Nyingma Gyubum (རྙིང་མ་རྒྱུད་འབུམ་), the Collected Tantras of the Nyingma School, is a canonical collection of esoteric tantric texts which are generally not included in the bipartite Himalayan Buddhist canons of the Kagyur and Tengyur. It contains esoteric teachings believed to have been delivered by a Buddha in this world or in a celestial realm. Claimed to be authentic translations created during the Early Propagation of Buddhism of no loner extant Indic texts into Tibet, the Nyingma Gyubum maintains a revered canonical status in Bhutan’s religious tradition.
The tantras of the Nyingma Gyubum are said to have been left out of the Kagyur because it was questionable whether they were translations of authentic Indian originals. Some Tibetan scholars rejected some Nyingma tantras as apocryphal writings composed in Tibet, which likely spurred the compilation of the Nyingma Gyubum as a separate collection. The question of origin of the Nyingma tantras and the relationship between Nyingma Gyubum and Kagyur is a complex issue. Despite criticism from some scholars, most Nyingma masters—as well as some other traditions—accepted the significance of the Nyingma tantras and included them in some Kagyur editions. We can also find some tantras shared by both collections. Thus, although Nyingma Gyubum has never fully been incorporated into the standard Kagyur set, it has been passed down as a parallel canon of tantras, which supplemented and sometimes also overlapped with Kagyur.
The compilation of the Nyingma Gyubum’s core texts may have begun as early as the 11th century, but it wasn’t until the funerary rites for Nyangral Nyima Özer (1124-92) that a proper Nyingma Gyubum was published. Since then, scholars estimate there have been a couple hundred versions of the Nyingma Gyubum have been produced in Himalayas, however, most of these versions were lost. Today, only five versions of Nyingma Gyubum are known to exist outside of Bhutan. In Bhutan, there are five versions including two in Gangteng, one in Tshamdrak, one in Drametse, which was originally produced in Tsakaling and one in Dongkarla, which was produced in Khaling. A sixth manuscript version of the Nyingma Gyubum had been housed in Pagar temple, but was destroyed by fire in 2012.
Nyingma Gyubum is made up of esoteric tantric texts belonging to the system of teachings known as the Unsurpassable Vehicle or Inner Tantra. Although the canon is generally purported to consist of transmitted scriptures translated from ancient Indic originals, it also contains later additions of rediscovered texts revealed by treasure-discoverers such as Nyangral Nyima Ozer, Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405), Ratna Lingpa (1403-1478), Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) and others. This has no doubt further complicated the canonical status of Nyingma Gyubum as a received corpus. The texts within the Nyingma Gyubum are organised according to the three tantric doxographical systems of Mahāyoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga, and they enshrine the highest philosophies and practices of Vajrayāna Buddhism as espoused by the Nyingma tradition.
Like the Kagyur and Tengyur collections, the Nyingma Gyubum is a cherished property in Bhutan and produced with great care and using the best materials. Treasured copies are kept in temple shrine rooms and venerated by devotees, who bow before it to receive its blessings. It is also read to help people overcome illness and misfortunes, and paraded around communities on an annual or biannual basis to bless the land. It is considered highly meritorious to create, commission, buy, own, carry, host, read, and worship the Nyingma Gyubum as it represents the swiftest and highest path to enlightenment. It is an important part of Bhutan’s rich textual heritage.
Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.
Subjects Tibet and Himalayas