Whether or not the Tibetan emperor Lang Darma really did persecute Buddhist monks and monasteries, as he is said to have done during his ill-fated reign in the 840s, there is no doubt that a catastrophic collapse did indeed occur in Central Tibet. As society fragmented, revolutions and civil wars broke out and the Buddhist monasteries were abandoned. In Central Tibet, monastic Buddhism was all but wiped out. It took over a century – a Dark Age for Tibetan Buddhism – till monks began to appear in Central Tibet again.
There’s a tradition that monastic Buddhism survived in Tibet thanks to a few heroic monks, keepers of the flame of the monastic lineage. According to an old Tibetan saying, during this dark age the embers of the Buddha’s teaching were kept in the East. The story is that several monks refused to renounce their robes, and instead hit the road as Buddhist refugees. After much travelling they ended up in Amdo in Tibet’s northeast, which had avoided the complete collapse of monastic Buddhism. These refugees had taken their books with them, including most importantly the books of the vinaya, the monastic code that is the heart of the tradition of monastic ordination. This ensured the survival of the ordination lineage through the dark age.
Tradition preserves the names of a few of these refugee monks who settled in Amdo.The chaotic flight and eventual resettling of these monks is summarized in a passage from Nelpa Pandita’s history:
Yo and Mar, with a Central Asian monk called Shakya Sherab acting as their servant, settled in the rocky cave of Anchung Namdzong. Tsang settled in the temple of Khangsar Yaripug. Kwa Ö Chogdragpa, returning from Nepal, heard the news and left on the road to the north with a mule-load of abhidharma texts, finally settling in the temple of Palzang Kharchag Drilbu. Lhalung Rabjor Maldrowa and Rongtön Senge Drag left Yerpa with many books of vinaya and abhidharma, fleeing to Nagshö. After that, Lhalung settled in the temple of Dashö Tsal and Rongtön settled in Jang Chajerong.
Most later histories also add that Lang Darma’s assassin, Lhalung Palgyi Dorje, fled to Amdo too. In any case, the crucial point is that the first three of these refugees (Yo, Mar and Tsang) passed on their ordination lineage to a young local fellow. This young man had been brought up in the local non-Buddhist traditions, but had developed some faith in Buddhism and decided to ask the refugee monks for ordination. With the help of two Chinese monks, the young man was ordained, and given the religious name Gewa Rabsel.
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Apparently Gewa Rabsel became an important figure in the religious scene of Amdo, but we don’t really know much about him. He is said to have spent a significant portion of his life teaching at the monastic mountain retreat of Dentig, which still exists in a valley west of Lanzhou. Gewa Rabsel ordained many local Amdo monks, and later histories also make Gewa Rabsel the religious preceptor of the famous men who came from Central Tibet in search of a living ordination lineage. These men (their number various in the sources) were the ones who brought the ordination lineage back to Central Tibet, and gradually restored Samyé and many other old monasteries that had fallen into ruin.
The story is convincing in its general outlines. There certainly must have been refugee monks, there probably was a Gewa Rabsel, and the idea that the monastic lineage was brought back to Central Tibet from Amdo is convincing. But even the Tibetan historians had some doubts about it. The main problem is the idea of Gewa Rabsel ordaining the men who brought the monastic lineage back to Central Tibet. Considering that the refugee monks who ordained Gewa Rabsel arrived in Amdo some time in the 840-50s, and the “men of Central Tibet” received their ordination from him some time in the 970-80s, Gewa Rabsel would have to have lived an unfeasibly long time.
In fact we don’t have to accept this part of the story, even if we stay with the traditional histories. Though some early historians, notably Butön, had Gewa Rabsel ordaining the men from Central Tibet, others were not so sure. Sönam Tsemo wrote in the 12th century of this ordination lineage: “Some say it was received from Lachen Gewa Sel. Some say it was received from Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen.” And Nelpa Pandita, in his 13th century history, argued that there couldn’t be a direct connection between Gewa Rabsel and the monks who brought Buddhism back to Central Tibet:
Now, between the iron bird year when the dharma was snuffed out and the earth bird year when the embers were fanned and dharma communities appeared in Central Tibet, nine year-cycles passed. For 109 years there were no monks in Central Tibet. Therefore to say that the six men of Central Tibet received their vows from Lachen Gongpa Sel is a deceptive explanation which is utterly wrong.
In truth, Nelpa Pandita argues, the men of Central Tibet were ordained by one Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen – a disciple of a disciple of Gewa Rabsel and no doubt the same person as the Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen mentioned by Sönam Tsemo. Similarly, Gö Lotsawa in the Blue Annals also denies any connection between Gewa Rabsel and the six men of Central Tibet, although he does say that some other histories make that connection. So a longer, and more convincing lineage for the keepers of the flame looks like this:
- The refugees: Yo, Mar and Tsang
- Gewa Rabsel
- Yangong Yeshe Yungdrung
- Drum/Tülpa Yeshe Gyaltsen
- The men of central Tibet
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So who was this Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen? He was a local Amdo man who was ordained by one of the students of Gewa Rabsel. He established a monastery in Amdo, which followed a fairly strict interpretation of the vinaya, banning agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as luxurious cushions or carpets. Interestingly, he also banned political activity and certain funeral rituals involving the inscription of syllables (which could have been a good source of income for the monks).
Despite its strictness, Drum’s monastery seems to have been quite successful, and its ordination lineage became known as “the lineage of the ascetics” (tsüngyü). Why “ascetics”? Well, there was also another Amdo lineage known “the lineage of the scholars” (khégyü), which came from a monastery established by a monk called Nub Palgyi Jangchub and was much more lax in its discipline. It was mainly distinguished from Drum’s lineage by the fact the monks were allowed to meddle in politics. As a result, Nelpa Pandita says that the monks of this lineage “were of little use for religious training.” Nyangral’s history doesn’t mention the specific differences between the lineages, but does suggest that the split came about because of “a little bit of wordly activity.”
The difference between the approaches of the two lineages is illustrated in this amusing story about their two founders (from Nelpa Pandita’s history):
One day Drum went to the residence of Nub, and they talked a lot about the dharma. Then Drum said, “Let’s sleep; where shall I make my bed?” Nub replied, “Here, same as me.” Drum said, “They say you drink alcohol in secret. Can I stay in the attic?” Nubs replied angrily, “Ha! you’re so strict, it’s like you have wood for brains!” Thus Drum became known as “Wood-for-Brains”.
In the end, Drum had the last laugh. It was his lineage of ascetics that was passed down to the six men of Central Tibet and used to revive the monasteries there. The restoration of the temples, and the ordination of hundreds of new monks, set the scene for the “later diffusion” of Buddhism in Tibet – the visit of Atisha and the Kadam school that grew up around his teachings, the new scholasticism of Shalu monastery, and so on… This ordination lineage even survived into the 20th century in the Nyingma tradition as the Mindröling lineage, and in the Gelug tradition as the “Abbot’s lineage of Lachen”.
Apart from these survivals, it has to be said that the ordination lineage from Gewa Rabsel was ultimately eclipsed by new ones. In fact it had a rather controversial reputation, some people objecting to the fact that the refugee monks and Gewa Rabsel had performed all of three stages of ordination in a single ritual. Others defended this practice by pointing to the sublime nature of Gewasel and his preceptors, and the dire straits in which the monastic ordination found itself in the period of fragmentation.
Gewa Rabsel remains one of the culture heroes of Tibetan Buddhism, who kept the flame of the monastic lineage alive and passed it on so that it was eventually brought back to Central Tibet, where it lit the fires of a Buddhist revival. Let us also not forget Drum Yeshe Gyaltsen, the wooden-headed abbot who kept his monks free enough from politics to preserve a meaningful model of monasticism for the Tibetans of the generations to come.
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The Decline of Buddhism I: Was Lang Darma a Buddhist?
The Decline of Buddhism II: Did Lang Darma persecute Buddhism?
The Decline of Buddhism III: Why should the secret mantra be kept secret?
Some thoughts on the dates of Gewa Rabsel…
Gewa Rabsel’s name has several variations: he is known as Gewa Rabsel or simply Gewa Sel, as Gongpa Rabsel or Gongpa Sel, and often merely by the honorific Lachen (“great lama” or “great soul”). His dates are not given in the earlier sources, but the Blue Annals states that he was born in a water mouse year, and died in a wood pig year, at the age of 84. Traditionally these dates are supposed to be equivalent to 952–1035, but this is skewed by the mistake made by all later Tibetan historians in dating the death of Langdarma a whole 60-year cycle too late, So we should move these dates back one cycle, giving us 892–975.
Even with those earlier dates, the connection with monks fleeing central Tibet in the 840s or 850s seems rather unlikely. If we move them back by one further sixty-year cycle to 832–915, Gewa Rabsel would have been a young man when the refugee monks arrived in Amdo. This does place him rather far from the revival of monastic Buddhism in Tibet at the end of the tenth century, but that’s not a problem if we follow the histories that don’t insist on a direct connection between Gewa Rabsel and the six men of Central Tibet.
And on the names of Yeshé Gyaltsen…
The name Tülpa (thul pa) Yeshé Gyaltsen given by Sönam Tsemo is probably a corruption of Dülwa (‘dul ba), and a “Dülwa Yeshé Gyaltsen” does indeed appear in some histories. So Tülpa and Dülwa Yeshé Gyaltsen were surely the same person. What about Drum Yeshé Gyaltsen? Since Drum (‘grum) is a clan name, while Dülwa an honorific indicating an expert in the vinaya, it’s likely that these names also refer to a single person.
As for Drum’s nickname “Wood-for-Brains”, this is shing klad can in Tibetan. Here I’m following Helga Uebach’s reading of Nelpa Pandita’s text, which actually gives shing glag can. The same story features in the Nyangral Nyima Özer’s history, where we have shing rlag pa can. (Note that in this version Nubs also gets a nickname, phag shing rta, which might be translated as “Pig Wagon”.) Finally, in the Sba bzhed (R.A. Stein’s version) we have phying klag can. Not at all conclusive I know, but I like Uebach’s solution.
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References (Tibetan dharma histories)
1. Butön Rinchendrup: Chos ‘byung gsung rab rin po che mdzod. Beijing: Khrung go bod kyi shes rig dpe skrun khang. 1988. English translation in Obermiller, E. 1931-2. The history of Buddhism (Chos ḥbyung) by Bu-ston. I The Jewellery of Scripture, II The history of Buddhism in India and Tibet. Heidelberg: O. Harrosovitz. Reprint 1986, New Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.
2. Gö Lotsawa Zhönupal: Deb ther sngon po. Chengdu: Si khron mi rigs dpe skrun khang. 1984. English translation in Roerich, G.N. 1949. The Blue Annals. Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal. (See p.67.) Also available here.
3. Nelpa Pandita: Ne’u chos ‘byung — 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. (The first quote is from pp.122-3 and the others from pp.128-9.)
4. Nyangral Nyima Özer: Chos ‘byung me tog snying po – facsimile in Schuh, Dieter. Die grosse Geschichte des tibetischen Buddhismus nach alter Tradition rÑiṅ ma’i chos byuṅ chen mo. Sankt Augustin: VGH Wissenschaftsverlag. (See p.445-6. Nyangral mentions another Amdo ordination lineage, called Me(rme), and unlike other sources, he apparently states that the both the ascetics’ and scholars’ lineages lasted and became famous in Central Tibet, though it isn’t very clear – see p.446.5.)
5. Sönam Tsemo: Chos la ‘jug pa’i sgo – in Sa skya bka’ ‘bum, vol.I (See p.318b).
6. T.G. Dhongthog Rinpoche: Sa skya’i chos ‘byung. New Delhi. 1977.
References (English works)
Davidson, Ronald M. 2006. Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. (See Chapter 3 for an excellent account of this period based on a variety of historical sources.)
Also see here for a summary of the traditional story from the Berzin Archives.