A Prayer for Tibet

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A Mystery

So, there’s this manuscript from Dunhuang with a prayer for the protection of Tibet. That was the first thing to pique my interest. Prayers and rituals for protecting Tibet from foreign invasions are common enough from the time the Mongols were sending armies into Tibet in the 13th century. Rituals to repel enemy armies were usually performed by tantric practioners from the Nyingma school, like the famous Sokdokpa, whose name in fact means “Mongol-Repeller”. But this prayer is much earlier than those.

Bod KhamsUnlike those Mongol-repelling rituals, this Dunhuang prayer is not very tantric. It does invoke local protectors and spirits, but no tantric Buddhist deities. It was written, according to the colophon, by a certain Bandé Paltsek, who I am inclined to identify with the famous translator Kawa Paltsek. There’s nothing in the prayer to suggest that it couldn’t have been written by Paltsek during the late eighth or early ninth century.

So that’s interesting too. But here’s the really intriguing thing: every time the word “Tibet” (bod khams) appears in this manuscript, it has been defaced. And not just randomly but in a rather specific way. The “o” in bod has been rubbed out, and various bits of khams have been rubbed away, but never the whole word.

I have been puzzled by this strange defacement for a while, and I still can’t find a satisfactory answer for it. I do think it was done before the closing of the cave in the early 11th century (though this could also be debated). Is this censorship? Was the idea of “Tibet” troublesome to an ancient reader of the manuscript? That reader could well have been one of the local Chinese who helped to oust the Tibetans from Dunhuang in 848, or a later descendent.

Then again, perhaps the reader was not quite so sensitive as to be offended by the very word “Tibet” but feared the power of the prayer, or the talismanic force of the manuscript containing the prayer. Taking out bits of the word “Tibet” might confuse the great beings invoked in the prayer, who would no longer know who they were supposed to be protecting.

Or was the reason less hostile than I am supposing? Perhaps the reader only meant to amend the manuscript. One of the regions near Dunhuang was known as Dekham (bde khams). Taking the “o” out of bod and replacing it with an “e” would give us this name. This could be an unfinished attempt to direct the prayer to a local region, perhaps after the fall of the Tibetan empire and a unified “Tibet”. But if so, why did the reader also deface khams, which could just be left as it is?

No, I am not quite convinced by any of these solutions, and so dear reader, I leave the question open to you. And here, restored and rendered imperfectly into English, is Paltsek’s prayer for the protection of Tibet.

*  *  *

A Prayer for Tibet

Conquerors and your entourage – in order to expel Tibet’s obstacles, please come to this heavenly mansion. By the power of the Teacher’s blessings and compassion and our own faith, supreme divine substances sufficient to fill the sky are presented in their fullness. By the power of the qualities of the Sugatas and our own virtue, please pacify this region, and clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offering to the bodhisattvas on the Very Joyous and Stainless levels and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh sons and your sublime entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the Noble Arhats: The Mahāsthavira retinue, Bharadvāja and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh great ones worthy of offerings, please consider your commitment to obey. By the compassion and blessings of the Noble Ones, please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings for the gods of the form realms: from the great king Brahma to the gods of the Brahma heaven – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the Brahma heaven, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the gods of the desire realm: from the great gods of Paranirmitavaśavartin to the lord of the gods Indra – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh gods of the desire realm, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the four great kings: Dhṛtarāṣṭa and the others – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh four great kings and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the ten local protectors: Wangpo Dorjé and the rest – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh guardians and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the nāgas: the eight classes of nāgas and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh eight classes of nāgas and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the protectors of the temple: those who guard the stūpas of Jambudvīpa – Pāñcika and so on – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh protectors and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The offerings to the spirits (jungpo) of the ten directions – the king of the spirits, lord of the demons (dön), and the entourage of demons of the intermediate directions – please protect us with your great power. By our presenting these unsurpassed offerings, oh spirits and your entourage, please consider your commitment to obey. By your compassion and blessings please clear away Tibet’s obstacles.

The chapter summarizing the offerings is complete. It is Bandé Paltsek’s chapter on offerings.

*  *  *

A note on the name of Tibet

Here I have taken bod khams to mean “Tibet” in general. Another early example of this is seen in the prayers for the founding of the Dega Yutsal temple (PT 16, 33r4; note that here the happiness of Tibet is down to the king and ministers, not the Buddhas and deities). Thus I take bod khams to mean something like “the realm of Tibet” in the same way as bod yul does later. But I have seen it suggested that these are really two words, bod meaning central Tibet and khams meaning, well, Kham, eastern Tibet. In which case we should translate the term as “central and eastern Tibet”. I’m not sure where that leaves western Tibet, however, and I am still happy to assume that bod khams is just “Tibet”.

*  *  *

References

1. On the attempts to repel the Mongol menace with magic in the 13th century, see Luciano Petech’s Central Tibet and the Mongols (Rome: Is.M.E.O., 1990), pages 13, 17, 18.

2. On the prayers for Dega Yutsel, see Matthew Kapstein’s recent article “The Treaty Temple of the Turquoise Grove, in Buddhism Between Tibet and China (ed. Matthew Kapstein, Boston: Wisdom, 2009).

*  *  *

Tibetan Text (IOL Tib J 374)

The manuscript in question comprises a mere three folios, numbered 1 (gcig) to 3 (gsum). It’s not yet been digitized, I’m afraid, hence my own fuzzy photographs above. Initially, I thought the pages of the prayer were both scrambled and incomplete. Then I realized that the only problem was that the prayer was followed in the manuscript by another short (and this time, certainly tantric) prayer. The last folio has the end of our prayer on one side, and the short tantric prayer on the other, but unlike the other folios, it has been numbered on the verso, so that it looks like the little tantric prayer is on the recto, not the verso. If we just turn over this last folio, then everything falls into place nicely. Though it does seem to be incomplete at the beginning (the first page begins with the syllables dgongs shig, which look like the end of a verse), we can’t be missing much, as it begins with the offering to the buddhas themselves, surely the top of the hierarchy of protectors invoked here. The haphazard numbered of the manuscript seems to have been done by a later reader, perhaps the same person responsible for the defacement.

$/ /dgongs shIg//rgyal ba’I ‘khor bcas rnams//b[o]d kh[ams] kyi ni bgegs gzhil phyir//gzal yas khang ‘dIr gshegs su gsol//ston pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs dang//bdag cag gi ni dad pa’I mthus//nam ka ‘i mtha’ dag ma lus par//lha rdzas mchog gis bkang ste mchod//bder gshegs che ba’I yon tan dang//bdag cag gi ni dge ba’I mthus//yul phyogs su ni zhI ba dang//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

byang chub sems dpa’ rnams la mchod pa’//rab dag [=dga'] drI myed la bstsogs/pa’//rab tu mthu’ brten bskyabs gsol te//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//sras kyIs dam pa’I ‘khor bcas kyis//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘phags pa dgra bcom ba rnams la mchod pa’//gnas brtan chen po ‘khor bcas ste//ba ra dwa tsa las btsogs la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//sbyIn gnas chen po ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyi dam tshIgs rje dgongs/ste/’phags pa’I thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams gzhIl du gsol//

gzugs khams kyi lha rnams la mchod pa’//tshangs pa’I rgyal po chen po nas//tshangs rIs kyIs ni lha rnams la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod ‘dI phul bas tshang rIs kyi ni lha rnams kyIs//stun kyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhing khyed kyI thugs rje byin rlabs kyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

‘dod khams kyI lha rnams la mchod pa’//gzhan ‘phrul dbang gi lha chen nas//brgya ‘byin lha’I bdang po la//rab tu bthu’ brten bskyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul bas//’dod khams kyi ni lha rnams kyis//stun kyI dam tshIgs brje dgongs ste//khyed kyi thugs rje byin rla[b]s kyis//b[o]d [kham]s bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

rgyal chen rIgs bzhI la mchod pa’//yul ‘khor srung nI las bstsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten bskya+bs+ gsol ste// +bla myed ched pa ‘di phul bas//+ rgyal chen rIgs zhI ‘khor bcas kyIs//stun kyI dam tshigs rje dgongs shing//khyed kyi thugs rje byi[n] rla+b+s kyIs//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs skyong bcu la mchod//dbang po rdo rje las stsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed pa ‘dI ‘bul bas//mgon po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyIs//stun gyI dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyI thugs rje byIn rlabs gyIs//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

lha klu sde brgyad la mcho+d+ pa’//lha klu sde brgyad las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla mted mchod ‘dI ‘bul bas//lha klu sde brgyad ‘khor bcas gyis//stun dam tshIgs rje dgongs ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d khams bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

gtsug lag khang gI srungs ma la mchod pa’//’dzam gling mchod brten bsrungs mdzad cIng//span tsa ka ni las btsogs la//rab tu mthu’ brten//skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘dI phul pas//srungs ma ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgong ste//khyed gyi thugs rje byin rlabs gyis//b[o]d [khams] bgegs rnams bsal du gsol//

phyogs bcu ‘byung po rnams la mchod pa’//’byung po rgyal po gdon gyi bdag//phyogs mtshams gdon gyi tshogs bcas la//rab tu mthu’ brten skyabs gsol ste//bla myed mchod pa ‘di phul bas//’byung po ‘khor bcas thams cad gyis//stun gyi dam tshigs rje dgongs zhIng khyed gyI thugs rje byin rlabs gyIs bdag cad gi bsam sgrub mdzad//

//$//mchod pa bsdus pa’I le’u rdzogs s+ho//dge slong dpal brtsegs gyi mchod pa’I le’u lags+ho//://:

12 thoughts on “A Prayer for Tibet

  1. Dear ET,

    I’ve nearly convinced myself that span-tsa-ka is Pañcika, the husband of Hariti. I think the latter, at least, if not both, have had roles of protecting both viharas and stupas. And neither is necessarily in context of Vajrayana…

    Any better idea?

    I think the defacement was likely an attempted exorcism of the detested occupiers. Interesting to speculate.

    Yours,
    Dan

  2. Dear Dan,

    Thank you for a swift and enlightening response. Yes, you’ve almost convinced me too. I suspect I will soon feel fully convinced and amend my translation.

    By the way I’ve just changed the verse on the bodhisattvas, as I realized that Rab dag dri med was not the name of a bodhisattva, but the first two bhūmi (assuming that dag is a scribal error for dga’).

    thanks again!
    S.

  3. Dear S,

    Was just looking up Bod-khams in the OTDO site and found that it only pops up in the De-ga Yu-tshal text of monastery foundation prayers (?), which bears some typological resemblances to this “Monk Dpal-brtsegs Offering Chapter.” This text also has what must be an early instance of the geographic term Mdo-khams (in the form Mdo-gams-kyi khams) which would in more recent centuries supply the “Mdo” to the name of A-mdo.

    I also did some checking in the Statements of Ba (Sba-bzhed, full-text at THL), and Bod-khams seems to be commonly used there. It is one the main forms of the name of Tibet in this text (Bod-yul, Bod-kyi Yul, and simply Bod also appear frequently).

    In the Lde’u history, I located something very strange. On p. 256, you find the geographical triad of Mdo-khams, Bde-khams and Tsong-khams. But in a parallel passage a little later on at p. 269, the reading is: Mdo-khams, Bod-khams, & Tsong-khams. This makes me say hmmm — maybe your theory of an alter[n]ation between Bde-khams and Bod-khams could be going somewhere?

    Should check the original manuscript, meaning the photographed version, which has been published. OK, I just checked the published photographs, on pp. 289 & 301 (in the added pagination of the photographic reprint), and actually, the passage on p. 269 I just mentioned could have been read Bde-khams, too (in the cursive original, the difference between ‘e’ and ‘o’ can be quite subtle! It’s a judgement call, so maybe if you are interested you could have a look and decide for yourself…)

    And yes, the passage on p. 256 could have been read Bod-khams (the photograph, showing the so-called ‘a-chung before khams, reads: ‘khams).

    The bibliographical reference to the published photographs of Mkhas-pa Lde’u looks like this (I give THANKS to Nathan Hill for it):

    Mkhas-pa-ldeʾu, Mkhas pa lde’us mdzad pa’i rgya bod kyi chos ‘byuṅ rgyas pa / Diwu zongjiao yuanliu, Lanzhou daxue chubanshe (Lanzhou 2003).

    Maybe you have a copy in that fine library of yours. If not, you could probably complain. Cheers!

    Yours,
    D.

  4. The triad of Mdo-khams, Bde-khams and Tsong-khams sounds convincing to me. Here Bod-khams must be a scribal slip (or a reader’s mistake?). Interesting to see that the OTDO texts have many more examples of “bod yul” (against the mere one instance of “bod khams” in the Dega Yutsel prayers). “Bod” on its own is also common. Anyway, as with your examples from the Sba bzhed, they all seem to refer to the same “Tibet”.

    Thanks again for your fine geo-bibliographical insights.

    S.

    PS: Has anyone explained the transformation of Mdo-khams to A-mdo in recent times?

  5. Have no noticed that Tsong-kha Bde-khams is supposed to be the birthplace of Dgongs-pa-rab-gsal of Vinaya lineage fame?

    I won’t bite the very tempting bait and try to explain the evolution of the names of Amdo & Kham. The late Yönten Gyatso of Paris had a very detailed historical explanation. Perhaps it’s in one of his history books. If not, perhaps the latest and biggest Amdo history, by Hor-tshang ‘Jigs-med, will go into it. I expect so. You can hear all about it, in Tibetan, at U-Tube:

  6. Dear Sam,

    Very interesting post! Censorship could be hostile, but perhaps we should not outrule the possibility of ‘recycling’. That is, when Bod khams has ceased to be, someone could have seen good use for the prayer by making it one ‘for all weathers’, for any country. Much like the famous ‘devadatta/lhas sbyin’ where one simply supplies the name of the actual target.

    Just an idea.

    Ys,

    p

  7. Pāñcika is a deity (a yakṣa, in fact) who appears in a very early stratum of protective literature in Buddhism, often together with the Four Great Sovereigns, also mentioned here. This invocation has something of the character of those early texts. We might say that it has pre- or proto-tantric character, but such designations are normally applied to periods of historical development, whereas this document belongs to an era in which tantric Buddhism has already made substantial inroads within Tibet. Perhaps there is an earlier source for this work.

    As for the defacement, why would a Tibetan speaker want to erase the ‘idea’ of Tibet? I second PDSz’s suggestion that this may be connected with as a ‘repurposing’ (to use an awful neologism) of the text for some other region. But I agree that none of the proposed solutions are really satisfying. To what extent did Tibetans in Dunhuang consider themselves part of ‘bod’ proper, and at what times?

    There is at least one likely instance, by the way, of the word ‘bhoṭa’ being rubbed off a palmleaf Sanskrit manuscript, probably in Nepal. For most of their history Newars wanted nothing to do with Tibetan teachings, though this attitude softened throughout the late medieval period, and changed substantially in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  8. Dear PDSz and I.S.

    I agree with you that some kind of recycling/repurposing seems the more likely option. My reason for thinking that the ancient reader might want to erase the idea of bod khams – Tibet – itself was that he or she could well have been Chinese, and the alterations could date to after the end of the Tibetan occupation of Dunhuang, during which time the Chinese inhabitants were forced to wear Tibetan clothes and adopt Tibetan customs (according to the Tang Annals) and learn to read and write Tibetan. So the defacement of the manuscript could be a reaction to that. But as I said, I’m not terribly convinced by this. After all, by the end of the Tibetan empire many of the Chinese inhabitants of Dunhuang had Tibetan names, and the Tibetan languages was used as a language of official communication and Buddhism long after the end of the occupation.

    Whether even the Tibetans of Dunhuang considered themselves to be part of bod khams proper is a very interesting question to which I don’t know the answer. I would think that they did – at least during the imperial period – consider themselves part of what is called “Great(er) Tibet” in the Sino-Tibetan treaties and some other documents.

    As for the pre- or proto- tantric nature of the prayer, it is quite true that in the period in which the prayer was written (assuming for now that the author was Kawa Paltseg) fully “tantric” materials were available to Tibetans. But there is good reason to believe that the Tibetan government limited the translation of this material and suppressed its circulation (this is mentioned in several historical texts including the Dba’ bzhed). Buddhist texts produced in by the Tibetan imperial court tend to skirt around the existence of tantric Buddhism. For example, the “Differentiating the Views” (Lta ba’i khyad pa) also attributed to Kawa Paltseg, gives detailed explications of the views of the various philosophical schools of Indian Buddhism, and goes in detail into the three kāya system, but avoids mentioning the tantras and their doctrines entirely.

    I.S. – Interesting to hear about a Sanskrit manuscript with the erased ‘bhoṭa’? Do you know why the word ‘bhoṭa’ was there in the first place?

  9. The aforemention codex with the word ‘bhoṭa’ (? the text is far from clear) effaced was brought up in a lecture by Harunaga Isaacson, and is discussed in his recent article, for which see:
    http://www.k4.dion.ne.jp/~sanskrit/index.html

    This is a manuscript that seems to have been personally written by Vanaratna, which was brought back to Nepal at some point (by the author himself?). The explanation of why it was effaced is my own.

    So you’ve found something quite remarkable here. Why would a prayer for the protection of Tibet have need to have Tibet removed from the picture? It’s kind of self-defeating. If you can find any similar instances of defacement, the idea that it was censorious could gain weight.

  10. Tshe tan Zhabs drung ‘jig med rig pa’i blo gros (1910-1985) consistently refers to Dan tig Monastery, where Dgongs pa rab gsal took his ordination vows as belonging to Tsong kha bde khams. As mentioned above this is mentioned in the Blue Annals too as the region of Dgongs pa rab gsal’s birthplace, which is more specifically is the town of rgya zhur, very close to Dan tig. See Dan tig dkar chag in volume 3 of Tshe tan Zhabs drung’s collected works. Also in his autobiography, he refers to this area as one of the 18 Tsong kha bde khams ( bco brgyad), vol. 1.
    I don’t know if this helps, but it seemed somehow related, so I thought I should share it

  11. Dear N,

    Yes, that is interesting. Several Dunhuang documents refer to Bde khams, which seems to have been the administrative region for the Tibetan Empire’s northeasterly territories. I’m not aware of any mention of a Tsong ka Bde khams [*note it's a ka, not kha, in the old spelling] in the imperial period, so I wonder if it was a new formation after Tsong ka became a locus of power in the region in the tenth-eleventh centuries.

    Anyway, thanks for the reference!

    S.

  12. Dear Sam, I’m clearly out of date; just looked at this blog. A rather different matter interested me here: the mention of the lha klu sde brgyad. I do not think this refers to the 8 classes of nagas (as the translation put it), but the 8 classes of gods, nagas (etc.). We have the famous “sde brgyad gser skyems” attributed to gNubs Sangs rgyas ye shes, as an early example of this important category – an offering practice which is still performed regularly in Tibetan rituals. It is most interesting to see this other example, in a context which is moreover rather similar.
    Cathy

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