Action tantras (Kangyur Section)

  • Skt.: Kriyātantra
  • Tib.: bya ba'i rgyud/

First published 2024. Last updated 13th Feb 2024.

Tantras of the Action class, mainly emphasizing external worship and ritual, and classified into six “families” of principal deities (Toh 502-808).

This, the lowest of the three classes of outer tantra, constitutes the largest group of tantras in the Kangyur, with 308 titles. Tantras of this class emphasize external purity and ritual, and are often aimed at the obtaining of “ordinary” siddhi, or powers, to subdue enemies and obstacles, attain wealth and other worldly goals (although with the aim of helping beings). The approach to the deity is one of subservience.

The first 303 titles in this group (Toh 502-804) are classified as the Individual Kriyatantras (bya ba so so’i rgyud), and are divided into three principal and four other families:

I. The Tathāgata family (Toh 502-673), divided into 8 sections:

(a) 41 works featuring the principal deity of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi tso bo, Toh 502-542), including the Medicine Buddha (Toh 503-505); sūtras and incantations centered on other buddhas (Toh 510-513), and on dependent origination and its mantra (Toh 519-521); two essentialised Prajñāpāramitā works (Toh 530-531), the second being the famous “Heart Sūtra;” the 108 names of the Buddha (Toh 532); and incantations of Buddha Śākyamuni and Vairocana (Toh 533-534).

(b) 10 works on the “Turner of the Wheel” of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi ’khor los sgyur ba, Toh 543-552), all centered on Manjuśrī and starting with the important Manjuśrīmūlatantra (Toh 543).

(c) 37 works on the “Mother” of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi yum, Toh 553-589), many of them on the Prajñāpāramitā (Toh 553-554, 576-581, and 583), but also including the three Suvarṇaprabhā works (Toh 555-557); works related to the Pañcarakṣā (Five Proctresses, Toh 558-563 and 587-588); goddesses such as Mārīcī (Toh 564–566), Jayavatī (Toh 567–568), and others; and a series of incantations said to carry the essence of some well-known Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Gaṇḍavyūha and Laṅkāvatāra (Toh 583-586 and 589).

(d) 13 works on the Uṣṇīṣa of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi gtsug tor, Toh 590-603), mostly centered on incantations of the deities Uṣṇīṣasitātapatrā (Toh 590-593) and Uṣṇīṣavijayā, male and female (Toh 594-600), but also including incantations related to stūpas (Toh 601 and 602).

(e) 10 works on the wrathful male and female deities of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi khro bo khro mo, Toh 604-613).

(f) 20 works on the “messenger goddesses” of the Tathāgata family (gshegs rigs kyi pho nya mo, Toh 614-633), many of which focus on the protection from ill health, diseases, and epidemics, including a duplicate of the Mahāsūtra “Entering the City of Vaiśali” (Vaiśālipraveśamahāsūtra), Toh 628. Included in this group as belonging to the entourage of “messengers” are three texts (Toh 631–633) under the rubric of “male and female attendants” (bka’ nyan pho mo), the first of which (Toh 631) is a dhāraṇī of the wrathful deity Acala.

(g) 19 works on bodhisattvas “who are included in the Tathāgata family” (de bzhin gshegs pa’i rigs su bsdu ba, Toh 634-652), comprising texts on the 108 names of all the eight principal bodhisattvas (Toh 634-642) as well as works for removing obstacles, and incantations to help trainee bodhisattvas develop the qualities they need (Toh 650 and 651).

(h) 21 works “on gods of the pure places and so forth” (gnas gtsang ma’i lha la sogs pa, Toh 653-673), including two more of the Mahāsūtras (Toh 653 and 656), duplicates of the Mahāmeghasūtra (Toh 657) and a related work (Toh 658), and works centered on various wealth and protector deities (Toh 660-673).

II. The Padma family (Toh 674-742), divided into 5 sections:

(a) 6 works featuring the principal deity of the family (rigs kyi tso bo, Toh 674-680) in the forms of Amitāyus: in the sense of Aparimitāyus or Aparimitāyurjñāna of the buddhafield in the zenith (Toh 673A-675), and in the sense of Amitābha and his western buddhafield (Toh 676-680).

(b) 43 works on the “Turner of the Wheel” of the family (rigs kyi ’khor los sgyur ba, Toh 681-723), a large majority centered on Avalokiteśvara in his various forms.

(c) 9 works on the “Mother” of the family (rigs kyi yum, Toh 724-732), all focussing on forms of Tāra.

(d) 4 works on the wrathful male and female deities of the family (rigs kyi khro bo khro mo, Toh 733-736), centered on Hayagrīva (Toh 733), Pratyaṅgirā (Toh 734), and the “Leaf-clad” goddess of the wilderness, Parṇaśabarī (Toh 735 and 736), sometimes considered to be a form of Tāra.

(e) 6 works on the male and female attendant deities of the family (rigs kyi bka’ nyan pho mo, Toh 737-742), including works on Pratyaṅgirā (Toh 737), Sarasvatī (Toh 738), and Mahādevī (Toh 738-741).

III. The Vajra family (Toh 743-763), also divided into 5 sections:

(a) 1 work featuring the principal deity of the family (rigs kyi tso bo), an incantation of Akṣobhya (Toh 743).

(b) 7 works on the lord of the family (rigs kyi bdag po, Toh 744 and 746-751), all featuring different forms of Vajrapāṇi, including the Bhūtaḍāmara Tantra (Toh 747), as well as the Incantation of Vajravidāraṇā (Toh 750) and its explanatory tantra (Toh 751).

An eighth work, Toh 745, the Hundred and Eight Names of Tāra, was added to the end of volume 94 in later printings of the Degé Kangyur, and presumably belongs to section II (c) above.

(c) 1 work on the “Mother” of the family (rigs kyi yum), an incantation of Vajrājitānalapramohanī (Toh 751).

(d) 3 works on the wrathful male and female deities of the family (rigs kyi khro bo khro mo, Toh 753-755), brief incantations related to Vajravidāraṇā (Toh 753), the names of ten forms of Vajrapāṇi (Toh 754), and the deity Kuṇḍalyamṛta (Toh 755).

(e) 8 works on the male and female messenger and attendant deities of the family (rigs kyi pho nya dang bka’ nyan pho mo, Toh 756-763), including works centered on the deities Bhurkuṃkūṭa (sme ba brtsegs pa, Toh 756), Mahābala (Toh 757), Vajraśṛṅkhala (Toh 758), Vajratuṇḍa (Toh 759), and Lohatuṇḍa (Toh 760-763).

IV. The Wealth-god family (nor can gyi rigs, Toh 764-771), comprising 8 works on yakṣa wealth-gods including Maṇibhadra (Toh 764-765) and Jambhala (Toh 768-771).

V. The Increase family (rgyas pa’i rigs), here represented by a single work, the Incantation of Mekhalā (Toh 772).

VI. The Worldly family (’jig rten pa’i rigs), also represented by a single work, Mahāśvāsa, King of Spells (Toh 773).

VII. Some miscellaneous brief incantations (phyogs ma brtags pa’i gzungs phran ’ga’ zhig, Toh 774-804), a series of 31 incantations for specific purposes such as circumambulating (Toh 775-776), purifying offerings (Toh 777-778), prostrations (Toh 779), treating problems of disease, poison, burns, and infections (Toh 783-4 and 798-803), pacifying hatred, anger, and sin (Toh 785-789), escaping from bondage (Toh 796) intimidating demons (Toh 797), finding clothes (Toh 780), being attractive or having a pleasant voice (Toh 791-2), being successful (Toh 793-4), making people happy (Toh 781), and purifying all the lower realms (Toh 782).

Finally, the last four works in this Action tantra section (Toh 805-808) are classified as General Tantras, containing systematic instructions on meditation and ritual applicable in general to different Action tantra practices. The best known is probably the Tantra of the Questions of Subāhu (Toh 805, not to be confused with the Sūtra of the Questions of Subāhu, Toh 70).