Some Remarks On The Chulen Tradition In Tibetan Literature

Tibetan herbal pills placed in bowls
Picture of Jamyang Oliphant PhD
Jamyang Oliphant PhD

Jamyang Oliphant was born to a family of disciples of Dzogchen master and professor Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche. He studied Tibetan religion, language, and culture at the University of Oxford. His doctoral thesis focused on rejuvenating Tibetan medical practices. He is dedicated to researching, lecturing, and publishing on various aspects of Himalayan religion, medicine, and history, reflecting his passion for Tibetan culture. He is co-editor of Sharro: Festschift for Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and of About Padmasambhava: Historical Narratives and Later Transformations of Guru Rinpoche.

When I was eighteen I participated in a two week long Mandarava chulen retreat in Tashigar Norte. I had never felt so well and was astonished by the power of the practice. Years later, in talking to me about chulen and its practitioners Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, inspired me to do my doctorate on the practice and its literature. This I completed under Charles Ramble at the University of Oxford. Rinpoche pointed me towards the first chulen texts I translated. Over a period of five years I travelled to various parts of the Himalayas and met many doctors and practitioners. In that time I translated over seventy chulen texts. This article is based on some conclusions derived from my thesis and includes excerpts from translations of those texts. If interested, you can access my thesis here

I will describe the possible origins and the diverse forms of the practice of chulen, and indicate the various typologies of practices. After briefly describing Padmasambhava’s role in the tradition I reproduce a particularly captivating and profound passage from a chulen text by Pema Lingpa.

Table of Contents

Defining chulen

At times we may think of chulen simply as a medicinal pill, but there is much more to it, as it works on the levels of body, speech and mind. Chulen practice, literally ‘essence extraction’, employs different methods to extract nutrition or ‘essence’ through alchemical processes, ritual and contemplation. The extraction can occur from plants, flowers, barks and roots, water, rock, sperm and blood as well as other less tangible substances, such as prana or the ‘essence of space’ or even of stars.

Chulen texts indicate how the practitioner’s meditative experiences and subtle energies can be reinvigorated by this extraction that can either be from actual solid, tangible objects or imagined in the meditator’s mind, working on the inner body’s subtle energies through visualizations and breathing. Mantra recitation and visualizations of particular deities, very often Vajrayoginī and Amitāyus, empower the substances to make them ‘divine’. Chulen 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. Sometimes the practitioner’s experience is enhanced through sexual practice, both actual and imagined.

Unlike many other meditative practices, which focus mostly on mental exercises and visualizations, in the practice of chulen the physical body is given great importance and concoctions are prepared according to the practitioner’s physical typology, according to the three humours. The medicinal goal of certain texts is to nourish the body’s strength and organs and to increase longevity, while the focus of texts with a more spiritual emphasis is on increasing wisdom and sharpening mental faculties.

Origins and evolution

One can find instances of chulen texts and practices in the four Tibetan Buddhist schools as well as in the Bon tradition. However, associating a specific person or place with the origination of chulen techniques is problematic.

The earliest recorded mention of chulen in Tibetan literature of which I am aware dates from the eleventh century. It is found in writings by Bari lotsawa Rinchen Drak (1103-1111) and consists of a sole sentence on transforming food into chulen by reciting an Avalokiteśvara mantra. The most recent chulen practice made public is a Mandarava chulen revealed in 1984 by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu.

Chulen never was an institutionalized practice. There is no record suggesting that traditionally it was undertaken as a group practice and the wording of the texts implies it was suited for individual meditators. It was not a mainstream practice. Adepts usually engaged in these secret teachings in solitude and there are very few accounts of their lives and achievements. Because of the personal nature of the practice and the secrecy of transmission it is hard to pinpoint distinct and continuous chulen lineages of transmission in Tibetan history. Many chulen texts come from treasure revelations and were transmitted to a select few high level practitioners.

However, many practices share something in common in the figure of Padmasambhava, who has played an important role since the early phases of the chulen tradition.

Padmasambhava’s role in the chulen tradition

Many chulen teachings are said to originate from Padmasambhava and were rediscovered and set on paper by Tibetan treasure revealers in the Tibetan language. Some of the more well-known treasure revealers who discovered chulen texts attributed to Padmasambhava are: Padma Lingpa (1450- 1521), Ratna Lingpa (1403- 1479), Drimed Ozer (1308- 1364); Dujom Lingpa (1835-1904), Jigmed Lingpa (1730-1798).

In the twenty-third chapter of a biography of Padmasambhava produced by Tak Sham Nuden Dorje (Stag sham nus ldan rdo rje), O rgyan gu ru padma ’byung gnas kyi skyes rabs rnam thar dri med pa rgyan there is a section titled Dka’ spyad mdzad pa’i skor te (The performance of austerities). The writer, thought to have lived in the late 17th century, outlines Padmasambhava’s practising of different bcud len practices in several locations.

In a forthcoming book on Padmasambhava, that I have co-edited with Professor Geoffrey Samuel and that will be published by our vajra siblings Peter and Karin Koppersteiner’s Garuda Verlag, there is an article by Martin Boord. He has translated the section entitled dur khrod brgyad du sman dug sna tshogs bcud du blangs shing dka’ ba spyad pa (Undergoing austerities in eight charnel grounds, Padma extracts the essence of various herbs and poisons). This text describes how Padmasambhava subsisted on the essences of air, water and stone. He concocted elixirs of various medicinal herbs and poisons, human flesh and urine, and sometimes bones and beer. From this forthcoming collection of essays one can learn in more detail about the different types of bcud len that Guru Rinpoche is described as having practiced. There is also my own more detailed article about Padmasambhava’s role in the chulen tradition.

There are no precise explanations as to how or from whom Padmasambhava is first thought to have received the various essence extraction techniques. There is an account of Padmasambhava receiving and practising bcud len teachings in charnel grounds in a text by Bdud ’dul rdo rje (1615-1672). Regarding the origins of this flower and calcite bcud len, the text ’Gro don las tshogs zag med bdud rtsi’i bcud len states that the practice was first given by Buddha Shākyamuni to a ḍākinī in the sacred place called Dan ta:

Then, the wisdom ḍākinī hid it and Guru Rinpoche went to Dur khrod bde byed brtsegs (Enchanting Mound Cemetery) and retrieved it. He transmitted it to eight yogins who benefitted from this bcud len and Padmasambhava himself accomplished the immortal Vidyādhara.

                                                                                                                                                        (folio 447)

This account indicates that the first contact Guru Padmasambhava may have had with teachings on bcud len occurred through a ḍākinī transmission in charnel grounds.

We can also find references to his practising chulen in the biography of Padmasambhava by the great scholar Tāranātha (1575–1634), The Life of Padmasambhava. This work was his attempt to compare and evaluate existing accounts and present a more accurate one of Padmasambhava’s birth and life drawn from a variety of texts. The book has been rendered into English by Cristiana de Falco and in her translation we read of Padmasambhava achieving the siddhi of ‘taking the essence of immortality’ in the cemetery of Palgyi Ne, where the acharya Barabuzi (in Tibetan Chogse) lived. Further on, we read that Guru Padmasambhava: ‘… increased the life span and wealth of many people through the teachings of “The Essence that Transforms into Gold” and “The Medicine for Taking the Essence”.

Chulen practice is not confined to the Nyingma school and instances of texts authored by masters affiliated with other schools include the second Dalai Lama Gyalwa Gedun Gyatso (1475-1542) whose flower chulen text has been translated into English by Glenn Mullin (2005). Also Sakya Pandita (1182-1251) wrote a chulen text and in the Kagyu school the third Karmapa, Ranjung Dorje (1284- 1339) and Shakya Shri (1853-1919) wrote chulen texts. Bonpo authors include Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (1859-1935) and Karu Drubwang Tenzin Rinchen (1801-1860).

In a long standing debate on its origins, many scholars have claimed that chulen is a derivative of the Indian tradition of rasayana. 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. Many chulen recipes have distinctly Tibetan ingredients and also concepts such as vital force (la in Tibetan) are present in the rituals.

Defining the roots of Tibetan medicine has profound implications for Tibetans and their historical identity. Yang Ga, a Tibetan scholar who completed his PhD on the history of Tibetan medical culture at Harvard University, has made interesting arguments to gain recognition of the indigenous roots of Tibet’s medical culture. He has analysed documents from Dunhunag and argued that Tibetan medical culture is a complex tradition enriched by many medical cultures and not simply an Indian derivative.


The main subcategories of chulen typologies, based on the substances employed, are: water, flowers, pills, rocks and prāṇa.

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 urine, excrement and sexual secretions as well as the bile or brain of different animals. Specific ingredients possess qualities that aid the practitioner’s health and meditation. We find mentions of masters who relied on calcite during retreats; for example, it seems that in his late teens Jamgon Kongtrul subsisted for a week on extracted essences, obtaining all his nutrition from stalagmites. Kongtrul assembled several chulen texts, authored by many masters, in the Rinchen Terzod, Chapter 48 and in the Damnak zod, Chapter 17 (tsa). In murals and thangkas, Ma Rinchen-chog, 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 master said to have mastered chulen and attained longevity is Thangtong Gyalpo, often depicted with a long life pill in his hand.

A central feature of the great majority of 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 prāṇa 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 prāṇa 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.

Many chulen practices aim to increase wisdom and sharpen mental faculties as well as to gain various other dngos grub, ‘attainments’. Implicit in most texts is the purpose of allowing 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.

I would like to end this short article by reproducing a short and inspiring passage from the last section of an instructional chulen practice of Padmasambhava’s, written down by Yeshe Tosgyal and rediscovered by the great Bhutanese master Pema Lingpa. The text is called The Chulen of the Wish-fulfilling Jewel (bcud len yid bzhin nor bu) and the section is Ting ’dzin bcud len (Samādhi essence extraction) (f.740, line 6):

You should not seek your master or deities externally but instead see your own body as them, see their form appearance as male deities and their emptiness as female deities. Realise form and emptiness are inseparable. Your own body and mind are inseparable. Your masters are never external to you. If you search for dakini nectar and substances outside your own mind it will produce mental and physical efforts and distractions. If you perform meditative concentration you do not need to search for food and drink externally. If you consume your own perceptions as food during meditation it will help to make your meditation free from obstacles and uninterrupted. If you perceive every single form as arising from Samathabadra’s nature of mind you will realize there is nothing to avoid or accept. These are the most meaningful things to practice. Be diligent.

The Chulen of the Wish-fulfilling Jewel

Related Posts