Buddhism and Empire II: Portrait of a monk

IOL Tib N 2280This little piece of wood (IOL Tib N 2280) was found among the Tibetan woodslips in the hill fort of Mazar Tagh, one of the outposts of the Tibetan Empire. It can be dated to the period of the Tibetan occupation of Khotan, between the 790s and 840s. On the top is written ban de slong ba, “a begging monk”. It is probably a portrait, sketched by one of the soldiers at the fort, of an actual monk who came to beg there. Though Mazar Tagh lies some way from the nearest city, Khotan, it was actually a pilgrimage site, known to the Khotanese Buddhists as The Hill. Thre is evidence for this among the Khotanese manuscripts, where we find a poetic account of one monk’s pilgrimage to The Hill.

So our monk in the portrait probably made the pilgrimage to The Hill, and then visited the Tibetan fort to ask for food. We know that the Tibetan soldiers often ran out of food supplies, from their many letters written to the main garrison at Khotan to ask for more. I wonder how often they gave anything to the pilgrim monks. That partly depends on how far Buddhist values had permeated the ordinary Tibetan soldiers manning the Empire’s outposts. Since giving to monks was an important way of generating merit for oneself, a soldier who had truly absorbed Buddhism might give something despite running short of food.

The picture of the monk is, obviously, rather crude and certainly not the work of a trained artist. So we can’t draw conclusions about the monk’s ethnic origin based on the way his facial features are drawn here; I would still suggest that he is most likely to have been Khotanese. The upper undergarment and robe (worn over the right shoulder) are drawn clearly enough, as is the fan he holds in his left hand. It’s not clear what he is meant to be holding in his right hand; perhaps a begging bowl is intended.

Further suggestions welcomed!

Emmerick, R.E. A Guide to the Literature of Khotan. Tokyo : The International Institute for Buddhist Studies, 1992.

5 thoughts on “Buddhism and Empire II: Portrait of a monk

  1. Dear Early Tibet,

    No, that’s not a fan in his left hand. That’s a “rattle staff.”

    In Sanskrit: khakkhara (Mahâvyutpatti, no. 8955). In Tibetan: ‘khar-bsil; ‘khar-gsil (also spelled mkhar-gsil).

    I don’t know very much about it, but you can find an illustration in Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich, eds.
    The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, Thames & Hudson (London 1984), p. 40.

    Or, if that publication isn’t at hand, try the journal Chöyang, vol. 6 (1994), p. 66, with an illustration labelled with this: “Khasil – was carried by monks in ancient India when on their alms round. They would discreetly shake it outside houses to indicate their presence.”

    I’m quite sure of this, although I also don’t recognize the object in the monk’s right hand (perhaps a flat bell? Just a suggestion… Could it be a begging bowl?).

    The rattle staff is in the short lists of possessions that monks are not only allowed to keep but are supposed to have. It serves some important functions, since it announces the presence of the monk outside courtyard-centered dwellings, allowing the monk to keep silence but at the same time intimidating the guard dogs. (Very important.)

    There’s a discussion about the symbolism of the different parts of the rattle staff in the Kadam Legbam (Bka’-gdams Glegs-bam) somewhere, and some brief texts particularly about the subject that could be found with some effort.



  2. Thanks! I’m sure you are right. I’ve had a look at the image in The World of Buddhism (for those who don’t have access to this book, it’s a reproduction of a Tibetan painting of the requisites of a Buddhist monk), and the staff in our portait is clearly a crude rendition of a ‘rattle staff’.

  3. Dear Sam,

    I have looked at this pieces and your weblog. I teach Buddhism at The Banaras Hindu University.

    Last summer, I had visited the library of the Institute for Pali and Buddhist Studies, Nalanda, sponsored by the Govt. of Bihar, India. They have a fantastic collection of early Tibetan Buddhist Manuscripts…Prajnaparimita…being one of them.

  4. you may like to contact The Director, Institute of Pali and Buddhist Studies, Nalanda, Bihar, India for means of access to the collection.

    Best wishes and thanks.


  5. For more on the khakkhara or sometimes khakkharaka see I-tsing (Yijing)’s Recourd of the Inner Law Sent Home From the Southern Seas. He has a whole section on the staff.
    S Dhammika

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