Tibetan histories present the Tibetans before their conversion to Buddhism as violent and unlearned, without writing, law or the civilizing effect of the dharma, and possessing a number of unsavoury customs, including blood sacrifices and painting their faces red with ochre or vermilion. The description of the Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’ came to be a signifier of all of this pre-Buddhist barbarity, and of the civilizing effects of Buddhism. In the early 10th century Nub Sangye Yeshe wrote of early Tibet: “These kingdoms at the borderlands, these lands of the Tibetans, the red-faced barbarians.” A couple of centuries later the Sakya patriarch Sönam Tsemo quoted the following prophecy (spoken by the Buddha) in his history of the dharma:
“Two thousand five hundred years after my parinirvāṇa, the true dharma will be propagated in the land of the red-faced men.”
In Sönam Tsemo’s time, the date of the Buddha’s passing was thought to be around 2130 BC, which is indeed around 2,500 years before the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet in the mid-7th century. After Sönam Tsemo this prophecy continued to appear in many Tibetan histories. So, where did this characterization of the early Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’ come from? If the Tibetans did have the custom of painting their faces with ochre or vermilion before going into battle, then the first impression that their enemies—such as the Central Asian kingdoms—formed of these newcomers would have been of terrifying ‘red-faced men’.
As for the prophecy, Sönam Tsemo said that it was from a scripture called The Enquiry of the Goddess Vimala. Now this surely must be the same text as the one found in the Tibetan canon called The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā, a Khotanese text that was translated into Tibetan. Cast in the form of a prophecy, it deals with the fears of the Khotanese Buddhists under the onslaught of the Tibetan war machine in the 7th century, and their hopes for a saviour. (FW Thomas whimsically suggested that the The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā was the Khotanese Romance of its age and that its heroine was Khotan’s Joan of Arc!) The prophecy about the dharma being propagated in the land of the red-faced men does not in fact appear here, but the Tibetan warriors are constantly referred to as ‘red-faced men’.
It does then seem that we have the Khotanese to thank for the enduring image of the early Tibetans as ‘red-faced men’. This is only one instance of the cultural influence of Khotan upon Tibet, an influence that was later almost entirely forgotten by the Tibetans themselves. After the 10th century Khotan became part of the Islamic world, and its influence on Tibetan Buddhism ended. The Tibetans gradually forgot even the location of the place called Khotan (or rather Liyül in Tibetan), often confusing it with distant Nepal. In an odd parallel, many later Islamic geographies seem to have confused the location of Tibet with Khotan.
As a postscript to this discussion, I couldn’t ignore the much-quoted prophecy attributed to Padmasambhava which also speaks of Buddhism coming to the ‘red-faced men’, often interpreted uncritically as a reference to Native Americans:
When the iron bird flies and horses run on wheels the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the world, and the dharma will come to the land of the red-faced man.
I have never seen a reliable reference to the source of this prophecy (presumably it ought to be from a treasure text) and I’d be happy to be put right if anybody is able to point out a source. However, even if there is something like this prophecy in a genuine Tibetan source it should be pointed out that Tibetans would always have understood the phrase ‘red-faced men’ to refer to themselves.
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1. Thomas, F.W. 1935. Tibetan Literary Texts and Documents, Part I: Literary texts. London: Royal Asiatic Society.
2. Vogel, Claus. 1991. “Bu-ston on the date of the Buddha’s Nirvana. Translated from his History of the Doctrine (Chos-’byung). In The Dating of the Historical Buddha. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
1. Dri ma med pa’i ‘od kyis zhus pa [The Enquiry of Vimalaprabhā]. Q.835.
2. Gnubs sangs rgyas ye shes. Bsam gtan mig sgron / Rnal ‘byor mig gi bsam gtan [A Lamp for the Eyes of Contemplation]. Leh, Ladakh: S. W. Tashigangpa, 1974.
3. Bsod nams rtse mo. Chos la ‘jug pa’i sgo [An Introduction to the Dharma]. In Sa skya bka’ ‘bum, vol.I.
Photograph of Tibetan soldiers in ceremonial costumes supposed to represent Imperial-period Tibetan soldiers. Taken by Lt. Col. Ilya Tolstoy and Capt. Brooke Dolan in 1942-3. See Rob Linrothe’s site.