The Tibetan practice of bcud len represents a highly particular forging of diverse strands of spiritual and medicinal legacies.
Jamyang Oliphant 2-2016
Bcud len, literally ‘essence extraction’ [pronounced chew len], consists of varied methods whose goal is to extract nutrition or ‘essence’ through alchemical processes, ritual and contemplation. The extraction can occur from sources which may include plants, flowers, barks and roots, water, rock, sperm and blood and human flesh as well as other less tangible substances, such as the ‘essence of space’ and of stars.
Instructional bcud len texts describe how the practitioner’s meditative experiences and subtle energies can be reinvigorated through sexual practice, both actual and visualized in the mind of the yogin. The extraction of essence can either occur from actual solid, tangible objects or imagined in the meditator’s mind, working on the inner body’s subtle energies. Mantra recitation and visualizations of particular deities (very often Vajrayogini and Amitayus) empower the substances to make them ‘divine’. Bcud len exercises and techniques can involve preparations of alchemical compounds and medicinal concoctions, recitation of mantra, adherence to specific dietary regimes and a variety of exercises, mental, respiratory and physical. Unlike many other meditative practices, which focus mostly on mental exercises and visualizations, in the practice of bcud len the physical body is given great importance and concoctions are prepared according to the practitioner’s physical typology. The medicinal goal of certain texts is to nourish the body’s strength and organs and to increase longevity. Instead, bcud len texts, with a more spiritual emphasis, are directed at increasing wisdom and sharpening mental faculties as well as gaining various other dngos grub, ‘attainments’. In Tibetan literature one can find reference to several variations of bcud len whose purpose is to allow the practitioner to live on negligible amounts of food, thereby purifying the body and energy flow and sharpening mental focus while on the path to Buddhahood. Minimizing the need for food also means that meditators can spend prolonged periods of time in solitary retreat without having to worry about a livelihood.
Determining the origins of the practice of bcud len is complex, due to relatively sparse documentation and to the complications of establishing authorship of texts spanning several centuries. Bcud len never was an institutionalized practice. It was not undertaken in group but rather by individual meditators, and therefore it is hard to pinpoint distinct and continuous bcud len lineages of transmission. Many bcud len texts come from gter ma revelations and were recorded at later stages, complicating the identification of a text’s inception and its chain of transmission.
In several texts an Indian imprint can be detected through the deities invoked or visualized and in the ingredients found in recipes. Figures such as Kalachakra, Vajrayogini, Amitayus often recur as the central deities. Saraha, a semi-legendary figure from Orissa on India’s east coast, is identified in certain texts as the originator of specific water bcud len practices. Many ingredients found in recipes, such as utpala and arura, also are thought to derive from India. The Indian rasayana tradition was a probable influence in the development of bcud len, while many of the exercises to master the subtle body probably had Indian counterparts: the Tibetan term bum pa can is a translation of the Sanskrit kumbhaka. Several rituals described in bcud len practices to empower nectars are remarkably similar to Indian Vajrayogini practices. While India may have been the source of and provided the model for many texts, this does not mean that a distinct form of essence extraction has not evolved on the Tibetan plateau.
Bcud len practices are found in all four Tibetan Buddhist schools as well as in the Bon tradition. Many of the teachings are said to derive from Padmasambhava and were rediscovered and set on paper by Tibetan treasure revealers in the Tibetan language. Some of the more well-known gter ston [Terton] who discovered bcud len texts attributed to Padmasambhava are: Padma gling pa (1450- 1521), Ratna gling pa (1403- 1479), Dri med ’od zer (1308- 1364); Bdud ’joms gling pa (1835-1904).
However bcud len texts are not confined to the Nyingma school and instances of texts authored by masters affiliated with other schools include the second Dalai Lama Rgyal ba Dge ’dun rgya mtsho (1475-1542) who authored a flower bcud len that has been translated into English by Glenn Mullin (2005). Also Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) wrote a bcud len text and in the Kagyu school the third Karmapa, Rang byung rdo rje (1284- 1339) and Shakya Shri (1853-1919) authored bcud len texts. In the Bon tradition authors include Shar rdza bkra shis rgyal mtshan (1859-1935) and Dkar ru grub dbang bstan ’dzin rin chen (1801-1860).
The main subcategories of bcud len typologies, based on the substances employed, are: water, flowers, pills, rocks and prana.
Some of the most common ingredients found in texts are cong zhi (calcite), rtag tu ngu pa (drosera peltata), dbang lag (dactylorhiza hatagirea), ra mnye (Polygonatum cirhifolium). Some recipes include unconventional ingredients such as human flesh, urine, excrement and sexual secretions as well as bile or brain of different animals. Specific ingredients possess qualities that aid the practitioner’s health and meditation. In Tibetan literature we find mentions of masters who relied on calcite during retreats; for example, in the section on the life of Kong sprul in a work on Ris med philosophy by Ringu Tulku (2006: 17), we read that in his late teens Kong sprul subsisted for a week on extracted essences, obtaining all his nutrition from stalagmites. In images, Rma Rin chen mchog, one of Guru Padmasambhava’s original twenty-five disciples, is often depicted holding a calcite stone rock. Such occurrences confirm that calcite has long been an integral part of Tibetan yogic practices. Similarly, there are stories of hermits surviving on flowers and herbs, foremost among them the great ascetic Milarepa whose body was said to have assumed a green hue from his nettle-based diet; indeed, it is not uncommon to find him portrayed with a greenish hue in Tibetan paintings. Another lama said to have mastered bcud len and attained longevity is Tangtong Gyalpo, often depicted with a long life pill in his hand.
A central feature of many texts is the practice of kumbhaka (bum pa can) a special method of holding the breath. The Tibetan term bum pa can is a translation of the Sanskrit term and literally means ‘vase-shaped’ holding. The underlying idea is to guide the movement of energies and prana in the subtle body by using the air retained below the navel, muscular contraction and mental concentration and visualization. By directing one’s awareness and prana into the central channel various meditative experiences can be generated. The regular practice of kumbhaka helps to coordinate breathing and since the workings of the inner body winds affect the overall health and mental states, proficiency in practices working with energies in the subtle body is crucial for the meditator aiming to master his mind.
The earliest recorded mention of bcud len in Tibetan literature of which
I am aware dates from the eleventh century. It is found in writings by Ba ri lo tsa ba rin chen grags (1103-1111) and consists of a sole sentence telling of how to transform food into bcud len by reciting an Avalokitesvara mantra. The most recent bcud len practice made public is a Mandarava (one of the main disciples and corsorts of Padmasambhava) bcud len revealed in 1984 by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu (b.1938) which he is transmitting and teaching.
Almost never listed in separate compilations, bcud len literature is found scattered in large volumes of authors’ collected writings and is therefore not easy to locate. In the past some bcud len texts were assembled by ’Jam mgon Kong sprul, such as those in the Rin chen gter mdzod, Chapter 48 and in the Gdams ngag mdzod, Chapter 17 (tsa). Probably hundreds of bcud len texts remain to be studied and translated, which will shed more light on a tradition that calls for more scholarly attention.
Jamyang Oliphant 2-2016