Buddhism and Empire I: a soldier’s prayer

Miran fort 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.

IOL Tib J 404

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:

  1. Dhāraṇī spells: a sequence of Sanskrit syllables, akin to a mantra, but usually longer; in fact dhāraṇī spells can be several pages long.
  2. 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…

IOL Tib J 404 verso

9 thoughts on “Buddhism and Empire I: a soldier’s prayer

  1. There are some video links on the Wikipedia page:


    There is *truly* something close to a characteristic stance of an otter (when it’s standing on land) in the Old Tibetan drawing… You might wish that the head were held a little higher so you could see a more graceful slope in the neck. But I still think it’s an otter.


  2. Was just thinking that there seems to be enough evidence to demonstrate that the word sram for otter goes back deeply into the Tibeto-Burman language history. There are some examples in Stephan Beyer’s Classical Tibetan Language, p. 86. Do you know how to say otter in Chinese?

    There is a very nice but difficult to read story about an owl and an otter in the longer Khepa Deu history (can’t find it at the moment), that was also known to the early Kadampa teachers. It might be relevant to the general early Tibetan mental associations evoked by otters, I don’t know.

    Sometimes otters are depicted in Tibetan art as rather fantastic creatures with fish-like heads [gills, fins…] (can’t think of any traditional examples right now, although there are several drawn by Robert Beer in his book Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols & Motifs, p. 74).

    What fun this is.


  3. Otter is 獺 (ta) in Chinese. Obviously not very similar sounding to the Tibetan sram though the medieval pronounciation may have been quite different (I’ll ask a Sinologist friend about this).

  4. Anyway, I wonder if our drawing is not closer to the shape of the weasel or mongoose. As the Columbia Encyclopedia says: “Members of this family are generally characterized by long bodies and necks, short legs, small rounded ears, and medium to long tails.” While the otter’s (and marmot’s) hindquarters and tail are bulkier. Several weasel species are found in Central Asia–have a look at the Wikipedia entry and a nice drawing here. And as for the mongoose (Small Asian Mongoose), have a look at this image. The mongoose (ne’u le / sre mong) is also a significant beast in Indo-Tibetan iconography.

  5. I think you’re right that it’s not an absolutely definite otter. I’ve never seen otters in the wild, although I have seem weasels (they whip like snakes so fast through the grass that you hardly get a glimpse before they’re gone), and even once a badger close up.

    We need the judgment of a real mammal expert. Aren’t the weasel and otter supposed to be closely related animals?

    The mongoose? Do they really live on the plateau? I think Tib. ne’u-le is close to the north Indian names coming from Sanskrit nakula, while the English word mongoose comes from a S. Indian language, probably Telugu.

    Not sure how to explain Tib. sre-mong, but isn’t it curious that the “mong” of mong-oose is in there? Hmm. Never thought of that before.


  6. Just √ed with Hobson-Jobson (p. 596, under the spelling “Mungoose” and see there that there are several “Upper Indian” names for the creature, including neola & nyaul, which are quite close to the Tibetan ne’u-le.

    I guess my point is just that neither Tibetan name for mongoose is likely to be natively Tibeto-Burman, but rather borrowed from Indian languages. (But true, not explaining the sre in sre-mong…)


  7. Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
    Polonius: By th’ Mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.
    Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
    Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
    Hamlet: Or like a whale.
    Polonius: Very like a whale.

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