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

14 thoughts on “Tibetan Chan I: The Emperor’s Chan

  1. Dear Early,

    I’m sure you must have noticed the late Rolf Stein’s discussion of the ‘neck seal’ in his Tibetica Antiqua I (BEFEO vol. 72, 1983), at p. 153, with reference to your “Chan Document.” I think the words “Chan Document” are purely descriptive and not a proper title, but then again, or on the other hand, you do have in the Denkarma/Lhenkarma Catalog a listing (Lalou no. 613) of a work entitled Bsam gtan gyi yi ge rgya [brgya?] las bsgyur ba (“Chan Document translated from Chinese” being the more obviously defensible translation). I wonder if this might not be your Dunhuang text?

    I wonder if the term for ‘neck seal’ appears in other contexts. What it really seems to say is ‘seal of song’ since it’s spelled mgur (song) and not mgul (neck, or rather throat). I mean, I noticed you translate another occurrence in IOL Tib J 506, but is it spelled with the song or the neck spelling there?

    I mean, I’ve noticed Mgur-lha spelled Mgul-lha (an important group of mountain spirits), and anyway, perhaps the song and neck words are related historically speaking, both having something to do with the throat.

    I don’t find anything immediately relevant when searching the database of OTDO
    although I might have been impatient.

    Would we be correct to visualize the Emperor wearing his state seal as a pendant around his neck? It would probably be a rather heavy piece of stone/jade jewelry, don’t you think?

    I wonder, too, about the ‘og-tu ‘byung-ba, which would seem to be saying that it “occurs below” (noting what I guess really is the present, not the past, form of the verb, not that I think you always have to take such things all that seriously in manuscripts done by people who received bad marks in spelling class). If you don’t see that seal down there, it may be because you’re dealing with a copy of an original that did have it.

    I hope you can answer these ticklish and nagging niggles I have about your weblog posting. If I keep using the word ‘wonder’ it’s because you provoke it with your wonderful blog.

    Dabbling Dab

  2. Dear Dab,

    Thanks very much for pointing out the Denkarma entry. This is certainly an interesting new facet to this document. If our Chan Document really was authorized by the emperor, we shouldn’t be surprised to find it in the Denkarma. But you may be right in that “Chan document” (bsam gtan gi yi ge) could be a generic title. After all, the Denkarma section heading under which we find bsam gtan gyi yi ge rgya las bsgyur ba is also “Chan documents” (bsam gtan gyi yi ge la). On the other hand, I have not seen any other Chan texts in the Dunhuang manuscripts referred to as “documents” (yi ge): they are usually a “sutra” (mdo) or “teaching” (bshad pa).

    The Denkarma also says that this Chan document was written by Bodhidharma, which weakens the link with our Chan Document a little…

    But this section “Chan documents” in the Denkarma is very interesting indeed. It doesn’t contain many actual Chan texts. It has gradualist works by Kamalaśīla and others, and at least one Dzogchen text: Meditation on the Enlightened Mind (Byang chub kyi sems bsgom pa) by Mañjuśrīmitra [this is the text that was translated in the book Primordial Awareness by Namkhai Norbu and Kennard Lipman]. Probably this section title should be translated more generally as “documents on contemplation”.

    As for the “neck seal”, I do have Rolf Stein’s article, but unfortunately he has little to say about this particular seal (it is mgur gi phyag rgya in IOL Tib J 506 as well). The “neck” translation should not be too much of a stretch, considering that we have both mgul and mgur as translations of Sanskrit grīva (neck) in the Yogācārabhūmi. I agree the idea of the emperor having a heavy seal constantly around his neck seems unlikely, but could such an object have been part of his ceremonial dress, or is this yet another example of the heavy use of metaphor in early Tibetan aristocratic life? [Stein’s article on the seals was actually called “The use of metaphors for honorific distinctions in the period of the Tibetan kings”]. Anyway, I am only putting this “neck seal” suggestion out there to see if it will float (metaphorically!).

    And finally… you’re quite right about the present tense of the verb ‘byung ba (appears). I moved it into the past tense assuming that the scribe who copied the ‘original’ document was referring to the previous presence of a seal there, but your translation in the present tense makes sense as well. More difficult is whether these words mean that the seal appeared below the document, or the document below the seal. Since most seals in the Dunhuang documents appear at the end of texts, your suggestion that it is the seal that “appears” or “appeared” below the text seems a good one.

    I’m not suggesting, by the way, that this manuscript we have here must have been copied directly from the ‘original’ with the seal. It could have been, but on the other hand, it could equally be a copy of a copy of (and so on) the original.

    Thanks again for your illuminating commentary!

  3. I would love to read your: Nyingmapa defences of Heshang Moheyan… where is it?

    Also, what do you feel are the origins of Dzogchen?

    Do you feel the earliest Dzogchen was “anti-tantric” as is portrayed in the “Kunje Gyalpo”? And only later became imbedded within tantric contexts for political expediency?

    What is the possible earliest date of the Kunje Gyalpo?

    Thanks so much!

  4. Hi,

    The Nyingmapa defences of Heshang Moheyan link appears to be non-functional, and I couldn’t find the article with the search function. Can you check the link again.


  5. Apologies for the nonfunctional link. It should now work; alternatively you can access the article from the The Author tab. As for the ‘origins’ of Dzogchen, I did some work on the question which I published in the article ‘The Early Days of the Great Perfection’ (see under The Author tab again). I’ll try to get a version of that online soon. In brief, the textual evidence suggests that Dzogchen emerged from Mahāyoga as a contextualization of the experiences arising from the meditation practices.

  6. Thanks for your response Sam! I did not realize you were the author… A few months ago I bought and read your “Approaching the Great Perfection”… truly superb! I have been a student of Dzogchen since 1978 and have been a student of Norbu’s since 1985. I had the opportunity of much one on one time with him. Especiially important was receiving the transmisson of Yang-ti and being able to practice that under his direction. I am currently working with a translator to complete the translations of the Yang-ti termas of Dung T’so Repa. Are these already translated?

    Also, I am trying to trace the sources for the thogal practices. I have found some very similar practices in non-dual Shaivite teachings. I have received the transmission of Jigme Lingpa’s thogal practices from his Yeshe Lama and do practice. Have you translated those sections of the Yeshe Lama?

    I also have received the transmission of Chan from my late teacher who I studied with in Southern China in 1978, Yen Why Shih. His teacher was the famous Hsu Yun.

    Have you heard or discovered that the famous Hwashang was actually Shri Singha of Dzogchen fame? Guenther claims such.

    Enough for now… I am truly honored to be be able to dialogue with you!


    Jax (Jackson Peterson) ejackpete@aol.com

  7. Hi Sam!

    Another question: you say “In brief, the textual evidence
    suggests that Dzogchen emerged from Mahāyoga as a contextualization of the experiences arising from the meditation

    How do we then account for the clearly anti-tantric rhetoric as exhibited in the Kunje Gyalpo as well as the “formless” descriptions of practice described in the “sBas’pa i’ rgum chung” of Buddhagupta from Tun Huang”?

    Wouldn’t the various Ten Aspects of Tantra, as comprised within the Mahayoga, preclude such a heretical approach from arising
    within its own milieu of samaya and ritualistic practice?

    Couldn’t it be the other way around… that Mahayoga incorporated
    the non-dual Dzogchen level into its protocal as means of maintaining the claim of its being the highest view and approach?
    Just a thought…

    I would be inclined to think Dzogchen came from Mahamudra and
    the Nath traditions… except the level of thodgal seems completely absent from those sources, at least Buddhist. Could thogal have
    been a inserted as a wholesale redaction from Saivist traditions and texts such as the Advaya Taraka Upanishad, which discusees
    subtle body physiologies and the development of “bindus” (thigle
    of light appearing in front of the eyes and the attainment of “immortality” and transformation into light through the practices with various photisms that appear externally as well as internally.
    Also suspect could be sects associated with the early Sahajayana. I would not rule out the sources also coming from the
    Kashmiri Trika as there are many references to “light pracitces”
    as in the Bhairava Tantra in its referencing seeing photisms
    like “the circles within Peacock’s feather…” which of course
    is a major symbol for the “lhundrub” aspect in the Dzogchen Mengagde referencing the thigle of thogal and yang-ti.

    I would love to hear your thoughts concerning the above
    possible connections…

    Thanks so much!



  8. Dear Jackson,

    Thanks for your kind words about the book. I didn’t translate the Yeshe Lama, but there are a number of restricted translations in circulation, which you are probably aware of. As for Dungtsho Repa, no I haven’t heard of any translation work on his terma material. I’ll respond to your other interesting questions briefly:

    1. I don’t think there’s much in the theory that Hwashang Mahayana was Shri Singha, apart from Shri Singha’s Chinese connection. I’m more inclined to explore the possibility that Shri Singha was Sūryasasiṃhaprabha, the author of a major ‘Dzogchen-style’ Guhyagarbha commentary.

    2. I don’t think it makes much sense to imagine Mahāyoga ‘incorporating’ Dzogchen. Since the central Mahāyoga tantra, the Guhyagarbha, uses the term rdzogs chen in much the same way as later Dzogchen texts. That is, all qualities (yon tan) and enlightened activities (‘phrin las) are perfected (rdzogs) from the beginning (ye nas), i.e. everything is spontaneously present (lhun gyis grub). The tantra also emphasises the transcendence of concepts in a state beyond the reach of thought (bsam gyis mi khyab). So as soon as there is anything we can call ‘Mahāyoga’, there is also Dzogchen. For the same reason, I don’t think the term ‘anti-tantric’ is very useful. Is the Guhyagarbha anti-tantric? Perhaps, but in the same way the Prajñāpāramitā sutras are ‘anti-sutric’. In both cases the practices are placed in a context of immanence and non-conceptualization, without being negated as such.

    3. As for thögal, I haven’t investigated this subject at all. David Germano has, and has written a book on the development of the whole Dzogchen tradition (as yet unpublished). I believe he sees an influence from the Kālacakra tantra here.

    Anyway, I will start a series of posts on early Dzogchen shortly. Watch this space!

  9. Thanks Sam!

    Very interesting responses… thanks so much!

    I see your point on the Mahayoga and Dzogchen. What I meant by “anti-tantric” was the juxtaposition between the tantric texts and the view espoused by the Kunje Gyalpo. Norbu has told me that he considered the Kunje Gyalpo as one of the earliest texts that really differentiates the Dzogchen view from the tantric, especially in its rejection of the “10 Aspects of Tantra” (mantra, mandala, diety yoga, samaya… etc.) Being the expert you are on Tunhuang documents, I was wondering if you saw further evidence of the Kunje Gyalpo having been in existance that early, as it ties itself to the 6 Vajra verses in such an intimate manner… or do you suspect this was a later redaction by the authors of the Kunje Gyalpo? Is it possible that the Kunje Gyalpo is a key to an earlier, pre-tantric non-tantric tradition of Dzogchen ( like Chan)? (a question I also posed to David G. this last summer while he was in Tibet)

    In other words, what are your opinions regarding the origins and authenticity of the Kunje Gyalpo and its relationship to the formation of early Dzogchen?

    I look forward to your upcoming postings as well!



  10. Thanks for your clarification of the term ‘anti-tantric’: I’m interested in whether it is possible to distinguish the recontentualization of tantric practice from the rejection of tantric practice. Regarding the Kunje Gyalpo, the fact that it does not appear among the Dunhuang manuscripts does not mean very much, since the manuscripts are really a rather miscellaneous collection of odds and ends that happened to be preserved together. Much more significant is the fact that the Kunje Gyalpo is not cited in Nub Sangye Yeshe’s Samten Migdrön. This text was written in the late 9th or early 10th century. In the Atiyoga chapter, Nub Sangye Yeshe quotes from a vast array of early Dzogchen texts to establish the view of Atiyoga as distinct from Mahayoga. Surely if the Kunje Gyalpo was circulating at this time, he would have quoted from it as an authoritative source? Thus there’s good reason to think that the Kunje Gyalpo was compiled some time after the early 10th century, though it contains materials from much earlier.

  11. Thanks Sam! I am finding a consensus supporting your views concerning the KJG.

    Will the Samten Migdron be fully translated into English in the near future? I have read Karmays excerpts. I feel this work is one of the most important for understanding the doctrinal context of Dzogchen at that time.

    Are you familiar with Guenther’s work on Padmasambhava? He claims in his book on PS that his original writings were kept out of the Nyingma collection deliberately… these were his earliest writings on the Yang-ti and sPyi-ti traditions. Your thoughts?

    Also I am looking for a translator for a small translation project…do you know of anyone or someone you would recommend? Probably 25 hours of work… that could lead to more. You can contact me directly at ejackpete@aol.com

    I appreciate the time you have taken to answer my questions!

    I am looking forward to reading your posts on early Dzogchen.



  12. Greetings Sam and All,

    Being a disciple of Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, I am hoping to obtain the corresponding translation into English of the text mentioned below:

    The upcoming retreat on “Experiential instructions on “Bepa’i Gumchung” THE HIDDEN COLLECTION OF BUDDHAGUPTA, an ancient dzogchen text found among the Tunhuang Manuscripts”,
    to be held by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in Merigar West, Italy, will be transmitted in OPEN webcast starting on October 2 at 17:00 Italy time. Subsequent sessions from October 3 to October 10th will begin every morning at 10:00 Italy time.

    You can find out your own local time using the time converter here: http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/converter.html

    This Webcast will be OPEN (no password required for audio connections).
    URLs and instructions on how to connect are found here:


    Please be so kind as to inform us of any tips. Heartfelt thanks, Sam for your writings, which have allowed me to deepen my studies, reflection, and practices.

    May it be Auspicious!


  13. Dear Samten,

    The Bepai Gumchung was translated by Samten Karmay in his book ‘The Great Perfection’. Though I can heartily recommend this work, it is rather expensive. Another source, which is free, and the work of a skilled translater, is the website http://www.zangthal.co.uk. Here you will find Karen Liljenberg’s translations of some early Dzogchen texts including this one.

    Best regards,

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