Tantra (Kangyur Section)

  • Skt.: Tantra
  • Tib.: rgyud/

First published 2010. Last updated 4th Aug 2023.

The scriptures of the Vajrayāna intended for experienced practitioners, often cryptic and hard to understand without commentary (Toh 360-845).

In this broad category of canonical works we have grouped three of the traditional divisions of the Kangyur:

The main Tantra Collection (rgyud ’bum), containing 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).

A section of Old Tantras (rnying rgyud), found only in Kangyurs of the Tshalpa tradition, containing a small selection (Toh 828-844) of the many tantras of the “ancient tradition of the early translations” (snga ’gyur rnying ma).

A section known as the Wheel of Time Commentary (dus ’khor ’grel bshad), containing a single explanatory commentary (Toh 845) on the Kālacakratantra, traditionally accorded its own section in the Kangyur despite being a treatise or śāstra. Note that the texts of the Kālacakratantra itself are to be found in the main Tantra Collection section, and that there are other Kālacakratantra commentaries in the Tengyur.

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.