The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?

Chinese oxen

As I mentioned in the last post, modern scholars have questioned the traditional Tibetan story that the Tibetan emperor Lang Darma persecuted Buddhism and was consequently assassinated by a monk. The moderate critique suggests that the persecution was really just a withdrawal of patronage from the monasteries and a curtailment of the monks’ involvement in political affairs. The extreme critique (put forward by the Japanese scholar Yamaguchi) is that this whole story is a “fiction”: Lang Darma was a good Buddhist king, and was assassinated not by a monk, but by the anti-Buddhist faction at the Tibetan court.

I mentioned in the last post some of my doubts about the way one Dunhuang manuscript (Pelliot tibétain 134) was used to show that Lang Darma was a Buddhist. I also have doubts about the way another Dunhuang manuscript has been used to show that Lang Darma did not persecute Buddhism. This manuscript (Pelliot tibétain 840) is a poem that begins with a celebration of the great Buddhist emperor Trisong Detsen, and the good practice of Buddhism during his reign. The author of the poem is keen to use this to show how Buddhism should be practised:

When they were in accord with the texts of the scriptures,
The exoteric and esoteric masters
And the vajra assistants
Did not mix up their areas of expertise, and in this way
The monks knew what needed to be done, and there was no conflict.
All the people of Tibet were joyful and happy.

The author of the poem tells us that during the reign of the Trisong Detsen, the “exoteric and esoteric masters”, that is, the monks and the tantrikas (who are also known as “the two kinds of sangha” in some Dunhuang manuscripts) did not confuse their roles. Then things began to change, it seems:

From the Divine Son Darma on down,
And from his descendent Ösung on down
In general the dharma spread and flourished,
Spread and flourished excessively, it’s said,
So that everyone born as a human wanted to accomplish it.

So, here is the passage that has been taken by some scholars to show that Buddhism continued to flourish during the reign of Lang Darma. It’s certainly true that no persecution is mentioned, but is that the whole story? What’s this about the dharma flourishing “excessively”? The Tibetan word here is ha cang, which usually means “excessive” but can also just mean “very much”. Perhaps the closest word in English is “exceedingly” which also covers both meanings. Those who take this passage to show that Buddhism was in good shape during the reign of Lang Darma and his successor Ösung take ha cang to mean “very much” and believe that the author is presenting a positive picture of the state of Buddhism. But it is only possible to do that by ignoring the next lines of the poem, which goes on like this:

Without even knowing about ethical conduct or the vinaya rules,
A vajra assistant can be bought with a donkey.
Without even having the empowerments of an assistant,
A guiding master can be bought with an ox.
Without even having the empowerments of a guide,
A vajra regent can be bought with a horse.
Without even having the empowerments of a regent,
A vajra king can be bought with an antelope.

It should be quite clear from these lines that the author actually wants to say that Buddhism, from the reign of Lang Darma onwards, has been in a parlous state. The author states with some sarcasm, that tantric masters (these are all levels of tantric master it seems) can be bought if the price is right. This is clearly meant to be in stark contrast to the time of Trisong Detsen. The last stanza of the poem continues to lament the dire state of the dharma:

Masters who are lost in the errors
Of not judging the levels of meditative experience
Know nothing of the transworldly meaning.
For every hundred students there are a thousand teachers,
And nobody listens to the divine dharma.
For every village there are ten masters,
And the number of vajra assistants is uncountable.
Everyone thinks “I am accomplished as the deity.”
In the end, since there are so many of this type,
Won’t the vajra body be destroyed?

If the author of this poem is to be believed, the problem is not that Buddhism is dying out in Tibet, but that it is flourishing so much that it is impossible to control it. The problem is a lack of authority: with nobody to judge who is a genuine tantric master and who is not, masters outnumber students, and people wrongly believe themselves to have fully accomplished the deity yoga. (These complaints are, of course, familiar tropes in later Tibetan literature, but I won’t follow that tangent here).

Now, no persecution is mentioned here, it is true, but the names of Darma and his son/nephew Ösung are not held in high regard at all, and they are contrasted with Trisong Detsen, the great Buddhist king. This attitude seems to be reflected elsewere in the Dunhuang manuscripts, in a list of kings who practised the Mahayana, which conspicuously omits Darma and Ösung (Pelliot tibétain 849).

Again, I can offer no definitive answer to the question that heads this post, but let us at least be clear that this poem in Pelliot tibétain 840 is not a celebration of the state of Buddhism during and after Lang Darma’s reign. On the contrary, it shows that Buddhism was seen as going into a decline in this period. Strangely enough, considering the later stories of persecution, the decline is caused by Buddhism flourishing “too much” so that everybody wants to be a tantric master. What this suggests, at least in the view of the author of our poem, is not that Lang Darma persecuted Buddhism, but that in some way he failed to manage the spread of Buddhism properly. Perhaps, in truth, Lang Darma was not an enemy of Buddhism, but, in his fondness for wine and hunting, neglected to take care of it.

*   *  *

1. Karmay, Samten. 1981. “King Tsa/Dza and Vajrayāna”, in Tantric and Taoist Studies in Honour of R.A. Stein, vol.1, edited by M. Strickmann. Brussells: Institute belge des Hautes études chinoises. 192-294.
2. Stein, R.A. 1986 “Tibetica Antiqua IV : La tradition relative au début du bouddhisme au Tibet.” Bulletin de l’Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient LXXV: 169-196.
3. Yamaguchi, Zuihō. 1996. “The Fiction of King Dar-ma’s Persecution of Buddhism”. In Du Dunhuang au Japon: Études chinoises et bouddhiques offertes à Michel Soymié,edited by Jean-Pierre Drège: 231–58. Geneva: Droz.

And a Tibetological note…
Those who have read the articles by Stein, Karmay and Yamaguchi referenced above may notice that I have glided over a controversy about the following lines:

From the Divine Son Darma on down,
And from his descendent Ösung on down…

/lha sras dar ma man chad dang/
/’od srus dbon sras man chad du/

Rolf Stein translated this as “Depuis le «fils de dieu» (lha-sras) Dar-ma, depuis le «petit-fils» (dbon-sras) ‘Od-srus (lire srung)…” essentially the same as my translation. But he believed we needed to amend man chad to yan chad to get this meaning. Karmay on the other hand, amends only the last man chad to yan chad, and translates “From the time of the Divine Son, Darma / Down to the time of ‘Od-srung and his descendents.” Yamaguchi believes no amendations are needed, and translates, “Until the divine son Darma and until ‘Od-srung and his descendents…” This only makes sense if we accept his interpretation that the text is giving a positive assessment of Buddhism during the reigns of Darma and Ösung, which is hard to accept when we look at the poem as a whole. In fact I think Stein had it right, but didn’t need to amend man chad to get the meaning he wanted. We have several other instances of man chad in the Dunhuang documents, and in the cases I’ve looked at, it means “down from” or “from X down”. Examples from the OTDO website include the lists of ranks in Pelliot tibétain 1071, 1072 and 1075, the amounts of money in IOL Tib J 733.

Anyway, I will put a transcription of the whole text in a comment to this post; further suggestions are welcome (as ever).

7 thoughts on “The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?

  1. Here is the complete Tibetan text of Pelliot tibétain 840/3 (note that there are other texts on this scroll; the first, longest one being a Mahāyoga sādhana, so the scribe had no problem with tantric Buddhism per se).

    /yul mtho sa gtshang bod kyi yul/
    /gangs ri mtho gtshang kun kyi gnya’/
    /lha gnyan yul dbyings dkyil ‘di na/
    /lha’i rigs la byang cub sems dpa’i rgyu/
    /lha sras khri srong lde btsan gyis/
    /dam chos slobs dpon rgya gar yul nas spyan drangs te/
    /mun nag dkyil du sgron bteg bzhin/
    /rgyal khams phyogs kyang spyod par gnang/
    /byang cub mchog gi lam la bkod/
    /lha sras lha’i drin re che/
    /bka’ lung gzhung dang ‘thun pa’i tshe/
    /phyi nang gnyis kyi slobs dpon dang/
    /las kyi rdo rje mkhas dang gsum/
    /ma ‘dres spyod lam ‘di lta bu/
    /mkhas btsun spyod mkhas ‘khrug pa myed/
    /bod ‘bangs kun kyang bde zhing skyid/

    /lha sras dar ma man chad dang/
    /’od sru[ng]s dbon sras man chad du/
    /spyi na dam chos dar cing rgyas/
    /ha cang dar cing rgyas ces pas/
    /myir skyes kun kyang ‘grub par bzhed/
    /gsum khrims ‘dul khrims myi shes par/
    /las kyi rdo rje bong bus nyo/
    /las kyi dbang dang myi ldan bar/
    /’dren pa’i slobs dpon glang gis nyo/
    /’dren pa’i dbang dang myi ldan bar/
    /rdo rje rgyal ‘tshab rta ‘is nyo/
    /rgyal ‘tshab dbang dang myi ldan bar/
    /rdo rje rgyal po btson gyis nyo/

    /drod dang tshod dang ma sbyar ba’i/
    /nor kar bor ba’i slobs dpon gyis/
    /’jig rten ‘das pa’i don myi rig/
    /slob ma brgya la slobs dpon stong/
    /lha chos nyan pa’i myi ma chis/
    /grong tsan gcig la slobs dpon bcu/
    /las kyi rdo rje gra[ng]s kyang myed/
    /kun kyang lha ru ‘grub snyam ste/
    /mjug du sde tsan mang po yis/
    /rdo rje phung po bzhig ga re/

  2. Hi Sam,

    A very nice entry – as always.

    I was just wondering: is leaving out the -ng- in gras and srus a conversion problem or is this the reading of the ms.?

    I also think that the antepenultimate line is missing, I can’t find the equivalent of “Everyone thinks “I am accomplished as the deity.”

    I was very surprised by ‘dren pa’i slob dpon. As far as I know *nāyakācārya is not attested anywhere in the Indian literature.

    Again, drod and tshod are a bit obscure to me. I tried reading what PT42 has to say about this but it’s still not very clear. Could you perhaps elaborate on these? It would be great!


  3. Dear Early,

    I agree with Stein & with you on this point:

    Rolf Stein translated this as “Depuis le «fils de dieu» (lha-sras) Dar-ma, depuis le «petit-fils» (dbon-sras) ‘Od-srus (lire srung)…” essentially the same as my translation.

    Yamaguchi wrote an entire article on the subject of the yan-chad & man-chad. It has lots of instances of usages. It seems to me in my experience that it’s the yan-chad that comes first when both are used. Yan-chad means you are starting at the designated point in time and starting from there going back an indefinite period of time. Man-chad means you are starting at a designated point in time and starting from there going forward for an indefinite period of time. You could translate them, ‘from there on back [in time]’ and ‘from that point onward.’

    These words can be used ‘spatially’ rather than temporally, in which case they would mean ‘from here on up’ and ‘from here on down.’

    That’s right, the future is down.

    I think you also have to think about the script-based similarity between yan-chad and man-chad that could allow them to be rather easily confused by copyists.

    I’ve missed our chats, but I’ve been so busy lately, like everyone else in the Tibetan world, otherwise I’d argue with you about Langdarma, too!

    Your true

  4. Dear Peter,

    Thanks for your comments. You were quite right to spot the missing line. I have re-installed it. As for the two missing /nga/, they really are missing in the manuscript. I just had a another close look at the microfilm, and I can’t see any sign that this is a scribal contraction. Nor does it seem to be a phonetic reading (in the sense that sometimes scribes drop the final /sa/ because it is silent). But I’ve put them into the transcription in square brackets now to avoid confusion.

    I also don’t know of any equivalent for ‘dren pa’i slob dpon in the Indic tantric literature, but then I’m not an expert in that area. Karmay points out that the term ‘dren pa’i bshes gnyen (*nāyakamitra?) appears in PT42.

    Staying with PT42, it does, as you know, discuss drod (“heat”), in terms of the signs of having positive experiences in the practice of “union”, “liberation” and the “feast” (sbyor ba dang sgrol ba dang zas kyi tshogs). Here I’m interpreting mthu nyams as “positive experiences” rather than “to become weak”. Beyond Dunhuang, “heat” goes back, as I’m sure you know, to the measurement of the progress of a bodhisattva, as the first of the four stages in the path of application. And then, of course, throughout the later Tibetan tradition it’s used as a sign of progress in meditation.

    The term tshod here should just mean a measurement or estimate. My translation of that line is a bit loose. I think the meaning of the line is “Not applying (ma sbyar ba) the standards for measurement (tshod) to the signs of progress (drod).” The grammar is a little odd though.

    I hope this elaboration (spro ba) was of some use!

  5. Dear Dab,

    Very happy to hear from you, even though you have more important things on your mind. And even better to hear that you agree with my assessment of man chad here. There’s another example in PT134, the prayer to Wu’i dun brtan. The prayer includes the aspiration that, of the butter lamps offered by the emperor, the cup (kong bu) should become the whole world, the ghee (mar) should become the ocean and the wick (snying po) should become Mount Meru. Then the light should pervade everything by shining down (man chad) from the pinnacle of existence. In Yamaguchi’s translation the light is shining up to the pinnacle of existence, but if the wick is already Mount Meru, shouldn’t it be shining down?

    You said “It seems to me in my experience that it’s the yan-chad that comes first when both are used.” But in the Dunhuang texts, like PT1075 of IOL Tib J 753, it’s man chad that comes first. Anyway, I agree that the future is down. “It’s all downhill from here.” I wonder if this comes from the Indo-Tibetan (and Greco-Roman, and…) conceptual mindset that sees the distant past as a golden age and history as a process of downwards decline away from it. Swedenborgians and neo-Darwinists would see it the other way…

    Finally since I know you like animal-related linguistic puzzles, and you might appreciate a little distraction, I will let on that I cheated in one part of the translation, reading the last animal in the penultimate verse as “antelope”. The Tibetan is btson which makes no sense here, so I read it as a corruption of gtsod. I wonder if the Tibetan antelope was considered more valuable than the horse. Nowadays they probably are, since their wool is so highly prized as the material of the shahtoosh, and the poor things are being poached to near extinction. (A threat incerased now by the new railway line, apparently: if you are in need of further distraction, have a look at the Wikipedia article).

  6. Dear Early,

    Yes, in case anybody wonders, the Tibetan behind chiru is gcig-ru, which is funny because it would seem to mean the animal has only one horn, although it has two. Any idea why? The spelling gtsod is usual, but then most people don’t know how to spell these words, so gtso and other forms do occur to confuse or elude you.

    Its Latin name is Panthopolops hodgsoni, and it’s sometimes called Hodgson’s antelope in earlier western zoological literature. I think it got these names because Brian H. Hodgson published an article, “Description of a New Species of Tibetan Antelope,” in Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, vol. 15 (1846) 334-343.

    I think it’s interesting the Wiki article mentions the chiru migration underpasses on the Tibet rail line, one of those same underpasses that features in that infamous photo of the train with stampeding chirus that was shown to be photoshopped a few months back.

    I think the animal must be quite wild, since they say it can’t be liberated from its fur without first slaying it. And it takes about 7 or 8 of them to make a shahtoosh / Pashmina shawl. I find this story rather suspicious, though, especially these days when tranquilizer darts could certainly be used.

    There are so many different types of goats-antelopes-gazelles running wild in Tibet. May there always be!


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