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.
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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).