As a backdrop to the phenomenon of Padmasambhava as Magician we first need to consider the magical landscape on which it was spawned.
The Tibetan universe is infused with spirits—spirits that live in the rocks, the trees, and the mountains, spirits that live in one’s body, spirits that wander the landscape, spirits that live under ground and in the sky, spirits that cause illness or natural disasters. The spirit world of Tibet is an unruly domain. Spirits demand recognition and respect, yet they are forever changing names, can be associated with multiple locations, appear in different groups, escape classification, and manifest according to shifting iconographies. Conversely, tantric ritual is often guided by metaphors of power and control, with the practitioner seated as a virtual sovereign at the center of the mandala palace, ruling over his realm with a firm hand. Buddhism provided the ritual methods for control and the overarching narrative schemes necessary for reckoning with the spirits’ roles in Tibetan life. Through tantric ritual, the spirits could be mapped onto the Tibetan landscape and correlated with the more orderly Buddhist system of deities. At the center of these tropes sits the figure of Padmasambhava. If the theme of demon subjugation is crucial to Tibetan culture, Padmasambhava is Tibet’s demon tamer par excellence. (Jacob P. Dalton: The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Second Look at the Evidence from Dunhuang)
Padmasambhava was a vidyādhara, meaning one who has mastered the ritual power of the tantras and thereby gains formidable magical powers; measured with this is the ability to travel to other realms and dimensions exerting control over a given subject. In so doing Padmasambhava was ornamented as a second Buddha:
A Mahāyoga vidyādhara is called Vajradhara Buddha. There are four kinds: a deity vidyādhara, a medicinal vidyādhara, a vidyādhara of maturation, and a mahāmudra vidyādhara. Of those, a deity vidyādhara gains accomplishment from the deity, a medicinal one gains accomplishment from rasāyana and so forth, a vidyādhara of maturation gains accomplishment from one who is the highest of experts, and a mahāmudrā vidyādhara is endowed with the five kinds of omniscience, i.e. Ācārya Padmasambhava and the like. The five kinds of omniscience consist of the vajra eye, the vajra ear, the vajra mind, and the vajra miracles. He is called a “second buddha.” Alike in every way, he should be understood as such. There is no difference between a second [buddha and the first]; he is equal. He is called “second” only because of the different methods he uses to gain accomplishment. (ibid)
Hence, Padmasambhava’s supreme identity as a Buddha, far and beyond the confines of space and time, empowered him to manifest powers and abilities that were most appropriate of benefiting beings in a particular locale. At different places and times, people witnessed a different Padmasambhava who utilized sundry expedient and magical means that satisfied and transformed a given situation. It needs to be reinforced that his great accomplishments were magnificent yogic and siddhic skills of transformation and control which were initiated at a much later stage in his life during periods of exile in the ferocious charnel grounds (even before arriving in Tibet):
Padmasambhava, the second buddha, lord of all living beings! Abiding in the charnel grounds, without regard for his body or life. Extracted the elemental essence by means of ascetic discipline…
Then, Padmasambhava of Oḍḍiyāna thought to himself, “Now I should go to the eight great charnel grounds and, paying no heed for my body or life, I should discipline myself with austerities and take only the various essences of herbs and poisons. These Dharma instructions that I have not practiced before will be like giving my body of clay a fresh coat of paint.” Thinking thus, he went first to the terrifying charnel ground called Bodies’ End, which is located in the middle of the country called Bheti/Baiddha. It is a place in which the manifest forms of spirits and demons roam around during the day as well as the night, and it is the abode of the Mother Goddess Vetālī and her retinue. For twelve years, the guru resided in that place, resting his back against the central stūpa called Potalaka Mountain, engaged in the ascetic discipline of mastering the channels, winds and subtle drops (nāḍi, prāṇa & bindu). As a result of this practice, he attained the innate purity of the sense of sight and was able to stop the sun in its tracks. In order to clear away the darkness of all living beings, he remained visible in the heart of clear light, whether it was daytime or night. At that time, he became known by the name Nyi ma ’od zer (Sūryaraśmi, Ray of Sunlight). [Martin Boord, An introduction to The Stainless Ornament Biography Of Guru Padmasambhava revealed as a Dharma Treasure by bSam gtan gling pa]
In so doing, his attainments of the vidyādhara level initiated control over the very life force itself; manifesting itself under numerous mystical and magical guises:
PADMA’S MANY MAGICAL GUISES
Padma, assuming numerous guises, continued to subdue evil. Sometimes he appeared as a common beggar, sometimes as a boy of eight years, sometimes as lightning, or wind, sometimes as a beautiful youth in dalliance with women, sometimes as a beautiful woman in love with men, sometimes as a bird, an animal, or insect, sometimes as a physician, or rich almsgiver. At other times he became a boat and wind on the sea to rescue men, or water with which to extinguish fire. He taught the ignorant, awakened the slothful, and dominated jealousy by heroic deed. To overcome sloth, anger, and lust in mankind, he appeared as the Three Chief Teachers, Avalokiteshvara, Mañjushrī, and Vajra-Pā i; to overcome arrogance, he assumed the Body, the Speech, and the Mind of the Buddha; and, to overcome jealousy, the fifth of the ‘Five Poisons’, he transformed himself into the Five Dhyānī Buddhas. He was now called ‘The Chief Possessor of Magical Dances [or of Shape-Shifting]’. In short, to accomplish his mission to all sentient creatures, human, superhuman, and sub-human, Padma assumed the guise most suitable to the occasion. (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, The Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation)
Needless to say his remarkable life and abilities landed him immortality:
Padmasambhava’s departure for the land of the rākṣasas in the southwest – the copper coloured mountain – and his final instructions which are like a necklace of wish-fulfilling jewels.
The parallel here with Śākyamuni’s Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra, in which the buddha imparts his final instructions before dying, are self-evident. It is important to note, however, that the tantric attainment of immortality means that Padmasambhava did not die. This is a vital difference! We should also note, furthermore, that he made a promise to all those who pray to him with faith and devotion that he would return to them on the tenth day of every month, in order to bless their practice of the holy Dharma. Travelling on rays of rainbow light from his palace of Lotus Light on the summit of the copper coloured mountain to wherever he is called, Padmasambhava remains a potent living presence in the hearts and lives of his devotees, for whom he is far more important than the buddha Śākyamuni. And when those devotees come to the moment of their death, they fully expect to be met in the afterlife by guru Padma and his retinue of ḍākinīs, who will happily escort them to take up residence in a home of their own upon that copper coloured mountain on Yak’s Tail island, situated to the southwest of our world. (ibid, Martin Boord)
Meditations on the Tarot (hereafter MOTT) would classify Padmasambhava’s magical abilities thusly:
The Magician therefore represents the state of concentration without effort, that is to say where there is nothing to suppress and where contemplation becomes as natural as breathing and the beating of the heart —is the state of consciousness (i.e. thought, imagination, feeling and will) of perfect calm, accompanied by the complete relaxation of the nerves and the muscles of the body. It is the profound silence of desires, of preoccupations, of the imagination, of the memory and of discursive thought. One may say that the entire being becomes like the surface of calm water, reflecting the immense presence of the starry sky and its indescribable harmony…
i.e. the state of consciousness where the centre directing the will has descended” (in reality it is elevated) from the brain to the rhythmic system, where the “oscillations of the mental substance” are reduced to silence and to rest, no longer hindering concentration.
The excellent Padmasambhava resource, Herbert V. Guenther’s—The Teachings of Padmasambhava describes this process in the following manner:
(The experiencer’s) mental/spiritual foundation is the attainment of the (whole’s) No-thing ultimate depth and width. The triad of the external, the internal, and the arcane is the (above) triad of (the experiencer’s) world of phenomena, (his) cognition (of it), and (his) mental-spiritual foundation. With the loosening-up and dissolution of the world of phenomena there is no (longer any) cognition (of it, and with its nonexistence) the (experiencer’s) mental/spiritual foundation dissolves (in the whole’s unfathomable depth and unlimited width)…
From all that has been said so far we cannot but conclude that what Padmasambhava has called the spyi-ti experience, a mental-spiritual “leap-that-aims-high” (thod-rgal), This is to say that sems-nyid and chos-nyid, as “manifestations” of a primal intensity/energy (snyingpo), highlight the principle of complementarity on which Padmasambhava’s thinking is based.
The best way to conclude this segment of our series is the Padmasambha-hymn on Spyi-ti, from the same resource:
What an extraordinary miracle!
This spyi-ti experience that is the peak experience of the nine spiritual
Is not obtained from someone or from somewhere else, but is obtained
from (wholeness) itself.
The vision (opened by) the spyi-ti experience, ultimate completeness,
The supreme spiritual pursuit (that is) of the nature of an extraordinary
Is the dissolution of the totality of the phenomenal and its interpretation
in terms of samsara and nirvana
In the (whole’s) symbolic pregnance, the ultimate non-Iocalizability.
(The whole’s) meaning that has nothing to do with the predeterrninistic
notions of it being this or not being this, (in its) having come to-
the-fore (as an experience)
Without there being in it something to look for and then to prove what
one has been looking for,
Abides in (and as) the (whole’s) immediacy (that is its) stillness
The no-birth, the no-substance (that one claims to be the) goal (of
one’s search) surpasses (the confines of) the intellect.
E-ma! What a miraculous and wondrous teaching!
It does not originate from some other (teaching), but has originated
from (its fIrst utterance as the)
A-la-la-ho! (Reality’s) totality, collected in a lump, dissolves in the
ultimacy of the (whole’s) symbolic pregnance.