Unexcelled Yoga tantras (Kangyur Section)

  • Skt.: Anuttarayoga / Yoganiruttaratantra
  • Tib.: bla med rgyud/

First published 2010. Last updated 6th Jun 2024.

Tantras of the highest class, divided into “non-dual,” “mother,” and “father,” and within the two latter categories into six “families” of principal deities (Toh 360-478).

The works in this subsection are classified as belonging to the highest of the four classes of tantra according to the gsar ma (“new”) traditions. The Tibetan term for the Unexcelled Yoga class, rnal ’byor bla na med pa’i rgyud, has traditionally been back-translated into Sanskrit as anuttarayogatantra, but this term is not attested in Sanskrit texts; using forms that are attested, yoganiruttaratantra or yogottaratantra are preferable.

The Unexcelled Yoga tantras are characterized by the practices of the two phases of generation and completion, by their approach to the deity as inseparable in all respects from the practitioner, and by their emphasis on wisdom or awareness (jñāna, ye shes).

Tantras of this class are subdivided into three main groups: non-dual tantras (gnyis med kyi rgyud), mother tantras (ma’i rgyud), and father tantras (pha’i rgyud). The mother tantras emphasize wisdom (prajñā, shes rab), while the father tantras emphasize method or skillful means (upāya, thabs), and these two categories were initially the only divisions within the Unexcelled Yoga tantras. As Situ Paṇchen’s Degé Kangyur catalog mentions, the third category, non-dual tantras, emphasizing the union of wisdom and means, was thought necessary by Butön to accomodate the Kālacakratantra in particular. The placing of tantras in these categories, and the criteria on which such classifications should be based, were far from being universally agreed upon by Tibetan scholars, and even between the Degé Kangyur and Tengyur there are considerable differences.

I. The Non-dual tantras, Toh 360-365, comprise the Mañjusrīnāmasaṃgīti and the Kālacakra tantras:

(a) The Mañjusrīnāmasaṃgīti (Toh 360) was translated into Tibetan in the imperial, “early” (snga dar) period and again in the “later” (phyi dar) period, the translation in the Degé Kangyur being the later one. Situ Paṇchen notes that while some (i.e. Nyingma) scholars consider the Mañjusrīnāmasaṃgīti to be part of the samādhi section of the Māyājāla-Guhyagarbha cycle and would classify it as father tantra, others follow a statement in the Vimalaprabhā (Toh 845, the commentary on the Kālacakra Laghutantra) according to which it represents the ultimate meaning of all the tantras and, in particular, the essence of the Kālacakra, and place it, as here, at the head of the whole tantra division.

(b) The texts of the Kālacakra (Toh 361-365), traditionally said to have their origin in the land of Shambhala, were translated into Tibetan in the 11th century. The original Root Tantra, the Mūla or Paramādibuddha, has not survived in Sanskrit and was not translated, but Toh 362 is the abridged five-chapter version (Laghutantra) compiled by the Shambhala King Mañjuśrī Yaśas, and is said to have been translated into Tibetan no less than 16 times, the version here being that of Somanātha and Dro Sherab Drak. Toh 361 and 365 are extracts from the Mūlatantra on the subject of the empowerment. See also the separate Kālacakra Commentary section.

Note that in the Tantra section of the Tengyur, in contrast to that of the Kangyur, commentaries and liturgical works on the Hevajra tantras (see below) are placed first in the order of texts and are classified (in the Tengyur catalog) as non-dual.

II. The 76 Mother tantras, Toh 366-441, are often referred to as the Yoginītantras (rnal ’byor ma’i rgyud), and are divided into seven subgroups in terms of six families (rigs drug):

(a) Those in which the six families are taught to be equal (rigs drug ka mnyam par ston pa, Toh 366 and 367), the tantras of Ḍākinījālaśaṃvara.

(b) The heruka family (he ru ka’i rigs), comprising the tantras associated with five deities:
1. Śaṃvara (bde mchog): the root or Laghutantra (Toh 368) is said to be condensed from much longer original texts of 300,000 and 100,000 stanzas. Among the explanatory tantras (Toh 369-382) are the important Abhidhānottara (Toh 369), the Dākarṇava (Toh 372), and the Śaṃvoradaya (Toh 373). This section also contains a distinct corpus of 32 short explanatory tantras (Toh 383-416) translated by Drokmi Shākya Yeshé and known collectively as the Rali tantras (ra li’i rgyud).
2. Hevajra (kye rdor, Toh 417-423).
3. Buddhakapāla (sangs rgyas thod pa, Toh 424).
4. Mahāmāyā (ma hA mA yA, Toh 425).
5. Vajrārali (rdo rje A ra li, Toh 426-427).

(c) The Vairocana (or Buddha) family (rnam snang gi rigs), comprising tantras centered on:
1. Vairocana (Toh 428-430).
2. Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa (Toh 431).
3. Acala (Toh 432-434).

(d) The Vajrasūrya (or Ratna) family (rdo rje nyi ma’i rigs), here a single tantra of Vajrāmṛta (Toh 435)

(e) The Lotus Lord family (pad+ma gar dbang gi rigs), comprising an extract from the Great Tantra of the Blazing Lotus (Toh 436) and the Practice Manual of Kurukullā (Toh 437).

(f) The Aśvottama family (rta mchog, “Supreme Horse”), comprising the Praise of Tārā in Twenty-One Homages (Toh 438), a fragment from the Vajrakīlaya root tantra (Toh 439), and the Tantra of Mahākāla (Toh 440). The two tantras of Tārāyoginī (Toh 448 and 449), added in later printings and mentioned below, presumably belong here in terms of classification.

(g) The Vajradhara family (rdo rje ’chang gi rigs), here a single tantra, the Extant Khasama Tantra (Toh 441).

III. The 37 Father tantras, Toh 442-478, are divided (in theory, at least) into six subgroups, of which two are not represented:

(a) The Akṣobhya family (mi bskyod pa’i rigs, Toh 442-465), including the root tantra of the Guhyasamāja (Toh 442) and its explanatory tantras (Toh 443-447 and 450-453). Of these, Toh 444 and 447 are mainly exegetical, while Toh 445 and 446 focus on the yogic practices of the subtle body. Toh 447 and Toh 450 have the same title. The translation of Toh 452, originally by Butön, was only fully completed after the first printing of the Degé because the missing beginning of the source manuscript had only then been identified. The long Toh 453, translated by Marpa Lotsāwa, may be related to it; another translation by Smṛtijñāna seems also to have existed at one time. The section also includes a number of tantras related to Vajrapāṇi (Toh 454-457 and 463-464).

The two tantras of Tārāyoginī (Toh 448 and 449), present only in later printings of the Degé and inserted at the end of volume 81, are not mentioned in the dkar chag; they clearly do not belong to this group but were placed here for convenience.

(b) The Vairocana family (rnam snang gi rigs), Toh 466-475), mostly comprising tantras of Yamāri (or Yamāntaka) and Vajrabhairava, but starting with the Māyājāla.

(c) The Ratnasambhava family (rin ’byung gi rigs), not represented in the Kangyur.

(d) The Amitābha family (’od dpag med kyi rigs), represented by the single tantra of Ekajaṭa (Toh 476).

(e) The Amoghasiddhi family (don yod grub pa’i rigs), not represented in the Kangyur.

(f) The Vajradhara family (rdo rje ’chang gi rigs), here a single tantra, the Candraguhyatilakatantra (zla gsang thig le’i rgyud, Toh 477).

An extra work, the Raktayamāritantra (Toh 478), was added to the end of volume 83 in later printings of the Degé Kangyur, but presumably belongs to the Vairocana family rather than that of Vajradhara.