There is the man and there is the myth. Jacob Dalton (Yale university) wrote about the origin and role of the myth in Tibetan buddhism in the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004.
"The results of this study reveal a mutability in the early biographies of Padmasambhava. The master's role in the Tibetan imagination grew and evolved in dramatic ways during the ninth to eleventh centuries, so that by the time of his first complete biography, the twelfthcentury Zangs gling ma by Nyang ral nyi ma'i 'od zer (1124-1192), Padmasambhava had become the single most important figure in Tibetan narratives of their early conversion to Buddhism. The new evidence presented here contributes to our understanding of how these Tibetan conversion narratives grew over the early years. The present inquiry is therefore less concerned with Padmasambhava as a historical person than with his legend and the thematic lines along which it developed. An evaluation of the early evidence helps to clarify both how Tibetans perceived themselves and how they understood their first encounters with the Buddhist religion. This new evidence indicates that the Padmasambhava legend initially flourished during the so-called "dark period" of Tibetan history. This period stretched from 842 C.E. when the Tibetan empire collapsed, to roughly 978 c.E. when a royal court and Buddhist monastic institutions began to reappear, bringing with them a new orthodoxy. According to traditional Tibetan historical sources, this period of one and a half centuries witnessed a horrific degradation of Buddhism, as monasteries were persecuted and the teachings corrupted. Recent scholarship has begun to question this traditional version of events. Certainly, the Tibetans who emerged from the dark period were far more Buddhist, however such affiliation is measured, than the Tibetans who had entered it. It seems that despite the closing of the monasteries Buddhism continued to flourish at the local level. The forms Buddhism took during these years may well have been "corrupt" in the view of later Tibetans, but these same corruptions were fundamental to the formation of the Tibetan Buddhist identity. Freed from the watchful eye of the imperial court and the monastic orthodoxy, Tibetans of the dark period were able to make Buddhism their own. The themes, the imagery, and the strategies Tibetans developed during the inchoate years of the dark age formed the cultural foundations upon which Tibetan Buddhism was built." [..] Earlier, during the empire, the exoteric traditions enjoyed far greater support, thanks particularly to the patronage of the royal court, while the translation of tantric texts was carefully controlled, if not prohibited. With the collapse of the empire, these controls were lifted, and Tibetans plunged eagerly into the world of Buddhist tantra. One of the constant motifs of Tibetan religion over the centuries has been the animated, and often malevolent, landscape, and the need to mollify, pacify, or subjugate it. The materials I will examine here suggest that, rather than being something projected back into Tibetan history by later histories and chronicles, this motif is a key element in some of the earliest Tibetan Buddhist legends. The Tibetans seem to have been attracted to tantra in part for its effectiveness in controlling spirits and demons. 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, that wander the landscape, that live underground 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 themselves in accordance with 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 the realm by threat of violence. Buddhism provided both ritual methods of control and overarching narrative schemes for explaining the spirits' roles in Tibetan life. Through tantra the spirits could be mapped onto the Tibetan landscape and correlated with the more orderly Buddhist system of deities. The evidence presented below suggests that the legends surrounding the Indian tantric master Padmasambhava should be understood as part of this tantric conversion of Tibet. The theme of demon subjugation is crucial to Tibetan culture, and Padmasambhava is the demon tamer par excellence. He is also often depicted as the principal figure responsible for bringing Buddhism to Tibet. Today the geography of Tibet is covered with countless sacred sites where the tantric saint is said to have subjugated local Tibetan pre-Buddhist spirits and converted them to Buddhism. The new evidence offered here reveals much about how these two themes, of Padmasambhava and Tibetan tantra, developed in concert.
Dalton, Jacob. The Early Development of the Padmasambhava Legend in Tibet: A Study of IOL Tib J 644 and Pelliot tibetain. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 124, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 2004), p. 759 - 772 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4132116?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Verena Widorn writes in Buddhism in Central Asia I (2020):
"This chapter addresses a problematic perception of the authenticity of patronage that results from the different viewpoints of academic historical research and religious worship. This primarily art historical study focuses on a selection of objects and monuments from the areas of Kinnaur and Lahul, two districts in the Indian region of the Western Himalayas. Local tradition attributes the artefacts to important Buddhist personalities from the 8th to the 13th centuries. I show that these artefacts, which are associated with the mystical actions of the legendary patrons, are very closely linked to topographical peculiarities of the landscape and occupy a special place in the sacred geography of the area. The aim is not to draw a historically authentic picture of the past, but rather to explore the relationship between art, architecture, landscape, and the local concept of patronage and religious heritage, not only in modern times."
"The association of monuments with religious personalities whose life narrations are hagiographic and not historical accounts, is a frequent phenomenon in the Western Himalayas. In this paper, as a case study, I employ an art historical perspective to discuss and compare the religious landscape and the Buddhist legacy of two regions, namely the valleys of Kinnaur and Lahul (at present of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh) (map 6.1). Both districts share several common features that allow for a meaningful comparison, such as a similar topographical setting and a location at the periphery of the former Tibetan Empire in the 8th century, the West Tibetan Kingdom of Purang-Guge in later centuries, and the Ladakhi reign at the turn of the first millennium. Both districts are traversed by important trade (and at present-day tourist) routes, which also double as pilgrimage routes, connecting the plains of India with the high mountains of the Himalayan and Zanskar Ranges. These corridors of trade and pilgrimage helped to establish cultural exchanges among these areas. A mixed population of Buddhists and Hindus have settled in both regions. Thus vital religious centres and Buddhist strongholds have developed there in the last millennium—although the boundaries between the different schools and even faiths often blur. [..] Within the religious traditions of the Indian Himalayas, there is a general belief that the Indian master of Tantric Buddhism, Padmasambhava, passed through the region on his way to Tibet, where he had been invited by the Tibetan King Tri Songdétsen (r. 742–ca. 800, Tib. Khri Srong lde bstan) on the advice of the Indian Buddhist philosopher Śāntarakṣita (725–788). Padmasambhava’s special magical abilities gained through Tantric meditation and his ability to tame the enemy demons and therefore strengthen Buddhism, are often referred to.14 In recent years, more and more doubts have emerged about the existence of Padmasambhava as an historic person. Due to his mystical character in his life stories, Friedrich Bischoff was among the first to argue that Padmasambhava was an invention of later centuries and only a kind of religious idea.15 The legendary form of his biographies can best be understood as texts to be read as spiritual textbooks for Buddhist followers and not necessarily as historiographical works. Researchers such as Peter Schwieger,16 Ronald Davidson,17 Jacob Dalton,18 and Alex McKay19 consider the phenomenon of Padmasambhava and the conception of magical acting, in light of a cultural, historical, and socio-political context that covers not only the past but also considers new trends.
Padmasambhava’s presence in the Indian Himalayas seems to be proven by the Padma bka’i thang yig [Testament of Padmasambhava], one of the treasure texts, a type of text said to have been hidden by Padmasambhava so that it could be discovered at a time in the future when Tibet was prepared to receive the text’s teachings. The Testament of Padmasambhava, discovered by Orgyen Lingpa (1323–ca. 1360, Tib. O rgyan gling pa) in 1352 in the Yarlung Valley, contains a list of places that were supposedly visited by the great master.20 Tobdan refers to another ancient Buddhist text related to Padmasambhava, the bLon po bka’ yi thang yig [Legends of the Ministers], which mentions the name of Gandhola in Lahul.21" [..]
The representation of Padmasambhava is omnipresent in the art of the Indian Himalayas. Practically all temples and monasteries have one or more sculptures or paintings of Padmasambhava, typically sitting in the royal position (Skt. lalitāsana), face adorned with a moustache and a goatee, and head covered with a red hat. He is usually holding a Tantric staff (Skt. khaṭvāṅga)and a skull cup (Skt. kapāla) in the left hand and a vajra near his heart in the right hand. But more important than his iconic images are special locations and natural phenomena in the geography that refer to his miraculous acts and presence. Power places, spectacular sites, and unique features in the mountainous landscape of Himachal seem to be specifically predestined for sanctification by the great guru Padmasambhava. [..]
One of these special locations is the site of Gandhola in Lahul. Gandhola is at the crossing of three valleys and allows a perfect view down on the cremation ground at the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga Rivers (fig. 6.1). Eight Great Charnel Grounds are assigned to important events in Padmasambhavas life and the siddhi he received. In Lahul, this place is also associated with him by the local tradition. Equally important and sacred for both Hindus and Buddhist, it is considered a magical site and attracts Tantric practitioners:
For Buddhist yogis, it has been considered a place of power also due to the energy of the currents coming together, enhancing special meditations aimed at uprooting all forms of self concern and grasping. In his biography, the great yogi Rangrik Repa (17th century) narrates how, as he reached this point of his pilgrimage, he remained on that spot for several hours in a state of total contemplative awe.32 [..] The role of Padmasambhava in Kinnaur today is also mainly restricted to the image of a Tantric master and magician who brought Tantric Buddhism to the region by taming the demons—Kinnaur allegedly has the highest number of powerful local deities in the Western Himalayas.42 Handa states that:
The Dharma that Padmasambhava preached was apparently not much different from the already existing cult-system in that region. In the scheme of his ‘unreformed’ religion, there was emphasis on the propitiation and appeasement of the demons in their fierce aspects, which also included several indigenous sacraments. Therefore, the type of Buddhism that has come to stay in major part of Kinnaur is in no way different to its primitive form that Padmasambhava propagated, and it is considerably different in practice to the one prevalent in Spiti, Ladakh and [the] rest of the Tibetan world.43
[..] Huber thinks that common Hindu sites and symbols, as well as spiritual places associated with local deities, were adopted by the Buddhist Tantric system to create a pīṭha network in the Himalayan region, consisting mainly of Śaiva and Śākta sites.85 This phenomenon is especially true with Lahul, as evidenced by the numerous sites still worshiped by Hindus as well as Buddhists, such as the Gandhola cremation ground or the joint veneration of the main idol of Triloknath. The journeys of the Drukpa Kagyü pilgrims through the Western Himalayan region were certainly marked by an ideological return to Tantric Buddhism attributed to Padmasambhava (and suppressed by the Guge rulers in the 10th and 11th centuries).
From the travel itinerary, we can assume that the Tibetan pilgrims were primarily looking for extraordinary places in remote, sparsely populated areas, where the connection with nature became the most critical part.86 The Buddhist institutions built up by the royal family and Rinchen Zangpo at the time of the second diffusion of Buddhism seem to have played only a minor role for the pilgrims, as there are hardly any references in their travelogues to places such as Johling or Gumrang. Instead, according to his itinerary, Gö Tsangpa preferred to retreat to high mountain levels and to meditate in caves or in natural surroundings.87 He was probably impressed by the narrow Bhaga Valley in Lahul and the breath-taking view from the slopes of Mt. Drilbu over the confluence of the rivers at Gandhola—similar to his religious ancestor Padmasambhava, according to the local imagination.88 In the shrine of Gandhola, this spiritual connection is symbolised by a row of small statues presenting Padmasambhava in a direct lineage with two Drukpa Kagyü yogis (fig. 6.9).
[..] An interesting and still not fully comprehensible factor in the Buddhist history of the present state of Himachal is the legendary figure of Padmasambhava. The art historical attributions of certain objects and monuments in Lahul and Kinnaur to the supposed life time of Padmasambhava are as varying and hypothetical as the different scholarly interpretations of his actual existence and presence in the Western Himalayas. To our current scientific knowledge, we must consider the numerous legends and miracles surrounding him a construct of various schools and traditions that use this personality for particular purposes, goals, and legitimisation. Of course, this does by not exclude the possible presence of an important Tantric master in the 8th century and his impact on the later Buddhist art and architecture of the Himalayan region.
[..] Rob Mayer points to the fact that not all early Buddhist texts were positive about Padmasambhava’s role in Tibet. The important historical text the dBa’ bzhed [Testament of the Ba] states that the great Tantric master was not well received in the south of Tibet, and he was even requested to return to India “since his display of powers creates anxiety and hostility in the minds of the Emperor and his ministers.” See Robert Mayer, “‘We Swear our Grandparents were there!’ (Or, What Can the Sex Pistols Tell Us about Padmasambhava?) The Making of Myth in 10th Century Tibet and 20th Century England,” in The Illuminating Mirror, Tibetan Studies in Honour of Per K. Sørensen on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, ed. Olaf Czaja and Guntram Hazod (Wiesbaden: Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2015), 341–342. Mayer agrees with Mathew Kapstein that one explanation might be that Padmasambhava was a teacher of transgressive Tantric practices very much independent of, and perhaps in opposition to, the Imperial Buddhist program. See Matthew T. Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism. Conversion, Contestation, and Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 159; and Mayer, “We Swear Our Grandparents were there,” 342. During his travel in the region now part of Punjab, Xuangzang (600/602–664, 玄奘), the famous Chinese pilgrim of the 7th century, reports on Buddhists living with naked ascetics smeared with ashes from cremation grounds and wearing bones on their heads. David Lorenzen, The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two lost Śaivite Sects (New Delhi: Thomson Press, 1972), 15–16. Based on the studies of Alexis Sanderson on Indian Tantrism (especially in Kashmir), Mayer sees Padmasambhava as a practitioner of Mahāyoga Tantra at a time when the Śaiva-influenced kāpālika forms of Buddhist Tantrism gained popularity south of the Himalaya, and later in the 9th century became prevalent in Tibet.