Himalayan Art Resources

Subject: Second Buddha (Terminology)

Second Buddha | Buddha Main Page | Maitreya | Abstract Concept Glossary

In the Tibetan Buddhist world there are several notable individuals that are referred to as the 'Second Buddha of this Age' following after the historical Shakyamuni Buddha and not to be confused with the idea of 'the future buddha' Maitreya.

The term 'second buddha' is not a technical term or official in any Buddhist lexicons. The term can be used for any number of individuals, famous teachers, or as a personal term of respect for any humble or beloved personal teacher. The term can be used in a similar way to the very common Tibetan word 'rinpoche' which means 'precious one.' Both terms are used as an epithet only. (See the Titles & Honorifics Glossary).

In general Mahayana Buddhism Arya Nagarjuna is considered the 'Second Buddha.' In the Sakya tradition it is Sakya Pandita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182-1251) who is referred to as a 'second buddha.' For the Jonangpa it is Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292-1361). In the Gelug tradition they refer to their founder Je Tsongkapa Lobzang Dragpa (1357-1419) as the 'second buddha.' Also in literature from early on Tsongkapa is commonly referred to as 'gyalwa nyipa' meaning the 'second conqueror' which is synonymous in meaning to 'second buddha.' Some important incarnations systems such as the Gyalwa Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu School are also referred to as a 'second buddha.' All of these and others can be a 'second buddha' since it has no standing as an official or technical Buddhist term or title. Probably the most well known of those referred to as a 'second buddha' is Padmasambhava of the Nyingma tradition.

All of the teachers that are affectionately referred to as a 'second buddha' are real historical figures with birth and death dates, biographies, some have autobiographies, diaries and letters. The life story of Padmasambhava is the exception to this. There is very little original information on Padmasambhava that can be taken as historical or factual. Within the Nyingma tradition there are 'Kama' biographies which portray Padmasambhava as being born as a normal person, a prince within a kingdom of early India. There are 'Terma' biographies that claim Padmasambhava was born from a lotus in the kingdom of Oddiyana. The most popular of the 'Terma' texts is known as the Padma Kathang discovered as a 'Revealed Treasure' by Orgyan Lingpa (1323-1360).

There is an early second millennium Tibetan text which claims that Padmasambhava is the brother-in-law of Shantarakshita and that they traveled together from Kanchipuram in south-east India to Tibet in the 8th century.

The Bon religion also has both 'Kama' and 'Terma' biographies and narratives of the life story of Padmasambhava. These sources vary greatly from those of the Nyingma Buddhists.

Problems in understanding might arise when there is no differentiation made between the terms 'a second buddha' and 'the second buddha.' The latter term might imply that there is in Buddhist doctrine or orthodox literature a designated and official 'second buddha.' There is actually no 'second buddha' in doctrine or literature. There is however the Tibetan, or Himalayan Buddhist, cultural tradition from post 11th century to refer to certain teachers, out of respect, as if they were a 'second buddha.'

The term is most widely used in the Nyingma tradition with reference to Padmasambhava. The term 'second buddha' is also most commonly known within other traditions as referring to Padmasambhava because that tradition, the Nyingma, have chosen to use the epithet as one of the most standard terms when referencing Padmasambhava. Whereas other traditions use the term less often. In the Sakya tradition Drogon Wangdu Nyingpo is referred to as the 'second Padmasambhava.'

The official Sakya position, along with some Gelug traditions, on the nature of Padmasambhava is that he was on the level of a greatly accomplished one (mahasiddha) of India. However, Padmasambhava himself is not included in any of the five or more popular systems of enumerating the Eighty-four Great Mahasiddhas. The reason for this is because the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas concept belongs to the later schools of Buddhism, Sakya, Kagyu, Gelug, and not to the Nyingma system of which Padmasambhava is the principal symbol.

All of the historical figures mentioned above along with Padmasambhava are the subjects of Guruyoga meditation practice within the schools and traditions that they are associated. These textually based and ritualized practices also describe the basic, or generic, detailed physical appearance for each of the figures and that appearance is what is most commonly found depicted in painting and sculpture.

Jeff Watt 10-2016 [updated 1-2018, 2-2018]