Most of the sources we use to study Tibetan Buddhism during the time of the Tibetan empire are officially sanctioned: translations, royal edicts, monastic library lists and the the like. There are far fewer sources revealing how Buddhism was practised by ordinary Tibetans during the empire. Here is one such source: a soldier’s document from the Tibetan fort of Miran (Tibetan name: Nob chung) on the edge of the Lopnor desert.
Tibetan soldiers in Central Asia used wooden documents as much as paper ones. Wood was used for baggage tags, requisition notes, even for short letters. Usually these documents are small rectangular pieces of wood which we call woodslips. In some rare cases, we also find Buddhist texts on these woodslips. The one pictured here (IOL Tib N 404) contains a prayer and a brief dhāraṇī spell of the deity Uṣṇiṣasitātapatra.
The first thing scribbled on the woodslip is a prayer for refuge to the three jewels, with particular reference to avoiding hell (na rag). Then Uṣṇiṣasitātapatra is mentioned, followed by a short version of one of her dhāraṇī spells.
The role of dhāraṇīs in the popularization of Buddhism in Tibet is rarely mentioned, but they were hugely popular in the early period. The Dunhuang collections contain at least 40 manuscript copies of the Uṣṇiṣasitātapatra dhāraṇī alone. Perhaps we should say a little more about what a dhāraṇī is. Somewhat confusingly, the word can refer to two things:
- Dhāraṇī spells: a sequence of Sanskrit syllables, akin to a mantra, but usually longer; in fact dhāraṇī spells can be several pages long.
- Dhāraṇī sūtras: scriptural texts presenting one or more dhāraṇī spells. These usually set out the background of the spell—how and why it was taught by the Buddha—and explain the uses of the spell, which is usually to guard against various calamities, from illness to demons, enemies, death and rebirth in hell.
Sometimes, as with this woodslip, the spell was copied without the sūtra, presumably so that it could be carried around and recited when needed. Considering the many uses of dhāraṇī spells, it’s not surprising that soldiers of the Tibetan empire might have carried spells around with them for their protective properties. Of course, many would have memorized the spells, and this woodslip may have served more as an aide-memoire than a permanent record.
Finally, it’s worth turning over this particular woodslip, as the other side contains a charming picture of an animal. The species is a little hard to make out: a tiger, a dog or perhaps the ubiquitous marmot, found scampering throughout Central Asia? Suggestions please…