Dharma from the sky I: Legends and history

Blue sky

We ‘modern’ historians are inclined to place much of the material that makes up traditional Tibetan histories into the category of legend. We might want to explore the possibility that actual historical occurrences may lie behind the legends. On the other hand we may want to argue that the legends should be treated as valid in their own right, as part of the construction of Tibetan historical identity (perhaps in this case we might think of ourselves as ‘post-modern’ historians). Rather than pursuing that particular argument here, I want to suggest that ‘traditional’ Tibetan historians did not themselves accept all of the legendary material that was handed down to them in their own historical tradition. Indeed the debate about how appropriate it might be to apply the principles of rational thought to these legends existed in Tibet for centuries.

A case in point is the story of the first appearance of Buddhism in Tibet, a story that goes back at least as far as the Pillar Testament (i.e. 11th-12th centuries). The story is that a casket containing Buddhist books fell from the sky and landed on the roof of the Tibetan royal palace. This was during the reign of King Lhatotori, who is said to have ruled five generations before the first historically dated Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, which would take us back to the fifth century (though the traditional histories date him much earlier). Neither the king nor anyone else in Tibet was able to read these heaven-sent texts. The king resealed the casket and gave it a name, the Secret Potency (gnyan po gsang ba). The casket then remained untouched in the palace until it was reopened by Songtsen Gampo, so that the texts could be translated.

Now, there was an argument between Tibetan historians about whether this story of the books falling from the sky was a historical fact. The opinion that it was not was put forth by the 13th-century Tibetan scholar Nelpa Paṇḍita. He argued that the books, rather than falling from he sky, were brought to Tibet by an Indian scholar and a Khotanese translator. According to Nelpa Paṇḍita, when the two men presented the King Lhatotori with the books, they discovered that he could neither read them nor understand their meaning. Realizing the futility of their mission, they returned to from whence they came. Nelpa Paṇḍita suggests that the story about the casket falling from the skies was simply made up by the Bönpos (the pre-Buddhist religious of Tibet) based on their reverence for the sky.

Although this alternative account never replaced the story of the books falling from the sky, many later Tibetan histories gave both versions. However, the Fifth Dalai Lama, for one, clearly felt that the original version of the story ought to be defended. In his 17th-century work Song of the Spring Queen he launched a highly personal criticism against Nelpa Paṇḍita, and defended the original legend:

Nelpa Paṇḍita’s belief that it is absurd for a casket to fall from the sky is proof of his stupidity. In the auspicious circumstances in which the teachings were first discovered, the magical activities and compassion of noble individuals go beyond thought.

It is interesting to see that the Great Fifth (as he was often known) specifically defends the irrationality of the story. What is at stake is clearly whether one should depend primarily on rational “thought” (Tib. bsam) in assessing historical accounts, in particular those accounts which treat of the foundations of Tibetan Buddhism.

From the point of view of rational thought, Nelpa Paṇḍita’s version of the story is quite credible. If the kingdoms of Central Tibet did have any contact with Buddhism and Buddhist texts before the expansions of the 7th century, it would have been through the agency of individuals making the journey to Tibet from neighbouring Buddhist regions. Some of these individuals, whether merchants or missionaries, may have brought books with them. This is the opinion of the 20th-century Tibetan historian W.D. Shakabpa, who in his Tibet: A Political History favours Nelpa Paṇḍita’s version of the story. In his opinion, the king told his ministers that the books had fallen from the sky because he didn’t want them to know that they had come from India.

In any case, I think this shows that the debate about the role of rationality in assessing historical facts is very much a part of the Tibetan historical tradition. It’s also clear that the historian who wonders what real occurrences might lie behind historical legend is not a creature found only in our ‘modern’ historiography.

See also
Dharma from the Sky II: Indian or Chinese dharma?
Dharma from the Sky III: Self-appointed Buddhas

Shakabpa, Tsepon W.D. 1967. Tibet: A Political History. New Haven: Yale University Press. [pp.24-25]

Tibetan sources
1. Bka’ chems ka khol ma [The Pillar Testament]. Kan su’i mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1989. [p.91]
2. Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho (The Fifth Dalai Lama). Dpyid kyi rgyal mo’i glu dbyangs [Song of the Spring Queen]. Available as THDL e-text. [section 3.2]
3. Nel pa paṇḍita / Helga Uebach. Nel-pa Paṇḍita’s Chronik Me-tog Phreṅ-wa: Handschrift der Liberary of Tibetan Works and Archives, Tibetischer Text in Faksimile, Transkription und Übersetzung. Munich: Kommission für Zentralasiatische Studien, Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1987. [folios 7a4–7b3]

And many thanks…

Blogisattva Awards 2008To the organizers and jurors of the 2008 Blogisattva Awards, who awarded this post and the one that follows it “Best Multi-Part Blog Post”!

3 thoughts on “Dharma from the sky I: Legends and history

  1. Dear ET,

    I think the *only* genuinely old true stories are the ones that involve things or persons coming from the sky.

    Like in the story of the first Tibetan Emperor in the BCE’s. The ‘rational’ stories are all borrowed from Indian legendary accounts, not Tibetan traditions.

    And the ‘rational’ story of the first introduction of Buddhist sacred objects is that it descended from the sky.

    Why so?

    Because the story of the 2 human visitors is, I think, just a borrowing from (and slight transformation of) the story of the origins of Buddhism in China, in which two people come with a white horse bearing scriptures.

    But we know that Dharma/scriptures did come from the sky already in India. See Paul Harrison’s marvelous article “Mediums and Messages” in The Eastern Buddhist, n.s. vol. 35, nos. 1-2 (2003), pp. 115-151, at footnote no. 51 on p. 142. According to this, there is a quote from the Dharmasaṅgīti Mahāyāna Sūtra (‘Phags pa chos yang dag par sdud pa zhes bya ba theg pa chen po’i mdo) that is contained in the Śikṣā Samuccaya (Bslab pa kun las btus pa), for which Harrison gives the Sanskrit along with the English translation:

    “For one whose resolve is perfect, lord,
    if there are no Buddhas
    the sound of the dharma
    emanates from the sky and
    from the trees in bud.
    For the bodhisattva whose resolve is pure
    all instructions and admonitions
    emanate from his [or *her*!] own imagination.”

    I’ve seen this same verse (well, the part about “the trees in bud” reads instead ‘walls and trees’… Deuteronomy came out of a wall, for instance) quoted at least twice by defenders of the ‘revealed treasures’ (gter-ma) in response to their critics.

    To sum up, the real story is that things and persons come from the sky. Dharma in particular can come straight from the heart of space. ET of all people ought to know this. That what Dab say. Bad Dab day, OK?


  2. Hmm. I guess it might have looked like I was favouring Nelpa Pandita’s version, but that wasn’t my intention. I was exploring the idea that the category of a rational historical account was significant in Tibetan historiography. I mean that it wasn’t that Tibetan historians were simply unaware of the distinction between historical stories that were amenable to rational analysis and those that were not.

    When the Great Fifth defends the original version of the Lhatotori story, he accepts that it is “beyond thought”. Though he points to the stupidity of anyone who would reject a historical story on those grounds alone, he seems to accept that there is a distinction there.

    So what? Well I suppose it’s that ‘traditional’ Tibetan historians are sometimes characterized as naïve in their acceptance of historical stories that aren’t amenable to rational analysis (the so-called ‘legends’). Nelpa Paṇḍita’s treatment of the Lhatotori story shows that this is wrong (and there are many other examples that would do the same work). On the other hand the Great Fifth shows that we should try to understand how most Tibetan historians accepted the validity of such stories while at the same time accepting that they went beyond rational thought (bsam las ‘das pa).

    Not that I think I’m introducing anything new to you here, but I don’t agree that the story of the dharma falling from the sky is the more rational. I think, like the Great Fifth, we should preserve the distinction between stories that are acceptable to reason and those that go “beyond thought”. But like him, we do not need to reject the latter out of hand; one account of what happened in the prehistory of Tibet shouldn’t be favoured over another purely because it has the flavour of ‘rationality’.

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

  3. Dear ET,

    I’m a little disappointed that our tempest in a teapot sputters out so quickly.

    We could have kept this going longer, this pretense of resolute opposition.

    I 100% agree that there is plenty of evidence that Tibetan historians were often critical with their sources (thinking hard about where the author is coming from), some more than others, just as historians today often are, some more than others. If anything, they probably had a lot more training in (and respect for) logic, and therefore rationality, than most of our contemporaries, including the historians. I’m with you there, but I think there are not so many people together with us on this issue.

    But when I subject the opposing narratives of the origins of kingship (likewise the opposing narratives the origins of Dharma) in Tibet to hard (perhaps we could say rational) thinking, I see the apparently (well, for many) irrational account of sky-origins to be the most believable candidate for being original and therefore the etymon, the ‘true story’ that as historians is one of the things we most try to find out.

    That’s about all I wanted to say. But wait, aren’t there some biologists who believe in the sky-origins of DNA? Are they being rational?

    The academics are mostly looking for the approval of their peers. They don’t want to be laughed off the podium. Sometimes they seem to be expending most of their rationality on that particular goal of theirs, which is quite a different one from finding out what’s somehow true or beautiful or useful or right.

    Dab’s 2 cents. He feels a tad better 2 day.


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