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Indian Adept: Mitra Yogin

Mitra Yogin | Mitra Gyatsa Main Page & History

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Jeff Watt 3-2019


Mitra Yogin Biography:

According to the Blue Annals, Mitrayogin was born in Eastern India in the town of Radha in the Mayarabanj district of Orissa. Nothing is mentioned of his childhood or family.

At some point he became a disciple of Lalitavajra, who was a direct disciple of Tilopa, the famous tantric guru of Nāropa (in the Blue Annals his alternative name, "Tilli-pa," is used).

Instructed by his guru, Mitrayogin meditated upon Avalokiteśvara for twelve years. This is said to have resulted in a mystic vision in which he received teachings directly from the deity. In the Blue Annals Go Lotsāwa (mgos lo tsA ba, 1392-1481) counts this as the first miracle of twenty that the text elaborates. These appear primarily to confirm his supernormal powers and place him as a protector of Buddhism in an era when India was being converted to Islam, but they also provide a general picture of the special traits of a late Indian Buddhist master. For example, he is said to have survived three days on a burning pyre, and to have subdued two human-eating yakṣa who would eat daily an old and young man. He is said to have protected Buddhism by sheltering 12,000 monks at Otantapurī from the attack of a king's army, and when the army of Sultan Khan attacked Buddhists in Magadha, Mitrayogin stood naked, shouted, caused the earth to shake and all the men and animals to freeze motionless in place; he only released them when the king begged his forgiveness.

Legend places Mitrayogin as a preceptor to a king of Varanasi, who offered him an estate with which he built an almshouse, and who apparently revered him so greatly that he unsuccessfully attempted to prevent him from leaving his palace. Yet he was a foil for other kings, such as a certain King Upatra who threw him in a pit only to later feel remorse and convert to Buddhism, and a king Yaśas who threatened a Buddhist community with conversion to Hindu deity worship; the king decreed that if Hindu proponents could move a wooden throne (presumably an easy task) all the Buddhists would be forced to worship the Hindu gods, but if they failed, the Hindus would be converted to Buddhism. Mitrayogin caused the throne to be immovable, and the defeated Hindus thus accepted Buddhism. In another episode a King Jayasena and a Paṇḍit Ānanda attempted to kill Mitra, but he used a mudrā and his mental concentration focusing on the meaning of a single verse to liberate their minds.[1]

In the Blue Annals Mitrayogin is also given the name Ajitamitragupta. However, from several colophons, it appears that the Mitrayogin/Jaganmitrānanda, who worked with Tropu Lotsāwa Jampai Pel (khro phu lo tsA ba lo tsA ba 'byams pa'i dpal, circa 1172-circa 1236), may not have been the same as Ajitamitragupta. For instance, in the colophon of the Śrīkhasarpaṇapitṛmātṛmātṛsādhana we read that the text was composed by Ajitamitragupta and that "the Lord of Yogins Jaganmitrānanda and Lotsāwa Jampai Pel (who tasted the nectar of Jaganmitrānanda speech)" translated it.[2] It seems more likely that Mitrayogin, who transmitted the texts of Ajitamitragupta/Lalitavajra, was the latter's student. Since the biography of this figure in the Blue Annals takes the two names to refer to a single person, it may be that some of the stories of the Ajitamitragupta were attributed to Mitrayogin.

Another hagiography of Mitrayogin is found in a text entitled The Biography of Mitrayogin: A Lamp that Illuminates the Teachings[3] apparently written by the Nyingma hagiographer Drime Kunga Nyingpo (dri med kun dga' snying po, fourteenth century) who also wrote a hagiography of Yeshe Tsogyel (yes shes mtsho rgyal).[4] This account portrays Mitrayogin as the son of a king of Varanasi who escapes his royal life to practice dharma. He is given Mūlasarvāstivādin ordination as a monk at Nālandā by a man whose name was Tibetanized as Rabtu Gyelwai Lha (rab tu rgyal ba'i lha), who gave him the name Srī Dharmamitra. He was guided by the goddess Ekajaṭī and attained visions of Avalokiteśvara, similarly to the Blue Annals. During his travels he met a young yogīnī who gives him transmissions and blessings.

At one point, in a scene that is reminiscent of the practice of Chod, Ekajaṭī cut open his head and, from the light that poured out of his skull, Avalokiteśvara and his host of attending deities emerged. They initiated Mitra in one hundred and eight sādhana, after which Ekajaṭī returned his skull and he was whole again.

Ekajaṭī later sent him on a journey to Oḍḍiyāna to retrieve tantras. While there he preached the dharma in the presence of Padmasambhava and other great siddhas. At one point, he merged with Padmasambhava and sang a vajra song.

As with the Blue Annals, the hagiography describes several episodes in which he averts the destruction of war with his yogic prowess, including saving his father from an invading army. The biography states that the yogi's powers led to victory over both Hindu and Muslim forces on different occasions.

The strong influence of women and female deities in the hagiography is striking, in both positive and negative aspects. From the goddess Ekajaṭī, to a yoginī who is one of his earlier teachers, to a city of witches (phra man ma) who test him during his early career, female characters occupy multiple and sometimes ambiguous roles. The witches appear to serve as both personifications of and solutions to the obstructions to his religious advancement. After his initial vision of Avalokiteśvara, wherein the deity gave the yogi a ḍamaru drum to ward off hindrances, he met a woman on the road dressed in red, who turned out to be a witch. Mitra sounded the drum, and the woman split in two; out of compassion he restored her with another beat of the ḍamaru. She then agreed to serve him, and told him of a city of witches in the south where the queen devoured men all day long. He decided to go and subdue the queen with his drum, and traveled south with the woman in red. He went before the queen of the witches, but before he was able to sound the ḍamaru she froze him in place. Addressing him as a "son of the lineage," she gave him a warning not to try to subdue the witches until he had sufficiently practiced the generation and completion stages. The queen, whose place in the story thus seems quite ambivalent, then prophesizes that Mitra will complete the path to liberation in six years. She granted him an initiation into Avalokiteśvara’s Liberated Path Wheel (grol lam ye shes 'khor lo) and warned him not to sound the ḍamaru until his religious training is complete.

Instructed by Avalokiteśvara in another vision and then a paṇḍit Padmeśvara, Mitra met with a yoginī (who was in actuality a form of Ekajaṭī) and it was like a "mother and son reunited." She directed him to go west and ask for transmission and blessings from a twenty-two year old Brahmin's daughter, Sukhaḍākinī, who had supernatural abilities and whose mother was a wisdom ḍākinī. Having done so, Sukhaḍākinī advised him that he must become fully accomplished in order to overcome the witches' hindrances. She directed him to a sacred valley and instructed him to perform a pūja, after which she reappeared with many ḍākinī and the Mahākaruṇika form of Avalokiteśvara with consort who together initiated Mitra into one hundred and eight maṇḍala. After the empowerment, the deities and ḍākinī returned to their abodes. Sukhaḍākinī remained and instructed him in the skillful means of the secret vajra. He stayed with her and meditated for six months, after which he attained the perfect accomplishment he had sought.

Jaganmitrānanda/Mitrayogin is also famous for his Letter to King Candra (candrarājalekha) which is quoted extensively in the middle section of Tsongkhapa's (tsong kha pa, 1357-1419) Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path (lam rim chen mo). That letter was likely addressed to King Jayacandra, the last great king of the Gāhaḍavāla dynasty. In addition to the royal association being evidenced by the letter itself and the coinciding of their historical dates, there was an inscription found in Bodhgaya that names the monk Śrīmitra as the preceptor-guru of Jayacandra.[5]

Jayacandra, the addressee of the famous letter, reigned over a territory that included Uttar Pradesh and portions of Bihar from 1170 to 1194. King Jayacandra seemed to enjoy both Hindu and Buddhist religious associations, and ruled over his large territory with what appears to have been a notable religious tolerance. He was killed in battle against the Muslim conqueror Muḥammad Ghūrī in 1194. Mitrayogin's letter to the king includes warnings about the transience of life, the instability of worldly power, and the need to put one's trust in the practice of dharma.

Invited to Tibet by Tropu Lotsāwa, Mitrayogin visited central Tibet sometime between 1197 and 1200. Reportedly, Tropu Lotsāwa had heard of Mitrayogin from Buddhaśrījñāna, a Kashmiri paṇdit with whom Tropu had been studying. The historical association of Buddhaśrījñāna, Mitrayogin, and Tropu Lotsāwa is corroborated by colophons that document the three men as having translated texts together.[6] As told in the Blue Annals, Mitrayogin at first refused the invitation due to the weight of Tropu Lotsāwa's karmic defilements. In response the younger man suffered a prolonged illness and then tried to commit suicide while praying to become the guru's disciple in a future life. Throwing himself off a great height, Mitrayogin saved the young Lotsāwa by grabbing him out of the air. This apparently cleared Tropu of his defilements and the yogi agreed to go to Tibet with him. He only spent eighteen months in Tibet, but had a lasting impact.

Mitrayogin is known for his transmission of a set of tantric teachings including a set that became known as the One Hundred Transmissions of Mitra (mi tra bgya rtsa), a collection of one hundred and eight separate maṇḍala and associated materials including sādhana, funeral rites, tantric techniques, and many other topics. The collection remains highly popular, particularly in the Geluk and Kagyu traditions, and it is said to have been the inspiration for Jamgon Kongtrul's ('jam mgon kong sprul, 1813-1899) Treasury of Kagyu Tantra. Mitrayogin is strongly associated with the practice of Avalokiteśvara, and several of his sādhana to the bodhisattva are included in the Tengyur (bstan 'gyur).

Mitra, the famed "Lord of Yogins" (rnal 'byor gyi dbang phyug), had many students, one of the most significant being Tropu Lotsāwa himself. Tropu Lotsāwa would build the famous gigantic statue of Maitreya at Tropu Monastery (khro phu dgon), the site of which was consecrated by Mitrayogin, but which was not completed until many years later. Tropu would be credited as one of the founders of the Tropu Kagyu, whose later lineage holders would include the famous Buton Rinchen Drub (bu ston rin chen grub, 1290-1364).

Another student of note was a woman named Machik Sanggye Rema (ma cig sangs rgyas re ma) who met him at Tropu. A practitioner of Chod, she received the Mahāmudrā Which Cuts the Stream of Saṁsāra (phyag rgya chen po 'khor ba rgyun gcod) from Mitrayogin. According to the Blue Annals, this teaching originated from the ḍākinīs of Oḍḍiyāna who taught it to Śrī Saraha who then taught it to Mitrayogin. Machik Sanggye Rema was considered a clairvoyant "yoginī who had realized emptiness, things as they are." She subsequently passed these teaching on to a man named Tsenden Trulzhik Chenpo (mtshan ldan 'khrul zhig chen po) at Jonang Monastery (jo nang dgon). He then passed them on to a woman named Dzema of Won ('on mdzes ma).[7] This lineage continued to live on in the Kagyu tradition as evidenced by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (karma pa 08 mi bskyod rdo rje, 1507-1554) giving it special importance in his memoirs.[8]

The texts associated with Mitrayogin were the subject of commentaries by famous Tibetan teachers including the Second Dalai Lama Gendun Gyatso (da la'i bla ma 02 dge 'dun rgya mtsho, 1476-1542), the Seventh Dalai Lama, Kelzang Gyatso (da la'i bla ma 07 skal bzang rgya mtsho, 1708-1757), Buton Rinchen Drub, and the Fourth Paṇchen Lama, Lobzang Chokyi Gyeltsen (paN chen 04 blo bzang chos kyi rgyal mtshan, 1570-1662), among others. In their own texts guiding readers through the sacred geography of Tibet, the Fourth Drukchen, Pema Karpo (brug chen 04 padma dkar po, 1527-1592) and the Eight Drukchen Kunzik Chokyi Nangwa (brug chen 08 kun bzigs chos kyi snang ba, 1768-1822) cite a Guidebook of Mitra[yogin] for a description of a special herb to be found at Tsari that cures various diseases including leprosy, bestows blessings, and grants magical powers.[9] Another hagiographical account of Mitrayogin’s life entitled The Oceanic Tree; a Biography of Jinamitra (rgyal sras mi tra'i rnam thar rgya mtsho ljon shing) was composed by Rinchen Gyeltsen (rin chen rgyal mtshan) the nephew of Sakya Paṇḍitā (sa skya paN Di ta, 1182-1251). By the variety of authors who wrote about him and his works, we can see that Mitrayogin inspired Buddhist teachers and practitioners of all different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

Notes:

[1] Blue Annals, 1030-1033.

[2] Ajitamitra, 497. A derivation of Go Lotsāwa's error is repeated by the translators of Tāranātha's History of Buddhism (Chimpa et al, p. 412), who combine all three names into a single person and write "Mitrayogi or Jagat-mitra-ananda [are] probably the same as Lalitavajra."

[3] Mi tra jo ka'i rnam thar bstan pa gsal ba'i sgron me; this is rendered in English in Chandra 1965.

[4] Gyatso, p. 8 note 31.

[5] Niyogi, History, 198; Verma, Inscriptions, 120-121, 800-801. Hasra, Rise, 162-165.

[6] See, for example, the colophon to Thugs rje chen po khar+sa pA Na'i sgrub thabs tshigs su bcad pa bzhi pa (https://www.tbrc.org/#library_work_ViewByOutline-O00CR000800CR0132262DB178462DB17847%7CW23703).

[7] Blue Annals, 1039. Martin, The Woman Illusion? p. 69.

[8] Rheingans, pp. 118-119, 121.

[9] Martin, "For Love or Religion?" pp. 353-354.


Will May is an independent Buddhist scholar and translator and the founder of the Buddhist Open Online Translation Lab. Published February 2019. [Extracted from the Treasury of Lives, Tibetan lineages website for inclusion on the Himalayan Art Resources website. March 2019.].
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Chandra, Lokesh. 1965. The Biography of Mitrayogin, in Indo-Asian Studies, vol. 2, pp. 161-170.

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