close continuity with preBuddhist Tibetan religion, a conclusion based on the comaprison of his many years of
ethnographic research with several Dunhuang texts. There is in fact plentiful
evidence to connect the contemporary Bon practices Huber has described, with
ancient literary sources. To take just one example, in one image (Huber 2013: 281,
fig. 9), Huber shows a priest from Arunachal, who must always carry a bird feather
wand as a vital accoutrement during ritual performances. It must hang over his right
shoulder and down his back, as if providing rear wings to his body. It compares
interestingly with a deity wielding what appears to be two bird feather wands, from an
illustration in the 11th century Mokotoff funerary mansucript (Bellezza 2013: 34).8
The bird's wing wand must be quite old, because it is clearly attested in the Dunhuang
texts PT. 1194 (Bellezza 2008: 506, 642). Yet knowledge of it is also contemporary,
because it occurs prominently in a current g.Yung drung Bon funerary texts Mu-choi
khrom-dur, where it is known as bya-gshog phyag-cha, or phyag-mtshan gshog-pa.9
8 The

wands are described as dbal, a widespread Bon description for a sharp or powerful ritual tool. It
is interesting that in the main root tantra of the Bon Phur pa tradition, the probably 12th century Ka ba
nag po, the phur pa, which is likewise described as dbal, can be made of bird feathers, which is not
generally the case in its Buddhist counterparts. Chapter 5 of the Ka ba nag po thus describes the main
Bon Phur pa deity 'Brug gsas chem pa as follows: phyag drug g.yas g.yon gnyis kyi dang po na/ 'dab
chags khyung dang rgod kyi kha nang nas/ gdug pa khra dang glag gi gshog phur byung/ '[Thus,] in
the left and right hands of the first pair of his six arms, From out of the mouths of garua and vulture
bird species, Come phurpas [made from] dangerous hawks and vultures quills.' Khenpo Tenpa
Yungdrung commented: "just as in the cases below, where the phurpas are made from leg bones or
meteoric iron, here the phurpas are made from quills of the wing feathers of these birds."
9 Dan Martin discusses the provenance of the Mu-choi khrom-dur in a recent blog. Its history is not
yet clear, although he and Samten Karmay have so far found references to 19th and 20th century
Treasure texts of that name. See: . Bellezza argues quite persuasively and at some length that the funeral rites of the Mu choi
khrom dur still retain significant features found in earlier funerary sources, such as Dunhuang texts
(Bellezza 2008: 497-499).

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.7
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
In the words of Charles Ramble,
Birds are very important in Bon, as indeed are wings even when theyre
detached from the birds. In most cases the wings arent just decorative but
have a specified function. In the Mu choi khrom dur literature they and
birds are used to transport the soul of the dead. In composite chimera-type
divinities they are some form of weapon or have some other meaning.
(personal communication, 19th November, 2015).
The major existing work on these literary sources comes from Bellezza (2008), who
presents both the original Tibetan texts, and his own translations and interpetations.
Bellezza believes, I think quite reasonably, that the bird's wing wand was a central
ritual implement in pre-Buddhist funerary rituals (Bellezza 2008: 429).
Descriptively, we learn that the bird's wing wand was a complex instrument. It was
essentially a birds wing, decorated with a variety of ritually significant adornments
such as streamers and pins, and wielded by means of a handle, which was itself
ritually significant (Bellezza 2008: 433).
While in the Dunhuang sources a lammergeyer's wing alone is indicated, in the extant
g.Yung drung Bon canonical funerary text Mu-choi khrom-dur, the lammergeyer
wing is reserved for the funerals of honourable elders only, while other types of bird
wings are prescribed for deceased persons of other (perhaps less prestigious) social
categories (Bellezza 2008: 506ff). In both sources, a variety of ritual decorations for
the wing are described, some of which are common to both. In the Mu-choi khromdur, the handle's ritual properties are also described in more detail. Both sources also
describe at length how the different sections of the wing were held to have different
ritual properties. (Bellezza 2008: 506ff).
Conceptually, the bird's wing wand had a function of showing and conveying the
deceased person along their path, and clearing their way from obstacles such as
harmful spirits. Thus in the Dunhuang text, we learn how the different ritual
ornaments attached to the wing each function in specific ways to help guide the dead
person onwards. The Mu-choi khrom-dur adds to these functions the bringing
together of the bla and the thugs, two aspects of the deceased mind that need to be
prevented from straying apart from one another. (Bellezza 2008: 506ff). We are
fortunate that three versions of the bird's wing wand ritual origin myth, or smrang,
still survive, two from the Mu-choi khrom-dur and one from PT. 1194.10 However,
the Dunhuang text in fact preserves only the origin myth, with no other material, so
that while this offers us a greater conceptual understanding, it also offers less specific
ritual detail than we might have liked for purposes of comparison.
Possible connections between the bird's wing wand and the heruka's wings
Now as I said before, I have no idea at all if the bird's wing wand was in any way
directly relevant to the rNying ma heruka's wings. But sometimes the work of a
scholar entails taking risks and asking difficult questions, if only to see where they
might lead us. So what possible points of convergence might there be?
(i) From the Dunhuang text PT. 1194, which is a funerary text, we can see that a
mortuary connection is shared quite prominently. The Buddhist heruka is first and
foremost a kplika deity, that is, a deity who inhabits a charnel ground, and who
wears the uniform of the Indian charnel ground dweller. Being a charnel ground deity

Such origin myths are a standard feature of indigenous Tibetan religion, and are narrated in relation
to almost every ritual practice, to explain how and why the ritual arose, and why it can be relied upon.
As well as still being used in Bon, they also became a widespread and continuing feature of rNying ma

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.8
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
is absolutely central to his ritual and iconographic identity, and no mere detail.
Correspondingly, the bird's wing wand is a highly significant ritual implement of the
famous pre-Buddhist funeral ceremonies.
(ii) It seems also to be the case that both the bird's wing wand and the Heruka's wings
can be closely associated with summoning magical helpers or auxiliaries. As we have
mentioned above, Huber observes that his Himalayan ritualists have birds or bird-like
beings to act as their magical auxiliaries, and wing representations or feather wands
are used to represent these magical auxiliaries and their powers.
This might also be what is intended in the Dunhuang text on the bird's wing wand,
PT1194. For example, in verse (iv) we are told 'these were the wings of the lha and
sras [divinities]'. In verse (vii), the final verse, it declares "The power of the lha-gsas
was very great." Like Bellezza I find these verses too terse to be easily translateable.
(Bellezza 2008: 509-510).11
The g.Yung drung Bon Mu-choi Khrom-dur quite clearly associates the bird's wing
wand with auxiliary deities, which, according to Bellezza's interpretation (2008: 395)
primarily functions here as a powerful instrument to summon the gods. As the text
declares, "if the origins (smrang) of the hand-tool wing (phyag-mtshan gshog-khungs)
are not proclaimed (ma-smos), there is no method to invoke the winged lha and lha of
power" (Bellezza 2008: 407).
To achieve the summoning, a particular ritual gesture is also important. As the Muchoi Khrom-dur explains (Bellezza 2008: 430), "By raising the divine wing, the
armies of lha allies are marshaled; these will battle all demonic entities that threaten
the well-being of the ritualists".
One of our two earliest rNying ma sources for winged herukas quite closely concurs
with this gesture of raising the wing, and its function of causing auxiliary deities to
appear that will battle all demonic entities. The early Sa skya patriarch Grags-pa
rgyal-mtshan (11471216) propagated a rNying ma text he said he got from his father
Sa-chen Kun-dga sNying-po) (10921158), the rDo rje phur pa'i mngon par rtogs
pa, which they claimed descended to them through a direct lineage from
Padmasambhava. Here each of a series of ten winged herukas have magical
zoocephalic helper emanations on either side, who are miraculously made to appear
by means of the raising of the male heruka's wings. Thus magical auxiliaries with
fangs are made to appear when the herukas raise their right wings and winged magical
auxiliaries with claws or talons are made to appear when the herukas raise their left
wings.12 (Grags pa rgyal mtshan: 1968: 179; 1992-3: Vol. 8 pp 723-724).
(iii) Another interesting comparison can be made between the handles of the bird's
wing wand, and the dang ru or 'collar bone', the point at which the rNying ma
heruka's wings are joined to his body. Both are ritually very significant. In the Muchoi Khrom-dur, for example, the handle of the bird's wing wand is described as the
meeting point of heaven and earth. In rNying ma texts the 'collar bones', or the points
at which the heruka's wings are joined to his body, are often specified as separate
symbolic entities, with their own ascribed spiritual and iconographic qualities. It is
not impossible that we might find some cognate parallels here.

(Bellezza 2008: 643) verse iv) /te lha dang gsas gyi gshog / verse vii) lha gsas gyi nan thu (mod. =
nus mthu) yang che smo
12 Grags pa rgyal mtshan 1992-3: Vol. 8 pp 723-724): pho nya mche ba can rnams g.yas kyi gshog
'degs pa'o/ sder mo can thams cad yab kyi g.yon gyi gshog 'degs pa'o. For a further discussion of these
zoocephalic deities, and their possible relationships to Bon, see Cantwell and Mayer 2015.

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.9
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
(iv) In the Dunhuang, later Bon, and rNying-ma sources alike, the wings are highly
differentiated according to situation and function. The Dunhuang text PT 1194
differentiates between right wings and left wings, and between white, black, and
yellow lammergeyer wings, to be used for different versions of wands appropriate for
different occassions. Similarly, the Mu-choi Khrom-dur specifies twelve different
kinds of birds whose wings should be used for persons of different social categories.
Likewise, the rNying ma texts differentiate their heruka's wings according to various
ritual criteria. Thus Nyang Ral in his bDe gshegs 'dus pa Phur pa root tantra
describes the right wing as made of vajras, and the left wing of jewels.13 This
definition is now very widespread, some would say, the standard representation. Yet
in fact it is by no means universal. For example, bDud 'joms Rinpoche in his
influential Gnam lcags spu gri gives the left dang ru or collarbone as made of jewels,
and the right collar bone of vajras, while the left wing itself has sword feathers, and
the right wing has razor feathers. Mag gsar in his Phur pa'i rnam bshad describes the
herukas of the five buddha familes as having wings made of of chakras, vajras, ratnas,
crossed vajras, and lotuses, while the four or five 'son' klas have their left collarbones
made of jewels, and their right collar bones made of vajra, but with vajra wings on the
right, and razor wings on the left (Mag gsar 2003: 224). There are a great many other
such variations too.
(v) More generally, as Huber points out, for the contemporary ritual specialists in his
ethnographic studies, wings represent the Bon 'shaman's' power of flight up into the
sky and back, to fetch the sky deities.14 In the ancient Dunhuang sources studied by
Bellezza, although difficult to translate, it seems likely that the wings serve as
weapons to banish evil forces, while conveying the soul of dead to good destinations.
Thus Bellezza describes the bird wing wand as "that powerful ritual implement used
as a weapon to dispel demons that attack the dead and as a viaduct for the regulation
of their consciousness principles" (Bellezza 2008: 506); and "as instrumental in
forging a physical pathway to heaven" (Bellezza 2008: 507): while I find Bellezza's
soteriological language of 'regulation of consciousness principles' and 'heaven' open
to question, I think we can at least agree with him in the ritual aspects, that the wings
were believed to dispel demons that attacked the dead, and help convey the dead to
suitable destinations. As Charles Ramble points out, especially in the numerous Bon
sources describing composite chimera-type divinities, wings frequently form some
sort of weapon (personal communication, 19th November, 2015).
All these functions are entirely acceptable symbols for a tantric Buddhist heruka.
Earliest evidence for winged herukas
[Slide 13 Page from Thabs zhags mentioning heruka wings] If one asks when wings
first appeared on Buddhist herukas, the answers are quite intriguing. As far as I am
13 See

folio 345v, line 5-6, of his bDe bar gshegs pa thams cad kyi 'phrin las 'dus pa phur pa rtsa ba'i
rgyud, chapter 1, in Volume Ya of the sGang steng b NGB (photo 230, 3rd page).
14 'Ritual practice consists of the accurate and systematic chanting of the rabs together with the actions
of rites often specified in the rabs, all aimed at bringing the deities down from the sky into a highly
purified environment, hosting them, gaining powers from them, and dispatching them upwards once
more. This process can often involve an elaborate verbal ritual journey undertaken by the priest up to
the thirteenth level of the sky and back, in order to invite and escort the deities. The main aspirations of
participants/sponsors during ritual is to gain various life powers directly from the sky deities while they
are temporarily on earth.' (Huber 2013: 264).

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
currently aware (and I am aware that more evidence might still come to light), the
very earliest evidence found so far for a winged Buddhist heruka is the Dunhuang text
IOLTibJ321. This is an 85 folio manuscript, containing the famous rNying ma tantra,
the Noble Lasso of Methods, or Thabs zhags, embedded as lemmata within its wordby-word commentary. Paleography dates this manuscript to the mid tenth century
(van Schaik 2013: 127), while text critical analysis of its scribal errors has shown that
the Dunhuang manuscript itself was already the result of at least two cycles of
recopying (Cantwell and Mayer 2012: 26-67). Statements in the main body of its
commentary, supported by others in the marginal notes, seem to indicate that the root
tantra itself (as opposed to the commentary) represents the revelations of
Padmasambhava (Cantwell and Mayer 2012: 91-98). And here, it seems for the first
time, we find the winged heruka described in Chapters 12 of the root tantra, 15 (and
thus of course also in the commentary) (Cantwell and Mayer 2012:171-172; 293300).
Yet it is interesting that another Dunhuang text of similar antiquity, (IOL Tib J 306),
which is neither attributed to Padmsambhava nor to anyone else, also describing a
rNying ma style heruka with three heads, six arms, and four legs, makes no mention
of any wings.
[Slide 14 Zhi khro thangka] More suprisingly still, nor does the famous Guhyagarbha
tantra, generally considered the most influential single text for the entire rNying ma
Mahyoga tradition. It too describes only the three heads, six arms, and four legs,
without mentioning any wings. This is surprising, because the Guhyagarbha tantra is
considered to be the root text for the hundred peaceful and wrathful deities, which as I
have already described, constitute one of the fundamental groupings of herukas within
the rNying ma pantheon, and which are very often (although not always) represented
as winged, throughout the voluminous art and literature. Clearly, the wings that are so
often associated with the Guhyagarbha's famous set of heruka deities, do not derive
directly from the main Guhyagarbha root tantra, but from some other, related
source.16 Like IOL Tib J 306, the Guhyagarbha root tantra is not attributed to
The other earliest source for a winged rNying ma heruka, which we have already
mentioned above, is the rDo rje phur pa'i mngon par rtogs pa, one of the very earliest
Sa skya texts on Vajrakilaya, which Grags pa rgyal mtshan got from his father Sa
chen Kun dga' snying po, and which was claimed to have originated with their
ancestor 'Khon klu'i dbang po's receipt of the transmission directly from
Padmasambhava. For this reason, the 'Khon lugs Phur pa is generally considered the
oldest and most faithful bka' ma tradition of Phur pa in Tibet: by contrast, most of the
rNying ma traditions are considered gter ma, or otherwise, bka' ma reconstructions
from a later date, based on the NGB texts. And the rDo rje phur pa'i mngon par rtogs
pa does indeed have wings.17 This is in agreement with many of the rNying ma

Folio 49r. 6, describing the central heruka: /dbus kyi khrag thung chen po ni / /dbu dgu phyag kyang
bco brgyad ste/ /gshog pa rdo rje gtams pa gdengs /; and in the next verse, describing his attendent
herukas: [49v.4] /de 'i dkyil 'khor khro bo ni / /dbu gsum phyag [5] drug gshog pa can /
I browsed through Klong chen pa's commentary Phyogs bcu mun sel, but have not so far found
wings there either.
Yet what is fascinating here is that later Sa skya texts, such as the vast and hugely detailed 17th
century Phur chen liturgy and commentary by 'Jam mgon A myes zhabs (15971659), do not describe
any wings. Phur chen p.15a.4 to 15b.5 describe the main deity, and no wings are mentioned. Amyes
zhab comments on this passage (page 284 lines 2 to 3) and here also does not mention any wings.
Nevertheless, officially commisioned and iconographically correct Sa skya thangkas do still typically
show sixteen pairs of wings, as we saw above.

This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
canonical tantras upon which the Sa skya ritual tradition claims to be based, which do
tend to describe the heruka as winged: see for example the Phur bu myang 'das
chapters four and nine, and the rDo rje khros pa chapter three (Cantwell and Mayer
2007: 135, 153, 244).
But the significant point here might be that our two earliest proven sources for the
winged heruka, the Dunhuang Thabs zhags manuscript and the rDo rje phur pa'i
mngon par rtogs pa, both claim Padmsambhava as their originator. This is in contrast
to the two other, equally old sources for the rNying ma heruka, PT306 and the
Guhyagarbha tantra, which neither have wings, nor any claimed link with
A feather in Padmasambhava's hat
What is more interesting still is that the two earliest sources for the winged heruka,
the Thabs zhags and the earliest Phur pa tradition, are portrayed in the Dunhuang
literature not merely as descending from Padmasambhava, not merely as being
transmitted by him, but, rather, as being redacted or even composed by him
(incidentally, these are also two out of only three tantric traditions credibly authorially
attributable to Padmasambhava; the third, the Man ngag lta 'phreng, does not describe
any iconography, so we don't know if it too envisaged winged herukas).
As already mentioned above, Padmasambhava's redaction or authorship is stated
clearly in IOLTibJ321, where he seems to be said to be the producer of the Thabs
zhags root tantra (Cantwell and Mayer 2012: 91-98). It is likewise made abundantly
clear in PT44, the well known Dunhuang rabs (indigenous Tibetan style ritual
narrative) that narrates the origins of the Phur pa tradition:18 so abundantly, that the
first modern study of this text, Bischoff and Hartman 1971, bore the slightly
exagerrated title, Padmasambhava's Invention of the Phur-bu: Ms. Pelliot Tibetain
44. More precisely, the main thrust of PT44 is to describe how Padmasambhava
achieved a comprehensive re-redaction of the Klaya materials he had procured from
Nland, adding extra protector deities to its maalas, and rearranging its texts.
Yet, intriguingly, we also get the impression that these redactions have been specially
made to suit the needs of Padmasambhava's Himalayan dispensation, because even if
this is only suggested implicitly for the Thabs zhags, it is quite explicit in PT44.19 A


PT44, like the structurally similar Dunhuang Padmasambhava text PT307, seems to represent the
adoption by the early Padmsambhava school of the distintively indigenous Tibetan ritual structure of
the smrang or rabs. I do not know of such a structure from Indian sources and am uncertain if it exists
on a comparable scale within the gSar ma traditions; nor have I so far found it elsewhere in Dunhuang
Buddhist texts other than in these two examples relating to Padmsambhava. However, it became a
standard strategy within later rNying ma, which continues to use the very same smrang/rabs narratives
described in PT44 and PT307, as well as other similar smrang/rabs. See Cantwell and Mayer: 2009.
19 For a detailed analysis of the various points in the text where Padmasambhava is mentioned
as producer of the Thabs zhags, see Cantwell and Mayer 2012: 87-98, especially 91-98.
In its redaction, the Thabs zhags root tantra (IOLTibJ321) took an already well known more
exoteric Yogatantra maala of deities as its basis, which it then develops into a more esoteric
Mahyoga system by introducing female consorts for the male deities, a separate maala of
wrathful female deities, and of course, the winged male heruka. An appropriately placed marginal
note then cites the famous Indian master of the more exoteric Yogatantras, ntigarbha, who
himself visited Tibet at the request of the Tibetan state, where he translated a famous Yogatantra
text that was extremely important in the late Imperial period, the Sarvadurgatipariodhana
tantra, and, according to some sources, also consecrated bSam yas monastery. ntigarbha is
described as commending and approving the new text, which constitutes a further more esoteric


This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
canonical Phur pa tantra, the Phur pa bcu gnyis, the title of which is mentioned in
Dunhuang sources, offers a kind of corroboration to the narrative of PT44, by
including within two of its chapters, the main redactive innovation that PT44
describes Padmsambhava as making to the Klaya tradition he received from India:
the introduction of new specifically Himalayan protector deities. Likewise, in similar
vein, PT307 describes Padmasambhava incorporating into the tantric Buddhist
pantheon, the indigenous deities that later became known as the brtan ma bcu gnyis.
Cathy Cantwell and I have already discussed these issues at length in previous
publications (Cantwell and Mayer 2013; 2009), so I won't go into detail here. I should
reiterate, however, that these two mandalas with winged herukas, the Thabs zhags and
Phur pa, are also the only two Tantric Buddhist systems specifically attributed to
Padmsambhava's redaction within the entire Dunhuang literature, and they are
simultaneously our two earliest known sources for the winged Heruka.
How are we to understand this Padmasambhava connection? What might make sense
of it all is the ingenious historical hypothesis proposed by Matthew Kapstein (2000:
155-160), which has the great advantage of fitting all known demonstrably old
sources of evidence for Padmsambhava: that is, the Dunhuang sources we have just
described, the various versions of the Testament of Ba, and the official Imperial
lexicographical text, the sGra sbyor bam po gnyis pa. On the basis of their evidence,
Kapstein proposes that Padmasambhava was a late 8th century Indian teacher of
esoteric tantrism who taught primarily in the Himalayan regions and the south of
Tibet (this because PT44 specfies Yang la shod in Nepal, Bumthang in the modern
Bhutan, and Lhobrag on the boundaries of modern Bhutan and Tibet, as areas of
activity of Padmasambhava's students, although the cave at Brag dmar near bSam yas
is also mentioned). However, Kapstein suggests, Padmasambhava was quite likely not
part of the official Tibetan imperial conversion program centred on bSam yas and
central Tibet, even if he visited there briefly. Nevertheless, his independent following
eventually became powerful enough that his tradition was within a generation or two
incorporated into the official versions of Buddhism, and increasingly so after his style
development of the Yogatantra tradition with which he is associated. And ntigarbha
respectfully attributes this development to Padmasambhava.
What makes these marginal notes historically interesting is that the late 8th century, the time
when ntigarbha and Padmasambhava lived and taught, was indeed the epoch of the advent of
kplika-flavoured tantrism within Buddhism, for which the Thabs zhags is a classic early
example. The late 8th century was thus precisely the period when Yogatantra materials were
increasingly beginning to be redacted and adapted, most specifically to include the distinctive
kplika elements that were henceforth to transform them into the variously called Yogottara,
Mahyoga, Yogin and Yoganiruttara materials of the more developed Vajrayna. And a striking
and salient feature of this process of transformation was its bold adoption and utilistation of non-
Buddhist materials, both Sanskritic and non-Sanskritic, in some cases to an extent seldom known
before in Indian Buddhism: indeed kplika iconography itself represented a wholesale adoption
by Buddhism of an originally aiva symbolic system. It might be that Padmasambhava repeated
this process by adopting Himalayan avian symbolism.
There is a further interesting point, so far little understood. At the end of the commentary,
Padmasambhava is praised in verse, as the pad ma rgyal po, the 'Lotus King'. Interestingly, this
verse was to remain current throughout later rNying ma hagiographical literature. The epithet
rgyal po, meaning King, is of particular interest, because from at least as early as the 12th
century, Padmasambhava is iconographically depicted in what Tibetan painters call, 'King
Appearance', which is normally used only for depicting Tibetan and Indian emperors, or a few
worldly protector deities known as 'King Spirits'. It is rare, perhaps unique, for a Buddhist
teacher like Padmsambhava, who was not a reigning monarch, to be depicted this way.


This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
of radical tantrism began to wax so fashionable in India and Tibet after the 9th and
10th centuries (Mayer 2016).
An additional beauty of Kapstein's theory, that is only now coming into view, is that it
places the historical Padmasambhava's main sphere of religious activity in exactly the
regions where Huber's Bon priests still practice a bird-oriented shamanism of
apparently great antiquity. Lho brag, the area specified in PT44 as the location of
Padmasambhava's tradition, is also exactly the area where, some centuries later,
Nyang ral and Chos dbang were to so greatly magnify Padmasambhava's cult, along
with its avian iconographies, codifying it into formulations that set the pattern for the
later rNying ma pa. It is also the area where Nyang ral and Chos dbang's great
contemporary, the polymath Khu tsha zla 'od, produced his own densely feathered
Bon Phur pa maala. The question then emerges, might Padmasambhava's attempts
to engage with the shamanic religion of this area some centuries earlier, account for
the avian elements evident in the traditions linked to him in PT44, IOLTibJ321, and
the earliest Sa skya Phur pa literature? This is not impausible. Indological studies
indicate that amongst the most salient features of Indian tantrism of the period was a
propensity to absorb and adapt useful elements from other ritual traditions.20
[Slide 15 13th Century Padmasambhava with vulture feather 'phru in hat compared
with very similar 11th cent. Mokotoff ms Od de gung rgyal, with feather 'phru in hat]
In this regard, we seem to find an even more suggestive peice of evidence, in the form
of Padmasambhava's enigmatic magical hat. In the classic Tibetan iconography,
Padmasambhava always sports a vulture's feather in his lotus hat, described as a
sacred headgear imbued with extraordinary miraculous powers. And this trope
continues through subsequent Tibetan Buddhism: the Bhutanese Raven Crown is a
well known example, and related surely are the vulture feathers that miraculously
sprouted from the head of Rig 'dzin rgod kyi ldem 'phru can (1337-1409), which were
said to be a sign of Padmasambhava's blessing. But as far as I am aware, a feathered
hat is not witnessed anywhere else within Indian siddha iconography, nor am I aware
of quite such an emphasis on a hat's miraculous powers within wider Indian
Vajrayna symbolism.21 Yet as Huber and others have pointed out, the wearing of
such a magical feathered headgear is ubiquitous amongst Himalayan shamans,
arguably constituting their most distinctive insignia of all, more so than the bird's
wing wand. It is also a tradition of great antiquity, traced in legend back to the bya ru
can monarchs of ancient Zhang zhung, and which is moreover witnessed in the
earliest Tibetan sources, such as the Mokotoff ms.
More remarkably still, PT 44 presents us with a curious narrative that has for many
years baffled Tibetologists and until now resisted all analysis, because it is no longer
part of the rNying ma narrative tradition. This narrrative tells us that Padmsambhava
actually stored the powerful protective deities within his magical hat, keeping them
there for prolonged periods of time, where they remained firmly under his control and
from where he could let them out when required. More specifically, the protective
deities that he kept in his hat were the local Himalayan goddeses that he had tamed at
Pharping in Nepal, and which he had then introduced into his reformulation of the
20 I

mentione above (footnote 1) that Teun Goudriaan and Sanjukta Gupta (1981: 115) mention a
winged aiva Bhairava, kabhairava, which Sanjukta Gupta tells me she believes is of Himalayan
rather than Indian origins (personal communication, 16th November 2015).
21 Yet this trope continues through subsequent Tibetan Buddhism: the Bhutanese Raven Crown is a
well known example. Related surely are the vulture feathers that miraculously sprouted from the head
of Rig 'dzin rgod kyi ldem 'phru can (1337-1409), which were said to be a sign of Padmsambhava's


This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
Vajraklaya maala he had received from Nland, as its new set of worldly
protector deities. Such a ritual use of a hat, as a store for powerful worldly protective
deities, is not something I have so far encountered elsewhere within Indian siddha
narratives. It is not typical of Indian Buddhist symbolic thinking, where only Buddhas
and other enlightened beings might dwell in the hat or head, but dangerous worldly
protector deities are far more likely to go on the feet or arms. And while almost all the
rest of the narrative of PT44 is continued within the later rNying ma tradition, this
particular but prominent detail, of Padmasambhava keeping the tamed deities in his
hat, seems to have subsided from view. Yet locating such Himalayan deities in the hat
does seem to be precisely the standard and ubiquitous pattern within Himalayan
'shamanism'. [back to slide 11, chaybo feathered headgear, p.281] As Toni Huber
wrote to me recently (personal communication, November 25th 2015):
'the hat or better 'headgear' of all Himalayan shamans and many in Siberia is
THE ritually potent item of costume. This is because it is the seat of the
hereditary auxiliary spirits, as well as other deities the shaman moves around
the cosmos during ritual journeys...My book will contain many pages (heavily
illustrated) discussing aspects of shaman's headgear for these reasons, and
feathers or bird wings feature on many, many Himalayan examples.22
Yes, the feather headgear represents a ritual defense against negative forces,
but the material culture of feathers is only really framed in this manner
because [feathers] are directly associated with the auxiliary spirits. Bya-ru [i.e.
feathers] empowered by the auxiliaries of Bon shamans are still placed upon
the crown of the head (and on the hat if a layperson wears one) of ritual
participants in my research region to protect vitality for the same reason, as
well as elsewhere in the eastern Himalayas where shamans still function (the
Mishmi Hills, for instance). From this perspective, which is only ethnographic
(although I have a description from 1260 of a lay religious specialist named
Bal-po Ka-ru-'dzin who has a bya-spu inserted into his hat),
Padmasambhava's, Gling Ge-sar rGyal-po's and other hats with feathers in
them are nothing special, just another example of a very wide-spread form of
shaman's headgear which, as sure as god made little apples, did not derive
from siddhas in South Asia."
In conclusion, my admittedly speculative, but I think nevertheless interesting, twolimbed hypothesis is as follows:
(i) That Padmasambhava might well have been, as Kapstein suggested, and as the
Dunhuang text PT44 confirms, an Indian siddha active in Lho brag, Bumthang, and
the southern slopes of the Himalayas in the late eighth century;
(ii) and that in adapting his ritual teachings to the culture of his Himalayan target
audiencesboth the local 'shamans' he might have met in his periods of mountain
retreat, and, beyond them, the grander priests of the Tibetan aristocracy and royal
courtPadmasambhava might have redacted Indic tantrism to include elements of
Himalayan and Tibetan avian symbolism, attaching bird's wings to his herukas,
placing a bya ru or vulture feather upon his own hat, and in addition, displaying the
quintessentially Himalayan ritual practice of storing his worldly protective deities
within his headgear.

As well as the examples Huber cites, Anne de Sales has recently sent me photos of Kham-Magar
jhankris (shamans/priests) who wear turbans densely feathered with ppheasant feathers. Among the
Tamangs, peacock feathers are used.


This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
As further evidence of his adaptation to local cultures, we must recall that two of the
three surviving early Padmasambhava texts from Dunhuang, PT44 and PT307, both
adopt the quintessentially indigenous ritual structure known as the smrang; and not
only that, but the narrative of these two smrangs are dedicated to explaining how
Padmasambhava incorporated sets of indigenous deities into the Buddhist pantheon.
Might Nyang ral and Chos dbang's deep devotional connection with Padmasambhava
also be why the Herukas of their Treasure cycles, redacted by them in their homelands
of Lho brag in celebration of the traditions of Padmasambhava who had taught there
three centuries earlier, so often wear wings, and also have the Tibetan sacred bird,
Khyung, circling just above their heads? For in these characteristics, the influential
herukas of Nyang ral and Chos dbang are distinct from those of their purely Indic
(Copyright) Robert Mayer,16th February 2016.

Tibetan sources:
Grags pa rgyal mtshan (Sa skya rje btsun grags pa rgyal mtshan) Works on rDo rje
Phur pa found in The Complete Works of Grags pa rgyal mtshan, in
the Sa skya bka' 'bum, compiled by bSod nams rgya mtsho, The
Complete Works of the Great Masters of the Sa skya Sect of the
Tibetan Buddhism, Volume 4, The Toyo Bunko, Tokyo, 1968. In
particular, rDo rje phur pa'i mngon par rtogs pa, Volume Nya:
355r-367v (=1r-13v in the separate pagination of this group of texts,
found on pages 175-182 in the Western style bound book), Phur pa'i
las byang 367v- 384r (=13v-30r in the separate pagination of this
group of texts, found on pages 182-190) [both of these texts seem to
be edited versions of Sa chen Kun dga' snying po's work], and rDo
rje phur pa'i sgrub skor 385r-400r (190-8) [TBRC gives publication
details of the Dehra Dun Sakya Centre printing, 1992-1993,
reproduced from the sDe dge edition in 15 volumes, TBRC
Resource Code: W22271.]
Mag gsar Kun bzang stobs ldan dbang pa, 2003. Phur pa'i rnam bshad he ru ka dpal
bzhad pa'i zhal lung (bcom ldan 'das dpal chen rdo rje gzhon nu'i
'phrin las kyi rnam par bshad pa he ru ka dpal bzhad pa'i zhal
lung). sNgags mang zhib 'jug khang (Ngak Mang Institute),
Beijing: Mi rigs dpe skrun khang.
Nyang ral, Nyi ma 'od zer, n.d. bde bar gshegs pa thams cad kyi 'phrin las 'dus pa
phur pa rtsa ba'i rgyud, sGang steng b NGB, Volume Ya, chapter 1,
folio 345v (photo 230, 3rd page), line 5-6.
Nyang ral, Nyi ma 'od zer bKa' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa'i chos skor, 1979-1980, 13
volumes. Paro, Lama Ngodrup, Kyichu Temple (reproduced from
the complete mtshams-brag manuscript). An electronic version is
available from the Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, New York
(W22247). Works specifically referred to: 1. bka' brgyad bde
gshegs 'dus pa las: 'phrin las 'dus pa rtsa ba'i rgyud, Volume Ga:


This is draft is based on a paper I delivered at SOAS, London, on 16th February 2016.
Please do not cite or circulate without my permission. R. Mayer, 2nd May, 2016.
321-387. [This is the same root tantra as the bde bar gshegs pa
thams cad kyi 'phrin las 'dus pa phur pa rtsa ba'i rgyud included in
the various rNying ma'i rgyud 'bum editions, see above. It is also
found within other compilations of the bKa' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus
pa, in particular, 1978, 13 volumes. Gangtok, Sikkim, Sonam
Topgay Kazi, Ka thog rdo rje dgan gyi par khang (W1KG12075),
Volume Ga: 273-373; and 1977-1978, 4 volumes. Dalhousie,
Damchoe Sangpo, reproduced from a collection from the library of
Kyirong Lama Kunzang (W1KG9588), Volume 2: 257-309. Note
that it is not found in a 2 volume bKa' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa
ritual practice manuscript collection (B. Jamyang Norbu, New
Delhi, 1971, W00KG09391), which includes much later material.]
2. bka' brgyad bde gshegs 'dus pa las: byin brlabs phun sum tshogs
pa phur pa'i bsgrub pa bi m las mdzad pa zhi ba'i mchog [yon] tan
spo ba'i cho ga, Volume Ta: 351-365. 3. phun sum tshogs pa don
gyi man ngag sa ma 'grel, Volume Ta: 367-375; 4. phun sum tshogs
pa rgya cher 'brel ba, Volume Ta: 377-417); 5. Further associated
materials, Volume Ta: 343-349, 419-503). 6. Medicinal
Accomplishment texts, Volume Nya: i. khro bo'i dgos bsgrub: bdud
rtsi sman bsgrub kyi bsgom rim: 347-375; ii. mchod rdzas bdud rtsi'i
bsgrub pa: 377-419; iii. bdud rtsi sman sgrub thabs lag khrid du
bsdebs pa: 421-507. (See also edited versions and 15 compilations
of his various texts in the works of gTer bdag gling pa; and in Kong
sprul's Rin chen gter mdzod.)
Sa skya Phur chen: dPal rdo rje gzhon nu sgrub pa'i thabs bklags pas don grub, by Sa
skya pa bSod nams rgyal mtshan (1312-1375), dPal sa skya'i chos
tshogs, Rajpur, India (Tibetan date given: 992). Two different
electronic editions of the Sa skya Phur chen are available. One is
included in Volume 18 of the dpal chen k la ya'i chos skor phyogs
bsgrigs [si khron zhing chen mi rigs zhib 'jug su'o, bod kyi shes rig
(, p.137ff, and one
included in the rGyud sde kun btus, Volume 16. This itself has two
available versions: Lungtok & Gyaltsan, Delhi 1971-1972
[W21295], p.427- 505; and Sachen International, Kathmandu 2004
[W27883], p.479-568. Both are apparently based on the sDe dge
blocks, although the Sachen International version is an entirely
remade computer input version edition rather than a photographic

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