Tantra Collection (Kangyur Section)

  • Skt.: Tantra
  • Tib.: rgyud 'bum/

First published 2010. Last updated 6th Jun 2024.

The principal tantra collection of 468 canonical tantras, mainly from the “later spread” of Vajrayāna to Tibet, arranged by level (Toh 360-827).

This section, one of the main traditional divisions of the Kangyur, contains 468 canonical tantra works (Toh 360-827), mainly translations from the period of the “later spread” (phyi dar), and studied and practiced principally by the New Schools (gsar ma pa). Although this very large section is present in all Kangyurs without explicit subsections, it has here been subdivided for convenience into four levels of tantra and one group of concluding dedication prayers, following the catalog (dkar chags) of Situ Panchen Chökyi Jungné, the 18th century editor of the Degé Kangyur. These subdivisions are, in fact, implicit in the sequence in which the works of this section are placed.

The Unexcelled Yoga tantras (bla med rgyud, Toh 360-478) are tantras of the highest class according to the New Schools, and include the non-dual tantras of Kālacakra, the mother tantras of Cakrasaṃvara and Hevajra, and the father tantras of Guhyasamāja and Vajrabhairava.

The Yoga tantras (rnal ’byor gyi rgyud, Toh 479-493) are a relatively small group, the highest of the three lower tantra classes; the best known is the Tattvasaṃgraha (de kho na nyid bsdus pa).

The Conduct tantras (spyod pa’i rgyud, Toh 494-501) are the smallest group, and include tantras centered on Vairocana and Vajrapāṇi.

The Action tantras (bya ba’i rgyud, Toh 502-808) are the largest group. In general, they focus on worship of deities external to the practitioner and the practice of a wide variety of rituals for specific purposes, worldly as well as spiritual.

Finally, a group of 19 works or extracts from larger works on the theme of Dedication-aspiration (bsngo smon shis brjod, Toh 808-827) is found at the end of the Tantra Collection as a conclusion, many of them prayers for dedicating the merit of practice and other spiritual activities or verses expressing auspiciousness.

Fourfold classifications for tantric works such as this one, used by many Kangyur editors‍—and various similar taxonomies, some more detailed‍—were established by Tibetan scholars on the basis of passages in certain tantra texts and explanatory treatises. Four different levels of tantra are traditionally explained as existing for practitioners of four different faculties, inclinations, degrees of ability and endeavor, four castes, four mistaken views, four philosophical outlooks, four emotional obscurations, and four kinds of desire; and also to purify four different states of existence, periods of the day, divine realms, and so forth. Most of the numerous tantra texts brought to Tibet came without inherent indications of their place in such schemes, and the placing of individual texts is not always definitive or universally agreed upon. Even the classification of certain texts as sūtra or tantra is debatable, and a few works are found in both sections.

For further details on the Tibetan tradition’s classification of tantras, see section 6, chapter 4 in: Jamgön Kongtrul (’jam mgon kong sprul blo gros mtha’ yas), shes bya kun khyab, Delhi: Shechen Publications (1997). Translated as Guarisco, E. and McLeod, I (trans.), The Treasury of Knowledge: Book 6, Part 4, Systems of Buddhist Tantra, Ithaca: Snow Lion Publications (2005), especially chapters 2 and 15.

Unrestricted access

The decision to publish tantra texts without restricted access has been considered carefully. First of all, it should be noted that all the original Tibetan texts of the Kangyur, including those in this Tantra section, are in the public domain. Some of the texts in this section (but by no means all of them) are nevertheless, according to some traditions, only studied with authorization and after suitable preliminaries.

It is true, of course, that a translation makes the content accessible to a far greater number of people; 84000 has therefore consulted many senior Buddhist teachers on this question, and most of them felt that to publish the texts openly is, on balance, the best solution. The alternatives would be not to translate them at all (which would defeat the purposes of the whole project), or to place some sort of restriction on their access. Restricted access has been tried by some Buddhist book publishers, and of course needs a system of administration, judgment, and policing that is either a mere formality, or is very difficult to implement. It would be even harder to implement in the case of electronic texts‍—and even easier to circumvent. Indeed, nowadays practically the whole range of traditionally restricted Tibetan Buddhist material is already available to anyone who looks for it, and is all too often misrepresented, taken out of context, or its secret and esoteric nature deliberately vaunted.

84000’s policy is to present carefully authenticated translations in their proper setting of the whole body of Buddhist sacred literature, and to trust the good sense of the vast majority of readers not to misuse or misunderstand them. Readers are reminded that according to Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition there are restrictions and commitments concerning tantra. Practitioners who are not sure if they should read translations in this section are advised to consult the authorities of their lineage. The responsibility, and hence consequences, of reading these texts and/or sharing them with others who may or may not fulfill the requirements lie in the hands of readers.

Translation and editing of the titles

The titles (as in all sections) have been translated on the basis of the short Tibetan title given in the Degé Kangyur, taking into account the Sanskrit.

The original Sanskrit titles of the various major tantras are well attested and pose only a few problems here and there. However, in the case of the many lesser known works, the Sanskrit, as given at the beginning of the various Tibetan works in the Degé canon (D) and reproduced with some corrections in the Tōhoku Catalogue (Toh), is often problematic. Not infrequently it is a back translation from the Tibetan title, with Sanskrit adjectives in the wrong places, compounds that are inverted, and other evidence that it was composed following the Tibetan and adopting its word order.

We have done our best to interpret such titles in the most likely fashion, but that has often meant privileging the Tibetan rather than following the Sanskrit word order. In rendering the Sanskrit titles, we have added some word breaks and corrected simple and obvious mistakes such as missing or wrong saṃdhi, wrong long and short vowels, missing retroflex consonants, etc. Many, but not all, of the amendments made by the Tōhoku Catalogue have been adopted. Where the title already contains one or more words with case endings, we have added the case endings to the final words (kalpa, tantra, etc.) in the interest of consistency. We have not, however, attempted to rearrange odd Sanskrit word order or make other such substantial changes. It seemed better to correct only what was obviously wrong in the Sanskrit and leave the rest more or less as it was, not attempting what would, in effect, be a retranslation.

For attested proper names we have used the Sanskrit; the rest (including obscure cases) we have translated. In general, the difficulties involved in translating the tantra titles are in many respects much greater than in the case of the sūtras. That said, we consider this a needed start, even if certainly not a final result. In short, what we present here is provisional and should be taken as such.