Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan


Once upon a time, in the old days of Imperial Tibet, foreign Buddhist teachers flocked to Samyé monastery, the centre of the newly emerging Tibetan Buddhism. Indian, Nepalese, Chinese and Central Asian teachers all came to offer their religious wares to the Tibetans. This pleasantly nonpartisan period couldn’t last. By the late 8th century tension developed between the different groups of foreign teachers and their Tibetan disciples, particularly between the Indians and the Chinese. While the Indian teachers taught a graduated path in which the tantric and sutric teachings were carefully laid out as steps to enlightenment, the Chinese taught a method they called Chan (their pronunciation of the Sanskrit dhyāna, meaning “contemplation”). Chan, the forerunner of Japanese Zen, emphasized the result rather than the path, and a straightforward concept-free meditation rather than the multitude of methods offered by the Indian teachers.

When the tension between the Indian and Chinese camps threatened to erupt into violence (in fact, some of the Chan disciples actually wounded themselves in protest and threatened suicide), the Tibetan emperor Trisong Detsen called for the situation to be resolved in a formal debate. The debate would decide which nationality, and which teaching method, would henceforth be supported by the monarchy, and which would be banned from Tibet. The Indian side chose Kamalaśīla, a leading light in scholastic Indian Buddhism and the graduated path. The Chinese side chose a monk known as Moheyan, an influential Chan master from Dunhuang. The debate resulted in a decisive win by the Indian side. The Chan teachers were sent back the China, and Chan was never seen again in Tibet.

That, at least, is the traditional Tibetan story. As is so often the case, the manuscript evidence tells another story. Tibetan Chan is represented in dozens of manuscripts, some of them translations from Chinese Chan, others apparently composed in the Tibetan language. The handwriting and formats of many of these manuscripts suggests that Tibetan Chan continued through to the 10th-century at least. Some manuscripts, like the huge concertina manuscript Pelliot tibétain 116, have been quite thoroughly studied by modern scholars. Others, like the one I want to introduce here, have not.

ITJ709 bsam gtan gi yi ge

The manuscript IOL Tib J 709 is a collection of nine Chan texts, starting off with the teachings of Moheyan himself, and continuing with the words of other Chan masters, including one with the Tibetan name Jangchub Luwang (byang chub klu dbang). Most interesting of all is the very last text in the collection, called The Chan Document (bsam gtan gi yi ge). The first line of this text says that “it appeared under the neck seal of the Divine Emperor Trisong Detsen.” Considering that Chan is supposed to have been banned by this very emperor, what are we to think of this?

Well, we know a little bit about the “neck seal”. Another Dunhuang manuscript (IOL Tib J 506) describes “the neck seal of the Divine Son”, the Divine Son (lha sras) being another title for the emperor. Unlike ordinary seals, which featured a single image, the neck seal contained several images: a mountain, the sun and moon, the ocean, a banner and a swastika (g.yung drung). The name “neck-seal” may indicate that the seal hung round the neck of the emperor, and was therefore only used by the emperor himself. Therefore the suggestion is that The Chan Document (and the very name is suggestive of a royal edict) was written under the personal authority of the king.

ITJ709 mgur gi phyag rgya

So, what can we say about the nature of these Chan teachings that had the approval of the Tibetan emperor?

Like several other Tibetan Chan texts, The Chan Document calls its teachings “the great yoga” or Mahāyoga, which just happens to be the name of a class of tantric scripture and practice that was very popular at Dunhuang. This is really quite strange, and could mean several things. Ken Eastman wrote that these texts must have been written by “members of a Chan lineage who were attempting to disguise their teachings with the name of Mahāyoga.” But this seems unlikely, as there is no other attempt to disguise that these are Chan teachings from China. This particular collection of Chan texts even includes a Tibetan-Chinese glossary of Chan terminology. I have argued, in an article written with Jacob Dalton, that some practitioners in Sino-Tibetan areas like Dunhuang actually combined the techniques of tantric Mahāyoga and Chan. There is evidence for that in certain manuscripts, though not in the one we’re looking at here. Here Mahāyoga, “the great yoga”, really does just seem to be another name for Chan.

One striking thing about the kind of Chan that appears under the king’s approval is that it is not the radical Chan that advocates only one method: non-conceptualization. As it says in the last line, “simultaneously blocking [concepts] with a single antidote will not be helpful.” There seems to have been a debate within Tibetan Chan between those who advocated the single antidote of non-conceptualization and those who employed a variety of practices. Another text in the same collection (IOL Tib J 709/4) states argues that Chan can include many different methods: “While doctors may use various methods depending on the illness, the science [of medicine] remains the same.” This debate reflects the situation within Chinese Chan in the eighth century, when the master Shenhui was attacking the notions of many methods and gradual realization. Over the following centuries the single method and sudden realization became Chan orthodoxy in China and Japan.

So, if The Chan Document really was personally authorised by Trisong Detsen, we can say that he supported the version of Chan that allowed for a variety of methods. This authorized Tibetan Chan would of course be much more open to accepting the Buddhist practices taught by other schools, including the teachers of Indian scholastic Buddhism. It is not the kind of Chan presented by Moheyan in the stories of the Samyé debate, but it is much closer to the Chan taught by the real Moheyan (this we can see from other manuscripts containing Moheyan’s teachings, which have been discussed in the articles by Katsumi and Gomez referenced below).

Even if we accept if that The Chan Document really was personally authorised by Trisong Detsen, some important questions remain. Did Trisong Detsen authorise The Chan Document before or after the Samyé Debate? Or was there really no debate as such, just a series of royal consultations and edicts on what was acceptable or otherwise in the Chan teachings? In any case, The Chan Document may be our most important piece of evidence for the Tibetan emperor’s interest and involvement with the teachings of Chan.

ITJ709 flower

1. Eastman, Kenneth M. 1983. “Mahāyoga Texts at Tun-huang” in Bulletin of Institute of Buddhist Cultural Studies (Ryukoku University) 22: 42–60.
1. Gomez, Luis O. 1983.”The Direct and Gradual Approaches of Zen Master Mahāyāna: Fragments of the Teachings of Moheyan” in Gimello, Robert M. and Peter N. Gregory (eds), Studies in Chan and Hua-yen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press: 393–434.
2. Katsumi, Okimoto. 1977. “bSam yas no shūron (3), nishu no makaen ibun [The Religious Debate of bSam yas (3), Two Writings by Moheyan]” in Nihon chibetto gakkai kaihō 23: 5–8.
3. Kimura, Ryūtoku. 1976. “Tonkō shutsudo chibetto bun shahon Stein 709 [The Dunhuang Tibetan Manuscript Stein 709]” in Nihon chibetto gakkai kaihō 22: 11-13.
4. Ueyama, Daishun. 1983 “The Study of Tibetan Ch’an Manuscripts Recovered From Tun-huang: A Review of the Field and its Prospects” in Lai, Whalen and Lancaster, Lewis (eds), Early Ch’an in China and Tibet. Berkeley: Berkeley Buddhist Studies Series. 327–349.
5. van Schaik, Sam and Jacob Dalton. 2004. “Where Chan and Tantra Meet: Buddhist Syncretism in Dunhuang” in Susan Whitfield (ed), The Silk Road: Trade, Travel, War and Faith. London: British Library Press. 61–71.

Tibetan sources
Anonymous. Dba bzhed [Accounts of Ba]. In Wangdu, Pasang & Hildegarde Deimberger. Dba’ bzhed: The Royal Narrative concerning the bringing of Buddha’s Doctrine to Tibet. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.

Also in this series:
Tibetan Chan II: the teachings of Heshang Moheyan
Tibetan Chan III: more teachings of Heshang Moheyan